When people ask why I write about small places and odd people, I'm never really quite sure how to respond. I can trace my earliest yearnings to the time I witnessed Miss Minnie Johnson laid out prostrate on the Trenton Courthouse lawn—that was thirty-five years ago. It wasn't so much that she fell out on the ground with her petticoats over her head as it was that she couldn't remember a thing afterward. "Shock!" That's what the doctor called it when he treated her on the scene. And when he finally did manage to bring her around, she didn't know who or where she was. Thought she was white. And from that very day forward she saw the whole world completely different. "It's a gift!" Miss Minnie used to testify. "A gift from God Almighty!" And she used that gift for the rest of her born days. Transformed her life and everyone in it. But I guess I better back up and tell you how Miss Minnie ended up sprawled out on the courthouse lawn in the first place—where she turned white. What I didn't witness was told to me directly by Miss Minnie's son, who's still alive to this very day to verify my facts.
The first thing you'll need to know is that it took a lot of pulling to get Miss Minnie out of her house anymore. Except on Sundays, of course, when she did love to gussy up in a fine hat and stylish shoes and strut down the road to the Peniel Church of the Living Cross. It was the only colored Baptist church in town, and the walls bulged to the breaking point every time there was a funeral or a roof-raising revival meeting. Ordinarily that didn't seem to bother people, but this one particular Sunday—the day Miss Minnie got the spirit and walked herself to the courthouse—there was plenty to be bothered about.
The Peniel Church of the Living Cross was much more than just a church-house. It was Heaven on earth to Miss Minnie—the only vacation she ever got from the hardness of life. And now, the building commissioner had posted notice that the church was "UNSAFE FOR PUBLIC GATHERINGS". Plastered the thing right across the double-door entry! And then they placed a lock and chain on the doors to enforce it. It was a rude awakening for Sunday morning worshipers. The ones who arrived early nearly fell out when they got close enough to read the print, thought it a pitiful joke at first. Then they stood there on the steps flagging others with their kerchiefs to "Hurry up, come see what we found!" And as the numbers slowly grew, so did the discontentment.
"Unsafe, my foot!!" Miss Minnie said, and stamped the ground, when she was greeted with the news at the church steps. She had walked all this way on sore feet to converse with the Lord and to sing His praises, and now she's told that her Savior's house has been condemned. She stood cold and tall, her jaw clenched, watching the other folks mope around in their Sunday-go-to-meetin' clothes, ruminating over the news. Some even crying. They just could not believe their church could be shut down without so much as a day's notice. The signs had been slapped up before daybreak by a deputized officer of the law—before anybody could protest. Even Reverend Sampler hadn't been notified. Shameful! That's what it was. They all agreed on that among themselves. And not another building in town that would welcome a whole congregation of colored folks, even if it was to worship the Lord. And here they all are, Miss Minnie thought to herself, dressed up fit to kill and totin' covered dishes—fried chicken, macaroni cheese, honey-ham, and potato pies. And nowhere to testify or say grace! Made her so mad she could spit.
Even so, there was little discussion of "white meanness" on the part of the law. Secretly, they all knew the tired old building was in a constant state of disrepair. Some of them remembered the time Miss Hattie Hatfield nearly fell slap through the floor, along with her piano bench. Would have broken her neck sure enough, if she hadn't been in the House of the Lord—Amen! And the time Reverend Sampler was struck in the head by a ceiling tile right in the middle of communion. The mean thing bounced off his head and right into his wife's lap in the front row. Shocked her so bad she threw her Bible out a window. There were other stories, too, but it died there. It seemed everybody wanted to be the Lord's houseguest, but nobody wanted to help Him keep house. Still, they could not get past the insult that there was no warning notice. Every last one of them agreed that had they known the seriousness of the matter they would have given up a day gladly to do some patching and fixing to put the Lord's house back in order. Even Miss Minnie swore she would've taken a hammer to the place.
Since that was not now possible, the only place left for them to meet was in the gravel parking lot, which was splotched with mud puddles and tire ruts. But not a one of the Deacon Sisters was about to dirty up her Sunday shoes traipsin' through the mud. "The road would be better," somebody said, "dirt and dust is better'n gumbo mud." By this time Miss Minnie was ready to charge down the road to the Full Faith Presbyterian, pull up a chair, and slap the first person that said anything to her right in the middle of the mouth. Not that she had a fool thing against the Full Faith Presbyterian Church—or anybody in it, mind you—just a burning need to register a complaint to somebody. And that's the very moment it hit her—she would hold her own church service! Yessir! And someplace she helped pay for, too—the Trenton Court House! After all, it was a public building. She might not be school learned, but she had worked long enough for old Judge Slocum to know her rights. And she knew the courthouse was open seven days a week now, ever since the jail and correction center burned slap to the ground last spring, taking the Hall of Records and two white churches with them. Afterward, the two churches were given free rein to hold Sunday services at the courthouse till they could rebuild. Now it was her turn!
The very thought of that straightened Miss Minnie's back and set her head awhirl. Urging anybody who agreed with her to pack up their gumption and come along, she set off right then and there on her long walk to town. Sore feet or not, she was courthouse bound. And if it wasn't open when she got there, she'd hold her services right on the front steps. So full of the Holy Spirit she seemed, a few members of the congregation fell in behind her right off. Others just stood there with their mouths wide open, not knowing whether or how to respond. How far could she get, they asked each other, a tired, ignorant old woman like that. "Prolly' collapse fo' she makes it out the neighborhood," one of them said. But not all the doubters remained. Hope took hold of their hands and a dozen more joined Miss Minnie's high fashion parade down the long drive. It was a something to see. No signs. No protest chants—at first. Just serious walking. North to where the dirt road met the highway, and on from there. Walking with a purpose—God's will. How else could they explain it? Maybe she was Harriet Tubman come back down from Heaven to deliver them. "The Good Lord moves—in mysterious ways—His miracles—to perform," someone finally sang out, and the holy procession responded in an echoing refrain, "A-men. A-men. A-men."
Onward Christian soldiers! One foot in front of the other, sure and straight, and not a soul lost to heat stroke or car battery at the halfway mark. Sundays always left the highway sparse and that made their travel light. By this point they had gathered a swarm of curious onlookers—white and colored—all pointing and staring in bewilderment. No one in town had ever seen a parade of colored folks taken to the streets, and they didn't know what to make of it. And as only God would have it, there was no yelling or name-calling or anything else that might cause Miss Minnie's crusade to turn ugly. After all, it was Sunday, she reassured herself, a day that will not tolerate the ugly face of hate. Even non-church-going heathens know to respect the rights of others to worship. She knew that by heart. Her mama had told her from the cradle that there were two kinds of people in the world—them that tolerate, and them that are tolerated. And both of them live inside every person. If she learned that, her mama said, she would know why people act the way they do. Even the heathens—as she thought of them—understood that principle. Her mama was wise.
By the time they reached DeNeale Street, the procession had added another dozen or so believers, all singing sweet and low now, hymns of the heart—hymns without color. One of the late joiners had brought along his mouth harp and its sweet sounds seemed to raise spirits and swell voices. Turning onto First Street, the traffic soon forced them into single file. The mood grew more serious as the procession closed ranks and adjusted itself, until at length—unannounced—forward movement came to a sharp halt. All eyes torched forward. There at the end of the long street, looming like the Acropolis, stood the Trenton Court House, a place many of them had never even entered, and most of those who had were only there for pedestrian purposes: paying a traffic fine or some other minor debt to society. How could they ever have imagined that today, this very day, that mighty hall of justice was about to have its very purpose put to the test.
They stood wide-eyed and glistening in the summer sun, like a jonquil chain along the levee. Awaiting their marching orders, which presently came. Then forward once more, but slower, more deliberate. For Miss Minnie, the pace was sure. An old woman, she had waited all her life to hear the Lord whisper her purpose here on earth, her mission. And now she heard it. Not in her head, as she had eternally expected it, but in her heart. Here she was, leading her people, little Lambs of God, to the altar. And if that was at the city courthouse, so be it. That's where the Lord was leading her. Each step grew stronger as her heart guided on. Right up First Street to Town Square Park. Normally empty on Sunday mornings, the park today was dotted with groups of three and four people, whispering and nodding. Her coming had been announced. And there, at the top of the courthouse steps, half-hidden in the shadow of a great column, stood a uniformed man fanning himself with his hat. Just standing there, as if he'd been expecting them for some time. The very image conjured fear and apprehension among her flock, but Miss Minnie was steadfast. She would not be turned away. She would quell their fears, and then meet the man head on. The glory of the Lord swelled inside again, filling her with quiet resolve as she stepped forth and began the last leg of her journey alone. A short walk, she reassured herself: first across the park—maybe twenty yards—then up the thirty-or-so steps, which put her even closer to the Lord. "Mercy, mercy me," she sighed. "How proud He must be right now."
But then, sudden as a heartbeat, a shot rang out and resonated hatefully through the square. People scattered like pigeons in all directions. Oddly, there was no yelling or screaming. Just motion. And then a second shot split the air. By this time, even Miss Minnie saw the wisdom of finding cover and managed to huddle herself behind an ancient oak. What if one of her followers had been shot? Or dead? Her thoughts now outracing her heartbeats, she struggled for reason, trying to reassure herself the whole while that God would not abandon her. All around her she saw fear and shaken faith, and it tugged at her soul. How could she expect her followers to be brave if she could not face down the invisible enemy?
That thought somehow freed her from her own fear. With the faith and trust of a child, Miss Minnie stepped from the shadows, lifted her head, and strode confidently out into the open and across the park. Not a word, not even a whisper came from onlookers. Everyone stared in shock and fear. And yet, every single observer knew they were witnessing something extraordinary. Something lasting. This they held onto as they watched the old woman step from the park and cross the street toward the courthouse. For some reason, she took it into her head to cut catty-cornered across the wide lawn, then climbed her way slowly to the top of a small hill. Once there, she turned to her followers, raised her arms to the Lord and offered prayer. With that gesture, a final shot rang out. This time it sent Miss Minnie tumbling head over heels right back down the hillside, erasing the very footprints she had made coming up. And there she lay.
Now there was sound. No longer would the frightened crowd be silenced. Cries and voices poured from everywhere. A chorus of sirens set off public alarms for several blocks. Dogs went howling through the streets all over town, and people came storming out of houses to see what had happened. The spectators in the park flew off into alleyways and side streets, and the handful of policemen on Sunday duty came spilling out of the courthouse with their firearms drawn. Adjacent streets were littered with abandoned cars, keys still in them. The incident had escalated into frenzy—like no Sunday the town had ever seen. Newspapers and radios would later call it, "The Holy War at the Courthouse".
It took a solid hour for the officers to bring order to the crowd in the park. Mostly, people just wanted to know that everyone was okay. By the time the doctor finally brought Miss Minnie around and announced to her followers that she was all right, an off-duty policeman had apprehended two nine-year-old boys hiding in a tree. They were hauled back to the courthouse for inciting a riot with firecrackers. Poor Miss Minnie had taken a serious blow to the head in her fall. She kept telling the doctor and old Reverend Sampler over and over again that she had died. That the Good Lord had sent her back as a white woman. Said she was told to build a new church right there on the courthouse lawn—the Lord's Church, she called it. Where colored folks and white folks would meet on Sundays and pray together. Said the Lord caused her to see the world through a white person's eyes so that she could understand them. And by understanding them, she could reach them. The doctor just stared at her and told her she'd better take it easy for a few days, then shuffled off shaking his head and giggling under his breath.
Meanwhile, the commissioner had been dragged away from his Sunday pot roast to meet with the church leaders—and Miss Minnie, of course. The man explained that the church had been notified. Three times! After much discussion, it was discovered that the mail had apparently been misdirected and didn't make it into the Reverend's hands—a mix-up with church staff, it seemed. And yes, they would work out some kind of plan to accommodate the Peniel Church of the Living Cross. Afterward, the police officers and other volunteers loaded Miss Minnie and her followers into their cars and pick-up trucks and drove them all home. Everyone was sure it was the right thing to do now, even Miss Minnie. After all, there had been enough walking and talking and testifying for one day. Not that it would end here, of course. After all, Miss Minnie had her field orders, her mission.
For the rest of her life, Miss Minnie went through her days as a white woman living in a colored world. Folks gradually got used to it. Even came to accept it. And that was thirty-five years ago. Miss Minnie's gone now, but folks in Trenton still talk about her as if she was still there. When the new highway went in, shortly after Miss Minnie passed away, all the downtown businesses moved out to meet it. The remains were divvied up among low-bidders for storage space and second-hand stores and the like. All except the Trenton Court House. When it was abandoned, nobody knew quite what to do with it. The mayor's wife suggested they auction it to a non-profit business to preserve it for posterity, since she couldn't get it declared a historical monument. So the city council hired an independent firm to handle the deal, with the clear understanding that whoever ended up with the building must preserve its architecture.
Half the town turned out on the day the sealed bid was opened. It was a particularly joyful day for the family of Miss Minnie Johnson. The Trenton Court House, the hallowed spot where the Lord had transformed her life, had gone to the Southern Congregation of the Living Cross. And thirty years later, the giant clock tower at the Peniel Church of the Living Cross now brought black and white worshipers together in God's name.
Is there any real connection between Miss Minnie and the new church? Some folks in town still say no. After all, she said the Lord told her to build His church on the courthouse lawn, the spot where she had her transfiguration. If you look at the map real closely, you'll see that she missed it by a good twenty feet. I think about Miss Minnie every time I'm asked why I write about small places and strange people (or vise versa). I believe that stories like Miss Minnie's have significance beyond the boundaries of their own small worlds. Their lives, like DNA, carry eternal messages to every vein of the global body.