Nationally syndicated columnist and prolific author Walter E. Williams recalls some of the highlights and turning points of his life. From his lower middle class beginnings in a mixed but predominantly black neighborhood in West Philadelphia to his department chair at George Mason University, Williams tells an "only in America" story of a life of achievement.
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Up From the Projects
By Walter E. William
Hoover Institution PressCopyright © 2010 Walter E. Williams
All rights reserved.
FIVE YEARS OLD IS MY EARLIEST MEMORY; that was in 1941. My sister Catherine and I were sitting on a bench in the hallway of a somewhat-ornate building with high ceilings, and we marveled at a huge painting of three galloping white horses. While I can't say for certain, my best guess is that it was that of either the Philadelphia board of education at 21st and Parkway or the Andrew Hamilton Elementary School at 57th and Spruce Street. My mother was in the office, enrolling us in elementary school.
We lived in a lower-middle-class, mixed, but predominantly black neighborhood at 5565 Ludlow Street in West Philadelphia. The grade school nearest our house was Hoffman elementary, just a block or so away. My mother thought we'd receive a better education at Andrew Hamilton, which was in our district but six blocks away. Hoffman had a relatively large black student population. Hamilton had no black students but many Jews. School authorities therefore encouraged my mother to enroll us at Hoffman, because they thought we'd feel more comfortable there.
Mom argued that Hamilton was within our school district and insisted that we be enrolled there. She knew we were eligible to attend Hamilton, because its students included the daughter and son of a Jewish merchant, whose business and upstairs living quarters were located just around the corner from us, at 56th and Market Streets.
Mom was a forceful yet dignified woman who didn't easily take no for an answer. I don't know what she said or threatened, but that fall we attended Hamilton, I in the first grade and my sister in kindergarten.
Though we were the first black students to enroll at Hamilton, we encountered no racial problems. The teachers treated us nicely, and so did the students. I do remember bringing a note or some other notice home to my mother saying that I had been selected to play a part in a minstrel play. My mother told me that she wasn't going to give me permission to be in the play. Instead, she declared, they could put burnt cork on the face of one of the white children.
My years at Hamilton corresponded with those of World War II. On certain days, there would be paper drives to help the war effort. That's when many of Hamilton's students would go from house to house collecting old newspapers. The patriotic desire to defeat Hitler and Hideki Tojo was one of our incentives; but another was that the class with the highest pile of newspapers, stacked against the schoolyard fence, would be dismissed from classes early. While my class won some of the time, I didn't enjoy the early-dismissal treat. My mother's instructions were to go to school and come home with my sister, who was one year younger than I. As a result, when my class won the newspaper-collection prize, I spent time in the school library until my sister's class was dismissed.
My mother worked at least a couple of days a week as a domestic servant. During those days, children came home for lunch. Hamilton didn't have a lunchroom, as I recall. So on the days my mother worked, she'd leave baked beans, Spam, or some other canned goods on a floor-heater vent — so that we'd have a reasonably warm lunch. She forbade us to light the stove. I guess she feared that we might burn ourselves or set the house on fire.
Another of her instructions was to turn on the radio when we arrived home to eat lunch and leave for the return trip when the music started for the Life Can Be Beautiful soap opera — or perhaps it was the Romance of Helen Trent. That was our clock. An additional instruction was to remain in the house after school and do our homework until she came back from her job. I didn't always obey. My sister would tell on me, resulting in either cancelled privileges or a spanking.
When the house we rented was sold, we moved in temporarily with my uncle James Morgan, who lived at 5950 Callowhill Street, still in West Philadelphia but quite a ways from Hamilton. So the last half of my fifth-grade year and part of my sixth were spent attending Commodore Barry Elementary School. We were on the waiting list for an apartment in the Richard Allen Homes, a large housing project in North Philadelphia, where my grandmother resided with her retarded daughter. In close proximity, but in different parts of the project, lived two of my four aunts, along with their families. I completed the first half of the sixth grade — back then, grades were divided into A and B — at Spring Garden, an elementary school within the project. For the second half, I attended John Hancock elementary at 13th Street and Fairmont Avenue.
I've been lucky in a number of ways, not the least of which was to have a strong, demanding mother. My father played no role in raising my sister and me. I recall his visiting our house only once; I couldn't have been more than five or six years old. He and my mother had separated, and they divorced during my early teen years.
My mother never spoke much about their differences except to say that he gave her no financial assistance to help raise us. His mother, Lugenia Williams, was quite ashamed of his dereliction, and when we visited her, she'd always give my sister and me some change for spending money. She played "the numbers" — illegal but popular — and was quite lucky at it; so she might also have helped out my mother financially. For our birthdays, she would give my sister and me a dollar for each year, plus round-trip trolley car fare whenever we visited.
My mother took my father to court over child-support payments. I'm pretty sure that he paid something, but it wasn't very much and it wasn't for long. With those payments and a couple of days' work each week as a domestic servant, Mom could make do. During the war years, several of my aunts had jobs at the Sun shipyard. The pay was good, and I recall conversations in which my aunts tried to convince my mother that she could also work there and earn much more. My mother declined, declaring that she was going to stay home and raise her two children and that if she only had one slice of bread, she would cut it into three pieces.
My father ultimately moved to Los Angeles. Occasionally, we later found out, he'd "sneak" back to visit his mother — sneak because there was a bench warrant for his arrest for failure to pay child support. After he completely deserted us, our support came from welfare, called relief at that time, which we were alternately on and off. Because it was such a pittance, my mother continued to work occasionally as a domestic servant.
Life Back Then
What was it like to grow up poor? First of all, we didn't consider ourselves poor; in fact, being called poor was an insult. Unlike my future wife, we had proper meals and decent clothing, though sometimes I wore shoes with cardboard in them to cover a hole in the sole. My mother budgeted what little money she had very well. She even managed to take us on vacations to see relatives — on my father's side of the family — who lived in Queens in New York City.
Those relatives, Aunt Sally Hopwah and her Chinese husband, owned a dry cleaning establishment. They had three sons. We enjoyed playing with the boys and taking trips to the Coney Island amusement park and the nearby beaches. Sometimes we'd leave the Hopwahs, having spent a couple of weeks, to take a train to Ossining, up the Hudson River from New York City, to spend another couple of weeks with my mother's friends, Lottie and George Charity.
Ossining is particularly memorable because of the crabbing we did, using traps baited with either chicken entrails or whiting, which was a very cheap fish at the time. Ossining is also memorable for another reason: a very pretty and friendly girl who was my age lived down the street from the Charitys. I believe her name was Evelyn, and I had a ten-year-old's crush on her.
In Philadelphia, during my pre-teen years, the 5500 block of Ludlow Street was a mixed-race neighborhood but predominantly black ("Negro" in those days). The houses were well kept and crime virtually non-existent. Once in a while, there was talk of gang fights between two gangs in West Philadelphia known as the Tops and the Bottoms. We never witnessed the fights, but rumors about them carried a lot of currency.
There was mischief, and my sister and I were participants. On 56th Street, not far from our home, stood some duplex-type buildings with — in the rear — small, unfenced yards where people hung clothing out to dry. (This was in the early 1940s, when few if any people had clothes dryers.) My sister and I found much delight, en route from school, about six blocks from home, pulling laundry off the line and tossing it on the ground. After our mischief, we'd run away laughing. Doing that was even more fun when the housewife shouted at us from her window.
One day my sister and I were in our bedroom, probably doing homework or reading magazines. She heard a knock on the front door and looked down the steps as my mother opened it. My sister whispered, "That's that lady!" We both moved back from view, as if that would make a difference. The lady, who was white, was telling my mother about our misdeeds. I heard my mother apologize profusely, thank the lady, and promise her that it would never happen again.
I don't remember whether it was right away or after dinner, but my mother got out her hairbrush and whipped our butts. It was probably after dinner, because one of my mother's techniques was to first scold, lecture, and promise a whipping, and then let us suffer in contemplation of what was to come. Sometimes the whipping never came, but that night it did. The bottom line: we didn't even walk the same way from school for a long time.
My mother never graduated from high school. She was the oldest of seven children, and her mother took her out of high school to help care for her younger siblings. While she didn't finish her education, she had high academic aspirations for my sister and me. She introduced us to the Philadelphia library at 40th and Walnut Streets. I'm sure that by the time my sister and I were eight or nine, we had our own library cards. After our chores were done on Saturdays, instead of attending a movie, as many kids did, we'd walk the eighteen blocks from our house to the library and carry home four or five books to read during the week. We both became voracious readers.
In 1947, we moved into the Richard Allen project in North Philadelphia. My mother didn't like the idea, but there must have been no other alternatives. She said that few landlords were willing to rent to a single woman with two children. North Philadelphia wasn't as nice as West Philadelphia. It had a large black population that was much poorer and less cultured, as my mother put it. Since it was a housing project, with greater population density, there were many more children to play with, as well as swings, basketball courts, and a nearby baseball field. So I liked the Richard Allen Homes. My older cousin by three years, Carl Green, lived on the same street as my grandmother. We played and got into mischief together.
Back in the '40s the Homes were not what they were to become — a location known for drugs, killings, and nighttime sounds of gunfire. One of the most noticeable differences back then compared to today was the makeup of the resident families. Most of the children we played with, unlike my sister and I, lived with both parents. More than likely, there were other single-parent households but I can recall none. Fathers worked, and the mothers often did as well. The buildings and yards were well kept.
A typical Saturday chore for me and many other children was to sweep the hallway and landing on the floor of the building where our apartment was located. We lived at 810-F Warnock Place, on the third floor of one of the four-story buildings, so sweeping and cleaning entailed two landings and two sets of steps. The people who lived on the first floor were in charge of the outside steps and the pavement. In those days, the Richard Allen administration office would periodically send someone to make inspection visits to all apartments to ensure cleanliness and good repair. Graffiti and wanton property destruction were unthinkable. The closest thing to graffiti was the use of chalk to draw blocks on the pavement to play hopscotch.
Although there were occasional "rumbles," as fist fights were called, the complex was safe. During the summer, especially on hot and humid nights, many children as well as adults slept outside, either on balconies or in the yards of first-floor apartments. Diagonally from our apartment was a street lamp. When I went to bed, I'd often see older men seated around a card table quietly playing checkers, pinochle, or bid whist, while sipping beer. When I awoke at five or six o'clock in the morning, a few of them would still be there. They had no fear of assault. Many families never locked their doors until late at night, after everyone was home. When people visited, they'd simply knock on the door and let themselves in.
There were gangs and infrequent gang fights. Two of the North Philadelphia gangs I remember were the Saints and the Bucket of Blood. They sometimes fought but mostly with sticks, fists, and knives; occasionally you'd hear about the use of a homemade pistol called a "zip gun." The thing about the gang activity back then is that if you weren't in a gang, it was unlikely that you'd be bothered. That's in contrast with today, when innocent bystanders are often shot and killed in drive-by shootings.
In those days, there was a thriving business community on Poplar Street, which ran along the north side of the Richard Allen project. Grocery, drug, and clothing stores lined Poplar between 10th and 13th Streets. They were mostly small, Jewish-owned stores, though several were owned by blacks. Most of the grocery stores had unattended stands set up outside for fruits and vegetables — with little concern about theft. Often customers would select their fruits or vegetables and take them into the store to be weighed and paid for.
A long block away, at Ninth and Girard Avenue, was an A&P supermarket where my cousin and I would take our wagons to earn money carting groceries home for customers. A little further away was Marshall Street, which had Jewish-owned stores of every type and merchants with street carts selling just about any vegetable or fruit one wanted to buy. One of the strategies used by my mother, grandmother, and aunts was to shop late in the evening, just before closing time. That's when the merchants would sell food items for reduced prices. We called that "Jewing them down," a term not considered racist back then, at least by the people who used it. A little further from our home were the thriving business centers along Ridge and Columbia Avenues and various blocks along 29th Street.
There was nothing particularly notable about a thriving business community in black neighborhoods, except that it would one day virtually disappear due to high crime and the 1960s riots. Such a disappearance had at least several results: in order to shop, today's poor residents must travel longer distances — often to suburban malls — and bear that expense; high crime costs reduce incentives for either a black or white business to locate in these neighborhoods, because the people who prey on the businesses are equal-opportunity thugs; if a business does locate in a high-crime area, it must pay for additional insurance and take other precautions, such as the purchase of iron roll-down bars.
Some supermarkets go even farther, hiring guards and placing no items near entrances and exits. And some stores deal with their customers from behind bulletproof plexiglass partitions. Yesteryear, such security measures were unknown. But now, to stay in business, an owner must accept higher security costs. Customers must contend with the results: increased prices and lower-quality merchandise and services reflect those costs.
The absence of shops and other businesses also reduces work opportunities for residents. One of my after-school and weekend jobs was to work at Sam Raboy's grocery store, between 12th and 13th on Poplar. I waited on customers, delivered orders, stocked shelves, and cleaned up. Other stores along Poplar hired other young people to do the same kind of work.
Junior High School
We lived in North Philadelphia one year before I was promoted to the seventh grade and the start of junior high school, called middle school these days. My home room teacher was black — Mrs. Viola Meekins; she also taught me English. Most other teachers at the Stoddart-Fleisher school were white. Having had most of my elementary school education at Andrew Hamilton, whose student body was middle class, I was academically far ahead of my peers at Stoddart-Fleisher, who came predominantly from poor families.
Being academically ahead was a plus for me but a minus as well. It was a plus because Mrs. Meekins and other teachers thought highly of me and gave me more accelerated work. I remember their compliments on my diction and grammar, and frequently calling on me for answers. Occasionally, I turned in sloppy work containing misspellings. When that happened, Mrs. Meekins would tear my two- or three-page composition into four parts and put a note on the top of one of them: "At least you could spell correctly. Rewrite." It didn't take long for me to be more careful.
Excerpted from Up From the Projects by Walter E. William. Copyright © 2010 Walter E. Williams. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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Table of Contents
ONE Starting Out
TWO Rudderless and Drifting
THREE In the Army Now
FOUR Heading West for Opportunity
FIVE Heading East for Opportunity
SIX Teaching and Preaching
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I've always enjoyed Dr. Williams' columns and this book helps me to appreciate the man behind the words mor clearly. A standard future generations would do well to emulate.
I bought this book after Dr. Thomas Sowell wrote a column about it.