She made her way to me before I had a chance to introduce myself. In the midst of the crowd, she had picked me out and caught my eyes.
Mrs. Lula Belle Brown. Effervescent and able at 93 years old (now 94), she walked over with a cane in one hand, wisps of gray hair tufting off her head. A smile curled around her eyes.
“You are the one who called me yesterday?” she asked.
“Yes,” I told her.
“You are coming tomorrow? At 1 p.m.?” she asked.
“Yes, 1 p.m.,” I said.
“OK honey, I’ll see you then.” She nodded as someone took her arm and handed her a golden shovel so she could pose for a photograph.
That moment took place at the groundbreaking ceremony for the restoration of the Fairbanks Flats in Beloit, Wis. Miss Lula Belle, as I call her, raised eight children in those buildings, survived two husbands, and has lived to celebrate the lives of many grandchildren, great grandchildren, and even “great-greats.”
“I remember talking to the Lord, saying that I want to live to see my kids grow up and take care of themselves … That was my prayer,” said Miss Lula Belle in our first interview last October. “So I tell everybody, there are all these great grandkids, I call them my bonus—the Lord giving me my bonus. I have lots of grandchildren. Lots of greats and lots of great-greats.”
Now, Miss Lula Belle’s prayer is also to see the restoration of the Flats, the home she first knew in Beloit. Steeped in personal memories of those who grew up there, the Flats also contain a history of African Americans in the city of Beloit and of the 1920s Great Migration of blacks moving from the south to the north. On the brink of destruction—more than a few times—the Flats are now expected to be fully renovated this fall into two- to three-bedroom apartments for rent.
“Very small places, they were. Very small,” said Miss Lula Belle. “Oh, the neighborhood was full of children. Oh yes. There were a lot of families out there. And the kids were our age, so we all played together. We all got along out there like one big family.”
The four buildings, now a faded yellow and completely gutted, were built in 1917 by Fairbanks Morse and Company to house black workers recruited from the south. The workers largely came from Pontotoc, Miss., and replaced the white labor force, which was away during World War I. Although many city administrators and community members originally wanted the Flats to be completely outside of the city, Fairbanks built them on the western shore of the Rock River, right on top of an old garbage dump.
The number of African Americans working at Fairbanks grew from six in 1915 to 250 in 1917. While a handful of black families had lived in Beloit since the mid-1800s, the population grew immensely in the next years. The Flats served as something of a gateway, an “Ellis Island,” as one past resident called it. Within a decade, nearly 1,000 African Americans lived in the city of Beloit.
As the revitalization process of the buildings began, a community-based theatre project rooted in oral history also emerged at Beloit College. In an interdisciplinary class called “Do You See What I’m Saying,” Associate Professor of Theatre Arts Amy Sarno and visiting Fulbright Scholar Darren Kelly focused on the basics of community-based theatre as well as research and interviews with people who lived in and around the Flats community. I was paired with Miss Lula Belle, a woman Amy Sarno called “a very spry 93-year-old,” who “moved to the Flats when she was 7.”
Miss Lula Belle barely reaches my chin when she stands in the doorway to greet me. She wears a comfortable looking purple sweat suit now instead of the dress and hat she wore at the groundbreaking of the Flats.
“Oh hello, hello!” she says. “Come on in honey.”
After stating the date, time, and location, I mumble a question about the train ride from Pontotoc to Beloit. Miss Lula Belle jumps in.
“My father passed away—and my sister, my brother, and I, we came on the train,” she says. “My grandmother came down and got us, and we came up here to live with our grandparents and uncles … And—so that was our first time riding the train. It was kind of exciting—for 7 years old—the first time riding the train.”
As a class in the fall, we interviewed 18 people who had grown up in and around the Flats. We transcribed their words and began to piece together a rough script based on the oral histories. In December, our class held a public reading of what we had done, and in the spring, a few of us continued to work on the project. Interviews, research, and public readings will continue. The entire project, which includes a study guide, timeline, and a play for middle- and high-school-age students, will probably take another year or two to complete.
I interviewed Miss Lula Belle again in November. There were a few holes in the information from the first interview that I wanted to fill. While Miss Lula Belle emphasized some of the same points and told some of the same stories, she added new details and told me more about how she had felt during certain experiences. We were starting to trust each other. As I listened to her, I heard a quality similar to that of my grandmothers, both recently deceased. The tone of Miss Lula Belle’s narrative, her earnestness, and the look in her eyes, at once focused and distant, reminded me of them.
Miss Lula Belle has become a grandmother to me. I love her. When I visit Miss Lula Belle now, without a recorder in tow or a set of questions in my head, we talk about recent happenings in Beloit, but often our conversation turns back to the Flats and to the past. I feel a strange sense of duty to preserve these stories and to make sure they are shared with younger generations. This duty does not feel like a burden or chore at all, but a gift. Within the details and perspective of these stories, wisdom emerges between the words. None of Miss Lula Belle’s stories grow old. Instead, they simply grow.