For over twenty years I have been a contributor to newspapers and religious periodicals, but not until I met Jack London did it ever occur to me that I could earn a living by my pen. London made me promise to write. My first story I mailed to California for his criticism and suggestion, but before it returned I had entered the field.
MY EXPERIENCE AS A LABOURER IN THE MUSCLE MARKET OF THE SOUTH
Appleton’s Magazine published my first serious attempt at fiction. It was a short story entitled, “Two Social Pariahs.”
The cry of peonage was in the air and I arranged with Appleton’s Magazine for a series of articles on the subject. Dressed as a labourer I went to the muscle market of New York and got hired. To do this I had to assume a foreign accent and look as slovenly as possible. With a picturesque contingent of Hungarians, Finns, Swedes and Greeks, I was drafted for the iron mines of the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company. The mines are near Bessemer, Ala. At every turn of the road south we were herded and handled like cattle.
It was a big, black porter who led us into the car at Portsmouth, Va. I was the leader of the contingent, and the porter addressed us for the most part by signs, and when he spoke at all he called me “Johnny.” When inside, he arranged us in our seats, putting his hands on some of our shoulders to press us down into them. I did not realize that I was in a Southern state until I saw a big yellow card in this car marked “Coloured.” Then I knew instantly that we were in a Jim Crow car. A coloured woman sat next to the window in my seat and by her look and little toss of the head and a quick nervous movement she seemed to say, “What are you doing here?”
When the train pulled out of the depot, I stepped up to the porter and said:
“Haven’t you a law in Virginia on the separation of the races.”
The big black fellow grinned.
“Dere sho’ is, boss—but you ain’t no races. You is jest Dagoes, ain’t you?”
At Atlanta we changed cars and were again driven into the Jim Crow car. This time I made a more intelligent attempt to solve my race problem. The conductor, faultlessly dressed in broadcloth and covered with gold lace, strode into our car with the air of an admiral of the fleet. He went straight through the car, collecting the block ticket for our gang from the boss, and as he returned I stepped into the aisle in front of him, blocking his passage.
“Pardon me, sir,” I said, “isn’t there a law in Georgia on the separation of the races?”
Without a word, he removed the glasses from his nose, stared at me for a moment, then turned sharply, walked to the end of the car, removed the card which read “Coloured” and reversed it. It then read “White.” Then he came back through the car slowly, staring at me as he passed but without uttering a word.