When a Southern town broke a heart

For the author Jacqueline Woodson, a childhood summer in the deep green beauty of Greenville, S.C., revealed her place and time in history. (Femi Dawkins/The New York Times)
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For the author Jacqueline Woodson, a childhood summer in the deep green beauty of Greenville, S.C., revealed her place and time in history. (Femi Dawkins/The New York Times)

Greenville, South Carolina, in the 1970s is a rolling green dream in my memory now. Always in that memory are the smell of pine and the red dirt wafting up around our summer shoes — new blue Keds with thick white soles, red by the end of our first day “home.” Because for me, South Carolina had always been home. Even years after my family joined the Great Migration and my mother moved us from Greenville to Brooklyn, each summer we returned to the Southern town of my mother’s childhood.

There, the friendly neighbors who knew us before we “were even a thought” and remembered our mama “when she was a little girl in pigtails” opened their arms to us every summer, welcoming us home.

But the summer I was 9 years old, the town I had always loved morphed into a beautifully heartbreaking and complicated place.

For so many summers, we’d been warned to stay away from the small patch of poison ivy that grew around the base of the one tree in my grandparents’ backyard. But until that year, the consequence had been as theoretical as the segregation surrounding us. The poison ivy crept up the base of the tree on the roadside but grew low to the ground on the house side. “Don’t go on the other side of that tree,” our grandmother warned us. “And don’t touch those leaves.”

But what I remember of that summer is not the actual tree but the sap running from it. And at the foot of that trunk, the poison ivy’s oily leaves circling the base then climbing up into the tree.

That summer, the poison ivy found its way to my older brother’s legs, then along his hands and arms. As he suffered what we discovered was an allergic reaction to the ivy; a fiery rash settled itself over my brother’s neck and throat until, finally, my grandmother took him to the one white doctor who would treat black patients in our segregated town.

Dr. M. had a jar in the reception room filled with rock candy that he gave out to both his patients and their sugar-loving siblings. Other doctors wouldn’t even look at colored people, let alone treat them. In our Brooklyn school we were being taught that segregation was a thing of the past. But in Greenville, we lived in Nicholtown, a segregated neighborhood inside of a segregated town. I realized that either Greenville was cheating or Brooklyn was lying.

Coming home from Dr. M.’s my grandmother trailed the four of us to the back of the bus where other blacks had settled themselves. I sat, as I always did, in a window seat leaning into my grandmother — for safety? For assuredness? For comfort? For love. I watched downtown Greenville become Nicholtown again. We had left “home” the first time with my mother for the dream of New York. At 9, I felt as though home was turning its back on me now without so much as a wave goodbye.

Jacqueline Woodson won the 2014 National Book Award for her memoir “Brown Girl Dreaming.” Her novel “Another Brooklyn” is to be published Aug. 9.