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.