Rings True

LaVerne McLeod recalls the black elders in her community whispering concerns for Martin Luther King Jr.’s safety after he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Nic Coury

LaVerne McLeod, a 67-year-old retired Carmel Middle School teacher, has lived with her husband in Big Sur since 1979. That’s a long way from where she started, and she’s written a book that delineates that distance.

She comes from a black farming family in Jim Crow-era Arkansas, but says they weren’t “impoverished.” Her mother’s white grandfather deeded 20 of his thousands of acres to them, and they sharecropped the land.

It meant continual labor. They relied on white farm equipment operators to cultivate the family’s crops, and in turn picked cotton on their land. In the winter, McLeod’s father logged timber, and sold his own “recipe” of moonshine.

“It was a survival thing,” McLeod says.

The civil rights movement was growing when a beloved teacher at her one-room elementary school, who secretly organized with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was beaten until he “looked like a monster.”

That didn’t just serve as a cautionary tale about black life in Ku Klux Klan country. “It was also a lesson in compassion for all the kids who loved him,” McLeod says. “[We] took turns doing things for him as much as he would let us. ”

Seven years after the Little Rock Nine, she and a school bus of peers were part of an effort to integrate a school in Missouri.

“It was one of the most frightening experiences a ninth-grader could have,” she says. She was scared of being called names, spit on or accosted. None of those things ultimately came to pass. She even befriended a white girl; but they couldn’t go to each other’s homes or churches.

This is the backdrop for her novel, Corn Hollow: A Journey of Sorrow and Triumph, in which she harvests stories from her life, blended with fabricated elements. Its protagonist is a black girl growing up in the South named Tamara who navigates racism, incest, alcoholism, gender and poverty.

McLeod stresses that even though some chapters are based on true events, it’s not a memoir. But she’ll blur the lines in a dramatic reading, hosted by Whites for Racial Equity, of a chapter titled “The Bus.” It deals with a painful incident of racism – a microcosm of the kind of cruelty bigots are still fighting to reinstitute.

McLeod is fighting back. She organized a workshop in June called Bridge Building to Equity, in which participants “explored tools to dissolve racism and other discriminations.” A case of looking back to move forward.

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