The nightmare at Gregory Gardens in the Fifties ...
We'd completed construction on our new home on the banks of wooded Las Trampas creek in Walnut Creek. It had by this time been about 3 years since Mel and I had moved in with our 3 little boys, years before Dorian's birth, and he'd returned to full time managing of our store in Berkeley. Though I'd gained a few defenders life was still strained and fraught with uneasy feelings of constant threat. I was left to spend my days pretty much alone defending our right to exist in Suburbia against the many stay-at-home wives who were now our small family's major oppressors. Their spouses, like mine, were away earning the mortgage payments in San Francisco and Oakland. In looking back it was a strange time for us all, and a time remembered with pain and mixed feelings still.
Our status as the only black family in an otherwise white upscale community made us vulnerable to the hostility, but it also gave us visibility to those whose sense of morality would cause some to rise up to defend our rights to be among them. This sets the stage for a few weeks that I now see as the beginning of adulthood and what would prove to be a gradual move toward full independence for me as a young parent with an emerging sense of self worth. Over the years I would be gradually convinced of my own power to stand alone. But up to that point, I had been sustained by my upbringing in the belief that a mere woman could not survive without the support of the men in her life. My proud father and very traditional young husband provided the power needed to survive the times; even if only in my head. I questioned not. Compliance, thy name was Betty.
Yet ... .
For several days I'd been reading in the local newspaper of the growing hostility at a newly-built working-class development in the town of Pleasant Hill just a few miles away. The stories involved a young black couple (he was a truck driver and his pregnant wife, a nurse's aide). They'd bought one of the modest homes and were being threatened by an angry improvement association that was distributing ugly pamphlets and posting signs imploring the community to come together to prevent them from occupying their home, or brave the dire consequences. It was classic full-blown racist mayhem.
It was also not unlike the resistance that our family had experienced only a few years before. We'd failed to establish our rights and the immediate neighbors had organized in the same way; threatening to burn our lumber as it was delivered. It had been a devastating period in our lives, but it had been lived through and we'd all learned from the lessons I would now share. It was also a period where I was unable to speak for myself most of the time, but now could speak on behalf of someone else; and -- in the process -- finally have a chance to make my case, perhaps? I'd rarely been confronted by my neighbors. They were far too outwardly well-mannered for that. It was my children who'd suffered for the most part -- though I never could have guessed how much until much later. Vile racist statements expressed in casual dinner table conversation by parents (that would never be said to me, directly) would be hurled at my children in the school yards the next day by theirs.
David Bortin, an attorney practicing in Walnut Creek and member of a Unitarian fellowship consisting of some 25 young families, had read a letter I'd sent to the editor of the local paper after reading of the plight of the young couple. He'd called to say that he agreed with my position and offered to be of help. In the course of our conversation I mentioned that the Gregory Gardens Improvement Association had scheduled a meeting at the local school that very night and that I was thinking of attending. I'd go in order to let the community know that this change might be difficult but that they would all survive in the end. Perhaps my experience could be of help. He was concerned that I might be hurt and warned me to think about it carefully before doing such a thing. I promised. This was an obvious case of naivete and over-reaching. I simply under-estimated the power of "the Mob." I convinced David that -- while I'd learned how hurtful those angry and insulting words could be through hearsay, I'd never really heard the awful things my own neighbors had hurled in my direction, only those things that were rumored or written. I remember saying to him, "...my color will protect me. That kind of viciousness is never expressed in the presence of colored people, only behind our backs. I will go and they will hear me out and then I will leave." Such innocence. David then told me that he would also be there and that there may be others.
That early evening I dressed carefully, drove out to the school and parked in the crowded parking lot with little notice from anyone. (That should have been the warning.) I found my way into the auditorium and took an aisle seat about halfway up the center. As people continued to gather they huddled in small groups chatting. There were many men in the mix, I remember that for some reason; here to defend their "American" families.
The meeting was called to order by the president who presented the problem and called quickly for testimony from those gathered. It was then that the rage began to fill the room. One after another they angrily expressed the reasons that their homes must be saved from the "Invasion of the Undesirables!" They spoke of threatened property values, etc. I felt like a spy among them. Only 4 miles away I had become the blackest of women -- here I was invisible. They'd failed to pick up my "difference" -- my "undesirability" so that my protection had failed because they didn't recognize me as a black woman at all. I was just an innocent witness to the bitter racism for the first time in my life. I would see more of it in the days, weeks, and months following. I'd opened a new Pandora's Box by my newly adopted role of defender rather than victim.
Gregory Gardens was my official introduction to the shame we've finally begun to own and exorcise from our national psyche. It's taken more than half a century.
At the point where a woman viciously spat out the words, "...if we can't get the niggers out any other way, we can use the health department because of the filthy diseases they'll bring in!" I could be still no longer but rose from my seat and walked to the front of the room, turned to face the angry crowd, and started to speak. I identified myself then added, "I'm one of the undesirables you're speaking of."
I talked for about ten minutes non-stop while the group stared in disbelief. The words threatened to dry up mid-throat! I told them of our having built a home not too far away and of how we'd moved in under similar threat; about how that community had felt the same anger as they; that I knew that members of my community who were resistant had every right under the Constitution to feel that resentment but that that same Constitution guaranteed my family -- and their new neighbors -- the right to house our families as we wished and that they -- as we -- would survive the changes that had only to be lived through (remember this was the Fifties, ten long years before the birth of the modern Civil Rights Movement.)
Then, before a stunned audience, I walked straight down the aisle toward the main door leading out into the now menacingly dark parking lot. With a mouth bone dry and the panic about to take over my body, from behind I could hear chairs scraping against the floor of the auditorium and feet scuffling as people began to stir. I later learned that many left the meeting at that point. A reporter wrote in his piece the next day that it was clear that many were simply there out of a wish to understand the perceived problems and to listen to their neighbors. According to his article those attending were of mixed opinions and not acting as one. This was the last known meeting of the Improvement Association.
I could hear quick footsteps rushing from behind in the dark and panicked! A stranger caught up with me just as I (by now in tears) frantically pressed the key into the lock. He quickly assured me that he was with the press and that all he wanted was my name and phone number, "...I need to get back in there to see what's happened, but I'll call you later." Then I felt a strong hand on my shoulder. It was not threatening. Immediately there followed a voice saying, "...it's alright. I'm David." As promised, he was there to help. David provided the hope that I so desperately needed in order to survive and grow into the power that would sustain me over a lifetime.
That evening served as introduction to the Mt. Diablo Unitarian Fellowship through David's acting on my behalf. Within a few short months I would become a member of its Board of Trustees with an active membership that would span the next 20 years, and with friendships that have survived the decades. A path would be set for adventures in social activism that would become the basis of my existence and the foundation of all that followed. Neither David nor I ever spoke of that night.
It was five years ago that I attended his memorial service. I'd long since moved back into the city after our children reached the point where suburbia no longer served their needs, my marriage had ended, and my personal life had changed dramatically. I returned that day out of a need to share the story of the discovery of my self, strengths, and power, and of David Bortin's vital role in that transformation.
The African American couple whom I never got to meet did eventually move into their home, but moved away from the community shortly after. The ugly racism raged on and grew even more virulent over time. But -- over all the years since -- I'm sure that I've known at some subconscious level that those unseen and silent supporters have been there questioning in the dark and ready to place a hand on my shoulder ... even when I thought myself alone. And though I surely wouldn't have been aware of it at that time, I'm now certain that they've gradually, over the years, become a metaphor for the millions of Americans who gathered in public squares, before town halls, and monuments throughout the country to hail "Change" in this new era of the national re-birth of democracy and freedom.
And I only remembered the story fully when Bruce made his call to interview Dave's widow, Beverly, and she mentioned that she'd met me some time after she'd joined the Fellowship when she'd married David. I'd forgotten that. I'd given Bruce her name as a possible interviewee without recalling that it was David's role in my life that mattered so critically to my metamorphosis into adulthood and civic responsibility.
I find myself wondering now whether I wasn't embarrassed at how far I'd over-reached at that time in misjudging such a highly volatile situation? Why had we not spoken of that awful evening ever again? But maybe that's the way it should be, after all, maybe talking about it would have diminished its effects upon my life -- and his?
There have been so many Davids in my life, symbolically; so many ...and I'm so grateful for them all, both then and now.
Photos: Lest we forget how far we've come.