Buried in the October 20, 1929 issue of the Decatur Herald was this short article about an extraordinary event involving Richard Pryor’s grandmother Marie.
Upon hearing that a black boy had been slapped at a confectionary a few blocks from her home, the twenty-nine year-old Marie Bryant responded by entering the store and cudgeling Helen Pappas, the Greek-American shopkeeper whom she held responsible for the abuse. At the time, Marie had two young sons — Buck and Dickie — so it’s possible, if not probable, that she was responding to what she perceived as physical abuse of her own child.
In assaulting Pappas, Richard’s grandmother was challenging not only the authority of a Decatur shopkeeper, but also the system of Jim Crow that, in Decatur and other Midwestern cities, strongly punished any black person who took up arms against a white person. The intense reaction of the Decatur police — five police officers summoned to subdue one black woman — suggests how vigilantly Decatur’s police force sought to patrol the boundaries of Jim Crow. Notably, Marie Bryant does not appear to have tried to evade the police but rather awaited their arrival, at which point she was charged with assault and arrested.
While facing her own criminal charge, Marie struck back again at Helen Pappas — not physically, but legally, through a countercharge of assault. Notably, she enlarged her target by also charging Michael Pappas, Helen’s husband and the designated owner of the confectionary, with the assault.
In his comedy, Richard Pryor remembered his grandmother Marie as both fearsome and righteous; this short Decatur Herald article suggests another angle from which we might understand the fear she instilled and the respect she inspired.