Stone Walls and Molassess
All too many of those who live in affluent America ignore those who exist in poor America; in doing so, the affluent Americans will eventually have to face themselves with the question that Eichmann chose to ignore: How responsible am I for the well-being of my fellows? To ignore evil is to become an accomplice to it.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Borders both define and separate. In St. Louis, a river separates the city's affluent neighbourhoods from East St. Louis, Missouri's crime-ridden and poverty-stricken black community. In Chicago, busy main streets and the L-Train maintain a divide between uptown and downtown, a distinction which aids in the eruption of a deadly riot in 1968. In New York, rivers form islands that distinguish upscale Manhattan from the less prestigious districts—Harlem, Brooklyn, the Bronx.
In Ohio a set of train tracks and a hill separate the black community in the North End from Portsmouth's white residents. This is where my father grows up as civil disorder escalates across the nation.
Junior steps out of his house as the sun rises on a crisp fall day. A chill wind sweeps through and the remaining summer leaves tremble and grip the branches with fervent hopelessness. Junior shivers. He lifts his head and moves his coat zipper to the edge, extending the collar. He rests his chin against the polyester fabric to lock in the warmth. Junior curls his shoulders toward his chest and stuffs his hands in the pockets of his worn-in jeans as he moves through the complex. He walks past Al and Lee Bass's home, and then the Battles'. Both of the houses are quiet and settled—it's early for a Saturday and the projects are asleep. He makes his way to the edge of the North End in search of something to do. The young boy drags his feet along the ground; his movement makes a noise that grates and scratches as he walks down the road towards the rocky tracks. There are no cars and no trains this morning. It is still and quiet; Junior can see and hear his breath. The rhythm of his breathing slows when he stops at the side of the train tracks. The tracks are filled with stones of various shapes and sizes. Junior buries the toe of his white runners in the ground, shifting the rocks. He bends over and examines the selection. His long fingers manoeuvre the stones in search of the perfect launch device. He picks one that's smooth and oblong, tosses it gently in the air, and watches it return to his hand. He manipulates it with his finger and adjusts his grip. The boy considers how far he can throw it. He turns to his left and identifies the perfect target—an abandoned home that's completely run down. The windows are shattered, the front porch slants, and the roof boasts massive gaping holes. He considers the optimal distance to challenge his arm. He moves a few paces back, shuffles to the right, and turns to face his target when he hears a faint, familiar whistle. The train. An idea surfaces and a smile spreads slowly across the young boy's face. He leans over to grab a few more rocks. He holds his right hand up against his body and gathers rocks with his left. He hears the whistle again, louder this time. The train is coming. When he collects a sufficient amount of stones, he crosses the tracks. He turns and faces the North End and his target. The horn sounds as the train clambers into Portsmouth. Junior examines the stones and selects the rock for his first launch. He looks at the abandoned building and assesses the distance. About twenty strides. His adrenaline rises as the train curls around the corner and comes into view full of fury and smoke. Junior takes in a breath and establishes his position. The train screams through the young boy from the North End. It's angry and unstoppable—driven towards an unknown destination. It gets closer. The boy watches and waits. His heart leaps with eagerness; his body is poised for battle. The train is about to pass in front of him. He draws his arm back and the first train car passes. He throws. Thud. It hits the side of the second car. Too slow. The second car passes. He throws. Thud. He hits the third car. He lets the fourth pass, frustrated. Junior breathes deeply and narrows his eyes into focus letting the fifth car streak by. He throws. The rock sails towards the side of the abandoned building and connects with the remaining wood siding. BANG! Success. Junior, pleased with his aim, shakes his fists in delight. But he doesn't pause long because the train continues to press forward. Junior draws out another stone from his collection and resumes throwing. Another car passes. BANG! Another: BANG! Junior hits the abandoned building for the last time that day when he slides the final stone between a train car and the caboose.
Junior visits the train tracks often after that day. He selects the rocks, holds them in his hand, and waits for the train to roll through the North End. He learns to tune out the noise of the train and focus so that his timing and aim are perfect. He learns to anticipate the moving cars until he hits the abandoned building with every single throw.
The Moynihan Report, 1965: Urbanization. Country life and city life are profoundly different. The gradual shift of American society from a rural to an urban basis over the past century and a half has caused abundant strains, many of which are still much in evidence. When this shift occurs suddenly, drastically, in one or two generations, the effect is immensely disruptive of traditional social patterns. It was this abrupt transition that produced the wild Irish slums of the 19th Century Northeast. Drunkenness, crime, corruption, discrimination, family disorganization, and juvenile delinquency were the routine of that era. In our own time, the same sudden transition produced the Negro slum – different from, but hardly better than its predecessors, and fundamentally the result of the same process.
On our tour of the North End, my father pulls into a lot a few meters away from his childhood home – a strip of town homes that compile one section of the projects. He walks toward a fence that outlines the field in the government-housing complex and leans on it. My brother and I stand next to him and wait. We watch as a rich set of laugh lines appear all over his face. "Do you want to know how I learned to run?" We nod. North End stories are filled with excitement and adventure and we're standing in the middle of where it all took place. I'm euphoric. "Larry and Lee were the big guys and they used to play a game of chase at night. They would chase us through the projects, past clotheslines and garbage cans." He pauses and the laugh lines deepen. "If they caught you, they got to pound your legs and give you a charley horse. It was like tag. The big guys chased the little guys. That's how I learned to run."
I had a charley horse once – in my right calf. It felt like my lower leg muscle was cinched in a vice that would not release its hold. The pressure was so intense, it spread to the rest of my body and I could hardly breathe. It was horrible. The North End version of tag doesn't seem fun, but my father is smiling as he remembers.
My father's North End childhood games: June Bug Kites, Popsicle Stick Races, and the Famous Bean Shooter Wars.
June Bug Kites: Catch a June bug. Tie the June bug's legs up with string and let the June bug fly around in circles. See whose bug is the fastest. My father makes a buzzing sound and uses his finger to illustrate June bugs flying around on strings. He moves his June-bug finger towards my ear until I swat it away in irritation. My father thinks this is hilarious.
Popsicle Stick Races: A Rainy Day Activity. Each participant takes a popsicle stick and places it in the street water that collects on a rainy day. The first popsicle stick to manoeuvre down the street and into the sewer wins.
The Famous Bean Shooter Wars: The participants go to Mrs. Ramsey's and purchase a nickel's worth of pinto beans. They build a shooter from found materials and shoot the pinto beans, like machine guns, at the other participants. "Stevie Battle could hit you with a bean shooter once and just knock you over," my father tells me. Stevie Battle is Cathleen Battle's brother. Cathleen is Portsmouth's most famous citizens – an internationally renowned opera singer born in Portsmouth's North End. There must be something in the Battle lungs.
I ask my mother if she played games like this. My father laughs. "Your mother was rich." I look at my mother. She shrugs and reluctantly responds, "I played hopscotch and I skipped. I rode my bikes like the other kids in the neighbourhood."
My mother grew up in Toledo, Ohio (a virtual metropolis when compared to Portsmouth) on the nice side of town, to parents who both had university degrees and full-time jobs with benefits—a principal and a social worker. She was a latchkey kid before it was popular.
My mother is fair, like her father. He dies when I am four, but I remember he looked like Colonel Saunders, the KFC icon.
"Are you mixed?" This is what people ask me all too regularly. Translation: Is one of your parent's white?
"You must be mixed with something." I don't reply, because it's not a question. They continue.
"Your parents are both black?"
"Yes." To explain my appearance – my loose curls and light brown shade, I add, "My mother is very fair."
"So she's mixed?"
I debate whether to let this go on, whether to walk away. I engage the inquisitor, because I was never very good at holding my tongue. "My grandfather is mixed. My grandmother is black, so my mother is three-quarters black. My father is black."
"So you are mixed."
This debate recurs with friends and strangers, especially when they meet my mother. At first, I harass her about her own family. "So is grandpa half white? Are his parents both black or are they mixed?" She doesn't understand the questions. Where she grew up, people didn't draw graphs to confirm or deny being black. If you were willing to admit it (assuming they couldn't tell), that was enough. I change my approach when my mother gets frustrated with the repetition of doubt. I avoid the debate altogether. I change my response to the first question in the inquisition. Yes, I'm mixed.
Washington, DC, 1964: The Civil Rights Act. President Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination of all kinds based on race, colour, religion, or national origin. The law also provides the federal government with the power to enforce desegregation.
On the morning of our second day in Portsmouth, we pull into the marshalling lot to check in at the homecoming parade. The marshalling area is located in a parking lot that surrounds a complex of buildings and fields. The lot is large with flat, mud floors. The area where the floats are lined up is sandwiched between a baseball diamond and an imposing stone wall; cars, horses, and participants are bustling between the structures. At the back of the lot, opposite the entrance, a grassy hill rises at the height of the stone wall obstructing the view beyond the marshalling grounds. The result is an unbearable heat compounded by the inescapable sun. The air is stagnant because the lot is like the bottom of a bowl – the high structures and grassy hill impede any kind of relief.
My father parks the car on the thin stretch of grass that surrounds the stone wall. He walks over to a lady with a clipboard as the rest of us unload and gather items from the car—water bottles, nuts, a few portable toys for my nephew. My father returns and instructs us to follow him. We plunge deeper into the crowded array of floats, towards the back of the assembly, towards the hill. We find the car that my father will ride in—"CHUCK EALEY" is printed in large capital letters on each side. My father's marked convertible is positioned behind Notre Dame's Greek mythology float; a giant eight-foot high bust of a Greek Warrior forms the front. Holly, the school's homecoming queen, sits toward the back of the float in a chariot. A warrior-boy and an entourage of would-be queens attend her—togas, leafy headdresses and all. I notice the Portsmouth West float behind us. Their queen dons mini-shorts and a firefighter costume and poses with a fake hose in front of a paper maché brick wall. Although the Notre Dame float is far more elaborate and thought provoking, the firefighter's float will win a prize. Holly, the togas and the Greek bust will leave the homecoming parade empty-handed.
The coordinators advise us to wait by the float. "The parade will be starting soon," they tell us. They don't know my father. He has never been good at waiting – at least not in one place. Soon after we arrive at our designated modern chariot, my father instructs us to leave our belongings in the car and we obey. He leads us towards the steep grassy hill at the end of the lot. When we reach the base of the hill, my brother and his son meander up quickly, excited at the prospect of adventure. My mother follows, taking the obstacle on with ease. My father waits and extends a hand to his pregnant daughter. I laugh at my father's offer but I gratefully accept the help. I place my hand in his massive palm and lumber up slowly as my father steadies me all the way to the top. I note for the first time that the change in my body has also changed my father—it is both awkward and endearing. I see the tenderness of the father of my younger years, the one I rejected when I became a teenager. Perhaps he sees a change in me that has nothing to do with my physical state. Perhaps this is an olive branch.
I reach the top of the hill and find myself overlooking a majestic view – a stretch of nature's most comforting creations. The area beyond where I stand is free of the ruins caused by collections of manmade structures. A rushing river moves quickly below, lined by a stretch of lush, green trees. The trees bend and curve towards the water, searching for refreshment in the reach of their branches. The river is wide, but I can see the other side. Far down the river I can make out a white bridge. My father points at the water and then gestures towards the other side. "That's the Scioto River. And that's Kentucky." My nephew, a curious four-year-old, taps my father's knee: "Where? Where, Papa? I can't see Kin-tucky." My father grabs Asher under his arms with both hands, lifts him in the air, and places the little boy with his son's face on his right shoulder. Asher explores Kentucky and the Scioto River from his new position. I turn my eyes downward and glare at the rushing river.
From the South to the North, 1810-1850: The Underground Railroad. Over thirty thousand people escape slavery when they flee plantations in the South. They travel north along the Scioto River through Portsmouth onto Detroit and into Canada.
The first thing that comes to mind as I look at the Scioto River: Eugene McKinley. I think of my father's cousin struggling to stay above water on a hot summer day because he was too dark to swim at Dreamland, Portsmouth's fenced-in pool marked: "For Card Holding Members Only".
The second thing that comes to mind as I look at the Scioto River: The Legendary Unmarked Railroad. I look at the banks, the trees that line the river forming a thick woodland along the sides. I think of slaves that made the journey north and stopped here for safety. I think of a group of escapees hiding down below and the babies who hid with their parents in the grass by the river. I wonder if their future brought the hope their parents longed for. I wonder if the journey brought the promise they dreamed about as they hovered by the river and anxiously waited for the safety of night to fall.
New York, New York, 1964: The Harlem Riots. The New York City school board assigns summer remedial classes to a facility on the East Side of upscale Manhattan. The unfamiliar teenagers are harassed each day on their way to and from school. On July 18th, a building superintendent turns his hose on one "unruly" group and yells, "You dirty niggers! I'll wash the black off you!" A swarm of students grab bottles and trashcan lids to stave off the man's attack. One of the students is fifteen-year-old James Powell, a black student from Harlem. A white, off-duty police lieutenant responds to the commotion and shoots the young man down on the sidewalk of 76th Street. Harlem, a district once identified as the "Promised Land" by blacks who fled the South, responds in anger. The riot starts as a peaceful protest but escalates into disaster. It lasts two days, fuelled by the slogan "Burn, Baby, Burn!" The riot wreaks havoc on storefronts and decimates properties all over the city. Approximately five hundred people are injured, one dies, and four hundred are placed under arrest during the two-day Harlem Riots in 1964.
I turn and look back at the lot where the homecoming parade route begins. From this vantage point, I can see the other side of the stone wall which forms a large oval structure that curves near the hill where I stand with my family and stretches towards the entrance of the lot where our car is parked. It's Municipal Stadium – the place where my father began his famous high school football career as a varsity quarterback at Notre Dame High School. A plaque adhered to a post inside the stadium, which I see later reads: In honour of Chuck Ealey. Football quarterback for Notre Dame H S and the University of Toledo where his 35-0 record stands to this day.
Junior, Al Bass, Stevie Battle and a few other boys from the neighbourhood gather at the end of Municipal Stadium on the hill in the fall of 1961. The weather is perfect for the Saturday night game – calm, with a mild breeze. Police litter the surrounding property. They line the fields to ensure the safety of the students and families in attendance and to intimidate those who pose a threat. The boys hide in the shadows. They have no money to get into the game, but they aren't frightened by the Portsmouth Police. They know exactly what to do. They wait to hear the announcer introduce the singing of the national anthem. Today's soloist: Cathleen Battle. Junior smiles at Stevie. The other boys snicker. Stevie scowls and rolls his eyes as his sister starts the anthem. Oh say can you see. The boys begin their ascent and crawl up the side of the stone wall. The stronger boys reach the top and help the smaller boys behind them. Portsmouth police officers stand at full attention—their right hand angled sharply across their brow. The anthem plays on. By the dawn's early light. Junior reaches the flat top of the wall and pauses for a moment to look down below. What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming? The police cannot move; they can only watch, unable to stop the rebels who stare down at them boldly. Through the perilous fight. The song approaches its end and the boys leap into the stadium and disperse amongst the fans. Oe'r the land of the free, and the home of the brave. Cathleen finishes. The boys enjoy the Saturday night game amongst the more privileged residents of Portsmouth.
"The police got smarter though," my father recalls. "They started to spread molasses all over the top of the wall. But that didn't stop us. We just brought newspapers and placed them on our stomachs and on the wall so we wouldn't get stuck."
The stadium wall is no longer flat at the top. It's lined with jagged, upright stones designed to keep misfits and delinquents from overcoming the stone divide.
The Moynihan Report, 1965: Reconstruction. Emancipation gave the Negro liberty, but not equality. Life remained hazardous and marginal. Of the greatest importance, the Negro male... became an object of intense hostility, an attitude unquestionably based in some measure of fear. When Jim Crow made its appearance towards the end of the 19th century, it may be speculated that it was the Negro male who was most humiliated thereby; the male was more likely to use public facilities, which rapidly became segregated once the process began, and just as important, segregation, and the submissiveness it exacts, is surely more destructive to the male… Keeping the Negro "in his place" can be translated as keeping the Negro male in his place.
"What were the police in Portsmouth like?" I ask.
"Racist. Without a question. They would let you kill each other but if you did anything around white people you were toast." When we visit my grandfather's burial site my father points at a row of houses outside the cemetery. "Once we had to hop over that fence. See it there?" We look out the car window. "They were chasing us because we were messing around in the graveyard. I hid in those backyards—behind some lady's garage."
I'm curious. "You weren't allowed to be in the graveyard?"
My mother explains: "They weren't allowed to be in the graveyard."
"We were just being young kids and they thought because we were black kids, we were trying to create trouble." He shakes his head. "Before they even ask any questions, you were in trouble."
I think of the police that chased my father out of the graveyard and the ones who manned the stadium – protecting Portsmouth from Junior and his North End friends. I consider the irony. A decade later my father's name is commemoratively marked on the esteemed walls of the stadium they strove to secure.
St. Augustine, Florida, 1964: The Lincolnville March. A Baptist preacher named Andrew Young organizes a march from St. Augustine's black community on advice from Dr. King when store owners in the area refuse to desegregate. The police, aware of the Lincolnville march and under orders from the Chief of Police, vacate the area where the march will take place. The following reports reach Young prior to the scheduled departure from Lincolnville: "White hoodlums wait near the Old Slave Market with clubs and guns"; "I saw a young boy sitting on the doorstep of a grocery store cleaning a shotgun of nearly his own length." Despite his fear, Young refuses to back down. As marchers gather at his church in Lincolnville, Young prays, "We ask you this evening for courage… Give us the strength of the prophets of old… but we would also pray, dear Father, for those who would stand between us and our freedom." Tears streak down Young's face as three hundred and fifty people march in columns and follow him out of the black neighbourhood. The march is silent – no songs or chants that could provoke hostility. The marchers walk into St. Augustine, past the Old Slave Market, and turn up King Street before they return safely to Lincolnville. A news reporter witnesses a white middle-aged man as he watches the march repeat over and over, "Oh these beautiful people." Some say the spectacle of Negro columns paralyzed the Klan ambushers with temporary awe, others shout of Daniel's deliverance from a den of lions.
Fifty floats ahead of our car a jungle-themed float, laden with girls dressed in provocative Jane of the Jungle costumes, merges onto the parade route. The movement cues the next float in line and a domino effect begins. Float after float pulls out of the dirt lot and onto the road that takes the parade through neighbourhoods in Portsmouth en route to City Hall. My family quickly loads into the car with my father's famous name marked on the sides.
My father is often asked to be in parades. Typically on those occasions, my siblings and I take our position at one section of the route and wait for him to appear. My sister and brother instruct their children to keep an eye out for Papa—to shout as soon as he's into view. They wait anxiously. Eventually, after a series of other floats and famous locals drive by, his car comes into view, prompting my nephews to scream and cheer hysterically. My father waves and smiles at the crowd and my mother launches her provided stash of candy from the car. They both give a special wave and hello to their enthusiastic grandsons and their comparatively subdued children. We all wave back until they disappear from view. I have been to parades, but I have never been in one. I was not prepared. I was not prepared for the elevated and unmerited position of grandeur.
It's our turn. My brother sits in the driver's seat and I adjust my leg room in my front row seat. My brother drives at a slow crawl and follows the Greek Warrior bust out of the lot and into Portsmouth's local streets. The first street we turn onto takes us through the middle of a quaint, residential neighbourhood. The houses on the street are old; some show their original grandeur and glory, complete with an American flag that waves at full mast. Many appear unliveable. The siding dangles across noticeable bare patches on the exterior walls. The lawns are untended and wild with weeds. The roofs suffer from weathering and rot. People line the sides of the road, a few feet away from the car. Some sit in the back of their trucks, perched in chairs or hanging off the end of the elevated truck bed. Sporadic navy blue shirts and lawn ornaments bear the slogan "Yes we can", but the people's eyes disagree. This is small town Ohio – blue collar, working class people on the brink of a detrimental recession. They relish few of the positive effects when the country experiences economic booms, but they feel its punches and rapid decline with vicious and imminent force.
Portsmouth's median income in 2007: $25,828. The state of Ohio's median income: $46,597.
Percentage of those who live below the poverty line in Portsmouth: 25, compared with 13% for the entire state.
Portsmouth's main industries: A prison and an atomic energy plant.
Our car creeps along and my father waves into the crowd. As we drive by, I hear men lean over and say to their sons, "That's Chuck Ealey. Best quarterback in college football. Went to Notre Dame." The young men nod complacently. They see me and I turn my head and pretend not to notice. I see the resentful wonder in their eyes. But who is she? The parade halts and our car comes to a stop in the middle of a stretch of road congested with women and children. No one waves and no one smiles. The women sit in lawn chairs; they fill the seats and the bearings suffer under the stress. The observers eat ice cream cones and consume hot dogs purchased at a nearby stand. Dirty children run barefoot between the floats and stop near our car. They beg for candy that we don't have and they don't need. They already exhibit the signs of obesity, having lived a life where pizza, Oreos, and fast food are more practical than available alternatives. A young blond girl, age three, stands a few feet away. She wears an oversized white-t-shirt with dirty handprints on the front; her filled diaper sags between her legs. My arm rests on the side of the car as I tap the top of the convertible. I notice the innate gesture and pull my arm into the vehicle. I cross it on my left hand and place it in my lap. I wish for the Notre Dame chariot ahead to lurch forward and resume its route. I try to avoid the stares. I hear the second hand on my watch tick incessantly. Finally, the Notre Dame float heaves and wobbles forward. Our car follows it down the street as it heads towards downtown Portsmouth. We pass run-down commercial buildings and a few apartment buildings where observers dangle from the balconies. Here they wave back. On these streets the adults and children look at us with longing and hope, with spite and delight, and the mixture is overwhelming.
My father worked hard to sit in a Corvette with his name on the sides. He made his way to university with the aim of his arm and the speed of his feet and then paid my way too. I am grateful and envious and ashamed. Hot tears form behind my sunglasses and threaten to fall into view. I should not be here. I should be standing in my place at the side of the road – an unknown observer who waves as important people drive by.