Should I have come here?
But going back was
Wherever my eyes turned,
they saw stricken,
frightened black faces
trying vainly to cope
with a civilization
that they did not understand.
I felt lonely.
I had fled one insecurity
and embraced another.
MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN, NOVEMBER 1937
IDA MAE BRANDON GLADNEY
IDA MAE REUNITED WITH HER BIG SISTER, Irene, at the train station in Milwaukee, and it was clear to both sisters that Ida Mae and George had a long way to go before they could survive on their own in the North. Ida Mae had made it out of Mississippi, but her task had just begun. Irene took them to her walk-up apartment in a two-flat off Reservoir on the North Side of the city. The sister had been in Milwaukee only a couple of years herself, having followed her husband, the third one, Richard, there in 1935. Ida Mae and her family camped out in Irene’s front room with all their worldly belongings while Ida Mae’s husband went out hunting for work.
Ida Mae had landed in Milwaukee because her sister had migrated there along a not altogether random route established at the start of the movement, back when the two of them were just little girls. It was one of the by-products of the Great Migration that particular southern counties became feeder lines to specific destinations in the North, based on where the earliest migrants went and established themselves, which in turn was often based on something as random as where the northern companies recruiting southerners in World War I just happened to be based. Irene had followed one of those tributaries.
A map of the crosscurrents of migration would link otherwise completely unrelated southern counties and towns with seemingly random northern cities that, other than the train lines and sometimes in spite of them, made little practical sense but nonetheless made sister cities of the unlikeliest of pairings: Palestine, Texas, and Syracuse, New York; Norfolk, Virginia, and Roxbury in Boston; Brookhaven, Mississippi, and Bloomington, Illinois.16 Small colonies of migrants from Chickasaw County, Mississippi, ended up in Toledo, Ohio, where Ida Mae’s older brothers fled, and in Kalamazoo, Michigan, when the call came for workers.
But for most sharecroppers in Chickasaw County, the Promised Land was, oddly enough, a place called Beloit, Wisconsin, on the Rock River seventy-five miles southeast of Milwaukee, which, along with Chicago, because of the Chicago Defender and the mail-order catalogues, would have figured prominently in their minds.17
The foundries and metalworking factories in Beloit and the steel mills and manufacturers of farm implements in Milwaukee went to northeast Mississippi to hire workers used to hard labor for little money back during World War I. With so many northerners nosing around the South for cheap black labor, the recruiters had to work undercover and spread themselves out among the targeted states to escape detection, arrest, or fines that could run into the thousands of dollars.
Ultimately, southern protectionism had limited effect, and neighbors and cousins of Ida Mae’s husband made their way from Okolona to Beloit, some later fanning out to Milwaukee and Chicago. And so, arriving as she did deep into the Depression, Ida Mae’s sister, Irene, followed a quiet but well-trod rivulet from Chickasaw County to Milwaukee.
The city’s colored population had not skyrocketed as it had in Detroit, which rose sevenfold from 5,741 to 41,000, or Gary, which shot up from 383 to 5,300, during World War I.18 But the number of colored people in Milwaukee had risen from a mere 980 in 1910 to 2,229 by 1920, an increase of 127 percent, and continued to rise in the 1920s and 1930s.
Once Irene got to Milwaukee, it didn’t take her long to start sending gift boxes of clothes from the North and talking up Wisconsin—not pressuring Ida Mae, who was too easygoing to take anything too seriously anyway, but just telling her flat out, “If I was you, I just wouldn’t stay down there.”
Milwaukee was a frank and clattering workhorse of a town, a concrete smokestack of a place with trolley cars clanking against a web of power lines and telephone cables filling the sky. Curls of steam rose from the rooftops and factory silos and from the gray hulk of the Schlitz brewery over by the Cherry Street Bridge.
It was the other side of the world from the wide-open, quiet land of the cotton fields. Ida Mae saw things she never imagined, bridges that lifted into the air to let ships pass through, traffic lights and streetlamps and flocks of white-robed women—nuns, she was told they were—their habits fluttering in the wind and their crisp headdresses making a stiff halo around their faces. Ida Mae had never seen anyone like them before. She felt drawn to them, and she liked to watch them float by, regal and otherworldly.
There were unknown tongues and aromas drifting out of the beer gardens and delicatessens. There were Germans, Poles, Slavs, Hungarians, Irish, Italians, Greeks, and Russians who had come here, as Ida Mae and her husband had, willing to work their way up from the bottom and make a life for themselves in a freer place than the one they had left. Before World War I, Milwaukee had not extended itself to the laboring caste of the South, nor had it needed to, with the continuing supply of European immigrants to work its factories.
But, as in the rest of the industrial North, the number of Europeans immigrating to Milwaukee plummeted from 22,508 in the first decade of the twentieth century to a mere 451 during all of the 1920s because of the war.19 Factories that had never before considered colored labor came to see the advantages of colored workers from the South, even if some of the so-called advantages were themselves steeped in stereotype. “They are superior to foreign labor because they readily understand what you try to tell them,” one employer reported.20 “Loyalty, willingness, cheerfulness. Quicker, huskier, and can stand more heat than other workmen.”
Most colored migrants were funneled into the lowest-paying, least wanted jobs in the harshest industries—iron and steel foundries and slaughtering and meatpacking. They “only did the dirty work,” a colored steelworker said of his early days in Milwaukee, “jobs that even Poles didn’t want.”21
But it was now the fall of 1937, and even those jobs were disappearing. George and Ida Mae arrived in Milwaukee as the city was falling deeper into the Depression. The automotive, farm, and heavy machinery sectors suffered crushing layoffs in August 1937, two months before they arrived, layoffs that would continue well into the following year. The kinds of jobs George was looking for and that most colored men performed—unskilled labor that was often hot, tedious, backbreaking, or dangerous—plunged by seventy percent, from 1,557 such jobs in 1930 to only 459 at the end of the decade, around the time George and Ida Mae arrived.
With jobs scarce, the old tendency toward intolerance and exclusion reasserted itself. Hiring managers at A. O. Smith Company, a tank and auto frame factory, said there was no use in colored people applying for jobs there because the company “never did and didn’t intend to employ Negroes.”22 Company guards knew to stop colored job seekers at the gates.
Still, the urge to get out of the South was so strong that by the mid-1930s, Milwaukee’s North Side, a neighborhood of tenements and two-flats just above the city’s central business district, was already becoming the colored side of town. Since World War I, it had been filling each day with more and more colored people from the South, so much so that in some grade-school classrooms, nearly every child was from Mississippi, Tennessee, or Arkansas, and those born in the North were in the minority. The way things looked, Ida Mae’s children would add three more to that demographic equation.
By now Ida Mae couldn’t hide the fact that she was pregnant and was already making plans to head back to Mississippi to give birth. She didn’t quite trust whatever it was they did to people in hospitals. She had never been inside one but had heard that they strapped women down during delivery, and so she decided to surrender herself to a Mississippi midwife as she and everybody she knew had always done.
It was calculated that the baby was due sometime in the late spring, so she would be heading back to Mississippi in three or four months. George hadn’t found steady work yet, and Ida Mae would have to leave him with her sister and brother-in-law while he continued to hunt for work. Ida Mae’s return to Mississippi delayed her adjustment to the New World, planning as she was to leave nearly as soon as she arrived. But her decision had assured her that she wouldn’t end up like so many other wives, left down south waiting for a husband who might never get around to sending for them.
HARLEM, SPRING 1945
GEORGE SWANSON STARLING
GEORGE HAD THE GOOD FORTUNE to have made it out of Florida and to have arrived in New York well into World War II, and was thus able to find a job right away. It was a job doing the one thing, whether he sought it or not, that would keep him tied to the South. It was a job on the railroad, the Seaboard Air Line, it was called, which would keep him on the rails up and down the East Coast for days and weeks at a time, expose him to the temptations of women and drink, and do little to help his already colicky marriage to Inez.
He was overqualified and overeducated for the job as a coach attendant, hauling luggage into the baggage car and helping people stow their carry-ons in the overhead bins for a dime or a nickel tip. But it was a step up from what they had wanted him to do when they first got a look at him.
“We need some big, tall, husky boys like you to carry the trays in the dining room,” the manager told him.
“Well, you need some big husky boys to carry the bags on the coaches too,” George said.
“We need waiters.”
“But I don’t want to wait no tables.”
The war was on and labor was short, so George got the job as coach attendant. He wouldn’t get paid what his white counterparts were getting even in the enlightened North. He would be getting more than he ever had as a fruit picker down south, which was not particularly a great triumph but was a fact known to anyone, including and perhaps especially railroad management, as it was a convenient way to explain away the lower pay scale for black employees. At least you’re making more than you did down south, they could say.
The job meant working twenty-four- and forty-eight-hour runs up and down the East Coast on trains called the Silver Comet, the Silver Star, and the Silver Meteor, the very train he rode when he migrated north. He would work the Jim Crow car and the white car behind it, stacking trunks and suitcases up to the ceiling, getting ice, and polishing shoes. He would make close to a hundred dollars every two weeks for it.
In attending to the needs of his white clientele, he would be addressed as “boy,” as was the custom when he was working the white cars, even though by now he was twenty-seven years old and towered over most everyone who addressed him as such.
They could call him what they wanted on the train. He didn’t like it, but it didn’t define him. He lived in Harlem now and was free.
He had avoided the racial turf wars that characterized other cities during the Great Migration. In Manhattan, those fights had been settled long before World War II, when George got there.
The first blacks in Harlem were actually a small group of seventeenth-century slaves of the Dutch West India Company.23 They built the original road between lower Manhattan and Harlem and worked the farms and estates of what was then undeveloped marshland and countryside.
As more Africans were shipped in to build the colony, the majority were concentrated in lower Manhattan, where the first eleven African captives had landed on the island in 1625. They and those that followed were imported by the Dutch to clear timber and construct the city’s roads and buildings. They worked in captivity for two hundred years, until New York abolished slavery in 1827. Emancipation set free ten thousand slaves in Manhattan. But they found their economic conditions little changed, confined as they were to the lowliest positions and facing steep competition from newly arrived immigrants.
Their tenuous condition and the state of race relations in general reached a nadir in the city during the Civil War Draft Riots of 1863, when Irish immigrants launched a five-day assault on freed slaves in lower Manhattan.
The trouble began when the federal government announced it would start drafting men to serve in the Union Army.24 Wealthy men could avoid the draft by paying three hundred dollars or hiring a substitute. Anger rose among Irish working-class men, in particular, who couldn’t afford to buy their way out of a war they felt they had no stake in. They saw it as risking their lives to defend southern slaves, who would, in their minds, come north and only become competition for them. As it was, the Irish were already competing with former slaves in New York, whose very presence undercut the wages of working-class whites because blacks had little choice but to accept lower pay for whatever work they did.
The draft began July 11, 1863. Two days later, on the morning of July 13, mobs began assaulting blacks on the streets. They attacked a fruit vendor and a nine-year-old boy in lower Manhattan and set fire to a colored orphanage in Midtown. They attacked white women married to colored men and burned boardinghouses and tenements where colored people lived, stripping the clothes off the white property owners. They dragged a black coachman out of his home, hanged him from a lamppost, and then dragged the body through the streets by the genitals.
In five days of rioting, anti-war mobs lynched eleven black men and drove the colony of former slaves in lower Manhattan into a continual search for housing. Black residents moved steadily north from one un-established and unsavory neighborhood to the next, from lower Manhattan to Greenwich Village to the coldwater flats of the Tenderloin District and finally to pockets of upper Manhattan, in the emerging district north of Central Park known as Harlem.
By the late nineteenth century, Harlem was no longer isolated farmland but, due to the rise in immigration from eastern and southern Europe and the completion of new subway routes, was now a fashionable district of middle-class Germans, Russians, Jews, and Irish living in recently built brownstones on broad boulevards and of newly arrived Italians living in the more working-class outskirts of East Harlem. It was where Oscar Hammerstein bought and sold property during the boom years at the turn of the twentieth century and it was the district represented by Fiorello La Guardia in the U.S. House of Representatives during the Depression.
As a stream of colored people trudged north from other parts of Manhattan and from the countryside of the American South, the Italians and Jews ceded much of Harlem to the new arrivals in the early decades of the twentieth century for the greener hamlets of Westchester, Queens, and the Bronx or the stylish apartments on Riverside Drive.
By 1930, some 165,000 colored people were living in Harlem, packed so densely that some tenants had to sleep in shifts—“as soon as one person awoke and left, his bed was taken over by another,” the historian Gilbert Osofsky wrote.25 Harlem had become majority black, its residents having built institutions like the Abyssinian Baptist Church, regaling white audiences at the Cotton Club, reciting poetry at private salons, running numbers rackets, and baptizing themselves in the Harlem and East Rivers.
Even during the Depression, people continued to pour in by the tens of thousands, such that the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., wrote, “There was hardly a member of Abyssinian Church who could not count on one or more relatives among the new arrivals.”
The changeover in Harlem was not a smooth one and went to the very heart of the basic difference between the North and South, between the authoritarian control over colored lives under Jim Crow and the laissez-faire passivity in the big, anonymous cities of the North and West.
The receiving stations of the Great Migration were no more welcoming of the colored migrants than the South was—in fact, the arrival of colored migrants set off remarkable displays of hostility, ranging from organized threats against white property owners who might sell or rent to blacks to firebombing of houses before the new colored owners could even move in.
White Harlemites banded together into committees to fight what they openly called “a growing menace,” an “invasion” of “black hordes,” and a “common enemy,” using what Gilbert Osofsky called “the language of war.”26 They formed organizations like the Save-Harlem Committee and the Harlem Property Owners Improvement Corporation to protect against “the greatest problem Harlem has had to face.”
Panicked property owners drafted restrictive covenants in which they swore not to let colored people into their properties for fifteen years or “till when it was thought this situation … will have run its course.”27 Some covenants covered entire blocks and went so far as to limit the number of colored janitors, bellboys, butlers, maids, and cooks to be employed in a Harlem home or business. White leaders tried to segregate churches, restaurants, and theaters, the Lafayette Theater on Seventh Avenue permitting colored people to sit only in the balcony, no different from Mississippi.28
White leaders warned colored real estate agents not to seek housing on certain streets and tried to negotiate a boundary line that colored people would agree not to cross.29 On the other side of the color line, they took recalcitrant white neighbors to court if they broke down and rented to colored people against the rules of the covenants.
In the end, none of these things worked, not because anti-black forces gave up or grew more tolerant but because of the more fluid culture and economics of the North—the desire of whites to sell or rent to whomever they chose whether for profit or out of fear, necessity, or self-interest, or the temptation of higher rents that could be extracted from colored tenants with few other places to go.
Just as significantly, these things didn’t work because of what might be called the dispassion of the indifferent. The silent majority of whites could be frightened into lockstep solidarity in the authoritarian South but could not be controlled or willed into submission in the cacophonous big cities of the North.
The Great Migration forced Harlem property owners to make a choice. They could try to maintain a whites-only policy in a market being deserted by whites and lose everything, or they could take advantage of the rising black demand and “rent to colored people at higher prices and survive,” Osofsky wrote.30 Most were pragmatic and did the latter.
The flood of colored migrants soon broke down the last of the racial levees in Harlem, and signs went up all over the place, alerting people to the opening up of the market. The following notice, one among many, was posted in front of a Harlem tenement in 1916, at the start of the Great Migration:
We have endeavored for some time to avoid turning over this house to colored tenants, but as a result of … rapid changes in conditions … this issue has been forced upon us.31
The posted concessions, addressed to white neighbors with a sense of defeat and resignation, offered a glimpse into the differences between the North and South. The South, totalitarian and unyielding, was at that very moment succeeding at what white Harlem leaders were so desperately trying to do, that is, controlling the movements of blacks by controlling the minds of whites.
“The basic collapse of all organized efforts to exclude Negroes from Harlem was the inability of any group to gain total and unified support of all white property owners in the neighborhood,” Osofsky wrote.32 “Landlords forming associations by blocks had a difficult time keeping people on individual streets united.”
The free-spirited individualism of immigrants and newcomers seeking their fortune in the biggest city in the country thus worked to the benefit of colored people needing housing in Harlem. It opened up a place that surely would have remained closed in the straitjacketed culture of the South.
By the 1940s, when George Starling arrived, Harlem was a mature and well-established capital of black cultural life, having peaked with the Harlem Renaissance, plunged into Depression after the 1929 stock market crash, climbed back to life during World War II, and, unbeknownst to the thousands still arriving from Florida, the Carolinas, Georgia, and Virginia, not to mention Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean when George got there, was at that precise moment as rollickingly magical as it was ever likely to be.
Seventh Avenue was the Champs-Élysées, a boulevard wide and ready for any excuse for a parade, whether the marches of the minister Father Divine or several thousand Elks in their capes and batons, and, on Sunday afternoons, the singular spectacle called The Stroll. It was where the people who had been laundresses, bellmen, and mill hands in the South dressed up as they saw themselves to be—the men in frock coats and monocles, the women in fox stoles and bonnets with ostrich feathers, the “servants of the rich Park and Fifth Avenue families” wearing “hand-me-downs from their employers,” all meant to evoke startled whispers from the crowd on the sidewalk: “My Gawd, did you see that hat?”33
Virtually every black luminary was living within blocks of the others in the elevator buildings and lace-curtained brownstones up on Sugar Hill, from Langston Hughes to Thurgood Marshall to Paul Robeson, Duke Ellington, and W. E. B. Du Bois, on and off, to Richard Wright, who had now outgrown even Chicago, and his friend and protégé Ralph Ellison, who actually lived in Washington Heights but said it was close enough to be Harlem and pretty much considered it so.
Of course, George, having just arrived from Florida, was nowhere near the Sugar Hill set. He was, however, good with money and managed to save up enough fairly quickly to find a more than decent place to live. He located a brownstone on 132nd Street off Lenox in what the people on Sugar Hill called the Valley, which accounted for most of what would be considered Harlem and was thought of as perfectly respectable, even admirable, for someone like George. Now that he had a place and had put a down payment on it, he was in a position to send for Inez. In the meantime, he made the most of his free, new self.
When he wasn’t on the rails, he was at the Savoy Ballroom, the rum-boogie emporium that took up a whole city block at Lenox and 140th Street. It had a marble staircase and a cut-glass chandelier in the lobby, settees for guests to rest on between dances, two bands alternating so the music never stopped.34 Anyone might be there, from a shoeshine boy to Greta Garbo or the Prince of Wales. For a time, Ella Fitzgerald was the house vocalist, Benny Goodman or Jimmy Lunceford might be there on any given night, and if you stayed there long enough—which, having come all this way, George, of course, did—you were bound to run into someone from back home in the South—someone from Durham, Charleston, Richmond, Augusta, or, to George’s delight, Eustis, Florida.
Gussie Robinson, Louis and Cleo Grant, “Babe” Blye—old Reuben’s brother—John Burns, Mary McClendon, and a whole bunch of the Youngs. All of them might show up at the Savoy or at a place called Big George’s or the Monte Carlo out in Corona, where a colony of Eustis people were living, which meant that pretty much every weekend, there was a Great Migration convention, a reunion of onetime fruit and cotton pickers, yard boys and house girls and country schoolteachers who had left all the sirring and ma’aming behind. They were jitterbugging on a floating wood floor in the sequins and Florsheims they now could afford, toasting themselves in another world altogether, a world of their own making in the North—if only for a Saturday night.
LOS ANGELES, 1953
ROBERT JOSEPH PERSHING FOSTER
ROBERT WAS HEADING BACK to Los Angeles sometime in the late spring of 1953 with the relief and uncertainty of a discriminating man having finally made the decision of his life. He would no longer be a visitor here. For better or for worse, it was home now, and yet he knew little of it. It was as if he had married a perfect stranger and was now confronting the enormity of getting to know her after the deed was done. He had to convince himself that he had made the right choice, that, after all, there really had been no choice for an educated and ambitious colored man like him at the time.
He had driven clear across the country and more than halfway up the California coast and back, with an unsatisfying flirtation with Oakland in between. But his task had just begun.
What little he had when he set out from Louisiana had now dwindled to almost nothing. He pulled into Los Angeles with all of a dollar and a half in his pocket. Now it somehow had to be converted into enough money to buy equality, meaning, to him, enough to go anywhere, do anything, buy the best of whatever he might want. He could not erase half a lifetime of sirring and stepping off the sidewalk, but he would have a good time trying.
He did not have enough to put a security deposit on an apartment, so he had to return to Dr. Beck, who put him up in the guest room of his house and made good on his promise to throw some surgery his way.
Dr. Beck called Robert into his office early on.
“I want you to examine this lady,” Dr. Beck told him, starting to describe the patient. “This is Mrs. Brown. I think she has a tumor. Check her out. Tell me what she needs.”
Dr. Beck had already examined the patient and knew precisely what she needed, but it was his way of easing Robert into this part of his practice. “That would feed you,” Robert said years later. “It wouldn’t give me quail, but it would feed me.”
He needed to find a place so he could send for Alice and the girls. He was itching to be on his own and make a name for himself. He couldn’t do that sitting in somebody else’s office waiting for a patient to need surgery.
He heard that the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company, the largest colored insurance company in the West (founded by William Nickerson, Jr.,35 a migrant from Texas; George Allen Beavers, a migrant from Georgia; and Norman Oliver Houston, a native Californian, in 1925), was hiring doctors to go house to house to collect urine samples and do routine examinations of customers seeking coverage. Years later, this kind of work would be performed by people with a fraction of his education, and it would be unthinkable for a doctor to show up at a patient’s house for any reason, much less to collect urine samples.
It was beneath him, and it was exactly the kind of thing he was running from in Louisiana. He never wanted to be a country doctor going out to people’s shotgun houses with a satchel in his hand. Now he would be a city doctor going out to people’s bungalows with a satchel in his hand, and not to deliver babies or patch wounds but to take people’s blood pressure, of all things. There was no way he could let the people back in Monroe, and, Heaven forbid, his in-laws, the Clements, know how humble his existence was and how desperate he had become.
But he needed the money and had no choice. He was better off than most other new arrivals from the South, who didn’t have his credentials. So he made himself grateful for the $7.50 he got for each exam and for the extra $2.50 for the cup of urine.
It was as if he were a young boy again, going door-to-door as he had in Monroe, asking people if they wanted some figs to can for the coming winter. As he had before, he tried to make the best of the situation. He learned to ingratiate himself to the customers while making sure not to miss anything lest he not get paid. But he never knew what he was in for, because here, unlike in Monroe, he was a small person in a big place, a colored man who had memorized the rules of the South and was now in a place with no rules, none that he could see anyway, and where the Foster name could not help him.
One day he showed up at the modest home of a colored couple in their fifties somewhere in South Central. The wife met him at the door and called her husband to the front room.
“John, the doctor’s here,” the wife said before disappearing into the kitchen.
Robert checked off the answers the husband gave about preexisting conditions, fractures, and surgeries. He gave the man a cup to collect the urine in and later began the physical.
He put a blood pressure cuff on the man’s arm and began listening for the systolic pressure. Just then the wife walked in and turned the television on so loud that Robert couldn’t hear the beat.
“Could you ask your wife to please cut the television off?” Robert asked. “I can’t do my examination.”
The woman complied, and soon Robert was finished with the husband.
“Now,” Robert said, “I also have a form to examine your wife.”
“Alright,” the husband said. “Baby, come on. The doctor’s ready to do your physical.”
The wife came out. She was a large woman in a housedress and apron. She had her hands on her hips. And Robert was unprepared for what she had to say.
“I told you I wasn’t going to let no nigger doctor examine me.”
Robert was beside himself. There were many things one could say about the South, but he had never experienced rejection by patients of his own kind and hadn’t anticipated such a thing in this new place. Colored doctors in the South were revered because there were so few of them and because they were the only ones who could be counted on to go into the country to tend to colored people. They were greeted like Union soldiers come to free the slaves. Because of the great chasm between blacks and whites, colored doctors also had a virtual monopoly on colored patients.
He realized he had entered a more complicated universe than he had imagined. Colored people in California didn’t have to go to colored doctors if they didn’t want to. They had choices colored people in the South couldn’t dream of. To make matters worse for a colored doctor new in town, the very system that instilled privilege and superiority in southern whites also instilled a sense of inferiority in their colored workers, and when the latter got the chance to get all that had been denied them, some sought out whatever they were convinced was superior—and thus white.
In that one exchange, Robert experienced a by-product of integration that would affect nearly every black business and institution when the doors of segregation flung open—rejection by a black customer base for the wide-open new world. It didn’t take Robert long to realize that he would have to work doubly hard to win over his own people and get any patients at all. But at the moment, he was so hurt and rattled by the woman’s rejection that he couldn’t think straight.
“It frightened me so,” Robert said years later, “I threw all my things in my bag and dashed out of the house to leave.”
“I’m sorry, Doctor,” the husband was saying.
“That’s alright, that’s alright,” Robert said, the door closing behind him.
Robert got into his car and only then realized that, in his haste, he had forgotten something.
“Oh, my gosh, I’ve undergone this embarrassment,” he thought to himself, “and I don’t have the urine specimen. I’ll only get $7.50.”
He needed every nickel, so he had no choice. “I cut the motor off,” he said, “swallowed my pride, and went back and got the urine specimen.”
The woman never let him examine her, and it was just as well. The experience had begun to shape his vision of this new world. “To think that I had come all the way from the Deep South,” he would say many years later, “out here to this Land of Milk and Honey and Opportunity and Intelligence, to find that one of my own color was disrespecting me.”
He endured such slights for years, and drove all over South Central Los Angeles doing perfunctory examinations and collecting urine as if he were a traveling salesman and not a surgeon with military awards, and he did it because he had to. “That’s the cut that you took to get your foot in the door,” he would say years later.
The ready-made clientele of old Louisianans he had imagined in his more cocksure moments in Monroe did not materialize. The people were there, alright. He saw them spilling onto Jefferson after Mass on Sunday mornings and packing into the clubs and cafés on Central Avenue and shopping on Crenshaw. But he had no easy way to get to them. Some were going to white doctors over in Leimert Park. Some were going to colored doctors they already knew. Specialists like him often built a practice through referrals, but few doctors knew him well enough to refer patients to him, and they seemed content with the surgeons already on their roster. Los Angeles was turning out to be bigger than he thought, and it was harder to make inroads.
Even the people he knew from back in Monroe were slow to seek him out for treatment. Some people acted different when they got out to the New World. Some changed their names, no longer wanted to be called Boo but by their given name, Henry or William, as Robert himself had done. Some were anxious to leave the South and the past behind and preferred doctors from California, because people from California were seen as better educated, more sophisticated, untainted by the South, and just “better.” Some people disappeared completely—the palest Creoles passed into white society, never to be seen again in the colored world. But mostly, the same cliques and assumptions people had had back home had migrated with them to the New World. Some people had resented Robert and the Fosters back in Monroe and brought the feelings with them. And some just couldn’t bear the idea of little Pershing from back home examining them.
“All that crowd over there, and then some,” Robert said. “They didn’t come. My father taught half of ’em. There’s enough people in this town to give me the biggest practice in the world that I went to grade school with.”
He learned he would have to make do without them. He was feeling anxious and slightly desperate and could not bear the thought of failure. Big Madison was back in Monroe, looking to hear how his little brother was handling all those patients he bragged about. Alice and the girls were awaiting word as to when they would join him in what everyone expected would be a fabulous new home. And his father-in-law was surely expecting a progress report on how his practice was faring in Los Angeles, a city the father-in-law had argued against in the first place.
As it was, the Clements were beside themselves with excitement over developments back in Atlanta. President Clement had decided to make a historic bid to become the first colored member of the Atlanta Board of Education. Colored people could not vote in most of the South and could lose their lives for even trying to register, and here was Clement running for public office in the biggest city in the South. It was such a long shot that Robert was too weary to pay it much attention.
Somehow Robert had to find a way out of this new desert he was in. So he wasted no time seeking out prospects wherever he could. Rather than bemoan his lowered position as a traveling hack for an insurance company, he started viewing every insurance customer needing a physical as a potential patient. He dug deep into himself and resurrected the earnest little boy selling figs and buttermilk back in Monroe. He put on his most charming self and tried to win over whoever was placed before him, no matter how surly or resistant or lowly the patient was.
“If people saw you and liked you,” he began, “it’s your job to charm ’em, show how efficient you were.”
He spent many lonely hours crisscrossing neighborhoods in South Central Los Angeles, far from the Becks’ and the manicured places he wanted to be, conducting those insurance examinations.
Then, in May, a month after he had arrived in Los Angeles, he got word from Atlanta: President Clement had beaten the longest of odds and been elected to the Board of Education. He had defeated an incumbent, 22,259 votes to 13,936 votes, in an election in which Red-baiting detractors tried to get him disqualified in the eleventh hour and his opponent, who had been on the board since 1927, had been so confident that he didn’t even campaign.
“I didn’t think the people were ready for this,” his opponent, J.36 H. Landers, told The Atlanta Constitution.
The win made Clement the first colored man to win a major office in Georgia since Reconstruction and was significant enough to merit a story in The New York Times and articles in Time and Newsweek. “For the first time since Reconstruction days,” the Timeswrote, “a Negro won nomination to Atlanta’s Board of Education.”37
The news filtered back as Robert was knocking on doors collecting urine samples and still boarding with the Becks. He was feeling even more isolated and alone and could not let on to anyone back home the truth of his situation. Just as he was needing to muster more faith than ever, the South chose a rare instance to let slip a colored victory—and to President Clement, no less, the man who had never thought Robert measured up, who had taken over his role as the head of his own family, and who second-guessed his every decision, even his choice to leave the South. Robert was struggling with that choice at that very moment and now could not escape his father-in-law’s triumph because it was national news.
Robert was now feeling the accumulated weight of all the pressure he was under. With the Clements unwittingly gaining a greater hold on Alice and the girls as President Clement rose in stature, Robert fretted over his options. He had to get himself established, and soon. He devised a new plan to gain a foothold in Los Angeles: he now decided to canvass physicians door-to-door to try to build up referrals. He would market himself at the big middle-class churches in town. He would court potential patients wherever he could and dress in such a way that they wouldn’t forget him.
So, in between insurance exams, he went from building to building, office to office, up and down Jefferson Avenue and off Vermont and Figueroa, tracking down physicians like a homeless man looking for change. He knocked on glass doors with a doctor’s name etched on them as he dreamed his, too, would be one day. He sucked in his pride and took in a deep breath and tried introducing himself to physicians who knew or thought little of him to get into their good graces. He showed them his surgery credentials and asked if they wouldn’t mind referring cases to him if they didn’t do surgery themselves.
“That was met with poor success,” Robert said. Here he was, a perfect stranger from someplace down south—Louisiana, was it?—asking for a favor. The big-city doctors who happened to beat him to California or had grown up there didn’t take to it kindly. “So you took a lump in the jaw and kept on to the next office.”
He made his pitch again and again and got the same response. “All the cordiality in the world,” Robert said. “They would say, ‘I’ve been using Dr. XYZ for all these years. Show me one good reason I should change to you.’ ”
He didn’t have an answer then, but he was determined that one day he would. So he set about trying to make a name for himself the best he knew how. He started going to churches even though he was rarely seen in them otherwise. He decided to put on his loudest, most ostentatious suit and tie so the people would remember him. He made a show of dropping more than he really could afford when the collection plate came his way, enough for the church people to be sure to notice. He asked the ministers if they would introduce him to their congregations from the pulpit as they did politicians and visitors from back South.
“I didn’t have any responses,” he said.
But Golden State Insurance kept sending him out, and those after-hours insurance examinations were adding up. So he decided to turn his attention to the people themselves. He was doing more and more of those exams, and the anonymous working-class colored people of South Central L.A., many newly arrived from Texas or Arkansas or parts of Louisiana that Robert did not know, began to notice this smooth-talking physician, who looked more like a high roller than a doctor in his loud, tailored suits and stingy-brim hats and who made you feel as though you were the most important person in the world.
He conducted enough of those examinations and collected enough of those critical vials of urine to move into an apartment west of Crenshaw, near the Becks. He had been in Los Angeles a couple of months, getting himself set up, and could send for Alice and the girls now. His name was now forming on the lips of cleaning ladies and laborers, gamblers and seamstresses, postal workers and stevedores scattered all over South Central who wanted a doctor they could relate to, the humble and exuberant people who would eventually become the foundation of everything he would ever do in Los Angeles and among the most loyal people ever to enter his life.