MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Life in the Bottom
Let us look at Jim Crow for the criminal he is and what he had done to one life multiplied millions of times over these United States and the world. He walks us on a tightrope from birth.
Our neighbor had a peach tree in his yard. A vegetable garden, too. I loved fruit. So did my cousin, Kenneth Booker. We craved juicy flavors created by sinking our teeth into tree-ripe Georgia peaches.
We felt the fuzz on the fruit and checked our chins to see if we were growing any. Neither Kenneth nor I were yet ten years old. No fuzz.
Our neighbor was—who knew how old? Thirty? Fifty? One hundred twenty? In the early 1950s, kids didn’t know the ages of adults. They were adults. They were old. We were kids—young, full of fun, and hungry.
The sun was hot. Summers in Atlanta can be sweltering. Swelter builds thirst. Thirst builds temptation. Temptation yields to naughty.
Some days Kenneth and I pretended we were marines fighting in Korea in the bitter cold of the recent disaster at Chosin Reservoir. This day we were the US army attacking Nazi Germany as my father had when we were toddlers. We stuck sticks out our sleeves and small twigs out our pant cuffs to camouflage our assault. We crawled on our bellies, then climbed the neighbor’s fence to penetrate the “German” perimeter.
The tree had no chance; the garden, no protection. We plucked peaches. We stole vegetables. We escaped. We crawled back. Our bellies hugged the earth until reaching the fence. Our heads moved back and forth keeping watch for the enemy. Our Raid on Peach Tree succeeded.
The plan was to tell Mom we had saved our pennies, walked to the grocery store, and purchased the food so she could make us vegetable soup and peach pie. That made sense to us. So, as we filled Mom’s ears with fibs, our mouths dripped peach juice. We were proud. We were happy. We were stupid.
Mom marched us over to the neighbor and made us knock on his door. Hinges creaked. It might have been the old man’s joints. The huge door opened. Mom stood behind me. Her eyes bore down on my head. I felt them. Being nine and two years older than Kenneth, I knew she would make me do the talking. I started stuttering.
“We…” I paused.
“Go on,” Mom commanded in a voice both soft and steel.
“We stole peaches and vegetables from your garden.”
I don’t know if my quivering voice made my knees knock or my shaking knees made my words tremble.
“Keep going.” Mom was not going to make this easy. Her quiet voice echoed enforcement more than volume would have.
Words stumbled out.
“We can repay you for what we’ve eaten. Here’s the rest of what we took.”
“Took?” Mom’s voice challenged.
“Stole.” She made me say the word a second time.
I tilted my head back so my eyes could meet the neighbor’s eyes. Mom insisted we make eye contact with people as we spoke. Adding a second offense to stealing would not go well. I knew that. I kept my head tilted.
The neighbor’s face was so far up. When you are caught in your guilt, it is a stretch to see beyond your shame. But there he was looking down on me. I didn’t like it when people looked down on me.
His face looked stern. Then a miracle happened.
“Boys, thank you. That was the right thing to do. You can keep what you have as a gift. Next time, ask. I might come out and help you pick.”
Back home, Mom made us the best peach pie and vegetable soup I can remember eating. Kenneth and I felt as if we had dodged death.
Then Death came home from work.
My dad, Hugh Person, strode through the door in a hurry to get to his second job on time.
“We have a situation that needs … attention,” Mom said.
She told him what we had done, what she had done, and what the neighbor had done.
Then we found out what Dad was going to do.
“Ruby, I’ll take care of it.” Dad was a man of few words.
Moments later, as Dad rushed out the door, our shame lingered on our tearstained faces and our sore rear ends. We got our butts spanked. Sometimes I can still feel it today, though I can laugh about it now in a way I could not in 1951.
The Raid on Peach Tree defines the kind of trouble I got into as a youth—the kind of troublemaker I was. That is to say, I wasn’t. Mischievous? Misbehaving? Of course. Every youngster is. But troublemaking? I am not built that way. It is not in my DNA.
Strange, then, that a lifetime later—at age eighteen—Atlanta city police locked up me and hundreds of others for the troublemakers we were. Stranger, still, that I could be an “outside agitator” in my native South because I boarded a bus in Washington, D.C., and rode it home.
That is what a segregationist mind can convince itself of: a bus rider is a troublemaker; a native son is an outside agitator. That is what Jim Crow teaches people to believe: that people’s “disorderly conduct”—one of the offenses Freedom Riders were charged with—is worthy of their being jailed, beaten, or killed to “teach them a lesson.”
Jim Crow. Segregation. These are aberrations from human dignity no one should live under. They should never have existed, but since they did, they should be anachronisms of eras long past. Instead, they are realities conceived from our nation’s original sin of slavery, and they continue today in the hearts of those who act to ensure whites remain in charge.
As a young child in 1940s Atlanta, I did not know the existence of segregation any more than a fish knows water. Or a bird air. Or a white child knows whiteness. In my childhood awareness, I wasn’t growing up in segregation. I was growing up on Bradley Street—21 Bradley Street.
I was growing up in a community of folks like me in an area of Atlanta called Buttermilk Bottom. Buttermilk because many families there survived on buttermilk and corn bread. Bottom because Heights doesn’t make a lot of sense when life lands you in the lows.
In the Bottom, life was simple. I thought my family was wealthy. We weren’t. Wealthy in time, food, people, and love? Sure. I had Mom and Dad, my siblings, my cousin Kenneth, and my grandparents Papa and Grandma Booker and Mama Arlena. I had abundance in everything that mattered to me.
It’s hard to imagine being richer in food than we were at 21 Bradley. Our relatives lived out in the country, and that gave us access to farm food. Pigs alone gave us delicacies in four seasons. We had bacon all year round but much more than that. Mom used pigs’ ears, tails, and feet to make food ranging from meals to snacks. She cooked pigs’ ears, put them between two pieces of bread, slapped mustard and hot sauce on them, and I had the best sandwich I ever ate. She cooked pigs’ tails down till they were so tender the meat fell off easier than the softest puff of wind disperses dandelion seeds. They were better than dark meat on a chicken drumstick. Mom pickled pigs’ feet in vinegar, salt, and pickling spice and let them cure in a canning jar for a month. We had a hard time waiting for what was on the other side of those thirty days.
Mom cured hams in a smokehouse for months preparing for the holidays. The same ham that provided Christmas dinner gave us leftovers for sandwiches and food for breakfast. It also gave us redeye gravy. Mmm, mmm. Mom placed pieces of ham in her cast-iron skillet and browned them on both sides. I watched with “Is it ready yet?” eagerness as she turned the ham over, careful not to burn it, but turn it into a beautiful rich brown. Mom’s self-control outmatched my eagerness. After placing the ham on a plate, and sometimes slapping my hand to keep me away from it, she poured leftover coffee into the skillet. The coffee loosened the residue from the pan to make pure magic. My nose knew before my eyes did—breakfast was ready. And I was ready for breakfast. I rushed to my seat, pushed my spoon into my grits, and dug a reservoir for Mom’s gravy. She would say, “Tony”—Mom sometimes called me Tony from my middle name, Anthony—“Tony, slow down. Be patient.” It was hard for me to be patient. I wanted what I wanted, and I wanted it now. She poured the steaming sauce into the basin I’d created in my bowl and … slapped my hand to keep me away from it. I grabbed one of her piping hot homemade biscuits and placed a piece of the ham inside. Biscuits. Grits. Redeye gravy. Ham. Me. It was Christmas Day all over again every day for a week.
Had I enjoyed an abundance of awareness of the physical world around me, I might have noticed the Bottom reeked. Decay permeated nostrils. I did not smell it. Coal-burning trains spewed black sewage skyward. I did not detect it. Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills billowed clouds of cumulous gray. I never noticed it. The black soot climbing into the blue had to fall somewhere. It fell on us—on me. I did not feel it. The smell of chitlins cooking and the smell of collard, turnip, and mustard greens with ham hocks jarred our sense of smell, but they tasted good. Drunken old men smelled of liquor and urine. They smelled of whiskers and wrinkles, too. They, like us kids, lived oblivious of the obvious—the Bottom offended human senses if you were aware enough to notice.
Wide, unpainted, rotting clapboard houses hugged Bradley Street. Slatted-wood porches held rickety chairs. Rickety people sat in those chairs. At least that’s what Kenneth and I thought. Rusted tin roofs repelled the rain except where holes had worn through. In the Bottom, it rained inside and outside.
Unpaved streets meant that the few cars in the Bottom bounced and bumbled at speeds kids could outrun because speed raised dust. The dust of clouds was one more thing to fall on us. We didn’t need anything more falling on us.
In the Bottom, everyone had exquisite dark skin—shades that ranged from light brown to dark chocolate—except for a small minority. The milkman was white. The laundry owners, Asian. The owners of the ice cream shop, Greek. The insurance man stood out to Kenneth and me because he had chalky-white skin, straight hair, thin lips, and a thinner nose. We made fun of that.
“Press your nostrils together and inhale,” I coaxed Kenneth.
He did, but it didn’t last.
“You do it,” Kenneth said.
“I’d rather look like Satchmo.” I flared my nostrils out.
That didn’t last either. We laughed longer than either of our nose contortions lasted. I guess we learned we have the noses we’re born with.
Years later a man I did not know and would never meet again decided to reshape my nose for me because he did not care for where I chose to sit on a bus. Why my nose and the rest of me mattered so much to him I do not know, but it did.
On Bradley Street we lived in a two-room, second-story apartment in an eight-apartment wooden building. Six small upstairs apartments sat atop two large apartments at ground level. This was the one time in my early life I got to be on top. To get home, we climbed an outside staircase and proceeded down a street-facing balcony past other apartments till we reached 5B.
The words apartment building are accurate, but they do not capture 21 Bradley. Warped planks formed the floors, the walls, the ceilings. I remember the balcony felt solid, but its railing looked more like rolling waves than leveled wood. Most windows in the apartments were glass. A few were holes in the walls boarded up with nailed, horizontal slats of pine. Gaps in the slats allowed daylight in and kept most rain out. No foundation existed. Every eight feet or so, blocks of stacked bricks propped the building three feet off the ground. A lot of brick was missing from those supports that held up 21 Bradley, but the building still stood. It tilted a little, but stood.
The front door of our home opened to a combined living room and bedroom. That’s where Mom and Dad and my younger sisters Norma Jean and Carole slept. The second room was a combined kitchen, dining room, and bedroom for Mama Arlena (we called her Malena), my brother Jimmy Dale, and me. My younger three siblings had not yet come along, so there was plenty of room for the seven of us in the two rooms of 5B. Our toilet was outside on the back balcony. We shared it with the other families in the upstairs units of our building.
Today, I know life was small on Bradley Street, but a few blocks away life was big. Ebenezer Baptist Church. Bethel AME Church. Wheat Street Baptist Church. Big sanctuaries. Big steeples. Big congregations. Big voices from the pulpits and choirs. Preachers with big personalities.
Martin Luther King, Jr., grew up on Auburn Avenue all of four hundred steps from my home. Auburn was known as “the richest Negro street in the world.” But today I know “richest Negro street” meant poor and undesirable by white standards.
A half mile down Auburn Avenue from the King home, the Royal Peacock nightclub brought national talent to “Sweet Auburn Avenue.” Muddy Waters, Fats Domino, Dizzy Gillespie, Big Mama Thornton transformed that lounge into a volcanic celebration of music. In our young teens, Kenneth and I sneaked there at night. We crouched outside and heard the music, felt the vibrations, and imagined what we were missing. Every kid we knew wanted to be old enough to enter the Royal Peacock.
This was our world.
Men worked jobs paying $40 to $50 a week. Women worked as domestics. That brought another $5 a day. It’s hard when a woman is mother to two sets of children—her own four kids (eventually seven) and her white family’s children. Ruby Person hid the hardness. My siblings and I were not aware of Mom’s world—a world where Jim Crow sat on her as she and Dad tried to make it up from the Bottom.
After a long day of working for someone else’s family and a long evening of tending to her own, Mom gathered Jimmy Dale, Norma Jean, Carole, and me to her bedside. She sat on the bed. We sat on the living room floor next to the bed and listened to the Bible reading. Sometimes, we got to pick the story.
“Tell us about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego,” we said in chorus. Like most kids, we wanted to hear the same story over and over.
“Here’s a story of brave people just like the four of you,” she said.
Still at nine, that made me proud. I wanted to be brave like Bible heroes, like Dad fighting Nazis, like Mom.
We finished Bible-reading time by memorizing verses together. This night it was Joshua 1:9:
Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the LORD thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.2
“Be strong.” “Be not afraid.” Those were words I wanted to live by. Where would I be without Mom?
At bedtime, Jimmy Dale and I slept in the same bed and fought over who got to sleep next to the wall. Somehow that felt more private. I won. Sleep took its time setting in. It was hard falling asleep because home had two rooms, seven people, and three of them were adults talking late into the evening. I remember hearing them say things that made me wonder. Things like “They aren’t old enough. They don’t need to know that yet” or “It doesn’t have to be that way for them, so why tell them?” I’d try to stay awake to find out what the “that” and “that way” were, but sleep did come, and when I awoke, it was a new day on Bradley Street.
* * *
Yonge Street Elementary School was a half mile west of our place—a ten-minute walk there and a faster run home for Mom’s blackberry pie or hot, roasted peanuts. When I got close enough for my nose to figure out what was in the oven, my ears could hear what was on Mom’s mind that day.
Some days, plaintive melodies accompanied the yearning words Swing low, sweet char-reee-ahht, Com-in’ for to car-ry me ho-o-o-o-me. Other days, the cheerful buoyancy of Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart, in my heart … spilled out of the apartment. I was too young to know what troubles Mom had seen and was too caught up in other things to wonder about Mom’s faith, but her singing was a constant during my growing-up years. When I think of my mom, I think of her working and singing.
As early as elementary school, math and science fascinated me. By nine I knew about the illusive dream of a perpetual motion machine. It captivated me. I learned it was an impossible idea because the expenditure of energy exhausts the source. I remember thinking my teachers must not have known my mom. She was always working, always producing, always moving … perpetually.
I know now our school was nothing like schools in other sections of Atlanta. Desks were hand-me downs—worn and battered. Classroom sets of books were rare. Teachers gave us experiences more than book learning. Experiences such as watching caterpillars grow into butterflies.
“Caterpillars are like you,” my fourth-grade teacher told us one day. “They start off crawling and learn to fly.”
That was all I needed. Back home I practiced. Wrapped in a blanket for a cocoon, I stood on the first step of the apartment building going up to 5B, struggled to get free of the blanket, and jumped. Rewrapped in the blanket, I tried the second step. Then the third. I didn’t get past the third one.
I didn’t learn to fly, but I did learn to love school and love learning. In elementary and high school our teachers knew what it took to be successful, so they disciplined us and placed high expectations on us. They were kind, and they were tough. They paved a path to our future prosperity by believing like the poet Robert Browning that nothing was beyond our grasp except our reach. They expected us—expected me—to reach. So, I did.
Some days I didn’t run home as soon as school was dismissed to fill my stomach. Some days my friends T.C., Felix, and I walked to Fire Station 6 on Auburn Avenue—a few houses west of the King home. The firemen let us sit in chairs inside the station and watch them. Maybe we were a curiosity to them. Maybe they were being friendly. Maybe they let us pretend being firemen because they knew we could never be one. No black firemen existed in Atlanta when T.C., Felix, and I sat in those chairs. But we loved to watch. And dream. Just like flying.
Firemen slid down the pole. We wanted to do that. Fire Station 6 had a dalmatian. I wanted a dalmatian. The firemen cleaned the station till it was spotless. They moved with purpose when an emergency came. All that—the fire pole, the dog, the sparkle, the character—intrigued me. It was something I wanted to be a part of.
When the firemen came back from a fire, the smell of smoke stoked my imagination. The smell of coffee in Station 6 made me want to be an adult. The heavy coats, the hard helmets with curved rims, and the big rubber boots made me forget about butterflies.
Some nights in bed next to Jimmy Dale, I tried to dream about being an Atlanta fireman. My dream seemed impossible. I told my dream to Mom. She embraced my dream and did not share my opinion.
“You can do anything you want to do, Charles. Anything.”
It was as if Ruby Person could see the future. It was a wide-open future even though her life had been closed. For Jimmy Dale and me, she spoke the language of possibility. As I did not see the soot or smell the foul odors of Bradley Street, Mom did not see current limitations. She chose to smell the cooking inside the doors of 5B, not the decay outside them. Becoming a fireman was possible. At a time when society denied so much, she encouraged me to imagine and believe and fly. She envisioned a future that society could not yet see. She ignited a flame in me even though her flame had been doused as a fireman pours water on a burning building or as Atlanta drowned the dreams of 40 percent of its citizenry.
I never became a fireman. I never sat in those then-forbidden seats, but Mom’s unalterable belief in achievement would direct me in a future year to take another forbidden seat I could not have imagined when longing to be a fireman. It was not a seat on a fire truck, but on a bus. A freedom bus. A Freedom Ride.
* * *
Mom was an anchor in my life and a hero. So was Papa. But Papa was not my dad. Papa was the name I called my mom’s dad. Edward Booker lived on Irwin Street, two blocks north of Bradley Street. At that point in life, I walked everywhere I needed to be—friends’ houses, school, church, store. And Papa and Grandma’s.
Kenneth lived with Papa and Grandma. He knew sorrows I did not. Kenneth never knew his real father, and his mother died on his fifth birthday. So, Papa time, for me, was also Kenneth time.
I’d knock on Papa’s door and let myself in. There Papa would be in his blue-and-gray plaid flannel shirt with his ribbed undershirt peeking through as he rocked away in his chair. His crossed legs held the book he was reading, and the bottom of a laced brogan shoe showed a small hole revealing Papa to be a man who not only wore his clothing stylishly, he wore his clothing out. The barbershop smell of bay-rum aftershave splashed on Papa made me want to sink my nose into his cheek. I gave him a hello hug.
“Hey, Bo,” he said. I was Charles to my teachers, Tony to Mom, Bo to Papa. Where Bo came from is a mystery, but it’s what he called me, and it stuck.
“Hey, Papa,” I replied. “What are we going to do today?”
Kenneth joined us.
Papa was a carpenter by vocation, a coin collector by avocation, and a voracious reader. The first thing Papa did in the morning was open his Bible and read. Papa loved his Bible. He loved teaching Kenneth and me the role Africa played in the Bible—Moses and Zipporah, Abraham and Hagar, and the kings and queens of Africa. I think Africa was as important to Papa as Jesus.
“Well, Bo,” he said, “I want to teach you and Kenneth more about Haile Selassie.”
We already knew Haile Selassie was the current emperor of Ethiopia and that Papa revered him. Haile Selassie painted a picture in Papa’s mind of the wealth and power the ancient royalty of Africa possessed before imperialism came and took the riches—and the people—for their own. Haile Selassie in his regal robes, proud posture, strong face, and determination was as important a person for me to learn about as President Roosevelt.
“You are like Haile Selassie, Bo, because people called him many names—Jah, Janhoy, Abba Tekel, and HIM.”
I liked HIM the most because it stood for His Imperial Majesty. I could imagine me being HIM someday.
“Does having lots of names sound like anyone you know?” Papa asked me.
“Me.” I beamed. “Me, Papa.”
After we talked about leadership and being strong and imagining our futures, Papa turned to woodworking.
“Let’s make more progress on the birdhouse,” he said.
Another time I went to Papa’s, Kenneth opened the door with a curled smile that ignited excitement in me. His shoulders rose in the giddiness that says in a secretive way, “I know something you don’t know.”
“What?” I asked. “What?”
“Wait till you see.”
I entered Papa’s house.
“Papa says it’s time.”
Papa joined us in the doorway. His hand held out a small gold piece of metal.
“Boys, here’s the key.”
As soon as we saw it, we knew where to head. We ran to the black trunk in the corner of Papa’s living room. Bulbous silver metal protected each of its eight corners like shoulder pads on a football player. Tarnished, scraped banding along each edge spoke to its age. We inserted the key into the lock and turned. The clasp fell open. Kenneth and I each unlatched one of the two metal hasps on either side of the lock.
We lifted the lid. It seemed like forever I had wanted to know the answer, and a million times I had asked, “What’s in the trunk, Papa?”
“It’s not time,” Papa would say.
And the now I wanted would be postponed again.
The shallow tray covering the lower and larger portion of the trunk contained commemorative coins and old books that looked as fragile as brittle autumn leaves. Papa lifted the tray out of the trunk to set it on a table. That was the mistake.
“Boys, look at these. Look at these coins. These are colored folks on here. These are our people. This is our money.”
He tried to capture our interest. Kenneth and I tried to obey. But our eyes wandered from his lesson on the table to the bottom of the trunk.
“This is Booker T. Washington, and his coin came out just a few years ago.”
We did not care.
“Someday, it will be worth a lot more than fifty cents.”
Our eyes could not stay on the money he was trying to show us.
“This coin goes back one hundred years. One hundred years,” he repeated to punctuate the importance.
On it a kneeling woman lifted her chained arms in prayer.
“You need to learn about this coin,” Papa told us.
But all we could see were the two rifles lying diagonally across the trunk’s bottom. The barrels were oiled to a sheen. The stocks looked older, the wood marred and smoothed with the passage of time and the hold of hands.
My mind exploded. I had no idea what Kenneth was thinking. To me, he wasn’t there. It was just those guns and me. Papa was saying something—most likely about the coins. I did not hear him. My eyes deafened me. My imagination heard only the bolt action of my right hand turning the lever to release a spent shell.
Papa must have figured out the futility of trying to keep our minds on the contents of the trunk’s tray. He took a different tack.
“Would you like to shoot those .22s?”
I don’t remember being able to speak, but somehow we communicated yes.
“Well,” Papa said, “it’s time.”
He taught us how to hold the rifles when walking.
“Cradle the stock in your right arm. Keep the barrel pointing straight ahead and down.”
We obeyed with exaggerated care. He might have told us, “Well, not that far down.”
Papa led us out to his backyard, where he had constructed a shooting range within Atlanta’s city limits. Here we were surrounded by houses and people, and we were about to fire rifles into embanked ground at the back of Papa’s yard.
He had rectangular pieces of cardboard and crayons.
“Draw the roundest circles you can.” He modeled an example for us. I’m sure we thought our circles were round, but I expect they looked more like concentric squiggles than circles.
Papa walked us to the elevated mounds of dirt that would be the backstop for our targets. We put the cardboard in place.
Back at our rifles, Papa took great care to teach us how to hold the gun and how to squeeze the trigger.
“When the gun goes off, you are going to jerk. You have to be ready for the noise and the kickback.”
Papa fired his rifle, and just as he said, we jumped. Neither of us had ever been so close to a fired weapon. He fired more rounds till we stopped reacting to the noise.
“Bo, you first,” Papa said, and my heart swelled with pride as much as my nerves made me scared. My now was here. Papa’s patience balanced my anticipation. He helped me hold the gun, and I’m sure he helped direct the barrel.
“Slow,” he said. And I tried to be slow.
The gun went off. I jumped up as the gunstock pushed my shoulder back. It was as if we had never practiced not jumping. The cardboard was untouched.
Then it was Kenneth’s turn. Same lesson. Same result. The safest place for that cardboard that day may have been in the sight lines of Kenneth’s and my rifles.
But Papa was patient. After lots of sessions of practice, Kenneth and I were able to hit the bull’s-eye with regularity. Papa was proud. So were we. But it never occurred to me to ask Papa why he kept those guns, and why he thought we needed to learn to shoot.
* * *
During the workweek, Papa was more present in my life than my dad. Sixteen-hour days working two jobs meant Dad was gone before I got up, and I was asleep when he got home. In summer, I saw Dad between his jobs. The rest of the year, I was at school, and Dad was at work.
Dad worked as an orderly in two locations. His day started at 7:00 A.M. at Emory University Hospital. At 3:00 P.M. his shift ended, and he headed to Georgia Baptist Hospital to work from 3:30 to 11:00 P.M. All that work brought barely enough for us to live on. Mom’s ironing and Dad’s odd jobs such as raking autumn leaves and working on engines and motors brought us a bit more. Engine work gave Dad a mechanical smell like transmission oil. It’s funny. He worked such long hours in sterile facilities, but the memory I have of him is the aroma of an automotive engineer trying to wash the smell off with Lava soap’s pumice harshness.
Where Papa seemed quiet and serene to me, slow of foot and methodical in his work, Dad was always in a hurry. His hair, brushed straight back and held in place with Royal Crown pomade, formed embedded lines. He would take both hands and sweep his hair backward as his feet moved forward. A cigarette—Pall Mall Red, no filter—constantly hung on his lips and pointed downward as if it were about to fall from his mouth, but the smoke from it seemed to me to be trailing him like smoke from a train. He was on the move because life required it. To make ends meet, Dad needed to be moving forward no matter how far behind he was.
Dad and Mom got married in 1942—the year I was born—and then Dad went off to World War II. So, Dad was away from home even at my birth. More than a million African Americans served a country and a military that did not see them as equal to white Americans. Georgia was the state with the highest percentage of its citizenry enlisted in the war effort. I don’t know how Dad knew that, but he took pride in that fact, and it added to his sense of purpose, dignity, and service.
In my teens I came to know that segregation in the army kept Dad behind the front lines. He had signed up to fight. Instead, his unit provided supply and maintenance to those who did the fighting. Learning that put a pang in my heart. I came to know my Raid on Peach Tree adventures with Kenneth were based on the reality of white boys’ fathers, not mine. The whipping Dad gave me that day when I was nine was real. My imaginings of Dad’s heroism in war were fiction. How much fiction? Maybe Dad cleaned latrines in the war but told me he was a supply officer so he could be bigger in my eyes than in the country’s army that made him small.
I hate racism. It even steals your imagination.
As the war moved on to German soil, so did Dad. Dad told us that “kinky hair” fascinated German kids in towns occupied by the Allies. They wanted to touch Dad’s hair to see if it was real. Sometimes the Germans wanted to touch black skin to see if it felt the same as theirs. Sometimes they maneuvered around black soldiers to see if they had tails. White Americans were not the only racists on the planet.
These fascinations—kinky hair, the feel of flesh, the possibility of tails—sound bizarre and inappropriate to us today, but the times were bizarre and inappropriate. A German monster tried to capture all of Europe and put it under Aryan rule. That same German devil sought to exterminate an entire race and religion from the European continent.
I think each generation lives in its own bizarreness. That bizarreness makes such perfect sense to the people of that time that the majority live by it, even laugh about it in its time. We make jokes about certain nationalities. We talk in stereotypical voices to diminish those of a different race or sexual orientation from our own. We make insulting gestures mimicking people with disabilities. We snicker when women want to wrestle or box or in earlier times vote. But the bizarreness of any time needs confronting. It needs to be stopped in its tracks. The horror that was Adolf Hitler had to be confronted and stopped. My dad’s generation of men walked or drove or got on buses and reported for duty to stand up to it and stop it.
When my time came to confront a bizarreness of my day—the denial of equal access to restaurants, theaters, beaches, voting booths, and public transportation—we walked, we marched, we got on buses, and we reported for duty just as our fathers had. Theirs was a more popular fight even if they were not allowed to fight it.
No, Dad was not present at my birth, and I saw little of him throughout the workweek. Those were the circumstances of his and our lives. On weekends, though, I got some Dad time. He took me fishing, and he taught me how to sit and be quiet. That was hard.
Other weekends Dad took me hiking in the green-capped hills of northern Georgia. Dad loved the outdoors, and he wanted me to love it, too. Usually we walked in Georgia forests full of pine trees and north-Georgia rhododendrons. I’d follow his blue overalls and long-sleeved (even in summer) white shirt up the hills, every now and then stepping on the words Pall Mall to make sure the stub of his cigarette was as out as he thought it was. Little kids take things more seriously than adults do sometimes. Springtime hikes led us through tunnels of rhododendron bushes ablaze in brilliant purple and white. I loved the rare days when I had Dad all to myself.
Once, instead of taking me to forested paths, Dad brought me to Stone Mountain, the enormous, bald bluff famous (and infamous today) for the giant sculpture of Confederate “heroes” Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. The front side of Stone Mountain looks like a giant, eight-hundred-foot-tall loaf of granite bread sitting on the flat ground around it. The back side is a stone quarry. Granite from the Stone Mountain quarry made the steps of the US Capitol and the locks of the Panama Canal. Cars in Washington, D.C., drive across bridges made of this Georgia stone, and guests staying at the Imperial Hotel in Japan reside inside it. Stone Mountain is famous for its granite.
It is also famous for the Ku Klux Klan. I’ve come to learn in my adult life that following D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film, Birth of a Nation, the KKK rose from near extinction.3 It rose on Stone Mountain. There on Thanksgiving Eve 1915, a few handfuls of men burned a cross atop it.4 The next decades saw hoods and robes gather in increasing numbers at Stone Mountain’s “Klan Shack” to reinforce their idea of the Southern way of life.5 They all looked the same in their getups, and they all had the same name: Jim Crow.
Dad knew Stone Mountain was a Ku Klux Klan location on the day he took me on a hike to the top, but he knew they operated there at night. I don’t remember how old I was that day, but I know I had no idea what the Klan was.
It was an easy climb even though there was no path. We simply wandered up the hillside littered with stone-size bits of granite and downed tree trunks left behind as victims to the need for harvested rock. In some places, the cut chunks of granite were the size of steps. The closer we got to the top, the bigger the steps became until they turned into walls. Then we had to find a pathway between or around the walls. We made it to the top and didn’t encounter the Klan. What we did encounter was a firepit, and I noticed lots of cigarette butts on the ground.
“Do people camp up here, Dad? Can we?”
Dad diverted my attention by making a strange observation. “The folks up here don’t smoke my brand,” I remember him telling me as if he were protecting me from people who didn’t smoke Pall Malls. When I got older, I realized he was protecting me, but not from Marlboro or Salem or Camel smokers.
Visiting our relatives in the country was always fun. One weekend I remember us kids picking blackberries and peaches and ending up in the watermelon patch. Mom raided Great-Grandma’s garden and picked tomatoes, green beans, collards, and sweet corn. The soil was so rich you could grow anything in that ground.
The kids fed the chickens and the pigs, and we played all day. There was no television in the country, so we went to bed early.
Sunday afternoon we left for home. We packed all the goodies Great-Grandma gave us along with the vegetables Mom had picked. That day, I watched in horror as my uncle wrung the necks of two chickens. They flopped around the yard till they died. When I saw that, I could not eat those chickens. I told Mom I wanted a chicken that came from the grocery store.
After the chickens were fried and the tea cakes were done, we loaded the car and headed back to Atlanta. I remember being tired and eager to get home.
When the sun went down that night, my dad saw something down the road that made him turn off the road we were on and head across the railroad tracks.
“Where are we going, Dad?” I asked. I wanted to get home.
Dad stopped the car in a neighborhood of shotgun houses. Like 21 Bradley, they had tin roofs, but these homes were built on stilts, not stacks of brick. We didn’t know a soul, but porches were full of folks staring at the road from where we had just come.
“Kids, come here. Now.”
Dad was not messing around, but I could not figure out why we were stopping at a home with people we did not know. They welcomed us and gave us their porch to share.
I looked down the road and saw a large caravan of cars with strange lights coming from them. Crosses ablaze in fire were fixed on the front of their hoods. They lit the night sky like fireworks. It was strange, and it was beautiful. I thought a religious service might be starting. The people in the cars were all wearing the same robes. Bright white like the crosses on their cars, and they had cone-shaped hoods that covered their faces with big holes for their eyes but nothing for their noses or mouths. They mostly looked like a group heading to church in their robes, but the hoods made them look like Halloween costumes, not church outfits.
I could tell the adults we were staying with were frightened. Dad and Mom, too. I wanted Dad to explain.
“What is it, Dad?”
The adults talked in whispers I could not hear. The caravan drove right down the street. Car after car looked the same. Churchgoer after churchgoer looked the same.
I did not know the word surreal at that age, but if I had, this was that. Mixed emotions filled me: the excitement of the parade; the curiosity of the new; the bright crosses filling the dark sky; the funny church outfits we never wore at our church. All this mixed with a sense of danger and a mood of dread. The adults were not acting the way I was. Their whispers contrasted with my enthusiasm. I felt the way Kenneth looked when he invited me inside Papa’s to open the trunk, but I could tell I was not supposed to.
The parade ended. We waited without saying a word. I wanted to scream.
“Why won’t anyone tell me what is going on?” my mind yelled.
But when everyone is hushed, you hush up, too. I didn’t say a word.
After about thirty minutes—who knows how long it really was, kids can’t judge time in any meaningful way—we got back on the road. Dad drove cautiously and in silence. It seemed to me his face and his eyes spent as much time looking into the rearview mirror as they did looking ahead at the road.
I was confused because Dad was not afraid of anybody, but I knew he was scared. He was concerned for me, for him, for us. Silence. The whole way home to Atlanta.
It’s hard to see your father fearful. Like any boy, I looked up to my dad, and I saw him as strong. As the strongest man I knew. I was so proud to be his son. That day, I remember seeing him afraid—physically afraid. That was a difficult day in my life. I did not like seeing Dad scared. No child does.
Dad was a man of few words. That day he gave me no words. So I did not know the meaning of what I was experiencing except that it had a lot to do with fear. Soon enough I would learn—I don’t remember how—these men with their crosses and flames and costumes were not Christians, and they scared the hell out of black people. That was my first encounter with the KKK. It would not be my last.
Both of those days—on the weekend hike up Stone Mountain and the drive down the country road—the Klan was nearby and threatening. Neither day brought immediate harm, but both instilled fear. I had no way of knowing that another day would come when I would be face-to-face with the Klan and learn what they were capable of doing. I’m glad that in the days of my youth—the days in the Bottom—I was too young, too innocent, to understand the bizarreness of my times.
Hugh Person’s life was hard. In the military, he served his country. At home, he served his family. But work wore Dad out. Dad had to leave work at sixty-four in 1986 after suffering a degenerative disease. He was in the hospital less than a week. Nobody expected him to die, but he did. I think Dad died of being worn-out by the hardship of this life. I think this world was unkind to my father. I miss the Pall Mall Reds, no filter. I miss the transmission-oil smell. I miss the hair combed back. I miss the man I saw so little of and can never see again.
* * *
These are the people—Kenneth and Mom and Papa and Dad—who shaped me as a boy. The Bottom is the place that taught me how fortunate and rich I was and am. From Mom, I learned kindness, forgiveness, hard work, and singing. All these gifts I tried to carry with me through life, though singing would get me into trouble a few years down the road.
From Papa I learned the love of learning and precision and patience and waiting. Within a few years, waiting would become more challenging than looking at Papa’s coin collection, but patience would serve me well in solitary confinement.
From Dad I learned perseverance through difficulty. Difficulties this Bradley Street boy could not imagine would become reality before long. Difficulty likes to persevere in life, so I would have to persevere to overcome it. I learned that from Dad.
From Bradley Street I learned to be proud of where I came from. I learned how to be decent. I loved living on Bradley Street. And I love that I came from the Bottom. The poorest part of Atlanta protected and sheltered me from a world of which I was unaware, but a world I would come to realize did not value me the way Mom and Dad and Papa and Bradley Street did. Soon I would wake up from the cocoon my Bradley Street blanket wrapped me in during my youngest years. The chrysalis would first get cracks, fissures, and fractures; then it would fall off, and the real world would reveal itself to me. My slumber would come to an end. My awakening was at hand. Soon I would stretch my wings and try to fly.
My parents handled race by not handling race. They taught us to be human. They taught us to be fair, taught us the value of hard work and responsibility. We were all taught to be of service.
—David Forbes, cofounder of SNCC1
The cracks in the chrysalis of my youth first appeared when I took my first real job at age twelve at a bowling alley. My uncle George was the maintenance manager at Briarcliff Lanes, and he got me hired to help tidy up the place after he finished his shift and went home each night. My job was to pick up soda bottles, empty wastebaskets, and remove debris when customers completed their games. That was okay, but I could see the future in working at Briarcliff was being a pinboy. Pinboys had spunk. Pinboys, at least in their minds, were the stars of the place. They were a team. They were cool. They were it. And pinboys made more money than I did. As soon as I learned the ins and outs of Briarcliff Lanes, my dreams of sliding down that fire pole at Fire Station 6 were put on hold. What I wanted to be in life was a pinboy.
The bowling alley was in Briarcliff Plaza in Virginia-Highland—an exclusive white section of Atlanta two miles north of 21 Bradley. All pinboys at Briarcliff were black. Most were high school students. When I started my pinboy career, I was not only the youngest, but also the shortest. Being four feet eleven and weighing eighty-five pounds earned me new names. Here I wasn’t Charles or Tony or Bo, I was Shrimp, Mouse, Atom. Everybody knew I liked science in school, so they turned that into a negative. Growing up has growing pains. Growing up small has special ones. Friends and classmates found fun in making fun of me. I suppose I did the same to them. I just don’t remember. The pain inflicted on me sticks in my memory. The pain I inflicted on them I’ve long forgotten.
Picture a bowling alley today. Briarcliff is not that picture. No automatic pin returns. No elevated screens projecting scores. No bright lights illuminating lanes. Or splashy images of falling giant bowling pins on distant walls. No bright digital displays with enticing advertisements. Or shiny waxed lanes reflecting lights, pins, balls, and prosperity. No. Each of twelve dull lanes ended at a small pit that collected downed pins. Behind each pit, a four-foot brown padded-leather cushion smothered flying projectiles and dropped them into the pit for us to retrieve. A slender wooden railing divided each lane and created a perch for us. We pinboys sat atop these railings ready to spring into action after each rolled ball. Our job was to reset the pins, recover the ball, and slide it down one of the ball returns as fast as we could. Sometimes bowlers rolled the second ball to speed up play before we were back on our perch, so agility and quickness mattered. Some boys straddled the wooden railing; others sat with both legs on one side. I straddled. That meant I needed to swing only one leg over the divider to get to work. To me, that created efficiency. Customers admired my hustle and my efficiency.
Bowlers, in those days, came right from work, so they wore business clothes—long-sleeved white shirts, trousers, and ties. In other words, the clientele at Briarcliff was mostly male. And pinboys—being boys—were male, too. No pingirls at Briarcliff. The customers let us know we were boys in the way they talked to us. Sometimes boy was used as a common noun, as in “I like it when this boy sets my pins. He’s good.”
Mostly though, it was used as a proper noun, in place of our names.
“Boy, get to work.”
“That’s the way to do it, Boy.”
That felt different, and the older pinboys didn’t like it.
“My name’s not Boy,” they would tell me, “but I can’t say anything if I want to keep this job.”
I started to think of the way I did not know the kids where Mom worked as a domestic, and they did not know me. I knew their names, and they knew ours, but none of us knew each other in any meaningful way. Mom spent as much time with them as she spent with us, so you might think we would know them the way we knew, say, cousins. But we were no cousins to them, nor they to us. And Mom was no aunt. An aunt would not have her own particular plate and bowl, as Mom told us she had at the home of her employer. They told her these were “special” dishes for her, and Mom pretended to accept that as reasonable. It must have sounded reasonable to them. The dog where Mom served as a domestic had a bowl of its own, too. But not because he was “special.” He had his own bowl because he was a dog. It didn’t take much for Mom to understand just how “special” her dishes were or why.
As I became aware of my name at Briarcliff and Mom’s tableware at work, I began to realize there were two different worlds in Atlanta—defined by color—where we knew of each other and liked each other—at least we said we did. I liked my bowlers, and they liked me; Mom liked her second “family,” and they liked her. But they did not care about us, and I was at an age when it was becoming apparent to me they never would. No matter how much the family appreciated Mom mothering their children, she always had her “special” bowl and plate. No matter how much a bowler liked me setting his pins for him, he never saw me as Charles or Tony or Bo. He saw me as Boy.
Mr. O’Neill, the owner, expected us to match the customers in dress, so like them we wore long-sleeved dress shirts buttoned all the way up to our necks and dark slacks. Some even wore suspenders. Our looking our best was important to Mr. O’Neill. I didn’t understand why, but it helped prepare me years later when we dressed our best during our protests in the Atlanta Student Movement or on the Freedom Rides so we looked like gentlemen and ladies, not like radicals and reactionaries that society wanted to believe we were. Dress mattered at work. It would mean something on the streets of Atlanta and seats of Greyhound and Trailways, too.
Work at Briarcliff for me started at four in the afternoon following school and went till ten, but we had to wait for Mr. O’Neill to finish the books each night because he took us home in his car. Mr. O’Neill was a good man who cared about his pinboys.
I made friends at Briarcliff. Charles Patterson would be on one side of me; Flu Ellen on the other. Pinboys started off working one lane, but once experienced, we serviced two lanes, so more often than not, Flu, Charles, and I were hopping between lanes and not sitting down on the job. Our first priority after each bowled ball was to protect ourselves from airborne trouble. We dodged and ducked. Hands formed our last line of defense to divert the hurt coming our way. Attentiveness, I learned, was an asset in a pinboy.
Next, we needed to get the ball back to the customer. Fast. We set the ball on its way down the railing by giving it the impetus to make it all the way back. Sometimes we failed to put enough oomph on our return. The ball stopped partway. We’d have to walk up the alley to recover our mistake. That was embarrassing. While the ball returned and the customer prepared for his next roll, we cleared the alley of pins that had not made it into the pit. When a strike was bowled or after the bowlers rolled a second ball, we reset the tenpins. The pins had small holes—short, hollow shafts really—in the bottom of them. Each pit had a lever that pinboys depressed with one foot. That brought ten spikes up from the floor upon which we placed the pins. The spikes identified the proper location for each pin. After resetting the pins, we let up on the lever and either hopped over to the adjacent lane or hopped atop the railing for a moment before the next lane was ready to be reset.
Customers tipped us when they were done for the evening by sliding coins—nickels, dimes, quarters—down the alley. We’d rush and gather up whatever they sent our way with the enthusiasm of a child waking up to snow in Atlanta. Tips at Briarcliff were far more common than Southern snow, but every time those coins headed our way, they might as well have been the first flakes of winter.
My days as a pinboy at Briarcliff brought two youthful awakenings to me. The first was one that occurs in the life of almost every American child. The older boys informed me—that would be putting it kindly—there was no Santa Claus. No Santa Claus? I could not believe it. It may be hard to comprehend that at twelve I still believed in Santa, but I did. Their “informing” me came as mockery and belittling. They could not believe I still believed.
“Mouse believes in San-ta. Mouse believes in San-ta,” they would taunt.
“Hey, Mouse, just because the Easter Bunny is real, doesn’t mean everything is,” they teased.
“Mouse, how can someone as smart as you be as dumb as that,” they needled.
I went home and cried my eyes out. I implored Mom to tell me it wasn’t so. She didn’t.
Discovering the truth about Santa is part of life. Seems like almost everybody, in America at least, goes through that awakening. Santa is part of our culture.
The other awakening I experienced working at Briarcliff was a truth that happened only to Negroes. Down South, it was as much a part of the culture as Santa Claus.
One day, the other pinboys and I stepped out to get dinner on our break. Most days I ate a bologna-and-cheese sandwich Mom had made for me. The first time Mom did not make me a sandwich, Flu and Charles led me next door to the Majestic diner. We walked under its red neon lights proclaiming FOOD TO TAKE HOME, past a wall of glass bricks making it impossible to see inside, till we reached the cutaway corner creating the entrance of the restaurant. Above us a giant, horizontal line of bright red letters spelling MAJESTIC curved around the building. Above them, a glowing vertical sign proclaimed FOOD THAT PLEASES. That place sucked you in with illumination and glitz. Today, the bowling alley is long gone, but you can still sit down for a meal at the Majestic. I learned that night I could not.
We entered. Inside, a long, narrow aisle separated a seemingly endless counter from a row of four-person booths that also stretched as far as twelve-year-old eyes could see. The place was abuzz with business. With every stool occupied, I headed for one of the booths.
“What are you doing?” said Flu.
I looked at him. “What do you mean?”
“We can’t eat here.”
“Why?” I didn’t have a clue.
“We can’t eat here. Negroes can’t eat here. Don’t you know that?”
It was another Santa Claus moment. “We can’t?”
“You boys ordering something?” the woman at the counter asked.
We told her what we wanted and stood at the front of the restaurant waiting for it. Not far from us, students not that much older than Flu and Charles were seated on stools and in booths.
“Why can they sit down?” I pointed to college students wearing Georgia Tech clothes. “They have dark skin.”
“They aren’t Negroes,” Flu said. “They’re Iranian, I think. Somewhere in the Middle East.”
“That doesn’t make sense. Their skin is almost as…”
The woman delivered our food bagged up. We paid. We left. We ate outside.
That was the day I learned something called se-gre-ga-tion meant we could order food, pay for food, get food, but not eat food inside the premises. We were not sitting down at the Majestic or any of the other nearby diners—the Miss Georgia Dairy, the Deli, the Rexall counter. Instead, at every eatery, we stood in the small entrance, gave the waitress our order, and had to clear the way for non-Negro customers making their way to the counter or booths.
“Just the way it is,” Flu Ellen told me.
Those students studying at Georgia Tech intrigued me. They came almost every week, and they always came as a group. I never understood how these international students, many of them as dark as me, were allowed to sit down in a Majestic booth, and I was not.
FOOD THAT PLEASES the sign said. It was a relative term.
Just the way it was.
First no Santa. Next, no seat. These awakenings in my life were more like Mom trying to get me out of bed on Saturday morning.
“Why can’t I just sleep a little longer?” I’d complain. Then I would roll over for a few minutes more of unconsciousness.
Two subsequent events in my young life startled me right out of bed from the slumber of childhood into asking sociological questions I had never considered. One question was “Why?” The other was “How?”
Let’s take “Why?” first. That event happened on a bus. On my way to Briarcliff.
For African Americans in the segregated South, the idea of a startling event happening on a bus was not surprising. Buses represented segregation. Everyone knows that now. Rosa Parks brought that to the country’s—even the world’s—attention with her defiant act on December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama. What the world learned then, Southerners already knew. The signs made it clear. Whites in front. Blacks in back. In some Southern cities, Negroes paid their fares at the front of the bus, disembarked, walked to the back door, and reentered so as not to “offend” the white folks in front by the mere act of walking past them. Buses in some Southern cities had movable signs. Drivers could move the COLORED sign back a row or two if the white section filled. Moving the sign made more seats available to whites. It also made those behind the sign—that would be us—give up seats. Seats that moments before were perfectly comfortable and perfectly capable of supporting pairs of pants that black men filled or dresses that black women wore, but then, somehow, those seats needed pants and dresses with white skin pressing against the fabric. Peculiar things, bus seats.
Yes, Rosa’s singular act taught the world what blacks already knew: We (black human beings) must sit here; they (white human beings) can sit there. Except that Rosa’s singular act was not singular. In Montgomery alone, in 1955 alone, teenager Claudette Colvin defied the segregated seating in March—nine months before Rosa did. Mary Louise Smith did the same in October. Many Negros had personal bus stories, often at a young age, that opened their eyes, taught them a lesson, puzzled their minds, and led them toward their awakenings.
Fifteen years before Rosa Parks defied the laws and customs of Montgomery, thirty-year-old Pauli Murray violated the segregation laws of Richmond, Virginia, by refusing to give up her seat in the front of a bus in 1940. When Murray was also denied admittance to Harvard Law School in 1944 because of her gender, she coined the term Jane Crow.2
That same year, on July 6, 1944, exactly one month after D-Day, Lieutenant Jack Robinson found himself in custody at what is now Fort Hood, Texas. The Negro lieutenant objected in strong language and forceful posture when the driver of his bus demanded he vacate his seat next to the light-skinned wife of a fellow African American officer. Military police escorted Robinson off the bus, leading to a general court-martial trial a month later. Had the trial ended in a guilty verdict, the world might never have known the man who became the most important figure in the history of baseball. For Lieutenant Jack Robinson went on to become #42 for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Jackie Robinson.3
Marcelite Jordan Harris, a 1964 Spelman graduate who became the first African American female major general in the US Air Force, grew up in Houston.4 Her bus story happened because she was a young girl who simply followed leadership. To Marcelite and her sister, the driver of a bus was the leader of the bus, so she and her sister wanted to sit right behind the driver—right behind the leader—so they could follow him. When they did that one day—when they sat in the first seat on their city bus—an African American woman in the back came up front and kindly led them to the back where they “belonged.”5
“Mar-ce-lite,” society said, “wake up.”
And she did. Marcelite learned at a young age this world did not operate for her the way it operated for whites.
My bus story—my awakening—came on a day I had a headache. It happened the year before Claudette and Mary Louise and Rosa experienced their bus stories. It happened in 1954. I was twelve.
I stood at the bus stop with my head pounding. I boarded the bus and paid my fare. I was headed to Briarcliff for work. But I was also headed where I had been taught to head. To the back of the bus. Back to the back I walked to sit where we all sat. The bus pulled away from the curb. Normal day. Normal bus. As the bus picked up speed, it began to make odd sounds in the back. Mechanical noises. Clanging noises. Headache expanding noises. The noises got louder and louder. They exacerbated the pain pounding in my head. They intensified the throbbing. They tweaked my normal complacency into defiance. I needed to get away. I needed to move from the rear of the bus. I rose from my seat, and I walked forward—as far forward as I could—to settle into a seat that gave as much space as possible between me and the harsh sounds.
Like Marcelite’s older African American woman, a concerned elderly woman—almost grandmotherly—intervened. She looked at me all the way from the back with eyes conveying something between worry and anger. Probably both.
“What are you doing?” her eyes counseled in silent inquiry. “You’ll get us in trouble!” her face warned. “Come back,” her body language beseeched.
But I was young. Younger than Claudette, younger than Mary Louise. I was … twelve. Just trying to get to my pinboy job at Briarcliff. Just trying to get away from a headache.
“Why should I?” my return gaze asked.
That was the question: Why?
“Why should anyone care where I sit?” my twelve-year-old, headstrong self conveyed to her.
The bus driver cared. He glared in the mirror giving me as much of his attention as he did the road ahead of us. He glared as if his eyes would move me on their own.
I was going to stay where I was. There was no reason to do otherwise. I stayed put.
Then a strange thing happened.
Based on my reading of that woman’s face, I had thought everything would happen. Everything bad. But nothing happened. Nothing. I rode the rest of the way to Briarcliff and got off the bus. Except for my headache hammering to the vibration of the bus’s noise, it was a normal day on a normal bus.
In the larger scope of my life, though, it was not normal.
That was the first event, the first episode I remember that made me think something was wrong. It opened my eyes wide enough to start noticing the reality of the world around me.
The look in that woman’s eyes, the pronouncement of her face, the misgiving in her alerted posture, said loudly and clearly, “Stop!” Even if I did not have ears or sense to hear it, a sliver of the sound penetrated something in me at that age telling me things were not as I believed them to be, a sliver that pricked me enough to look at the sliver and wonder why it bothered me so much. What did that woman know that I did not? What did she understand that I would come to learn? She shook my norms. She tapped on the concrete innocence of my youth. It had a ring of hmmmm that made me question my boyish certainties. My job at Briarcliff was moving me beyond the Bottom. On the way to work, segregation. At dinnertime at the Majestic, segregation. Even in the safe environs Mr. O’Neill insisted upon in the alley itself, it was starting to sink in. Separation. Customers were white; pinboys black. The foul line that bowlers could not cross and the length of the bowling alley between us created a breach not to be bridged.
At twelve, I was ready to see things invisible to me till then. Santa does not exist. Color matters. Lines are drawn that cannot be crossed. Twelve, for me, was the age questions needed real answers. “Why?” was making its way to the front of my thinking. It took a headache on a bus ride and a meal at the Majestic to make that question meaningful.
Bus story after bus story is known today only to the individual teller of each tale. Its meaning specific to the indignity to that person. My guess is Claudette and Mary Louise and Rosa had earlier bus stories in their lives when they, in their innocent youth, sat unwittingly behind the driver of a bus. Or when they changed seats to a row denied them because they had a headache. Bus stories were as common as straws on the camel’s back. It was the final straw—Rosa’s straw—that began the breaking of the camel. Pauli Murray’s straw, Lieutenant Jack Robinson’s straw, Marcelite’s straw, Claudette’s, Mary Louise’s, and my straws were just straws. Common as hay. Ordinary as dust. Sending each of us a message that we individually were “other” so that we collectively were substandard. The world was not ours; the world was theirs. The question was “Why?” Why couldn’t we belong? Why couldn’t it be our world, too?
* * *
My next awakening sought the answer to “How?” More to the point, I wanted to know “How could I not know this?” or “How could this be?”
That awakening came in tenth grade.
Tenth-grade civics class taught us citizenship, politics, government, voting duties, and civil debate. It also taught us the impact on society of demographic issues such as age and gender and race. And it taught us about affluent and impoverished populations. I knew about race in America. I got more civics education on race riding that bus to Briarcliff than I did from any classroom. But I didn’t know much about poverty and prosperity or scarcity and abundance. I thought what I think every kid thinks. Everyone is like me, isn’t he? Everyone is like us, aren’t they?
In civics class, we reached a chapter on something called blight. Blight in the context of the lesson was new to me. I associated blight with agriculture—infestation, disease, wilting, dying. My image of blight was of arid soil—barren, cracked, dry, dusty, dirty, gray, lifeless. Now a textbook was broadening my understanding. This chapter on blight had nothing to do with the images in my head. In fact, this application of blight had an adjective in front of it: urban. Urban blight. I had never heard of it. Urban blight spoke of deterioration of city centers. It told of decline in infrastructure and the decimation of prosperity. Urban blight, I learned, meant that certain populations grow together in distress—economic distress, criminal distress, educational distress—becoming areas of metaphorical plague, pestilence, and … blight. Two or three pages into this chapter, a picture slapped me awake. The picture was of my neighborhood. Right before my eyes—Bradley Street. My street. There it was. The gravel street. The close apartment houses. Tenements it called them. My home wasn’t a home. It wasn’t an apartment. It was a tenement. A footnote on that word taught me tenement meant “a house broken up into apartments in a poor section of town.” That’s where I lived. I lived in “a house broken up into apartments in a poor section of town.”
The picture stared back at me. It jolted me like a first sip of Scotch. It tasted of a first drink as well. An involuntary sideways snap of my head tried to shake the image from my eyes. I was poor. My family was poor. My friends were poor. We lived in a section of Atlanta seen as infested, decrepit, diseased.
How, I wondered, could I not know this? How could I be fifteen years old when I discovered that my lifelong neighborhood was an example—the example—of poverty? Of deterioration? Of crime? Of uneducation? Of … of … of … tenement?
As long as I can remember, I’ve liked to tinker and build and invent. When I was much younger than a sophomore reading a civics book learning about urban blight, I assembled model toys. Inventors construct prototypes—the original version or representative example of something. It occurred to me that day in that class that to all who read that book—regardless where they were in the United States—my neighborhood, my street, my home, my … tenement, would be the prototype of urban blight for that reader. Embarrassment made me want to shrink to invisibility. Shame warmed my face to discomfort. A change came into me that day.
Was my living in urban blight connected to my not being welcomed in the front of that bus three years earlier? Was my poverty—my tenementness—the deciding factor in where I could sit on that bus then? On any bus this day in tenth grade? Was it my color alone? Or was it both? I needed to know. I felt as if I needed to do something. But high school was a world unto itself. What could a high school kid do to stand up against the frustrations of the world?
Two more years would pass. The fifties would change to the sixties. Eisenhower would change to Kennedy. Old would turn to young. By decade’s end, by high school’s end, change was in the air. As I finished high school in the spring of 1960, winds of dissatisfaction roiled. Waters of unrest boiled. Drums of protest were a drummin’. Buses of change were a comin’.
Almost unknown to me, students at the black colleges of Atlanta—Morehouse, Spelman, Clark, Morris Brown, Atlanta University, and the Interdenominational Theological Center—had had enough.
Our parents in their time of awakening had handled race one way: Life is difficult, but it could be a whole lot worse. Get along. They had taught us to work hard in order to be valued and respected. My job at Briarcliff taught me hard work, and Mr. O’Neill showed me respect. Those between our parents’ ages and us—Dr. King and his contemporaries—handled race a different way: Enough is enough. Not gonna take it anymore. Gonna stand up by sitting down. Gonna stride toward freedom.
Soon it would be our turn to handle race. We, too, would stand by sitting. We, too, would march to gain our freedom. But our answer would also be in song—“Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ’Round,” “We Shall Not Be Moved.” Our answer would be in chants of demand: “What do we want? Freedom! When do we want it? Now!” Unlike our parents, we were not inclined to get along; unlike our icons, we were not waiting till age forty-two (Rosa Parks) or age twenty-six (Dr. King). We, the college-aged Negroes of America, believed our time was now. The day was upon us. I was awake and up for the day.
Copyright © 2021 by Charles Person and Richard Rooker.