My father Jess Jr. was very much a man of the moment; charismatic, spontaneous and imbued with a zest for living. Naturally, being married to such a man made my mother Barbara very happy, but it also kept her in a state of continual apprehension as to what mischief might spring into his mind at any given time.
She often told us the story of being invited to a party in Oxford at a grand home on South Lamar. Barbara was understandably nervous, not knowing the hosts, but Jess had taken great pains to assure her that as district attorney he worked with the judge and knew him well. Once they had passed under the ancient trees to the spacious porch and rang the doorbell, Jess turned to Barbara, winked, and said, “Watch this.”
“My heart just sank to my shoes,” she’d say. When the door opened, Jess walked in, raised his arms in the air, and said, “I hope you people know that we are trying to have a prayer meeting in the house down the street, and your drunken carryings-on here are disrupting our communion with the Lord God Almighty!”
This being during the time before Prohibition was lifted in Mississippi, the assembly of well-heeled Oxonians and distinguished Ole Miss academics froze. Mother said the silence was so vast you could hear traffic on the Square four blocks away, and she was about to faint when the host stuck his head out the kitchen door and said, “Jess, quit scaring the hell out of everybody, get a drink and Barbara one, too. God knows she needs it.”
First published in the Calhoun County Journal Dec. 20, 1984, this memoir of my father, Jesse L. Yancy, Jr., was written fourteen years after his death by his friend and political partner, Sellers Gale Denley. Jess Jr., as he was called, was a remarkable man, well-loved, and still missed by many, none more so than me, his last surviving child.
If there was ever a man who loved Christmas, it was the late Sen. Jesse Yancy of Bruce. The word “loved” is used advisedly. For there are those who might be said to “enjoy” Christmas, “respect” Christmas, “anticipate” Christmas, etc., but Jesse loved Christmas. His enthusiasm might have been regarded as extreme; except that was the way Jesse was about most things. He worked hard. Then he played hard. More than likely this approach to life was a primary cause of his untimely death on Aug. 26, 1970, at the age of 44, from a massive heart attack. Prior to assuming the senate post he served as district attorney of the third circuit court district for eight years and was city attorney in Bruce for 17 years. So it wasn’t unusual that the new city library was named in his honor.
And the way that Jesse launched the Christmas season was not particularly unique or unusual, either. It began with a big party with his friends at the Bruce community building. Funds were solicited for a live band and a case or so of assorted spirits and goodies, with a few dollars left over for another project. You see, Jesse had a secret Christmas vice. He liked to dress up in a funny red suit, hide his face behind a mask of white whiskers and, on Christmas Eve, visit the area in South Bruce where most black citizens lived.
Before each of these visits his automobile was filled with candy, nuts, fruit, toys and firecrackers. In the early 1960s it was all the Christmas some of the children had. The ritual started in the ’50s when he dressed up to play Santa for his own children. His family decided he should also go see the children of the black woman who worked for them. His appearance was an immediate hit. It was the Christmas of 1960, when I started helping him with the project, that he said he realized back then on his first trip that most of the black children had never really seen Santa Claus. So it became an annual event, growing in scope each year, to make the Christmas Eve appearance. The addition of toys and other goodies was a part of the evolution. The project was financed with any excess funds from the party, plus contributions from several of us who usually helped, with Jesse taking up the slack. It started each year with several trips to area wholesalers to purchase the large volume of goodies needed for some 250 to 350 children.
The bounty would be hauled in and the Yancy children—Cindy, Tom and Lee, often assisted by cousins Bill and Bob Cooper—and others would assemble individual sacks. Then, on Christmas Eve, Jesse would put on his Santa suit, we would load up a vehicle or two—the most memorable and utilitarian being a dark green Mustang convertible— and begin the appointed rounds. There must have been a lookout, for as soon as the first vehicle crossed the railroad tracks, which marked the boundary of the black community, several young boys would take over the lead position. With wide-eyed excitement they would precede the caravan down Murphree Street shouting: “Here he comes. Here comes Santa. Here he comes.” And for the next hour or so Jesse would be in his Christmas glory.
He handed out presents to those close by while keeping an eye out for those too shy to come up to him, so he could seek them out later. He knew quite a few of them by name. And almost all of the parents knew Jesse and whispered their thanks. But if the children knew him they didn’t let on. And neither did they let on if they sometimes got a whiff of the Old Charter Santa and his helpers found useful in warding off the cold and other miseries.
The custom died with Jesse. The party lasted another year or two, and some of us talked about continuing the Santa Claus visit. But, we rationalized, it was 1970 and the children were being encouraged to visit Santa on the Square, sponsored by the city as a part of the Lion’s Club Christmas parade. So we didn’t. It has been 35 years, but every Christmas about this time I begin to get a little bit anxious. Like you feel when you know there is something you probably need to do. Like you feel when you know there is something you probably will never get to do again. It has been suggested that one can sometimes recapture the spirit of Christmases-past by recording remembrances like these. I am confident that Jesse would overlook my indiscretion in writing about it now.
My father Jess Jr. was one of the first politicians in north Mississippi who took an active and positive role in civil rights. As district attorney he refused County to sign a subpoena issued by a local grand jury for “disturbing the civil peace” on the federal officers who guarded James Meredith at Ole Miss October 1962. He took everyone, irregardless of race or religion, into his care, and that memory still echoes among many across Mississippi.
He also loved country music. He was raised on the likes of Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family and Roy Acuff; by the time I was ten, I knew damn near every one of Hank William’s songs by heart, and plenty of Loretta and Ernest as well. He also came to like a young singer named “Country Charley Pride” after hearing Pride’s first release in January 1966, “The Snakes Crawl at Night”.
Country music in the mid-1960s was–and largely still is–very much a white venue, so when my mother bought him an 8-track tape of Charley’s songs for him to listen to while he roared around in his new Mustang, she replaced the cover with one she made herself, something he wouldn’t look to hard at, a picture of a cowboy hat or something. Then there came a day when they were driving somewhere or the other, and Daddy was singing along with Charley, and Momma turned to him after the song was over and said, “Jess, did you know he’s black?” He snorted and said, “Oh, Barbara, don’t be silly. He’s a country boy from over in Quitman County.” Then she showed him the original label on the tape. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he said. Soon after that, Charley made headline by being the first black entertainer on the Grand Ole Opry since DeFord Bailey in 1941, and of course, Jess Jr. told everybody he had been listening to him for years.
Here’s Charley’s’s recipe for Sweet and Sour Baked Beans, which he probably got from a roadie. I found this recipe in Mississippi’s VIP Recipes. This cookbook was published by Phillips Printing in the Jackson area to support a local school; there’s no date and no mention of the school’s name, but the other 42 contributors include John Grisham, Faith Hill, Archie Manning, Walter Peyton, Jimmy Buffet and Mary Ann Mobley. It’s nice to know our people help one another out even when they’re not at home.
Charlie Pride’s Sweet and Sour Baked Beans
8 bacon slices, pan fried until crisp, drained and crumbled
4 large onions, peeled and cut in rings
½ to one cup brown sugar (more if you like beans on the sweet side)
1 teaspoon dried mustard
½ teaspoon garlic powder (optional)
1 teaspoons salt
½ cup cider vinegar
1 one pound can green lima beans, drained
1 one pound can dark red kidney beans, drained
1 one pound can New England-style baked beans, undrained
Place onions in skillet. Add sugar, mustard, garlic powder and vinegar. Cook 20 minutes, uncovered. Add onion mixture to beans. Add crumbled bacon. Pour into 3-quart casserole. Bake in moderate over at 350 for one hour. Makes 12 servings.
My father was a lawyer in a rural county in Mississippi during the 50s and 60s, and while we never were rich, we had what we needed: we never had to buy firewood, we always had a freezer full of farm-slaughtered meat wrapped in white butcher paper, and around Christmas Daddy would at times go to the door at night and return with bottles tightly wrapped in paper sacks.
In Septembers, when it was still hot and dry, Daddy would drive my sister, brother and me to the Ellard community where an old man and his wife lived on a small farm. Across the road from their house the slope of a hill was covered with yellowing vines bearing winter squashes. We’d gather all we could carry, which really wasn’t much, while Daddy sat on the porch with them and talked. Once after we left, I asked him why he didn’t pay the man. “Son, they wouldn’t take my money,” he said. “Years back, their boy got into trouble, a lot of trouble. I did everything I could to keep him out of prison. But I couldn’t, and they understood. I never asked them for a penny. I knew they didn’t have it. But he’d feel bad if I didn’t come out and get some of these squash every year. It’s his gift, and you don’t turn down gifts from a man who doesn’t have much to give. It means more to me–and him–than anything anybody else would give me.
The squash were acorns and yellow Hubbards. Some were peeled, cubed and parboiled for a casserole or pie. Others were split, seeded, usually scored, brushed with melted butter mixed with orange juice, sprinkled with brown sugar, and baked in a hot oven until soft and slightly browned. Once on the table, we’d scoop out the flesh with a spoon, put it on our plates and mash it with a fork. While the more durable sweet potatoes were on our table throughout the year, winter squash are seasonal. When I see them in the store, I know winter is coming, and my mind goes back to a that dry autumn hillside at an old failing farm in north Mississippi.