It all started on Sunday June 6, 2010 when Roger Ebert the much acclaimed film critic put up an especially insightful and brilliant post on his blog titled: “How Do They Get To Be That Way?” Roger’s post began with his reaction to the controversy over an attempt to make the faces of some Hispanic students pictured in a mural at Miller Valley Elementary School in Prescott, Arizona appear less brown than the students depicted actually are. Roger’s revulsion over this attempted act eventually led to a recounting of Roger’s journey from a very small boy to a quite mature and sensitive adult. His piece was sensitive, thoughtful and, judging from the comments, made several who read it think seriously about racism and its impact on all of us.
Now Roger has a friend Tom Dark, writer and writing editor, with whom I tweet often (@TomDark9 on Twitter). Occasionally, I would tweet a comment that related to the effect racism most always had on black men. Tom mentioned that he was thinking of doing a piece on racism, but was tired of the subject, but I egged him on saying he needed to do it, I so enjoy his writing. After he put up a couple of short comments on Roger’s blog about Roger’s piece, he tweeted me asking if that were enough. I said no and he promptly made me a counter offer. Tom said he would do a piece on racism, but he wanted to be paid for it. The price he wanted was for me to also do a piece on racism. Choke, gasp. I tried to demur offering that I was too much of a novice to be in the company of such august writers as him and Roger. Here is Tom’s exact response: ”Sounds like a deal, Ed. Roger’s & my bits are pretty different in character, but look: we’re a couple white guys. We need you.” I was hooked. Although hoisted on my own petard, as the saying goes.
I mentioned to Tom that I was too angry and had too many anecdotes inside me, but promised to start with a few that I can’t seem to get out of my mind and I do relate them to friends from time to time. I chose 1944 during WWII and 1952 during the Korean War. It was late April or early May I forget which in 1944 when talented manpower was reasonably scarce here in the states as a result of the draft. I was approaching my 15th birthday and finishing my sophomore year at Stuyvesant High School, a school so high on the academic scale that it was and still is considered to be one of the best if not the best high school in New York City. At the time one my best friends was Gene Kessler an oboe playing, extremely talented “geek” who not only lived across the court from me in the Red Hook Projects in Brooklyn, but was also in my Latin class at Stuyvesant. Gene and I used to collaborate on our homework involving translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Virgil’s Aeneid two mind busters that were quite a lot for any one kid from Red Hook. He was a brilliant Oboist and taught me a lot about intervals in music. Gene’s parents were Hungarian Jews and music was so important to them. Of note, was the fact that I was Gene’s friend and an automatic honorary member of the Kessler family. At the time my Mom and I were one of only two black families in the entire Red Hook Projects . My mom, an accomplished jazz pianist,was as accepting of Gene as his parents were of me. Gene was fascinated by jazz and they had many conversations about musical composition and harmony.
One day Stuyvesant High School was asked to recommend two of their brightest and best students who might be interested in an after school job at Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Beane. Merrill Lynch, 7 Wall Street, portraits of instant ancestors. When our Latin teacher asked if we would be interested since we were both on half session and done with school shortly after noon we jumped at the offer. So one afternoon, properly scrubbed and shiny, Gene and I went shaking down to Wall Street not believing we were actually going to be interviewed for a job for which we came highly recommended. After what seemed like an interminable wait we were ushered into the personnel officers’ swanky corner office at the same time. First question of Gene: What’s your name son? Answer Gene Kessler, Sir. Question: Kessler? is that Jewish? Answer: Yes Sir. Response: I’m sorry son, but we don’t hire Jews! Turning to me, I’m asked: and you are you colored? Answer: Yes Sir. Response: I’m sorry son, but we don’t hire colored either! It was a long quiet, train ride home.
FAST FORWARD TO NOVEMBER, 1952
By now I had finished Howard University, majoring in Psychology with minors in Sociology and Drama. By 1950 all of my friends were either being drafted and sent to war or preoccupied with avoiding the draft. I enrolled in graduate school to give myself time to figure out how to stay out of Korea. In grad school it was more psychology. In my second year, luckily for many of us, the United States Air Force offered a one year ROTC program to seniors and graduate students that afforded a commission in the Air Force upon completion of your studies. So, in June, 1952 I became an officer and a gentleman by Act of Congress. Believe me, it took an act of congress to achieve that. My first duty station was at Otis, Air Force Base where I was given my first ride in the back seat of a fighter jet by the famous Daniel “Chappie” James the first African American to reach the rank of four star general. It was on this trip to Cape Cod that I met the lady who was to become my wife and the mother of my two youngest children. Much to my chagrin I was shipped out to my permanent duty station in Mt. Clemens, Michigan by late September, 1952
It was getting pretty chilly at Selfridge, Air Force Base in Mt. Clemens, Michigan that morning in late November, 1952. I was the duty officer in the Ground Controlled Approach shack on the edge of the base watching over the airmen whose job it was to assist the fighter planes with their practicing of ground controlled approaches to landing in inclement weather. Suddenly, a crackling announcement over the site’s PA system: Lieutenant Somerby, Lieutenant Hopper report at once to the Captain’s office. Once there we learned that we were being temporarily assigned to Tyndall, Air Force Base in Panama City, Fl, for eleven weeks of advanced radar controller training and we had 72 hours to get there. Somerby suggested that we drive his car down and he would have it while we were in Florida. One problem, I could drive, but I didn’t have a license. No problem, said Somerby I’ll be fine as long as we can sleep at least one night. So we set out telling each other stories about our colleges. He was a Williams College grad and he had heard a lot about Howard. We made it to Cincinnati by late evening and stopped to eat. It was only a short while before I became aware of the people looking at us strangely. I assumed it was because we were both in uniform, only part true. We were both in uniform and we were both officers, but we were not both white. One woman even had the temerity to ask me why did I think I was made a lieutenant and her son was only a corporal! No answer for that. After supper we pushed on and it was on the bridge out of Ohio into Kentucky that it hit me. We were headed into the deep south. I sort of thought I might be in trouble, but was hopeful that my uniform would maybe afford me a modicum of respect. Night falls, fog in the mountains of Kentucky. I suggest that we find a motel and get some sleep. I doze off. Next thing I know Somerby has pulled into a motel, paid for a night’s lodging and was heading back to the car with the motel manager who was carrying a lantern. I grab my bag from the car and follow them to the room door when the motel manager catches a glimpse of my face in the light of the lantern. In a shocked tone he says, “Oh No, this nigger can’t stay here.” Now, Somerby a privileged Bostonian had never really encountered this kind of attitude before and he’s really angry. I try to remain cool and ask the motel guy what’s the next large town? Lexington, he answers, but you can’t stay in any motel there either we don’t mix niggers with whites down here. Trying to stay cool and not earn a rope necktie I say to Somerby: ”tell you what. lets’ make it to Lexington and find a colored hotel. I’m sure we can both stay there.” So we limp into Lexington about 2:00 AM and sure enough I find a gas station and we get directions to Lexington’s “colored” hotel. Well, we walk into the hotel lobby and the desk clerk has a John Wayne type 45 pistol stuck in his belt and there are at least three hangers-on draped over the various stuffed chairs in the lobby. The desk clerk allows that he does have a vacancy and begins to register us. I turn to Somerby and he’s as blanched as Casper the Ghost. I ask him “are you alright?” He replies, “Im sorry, I don’t think I can stay here.” Understanding me, I suggest that he take me to the next big city, Chattanooga, TN and drop me at the bus station. We can then both find hotels that will accommodate us and grab some much-needed shut eye. So we push on. It was early morning when we arrived in Chattanooga and get directions to the bus station. Somerby is so very apologetic and I’m reassuring him “don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll be fine. This is a big town. Chattanooga shoe shine boy and all that crap I’ll meet up with you in Panama City, find a motel and get some sleep. Tomorrow I’ll catch the first thing smoking and make it to Florida.” He’s still apologetic when I walk off. I get to the front of the station and jump into the back of a cab. ’Take me to a good hotel” I say. The driver turns slowly, looks me over in my uniform and says ”there’s only one hotel for niggers here in Chattanooga soldier.” I reply: ”well take me there Cap’n!”
To be continued, maybe.