Banner photo of Larry Eugene Meredith, Patrick Flynn and Ronald Tipton, 2016.

The good times are memories
In the drinking of elder men...

-- Larry E.
Time II

Friday, March 11, 2016

Forbidden Friendship and Cracks in My World of White Innocence

This brings me to a subject that needs to be spoken about here, one of the other hush-hush realities of my childhood, something like sex, not to be recognized or talked about or engaged in, Racial Relationships.
There is no such thing as Race. When it comes to people there is only one Race, the Human Race,. We are mammals, primates of the genus Homo and the species Sapiens. There is no scientific, biological, anthropological or genetic difference between one human or another no matter what color the skin. This was established by an international group of anthropologists, geneticists, sociologists and psychologists in a study to UNESCO in 1950. Race is a myth that remains upheld by those who study such things to this very day.
Despite the fact that the fallacy of Race was declared more than 65 years ago it remains a divide between people, even to the extent we can't talk about it openly and intelligently. Listening to what is often said today by politicians, the media, various activist groups and social commentators a person could think we were still living in 1860, that the Civil War never happened, nor the Civil Rights Act and that slavery was still the order of the day.
But much has changed in American society regarding Race in the last 60 years. If you think not, then turn on the TV and instead of the cable talking heads, watch the game shows. White and Black individuals, men and women both,
host game shows today. The audiences are a mixture of anything you can think of and so are the contestants. There are contestants of every skin tone you can imagine, and not only that, some of these people who are of different skin colors are couples, boyfriend and girlfriend or husband and wife. White hosts are hugging and kissing Black Contestants and Black contestants are hugging and kissing White hosts. The audiences are cheering for each and everyone to win their quiz or stunt and get the prize. 
You would not have seen this happening 50 years ago.
So get over this whole stupid Race baloney. The only reason we continue to have a racial issue is because it benefits certain people to keep stirring that pot, certain businessmen, politicians, activists and those who can build power by convincing others that one group of people are what stands in their way.
There was a song in Rodgers and Hammerstein's "South Pacific" that contained this lyric:


"You've got to be taught to be afraid

Of people whose eyes are oddly made,

And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,"
Throughout that entire decade when I was growing up  I was taught there were three Races: Caucasian, Mongoloid and Negroid. Although the illustration says Caucasoid, I never heard it referred to that way. It was always Caucasian, which obviously was done for the purpose of setting the “White” race somehow apart from the other two “oids”.  It was always presented in the same order as Caucasian, Mongoloid and Negroid, too. You could argue this was simply alphabetic, but in my opinion it was a subtle way of suggesting a superiority of one Race over another.
Well, I'll give you my suggestion. We need to get rid of this emphasis on diversity, which only leads to adversity, and focus on our commonalities.
Okay, I have probably upset enough people, so back to my boyhood.

FORBIDDEN FRIENDSHIP



I began a forbidden friendship with a boy during my elementary school days. Whether he remembers me or what I am about to recount I don’t know. It was over 60 years ago and we did not carry on any kind of relationship in the years after, even though society changed some during what would have been our teen years. I see his picture at Downingtown class reunions and he looks well.
I’m not certain exactly how we managed to get together at all as children because in the early 1950s we were definitely from separated worlds. We met on the side streets clandestinely, for walks and talks together. We did not talk about Race, that didn't even cross our minds. We talked about movies or books or sports or whatever boys our age discussed. There was nothing different in our interests  than with any other of my friends. We just liked each other as buddies, even if it was kept secret.
I say kept secret because even such an innocent friendship was viewed with disapproval within the social mores of the time; it certainly would have been frowned upon by my family if they had known. He and I didn’t fraternize at school, we didn’t play in each other’s yard and we certainly didn’t visit in each other’s homes.

I lie, I was in his house one time and his grandmother treated me most kindly and offered me lunch, even invited me to come to dinner sometime, which I never did. I doubt he would have received such a warm welcome or invite from my grandmother at my house. In 1950s Downingtown there were places we could not go together, in fact for awhile, not even into the same classroom.
Given the circumstances of the times this was a doomed friendship from the start and it was short-lived, not surviving past elementary school.

SUBTLELY TAUGHT
A popular feature in magazines over the years has been “Can You Spot The Difference?” A page would show two pictures seemingly exactly alike, except one had some very subtle differences from the other. The viewer’s objective was to spot the differences. Here are two photographs. Can you spot the differences?




If you say there is no adult in the second photo, you’d be correct. If you also say there are more kids in the second and several look like similar, if smaller, versions of others, you would be right. If you noted some kids sitting up on the stone pillar in the second and not the first, this is so.  If you say you found Waldo you’d be wrong. Waldo was never in my class. All these things are true because the first picture is my Third Grade Class in 1950 and the second my Fifth Grade Class in 1952. But there is another more subtle difference. Did you spot it? I know it’s difficult with such small photos.
Maybe this will help.
The picture on the left shows the faculty of East Ward some years before I attended, but the  situation it illustrates continued well into my years as a pupil. Note in the photo the two ladies in the middle of the second row from the top. Is there something different about them? Yes, they are the only two Black teachers in the group, and when I say “Black” teachers here I am not only referring to their obvious race. They were truly “Black” teachers in that all the students they taught at the elementary school were also Black. Even though East Ward School was considered integrated, no Black student shared a classroom with any White student or was taught by any White teacher, nor vice versa for that matter. Those two Black teachers taught all the Black students for every grade level from Kindergarten to Sixth Grade together in one classroom.
I was never in any class with my secret friend before fifth grade nor did I see him at recess for we took our recesses separately.
So again, what was the difference in the two class photos shown earlier?
There are only white faces in the first, but a few black faces scattered through the second.

  
Different Photographers took these two photos in the year 1946-47. On the left is the East Ward School Kindergarten, the one I did not attend. It was historically the first kindergarten class at East Ward. On the right is Mrs. Helm’s, the private Kindergarten I attended. You will remember my kindergarten class photo from an earlier post and the little girl standing to one side. There is no one standing to the side in the East Ward photo because there is no one with dark skin in East Ward’s Kindergarten.
In this sense Mrs. Helms was a pioneer in school desegregation for enrolling Black children. However, what message does the class photo send to both Black and White? It clearly says to us that the little girl doesn’t belong. It is doubtful we five years olds made any distinction in sandbox or naptime or any other activity the group engaged in during the school year, but adults did.
These photos beg the question of another popular magazine and Sesame Street game, “One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn't belong, Can you tell which thing is not like the others?” Do you know the game? Photographs show several subjects all of the same type, but one. You are to select the odd one. You see a hammer, a screwdriver, a saw and a bottle of ketchup. Which doesn’t belong in our toolbox? This Kindergarten snapshot says Blossom was our bottle of ketchup.
It is an extremely subtle lesson, but effective. Eight of us are the same and a group. One of us is different and doesn’t belong in our group. They are ingraining that message just as strongly in the little girl. I wonder what she thought standing there off to the side from kids who had been her friends and playmates for nine months? I think you can see the question in her face.
Others had set me aside when I came back to Downingtown from the Swamp House. The question in my mind was why? I had played with most of those kids in the previous years, how come I wasn’t still a part? I was just a little boy, as she is just a little girl, why can’t I be included in the group?

INVISIBLE DOWNINGTOWN
My kindergarten reflected Downingtown at that time more than the East Ward kindergarten. Black people may be present, but barely acknowledged to exist.
Did anyone take much notice of this? No, I doubt many did. It was what things were; we children simply grew up within that culture of exclusion. To a certain degree Black people during my early years in Downingtown were invisible to the White community.
The Borough officially considered Downingtown public schools interrogated. Whites did not go to one school and Blacks to another like the South’s so-called “separate-but-equal” system. However, our classrooms were separate, but hardly equal within the same building until the 1951-52 school year. They segregated Black pupils together in a single classroom no matter what grade level prior to the year I entered Fifth Grade. The only Black teachers in the school taught them.
There were no Black families on my block. East side Black homes were grouped together, ironically, on Whiteland Avenue. They were one block over and one block up from 424 Washington, yet out of sight. There were other pockets of Black housing through the town, but it was rare to find a mixed street.
I recall riding with my grandfather out Wallace Avenue and then Route 282.  He turned off to the right somewhere at the edge of town and drove back a road passing through a dilapidated village of shanties. This was another alcove of Downingtown Black families. Pass the shanties not too far was a large dump. I can’t recall the name of the road. The dump may have been on the site of what is now Kardon Park and if so, it was toxic.
Blacks could shop in the same downtown stores as Whites, but I don’t recall ever seeing a Black clerk in any. Blacks went to Black Barbers and Whites to White Barbers. If you saw a Black man in a barbershop he was shining your shoes. There were White bars and Black bars. I seldom saw a Black person anywhere in my childhood world to tell the truth, except occasionally on the street. I didn’t see a Black doctor, dentist, cabbie or bus driver. I had no Black teachers. I had no Black classmates at East Ward until the second half of 1951. Even with that, none of the other things changed. There wasn’t much socializing of my White classmates with my Black classmates outside of school.
The situation in the Downingtown Schools did change the year I went into Fifth Grade. Someone did take notice of the injustice after all and Stuart Meisel says that person was his mother (pictured right). This is his observation from his memoir, My Story:

“I began my education in Kindergarten at East Ward School.  It was two blocks East, where Uwchland Avenue (Route 113) met the Lincoln Highway (US 30).


Either that year, or in First Grade, I noticed that all the blacks (Negroes at the time) were in one room.  I was particularly hurt and upset about it, and I asked my mother why they were all herded into one room.  Shortly thereafter, the blacks were moved into our classes.  I think it was because I asked my Mother, who confronted the school.”
My Story by Stuart R. Meisel, Fort Lauderdale, FL, 2011, p. 23.

Although Stuart says he noticed this in First Grade and the policy was changed shortly after he spoke to his mother, historically the integration of Blacks and Whites into shared classrooms did not happen until 1951, the year both he and I went into Fifth Grade.
I don’t know why the Downingtown Public Schools changed their policy in 1951, unless some members of the school board saw the handwriting on the wall and acted peremptory. In June 1951, three months before I entered Fifth Grade, a man named Oliver Brown filed suit against the Kansas City School Board over segregation, but that case wasn’t really tried and completed until 1954. Pennsylvania’s Governor Fine had integrated the State Police and some other state agencies in 1951. In Pittsburgh, Reverend LeRoy Patrick and Urban League Executive Secretary Alexander Allen led an effort to integrate that city’s recreational facilities, as effort that led to a brick and rock attack on Black children. Although Pennsylvania was slower integrating than neighboring New Jersey, Downingtown seems to have jumped the gun a bit. There wasn’t any violent reaction to a few darker faces in our classrooms, no brick or rock attacks I’m aware of.  
Perhaps it was because Kathryn Godgrey Meisel stood up against it.

In June at the end of my Fifth Grade year of 1951-52, my mother threw a surprise birthday party for me. I guess she considered turning 10 a milestone.  Mom went to the school and arranged with my teacher to invite all my classmates to the party, except for the Black ones. How the teacher handled that I don’t know, but not well. It certainly wasn’t kept secret from the Black kids. During a lunch time the last week of school one of the Black kids stopped me in the hall and told me about the surprise party, and he did it to be spiteful.   He told me he hoped that spoiled the surprise for me.
         It did more than spoil a surprise. I was very angry about it. I wasn’t mad about being told. I was angry with my mother. I was upset about whom was invited. I had Black friends in my class, Franny Henderson (right)  and Gracie Styer for example. There were Black kids in that school who accepted me for who I was. I would have been happy to have them come to my house just to play and certainly to come to my birthday party. There were White kids in my class I did not want at my party, such as Denny Myers and Jack Swarner (pictured left).  They teased me, bullied me, why would I want them sharing my cake? But of course that was how it was. This was the beginning of a tension over racial issues between my parents and I that continued throughout our lives.


My folks sometimes gave me money to go to the Saturday movie matinees at the Roosevelt. In the early days I walked to the theater and watched by myself. Eventually I would be going to movies regularly with Ronald and Stuart, but in this period there was just I. One day I ran into my secret friend entering the theater. We talked in the lobby and I thought, Good, I’ll sit with him and not be by myself for once. I started to walk up the balcony stairs alongside him, but before we had ascended very far someone tapped my shoulder and asked where did I think I was going. It was the usher, a short man and I think his name was Phil, but can’t swear to that anymore.
 “Where you going?” he asked.
I explained I wanted to sit in the balcony with my friend.
“Balcony is for Colored only,” and he would not let me go up the steps.
They required Blacks (or Colored as they were commonly referred to at the time) to sit in the balcony. They reserved Main Floor seating for White people.  This was the same arrangement at The Auditorium in Coatesville and The Warner in West Chester. It didn’t seem logical to insult a whole group of people, then place them in a place above where they could “accidently” drop popcorn or soda on your head. But logic had little to do with race relations then or now.
So I watched the film by myself yet again. I did not see any Black faces on the screen either, unless it was Willie Best (pictured left) popping out his eyes and uttering, “Feets do you’ stuff” at any perceived danger.

It is funny how my family surnames popped up in the news during these decades. There was Oliver Brown in Kansas and just over a decade later, James Meredith in Mississippi. And yes, my father use to tell people James was the “black sheep” of the family. My family had prejudices. They didn’t spew hatred. At best their attitude was one of indifference. I think they believed there really was a separate, but equal society. When I was a preschooler my grandmother overheard my friends and I using a common chant for choosing sides.
“Eenie meenie miney mo,
Catch a nigger by the toe…”
She immediately, literally pulled me from the yard. “That is a nasty word, we don’t use it in this house,” she said.
I was only repeating the rhyme I heard other kids use, but from then on I used, “Catch a tiger by the toe.” That other word disappeared from my vocabulary.
I seldom heard any derogatory slang for different ethic groups in my home as a rule. “Jap” and “Kraut” weren’t uncommon, but that was because of attitudes against the Japanese and Germans during World War II. Frankly, my family seldom spoke of different ethic groups in our house. During the building of the pink house next door, grandfather uttered “dago” more than once. When I painted my bicycle red and green my dad said it looked like a “nigger’s bike”. But such pejoratives were rare. If my folks referred to Black people, it was as “colored”. Most people used that term. Teachers or politicians in formal settings used Negro, considered the “polite” designation.
My grandmother’s reaction to my use of nigger did not mean she was an open-minded person when it came to race. Her view was White people were happy with White people and “Colored” people were happy with “Colored” people and never the twain should meet. She said this on occasions if the subject of race came up. She would say, “I think Colored are ugly; and I’m sure Colored think all White people are ugly, so it don’t make no never mind.”

Beyond a few, my own boyhood contacts with “The Colored” were not positive. I generally tried to avoid the Black kids exactly as I attempted to stay away from the Charles-Bird-Way Gang, and for the same reason. A number of my Black classmates would hit me passing by or chase me if they saw me out alone.  One of the Butcher boys jumped me in the field next to 424 that summer. It was one of the very few actual fistfights I engaged in as a child. (Not that I engaged in any as an adult.) There seemed to be a number of Black children from Whiteland Avenue named Butcher and Flowers who all hated me. The Butcher kids had an aggressive attitude toward we White boys. I guess a lot of us felt their surname fit.

Another world had intruded upon me as I reached the end of Grade School. This was not to be my last brush with prejudice, hate and stupidity.

1 comment:

Jon said...

Larry, I agree with so many things that you said in this post that I wouldn't know where to begin to comment. In short, I'll just say that's it's interesting and brilliantly written.

I was raised in Southern California which was very diverse - even long ago. I had black and Mexican friends in school and never thought anything about it. I do remember that there was also a very nice boy from Germany (he was one of my friends) and many kids teased him and called him a Nazi.

I feel that racism isn't inherent - it's learned. Fortunately neither of my parent's were ever prejudiced against anyone because of race. My father was very violent and abusive, but he wasn't a racist. That's probably because he came from a diverse neighborhood when he was growing up.

I'm mostly just rambling, but I enjoyed your post.