Long before she retired from Birmingham’s public schools, and before she attended Miles College, Palacina Patterson was a waitress at A.G. Gaston’s restaurant. The establishment, known for its sizzling steak, hosted some of the country’s most controversial Civil Rights leaders. The owner, Arthur George Gaston, was thought to be the richest Black man of the nineteen sixties.
It was Gaston’s $160,000 that bailed Martin Luther King Jr. out of jail in 1963. Born in 1893 in Demopolis, Alabama, to a cook and railroad worker, Gaston became the leading employer of Blacks in the state. His forty million dollar empire included a savings and loan bank, business college, construction company, motel, real estate business, burial insurance company, two cemeteries, and two radio stations.
Marie Sutton, in her book, The A.G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham: A Civil Rights Landmark, writes that the motel was “the backdrop for African-American culture and celebrations. It was a welcomed haven in a city crippled by Jim Crow laws. It was where ladies, dressed to the nines, came for sorority meetings, where teens feasted on fine shrimp dinners before prom, where lovers hosted their glitzy wedding receptions and where men took their ladies on first dates to impress.” Many nights, overflow from the Twenty-third Street concert hall filled Gaston’s restaurant with brown skin, eager for a good time accompanied by good food.
The same day an interview essay is due for my graduate non-fiction course, I am sitting in Birmingham’s Civil Rights Museum, partly because it’s February and tickets are discounted, but mostly because I need to waste time before class starts.
“So what y’all gone do about that president up there at that school?” She approaches me very matter of factly and doesn’t smile when she asks. The UAB sweatshirt feels overwhelming at this point, as conversation surrounding it is often unwanted. The University of Alabama at Birmingham has just decided it is no longer interested in funding a football team. “Y’all need to write him a letter,” she demands.
I laugh, “Why don’t you write the letter?”
“Oh no!” She waves the suggestion away. “I’m done writing letters. I done wrote enough letters.”
“Who was you writing to?” I laugh louder this time.
“Whoever!” she laughs a little now, too. “But mostly the school board.”
“Well I used to be an educator. And before that I worked at the Gaston Motel.”
At the time I didn’t know about the Gaston Motel. Being from Flint, Michigan, I equated Birmingham with Black History lessons centered around Civil Rights, bombs, and Christopher Paul Curtis’ novel, The Watsons Go to Birmingham.
Ms. Patterson tries to explain, but sums it up with, “You not from here, are you?”
I shake my head, but add, “I bet you had fun.”
My eyes are bright; my smile is wide. Palacina is slim and colorful, set against the bare walls of Birmingham’s Civil Rights Museum’s foyer.
“Did I?” There is a hint of slyness that flashes in Palacina’s eye. It is so slight, it could have been imagined, but she winks to reassure that it has not. Her hands go instinctively to her hips as if by memory. Her fingers grip her small waist, and she sways with her feet shoulder-width apart. Palacina, with her flipped blonde wig and thin frame must have been a fox in her day. When asked her age, she laughs and says, “I’m as old as Carter’s Liver Pills.” I don’t know what Carter’s Liver Pills are, but traces of beauty still linger on Palacina’s aged face. I can imagine the glow that would have consumed her lemony skin, her sleek calves, her neck that must have been smooth and alluring.
“I bet you met a lot of people,” I say.
“Oh I did.”
“Who? Who did you meet?”
Her eyes drift to the domed ceiling of the museum, which seems to be the foyer’s primary source of light. She tells me that she volunteers here as a greeter, because she “loves this place.”
She smiles—the kind of smile that remains long after silence has failed to put into words what the mind vividly remembers.
“Ray Charles. I met Ray Charles.”
I am greedy for information. At twenty-four years old, I know nothing of A.G. Gaston’s restaurant, or the fun Palacina had as her seventeen-year-old fingers clicked her Bic to light the cigarettes of patrons. Nothing of the salted steak, cooked wonderfully, served a-la-carte, or the golden fried chicken I’d seen advertised on flyers from the sixties.
The only thing I can imagine is the Harlem Renaissance reincarnated in Birmingham twenty years later, but even my images of that are romanticized, glamour-filled with thought-up pictures of finger waves on black shined hair, and short black dresses revealing fast moving glitter-speckled legs in short heels. In my head, the room is drenched in honeys and blacks, browns and creams, red fingernails and red mouths open in laughter. The bodies are petite, perfectly lined, even when the lines are curved, covered in too-bright, too-tight dresses. I imagine well-groomed men wearing urbane black hats and clipped mustaches. The closest thing I can get to A.G. Gaston’s place is Toni Morrison’s Cosey Hotel and Resort, a fictional pre-segregation resort in Toni Morrison’s novel, Love. It was situated on the water and provided bliss for Blacks looking to experience luxury in the time of Jim Crow. Yet, there was no work being done and isolation contributed to Cosey’s overall appeal. But unlike Cosey’s, Gaston’s establishment was smack dab in the city at 1510 Fifth Avenue North, and so, how different the two must have been.
Oh, the jealousy I feel—to have been in the sixties, in the midst of history, a young girl, meeting celebrities in sweat-filled spaces, rooms full of cigarette smoke, lust, power, will, weakness, movement, and war. Oh, the jealousy.
“Well…oh it was so long ago,” Ms. Patterson says. “I can’t remember all the people. You see, A.G. Gaston’s was for all the high rollers. Even with segregation, they came because they wanted to, not because they had to. It was the place to be, you see?”
And so it must have been, if a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and Hollywood Walk of Fame star recipient not only stopped by, but slept there.
According to Sutton, “Birmingham Blacks weren’t allowed to eat in area restaurants during the fifties and early sixties. The Gaston featured a fine dining bistro as well as a New Orleans-style bar and lounge with a packed jukebox and a stage that was graced by some of the greatest performers of all time. The Gaston was a must-stop on the Chitlin Circuit.”
The term Chitlin’ Circuit refers to a string of performance venues throughout the eastern, southern, and upper midwestern United States that were safe and acceptable for African American musicians, comedians, and other entertainers to perform in during the age of racial segregation in the United States. Apparently, when it came to accommodating African American performers, the Gaston motel was in good company. Also included on the Chitlin’ Circuit were New York City’s Cotton Club, Apollo Theater, and Detroit’s Fox Theatre, all of which are still standing and entertaining to this day.
In 1963, Ray Charles would not have been the only big name to stop by Gaston’s place. James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., and Fred Shuttlesworth were among Gaston’s patrons, with King’s regular room being nicknamed the “War Room,” since the thinking was that it was bound to be bombed at any time—due to the meetings held there to plan the fight for rights of Blacks in Birmingham.
Not only had I seen the film, Ray, which depicted the life of Ray Charles, I’d read that Fathead, who played in the band with Ray, confirmed that the blind musician would stroke the forearms and wrists of the women who threw themselves at him to determine their beauty.
Palacina’s wrists—dainty, small, smooth, hardly wrinkled still—move and twist as she smiles and remembers, “Yes. I met Ray Charles.”
Imagining her wrist moving to his 1959 “What I’d Say,” I am reminded of my grandmother, who moved North from Pine Bluff in 1963. I sing the lyrics to her often: “Tell your Ma, tell you Pa, I’m gonna send you back to Arkansas.”
“Was it hard to get the people out of there?” I ask, because the bar where I work boasts a mean crowd, and on Saturday nights, we’re hard pressed to get home by four a.m.
“Oh no! They knew when it was time to go, because at one-thirty, we started flicking the lights.”
“Where did they go?”
“Sometimes they all just went to the shot houses.”
Shot houses were known to house ‘til morning parties, more laidback than a nightclub. Cards and dominoes were played until people felt like leaving and no décor or food was necessary, just presence and laughter.
“It could just be somebody’s living room,” Palacina explained .“We just called them shot houses.”
And what would a seventeen-year-old be doing, hanging out until the wee hours of the night?
Palacina laughs, “Well, there were some neighbors, boys, who worked at a kitchen not far from Gaston’s place and I was supposed to ride home with them, but sometimes we went to the shot house parties, and the next day—if I’d been out too late—my daddy would come pick me up from work so I couldn’t stay out again.” She laughs again.
I imagine her lips pressed against those of a neighbor boy, followed by that gentle, charismatic laugh she still has. I see her eyes tilting as the coyness fills the space between them. I see her arms pushing him away, and with that witty tongue, calling him, “boy,” right before she bounces away, teasingly. I can see them joining others at the shot houses, plopping onto sunken-in couches that know love better than any piece of furniture. I see Palacina and the neighbor-boys staying past the time they’d intended to go home because the conversation is inviting and the bodies are warm and welcoming.
This could be the reason Palacina’s sisters were allowed to go out of state, but she was forced to stay in the city and attend the historically black college, Miles, founded in 1898, named after a former slave.
“You see,” she smiles and points a ring-adorned finger at me, “my mama kept a tight leash on me. Wouldn’t let me go away to college, even though I wanted to. And I already had a sister that had went away. So the finances just weren’t there.”
“And what was it like? At Miles?”
“It was home. Everybody, in those days, loved everybody and so Miles was like a family. And it was a beautiful, wonderful place to get an education.”
In 2017, the validity of HBCU’s is being questioned, with declining enrollment rates cited as one of the main problems.
“And you never thought about going anywhere else?”
“Well, no. I didn’t feel restricted back then, because I didn’t think about it. It’s just the way things were. But these young people: you can’t tell them nothing. The attitudes of people have altogether changed. Integration changed it. They want to go to places where they can have better everything, especially the athletes. I guess I was naive back then, like I imagine a lot of us were. There were signs that said ‘Colored’ or ‘White.’ We knew where we had to go. And we went to those places. ”
She’s smiling again.
“I had a good time though.”
“And if you could go back and re-do everything and it was all integrated, would you still choose Miles?”
“Well yes, I absolutely would!”
Palacina Patterson reminds me that in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, and the bold racism taking place in southern cities, there were real girls, still living, still growing, still having a good time. It is these girls that can’t be forgotten, as they remind us, nothing weighs down the soul of black folk, not even overt inequality ordained by law.
“And they call me V,” she says. “Where’d you get that P-name from?”
“When you told me your name was Ms. Patterson—through your accent—I thought you said Palacina.”
I had gotten her name wrong. It wasn’t Palacina at all. Her name is Verona, but she laughs while saying, “You can keep that name you made up.”
“I like it,” I laugh. Palacina sounds whimsical, daring and unpredictable. Palacina sounds like a girl in an alley after work, headed to a shot house for a card game where she may or may not take a shot of tequila, depending on her mood. She might grow flowers in her backyard, or take a cigarette every now and then, slap you in the face, then kiss the stung cheek, curse you, then coo you to sleep.
There are words lingering between Palacina and I that are not being voiced, but I don’t mind at all.
~ ~ ~
Better known as Rain, Sharanna Brown was born in Flint, Michigan where she began creating stories in the third grade. As an English Instructor at Alabama State University, she weaves historical context into her composition lessons, having long ago found a passion for history. Sharanna has a B.A in Communications, a M.A. in English and plans to obtain a PhD in English with a certificate in African American History. Rain, who has been previously published in Cultural Weekly, Fredericksburg Literary Review, and University of Alabama’s PMS, currently resides in Montgomery with her husband and baby girl, Ahzor.