We Had a Dream: A Tale of the Struggles for Integration in Americaby Howard Kohn
We Had a Dream is a masterful, provocative examination of the continuing struggle with issues of race in America. Focusing on the lives of a handful of Prince George County, Maryland, residents--black and white--Howard Kohn shows readers how these people have coped with the challenges of integration decades after the heyday of the civil rights movement. See more details below
We Had a Dream is a masterful, provocative examination of the continuing struggle with issues of race in America. Focusing on the lives of a handful of Prince George County, Maryland, residents--black and white--Howard Kohn shows readers how these people have coped with the challenges of integration decades after the heyday of the civil rights movement.
- Simon & Schuster
- Publication date:
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- 6.43(w) x 9.57(h) x 1.19(d)
Read an Excerpt
The flat, green countryside of Prince George's County that Bruce Gordon came home to in the autumn of 1992 was still under tobacco on large parcels of land, but only in the outlying regions, out by Upper Marlboro, the county seat, where there were also grazing Holsteins in the bogs and rolling hillocks. Elsewhere the farmland had been turned into a suburban society, with shopping plazas and streetlamps. To look upon the new Prince George's County from the plane Bruce rode in on was to witness progress. Through the clouds were revealed black lines of asphalt and big, open, immature gardens and flat mall roofs with monster air-conditioning units, all the spanking work of building crews that had been laying in commercial strips and subdivisions on the old fields since the 1970s.
On the other side of the Potomac River, at National Airport, the plane touched chill ground. In a rental car Bruce crossed the river, trying to remember his way. The green signs on the I-495 Beltway were half familiar. He passed by the first turnoff in Prince George's County -- Indian Head Highway. Somewhere along here a wild and panicked bunch of European colonists had slaughtered the native Piscataways and Accokeeks and hung their heads on a line of poles. In a couple of miles came Branch Avenue, the main drag into an unincorporated community that went by the post office name of Hillcrest Heights. This was Bruce's home ground. The lots were neatly spaced and the houses nearly identical, everything with an orderly look, like an architect's rendering of postwar suburbia. Before builders began building subdivisions in outer Prince George's County, they had built neighborhoods in i paintings and the medical certificates. Bruce took over his father's old office desk for his own. He put his barbells and his weight bench into the X-ray room and set up his bed in the waiting room, a low, bare place. His new quarters would be sparely furnished, to the point of asceticism. The only arresting detail was the silk sheeting he put on a king-sized bed. Bruce's divorce had cost him virtually all he owned. He had received a phone call at 11:30 one morning in Denver from his lawyer, "You are to be out of your house by 2:30 this afternoon," to which Bruce had shouted, "What am I paying you for?" He had been living out of boxes and suitcases ever since. At his father's house he needed no furniture. Upstairs, Dr. Gordon had left intact the overstuffed couches and mahogany sideboards and carpeting Bruce's mother had installed before she left.
Of course, Dr. Gordon would not inquire about Bruce's divorce. Divorce was a sore subject for the two of them. The marriage of Bruce's parents had dissolved when Bruce was twenty-one, and Dr. Gordon was still unhappy about the way Bruce had seemed to root for his mother. An odd couple, two men without women in their lives, the father in his wheelchair grumping at the TV, the son puttering around with his barbells -- they had been estranged for much of Bruce's adult life. In the past twelve years he had not once stepped foot in the Gordon house, and had seen his father on only one occasion in Denver. Over the next several days they exchanged mainly the details of schedule-making that might pass between two men at a boardinghouse. They had no practice in being devoted to blood kin and felt foolish about trying. "You can use my desk, but you can't have it. It's mine. I'll be needing it," Dr. Gordon said at one point, and that was probably as close as either of them came to an emotionally revealing statement.
Before Bruce's return, his father had spent the first hushed and pessimistic stage of his recuperation in a convalescent home. Everyone now knew Dr. Gordon might live another twenty years but probably would never again have full strength in his right leg and right arm. And the stroke had rendered him crankier than usual. What cheer he had came from his high-octane, leather-seated Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham, model year 1989, the Doc's pride and joy, waxed and tanked up in his garage and ready to go. The Caddy's odometer read 45,011 miles, and the vast majority of those miles had been spent in "pleasure cruising" around town. To be able to drive again Dr. Gordon would have to retrain a set of muscles and nerves on his right side. "But I aim to do it," he told Bruce. "I'm determined."
Almost as soon as Bruce was moved in, he began talking about leaving. Once his father was settled into a satisfactory routine, Bruce planned to look for work in Boston to be closer to Camilla.
That day could not come soon enough to suit Dr. Gordon, whose fearsome sense of dignity was offended by his son's taking up with this particular old flame. "I just can't take the values he has. His values are not my values," Dr. Gordon would tell anybody who cared to listen. "We've never gotten along. Bruce swore he'd never come back to this house, and that was fine with me. If he stays here, he and that girl will drive more nails in my casket, them carrying on like two love-crazed kids."
The affair Bruce had resumed with Camilla was not being carried out in the Gord on house, however. "Don't bring that girl here. She's not welcome," Dr. Gordon had told Bruce. A tall, imposing man, even in the wheelchair, Dr. Gordon did not seem an enfeebled spirit, and he did not speak with the weak voice of an old man.
"I'll do what I damn well please," Bruce said, but he had winced at his father's words.
In any event, Bruce was not anxious to invite Camilla to the house, and, the truth was, Camilla would not have come. Everything about Dr. Gordon aggravated Camilla, his sanctimonious voice, his habit of leaving the room when she entered. The interpretation Camilla placed on Doc's behavior was that of a priggish and standoffish lout. In her formal introduction to the man years ago, he had stood in his living room, red in the face, a bit toothy and horsey of features. With Bruce shifting his feet awkwardly beside her, Camilla had extended a polite hand; Dr. Gordon had recoiled from the contact.
In the current situation, there was no need for Camilla to travel to Hillcrest Heights. The Washington-to-Boston commuter line could bring Bruce to her house in Cambridge on the spur of the moment -- Bruce called it an "I miss her like crazy" moment. One weekend he met Camilla's children, a ten-year-old boy and an eight-year-old girl. "I feel kind of wistful," he told her. "They could have been my children." During the week, like old times, corny correspondence passed between Bruce and Camilla, and they spoke in long drawn-out phone calls. To listen to them, they were possessors not only of an old magic but a new one as well. When they had first gotten back together they had gone off to romantic hideouts, a week at Telluride, another on Cape Cod. They had drunk champagne out of pla stic throwaway glasses. He was courtly and soft-spoken. She brushed back droplets of dark, heavy hair. Bruce described her as "a sixties girl who will always be a sixties girl," by which he meant she was sassy and confident and open to the world. Twice a week, from eight in the evening until midnight, she danced barefooted at a community center, and for two weeks each August she was the resident physician at a dance camp in the Maine woods, where she fed and enlivened the mystical body with Afro-Haitian ragtime, Moroccan dance ("what is incorrectly called belly dancing"), West African street funk, the six-step Lindy, massage, yoga, sweat-lodge meditation, communal vegetarian meals, and skinny dipping at the swim hole. In Cambridge, while the wind blasted the windows, Bruce found it absurdly endearing to watch Camilla let her clothes fall to the floor and walk around the room. Hers was not a froufrou sexuality but a carefree innocence about her body. It was as though the years had never happened. I am ga-ga about you, he said affectionately to her.
Later, returning to Hillcrest Heights, Bruce would tell himself: Do not bank on this feeling; it will vanish, like a trick. But for now the world was perfection itself.
* * *
It did not take long for the news about Bruce's return, and the news about his second-chance romance with Camilla, to travel the eight blocks from 23rd and Iverson to a house on Foster Place, home of Merv and Dell Strickler, a white couple getting up in age. The Gordons and Stricklers had once been active in the same parent-teacher groups and the local neighborhood association, and the two wives had done volunteer hospital work together. Dell Strickler was now a silvery slip of a woman with an oval, pixieish face, and she spoke with thoroughgoing enthusiasm about her good wishes for Bruce and Camilla, "I hope they'll be happy this time around. I hope it works out. Bruce and Camilla were always the nicest couple." In reality, Dell had her doubts -- what were the chances of success for two people faced not just with the prejudices of the outside world but with the recriminations and bad feelings that must be inside them from that terrible, in-the-dark-of-night parting years ago? But she did not think it appropriate to say anything aloud. As for Merv Strickler, a thick, ruddy-faced man with rippled grayish hair, he was without qualms. "I hope Camilla moves back here with Bruce. I'd like to see them living in Hillcrest Heights. It's what we need in this community," he said. "That's how integration succeeds best, on a personal level."
This discussion took place in a house furnished in a crowded, eclectic, and independent style that was pure Merv and Dell. In the kitchen was a white stand-up Nesco electric roaster, bought in 1949 when Merv was a doctoral student at Stanford and Dell was one of the rare women to be found in the technical white-coated man's world of the physics lab. Over the years she had used the Nesco roaster for dozens of holiday turkeys. It was in tip-top condition still; probably, in all of America, there were not more than a hundred others like it in working order. Next to the roaster was a Westinghouse range, bought in 1955 soon after the Stricklers settled on Hillcrest Heights for a permanent home. A black rotary dial phone occupied the same place on the kitchen wall it always had. The living room walls were hung with the casual collections of Merv's far -flung overseas trips: artists' sketches on authentic Egyptian papyrus and on Oriental rice paper. Merv had a Stanford Ph.D. in the twin majors of aviation and education, a combination unheard of until he proposed it, and he had made a career out of selling to government chieftains around the world the idea of inserting aviation into school curricula. He had been an honored guest from Moscow to Cairo. On the fireplace mantel was a Russian wooden doll brought back from Siberia. The living room floor was crowded with a piano that had seen much use and two satiny upright Troubadour harps that Dell played regularly during services at their church and also once in a while at the Kennedy Center.
Another wall was hung with a framed photograph of their daughter, Heather, best friends with Camilla since eleventh grade. Heather was a woman of striking looks -- honey-red hair, freckles around eyes, pink cheeks -- and a smile that radiated sweetness, wholesomeness, guilelessness. Atop the piano sat pictures of her three daughters, blond and pug-nosed and also all smiles. Heather had had only one serious romance in her life -- with the man she ultimately married, a white man -- but during the years at Potomac High, when Heather and Camilla used to bake cookies in the Westinghouse oven and talk girlishly about boys, it seemed not at all improbable that Heather might join Camilla in cross-racial dating. At least it seemed so to the three Hillcrest Heights women who played canasta with Dell. These friends of Dell were concerned about the foolishness of teenage love and what it might portend for the Strickler family. On evenings when the topic came up Dell would make light of it, but one evening the women pressed harder, and Dell said, yes, she had entertained thoughts of her daughter falling in love with a young black man.
"What would you do? How would you put an end to it?"
"I would not try to put an end to it."
"But what if Heather didn't come to her senses of her own accord? What then? What if she got married to a black fellow? Your grandchildren would be mulattoes."
"And I would hug them and kiss them and thank God for them."
"You can't be serious."
For the rest of the evening no canasta was played. ("There went the game. They were in such a tizzy. Didn't I realize it would ruin Heather's life? How could I be so naive? How could I be so dumb? Well, my goodness, I knew it would be difficult if something like that came to pass, if Heather really got into a mixed marriage, but I am a believer in integration. If I was going to be Christian about it, I would have to accept a black son-in-law with open arms, and I would love my grandchildren regardless. I wouldn't care what shade they were.")
The news that Camilla had taken up again with Bruce also traveled by phone to West Virginia, to a white frame house in a wilderness valley so isolated that mountain lions can be seen padding through the front yards. In this valley lived the former Heather Strickler, now Heather Holstine, who took the call from Camilla after ten o'clock one night, a point of the day when Heather was usually in her pajamas but Camilla was gearing up for a social hour. The differences between Heather and Camilla were not insignificant, and since graduating from Potomac High they had lived in places apart. Camilla had devoted herself to her career in medicine, whereas Heather had let her two careers, in dance and in linguis tics, play second fiddle to homemaking. "I'm the country mouse, and Camilla is the city mouse" was Heather's description of their different lives. Yet because of dozens upon dozens of phone calls, their friendship had never waned through four colleges and universities, a pair of weddings, five children, a divorce, and all the usual ups and downs. The friendship got its start in the summer of 1972, between their tenth and eleventh grades, when Camilla and Heather visited museums and antique houses in the south of France. The girls were on separate vacations with their parents, and it was not until they were back at Potomac High and involved in the what-I-did-last-summer phase of French class that they discovered their vacation stories were one and the same. French class and then a school production of Hello Dolly! -- Camilla in the cast, Heather the choreographer -- made boon companions of them. They were the cutups on the set. As best friends sometimes do, they began to copy each other in their behavior and their dress, to the point they were good-naturedly called by their teachers "the Bobbsey twins." In the twelfth grade, when Camilla's parents moved to Baltimore, she remained in Hillcrest Heights and slept in the spare bedroom of a family friend in order to finish high school with Heather. All that year Camilla practically lived at the Strickler house.
It was the sober side of their natures that had always attracted Camilla and Heather to each other. They were viewed by their friends as possessing no-nonsense personalities. Their normal way of speaking was crisp and rapid and formal, no slang, no shortcuts, though they might perk up their heads and cut off someone in the middle of a conv ersation -- they'd gotten the point and had a retort ready. So for Camilla to speak of her new tête-à-têtes with Bruce in a tone completely out of the ordinary, in a tone "almost gushy," set off little alarm bells inside Heather. The Camilla that Heather knew was too worldly and too prudent to swoon over a guy who years ago had caused her so much misery. Camilla would not make the same mistake twice, would she?Still, what could Heather say? Ever since Camilla got her divorce and began living the single life there had occurred an inevitable change in the even-steven dynamic that had existed for so long between the two old friends. This change led to awkwardness. The best thing to do was to put a bright face on things, cross your fingers, and hope everything would turn out okay. At the other end of the phone line Camilla was deciding much the same thing, which perhaps meant they were still operating on their old wave length, after all.
* * *
At the stroke of seven on a morning shortly after his return Bruce awoke to the sound of a work crew joking and setting up for the day. It was a day for a T-shirt and gym shorts -- a freakishly warm day. Out the front door and across 23rd Place, at the Hillcrest Heights strip mall, carpenters were tugging sheets of plywood off a truck. Yawning, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Bruce snapped a leash on Blimpie, an old, hard-of-hearing black Labrador, and headed over.
The Hillcrest Heights strip mall was one of the first to go up in Prince George's County, fifteen stores arranged in a row along a straight sidewalk. Bruce had a childhood memory of the grand opening -- the actor Gene Barry signing "Bat Masterson" autographs on anything the girls p resented, salesclerks dressed in petticoats, a band playing "Bargain Days Are Here Again." Thirty years later the shopping center was showing wear and tear. The pavement was buckled; rainwater filled the depressions. Storefront lettering was banged up. The mall merchants had met and agreed to install new facades over the old signwork, but the carpentry job being done today had nothing to do with a facelift. The carpenters were eliminating a defect in the blueprints, an inadvertent mistake made a generation ago. The original architect had cut an alley into the middle of the strip mall, between a Laundromat and the Dollar Store, as a convenience for deliverymen. Soon after the grand opening, however, the alleyway had become instead a perfect staging area for assaults on two minority groups: any white teenage boy bound for college, and anyone regardless of age or sex who was of African descent. According to the shorthand directory then in use, those in the first group were "Collegiates," and those in the second group, with indelible nativism, were "niggers." Their tormentors were white teenage hoodlums who were referred to colloquially as "Grits" (or "Blocks"). The Grits were the type of young men who worked at gas stations one month and stuck them up the next. They could be identified by their haircuts, shiny and brittle with Brylcreem, and their dousings of Mennen's Skin Bracer. When loitering in the alleyway, killing time, one Grit would sometimes press his arm to the arm of another Grit in order to extinguish lit cigarettes. They had forearms scarred with burns. They carried switchblades, primarily to clean fingernails, but on occasion blood was spilled. Some of the Grits were true to classical fig hting, waiting for whatever action might come their way, the quick, physical, one-on-one showdown, but some were bullies who operated in packs. In a legendary incident they stole all the baseball bats from Murphy's department store and hid out in the alleyway and whacked dozens of passersby on the head just for kicks. Someone like Bruce was courting trouble anytime he walked near the alleyway. "Oh, yeah, this was once an all-white neighborhood, and very dangerous," Bruce would explain, not sarcastically, to friends who had not known him in that period. "I never felt safe all the time I was growing up -- the Grits were terrorists." Bruce had been a Collegiate, a tense kid with an ethereal face, tall for his age, top-heavy in the body; a kid who throughout his boyhood never learned to hold his ground in a fight. Just the sight of the strip mall used to evoke his vulnerability. During his long courtship of Camilla, he did not once go in her company to this shopping center directly across the street from his home.
Bruce's trepidation had been made up, he thought now, partly of fear and partly of envy. He had been a big kid, but scared. To have been as fearsome as a Grit would have meant the world to him. Finally, about ten years ago, Bruce had transformed himself physically with weights and martial arts, and established a tough-guy persona. He had lost his gawky, slightly clumsy look. Now he could back up any pugnacious act he might put on. Handling barroom rowdies did not faze him. On the other hand, he had never been tested in a street fight, and, illogically perhaps, he found himself feeling a little jittery as he now approached the alleyway.
The short-sleeved carpenters, slamming nails into plyw ood with air hammers, were erecting a makeshift wall, sealing up the old lair of the Grits. Bruce stood transfixed. The wall was to be ten feet high and would eliminate all access. A man with clipboard in hand was questioning whether this solution might be too drastic. "We could put a door in the wall," the head carpenter said. The clipboard man had doubts about the door. Would it not defeat the purpose of the wall? The head carpenter suggested putting a padlock on the door and restricting the keys to the store owners."Okay, sure."
The walk past the strip mall left Bruce in a condition of sentimental intoxication. For the next several minutes he raced with his dog through the neighborhood. Pumped-up, almost giddy from adrenaline, he exploded bare-legged through the traffic as though a runaway horse was carrying him. He felt safe in Hillcrest Heights, and not just because of the plywood. He felt as if at last he had entered his own element. The sidewalks were encroached on by BMWs, Cherokees, and Town Cars shining in the sun; gone were the Chevys with driveway paint jobs. The people making a beeline for the mall were dressed to the nines. The peak of fashion in Hillcrest Heights seemed now to be jazzy. But it was the hairdos that told the story -- the dread, the weave, the wet-set, the high-top fade, the Jheri curl, the shiny shave-off, even a modest poodle-balled version of the Afro making a comeback. Many of the standard-issue brick houses that used to be home to the Grit families of hard-drinking machinists and teamsters were now home to white-collar African-American professionals, the parents of new Collegiates. The streets around his father's house looked like a vision from Bruce's adolescence when he still believed in the perfectability of society, a vision of black people and white people in a comfortable middle-class milieu.
Pulled along by his dog, his face heat-splotched, perspiring heavily, Bruce passed once more down the long runway of the strip mall. Then he headed home for breakfast. Only later did it occur to him that there was a definite question about why, with the Grits long departed from Hillcrest Heights, the owners of the shopping center felt compelled at this late date to board up the alleyway.
April 4 was a date Merv Strickler considered auspicious. On one April 4 he had been hired by the Civil Air Patrol, and on another April 4 he had started a job with the Federal Aviation Administration. In addition, April 4, 1955, was the day Merv and Dell had moved onto Foster Lane, then a rocky lane that would not be paved for months. Their house, faced with brick, was on a corner lot. A driveway sloped to a garage under the upstairs bedrooms. There was a walkway of flagstone set in cement and a walkup of cement steps. Inside everything smelled of the lumberyard. In years to come the Stricklers would plant rhododendrons and azaleas out front. They would attach a pineboard deck off the kitchen and wedge into a corner a lidded box stuffed with toys. They would install a swing set on the back lawn. Their yard would be the playground for as many as forty youngsters racing from up and down the street, hands waving, shrieking. Dell would read to the kids and serve them juice. They would have an open invitation.
One of the first neighbors to extend greetings to Merv and Dell was a white man who worked for the federal government. He let them know he was relieved to see they were white people and not Negroes. Not too many days passed before Merv and Dell, seizing on the opportunity of soft, gaudy spring weather, served up a barbecue on their lawn. They invited a visitor from Atlanta, a black man, John Somersette, chairman of the English department at Spellman University, who had been an air force pilot and intelligence officer, who had been the first of his race to receive a Ph.D. in education from Stanford, and who had gotten acquainted with Merv and Dell at the university and had become the closest of friends. The barbecue with a tall, boom-voiced black man, his happy, backslapping affection for the white newcomers, their reciprocal affection -- these things did not go unnoticed. Blinds went up and down in houses across the street. ("You could almost hear the whispers: Who is this dark-skinned guy? Of course, we had invited John on purpose.") The two Stricklers -- Merv the educatorDauthorDlecturerDworld travelerDcommunity leader, and Dell the science teacherDphysics technicianDmedical technologistDhospital volunteerDcommunity leader -- belonged to a category of civil rights activists who never marched, never picketed, never got arrested, and never joined the NAACP but who, whenever they came across a barrier of racism, made a Gandhian effort to smash it down. They had grown up in Pennsylvania -- he in a row house in York, she on a farm in the northwestern hills. He was the son of a minister; she was the daughter of a farmer and a schoolteacher. Merv and Dell both attended one-room schools with potbellied stoves and came out of Pennsylvania imprinted ineradicably by the kind of countrified church-anchored Methodist world that defines morality according to personal conduct and fairness in all things. As long ago as World War II, when Merv was an air force instructor for pilots, he made it a point to eat his lunch in mess rooms reserved for black GI's and to escort black members of the officer corps past the doormen at segregated military clubs. While with the Civilian Air Patrol in the peacetime of the 1950s, Merv helped to establish a number of racially meaningful "firsts" around the country. He was already a world-renowned expert on aviation, and, as a practical matter, most of these civil rights breakthroughs were achieved on the job merely by his inclusion of black aviators on the panels of the seminars and conferences he was regularly organizing. The other way to look at it is that Merv, at the time, was running the risk of having his own career blackballed. There was a black man who had been a flying ace during the big war, shot down over Kamchatka, who could handle the challenge of being a racial pioneer, who enjoyed the trouble it caused, who, keeping his Ph.D. perfectly in check, would conduct a hilarious Stepin Fetchit routine, scraping and bowing, telling a dumb joke on himself whenever some dolt of a janitor shooed him off a Whites-Only drinking fountain. Ah's so sorry, captain, but ah's a poor color'd man who ain't had no readin' and writin'. This was John Somersette. One time Merv placed Dr. Somersette in charge of advance planning for a conference at the University of Colorado, which meant he had to spend several days in Boulder. A dean at the university objected, "There's no barbershop in Boulder for coloreds. Where's he going to get his hair cut?" Merv prevailed by taking the matter directly to the president of the University of Colorado, the f ather-in-law of future Supreme Court Justice Byron "Whizzer" White, but then other conference participants raised new objections. Merv would not give in. ("That's how you change people.") In 1956, John Somersette, conspiring again with Merv Strickler, became the first black man to stay overnight in a Las Vegas Strip hotel that previously had a whites-only policy. Informed at the reception desk that there was no room, Merv went straight to the mayor and then to a U.S. senator's office. ("When we got through raising hell, John had the best suite in the hotel.") John Somersette put in a call to his good friend Nat King Cole, the balladeer, living in Beverly Hills: "Nat, I've just one-upped you." Years later it would seem like a big joke, but in 1956 the Las Vegas Strip rules kept black entertainers from socializing with white patrons. A hotel manager told the actress Dorothy Dandridge he would drain the pool before he would let her have a swim. Nor could the audiences be taken for granted. Nat King Cole's show had been interrupted by white supremacists who knocked him to the stage floor.
Merv's work with the Civil Air Patrol placed him in contact with aviators from around the world, and he brought many of them home to dinner and for overnight stays in Hillcrest Heights. Heather had the impression her father worked for the United Nations ("We had guests from at least six different continents"). The Stricklers sponsored a lawn party for dignitaries from the University of Hawaii, many of them people of color. Afterward, eggs were thrown at the Stricklers' front door. Later, when an African-American couple moved onto the block, the Stricklers hosted a welcome party and were criticized by several neighbor s, which only persuaded them to host more parties, one for each and every family of color that came to live on the nearby streets. Over time, as the neighborhood changed and as public thinking turned more modern, the Stricklers found greater and greater acceptance for their point of view. In 1965 there was a big shindig at the Strickler house, of which Heather had a lasting memory. ("Half the neighborhood came, plus all these international people -- Africans, Asians, Hindus, Moslems. Some couldn't eat lamb, or pork, or beef, or couldn't drink alcohol or caffeine. So my mom put different food on different tables in the backyard. And we put rugs on the lawn. It was like out of a movie. I was nine years old, and I got to be the caterer and pass out desserts. Everyone was talking and laughing. It was one big happy mix.")
Many of the new black families in Hillcrest Heights made the move from the hard-lot southeastern quadrant of Washington, D.C., following on the heels of an identical migration of white families who had earlier jumped the same border. Bruce's father and mother, David and Gerry Gordon, moved from Washington to the freshly bulldozed lanes of Hillcrest Heights in 1954, within months of the Stricklers. Unlike most of the other white families, the Gordons were Jewish-Americans, and they had to master a balancing act, learning when it was okay to exhibit their Jewishness and when it was not. On the baseball diamond at the Holy Family Catholic Church, green and splendidly landscaped, where Bruce went as a youngster to sign up to play ball, it was not okay. One of the coaches asked Bruce about his religion, and his answer, offered in all innocence, was met with a finality: "I'm sorry, no J ews can play. You have to be Catholic." It was okay, though, to be a Jewish-American doctor in a basement office. In the 1950s there were quotas for Jewish-Americans, the town doctor, the town lawyer, and the like, and Dr. Gordon fit the bill. He was a traditional family doctor, soon to be a suburban anachronism; he charged twenty dollars for an office visit and made house calls for thirty-five. But then there was a second balancing act. Doc had to learn how to handle relations with members of the other minority, the relatively few black citizens. "A doctor swears an oath never to discriminate," Doc used to say, a maxim no one would dispute, but most people do not live by maxims. Trying to sustain a general medical practice in the midst of Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans, he had to summon more than a little courage before welcoming African-Americans into his office. The ghosts of history were still on the loose in Prince George's County. Cross-burnings were still in vogue. White terrorists were a law unto themselves. White law officers routinely roughed up and, on occasion, killed the new immigrants under the color of the law. Yet Doc was conscientious; he laid on healing hands without respect to race. Virtually every black person in Hillcrest Heights received his medical help. Camilla knew him in the role of her doctor before she knew him as Bruce's father. In his doctor's office she had liked him -- he seemed fair-minded, not greedy, a man with a civilized manner. It was only when she was perceived as a prospective daughter-in-law that he underwent a radical change. It was then she recognized him for a version of another traditional American character: the liberal hypocrite, quick to take yo ur money downstairs but just as quick to shun you upstairs.
For his part Dr. Gordon believed that any serious association Bruce developed with Camilla would be detrimental to his son's career. "It's bad enough you're a Jew. You want to tie yourself down to a Negro woman? You're sick in the head, boy," Bruce would remember him saying. Yet Dr. Gordon believed he knew whereof he spoke. As a schoolboy in Washington he had experienced the brutal nature of prejudice. Boys would line up -- "My turn, my turn!" -- to punch him, the Jew boy. For Dr. Gordon, his Hillcrest Heights house on the double lot was the equivalent of the Statue of Liberty. Here he had escaped heredity. Here his Americanness was primary, his Jewishness secondary. The Gordon family had blended in. Why did Bruce want to stick out? For the sake of image, for the sake of career, Bruce must marry a woman deemed to be proper by the larger society, as his father had done. "I'm saying this for your own good," Bruce was told again and again.
Dr. Gordon could accept that people from differing backgrounds were capable of loving each other. He himself in a younger incarnation had behaved with a certain raffishness and fallen for a young blond nurse from the rural South, so different from the Jewish woman of the urban North he went on to marry. But he was from the old school where a line was drawn between private fantasies and public etiquette. Behind closed doors Bruce could do as he wanted; he could violate all the protocols. Do as you damn well please. Screw her to your heart's delight. And, indeed, Bruce had picked up on this, for in the letter he had sent to Camilla at Mount Holyoke, the letter that had preceded the breakup of the two young lovers, one particular sentence was like a neon sign: "Why can't you just be my mistress?" This was the balancing act Bruce had long ago put forth to Camilla.
Around the time Bruce arrived back in town, Merv and Dell Strickler attended a Democratic Party fund-raiser at the Officers Club ballroom at Bolling Air Force Base. The way to the ballroom is through a set of double doors and up a set of steps that takes one past a cathedral-sized, stained-glass mural of the flights of Icarus and the Wright plane. Merv and Dell found the party in full swing. The event had drawn a crowd almost exclusively of black people, which was of no bother to the Stricklers. They moved gregariously about and soon were mingling separately. Merv and Dell were not like some white people who, in such a crowd, cling together arm in arm, their social discomforts all stirred up. Anyway, for the purposes of tonight, everybody was a Democrat under the skin. The flow of the party took Merv to the high-ceilinged library. Gazing up at a succession of studio portraits of air force chiefs of staff mounted in frames on the upper walls, he wondered aloud who might be the next chief should Bill Clinton be voted in over George Bush. "I'd like to see what appointments a Democratic president might make for a change," Merv said. He has a habit of extolling things with wide motions of his big hands, and he was doing that now. He began to suggest various possibilities for the new chief of staff and then said, "I guess it doesn't matter, as long as it's somebody I don't have to call 'sir.' I've known every chief of staff since Eisenhower, and I haven't had to call anyone 'sir' yet."
This kind of evening was a familiar scene in a familiar place for Merv and Dell, lifetime members of the Bolling Officers Club. For nine years in the 1960s, while attached to the Civilian Air Patrol, Merv had occupied an office at the air base. It was a thinking man's military station, and Merv, who consulted the likes of Wernher von Braun for big-league advice, was in charge of devising prototype educational and training manuals that would be handed down to two generations of aviators. The whole Strickler family had gate passes to the base. Heather and her older brother, Todd, learned to swim in the Bolling pool, and Heather and Camilla had several opportunities to play out the role of prom princess on the hardwood dance floor. Any young international air cadet who was in Washington on a student visa, whose language of choice was French, and who was in need of an escort to a dance at the Bolling ballroom had a reasonable expectation of spending the evening with Merv Strickler's daughter or his daughter's best friend. Camilla liked "pushing the boundaries a bit." She would preach political heresy and when she got one of the military bigwigs clearly eavesdropping she would switch to speaking French. ("Of course, Mr. Strickler understood what I was doing, but he never minded.") Racially speaking, the exchange dances exhibited Camilla's solitary black face in among the white faces. ("Mr. Strickler would not blink an eye. Meanwhile, his superiors at the Civil Air Patrol were having strokes.") Whatever the shortcomings at Bolling, they were nothing like the official segregation in the public buildings of Prince George's County. Up through the 1960s the whites-only drinking fountains and rest rooms at the courthouse and in the public libraries gave Prince Geo rge's County bad press. By comparison, the air force base, just across the county line inside Washington, was ahead of the times, and whenever members of the Prince George's black establishment needed a place bigger than a church auditorium for a social event, they would rent the Bolling Officers Club.
The crowd tonight was an older one, well-heeled, more interested in schmoozing on the burgundy-and-gold carpet than in dancing on the wooden floor. The excuse for the party was to raise political money for the campaign of Albert Wynn, a Democrat expecting to be the first black politician from Prince George's County elected to the U.S. Congress. One month prior to the election, many on Al Wynn's side were already celebrating because he had just won the Democratic primary, which, in an area that had not elected a Republican congressman in decades, was usually all it took. The pitches for money therefore had the feel of going through the motions, and Gloria Lawlah, the state senator from Hillcrest Heights, hurried the pitchmeisters along. Gloria was euphoric. "Let the good times roll," she shouted at one point, swaying to the canned music.
Minutes later, spotting Merv, she rushed to kiss him. "Merv, Merv, I'm so tickled you're here." Hugging his shoulders, she pulled him over to be introduced to the congressman-to-be. Merv reached out a big white hand.
"This is my wonderful friend Merv. He's one of us!" Gloria exclaimed. She looked around for Dell. "His wife is around here somewhere. She's with us, too."
Gloria Lawlah, who with her husband lived in a house diagonally across the street from Merv and Dell, had been their neighbor for almost twenty-five years. Gloria was a black woman of above middl ing height, in her fifties, but with the soft skin and neck line of someone much younger. Slender and attractive, thick hair coiffed just so, she was resplendent in a black dress, Spanish doubloon earrings, a blue-green birthstone ring, and a simple gold bracelet. Squiggles of gold embroidery had been painted on her fingernails, like writing on Oriental scrolls. Luminous brown eyes danced behind designer glasses. To the cognoscenti of Hillcrest Heights she was the "first lady," the local politician who most closely resembled a mayor within the unincorporated community. To the rest of Prince George's County she was a political boss, a godmother of the county's emerging black political class. Within the pantheon of civil rights firsts, she had laid several claims. Most recently, in 1990, she had become the first black woman from Prince George's County elected to the Maryland Senate. It seemed very possible she could someday become the "first lady" of all of the county.
Later in the evening Gloria Lawlah would have a quiet moment, standing with a friend next to the big picture windows and brushing up against the velvet burgundy draperies, faintly musky. Out the windows was a view of the nation's capital, the city spilling almost featurelessly to the Potomac River amid a glitter of headlights from late-night tourists and revelers. Ruminating, Gloria remarked on the changes that had come to Prince George's County. "I remember my first job: September of 1960. I was such a young naive thing, and Prince George's was another world," she said. Just out of college, living in a Washington apartment, and starting out as a teacher, Gloria had found work at Fairmont Heights High. "If you'd have pointed to me bac k then and said, 'See that young black woman over there. She's twenty-one years old, and she's a nobody. Well, in thirty years she's going to be a somebody, an important figure.' Everybody would've told you, 'You're crazy, you're nuts. A black woman? It'll never happen in Prince George's County.'"
Earlier in the evening Merv, a lover of the classics, had made the same point. "We haven't achieved Utopia, like Sir Thomas More wanted, but we're working on it. We're working on it."
People who were introduced to Gloria Lawlah often got an impression of someone with old-fashioned glamour who hinted at a secret life. Although it was not exactly secret, Gloria did have an abundant other life. She was a teacher who had worked her way into the superintendent's office; she was a mother with three grown, financially independent children; she was a grandmother; and she was in the thirty-fifth year of a strong marriage to John Wesley (Jack) Lawlah III. The Lawlahs came from families that had been pulling up by the bootstraps for some time. Gloria's mother had also been a teacher, and her mother before her, and her mother before her. ("I was a little princess. I played the piano, I played the trumpet. I went out on the street and blew.") Gloria's father-in-law had been the medical chief of a Chicago hospital and a dean of the Howard University Medical School. Her husband was a civil engineer. By 1969, when Gloria and Jack Lawlah purchased their brick rambler in Hillcrest Heights, everyone on their block was assumed to be a professional. Their neighbors were a judge, an attorney, a historian, a physicist, and a National Symphony musician, as well as the aviator-educator Merv Strickler and the nurse-teacher Dell Strickler. Hillcrest Heights had the guild spirit of a medieval town. Only by virtue of their skin color did the Lawlahs stand out, which was, of course, the difference that mattered. Although they received a ritualistic welcoming dinner from the Stricklers and found in them astonishingly friendly soulmates, the Lawlahs got the icy treatment from other neighbors. Before being accepted they had to bide their time. In one case in particular, it took a while. ("He simply could not acknowledge our existence. It took him maybe five years. I invited him and his wife to a big party, and that helped. And then my packages were delivered to him by mistake, and he started to bring them over. He started to come in through the kitchen door, just like every neighbor. That broke down his reserve. Now we get along famously.") The Lawlahs also had a common interest with their neighbors in an Italian nightclub, Giovanni's, located in the Hillcrest Heights Shopping Center. Most everyone on the block was in agreement that Giovanni's had changed for the worse. Once upon a time the nightclub had been a hopping place for the Italian-American well-to-do. Revelries were carried on into the wee hours. The bosses of the Democratic machine held court in dimly lit corners while their shark-skinned crews assembled at the bar. By the early 1970s, however, drug deals were being conducted in unlit corners. It was a principal hangout of the Grits, who hustled action at the pool tables and ambled out for other kinds of action at the alleyway forty paces away. They menaced not only young white teenagers like Bruce Gordon but adult black people. ("The Grits were notorious. They were the prime suspects in any cross-burning. They we re known to be armed with chains and knives. Black people who had been victimized by them would be left on a sidewalk, bleeding, half beaten to death.") Giovanni's was a symbol of an era that in trendsetting Hillcrest Heights was being ushered out, the era of poor white trash. "Punks like that," Merv once said, referring to the Grits, "make you ashamed of being born white." It was an easy choice for the German-American Stricklers, the Jewish-American Gordons, and the rest of the upstanding white community when the African-American Lawlahs undertook an informal, unofficial boycott of Giovanni's. Within a few years the nightclub was out of business, due to a lack of clientele and declining profits.
A few words mailed in 1976 between two college kids -- that is, the "mistress" letter -- had finished off a love affair, and it stood to reason this second time around that Bruce and Camilla must discuss those long-ago offending words. One word, actually -- the illicit, old-fashioned concept of a mistress, of a "backstreet affair" as it seemed to Camilla. But when Camilla made reference to it on one of their disheveled, romantic weekends Bruce claimed forgetfulness, "I can't remember one letter -- there were so many." She let it pass, and did not return to it that weekend or in subsequent talks. It burned in Camilla's mind, though. One time she said on the phone to Heather, "I will tell you some juicy stuff. Bruce wrote me a letter back in college in which he said, quoting his father, 'Why do you have to marry her? Why can't she just be your mistress?' To this day Bruce has amnesia over that letter. He does not remember ever having written it. But, of course, that letter is the one thing I will nev er forget."
Of course, Bruce wanted only to avoid the subject. ("It was a stupid, stupid letter. I wish I could forget it.")
For Camilla, there had been times when the pain from the letter was so deep and intimate she felt like screaming. But why, exactly?
Camilla: "I have analyzed this for almost twenty years, and I'm not sure I know, except it pushed a button in me that maybe goes back to the days when the white plantation masters brought their slave mistresses into the big house for sex and did their thing and sent them back to the tarpaper shacks. Black women as white men's sexual property -- I think that was the button it pushed. It's okay to be a mistress but not a wife. It's okay to be a prostitute but not a partner. That's a hard and grievous thing to endure."
Bruce: "It was crazy -- I wanted to marry Camilla. I should never have mentioned the word 'mistress.' It was my father's word. I was hashing through things he was saying to me about the pros and cons of marrying outside your own race, and I made the mistake of repeating these things to her."
Camilla: "That was the saving grace. It was Bruce's father who raised this up, not Bruce. But was there some acceptance on Bruce's part? I was never sure."
Bruce: "I was young. I was the weakling agent of my dad."
Camilla: "Bruce's father was a bully and son of a bitch! But it's different now. We've grown up. Bruce is able to tell his father flat-out that the love of his life is a black woman."
Headlines in the Prince George's Journal predicted, correctly, that history would be made in the person of Albert Wynn. Having returned past the deadline for registering to vote, Bruce could not cast a ballot for Mr. Wynn, but he t ook pride in the news. ("This was George Wallace territory when I left. Okay, a few of us were throwing pebbles in the pond, making a few ripples, but who'd have believed the ripples could spread so fast and so far.") A number of observers, in trying to guess at the impact of Al Wynn's victorious run, were looking past this election to the next one, two years hence, because the stage now seemed set for a black politician to be elected county executive, the governmental overseer for all of Prince George's County. Black politicians had been elected at the top of the ticket in such large American jurisdictions as Detroit, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey, but Prince George's County was not some old dead heap of a last-century city. It was a large modern suburb of spacious homes and clean air and peaceful streets and hundreds of thriving enterprises. "Mayors who won in Detroit and elsewhere represented a hollow victory. Just as blacks were taking over the city, whites were giving up and moving out," explained Professor Bart Landry, a University of Maryland sociologist who had studied the emergence of a new African-American middle class. "Prince George's can be the first jurisdiction where a black political establishment takes over a place that's on the way up. It would be an unprecedented event."
A generation ago such an event was a fantasy for Black America, and while success was now within reach in Prince George's County, it was far from guaranteed. The county executive had been time and again a white man who had either been born to or been claimed by the Prince George's political establishment. To have used "white" to describe the political establishment would have been, until recently, redundant. Now, finally, there was the likelihood of competition. In fact, a black political establishment had been officially incorporated under the name Prince George's County Alliance of Black Elected Officials, Inc., shortened for everyday use to the Black Alliance -- a united front of the black Prince Georgians in elective office. Gloria Lawlah had been one of the incorporators, along with Al Wynn and state's attorney Alex Williams. They had selected a name measured and unprovocative, but the effect of their action was to pose a formal challenge.
"I get goose bumps thinking about it," said Gloria, who was herself the subject of avid discussion as a possible candidate for county executive. "In sports you have the Game of the Century. Well, this might be the Election of the Century, or maybe the Election of Three Centuries."
"It'll 'make,'" Merv said, speaking of the upcoming political season. "Do you know that term? It's a Pennsylvania Dutch expression that's worth a whole paragraph. It means it'll make a disturbance. It'll make people get excited. It'll make something!"
Copyright © 1998 by Howard Kohn
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