Blog Post #5
by Jane Van Ryan
“You know her condition,” Sulerner Hampton confided. “We had to put up with it.”
Sulerner squinted up at the sun and adjusted her thick glasses as she and Lucille LaBonte stood on the back porch of the house she rented from Evelyn Hazen. Evelyn “could be the best thing you ever seen,” she said, “[but] she would put you out in a minute.”
At age 85, Sulerner had known Evelyn for several years before moving into one of the two houses next to the Mabry-Hazen mansion. As the story goes, the two homes were constructed for the Meek sisters who were devoted to each other but could not live together. They built two nearly identical houses that sat back-to-back. The front porch of one house overlooked Knoxville; the front porch of the other house faced Dandridge Avenue. Together, they looked like bookends separated by a distance of about 12 feet at their back doors.
Sulerner shook her head sorrowfully as recalled the last day she tried to help with Evelyn’s basic needs. At the time Evelyn had a stomach ailment and was reluctant to see a doctor.
“I had fixed her breakfast. She didn’t get up ‘til eleven, twelve sometime,” Sulerner said in her thick Southern African-American drawl. She asked Evelyn to come downstairs and have her morning coffee, but Evelyn refused. She “was having a spell,” Sulerner explained.
“Just get out!” Evelyn yelled. “Get out of that house…and bring me the key.”
Sulerner ran a hand over the dirty white scarf covering her hair and spat on the ground, discharging some of the snuff tucked into her lower lip. Through the screen door behind her came the sound of a whining dog and squealing puppies. In the dark hallway, I could see a filthy overstuffed chair buried under a stack of yellowing newspapers. Soot from the coal furnace had collected on the cobwebs and clung to the peeling paint on the ceiling.
“Oh, Lord a’ mercy,” Sulerner said, remembering the incident. “I hurried through [Evelyn’s] kitchen to the back porch with Miss Hazen on my heels. I didn’t want to leave without the poke sallet that I had picked that morning. It was in the freezer on the porch. Miss Hazen didn’t know it was there. I pulled it out while she was talking.”
Then Evelyn came at her with her crutch. Sulerner said she grabbed the end of it and held on. “We shoved it back and forth. I had enough. I ordered Miss Hazen to sit down, and I shoved her down into a garbage can…I ran off the porch like I was flying.”
Once Sulerner reached the ground, she heard a gunshot. Evelyn had fired the .32 Colt revolver she kept close at hand. The sound was terrifying. Sulerner hurried as fast as her old legs could carry her through the tangled thicket that separated Evelyn’s home from her rented house. She never knew whether Evelyn actually aimed at her or shot over her head.
Evelyn asked Sulerner to come back to her house because she didn’t want to be alone. But Sulerner said, “I wouldn’t go back in there.
“She wasn’t mean until she got sick,” Sulerner recalled. “She was as good as she could be when she was herself, you know.”
In fact, Evelyn had been kind to Sulerner and had given her clothing and other items over the years. When I met Sulerner in 1988, she was wearing one of Evelyn’s navy blue dresses. Evelyn preferred navy blue clothing over black, because she thought black was too harsh and unflattering.
After Evelyn passed away in 1987, Sulerner was able to stay in her rented home under the terms of the will. It stipulated that none of the renters in her 14 rental properties would be forced to move and their monthly payments could not be increased. Eventually, however, the homes along the south side of Dandridge Avenue were torn down and a portion of the land was used for Morningside Park and the Alex Haley Memorial.
Sulerner died several months after Evelyn, but I have been unable to find an obituary or death records. One of her relatives told Lucille that Sulerner died from tuberculosis in her legs.
The rental house has been remodeled and now is occupied by a resident caretaker of the Mabry-Hazen property. Its twin serves as a small meeting house. When I was conducting interviews for the book, John Green lived there. More about John next.