Sweep Your Job Well
It’s just another Wednesday morning to the students in Heron Hall. As they rush to get ready for the day, absorbed in their thoughts, nobody pays much attention to the short black woman sitting on the lumpy, worn-out couch in the basement, but she doesn’t mind. She’s lost in thought, too, somewhere on Mulberry Street in Memphis, 1968.
Donna Kelly, 64, has been a housekeeper at Belmont for just a little more than a year, but she’s no stranger to messes. She’s had her share of personal battles, just like everybody else, but she’s also seen the country torn apart by a fight for equality that’s still talked about today.
Soon the students whose hallways she cleans will all be in class, and the English majors will study Martin Luther King Jr.’s soaring speeches. Journalism students will pitch stories about Nashville’s continued struggle to desegregate its schools. Political science majors will talk about the impact of the civil rights movement.
None has any idea the woman sitting on the couch, the one who dusts their stairwells and picks up their pencils, was there the day it all changed forever.
Kelly and her friends were eating at a restaurant just down the road from the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Dr. King, one of her heroes, was staying. They were preparing to march with him later that night in support of higher wages for sanitation workers.
They never had the chance.
“Somebody ran in and said he had been shot, and at the time, we didn’t know he was dead,” she said. “So we ran up there and got as close as we could, but everybody was just sobbing and crying. And then finally someone said that he had died, and it was just…”
She leaned into the worn-out couch in the Heron basement, closing her eyes as she remembered every detail. When she spoke again, her voice was slow and even. “I don’t know…I can’t explain it. You just went…down. You went cold…cold…numb. Like walking around in a daze, you don’t know where you’re going, what you’re doing.”
“We couldn’t talk. We just sat and looked at each other and shook our heads,” she said as she did the same, eyes still closed.
“It was something, and to be there close on it, it was just devastating.”
Kelly had moved to Memphis only a few years earlier with her first husband, William. Being away from her family in Ohio was difficult, but she was thankful to get out of her neighborhood in Cleveland, which had been taken over by gangs.
“After the riots and all of that, nobody was rebuilding and it was just terrible,” she said. “I never understood that concept, why you have to riot in the first place.”
Kelly had followed Dr. King’s philosophy of civil resistance ever since she had seen him speak in Cleveland, and she was excited to be more active in the civil rights movement when she moved to Memphis. “I was in all the marches and everything back then, to my mother’s dismay,” she said, laughing. “But, I mean, you try to do better; that was the whole thing.”
But things got much, much worse immediately after Dr. King’s death. The governor sent 4,000 Tennessee National Guardsmen to Memphis to control the violence. Liquor and firearms sales were banned throughout West Memphis, and the guardsmen enforced a curfew from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m.
“I never will forget, we were sitting outside and a tank was parked on the corner,” said Kelly. “We took some chairs and we went to sit out in the yard, and he goes, ‘You can’t sit in the yard; you have to go back in the house,’” she said. “It was hard, and it was scary.”
As the violence continued, Kelly heard stories of people breaking into the shops of local storeowners, both white and black. She didn’t understand why they would want to tear up their own neighborhood─or anything else, for that matter.
She believes the violence “really wasn’t about what happened, and that hurt so bad because half of them didn’t know what they were rioting for; they didn’t know. Break something. Steal something. They didn’t understand, ‘cause if they had understood, they couldn’t have done that.”
Eventually, the guardsmen left, the curfews lifted, and children once again played in the streets, but Kelly’s life was still far from any semblance of a routine. Her husband took a job as a truck driver in Nashville, and Kelly had a hard time adjusting to the new city.
“It was Hicktown, USA, nothing like it is now!” she said.
She welcomed the opportunity to leave the city and go on the road with William. The two traveled all over the country to places Kelly never thought she would see. “You’re gone for a week, sometimes two weeks at a time. At first, it was a lot of fun, but then I got tired of it. He never did,” she said.
They divorced shortly after, but Kelly stayed in Nashville and found a job at Harvey’s Department Store, a carnivalesque emporium where live monkeys played in cages at the bar and a huge carousel ran all day on the building’s top floor. “You had to see it,” said Kelly, laughing.
The management at Harvey’s had been famous for breaking barriers ever since they brought the first escalators to middle Tennessee.
They broke another when Kelly joined the team.
“I was the first black cashier they had hired,” she said proudly.
In 1960, protestors had staged a sit-in at the restaurant inside Harvey’s. The management desegregated its counters and apparently took the lesson to heart.
“My supervisor was great,” Kelly said. “I had some problems with customers more than the people I worked with.”
Kelly loved her new job, and she was eventually promoted to the supervisor of the children’s department at their new store in the 100 Oaks Mall.
Nashville finally felt like home. With the peak of the civil rights movement behind her, she was able to settle into a routine at last.
She soon fell in love with James Frierson, a man who delivered her vegetables on the weekend. “We got to talking, and he wanted to open up a store,” said Kelly. “He found the store he wanted, and he asked me would I work for him? Would I run it for him? And that’s exactly how it started.”
Together, Frierson and Kelly opened Frierson’s Market, “a mom and pop grocery store,” she said. They were married a year later.
The two of them ran the market on 16th Avenue for 12 years, but it never felt like work for Kelly.
“I was working, but I was working for myself,” she said. “I didn’t have to, but I did.”
Businesses and schools around Nashville were still struggling with desegregation, but Kelly and Frierson faced hardship on a much more personal level when Frierson got sick in 2002.
Kelly continued to manage the store and take care of her husband, but “everything just went downhill,” she said. For the next three years, she brought him to the hospital constantly, and doctors put Frierson on a ventilator 27 times, but he always managed to get off it.
“He was a very strong man,” she said fondly.
After Frierson died in July 2005, Kelly closed the market.
“All in all, I don’t regret any of it. He was a good man, and I didn’t mind taking care of him. We lost a lot during that time, but it’s all right. I survived.”
A year after her husband’s death, Kelly returned to work as a housekeeper, and though she loves her job, she already knows how she plans to spend her retirement. “I would just love to be able to go out and work in the yard and plant flowers. I grow roses. I used to have the prettiest roses,” she said. “I just like to watch them bloom and turn into whatever they’re going to be.”
Kelly will turn 65 in July, and she said she may retire then. “I just might.” She laughed. I’m tired.”
She has reason to be. She’s seen a lot.
But until then, there is still work to be done. And with every sweep of her broom, Kelly is still living up to Dr. King’s mission, 41 years after that unforgettable day on Mulberry Street.
As he said in his speech “Facing the Challenge of a New Age,” “If it falls to your lot to sweep streets in life, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures. Sweep streets like Beethoven composed music. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper, who swept his job well.’”
For now, the students only see Kelly as their housekeeper, but maybe someday they’ll stop long enough to ask her about her life.
Maybe someday they’ll discover the sweet woman sweeping the floor was part of a movement that swept the nation.