Chicken-Wire Fence

Chicken-Wire Fence

It was just a chicken-wire fence
plain and simple
But it might as well have been a castle fortress.

Five-year-old Margaret could see right the through that fence --
see them playing with each other, see them
with their mommies and daddies,
laughing and running and calling out to each other,
close enough she could almost reach out and touch them.
She wanted to play with those children.
It meant nothing to her that
she was white and they were black.
But it was unthinkable to the townspeople
in those Depression days.
Unthinkable.

The little town of May’s Lick, Kentucky
was 12 miles south of the Ohio River —
the “ticket-to-freedom” river, that, once crossed,
turned a slave into a free man.
May’s Lick sprang up near Blue Licks, salt lick of the dinosaurs,
where the museum boasted real prehistoric bones;
where Daniel Boone was captured by Indians.
The lick had long ago dried up
and so, it seemed, had the hearts of the townsfolk,
350, mostly tobacco farmers, eking their way 
through the Great Depression in 1936.

Margaret — the only child at her end of the street — 
lived in the preacher’s house beyond the alley
by the church — her daddy’s church,
Disciples of Christ.
She could see these children of a different color
playing on the other side of the fence,
speaking a language she couldn’t understand.
She longed to understand, longed to make friends,
longed to climb over that fence,
but the townspeople wouldn’t have it.
Folk from her church, these “disciples of Christ”
watched her like a hawk.
No lines would be crossed.
Ever.
It was forbidden.

It was just a chicken-wire fence
plain and simple
But it might as well have been a prison wall.

Kentucky was a split state.
A single road crossed through May’s Lick.
Children from all over were bussed 
to the north end of town 
which housed the “good school.”
It was once a station for the underground railroad,
but not now, not any more.
At the south end of town lived the black community.
Beyond the south side, outside of the town itself,
stood the other school, rickety, ramshackle;
the school for black children.
The first time Margaret saw it,
she couldn’t stop staring in disbelief.

Margaret’s parents had a split marriage.
Dorothy Davis — Mama — a Yankee from Wisconsin,
taught high-school science.
George Darsie — Daddy — a Rebel from Kentucky, 
became the town preacher.
They met in seminary, sitting next to each other:
Darsie, Davis. 
South, North.  
Two sides of the fence.
And as Margaret herself told me,
in 1936 in the town of May’s Lick,
no fence could be crossed.
Ever.

It was just a chicken-wire fence
plain and simple
But it might as well have been a prison wall.

Cathy Dana is one of Alameda’s poets laureate. She added, “This poem celebrates Black History Month. A true story from my mom’s life, it took me three years to write.”