Justice Older than the Law: The Life of Dovey Johnson Roundtree
by Katie McCabe and Dovey Johnson Roundtree
Winner of the Association of Black Women Historians’ 2009 Letitia Woods Brown Memorial Book Prize for best publication on an African American woman
Dovey Johnson Roundtree is a retired lawyer, an Army veteran, and an A.M.E. minister. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. Katie McCabe is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Washingtonian Magazine, Baltimore Magazine, and Reader's Digest, among others. Her National Magazine Award-winning article on black medical legend Vivien Thomas was the basis for the HBO film Something the Lord Made, winner of three Emmys and a 2005 Peabody Award.
Chapter One, "Walking Unafraid," about Dovey Roundtree's courageous Grandma Rachel, the woman Dovey calls "the greatest warrior I ever knew."
Excerpt: Chapter One: Walking Unafraid
Every evening, in the tiny kitchen of the old frame shotgun house where I grew up in Charlotte, my Grandma Rachel marked the day’s end by a ritual etched in my memory with a clarity that belies the eighty years since then.
She ceased to rush, as she did endlessly in the hours between dawn and darkness, and she commenced to draw water and lay out clean towels and mix an ointment she made of turpentine and mutton tallow. I would stand, quiet, watching her heat the water on the wood stove, pour it into a metal pan, then remove her stockings and hoist her skirts as she lifted her feet into the steaming bath.
Her feet were broken. They were gnarled and twisted and horribly misshapen, with the bones sticking out in strange ways. As she lifted them into the steaming water, she winced. And I would know, though she had spoken no word and given no sign, that all day long her feet had been paining her.
How frightened I was the first time I saw those poor broken feet. I was five years old, and my mother and my three sisters and I had just moved to my grandparents’ home after the death of my father, James Eliot Johnson, in the influenza epidemic of 1919. My grandmother had scooped us up and taken us under her wing, whisking us from my parents’ house to the little parsonage where she lived with my Grandpa. All day long, she hovered over us…Like a tiny whirling dervish she moved, and so, when I first saw her grow quiet, I was startled.
Then I saw her feet, so large and misshapen they seemed to belong to another woman entirely, and I drew back, frightened. Every night after that, I’d look at her scarred, twisted feet, at the skin stretched taut over the jutting bones, and I’d want to ask her what had made them that way. But something in her silence warned me not to.
The day came, finally, as I was just beginning to mature into womanhood, when Grandma took me to her in private and spoke to me of what had happened to her feet.
A white man had broken them.
It had happened a very long time ago, Grandma said, when she was a young girl, just coming into womanhood herself…and she had seen the man watching her with a look that told her he meant to do her harm.
“The slave master,” she called him. He was the overseer on the farm near Henrietta, North Carolina, where her father worked, and when she spoke of what he had tried to do to her, a look of anguish crossed her face unlike any I had seen before or would see after.
“He was meanin’ to bother me, Dovey Mae,” she told me, in the delicate way she had of speaking about things sexual. “I ran and fought every way I knew how. And I hurt him. Then he grabbed hold o’ me and he stomped, hard as he could, on my feet – to keep me from runnin’ for good, he told me. But I kept on runnin.’”
“Wasn’t nothing to do but fight him, hard as I could,” she said. “He wasn’t goin’ to have his way with me.”
Grandma’s mother had wrapped her smashed, bleeding feet in cloth and rubbed them with the mutton tallow and turpentine ointment Grandma would use for the rest of her days. But the bones had been so crushed that her feet were forever misshapen, and so twisted that for a while she could not walk at all. When she did, it was with a swaying awkwardness that late at night became a limp.
And yet, for all of that, she had won. He had not, as she said, had “his way” with her.
I saw my Grandma Rachel fight everything with that same fierceness – poverty, sickness, injustice, and even despair. Like a mighty stream, her courage flowed through my childhood, shaping me as rushing water shapes the pebbles in its path.
© Book Excerpt Reprinted by Permission. All rights reserved. Do not repost or use without author's permission
Note: Excerpt used for promotional purposes. Permission given by University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, MS)
Review from Summer 2010 Women Lawyers’ Journal, posted on MS. JD website
Review from The Charlotte Observer, August 23, 2009, posted on Black Christian News website
» Justice Older than the Law by Katie McCabe
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Hardcover: 288 pages
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