Friday, November 14, 2003

Lessons learned that summer ...

introduced me to segregation in ways that probably color my attitude today.

On an oppressively humid day Aunt Corinne took me to visit Maison Blanche, a grand department store on Canal Street. As a lively teenager will do, as we passed a display of ladies hats, I popped one onto my head and headed for the mirror when an obviously irate sales clerk dashed over to demand payment from my aunt. I learned in this embarrassing way that colored people were not allowed to try on garments. If you did so, you'd just better be sure that it was what you wanted. In my western innocence, I simply hadn't known. No one had thought to warn me beforehand.

This was my first experience with sitting in the back of the bus and not by choice. Only, in this case it was a streetcar. Though called "the screen," it was no more than a bar that said "Colored Only" that was the length of a double seat and perhaps five or six inches high. It slipped into slots that were embedded at the back of seats and could be moved back if the front of the bus got too full and more white folks seats were needed. If the back of the bus was crowded, it was standing room only. This I had been told before leaving home so it was demeaning, but of relatively little interest to me.

Attended a matinee at a downtown movie house with cousins; another curious day. The theaters were usually built on street corners with a box office on the main street for whites and another (smaller one) for coloreds on the side street. The whites paid the normal ticket price of a few dollars and sat on the downstairs main floor. Coloreds walked up stairs and occupied the balcony, but paid only a quarter for the admission.

I noticed during the intermission that there was a trailer being run for the upcoming Fourth of July picnic being held at the racetrack with a general admission of $1.00 for adults, 50 cents for children, and 10 cents for colored people. That was a shocker for me, but there's a streak of humor in it that I still appreciate. The picnic was also segregated with different entry points and congregating areas for blacks and whites.

On the other hand, that summer was my first experience with being in a world where everyone looked pretty much like me and my family, and where -- except for trips downtown -- I never saw white people. The druggist, the doctors, the dentists, the teachers and principals, the shop and barkeepers, everyone -- was colored. That was new for me. With few exceptions, the professional classes in the California were universally white. Was this then, another of those places where oppression had some hidden advantages? Since one couldn't go to general hospitals or to a doctor, and since there were no schools for you except those run by the Catholic nuns, you had to create your own. There were even white and colored sections in crypts and burial grounds. But here, too were the beginnings of my sense of those millions shades of gray. There was not the equivalent of my uncle Dr. Raleigh Coker back home, graduate of Meharry Institute (for Negroes only), nor my several cousins who were teaching in the local schools. Or my legendary Aunt Alice who alone created the first school for colored children in St. James Parish and was celebrated in her community as a heroine of her time. At home, one of mother's friends, Ms. Ruth Acty was later honored as the first African American teacher hired by the Berkeley schools, but that was still years into the future.

But the crowning blow that summer was my first visit to Corpus Christi Church, the church my grandfather and father built and where the family had knelt together for many years. I had seen many photographs of it among Dad's things since I was very young. That building was the source of such great pride to him. This, above all, was "our" church -- much more so than St. Bernard in Oakland -- where I'd received First Holy Communion and that my family had attended regularly.

Corpus Christi was segregated. Coloreds were seated on the left and right sides of the aisles and the middle section was reserved for whites. This was the birthplace of a diminishing connection with organized religion that eventually progressed to Atheism. For some years it was possible to see this as a human rather than a God failing, but in time the disillusionment was complete.

Saw another anomaly that still puzzles me. There was no segregation in housing patterns, everyone lived everywhere. My grandparents lived in a duplex that was shared with an Italian family. Their children played together, but only in the back yard -- never on street-side -- according to my father. They all attended the same parish church, Corpus Christi.

A strange summer, most of which defied understanding -- and still does.

Thursday, November 13, 2003

Been thinking that I'd like to tell you ...

about my introduction to southern bigotry. It was when I was about fifteen, I believe.

Though the older members of the family visited New Orleans as often as they could afford to, we children had never returned. My parents talked with great pride about "home" and the stories were filled with delightful incidents -- embellished by Dad, who had a great longing for his family and former life, I believe. His transition to California must have been far more difficult than for Mother since she was joining with her father, three brothers, and one sister had preceded her in the move. Dad had no one but his wife and three little girls, and his life's work as a fine craftsman was gone. That was surely difficult. Small wonder that he spoke of life at home so positively. Therein lies the disappointment of that first re-visit.

The only concession to the racial restrictions of the south had been the warning that -- "when the train reaches El Paso, Texas -- wherever you are on the train -- you have to pick up your things and move to the Jim Crow car. I was to later learn that this was the car up at the front of the train (where noise was greatest, I suppose), behind the engine and the baggage car, but I'm getting ahead of myself a bit ... .

I was traveling with my 8 year-old mischievous cousin, Ralston, who was going to spend the summer with his father who was still in New Orleans (trouble!). We did well over the first two days, were treated well by the porters and conductor. On the third day we reached El Paso. As advised, I gathered up my belongings and Ralston and headed for the Jim Crow car. As we made our way through the long train, we were advised several times to return to our seats. Even at the young age, I was sensitive enough to know not to give the rail car a name, but just to continue moving forward.

When we reached the coach, it was clear that -- from throughout the train -- other African Americans had gathered themselves up from among the "strangers" and were now "home." The porters and waiters who'd been merely polite and fatherly to us over the first two days were now playing host in "our" car. Out came the picnic baskets (from short-run travelers), and extra blankets and pillows, a guitar, cards and checkerboards, and small crate of live chickens! The party was on! The waiters and cooks delivered a continuing stream of goodies from the dining car and everybody became "aunts" and "uncles" to two young travelers. No one had thought to tell me what a wonderful experience "Jim Crow" could be. One of the many shades of gray. "Jim Crow" had its delightful side. One of those times that I would later come to understand. That despite all -- oppression can be a blessing in some unexpected ways. It can create community.

But, sometime during the middle of the night the train stopped at some small station -- either in eastern Texas or western Louisiana, to take on two guards and four (white) prisoners in irons who were being transported somewhere. With a few empty seats between, those frightening men were seated in the "colored" car with us. The final shame, I suppose. I must have fallen off into a troubled sleep at some point because I can't remember when they were taken off the train, but the fear is still on tap as I write.

I can remember thinking about that experience when I later heard the stories of -- during World War II -- how uniformed black servicemen were forced to ride in segregated Jim Crow cars while German prisoners rode "up front." Despite my western upbringing, I could identify fully with the feelings of shame -- for both myself and the "offending others".

No one had prepared me for that, or, for other painful lessons in southern hospitality I would encounter over that summer -- and for which I'd not been prepared.

More later.

I'm off to a meeting of the Federal Task Force on North Richmond, then to my office for a staff meeting and new assignments for next week. Governor-elect Terminator is being sworn in on the 17th, and Loni will be returning to Sacramento as the legislature is being required to meet for a week in extraordinary session. One wonders -- in these days of an extreme budget shortfall -- how this new governor can justify the additional that this will cost the state in per diem for the two houses to meet in this special session? But then, nobody asked me, right?

I'm off to see the wizard!

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

What a day of mixed feelings!

Lots of media for 12 old ladies wearing hardhats (we got to keep them as souvenirs), sound trucks, limos carrying Ford executives who flew out for the occasion, city officials including the mayor and council members -- and -- Rep. George Miller, himself, who got the legislation passed that created this new national park.

We were serenaded by a trio of 'ole folks' who entertained in the USO during the war, two of whom were women. There was something a little bizarre about an 80 year old woman playing a sax, but then who am I to talk? May be just as bizarre to have a field representative of a state legislator who's still working full time among them. This was the first time in more years that I can recall where I was surrounded by my contemporaries, it felt strangely uncomfortable. Probably need to look at that. There were group photos taken that appeared in today's local papers. Then individual interviews. Hated every minute of it, but mostly because my "war stories" didn't match those of the other women. How does one celebrate having been a clerk in a segregated union office when you're surrounded by women who'd actually earned their hardhats as welders? Felt like a fraud.

We were photographed sitting in and around an old WW2 jeep, and with our arms raised -- in a gesture to show our muscles (the stereotype of the Rosie photos). Was so glad this morning when I open the paper and found that I'd carefully found a way to stand in back in a way that had the raised arm of another Rosie blocking out my face! You couldn't even tell that I was there -- and for that I'm grateful! It all felt pretty silly, and as if we were simply the object of a campaign to sell the Ford Motor Company. I figured that it would have to be a pretty slow news day for anyone to want to run such photos. Sure enough, didn't see much on the eleven o'clock news last night except Veterans Day Parades and footage of distant wars.

After the photo shoot we had individual interviews. I got to make my little speech about my "role" in the war effort. Did it quietly and without anger or discomfort. Made a pitch for how grateful I was that Ford was giving us the opportunity to re-visit a time in history when the country had less to be proud of, and that now we have a chance to do it right. I did notice that when I checked out the web site, some African American Rosies have been included in the photo gallery. Ya nevah know ... maybe we raised some awareness.

Learned also that last night the interview that I participated in a couple of weeks ago, the one done at the Rosie Memorial site (great spot) was to be "put up on the satellite." I understand that to mean that -- as in "put into the wire service" -- there's no way to know where it will turn up as a Public Service Announcement, because it has simply been made available to whoever wants to use it. We may never see it. On the other hand, I'm liable to run into myself at some point when I least expect to.

After the event concluded I climbed into a bright red Corvette convertible with Eddie Orton of Orton Development, who will be restoring the beautiful old Albert Kahn-designed Ford Building. I was deeply disappointed when his firm got the contract for this multimillion dollar project. Had my heart set on another concept and had worked hard to support it. We made our peace during the party and he invited me to lunch and for a drive to look over the old historic core of the city where I have visions of helping to bring into being an Arts & Entertainment District. But, of course, I have big dreams and no funds, but during the several hours that we spent exploring possibilities and coalitions and economic development and arts and culture -- Rosie got left behind in the dust. By late Tuesday afternoon I was already well into Wednesday.

...and Wednesday went very well, thank you.

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Allright, guys...

It's about quarter of ten and the big doings begin in a half hour. I'm sitting here at my computer dressed carefully in a tasteful black crepe suit with one button blazer jacket and straight-legged pants. Underneath is a gray cashmere turtleneck sweater, with high-topped black boots. Wearing one bold piece of jewelry, a lovely silver pendant brought back from Nepal years ago by my late husband, Bill. My hair is pulled back tightly and gathered into a clip that rests on the nape of my neck. Lookin' good. Feelin' confident.

We've been here before (I keep reminding myself). All that will be required of me is that I stay centered and hold to my truths. I'm usually protected by the low expectations associated with being non-white, so I'll crush a few more stereotypes.

...but underlying the confidence there are remnants of past experiences of rejection that must be kept tightly under control. There is this strange phenomenon that allows most humans to consider Europeans as "generic" people and everyone else as exotic. There are times when it would be interesting to know what it feels like to be "generic," if only for brief periods. I suppose that's why my childhood and adolescent life were so special. Being together in affinity groups based on race and not segregation allowed us that experience. I suppose this may have been the single-most influential factor in our formative years. If I'm lucky, it's that Betty who will assume the Rosie mantle this morning, hopefully. If the post-war Betty pops up unexpectedly, I'll do my best to bury her -- at least for a while.

Stay tuned ... .

Monday, November 10, 2003

A few days ago, ...

on a visit to the National Park Service's temporary office in Richmond's City Hall, I picked up a small black & white brochure advertising the new national park. I was thrilled with it since it was created giving full recognition to the role that African Americans played in the home front war effort, with several photographs that depicted Blacks on the job and/or in the community in related roles. There was even a sentence that I recalled having voiced in one of the workshops while participating in some of the master planning of the new park. I felt so good about having contributed meaningfully. The superintendent was at her desk when I stopped in, and it pleased me to be able to congratulate her on a job well done. There had been some moments over the past months when I felt that we'd not been quite in sync on racial matters, and that she really didn't see what all the fuss was about. She'd come from the East Coast to organize the creation of the Rosie the Riveter National Park and was doing her best to fulfill the mission.

Late yesterday afternoon I received a copy of a large and colorful public relations brochure with lots of photos of Rosie's at work, including one by Dorothea Lang and the famous one that had graced the cover of the Saturday Evening Post at the time. Every one of those pictures were of white women. This brochure was created by the high-powered public relations firm in Irvine, California, the same group that interviewed me some weeks ago at the Rosie Memorial.

It suddenly dawned on me just why that small black & white 8 pager with the truthful text had been created. The superintendent intended it strictly for local consumption in a community with a 40% black demographic. The fancy brightly dramatic large color piece was prepared for national distribution. We're back to "separate but equal" (well, maybe not quite).

Today, just before leaving my office for the day there was a call from the PR firm in Irvine. It was a young woman calling to make certain that I would be at the Ford Plant tomorrow morning at ten o'clock for the big media event.

Wish I knew what to do with these mixed emotions. On the one hand, to participate in the event as it has been planned -- as if I really was a legitimate "American" working woman of World War II, is to continue the lie. On the other, I can do what I ordinarily do -- seize the moment and speak truth in living color! I can just make sure that I'm seen both as a "set aside" woman of color who survived the virulent racism of the time, and, as a present day "woman of substance" in a position of power -- despite all. Tempting, wouldn't you say? The problem is that most of what happens tomorrow will not be live but taped for later viewing. I'll just wind up on the cutting room floor if I choose to say what most don't want to hear. It will be an interesting experiment that I don't think I can afford to miss. You'll undoubtedly never know how I handled it unless you read it here. Chances are that only the benign will be acceptable, and anything else will be edited out.

Have no idea where on the tube this national coverage will be shown. I'll be as anxious to see whether my interview will make the cut, the one made earlier, that is. Tomorrow will be its own adventure. Guess I've decided (while writing this last paragraph) that I'll go if only to satisfy my curiosity. But I don't count on seeing evidence of much real progress over the past 60 years.

But I mustn't forget that the little file clerk's risen to significant heights in the world. Am writing speeches for a member of the legislature and advising when appropriate, helping to create legislation, or,  at least having input into the decisions about what might be needed in the communities that fall within my area of responsibility. That's a story worth telling, I guess. But that's not the one we want to hear, because it exposes the underbelly of the beast of racism, and that's still not under our control.

Guess I'm still carefully picking my way through those countless shades of gray ... .

Photo:  Iconic Saturday Evening Post image by Norman Rockwell.

Sunday, November 09, 2003

Another Veterans Day...

It's Sunday and the "Rosie" big media day of interviews and oral histories is less than 48 hours away. I'm so ambivalent around participating ... .

Let me tell you about those years:

I married on May 24, 1942. Mel was a student at the University of San Francisco and I became a stay-at-home wife. We'd met when I was about 13 and he, 17, at Berkeley's San Pablo Park when Papa George and I were spending a Sunday afternoon while he watched the traveling Negro Baseball team and I watched the boys.  Mel and I belonged to the same social group of youngsters who grew up together and whose parents were friends.

But now we were young married couples and our friends were being called into the service, and, we were (as I've told you) surely more American than Black. Having grown up in the Bay Area -- being together racially by choice and not by segregation, for the most part, our world had undergone a complete change. The context of our lives had been altered by the war and the great in-migration of southern America.

It was in those first years after Pearl Harbor that I heard James Weldon Johnson's "Negro National Anthem" for the very first time. It sounded subversive. I now hear "Lift Every Voice And Sing!" as a beautiful tone-poem of great power, but it took some time to embrace it as relevant to me. It arrived with African Americans who were the products of segregated schools in the South, where even the national anthem was "other."

Shortly after Pearl Harbor, I became a file clerk in the basement of the Civil Service Commission in San Francisco. That meant spending endless days comparing blue (flag) cards and pink (bar) cards with cards on records. Everyone who took an examination for any civil service position had a card on file among the millions in that huge basement. There were two other sets of cards. Those were gathered by the FBI and represented "suspicious" test takers. For instance, my brother-in-law had a blue card that I found myself having to check. It said, "car seen parked within a block of a known Communist cell in Vallejo, California." When I compared the two cards, his original card was removed for further investigation. My brother-in-law was never a communist, but did have a sister who lived in Vallejo.... Had that card been pink, his original card would have been removed and he would have been barred from ever working for the government -- and would never have known why. This work was being done by a very ordinary young file clerk -- along with thousands of other very ordinary young file clerks. We were tiny pieces of a huge mosaic, but all were doing the work of "War."

At some point I learned that the Air Force had taken over a huge office building in Oakland (on my side of the Bay) and that would be far more convenient since I lived in Berkeley at the time. I was concerned about being caught across the Bay during blackouts, anyway. Oakland felt safer. I applied for a transfer from the Civil Service Commission to the Air Force offices and it was granted.

There was one other (AA) friend working somewhere in the building but we never seemed to connect. She seemed to be avoiding me, but since we were not close friends, it was easy to ignore. One day we found ourselves alone together in the woman's restroom. She then asked what I was "passing" for, followed by a comment that -- since her last name was Newman, she was passing for German. This was the first indication that I had been transferred into a position that African Americans could not hold. When I walked back to my huge department and looked around, it became obvious that there were no other "colored" people, either male or female, service or civilian in view. The only people of color were those who worked in the Canteen or who provided janitorial services. This was only a few days into my new job, and I was feeling panicked. This was new. It was certainly possible that I'd been in situations where my race had simply not raised questions (maybe at the Civil Service Commission?) but I'd never consciously made a decision to cross the color line.

Meanwhile, Mel had volunteered himself into the Navy, was sent to Seattle for induction where he found himself in a group of young black men that had been separated out from the other inductees to be prepared for duty at Great Lakes, Illinois, where he found that he was going to be placed in the Messmen's Corps. The commanding officers told these men that the reason was because they would avoid the competition that other branches of the services would impose on them. The only role for a black sailor was to cook for the white sailors. And he'd left college for this?

He rebelled. Refused to serve under those circumstances and consequently lasted a mere 3 days before being mustered out of the service with a check for $45 and an honorable discharge. The psychiatrist who examined him asked why he'd chosen to enter the service as a colored man when he could have avoided all this by "crossing over." Mel said, " ... he told me that he didn't doubt that I'd make a fine sailor but that they couldn't afford to put a natural leader like me in with a bunch who might be easily led. That would be mutiny!" Mel was playing quarterback on the University of San Francisco varsity when he volunteered. He was a very well known proud Black athlete, though fair-skinned. This added insult to injury. The stupidity of the situation made him even more angry. This was his first trip out of the state of California where racism was subtly acknowledged but hardly a serious problem. He returned home feeling both disappointed in himself and lacking in patriotism as well. Within a few days he applied for work in the home front effort as a "trainee" boilermaker at the Richmond Kaiser shipyards.

All black shipyard workers were working under the trainee classification because the unions were racially segregated at the time, into "Jim Crow" auxiliaries. White union members feared having to compete for jobs with black workers at war's end. The unions could simply disband the auxiliaries and de-legitimize anyone of color. It was the hope that the black war-workers would return to the cotton fields and tenant farms from whence they'd come. We were already at home, and had been for several generations in some cases, especially in Mel's ancestors. The Reids arrived in the West before the Civil War. The wonder is that he survived the changes at all.

Over that same three day period, back home, I noticed that the young blond girl (another local Californian) whose desk abutted mine had been called up front by the Lieutenant in charge of our section. I could see her head shaking from side-to-side over a very red face. We'd had lunch together a time or two, and shared the work load. I had just learned from Havens Newman that I was "passing" or completely out of context.  My antenna was raised and ready. When I asked if that conversation was what I thought it was, she looked down obviously embarrassed and confused and said, "yes." The Lieutenant had told her that she was working with a colored girl. Our supervisor had thought this wise since we seemed to be becoming friends, according to my co-worker. Someone had informed on me. And this happened before I could even decide how I felt or what I wanted to do about it. After all, I was a transfer from the Civil Service Commission and hadn't applied for this particular job at all. The "error" was not of my making.

That was the day that I "fired" the government. Walked to the front of the room aware of eyes following me. The officer was obviously embarrassed at what was sure to be some ugliness to deal with. Before I could speak, he said. "It really doesn't matter, Betty. I've been told by your supervisor that your work is fine and that no one minds working with you ." My response, "... but what happens when my next upgrade comes up, will they be willing to work under me?" He answered, "you'll probably get the appropriate pay raises." I walked out never to return. No severance. Envisioned a little pink bar card slipping into place in my Civil Service File. Didn't give a damn!

That evening a wire came from Mel telling me that he would be home by Greyhound in a few days. "It didn't work out." He was deeply embarrassed. He'd been washed out of service to his country.

For the sake of country and the war effort, I, too, became a Rosie. Went to work at Boilermakers A-36, Jim Crow Auxiliary union -- about two miles away from the shipyards. Never saw a ship. Went back to filing cards into trays for all of the Black shipyard workers. Since this was under Kaiser Permanente and not the federal government (I suppose), the blemish on my work record for walking out on the Air Force didn't follow me. I've not had a federal position since, though I've worked in both city and state government since that time. Could be that the Lieutenant was as embarrassed by the incident as I was, and buried the paperwork. I would hope so.

Would be surprised if you don't understand that being used as a "Rosie" at this point in my life would bring some ambivalence. On the other hand, having put it into words may free me to turn up on Tuesday and find a way to forgive retroactively ... if that's really possible.

Photo:  Beside Mel and me, my late sister, Marjorie is my Maiden of Honor.  Our dresses are made of cotton, a far cry from today's opulent wedding gowns.  Marjorie made them lovingly by hand of white organdy, piqué, and cotton lace.