“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”
Such was the sentiment that author Zora Neale Hurston put forth in her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Having penned an article about Nova Scotia native Maurice Ruddick (1912-1988), I last month happily accepted an invitation to join actor Jeremiah Sparks in an onstage conversation after a performance of his solo show, Beneath Springhill, at the Neptune Theatre in Halifax.
Written by playwright Beau Dixon, the piece recounted the experiences of Ruddick, the so-called “Singing Miner,” who spent nearly nine days underground with his co-workers after a “bump” at the No. 2 colliery in Springhill on October 23, 1958. More than 70 miners perished in the incident that garnered global attention and prompted Marvin Griffin, then the governor of Georgia, to offer the survivors an all-expenses paid vacation on Jekyll Island, a posh resort in the state.
Two weeks prior to the Springhill disaster, white supremacists had bombed the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple, the most prominent synagogue in Atlanta. Hence, Griffin’s pivot to the Nova Scotia miners was viewed, by many, as a publicity stunt to counter the mounting bad press about Georgia.
However, the staunch segregationist rescinded the invitation when he learned that Ruddick, while very light-skinned, proudly identified as Black. Ruddick’s co-workers reportedly refused to travel South without the man whose spirited songs and prayers had helped to keep them alive.
Unwilling to deprive his colleagues of a free holiday, Ruddick agreed to the governor’s back-up plan to house him in a hastily constructed “Negro section” of the resort. Griffin also “imported” Blacks from a nearby town to keep company with Ruddick, his wife Norma, and four of their children who accompanied them on the trip.
“Two buses met the [miners] at the airport,” writes Joanne Stanbridge in Maurice Ruddick: Springhill Mine Survivor. “One bus took the white families to their hotel. Another bus took the Ruddicks to a trailer that was parked 5 kilometres away.”
Sparks and I were discussing the racial implications of the Ruddick saga when a white man in the audience interrupted our conversation. Clearly irritated by the topic, he bellowed from his seat: “Can I ask a question?” Stunned by the man’s outburst, I turned to Sparks (seemingly equally astounded), and with the actor’s tacit approval, gave the man the floor.
With that, the man put his (apparently) urgent question to Sparks. “Jeremiah, what other shows have you been doing?” The consummate professional, Sparks spoke about the projects that have kept him afloat since the onset of COVID-19. But the “interrupter” had effectively put a pall over the event. Think Will Smith’s slap at the Oscars.
“I am absolutely mortified that an invited guest and an artist on our stage were subjected to such behaviour,” said Lisa Bugden, general manager of the Neptune, who’d witnessed the exchange. “This individual clearly wanted to halt any discussion about the racism that permeates our community and was abundantly clear in the aftermath of the Springhill mining disaster.”
She continued: “Neptune holds Talk Back sessions to encourage open discussions surrounding the topics probed in our productions.”
About the interruption, Sparks later noted that he found it “weird.” “[I] was not happy with that part,” he said. “Was interesting to assess.”
Disinclined to perhaps trigger painful memories, I’d chosen not to interview Ruddick’s family for my 2018 article. But prompted by the theatre incident, I contacted Valerie Ruddick MacDonald, now age 74, and a resident of New Brunswick.
As the character (then age 10), who makes her father delectable honey banana sandwiches, MacDonald featured prominently in Beneath Springhill (via remarks from Sparks in the role of Maurice Ruddick). MacDonald had seen the production.
“Jeremiah did a fabulous job,” she told me in a phone interview. “It was so moving to see Dad’s character come back to life. I was honoured to meet Jeremiah after the show.”
Reflecting on her Dad’s sojourn on Jekyll Island, MacDonald continued: “He felt he’d be holding the others back if he didn’t go. There was no more work after the “bump” and the white miners were excited about the free trip. Dad knew about segregation but he really didn’t understand how awful it would be.”
She continued: “But he was OK with it because the Black community in Georgia treated him like a king. He was with his own people. And that meant the world to him.”
About her upbringing in Springhill — also hometown to the singer born Morna Anne Murray — MacDonald gave voice to the degradation that she and her siblings endured: “We were definitely called the ’N’ word. There was an insidious, invisible colour line in the town that you did not cross. Dad would tell us to put our heads up, walk proud, and don’t let the racists make you feel inferior. He was a good example.”
As for the man who hijacked my chat with Jeremiah Sparks? “I do wish I’d been at the Neptune that evening because I would have absolutely intervened and given him a piece of my mind,” she said. “He really wasn’t interested in Jeremiah. He just wanted to shut down the conversation. The white people who act all shocked about racism in Nova Scotia and like they didn’t know it existed. Well, they didn’t go through it like we did.”
MacDonald added that her father was subject to “jealousy and resentment,” by some folk in Springhill because of the media attention he received after the mining tragedy.
“Dad was accused of grandstanding but he didn’t go looking for the limelight; the reporters came to him,” she explained. “He was a leader, he was personable, and he enjoyed engaging with people. The humble, faith-filled character Jeremiah portrayed on the stage was exactly like my father. That’s why I got teary-eyed watching the show.”
MacDonald said she was also heartened to learn that Georgia officials, in 2016, placed a historic marker on Jekyll Island that pays homage to Maurice Ruddick. “It’s kind of ironic that he’s been acknowledged there,” she ventured.
Added a Halifax resident with family ties to Springhill: “I am intrigued and saddened by the fact that Georgia has a marker to honour Maurice Ruddick but not Nova Scotia.”
Overall, MacDonald told me that she’s thrilled to have recently received footage of an interview (circa 1973) she conducted with her father in which he recounts his experience underground.
In a 1950s-era letter to a friend, Zora Neale Hurston expanded on her “years that ask questions” philosophy. “God balances the sheet in time,” she noted.
It’s a belief the “Singing Miner” likely also held.