History Mystery #6: Mystery of the Dark Tower

Author: Evelyn Coleman

Illustrators: Greg Dearth and Dahl Taylor

Publishing Year: 2000

Setting: Harlem, 1928


Bessie Coulter and her younger brother Eddie find themselves awakened by their father in the middle of the night, and leaving their house in North Carolina on a train headed to New York. They can't understand why they're leaving, and more importantly, why their mother isn't coming. Bessie and Eddie are heartbroken, thinking their parents have divorced. Their father tries to reassure them that their mother will join them later, but won't elaborate about anything else. Bessie, almost thirteen, can't stand being treated like an infant and not told any details. But it's no use; her father won't tell.

They arrive in Harlem to stay with their aunts. Bessie quickly befriends an immigrant girl from the British West Indies named Lillian. She's sometimes teased for her accent, so Eddie, who has a stutter, bonds with her too. She warns them about Miss Flo, a neighborhood woman who's rumored to practice voodoo. In spite of herself, Bessie finds that she likes some aspects of Harlem, like the lack of Jim Crow laws. But she's still angry with her father.

She also doesn't trust him much lately. He's out all the time, claiming to be working. But Bessie sees him with a rich woman, and once when she follows him, he goes to a party. And she overhears him talking about staying something called the Dark Tower. What is he hiding? Bessie's determined to find out, and Eddie and Lillian want to help. Bessie finds a note she assumes is from the woman, but just then her other aunt, the older, stricter one, arrives home. She tells Bessie and Eddie that their father has had to go away for a while. Now they really have to figure out what's happening.

It turns out that Lillian's mother owns a bookstore, and Lillian is able to get Bessie and Eddie jobs. That way, they can get out of the house more to look for the Dark Tower. At first it seems like a dead end--the Dark Tower is a newspaper column about literature written by people of African descent (they discover this at the library, where Lillian also shows the Coulter siblings the display of such books, which astounds them: back home, they weren't even allowed in libraries). But a man overhears them talking, and tells them the Dark Tower is also a physical location, and gives them the address.

Before they get a chance to check out the Dark Tower, Bessie's father disappears. Her aunts aren't saying anything, but Bessie thinks if she can find that rich woman, she'll have her answers. She goes to Miss Flo for some magic to conjure the woman, but she only gets a notebook and a pen, with a note that Miss Flo is friends with Bessie's aunts, and since Bessie enjoys reading poetry perhaps she can write some of her own to sort through her emotions. Angry that she's being brushed aside for being a kid, Bessie tries to make her own potion, but of course it doesn't work. A letter does arrive from Bessie's parents, though. The aunts won't let Bessie and Eddie read it, since the matters in most of the letter are for adults, but they learn that their parents aren't getting a divorce and that they need to stay with their aunts for a while longer. However, Bessie recognizes the paper the letter's written on. It's her aunts' stationery. She, Eddie, and Lillian make plans to find out about the Dark Tower.

Since the Dark Tower, whatever it is, is an adult venue, Bessie decides to use her aunts' makeup and Lillian's mother's shoes (since they're the right size) to disguise herself as an adult. Eddie will pretend to be Lillian's mother and ask for Bessie to come over (so the aunts on't wonder where she is) while on the other side of the fence the two families share--when he sings, he has no stutter, and Lillian and her mother have an accent that's "sing-songy." It works, and Bessie slips into the Dark Tower.

Inside, she finds a fancy social club. After some confusion, it's eventually revealed that her father had been commissioned to paint a Madonna and Child, and he modeled the painting after Bessie (as a baby) and her mother. Tonight is the unveiling, and since Bessie there, the rich woman she'd seen her father with--discussing the painting--gives her the check her father earned. For $3000 (more that $41,500 in 2014). Bessie also learns that her mother has tuberculosis, and her father took Bessie and Eddie away so they wouldn't catch it. Now her mother is on the mend, so he's gone back to nurse until she's fully well. When she's strong enough, she'll join the family in Harlem. Bessie gets these last few details when she arrives at her aunts' house, having been found out. The aunts admit they've kept too much from the children (and the letter was fake, written to try to assuage the children's worries). Now that they know what's really happening, Bessie and Eddie can finally relax and enjoy all that Harlem has to offer.

A Peek into the Past

In the early 1900s, Harlem was known as the "capital of Black America" because so many African-Americans lived there. It became a sort of haven for people escaping prejudice areas. It became a wellspring of cultural advancements, from well-know poets like Langston Hughes to the invention of jazz. Racism still existed, of course. During the time the book takes place, people were very fearful of tuberculosis, a dangerous and very contagious lung disease. White victims of TB were treated in sanatoriums, while black victims languished on sanatorium waiting lists, usually dying before making it in. For this reason, some families hid sick members, making sure they were quarantined and receiving treatment.


Dedicated to "the six siblings of my mother, Annie S. Coleman, who all died of tuberculosis in the days when it was considered a shameful disease. And to Bessie Coral Coble Scott, a high school classmate of mine, who despite an illness in our senior year still graduated with honors. Bessie, you were one of the bravest people I knew in high school!"

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