Category Archives: Segregation/Integration

An accident of residence

You could see it from the street between the houses when you walked or were driving along Carson Road.  It was built on the back side of the alley.  It was about a quarter-mile long, or so, running north from Vernon elementary school where it started, south to a wooded area next to a small farm.  I think it was a farm. I remember cows grazing in a big yard so that’s what it was in my mind. The field and fence all met up where the alley stopped at those woods where I would go get kindling for the fire when it was wash day – usually on a Saturday.  I hated those days with a passion.  I was the only “hard leg” busting my knuckles on a wash board washing my clothes (underwear, t-shirts and socks.) All my play buds had sisters, so they didn’t have to wash clothes. No woman’s work (that’s how it was thought of in those days) for them. So I had to take a lot of crap from them.  It was tough being the butt of jokes and put-downs. I couldn’t whip nobody (though I tried), and so it was what it was.

But I was smart as a whip.

It wasn’t a high fence – 6 feet or so. I was a little kid, nine or 10 at the time, so it towered over me. It was one of those chain linked Cyclone fences with the slanted square openings. Thinking about it now, I wonder why it didn’t have barbed wire on top of it. For some reason, I think the people who lived on the over side of that fence knew that there was no fear of us ever being crazy enough to climb over it. To be honest, it never even occurred to me. And I don’t ever remember my mom talking to me about that fence.  It was just there.  Something you just lived with, accepted.

Only White people lived on the other side of that fence.

We had moved to our apartment on Carson Road so my mother would be closer to work.  She had just got a job at a laundry/cleaning business. It might have been a mile or so walk for her when she didn’t catch a ride. She worked as a “shirt presser” operating 3-4 machines that steamed pressed the collar, sleeves – and the front and backs of the shirts. You had to be quick on your feet and fast with your hands so the shirts wouldn’t burn. The owner used to let me wait for her sometimes until quitting time and we would walk home together. She was his best shirt presser and every now and then he would let her do our laundry and press them. I was the only ten-year old on the block wearing professionally cleaned and laundered pants and shirts. It was another reason I kept getting my ass kicked.

Did I mention I was smart as a whip?

Carson Road was the main street (it was really a road with some parts of it paved) that twisted and turned through a small town named Kinloch.  It was an all-Black community when I lived there. It was an all-White city before that; in the 1920s and 30s – maybe even before then.  It bordered an airport and military base – Lambert Field – I think that was the name of it.  I used to love to watch from behind the fence (another one boxing us in) at the back of the runway when F-86 Sabre jets got ready to take off.  Blue-yellow fire mixed with flaming red gushing from the engine exhaust; those swept-back wings (looking like rockets headed to Mars in the Sci-FI books I read); gleaming and vibrating; and then whoosh – down the runway it would move – roaring, screaming, thundering and then lifting into the blue Missouri sky. I wanted to fly one of those suckers like nobody’s business.  But watching from the other side of that burnt-black fence was the closest I ever got to one. The closest any Black man ever got to flying an F-86 or any other fighter plane for another 20 years or so. I nearly got killed one day because I was so mesmerized by an F-86  that a man had to grab me and yank me out of the way of that deadly tail exhaust. For me, though, it would have been a glorious ending.  Burnt to a crisp because of idol-worshipping.

Lambert Field wasn’t too far away from where we lived at the time.  I could get their on my bike in 10-15 minutes or so.  It was our second apartment since we have moved from Indiana to be near family. To tell you the truth, I was sick and tired of living somewhere for a “hot minute” and being uprooted again.  But to be fair, my mom was always, always trying to put us (me really) in a better situation. Life was hard, difficult – bordering on drastic hell at times. There were no jobs in Kinloch. Going to work meant catching the one bus that came to town twice day. Or, paying a jitney cab by the week.  Kinloch, you see, was stuck out in the middle of nowhere at the time; surrounded by all-White cities and towns. You have heard their names blasted all over CNN recently. They have become famous (or infamous depending on your point of view) in the past year.  All enjoying (ha!) their fifteen minutes of fame, so to speak.

I will say this about the police in those days: what cop in his right mind uses 10-12 year old kids as target practice? Their behavior was actually worse than that; and I am still angry and embarrassed to the point of being unable to talk about it.

Anyway, the move to that apartment near Vernon elementary school turned out to have destiny written all over it; though my Mom, and certainly not me, knew it at the time.  Vernon was the proverbial 2-room school-house (it was really built of brick); a third section was under construction when I enrolled that fall.  For the next two years, I was a kid being a kid, a Black boy living in the Black town of Kinloch, Missouri. Then one spring day, it was all about practice and preparations for graduation. As valedictorian of my class (told you I was smart as a whip), I had to prepare a speech. At some point during those hectic weeks before he big day, the world of America shifted on its axis without us kids understanding what had happened: we (our parents and us) were told that we would not be attending the all-Black Kinloch high school across town once we graduated.

Our shock and awe would be putting it mildly.  I remember my Mom being in a state of controlled panic. The reason for this momentous decision, as it was explained to us, is that we lived in the wrong school district.  Wrong school district? How could that be?  We lived in a Black town. We were Black, everybody in town was Black. We attended a Black school. Needless to say, things got a little boisterous. After much wailing and gnashing of teeth, it was explained to us that because we all lived on the west side of Carson Road, we actually lived in Ferguson, Missouri. Surprise, surprise!

Yes, THAT Ferguson. The city that recently made headlines around the world.  It seems that narrow, less than a quarter-mile strip of land, separated by the “fence” at the back of the alley meant that we (I) had actually been living in the all-White city of Ferguson.  Ferguson, it seemed, wasn’t “lily White” after all.  Our ignorance was indeed bliss; or just plain ignorance. It didn’t matter. According to Mr. Johnson, the principal (not his real name), “we would be attending the all-White Ferguson High school in the fall come hell or high water,” or something to that effect. “The first to do so. We had to get ready. We had to be ready, it would not be easy,” he said.

No one knew what to expect.  All of us were about to make history by accident of residence.

We were nine before the storm.

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The Lunch Counter and the Music Man

It was definitely a family affair.  Three aunts and their nephew.  Two cooks, a baker and me – the busboy.  That kitchen ran like a well-oiled machine.  My aunts could “throw down!” (They could cook – they could REALLY cook.)  Take it from me, though, you never want to work on the job with your mother’s sisters.  It wasn’t pretty.  But hey, sometime you gotta do what you gotta do.

Then there was the boss!  A stern lady – wide of girth – lacking any sense of mirth or merriment. That summer, she was the bane of my existence.  The tour-de-force of my misery.  The crankiest crank in a rusty wheel that no amount of “3-in-1” oil used would loosen it to turn. That lady worked me like a dog!

But before the summer was over, she would integrated the lunch counter at this Woolworth’s Department store located in an all-White suburban community 35-miles west of Chicago. Go figure. This was the same woman whose policy (and the store’s) was that the, “three aunts and their nephew” could not eat at the very lunch counter where the food they prepared was served to the store’s White customers. On dishes I washed squeaky clean.

One Saturday, some clerk in the record department started playing a new song named “Chances Are” by Johnny Mathis.  It blared out over the store’s speaker system and the world changed. The record sold out within hours.  The next day the same thing happened. And the next week. And the next. White folk couldn’t get enough of that song. Once, a customer complained and the store manager stopped the music from playing over the store speakers. You would have thought someone hit him with a 2-by-4.  That’s right!  Johnny Mathis was back crooning on the air no time flat.

Then the earth at Woolworth’s cracked wide open.

Joey Donatucci (not his real name), one of the kids that served customers did the unthinkable: he wanted to talk to me about some trouble I had with some of his friends.  At the lunch counter. Out there where White folk could see us. See me. I knew he had lost his mind. Just knew it.  But it turned out, “Mrs. Grouch-of-the-Year” winner, had lost her mind. Later, I figured she must have been the one who hit the manager with the 2-by-4 because he had to agree to my sitting at the lunch counter. Joey Donatucci you see, was the son of SOMEBODY (If you catch my drift. We’re talking Chicago here.)

After that, from then on, the three aunts and their nephew didn’t have to eat lunch or take thier break sitting on crates and sacks of potatoes in the kitchen. Or on the loading dock out back. The boss lady still remained a tough old bird. Merciless with a dollar. Sparingly with her praise. She confided to the three aunts and their nephew in the kitchen soon after the “Donatucci Affair,” how she had bought a copy of Johnny Mathis’ record.

Said she never thought she would enjoy any music sung by a Black man.

Black man, I thought.  Johnny Mathis is Black?