White Lilacs - Carolyn Meyer

'Back then ~~ and this was in 1921 ~~ Freedom, as we called it, was our part of Dillon. There was everything you could want in a town -- our colored school and two churches and a grocery store and cafe... It just happened that Freedom was right in the middle of Dillon, white people on every side of us.' When Dillon's white residents announce plans to raze Freedomtown, relocate its residents and build in its place a park, things change. Young Rose Lee Jefferson finds herself at the heart of the debate about how to respond. Can the families of Freedomtown fight the city's plans? Must they leave their homes and neighbors?

~ From back cover




Though the white residents of Dillon, Texas look down upon the more impoverished black community of Freedomtown, young Rose Lee Jefferson finds she's had a pretty content life for the most part, thank you very much. Freedomtown was built during the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era. It sits on a flood plain so the walkways might get a bit messy now and then, but as Rose points out, the community has pretty much everything a person could want: a school, church, general store & cafe, boarding house, mortuary, even a Masonic Lodge. Her father runs Freedom's barbershop, while Rose and all the rest of her family (on her mother's side, that is) are employed within various positions at the estate of the wealthy & white Thomas and Eunice Bell.  


Everything changes for Rose and the community of Freedom one night in 1921. Though she normally helps her grandfather in the Bell's garden, Rose is called into the dining room to cover for her pregnant cousin Cora, who suddenly takes ill that night. Eunice Bell is having a dinner party with some of her gal pals and there's some pretty comedic scenes at this point in the story as Rose tries her best to navigate new terrain among the fine serving dishes and the whole "be seen but not heard" requirement. She gets flustered at the process of when to bring out what dish, but her aunt just shrugs and replies, "White folks use a lot of dishes. You get used to it." 


But the air in the room changes once Rose overhears the ladies talking about the plan to raze Freedomtown to the ground and put a community park in its place. Thomas Bell holds a position on Dillon City Council, so he would be in the know, but this is the first anyone from Freedom has heard of these plans! When one of Eunice's friends, Emily Firth visiting from Philadelphia, pipes up to voice her opposition to this news, Eunice responds with the unbelievably demeaning comment, "Our negroes here are childlike." She continues on to say they should be positively delighted to have something new and shiny in their lives, giving the impression that Eunice has no concept of the idea of attachment to community. That sense of "it might be rough around the edges, but it's mine!"


Rose carries the news home to the other residents of Freedomtown. She's then reluctantly thrust into the center of the drama once it's decided that she will continue to cover for her cousin, Cora, as maid / dining room staff. Rose's father explains that this will put her in the perfect position to spy and gather more and more information as the project progresses, hopefully giving the residents of Freedomtown an idea of how to fight back. Rose's older brother Henry also gets caught up in the fight, professing that as a World War 1 veteran, he's fought for this country and deserves better than this kind of treatment. He goes so far as to promise that if Freedomtown is destroyed, he will give up this country altogether and move to Africa. While some residents echo his sentiments, others feel it would be useless to fight, that the wealthy, white residents of Dillon just have too much power and will inevitably get whatever they want. 


Those that are hesitant to fight admit that they'd likely be willing to move if given fair dollar for their properties within Freedomtown. But further doubts arise on this front when rumors begin that the spot the mayor of Dillon is looking at for relocation seems to be The Flats, a swampy, marsh-like area of town that no one in their right mind would want to populate. 


Tensions hit a boiling point the night of the Juneteenth celebration. Henry is caught, tarred and feathered. There's a KKK march through the streets of Freedomtown, ending in a burning cross being left on the lawn of Freedom's church. Later on, when Emily Firth continues to stand up for the mistreatment of this community, she is essentially run out of town.


This book's recommended age says 10-14 years, but the reader is presented with some graphic scenarios -- aside from Henry's tar & feathering and the KKK marches, a school is also set on fire to send a message. So there is some disturbing imagery for young readers, but the message and the history behind this novel is very valid and important. Author Carolyn Meyer includes a note at the end explaining that while this story is fictional, as far as the characters and plot, it IS inspired by the very real history of Quakertown, a black community within the town of Denton, Texas (where Meyer herself previously resided) that suffered a similar fate as that of the fictional Freedomtown. Note though, once you read the history of Quakertown, you'll likely recognize quite a bit of the real history illustrated here and there throughout the story of Freedomtown and its residents! 


As far as the actual plot and its pacing, honestly this is not the most riveting read out there ... but Rose is a very sweet, honest character and slow though the story might seem, Meyer does pull you in enough to want to hear Rose's story and meet her family and neighbors in Freedomtown. The importance of this book is the history it exposes you to -- though ficitionally presented, it is based in truth you need to read. The past can be painful at times, but we can't be afraid to look it in the eye if we ever hope to improve our future.