When I was growing up most of my life was spent outdoors. We didn’t have computers or television, but we did have radio. Our home was small and crowded, over 10 people in a one bedroom apartment, but outside we had lots of space. We were poor, but didn’t know it. Everyone we knew was poor, after all it was the late 30s and early 40s.
Nothing was wasted. We saved grease from cooking, flattened every can we opened, had meatless Tuesday, and took our hangers to the cleaners if we wanted our clothes returned on hangers. We listened to President Roosevelt on the radio and took part in air raid drills. When the sirens blew you didn’t take chances. Chicago was a big railroad stop and most soldiers traveled by train. There would be a knock on the door and an African American soldier would appear, asking for a place to stay overnight. There was always room for another person and of course,this added income to our home. It was especially exciting when a soldier came by that we knew. He would jingle his pockets, like he had a lot of money, and allow us children to put our hands in to see how much we could grab. Sometimes they had souvenirs from faraway places and stories of exotic locations. Homes had banners with stars, announcing their sons’ participation in the war.
The two most important things in our lives were Family and Church. Almost everyone in our family, extended and otherwise, went to West Point Baptist Church for Sunday service and during the week for meetings and choir rehearsal.
We would walk to 36th and Cottage Grove and it was difficult staying clean that long. Adults had service upstairs and we had a children’s church downstairs. My sister and I would listen for our mother getting “happy.” When the choir sang certain songs or the minister preached moving sermons, some of the parishioners would become moved and “feel” the Holy Spirit. They would shout, dance, throw their hands in the air, and need the help of the ushers who would fan and try to get them quiet.
My mother was a terrible disciplinarian. In those days, everyone whipped children if they did something wrong. My mother couldn’t bring herself to hit us and would cry if we did something wrong because she knew it meant a whipping and she just wasn’t up to it. Sometimes she would ask Uncle William to come and whip us but he was as bad as my Mother was. He would look at us and tell us to be good and then say to my mother that he couldn’t whip those children. We were amazed at their utter dislike for whipping children.
My nemesis was another student named Margaret. For some reason, she got a big kick out of taunting and teasing me. It meant many fights and many punishments. No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get her to leave me alone. I never did discover why she had it in for me. One day, when I was in seventh grade, she disappeared. I didn’t know what had happened to her and frankly, I didn’t care. Soon we were told that she was dead. I felt so much relief. At last I could walk to school and get home safely. But I thought I had better check. I went to the neighborhood funeral home when her body was ready for viewing. I looked into the casket, and thought to myself that it was true, she was dead.
My older sisters and their husbands lived a totally different life. They went to real parties and clubs like the Club De Lisa. They would put on their best clothes and men would look fine in their double-breasted suits and highly polished shoes. They would tell us about the famous people they saw and heard. Billy Eckstine, Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, etc.
A big night in the neighborhood was a Joe Louis fight. We would gather around the radio, listen to the announcer, and “see” the fight in our heads. People left their windows open so people who didn’t own a radio could hear the commentary. He was the biggest hero in our world—Joe Louis, Heavyweight Champion of the World. There was no one we admired more. If he won a fight, we all won. After a victory, everyone would run out of his or her home and we would literally dance in the street. An even bigger thrill was hearing when he was in town and trying to get a glimpse of him and his beautiful wife.
My mother did daywork; in other words she cleaned homes. During the summers and on Saturday, I would accompany her and help. My sister, Ruby, cleaned houses sometimes, while Susie, another sister, and Lee, my brother-in-law, worked in a laundry. After the war, Delawerence, Ruby's husband, was hired as a mailman. A number of family members had jobs in the stockyards and made what we thought was real money. No one had a professional job but everyone worked.