by Bonita Bennett
A riveting tale of two extraordinary families, Mafia revenge and a dark secret bond between two unlikely friends will captivate you until the end.
“Bonita Bennett has written a lavish, compelling novel filled with colorful characters. This book will get people talking. Great book club choice!” – Mary Mitchell, Syndicated Columnist, Chicago Sun-Times
The Coming Of Dawn is the powerful story of two families. One White-One Black, and how their lives become intertwined through mysterious fate when a handsome wealthy Italian businessman from New York is saved from drowning in Jamaica by a beautiful black lawyer from Atlanta, alone on vacation. Tony Mangetti is the head of the largest publishing empire in the world, with an aversion to black women, and Pepper Jefferson is a bold young attorney who enters his world uninvited. The Coming Of Dawn is an intriguing tale of cultural pride, murder, mafia revenge, and a dark bond between two unlikely friends. It is a unusual story filled with fascinating characters, which reveals how providence, irony and unforeseen circumstances connect the past to the future in the lives of two families. It depicts strong patriarchal influence, extraordinary racial bonds, and untold courage in the South way before the Civil Rights Movement. Read the entire first chapter below.
The cot was hard, but the blanket was warm as Tom Jefferson stretched his long legs beneath the unfinished wool. As his eyes grew accustomed to the dark, he began to wonder if joining the Navy had been the right decision for the proud grandson of a runaway slave.
His hatred for the South and the inescapable ostracism attached to his skin, had forced him to leave home in search of his worth, which he was certain could be found on the other side of the Mason-Dixon line.
As a boy, he dreamed of the North as an enticing alternative to the segregated South due to its storied distinction as a place where colored folks prospered and liberty prevailed. He imagined it as a separate and unstained land, unspoiled by the evils of slavery, where the color of a man’s skin held no consequence…but that vision was shattered abruptly upon his arrival on base. The sight of separate barracks was puzzling enough along with the segregated mess hall, but the incident on a city bus eight weeks later, left him enraged, disillusioned and mystified.
Jeff, as he was known back home, had just completed boot camp and was excited about being granted a 48-hour weekend furlough to explore the great city of Chicago. He heard the popular gambling game of Policy was run by colored gangsters with bodyguards, and the streets were filled with rich colored folks, who lived in big houses. Though he was somewhat rattled by the diminished image of the North he envisioned thus far, his stomach still twirled in anticipation, as he stood in line with the other recruits to board the bus into town.
He was anxious to see the fabled city for the first time and visit its legendary Southside. He’d heard a lot of stories about a place called Bronzeville, where it was said that pretty colored gals waited in long lines at fancy nightclubs to meet Negro sailors from the nearby base in Great Lakes.
When the bus arrived, he eagerly stepped forward and was the first to enter the big striped doors. He quickly took a window seat behind the driver, so he could be the first off the bus when it arrived at its destination. As he settled in his seat, he was shocked to see something he had never seen in the South…a holstered gun strapped to the bus driver’s side.
Why would he need a gun on a bus?…he thought. He wondered if some of the sailors might get drunk and rowdy on the way back to the base after a weekend of leave. Fueled with eagerness, Jeff tapped the driver on the shoulder to ask how long it would take to arrive in the city. The driver turned around slowly and leaned his bulging body forward in his seat. He stared menacingly into Jeff’s eyes. The scowl on his face had been fashioned over time.
“Boy,” he bellowed through broken discolored teeth. “What the hell wrong with you? Are you stupid or somethin’? Get back there in the back where you belong! Only white sailors sit upfront on the bus!”
Jeff was stunned. In the South, he was accustomed to sitting behind the invisible curtain that separated blacks from whites, but he never expected to experience the same humiliation up North. After all, he reasoned, he was in the Land of Lincoln, where white men had fought freely and died for the liberation of coloreds. It didn’t make sense to him that the “rules” in the North would be no different from the South.
His belly twisted in anger, as he got up and walked slowly to the back of the bus. He was glad only a few sailors had boarded and witnessed the forced indignity. He watched somberly, as the other black sailors walked instinctively to the back of the bus, as if commanded by some unseen authority.
As the bus rumbled noisily along the cobblestone streets, Jeff resented the contrasting sounds of the breezy laughter of the white sailors, and the subdued chuckles of the coloreds. Suddenly, the noise among the sailors grew faint, as a big, black sailor stood and ambled toward the front of the bus to get off. When a white sailor sitting in an aisle seat tripped the man, he fell to the floor.
The bus driver yelled out “Niggers must use the back door to get off the goddamn bus!”
The white sailors snickered and hooted loudly, while the black sailors stared straight ahead in an obsequious silence. The stillness in the back of the bus seemed to echo a collective resignation to the burden of black skin. The boisterous laughter of the white sailors became enveloped in a tense quiet when the black sailor began to rise slowly from the floor. All eyes were upon him, as he stood and loomed over the white sailor who tripped him.
Jeff prayed silently that the muted anger in the sailor’s eyes would explode in his fists, and he tensed his muscles in preparation to assist if others intervened. He flinched in disgust when he glanced around at the sullen blank faces of the colored sailors for some sign of unity, but there was none.
The white sailor stood and glared at the black sailor, daring him to retaliate, while three other sailors jumped to their feet and began chanting.
“Hit that nigger! Hit that nigger!”
Soon, the entire front section of the bus was shouting and Jeff could sit still no longer. With his heart thumping loudly against the blouse of his uniform, he stood and stepped boldly into the aisle to show support for his fellow seaman. Against the whispered warnings of the sailors seated behind him, he moved forward slowly with clenched fists, just as the black sailor shoved the white sailor back down in his seat.
Jeff froze in his spot when the driver stopped the bus abruptly. Rage flared in his eyes, as he watched the burly man rise from his seat and cautiously approach the black sailor from behind. He snatched off the sailor’s cap and struck him hard on the head with the butt of his gun. The black sailor crumpled to the floor oblivious to the cheering of the white sailors or the almost inaudible grumbling of the blacks. The bus driver shouted for quiet, as he ambled back to his seat. Over the blaring sound of the loudspeaker, he cautioned the black sailors again regarding the use of the front door.
“All colored servicemen must use the back door to exit the damn bus!”
He then drove the bus to the police station, and honked the horn in loud succession, as if it were a routine measure. Police poured eagerly out of the station in battle mode, and boarded the bus with wooden nightsticks in hand. As they dragged the unconscious sailor from the bus by his heels, a small crowd gathered to watch as he was tossed into the street like a bag of flour.
Jeff moved slowly back to his seat and sat gazing helplessly into space. His body trembled with anger, as the fumes from the bus poured through an open window. Controlled tears burned behind his eyes, as his mind recorded the scene for later replay in his dreams, where he was already haunted nightly by the vision of a white man’s face frozen in death. As the sounds of normalcy slowly replaced the air of tension left by the incident, Jeff recalled the restless night before, and his quest for sleep that never came.
The big wall clock ticked slowly, as Jeff stared blankly into the dark ceiling of the barracks. He listened keenly to the sleep sounds of the other recruits, which served as a serene backdrop to the memory of what happened the night he left Georgia for the safety of the North. He smiled to himself, as he recalled the unfathomable bond of friendship that had saved his life.
Out of what had become habit, he reached from under the blanket to rub the spot on his neck, which seemed to still sting from the burn of a rope. As the ships’ bells chimed harmoniously in the distance, he recalled once again that fateful night, which had settled into the depths of his tortured mind.
It was June 10, 1941, and Jeff had run out of gas on the edge of Death Ditch Road, a dark, dangerous stretch of highway in Augusta, Georgia, which was the only route to his girlfriend Cherry’s house. He contemplated the four miles he’d have to walk if he headed back home, and he was torn between fear and a pledge he’d made. He knew his six-year-old daughter Pepper would be standing in the door waiting for him and would go to bed crying if he didn’t get there to tuck her in. He had never broken a promise to her, and that night it was more important than ever. He had enlisted in the United States Navy and was leaving the next morning.
When his truck stopped, panic gripped him hard, as he sat frozen behind the cold steering wheel weighing the least risk of sitting alone in his truck until daybreak, or walking the unlit road to Cherry’s. He reached beneath his seat for his shotgun, but it wasn’t there. He moaned in despair, when he remembered he left it leaning against the wall of a neighbor’s barn. He knew too well that an unarmed black man caught out alone after dark on Death Ditch Road was a suicide request. This was due to the good ol’ boys who shouldered prized shotguns in search of “loose nigras” violating what they called, “the colored curfew.”
It was widely known that a number of colored men had disappeared on the road over the years, and their bodies were later found hanging under a nearby bridge. His neighbor, Mr. Hubbard Smith, was one of them. He was found hanged when he decided to walk home one night along Depot Row after his truck got a flat tire. His body was found the next morning by his two sons who went looking for him.
As Jeff watched the last sliver of light succumb to a dark blue sky, he didn’t know what to do, but he made the decision to do one thing he had never done before. He prayed for protection from a God he wasn’t sure existed. He thought about his Papa Yank and all the stories he heard growing up about the mythical voice that guided him through “all the dangers and snares” of his life, and he wished for something similar to help him out of this current predicament.
With raindrops softly pelting the windows of the truck, he convinced himself that a deadly encounter was unlikely due to the impending storm that rumbled in the distance. He decided to take his chances on the forbidden road. He would stoop walk alongside the dusty route in the tall grass barefoot, to avoid being seen or heard.
When he tried to get out of the truck, the rusty lock on the door jammed, forcing him to climb through the window to get out. He pushed his hunting knife into the hidden pocket of his sleeve and tied his shoes around his neck. His heart raced recklessly, and the knocking of his knees seemed to be in rhythm with the beats, as he stepped into the tall grass.
When the rain began to pour, he started running, with the cool night air snatching his breath in spurts. As he headed toward the familiar shack on Depot Row, he bent low as he ran. The lights of a passing car forced him to the ground, where he laid flat in the high wet grass until it was gone. After two pickup trucks rumbled by within minutes of each other, he decided to crawl on his belly for the rest of the way. His clothes were wet and muddied, as he shivered in the unfamiliar cold.
His body heaved in relief when he finally reached the small bridge leading to Cherry’s house. Trees and shrubbery surrounded him, as he stood to cross the old wooden planks. The damp air enveloped his body, as he surrendered helplessly to a sneeze he’d fought hard to suppress. Suddenly, he heard a low whistle behind him, and a shotgun barrel clicked in his left ear. He turned around slowly and gazed into the baleful eyes of the meanest white man in Richmond County…Lan Jessup.
“Nigga, whatcha doin’ out heah at night runnin’ with no shoes on? Whatcha don’ done?” Lan asked, with a big wad of tobacco stuck in his jaw. His words were slurred, and his breath reeked of sour whiskey mash.
“I ain’t done nuttin,” Jeff replied, speaking in a jargon he used only when he needed to appear subservient to white folks. His eyes bucked wide in fear.
“I jus’ ran outta gas up yonder, Mr. Lan. My truck’s down the road. I was jus’ trying to make it home by supper.”
Lan’s dark eyes held unbridled hate, as he moved his face closer to Jeff’s. He was big and muscular like Jeff, but taller. Straw and dirt covered jagged scratches on his face, as if he’d been in a recent fight. His long blonde hair was matted and squeezed under a ragged railroad cap.
“Whatcha really up to Nigga?” He snarled through gritted teeth. “You know betta than to be out on this road at night!”
He turned his head to spit, but changed his mind and spat the tobacco in Jeff’s face instead.
“You know you ain’t telling the truth! Everybody knows your pappy’s farm is back the other way down Piedmont Road. You out yo territory boy, and I think I’ll jus’ hang you as a lesson to other niggas runnin’ round out heah at night up to no good. Now, walk ‘head of me, foh I blow your brains out!”
Jeff’s lips twisted in fury, as he wiped the tobacco juice out of his eyes with the tail of his shirt. He willed his face to hide his disgust, as his mind whirled into motion. He knew he had to think fast. He wasn’t about to become a victim if he could help it. He knew Lan’s family was poorer than any family around and was always looking for handouts. He also knew Lan wouldn’t hesitate to shoot him.
He thought of the hard-earned twenty dollars in his pocket, and decided to try what his sister Texas called his “mojo charm.” He knew Lan was dumb and easy to trick, because of what he had done to him years before when they were boys.
They were ten years old when they found out they were the same age and through coincidence had been born on the same day. It was discovered at the annual picnic fair, given by the town’s richest resident, Jed Hollingsworth, in honor of his son Bo’s birthday.
Tolerance Day was the only time of year when black and white kids came from all over the county to play side-by-side and romp gregariously under the reluctant, yet subservient eyes of their parents, who toiled long hours at the Hollingsworth Mill. Huge crowds of white, black, rich and poor gathered each year at the Hollingsworth Estate to pay unified homage to the powerful Jedediah Hollingsworth, while he sat pompously on his wide veranda, greeting all those seeking favor.
Jeff and Lan were the first to line up for the watermelon-eating contest, where the grand prize was a new bicycle. Neither of them won, but later when Lan told one of the judges it was his birthday, the man gave him a silver dollar. When Jeff overheard what happened, he told the man it was his birthday too, but the man only gave him a quarter.
Jeff walked away sulking, but later came back with a plan. He decided to pretend he discovered something and wanted to confide in Lan. He showed him his coin, with a sour face, and pointed out that it was a rare one because it was minted in 1920. He explained that no bank would give $50.00 (which he claimed the coin was worth) to a colored boy, but he was willing to trade, because a dollar was still more than he had. Lan quickly bought Jeff’s reasoning, and with a triumphant grin agreed to the trade. Jeff ran home with the dollar in his pocket, giggling all the way.
Jeff’s mind was jolted back to the present when he heard Lan click the barrel of his rifle again, and he began to move faster. He prayed silently that Lan didn’t remember the incident of their youth. He decided to try his luck.
“Look here, Mistah Lan. I’ll give you this twenty dollars I just earned, and show you where I saw Mr. Jed Hollingsworth himself bury a big bag of money last week, if you lemme go!”
Lan pushed him toward the tall bushes alongside the bridge and grabbed a rope off the saddle of his horse.
“Nigga boy, do I look stupid or sumpin’? Hell, Mr. Hollingsworth would never stoop to bury no money in the dirt. He too high and mighty for that, and I ain’t ‘bout to let you trick me again. I remember what you did when we wuz boys, and if I had knowed where you lived then, I woulda come and got my dollar back! Now let’s put this rope ‘round your neck, and get off this road. I don’t want you to try and run ‘fore we git up in them trees. Now, git goin’ and when you get over yonder, git down on your knees and put your hands behind your back!”
Jeff’s heart pounded frantically, as he walked farther into the woods. When he reached a cluster of tall trees, he bent to the ground in silent obedience to the pointed shotgun. He fought back tears, as the heavy twine rope was pulled tight around his neck. His cousin’s fate of four years ago flashed before his eyes as he stared at the thick tree branches above his head.
His cousin was fourteen years old when five white men snatched him from his home in the middle of the night, after they claimed he winked at a white girl passing by on a school bus earlier that day.
Jeff shuddered at the memory of the body swaying slowly in the cold night air, and his uncle’s grieving screams. Lan’s voice again broke through his thoughts.
“Wait a minute! I almost forgot! Stand up boy and give me that $20.00 out yo pocket, foh we take another step further!”
Rising slowly from the ground, Jeff suddenly remembered the hunting knife in his sleeve. He pretended to reach into his pocket for the twenty-dollar bill, and pulled the knife down in a quick flash. He caught Lan by surprise when he reached suddenly under the barrel of the gun, and stabbed Lan first in the stomach, and then in the throat.
Lan fell to the ground, still clutching his shotgun. His gurgled cry was loud, as he landed face first in the red dirt. The rain stopped and Jeff’s clothes were covered in blood, as he knelt in the grimy mud. His body shook, as he struggled to catch his breath. He grabbed the shotgun with trembling hands and began to run toward the bridge. He stopped suddenly and looked around him. The dark woods were confusing, and for a moment, he lost his sense of direction. He felt disoriented, as he began slowly walking backward. He tripped over a large boulder and fell hard to the ground. His ankle twisted, as he tried to break the fall.
In the distance, he heard voices. His head throbbed with pain, as he struggled to rise. A sudden rustle of leaves nearby stopped him. Someone was watching. He could feel it. He listened closer for the sound of human movement, but heard nothing.
Suddenly, the clouds shifted, and the moonlight shimmered brightly through the trees behind him. He turned slightly and saw the shadow of a man standing some five yards away holding a pistol at his side. Jeff’s heart thumped wildly against the wall of his chest, as the man began walking silently toward him. He spun his body around on the ground and pointed the shotgun at the man’s head.
“Halt!” he shouted, as he panted for breath. “Drop your gun or I’ll shoot you where you stand!”
A familiar voice spoke softly out of the darkness.
“Now, Thomas, I’m sho you wouldn’t want a man to drop his brand-new pistol on this heah dirty ground, would ya boy? Especially, since I was watching you from across the bridge and wondering if I was going to have to shoot Ol’ Lan for you.”
Jeff breathed deep in euphoric relief. It was his best friend Bo Hollingsworth and Jeff almost broke into tears at the sight of him. He was panting so hard, he couldn’t talk.
“Boy, I must commend you on your wit, cuz you sho’ got yo’self outta that trouble quick,” Bo mused, as he walked over and kicked Lan’s body with his boot.
“Too bad we ain’t got time to bury Ol’ Lan…but it don’t matter. No one would ever suspect a colored man killed him. As much as he liked to fight, the sheriff will probably figure he finally lost one with some of those good ol’ boys from the hills.”
Jeff’s breathing slowed, as he struggled to speak.
“Man, how did you find me?” he asked, with a bewildered look
They were also the same age and had been friends since they were twelve years old. It was a popular puzzle the whole town whispered about, because Bo was white and the son of the richest man in the county, and Jeff was black, and the son of an illiterate farmer.
“Boy, I been looking for you, and I knew you’d be at Cherry’s tonight. However, when she said you hadn’t come yet, I began to worry since I know you too smart to be out on this road at night all by yo’self. I figured you had run into a snag.”
“Man, this wasn’t no snag!” Jeff replied, as he stared down at Lan’s dead body. “This was a near lynching!”
Bo chuckled. “Well, long as you know that I almost rescued you, I’m satisfied. And since we still got our heads, unlike Ol’ Lan here, we better git outta here, fo’ somebody else shows up.”
Jeff was overwhelmed to see his friend. Bo was strong and taller than most men his age, and Jeff drew from his strength, as Bo pulled him up from the ground.
Suddenly, the bushes behind Jeff’s right shoulder parted and a huge figure lumbered out of the woods toward them about forty feet away. Jeff didn’t turn or move a muscle, and Bo stopped breathing. Terror filled Bo’s eyes, when he recognized Lan’s brother, Chain, and the ever-present shotgun he carried at his side.
“Hey Bo, is that you?” he yelled, as he staggered closer to where Jeff had his back to him and Bo was facing him. Bo didn’t answer.
“You seen my brother, Lan?” he asked in a drunken slur, as he flashed a wide grin. “I was s’posed to meet him down the road a bit, but he ain’t showed up yet. I thought I’d come looking for him, but I can’t seem to find him.”
Bo fingered the trigger on his pistol, as he stood in mute silence afraid to move a muscle. Jeff was frozen in fear, as he stared questioningly into Bo’s eyes. Chain Jessup was bigger than both of them, and the best shot in the county-drunk or sober. Jeff was convinced that he and Bo were about to die.
Suddenly, Chain spotted his brother lying face down in the red dirt.
“What happened to my little brother?” he screamed, as he dropped down to his knees. Tears flooded his cheeks, as he lifted Lan by his neck and cradled his bloodied face in his big hands.
Jeff still held the knife in his hand, when Chain looked up into his eyes in stunned recognition. The look on his face was etched in death, when Bo fired a single bullet into the back of his head. Suddenly, they heard loud voices on the other side of the bridge, and Bo and Jeff bolted wildly into the darkness, running fast toward the Hollingsworth Estate.
The next morning before dawn, after exchanging a tearful good-bye with his little girl Pepper and her mother, Jeff headed for the bus bound for Great Lakes, Illinois, to Camp Robert Small Naval Base. He limped along carrying an old brown suitcase, with the twenty dollar bill still in his pocket and fifty dollars in coins from Bo’s piggy bank. He pondered the journey ahead and the deadly secret he and Bo now held between them, while his friend slept soundly in the biggest house in Augusta.
Tom was severely bothered as he stood looking out the window of the base mess hall. For the second time since joining the Navy three years before, his thoughts were again dominated by anxiety and fear. He had heard through the Navy’s unofficial pipeline that he might be among the group being transferred from the Great Lakes Naval Base to the Naval Ammunition Depot at Port Chicago in California. The base, located approximately 30 miles northeast of San Francisco, was often the topic of conversation among the sailors because it was considered the most dreaded post for a black sailor to be stationed. Most of the ammunition handlers assigned to the Depot were black and responsible for all the loading.
One of Tom’s fellow sailors had a cousin who was stationed there, and he wrote often about the horrendous working conditions and the blatant mistreatment of the black enlisted men. In his letters, he described the operation as almost “slave-like” in the carrying out of the duties assigned. The loading went on 24 hours a day with the men moving the ammunition hand-to-hand down a ramp from the boxcars to the ships which were right on the pier. It was also widely known that neither the white officers nor the enlisted men received any training in handling the ammunition. In addition, there was tremendous pressure to speed up the loading with threats of punishment, while the officers made bets on the quantity of ammunition their unit would load in an eight hour shift. The ammo included small caliber bullets, incendiary bombs, fragmentation bombs, depth charges, and bombs up to 2,000 pounds. It was said to be backbreaking, dangerous work and Tom wanted no part of it.
Unfortunately, to his dismay, on a foggy Sunday morning on the 16th day of July, Tom and forty five other black sailors shipped out headed to Port Chicago on a freight train with special made accommodations for military personnel. Tom was filled with trepidation as he boarded the train and scoured the railroad car for a window seat. Later, as he sat staring through the huge glass, he thought about his friend Bo, and how he had pleaded with him not to join the Navy. He could still hear his voice over the clanking of the railcar’s wheels on the iron tracks below.
“Man, you know you ain’t cut out to be a soldier. Soldiers have to take orders, regardless of how they feel about them. And you have a very small capacity to knuckle down under authority…military or otherwise!”
Tom chuckled to himself. Bo was always right. At first, it was hard to bear the sometimes brutal rigors of boot camp and the dictates of the higher ranking officers. However, eventually he learned to “knuckle down to authority” and embrace the strict discipline of military life. But he had no appetite for what he feared lay ahead at Port Chicago.
As the train pulled slowly out of the station, his mood switched to excitement as he anticipated the familiar blow of the train’s whistle. A sound that had often served as background din to his boyhood dreams of travel, as he stood in the fields of his daddy’s farm.
Though the car was crammed with sailors, no verbal language was being spoken. The dread of being re-assigned to the California Naval base hung in the air, as most slept, while others stared out their respective windows. Tom braced himself for the long ride. They were told the trip would take two days and they were scheduled to arrive in Port Chicago on July 18.
But it was not to be…The ammunitions base exploded causing a major tragedy that caused the sailors to be re-routed and re-assigned to another base on the West Coast far from the smoldering ruins. On the evening Of July 17, nine hours before they were scheduled to arrive at the base, an ammunition ship exploded while being loaded–killing 332 people. According to reports, The SS Quinault Victory and SS E.A. Bryan, two merchant ships, were being loaded at the time. The holds were being packed with 4,600 tons of explosives–bombs, depth charges and ammunition. Another 400 tons of explosives were nearby on rail cars. Approximately 320 workers were on or near the pier when at 10:18 p.m., a series of massive explosions over several seconds destroyed everything and everyone in the vicinity. The blasts were felt as far away as Nevada and the resulting damage extended as far as San Francisco. Every building on the Port Chicago base was damaged and people were literally knocked off their feet. Smoke and fire extended nearly two miles into the air. The pilot of a plane flying at 9,000 feet in the area claimed that metal chunks the size of a house flew past him from the explosion.
Reportedly, nearly two-thirds of those killed at Port Chicago were black. The surviving men in those units, who helped put out the fires and saw the horrors firsthand, were quickly reassigned to the munitions base. However, when less than a month later, they were ordered to load more munitions, but still having received no training, 258 sailors refused to carry out the orders. Two hundred and eight of them were then sentenced to bad conduct discharges and pay forfeiture. Later, the remaining 50 men were put on trial for general court martial. They were sentenced to between eight and 15 years of hard labor, though two years later, all were granted clemency.
The tragedy at Port Chicago and the fact that Tom narrowly escaped possible harm from a horrific occurrence left him wondering about the power of his sister’s fervent prayers for his safety, and their impact on his reality.