Small World: Thinking about race

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

I sniff the breeze to learn what topics are ruffling thinkers this week. One is strong and apt to be sustained for a fair time: the killing of Treyvon Martin by George Zimmerman and the not guilty verdict that the jury pronounced.

Two factors receive the most attention: the legal elements of the case and racism (Martin was African-American; Zimmerman is a white Hispanic.) I’ll skip over the legalisms, not being a lawyer, and concentrate on the race factor, having grown up in the South before desegregation.

Our house was one block from the jagged line that separated white and black neighborhoods in my city. Few on either side crossed that line. We never saw blacks, who lived just down the street unless they had urgent business — catch a bus, do a job — on our side.

The first blacks I came to know were the maids, whom my mother hired to look after my brother and me. I remember Suzie and Lily, coal black skin and starched white dresses. We weren’t rich, so they can’t have been paid very much. They took us to the nearby playground and chatted with the other maids while we fooled around with our friends. Before too long, they were no longer needed.

There followed a period without almost any contact with the other race — certainly not in schools (through university), the public library or the shops we frequented. Theirs was a separate, distant world. One of the few visitors from that world were Ike and Phibbi Higgins, who had long worked in the kitchen and yard for my father. Ike was pretty old and feeble, but he still sometimes walked in from Tatunville to do some raking or such and earn a little cash. In later years, my father would drive out and deliver old clothes, food or cash to their house, a ramshackle structure patched and fenced by rusted pieces of sheet metal.

These were the days of street vendors. Elenora Battist walked to us with a basket on her head full of fresh crabs and shrimp. Johnny pushed his cart with fresh vegetables he had bought at the city market downtown. And twice a day, seven days a week, Mr. Law — we learned his name later — delivered our mail. He would rest on the front steps and my mother would give him a glass of ice water.

I left out Percy and Irene who were the janitor and maid who maintained 38th Street School. They kept mainly to themselves, but Percy was always helpful when I, as the film projectionist, had heavy lifting. Then, during the summer when I was at junior college, I worked in the Westinghouse wholesale warehouse. I was the bottom man in the three-man operation and knew nothing of moving refrigerators or handling steel conduit heated by the hot sun. Oscar, the black employee, was my instructor and, often, the one who did the work. Always to the point, sympathetic and never condescending, he saved me and my 75 cents an hour.

A later summer, I worked shifts in the paper mill for higher pay. Most jobs were for whites; some dirtier ones for blacks. I still recall the night a black worker fell in the lime pit, a seething slurry used to bleach pine wood. He suffered horribly, without a chance of surviving. I looked in vain for a report in the Morning News.

One final episode: My father, a Republican in a deeply conservative region, was regularly called to the grand jury. He always asked for assignment to the education committee and one year, maybe in the late forties, he was chairman. He made a point of visiting the “separate but equal” colored schools and found them terribly wanting. They were dilapidated structures, had inadequate books and materials, and on and on. His report somehow was published in the Morning News. There was no reaction or remediation.

Mr. Law later retired from the postal service and became chairman of the local NAACP and agitated for his community. I often wondered after I moved away what he and his silent, invisible people thought about during those days of virtually complete segregation. There must have been an anger building up that we now see bursting out when there is a case like Treyvon Martin’s.

Affirmative action and voting rights are efforts to atone for those decades of abuse and neglect. Inadequate efforts, I would say.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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