They enter the Hospitality Room at Riverside Community College tentatively, these big men wearing sweats and ballcaps that identify them as coaches and scouts -- UCLA, New Orleans Hornets, Antelope Valley College, and more -- and say to Alicestyne Tyson Smith and her sister Roberta Tyson McClinton, "Is that sweet potato pie?"
Alicestyne says firmly, "Did you eat your dinner yet? If you haven't eaten your dinner yet, you shouldn't be taking pie."
The UCLA coach takes a piece anyway, and then huddles behind me to finish it quickly -- because he can't resist. Alicestyne made it that morning, from a recipe given to her by her sister, who got it from their mother Isabella, who might have gotten it from her own mother, Joicie. And there is the lineage of these queens of higher education -- the Tyson family lineage -- in the hands of two sisters handing out full meals to about sixty coaches and referees and scouts attending the 40th Annual Holiday Classic at this college, where the head coach John Smith is Alicestyne's son, carrying on the legacy of teaching and changing the lives of young people.
There are six sisters in this story, and one brother, all educated in a one-room schoolhouse, ninety children and one teacher, and all of them went to college, and their kids went to college. In this family are Roberta's husband Charles, who was a CFO of NASA -- yes, space NASA -- Alicestyne's nephew Keith Jones, head trainer and operations manager of the Houston Rockets, and her cousin Leadell Lee and his son, both FBI agents.
This story, and the sweet potato pie, come from slavery, which Americans don't like to talk about any more. The Tyson sisters didn't hesitate to tell it. "Our grandmother, our father's mother, was a slave," Alicestyne said to me, sitting in the bleachers watching the game after feeding all those people. "Back in South Carolina. She was five years old when they were freed, and she had to walk to Mississippi. They had nowhere to go, and so they walked."
That woman's son, Ben Aaron, grew up in Mississippi, and went to Arkansas to sharecrop on the Coleman Plantation. Twelve miles down dirt roads from Osceola, Arkansas, about seventy miles from Memphis, Tennessee, the vast plantation grew cotton. There were about 250 sharecroppers living in tiny houses, and there was a long white woodframe building. Ben Aaron met Isabella there. And as her daughters tell me, "They had to build that school for our mother and her brothers and sisters. Her father came up to Arkansas from Sunflower, Mississippi. They wanted him to work at Coleman, and he said his kids had to go to school or he wouldn't work there."
There were 14 children in Isabella's family, and she was in the middle. When her mother died, Isabella was 13, and she carried her 3-year-old brother on her back to the old schoolhouse.
Isabella married Ben Aaron, and had six girls -- Charlene, Rosa Lee, Eddie Mae, Roberta, Alicestyne, and Bennie Mae -- and Ben Lewis Tyson. "She was Superwoman and Wonderwoman," Ben told me. "She upholstered furniture. She sewed drapes. She grew all our food and made all our clothes."
"You should have seen the zippers and buttonholes on our pants," Roberta added. She and Alicestyne laughed. "Our mother did everything."
Isabella ran the white wood-frame bungalow for the entire plantation community. "That building was full to capacity every single day," Alicestyne told me, while we packed sweet potato pies, cherry dump cake, and chocolate cake into her car the next day. "We had church on Sunday, school every weekday, and movie night every Saturday." She imitated the hand-cranked projector. "A man came with the movie, and my mother put up her own white bedsheet on the wall, and everyone came. She sold popcorn for 5 cents a bag."
On weekdays, there were the ninety or so students, and the one teacher. Roberta said, "Our parents set the standard for education where we lived -- my father would drive 18 miles to Blythesville to get a teacher when one left. When they couldn't make it back home on the weekend, they'd spend the night at our house."
"Then he built an addition onto our house for the teacher to live in all the time," Alicestyne added. The Tyson girls were the first on Coleman to graduate from the 8th grade -- but there were no high schools for black students in the 1950s. "A big yellow school bus would pass right by every day, headed to Osceola."
So Isabella and Ben Aaron had to send their girls away, with the popcorn money and all their savings. "My mother told my older sister she would wear a boot and a shoe so we could go to school," Alicestyne said. Roberta and Eddie Mae went to Holly Springs, Mississippi, to boarding schools, and Alicestyne went to Lucy, Tennessee, outside of Memphis. "My father drove me 70 miles, and I was only 13 years old when he left me there. I cried and cried -- I had never spent the night away from my mother and dad."
Her parents paid $16 a month, and she worked in the kitchens and grounds. There were 60 girls in the dorms, and Alicestyne went to summer school, as did most of the kids, because she had to return to Coleman for September and October to pick cotton.
But Ben Aaron died in 1956, when he was only 60. Isabella was 43. She and the girls couldn't survive sharecropping, and her son was still in school at 16. "I said I wasn't farming anymore," Ben Lewis told me. His sister Rosa Lee had joined the Air Force, serving as a WAF at March Air Base in Riverside, California, so Isabella headed out there, and eventually, the rest of the family followed.
Ben came in May 1957, he remembers. "I was 17, and I just graduated from high school. I was in the back of the bus, you know, because it was Arkansas. When we got to New Mexico, the driver turned around and told us, you can sit wherever you want now." Sitting in the bleachers, Roberta laughed and said, "Oh, we'd already refused to sit in the back of the bus before! You remember, Alicestyne?"
They'd gone from Osceola to Blythesville, after their father died, and they'd sat directly behind the driver. "He turned red, you know, and he said, You need to move back, and we told him, 'We'll be sitting here until the conclusion of our journey.'" They laughed again and she said, "He didn't know what to do. That was before Rosa Parks! And then we got to Blythesville, and our aunt who was picking us up saw where we'd been sitting, and she said, "Don't you know you could have been killed?"
Roberta came to Riverside with her husband Charles in 1957 as well. She added reflectively, "When we left Little Rock, we passed the troops on the highway. They were coming in, and we were going away." Those were the Federal troops coming to assist in the integration of Central High School.
Some things were not different in California then. Not yet. Charles had a degree in Business Administration from the University of Arkansas, but initially was only offered work as a sandblaster. Eventually, he was the first counter employee at the Downtown Riverside post office, where Ben Tyson later worked as well. Now, he is retired from NASA.
In 1957, Alicestyne was the first black employee in the Circulation Department at the Riverside Press-Enterprise. But not without a pointed and queenlike exchange which her mother would have applauded. Young white applicants passed her by and were immediately hired, but she was told she had to take a spelling test. "A hundred words," she said, smiling. "Perfect. Then the supervisor carried it around the office" -- she held her fingers up high, imitating his act -- and said, "look at this, where'd you learn to spell like this?'" Her voice turned icy-cool. "In elementary school," I said.
Her demeanor remained royal and professional. "After two weeks, one white man said he'd rather quit than work with a nigger. So the next week, the supervisor called him into the office, and he thought they were going to tell him they were letting me go -- they handed him his check."
We watched the game for awhile after that. Her son, John Smith, was born in Riverside in 1969. He played for North High in 1987, under Coach Mike Bartee, and then went to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, to play for Jerry Tarkanian, who'd become famous for coaching in this very place, the historic Wheelock Gym, built in 1915. Wheelock re-opened for this tournament after a two-year renovation. In the stands all around us were the loyal fans, like my ex-husband Dwayne, who played with many of these veteran ballers, and Dwight Tyler, who played for RCC, and John Bennett and Eddie Talbert Jr. We see the same faces every year, at the Holiday Classic.
Ben Tyson's son Anthony, known as Red, is one of John Smith's assistant coaches. During the second day of the tournament, he was in the Hospitality Room, where the feature was spaghetti and meatballs, salad and garlic bread, and more pie, along with Roberta's peach cobbler. Roberta lives in San Jose, where she works for a hunger project which fed 15,000 people last year, she told me. And for vacation, she comes to Riverside to feed hundreds of huge coaches and scouts.
"My aunts," Anthony Tyson said, holding his plate of food, getting ready for the game. "They told you some stories, right? About education and this family?"
His aunts were wearing necklaces paved with diamonds, in honor of Coach John Smith's 2009 State Championship team. He bought them for the "Team Cooks," but really they are like crown jewels. Watching the college players hustle down the court an hour later, Roberta and Alicestyne and Ben looking at both coaches standing poised, waiting for the ball to float through the basket, it's easy to think of Isabella and Ben Aaron Tyson, and their own parents, walking and surviving, carrying each other on their backs, driving a teacher, or a daughter, miles down a dirt road toward a desk.
Susan Straight's new novel "Between Heaven and Here" was published September 12 by McSweeney's Books. Her novel "Highwire Moon" is about a California-born daughter searching for her Mexican-born mother. Doug McCulloh's photographs have been exhibited across the U.S. and in Mexico, Europe, and China. His fourth book "Dream Street" chronicles the builders, workers, and homebuyers of a subdivision in Southern California. Read more of their stories here.
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