My experience recently at the “Lift Every Voice” concert at Powell Symphony Hall in St. Louis was much different than it would have been if I hadn’t just read Isabel Wilkerson’s amazing book —The Warmth of Other Suns — about what came to be called the Great Migration, the movement of over six million African Americans from southern states to points north and west between 1915 and 1970. Wilkerson interviewed over 1200 individuals and used the stories of three of them to illustrate in painstaking detail what life was like during the Jim Crow era for Americans who happened to be born with black or brown skin.
Most American history text books used in high school and for introductory college classes briefly mention the Jim Crow laws and might show a few photos of separate water fountains, rest rooms, etc. In fairness, textbooks that cover “Civil War to Present” as most do, must skim over a lot of material out of necessity.
I would like to think that our understanding of race relations in America would be much improved if Americans who did not experience the degradation of the Jim Crow South would read Wilkerson’s book. That may be naïve of me, but I know there must be millions of Americans like myself whose hearts are open to feeling the painful experiences of others.
I had to force myself to read some of the gruesome details related by the people Wilkerson interviewed. One story, about two young boys listening to a man being whipped to death in the woods, will haunt me the rest of my life. The man was screaming and begged his killers to let him pray before he died. They gave him one minute and then continued the whipping. The final words the boys overheard were “The sonabitch is dead.”
That was a story related to Wilkerson by Robert Joseph Pershing Foster who grew up in Louisiana. I will expand on his story, but the stories of Ida Mae Gladney of Mississippi and George Starling of Florida are equally compelling.
Monroe, Louisiana, 1933
Pershing Foster, son of the principal and a teacher at Monroe Colored High School, describes how he would escape the limitations of his world on the wrong side of the tracks by going to the movies. He remembers climbing the back stairs two, three, four, flights up and smell of urine surrounding him. The one toilet that blacks could use was usually out of order and was not a priority for the theater owner.
At the end of the school year, his father would borrow a pickup truck, take a few strong boys with him and drive to the high school for the white kids and load up whatever books, supplies, etc., that school was discarding. That’s how they got their educational materials.
Pershing described how he made a game of jumping the puddles that gathered after a heavy rain in the dirt roads on his side of town. Of course the whites had paved roads by the 1930’s, but there was never enough money to improve the roads the blacks had to use. The boy blames those roads and lack of sidewalks for the fact he never had the chance to learn to roller skate. He told Wilkerson, “We could buy skates, but we couldn’t buy sidewalks.”
His father was paid half of what the principal at the white high school was paid despite having the same education and credentials. Salaries of public employees like teachers and principals were published without apology in the local paper. Never having more than barely enough to feed and clothe a family made it impossible for Pershing’s father to pass an inheritance on to his children.
Wilkerson explained that “The layers of accumulated assets built up by the better-paid dominant caste, generation after generation, would factor into a wealth disparity of white Americans having an average net worth ten times that of black Americans by the turn of the twenty-first century, dampening the economic prospects of the children and grandchildren of both Jim Crow and the Great Migration before they were even born.” P. 85
The colored school, where Pershing’s mother taught seventh grade, was a small brick building with 1,139 pupils and a teacher for each grade kindergarten through eleventh. When a fire broke out in the basement of the school and destroyed all the furniture and equipment they had, the city refused even to replace what was lost. The city leaders said they needed the money for the new building being constructed for the white students.
Pershing’s father had to raise the money among the students’ families to replace what he could. He didn’t want to dwell on the situation because “…it would have done them no good, but their very existence, their personal aspirations, and the purpose of their days were in direct opposition to white ruling-class policy on colored education—that is, that colored people needed no education to fulfill their God-given role in the South.” P. 86
As one southern woman told journalist Ray Stannard Baker, “If these Negroes become doctors and merchants or buy their own farms, what shall we do for servants?”
Fortunately for Pershing, his parents were able to scrape up enough money to send him to Morehouse College in Atlanta where he graduated in spring of 1939 with a major in math and minor in biology. Despite his strong desire to leave the South, Pershing entered Meharry Medical College in Nashville after his mother’s earnest pleading.
Over time, he began using his first name and became a very successful medical doctor in Los Angeles, even becoming the personal physician to Ray Charles. Wilkerson interviewed him at his LA home which she described as a “grand home where he threw exuberant parties.” But Robert Foster, MD, never felt he was accepted as an equal by the medical community.
I can’t help but include a personal story here. From 1966 to 1968, I lived at Grand Forks AFB in North Dakota where my husband served as a medical doctor. One of the dozen or so MD’s on base was an African American from Tennessee. He told us at a party one night about how he had gone into the City of Grand Forks to buy take-out chicken dinners for his family and had been treated very badly. At first, the employees wouldn’t wait on him at all. Finally they relented just to get him out of the store. When he got home, he opened the food buckets and found only scraps and bones. Some of us who heard that story were furious and wanted to picket the store in town. But the good doctor didn’t want to cause any more trouble for the Air Force since the base was fairly new and there was a lot of resentment about black service members coming to town. To this day, I can still get my hackles up when I think of how our friend was treated just because of the color of his skin.
As I said, after reading The Warmth of Other Suns , my experience at the “Lift Every Voice” concert was much different than it would have been otherwise. Although everyone obviously thoroughly enjoyed the amazing IN UNISON chorus and the always extraordinary St. Louis Symphony, I had to wonder how different the experience must have been for those whose family members lived through the period of southern apartheid. Do they feel, as Robert Foster MD did in Los Angeles, that they will never be fully accepted as equal in status by white America? I don’t know.
I do know that there will be a program on PBS tomorrow night called “The Talk—Race in America.” Previews describe how black parents have to warn their children, especially their sons, how to obey to a point of subservience any law enforcement officers who approach them. Of course, ALL parents warn their teenagers about safe driving habits, etc., but I don’t remember having to tell my children when they were learning to drive that, if stopped by a police officer, to be sure to keep their hands on the steering wheel in plain sight.
When I look closely at the Americans who roar approval at Donald Trump’s rallies, I see more than just anger and frustration about the lack of economic progress being made by working class families over the past few decades. We should all be angry about the huge gap between the majority of Americans and the tiny minority who control most of the wealth in our country. But I also see in the faces of those Trump supporters an anger and bitterness that has less to do with income levels and more to do with the need to have a class of people to look down on. For a further understanding of the history of the American caste system, I highly recommend White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg.
For my part, this search for understanding of race relations in America will continue through reading, talking to others, spending more time with my African American friends and watching educational programs on television. I always thought the problems of race relations had nothing to do with me because I am second generation immigrant on my father’s side and third generation on my mother’s side. None of my ancestors owned slaves, so I must be exempt from caring about the plight of the blacks in my country. MY country? That reveals a sense of ownership, doesn’t it. I wonder how my African American friends feel about their place in our society? Dare I ask?
My grandfather emigrated from England and walked into a good job at a textile mill in central New York State… a mill where blacks couldn’t even apply for work. That’s “white privilege” and I have to own that. When I hear “Black Lives Matter” now, I think I understand just a little bit more than I did a month ago.
Never too old to learn.