dc writings index
Freedom Songs Index
II - Hitchin' East
Freedom Songs -
my Journey through 1964
part III - Picks N Chooses
Back in Fort Worth. I prepared for Mississippi. I'd never heard back from COFO, the organization set up specifically for coordinating the upcoming summer registration drive.
It was still spring, the action wasn't until summer, but I didn't know what else to do. I just decided to go. Got a letter from Jackson. He had talked to an Episcopalian minister in Houston who suggested we go to Meridian to work with some good people that a minister friend of his there recommended.
I used to go hang out with the young minister to youth at the Presbyterian Church across from Grandmama Chadwick's home. I remember looking at a copy of Religion Without Revelation by Julian Huxley in his office and wondering what that was about. He gave me the name of a minister for me to look up in Jackson, the capital of Mississippi where the COFO headquarters were located.
The most prominent Presbyterian minister in town was Bill Jablonowski. I knew him from going to his apartment to play bridge with him and his boyfriend, eat steaks, and drink hard liquor. He had a thing for my bridge partner, Ward, but never got anywhere. He was known for his big Cadillac and arrogance which once he defended to me by saying, "I am humble before no one but god." Jab was outspoken in favor of integration and other liberal causes. He knew I was no churchgoer, but he gave me a Bible to travel with, said it would protect me in unexpected ways.
There had been some national media coverage already of the upcoming voter registration drive for Mississippi. Word got out in Fort Worth that I intended to go there. Don McLeland owned a door making factory. He lived down the street and I knew him and his son from the country club tennis courts. He called me up and asked me to come to his factory. I went over. He said I shouldn't go to Mississippi and interfere with them like that. It also might be dangerous. He didn't say anything overtly racist. He offered me a job at good pay if I'd call it off and stay in Fort Worth. I thanked him politely. If I wasn't going to go to Mississippi, I wasn't going to stay in Fort Worth either.
One of my family's oldest friends, Dolly Ware, invited me over to her house. She'd always praised my father as the person who got her on a spiritual path. Dolly gave talks to groups about all sorts of new age (before new age) subjects, sang horrible songs in a high voice at garden parties, was wealthy, opinionated and forceful. She could be very generous or very nasty, a complicated person. My oldest memory of her is being told, "Someday someone's going to slap you in the face!" She had invited me over one day after I graduated from high school and we had lunch with a graphoanalysist - a Mr. Rouch or something close to that. He had to take a test every year to keep his certification. After lunch I got a reading which was uncanny. But this time Dolly was not in a giving mood. I was there to be set straight.
"Don't go sticking your nose into other people's business. What on earth are you thinking? Going to Mississippi? You'll just cause trouble. If you want to help negroes, do it here! Go check out the ones that live in the homes your father sold them! A lot of them are very poor. Do you know what sort of conditions they live in? Help them make their payments!"
My father had built a lot of GI Homes after the war, small inexpensive wooden homes. I told her that we never kick people out of their homes if they can't pay and they always make up for it in time. "Anyway, I wouldn't know what to do here. There's no organization and there's not the same problem of negroes not being able to vote like in Mississippi."
"Well, that's what some people say. You can't trust what those agitating Northern Jews say - that's who's running this business you know. You don't know what they're up to. They're using you."
Years later when I heard Ross Perot speak, it reminded me of her a little - the accent and the attitude.
"Do you want integration?"
"Sure." I was used to arguing with adults about this.
"Why? We're different. They don't want integration."
At that point she called out to her maid who had served us coffee and cake earlier. When she came in Dolly asked her if she wanted integration.
"No ma'am Mrs. Ware! No ma'am! I don't want no integration! No ma'am!"
Dolly looked at me shaking her head. "You hear that David?"
I went over to the Howler's house behind mine. Mr. Howler patented a thermostat for jet planes. I got the impression it was on all jet planes at the time. I heard he'd developed it while working for a government funded corporation, resigned, and started his own business with his new patent. My buddy Ward and I used to go over play snooker downstairs next to the gun collection and argue with Mr. and Mrs. Howler upstairs in the kitchen. They had a daughter my age and some other kids but it was the parents whom Ward and I would talk with and yell with. They were super right wingers. Didn't belong to the John Birch Society but like that. They said that private enterprise could do everything better than the government, including national defense. They thought that every US president since Hoover had been a communist, that Kennedy had been assassinated because he was behind schedule with the communist takeover of America. They were in favor of a nuclear attack on Russia and China, that it was a lie that they had the bomb, that no communist system could do something that difficult. They said that the Civil Rights Movement received their orders directly from Moscow and if I went to Mississippi I'd be branded as a communist agent for life. No matter how much we disagreed, we were always welcome there.
Grandmama Chadwick was sweet, eccentric, prejudiced in her own batty way, and not someone I tried to have heart to heart talks with - just gave her a kiss and listened to her tell me how I was destined to be president some day. My mother' parents, American born Germans, were sharp and clear, and never expressed any prejudice. I naively interpreted the harmonious relationship between them and their long time servants Odell and Fay as being evidence of their dedication to equality. I drove over to tell them where I was going. They were shocked to hear my plans, were completely against it. They didn't get angry, but they were clearly distressed. They weren't being overtly racist or political. They just wanted me to conform and not do anything that would embarrass the family.
I remember from when I was much younger my grandmother, a stately woman, saying, "Study hard. Save every penny. Make your family proud of you."
In response, I'd say, "Granny, when I grow up, I'm going to be a cabbage." That would make her laugh. How prophetic of me.
After I realized where my grandparents stood, I told Odell and Fay about my plans only when we were alone. Buxom, heavy Fay said "God bless you, son," and that she'd pray to god to protect me. Odell was a minister who'd lost his church due to an affair or affairs. He nodded, and said, "You're going places boy."
I thought about something that Odell had said to me once. "A man's got to know his limits." I took it not as a caution to hold me back, but to keep in mind to act within the realm of the possible. I didn't take it to mean not to ride on the edge of the envelope. And obviously neither did he. And he knew that some of his limits were greater than mine.
I sat on the dining room floor and talked with Odell while he rubbed wax into it. He took my intent to help register negro voters a step further, said it was part of my journey to find myself. "The problem is," he said, "that a man don't know who he is."
When I said goodbye to Granny and Papa that day, I said, "I had such a wonderful talk with Odell. He's so wise."
"He's a good darkie," Granny said nodding.
Howell was the fairly light-skinned bartender at the men only 19th hole room at the country club. He was the backbone of the room, lent it a quality of dignity that helped to balance out the crude talk and guffawing coming from some of the tables of tipsy golfers. I used to go in there, sit at the bar when he wasn't busy, and talk to him. He'd known me since I was a little kid. I dropped by to say hello when I was there for lunch with my mother in another room. He asked how I was doing at college. I told him I'd left school and was going to Mississippi to help register negro voters. Howell shook his head and said with feeling, "Davy! Davy! When are you gonna grow up boy?" And he laughed at me and shook his head more.
My mother was accepting of my idea to go to Mississippi. She thought it was the right thing to do but she was worried for me and looked vainly for appropriate alternatives. I told her I'd save her the worry of me going into the army, that I was doing this instead.
My father had died when I was eleven - a little more than seven years earlier. He said that the only good business deal was one where both parties profit. He said that all people were equal in the eyes of god (He did not believe in a personal anthropomorphic god) and the law which was a sort of separate but equal type thing to say. He never said an unkind word about anyone and he'd not have approved of someone being denied the right to vote, however I know he'd have opposed my going to Mississippi.
The important thing to me in terms of race relations when he was alive was that he tolerated my love of negro music.
I got into the emerging black rhythm and blues before most white people. At ten my father would drive me to a black record store and sit in the car and wait while I bought whatever was new that I liked and anything new in the top ten. He and mother drove me to concerts where there were hardly any white people at all. I heard Joe Turner, Fats Domino, the Midnighters, the Clovers, the Drifters, Clyde McPhatter, LaVerne Baker, so many greats. Black women would be standing on their chairs screaming and I'd be in the isle dancing. I sneaked into Little Richard's back stage room and jumped into his arms saying, "Little Richard! I got all your records!" I never heard a single word from my father against any of this except a few asides about my taste in music.
A year after my father died another realtor came to the house to talk to me. He said he wanted me to know what an upstanding man my father was, especially in how he related to poor people and negroes. He said that Daddy and his partner had the lowest interest rates in town, that some realtors took advantage of poor people and sold them homes on terms that meant they'd owe more after thirty years than when they started. He said that Daddy promoted fairness and treating all people the same in business and was a leader in that way. Then this realtor took me for a ride, pulled over in a secluded spot, showed me photos of nude women, and said that they made him so horny that if someone put a penis in his moth he'd suck on it. I said oh that's nice but I need to go home now and do my homework.
My friends from Austin College and my oldest best friends - Ward, Jim, Raymond, and Frank were all supportive of my intentions. We had gone to Pascal. But my friends from our rival high school, Arlington Heights, John Denver's high school, tended to be stereotypically racist. Sorry. Just a few that I knew. Don't know why. Our two schools included the most well-to-do neighborhoods, Heights even more than Pascal. I'd be over there and hear stuff like, "Hey David, we hear you're a nigger lover now." That really surprised me. Nobody I knew said "nigger." Never heard the word in my home or from any of my friends. I was taught it was a word used by ignorant people.
One friend, Mike, may he rest in peace, had gotten really pissed at me cause I'd brought a black Air Force captain to his home one morning to go swimming. Mike's parents were gone and we'd been on a weekend swimming and singing drunk and I'd gone out to do something and picked the captain up hitchhiking. We were getting along and I said I'd drive him where he was going - it wasn't all that far - but first lets go swimming. It was sunrise. Mike and some other friends were sleeping, passed out is probably a more accurate word. The captain and I swam in the pool and then in the lake. Maybe I showed him Mike's father's helipad. Took him to his girlfriend's place, a little GI home on the edge of town. She was black, attractive, a singer She was currently performing in the King's Quarter. I told her we were the landlords of that place. Later I told Mike about all this and he was pissed. Not an angry type guy so he didn't yell, just said that was uncool. It was like he thought the guy had polluted his pool.
A week later Mike dropped by my home with a couple of long hair dudes who were on their way to Mexico. I think they were the first really hip people I'd ever met - in the new stoned hippie type hip way - but this was three years before Herb Caen coined "hippies." We played folk music together. They talked about escaping the uptight rat race and hinted at neat things to smoke down in Mexico. They had a Volkswagen Bus. After they'd left I thanked Mike for bringing them over. Later he confessed to me that he thought I'd be horrified to have them in my home, that to him they were dirty, grubby bums and he was trying to get back to me for bringing "that negro" over to his house. Good lord - he was an army officer in uniform. But too bad. Ha ha. I loved those weird guys.
It gets worse. Pardon me for telling this but two friends of mine, again from Heights, and I were drinking beer in the afternoon in one of their rooms and they asked me about going to Mississippi and they pretended to be sympathetic. And then one of them said, "Oh pardon me, I need to make a phone call. Don't we need to make a phone call, Jimmy?" "Oh I think we do." I didn't know what the heck they were up to. He opened a phone book. "Hey, here's a number in the Lake Como district." Oh no, I thought. That's a negro district. What the... "Let's call it." "Good idea." And then when someone answered, they'd start screaming, "Fuck you you god damn nigger!" After a few calls like that, they were not seeing any signs of getting to me, but I realized that I could put an end to this horror. I said, "Bye," and left to their pleas, "No, don't go - we have more calls to make!"
There were some sympathetic people besides my best friends. Francis Smith was a blind woman I'd known all my life. She'd been instrumental in getting disabled kids in the public schools I'd go read to her after school sometimes. I think she may have been a lesbian. Another woman lived there and took care of her. Francis was an alcoholic. She'd give me straight Scotch to drink while I read to her. Her parents were wealthy, were my mother's parents' best friends and lived down the street from them. Her brother Paul had lost a job in the State Department in Spain because of Joe McCarthy. I loved talking to him but after the second lobotomy he got so distant. Their brother George was a sensitive intellectual. All three of them wished me well.
I'd heard about John Howard Griffin since I was a little kid. He used to drop by my grandparents home to visit with them and their three daughters. He'd become famous because of his book, Black Like Me, his story of traveling through the deep South with skin dyed black. I heard other stories like how he'd become a king on a South Sea Island.
He lived in Mansfield just outside of town. Maybe he should have stayed in Dallas. They burned him in effigy in Mansfield. I called him up. He was friendly and encouraging, told me to be careful, and don't mouth off.
I don't know why, but from a young age my friends and I were always dubious concerning the rules about blacks and whites. We'd drink out of the black water fountains, go into the black rest rooms, and ride in the back of the bus. And that's all before I was a teenager, before that stuff went away. We were not being freedom riders. We were just crossing into forbidden zones, testing the rules. No one cared or tried to correct us. Fort Worth was not like the deep South.
Fort Worth was not even part of the South. We considered ourselves to be Southwest. A Fort Worth's slogan was and is "Where the West Begins." But there was bleed-through from the South. There had been slavery there. Texas was part of the confederacy - against the wishes of many including the founder, Sam Houston. I remember teachers who were opposed to integration and still fighting the Civil War and claiming wrongly it was not about slavery but state's rights. But I also remember teachers who spoke favorably of integration, some from experience elsewhere. Looking back now I see that as I grew up there was an unspoken growing sense of integration and civil rights being right, inevitable, with a hint of intriguing.
In the fifth grade I had a paper route that took me over a creek to a poor black neighborhood, real shanties and a dirt street. I could talk to the adults but I don't remember talking to kids much. We'd look at each other and maybe nod. We were so far apart and didn't know how to bridge the gap. Usually. There were a few rare days at the creek catching crayfish where we'd help each other look for them. Maids lived in cottages behind some of the white houses and a black boy lived nearby with his mother in one of those. He used the alley to walk to the busy street to come and go to where he felt welcome. He showed me how to play marbles. He told us that black cats were witches that could get under your skin and that hell was just below our feet underground waiting for us to fall in if we were bad.
Johnny was my best friend in the 2nd through the 4th grades. He had a Mexican mother and Anglo carpenter father who sat in an overstuff chair in a dirty tee shirt, drank beer, and cussed a lot. They lived in an old white wood home next to the creek in need of a paint job. After school sometimes Johnny and I would go to the other side of that creek and run around with black kids. His father would say, "Watcha over there playin' with them animals for?" Even at that young age we knew he was prejudiced even though we didn't necessarily know that word - and Johnny ridiculed him behind his back. I saw Johnny a few times when he was eighteen or so. We talked about those experiences and laughed at the ignorance around us. Why didn't the attitudes of Johnny's father pass on to him? Seems we were being driven by, and maybe somewhat also driving, a new wave of cultural evolution.
The black people I knew well were all servants. The were from another culture, a culture I knew not from the inside but from how we related and I liked our relationship. I thought people who had white maids were weird. To me, black adults, which meant black servants, had a patient, soft, accepting, reassuring feeling. I liked being around them. White servants tended to be uptight and I didn't want to be around them. Not that I didn't get scolded. There was one black yardman who scared me when I drove a tricycle through a pile of leaves he'd just made. He told me if I did that again he'd cut my arms and legs off and I went running crying to my mother who told him not to say things like that to me then she went back inside and I went back to riding my tricycle but did not plow through leaves again. It didn't make me afraid of blacks because I didn't know he was black. To me he was just him. I think that's mainly because I did not hear any talk of race one way or another.
Rosa Kelly was our maid from the day I came home from being born at the hospital till I was twelve. She was an important person in my life. She was there most days. My mother was too and there was no shortage of being with her or my father. Rosa was older than most maids, serious, even-tempered, patient. I'd catch crayfish and she'd take them home and cook them. I shudder to think what she was paid. I know that years later, my sister Susan home from college and I ganged up on mother and insisted that she increase the pay of her once a week maid, Bertha.
I see Rosa sitting in the hall in a rocking chair, horn rim glasses, reading the paper under the light at night when my parents were out. She'd call me over and point to a word and I would pronounce it. I remember asking her when I was five or so why she was so dark and she told me that one day she'd stayed too long in the sun. I only have one sad memory about Rosa. Maybe I was eight. An older tough kid from down the street was terrorizing me and at the back door, me hiding behind her, she told him to leave me alone and go away. He called her a nigger and ran off. She cried and cried and I stayed with her and didn't know what to do.
next - part IV - Corn Rows
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