powered by AFI
In the Hall of Human Records, in heaven, the Keeper of Books, a white-bearded old man in a white robe, records the dates of births and deaths of all humankind. A page is devoted to the family of Zeke and Zenobia Ellis, a Southern black couple with two children, Zebedee and Zachariah. In 1915, a new addition is recorded with the birth of Zion. When Zeke expresses a slight regret that he has another son, because, as he says, "boys seem to have a hard time in this country, especially colored boys," elderly midwife Granny Lee reassures him that a rooster crowed three times just before the birth, a sign that Zion will have good luck. Eight years later, when the river near the Ellises' property floods its banks, the local inhabitants are instructed to move to higher ground. Zeke is forced to pull the family's cart beside his mule Jupiter because his other mule has run off, but general store owner Jim Potter, a generous white man, sends Zebedee and Zachariah to catch two of his best mules to give to Zeke. Despite his brother's warning that one of the mules is strange, Zachariah tries to ride it and is thrown. Potter advises the family to take the injured boy, who now cannot speak, to a doctor in Baylor Junction, and in his desperation, Zeke disregards a sign warning against travel on the road there because of the flood. When a thunderstorm erupts, a levee breaks, causing more flooding. Zeke and Zenobia are killed, while Zebedee and Zion swim safely to shore. The Keeper of Books is about to write in the death date for Zachariah, but hesitates, then closes the book as the boy reaches shore in a daze. Later, at a Red Cross emergency station, Zebedee and Zion meet Wesley Hill, an older black child from the North. Wesley tells the brothers that their parents have died, and after warning that they will be sent to an orphan home, he advises them to clear out, as he has experienced life in one himself. The three boys jump a train, and when it stops, Wesley gets off to bring Zion some water, but is unable to get back on before the train pulls out. Years later, in a large Northern city, Zebedee works as a bootblack in order to put Zion through school. In the evenings, Zion, who wishes to become a lawyer, shares his learning with his brother, while Zebedee, hoping to be a policeman, tells Zion about his daily experiences. By 1938, Zebedee has reached his goal. Zion attends a law college, where he has become engaged to fellow student Zelma Jordan, the daughter of a black newspaper publisher. Zebedee tries to dissuade his brother from marrying before he has established himself, but Zion vows to find any work he can so that they can marry. In 1941, Zelma's father and policeman Zebedee undertake to rid their city of a bootlegging gang. Jordan explains to his daughter that he is getting involved in the campaign because all "colored people" are related and "of one blood." After the police capture one of the gang's members, the leader, Jones, is reluctant to trust anyone new, but finally hires a deaf-and-dumb man to help in their operation. Jordan, meanwhile, discusses the gang problem during a civic meeting attended by various members of the black community, as well as Zion, now a lawyer, and Zelma. Jordan cautions that the younger generation will face the fires of racial retribution unless blacks can get together as a people to confront the problem. He then reminds the crowd that recently thirty-six people, twenty-five of whom were black, lost their lives in a race riot, and that seventeen blacks in their city died from drinking poisoned liquor. Because of recent miscarriages of justice, the group decides that the district attorney's office needs a black representative, and Zion is soon made a deputy district attorney. Concerned about Zion, Jones tells his cohorts not to make deliveries until things "cool off." One day, Zelma goes horseback riding near the gang's hideout and suffers a fall. The deaf-and-dumb man sees the accident and carries Zelma inside, where he revives her and writes on a piece of paper for her to remain silent. Meanwhile, Carlos, one of Jones's subordinates, suggests that the gang kidnap Zelma so that Jordan's newspaper will leave the gang alone. Carlos and his cohorts, Sam and Joe, capture Zelma as she is telephoning for help. Zebedee traces the call and arrives at the hideout with the police. Jones is about to shoot Zebedee when the deaf-and-dumb man hits Jones over the head with a bottle, and the gang is captured. Just before Jones dies, he speaks incoherently about riding a mule and reveals himself to be Zachariah. The supposedly deaf-and-dumb man then speaks and reveals that he is Wesley Hill and is now an FBI agent. Back in the Hall of Human Records, Zachariah's death in 1943 is recorded by the Keeper, and it is said that God made all nations of men, "of one blood."