Melinda was several weeks into school the day that Earl Coombs came to June Hill with twenty mounted men. Hearing the men approaching, Melinda walked out onto the front stairs where Cato was standing guard. Seeing them approach, she locked the front door and pulled Cato into the house with her. They rushed into the classroom to hurry the children out the back door. Coombs shot the lock off and pushed the front door open. Terror froze Melinda and the children in the hallway. They clung to her skirts.
Coombs had heard about some of James’ people forming a colored Democratic Club, and he was sure the school was there to encourage membership. “You need to disband immediately. And get these little niggers enrolled in one of the Northern missionary schools funded by our government. I’ve been told to do whatever I have to, to disband this renegade school of yours and suppress your insurrection.”
“There is no insurrection going on here. I’m merely teaching children to read and write,” Melinda stated.
“Do as I say or I’ll be back.” He moved closer to Melinda, tilted her chin up and whispered, “If you don’t, I’ll have to believe you want me to come back. That maybe you’re asking me for another visit. You know what I mean?”
Melinda immediately dismissed the class and went home to White Oaks. When she told James what had happened, he refused to allow her to go back to June Hill and insisted Henry take over the classes. Henry went back to the classroom the next day without Melinda. Several days later, Coombs sent one of his men out to see if they had stopped teaching. The man returned with the message that they had failed to follow his order. That night, Anderson was the first one to smell the smoke. Rushing into his back yard, he saw the flames leaping above the tree line.
“Fire, fire!” Anderson yelled, knocking on each cabin door. He sent a runner to White Oaks.
One by one, the sharecroppers realized what was happening and ran to the fire to see what they could do. Cato, standing guard that night, was the first one at White Oaks to spot the runner coming up the drive. After the runner breathlessly told him the news, Cato rushed up the stairs and banged on James’ door. “Fire, Massa James, fire!”
James jumped out of bed and threw on his trousers and boots. Melinda sat up rubbing her eyes and threw on her robe. Cato then ran to the room where Willie and Leah had been sleeping since the Earl Coombs incident. There was protection in numbers. Banging on their door, Cato yelled, “Fire, fire!”
In the hall, James instructed Cato to run to the cabins at White Oaks and send the workers to June Hill to help fight the fire. He told Willie to stay behind and guard the women and the children. Rushing out the front door, James found Henry on the portico. “Quick! Let’s run down the path to June Hill.”
On the path to June Hill, they could see the fire lighting up the sky. There was no chance of saving anything in the Big House. The fire had completely engulfed the building. There was nothing to do except prevent it from spreading to the sharecropper’s cabins. All night they fought to contain the blaze and to keep it from overtaking the stand of trees separating the Big House and the cabins. By the next morning, June Hill lay in ashes. Smoldering timbers and charred remains were all that was left of the grand old home. It had gone up far too quickly for it to be an accident. James knew it had been arson.
When he and Henry walked through the charred remains, Henry asked, “Now what do we do?”
James bent down and picked up a handful of June Hill’s ashes. “You’ll build a future from these ashes. You’ll take what Melinda and I have started here and live the dream. It’s up to you now. Show your people that it’s not impossible. Help them see their freedom is in their education.”
James grabbed Henry’s hand and let the ashes of June Hill slip through his fingers on to Henry’s palm. Then he looked deeply into the sad, dark eyes of the young black man and said, “From these ashes grow courage — the courage it will take to make it happen. Someday — it may not be in my time or your time — but someday because of what you’re going to do, you will set an example for your people. Some day there will be many great men of color. That’s what we’ll do from these ashes, Henry.”