Driving Miss Daisy: Remembering the Real-Life 'Hokes'

Some people saw Driving Miss Daisy, the movie, as an affirmation of black stereotypes. But Hoke, the chauffeur played by Morgan Freeman and now by James Earl Jones on Broadway, represents a generation of black men who worked hard so their children and grandchildren wouldn't have to.

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I did not see the off-Broadway run of Driving Miss Daisy in 1987 in which Morgan Freeman originated the role of Hoke Coleburn. I did see the 1989 film, where he was longtime chauffeur to Jessica Tandy’s Miss Daisy, steering her -- and himself -- not just through her errands in Atlanta but also through the shoals of changing race relations affected by the civil rights movement that was always offstage or off-camera. I realized right away that I knew Hoke. In many ways, he was my grandfather.

Avondale, a few miles from downtown Atlanta, is mentioned several times in Driving Miss Daisy, which made its Broadway debut on Monday. My grandfather, Big Daddy Moore, had to walk from home on Hardin Street, then go to Bryant Street to the Negro wing of the bus station for Southeastern Stages to get to Avondale, where he worked as a handyman-philosopher type for Miss Spitler for many years. At the end of his workday, he reversed that and, on good days, came home to Conyers with stale liverwurst sandwiches, perhaps some bric-a-brac, and days-old copies of the New York Daily News that Miss Spitler got by mail. Like Hoke, my Big Daddy -- Norman Lee Moore Sr. -- was darn near as old as his employer.

Recently, James Earl Jones, who will play the role of Hoke on Broadway opposite Vanessa Redgrave’s Miss Daisy, told an audience of theater enthusiasts that he, too, knew Hoke, whom he described as "a throwback." Like Freeman, Jones is a native of Mississippi. Hoke, he said, does not have the power of words -- he cannot read -- but "he has been enlightened by life."

"He’s a lot more intelligent than his speech might suggest, and that's important."

Many of us of a certain age had a Hoke in our lives. Arthur Ashe, the late tennis champion, apparently also knew Hoke. Alfred Uhry, the creator of Driving Miss Daisy onstage and on-screen, recently told me that Ashe, a Virginia native, shared with him that Hoke reminded him of his grandfather. "If there hadn't been that generation of men," Ashe told Uhry, "people like me wouldn't be here, would not be able to do what we've done. They worked for years so we could go to school, and so forth and so on." That, Uhry says, "was a big compliment. I'll always treasure that, always."

Uhry says many seeing the play "will think of this as remote a time in history as World War I." People like my 12-year-old nephew, a Georgia kid who has never personally known limitations based on race. But it was Pullman porters and domestic workers -- the Hokes  and the Idellas (Miss Daisy's housekeeper, played by Esther Rolle in the film) -- who did the heavy lifting in sometimes seemingly too-polite ways; they are the ones who made possible the social revolution of the 1950s and 1960s. Though seemingly subservient, Hoke is never too timid to put Miss Daisy in her place -- politely but pointedly. “I’ve never shied away from all that,” Uhry told me. "I've never tried to have Hoke be some freedom fighter and Miss Daisy some redneck."

My Hoke, Big Daddy, grew up as an "inmate," as orphans were called, in Reed's Home and Industrial School in Covington, Ga. His two older sisters grew up in Atlanta in an orphanage connected to Spelman Seminary (later Spelman College). Their mother had placed them in these institutions as she moved North to work as a domestic in New York City. Because Big Daddy, then known as Norman, was a good student, the head of the orphanage put him in charge of the younger boys in their schoolroom; he later taught in other rural settings.

At the time of my grandfather's death in 1975, to some he was still known as Doc or Professor Moore. Others knew him as a yardman -- or the man who built fires to warm up the Macedonia Baptist Church on Sunday mornings. Through his stories -- many of them tall tales -- he regaled his children and his grandchildren about life beyond Conyers. And those newspapers from Miss Spitler began my lifelong interest in coloring not just between the lines of the children's pages but in the big wide world. We were what Hoke came home to.

In writing Miss Daisy, this was what Uhry was trying to capture: how the Big Daddys of the South navigated their two worlds. He knew firsthand of the intricate, sometimes intergenerational, relationships between many white employers and black employees -- people he considered to be members of extended families. That is not to say, of course, that they were on equal footing. Miss Daisy always insists on being treated as a Southern lady -- and trying to keep Hoke in a subservient place -- but near the end, she says to him, "Hoke, you’re my best friend." Uhry said that the Hoke character in Miss Daisy is based on a black man who long worked for his family and was the closest thing to a grandfather he ever had. "He’s wise. He's deeply intelligent. He's deeply intuitive and, as we say in the South, he knows how to do.”

That doesn't mean that the Uhrys of the South knew the Hokes of the South nearly as well as the blacks who cooked, cleaned, cared for their children and drove for them knew them. In Miss Daisy, there are only hints of the life Hoke had when he was not at work. His daughter is married to a Pullman porter and does quite a bit of travel, something Hoke doesn't cotton to. His granddaughter becomes a biologist at Spelman.

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