by Tim Gilmore, 8/27/2023
In robes embroidered with scriptures, the prophetess walked the streets of the Eastside and New Springfield and Phoenix and LaVilla and Oakland and Campbell’s Addition, healing with the spirit those she encountered in need. Sometimes the prophetess wore a robe she’d inscribed with the Ted Commandments.
“And the prayer of faith,” said The Book of James, “shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up! And if he hath committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.”
Even those who had tormented Wilhelmina Kaiser most demonically, even those evil men she strove to forgive. For Christ had said on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” These men, though, these evil Klansmen knew.
For they had terrorized her, and they had ransacked her small house, and they had stolen her furniture, those men who wore robes as she wore robes, but white robes, and they too used the Cross of Christs’s Crucifixion, and they set it alight with hellfire, just as they’d burned her meager furnishings: the threadbare mattresses and chairs, the small kitchen table.
And she, 72 years old, counted it a miracle, though she’d never learned to read, schooled by fasting in the Georgia woods where she was born, that when she opened the Book of God, the words spoke. Sometimes they spoke to her through the eye. Sometimes she held her ear to the linen fibers of thin scritta paper and read the words through the ear. It was the only book that talked to her so she listened.
She listened and she embroidered her skirts and robes with the words that read themselves to her that she could not otherwise read and she walked all the streets of the darker skinned of this city. If her house were mostly empty, if she had so many times eaten and slept on the floor, the whole city became her house and she furnished it with the words of the Lord.
And who now would know Wilhelmina Kaiser, this Black woman with the strange German name, had ever entered these dozens of small churches, the size of the woodframe houses tight on either side, that dot the landscape of all these neighborhoods that slide one into another and comprise whole world histories within and between them if it weren’t for Pearl Randolph and Zora Neale Hurston?
Pearl and Zora, two Black women headquartered at the Clara White Mission in the midst of dense, segregated and largely Black LaVilla at the heart of Jacksonville, worked together for the Federal Writers’ Project, part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, a program that not only employed writers and artists in the midst of the Great Depression, but appointed them to the important cultural work of documenting and recording the folklore, arts and customs of poor populations both rural and urban and the formerly enslaved.
Hurston, unremembered at the time of her death in 1960, was one of the great Black writers of the early 20th century. Hurston was complicated. Her 1942 autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road casts aspersions on early Civil Rights activists. Her 1935 Mules and Men and ’38 Tell My Horse chronicle her folkloric expeditions, including zombie accounts.
Her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God portrays the life of Black citizens of Hurston’s hometown, Eatonville, one of the few places where Black people could run their own lives and govern their own community in the United States. Moving to Jacksonville, as a teenager, she later wrote, “made me know that I was a little colored girl.”
Pearl Randolph and Zora Neale Hurston wrote about Mollie Peartree and Wilhelmina Kaiser, two Black women each considered by herself and others a prophetess, each of whom wore robes, who knew the streets of Jacksonville like that earlier dark-skinned man, Jesus Christ, knew the streets of Nazareth. Peartree and Kaiser, in the slightest of details, populate the “Interesting Characters” of Randolph’s and Hurston’s 26 page 1936 booklet Negro Folk Customs and Folk Lore.
Both Peartree and Kaiser were born somewhere in Georgia, exact whereabouts unknown, exact date unknown. The sole Jacksonville census record naming Kaiser says she was born “about 1864.”
No photos and few records of Kaiser exist, though Peartree had her portrait taken by E.L. Weems, a Black photographer with a studio on Beaver Street in LaVilla who chronicled Black life in Jacksonville from 1929 to 1979. Though Weems photographed community events, his studio portraits, such as the one of Peartree, usually indicated status.
The year on Kaiser’s death record is 1936, the same year as Randolph and Hurston’s manuscript. The place is Walton, Florida, 300 miles straight west. The dearth of information seeds myths. As Enoch, of the fifth chapter of Genesis, who lived 65 years before he begat Methuselah, who lived 969 years, walked with God for 300 years and sired other sons and daughters, and when he was 365 years old, he died not, just was not, “for God took him,” already Wilhelmina Kaiser had experienced death enough.