Saturday, January 03, 2004

When all the votes are counted and new teachings absorbed, ...

I strongly suspect that how our little community eventually worked our way through the misery of the process of racial integration was as much due to humor and craziness as to any changing legislation or moral code adjustments.

Jean Martinez enters from stage left:

Still very much aware of being the primary source of the neighborhood's on-going entertainment, I was determined to be the best little brown Doris Day on the planet. In keeping with this role-playing, (I'm sure this was the Dorothy McGuire "Egg and I" stage in my social development), I'd bought myself new pedal pushers with matching tennis shoes and a color-coordinated multi-pocketed smock with places for trowels, bulb planters, hand pruners, ties for tendrils. One good nudge and my 100 pounds of pretty would have plopped over in a heap!

Also, had gone to the local nursery and spent almost $300 at a 1 cent sale (the sign said, "buy one get another for a penny" and who could resist that?). I'd bought ornamental trees, shrubs, bulbs, wisteria in cans, fruit trees, etc., all delivered to my driveway. This was to be my staging area. For several days I poured over Sunset's Gardening Book and tried to recall to the best of my ability those lessons learned long ago at the knee of Papa George in that little truck garden adjacent to his little overcrowded shotgun bungalow in East Oakland. But it seemed to me that all that yielded was how to tie string beans to poles and how to water tomatoes and dig potatoes.  After all, I was only a child then and capable of little more. The only thing I could recall about trees was that the almond tree in our field could only bear fruit because there was a male tree on Mr. Mueller's acres. This was the extent of my horticultural expertise. So trees were sexed. Who knew?

About a week after delivery, and after walking over the land and assessing the state of viability of each tree (they all looked very old and decrepit to me -- especially the apricots and pear trees). I distributed one gallon can of new tree next to each old one that I was sure would die off within the year, at least. Most of those old trees are probably still standing. This took several days during which time Jean Martinez (I would later learn that she lived up the road about a half mile) had driven past a number of times on her trips to and from Al's grocery store. Ours was a corner lot with the house sitting below street level in a kind of amphitheater-shaped site. There was full visibility to anyone driving from either direction.

On this particular morning, deep into the process, I sat on the warm ground with my well-thumbed copy of Sunset on the ground beside me. I had my steel tape measure (in one of my smock pockets, of course) and had very carefully measured the depth of the hole I'd dug with my brand new blue-handled shovel. I must have sat there examining that peach tree with the burlap wrap covering its roots, for over an hour. Jean could stand it no longer. She pulled around the corner in her little car and into my driveway. She then walked out to where I was still pouring over Sunset and introduced herself, "...I'm Jean Martinez and this is my daughter, Juanita." Juanita was about Bobby's age, and a darling little dark-haired girl. Our very deep and abiding friendship started with this exchange...

Jean: "You seem to be stuck. Can I be of help?"

Betty: "Well, I hope you can. "It says here (pointing to my fancy Gardening Book), that I must be sure to cover the ball of the tree, and I can't seem to find it."

Thursday, January 01, 2004

One of those early parental miscalculations ...

that will always haunt me was a decision I made during the construction of our home. The building period spanned from early spring to around November of that year. Rick was in third grade in a Berkeley elementary school where he was doing so well that there were suggestions from his teacher that we begin to think of having him skip the next grade and enter fourth grade on probation in the fall. I knew that we would be moving to the Walnut Creek school system in late fall so that had to be a consideration in just how the transition would be managed. In the new school he proved to be working at grade level. The differences in educational levels between the innercity and suburban schools surfaced immediately.

Mel and I (I, actually) decided that the least disruptive way to deal with the problem would be to register him at Parkmead Elementary in Walnut Creek for the fall semester and have him ride out each morning with his Dad while the house was being completed. Sensible solution, right? No. Disastrous as it turned out.

This 8 year-old was being dropped off each day into a hostile world of children who were expressing all of the venomous racism that was being freely expressed around their dinner tables each night -- ugliness that the adults in their lives were not honest enough to show publicly to Rick's parents. It must have been horrendous. Poor little guy never mentioned it, and I was too pregnant and pre-occupied with toddler Bobby and the house-building to even be aware of his pain. It had all seemed so logical, sans the race element. After all, the kids on our block had overcome their feelings of discomfort with us long before their parents had.

Sometime in the late fall I attended a parents night at school and was asked by the principal just why I'd enrolled my child in his school when I didn't live in the district? We'd moved into the new home that October, so the question held no relevance, but the principal's inability to meet my gaze suggested that his question was being asked due to pressure from other parents. Rick was the only black child in the school. We were only the second black family in the entire valley at that time. We were breaking new ground, reluctantly, but with a growing defiance and a feeling of entitlement -- but those strong feeling were not yet fully matured. There were still times when I wasn't all that sure that we were right ... .

Parkmead figured powerfully some time later when Marian Powelson, a sympathetic neighbor, mentioned that she'd picked up a flyer advertising a minstrel show fundraiser being staged at the school.  We were both horrified at the thought, but didn't have a clue about how to deal with it. The image of white people in black-face, kinky wigs, with huge white painted lips was just too impossible to imagine. This could only happen in an all-white suburban community. This was a total anomaly in present day America. But I had children in that school (by this time I believe Bobby had entered kindergarten, but I'm not sure of the timing).

Just one day before the big show I drove to the school with no idea of what to do, except that I had to act. I walked into the principal's office and sat down to wait. He was off somewhere, but his costume was hanging over the doorway. He was in the show, as were all members of the faculty. The costume was black and white and bright red polks dots with baggy pants. I could feel my chest tighten ... This was terribly terribly wrong, but I still didn't know why I was so offended.

He walked in -- almost whipped around on his heels at the sight of me -- but turned back and continued into the room. "This is wrong," I said quietly. To his credit, he answered, "I guess you're right, but I didn't know that until I saw you there." "Our faculty loves colored people, and we're only depicting them as the happy people that they are -- with their songs and jokes -- and stuff ...". My answer, " I look happy?" "No," says he. "Let's think this out together," says I. "Minstrel shows were originally conceived as ridicule of Negroes, and were never a black thing. They are still that. We can't afford this kind of tradition to follow us through history to continue to heap insult and degradation upon a people, least of all at the hands of educators who, above all of others, should know better." "What would you have me do," asks this man who by now was flush-faced and miserable. I felt sorry for him in that moment. It was clear that he was in a learning place, and that it hurt. He was horribly embarrassed.

I told him that -- with tonight's dress rehearsal at hand and the show only 24 hours away -- I would not ask that they cancel. I did insist, however, that a portion of tonight's rehearsal time be devoted to sharing my concerns. Also served warning that -- tomorrow evening I would be sitting front and center (with the Bessie Gilbert) to see their show. And we did just that.

It was a dreadful evening. Little was gained, I think. The experience was miserable for me. There was as much anger and resentment stirred by my act as enlightenment. I'm certain of that. It did little for my own kids since I found it impossible to talk about most of these things -- never sure that by doing so I wouldn't simply further alienate them from others... .

Only a few weeks later, there was an Aunt Jemima Pancake Feed held by the local Chamber of Commerce at a downtown park.

And ... new friend and neighbor, (very blonde and deeply-tanned) Pat Ringwood, stopped by with the gift of a few cuttings from her garden -- to show me that her tan was now darker than mine!

We were getting there, slowly ;-)

Photo: Dale Richard "Rick" Reid as Parkmead elementary school student in Walnut Creek, California.

Wednesday, December 31, 2003

If those years (early 1950s) ...

held unprecedented pain for our young family, it also brought humor that still makes me laugh out loud today when I think back.

One of the most delicious incidents I remember came during the early months after we'd completed the house and moved into the community, officially. It was a very warm midsummer day, one of those days when the smell of wisteria and lilacs sweeten the air and when one could hear the tiny but audible "pops" of seed pods exploding into the heat of the day. I drove the few blocks up to the local store where Al the grocer was the connecting link for much of the neighborhood. He'd always been very warm and helpful whenever I dropped in with my list, and I'm sure tried his best to allay the fears of my new neighbors. His grocery store was, necessarily, one of our first points of contact.

On this day, I was feeling particularly pretty (writes she immodestly), since I was still being very careful to look my very best when leaving the house. I was still striving to (silently) prove my acceptability. I was wearing white shorts against naturally bronzed bare legs and a clingy cotton knit top and leather sandals. I was very much aware of the stir I was causing by my 5'4" cafe au lait dark-haired Creole beauty, but my silence now included a growing confidence that I was blasting apart any stereotypes these glowering folks were entertaining. My physical appearance became a part of my weaponry. There was little else to call upon at the time.

As Al bagged my groceries, he asked with a twinkle in his eye if I'd be willing to drop off a six-pack to a house that was on my way ... "Of course." He or one of his sons often made deliveries so it wasn't unusual. I guessed that other neighbors did the same. But as I drove out of his parking lot, I was sure that Al was on the phone to say, "...she's on her way!" Stopped in front of a modest bungalow on Boulevard Way and before I could ring the doorbell a beer-bellied red-faced trucker-type (confirmed by the huge semi parked in the driveway) pushed open the door to receive the "delivery" from Al. I could hear a baseball game blaring from the television set and guessed that there were others watching from behind the screen door. I imagined that they'd risen for a better look at the "delivery girl." Passed the six-pack to this grinning man at the screen door and could feel the eyes following me back down the driveway to my car, grinningly enjoying every minute of it! Al had scored one for the good of the order. This may have been the day that the spirit of the improvement association began to lose steam. I was surely not their idea of what the much-feared Black Invasion looked like. Shallow times bring shallow victories. Al had enabled testosterone to take over the battlefront, and for the moment it seemed to work. But that introduced other dynamics.


With 7 year-old Rick and toddler Bobby and babe-in-arms David, I stopped at a little diner just across Mt. Diablo boulevard from the St. Marys Catholic Church that we attended fairly regularly at the time. It was not a serious return to the faith of my childhood but was one of the few places in our lives where it was possible to be anonymous, and I hungered for that feeling. Rick was involved in catechism classes in preparation for his First Holy Communion and I'd just picked him up. It was around five and the diner was filled with noisy customers. I struggled in with the kids and choose a booth near the back of the place, near the restrooms. After a very long time, the waitress came over -- I assumed to get our order -- but, no. It was not to be. She announced with a grin, "'ll have to get out of here. We're closing." The rest of the customers had gone silent. Some were also obviously enjoying my misery. It was the dinner hour. The place could not be closing. What was happening to us was obvious, but it was hard to know how to deal with it with my children looking on, especially Rick who could surely understand. There was nothing to do but gather them up and -- with hot tears scalding my cheeks -- make my way back through the diner and to my car. I felt devastated! Helpless to explain to my children what had just happened, but could feel their fear as they held tightly to my skirt and walked close to my body as we retreated awkwardly. With my arms filled with baby David, it was impossible to hold their hands and give them the reassurance that I would have to pretend. Felt the humiliation of being impotent to defend our rights to be served in a public facility. These were first experiences for this little California girl with no history of the sting of such blatant bigotry. This was before the passage of the Civil Rights Acts and shared rest rooms and drinking fountains, but this was not Mississippi, but California. How could this be? This was my home over a lifetime, and that of my children.

Bessie Gilbert, my good Mormon friend -- also new to the community, saw me pull into the driveway sobbing. She quickly left her trailer and dashed over to be of comfort. "This is what you've chosen for yourself, Betty Reid." "They were wrong, but this is what life will be like if you don't get tough and deal with this sinfulness right now!" Bless Bessie. She sobbed right along with me at the unfairness of it all, but this good woman (she was much older than I and a good 6 feet of solidly-built "pioneer" woman from Utah) was ready to take on the world in support of the Reids from that day forward, and that she did.

I began to develop a thicker skin after a time, and a new sensitivity that would protect us from potential painful incidents. My antenna picked up earlier signals, and by so doing lent more protection. Having Bessie and Al Gilbert ready to rescue enabled me to develop a sense of stability and some confirmation of the rightness of our cause. Our families shared occasional meals. Ål traveled a good deal in his capacity as Manager of the National Newspaper Association with offices in San Francisco. Their children, Jimmy and Evelyn, became the close first friends to our three over time. Being homemakers with absent husbands in common gave our friendship particular meaning. That deeply-religious family served as a base-line against which to measure proper moral conduct. Without them, I'm not sure how I could have maintained any sense of my own worth and would surely have drowned in a sea of irrational hatred.

Little of what our daily life was like was shared between Mel and me. He was working hard in Berkeley to support our new lifestyle -- leaving very early mornings to make the rounds of suppliers -- and getting home exhausted near midnight, six days a week (Wednesdays off, when possible). In this we were not unlike other suburban households, with husbands and wives living very different kinds of lives. In time the callouses began to grow on my psyche, and with the help of the Dinkins and the Gilberts a new kind of growth began to emerge and the responsibility to carry on alone seemed the logical way of survival. The rightness of my position was continually reinforced by my few new friends. In time the neighborhood began to relax and the young Reid's as Threat to Humanity eventually subsided.

The Diablo Valley, while less than 15 miles from Berkeley and perhaps 30 miles from East Oakland where I'd grown up and where my family continued to live, was separated by what I thought of at the time as a row of hills covered by the "Eucalyptus Curtain," that protected white suburban Californians from the older more racially diverse cities I'd grown up in. That's still true. Little has changed despite a huge population growth and a continuing climb into upper economic status. The psychological distance eventually outran the physical distance, and in time it became impossible to exist on that bridge of connection. Years later it would become necessary to make the choice to not live a life of ambiguity. Conditional equality of that kind is far too costly to the soul, yet the riches garnered from having lived through the challenges can't be denied. I would not have missed a minute of it, and continue to draw upon those years as background to my work in the political arena in these tumultuous times. It will take more than Ahnold to push me off my center, much more.

Then there was the Parkmead Elementary School Minstrel Show... .

Next time ....

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Back to yesterday ...

In those early years, Mel and I worked out a coping strategy that allowed for him to be free enough to hold down his job as playground director at San Pablo Park during the day -- where he'd follow in the footsteps of Red, his old athletic mentor. He worked on the swing shift at the shipyards as a "trainee" and spent weekends playing quarterback for the Oakland Giants, and -- eventually -- for the Honolulu Warriors of the Pacific Coast Football league that pre-dated the NFL-AFL (Raiders/Niners). He was just about ten years too early, but was headlining the sports pages regularly.

I was the stay at home wife and mother -- who worked long hours in our little music store. Don't remember resenting the arrangement since I was fulfilling "woman's role" as it was expected in those days, making life possible for my husband. It was what we did. Funny, I thought of it as his business at the time, and saw myself in a supporting role, never one of equality.

Rick spent his early years in a playpen next to the cash box and record racks and eventually became adept at working the turntable and making change. When he was about five I became pregnant for the first time with Bobby arriving on time and beautiful! It had been a long wait after years of hoping for such a miracle. Started to immediately plan for my next delivery -- David followed less than three years later. Now it was time to do some major planning for the next phase in our marriage. It was time to build that dream house and get on with the business of mothering.

The demands of parenting began to make necessary Mel's cutting back and taking over the reins of his store while I began to pour over House Beautiful and Sunset Magazines, to think about floor plans and building materials, and to consider hiring the architect and interior decorator to do the preliminary designs.

Around this time Mel's father had retired from Wonder Bread Bakeries, Inc., and his parents had purchased an acre in Danville where he could keep a horse or two and create a truck garden as he'd always dreamed. They had a recently-built attractive one-floor ranch home out in the great open spaces of the Diablo Valley. We'd grown to see this as the perfect setting in which to raise our own growing family. Visiting them meant driving past miles of open land and thinly-developed suburban countryside. Each Sunday was dream-time, and after many months, we found just the spot we would buy, a half-acre bordered by a major creek, with about five sturdy old oaks and many fruit trees. It also had an old abandoned swimming pool (quite large) in the center. This was the final deciding factor for Mel. I recall having misgivings at the time about just how I could live with a pool and two-and-a-third children to keep up with, but this was not negotiable for Mel. This was his land.

What we hadn't counted on was the fact that -- in the real estate world -- by tacit agreement, a "string" had been dropped around those areas of the city where blacks were going to be allowed to live. It was pretty much limited to where blacks were already living. That meant that -- though we had business accounts in both Wells Fargo and the Bank of America -- neither bank would grant us a home loan to make the purchase of the site in the Diablo Valley. In fact, even in Berkeley, we learned that we could not get loans to buy any property above Grove Street, a main thoroughfare that ran from Oakland to Berkeley. African/Americans could only purchase homes between Grove Street and the Bay, and not above Dwight Way to the north. (If you don't know the area this doesn't make sense, I'm sure). There were no large open sites in the city except in the hill areas where Blacks were not permitted to build. Blacks were consigned to what are now referred to as "The Flat Lands."

How on earth do you account then for a young wife and mother who had taken her cues from House Beautiful and Architectural Digest -- whose dream house could not be constructed anywhere that "Gentlemens Agreements" had decided she could buy? We were financially able to afford our dreams, and those dreams were not unlike those of any other young western couple.

The only way that we could make the purchase of the plot we chose was to get Dorothy Wilson, (white) wife of Oakland's (African-American) Mayor, Lionel Wilson (he was a judge of the Superior Court at that time) to buy it for us. Lionel and Mel played semi-pro baseball together and were longtime friends. Meanwhile, I chose a local (Lafayette) architect, Sewell Smith, who was a highly-principled Quaker and a total stranger to begin to draft plans for our new redwood home on that lovely wooded ground.

Rumors began to fly. Threatening letters began to arrive. The architect was challenged. I'm assuming that our Berkeley address had been given out by the permitting offices at the county seat. As soon as the lumber trucks began to deliver stacks of boards for framing, the real threats began to come. "We'll burn every goddamned piece of wood you bring here. Beware!" It was terrifying... .

My (builder) Dad acted as contractor while Mel and several hired workers handled the construction. Having third-grader Rick and not yet 3 year-old Bobby to deal with and David on the way pretty well limited my participation except for monitoring progress. The house was being constructed over late spring and early summer. The weather was extremely hot with many days over 100 degrees. that meant that I usually drove out to the site in the early evenings -- before sundown -- to see how things were going. For the first few months one would have thought that no one lived on the block. I was aware of unseen eyes behind curtains up and down the road, but only interacted with an occasional curious child.

Over the six or so months while the four-bedroom lovely home with the large sundeck was shaping up, just before dark, a car would slow on the road -- usually a woman behind the wheel -- would stop and say, "...I'm Mrs. So-and-so. You may find that people around here are not too friendly, but if ever you should need to -- I live just down the road at ...".My very obvious pregnancy must have softened a few hearts over time. Over the months, most had done as much. The hate they were capable of en masse they were obviously incapable of individually. Interesting. In time the furor died away, but the harm had been irrevokably done.

We learned that the local improvement association had been meeting in extended sessions trying to find a way to halt our construction, or to stem the tide of what was obviously the "Invasion of the Black People." After all, the suburbs were at that time undergoing a building boom for the many more successful warworkers who were caught up in "White Flight" from the inner cities -- and here we were bucking the trend. Mel and I were just a couple of Californians with a long history in the area (remember, Mel's family came during the Civil War), who were just as confused and disoriented by the social changes as anyone else and seeking the same kind of lifestyle for our children as they. How dare they! But dare they did.

A local artist whose property bordered ours on the east was the first to approach me shortly after we moved in. David was but a few months old by then. Edith Dinkin and her husband invited us to an occasional gathering in her studio, and occasionally during the day when the kids were napping, we set up our easels creekside and she would give me painting lessons. It was a brave act on her part.

We'd purposely chosen a site in an unincorporated area just outside the city limits where I'd expected to find more individuality and less group-think. The homes were large and small, architect-designed and owner-built as well. There was a converted chicken shack across the road, next door to an attractive ranch house with shake roof and stone patio, etc. There was a Mormon couple with two kids, Al and Bessie Gilbert, who lived on their site in a trailer while they built their new home one board at a time.

The year after we moved in Dr. Harvey Powelson, a psychiatrist with a wife and 5 young kids built a home about a block away. I later learned that the Powelsons had chosen that site precisely because we were there, and would give their kids some "diversity" in their lives and erase some of the homogeneity of the burbs. There were so many opposing dynamics to contend with. It was oppressive to have become "the Negro family" of a resistant neighborhood, in time we all survived.

Over that first year or so my only response had been one of silence. I was troubled and confused, and certainly not used to being rejected on such a scale. I was also alone with the problems. Once the house was completed, Mel had gone back to work in the store and to life in Berkeley. The day-to-day life of adjustments to this highly irrational situation took its toll. I'd said nothing to my family or city friends about what as happening to us since my pride just wouldn't allow it. I had to make this work.

I can recall the day it started to turn around and I found my voice. It was the day that a very high profile attorney, Bob Condon, and his wife (just around the bend in the road and across the creek) Eleanor (the ceramist, decided to hold a dinner for the community. "We can take care of all this anger if they just have a chance to meet you two," says Bob. (Ungrateful!) my response was, " one is going to hold a dinner in order to show this community that I'm acceptable. They have every right to not want me here. What they do not have is any control over my being here!" "It is not true that one of their rights is the right to deny me mine!" This was about six months into silently hoping that we wouldn't be burned alive in our beds. "How dare they!" Poor Bob didn't expect this outburst, but was smart enough to see that it was coming straight up from my shoes and after months of unspeakable fear. He was not insulted, but allowed me the pride of defending myself. I could not have the Condons guaranteeing my acceptability. No one had that right or obligation. Along with the Dinkins, the Condons and the Powelsons became my friends and supporters. I owe them much. They befriended me with a sense of equality and not one bit of condescension. It was a brave beginning, and there were many new friendships in the years to follow, some that persist to this day.

More to follow...

Photo: Taken on the occasion of Dorian Leon Reid's dedication service at the Mt. Diablo Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship in a small bungalow on Pine Street in Walnut Creek, CA.