Whatever Happened to Mourning Free? Excerpt – 1967

“Hello, is this the Connor residence?” The voice sounded young, male, and terribly unsure of itself.

“Yes, it is,” she said impatiently, expecting either a sales pitch or a prank caller asking if her refrigerator was running and then telling her she’d better go catch it.

“May I please speak with Miss Charlene Connor?”

“This is Charlene.” She sat down on the bed.

“I just want to tell you . . . You should know . . .”

“Yes? Who is this?”

“Thing is, I think maybe this lawyer might a been to see you.”

“You mean Mr. Billy Bates?” She scooted back on the bed and sat cross-legged, the phone in her lap.

“That be him,” he said. His command of grammar seemed to suffer as his voice gained confidence. “I don’t know what he gone and told you, but he got no business comin’ to see you.”

“Are you his client?” Charlene asked eagerly. “The one who has Olivia’s journals?”

“I got some books what was written by someone name of Olivia, but I ain’t no client of no lawyer.”

“I am so glad you called. I told Mr. Bates I’d really like to meet you, but he wouldn’t even tell me your name.” She pulled the pillows from under the bedspread, placed them against the headboard, and made herself comfortable.

“Oh. Sorry. I’m Charlie.”

“Can I ask, Charlie what?”

“Freeman.”

Charlene sucked in a breath. “Do you think your parents or grandparents might have changed it from ‘Free’?”

“Don’t know nothin’ ’bout that.”

“Do you know why Mr. Bates came to see me?”

“Sure do. Tryin’ to suck some money out a you. Pretendin’ I sent him.”

“But you didn’t?”

“No way. I ain’t no cheat.”

“Did he tell you that he thinks those books of Olivia’s may prove that you and I are related?”

“You the lady what came to our Sunday school, talkin’ ’bout this Olivia person, ain’t you? One with a whole mess a blonde hair?”

“Yes, that’s right,” Charlene said brightly.

“Ain’t nobody in my family look like you.”

She smiled, astonished to find herself at ease, enjoying this conversation. “No, I wouldn’t think so, I’m about as white as they come. But if we are family, it’s a very distant relation. You would be descended from that Olivia lady and a colored man named Mourning Free. And Olivia’s brother Tobey was my great-great-great grandfather.”

Charlie laughed. “You call that family? Might as well say we be related through Adam and Eve.”

“I suppose,” Charlene said. “But if we do share the same great-great-great-great grandfather, that is a connection. A distant one, but a connection. I have one of Olivia’s books too. I’ve read it so many times, I feel like I know her and Mourning.”

“Okay, that be cool. So anyway, I’m just sayin’, you don’t got to worry none ’bout that Mr. Bates sayin’ he gonna drag you into court ’less you give him some money for me. I don’t take no money ain’t mine.”

“Well, thank you Charlie. It was good of you to call and tell me that.”

“Okay. Goodbye.”

“No. Wait, wait, wait.” She sat up straight, clutching the phone. “Don’t hang up. Please. I would really like to meet you. Do you mind if I ask how old you are?”

“Fifteen.”

“Well, if your mom and dad agree I’d like to come see you. And them. Wherever and whenever you want. I could take you out for lunch or dinner or we could just sit in a park somewhere. Do you live in Detroit?”

He paused for a long moment. “Yeah, on Griswold. You know where that at?” His voice had gone back to hesitant, a shy little boy.

“No. I know my way to Woodward Avenue and that’s about it. But I have a map.”

“It be easy to find from Woodward. When you goin’ away from the river on Woodward you turn left on State and then right on Griswold. They’s this triangle on your left. They call it a park, but it ain’t much a one. I can wait for you there. When you wanna come?” He spoke even more softly.

“Don’t you have to ask your parents first?”

“No. I know they ain’t gonna mind me talkin’ to you, but they can’t meet up with no one.”

“But you will ask them? I don’t want to get busted for kidnapping.”

“Yeah, I aks for permission.”

“Good. Then when do you think you might like me to come?” she asked.

“Tomorrow?” His voice was so small, she could feel him cringing.

“Okay. How about ten o’clock?”

“Okay with me.”

“Should I come to your home?”

“Nah, we can meet by that dinky park. I wait for you on the corner, right where you turn onto Griswold.”

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