Death Letter Blues – A Sister Zee Story
By John Bolton
May 12, 1929 was the proudest day of Zee Woolfolk’s life. That day she was ordained a minister of God. The Reverend Booker Brown, Zee’s friend, mentor and former pastor, was there with a bouquet of flowers, a presentation bible and a proud, fatherly hug. Zee had dreamed of serving as assistant pastor under Booker, but that was not to be. Booker had been called to a bigger church in Nashville and Zee would remain and start her ministry at Soul’s Harbor Church of the Almighty God under the new head pastor, Cleo Simpson.
Zee was twenty one and had been on her own since she was sixteen. She was a little thing at five feet four and one hundred thirty pounds. And pretty too with a reddish cast to her skin like a glass of sweet tea. She had a heart shaped face, full natural hair and dark eyes full of age and kindness.
Through the kindness of a famous stranger, Memphis Minnie, Zee escaped a tyrant of
a stepfather in Chicago and made it to Memphis for a new start. Reverend Brown, a friend of Minnie’s, took Zee under his wing, found her a temporary place to stay and helped her find a job in the laundry at Mercy, the colored hospital. The reverend and got Zee into the church choir, looked out for her helped her and in many ways.
Soul’s Harbor and its people were poor, so Zee’s assistant pastor pay would be poor too. She would still work at the hospital three days a week as a nurse’s aide to help make ends meet. Zee also picked up extra money playing her mandolin and singing in Church Park.
The new pastor, Reverend Cleo Simpson, gave a stirring first sermon on hating sin, but loving the sinner. Cleo came on strong about rebuking sinners and not so strong on the loving and forgiving parts. The man could preach and he made a good first impression on the congregation. After the sermon and collection, Cleo, raised his hands and testified, “Praise Jesus, praise Jesus. Sister Zee Wollfolk, you are hereby called upon. Come and be recognized.”
Zee went to the lectern and Reverend Cleo put his arm around her and said, “I have the great, great privilege and honor to introduce a young woman you already know. One of Soul’s Harbors own, a God fearing woman. Our new assistant pastor, Sister Zee! Come on now peoples, welcome the sister.”
Zee was well liked by the church people. They gave her the warmest of welcomes with many a praise Jesus, amen and halleluyah. Reverend Cleo announced he was appointing Zee to be Sunday school superintendent and putting her in charge of ministering to the sick and elderly.
Zee was happy with those duties, but she but wanted to preach too. When no opportunity was given, she told Reverend Cleo what she wanted, He told her, “Not yet, Sister Zee. You settle in to your new jobs and I’ll settle into mine. Then we will see about you preaching.”
Zee accepted that, at least for the short run. Her first open conflict with Cleo came not long after he came to Soul’s Harbor. He called Zee into his office and had her sit while he stood over her wringing his hands and looking troubled. “Sister Zee,” he said. “It come to my attention you been playing worldly music, that blues music over to Robert Church Park. I knows how you loves music, Sister... But that secular music is devil music. It just aint right for a leader of the church to do that. It’s a shame on Soul’s Harbor and it must stop right now.”
Zee was quickly mad, but she could almost have laughed too. She had done a paper and speeches on just that topic when she was in bible college and she knew how to respond. “Reverend Cleo? Didn’t our Lord Jesus not go among the sinners? We know he did. In Matthew 9:13 He said, ‘For I have not come to call the righteous, but the sinners.’
“This is part of what I feel called to do. You know I could go down there and play church music and most folks would pass me by. But I play a blues or two - and I don’t play no dirty blues. Then I play some Gospel or some of the old hymns too. We talked about this at bible college. My teachers said playing down at the park is part of my ministry. And so did Reverend Brown.
The discussion continued, but Zee won the battle and kept on playing at Church park where the best colored musicians in Memphis would go to play. Zee could hold her own with any of them. But she would learn that when Cleo didn’t get his way, he found a way to get even.
Weeks and months passed and Zee’s ministry less than she had hoped and trained for. Cleo would not allow her the duties he would have given a male assistant pastor. Still, Zee thrived at ministering to the sick and elderly and under her leadership, Sunday school attendance steadily grew.
She tried to like Reverend Cleo, but it was a losing battle. Cleo was a showboat, a sneak and a womanizer. There was a quiet rumble of gossip after Ben and Juliette Johnson left the church. Ben and Juliette were having troubles and Cleo had been counseling them. He had Juliette in his office a few times without Ben and then Ben was saying that Cleo tried to get romantic with Juliette.
It was hush-hush and not openly discussed. If it would have come under discussion, it would have been Cleo’s word against Juliette’s. And you had to give the pastor the benefit of the doubt. More hints of the same behavior continued. Cleo was overly attentive to pretty women. If Cleo was on the make, he wouldn’t be the first preacher to be led by lust and not his bible. But Cleo had a quiet, submissive wife and three daughters and a baby son. That made matters worse.
Besides having a family to care for, Cleo had an expensive affection for fine clothes. It seemed he was always hounding people for more money. And that was wearing thin. He was a do as I say man, not a do as I do man. Zee supported Cleo but she was starting to see hints that the church elders were feeling the same way about him that she did.
One Sunday in April and not quite two years after coming to Soul’s Harbor, Cleo had a cold with a fever, a racking cough and almost no voice. He tried to preach anyway. When he couldn’t, Zee was called upon. It was her first opportunity to preach and she was ready with a sermon on God’s love. After services she stood outside the church door and shook hands with the exiting congregation. Their praise was generous and honest.
On a morning that May, Zee walked to Mercy Hospital carrying her mandolin in its anyway. The hospital staff was always glad to see her. She helped feed patients and would sit and talk with anyone who was lonely or in need of a preacher. And maybe best of all, Zee would sing and play for them.
Eighty year old, ninety pound Nettie Jenks opened her mouth like a weak little bird and Zee patiently filled it with small spoonfuls of oatmeal. Sister Zee dished out food for the body and food for the soul. She finished the feeding and removed Nettie’s bib and washed her face and hands. Nettie asked, “Swing Low, today?”
“Sure thing, Nettie. Zee left her mandolin in the case and sang the old spiritual.
I looked over Jordan and what did I see? A coming for to carry me home.
A band of angels coming for me. A comin’ for to carry me home.
Swing Low Sweet Chariot…..
Next, Zee went to the men’s ward. Five of the six beds were occupied. She had worked the day before and knew the patients, including Jimmy Patton, a post op patient. The surgeon had removed a mass the size of a potato from Jimmy’s stomach. There had been tentacles around the mass that made it look like a potato that had sprouted. That almost for sure meant a cancer and one that had spread.
Zee knew through the hospital grape vine that Jimmy was a pimp. Mags, his long time woman and whore and Lottie, another of his women brought Jimmy to Mercy. That morning Mags and Lottie sat with Jimmy. They were dressed like what they were rumored to be and smelled massively of tobacco and cheap perfume.
Zee greeted the ward, introduced herself and visited with the four other patients. When she talked with the patients every bit of her attention seemed to be on the one she was with. She played Camptown Races and The Old Rugged Cross.
She shyly approached Jimmy, Lottie and Mags and asked, “Anything I can do for you folks? Or play for you or talk to you about? I’m a minister.”
Mags said, “We heard about you and we seen you down to Church park. How’s such a little gal have such a big voice? You’s real good.”
Jimmy weakly patted the bed and said, “Sit down here, I won’t bite.”
Zee pulled over a chair and sat and put out a hand to hold Jimmy’s. She said, “I know that you are real sick. If you want to talk about Jesus and getting saved, we can do that. If you don’t, we won’t.”
Jimmy wouldn’t speak above a whisper, but he wanted to talk. Pretty soon he, Mags, Lottie and Zee all had tears in their eyes as Zee assured them a sinner like Jimmy could go to Heaven if he would only believe on Jesus. Zee played them one song, Jimmy’s request, Ma Rainey’s Lost Wandering Blues.
I'm leaving this morning with my clothes in my hand.
I won't stop to wandering till I find my man.
I'm sitting here wondering will a matchbox hold my clothes.
I've got the sun to beat and be farther down the road.
I went up on the mountain, turned my face to the sky.
I heard the wind say, said mama please don't die.
I turned around and looked into my right hand
Well I looked there to see if I was closer to my man.
Lord look a yonder people my love had been refused
That's the reason why mama's got the lost wandering blues.
A few months later Zee went into church after making visits at Mercy. Deborah, Cleo’s wife, saw her come in and warned her, “Oh Zee. Look out now, Cleo wants to see you and he’s all worked up. Two women came here looking for you. They just now left. Cleo says they’re prostitutes.”
Cleo was fuming. He pointed a finger too close to Zee’s face and self righteously rumbled, “Zee Wollfolk, two women just left here. They told me they know you and to use the kinder word, they’re prostitutes! Whores of Babylon! Right in my church! I told you playing in Church park was wrong, wrong, wrong.”
“I met those women doin’ my hospital visits. What did they want?”
“They want a funeral for their.. their man, their procurer. The man that sold their bodies to other men.”
“Then let’s do it,” said Zee.
Cleo slammed his desk with the bottom of fist. Almost spitting, he growled, “That man killed himself and he’ll go to hell. He was pimp and those were his whores. I am not doing that funeral and neither are you.”
Zee went down on Beale Street looking for Mags and Lottie. She was directed to a house where Mags sat on a porch swing. She said, “Sister Zee! I been praying you’d find me. Jimmy got to hurtin’ so bad and feelin’ bad about bein’ a burden. I came home this morning and this here death letter was on the table. Here, read it. Says Jimmy was goin’ jump off the Memphis & Arkansas Bridge. We went down there and a man said they saw him jump.”
Jimmy’s body was lost to the Mississippi. Zee couldn’t use the church, but she would do services for Jimmy anywhere else that Mags wanted. Mags wanted a service the following night and there at the house.
Zee went to Cleo and told him what she was going to do. He said, “If you do this funeral, don’t ever come back. You’ll be fired and never get a church job again.”
“Cleo,” Zee said, “God judges and you don’t. You are a sorry-assed, piss poor excuse for a pastor.”
Cleo called a special meeting of the church council for the next morning. Six of the seven members attended and Cleo only needed four votes to fire Zee. Cleo presented his case with bible verse backing. The council was reluctant to fire Zee. They’d known her for seven years and the truth was, they liked her better than Cleo. Cleo’s biggest mistake was saying, “Either she goes or I go.”
Wendell ‘Wink’ Ross was council president and had been for the past nine years. He had a successful business on Beale Street, a shoe store and shoe repair. Wink was seventy and still did the repairs. He had Cleo leave the room so the council could discuss the matter.
Wink said, “Let me have my say first, peoples. This council had it easy when Booker Brown was our pastor. Now we need to make a hard decision. Only for me, it aint that hard. I been thinkin’ on this since last night when Cleo told me what was going on. I been praying on it too. I know what I want to do. I want to let Cleo go and make Sister Zee our interim pastor.’
Zee’s day was long, tearful and soul searching. She stayed away from church. When she got to Mags and Jimmy’s house she was shocked to see the church choir waiting outside. Almost dumfounded, she said, “What are you doing here?”
Angie Walker, the choir director said, “Reverend Zee, we’s here to sing. And after the service we’re here to walk you back home. You’s our new pastor. Mr. Cleo is movin’ out. He can shake the sand from his feet as he leaves. That man is out of here.”