Feb 15, 2017, 05:58AM

A Baltimore Snapshot in Black and White

More tales from Tinytown.

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Coming to terms with my personal white contradictions and memories in 1964, I reflect on my introduction to integration at Garrett Heights Elementary School in Baltimore’s Hamilton neighborhood. Students were informed of the arrival of black children on school buses one morning. We were told we’d be assigned to, and welcome each student. White boys were to greet black boys and white girls greet black girls. It was very organized and exciting to be part of the welcoming committee. The big yellow school buses pulled into the playground and the black kids exited forming a single file line.

Before that morning, my only contact with anyone of color was a friend of my grandmothers’ who we called Aunt Josephine. She was a black woman who helped out doing laundry, and cooking. I won’t call her a maid because she never served us; she shared meals and attended family gatherings. But my grandmother gave her money and other things for her family. They worked in a textile “sweatshop” together sewing uniforms for the war machine.

Later that morning at school, I was assigned to a kid named “Domino.” We hit it off immediately and hung out on the playground after school before the busses returned to take the kids home. We talked about the Orioles and the Colts. All the kids got along well, and it was casual and natural. All the white parents in the neighborhood were upset. As children we couldn’t understand the reasons why, or the significance of the history unfolding before our eyes. Domino got his nickname after he was burned in a house fire that left his face scared with light and dark spots.

I never knew his real name because of an incident that occurred a few days later. I returned home that afternoon telling my mother how great Domino was. Then, I asked my mother what a  “motherfucker” was. She screamed and demanded to know where I heard such a thing. “Domino,” I cried. She immediately dragged me, screaming “motherfucker,” up the hill right into the Garrett Heights School principal’s office. I was no longer allowed to hang out with Domino.

My parents, like the majority of whites at the time, were prejudiced. I still fight those ingrained feelings they believed and tried to teach by example. Saying my father was a bigot sounds harsh, but it was true. He’d say things like, “They’re not all bad but you can’t trust them” or “Don’t show them your money, hide it in your shoe, or they’ll take it from you.” “Cross to the other side of the street if you see them coming your way.”

It wasn’t cute or funny like the character Archie Bunker in the TV sitcom All in the Family. One of my father’s many rules was that if we kids brought black friends home after school to play, they had to stay on the porch and not in the house. I could also imagine black parents saying the same words to their children. Ignorance has no color.

When I was at Mergenthaler High School there were jocks, preppies, nerds, and freaks. I was a freak. A freak was not quite a hippie. We smoked pot and took LSD, but shunned Flower Power. We felt like  outsiders when we were mocked and put down by other cliques and groups at school. We listened to rock ‘n’ roll and soul music and hung out with other black freaks like us. Jimi Hendrix was a major influence. Jimi’s music gave us a common bond, and was a reason why I picked up the guitar for the first time. Bands like The Funkadelics, The Last Poets, Sly and the Family Stone, and James Brown were an entire universe unto itself. WEBB radio station in Baltimore was owned by James Brown. Soul music and rock ‘n’ roll, the Woodstock Festival, the Vietnam war protests, the Civil Rights movement, plus our contempt for Nixon and a basic fear of the police united black and white youth like no other time in recent history. Revolution was brewing. Protests were happening around us. You could feel the culture shift.

For one bright moment in our collective consciousness, it appeared that the very thing that divided us was bringing us together. Radical groups like the SDS, The Weathermen, The Black Panthers and the Yippies were delivering us from evil. But America’s entrenched powers neutralized the youth movement— and the progress achieved from the Civil Rights and anti-war protests—rendering it useless and creating the tense racial vacuum that still exists today. The assassinations of Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, and the Kennedy brothers permanently closed any hope of meaningful change.

Movements like the Beat Generation were born out of a restless age where blacks and whites came together and shared as one people, one mind, combining jazz, hipster culture, and poetry to invent a new art form. Out of that came the unrest and revolt of the 60s, evolving into the punk rock movement and rap music culture of the 70s and beyond, evolving yet again. There is something in the air. We have more in common as Americans than we realize. We grow numb and weary from the daily dose of lies we’re fed by politicians and their media puppets.

During my college years as part of a Sound & Visual poetry class, I conducted an experiment one sunny summer day. I purchased some make-up from a theatrical shop, and an Afro wig. At home I applied the golden brown face paint and donned the “bush” style wig. I had a natural look, not like the exaggerated blackface “minstrel.” I walked from my apartment on 21st St., four blocks to the Rite Aid drugstore. On my way there no one noticed me. It was a beautiful day and the streets were filled with people. Yet no one noticed me. I stood in line with blacks and whites, and waited my turn. Not a second glance. Then I ordered a pack of Kool cigarettes from the cashier, who was black. She said nothing and acted like nothing was amiss. Even though my hands were still white. No one said a single word. They surely saw me, yet they didn’t see me. They didn’t even look at me funny. I felt like the invisible man.

I guessed that’s how blacks felt. Like no one saw them. Not even each other. That day changed my perceptions. It reinforced my commitment not to be like my parents’ generation. 

  • well yeah i grew up in a blue collar area of brooklyn ..NYC as a whole was not so clearly delineated/marked off in racial border lines & boundaries, was more fluid and hard to discern than in a "entry to the south" city like Baltimore, on that cusp.But Yes was a more camouflaged racial segregation in reality and less naked. unlike Boston, Balt, other east coast cities that went forced school busing etc, we had(HAVE) landlord racism as is now personified by our ugly prez & his rent -fiend old man that late in life Woody G protested in personal directed interaction. and Ny had Robert Moses, racist mastermind of segregation real estate districting development , right down to designing very low over head street bridges over his new urban highways to the Li beaches, like the Cross Is Parkway, his baby, on way toward south shores, so that NO "ghetto origin" Buses! could navigate there. If ya dont Own a car, we my white people dont want ya. all proven in documents later found. and yeah TD here describes his own personal Ralph Ellison Invisible Man experience , that is testimony to how he Tested his world at all times. Few of us thought of trying That! TD's opening sentence is the honest telling of a process all us unaware white privileged kids had to do in the world if humble enough, take stock of our own "social stereotyping" as to race issues, yes have surprised myself at times crossing streets on dark street nights on the move from perceived danger based on nada but skin approaching. we were FED that long ago..i became at ease farly early on iin life, the MUSIC delivered that directly , & the literature, and the reefer shared , and the college movements. but pilot lights remain lit of course. we must maintain our own watch. Thanx TD , your honest memoir writing continues. "hey Domino! , you Out There M-F*#!ker?, I HOPE SO!"

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  • I grew up in Suitland MD, which is in Prince George's County, a suburb of DC. My parents purchased a house there in 1967. We were the second black family on our street and I was in second grade. My younger siblings and I attended Woodley Knoll Elementary School on Shadeyside Avenue. My brother, two years my junior, used to get chased home from school nearly every day by the neighborhood bully, a scraggly white boy named Billy Jack. He was my age, and was much bigger than my brother Robert, so my dad told me I had to take care of things... if you get my drift. So, every day after school, I 'd wait at the front gate of our semi-detached house until my brother would come tearing around the corner, Billy Jack on his heels. I'd commence to whipping Billy Jack's behind, never mind the fact that I am female. I whipped Billy's ass, up and down Houston Street, until one day he'd apparently had enough. He left my brother Robert alone. Then, there was the man across the street, Mr. Hall. He was the father of my friend and schoolmate, Cheryl Hall. She used to invite me and my sister Rose to play in her treehouse, which we were delighted to do. That is, until her dad would show up from work, all mean, and dirty in his uniform. He'd tell us to get the hell out of his yard. My dad, hearing the commotion, would come outside and threaten to break him in half. Mr. Hall never said anything to him in response, but within months their house, the nicest one on the block, was on the market. Mr. Hall packed up and moved his family into an apartment building a few miles - away to escape integration. The McVey's lived in the house next door, they were an older couple, he was wheelchair bound. Mrs. McVey grew morning glories, and other flowers, and she loved to talk to us about her garden. Her husband was a different story however. He, like Mr. Hall was a staunch racist, and he didn't mind making it known. He expressed his racist views differently from Mr. Hall, in as much as he never spoke a single word to any of us kids, nor to my parents. One day my dad heard Mr. McVey fall down the stairs and he ran over to help him. He did that, even though that man detested us. When I was in third grade I had a friend named Paula Kelly. We met in school and instantly became inseparable. Once, after school Paula invited me to stop by her house. She lived on Houston Street too, I walked by her house everyday on my way to and from school. She took me upstairs to see her room, I remember it was all pink and white. Within a short while her dad came home, and when he saw my black face in that pink and white room he was visibly upset. He went downstairs and questioned Paula's mom. Then, he came back upstairs and told me to get out of his house. Paula Kelly never returned to Woodley Knoll Elementary School, I never saw my friend again after that. When I returned to school, the teacher, a young white woman, took me aside and told me Paula and her family had moved, and she told me not to cry about it. I often wonder what became of Paula Kelly. I wondered for a long time if she too was traumatized by what happened that afternoon in her pink and white room. I never told my parents about it.

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