Letter From Katie: When Things Fall Apart

A neighborhood, a burning cross, and a half-century of sadness.
A neighborhood, a burning cross, and a half-century of sadness.
A neighborhood, a burning cross, and a half-century of sadness.

Illustration by Vidhya Nagarajan

My family moved from Henry County, Tennessee, to Detroit between 1949 and 1950. It took us several months and many car trips to find work and a place to live. My father and my mother, and my aunt and uncle, had determined to make the move; we children had no say in the decision.

In Detroit, horns blared, sirens screamed, and loud radios blasted rhythm and blues. We held hands everywhere we went as if in solidarity. Our fathers had been to Europe in World War II, so they had seen things we couldn’t have dreamed of: big cities, bombed-out buildings, people walking aimlessly with vacant eyes. We had seen nothing much except the red dirt of Henry County.

My sisters and my cousins and I were used to country ways, to small truck gardens, to milk cows, and to bacon stored in our own smokehouse. All that we knew of violence was when the hogs were butchered on the first cold day of autumn and hung from sharp hooks in the yard. “Going out” meant that we had a nickel to take to the general store for a Coca-Cola. And the world beyond our family consisted mostly of the old farmers and their wives sitting on the bench outside the clapboard store, the men in overalls, frayed serge jackets, and brogan shoes; the women in faded rayon dresses, hairnets knotted at the temples.

Most of the people we knew were like us—poor and white. A large black woman named Viola came and cooked for us sometimes when the men caught a string of catfish. My Aunt Dot would ride way out in the woods to get her, even if the fisherman had returned with their catch in the dark. I knew nothing about Viola except that Aunt Dot said her son was “in the pen,” and though that sounded alluring and exotic to us as children, we did not know what it meant. She fried the fish and hushpuppies and cut up the cole slaw, and everybody raved and said nobody could do it like Viola. Then she was gone, spirited off into the invisible divide between the races.

There was a Fourth of July celebration at Sulphur Well every year in Henry County. In my family, anything that smelled bad or tasted bad was judged to be “good for you,” and so taking the mineral waters at Sulphur Well scored as high on the list as anything I’ve come across since. On the way to the park, granddaddy would drop off a wagon load of watermelons to the “Negro” community for their celebration. I grew up loving watermelon like some people love caviar, and I hated giving away those ripe green melons.

When I complained, my mother said we should give food to those who didn’t have as much as we. It confused me. Why did my Aunt Dot put on a little bit of an uppity act when Viola was around, but then turn around and give her watermelons on the Fourth of July?

 

Slowly, we began to get used to Detroit. My two cousins and my sister and I learned to play on asphalt driveways and concrete parking lots instead of soft earth. I was the oldest, and so I made a game for us where we built forts in the shrubbery of the high school across the street and draped cloth remnants over the weeping willow branches in my uncle’s back yard, pretending to be Arabian princesses living in mock luxury on the desert sands. It was the first summer we were left alone to play without the watchful eye of one of the women in the family.

The city was a melting pot in the early 1950s, and we were part of the mix. Instead of a familiar clerk in a dusty general store we saw Italian grocers, and a Greek man named Tony drove around in a horse and buggy, his cart filled with vegetables. “Fresh garlic!” he’d yell. “Hot peppers!” We didn’t know what garlic was but we bought our vegetables from him. My mother, in her early twenties, was afraid he’d overcharge her for the red potatoes she needed, and that the neighbors would laugh at her and call her a hillbilly.

I studied with a Russian violin teacher who had immigrated to America after the war. Our drama teacher was Polish. She wore her dyed black hair pulled back severely on one side and fluffed on the other. Lots of Poles lived in Detroit, most of them in a suburb called Hamtramck. My father adored the Poles and went to as many of their parties as he could. He was a beefy man, and he learned to love kielbasa and sour cream and pickled vegetables, all of which were suspect to the rest of us.

Our family dialogue took a different turn in our new setting. Europe was in post-war chaos and political change was everywhere. Communism had a firm hold on the Soviet Union, and India was bloodied by turmoil between Hindus and Muslims. My father and my uncle—having seen the world—were consumed by global events. On Sundays, after we got a television, my father watched Victory at Sea—a documentary series that re-told the story of WWII—and the news program Face the Nation. When the Army-McCarthy hearings were broadcast, my father and my uncle watched, rapt. Over glasses of Canadian whiskey (another new thing they’d developed a taste for), the men would talk, my father insisting that the Red Scare amounted to nothing. Eventually the women grew bored and drifted into quieter, cooler rooms.

 

If African-Americans had been virtually invisible to my family in Tennessee, that changed in Detroit. In the early 1940s, during the war, racial unrest at the automotive plant at River Rouge, and in the city itself, had ripped the cover off the idyllic picture that Americans had about equality in the United States. And the struggles continued after we arrived. When hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee were broadcast, blacks and whites appeared to be friends. Actors and entertainers of all races, called to testify, walked arm in arm and treated one another like equals. That was a new idea for my family.

“They’re just not the same as us,” Daddy would say when the subject of equal wages came up.

“They sure can play ball,” my uncle would counter. (How he knew that was a mystery. Integrated sports teams were as scarce as hens’ teeth back then.)

Back in Tennessee, the effects of the Depression on the rural South had been so profound that everyone had to compete with each other for the most menial jobs. When he came back from the war, Daddy had hung up his uniform and went to work in the general store. One of my aunts sewed at the shirt factory in a nearby town. We were living on the edge of despair. There was nothing to keep the men in Tennessee, plowing hardscrabble farms, or driving 20 miles one way for a little job of some kind. Why not move North? My family was too young to know what they were facing and too fearless to care.

It never occurred to us that for all our neighbors who moved from the South to the industrial center of the North, poverty and despair didn’t discriminate. White or black, we all had the same dream of honest work and fair wages. We were all driven by the same desire for something better. And we all figured it couldn’t get worse.

 

In Detroit my family and our relatives bought little box houses on the same street, square buildings on postage stamp lawns. My mother worked at a bakery, standing on her feet on the assembly line all night packaging coffee cakes until the veins in her legs were broken down. Our grandmother fed us breakfast and got us off to school while my mother slept until her next shift.

One summer night we ate dinner hurriedly and walked outside with both our parents. An after-dinner walk with our parents—who arrived home each evening exhausted from the day’s work—was an unheard-of pleasure. In the middle of the block, we met our aunt and uncle and our cousin, Sandra, and they joined us. I remember the furrows on my mother’s brow were knit tightly together, and my father, smoking a cigarette, kept his free hand in his pocket, jiggling his keys nervously.

Sandra wore her blonde hair in a perfect pageboy, her bangs partially pulled back off her pretty face and fastened with a barrette. I was taller and even skinnier with thick curly black hair. Our parents told us to hold hands, so we squeezed tight and pinched each other, impatiently. We walked two blocks and turned the corner. I can’t remember the name of the street, and my cousin can’t remember it either; we were still so small our knock-knees stuck out from our short dresses. But Sandra remembers the night, and the incident, as clearly as I do.

The first signs of a crowd appeared ahead of us, a rumble of noise drifted back to where we walked. As we approached the next block, we could hear an undercurrent of anger. “Stay together,” my mother told us, “and stay with us.” Whatever they were doing, it was something my mother didn’t trust.

The sound of voices grew louder, but our parents were as quiet as we’d ever seen them. They said nothing except Be quiet. And for once we obeyed.

There was smoke coming from across the street, and in the yard in front of a small house much like ours, a cross was burning.

The scene was frozen for a moment. Then people began to throw rocks at the house and to scream names we couldn’t understand. There was a moving van in the driveway. Had someone just moved in? I was too young to understand what the cross meant, but it was obvious the crowd didn’t like the new neighbors, and that was what this was about: to get them to leave.

Eventually the police showed up, the crowd dispersed, and we walked home the way we had come. Sandra and I were still holding hands, and none of us said a word. We got home, washed up, and went to bed. As I drifted off to sleep I heard snatches of conversation between my mother and father:

“…just people like anybody else…” my mother said.

“ …more trouble coming…” my father said. “It’s time we started thinking about moving.”

The next day, the whole experience seemed like a bad dream. Sandra and I went up to the attic and crayoned on the back of shirt cardboards. We didn’t talk about the night before. It felt too scary.

 

We moved back south in 1959, to Huntsville, Alabama, a sophisticated small southern mill town where my father worked on the Redstone missile project, and my sister and I went to segregated schools. In 1963, when the whole nation saw Birmingham’s public safety commissioner, Bull Connor, turn fire hoses and police dogs on civil rights demonstrators, we watched on a color television.

“Wait and see,” my father had said. “It won’t be any different here.” But I was old enough by then to understand what the cross burning in Detroit had meant, and independent enough to believe that things could be different. I remember thinking, I’ve got to get out of here.

And eventually, I did. I married and moved to Cincinnati in the 1960s. Back home in the South, cities were exploding with civil rights protests. And for a brief while, I believed I had moved beyond that, moved to a more tolerant place. But I took a job as a typist at General Electric, and one of the first things I heard a man in my office say was, “We ought to line them up and shoot them all!” His face was twisted in anger and rage. It was the face of fury I’d seen that night when people threw rocks at the moving van in Detroit, the same rage that blasted out of the fire hoses in Birmingham.

I learned to ignore the people I worked with and made new friends. My husband was in graduate school at Xavier University, and I was living in a whole new world. In Cincinnati I had black friends, people who I met at jazz clubs and coffeehouses. We had integrated cocktail parties, learned to smoke cigarettes, and had cultivated conversations. I felt far removed from that night of hate in Detroit, and from the racial turmoil in the South. Most of my friends thought we had finally “gotten it right.” We felt sophisticated; we were smug about our new-found racial understanding.

That ended suddenly in 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, and in Cincinnati, unrest blossomed like a flu virus. My husband was on campus the night the tempest broke in Avondale. I was terrified and walked the floor of our small apartment hoping for some word that he was safe.

After that, my interracial friendships were strained for a long time. I was young; I needed to learn how to talk about race—and how to listen. And four decades later, all I know for sure is that the need for those lessons never goes away.

I was living in Over-the-Rhine in 2001 when the killing of a young unarmed black man by a police officer sent the city into turmoil. I watched from my window as the ragged crowds of protestors coalesced and took possession of Main Street, knocking over newsstands and hot dog carts in an early spring rain.

Then-mayor Charlie Luken imposed a city-wide curfew at night, and on Main Street we tried to carry on with normal life during the day. One afternoon I went out to walk my dog and check out my usual haunts, and to get an accounting of my neighbors. I saw the street people who made the front stoops on Main Street their home, and I stopped to speak to one man, an OTR regular who’d had a seizure the day before when he was forced into a police cruiser. When I returned to my building I was astonished to see police and National Guard soldiers marching, armed with Tasers.

It was a beautiful spring day in April, but like that night in Detroit so long ago, I was aware of a stillness, an eerie calm before the storm. I stood motionless, watching the grown-ups around me preparing for battle. It was a startling scene—yet somehow so familiar that it felt like a cliché.

Usually when someone says, “I felt like a child again,” there’s a sense of excitement and hope. But these days, it seems like every time I turn on the television there’s a grim image that takes me back to my childhood. And whether it’s Detroit in the 1950s or Cincinnati in 2001 or Ferguson or Baltimore today, it’s still not a good place to be.

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