For the past two summers, I've been fortunate to write pieces for Lynchburg, VA's Old City Cemetery Tour. The way it works, in brief: the team at OCC picks a short list of names of real people buried in the cemetery; then they pass that list on to a handful of writers, who select the names that interest them; the writers receive what little (or lot!) of research the cemetery has on the person, and write either 5-6 minute monologues or scenes; the monologues and scenes are performed in October on the grounds of the cemetery in the annual OCC tours.
Last year, I wrote a piece for Luther Brice, a young Black man who was killed in a boiler explosion while serving a 60-day sentence at the City Farm, which was essentially a prison labor farm. He'd been arrested on a "charge of disorder," his mother had potentially been a laundress, and that was about all that was known about him.
The monologue's below, accompanied by Jay Wescott's press photos from The News & Advance, featuring Joshua Carter as Luther Brice.
LUTHER BRICE, a Black man somewhere around 20, stands. He's dressed in nondescript clothes, simple textiles, unmarked: a kind of work uniform, a kind of prison uniform.
At his feet are two metal buckets, one full with water, one empty.
"Disorder." What that mean to you?
He picks up the full bucket, holding it in his hands.
Somethin' like an unmade bed, a messy table, crumbs on yo' fine carpet. "Disorder." A child's room when he been playin', and when he pop off while you tellin' him to clean it. Two different things, both "disorder." Tryin' to catch water what's slippin' through your hands: that's "disorder."
He pours the full bucket into the empty bucket.
If this was a civilized conversation, now'd be the time when you'd ask what "disorder" mean to me, but that kinda conversatin' is only for civilians. We ain't civilians here--they make sure we know that--we "workers." That's a civil way a' saying "prisoner," and that's a civil way a' saying "criminal," and though the Civil War ended more than 50 years ago I still ain't got the right to be treated with it, civility. Now, in 1921, y'all just get to say it's 'cause of my "disorderly conduct," instead of the color of my skin.
He replaces the now-empty bucket on the ground and picks up the full bucket.
Yes, I'm a free man now, 'cept when the city comes a-callin'. 'Cept when I been "disorderly." Then I get marched over the hill in shackles, a coffle unto myself, for a 60-day sentence at the City Farm. They act like they doin' me a favor, like it's a holiday here. Vacation to the snow white silo built on the backs of the misbehavers, forged a' their blood and sweat. Less tears 'cause it's menfolk, but I heard one or two of 'em at night. Maybe they heard me.
He dunks a hand in and wipes his face with it.
We dirty after a hard day's work on the farm. My great-grandmother would'a felt the same, tired after workin' her hands to the bone, sweatin' to pick dry the skeleton of a cotton field. Great-grandmother was a slave, Paw-paw was a sharecropper, Mama's a laundress, and I'm a laborer, and we all got bent backs from stoopin' so much. I must'a I held my head a little too high when I left Mama that morning. She needed salve for her poor, cracked hands, but she never got it: they picked me up 'fore I even reached the general store, picked me up for "mouthin' off" to the white man who had words for me that morning. They called it "disorder," "disruptin' the peace." I guess I ain't got the right to peace, 'cause it's me in here who's heatin' up the water for the prisoners' daily bath.
He pours the full bucket into the empty bucket.
The boiler was in "disorder" when I come to heat the water. I was kindlin' the fire and it sounded off, somethin' 'tween a hiss and a whistle. The flame flickered in my hand. I don't know nothin' 'bout no boilers, so I yelled out to Big Bill--figured he been in here longer, he probably done it before. Mama would'a known 'bout the boiler. Wish I could'a asked her. Hell, wish I could'a seen her one last time, talk about anything but the damned boiler. All's I had to do was get the water hot, give us a nice warm bath after a hard day's work. Big Bill ain't help me none, told me, "Draw it out!" I wiped the sweat off my brow. May as well'a been cleanin' my headstone.
He bends down, dips a hand in the full bucket, and wipes his face again. He straightens up and begins to tap on the empty bucket, slow at first, picking up speed and building into a frenzy of fast pops at the end, like a bowl of popcorn exploding to life.
Two men walk down the street, one black, one white. Two men exercise they freedom a' speech, but only one of 'em go to jail, and it's me who get picked up for "disorder" just 'cause I won't take it lyin' down. Enjoyment's punishment when you black and "free," 'cause the only vacation I ever got was a trip to the City Farm. And the street I got picked up on, the street you all walk free on, was probably dug by another black man on another vacation. Black men build the roads, and black men s'posed to lay down and be the bricks, too. That's "order." That's "justice." That's "freedom."
He stops tapping. He sets the empty bucket down.
As it happened, I thought, "This been happenin' to me my whole life." You don't know danger 'til you try bein' colored in the Land of the Free.
Anything you got's a weapon, from your name to your family to your voice. The smile on your face's a weapon, if you smilin' wrong. Imagine holding something a' genuine danger in the palms a' your dark hands. The terror you'd feel. Your heart racin' fast. I's just sent in to heat the water, just sent to do a chore. And I ain't even have sense enough to realize it 'til after.
Me, I lit a match...
As he speaks, he pulls a matchbook out of his pocket, tears out a single match, and lights it.
He squats all the way down, keeping the match lit.
...and the damn thing blew up in my face.
He drops the match in the full bucket. It sizzles out.