Leon's story For years, custodian Leon Tillage told Park School students his heart-rending story of growing up in the segregated South. Now, his tales have become an acclaimed children's story -- and a lesson in the vagaries of memory.

November 23, 1997|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Staff

The accidental author rests in the warmth of a crusty red Ford parked off Park Heights Avenue. The day is nameless and timeless. There is nowhere to go, nothing really to do. Then, old men in older folding chairs tell Leon he's got a visitor.

Susan Roth, a white, middle-aged artist from Guilford, is looking for Leon Walter Tillage, a black, 61-year-old custodian from Park Heights. They know each other. In fact, Roth knows Tillage's life story.

Using his "fancy" cane, Tillage takes baby steps toward Roth's white Toyota. "I'm going for a spin," Tillage tells a man named Ike. "You people are nice, but these people are nice, too."

One tricky part is over -- Leon Tillage has been found.

Roth and Tillage can now catch up on their project: "Leon's Story," a 101-page memoir based on Tillage's oral history of growing up in the segregated South. I remember that as a young boy I used to look in the mirror and I would curse my color, my blackness, the book says for openers.

For 30 years, Tillage has been a custodian at the Park School in Baltimore County. For the last several years, this son of a North Carolina sharecropper has spoken annually to Park's seventh-graders about Jim Crow and civil rights.

"They just knew what their moms and dads told them, or what the TV tells them," Tillage says. "The kids really didn't have it together."

Students left reminders on school bulletin boards: "Please, Leon, tell us that story again." Students told their moms and dads: You wouldn't believe Leon's childhood. Men in white hoods scaring him to death, having to attend separate schools, ride the back of the school bus. All because he was black, mom.

"It's amazing," Tillage says. "They didn't know about this stuff."

Alana Leah Roth was one of those seventh-graders who told her mom about Tillage. Susan Roth, author of 22 children's books, had to meet this man. "I was so fascinated by him," Roth says. If only others could hear his life story, she thought. What an education.

What an opportunity. Tillage handed Roth a tape of what became known as "Leon's address." Roth had the tape transcribed, then began searching for a publisher. Six years later, Tillage's words were set to paper. "Leon's Story," with collage art by Roth, quietly debuted at this fall's Baltimore Book Festival. Four thousand copies printed by a big-time New York publisher, $14 a pop.

Word of the little memoir has spread beyond Baltimore. Smithsonian magazine and Publishers Weekly have selected "Leon's Story" as a notable children's book for 1997. Reviews in the literary press have been gushing.

From Publishers Weekly: "In this riveting autobiography, Baltimore janitor Leon Walter Tillage reflects on his life with all the vitality of a storyteller gathering his audience around him."

And from Booklist: "There is no rhetoric, no commentary, just the facts. ... The boy saw his father chased by drunk white kids in a car and run over twice, and nothing done about the murder."

As he takes a spin in Roth's car, Tillage is congratulated on his acclaimed memoir. Thank you, he says.

"It's a true book."

True, that is, to one man's memory. And the true nature of memory, as Tennessee Williams said, is "dim and poetic." Not always a stickler for accuracy, memory remains faithful to its maker.

"Leon's Story" is a civics lesson. Truely, it is an education. Tillage's memoir is also a lesson in what happens when one man's truth is faced with facts. When one man's celebrated memory is questioned. There is, in fact, another side to "Leon's Story."

Gather around. Leon Tillage is telling his life story. His words in "Leon's Story" might sound flat, even unbelievable without remembering the way some things were in North Carolina in the first half of this century.

Fuquay-Varina, the small town where Tillage grew up, was known for its bright-leaf tobacco, its dark tobacco warehouses, a cotton buyer or two, and a serious population of Baptists and Methodists. The big city was 20 miles north in Raleigh.

Fuquay, an Indian word meaning "good will," opened its first elementary school for blacks in 1937 -- a year after Leon Walter Tillage was born. Leon and his father lived and worked in Fuquay with other Baptists and sharecroppers. Tillage, by definition, means "the working of the land."

We lived on a farm owned by Mr. Johnson, says "Leon's Story." My father was a sharecropper, which means he had to share half of everything he had with Mr. Johnson. ... once you got on a farm you could work a lifetime and never get out of debt.

Blacks and whites led separate lives in North Carolina: separate communities with separate schools, parks, libraries, prisons, cemeteries and water fountains. Even Bibles were marked "white" and "colored."

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