by Mrs J
This week’s blog brings together two very different moving stories. While the lives of Richard (b.1932) and George (b.1939) are not connected, I find a common thread as I begin to write: salvation in the midst of destruction.
‘Little Richard’ Penniman was born and raised in Pleasant Hill, Macon, in a time of segregation. He sang gospel music in church from a young age but was “always changing the key upwards,” and even “screaming and hollering.” By the age of 14 Little Richard had landed his first paying gig and soon drifted from school towards itinerant musicanship.
At home he faced prejudice for his ambiguous sexuality, and fell out with his father who called him “half a son.”
In 1955 Little Richard was back on Fifth Ave. W. in Pleasant Hill, living with his widowed mother and making ends meet by washing dishes at the Greyhound Line. It was while he was living in the property below that his new record label released ‘Tutti Frutti.’
In 2010, the New York Times called “Tutti Frutti” “one of the detonating blasts of the ’50s rock ‘n’ roll explosion,”… and not just because it was a rock and roll original that inspired generations. It was sexually suggestive rock and roll, performed by a mascara-wearing, pompadour-sporting black man for a mixed-race audience, released at a time when segregation was still legal. shmoop.com
On Tuesday I navigate a ROAD CLOSED barrier to witness the old Penniman home being prised from the path of bulldozers.
I am one of a handful of witnesses. I’ve missed the television cameras and formal speaches and now just a couple of local residents watch from a low bridge spanning an open storm drain.
The salvaging of this humble home – and a dozen others that can withstand the move – comes at the behest of the automobile… again. Back in 1966 the arrival of the interstate cut Pleasant Hill in half. This black community was presumably judged to be ‘the path of least resistance’ during an era of flagrant inequality.
Sixty years on there has been positive collaboration to preserve the history of this commmunity in the face of essential road works: Little Richard’s relocated boyhood home will become a resource centre and there are plans for two new parks and 17 new homes.
On Wednesday I venture down a narrow lane known as Craft Street, the finishing point of yesterday’s dramatic ‘moving story’.
As I take my ‘After‘ photos, Russ immerges from the new site office. Russ is taking on this restoration job and I am invited to view the plans:
The home’s porch, roof and rear addition are all gone – removed to faciliate yesterday’s mile long journey. In its present condition it is hard to believe Russ’ guess that this house was still occupied as little four or five years ago.
The original floorplan was just two rooms sharing a central chimney stack, with a separate kitchen out back to reduce the heat and fire risk inherent with cooking. The house would have been approximately 800sqft when built, with later additions bringing a modicum of extra room to Richard and his 11 siblings!
Russ has already met his new neighbours – Mr Gibbons, and other key members of the community garden opposite the site. As we chat in the blazing sun a cooling mist of water drifts over from the water sprinkler system. Russ tells me he has donated some gardening tools and a pot of home-propagated amaryllis from his extensive collection.
I sense that Tuesday’s Herculean effort to salvage Little Richard’s home is part of the long overdue reprarations to the community of Pleasant Hill. I promise Russ I will return in a month’s time to see the progress he has made…
George was not born in Macon.
George Rishfeld was born in Warsaw, Poland, a few month before the outbreak of the Second World War. We hear George’s remarkable story of salvation in the midst of Nazi destruction on Monday, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Mr J, our children and I, are sitting in the Museum of Aviation at a table with a centre display of paper butterflies. George explains the significance of the butterfly: a few years ago Texas school children created 1.5 million butterflies to remember the lives of the 1.5 million Jewish children who perished under the Nazi regime.
George’s parents did a remarkable thing to save the life of their ony child. First they sought refuge in Lithuania. But in 1941 the Nazi arrived and established a ghetto and life soon became “horrific”. Then, from inside the ghetto, George’s parents made contact with a former employee, who agreed to take care of George until the end of the war. George, a small three year old, was wrapped in fur coats and thrown over a barbed wire fence to the employee’s daughter, 20 year old Halinka Fronckvics.
The Fronckvics, a Gentile family, risked certain death for sheltering a Jewish child, but they smothered George with love as if he was their own son. Despite several close shaves – including a Nazi poking a bayonnet through the bed he was hiding under – George escaped detection.
Miraculously, both of George’s parents survived too: his father escaped the ghetto and joined a resistance movement; his mother was able to sew, and avoided the extermination camps. Incredibly, after the war ended his parents arrived at the same railway station on the same day hoping to find their son alive, but fearing the other must have perished.
Only 9% of Poland’s 3 milion Jews survived the holocaust. The Rishfeld family’s neighbourhood in Warsaw was completely destroyed.
In 1949 George and his parents landed in America. In 1994 George decided he must start speaking about his experiences: “I was saved to do what I am doing right now,” he has said. “I am a witness to the fact that it did happen. As long as I can speak… I’m going to be in front of people telling the story.”
You can read more about George’s moving story here.
For more about Little Richard’s remarkable life I recommend this article in the Oxford American.
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