I met Calvin Alexander Ramsey through the Black Caucus of the American Library Association email list-serve. I contacted the author to see if I could review his new children’s book entitled, “Belle, the Last Mule at Gee’s Bend.” This was my first children’s book that I’ve read in a long time. In like manner, I also learned some new things about African American history after reading the book. I believe that is what a good book is supposed to do—open an individual’s eyes to knowledge.
“Belle, the Last Mule at Gee’s Bend,” is set in Gee’s Bend, Alabama. The story centers around an easy mule named, Belle. It was enlightening to find out that this story is based on real life events. Alex, a young African American boy, interacts with Miz Pettway in front of a garden. He is intrigued by the mule that is eating all of the collard greens in the garden. The young boy asks Miz Pettway why the mule continues to eat all of the fluffy greens.
Miz Pettyway tells Alex that Belle is a special mule.
“She can have all the collards she wants. She’s earned it,” the older lady tells the young man.
Sitting in front of the garden, Miz Pettyway goes into a story about Belle and why she is so important to the community. First, she declares that mules are special because when she was growing up there were no means of transportation such as cars, trains, or airplanes. A mule represented tenacity and strength; though they were not considered attractive. Alex wanted to hear more about the mule and was in for a history lesson.
Miz Pettyway described how the people in Gee’s Bend considered their spirits kindred to the mules, “…Benders—-that’s what we call ourselves here—used mules to haul most everything,” she tells Alex.
As the old woman began reminiscing about the past, she mentioned the name Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Miz Pettyway asked the young boy if he knew of the Civil Rights Leader. Alex concurred.
From this point on in the story, Miz Pettway tells the history of Gee’s Bend to the young boy. She tells him that the community has a thriving arts history—quilt making. They also went through many trials and tribulations before and during the Civil Rights Movement. In regard to Dr. King, she acknowledges that he frequented the community often. He encouraged them about their right to vote as citizens of the United States.
The community of Gee’s Bend had to cross the river into Camden, and Dr. King suggested that once they arrived, to take the ferry to register for voting. With that in mind, the people began to gather their belongings, children, and mules to trek to the river into Camden. Once they arrived, they were faced with opposition. The Sheriff of Camden closed down the ferry, because of their racial heritage.
Miz Pettway tells Alex that this did not stop their stride or faith. They continued on and wagonloads of people were hauled to their destination by the mules of Gee’s Bend. Alex thought that was the end of Belle’s heroic story. There was more to come. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had a special request that he left in a letter about the mules that he met in Gees Bend, Alabama.
In 1968, King new that something was going to happen to him. He wrote in a letter that he wanted Belle and another mule named Ada to pull his body to its final destination at his funeral. Another controversy takes place to derail his request. However, the mules endure the hardship and prevail on. Both mules were able to pull Dr. King’s casket from Ebenezer Baptist Church to Morehouse College.
Calvin Alexander Ramsey does an excellent job telling this story about Gee’s Bend and the heroic efforts of their mules and community. In addition, it gives an intricate look at how a piece of history can be told to a child and they understand the lesson. This book can be read to children, in the classroom, and should be read by adults.