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“I am not going back to Kinston to get you out no jail for talking back to white folks,”

argued my father when I, a rebellious 15-year-old, asked to join students

who were on the front lines desegregating lunch counters and such

 

 

Book by Sandra L. West

Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance

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Badge of Honor: Coming of Age in 1960s Newark

By Sandra L. West

They would not let me march. Black people were lynched, tarred, feathered, and maimed throughout the South. Duped out of jobs and left for economic dead. Insulted and degraded. While I did visit my ancestral home every summer vacation of my life, my parents would not allow me to return to march with the DownSouth, Greensboro, North Carolina college students during Freedom Summers or even to participate in civil rights rallies in the new UpSouth homeland of Newark, New Jersey. Their restrictions were the bane of my adolescent existence.

When my North Carolina born mother and father returned home to see their own parents, they were not allowed in “white” restaurants. The white side of the beach was separated from the black side by brown rope. The water was dark green/blue on both sides. They were bound by apartheid laws that I, a 1960s teenager, was bound to help break.

Many of my Carolina relatives lived in sharecropping shacks, but Uncle Richard Foy lived in town because he was a dentist and main Queen Street was where his office was near. He served black folks when white dentists wouldn’t. I recently re-read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou and if Dr. Foy’s patients could speak from the grave, they would tell a similar story. As the Arkansas saga goes, young Maya had a terrible toothache and Grandmother Henderson took her to the closest dentist, the white doctor named Dentist Lincoln, who not only refused to accept the elder’s grandbaby as a patient but growled 

“Annie, my policy is I’d rather stick my hand in a dog’s mouth than in a nigger’s.” (Angelou 184).

The South was rough, and Kinston was no different.

I was restricted in Kinston and I was restricted in Newark. Unlike children of the 21st century who roam streets and subways at all hours without parental supervision, my movements were monitored. I was not allowed to run around Newark. I didn’t even think about it.

When school was out, I rode with my parents down back roads, pre I-95 days, from Newark to Kinston. We traveled with a potty in the back seat so as not to have to ask/beg a gas station attendant or a restaurateur for use of public restrooms where signs humiliated us. “White Men”  “White Women”  “Colored.” We packed our lunch and ate by the side of the roads at picnic tables. We kids thought it was such an adventure, eating like that, when actually, our parents were ducking Jim Crow as best they could by keeping us far away from people who would invariably snarl “We don’t serve colored here.” 

I could slide in and out of Kinston and its rural hamlets with parents close-by, but I could not return south to join the 1960s civil rights movement, something I yearned to do.

“I am not going back to Kinston to get you out no jail for talking back to white folks,” argued my father when I, a rebellious 15-year-old, asked to join students who were on the front lines desegregating lunch counters and such. I asked, but no was no and that was that. Well, not exactly.

Now, my father had an activist history of his own with community block clubs, church stewardship, and labor unions. As a matter of fact, many times when I now see Congressman Donald Payne we share a chuckle about Willie A. West, especially if something is going wrong in the old neighborhood that the Payne’s and West’s shared; we know that none other than he could negotiate, mediate and dilute the crisis.

My father was a character. He spoke a little high school French that he pulled out for show and tell whenever I was having trouble with my high school Latin.  He said “no” to me in French, Standard English and Black English. No, I could not join the civil rights movement. I was too young, too bull-headed, NO. He was not going to bring me home in a pine box.

Emmett Till’s mother had to bring him home. Just 14-years old, he was murdered by grown men in August of 1955, when he came from Chicago for summer vacation in Money, Mississippi. His tongue was cut out and stuffed back into his mouth. His private parts were cut off, and stuffed there too. He was beaten with an axe. His mother almost did not know who he was. (Raphael)

I was a few years younger than Emmett Till when in August of 1959 my father moved the family from the North Ward of Newark to the South Ward, seeking a higher quality of life. He purchased 395 Chadwick Avenue for $17,000 from Mrs. Yetta Stein and her devout husband. The streets were tree-lined. Chadwick extended straight past Hawthorne, with no Route 78 to split the neighborhood in the name of urban progress.

I grew up with all kinds of people. Early black families on Chadwick Avenue were the Characters and the Stricklands. Mrs. Character was an asthmatic who lined up tins and cereal boxes in the food pantry like little wooden soldiers, as if a military officer would one day come in, inspect, and chide her if one can of baby green peas was out of place. The Strickland family had three children who could have company when their parents were not home, something we were forbidden to do, and we obeyed but were in total awe of those “free-to-be” children. We West’s lived quietly in the same house with Polish and Russian Jews. Mr. and Mrs. Boralsky, Stanley and Sarah, with a grandfather living there too, were in the downstairs apartment with three children, and my parents demanded we be respectful. They insisted upon it.

The neighborhood was beautiful and serene. So, I vividly remember the day when the crass adult world defiled my innocence.

Riiiiing. Our black telephone rang off the hook. Before I could get “West Residence” out of my mouth an oily voice excitedly told me “The niggers are coming. The niggers are coming. Sell now.” Little did he know that I, a 12-year-old child, was one of those who was not only coming but had arrived. He tried his best, but my family members were not white, were not running, and were not selling. I had come into direct contact with housing discrimination, part and parcel with Red-Lining.

During the mayoral tenure of Kenneth Allen Gibson – [June 16, 1970 Gibson elected mayor of Newark, the first African-American mayor of a major eastern U.S. city] there was a Newark Office of Consumer Action headed by Dennis Cherot. Cherot contributed a chapter titled “Out of Necessity” to NEWARK: 1967-1977 An Assessment, edited by Stanley B. Winters and published by New Jersey Institute of Technology. This is a very important chapter – as they all were -- because it defines Red-Lining, among other injustices black people endured. Cherot wrote:

Newark residents are also exposed to the practice of “redlining” which involves banks discriminating against Blacks and other low-income groups in mortgage loan practices. The refusal of banks to grant mortgages and home improvement loans to Newark residents has seriously affected the city’s growth and rehabilitation. Living in urban neighborhoods which are primarily Black or Hispanic should not be a criterion for denying loans. Individuals should be granted loans on their qualifications and their ability to repay the loan. Without monies from the lending institutions, Newark residents are denied the chance of helping themselves to improve their surroundings. (228).

So, while the real estate agent I “met” on the telephone forced a hard and quick sale in the neighborhood – and most of my white neighbors did bale out and run to Hillside, Union, West Orange – the new black homeowners were given the shaft by banks and this, coupled with the fact that 50% of Newark supermarkets fled the area (West 1), helped fuel the South Ward/Newark history of frustrated neighborhoods. Thus, this area and all of black Newark became ripe for the Rebellion of 1967, aka The Newark Riots.

My around-the-corner neighbor Susan Magezis saw the hand-writing on the wall, way back then. She is the older sister of my high school classmate Joy. I see the sisters occasionally even though Joy, writer and teacher, lives abroad. Susan had then argued and reasoned and tried to convince the Jewish elders that no one could move into the homes they loved and “bring down” the neighborhood if they just stayed put and did not rush to sell, if they sold at all. Makes sense to me, even 40 odd years later. 

During those high school years, I saw the world partly through the television my father purchased from Sears, when Sears & Roebuck was on Elizabeth Avenue where Branford Brothers Moving and Storage currently does business. On television news in 1963, I was traumatized when I witnessed a politician named Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor of Birmingham, Alabama sic dogs and high powered water hoses on black folks who wanted to exercise their right to vote and to march peaceably. My dukes were up.

I joined SANE (Sane for a Nuclear Policy) with my friends at school, and learned about The Vietnam War. I united with SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), and The National Conference of Christians and Jews that met at Robert Treat Hotel. Joy was a member also, of NCCJ. Then, I joined C.O.R.E. and N.A.A.C.P.

With parental no’s ringing in my ears, I would steal away. I put on my brown penny loafers and walked the length of Newark behind Robert “Bob” Curvin, the leader of C.O.R.E. (Congress on Racial Equality). I remember a particular C.O.R.E. march keenly because, on that same television set where I was “introduced” to Bull Connor, I had seen equally callous white people with turned-down mouths crack raw eggs upon the heads of trained-in-non-violence black college students who sat at lunch counters in southern Woolworth’s. We marchers in Newark stopped on Broad & Market, in front of our Woolworth’s 5 and 10 cent store where Conway is located now. Our rallying cries and chants tried to shame them for the way they held black folk captive DownSouth, as if we were not held captive UpSouth. Our method of operation was called sympathy march, and my parents forbade me to leave the house, but I walked.

I walked holes in my brown penny loafers. My mother threw my loafers in the garbage along with the Ike and Tina Turner 45 records my sister and I loved so much.

I got my shoes out before any sanitation truck could claim them. They had holes in them, yes. But, holes and all, those shoes were my Badge of Honor.

When I graduated from Weequahic High School in 1964, I moved to Harlem to live with my aunt and cousin in a huge apartment at 54 West 119th Street. The rent on Apartment #2 was $50.00 a month and I went to the theatre several times a week for $10.00 per discount ticket.

By 1965 I had joined the Youth Council of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), headed by Hazel Dukes. We were part of a huge march on 125th Street and Lenox Avenue (now Malcolm X Blvd).

At this time, Selma, Alabama was a picture of particular pigheadedness. Even with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on the books, things were not right. In Selma there were 29,000 residents. Out of 29,000 were 15,156 black residents and out of this number a niggardly 156 black registered voters. (Violence in Selma 1965)  Activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) rallied and marched to change these statistics and other intolerably low figures in towns and cities across the South. They were met with the utmost resistance as they marched from Selma to Montgomery across Pettis Bridge on March 7, 1965.  State troopers trampled and billy-clubbed praying marchers into the history books. They called it Bloody Sunday but Monday was just as bad. (Franklin 476-477)

The revolution was well-televised. There were many responses to Bloody Sunday. One was from the March on Washington (1963) architect Bayard Rustin who called for a march in Harlem. I attended, March 1965, as part of the NAACP. The New York Amsterdam News took photos and there I was, on page 44 of the March 26th edition, in my favorite navy blue raincoat and cat-eye glasses. You could not see my 6 ˝ mediums in that photograph, but I had them on, my brown penny loafers. My Badge of Honor.

The photos took up an entire tabloid page under a huge banner When The Word Is Given – They Rally Around. Black nuns, The Oblate Sisters of Providence journeyed from Baltimore. White soldiers rolled in steel wheelchairs. It was a sea of indignant people, a wave of humanity trying to do something about the inhumane among us.

When I look at those photos now, I am reminded that, after all of that, black people vote in a haphazard, slapdash manner; if they vote at all. They feel justified in nonvoting. They proudly proclaim “I don’t vote. Ain’t nothing to vote for.” I look at those old photos, taken not really so long ago, and I am reminded that I have problems getting 10 people together for a block meeting so that we can have a safe neighborhood here in University Heights. More than lives were lost, back in the 1960s.

I don’t know if I will ever march again. I have returned to Newark after marching in Harlem, Montclair, Savannah. I happily follow in my father’s community activist footsteps. I believe in organization and, as Joy and I were discussing via e-mail just the other day, we realize we are fortunate to have been nurtured in the very special era of the 1960s. And, we know things are different.

Used to be, other folk tarred and feathered black people and called us unspeakable names. Now, we do it ourselves/to ourselves through what is supposed to be entertainment. Or even through education at a historically black college or any college, an education many of our young folk defile with anti-intellectualism.

Revolution has changed also, the way people respond to things. So many people are anesthetized and do not feel the racist pinch, do not respond to insults on their people, their womanhood, their manhood, their intelligence.  I feel the pinch. Among other things, I have made the decision to not listen to rap music because it is toxic and damaging to me and my community.

Thick white sneakers have replaced my brown penny loafers. Hopefully, I will not have to use them, in this the 21st century.

PHOTOCAP: Aunt Helen in the autumn of her years, with caretaker daughter, Carolyn Jane  Foy, sitting  

    on bench at Riverside Terrace, 157th Street & Riverside Drive in New York’s Morningside Heights (2003).

                                                                Photo Credit: Sandra L. West

 

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Works Cited

Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Random House, 1969.

Cherot, Dennis. “Out of Necessity.” Newark: 1967-1977 An Assessment: Papers Prepared for the Conference on An Assessment of Newark, 1966-77. October 1,1977. Stanley B. Winters, ed. Published by New Jersey Institute of Technology.

Franklin, John  Hope. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans. Fifth Edition. New York: Knopf, 1980.

New York Amsterdam News. “When The Word Is Given – They Rally Around.” March 26, 1965,

Raphael, Michael. Emmett Till, The Oratorio performed by Trilogy: An Opera Company at Trinity & St. Philip’s Cathedral, 608 Broad St, Newark, NJ, June 9, 2007 at 8 p.m.

Violence in Selma 1965. www.multied.com/Sixties/Selma.html

West Whiteurs, Sandra. “City Supermarkets: Where’d They All Go?” Information Newspaper, Newark, New Jersey, September, 1976. Vol. V, No 1.    

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Sandra L. West, a member of The Harlem Writers Guild, published a memoir What’s In A Name, Ghana Mae Jane?  in the Spring/Summer 2005 edition of Obsidian III: Literature of the African Diaspora. Co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, the first encyclopedia devoted to the movement, West is a Contributing Writer to Contemporary American Women Poets: An A-Z Guide. West teaches African American Literature at Rutgers University.

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  /  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll   /  Only a Pawn in Their Game

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posted 8 July 2007

 

 

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