Saturday, September 19, 2009

On Being an African American in The Fifties - Part IV

The test of courage comes when we are in the minority.  
The test of tolerance comes when we are in the majority. 
 ~Ralph W. Sockman
(The Quotegarden)
Back in the real world, Chicago, after living in a fantasy land in Panama, it was time to get about the business of becoming an adult: finding a job, finishing school, raising a family, and finding a place to live.

Our first son, Charles David, was born May 21, 1956, in Chicago and Moody was transferred to Ft. Benning, Ga, where we lived on base.  White officers could live in the city, Columbus, but Blacks could not live in all areas.  This worked to our advantage because we had a big house on base.  For once, white officers were jealous of us because we didn't have to pay rent.  When we went to visit them they would leave their garage door open and we would drive directly into the garage so their neighbors couldn't see us visiting.

In Chicago, in October 1956, we had a difficult time finding affordable housing.  The practice of blockbusting by real estate agents encouraged white property owners to sell their houses at a loss, by fraudulently implying that racial, ethnic, or religious minorities — blacks, Hispanics, Jews et al. — were moving into their previously racially segregated neighborhood, and so would depress real estate property values.  Sometimes they would even hire Black people to walk around a neighborhood to scare white people into selling.  White people were terrified about Black people moving into "their" neighborhood.  (Sounds almost like the town hall people who want to take back "their" country.) A community could "turn" almost overnight from white to Black.

Somehow we finally found a very nice one bedroom apartment in a neighborhood that was "changing."  Our rent was $100 a month and my husband made $50 a week screening dog feces at the University of Chicago.  People in factories said he was too educated and places where he could use his degree didn't want to hire a Black person.  These experiences honed our determination to fight injustice.  There was a resentment of our circumstances but it did not diminish our expectations for a better life.

To help bring money into the house while I was completing college, I worked evenings as a coder at Time Magazine, as a secretary during the day at the college, and carried 20 credit hours my student teaching year. One of my fellow students and friend was Emmett Till's mother and we spent time talking about his death but she refused to let his murder stop her from living her life.  I always admired her strength and calmness.  African American student teachers were not allowed to practice in white schools and in 1958, I finally finished college, only a year late. 

Graduation Day with my Mother

Another way to bring in money was for Moody to go back to school.  He could receive $160 a month since he was a veteran and college only cost $1.50 a credit hour.  ($1.50 is not a typo. Can you believe these prices?) He dropped his plans for medical school and earned a master's degree.  Needing money worked out to our advantage because he eventually received a PhD from Northwestern University.

Chance and adaptability entered our lives.  Mystical occurrences and serendipity became commonplace and an invisible presence seemed to follow us.  We never found out who recommended us to the real estate agency when we got our first apartment.  Someone, we never found out who it was, found him a job in Oak Forest as a lab technician.  Life was looking better and once I started teaching we could buy a car, a new 1958 Ford that cost $2400.  He now made over $300 a month and I made $400 a month.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott (December 1955-December 1956) was a protest that was sparked by Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on a city bus to a white person.  The boycott protested the practice of Black passengers  having to sit at the back of the bus, but if it was crowded they were expected to give up their seats to white passengers.  When Mrs. Parks was arrested, the Montgomery Improvement Association was established to lead the boycott.  The boycott catapulted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to national prominence and gave the Civil Rights Movement a big victory.  A national struggle was born.

Little Rock was a defining desegregation event of the decade.  The Little Rock Nine was a group of nine African American students who were selected to desegregate Little Rock Central High School in 1957.  The Governor, Orval Faubus, the National Guard, and rowdy crowds had protests and blocked their entrance to the school.  After many days of violent protests, President Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army to Little Rock and federalized the entire 10,000 member Arkansas National Guard.  President Eisenhower stated in his radio and TV address: 

Mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of our courts....

Whenever normal agencies prove inadequate to the task and it becomes necessary for the Executive Branch of the Federal Government to use its powers and authority to uphold Federal Courts, the President’s responsibility is inescapable. In accordance with that responsibility, I have today issued an Executive Order directing the use of troops under Federal authority to aid in the execution of Federal law at Little Rock, Arkansas. This became necessary when my Proclamation of yesterday was not observed, and the obstruction of justice still continues.

It is important that the reasons for my action be understood by all our citizens. As you know, the Supreme Court of the United States has decided that separate public educational facilities for the races are inherently unequal and therefore compulsory school segregation laws are unconstitutional.... 

On September 25, the nine students finally successfully entered the school. However, they were subjected to vicious physical and verbal abuse by students, parents, and community people and all but one, Minnijean Brown, graduated.  She was suspended, not because of something she did, and transferred to a high school in New York.

Incidents starting taking place all over the country, in the North and South, as people resisted desegregation.  Change was coming to America because this time whites were working with Blacks to help achieve equality.  This time there would be no turning back.

I am an invisible man.... I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids - 
and I might even be said to possess a mind.  
I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.  
~Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man, 1952

A few selected events of the '50s
  • The Korean War (1950-1953)
  • The Red Scare and anti-Communist hysteria of the McCarthy era.
  • The U.S. reaction to the 1957 launch by the Soviet Union of the Sputnik satellite, a major milepost of the Cold War.
  • Francis Crick and James D. Watson discover the helical structure of DNA at the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge.
  • Polio vaccine developed.
  • Suez Canal crisis.
  • Emmett Till is murdered in Money, MS for allegedly whistling at a white woman.
  • Althea Gibson becomes the first African American tennis player to win a major title by winning both the women's singles and doubles championships at Wimbledon.
  • Lorraine Hansberry's Raisin in the Sun is the first play by an African American woman to be produced on Broadway. 
  • Chuck Berry travels from St. Louis to Chicago, recording Maybellene, an immediate sensation among teenagers. The hit helps shape the evolution of rock and roll.
  • Fullback Jim Brown begins his professional football career with the Cleveland Browns. He leads the National Football League in rushing for eight of his nine seasons.
  • Singer Ray Charles records What'd I Say, which becomes his first million-seller, and exemplifies the emergence of soul music, combining rhythm and blues with gospel.
  • Motown Records is founded in Detroit, MI by Berry Gordy, Jr.
  • Baseball player Ernie Banks is named the National League's Most Valuable Player for a second consecutive season.


  1. Very interesting post. I am 61 and live in Salt Lake City, Utah. The only black person I saw growing up was a man at the Hotel Utah who shined shoes. He worked long and hard enough to put his children through college. When Marion Anderson came to sing with the Utah Symphony she wasn't allowed to stay in the Hotel Utah. I never thought about race until I moved to New York City. I was poor so the neighborhood I lived in was mostly Hispanic and Black. I was the minority then. I raised two boys in that city who didn't realize they were playing with children who were a different color - at least they never said anything to that effect.

    I tried to leave a comment on your art blog, but it wouldn't let me, perhaps because you are currently posting on it. Your art is beautiful and vibrant.

  2. Thank you. Most kids, really don't care. I took the pictures for my grandchildren's proms and it's the most multicultural event I've ever seen.

    Your city is so beautiful.

  3. Goodness. I'm always so blown away by your memoirs. I'm from Arkansas and I remember the LR 9 well. It took such a long time for the Civil Rights movement to take hold. Thank God it finally did, even though I'm aware that there are still problems, especially here in the south.

  4. I love reading your history, Christella! It is so surprisingly similar to my own (but very different). I grew up in a tenement a block away from the Chicago stockyards in the 50' immigrant kid who didn't speak English (at first). My parents, actors both in their homeland, couldn't find work. I vividly remember my father coming home and dissolving to tears because he was rejected for a job as a bus driver. This was a man who played Hamlet on stages throughout Europe.

    He finally found work as a house painter...and paint he did until his body disintegrated and he died.

    I remember the blockbusting. The hatreds. The scorn.

    I remember.

  5. Yes, Jonas. We have a shared history. Do you remember the awful smell of the stockyards?

    I hope we never forget.