James Pettigrew was the bell ringer of St. Giles Episcopal Church for as long as anyone could remember. Longer, in fact. The oldest members of the congregation remembered him from early childhood.
Clinging to their parents’ hands, they had trooped through the narthex on Sunday morning, glanced to the side, and there he was in the shadows. He stood there silent, straight as a stick, hard to make out in his black suit and dark brown skin. They were afraid of him and curious. Was a bell ringer like anyone, or was he a special kind of person?
James rang the church bell in an alcove off the vestibule. A short, slight man, he pulled down the rope with all his might. Then he flew directly up, hoisted five feet in the air on the bell’s return swing.
“He looks like a monkey,” people said, though they never saw a monkey do any such thing. James’s antique manners and grave demeanor stifled ridicule. Nevertheless, the title of “sexton” seemed overly dignified for a black man.
The children grew up, married, and had children of their own. James stayed the same. On weekdays, dressed in work clothes, he tended the churchyard. He cut the grass, pulled weeds, raked leaves, gathered twigs brought down by a storm, and trimmed the privet hedge. As people passed, he touched his hat, a decayed fedora, and greeted them in a guttural voice. He never forgot a name, and he needed to be told only once the name of a new arrival. He also swept the church, cleaned and polished, and made minor repairs.
“That bell ringer is worth his weight in gold,” people said.
James was punctual and reliable. He missed a Sunday only once in his career, and then by no fault of his own. In the course of repairing the bell tower, workmen inserted wood blocks to immobilize the bell. Then they forgot to remove them. Alternately, the workmen were Baptists who wanted to play a prank, on account of their long-running feud with the Episcopalians, and they left the blocks on purpose. This incident happened, if it happened at all, before anyone in the congregation was born.
James never went on strike or took a vacation. The bell of St. Giles was part of daily life, ingrained in the town’s consciousness. It was hard to imagine how a day could start without it, like eggs without bacon or coffee without sugar. Yet for all its regularity, there was no doubt the bell was rung by hand.
“There’s something about the way he does it,” people said.
“You can tell from the sound whether it’s for a wedding, a funeral, a plain church service, or a day of public mourning.”
In her pamphlet titled “St. Giles Church: An Historical Account,” available in the narthex amid postcards, offering envelopes, prayer lists, and devotional literature, Ella Eulalia Finch mentions James Pettigrew, as she could hardly avoid. Exhaustive research led her to write this:
What with fires, floods, rodents, birds, and a skirmish with Union forces toward the end of the Civil War, an event commemorated as the Hapsburg Engagement, many valuable records were destroyed. A vestry report from 1876 mentions a “bell boy” named James. A list of church members arranged by family includes a “James” under Pettigrew, a white planter who did not have a son by that name. He may well have had a former slave in his household, however. James was probably born before 1863, the year Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
If Miss Finch is correct, at the time she wrote James was over a hundred years old and still performing his duties. Arithmetic suggests he was close to his sesquicentennial.
James himself was reluctant to talk. He said did not know how old he was. He pointed to the spot where the shack in which he was born had stood. He could recite the names of parents, grandparents, and ancestors more remote. But he did not know the years of their birth or death, and dates in general were outside his ken. His wife and one daughter had died long before. He was vague about descendants.
After the pamphlet appeared in print, James’s eyesight began to fail. The churchyard was no longer as tidy as it had been. Repairs and maintenance fell into arrears. One morning at eight o’clock, the bell tolled three strokes and stopped. At breakfast in the rectory, musing over the newspaper, Father Percy raised his head. What could have happened? He hurried to the narthex and discovered James on the floor of the alcove, collapsed in a heap, clutching the frayed and broken bell rope.
The rector took James in his arms. Shocked at how light the burden was, he carried him into the church office. No blood was shed, and nothing looked broken, yet James moaned piteously. Tears gleamed on his ebony cheeks. He apologized for what he felt was a gross misdeed that would get him fired. Percy tried to hush him. He deposited James in a leather armchair which swallowed up the wispy figure. Percy picked up the telephone. He called for an ambulance to take James to the hospital.
This word roused James to a paroxysm. Going to the hospital meant only one thing. They would put him out of his misery like a foundered mule.
Percy had long practice in interpreting James’s statements, terse as an oracle. James predated the rector, of course, and quite a few others. Their portraits hung in a corridor, and James could identify each by name. He had known these worthies in their black gowns and billowing white sleeves. He had the advantage of Percy there.
Knowing that words would not calm the old man, Percy patted James on the shoulder and watched through a leaded casement, with its diamond panes of rose-tinted glass.
The ambulance crew wore white uniforms. They were efficient, antiseptic, and young, all of which fed James’s anxiety. Percy held his hand while they examined him. They strapped him on a stretcher and carried him down the church steps, as the rector walked beside. They were about to insert him into the back of the vehicle, when James tightened his grip on the rector’s hand. Percy pried loose the gnarled black fingers, then nodded to the ambulance crew. He breathed a short prayer as they drove away, top light flashing, no siren.
James caused a sensation at the hospital. His injuries amounted to little more than bruising. Nothing internal showed on an X-ray. But the patient’s age made his case unique. Nurses, resident physicians, and department heads came to his room, glanced at his chart, and gazed in wonder. Propped in the immaculate bed, James spoke to no one. A handful of more or less distant relatives whispered among themselves.
Hoping to interview a gunshot victim, a reporter for the newspaper hung around the hospital. He got wind of James and pestered the relatives. As though carved from diorite, James refused to acknowledge the reporter at the foot of his bed. On a pastoral visit, Percy contributed what he knew. Ella Eulalia Finch’s historical leap of faith was duly repeated and gained credibility. The reporter wrote a squib, and the Vindicator ran it on page four under the headline: “Bell Ringer Reaches the End of His Rope.”
On Percy’s recommendation, the vestry of St. Giles appointed Fred Huckle as “interim sexton.” The senior warden, John Shakewell proposed that they substitute an electronic recording of a bell for the real thing. No one took up his motion one way or the other. He volunteered to study the possibility and won tacit assent. They agreed that James Pettigrew’s retirement was both well-earned and long overdue, and they voted a small pension.
“What is his address?” asked Mrs. Sadie Thompson, the church secretary.
No one knew where the bell ringer lived. On a hunch, Percy led a search through the building. In the basement, behind the furnace, they found a room with a window, a wall-hung sink, a cot, and a side chair. It was warm and cozy, the vestry agreed, and neat as a pin. Traces of occupation included a black suit for a man or a boy, an antique radio, and a box of cornflakes. A farm supply calendar was pinned to the wall. The year on the calendar was 1934.
During two days of observation, James hardly stirred, as though he feared attracting more attention. The hospital released him to the care of a great-granddaughter, or so she believed herself to be. Leah Henderson installed him in the bedroom of one of her grown children. She had little to do with James before his fall. Now she was proud to fulfill a sacred obligation.
Soon after he arrived, James startled Mrs. Henderson by speaking.
“Go fetch Mr. Lionel Small.”
“Mr. Lionel Small. He owns the café on Main Street. A black man, short like me.”
Mrs. Henderson did his bidding. Later that day, Lionel Small entered the room. James asked him to sit by the bed, and he did.
“Why did you send for me?”
“No time for chit chat, young man. I’m almost dead, just catching my breath. I saw you in the church with a pretty young lady at the Christmas concert, and I learned your name. All my life I kept quiet. Now I want to talk, and I pick you. You’re not from around here, are you?”
“No, sir. From up north.”
“Good. That’s what I want to hear. You have a daddy?”
“He left when I was young, so no, I guess I don’t.”
“Right answer again. Now look here, Mr. Lionel Small, you and I are lightweights. We’re feisty and quick. We get in where a big man can’t, land a punch, and get out. I never had a son that lived past the first year, just one daughter. You be that son.”
“If you say so, sir.”
“I do say so. You going to marry that lady? What’s her name?”
“I had a wife. Cleo was a fine woman. She died too young. Never find another like my Cleo. Never even tried. You go ahead and marry that Daphne. She’ll do for a while, maybe a lifetime, and then what? You’re like me, Mr. Lionel Small, going to outlive them all. I get old, I shrivel up, and I act like nothing touches me, but all the time I remember.”
“What do you remember?”
“How it really was, how we survived. When we starved, and when we had food. The hate all around us, and the love between us. White folks know nothing. They live in their white world, all fancy ideas and good intentions. When they’re not out to get us.”
“What about Percy? Hasn’t he been good to you?”
“Like a man to his hunting dog. Percy’s better than most. But if you count on Percy as a friend, Mr. Lionel Small, watch your step. With his head in the clouds, he won’t see you here on earth.”
“How much can you see?”
“With my eyes, not much. I know plenty.”
“Is that story true that you were born a slave?”
“That’s my business. I was no kin to Pettigrew. They stuck that on me, and I couldn’t shake it. I tried to change my name to Freeman. The clerk at the courthouse refused. I said it was the truth. He said the truth was what was written.”
A week after his fall, James took a turn for the worse. He announced that he was going to die for sure this time. Mrs. Henderson sent for Father Percy.
As Percy walked into the bedroom, he cleared his throat by way of a signal. James sat bolt upright in bed. His eyes were open, but he seemed not to see the rector or anything else. He opened his mouth, but all that emerged was a hoarse gurgle. Percy sat on the bed and took James’s hand, which fastened on his with fierce determination. The rector talked at random—of the weather, incidents at St. Giles over the years, James’s notoriety, the honeysuckle that threatened to engulf the churchyard fence. He offered encouragement, words of comfort, the same he used at any deathbed.
James underwent an internal struggle. He sat up like a board and stared straight ahead. He trembled, gasped, and emitted strange sounds.
“Try to relax,” Percy said. “You don’t have to talk. When I ask a question, nod yes or no.”
“Should I call the doctor?” Mrs. Henderson asked.
Percy shook his head.
After half an hour, the crisis approached. Percy gestured for Mrs. Henderson to come closer. James was wracked by a final spasm, then all was still.
The rector quashed any hint of opposition to a funeral.
“The congregation of St. Giles may lack minority representation, but it was unquestionably the spiritual home of James Pettigrew. Indeed, his actual home.”
Fred Huckle rang the bell, now equipped with a nylon rope, for his late predecessor. The turnout in the pews, though sparse, was racially mixed and musically strong. Lionel Small attended with his fiancée, a young black woman, the model and actress Daphne Montage. Father Percy conducted the service according to the Book of Common Prayer, and he gave a eulogy.
“James was a constant presence in our lives,” he said. “We took him for granted.”
Burial followed immediately, in the churchyard which James had tended for more years than anyone could count.
Weeks later, a stone was erected at the grave. Lionel Small paid for it. The stone bore the name James Pettigrew, his date of death, and a bell carved in relief. Under the bell was carved the phrase: “Let Freedom Ring.” According to Mrs. Henderson, this was James’s choice.
Photo by David Hawgood, Sydenham, Oxfordshire, 2005, from Wikimedia Commons
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