She was born in East Texas in 1941.
At this time, the sorts of things said in the manifesto of Dylan Roof were part of common discourse among Whites, nothing extreme about publicly speaking about the dangers an uncontrolled Black population presented to order and decency.
The totally segregated town was very small in fact she was born at home out in the country.
I don’t know many specifics of Gilmer, TX at that time, but Ned Sublette, writing of his experiences growing up in Louisiana at the time, mentions segregation so intense even downtown parking spaces were segregated. Gilmer lies just across the border from Shreveport and the creeks are called bayous. My father-in-law told about the Black man who got a nice new suit during the Depression and determined to wear it into town. Everyone warned him not to, but he persisted and when he walked into town, the sheriff walked up to him and shot him without a word.
She recalls leaning out her window to hear the music coming from the jook joint next door where even the great Louis Jordan toured.
It was innovative Black artists like Jordan who developed the music out of the big bands, too expensive to maintain in the post-war period plus the growing taste among the Black urban working-class for the old down home blues, music that was to become rock and roll once country-western bands like Bill Haley and the Comets picked it up and introduced it to White audiences, their Rock Around the Clock being considered the rock and roll hit that kicked off the music craze that wound up taking over world music. In other categories on my blog, principally Music of the African Diaspora, I frequently remark on the resentment felt by many Blacks about the appropriation of “their” music by Whites who wound up making much more money than the original Black artists they were covering. Many musicians will gently contradict this. pointing out the massive after-hours (after-hours b/c of segregation) collaboration of White and Black artists.
Famous country-swing bands like Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys paved the way for rock and roll. I’ll just include here a telling quote from Bob Wills in 1957: “”Rock and Roll? Why, man, that’s the same kind of music we’ve been playin’ since 1928! … We didn’t call it rock and roll back when we introduced it as our style back in 1928, and we don’t call it rock and roll the way we play it now. But it’s just basic rhythm and has gone by a lot of different names in my time. It’s the same, whether you just follow a drum beat like in Africa or surround it with a lot of instruments. The rhythm’s what’s important.”[What I remember is the complete division between Black music and White music when I started dating my wife. She explained it easily by saying, “It starts out OK, but then they lose the rhythm”, meaning the forward propelling directionality characterizing African music is not present (term from Gunther Schuller). Those who do not understand the role of music in African-American culture will not understand the culture.
She also remembers the segregated schools and the police breaking up parties that were not even rowdy, let alone criminal.
Oh, yeah, the town leaders still belong to the Klan; at least that’s what the Black people said. I have talked with no White people the several times I visited the town. I mentioned to my sister-in-law who still lives there, “White people are like ghosts around here.” She acknowledged it shyly, but they do say hi to one another and ask about kids, etc. We visited the old neighborhood, still entirely Black, still neglected by the town. Not much has changed. We even went to the house a neighbor had lived in in the forties and when she came to the door, she recognized my wife immediately, after over 60 years! The ties that bind.
Her dad served in the Navy during WW II but that didn’t help him. Trained as an aircraft mechanic, he was unable to find work. He had very little education. Her mother had little education and worked as a cook in a hotel.
In these discussions, it’s very easy to dismiss any of it, which is what conservatives do in their attempt to squelch any discussion of racial inequalities that persist. There’s not much I can do about that.
Without work, Daddy decided to take someone up on an offer of work in Arizona picking cotton. The family went to Standfield, AZ. where my wife was terrorized by bugs and snakes as she picked cotton at age 6. This was real work, not something to do just for the summer, etc.; it was to feed the family. They lived in a shack with an opening in the wall rather than a window and her sister had to jump over a snake going out the door one time.
This was a turning point in my wife’s life. In Gilmer, they had had a decent house, the Blacks their own school, such as it was and it wasn’t too bad b/c the Black teachers couldn’t get work doing anything else, so they were the best. I point out to doctors treating my wife’s cancer and glaucoma that she worked in those fields when DDT was still being sprayed with no regard for the field workers and who knows what that did to her organism. Added to that is the lack of medical treatment for Blacks, a usual condition at that time (see below), and it’s hard to separate out the effects of racism and of poverty. I am sure there were White and Hispanic field workers exposed to the same chemicals. When my son-in-law got a job teaching in Stanfield, my wife went to help him set up his classroom and noted the school was the same and the Black school she attended was now the bus barn. The fields and the poverty were the same the richest man in town last year was making $40,000 a year.
They moved up to Phoenix where my father-in-law got a job as a janitor in the Black school and my wife attended the segregated schools here in Phoenix (they desegregated just in time, 1953, for her to miss going to Carver, the Black high school with an excellent reputation; she instead wound up one of a small number of Blacks attending the previously all-White high school whose mascot was a Little Rebel).
Another major factor had entered my wife’s family’s life before they left Gilmer: the church. My mother-in-law joined the Pentecostal church (we serendipitously visited the church just as the pastor drove up and she took us on a tour) with its extremely strict life-style. That, parenthetically, was how I met my wife, attending that church and getting to know her parents. She had left the church to pursue a more normal social life heels, shorts skirts, and make-up as well as dancing……. and then me.
She worked from age 9 with her mother cleaning houses.
This was the classic Old South pattern still followed in Phoenix: the Black woman could often find work when the Black man could not and she did so by attaching herself to a White family well-off enough to afford a maid. The maid would neglect her own children to be always available to the employer. My mother-in-law was wise enough to not only cultivate a couple of families who kept her employed through loyalty of a sort, but also to teach her daughter to protect herself. That protection was necessary even at a prepubescent age as service people coming to the house would impose themselves on a young Black girl. “Never put yourself in a position where you don’t have a way out” was the admonishment. Nice words to a 9 or 10 year old kid. At age 13, my wife was alone after dark at a bus stop, trying to get home, when a man (White, obviously, b/c a Black man would have been run out of the White part of town) pulled up, pulled a gun on her and forced her in the car. When he stopped at a red light, she said the hell with it and jumped out. The police were called and sent an officer to the house who did nothing. My wife knew cars and gave a good description and Phoenix was only around 80,000 at that time, so it would have been a good lead, but once they saw she was Black, interest in the case flagged. Perhaps some White girl was similarly picked up by the same man and raped.
One family cared enough to give my wife some money for college but also, surprisingly, opened up a social security account for her at age 13, so 43 years later when she started receiving social security benefits, the amount was so large one lawyer didn’t believe her.
None of them attended her wedding. She had the usual close relationship with the family’s children, but no one sought to maintain that. Such was the Southern Way of Life.
The family had become Pentecostal and they were in church all the time. Education was not a priority b/c you had to consider that her father had training and yet could not get a job due to color restrictions.
At this time, in the 60s, Blacks were beginning to find their way to college, in part b/c colleges were not restricting attendance by Blacks, at least not in Arizona, and the cost of college was low enough that you could attend on a minimum wage job. There were obstacles, like taunting on campus. Once I was sitting with a guy I had become friends with, watching the girls go by, when I gave a long look to a couple of Black girls. He noticed and said, “You find them attractive?” I had yet to encounter Black people in Phoenix, but saw no reason to discriminate between White butts and Black butts, but it was shocking to him. Professors told nigger jokes in class with impunity. But the real impediment was the exclusion from the broader society that made progress in classes more difficult, plus the emphasis on religion rather than education in the home. My wife was a reader as a child and also had listened closely to the standard English of the people whose houses she cleaned; that helped with her language b/c her family spoke a deep form of Black English. But without the experiences the White students had had growing up, there were hurdles to hurdle in academics. This resulted in low scores on standardized tests which were then used to prove Black cognitive inferiority, along with language differences (notoriously, the copula deletion so notable in deep dialect was cited as evidence of a cognitive inability to recognize identity relationships (this theory came to be called “cultural deprivation”)
A big however here: having begun attending the church my wife was raised in about 1961 and seeing the families over 50 years later, it seems to be that the stability the church provided allowed for great progress, for now the college degrees, substantial incomes, and great participation in society mark the church membership.
They also lost several houses b/c Blacks were excluded from the mortgage market and so houses were bought on contract, thus building no value.
I had never understood why my father-in-law didn’t have equity in his homes and why he lost so many. Only much later did I discover the fact that FHA regulations specifically excluded Blacks and banks would not provide mortgages, so only contracts were available to Blacks then. Despite that, my wife was way ahead of me in understanding the value of home ownership, or perhaps because of that she saw what equity was, now that we could get a mortgage by the late 60s. (this is why so many conservatives hate the 60s). In the 2000s, we began receiving phone calls regarding refinancing. My wife was interested and always talked to the mortgage company representatives, but she was put off by the fact that they immediately went to putting us in a subprime category. Considering our credit score was in the 800s and our income put us at three times the median household income for Arizona. After the subprime mortgage collapse, we realized that it was my wife who was targeted b/c she is a minority, but how did they know? Dummy, as my wife nicely pointed out to me, that part at the bottom of applications where they ask your ethnicity, promising to use it only for statistical purposes. That demonstrates more than anything the divide between Blacks and Whites: I was raised to trust our lying, criminal institutions like banks and the police; she knows better.
One incident illustrates the barriers put up to Blacks: my life insurance agent sent an investigator out to my house when I purchased additional insurance. My buddy, back from Viet Nam, was staying with us and reported that this man had come around asking questions. Now my buddy was a big, blond, White guy but our house was in a totally Black neighborhood, what people now call the ghetto or the hood. So I called my agent b/c I didn’t know that such investigations were the norm and he explained it to me. I asked him then why the investigator had asked whether we were White. The agent said it was a matter of investigating character and my wife was White, right? I replied, No, she is Black, and his response, when I asked again why the question about race, was, “You know Blacks, if it comes to the premium or a bottle of wine, which one they are going to pick.” I had just told him my wife was Black, but he felt zero compunction saying that. That was the 60s and that was what we wanted to change.
Working in those nice homes engendered in my wife a desire to have those things; a number of Black people served as role models: the pastor’s son, her girl friend’s mother, teachers I don’t think any role model was other than a teacher.
When Doctor Morrison Warren, the first Black to play football for ASU and the first Black professor hired there, said to us one day, integration was the worst thing that happened to us. In part, he was referring to the breakup of the Black community. The reasons for that are for another essay, but its effect was to deprive young Black people of the role models necessary for developing a positive sense of self, esp if your own family has severe problems. We can add that the opening up of occupations and professions to Blacks robbed Black schools of the cream of the crop.
Eventually, she decided to go to college. She paid $15 a semester at the community college and after two years transferred to ASU. She graduated in 3 years and began teaching second grade in 1963.
To illustrate how difficult it is for people to alter life times of practice, my wife’s mother continued to ask her to help her clean houses on days she was working. When my wife protested, saying she had to be with her students, my mother-in-law said Jim, the principal, wouldn’t mind. That was how tight the community was – she thought of the school principal as the kid she watched grow up in the community. And the notion of professionalism was foreign to her, given the lack of recognition of professionals on the part of Whites where she grew up in Texas. In a smaller way, we can see how this happens to students when the choice is between doing homework or even attending school and helping out a family member in distress. The latter choice often wins out and the teachers shrug their shoulders and declare the student must not care about school nor the family care about education.
In 1969 an NDEA grant brought professors from ASU looking for Black teachers to turn into counselors who would integrate the high schools. She got a stipend so she could quit work and got her masters in a year and was assigned to various high schools over the years.
This is interpreted by conservatives as affirmative action at its worst. What about all the deserving Whites? These minorities are being given tax-payers money to go to school while the Whites have to pay out of their pocket. The truth is, most Whites had access to school money denied to Blacks. Secondly, the school districts were desperate as the lowering of barriers to equal housing dropped and Black students began showing up at schools previously all White (as I write this on June 25, 2015, the news is full of SCOTUS’ decision to uphold federal housing discrimination regulations first set in place just after MLK’s assassination in 1968).
Her job was to bring a Black presence into a school system that remained White but was beginning to receive Black and Hispanic students as housing restrictions eased up. Getting out of what was called the ghetto was what most people aspired to and we went with everyone else, from the frying pan into the fire.
That brings me to what I have left out: the part about being Black. Those experiences will be in my next blog entry on this topic.
Here, I have interpolated the “part about being Black” as best I could. I have much more to write, for instance, about how my wife was raised that might cause an obviously very intelligent person to score low on standardized tests. Her experiences in these all White schools over the next 30 years tottered between interesting and dreadful. It is so fraught and complicated, I’ll save it for another entry.