“People: Coffee with Some Cream”
By Michael Calvert
January 8, 2015
“Would you want your sister to marry one of them?” he shouted with a scrunched face. Another boy repeated the question with a leer. A couple of others stepped closer, hoping to see a fight.
“No, no, never,” I responded emphatically to the small group of boys jeering at me. “But they’re just talking about colored kids going to public school with white kids, not them marrying white girls.”
“My dad says one thing leads to another. Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile. That’s the way them colored are,” said one boy just as the bell rang. The others grunted their agreement.
We were fifth graders, eleven years old, on the St. Gabriel School playground at recess in 1954. That morning, our teacher, Sister Phillip Neri, had seized on newspaper headlines about the pending Brown vs. Board of Education integration case as an example from current events on the role of the Supreme Court in our American Government class. This would have escaped me since it wasn’t on the sports page. Sister said the separate colored schools were terrible, and integration would let colored boys and girls receive the same education as us white kids.
We soon forgot about the school integration case because Sister said that all we had to remember for the test were the names and definitions of the three branches of government. But that evening, I thought bad schools were not fair to Dennis, the African-American boy who had slept in the bunk above me in Shawnee Cabin at Camp St. Joseph for a week in August. Together we had jumped up when reveille sounded soon after sunrise, made our beds stretching the blankets so tight a quarter would bounce on them, had cereal at the mess hall, lined up at attention while our cabin leaders shouted in turn “All accounted for, sir,” and saluted. Our days were filled with swimming, hiking, softball, football, soccer and archery. After dinner, we gathered around a blazing fire that cast a flickering light in the encroaching darkness. Father Luchi told ghost stories, most memorably Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Sleep did not come quickly later those nights as we lay in our bunks.
Dennis and I were always together. We were hiking near the creek on Monday when he pushed me off the path and yelled, “Lookout!” I almost stepped on a snake. It was probably a garter snake, but we decided it was a copperhead, and he had saved my life.
We both passed our swimming test on Wednesday and were allowed to swim in the deep end where the diving boards were. We raced to be first off the low board, but we stayed away from the ladder that rose to the diving board high above us. We stretched out on our stomachs on the hot concrete apron and watched as the older boys and some of the counselors executed jackknife dives and even some double somersaults from the ten-foot board. Dennis said, “We’ve got to go off the high dive. My daddy will be so amazed.”
We dared each other to jump from the high dive. Dennis announced that he would do it the next day—for several days. I said I would go first if he went up the ladder behind me. We knew there was no backing down the ladder; it was just too humiliating to even think about. Once on the diving board, you had to at least jump.
“I want to go first,’” Dennis said, “but not today.” On Saturday, we played the rock-paper-scissors game to decide who would be the first to step off the diving board into the sky. He won, so I had to go first. I gasped when I stepped off the ladder onto the diving board and saw how high I was above the water. I walked slowly, careful not to flex the springboard, and stepped off the end. Dennis followed. He had to. We laughed as we treaded water side by side. We made several jumps to confirm our bravery. We even bounced on the end of the board to launch ourselves higher, but we didn’t dive.
On Sunday our parents came to take us home. Dennis and I proudly marched to the ladder, climbed to the board, and ran off waving to our parents. We knew they would be impressed. Our parents introduced themselves and complimented each other’s boys. Dennis and I said goodbye with a hug, self-conscious only because we were eleven-year-old boys
No African-American kids lived anywhere near AmVet Village, our subdivision on the edge of Columbus, Ohio. I only saw African-Americans from our car when we drove through the rundown Mount Vernon neighborhood on our way downtown. Men loitered in front of bars and liquor stores with blinking neon signs, and I listened to Dad and Mom’s cryptic comments to each other in the front seat. I learned that African-Americans were to be avoided, particularly after dark.
The N-word was not heard in my home, but jokes about African-Americans were. In fact, the only time we heard African-Americans mentioned were in stories that included quotations in an exaggerated dialect and described them as hapless, simple creatures baffled by modern life’s complexities. We laughed because we were better than them.
Our family was not alone. In the early 1950s, families across the country adjusted the antennae on their new televisions to bring the Amos ‘n’ Andy Show into their darkened living rooms. They watched the Kingfish engage in petty schemes to take advantage of Andy who was so stupid and gullible that he would have been judged “retarded” had he been white. Shiftless Lightnin’, pompous attorney Algonquin J. Calhoun, Esquire, George’s acerbic wife Sapphire, and her fierce Momma all spoke in exaggerated dialect with many misused big words in a Harlem setting. Together we laughed at the crude humor and passively accepted the show as an accurate portrayal of African-Americans. After all, we had little, if any other opportunity to become acquainted with African-Americans and learn that the show was a gross misrepresentation of Harlem in New York and the Mount Vernon neighborhood in Columbus. When we drove toward downtown, we thought we knew what went on behind those facades because we had seen it on “Amos ‘N’ Andy.”
When I was in the eighth grade, our elementary school football team was scheduled to play at St. Dominic, an African-American school. We had defeated all of our opponents including the tough boys from St. Vincent’s orphanage. We swaggered through the halls at school the week before the game, but privately we were worried. African-American tailback Jim Brown of Syracuse was running over defenders, and Wilt Chamberlain of Kansas was dominating college basketball. Mike O’Brien said that African-Americans had greater muscle mass and more tendon elasticity than whites, and they could overpower, outrun, and out jump white athletes. We warned each other that the St. Dominic guys would play dirty in a pile up. Someone said they might have switchblade knives in their uniforms. Although none of us admitted it, we were nervous as we piled into cars to drive to their field in the Mount Vernon area. The field had lots of cinders and not much grass, and there was only one goal post. Some of the St. Dominic players wore jeans and sneakers instead of football pants and cleats, and most were taller and bigger than us.
They returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown. Within minutes, they scored again. Our tackling was tentative and half-hearted, and we almost stood by and watched them run past us. The final score was 67 to 0. We left as quickly as possible and tried not to think about this embarrassing defeat.
The newspapers I delivered that fall were full of stories about Central High in Little Rock in Arkansas. Life magazine did a cover story on “Slavery and Segregation.” My relatives and most of my friends agreed that Southerners treated African-Americans terribly, and they believed that President Eisenhower was right to send the 101st Airborne to Little Rock.
At St. Charles Preparatory in 1957, there were only three African-American boys, and they were quiet and studious. Everyone was overly polite to them. The subject of race only came up once. Mr. Rectenwald assigned a brief essay on the country of our ancestors such as Ireland or Germany. When he collected the papers and walked toward his desk he stopped and, he was ashen. The room became silent. “I want to apologize to the Negroes in this class. I am deeply embarrassed that I did not consider your…err… situation. I am so sorry.” This minor incident aside, race was not an issue at our high school while African-American college students were beginning sit-ins at soda fountains at Woolworth stores and freedom rides on Greyhound buses.
At Ohio State, African exchange students outnumbered African-Americans. The State Department was introducing future African leaders to democracy in America through scholarships while most African-Americans were not able to avail themselves of higher education. The Africans were easily distinguished from African-Americans by their lustrous, ebony skin. I had heard lurid stories of plantation owners raping women in the slave quarters, but I had not realized that most African-Americans were of mixed race.
In Sociology 101, Professor Kent Schwirian lectured on race, a topic that was receiving increased attention in the early 1960s. I was surprised when he said, “Negros will constitute a majority in several cities in the next decade and elect Negro mayors and city councils. The minority will be the majority.”
The professor said this was not a new phenomenon and cited a 1904 study that predicted a disaster for the United States by the middle of the twentieth century. The scholar calculated that ethnic minorities would become the majority in the United States by then. With a chuckle, Professor Schwirian added, “By 1950, most people were not concerned that there were more minorities like Irish, Italians, Greeks, Poles and Hungarians than people with English, French and German heritage. Today’s question is whether America can integrate Negroes into our society.”
In our readings and lectures, we learned that race was a social construct and people of different races are essentially similar human beings. My fellow students and I accepted this theory and expounded on the studies that proved it in term papers and answers to essay questions on final exams. Of course, we knew that this was not something to talk about in the neighborhood.
I learned another lesson that year, but not in a college classroom. At a friend’s house, I was startled to discover that my best friend while growing up was part African-American. His father had an African-American mother and a white father, passed as white, married an Italian woman, and moved into AmVet Village. I had spent countless hours with my friend and his dad drinking coffee, eating spaghetti, and watching football. Their new identity jarred my world.
That night as I lay in bed, I truly embraced the theory that race was a false concept, a difference without meaning. Untold numbers of African-Americans had passed into the white community over the generations. Most African Americans like my friend Dennis from camp had some white ancestry. Both whites and African-Americans are mixed races — coffee with more or less cream, just people like the English colonists who came to America early and Hungarian immigrants who followed centuries later.
I decided that my answer to the question on the St. Gabriel playground was wrong. Maybe everyone’s sister and brother should marry someone from another race. Or, at least, be open to it. What slave owners started may have been the beginning of a country where people are all shades of brown and, well, just people.