Sunday, July 17, 2016


Daddy was an only child. Or so I believed until Grandpa died in 1965. Shortly after Dr. Ernest Richter came on that Sunday morning, June 13, and pronounced Sprig dead of stomach cancer, I overheard the adults—Mother, Daddy, Grandma and Aunt Willie, Grandma’s sister—discussing in hushed tones whether they ought to let “them” know—or even could let them know.
I don’t know what they ultimately decided, but I later learned that the mysterious “them” were Grandpa’s two sons from a relationship he had had after he and his first wife, Lillie White, had split and before he met Grandma and married her in 1916. It wasn’t just any kind of relationship, but an especially dangerous one in the Texas of that time: an interracial one. It turned out that Daddy had two half-brothers who apparently were living as white men.
He said he didn’t learn about them until he was almost 18 and was preparing—after a disastrous year as an immature freshman at Prairie View A&M University—to go to Galveston to learn the mortician’s trade. As Wilbert was preparing to leave for Galveston, Grandpa apparently decided he ought to tell the boy about his brothers there.
“He told me he had gone to Galveston to work,” Daddy said, “and he cohabited with this woman who he thought to be a mamoo, a real light-skinned Creole woman. She was actually Italian. They had one son, Edward, and a couple years later another son, Raymond. Then one day they had an argument and she called him ‘nigger’ and told him her true identity.”
A black man didn’t need to be a Socrates to see the danger in that kind of situation. Grandpa quickly found his hat and the front door. He moved to Houston, leaving behind two sons who, as far as he knew, remained in Galveston and continued to carry his last name.
So thanks to the crazy ways of race in the America of that time, Wilbert was practically, if not actually, an only child. That was both a blessing and a curse, for he was at once the beneficiary of all his parents’ resources and attention and the bearer of the burden of all their hopes and expectations.
            “I was always expected to succeed,” he said. “In fact, when I was 7 or 8 years old, I was having lots of problems in school. And the problem came from fear…. I was afraid because I knew I would get a whipping if I didn’t perform in school."
The great turning point in Wilbert’s life came after he finished sixth grade in Dayton. Grandma’s older sister, Leana Day’s oldest child, Willie, had married and moved with her husband to Washington, D.C., where she worked at the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing, helping produce the nation’s currency. After a short time her marriage broke up, but she continued to live in Washington.
On a visit home to Dayton in 1929, Daddy said, Aunt Willie apparently “saw something in me that she thought Washington would help.” It was decided that Wilbert would go to the nation’s capital to live with her and attend school.
He was 13 when he left for Washington in 1931, but so small that he was able to pass for 12 and ride the train for half-fare. The journey took three days and was itself a significant learning experience.
“Mama tagged me like I was parcel post,” he said. “I traveled in August in a wool suit carrying an overcoat. I did fine until I got to Little Rock, where the cars were switched and whites and colored began riding in the same car. I was uncomfortable, having grown up in a totally segregated society.”
He ended up staying in Washington three years, until the Depression made it financially impossible for Aunt Willie to continue to keep him.
            “Many, many years passed before I realized how blessed and valuable those three academic years were in my life,” he said. “I don’t know how a country boy from Texas could command so much respect and admiration. I was elected class president in the seventh, eighth and ninth grades at three different schools. I was not especially smart but I studied hard, kept up with my work and had a normal social life.”
Better schooling, albeit still segregated schooling, was only part of the benefit of living in Washington. The city itself was a classroom, and the times—it was the era of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal—provided a rich curriculum.
“The Capitol rotunda was my playground,” he said. “I would skate from 11th and G Streets N.E. to the Washington Monument, walk up to the observation deck. Visit the White House a couple of times a year. Go to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in time to take the last sightseeing tour. Look down [from a catwalk] on Aunt Willie while she worked and then wait to go home with her after she got off from work.
“I was at Franklin Roosevelt’s [1932] inauguration. I stepped on a woman’s foot with my roller skates on. She was not a happy Democrat.”
After three years, Wilbert’s Washington idyll ended. As the Depression deepened and lengthened, Aunt Willie’s hours at her government job were cut, and then cut again. Eventually, she found herself no longer able to keep her nephew, who had to return to Dayton.
            By the time Wilbert returned in 1934, Sprig, who previously had worked for others, had opened his own blacksmith shop in downtown Dayton. Ida, who had been a public school teacher before Wilbert’s birth, had gone back to teaching.
            There also were two other children in the household: a younger boy Sprig and Ida had adopted, McKinley Lee, whom they renamed Paul Wycliff and who somehow acquired the nickname “Skeet,” and a teenage girl, Berneatha Mosley, the daughter of one of Ida’s friends from a little settlement called Moss Bluff, who had come to Dayton to attend high school.
“Our family was always considered well-off,” Wilbert said. “People thought we had more than we had. In the ‘30s, there were times when Daddy didn’t make enough at the shop to bring home sugar or flour or something. But we always had enough to eat. We farmed. We raised livestock and chickens and such. And we had good credit.”
Wilbert was in tenth grade when he returned to Dayton, and tenth grade was as far as one could go then at Colbert High School, the colored school. So after graduating from high school in Dayton, he went one more year to the black high school in Liberty and graduated there. Then it was on to Prairie View A&M.
In those days of “separate but equal,” Prairie View was the state’s land grant university for blacks. For an ambitious young black Texan, it was the place to go to college. Problem was, the 17-year-old Wilbert wasn’t very ambitious. Without regular adult guidance for the first time in his life, he behaved in college like an aimless teenager and compiled an academic record studded with Fs and Ds. By the spring of 1937, the end of his freshman year, he knew he would not be returning in the fall. The question was: What to do instead?
Thanks to an uncle, the mortician’s apprenticeship in Galveston materialized. Wilbert completed it and, after he turned 19, took the state exam and became a licensed funeral director. Grandma and Grandpa then mortgaged their cattle to get him the $300 tuition for embalming school. He completed the course and took and passed the state test. But, showing the same immaturity he displayed at Prairie View, he lost the receipt showing he had paid his tuition and so was denied the embalmer’s license.
Wilbert began “knocking around,” moving from one odd job to another. He worked briefly as a porter for a dentist in Houston for $4.50 a week, barely enough to live on. Then a friend, Snowden “Mac” McKinnon, told him about his job with the Pinkerton detective agency: He rode trains checking for conductors who would collect fares from passengers and then pocket the cash.
“Mac helped me to get on there,” Daddy said. “I got big money then—$4.50 per day plus per diem.”
It was a better job, but it wasn’t a destination. In 1940, at his mother’s urging, Wilbert returned to Dayton, where he drove a school bus and worked part-time at the QP, a downtown grocery store.
Emily, meanwhile, was in her last year at Colbert High—she graduated as class valedictorian in May 1941—and was working as a housekeeper and babysitter for a white couple, the Jamisons.
            At the time, the Dayton school district provided bus transportation for black grade school children, but not for high schoolers. High school students had to walk to school, and for Emily and others in the French settlement that meant a hike of at least three miles each way to Colbert High in Lowoods, the black neighborhood on the south end of town.
            As if the walk weren’t challenge enough, they faced taunts from white children riding buses to their separate but “more equal” school. When the buses went past, Mother said, the white kids would spit on them or hit them with switches they had brought aboard the bus.
            One day Wilbert, who was driving black elementary school students to Colbert, offered to let Emily ride the bus if she would kiss him. She thought on it, decided he was worth it and gave him a kiss. Thus began a relationship that lasted until death parted them almost three quarters of a century later.
            Wilbert was smitten, and when Christmas came around that year, he wanted to give Emily a gift. In the newspaper he saw a jewelry store ad for a “dinner ring” for $9.50. He bought one, took it to Emily’s house and gave it to her. Her mother, Ezildia, asked the young man, “Are you serious?” To which Wilbert replied, without appreciating the full significance of what he was doing and saying, “Yes.” And with that, Wilbert and Emily became engaged.
            But there was no immediate trip to the altar. The following year, 1941, Wilbert was drafted into the Army. The United States wasn’t yet involved in the war that was raging in Europe and the Pacific, so draftees were expected only to go in, undergo a year of training and be released, to be recalled in the event they were needed. Wilbert expected that after his training period was over, he would return to Dayton and he and Emily would be married. But Pearl Harbor changed all that. After December 7, 1941, there were no quick exits from the armed forces. America was at war.
            There was an obstacle on Emily’s side as well. Grace Jamison, the lady for whom she worked, took a great liking to her and offered to pay for Emily to attend college. “She treated me like a daughter,” Mother said.
            Mrs. Jamison had hoped Emily would go to Prairie View, but instead she ended up going in autumn 1941 to Tillotson College, a small private institution in Austin. She stayed two weeks. She found herself underprepared academically and overwhelmed emotionally at being separated from her family.
            Emily returned to Dayton, worked to repay Mrs. Jamison for the expenses of her brief college experience, and waited for Wilbert’s situation to clarify so they could be married.
            Wilbert, meanwhile, was finding his collegiate experience an advantage even though it had ended badly. Immediately after the Army induction ceremony in Houston, a commander asked whether any of the inductees had been to college. Wilbert was the only one to raise his hand. He was promptly put in charge of getting the recruits and their paperwork to Fort Huachuca. Once there, someone asked whether anyone in his group knew how to type. Again, Wilbert replied affirmatively--he had learned to type while he was in school in Washington. He became company clerk, the Radar O’Reilly of his unit.
            At Huachuca, Wilbert and the other trainees were part of the all-black 93rd Division. Early in 1942, word got around that the division was ticketed for the Pacific theater of the war. When Wilbert heard about this, he wrote to Emily and told her she should simply forget about him, because the likelihood was that he wouldn’t return alive. The Pacific, everyone said, was an abbatoir. Emily lost hope.
Then, a few weeks later, there was a change of fortunes. Wilbert was selected, along with fewer than 100 others, to remain behind at Huachuca and help revive the 92nd Division, the legendary black unit known during the Indian wars of the 19th Century as the Buffalo Soldiers. They didn’t know where the 92nd would ultimately be assigned, but they were pretty sure it wouldn’t be the Pacific. Suddenly, Wilbert was recalled to life—and Emily was called to a wedding.
She went out on the train. After she arrived, they made their way to Bisbee and found a Catholic church. The parish priest, Rev. James B. Davis, helped round up a couple of witnesses, and they tied the knot.
They spent a few weeks together after the wedding. Then Emily returned to Dayton to await the birth of the baby they had conceived, and Wilbert went back to soldiering, which was proving exactly what he needed to overcome his aimlessness.
A white commander urged him to apply for Officer Candidate School, which he did. He was selected and became a second lieutenant. He and the rest of the 92nd ended up in Italy during the last months of the war.
In January 1946, he returned home and, like so many World War II vets, began trying to build a life for himself, his bride and their family. Building a family was the easy part. Emily quickly became pregnant with their second child—me—and, not long after my birth, with their third, Karen.
But on the occupational front things weren’t working out so well. Finding a job that would support a growing family proved a huge challenge for Wilbert. Blacksmithing wasn’t going to pay the bills, he realized, so he needed something else. Using his GI benefit, he enrolled at the new Texas State University for Negroes in Houston. He majored in Industrial Arts and finished his bachelor’s degree in three years, graduating in August 1950. But decent employment still eluded him.
At one point, he took a civil service exam for a job as a postal clerk, and scored well on it. So well, in fact, that word got around Dayton. A wealthy old rice farmer for whom Emily’s sister, Cecilia, worked remarked to her one day, “What’s your brother-in-law trying to do, take a white man’s job?”
            In the fall of 1951, about a year after the arrival of baby number four, Christopher, Wilbert took a job teaching industrial arts at a high school in Orange, Texas, about fifty miles east of Dayton. At the insistence of the local school authorities, he moved his family to Orange. We didn’t stay long.
            Mother hated the place with a passion. One night she fell ill and Daddy piled her and all the kids into the car and drove us back to Dayton, where we remained. From then on, he commuted to and from Orange, renting a room in a family’s home and coming to Dayton once during the week and on weekends. It was an arrangement that neither he nor Mother liked.
On top of that, he chafed at having to teach his classes with castoff tools and materials from the white schools in Orange, and unable as a result to do a job that met his own standards. So he was soon searching again for new work.
            One day early in 1954, he saw on a post office bulletin board advertisements for two jobs with the federal government. He decided to apply for both and told himself that he would take the first that come through.
A few weeks later he got a letter from the Federal Correctional Institution in Ashland, Kentucky, offering him a job as an instructor in the prison’s education program. They wanted him as soon as possible.
Wilbert wrote back, saying that his current job would not end until the end of the school year in June. Could they wait for him until then? Yes, they responded. And so it was decided.
Wilbert drove home from Orange after the last day of school there, Friday, June 4. Emily helped him get packed and ready to depart. The next day he boarded a train that got him to Ashland in time to report for work on Monday morning, June 7. He quickly decided the job was a keeper, and he and Emily began making plans to move the family.
For both of them, Ashland, Kentucky, represented deliverance. For Wilbert, it was deliverance from the frustration of unfulfilling, dead-end jobs in East Texas. For Emily, it was deliverance from the stultifying small-town life of Dayton and the constant interference of her mother-in-law.
“Ashland was first time we could call our own shots,” she said. Ashland was freedom.


Saturday, July 16, 2016


I must have been five years old, or maybe six, when Robert Mosley, the white kid who lived next door, told me one day that the end of the world would come when the moon shone in the daytime. I walked over to the edge of our back porch and peered up into the bright, blue, midday sky of East Texas. There, clear as anything, was the moon.
            I went crazy, bursting into uncontrollable tears and running into the house to find my mother, the only shelter I could imagine against the cataclysm I was sure would occur momentarily, destroying everything and everybody I knew and loved. I can’t say it for sure, but I suspect Robert Mosley went home and had himself a good laugh.
            About ten years later, when I was a sophomore in high school, I once again thought the world was about to end. And this time it was no joke.
            It was October 1962 and the Cuban missile crisis was building toward a climax. So terrified was I that I skipped basketball practice after classes and rushed home from school to my family’s house in the Park Hill neighborhood of Denver. I wanted to hear the news and be with family when the fiery, thermonuclear end came. I remember burying my face that evening in my father’s lap and crying, wondering why my life had to end before I had really had a chance to live.
            Of course, my life didn’t end then. A nuclear holocaust apparently was too much for the leaders of the United States and the USSR to contemplate.
            My life began on December 17, 1946, in the colored wing of Yettie Kersting Hospital in Liberty, Texas. Mother said she was one of the lucky ones in the ward that day: She had a bed to lie on, but some women had to sleep and nurse their babies on mattresses on the floor.
My first name was supposed to be Joel. In fact, if you go to the state of Texas’s birth index, you’ll find me identified that way: Joel Don Wycliff, born December 17, 1946, to Emily Broussard and Wilbert Wycliff.
            It was my paternal grandmother who urged them to change it to Noel because I was born so close to Christmas. So they did, and on my birth certificate I became Noel Don Wycliff. Why they started calling me by my middle name I don’t know, but I suspect it was a gesture of self-assertion by Mother, who, not for the first time or the last, resented Grandma’s interference.
            My coming-to-be occurred at a highly consequential juncture in history. During the nine months I was in utero, the League of Nations officially went out of business and the new United Nations held its first meetings in New York; the World War II allies hanged ten convicted Nazi war criminals (an eleventh, Luftwaffe commander and Hitler deputy Hermann Goering, cheated the hangman by committing suicide the day before he was to be executed); India moved inexorably toward independence from Britain; the first bikinis went on sale in Paris; former heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson died; singers Leslie Gore, Linda Ronstadt and Cher, actress Candice Bergen, baseball star Reggie Jackson, businessman/buffoon Donald Trump, politicians George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and actor Danny Glover were born; Mother Francis Xavier Cabrini became the first American to be canonized a saint; Notre Dame won college football’s national championship; America conducted its first underwater nuclear bomb test; Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis staged their first show as a comedy team, and one of the last multiple lynchings in the United States happened in Georgia, when a mob of white men murdered two black couples near Moore’s Ford Bridge.
            Liberty, my birthplace, lies astride U.S. Highway 90, about halfway between Houston and Beaumont. But we lived—my parents, my older brother Francois, and I—in Dayton, Texas, about six miles west, six miles closer to Houston. Dayton and Liberty once had been parts of the same municipality, but at some point “West Liberty” morphed into “Day’s Town” and then into Dayton.
The town derived its name from an early white settler, Isaiah Cates Day, a Tennessean who moved to Texas in the 1840s. According to the lore in the local black community, Day was as prolific a procreator as he was a farmer and a stock raiser, which he gave as his occupations in the 1860 and 1870 United States censuses.
The 1860 census showed Day to be a substantial slaveholder, and the 1870 census made clear the effects of slavery’s abolition on his financial fortunes. In 1860, when the Civil War started, Day had real estate worth $25,000 and a personal estate valued at $65,000. No doubt a substantial part of that personal estate consisted of the 52 humans listed as his property in the census’s “slave schedule.” By 1870, after the Civil War and the adoption of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery, Day’s real estate holdings had diminished to $5,000 and his personal estate to $2,500.
By the one account I have been able to find—that of a woman named Laura Cornish, who was a slave on his plantation at emancipation—Day was about as good a master as a slave could have hoped to have.
“We all calls him Papa Day ‘cause he won’t ‘low none of his cullud folks to call him ‘Master,’” Mrs. Cornish, by then an old woman, told an interviewer from the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers Project in 1937. “He says we is born jes’ as free as he is, only de other white folks won’t tell us so, an’ dat our souls is jes as white, an’ de reason we is darker on de outside is ‘cause we is sunburnt. I has hear of lots of good white folks an’ and some bad white folks, but I don’t reckon there was anyone what was as good to the cullud folks as he was.”
If “Papa Day” treated his slaves almost like family, it may have been because some of them were. One of his slaves, Amanda Gibbs, gave birth to ten children, all of whom carried the surname “Day” and at least some of whom were, according to family lore, fathered by Isaiah Day. There is no documentation to establish this claim definitively, and the documentation that does exist is sketchy and far from conclusive. But presumably Amanda Gibbs, the best witness of all, knew who fathered her children.
The 1870 census—the first in which freed slaves were included on their own accounts as people, not property—lists a “Mandie Cribs,” who at the time was 42 years old and had five children of the same last name in her household. Mandie Cribs, it seems pretty clear, was “Amanda Gibbs,” the white census enumerator having used her nickname (the same one used by Laura Cornish in her WPA narrative—“Aunt Mandy”) and heard “Cribs” instead of “Gibbs.” Just where the name Gibbs came from nobody seems to know. Significantly, “Mandie Cribs” and her five listed children all were marked down as mulatto, i.e., of mixed black-white parentage.
Exactly where Mandie Cribs’/Amanda Gibbs’ five other children were on census day 1870 isn’t clear. But one thing is clear from family records and testimony: All ten children were always referred to by the surname “Day,” not Gibbs or Cribs.
The youngest child in that census listing, two-year-old “Lit”—her given name was Leana—grew up, was married twice and gave birth to two daughters and two sons. The second of her daughters, Ida Belle Brown, was my paternal grandmother, the one who insisted I be named “Noel.” Ida’s only child, a boy named Wilbert, is my father. 
Wilbert—“Daddy” to me and my siblings—was 28 when I was born, and not quite a year off of active duty with the United States Army, where he had spent 15 months with the all-black 92nd Division in Italy during World War II. He came home in January 1946 with three Bronze Stars and a first lieutenant’s bars. And he quickly discovered that if war had been hell, peace as a black man in the American South was, well, hellish—even if that black man had helped save the world from fascist tyranny.
On my birth certificate Daddy’s occupation is given as “Blacksmith.” Truth is, he was sharing a workplace and a diminishing amount of available work with his father, my grandfather, Socrates “Sprig” Wycliff, a blacksmith who was himself the son of a blacksmith, Sylvester “Big Papa” Wickliff. (Socrates changed the spelling of his last name after he opened his own business, so as to distinguish himself from his competitor-father.) Even as early as 1946, blacksmithing as a trade at which a man could make a living was on its way to history’s dustbin. There was just enough life left in it that I would be able, as a teenager in the early 1960s, to spend summers working with Grandpa in his shop and earn enough money to pay my Catholic high school tuition.
Mother—Emily Ann Broussard—and Daddy were married on June 2, 1942, in a Catholic ceremony at St. Patrick’s Church in Bisbee, Arizona. Mother was a devout Catholic, raised in a Dayton household where, for reasons of finances and distance, going to mass on Sunday was not always possible but getting each new baby baptized was a priority.
Dayton eventually got its own black Catholic church, but during Mother’s youth the closest was in Ames, a small black settlement just east of Liberty. “We had no car,” Mother said. “Very few people had cars. When babies were born and had to be baptized, Mama would pay [a neighbor] to take her to Ames to get the baby baptized.”
There was a white Catholic church, a so-called “mission church,” in Eastgate, a Czech settlement a few miles west of Dayton in the direction of Houston. Mother recalled that in 1933, when she would have turned 11, the parish priest in Liberty, Father Michael Hurley, who also served the Eastgate mission, gave black children in Dayton permission to attend religious education classes in Eastgate so they could prepare for First Holy Communion and Confirmation.
One family, the St. Julians, provided a wagon and a team of horses. And children from several families rode through the pastures to St. Anne’s in Eastgate for Tuesday morning classes. On the day they actually received the sacraments—September 11, 1933, mother recalled—a neighbor who owned a flatbed truck, Mr. Ed Paul, let the families use it to transport the children to St. Anne’s.
“Our parents spread sheets over the truck bed so that our used clothing—washed, starched and ironed—wouldn’t get soiled on the way to mass,” Mother said. “In those days, those intending to receive Communion had to fast from midnight until after they had received the sacrament. So each family brought a box of food for their children,” who would have gone about 12 hours without nourishment.
Mother’s Catholic faith was solidified by her years living with nuns, members of the Sisters of the Holy Family, in their convent while she attended school at Our Mother of Mercy Parish in Ames. She was able to do that for three years, thanks to her mother’s oldest sister, Amanda Darby, who had become Sister Mary Ambrose in the New Orleans-based order of black nuns.
Daddy, by contrast, was raised pretty much indifferent to religion. His father, Socrates, was Catholic but had been divorced; that put a wedge between Socrates and the church, and so between his son and the church. Wilbert’s mother, Ida, was Baptist. Daddy says he grew up going to whatever church was handy or, as often as not, to no church at all. But when pressed, he says he was raised “basically Baptist.”
But respecting the Catholic Church and abiding by its requirements was part of the deal in marrying Emily Broussard, and so Daddy took the deal.
They were married in Arizona because Wilbert, 21 at the time, was in the Army, stationed at nearby Fort Huachuca, where he and the rest of the 92nd Division were preparing for deployment to the European theater of the great war. Mother, two weeks shy of her 20th birthday at the time, had come out from Dayton on the train. When she returned home a few weeks later, she carried not only a new last name—Wycliff—but also what would become the couple’s first child, Francois, who would be born on March 24, 1943.
Mother and Daddy both were born in Dayton. And except for the time she spent in school in Ames, Mother had lived there her entire life. She was the second oldest of ten children. Her parents—Napoleon “Paul” Broussard and Ezildia Darby Broussard—were refugees from Louisiana, from the region around Lafayette known as Acadiana—Cajun country—for the French-speakers who settled there after being expelled from Canada’s maritime provinces after the French and Indian War ended in 1763.
In slavery times, Louisiana had been one of the places slaves referred to when they spoke fearfully of being “sold down the river.” So Acadiana also was home to a large population of black people, many of whom emigrated to East Texas in the late 1800s and the early 1900s. For the most part, they moved in search of economic opportunity, but in many cases they literally fled ahead of lynch mobs.
Paul Broussard—“Papa,” Mother called him, and we children followed suit—had come to Dayton in 1919, following in the footsteps of an older stepbrother. Both had somehow run afoul of white folks in Louisiana and sought refuge in the relative freedom of East Texas.
Mother said Papa had spent a year in jail in Louisiana for carrying a concealed weapon. He also reportedly incurred white wrath by opening a small business where he cleaned, pressed and tailored men’s clothes. This apparently stirred resentment among whites, who accused him of wanting to “make his living like a white man.”
For most black folks then in that part of Louisiana, making a living meant laboring long hours in sugar cane fields for little or no money. By comparison with what they faced in Louisiana, even segregated East Texas seemed progressive. And so they came in large numbers to towns and settlements like Dayton, Liberty, Raywood and Ames.
In December 1919, Papa “slipped back” into Louisiana to marry Ezildia Darby, the daughter of Simon Darby and Mella Provost Darby of Youngsville. Immediately after their marriage on Dec. 3, the newlyweds lit out for Dayton, where they bought a lot at the corner of Austin Street and Cleveland Road on the north end of town, built a small house and set about raising a family.
Paul was 39 then and Ezildia 25. The neighborhood where they lived was called the French Settlement, because it was heavily populated with people like them: French-speaking black folks from Louisiana, most of them Catholic.
            I have no personal memory of Ezildia—“Mama”—who died at age 55 in 1950, just after I had turned 3. The few photographs of her that exist show a tall, slender, dark-skinned woman. Mother said she was an outstanding cook. When she left Louisiana after her marriage, the husband in the white family for which she had worked reportedly lamented the loss of “the best cook in the area.”
“Zilda,” as she was known to her friends, was immensely popular in the French Settlement and, as a result, the Broussard house was a favored gathering spot in the community. The neighborhood women would meet on Zilda’s front porch to drink strong coffee, brewed and served by her daughters, and share gossip, while their children played in the yard.
I do remember Papa. He was tall, salt-and-pepper haired and had skin the color of a polished pecan shell. In my memory, he would walk down the road to our house every evening to eat dinner and listen to Gabriel Heatter deliver the news on radio. I’ve since learned that Heatter was regarded as a voice of optimism, a man who always found the silver lining around any cloud. “There’s good news tonight!” was his signature greeting. But at the time, his voice seemed to my child’s ears too full of portentous quaver to be delivering good news. And Papa always seemed to me to walk away from the broadcast disturbed, not heartened, by what he had heard.
          Nine of Paul’s and Ezildia’s children lived to adulthood. The youngest, a boy named Richard, died at about seven weeks of whooping cough. The eldest, Grant, died at age 21 in January 1942, after a life marked by severe illness and disability. Apparently as a result of a fall from a tree when he was still in grade school, the right side of his body simply ceased to grow properly, Mother said.
            Between Grant, the first-born, and Richard, the last, came four girls and four other boys. Emily was the oldest of all these, born June 15, 1922.
When Paul and Ezildia first settled in Dayton, he “worked for the railroad”—the Southern Pacific. As their family grew—and as he and Ezildia prospered during the 1920s—Paul added to their house. He was, Mother said, a “jack of all trades”—carpenter, field worker, yard man, anything that would bring in a buck. But his desire to have his own business, to be his own boss, had not been extinguished by his experience in Louisiana.
About 1927 he built another small structure next to his house and opened a barber shop and a shop where he would clean and press clothes and order men’s suits. On weekends, from a different side of the same building, he and Ezildia sold ham sandwiches, cold drinks, gum, candies, homemade ice cream and kerosene for lamps to people from the neighborhood.
“They did real well until the Depression hit in the early 1930s,” Mother said.  “When the bottom fell out of everything there was no work other than yard work and field work. A whole day’s work for $1—picking cotton, potatoes, peas, and so forth.”
For her part, Ezildia took in washing and ironing, a task in which her daughters helped. “We had no electricity,” Mother said. “We heated our irons on wood-burning stoves. We had to wipe them real good and clean before putting them on a white garment. Later on, when we got up in the world, we bought a furnace that we could put coal into to heat the irons.”
The Depression seems to have done what racism and other obstacles could not: demoralize Paul Broussard. He was reduced to going out each day in search of work. If he was lucky, he found something and could bring home food for his family. Many times he found nothing.
Mother described him as “a meek and mild person,” although that hardly squares with the image of a man who acquired and carried a gun to defend himself against racial terrorists in Louisiana and who persisted for years in the determination to have his own business. What Papa seems to have become was a defeated person—defeated by the Depression, defeated by…circumstances.
In 1953, with his wife deceased, most of his children out of the nest and only himself and Ambrose, his youngest living son, in the old house, he decided to visit Seattle, where three of his children had migrated in pursuit of jobs in the postwar economic boom.
Ten months later, in July 1954, Papa died at Providence Hospital in Seattle after what a Seattle newspaper obituary described as “a long illness.”
My last memory of Papa was of his body lying in a coffin in our living room in Dayton. Relatives came from all over—Seattle, Houston, Louisiana—for the funeral. He was buried in the black Catholic cemetery in Ames, where most of our family are buried.


Wednesday, February 11, 2015


Here is an op-ed that I've written for the Chicago Tribune on the Jackie Robinson West Little League scandal:

I guess I knew it was coming. I had seen reporter Mark Konkol's stories in DNAinfo Chicago about the controversy over potential rules violations by the Jackie Robinson West All-Stars, the team that brought us all such pride and happiness last summer as it marched to a U.S. championship and the finals of the Little League World Series. 

But it still hit me like a sledgehammer when I read the bulletin on my cellphone Wednesday morning saying the team had been stripped of its title and all of its victories. 

I cried. For the kids. For the community. For myself. 

When I was a kid in the 1950s in Texas and Kentucky, we played baseball for hours every available day. America's pastime was our daily delight. 

And as we would take the field — in somebody's yard or at a local park — we would each shout out which of our big league idols we were that day. "I'm Jackie Robison!" was always the most commonly heard cry. (For some reason we always elided the "n" in the middle of his last name.) The only name that even came close in popularity was that of Willie Mays. 

Jackie Robinson was the embodiment of all our pride and hopes and ambitions. He was for our generation what Joe Louis and Jesse Owens had been for an earlier generation of black youth — a hero who had crashed through every barrier white society had erected and forced it to acknowledge his greatness. He was our champion. 

So the choice of Jackie Robinson's name for the Chicago Little League team was freighted with significance for me, and, I suspect, for many other black men of my generation. And when those kids performed with such grit and skill — and success — my heart soared. Surely, I felt, these kids are worthy of that name on their uniforms: "Jackie Robinson." 

This scandal — this fraud — in no way diminishes those kids. They played their hearts out, and they deserved better than this belated disgrace. 

As for the adults who perpetrated the fraud, I don't know why they did what they did. They'll have to answer to their own consciences for it. But I have to tell them that I am taking this thing very, very personally, because, still, after 60-some years, "I'm Jackie Robison!"

Thursday, January 8, 2015



     We called her Apple Girl. She must have had a real name, of course, but Apple Girl is the only name by which we ever knew her. She was skinny, had dishwater blonde hair, and looked to be a year or two older than I. In the fall, when the apples on the big tree in our yard would ripen, she would appear every few days at our back door carrying a battered white dishpan.
     “Could we have some of those apples?” she would inquire of whichever Wycliff  opened the door in response to her knock. Her wording never varied.
     At first we kids would go and dutifully ask Mother. But after a time, we knew what Mother’s answer would be, so we just said yes. The tree bore far more apples than even our big family could use. And besides, Mother would always say, “They’re probably worse off than we are.”
     I don’t know how “bad off” Apple Girl’s family was. They lived a few doors north of us and across the alley, facing Railroad Street. We never played with them as we occasionally did with Mitchell and Sandy Stapleton, the white kids who lived in the house just north of ours on our street, Central Avenue. But if they were like most families in the neighborhood, there was a mother, a father and several children.
     I also didn’t know how “bad off” we were. I certainly knew we were not rich. Many were the mornings when we scoured the house for a nickel or a penny for bus fare or to be able to buy lunch at school. But we never wanted for food, and I just assumed that everybody in our circle of friends and acquaintances—everybody black, anyway—lived about as we did.
     That meant we each had a set of Sunday clothes—clean, creased trousers, sport coat, white shirt, tie and dress shoes for each of the boys, even the youngest; a nice dress, patent leather shoes and a hat for each of the girls—plus a modest number of other clothes to knock about in. In Texas, that had meant bib overalls, bluejeans or, as one photograph of me shows, shorts with suspenders, along with a pair of high-top tennis shoes. In Kentucky, the bib overalls disappeared but the rest remained. Because we went to Catholic schools, we didn’t have to worry about what to wear there: Everybody wore uniforms—navy blue skirts and white blouses for the girls; dark trousers (no jeans allowed) and white shirts for the boys. And no tennis shoes.
     Our diet was pretty basic—meat and potatoes mostly. Lots of chicken—Mother and Daddy used to laugh about how they would buy chicken backs on sale at the A&P and then ask each of us at dinner which piece of the chicken we’d like. The joke was that no matter what you answered, you ended up with a chicken back. And with the possible exception of Francois, we were all too young to catch on. Ignorance truly can be bliss.
     I do recall that after we moved to Kentucky, our diet changed somewhat. I had grown up thinking syrup was Uncle Timme’s incomparable cane syrup, which we would pour from a silver-colored gallon can into a smaller serving container. In Ashland, syrup became Karo corn syrup—ugh! what a disappointment! In Texas we had had rice at virtually every meal. In Kentucky, Mother began serving potatoes and pasta (usually macaroni and cheese) more often.
     But the biggest changes, for me, were in what we didn’t have. In Texas, Mother would occasionally fry sweet potato slices—Grandpa grew sweet potatoes—and make lemon meringue and chocolate pies. Those delights pretty much disappeared after we moved to Kentucky, and that probably had less to do with money than with time and Mother’s workload. Joy, the sixth child in the family, was born on January 5, 1955, about four months after we arrived in Ashland. Mother had her hands more than full.
     Daddy told me that when we moved from Dayton to Ashland, his salary nearly doubled, from just under $2,200 a year as a teacher in Orange to $3,975 as an instructor in the prison at Ashland. Even given the difference in the cost of living, that represented a considerable step up in income—a step onto a low rung of the middle class.
     Nevertheless, I recall feeling deeply uneasy in Ashland, as if our financial life as a family was always precarious. In Dayton, it seemed, we had been surrounded by people on whom we could rely for help—black people and white. I recall one day going with Mother to Remke’s grocery store in Dayton. We got to the checkout and she found she didn’t have enough cash. “Charge it,” she said to the clerk, and we walked out with the few items she had purchased. In Ashland, I sensed, there was nobody who knew us, nobody to whom one could say, “Charge it.”
     We had been a pretty devout Catholic family before we moved, but once in Ashland and at Holy Family, our devotional life was ratcheted up several notches. One night Mother heard the rosary being recited on a local radio station, so we began praying the rosary every night as a family.
Sometime after dinner, usually when a really good TV program was just starting, Mother could be depended on to issue the call to prayer: “The Holy Rosary!” We would all gather in the living room and assume the position: on our knees in front of a shrine stationed on the living room mantel. The centerpiece of the shrine was a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Pieta,” with the Blessed Virgin cradling the broken body of the dead Jesus across her lap. Needless to say, both the Virgin and Jesus were white.
     Religious devotion even became part of our play as children. Occasionally we would play “mass,” with Francois or me as the celebrant (hey, it had to be a guy) and the rest of the crew reciting the Latin liturgy. Mother had a green cape type of thing that she used to put around our necks to catch hair when she gave us haircuts. Our celebrant would don the garment, letting it hang down his back instead of the front. Because we were both altar servers, Francois and I got used to the mannerisms of each of the parish priests as they would say mass, and we imitated our favorites. I particularly liked the way Father Haney used to whirl around to face the congregation when the old liturgy called for it, and I used to try to make my green “chasuble” billow in just the way his real one did.
     Our family entertainment consisted most memorably of Sunday drives. In those days of cheap gasoline we would all pile into the Chevy and Daddy would drive. Sometimes we would cross the Ohio River and go westward alongside it, to a spot not far from Ironton where there was a shrine to Our Lady of Fatima. Sometimes we would go as far east as Gallipolis, Ohio, where there was a dam. Other times we would drive to the airport in Huntington, West Virginia, to watch planes—Piedmont and Allegheny were the two airlines that served Huntington then—take off and land.
     Occasionally we would go to Dawson Park, a gathering place for blacks in Ashland. There was a swimming pool at the park and my one experience of it provided me with my lifelong fear of water. The first time we ever went there I raced out of the dressing room and leapt into the center of the pool. Instantly I was in over my head, suspended between the floor of the pool and the surface of the water and unable to propel myself. I kept trying to breathe, but all I could manage to inhale was water. I was drowning. I finally managed to grab the leg of someone sitting at the edge of the pool and pull myself over. Suddenly Daddy was leaning over the side, pulling me out, laying me across his knee, raising and lowering my arms to clear my lungs of water and fill them with air. I have been terrified of deep water ever since that day, and never learned to swim.
     Very occasionally—maybe once a year—our family would go to the movies at the Trail Drive-in Theatre on U.S. Highway 60 just outside of Ashland. The downtown theatres—the Capitol and the Paramount—were off limits to blacks except one day a year. But the drive-in was always available and the whole family could get in for one price. Almost always we saw movies with religious themes—“The Song of Bernadette,” “A Man Called Peter,” “The Robe.” The one non-religious film I can remember our seeing was “Imitation of Life.” I’m not sure I understood what it was about, but it had a black character in a key role and that made it important.
     But for the most part we stayed around home. Like a growing number of Americans at that time, we had acquired a television set—our first one was a castoff from Grandma and Grandpa—and become avid watchers. Truth is, our appetite for TV far exceeded the available supply of programming, since the only dependably viewable station at that time in Ashland was WSAZ, Channel 3—“with studios in Huntington and Charleston, West Virginia,” the announcer would always intone. Unfortunately, WSAZ didn’t carry the show that we kids most desired to see, “The Mickey Mouse Club.” We were forced to watch a grainy transmission of it on another channel whose call letters I can’t remember. On WSAZ we watched the local after-school show for kids, hosted by a character called “Aunt Drusilla” (inevitably, we pronounced it Dru-silly). On weekends there was the Saturday Night Jamboree (“…brought to you by the Ashland Oil & Refining Co. And here’s your old country cousin, Dean Sturm!”) and the national broadcast of “Your Hit Parade,” sponsored by Lucky Strike cigarettes (“L.S.M.F.T.—Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco”). We kids liked to stage our own performances of the show at home. Karen was Dorothy Collins; Chris was Snookie Lanson; I ended up as Russell Arms (I always thought the announcer was saying Russ O. Larms). I don’t recall who was Gisele MacKenzie.
     Saturday morning was a feast for kids with, among other programs, “Andy’s Gang,” which included a serial featuring two turbaned Indian characters named Gunga and Rama; “Fury” (“the story of a horse, and the boy who loved him”); “Howdy Doody,” (my first crush was on Princess Summerfallwinterspring), and “Circus Boy,” whose title character was played by Mickey Dolenz, who turned up in the 1960s as a member of the singing group The Monkees.
     For kids, Sunday was a TV desert, with “The Gospel Harmony Boys” (“Someone to care, someone to share, all your troubles, like no other can do”) and a program whose purpose I simply couldn’t understand: “Meet the Press.” I don’t recall where in the TV lineup “Flatt and Scruggs” came, but we watched it often enough that bluegrass became one of my favorite kinds of music. I can still today sing the commercial jingle for Martha White flour (with “Hot Rize”).
     But my favorite TV viewing was major league baseball. The games were broadcast on Saturday afternoons and announced by the former Brooklyn Dodgers’ great Pee Wee Reese and the old St. Louis Cardinals’ pitcher Dizzy Dean. I loved listening to “Old Diz,” with his fractured syntax and his malapropisms—“he slud into third base”—and his exuberance (“He was goin’ for the downs on that one, Pee Wee. He really had a ripple!”)
     And when I wasn’t watching baseball, I usually was playing it, more often than not with Wilson Barrow, whose large family lived directly behind ours in a house that faced Railroad Street. Wilson, who was at least two years older than I, was a talented natural athlete who was like an attractive nuisance to me. I recognized his talent and so I wanted to compete with him—at baseball, marbles, whatever. But I hated that he always beat me, no matter what game we played. I would no sooner get a few new marbles than Wilson would relieve me of them, adding them to the hundreds he already had in a big glass jar that he used to hoist onto his right shoulder. The thought of saving myself anguish by not playing with Wilson never occurred to me. I wanted to be able to throw a baseball as hard and accurately as he could. I wanted to shoot marbles as well as he did. But I never could, and the frustration of always losing to him often brought me to tears. And that’s when Wilson would pile on with the derisive taunt, “Baaaby. Big baby!” Oh, how it hurt!
     Our neighborhood was an odd one. On our block of Central Avenue, all the houses north of us were occupied by white people, including my classmate John Thompson and his big family. All the houses south of us, with one noteworthy exception, were occupied by black people: “Mr. Bill” and “Miss Chris” Kinney next door (Mr. Bill, who had been badly injured in World War II, always drove a Buick with curb feelers, so he could avoid scraping his whitewall tires against the curb); the Barrows (they were related to Wilson’s family and their daughter Sharon was, I believed, the second-most beautiful girl in the world at that time); the Washingtons (their daughter Jackie was the most beautiful girl in the world) and so on down to the Honakers, Chester and Pauline, who had no children at the time, but later adopted a son, David. The last house at the south end of the block was occupied by an elderly white man, Carl P. Tackett, and his wife. Mr. Tackett ran a small grocery store out of his house, selling bread, milk and assorted other basic items, including candies. We children were avid customers at Tackett’s Grocery—as avid as our extremely limited funds would allow.
     If my memory is accurate, Railroad Street behind us followed the same racial pattern. Everything north of the Barrows’ house was white; everything south of it was black. Apple Girl’s family lived on Railroad Street—so named because railroad tracks ran directly parallel to the street right through the neighborhood. Karen and I—“Motorcycle Girl” and “Motorcycle Boy,” we styled ourselves—liked to ride Francois’ bike up and down Railroad Street because it was relatively smooth asphalt, while Central Avenue, our own street, was made of bricks. I would pedal the bike and Karen would ride on the handlebars and neither of us wore a helmet or any kind of protective gear. I recall we took more than one spill, and I wonder now how we managed to get through those years without at least one skull fracture between us.
     One event stands out above all others from those Central Avenue days. It happened on a Saturday. For reasons I can’t remember, I alone went with Mother and Daddy as they went shopping in downtown Ashland. Francois was left in charge of the other kids at home. Our last stop on that trip was at Ashland Dry Goods, a department store on Greenup Avenue, close to the river. Mother and Daddy went inside and left me outside in the car. That wasn’t unusual in those days.
     When they finally emerged and got into the car, they both were smiling broadly and Mother was carrying a brown paper bag. Something was up but I didn’t know what. Mother began singing, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” and both she and Daddy looked back at me from the front seat. Finally, I could take it no more. I grabbed the bag that Mother had placed on the floor of the back seat and opened it. Inside were two baseball mitts, one of decent quality and the other a flat, pancakey kind of thing. One, I realized, would be mine and one would be for Chris. I picked the good one and immediately began pounding a pocket into it.
     At that moment, I think, I was about as happy as a kid could possibly be. It wasn’t until I became a parent myself that I appreciated what Mother and Daddy must have been feeling at that moment. It can’t be described; it can only be felt.
     I felt such happiness one other time during our Ashland years. It was the summer of 1958, the year after the Milwaukee Braves had defeated the New York Yankees in the World Series. Daddy drove the whole family to Cincinnati, 125 miles down the Ohio River, to attend a major league baseball game in person at Crosley Field, then the home of the Cincinnati Redlegs.
     I have never forgotten that day. I don’t think Francois wanted to be there—he didn’t care much for baseball, or any sport for that matter. I don’t know what the other kids were thinking. Mother, Daddy said, was worried about the expense of the trip. But I was in heaven.
     It was a gorgeous, sunny day. We sat high up in the left field stands—about as far from home plate as one could have gotten. But as far as I was concerned, we were in the thick of the action. I couldn’t believe that I was in the same stadium, breathing the same air, as the baseball heroes I had seen only on TV to that point in my life—the great Hank Aaron and Wes Covington for the Braves, Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson for the Redlegs. Life. Was. Good.