Fayette native writes about racial complexities of region

Published 12:02 am Sunday, April 17, 2016

NATCHEZ — In 1974 a Jefferson County couple was married quietly and mostly alone on the Natchez bluff because although interracial marriages were legal, they weren’t popular.

That same couple has shared their story in a memoir —“My Triumph Over Prejudice,” by Martha Wyatt-Rossignol — to be released nationwide this month. It is already available at Turning Pages Books and More.

Martha is black, and her husband Joe Rossignol is white.

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“I didn’t care about color, I just asked for a good man,” Martha said. “When I met him, I think I was a flower that was drooped over. He was the water and sunshine that brought me out.”

Martha said growing up in Fayette, race was never really part of her life’s experience until after 1966 when the schools integrated. Before that time, she never really interacted with white people.

“For the first time, when we got off that bus, I felt black,” she said. “I could actually see my blackness.

“It looked like everyone in the school was standing outside when we got off the bus that day on the first day of school. It was overwhelming for me.”

Over time, she learned how to deal with it. She grew up, got married, had two children, and then got divorced. Around this time period, in November 1973, she took a job at the New Deal Supermarket in Fayette.

Joe was the assistant manager at the time. Their first interaction didn’t go all that well. In fact, Martha thought he’d probably fire her.

“I had not interacted a lot with white people, and I was a little shy,” she said. “He was outgoing, and walked up to me one day and said, ‘Hi, my name is Joe.’ I said, ‘So?’

“It was one of those times where you immediately felt stupid for something you said, but it just came out so fast.”

He told her he was the assistant manager, and they parted ways. With a bit of shock, Martha worked her shift, went home and was fully prepared to seek employment elsewhere.

“The manager called me and asked why I did not come to work the next day,” she said. “I told him I had been rude to Joe and I was afraid he was going to fire me.”

Instead of firing her, the manager said he was going to send Joe to pick her up for work so the two of them could sort the misunderstanding out.

“He did come pick me up, and I was a nervous wreck and couldn’t get many words out,” she said. “Joe did all the talking, and he had me laughing. I was still scared, but I could tell that I did truly enjoy being with him.”

A week later, Joe asked her to lunch. At first, she said no because she was still technically married.

“He said, ‘I didn’t ask you to marry me, I asked you to go to lunch,’” she said. “I did go to lunch with him, and over time, we just formed a relationship.

“I could feel, somehow, that this was the guy for me.”

The dating didn’t come until a few months after that lunch, but Martha could tell that there was a difference — he made her feel special.

“We probably fell in love just by working together,” she said. “Because of him, work didn’t seem that bad. I felt like a kid skipping to school on the first day, each and every day.”

After about a year, the couple decided to get married. Even though interracial marriages had been made legal by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967, Jefferson County denied the marriage on the grounds that neither owned property. Joe had some property in Adams County, so in November 1974, they were married on the bluff in front of a minister and a couple that had worked with them.

“They didn’t know what to do with us,” Martha said. “They didn’t want to put me in the white marriage book, so they put both of us in the colored book.”

Martha never had any doubts that she wanted to marry Joe, but there were concerns.

“Back then, you still had people doing crazy things to people,” she said. “I was never as concerned with myself as I was him.”

After they got married, life in Mississippi didn’t get any easier.

“We always ran into some type of confrontation with somebody,” she said. “There was always something. I got to the point that I was staying to myself because I didn’t want to hear the negative comments or see people pointing and staring at us.”

She did get her family time — on Sundays — with just Joe and the two kids, who he adopted two years into the marriage.

“We always spent Sunday together,” she said. “We would take the kids to the Natchez Trace or to one of the parks where we could play.

“We found just about everything we could do without a lot of other people being around.”

For Martha, it was hard to take the loneliness while he was at work and the kids were at school. For years, Joe tried to convince Martha to move to California, where he was originally from, because he thought they’d be happier in a more liberal state.

“For me, being a small town girl, I felt like that was too big of a step to take,” she said. “I wouldn’t go.”

By 1985 the couple had moved to Jackson. And they were considering a bigger move. She saw an ad for an assistant manager for a supermarket in Bermuda. She typed up a resume and cover letter for Joe, sent it, and never expected to hear back.

But they did, and they liked Joe so much that they made him the store’s manager.

“We did not encounter racism in Bermuda,” she said. “The people were very accepting.”

About a year after they moved to Bermuda, in 1991, she started writing the book.

“It wasn’t any good,” she said. “When I wrote the book originally, I was still angry, and you could read a lot of anger in my words.”

For the next 20 years, she worked on and off on the book, until 2008 when she decided to get serious about completing it. She had sent it to the University of Mississippi Press in Jackson, and they liked it.

“After a friend told me I should write a book, I began thinking about it,” Martha said. “I could think of a few things that were interesting about my life that people might want to read about.

“I think I am an ordinary person. I have just lived in an extraordinary life,” she said.