Tuesday, December 20, 2016
Friday, November 4, 2016
One day when I was in about the fourth grade, Mother picked me up after school for some reason, instead of having me ride the bus home. There was a kid in my class—I don’t remember his first name but his last name was Dickman—who also lived toward the south end of Ashland and needed a ride home. Mother agreed to give him one, so he piled into the back seat of the car along with me.
As we approached Dickman’s neighborhood, he turned to me and asked, “What’s your mom’s first name?” I had no idea why he wanted to know and it never occurred to me to ask.
“Emily,” I told him.
He promptly turned toward the front seat and said, “Emily, you can let me off at the next corner.”
I don’t remember Mother’s response, but I immediately picked up the tautness in her voice that signaled she was angry and I was in trouble.
As soon as Dickman got out of the car and slammed the door shut, Mother lit into me. “How did that boy know my first name?” she asked.
“He asked me and I told him,” I replied.
“Well, you listen to me, boy!” she hissed. “The next time somebody asks you my name you tell them it’s Mrs. Wycliff! They can put a handle in front of my name just like they do for a white woman!”
I knew better than to try to explain further. Dickman, the little dweeb, had touched one of the deepest sensitivities a black person possesses: the abhorrence of being disrespected by a white person. It would have been bad enough if a white grownup had spoken to Mother that way, but a child? Intolerable! And since I had foolishly enabled him, I took the brunt of her anger for both of us.
Even at that young age, I understood the reason for Mother’s anger. But I didn’t appreciate the reason for her ferocity until many years later, when we were talking one day about her upbringing in segregated Texas.
“We were brought up having to call white girls our age ‘Miss,’” she told me. “We really thought they were better than we were.”
Those are the saddest words I ever heard Mother speak.
Daddy described something similar as he related an incident from his childhood. It was a hot summer day when he was in second or third grade and he asked his father for a nickel to buy an ice cream cone.
“I went to the drug store to buy the ice cream,” he said. “After ordering, I climbed up on a stool at the counter and Mr. McGinty [the store owner] promptly told me to get down, that colored people could not sit in his store. I got my ice cream and went skipping away just as happy as if nothing had happened. I didn’t think about being offended; that was the way of life.”
For a black person in America, race is like your shadow: You can never outrun it, escape it, divest yourself of it. It is always there—sometimes a large presence, sometimes a smaller one; sometimes dark and foreboding, sometimes not; sometimes racism, sometimes just…race.
Nothing is more absurd and angering to me than to hear white commentators lecture black people about putting race behind them, letting bygones be bygones. As if centuries of slavery and segregation and all that went with them were just some dispute among neighbors about a fence line or a limb hanging over your driveway. Hey, just let it go! It’s in the past.
And yes, in a way it is. But it never will be fully behind us, anymore than our shadows will be. You can’t outrun race.
For black people, the stories we tell ourselves and our children about race and racism are part of our cultural capital: resources necessary for survival in the world. One would no more allow one’s child to leave home and venture into the world without such capital than one would send him or her out on a subfreezing day without a proper coat. Those stories are useful history; they can help our young avoid trouble or cope with it when it inevitably comes, and they can also propel them to greater achievement.
And so here is some of my cultural capital.
The first time I can recall anyone calling me “nigger” was in first grade. It was a classmate in my segregated colored school in Dayton who did it.
I went to our teacher, a woman who was a close friend and colleague of my grandmother and a highly respected figure in the black community of Dayton, and told her what my classmate had called me.
“Well,” she replied, “that’s what you are, aren’t you?”
Even though I was young, I already understood that she wasn’t really asking me a question. Some years later I realized she also was telling me something else entirely: Don’t be a tattletale. But that realization came only after I had puzzled for a long time over the oddness of having my black teacher affirm that, “Yes, Don Wycliff, you are a nigger.”
The most painful racial incident of my childhood happened not to me directly, but to one of the people I loved most, my mother, because of me. I was in sixth or maybe seventh grade and had somehow been chosen as captain of the school safety patrol at Holy Family. We were the kids who strapped on white shoulder belts and stood on the corners near the school, helping children cross the streets safely before and after classes. Since Holy Family enrolled both elementary and high school children, we probably weren’t really needed, but we took our duties seriously.
It was customary at the end of the school year for all the safety patrol members from all the schools in the area to be treated to a day of fun at Camden Park, the amusement park in nearby Huntington, West Virginia. There was just one problem: Camden Park did not routinely admit black people.
I say routinely because the prohibition against blacks was not utterly inflexible. When the annual Holy Family parish outing was held at Camden Park, our family was admitted right along with all the other members of the parish. And once a year the Armco Steel Co. employees had an outing at Camden Park, and black employees and their families were admitted.
But Father Carroll, our champion at Holy Family, had died in 1957 and been replaced by a new pastor, and there was a new principal of the school as well, and these newcomers perhaps had not yet learned to call the segregationists’ bluff. In any case, the principal, Sister Mary Barbara, got word that I could not be admitted to Camden Park with the rest of the safety patrollers, and she had to call my parents to let them know.
I was at home, sitting in the kitchen having an after-school snack, when the call came. Our phone hung on a kitchen wall, and I watched and listened as Mother, standing with her back to the wall, answered it. It was largely a one-way conversation, the nun doing most of the talking and Mother replying, periodically, “Yes, Sister.” As the conversation went on, Mother began to cry, and then to slump toward the floor. By the end, she was sitting on the floor, her back against the wall and her head bent over between her knees, crying. It was one of those silent cries—I’m not sure whether the nun on the other end could even tell.
Finally, the conversation was over, but Mother continued to sit there for several minutes, weeping silently. Eventually she got up and, after composing herself, told me what the conversation had been about, that I would not be going to Camden Park. I don’t remember feeling pained by the exclusion nearly so much as I was shaken and hurt by seeing my mother, unable to protect one of her children from abuse, cry as she did that day.
Mother and Daddy both told me numerous stories of racial abuses and indignities suffered as children and as adults. But they told me other stories as well.
One that sticks in my mind is of how several of Daddy’s Catholic colleagues at the Ashland prison—Charles “Chuck” Eckenrode, Dante Marzetti, and John Galvin, the warden, among them—decided that they were going to get their new colleague into the Holy Family chapter of the Knights of Columbus. The K. of C. apparently had long been known as unwelcoming to blacks. But very shortly, with these men’s sponsorship, Wilbert became a member of the Holy Family chapter. It may have been that the door was unlocked and just needed to be pushed on. But those men took the initiative to do it.
And then there was Mr. Graybeal.
Walter Graybeal was the reason our family had come to Ashland in the first place, and the reason we children ended up at Holy Family School. Daddy swears that Graybeal in effect gave up his career so Daddy could have one. Mother, never one to deal in cheap grace, paid Graybeal and his wife, Evelyn, her ultimate compliment: “Those were good people.”
Walter Graybeal was a lapsed Catholic who was raised in Lafayette, Indiana. He earned a degree from Indiana State University in Terre Haute and served in the U.S. Army during World War II. After the war, he came home and went to work in the federal prison system. He was the supervisor of education at the prison in Ashland in early 1954, and it was into his hands that the job application of a young veteran from Dayton, Texas, fell. It was he who decided to hire that young veteran, Wilbert Wycliff.
Daddy said it was quite evident to him when he showed up to work on that first day in June 1954 that nobody was expecting the new hire to be a black man. Mother said Graybeal later told her that he had overlooked the part of the application that identified Daddy as a graduate of the “Texas State University for Negroes,” which later became Texas Southern University. But it wouldn’t have mattered to him anyway, he said. Graybeal apparently was the kind of guy who, when he made up his mind, went with it and fought for his decisions. And he made up his mind that Wilbert Wycliff was the man for the open teaching job in his department.
Daddy recalled a long conversation with Graybeal on one of his first days on the job, during which Graybeal bared his soul on the subject of race. “He said he didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of blacks and whites marrying,” Daddy recalled. “Since I wasn’t looking to get married, that wasn’t going to be a problem.”
After it became clear that Daddy and his new boss were a good fit, Graybeal began driving him around Ashland to look at housing and schools. They visited Booker T. Washington, the black school, and while Daddy liked the people at the school, the condition of the place was an old, familiar story to him: The building was decrepit, the books and equipment were worn and cast off from the white schools. He wanted something better for his kids.
“You’re a Catholic, aren’t you, Wyc?” Graybeal asked. “Well, why don’t you enroll your kids in the Catholic school like anybody else would?”
And that was how we ended up at Holy Family.
After we left Ashland, Daddy and Graybeal remained friends and kept in close touch. After Daddy retired from prison work and was ordained a permanent deacon of the Catholic Church, Graybeal, who by then was a widower living in San Antonio with his only child, a daughter, came to Dallas for Daddy’s ordination. He died in 1981. “Mr. Graybeal” was always a revered figure in our household.
So was Grace Jamison. We children grew up hearing Mother speak of “Mrs. Jamison,” a white woman in Dayton for whom she had worked in her youth. It wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that I learned anything about her. I thought she had died back in the 1950s, but it turned out she lived until 1986.
Grace Borden Jamison was part of the family that owned the Borden dairy company. Her family originally was from the northeast—Connecticut or Rhode Island—but they came to Texas at some point and Grace grew up on a ranch in the Lake Jackson area near the Gulf Coast. She met her husband, T.J. Jamison, a Dayton resident, when they both were undergraduates at Sam Houston State University. After college they came to Dayton, her husband’s home, to settle down and raise a family.
Mother worked for Mrs. Jamison when she was in high school, helping take care of the older woman’s children and keep her house. Over time, the older woman grew fond of the younger one. “She treated me like a daughter,” Mother said.
As Mother approached high school graduation, Mrs. Jamison wanted to send her to college, to Prairie View A&M. As it turned out, Mother went to another black institution, Tillotson College, in Austin. She stayed only a few weeks. Her high school preparation in Dayton hadn’t been adequate and she found herself homesick—for her family and her boyfriend, Wilbert Wycliff.
She returned home from Tillotson and went back to work to repay Mrs. Jamison for her brief college experience. She continued to love and revere the lady.
There were other such stories and other such figures. Mother used to talk about “Miss Pray,” a woman who had known her mother when both lived in Louisiana and who made it a point during the Depression to bring food and usable clothing to Zilda and her family. Another woman, Mrs. Ernest, the wife of a postman, also looked out for the Broussards, having her husband occasionally drop off food along with the family’s mail.
But such charity didn’t run in just one direction. Daddy tells of a white man who, again during the Depression, walked six miles from the nearby settlement of Kenefick to Grandpa’s shop in downtown Dayton.
Besides blacksmithing, Grandpa operated a gristmill at his shop, grinding corn into meal for customers in return for a portion of the product. He would then sell meal to anyone who needed it.
When the man from Kenefick showed up, Grandpa was away and Daddy was managing the shop. The man had no money, but told Daddy he would return the next week and pay him if he would let him have 10 pounds of cornmeal—30 cents worth—on credit. Daddy agreed to do so.
The man took the sack of cornmeal and started to leave. Then he turned around and said, “You know, there's some good colored people in this world. And when we get to heaven, we’re gonna make a place for ‘em.”
He never came back to pay for the sack of cornmeal.
So race has always been more complicated—at least in our family and at the personal level—than just oppression and black-white antagonism. Even so, all the personal courage and decency of people like Mr. Graybeal and Mrs. Jamison couldn’t change the fact that race was, most often, about systematic institutional inequality, enforced by fundamentally brutal, terroristic means.
I don’t recall when I first heard of Emmett Till, but it seems that the story of “that Till boy” was never not in my consciousness. The message was: Don’t mess with white women. The greater message was that, if you were black, you could be done unto by white people whatever, whenever, and however they wished.
We had vivid examples of this in our own family. My uncle Frank, the one who taught me how to make a bow-and-arrows and who was my favorite uncle, told of being beaten for no reason by two Houston police officers. Frank, who loved to dress well, was working at the time at the Port of Houston, doing some sort of manual labor. He had finished his work week and gone home to where he was living in Houston, bathed, changed into nice clothes and was on his way to eat at a restaurant in Third Ward.
Just as he was putting his hand on the doorknob of the restaurant, he said, he was grabbed from behind by two cops. Without explanation, they took him to a nearby woods and thrashed him. Frank never was the same after that.
Saturday, October 29, 2016
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 was 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. I don’t even know how many of them there were. 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.
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. Lots of ground beef and 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 diets changed somewhat. I had grown up thinking that syrup was Uncle Timme’s incomparable cane syrup, which came in silver-colored gallons cans and which we would decant 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, it seemed 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 would make lemon meringue and chocolate pies. Those delights grew scarce after we moved to Kentucky. 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.
But 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 would issue her 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 Michaelangelo'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 kids reciting the Latin liturgy. Mother had a green cape 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, and watch the water spill endlessly over the dam there. 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 deep water. The first time we 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 our family would go to the movies at the Trail Drive-in Theatre on U.S. Highway 60 just outside of Ashland. The downtown indoor 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 he is, 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 always 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 played 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. There was “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 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 notable exception, were occupied by black people: “Mr. Bill” and “Miss Chris” Kinney next door (Mr. Bill, who had been injured in the Navy in World War II, always drove a late-model Buick with curb feelers, so he could avoid scraping his whitewall tires against the curb); the Barrows (they were related somehow 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 memory serves me correctly, 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 Chesapeake & Ohio 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 pretty good 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.
It was about that same time, in 1958, that we moved from the house on Central Avenue to a new house at 2017 Hilton Avenue, farther north and closer to downtown. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Mother and Daddy had bought the new house, which stood across the street from a steep hill covered with trees and rocks and brush. We kids and our friends spent many happy hours climbing and exploring on that hill, and hiding out beneath “Big Rock,” a stone outcropping created eons earlier while the Appalachian Mountain range was in formation.
Our next-door neighbors on Hilton were, on one side, a fellow named Tom Jordan and, on the other, an elderly couple named Anderson. Mr. Jordan, who was probably in his mid-fifties, was a sour character, perpetually grumpy and not fond of children. I seem to recall that he was a widower, and he seemed not to have many friends. Not only did he seem unhappy with his life, but he seemed determined to squelch others’ happiness. I recall a day when I and someone else were tossing a rubber ball on the sidewalk in front of our house and the ball hit his car. He called the police. They came and calmed him down, but not before I had been thoroughly traumatized by the thought of being hauled off to jail. Already then I knew that the police were no laughing matter.
Mr. and Mrs. Anderson were an interesting pair. They both were old, probably in their late 60s. Mr. Anderson was tall and light-skinned and was always dressed in a suit and tie. He suffered from what I now know must have been Alzheimer’s disease. Everybody in the neighborhood knew that he could not be allowed to leave his yard. One of our humorous family stories is about a day when Mr. Anderson made a break for it. He was walking down the sidewalk in front of our house when my sister Ida, a skinny little girl of no more than six or seven, spotted him. She ran out to the sidewalk to head him off. Waving her arms and steadily retreating as the old man advanced, Ida shouted repeatedly, “Go back, Mr. Anderson! Go back!”
She couldn’t turn him around, but her shouts alerted the grownups, who came and took Mr. Anderson in hand and led him back home.
Mrs. Anderson was short, very dark-skinned, and very angry. What I remember most about her was her dog, Ponto. The dog looked to be a cocker spaniel or something similar, and his disposition was like that of his mistress—angry and mean. Grownups in the neighborhood used to say that Mrs. Anderson fed the dog raw meat to make it vicious. I don’t know whether either part of that proposition is true—that she fed the dog raw meat or that eating raw meat makes a dog vicious. I just know that I tried to steer clear of Mrs. Anderson and Ponto.
Just beyond the Andersons’ house was that of the Foleys—L.J. and Josephine and their five children: Johnny, Jerry, Jimmy, Dawn, and Denise. Johnny was a year or two older than I, Jerry was a year or two younger, and Jimmy was about a year younger than Jerry. Dawn and Denise were roughly the same ages as my sisters Ida and Joy.
Johnny and Jerry instantly became my best playmates. Neither of them was the athlete that Wilson Barrow was, so baseball, which we played perpetually in the alley behind our houses, was more enjoyable and less stressful to me. Jerry had a stupendously foul mouth for a boy of his age. Jimmy was kind of a cypher to me. Dawn was dark-haired. Denise probably was prettier, but both were too young for me to care about. Johnny had a bad stutter and the hots for Karen, who refused to have anything to do with him.
Somewhere farther up the street from the Foleys lived a white kid named Lon Castle. I knew little about him except that he seemed pretty rich—he always had the latest toys, including things like a motorized go-kart—and he seemed not to have any friends. He would come down the alley to where the Foley kids and Chris and I played our endless baseball games and he seemed to want our friendship. But he seemed to want us to join him in playing with his toys, while we wanted only to play baseball. So no spark of friendship ever got struck.
Early in 1960, Mother and Daddy undertook to enlarge our house. They bought another house, an old Army barracks, had it moved to our lot and attached it to the existing structure. Even as they were involved in that project, Daddy got word that he was to be promoted and transferred to a new assignment, the Federal Correctional Institution in Englewood, Colorado, just outside Denver.
As soon as we children were told about the impending move, I became excited. Just the name of the new state—Colorado—stirred me. One of those blue-backed biographies that I had read had been about Zebulon Pike, the explorer after whom Pike’s Peak was named. There would be mountains with snow on them all year round. There probably would be cowboys and cattle drives and all kinds of exciting adventures to be had. Colorado, here we come!
I was not without some regret at the prospect of leaving Ashland. We would be leaving behind friends—the Foleys, and my classmates at Holy Family. But I didn’t at that time fully appreciate what those Ashland years had been and done for us as a family and me as an individual. They had launched us in a completely different direction from the one we were going in in Dayton. We were headed upward.
Sunday, September 11, 2016
That first trip to Kentucky was an ordeal by asphalt. We left Dayton on August 26, 1954, a Thursday morning. If my parents’ memories are accurate, there were eight of us sardined into our green Chevy Bellaire sedan: three adults—Mother, Grandma and Grandpa—and five children—Francois, Karen, Chris, Ida and me. Daddy was already in Ashland—he had started work there in June, returned to Dayton in July for Papa’s funeral, and then gone back to resume his job duties and find a house for us to live in and schools for us children to attend.
The three adults were crucial, because we would be traveling through the South and this was the era of segregation. Stopping overnight at a motel to rest was not an option, so we needed enough drivers to be able to drive straight through, more than 1,100 miles virtually non-stop. And long-distance car travel in those days was immeasurably harder than it is now.
There were no divided four-lane interstate highways with convenient rest stops and restaurant facilities. It was all two-lane roads, often with little or no shoulder, so the margin for driver error was narrow to nonexistent. You passed through the middle of every -burg and -ville and metropolis along the way, stopping at every red light and hoping not to run afoul of local cops looking to make their ticket quotas by stopping out-of-state drivers going a mile or two over the posted limit. You were at the mercy of every driver of a broken-down jalopy or a rickety pickup hauling hay or old furniture or anything else that might come tumbling out of the truckbed. If the driver ahead of you had decided to take a Sunday drive on Thursday, you had to carefully pick your chance to pass him so you could travel at the posted maximum speed.
If you were black, the troubles were compounded. If you needed food, you had to go to the rear of whatever hamburger joint or ice cream stand you stopped at to be served. Most black travelers tried to avoid the need for that by packing plenty of pre-cooked food in their cars, including, almost always, a large supply of fried chicken. The chicken always smelled delicious and mouthwatering at the start of the trip, but by the end the smell was more likely to induce nausea.
The gas station where you stopped to fill up (“Raglar or ethyl?” the attendant would invariably drawl) might or might not have a restroom for “colored.” And especially at night, you had to be on the watch for gangs of “good ole boys” out to have a good time by running black folks off the road—or worse.
We had an added complication on this trip: We were part of a two-vehicle caravan. We were following the truck that carried all our household effects. The truck was owned by a white fellow from Dayton, Herman Payne, who was a friend of Grandma and Grandpa. He had agreed to move our stuff to Ashland for $300. So as we traveled—from Dayton to Beaumont in Texas; through DeQuincy, DeRidder, Leesville, Alexandria, Monroe and Bastrop in Louisiana; up through Greenville in Arkansas; through Clarksdale in the Mississippi delta and on up to Memphis, Humboldt and Clarksville in Tennessee, and finally into Kentucky, through Bowling Green to Elizabethtown to Bardstown and Versailles to Lexington, Winchester, Morehead, Grayson and, mercifully, Ashland—we were constantly trying to keep up with Herman’s truck, driven alternately by him, his wife Muriel and Uncle Sam Wickliff, Grandpa’s youngest brother, who was an auto mechanic and was recruited as a third driver for the truck.
As the adults took turns driving, we children took turns being carsick and, especially after we got into the rolling hills and mountains of eastern Kentucky, throwing up. (In later years on other trips we learned how to deal with that problem: We ate saltine crackers all the time. As long as you were forcing something down your gullet, nothing could come up.) And when we got antsy, the adults would distract us with a game: See if you can spot the billowing tarp over the bed of Herman’s truck ahead of us.
We got to Ashland early the morning of Saturday, August 28, and found our way to the house at the south end of town that Daddy had rented for us. I don’t remember much about the house except that it was on a hill and the front yard sloped steeply down to a sidewalk and the street. I recall being amazed that we were going to be living on a paved street, with sidewalks next to it, instead of a highway with drainage ditches on the sides, or on a dirt road.
Daddy and the three other men promptly began unloading the truck and placing things in the house. Mother recalled that they were almost finished when, abruptly, everything came to a stop. A white man showed up at the front door and began talking with Daddy. Mother said she couldn’t hear what was being said at first, but saw that Daddy began to look “downhearted.”
She walked to the front door where Daddy and the man were standing.
“What’s the matter?” she asked.
Daddy explained that the man was the landlord, and he was saying that some of the neighbors had called him and complained when they saw a “colored” family moving in. As far as he was concerned, the landlord said, we could stay in the house, but he couldn’t know what the neighbors might do.
That was no consolation to Daddy, who replied, “How do you think I would feel going off to work every day knowing my family may be in danger?”
Under these circumstances, Mother and Daddy both realized, we couldn’t remain in the house; they would have to find another. But also under the circumstances, we would have to stay in this house at least until they could find a new one. The landlord suggested that Daddy go to the police and ask them to keep a special eye on the place as long as we were there.
At this point, Herman spoke up. It is important to appreciate who Herman Payne was. If you had been a Hollywood casting director looking for someone to play the quintessential redneck, you couldn’t have picked anyone better than Herman. Big, redheaded, not particularly well-educated, he was a workingman, scuffling to make a living however he could. He and Muriel had a passel of children, and I still remember going to their house for a visit one night before we moved away from Dayton. They had an old piano and someone played it while everybody sang, “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here.” (I remember it so well because, once again, a word tripped me up. I thought everybody was singing “Hell, Hell, the Gang’s All Here,” and it gave me a bit of a thrill that everybody was singing so lustily this word we children were forbidden to speak.)
Anyway, pointing to Mother, who was five months pregnant with the baby who would be my sister Joy, Herman addressed the landlord. “This woman has been on the road for three days,” he said, “and she’s in no condition to be moving anywhere tonight. Now I’m gonna spend the night in my truck out back with my shotgun, and if anybody comes around here trying to mess with these people, they’re gonna have to deal with me.”
And he did.
Daddy went to the police and told them about the situation. The police said there had been no racial incidents in that part of town, but they agreed to keep a special watch on the house that night.
The next day, Sunday, Daddy and the other men went out to look for another house. Daddy had previously noticed a vacant house on Central Avenue, also in south Ashland, but had been unable to find anyone who could show him the place or tell him how much the rent might be. On this Sunday, however, luck was with him. He knocked on the door of the house next door and found the residents home. It turned out that the lady of the house, Christine Kinney, was handling the showing and renting of the place for the owner, who lived in Cincinnati.
Mrs. Kinney—or “Miss Chris,” as we children later learned to call her—showed him the place. Daddy rented it on the spot and we moved in that same day. There was no need to spend another night at the house on the hill, no need for Herman Payne to sleep in his truck, cradling his shotgun.
That house, at 3137 Central Avenue, was our home for the next four years. Like every other house we lived in, it was too small—living room, kitchen, two bedrooms, one bath. But that was par for the course in those days of big families and little affluence. Our parents had one bedroom, the girls had another. Francois and I shared a foldout couch in the living room and Chris…I don’t recall where Chris slep[DW1] t. The living room had a mantle, something I had never seen before, and a fireplace that we never used. There was a porch that wrapped around both the front and the south side of the house. The yard—a big one with a tall apple tree in the center—was on the north side.
Most important, the house was safe. The neighbors to the south and east were black, those to the north and west were white. There was no friction in the neighborhood. There would be no racial danger here.
Safely housed at last, we children still needed to be schooled. And so on Monday morning, not yet twenty-four hours in the new house, Mother took Francois, Karen and me to enroll us for the first time in Catholic school. It would also be, not incidentally, the first time that Francois and I would attend school with white children.
I had finished first grade and Francois had finished fifth in June at Colbert Elementary School in Dayton. In Ashland, as in Dayton, the public schools were segregated. Had we gone to public school, we would have enrolled at Booker T. Washington, the colored school in Ashland. This even though the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled four months earlier, on May 17, 1954, that separate but equal had no place in public education in the U.S. It would be half a dozen years before public schools in Ashland were integrated. But Daddy didn’t want to wait.
It was his boss at the prison, Walter Graybeal, who suggested that he look into sending us to Catholic school.
“You’re Catholic, aren’t you, Wyc?” he asked. “Well, why don’t you send your kids to Catholic school just like anybody else would?”
Daddy knew it wasn’t as simple as doing “just like anybody else would.” But he liked the idea and decided to go and see if his black Catholic children really could attend Holy Family School.
It was early August when he went and knocked on the door of the parish rectory on Winchester Avenue in north Ashland. The housekeeper answered the door and Daddy asked to speak to the pastor. Within a few minutes he was talking with Msgr. Declan Carroll.
With his florid face, snow white hair and unmistakably Irish brogue, Father Carroll was another of those characters who could have been sent from central casting. He was, in fact, an Irish immigrant, born in 1886 in the village of Clashmore in County Waterford on the southern coast of Ireland. He and his family moved to the US around 1897. They settled in Covington in northern Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. Young Declan attended St. Xavier High School and then St. Xavier College in Cincinnati. He went on to St. Thomas College at the Catholic University of America from 1906 to 1910. In 1911 he attended St. Mary Seminary in Baltimore as a student for the Diocese of Covington. He was ordained on June 21, 1911, by Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore, and returned to Covington.
Daddy told him that he was new to Ashland, that he was employed at the Federal Correctional Institution, that he was Catholic and he wanted to enroll his children in the parish school. Without hesitation, Msgr. Carroll replied, “I don’t see why your children can’t attend our school.” But just to be sure, he said, let him confer with the bishop, in Covington. He promised to call Daddy at work the following Wednesday.
On Tuesday, Daddy said, he was summoned to his departmental office to take a phone call. It was Father Carroll.
“Mr. Wycliff, the bishop says that the Catholic schools are for all Catholic children,” the priest said. “Your children will be welcome in our school.”
At that point, the old priest could have congratulated himself and gone back to business as usual. But he didn’t. A few weeks later—actually, it seems to have been on that very Sunday when Daddy was scrambling to find us a new place to live—Msgr. Carroll took to the pulpit at mass and made an announcement.
According to one of Daddy’s colleagues at the prison, Carroll told his parishioners that there were going to be “colored children” attending the parish school that fall and that he wanted them treated with decency and respect. And if anyone did not do so, he said, that person would be denied the sacraments of the church.
Mother wasn’t aware of that, however, as she stood with Francois, Karen and me at the school that Monday morning. What she was aware of, she said, were news reports about black children in another Kentucky town, Sturgis, being “stoned” as they tried to integrate their local public school. “I thought,” she said, “that they might try to stone me.”
The registration site was the convent, where the Sisters of Divine Providence, who staffed Holy Family, lived. The convent had a large, screened front porch where mothers and their children congregated to wait to register. Mother nervously approached the building, opened the door and took a position near it, with her back against a wall and her three children drawn in close—in case, she said, she needed to make a fast escape.
For several minutes no one said anything, either hostile or welcoming. And then, a lady standing on the opposite side of the porch with a little girl approached.
The woman smiled and asked, “What is your little girl’s name?”
“Karen,” Mother replied. “Karen Wycliff.”
“Why, that’s my daughter’s name, too!” the lady exclaimed. Then, turning to her daughter, she said, “Karen Horgan, meet Karen Wycliff.”
The woman’s name was Virginia Horgan, and her gesture of friendship broke the ice for Mother and dispelled her fears of being stoned or spurned. “You’ll never know what a smile can mean to a person,” Mother used to say when she recalled that day.
Her anxiety was relieved, but she wasn’t the only one with concerns. I was full of anxiety, and I’m sure Francois must have been also. My fears came to the fore on the first day of classes, when Sister Helen Joseph marched our second grade class over to the church for mass. Half the class filed into pews on one side of the center aisle and the other half went to the other side. Whether because my last name began with a “W” or because I was tall or for some other reason entirely, I was at the back of the formation on the left side.
After mass, we were supposed to file out of our seats into the middle aisle, genuflect, and then walk out with a partner who would be coming from a pew on the opposite side of the aisle. As the children in the rows ahead of me filed out, my anxiety grew. Would I have a partner or would I be all alone? What if none of these new people, these white people, wanted to walk with me?
Suddenly, it was my row that was moving out into the aisle. And then it was my turn. I stepped out of my pew, genuflected and looked to my right, where my partner should be. And there was a boy, about my height, with dark, crew-cut hair, waiting to walk out with me. His name was Johnny Thompson, and it turned out that he and his big family lived just a few doors north of us on Central Avenue. He liked to play army and, he later informed me, he liked “Ike”—President Dwight Eisenhower. I didn’t care about Ike, but I liked Johnny, that day and always, because he was my partner and I was not left to walk alone.
Even after that episode, my anxieties about my new circumstances were not over. After the first marking period, I brought home a report card on which Sister Helen Joseph had noted that I didn’t participate much in class discussions, didn’t associate with my classmates and was, in general, not fitting in.
Daddy took me aside one night for a conversation about this. I recall sitting with him at the table in our green-walled kitchen as he asked me gently what was wrong. I don’t recall that I had a coherent answer for him. I think he already knew that I was full of fear of my new surroundings—the city, the school, the people, the novel experience of being so much among white people—and full of longing for my old surroundings—my cousin Sam Brown and my friends in Dayton, Grandma and Grandpa and their house and farm, Dayton and all it represented in terms of home.
What has stuck with me through all my years was one question that Daddy asked me: Would you like to go back to Dayton and live with Grandma and Grandpa and go to school there?
The answer to that one was easy. Yes—and no. Of course I would like to go back, but I didn’t want to be separated from him and Mother and all of my brothers and sisters. Seven years old is too young to struggle with such a dilemma.
Of course, I don’t think Daddy would have sent me back to Dayton anyway. I know that now. But I didn’t know it then.
Somehow, after that conversation, I began to find my footing at Holy Family and in Ashland. Over time, I made friends in class and became a good student. But God! How hard those early days were!
They must have been even harder for Francois, who was just at the threshold of adolescence when we moved and who had been accustomed to spending as much time at Grandma’s and Grandpa’s house as at ours in Dayton. I once tried to ask Francois about that move and his feelings about it, and his response left no doubt in my mind that he felt cheated by having been forced to move. He wouldn’t talk about it much.
Of the three of us who were in school that year, Karen, I think, had the easiest time. She had not been in school previously and so had no old patterns and expectations to overcome. She quickly made friends—Pamela Marzetti, the daughter of another of Daddy’s colleagues at the prison, and Judy Terreo, whose father owned an office supply store—were her great pals, along with Karen Horgan. Karen became the mascot for the seventh and eighth grade cheerleading squad. And she thrived.
Ultimately, all of us thrived academically. We learned to “talk proper”—pronouncing “er” in the standard American way instead of as “uh,” the Brooklyn, Boston, African-American way. In Dayton I had been one of the better students in my first grade class, but Sister Helen Joseph made me a bluebird instead of a cardinal in her reading groups. I distinctly recall being upset about this and put a whip to my horses to get into the top group, the cardinals.
With Mother’s enthusiastic approval, Sister Helen Joseph also converted me from writing with my left hand to writing with my right. Among her other beliefs, Mother was convinced that one was in some way in the grip of the devil if one was left-handed. So she had the good sister perform an exorcism. I have always felt as if that enforced change left me in some measure permanently confused.
Francois, who had taken piano lessons for several years already, thrived as a piano student under Sister Mary Herman, the music teacher at Holy Family.
Mother used to relate how some of the other mothers in the school asked her one day whether she allowed us to watch television. Yes, she replied. The other women said they thought that perhaps she did not, because it was well-known that the Wycliff children were the smartest in their classes and they thought it probably was because we didn’t watch TV.
In fact, we were avid TV watchers. But we were equally avid readers, thanks to the Sisters of Divine Providence. Those nuns were motivational geniuses, using fancily decorated “holy cards” and slogans like “Readers are Leaders” to inculcate in us and our classmates a love of reading. I remember my fourth grade teacher, Sister John Catherine, reading aloud to us in class in brief installments a book called “Outlaws of Ravenhurst.” I could hardly wait for each new day to hear what came next in that book.
The reading habit planted in us by the nuns was fertilized by the presence in Ashland of a public library, where there was no color bar. Karen and I first, and later Chris, fell in love with a series of biographies of famous (and some not so famous) Americans. Each book had a blue cover and was emblazoned with the name of the subject—Zebulon Pike: Explorer, George Washington Carver: Scientist, etc. For months, we went to the library in Central Park and brought home one, two, three of these biographies at a time. At some point, Daddy grew tired of seeing those blue-backed books and felt we needed to vary our reading. So he declared that he didn’t want to see another of those blue books come into the house. Read something else, he said.
We quickly discovered that the library carried the same series with orange covers, and shifted to those. Our hunger for biographies was satisfied and Daddy’s desire for variety in our reading was frustrated—by a simple change of colors.
There was one gap, one hole, in our Holy Family experience—at least in mine and Francois’—and that was in relationships with members of the opposite sex. The proscription against interracial romantic relationships, or even just boy-girl friendships, was something neither Father Carroll or anybody else could—or would—knock down in that era. And if that wasn’t clear to us before, it was unmistakably clear after the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955.
As a result, I think, we both grew up stunted to some degree. I know that Francois was attracted to certain young women in his class, but dating or even being social friends with them was out of the question. It was the same for me. When all the boys in my class fell in love with the “it girl” of a particular moment, I kept my silence and my distance. That was life.