Winter 2000, Volume 17.2
Orman Day, a Califonia State University of Los Angeles graduate, works as a public relations consultant in Orange County, California. His stories and essays have appeared in such journals as Zyzzyva, Bitter Oleander, Portland Review, Crab Creek Review, Ascent, and Flyway. He currently is writing a book about his backpacking experiences in 90 countries.
This essay is dedicated to the memory of James Middleton. May God grant him peace.
Cloudsplitter, by Russel Banks, with its images of fierce abolitionist John Brown sheltering escaped slaves in his farmhouse and then secretly moving them northward to freedom by wagon, retrieved a long-forgotten memory of a single night in 1962 when my family hosted two black teen-aged boys, thereby integrating Glendale, California.
Banks' novel is narrated by Owen Brown, who survived the ill-fated 1859 raid led by his father on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry and then settled in a cabin nestled on a mountaintop in Altadena, a community north of Pasadena's downtown and east of Glendale, in my native Southern California. Describing the transporting of two escapees along the underground railroad, Banks writes of a stopover at a farm, "At nightfall, Mrs. Wilkinson brought food to us a second time, potatoes and a substantial leg of mutton, and when we had eaten, Mr. Wilkinson came and cheerfully bade us farewell and let us out of the barn by a back door, into the dark, adjacent woods. Making our way down towards the valley below the house, we kept to the birch trees…"
Reading those words, I set down my book, stirred by softly focused images: two "Negro" high school students bedding down at our home, eating their fill of bacon and French toast dusted with powdered sugar, returning to the district meeting of the MYF, the Methodist Youth Fellowship.
As hosts of a district gathering of teenagers from surrounding churches, members of our local Methodist youth group were to invite participants to sleep in our homes on the Friday night preceding the next day's schedule of discussions and team-building activities. Assignments were given out a week prior to the event and I volunteered to house the two "Negroes" from Los Angeles…without consulting Dad and Mom first.
Like those of many of my friends, my parents were racist. They weren't the type to burn a cross on anyone's lawn or string an uppity "Negro" up on the nearest jacaranda tree. But they made it clear that there were inferior races, which might contain a few "exemplary" exceptions like the ones we saw in movies or bunked with at church camp. My maternal grandfather thought the problem could be solved by sending the "Africans" back to Africa.
Today, Dad's sister says that they were all raised that way…to believe that "Coloreds" should be kept on the outskirts of Glendale, a town characterized in my aunt's youth and later, in my own, as "lily white." The city didn't have anything as unsubtle as "Whites Only" drinking fountains and restrooms, but—by agreement of our real estate agents—blacks were kept from living within the city and if they happened to pass through our limits, they were expected to be out by sundown.
Our hometown hero was John Wayne, who—as Marion Morrison—attended Glendale High from 1921-24 and became an honor student, class president, sports editor, and star on the championship football team. Later, as a movie star, he showed us boys how to subdue other races: Native Americans (Fort Apache), the Japanese (Sands of Iwo Jima), Mexicans (The Alamo), and eventually, the Vietnamese (The Green Berets).
In the fall of 1936, Glendale High again fielded a football team with championship aspirations. In its league finale, Glendale had only to beat Pasadena's Muir Tech, which had notched 18 straight league victories and was quarterbacked by Jackie Robinson, who was destined to sunder professional baseball's color bar.
In Jackie Robinson: A Biography, Arnold Rampersad describes Robinson's hometown: "If Pasadena could now claim to be the Athens of southern California, its white citizens increasingly saw only one flaw in all this perfection: the presence of blacks. Crime was not an issue; black crime was insignificant. But Negro residents on any street drove down property values, as Pasadena whites looked with envy on nearby communities such as Eagle Rock, South Pasadena, and San Marino—but especially on Glendale, which had the foresight not to employ blacks as domestics and now boasted that not a single Negro lived within the city limits."
As a student, my mother attended that 1936 Glendale-Muir game, but at 80, she can't remember the specifics, which are recounted in Rampersad's book: "Early—and perhaps according to a plan—Robinson was brought down, then `three Glendale boys piled on.' With cracked ribs, Jack staggered off the field and out of the game. His injury sickened the other Terriers, who proceeded to fumble the game and the championship away."
Dan Jordan, who played on the Glendale line, doesn't remember an illegal attempt to injure Robinson, although he admits that no one "mourned" when the star was borne away to the hospital. Dan isn't sure exactly who piled on, but he figures that one of them was probably a teammate who later became a Los Angeles police officer.
In the fall of 1962, when I was a senior sitting in the bleachers, Glendale still fielded a football team that was all-white (with the exception of Ted Maneki) and all of us felt a certain Caucasian pride when we marched through Pasadena and Muir high schools on our way to the league championship. While a few Mexican-Americans attended our school, it was literally true that the darkest skins on campus belonged to students who regularly drove their wooden boards through the surging surf of Huntington Beach and the Wedge.
Unlike many of my classmates, though, I had conversed on a personal level with blacks. Anna was the first I met of her race. In my boyhood, she cleaned the yardage store which my mother managed and the residence of the store's owner. She was kind to my three sisters and me, and Laurel still remembers a Christmas when Anna gave her a dollar, a considerable sum at a time when 25 cents would get you into the Alex Theatre to see a double bill and another quarter would buy you two all-day suckers and two packs of Jujubes and still leave you with a penny for bubble gum on the walk home.
My mother recalls the day in the mid-1950s when Anna missed the last bus out of Glendale and reluctantly she chauffeured her into Los Angeles: "Anna slumped down in her seat so no one would see that she had stayed in town past sundown."
About that time, Glendale unofficially bestowed honorary "white" status on the dark-skinned Permauls, a solidly middle-class family of Indian ancestry which was welcomed into our church. The Permauls' daughter, Rajammal, was just two years older than me and I got to know her through the church youth group and its Bible studies, skate parties, luaus, choir practices, devotionals and taffy pulls…a relentless schedule designed to channel our volcanic energies away from pool halls, Hollywood strip joints, Balboa Island beer busts and drive-in movie theaters (vilified from the city's pulpits as "passion pits").
Now 60, Naidu, one of the sons, says that he formed many deep friendships in Glendale, particularly at First Methodist, and carries only one bitter memory: shortly after moving into their new home, the Permauls were visited by real estate agents who suggested that they would find Glendale inhospitable and then indirectly threatened the three children, who—like most of us in that generation—walked to school. Naidu's father, who earned American citizenship by serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, stood firm and the danger passed. No one referred to Permauls or another family of similar heritage as "Negroes"; they were Indians. So, the Permauls did not breech the color bar in the minds of Glendale residents and real estate agents, alike.
Given my environment, why didn't I embrace bigotry? For one, my idol was Abraham Lincoln, whose February 12 birthday I shared. My cramped bedroom was a shrine to him. From every angle, the Great Emancipator—whose image was caught in plaster busts, bronze bookends and lithographs—cast his weary eyes on me. To free the slaves, he had given his life, a sacrifice which I came to believe had been betrayed by Glendale's conservative Republicans and their racially restrictive covenants.
The church, too, influenced my views. Like another Methodist youth, Hillary Clinton, living in another part of the country, I learned from "liberal" ministers the importance of practicing the Social Gospel, the idea that Christians were called upon by God to transform society, rooting out such evils as religious and racial intolerance, inequality of the sexes and economic exploitation.
My church saw to it that its youth had the opportunity to befriend black MYFers and so it was that at a mountain summer camp in 1962, I prayed, swam, sang, thumped volleyballs and pondered adolescent angst…with James Middleton and "Shorty" Stephens and Bev Martin and the Rev. "Deacon" Dan Towler, the former football player who had turned-youth minister. Race relations were simpler then or so it seemed, before the 1965 Watts riots (and the inevitable rumors that invaders were heading to Glendale with guns and Molotov cocktails), the rise of Black Power and Black Panthers, and the inner-city devastation inflicted by the intersection of disease and shared needles.
Not long after that week ended with the usual tears and promises to keep in touch, I started to read newspaper articles about James Meredith, a black whose enrollment at the University of Mississippi was being blocked by Gov. Ross Barnett. And then came the hosting of the high school conference at my church. Fifty teenagers were going to attend. Two of them, including James Middleton, were black (although a shade lighter than the Permauls) and I volunteered to house them for no other reason than that I liked James with his lanky frame, short hair, open face, easy wit and serious consideration of the moral imperatives facing good Methodists.
My sister Doreen remembers that a few days prior to the conference, I casually mentioned that some of the kids staying with us might be black. "Dad and Mom practically had a coronary," she says. But they didn't complain or worse yet, order me to dis-invite them. I was asked, though, to heft the vacuum cleaner through our dusty halls, living as we did in a two-story house strewn with what we called "creative clutter."
Doreen recalls that Mom parked behind the house, so that we and our guests entered through the back door, which was shielded from traffic on Brand Boulevard, Glendale's "Main Street," the busy thoroughfare on which our house sat until it was leveled to create the Ventura Freeway.
Mom says she pulled in back because she always did. Doreen thinks she did it out of fear, not disrespect. Any fear was well-grounded, based on Glendale's past and future. Forty years earlier, the berobed Ku Klux Klan paraded down Brand Boulevard behind a fiery cross, an equestrian unit and the Klavern's very own marching band. Two years after James' visit, the American Nazi Party set up an office not two miles away. And, two decades later, when fair housing laws were in place and .3 percent of Glendale's population was African-American, a Brand Boulevard deli was shuttered by its owner, a black woman harassed by vandals.
My sisters and mother remember that James and the other black teenaged boy were well-behaved and helped to wash the dishes and folded their bedding in the morning. Although reserved by nature, Dad was gracious (despite his arthritic pain) and made our guests feel at home before retiring upstairs.
At the time, I considered ours a private act of hospitality. Certainly none of us thought that we were engaging in an act of civil disobedience in the fight for civil rights, two terms we only learned later from our newspapers and television sets. My parents' single night of generosity will never be mistaken for the heroics of Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King, Jr., with his dream and his mountaintop. Dad, after all, didn't have the nerve to tell his sister that "Coloreds" were going to sleep in the house in which he and she had been raised. And neither did he confide to his older brother, who—unless the afterlife has moderated his views—must have gone apoplectic when his granddaughter recently married a Somali. I shrugged when a few members of the youth group said they admired my family for taking in "Negroes" for the night. And I never gave our act another thought until I picked up Cloudsplitter.
By the time I was a college student, Dad's and my faces would regularly redden with enraged disagreement. I was the ardent editor of the campus newspaper during the student revolution; he was a railroad clerk who didn't rock boats. When he learned in 1970 that I was going to refuse induction into the Army because I opposed the Vietnam War, he wept and told my sister he hadn't raised me to be a coward.
Although we could never agree on politics, our generation gap was narrowing when he died not long before I turned 28. I celebrated that birthday in Africa, backpacking around the world, fulfilling a dream he had nurtured by his devotion to TV travelogues and National Geographic.
Recently I learned that Dad was crestfallen when arthritis bent his toes and hobbled his legs when I was young. I was finally old enough to go hiking with him and he wanted to show me the trails he had traversed as a boy in the Verdugo Mountains above Glendale, but he could only walk tentatively and with searing pain.
Now I am left with this: in the September of 1962, Dad and I did climb a mountain together…Dr. King's mountain, from whence we could glimpse the promised land. And, as a result of a courage rare for him, by letting two races share a harmonious night under our roof, Dad let me retain my idealistic spirit a bit longer. Disillusionment would come soon enough.
The Color of God
In writing about race and ethnicity, it may be well for Western historians to avoid arrogance and keep in mind the question a mulatto boy put to his Jewish mother in the book, The Color of Water: "What color is God?" he asks; she responds, "the color of water." — Martin Ridge, "Who's Who—or Western Name Calling," Journal of the West, October 1999, p. 4