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.