The Modern "Uncle Tom's Cabin" Parade
Not long ago a tourist from the North, while stopping at a hotel in a little town somewhere south of Mason and Dixon's line, was surprised one morning to find that his repeated calls for a bellboy were not answered. This seemed unusual from the fact that, owing to the Northerner's liberality in tips, there were generally several pickaninny "Boots" and "Buttons" lurking around the door of his room when not needed. The guest gave one more frantic pull at the bell cord and then rushed down to the office.
"Look here!" he demanded with an impatient frown. "What kind of help have you around this hostelry? I've been ringing for a boy for the last twenty minutes. What's the trouble?"
The clerk lit a long black cigar and lazily blew the smoke in blue rings.
"My dear Sir," he said, between puffs, "don't you know that 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' is still in town?"
"I do not," replied the irritated tourist, "and I do not care. I'm talking about bellboys. Where is that horde of grinning imps that has been dogging my footsteps day and night in expectancy of a dime? I want my shoes shined, my coat dusted, my laundry from the old colored woman around in the alley, and a dozen other little things attended to."
The clerk smiled.
"You are not acquainted with the South, Sir. When I said 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' was in town, that was a sufficient explanation as to the whereabouts of every colored man, woman, and child for ten miles around. They are all packed out on Main Street to see the big parade, and you couldn't get one of them to work until it passes if you gave them a dollar for each minute. If it doesn't pass pretty soon you will go without your dinner, for every cook and waiter is outside watching for the first band. Order them to work? Well, I guess not. It would start a riot, and every one from the dishwasher to the head waiter would walk out on us and we'd be boycotted. Let them get a glimpse of the gilded wagons and hear the brass bands and they'll be twice as attentive to their duties when the parade has passed. If they should miss it they'd be sullen for a year."
This was news to the Northerner, and he returned to his room and raised the front window. It was a remarkable sight that met his gaze. Main Street was one bustling, chattering hive of colored folks. There was every type of the race from the old "mammy" in flaming bandanna and shining rings in her [illegible] to the foppish hotel waiter in box-cut coat and extension-soled patent leathers. Up in the trees and telegraph poles were swarms of grinning pickaninnies who amused themselves while waiting for the parade by tossing pebbles and peanut shells down among the ever-shifting throngs below.
An old man who resembled the original Uncle Tom dozed in a bullcart that was drawn up by the sidewalk. His sons had driven in from the country, and the father was determined to see the parade if he has to sit there all day.
The sighting of the pageant was heralded by the pickaninnies in the trees. Then there was a wild scramble on the sidewalks for points of vantage. Every spoke in the wheels of the carts and wagons along the curb was the resting place of several feet. Babies were held aloft, and the bootblacks and stable boys climbed on one another's shoulders. As the music of the leading band came crashing through the dusty air the excitement increased. Buxom, bareheaded mothers held their cooing infants above their heads and shuffled their feet on the sidewalks. The old man in the bullcart awoke and began clapping his leathery hands in time to the rapid-fire music of the band. For noise, that "Uncle Tom's" band could eclipse every circus and minstrel band that ever toured one-night stands. There were two drum majors who went through more contortions than Japanese acrobats, and trombone players who ripped up the atmosphere worse than an explosion. When that band swept past the wild spectators had to hold their hats.
The manager of the company and some of the performers followed the band in carriages. Their tall silk hats were brown with dust. The strains of the first band had not died out before another trombone-bass drum aggregation came tearing along behind the carriages. Then came Uncle Tom. With ludicrous dignity he sat perched on a golden chariot, his white curls flying in the breeze and his huge red lips puffing a cigar. Just behind Uncle Tom was Simon Legree, in red flannel shirt and wicked mustache. Storms of hisses greeted him when the cheers for Uncle Tom had died out. Three pickaninnies were being towed along by four huge bloodhounds they were trying to keep at a respectful distance from Uncle Tom. Possibly the hero of the great play had a sandwich in his pocket and the dogs detected it. There was a bullcart full of cotton bales in the parade and a cabin on wheels.
"Doan dat house luk natural?" commented an old mammy in the crowd. Before she received a reply another brass band struck up a ragtime air, causing a stampede that swept the old woman clear around the corner. Then came a combination of cakewalkers, buck-and-wing dancers, banjo players, singers, &c., on foot. Their blue silk hats and pink satin coats won the hearts of the admiring spectators. "Great day!" breathed one fascinated youth. "Ah'd rather wear such clothes es dem one day den go to Heaben fohevah." And his rash sentiments were shared all through the crowd.
Presently there was a great stretching of necks. Little Eva was sighted approaching in a tiny coach attached to a pony. She was a child of doubtful age, with a suit of the yellowest hair imaginable. But in the eyes of the crowd she was idolized. "Dah now!" cried one sable admirer, "Ah could kiss dat child to deff. Luk et dem sweet lil'l shoes. Whah's yo mammy, honey?" Little Eva smiled and displayed the fact that she was chewing gum.
"En de po' child hes to die ebhy day," sighed a laundress who had taken a day from work to see the parade. "When Ah seed her die las' yeah Ah almos' cried mah eyes out."
"Yeas, but Miss Eva goes to de good place when she dies," remarked a waiter. "Dat's mo' den som' ob us would do."
And so the comments continued. Little Eva was followed by the Lawyer Marks, astride a balky mule. Miss Ophelia and the St. Clairs occupied a carriage, while Liza and her little boy were on a float that represented a river of ice. It was all very realistic in the eyes of the spectators along each sidewalk. Then came another band and the last of the parade was over. The main street looked like a maelstrom of dark humanity. The pickaninnies shinned down from the trees and poles and ran after the rapidly moving music. Mothers searched for their offspring that had become strayed in the confusion. The help of the hotel went back to work with broad grins on their faces. The Northern visitor lowered the window in his room and went down into the office again.
"Don't look much like 'Uncle Tom' is dying out in this section of the country," he remarked at the desk.
"No," responded the clerk, "and it never will as long as the colored race is in the South. It is surprising, though, the evolution of this great play. Years ago there was an Uncle Tom, Liza, Little Eva, &c., and that was all. Now there are acrobats, jugglers, and a dozen other special additions to the show. If it keeps on the parade will beat a circus procession. And, by the way, you better get all the work out of the bellboys you need before night."
"Because every colored man, woman, and child will be at the Opera House tonight to see 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' on the stage. This is a one-night stand, you know, and not one is going to muss the show. If they haven't shoes on their feet, they are going to find a way to rake up the price of a ticket. Yes, Sir, I've been seeing that show come to town before today. Take this and go down tonight and see the fun. If you don't say you spent the evening of your life I'll buy the toddies when you get back."
And the obliging clerk handed the visitor a ticket that represented a seat in the first row at the Opera House.