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.