by Tim Gilmore, 4/16/2021
When Amy Roberts stopped by one Sunday afternoon to see who lived in the old house now and to say her great grandfather built it, Roxie Powell already knew his name. “Oh yeah,” she said. “You mean J.O. Bass?”
The two women got to talking. Both retired schoolteachers, they shared war stories. Amy’s great grandparents farmed across from the farm school eventually incorporated within Public School no. 21, Annie R. Morgan Elementary. Now they’re trying to decide where to get together for lunch, Silkie’s Chicken and Champagne Bar or Chowder Ted’s.
J.O. Bass was Joseph Orlando, who went by “Joseph,” while Amy’s great uncle, J.O. Jr., was Joe. Amy and Roxie speak quickly, interrupting their own thoughts with newly recurring memories. Roxie speaks of her blind Uncle Bill, who lived beside Edward Waters College and made a living by caning chairs. She has two of his original wicker chairs on the porch. Amy mentions the fighting cocks at the edge of Old Pickettville Cemetery sometime in the late 1970s, kept apart only by the cables attached to their feet. She’d noted remnants of a bonfire and keg party at the cemetery gates.
Sitting at Roxie’s dining room table, Amy slides an old black-and-white photo of her grandmother, Lura, about 12 years old, and a neighborhood boy named Charles Allison atop a horse named Old Black at the stables that once stood behind this house. Another photo shows her Aunt Juanita and her father, still a toddler, on a paint horse by the rear wall and window.
Roxie unfolds an oversized copy of the original neighborhood plat, showing Columbus Avenue running up against this old house on Detroit Street. While other documents refer to these addresses as Woodstock Park, the original plat book calls these streets “Bass’s Subdivision,” a name now lost to city history.
Other photos show a similar house around the corner, a house Amy first thought was this one. She was eager to show Roxie. Such a gift! And though this house turns out not to have been that one, you can still see the original farmland with its few modest but handsome houses spread across it.
She says, “My grandmother Lura—there were five Luras—grew up in this house,” meaning the one we’re in, “then married Calvin Roberts and moved around the corner to this house,” meaning the one in the photo. It’s the inscription on the back, in her mother’s handwriting, that causes the confusion. “Lura Roberts childhood home Woodstock Park Jax, Fl,” it says. That would seem to imply it’s this house, meaning the one we’re in.
This house, however, has a second floor, recessed from the first, a very different roofline, different porch columns, a different front door and different window placements. These photos show the house Lura moved to around the corner on St. Clare Street, the house that’s gone now, where a mammoth brick church called Joshua Christian Faith Center stands.
The past is like that. It won’t stay still like we think it will. Just as soon as we think we can frame it and hang it on the wall, it wobbles and blurs, crosses its eyes and sticks out its tongue, turns out to be something entirely different than what we supposed. Heroes become villains. One generation dies and the next one thinks differently. The old world was never really there. The past is only visible from the present and the present’s always gone already.
So into the big hole in the history of the house—from the 1960s through the ’90s, from when Great Grandfather Joseph’s second wife Pearl inherited the house and left it to Great Uncle Hughey to when Great Uncle Joe sued to seize the house from the rest of the family, then renovated and sold it—fit the stories a “Ms. Bunny” told Roxie about the house and why, Roxie believes, the ghost used to come down those stairs and peek into her bedroom at night.
The story would be less confusing if so many people weren’t named Lura or Joe. (The five Luras include three older Lura Estelles and two younger Lura Elizabeths.) “After my Great Grandmother Lura died,” Amy says, “my Great Grandfather Joseph married a much younger woman named Pearl. His son Joe didn’t like it, so he was sent to military school.” He also didn’t like his stepbrother Hughey. The boys never got along.
Amy never met Hughey and isn’t sure what he did with the house. She knew it had remained in the family, since in 1996, Joseph O. Bass, Jr. sued seven living people, the “unknown heirs” of several deceased people, including Hughey Bass and Juanita Bass, and any “unknown occupants” of the house, to be appointed receiver of the property and sell it to a man named Albert Hurlbert.
Hughey may have ended up with the house for a time, but before Great Uncle Joe died in 2002, he took it back, fixed it up, and sold it. All living family members received a check from the sale. Amy’s was for $89. She used it to pay her electric bill.
When Roxie bought the house from Albert Hurlbert in 2002, she hadn’t yet retired from teaching at Pickett Elementary School nearby on Old Kings Road. There she told “Ms. Bunny,” school secretary whose last name she can’t recall, about the beautiful historic house she’d bought.
That was the house, Ms. Bunny said, where the neighborhood held “funeral viewings” sometime in the 1960s or ’70s. It was the largest and the oldest and the most important house in the neighborhood. Even in the ’70s, much of the land where houses would soon be built stood vacant. “Bass’s Subdivision,” a name forgotten as soon as coined, was no longer a farming community, but hadn’t become urban. It had changed from white to mostly black, but the original family still owned the original house, the ur-house.
Beside the living room at the foot of the stairs, Roxie shows us the sitting room. Ms. Bunny said the casket always sat by that front window. Roxie suspects the viewings were the source of the tall white ghost who used to come downstairs and look into her bedroom late at night.
“I could see him so clearly,” Roxie says. “He was a very tall bearded white man.” She points up the stairs to the top floor of the house. “He’d come down quiet and real careful like. He’d lean over the stairwell and peep straight into my bedroom.” She didn’t know what he was looking for or what he was looking at. She didn’t know what he saw. “And I’d lay there with my heart pounding and I’d remember what my grandmother used to say, and she’d say, ‘When you’re afraid, just say Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,’ and that’s what I did.”
Finally Roxie told a friend about the tall bearded white man coming down her stairs at night and her friend told her just what to do. Whether ghosts are real or our own anthropomorphisms of the past, whether Ms. Bunny knew what she was talking about or not, Roxie’s friend’s advice did her good. She can’t help but stand up and act it out.
“She said, ‘Honey?’ And this is just like an old African American woman! She said, ‘Honey? All you got to do is say, Go back into the light.’ So that’s what I did. I prepared myself. He came down those stairs one more night and I told him, I said it, I said, ‘Go back into the light.’ I didn’t mean it disrespectful, but I meant it. And that was the last time I saw him. So I guess that’s what he did. And I’ve rested peaceful and happy in this house ever since.”