Quantcast

At Golden Age Apartments on 36th, San Diego blacks remember segregation

A whole different story if I'd been white

Arthur Curtis: "Segregation was like weather, and you went along with it."
  • Arthur Curtis: "Segregation was like weather, and you went along with it."
  • Image by Paul Stachelek

"I come here I could skip, jump, and hop. No more. Tell you the truth, only since about two weeks I been out of that wheelchair."

Ollie Adair: "When I first lived on Logan, it was nice and then it turned bad. These young boys don't hunt deer and rabbit like we did when we was young, they hunt each other."

Ollie Adair: "When I first lived on Logan, it was nice and then it turned bad. These young boys don't hunt deer and rabbit like we did when we was young, they hunt each other."

Ollie Adair, 74, leans back in a recliner, smooths the bib on his striped overalls, nods toward the wheelchair (sun strikes its metal arms) that scintillates against the bare wall in his living room. Recalling the illness that put him in the wheelchair, Mr. Adair speaks a buttery, spreadable melody. "That thing that happened to me happened so funny. Went to bed one night, woke up, couldn't get out of the bed. I stayed in the hospital three weeks. They had to feed me through the nose.

"I always said when I got in that bad a shape, i wanted to leave here. But," Mr. Adair makes a fist, "I kept fighting."

Born in South Carolina, Mr. Adair served in World War II on Okinawa, after the war moved to Baltimore. "Went," he says, "for the work." Got on with federal civil service as a carpenter. Stayed 43 years. Married, widowed, at last count could boast six great-grandchildren. Retired 14 years ago; two years after retirement, came to San Diego to join his sister. For the past 18 months, he's lived at Golden Age Garden Apartments.

Doris Johnson: "Cosmetics for black women were not as beautiful as they are now."

Doris Johnson: "Cosmetics for black women were not as beautiful as they are now."

"Up on Logan where I was living before here," says Mr. Adair, "there was all that dope. I wanted to get me away from that."

Golden Age Garden Apartments (740 South 36th Street), built in 1983, has 76 apartments on its four floors. Requirements for obtaining an apartment here are that one be an ambulatory senior citizen or disabled person. Average age of residents is 65; ages range from 62 to 90 plus. I had been told that while the complex's population of 76 was not entirely black, it was largely so. I was there because I wished to talk with older black me and women, in part to learn what they remembered about segregation and (if I could muster the courage to ask) how segregation had affected their lives, and in part, simply to visit.

Herman Love: "I used to love to go to the dog track in Tijuana. They were eatin' better than I was, those dogs were."

Herman Love: "I used to love to go to the dog track in Tijuana. They were eatin' better than I was, those dogs were."

Mr. Adair's three-room apartment, similar to other of the complex's apartments —living room and kitchen divided by a counter, a bedroom and bath —offers clues to his interests. Fishing poles lean against the wall; beneath the poles, a metal tackle box sits open. Through the living room's French doors, on the balcony, in clay pots sturdy green plants flourish.

I ask how he spends his days. "Visiting nurse makes my breakfast. I go upstairs and eat my noon meal. Fifteen or twenty of 'em what lives here comes up there to the lunch. That's about the most we be together. The wagon that come around with lunch brings a dinner already prepared, and I put that in the microwave and eat it at night.

Golden Age Garden Apartments. I had been told that while the complex's population of 76 was not entirely black, it was largely so.

Golden Age Garden Apartments. I had been told that while the complex's population of 76 was not entirely black, it was largely so.

"I don't have much visitors. I like to look at The Price Is Right, Discovery, and the National Geographic programs. I get the VFW magazine. But I don't read much of nothin'. Most ever' day if the weather's good i go sit out front by the parking lot and watches people come and go.

"I love to fish. I go out on a boat on the ocean or down on the wharf or to city lakes.

Gussie Howard: "Segregation was never really talked about in our house; we grew up in it, it didn't mean anything, it was simply the way we lived."

Gussie Howard: "Segregation was never really talked about in our house; we grew up in it, it didn't mean anything, it was simply the way we lived."

I don't get lonely. If I don't hear no noise over here or over there," he indicates the apartments on either side of his, "if I don't see either one of 'em what lives there for a couple of days, I start knockin' on doors. 'I haven't seen you,' I say. 'Have you been sick or somethin'?' They say, 'Yeah, I'm all right. I been here.' An' I say, 'Well, I haven't heard you none.' "

Shoulders and arms blocky with muscle built over years of hard work, skin relatively unwrinkled, brown eyes focused and clear, teeth strong and white, from waist up Mr. Adair appears younger than his years. But the overall legs hang loose over his shanks; his hands, knuckles rough with scar tissue, display sporadic tremor.

He frets the overall legs, draws the cloth into folds in his fingers. "I doze sometimes. I get plenty of that.

"When I was young, I always respected elderly persons, but I never thought it would happen to me. But now I thinks most every day, 'When I was such and such an age, I could do this or that, an' now I can't.' You get in my condition, anything you want to do you got to get somebody to do it for you. I never wanted that to happen."

Mr. Adair thinks about his father and feels him with him in the room. "I loved my mother, but I took more to my father because he let me go ever'where he go, ever'where.

"He'd like that microwave oven, yeah. He was self-educated, and he read to me —books about how to manufact' things. He was interested in manufactin'. Told me how one time he made himself a bicycle, made it out of green hickory, and when he got on the bike, by it's being green wood, it collapsed. I laughed about that. Don't know how much I laughed."

Mr. Adair laughs. His laughter's sound vibrates on his wet pink tongue. The laughter grows tangible —chubby —fattens the air. His belly rises and falls.

But then Mr. Adair grows solemn. "Ever'thing he taught me stayed with me."

How long ago did he pass away?

Mr. Adair's belly still as stone, he blinks back tears. "Was 45 years ago."

A dog barks, a car horn honks. From the back yard of a nearby house, chickens cackle. Mr. Adair recounts his father's last fishing trip; he fished all night along a Carolina riverbank, took a chill, was dead before sun went down the next night. Mr. Adair sighs. "Pneumonia took him off."

Golden Age residents for income depend almost entirely upon Social Security. "Most ever' day," says Mr. Adair, he and fellow residents talk about their fears that the government will reduce the size of their checks. "Mr. Roosevelt fixed Social Security so they couldn't tamper with it, but Mr. Bush, he's goin' to do everything he can to bust it up.

"Depression, I was workin' on the highway, drillin' cement dead-walls. That was in 1932, when Social Security come out. Ever'body thought that was awful, pay one cent on the dollar to the Social Security. But I'd say to 'em, 'Yeah, but someday you might need it.' "

By Mr. Adair's 62nd birthday, arthritis made it difficult for him to work. "I had been goin' up and down stepladders, and I got so I couldn't do that, so they made me retire.

"Then somethin' happened that kinda gets to me. When I went to Social Security, they said I was going to get $167 a month. I asked the lady, 'What do they expect me to do with $167?' An' she told me, 'We're not askin' you to live on it, we're jus' givin' you that to help you.'

"I said, 'Well, you don't need me now but you needed me then.' She walked on away, didn't say nothin'.

"Oh that hurt me. White lady. 'We're not askin' you to live on it, we're jus' givin' you that to help you.'

"An' I paid into it for years. Years."

Did he remember much about segregation? "Oh my goodness, yes. I was raised in the heart of segregation. Never approved of it, always hated it. I was fortunate enough to go to school, and I learned to read and write, and I guess it grew on me from that, that I learned about segregation.

"It used to make me sick."

What did his father tell him about white people, about segregation?

"Well, one thing he told me, 'Always remember, it wouldn't be like that always. Things would be different.' "

Are things different?

"Yes and no. Seems like sometime that civil rights, it do good and it also do bad. Like they started getting somewhere with it and then after they got a little leeway on it, they forgot about it. The government just let it go."

Statistics show black males make up six percent of total United States population and constitute 46 percent of state and federal prison population. What did Mr. Adair think was the reason?

"Look at it this way," he says, tone gruff, "I don't try to come in your house and take over your house and rule it and make you live under my demands. That's one of the biggest things right now that really troubles people. Some people, they won't stand for it. They'd rather die than live under somebody else's demands.

"So some of it is because people think they should do it. Like Nelson Mandela."

He looks to his lap, rubs his hands. "Some of it is for stupid reasons, of course. They don't cherish nothing now. I look at the TV the other night, they show gangs showin' off diamon' rings and necklaces made out of gold and shoes all pumped up to where they be women's high heels. Kids kill to wear stuff like that.

"I was coming up, you walked miles if you had something that belong to somebody else. Never no more. Now they kill you and take it away from you.

"When I first lived on Logan, it was nice and then it turned bad. I lived right on the corner, and the cars would zoom on by, and I was always surprised they didn't run right into my house. Dope peddlers, right next door there was a regular drug traffic, and it was youngsters buying.

"These young boys don't hunt deer and rabbit like we did when we was young, they hunt each other.

"It goes right back to that dope. They do all that stuff to get at dope. To be on that dope. It really got the upper hand of the world, I'd say."

When Mr. Adair was a teenager, did he know people who used drugs? Mr. Adair shakes his head, laughs, then his grin fades. He speaks sharply. "No, I never knew anyone took drugs. No."

Doris Johnson, 65, five feet tall and under 100 pounds (a girl's body), wears a green T-shirt emblazoned with THE SANDS and black stretch pants. She proffers a cool, dry, soft hand, brings me into her apartment, fragrant with flowery perfume and fresh coffee, which brews in a Mr. Coffee on the counter. Still holding my hand in hers (me towering over her and clumsy), she takes me through the rooms (laid out identically to those in Mr. Adair's apartment —living room and kitchen divided by a counter, a bedroom and bath).

First a quick glance at the living room, at the pretty peach-colored couch plumped with pillows, the coffee table spread with Ebony and Prevention. At the room's far end, a shelf holds framed photographs of Mrs. Johnson's two grown daughters and son and her son's boys, who are, she says, now 23 and 18. Beyond the living room the balcony looks out over a schoolyard from which rise excited recess cries. Then we stand at the door to the pink bathroom (counters lined with cosmetics). "Back when I was only starting out in life," says Mrs. Johnson, "cosmetics for black women were not as beautiful as they are now. There was about only nut-brown powder and lipsticks. Now we have many different shades of foundations and lotions that are good for our skins. Today, everything is modern."

Last, Mrs. Johnson opens the door into her bedroom. Stuffed animals loll on her bed; the bedroom could be a teenage girl's. She lets my hand fall from hers, reaches down to a plush bear fallen onto his side, pulls him upright by his stubby paw. "I love 'em," she says.

We sit at her kitchen table, table-top tidily arranged with knickknacks and medicine bottles. Born in East St. Louis, Illinois, Mrs. Johnson married, had three children, divorced, worked as a retail clerk in St. Louis, Missouri, came to California in 1972 to join her older daughter. "This is the first state I've ever been to that people are cool, they don't seem to have that warm feeling. I'm warm all over. It could be their growing up in California. It's cool.

"I get along, it don't bother me, but I had to get adjusted to it."

Before Mrs. Johnson's feet gave out on her and she had several operations, she worked at Children's Hospital. In 1988, Doris moved to Golden Age. Her mother also lives in a Golden Age apartment. She doesn't live with her daughters or her mother "because, basically, I like doing things my way, and when you're living with someone else, even if it's family, you have a conflict sometimes." She adds, "I am a funny person. There are things that I like in my way.

"No matter how bad I'm feeling, I get up and take my bath, put on my makeup, and do my hair like I did when I was going out to work. Then I drink my coffee, smoke my cigarette, maybe look at television news, read some of the newspaper."

Now that she's 65, if she were 20 again, what advice would she give herself? "Don't get married. When I got married, I was in love. Everyone has a first love. When things start happening, you don't understand. 'Why me?' So it didn't work out, and there I was left with my children, and I said to him, 'Okay, you go your way.' "

Mrs. Johnson sat her three children down, explained that off and on, money would be scarce. " 'Some days,' I told them, 'you are going to have, some days you are not going to have, so you got to learn to let the two —having and not having —mingle.' "

Mrs. Johnson pours more coffee. Steam rises between us. "To get married again, that's one thing I don't think I would do. I never had anyone to love me like I loved them.

"I think my children's father loved me. You can love someone, but if you're weak, that's not love. You have to give, and you have to have trust and faith and understanding." As Mrs. Johnson describes the marriage, it becomes clear that her husband had an eye for other women, a cheating heart. "When you start going that way, you can't sit up on each other all the time.

"Tina Turner and Ike, I wonder about Tina. How did she stay with that man Ike? I could not have done it. She had enough finally with him, and now look what she has accomplished by herself! That song, 'What's Love Got to Do With It?' I like that song."

Had she taken up the profession of her choice, she would have been a dancer. Even with her bad feet, she dances. "I used to be quite a swinger. Back there then, I loved to dance. I liked Count Basie. I adored him. Cab Calloway. Pearl Bailey. Count Basie was my favorite."

I ask Mrs. Johnson about segregation. "In East St. Louis, I was too young to know the difference. We would go into the store; we would go downtown. I did go to North Carolina and to Virginia where my son was, and we couldn't sit here and couldn't sit there. I didn't have to go through that. I grew up real good.

"I've never been politically inclined. I read it, I hear it. I see it. Whatever they were doing in the '60s with the civil rights movements, it brought advances to the black person. We got into movies more, got into better job positions.

"It didn't do all that much for me. I worked. I was changing my own life.

"It's going to get better, maybe."

Mrs. Johnson pauses. Perhaps, she says, she is somewhat political. When she goes out on the streets, she sees so many poor people, so many beggars. "One of the problems we have in this country is that the folks that get into the White House, they born with a rich bone in their mouth. They don't know what it's like out here."

What was she going to do that day? "Absolutely nothing. There was a time I had to go to work, and now I don't so I am going to enjoy it."

When I arrive at Arthur Curtis's ground-level apartment, Mr. Curtis invites me in, explains he's chatting with his son in Florida. He clears newspapers to make a spot on the brown sofa that runs the length of his living room. While he paces between kitchen and living room and talks, I study him: six-feet plus, blue polo shirt pulling across broad shoulders, broad back. Gray flecks Mr. Curtis's black hair, narrow mustache. His hairline has receded, his forehead is wide, and as he talks (full lips pressed against the mouthpiece), his eyebrows rise and fall, pleat and unpleat his wide, dark-skinned forehead.

Phone back in cradle, Mr. Curtis sits down on a chair next to his dining table (like all residents' tables, arrayed with medicine bottles), stretches out his legs before him. He was born in 1934 in Birmingham, Alabama, and reared there. "My father worked in the coal mines 40 years. I used to see him come home in the evening. That showed me. No workin' in the coal mine for me.

"My parents taught me as much as they could, but they didn't know all that much. They were good people. They did what had to be done. They never shirked work."

Eighteen, Mr. Curtis enlisted in the military, served in the Korean conflict, stayed in six years. He came out of the service, moved to Jacksonville, Florida. "It wasn't easy to get good work. I had run-of-the-mill jobs, tore houses down, moved houses, laid pipe.

"Sixty-two, working construction, I got a back injury. Bein' in the South, it was kind of rough to come off. I was a younger man, and they were saying that I should be able to survive. The doctors, 'As healthy as you look,' they'd tell me, 'you could carry a truck.' I carried that pain from that back all the way through, and I kept working.

"I was basically a pipelayer up until 1970 when my boss, a white guy, came up to me and asked, 'You ever get tired of laying pipe?' I said, 'You bet. I hates this thing.' He said, 'How would you like to run that plant?'

"He was referring to this new sewage plant we had been building. I didn't know anything about doing this. He said, 'Take off the day and learn about it.' I got started, and in about three months the new plant was completed, and my boss said, 'Now, you run it, you operate it, the only people you answer to is the state of Florida and me.'

"And that is the way I came into a professional occupation. At that time I earned about $250 a week. I had moved out of what they called a common laborer.

"This was where I was until I started getting sick in 1982. I wasn't even 50 yet. I was 48. What it was was that I'd had a heart attack without anybody knowing it. The doctors, they should have picked that up. But they didn't. The more I went to the doctor, the more my boss was sayin' to me, 'You're duckin' work.'

"I dealt with that from 1982 up until 1985. I had a wife, a son, and my wife, who has a job as a cook with the Jacksonville school system, was trying to continue to carry on. My son, he was rebellious, running around with his crowd, and I had a rough time. Rough."

Mr. Curtis went to Social Security to apply for early retirement benefits. "I was told I would be dealing with hostile doctors because the word had come down from Mr. Reagan, 'No new assistance.'

"I had went to work when I was 15 —hauled garbage at night and went to school all day. I remember this good. I remember my first paycheck; they took ten dollars for the Social Security, and this went on all down through life, and when I needed somebody it was like the system had went crazy.

"I suffered through all of that. I suffered.

"Anything in the world for you she could do, my wife would do. I didn't want to keep continually putting her through this. So I left Florida, where she still lives, and came here in October '88 and moved in with my sister.

"By the last of '88 and all through '89, I really felt defeated. Even here in San Diego I had such a tough time with doctors, but at least here they did take the tests and really go over me and find that I did have a bad heart, and then they went to really getting to work on me.

"I got on general relief. They was tryin' to rehabilitate me, and they were sending me to Goodwill, workin' for 25 cents an hour.

"It is awful, that rehabilitation, and if you don't think so, go out here on Home Avenue and get yourself rehabilitated.

"All that I went through, I came through the South, I went to Korea, I went to Japan twice, nothin' was as hurtin' as this last two years was.

"Finally, the psychiatrist talked to me, and he said, 'You know, you got to think about living today.' But how could you do that when the same thing that happened yesterday happened today? That was something I couldn't understand. I still don't.

"Two or three times I stood up on the bridge and looked down there, but I didn't go off. Anytime I would attempt something like that, my wife and child would be there. Appear to me in my mind somehow.

"I always was a battler. But from '82 to '89, I really caught the devil, I really did. That was the time I needed help from the system, and I didn't get it."

October 1989, Social Security declared Mr. Curtis 100 percent disabled and no longer able to work. He thus became qualified to receive Social Security. "So everything has turned out all right. This apartment I've got here, I'm as happy in it as I would be in a $100,000 home.

"It would have been easier to work with Social Security if I'd been white. I know a white fellow, it took so long for me to get on a hundred percent disability and him only eight months to get put up on the same thing. I think especially in Jacksonville it would have been a whole different story if I'd been white."

Segregation? What did he remember?

"My aunt was raisin' a couple of white boys, and we could go over there, but we had to go to the back door. And it began to sink into me. I was six or seven years old.

"You hear 'nigger' and you really don't know what it means, and gradually when we got bigger, we began to see it would always be something we couldn't do. We couldn't cross this line an' that line. And dark come, and you better not be in this area, that area.

"Segregation was like weather, and you went along with it, and you never thought about it until your civil rights movement got started. Even in school, we got the hand-me-down books from white schools, and while we didn't want this, it was a way of life, and we went along with it.

"It was the military that really brought segregation to my attention. War. I was old enough to die for the country, but I wasn't old enough to have equal rights. It sunk in then.

"I was in basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, and there was a race riot in Cicero, Illinois. We were moved in as a peace-keeping force. That's when I think I realized what this separation of races really meant. There were some very heavy-handed tactics used. There were people slaughtered, black and white. I have never forgotten that, not to this day.

"If I had to do it now, I would throw down my gun and walk away.

"I was overseas in Korea. That place over there will teach you a little somethin'! We had a black company with a white commanding officer. We were sitting around there in Korea one day listening to a speech by President Truman. He was sayin' there had to be a change in the military. Everything stopped in the whole place then. There began to be infighting between black and white, words were passed.

"We had a rough time in the military, real rough. Fort Jackson, rough on black people. Fort Benning, rough on black people.

"I think gradually it has changed, but it have not changed enough. Another hundred years if we be surviving, it might change.

"Every day I walk out there, I meet prejudice. I hear a man tell me, 'I'm not prejudice,' that man is lying. We all have prejudice. I do.

"I worked in this country all my life. And I really couldn't get help when I needed it. I look at the Mexicans, they can come over, they don't have to pay taxes, they can get everything they want. Same with the Vietnamese. This is not fair. This is a lot of the stirring up of the hatreds now. It is not so much against the races as it is the way people are being able to get the kind of help that native citizens can't seem to get.

"We're worried about Communism. I have lived with both of them —Communism and capitalism —by being overseas and by being in this country. What's the difference? The only thing is that Communist people don't have rich people like we do in this country. I can't see any difference. Over there in that country, they have what they call totalitarian governments; we have almost the same thing here.

"I think we are going through something like social revolution. I don't think the races or the situation among races have much to do with that.

"Drugs started out as the rich man's plaything, and how did they get down to us, the poor people? Can somebody tell me that? I think it is genocide. Genocide can be performed with drugs as well as it can by extinguishing a person. I believe that.

"Why? It's greed. I think the greed in this country has pretty well turned it around. It can be brought back, but it will have to go through some serious things."

When I ask Mr. Curtis who among the famous he has admired, he says, "As strange as this may sound, I kinda have a real hero, this young man that was in World War II, and his name is James Ellis Berry, one of the first blacks killed in Pearl Harbor. I think about him for the simple reason he was one of our trailblazers. At one time the black man in the Navy was cooks and stewards, but he was in the forefront of this.

"Mr. King, I think about him. Malcolm X, he didn't come off with me, because to me bein' radical is not going to change things, and I think he was a racial person.

"Even Mr. Lyndon Johnson was a man to be looked up to, but we need to remember that the era had something to with this. Like Mr. Lincoln, there was no more of a bigot in the world than Lincoln was, but we were at that time when these changes came and he had to go along. And who gets credit for freeing slaves? Lincoln.

"I feel the same way about the Kennedys. I don't feel it's so much that they believed in equality among the races but that history pulled them along."

Coming as Mr. Curtis did from Alabama, I wondered what he thought of former Alabama governor and ardent segregationist George Wallace. He said he thought his answer might surprise me because he didn't regard Wallace as all that bad for the black race. "My aunt worked for the Wallace family, and she used to tell, 'Mr. Wallace is putting on a show. He doesn't really hate the Negro. But he has to act as if he does to get elected.' I think now, he had to do this, put on a show. It was something that had to be done, he had no choice."

Mr. Curtis spoke of the assassination attempt on Wallace, which left the governor wheelchair-bound and dependent upon a black servant to dress and undress him, help in in and out of the bathroom. "I feel sorry for him in that one way because he can't help himself because he's hurt. And I think to myself now out of all that George Wallace has did, still a black man has to take care of him today.

"Wallace, he was helping blacks, but he didn't realize this. He got history to get on more quicker, happen faster, the more he did against us, his taking against us. History shows, everything good has never been easy."

Mr. Adair, I say, spoke of Nelson Mandela as his hero. Mr. Curtis —clearly vexed —interrupts. "Mandela isn't a hero to me. Ever'body equates us —black Americans —with Africa people, but I don't equate myself with those people because I don't know anything about them. My people, the Alabama people, was Blackfoot Indians, and our grandfathers came from the Portuguese islands. For me to trace my heritage to Africa would be to talk foolishness.

"When I listen to Mandela, he is only another man talking. What I'm looking at when I look at South Africa is oppressed people, and I seen the same thing happening here, and it is happening here every day. So none of that has any special meaning for me."

How did Mr. Curtis think his life would have been differed had he been born Caucasian?

"I think about that sometime, and I throw it out of mind. It is too painful. Because you start wonderin' at it and it don't do anything but get you upset.

"Why should he be able to have everything like that, be able to control me. I don't think no man should be able to control no man like that.

"I never really wanted to change places with him because I think the white man was ruthless. That might be a harsh word, but I think he was, and, is, ruthless.

"I've had some hard things with him."

I wince.

Mr. Curtis asks, "But would you believe this when I tell you, 'I don't hate him?' "

I nod, yes. Mr. Curtis studies me, then continues.

"It can come back to me now, what happened back then, it can come back, I came up with it. Alabama is one of the roughest states that ever were, but it's in to treat you right if you treat me fair. I don't believe anymore in dirt for dirt. I used to. The years changed that.

"I hate some things have been done to me, but I don't hate white people. I think this thing between whites and blacks, it is a misunderstanding more than anything else. It's not that the white man has always taken me as his enemy, and I am not his enemy.

"White man created us himself. White man taught me what I know. But what happened is this: when I wanted to be freer, this is when the problem start. As long as he has me under his feet, everything from his point of view was going along okay, but when I started to try to kick out from under there, I became to the white man a troublesome thing, so to speak.

"I think if we had equality, we'd be as well thought of as anyone else. Until we do, they are always going to have this problem."

How does Mr. Curtis envision his life in the next few years? "Well, my son was grown when I left Florida and gone from home. So, he's taken care of himself now. I've been back there to see my wife three different times since October 1988. I hope to get her out here this year.

"If my wife come out, she will fit into the apartment here. It's one bedroom, but you can only sleep in one bed at a time. She's been cooking for the school now for 27 years, and she has 3 years until she retires. If she want to come here, she is welcome. I got feelings for her. I'm not a blank wall as far as she is concerned.

My problem now is just stayin' healthy."

I am late when I arrive in the third-floor hallway and knock on Mrs. Gussie Howard's door. I apologize to the petite, gray-haired Mrs. Howard, explain I became so engrossed by what Mr. Curtis had to say I lost track of time. She understand, she says, drawing me into her apartment (gaily decorated with bongo drums and bright paintings). Mr. Curtis, she notes, has had a hard time of it. While we settle at her kitchen table, she tells me she also grew up in Birmingham, and she and Mr. Curtis graduated from the same high school.

Mrs. Howard, after high school, became a nurse, married, moved with her husband to Oakland, California. The Howards both worked. They didn't have children. There was money for modest travel. They brought home the bongos, says Mrs. Howard, from a trip to Ensenada. In 1971 when Mrs. Howard was 62, her husband turned to her and said, "We haven't made it so we won't make it now, so why don't you stop working, you've worked too long."

"I took him up on it. I quit my job. And then my husband wanted to move here because he was getting kind of ailing and he liked a warm climate. Here, I worked in a convalescent hospital. I worked catering. I love that catering work. If I was able, I would do that now.

"Mr. Howard passed away 8 years ago. We were married for 45 years, and had a real good time together. I really miss him.

"At one time I thought I might want a relationship with someone. But I'm too busy."

The telephone rings. Mrs. Howard excuses herself, chats a moment about a dinner party she will attend that evening. No sooner has she hung up than a knock sounds. Her next-door neighbor comes by to say hello, then seeing Mrs. Howard with company, excuses himself, leaves.

I ask what she remembers about segregation.

"In Birmingham, we had one high school for all blacks. There were plenty of other high schools, but of course, you couldn't go to any of them. I think now they can go to any of those schools.

"Of course, everything was segregated. It was never really talked about in our house; we grew up in it, it didn't mean anything, it was simply the way we lived.

"My father worked for the city, for the fire department, but he was only a custodian. His supervisor, who was fire chief, and his wife would come out to our house. My mother was a beautiful cook, and about once every six weeks or so, Chief Taylor and his wife would come out and my dad would work on the corns on his feet. They would have dinner with us. Whatever day they'd come, my mother would fix a nice dinner and they would sit right at our table and eat with us, and we had a piano and Chief Taylor's wife would play piano and we'd sing.

"So far as public life, we had it. The fountains were marked, black and white. Restrooms. And they wouldn't serve you at the same counter in a restaurant. But we had so many restaurants in a big city like Birmingham, so we didn't miss out on anything.

"I think we always wished it wasn't that way. There was a Syrian grocery store in our neighborhood, an Italian store. And their kids played with us. But they were all foreign. They weren't American people.

"We were all exposed to whites, but we didn't go to school together. They didn't treat us like we were dirt or anything. My father working in the fire department. He was the only black in there; of course, he was a custodian. They didn't have any black firemen then. He made a good living. He bought a home. Sent us to school.

"Our mother never talked about it. She told us coming up, both our grandparents on her side were slaves, she told us about that. I don't know whether we were proud of that heritage; we may have been. I don't remember being angry.

"My grandmother was very fair; in fact, we thought she looked like a little white lady. My mother said we were very concerned when we got a certain age why grandmother looked like that. Mother said it was hard to explain to us why our grandma wasn't brown like we were. Grandpa was brown-complected. He was half-African and half-Indian. There was a lot of Indian blood on both sides of the family. We really didn't have no anger from it. Some people said they had anger when they found why they were mixed up, but I never thought of it in that fashion.

"When I go back to Alabama now, changes are so drastic until it's hard to believe, but everybody seems to be accepting it. I think people in a sense are getting along better there than they are here. It is really something to see, and I never thought I'd live to see it."

I mention that Doris Johnson felt San Diego "not warm" for blacks. Mrs. Howard admits agreement. "I think people are cold and not willing to accept life like it is. I have met some lovely people; don't get me wrong. There are a lot of educated people here, people in the know, but there's something that isn't together."

At her door, Mrs. Howard says, "This is good living here, at Golden Age. We're like a big family, and everybody looks after everybody. This is one of the best things, moving here, that's happened to me in my retirement.

Mr. Herman Love sits under pale afternoon sun in his wheelchair in front of the apartments. June 1988, he suffered a stroke, leaving him partially paralyzed on the left side; his left hand is strapped to the chair's arm.

"I'd been layin' down and fell asleep, so I figured I'd better come out here. It's a beautiful day. Ain't no cloud in the way. I don't care what day or night go by, it's stormin' an' rainin' somewhere in this big world. And no matter what the weather is, it's nice to be alive. Ain't it the truth?"

Seventy-two, born in Forrest, Arkansas, lived there 35 years, has lived in San Diego for 37 ears. Before he retired he worked at a gas station.

"When I was in the hospital and I first got my stroke, I was happy like I am now. Believe me, I was. So the nurses, a lot of 'em would ask me, 'Mr. Love, how can you be so happy and you got a stroke and the rest of the guys here with their head down like they mad at the world?' I'd say, 'I got a whole lot to be thankful for, I know where I'm at.'

"Some of 'em what had strokes didn't know where they was. The jus' sittin' there. So, I accept it. I still believe I can walk again. I go to therapy two days ever' week. I put on my own clothes, take my own shower. Social Security give me one of those little chair, sit in the bathtub, take you a bath. That's real nice. One night last week I sat up until two o'clock lookin' at TV, and then I took me a shower and went right to sleep."

Another resident, tall and reed thin, dark shirt billowing out over natty plaid trousers, paces back and forth near Mr. Love. Before he retired, this gentleman says, he worked as a tailor and as a musician. Instruments were guitar and bass violin. Was in a band. Traveled all over. "Played jazz and blues," he says, "sentimental music. I don't play anymore, naw."

Mr. Love laughs raspily. "He couldn't play mumblety-peg now."

His friend bows his narrow shoulders, mirthlessly agrees. "I'se too old to play."

How long, I asked, had it been since he last played?

Mr. Love, still laughing, says, "He cain't remember that far back."

His friend straightens the crease in his trousers. "It’s been quite a while since I played. Quite a while."

Mr. Love looks from his friend to me, says, "I couldn't play no kind of music if I worked day and night. I used to buy a harp ever' week and I couldn't choke it. I wasn't cut out for no kind of music." Mr. Love's friend turns, walks slowly toward the building's entrance.

Mr. Love shifts in his chair, watches his friend leave, sighs. "I used to love to go to the dog track in Tijuana. I hadn't been in three or four years. They were eatin' better than I was, those dogs were. I'd by layin' up in the house in bed, 40 dollars in my pocket, and I'd get up and go to the track and come back empty. It was bad. I would get back home and couldn't sleep. I'd turn and turn over and over in the bed. Finally, I said, 'I got more sense than that.' Now if I go to bed with 40 dollars in my pocket, I wake up with it too.

"Before I'd get up with nothin'."

We watch cars pull in, people get out, walk toward the building's entrance. We listen to the chickens next door, to the hens cackle and the rooster crow.

"I always, up to the day I got the stroke," Mr. Love finally says, "used to go to nice places like the Sizzler. I'd go with a girlfriend."

Mr. Love looks out into the parking lot, his eyes strain across the asphalt. He engages my glance. "One Sunday I went to the Chart House near Oceanside. You sit there and look at that pretty water ripplin'. I had two ladies with me. That dinner that day was 41 dollar. But we had some margaritas — we had two before eatin' and two after eatin'. I was sittin' down and I was fine. I started to get up and I was dizzy.

"I hadn't been anywhere since I had the stroke."

A van with a church's name stenciled on its side pulls into the lot, prompting Mr. Love to remark that none of his church people visit him. "My church right down the hill. Preacher haven't called since I been here. When I was up on my feet, I kept that whole church goin', and then when I got down, that was it.

"It used to make me mad, but nor reason gettin' mad. Somethin' is going' to happen to all of 'em. Is nobody gonna live here on earth that somethin' idn't gonna catch you before you die?

"I went 72 years before it caught me."

I ask about segregation.

"Back in prejudice days, you couldn't go certain places, for sure. But when I was still living in Arkansas, I never had no problems. Ever'body likin' me there like they do here, in Arkansas.

"There was a young white boy in Arkansas, and me and him was real good friends. I could get anything I want from him. Him and his daddy was sittin' one day talkin' to me, and they said that they be crazy about colored people but if they catered to them, other white folks would call 'em nigger lovers, so that was why they had to act like they did to me when they got around people.

"I used to have a white man to come here to visit. Me and him would sit inside in there talkin', and he'd tell me, 'Mr. Love, my race of people is scared of the black man.' I tell him, 'I know so. Because when I was back in Arkansas, if I do somethin', there'd be 25 or 30 of 'em comin' after 1 man.'

"Civil rights helped a lot. Then next thing was when Negroes decided they weren't going to be treated like dogs anymore. They were going to fight back. That help broke it up.

"We didn't used to have no law on our side. Now you got law and a little rights. It ain't like it ought to be, but Negroes fight back now, so that makes the difference.

"It has changed a lot down South. They are as good now as they were bad. Here, it seem as prejudice to me in some ways. There are still some places now in the world where they don't want you around."

I ask how he believed his life would have been different had he been born a white man.

"I can't think about it. It burns down my mind."

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader

Comments

Log in to comment

Skip Ad