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Civil Rights JourneyThe Story of a White Southerner Coming of Age during the Civil Rights Revolution
By Joseph Howell
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2011 Joseph Howell
All right reserved.
Part I: Growing Up White in the South during the Last Decades of Jim Crow, 1942–1966....................1
Chapter One: What's Wrong with This Picture?....................3
Chapter Two: Polio Kid....................9
Chapter Three: Separate and Unequal....................20
Chapter Four: Down but Not Out....................25
Chapter Five: Change Begins....................34
Chapter Six: College Years....................40
Chapter Seven: The Movement Picks Up Steam....................48
Chapter Eight: Marching in Charlotte....................57
Chapter Nine: Off to New York City....................73
Part II: Civil Rights Diary with Embry Howell....................87
Diary of Joe Howell: Summer 1966....................89
Part III: Aftermath, 1966–1968....................157
Chapter Ten: Back to New York....................159
Chapter Eleven: The Southwest Georgia Project....................167
Chapter Twelve: 1968....................171
What's Wrong with This Picture?
You might say I peaked early. At age five I was the King of the Mardi Gras. The event took place at a prestigious hotel in downtown Nashville. I put on a king's crown of red velvet and white pearls, wore a white, laced outfit, and paraded down the center aisle of a large auditorium, packed with anxious onlookers, holding the hand of my queen, Patsy Gardner, also age five. My mother was nervous and preoccupied with getting my costume just right. Someone helped her put makeup and lipstick on me, much to my embarrassment. Other children our age were dressed as court attendants, guards, and ladies-in-waiting. It was dark going down the aisle. There were spotlights shining in our faces and lots of flashes from cameras held by professional photographers. The next day my photo appeared in the society pages of the Nashville Banner, the town's conservative newspaper.
I had arrived. I was part of Nashville society.
I have no idea what the Mardi Gras was all about or why I was the king, but it tells you a lot about the Nashville I grew up in. People in the part of town where my family lived—Belle Meade—seemed to enjoy privilege and entitlement. Some of the homes were mansions. Country clubs were important, as were various charity events sponsored by the Junior League and other well-intentioned organizations. I presume the Mardi Gras festival that I presided over was a fundraiser for some worthy cause. Everyone I knew lived in a big house, and practically everyone I knew had a black maid who prepared meals of fresh biscuits, fried chicken, and collard greens and cleaned the house. Husbands went to work every day in downtown Nashville, and wives stayed home to oversee the property and be sure the children got the proper upbringing. Birthday parties for children were often elaborate. There was a distinction between old money and new money. People with new money often lived in the big mansions, but the old money was the good money. My father was a banker, as was my grandfather. In those days bankers did not make the kinds of salaries they do today, so while we lived comfortably, we lived fairly modestly—in an average house in a nice neighborhood, no fancy cars and no extravagant vacations. But the money we did have seemed to be mainly old money, and that was good. There were four of us—my father, mother, me, and my little brother, five years younger than me.
It is true that Nashville was already home to the Grand Ole Opry, but few people of my parents' generation had ever attended the Opry, and many would rather not be seen rubbing shoulders with "rednecks," as country music fans were often called. That all changed years later as country music became one of the engines of the Nashville economy; but in those days, living in Belle Meade you were only vaguely aware of its existence. Nashville was not Music City. Nashville was "the Athens of the South," with excellent universities such as Vanderbilt and Fisk and six or seven others and with the only full-size replica of the Parthenon in the world. It was a city of culture and enlightenment, horses and steeplechases, cocktail parties on verandas overlooking luxuriant gardens with black waiters in white jackets serving scotch and sodas on silver trays. It was debutante parties, golf at country clubs, high school football games on Friday nights, and church on Sunday. It was green hills and sparkling rivers only minutes away from fine neighborhoods. It was, I thought then and still think now, one of the most beautiful places on earth.
I did not understand what being part of Nashville society meant at the time, but what I did clearly understand at age five was that my being King of the Mardi Gras was something special. Maybe I was entitled. After all, my grandfather had been the president of a Nashville bank, and my father was an up-and-coming banker (and eventually became a bank president himself). My parents were pillars of the community. They both belonged to various social organizations and were active in Christ Episcopal Church downtown, which was known for producing bishops. My father was the adult leader of my Cub Scout troop, senior warden of the church (the highest position for a layperson), and president of the country club. He coached neighborhood baseball and took me fly fishing as soon as I was old enough to hold a rod. My mother was head of the Women of the Episcopal Church, not just of Nashville but of the whole state. And she was always there when I needed her. I also had several neighborhood friends and was part of what we called a neighborhood gang. Life was good.
So what was wrong with this picture?
Well, at that time in my life, not very much, though there were some unanswered questions and hints that all was not perfect.
* * *
My best friend in Nashville about the time I was King of the Mardi Gras was Frederick. Frederick was almost exactly my age, and my mother would arrange for him to come to my grandmother's house, where we played together regularly. He was lots of fun to be with, had lots of energy, and loved to climb trees and play behind my grandmother's spooky garage. We played cowboys and Indians, hide and seek, and a number of make-believe games. Frederick's father, Alfred, worked at the train yard in the heart of downtown Nashville, and occasionally he would allow Frederick and me to meet him there where he would hoist us up into the cab of a giant locomotive and let us pretend we were driving it.
Then one day, not long after my Mardi Gras debut, my mother told me that Frederick would not be playing with me anymore. I could not believe it. He was my best friend. What had I done wrong? What had he done wrong? There must be some explanation.
"Well," she said, "you didn't do anything wrong, and he didn't do anything wrong. It is just after a certain age colored boys and white boys don't play together anymore."
Frederick, colored? I thought about it for a minute and then realized that, yes, I guess he was colored. It had never really occurred to me. Frederick's father was the nephew of Emma, our cook and housekeeper. They all were colored.
When I asked my mother why colored boys and white boys couldn't play together after a certain age, she blushed and had a strained look on her face. "That is just the way it is, and someday you will understand." I never saw Frederick again.
I did not grow up in a racist household, and my guess is that there were many families in Nashville like mine. The only time I heard the N word used in my home was when a neighborhood friend of mine said something about "those Niggers in East Nashville." My mother glared at him for a moment and then said, "Young man, you will never use that word in our home or in our yard again ever. Ever. Do you understand?"
The term "Nigra," however, was used occasionally by respectable white persons in Belle Meade and was in those days explained as the white southern pronunciation of "Negro." But in our house we didn't talk about "Nigras." African Americans were simply "colored."
To say that my parents were not racists is not to deny that they were participants in institutional racism. Almost everyone—that is, everyone white—was a participant in institutional racism in those days in the South. In the 1950s there was no choice. Even in a progressive border state like Tennessee, Jim Crow ruled the land. Jim Crow laws were the local and state laws passed after Reconstruction. They required the legal separation of whites and African Americans in just about every aspect of life—schools, lunch counters, restrooms, public transportation, movie theaters, sports events—almost everything.
Not only did practically everyone in Belle Meade—and just about everywhere else in the South, for that matter—accept this as a fact of life, it gave cover to outright acts of racism. Maybe you did not hear the N word that much in respectable Nashville households, but you surely heard it on the school playgrounds and in the streets. Even some of my friends talked about "how stupid Niggers were," "how all Niggers smelled bad," "how jigaboos were idiots," and similar language. Even at a young age I smarted at such talk. I knew it was wrong because it did not reflect my experience and because my parents would never permit it.
The colored people I knew were almost like family. I loved Emma, the plump black woman with the kind smile who prepared my lunch, looked after me when my mom was not around, and made the best biscuits in the world. And I loved her great nephew, Frederick, my best friend. My parents always spoke kindly and respectfully of Emma and her nephew, Alfred. Besides working for the railroad, Alfred was an ordained Baptist minister and did yard work and minor carpentry on the side, often helping my father with house repairs. He was a kind and gentle person, and his son took after him. We always gave gifts to Emma and to her extended family at Christmastime, and I felt there was genuine love for them. I felt she would do anything for us; and we, anything for her and her family. To talk about how bad colored people were just did not make any sense to me.
And yet I knew even at a young age that the relationship between blacks and whites was far from being on a level playing field. Emma worked for us and did what we asked her to do. She was a servant. We called the shots. Compared to where she lived, our house was a mansion. We lived in a beautiful neighborhood. She lived in East Nashville in public housing with trash in the yards and graffiti on the walls.
But what could you do? This is just the way the world is, I told myself. Like everyone else I went along with the program. Maybe my mother was right. Someday I would understand.
There was another experience which haunts me to this day.
My mother was active in a number of civic and charitable causes that involved fundraising. In early March, a few weeks before my tenth birthday, she asked me if I would like to go with her as she canvassed people to raise money for an orphanage in Nashville. It was a Sunday morning, and we set off together just after sunrise. It was colder than usual for that time of the year. Light frost was on the ground, and a haze of smoke and smog hovered just above the rooftops as we drove from our home in Belle Meade to a neighborhood near the state capitol. I had never been to that neighborhood before. It was nothing like my neighborhood. The houses were small and narrow, wood frame with gray decaying wood and no paint. They were bunched up together, one beside another with hardly any room to squeeze through between the houses. "They call them shotgun shacks," my mother said casually as we made our way to the first house, stepping carefully up two broken steps. There was trash in the small yard—trash everywhere for that matter—and some broken toys lying under an old swing on the front porch. It did not look like anyone was home except that black smoke was coming out of the small chimney. In fact smoke was pouring out of all the chimneys, which contributed to the smog and gave an eerie appearance to the entire neighborhood. Making the scene even more bizarre was the silhouette of the state capitol rising within a stone's throw of the backyards of these homes. For all I knew we could have been on another planet.
"We are going to knock on this door?" I asked hesitantly.
"Of course we are, we have been given a list of addresses, and these are the ones on our list."
Mother knocked and we waited, then she knocked again. No answer.
Just as I was about to suggest that it was time to move on, the door opened very cautiously, leaving a space of no more than three or four inches, a space large enough to see two eyes on the face of a black woman peering out. The eyes showed fear. I wanted to crawl into a hole.
A quivering voice said, "What do you want? What do you want from me?"
My mother explained that we were raising money for a worthy cause—an orphanage—and asked if she would like to contribute.
"Just a minute," she said and excused herself, leaving the door partially open, wide enough for me to peer in. The room had practically no furniture. There was an old wooden table, a couple of broken wooden chairs, and a mattress and bedspring in the corner where an infant was sleeping. One of the windows was broken, allowing the cold Sunday morning wind into the room. Were it not for an overworked, coal-burning stove in the center of the room, the place would have been freezing.
A minute or so later she was back, and in her hand was one nickel. "I am so sorry, ma'am, I would like to give more, but this is all I got." She handed the nickel to my mother, who dropped it into the bucket that I was carrying.
"Well, that is the first one," Mother said with a smile, and off we went to the next house, where essentially the same scene repeated itself. My recollection is that almost everyone we canvassed that cold March morning put something in that bucket. Most of the time it was a nickel or a dime. In a couple of instances it was only a penny or two, and from one or two houses we received a quarter. Most of the people who answered the door were black but not all. We must have visited close to fifty homes that morning, in five or six of which were white families; but their living conditions were no better than those of the black families. By noon we had finished our list and were ready to head home. We had collected less than ten dollars.
I could not ever remember being so embarrassed. What were we doing there? We should be giving money to them. How could people live in such deplorable situations? I was in such complete disbelief that I could not even bring myself to talk about the experience with my mother. I never accompanied her again on any of her charitable fundraising missions.
In the spring of 1952 at age ten, I was at the top of my young game. I was doing well in school, loved athletics (especially baseball), and was popular. I loved my parents, my neighborhood, my house, and my friends. I loved cutting the grass, pitching baseball with my teenage neighbor, playing with my little brother, and going fly fishing with my dad.
That was also the year I attended my first overnight summer camp. Probably for financial reasons, my parents decided the best bet for me was the local YMCA camp rather than the fancy, private camp in the East Tennessee mountains that most of my friends attended. Most of my cabin mates were from the other part of town—naturally they were white. They pronounced words differently from the way I did and were a pretty tough crowd. They used the N word a lot. Many in my Belle Meade neighborhood would have called them rednecks.
Excerpted from Civil Rights Journey by Joseph Howell Copyright © 2011 by Joseph Howell. Excerpted by permission.
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