What on earth was it, I mused,132
bending my head to the wind,
that made us leave
the warm, mild weather of home
for all this cold,
and never to return,
if not for something worth hoping for?
—RALPH ELLISON, Invisible Man
IDA MAE BRANDON GLADNEY
THINGS HAD GROWN DESPERATE, and, although she had three little ones at home, Ida Mae had to find some kind of work if they were to survive another year. The options for colored women fresh from the field were limited up north—mainly, to cleaning white people’s homes, doing laundry, or working a factory line, if the factory was short of men or of white women. For Ida Mae, domestic work was the likeliest option for now.
It was still the Depression, and it seemed as if the North just didn’t know what to do with colored women who were still learning the ways of the cities. Even in the best of times, many industries, while accepting black men for their strong backs, and then only in limited numbers, refused to hire black women, seeing no need to have them around. Throughout the North and West, black women migrants were having the hardest time finding work of all the people pouring into the big cities, harder than Polish and Serbian immigrants to Chicago, harder than Italian and Jewish immigrants to New York, harder than Mexican and Chinese immigrants of either gender in California. They were literally at the bottom of the economic hierarchy of the urban North, the least connected by race and gender to the power brokers in their adopted lands and having to stand in line to hire out scrubbing floors when times got hard during the Depression years.
Some employers started requiring them to have college degrees, which neither they nor the vast majority of other unskilled laborers could have been expected to have. Some demanded that black women take voice tests to weed out those from the South, tests that Mississippians just up from the plantation would have been all but assured of failing. Even those lucky enough to land in a training course for assembly-line work found that they were often shunted to “positions in either the cafeteria or bathrooms.”133
Entire companies and classes of work were closed off to them without apology.134 A few years after Ida Mae arrived, a plant in Ohio, for instance, sent out a call for five hundred women, specifying that they be white. The plant had to alter its age limits, lower its requirements, and go to neighboring states like Illinois to get enough white women, who were more likely than colored women to be able to stay at home with their children. Even when it was unable to fill its quota, the plant still refused to hire colored women.
Thus colored women were left to fight for even the most menial of jobs, facing intense competition from the Irish, German, and Scandinavian servant girls preferred by some of the wealthier white families.
There emerged several classes of domestics. Those on the lowest rung resorted to “slave markets” where colored women gathered on street corners from as early as six in the morning and waited for white housewives from the Bronx and Brooklyn in New York or from Hyde Park or Pill Hill in Chicago to bid on them for as little as fifteen cents an hour.135
Twenty-five such markets were active in New York City alone by 1940. One was by a five-and-dime at 167th and Gerard near the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, where the lowliest women from Harlem sat on crates waiting to be picked.136 Another was a few blocks north at 170th and Walton, the waiting women a little better clothed and slightly less desperate, knowing that the Bronx housewives had to pass them first before getting to the market at Gerard. In Chicago, there was a crowded market at Twelfth and Halsted, where colored women jockeyed over the white housewives who were looking them over, the whole enterprise having the effect of bidding down the colored domestics’ wages.137 One woman at the Chicago slave market reported making fifty cents a day, what she would have made picking cotton in the field.
If she were desperate enough, a colored woman needing work would just show up in a white neighborhood, the wealthier the better, and simply walk down the street. “Someone would invariably call out the window,” wrote the sociologist Barbara Clegg Gray, and hire the woman on the spot to clean the toilets or scrub the floors or whatever the white housewife discovered she needed for maybe a dollar or two.138
In Los Angeles, due to the “great horde of jobless domestics, white families in one of the wealthiest cities in the country could hire colored domestics for as little as five dollars a week” in the 1930s. For that sum, families got someone who would work ten or twelve hours a day doing anything from washing dishes and clothes to cooking and scrubbing floors for not much more than she could have made picking cotton back in Texas.
One colored woman in Los Angeles said she thought getting her high school diploma would make a difference.139 She kept trying to find different work. Jobs on assembly lines, running elevators, clerking in stores, filing in offices, were typical jobs open to unskilled women in those days. “But everywhere I went,” she said, “they wanted to keep me working as a domestic.”
The randomness of this kind of work, hiring oneself out to total strangers with no standards in duties or wages, opened domestics to all kinds of exploitation for very little pay. They could never know for sure what they would be asked to do, how long they would be expected to do it, or if they would be paid what was promised.
It seemed everyone was trying to wring the most out of whatever they had, some white housewives even turning back the hands of the clock to keep from paying a domestic for all the hours she actually worked.140 Older domestics took to forewarning the new ones to take their own clock to work with them and to prepare for any indignity. One housewife ordered a domestic to eat her lunch out of the pet’s bowl, not wanting the help to eat from the same dishes as the family.141
In many cases, the housewives were neither accustomed to hired help nor familiar with colored people, harboring assumptions and prejudices of the day due to lack of exposure.142 The housewives and their domestics brought differing expectations, and frequently each side felt somehow aggrieved. While an employer could go out and hire someone else, some employees, having no legal recourse, took their frustrations out on their madames’ homes when not paid or otherwise exploited, slashing the draperies they had just ironed or defacing the floors they had scrubbed.
Aside from these sources of friction, colored domestics could not know what perils they might face from opportunistic sons or husbands assuming that younger domestics would do more than just clean. As it was, the very act of walking the streets for work came awfully close in appearance to how prostitutes plied their trade—except that the domestics were working at the whim of Janes instead of Johns.
The expectation that any colored woman walking in the white section of town was available to scrub floors and wash windows would continue into the 1960s, such that a colored professional woman appearing in a white neighborhood in the North had to be prepared to be called out to just because she was black. “Say, girl,” a woman called out to my mother in the late 1950s when she was on her way, in her tailored suit and heels, to decorate and fit slip covers in Cleveland Park, a wealthy neighborhood in Washington, D.C. “Could you come up here and clean my bathroom?”
“I’m looking for someone to clean mine,” my mother yelled back to the woman.
Ida Mae’s husband would not have stood for his wife to walk the streets for work, and in any case, Chicago had grown so segregated that the wealthy white neighborhoods were far from where they lived. But one day Ida Mae got word of a job from someone she knew from back home in Mississippi, and that felt a little safer.
A girl who was doing day’s work for a well-to-do couple on the North Side needed someone to fill in for her. It would be temporary, Ida Mae’s friend told her, but would have to do for now.
“Miss Gladney will work in your place,” Ida Mae’s friend told the girl.
The job was more than an hour away on the streetcar, farther north of the Loop than she lived south, almost up near Evanston. The regular girl who mopped floors and folded laundry for the family would be away for a week. The job was paying something like four or five dollars a day. Ida Mae didn’t hesitate.
“I was glad to take her place,” she would say years later.
She dressed for the job and took a change of clothes with her. It turned out to be a man and his wife living in a grand apartment above a shoe store the wife ran.
Ida Mae took the elevator up and went into a glorious apartment, where she found the husband alone in the couple’s bedroom. He was still asleep, which seemed odd to Ida Mae, so she began looking for things to do. The husband roused himself and told Ida Mae what he expected of her.
“Get in the bed with me,” he said.
He told her the regular girl stayed in bed with him all day long. He reassured Ida Mae not to worry, he’d do the cleaning later. He figured that was a fair exchange and good deal for her, a cleaning girl not having to clean at all and still getting paid for it.
Ida Mae was in her midtwenties, a mother of three by then, married to a pious man who wouldn’t stand for another man touching his wife. She knew white men in the South took whatever liberties they wanted with colored women, and there was nothing the women or their husbands could do about it. All her life in Mississippi, she had managed to avoid unwanted advances because she had rarely worked in white people’s homes. Now here she was in Chicago, a white man expecting her to sleep with him as if that were what any colored woman would just naturally want to do. And no matter what happened, she would have no legal recourse. There would be no witnesses. It just would be a privileged man’s word against hers.
She was thinking fast. She was as mad at the girl who sent her without warning her of what the job really entailed as she was at the man expecting her to climb into bed with him with his wife just a floor below. She started to leave. But she had come all this way, had spent the train fare, and she needed the money.
Her body stiffened, and she backed away from the man.
“Just show me what you want cleaned,” Ida Mae said.
Somehow, something in the way she stood or looked straight at him as she said it let the man know she meant business. He didn’t press the matter. He left her alone.
“He didn’t say no more ’cause he seen I wasn’t that type of person,” Ida Mae said years later.
And perhaps in that moment Ida Mae discovered one difference between the North and South. She would not likely have gotten out of it in Mississippi. Her refusal would have been seen as impudence, all but assuring an assault. And there would have been nothing done about it. Here, the northern man seemed to view such a conquest as a hoped-for fringe benefit rather than a right. That, along with Ida Mae’s indignation over the whole thing, appeared to keep her safe.
That day, she cleaned the bathroom, the kitchen, the bedroom, and changed the linens as she had gone there to do. The man stayed in his room. She never went back.
She missed out on the rest of the week’s pay, which she desperately needed. Later, she confronted the regular girl who worked for the couple.
“So you don’t do nothin’ but stay in the bed all day, huh?” Ida Mae said. “Don’t ask me to go back up there again.”
The girl paid Ida Mae out of the money she was making off the couple. The whole sordid affair stayed with Ida Mae for years. She couldn’t see how the girl could live with herself.
“I just don’t know,” Ida Mae would say years later. “Supposing the wife came back home? I just couldn’t see how she did it.”
With five mouths to feed, the family couldn’t go much longer unless Ida Mae found a job. In the fall of 1939, something finally opened up at Inland Steel, over at Sixty-third and Melvina, on the city’s southwest side. George had a brother working there. At this point, Ida Mae didn’t much care what it was as long as it wasn’t day’s work cleaning toilets and fighting off the madame’s husband.
It was her first real job in Chicago. They called her a press operator. She was in the canning department, where her job was to work the presser that attached the curved tops that cover cans as they came down the assembly line. She had to fit the tops on, her arms going up and down and up and down, over and over and over again.
She was excited at first but then found it to be a nerve-jangling endeavor. The factory was loud, the noise a little like being inside a car engine. The mechanical arms that she operated were sharp and heavy and were known to slice off people’s fingers and hands.
She was on the line one day when another worker, a colored woman, got some of her fingers cut off. Ida Mae was a couple of machines down from her.
There wasn’t much of a commotion, as Ida Mae remembered it.
“They stopped everybody for a while,” she said. “Then they went out with her so fast. And she never did come back.”
Ida Mae quit soon after that. A line job turned up at Campbell Soup, where George was working. It wouldn’t last long either, after a woman stole her coat that winter. She got a job at a printing press, and it looked to be a good one. But in time she would get a job at a hospital, Walther Memorial on the West Side of Chicago, working as a hospital aide. She sterilized instruments, cheered up patients, which was her specialty, and organized the gauzes, bandages, and intravenous lines in central supply.
It took her a while to learn how everything worked and how to get the little scissors and scalpels cleaned just so.
“I wash tray by tray and put the instruments back in there till I learned it,” Ida Mae said. “And I learned all them instruments. Some of them I couldn’t call the name, but you better believe I know where they went.”
Sometimes she would poke her head in during surgery when she dropped off a tray of instruments she had sterilized. She liked to see the babies come into the world, and the doctors let her stay sometimes.
She had been through it four times herself and still marveled at the sight and sound of a new life making its entrance. “They always come out hollering,” she said. Just like her babies had.
“You know, that’s amazing, ain’t it?” she said.
With Ida Mae working, the family could move out of the one-room apartment at Twenty-first and State and into a flat big enough for everyone. In the coming years, they would live all over the black belt.
Now that they were getting situated, people from back home in Mississippi started to make their way north to stay or to visit and see what it was like.
Saint, who had helped them move their things from Edd Pearson’s plantation and get out of Mississippi, came up with his wife, Catherine, and their children, and stayed for good. Ida Mae’s brother-in-law Aubrey, her younger sister Talma’s husband, came up for a while to see if he would like it, but he didn’t and moved back to Mississippi, where the people tipped their hat to you as they passed and looked up to him because of his family’s long years in the South, where he had made peace and found a way to get along with the white people and benefit from it. Joe Lee, whose flogging was the reason George and Ida Mae had left, even came up and lived there for a while. But he was never quite right after all he had been through. He never married and did not make out very well or live too long, and nobody cared to talk about him very much.
One time, George’s brother Winston, whom everyone called Win, came up from the plantation just for a visit and wasn’t ashamed to look up at the tall buildings reaching for the sky.
George took him around the first day, and at the end of it they settled in for the night. Win got ready for bed and then started calling for his brother.
“Come help me,” Win said. “I can’t blow this light out.”
George found him standing by the bulb. Win had been blowing on the bulb until he was almost out of breath.
“Win, you can’t blow it out, you got to turn it off,” George told him, reaching for the light switch and shaking his head. It hadn’t been that long ago that he, too, had been callow to the New World.
“George showed him how to cut it off,” Ida Mae said, “and we never had no more trouble with him.”
They were becoming Chicagoans now. They would talk about Win and that lightbulb for years.
It was only a matter of time before just about every colored family in the North, unsettled though they might have been, got visitors as George and Ida Mae did. There was a back-and-forth of people, anxious, giddy, wanting to come north and see what all the fuss was about. And whenever a colored guest paid a visit while the Migration was on, and even decades later, he or she could be assured of finding the same southern peasant food, the same turnip greens, ham hocks, corn bread in Chicago as in Mississippi.
But the visitors were a curiosity to the children of the North. The uncles and cousins from the South often had a slow-talking, sweetly alien, wide-openness about them that could both enchant and startle some of the more reserved nieces and nephews who barely knew them, as was the case with a character from Mississippi visiting relatives in Pittsburgh in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson in the following exchange:
BOY WILLIE: How you doing, sugar?143
BOY WILLIE: You was just a little old thing last time I seen you. You remember me, don’t you? This your Uncle Boy Willie from down South. That there’s Lymon. He my friend. We come up here to sell watermelons. You like watermelons?
We got a whole truckload out front. You can have as many as you want. What you been doing?
BOY WILLIE: Don’t be shy now. Look at you getting all big. How old is you?
MARETHA: Eleven. I’m gonna be twelve soon.
BOY WILLIE: You like it up here? You like the North?
MARETHA: It’s alright.
BOY WILLIE: That there’s Lymon. Did you say hi to Lymon?
LYMON: How you doing? You look just like your mama. I remember you when you was wearing diapers.
BOY WILLIE: You gonna come down South and see me? Uncle boy Willie gonna get him a farm. Gonna get a great big old farm. Come down there and I’ll teach you how to ride a mule. Teach you how to kill a chicken, too.
NEW YORK, 1950S
GEORGE SWANSON STARLING
GEORGE WAS JUST BACK ONE EVENING from a forty-eight-hour turnaround from New York to Florida and to New York again and had gotten his check and cashed it. Rather than head straight home to Inez, he thought he’d stop and get a drink at a bar near Penn Station.
He was with another colored railroad attendant, chugging his beer as the bar filled up. He and his co-worker barely noticed that everyone else at the bar happened to be white as they regaled each other with stories from riding the rails. When it was time to go, they paid their tab and put their glasses down.
The bartender had said very little to them the whole time they were there.144 Now the bartender calmly picked up their glasses, and instead of loading them into a tray to be washed, he took them and smashed them under the counter. The sound of glass breaking on concrete startled George and his co-worker, even though this wasn’t the first time this had happened to them, just not at this bar, and it attracted the attention of other patrons.
“They do it right in front of us,” George said. “That’s the way they let us know they didn’t want us in there. As fast as you drink out of a glass and set it down, they break it.”
There were no colored or white signs in New York. That was the unnerving and tricky part of making your way through a place that looked free. You never knew when perfect strangers would remind you that, as far as they were concerned, you weren’t equal and might never be. It was just the prerogative of whoever happened to be in a position to keep you from getting what the law said you had a right to, because nobody was going to enforce it anyway.
And so the glass he drank from went crashing under a counter in Manhattan.
It was hitting George in all directions. At sudden and unexpected times like these in New York, in crude and predictable ways when he went back south for his job, and now on the train itself. He was a stickler for rules and regulations and businesslike comportment even if it was only for lifting and loading bags. He was in uniform and was representing not just the railroad but himself and colored people, and he took the job of attending to his passengers seriously.
His formal bearing did not sit well with some of the southern conductors he worked for, who considered him acting above his station, which to his mind he was. He still saw himself as the college boy, someone who read the newspapers, kept up with world affairs, and knew as much as most anyone he was serving. The white southerners he worked with didn’t like it any more than the grove foremen did.
“They kept me at a hardship,” George said.
Somehow, without trying, he managed to get on the bad side of a southern conductor out of Tampa.
The conductor liked to tease and joke with the colored attendants, one in particular. The conductor would nudge and kick the colored attendant, and the colored attendant, knowing his place, would jump and laugh and, to George’s mind, put on a show for the conductor.
“Hah, hah, don’t do that, Cap!” the colored attendant would josh the conductor in mock protest.
George stood stone-faced and made no attempt to hide his disdain.
Now the conductor began making extra demands on them all. He liked to make the rail attendants wipe the railcar steps while the train was moving. He got a kick out of that.
He wanted the attendants to drop the traps of the bottom step and wipe the steps down so he wouldn’t get dirt on him when he got off to direct passengers at the station. Usually, it was something the attendants did once the train had stopped. The conductor didn’t want that. He liked to see them bending over, dangling along the side, and struggling to wipe the bottom step while the train was running twenty-five, thirty miles an hour.
George resisted wiping the steps until he thought it was safe. The other car attendant did as the conductor ordered. George stood to the side, his face pinched and frowning, as his co-worker tried to hold on and clean the step with the train rocking toward the station and the conductor chortling at the sight of it.
One day the conductor confronted George.
“What’s the matter with you, boy? You can’t laugh?”
“Yes, sir, I have a good sense of humor,” George said. “But I don’t see anything funny about what y’all are doing.”
The conductor began singling out George from that day on, blocking him in the aisles, jabbing him as he passed. There was little George could do about it and still keep his job. George had been through worse things in the South and figured it was just one more thing he would have to watch out for.
But it got to the point that, when George saw him coming down the aisle to check tickets, he had to step between the seats to avoid a confrontation.
“He got to the place when he get along about where I was,” George said, “and he would step out of the aisle in between the seats and step on my foot, like that. And then he’ll walk back and look at me.”
George thought to himself, “I don’t know how I’m a deal with this ’cause he gonna do this one day and I’m a try to kill him.”
“I was praying that I never had to reach that point,” he said.
One afternoon, they were pulling out of Clearwater on the Silver Star, a sleek, steel-encased all-reserve train that was the pride of the Seaboard Air Line Railroad. It went up the west coast of Florida along the Gulf of Mexico en route to New York. It had only the finest and highest-class people on it, as George remembered, and he had worked his way up to that route.
As the train gained speed as it headed out of the station, George was helping an elderly white lady with her two bags. He had gotten one bag into the rack overhead and was heaving the second bag over the edge of the compartment.
“And just as I went up with the next bag and set it up in the rack,” George said, “something hit me from behind like a truck. Boom!”
The conductor, a sturdy and heavyset man, had knocked into George as George tried to steady himself on the moving train while holding the bag overhead. George’s knees were bad from all the basketball he had played in high school, and, standing on the train rocking as it was, he was off balance and had nothing to hold on to.
“He come up from behind me like a football player blocking the line,” George said.
The conductor shoved George into the seat where the passenger was. George managed to drop the bag onto the rack and not onto the elderly white passenger. But the force of the conductor’s weight knocked George over onto the lady, a precarious situation for a colored man in the South.
The train rumbled from side to side as George stood and tried to straighten himself. He suspected he knew what had happened but looked around anyway and saw the conductor in the aisle grinning. This feud was escalating to a point that was getting dangerous for George. If the passenger were hurt or frightened by a colored man sprawled over her as he was, George would be the one to take the fall for it, and the conductor knew it. If the passenger grew hysterical and accused George of attacking her, there would be nothing George could do, and far worse could happen to him.
But it was a fortunate thing for George that the white woman saw that he had been pushed and did not let it rattle her.
“Well, what’s wrong with him?” she asked George.
“Miss, you know what he was trying to do?”
She shook her head no.
“He was trying to make me drop that bag on your head. He’s just that mean, and he just don’t like nobody. He did that to try to make me drop that bag on your head.”
“What is wrong with him?”
George started telling his story about how the conductor had been harassing him all this time, and now the conductor had pushed him and didn’t even seem to care about the passengers’ safety, and she listened because she had seen it for herself.
“Well, something needs to be done about that.”
“Yes, ma’am. But they just don’t pay me no attention if I try to do anything about it.”
He paused. “But you could do something about it.”
“Well, who do I write?”
“You just write it, and I’ll send it,” he said, not wanting to risk her forgetting about it or just not getting around to it. “You write it, and give it to me.”
And so the woman wrote up her complaint and gave the letter to George. He, in turn, attached a letter of his own and sent it to the superintendent in Jacksonville, Florida, who was over that route at that time.
George never heard from the superintendent’s office about the harassment he had endured.
“But when they saw her letter, they immediately went into action,” he said.
The office called the conductor in to question him about the white woman’s complaint and suspended him for sixty days. It wasn’t long before the conductor found out that it was George who had had a hand in the suspension, and, of course, that did not sit well with him.
George only heard the outcome from other attendants and never got a response himself. Still, it could be said that he had emerged victorious. And that only created more trouble for him. He had expected as much and had prepared for it. When he dropped off the woman’s letter, he decided to do it on the way north, so that by the time it got into the superintendent’s hands, George would be well out of Florida and out of the conductor’s orbit.
Back in New York, he went straight to the railroad office to get a route change.
“Look, I’m not going back to the west coast anymore,” George told the dispatcher. “I had an incident down there with a conductor. I know it’s gonna be rough. And I’m not going back down there.”
George proposed switching with another attendant who had always wanted the coveted all-reserve train to Tampa–St. Petersburg but didn’t have George’s seniority. George was willing to take a less desirable route to avoid any more trouble.
“No, you can’t do that,” the dispatcher told him.
“Look, I just told you I had an incident down there. I’m not going back down there ’cause I know what they’re contemplating. I’m not going back.”
“Well, I don’t know what to tell you. You can’t change.”
George decided to call the other attendant himself.
“Look, you been raving you wanna run to St. Petersburg. I tell you what, when we come out Saturday, you set up in my car in the west coast and I’ll set up in your car going to Miami. We’ll just switch. You can go to St. Pete, and I’ll take your run to Miami.”
The attendant took George’s old route, was happy to take it, and, when George’s stand-in got to Tampa, a group of white men met him at the train.
“Yeah, which one of you boys is that nigger boy called Starling? You George Starling?”
“No, sir, I ain’t no George Starling.”
“Why, by God, where is he?”
“Well, he’s not on here.”
“Well, by God, we gonna find him. He done got Captain Wills put in the street for sixty days, and we gonna teach him a lesson.”
When the car attendant who traded routes with George got back from that first run to Tampa, he went to George and told him what had happened.
“Boy,” he said, “I don’t know what you did down there, but they mad with you down there. Don’t you go back down there.”
“Why you think I switched with you?” George asked. “You tell them, don’t worry, I’m not coming back down there no time soon.”
George didn’t go back to Tampa for five years. New conductors and managers came in, and it was only then that George felt it safe to go back.
LOS ANGELES, 1961
ROBERT JOSEPH PERSHING FOSTER
IT WAS WELL INTO THE NIGHT of March 20, 1961, when the telephone rang at the Foster house on Victoria, and Robert took the call. A nearly hysterical voice was coming at him, and Robert tried to make out the facts tumbling out from the other end of the line. It was the wife of a man who had somehow stumbled and sliced his left hand on the edge of a glass table, severing an artery. The man was hemorrhaging and losing consciousness. The man would need to be seen right away.
Robert would drop everything for any of his patients and had done so countless times, to the detriment of his own family. But this injury got his attention more than most. It was a disoriented Ray Charles, who was facing the loss of the use of his left hand, a disaster for the piano-playing singer, or, with all the bleeding he sustained, the loss of more than that.
The circumstances of the fall were unclear and only made the situation more delicate. For several days, Ray had been under pressure to write a playbook of songs for a big tour coming up.145 He had put in long hours, dictating the music in his head to a collaborator writing the songs down on paper. He had been up most of the previous night, had worked all day and into a second night. He was finding it hard to stay alert, and he was running out of time. He had turned to drugs before and so now summoned his heroin dealer to help him get through the night, according to his biographer Michael Lydon.
After the dealer’s last visit to Ray’s house near Baldwin Hills, Ray went thrashing about alone in his den, knocking into walls and furniture, out of his mind.146 Ray would later say the episode had less to do with drugs than fatigue, although he was candid about his drug use. “I didn’t see how the dope was hurting,” he said in his 1978 autobiography, Brother Ray. “I don’t mean I wasn’t sick now and then in those years, ’cause I was. I’d hit a dry period and go through the same convulsions as any other junkie.”
As for the events leading up to that night, he said, “I’m sure that sometime during that day—like all days—I had my little fix and maybe it was stronger than usual.”
That night, as he remembered it, he collapsed from exhaustion and “somehow, in my state of unconsciousness, I slammed my hand against a glass table top and sliced it to ribbons.” His hand went numb. He was so high, exhausted, or just out of it, the injury didn’t register with him. And he just lay there, “bleeding like a hog.”
It was around that time that his son, Ray, Jr., ventured into the den.147 Little Ray was six years old and wanted to say good night to his father. The boy opened the door to his father’s den and found him with his shirt covered in blood and blood on the walls.
Ray’s writing partner and his drummer rushed in to help him. They wrapped his hand in beach towels, soaking up two quarts’ worth of blood, and tried to get him walking to keep him from losing consciousness.
They chose not to call an ambulance under the circumstances.148 His wife, Della Bea, then eight months pregnant, instead called Robert, who told them to meet him at his clinic at once. Ray arrived at Robert’s office on West Jefferson Avenue bleeding so heavily that he went into convulsions Robert quickly sewed the wound and admitted Ray into the hospital, where Ray required a transfusion of four pints of blood.
There Robert examined Ray more closely and discovered that Ray had not only sliced an artery but severed a tendon as well. Robert would have to perform emergency surgery to reconnect the tendon if Ray was to regain use of his hand. After the surgery, Robert told Ray he was not to use the hand for six weeks.
“Naturally, I refused,” Ray said years later.149 His big tour was starting the next week, so he told Robert he would just play with one hand. A publicist had already devised an explanation for the public. They would say he had slipped in the bathtub.
Robert could not have been pleased with Ray’s insistence but knew him well enough not to be surprised. With Ray determined to go on tour against doctor’s orders, Robert insisted on going along with him to attend to the wound should anything happen to it, which, naturally, it did.
Robert put a cast on the hand to protect it, but that only seemed to attract attention and endanger it more. “Everyone I met couldn’t resist touching it or shaking it,” Ray recalled.150 “The hand did get infected, but Bob was there to keep me straight.”
The tour was a dream of Ray’s from back when he had gotten his start in those Jim Crow towns in Florida, where he could just see himself leading a big band like Duke Ellington’s—with trombones, trumpets, saxophones, guitars, him on piano, of course, and the Raelettes, his doo-wopping backup singers in their form-fitting sequins and stilettos.151
Robert traveled with them to St. Louis, checking on his most famous patient’s most precious instrument and loving his front-row seat to smoke-filled celebrity. The tour continued on to Detroit, where Ray struck up his orchestra and somebody decided to bring a blind teenager onto the stage. It was said that the teenager had been signed up by a new outfit called Motown and could sing and play the harmonica. It was Stevie Wonder, “Little Stevie,” as he was known back then, who, not surprisingly, idolized Ray Charles and got the chance to play a few songs with him that spring night in Detroit.
Ray’s hard-driving life of drugs and women was beginning to catch up with him—he would end up arrested for drug possession in Boston and would end up fathering a total of twelve children, only three of them by his wife, Della Bea, who divorced him in 1977.
But it occurred to him as he was writing his biography that he did not want to leave the wrong impression about his physician, a man he described as “one of the dearest people I’ve ever known.”152
He said: “I must say something about Bob, though, before anyone gets the wrong idea. Although he was my personal friend, and although he traveled with me for about ten days during the time my hand was in the cast, I never let him do anything illegal for me. I liked him too well for that. If you really love a person, you won’t get him involved in something which might hurt him.”
The hand began to heal, and after a week and a half on the road, Robert felt it safe to return to Los Angeles and to his practice. “He sewed up my hand so smoothly that you can barely detect the cuts today,” Ray said years later. “He’s the man who got me through the crisis with my hand, and for a piano player, that’s some serious business.”
It was time for Robert to leave the tour for another reason. Not only did he have a life and practice back in Los Angeles, he had another patient to attend to. Ray’s wife, Della Bea, was expecting her third child and wanted Robert to deliver her baby. She had had a difficult delivery with her first son before she had heard of Robert Foster and had now come to rely on him.
The baby was born in May of 1961. It was a boy. After all that had happened in the preceding month and the time spent tending them before that, the couple decided to name the new baby Robert.
THE NORTH, 1915–1975
FROM THE VERY BEGINNING, scholars would debate the effects of the Migration, whether it was a success or a failure, whether the people who left had done better by leaving or would have been better off staying, whether the poorest among them merely imported the disorganized family systems inherited from slavery and carried into sharecropping or whether the anonymous, overpacked cities merely brought out the worst in the weaker souls. Usually these were macroeconomic, sociological questions as to the effect of the North or South on the people who left or stayed.
But back when the Migration first began, the venerable Chicago Commission on Race Relations, convened after World War I, chose to ask the migrants themselves about their perceptions of how they were faring in the North. These were a few of their responses:
DO YOU FEEL GREATER FREEDOM AND INDEPENDENCE IN CHICAGO? IN WHAT WAYS?153
· Yes. Feel free to do anything I please. Not dictated to by white people.
· Yes. Can vote; no lynching; no fear of mobs; can express my opinion and defend myself.
· Yes. Feel more like a man. Same as slavery, in a way, at home. I don’t have to give up the sidewalk here for white people.
· Sure. Feel more freedom. Was not counted in the South; colored people allowed no freedom at all in the South.
WHAT WERE YOUR FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF CHICAGO?
· When I got here and got on the street car and saw colored people sitting by white people all over the car I just held my breath, for I thought any minute they would start something. Then I saw nobody noticed it, and I just thought this was a real place for colored people.
· Was completely lost, friend was to meet me but didn’t and I was afraid to ask anyone where to go; finally my friend came; was afraid to sleep first night—so much noise; thought the cars would finally stop running so I could rest.
· Always liked Chicago, even the name before I came.
· Didn’t like it; lonesome, until I went out.
· Liked Chicago from the first visit made two years ago; was not satisfied until I was able to get back.
IN WHAT RESPECTS IS LIFE HARDER OR EASIER HERE THAN IN THE SOUTH?
· Easier, you can make more money and it means more to you.
· Find it easier to live because I have more to live on.
· Earn more money; the strain is not so great wondering from day to day how to make a little money do.
· Harder because of increased cost of living.
WHAT DO YOU LIKE ABOUT THE NORTH?
· Freedom and opportunity to acquire something.
· Freedom allowed in every way.
· Freedom of speech, right to live and work as others. Higher pay for labor.
· Freedom; privileges; treatment of whites; ability to live in peace; not held down.
· Freedom of speech and action. Can live without fear, no Jim Crow.
· The schools for the children, the better wages, and the privileges for colored people.
· The people, the freedom and liberty colored people enjoy here that they never before experienced.
WHAT DIFFICULTIES DO YOU THINK A PERSON FROM THE SOUTH MEETS IN COMING TO CHICAGO?
· Getting accustomed to cold weather and flats.
· Rooming and “closeness” of the houses.
· Growing accustomed to being treated like people.
· Getting used to the ways of the people; not speaking or being friendly; colder weather, hard on people from the South.
· I know of no difficulties.
ARE YOU ADVISING FRIENDS TO COME TO CHICAGO?
· Yes. People down there don’t really believe the things we write back; I didn’t believe myself until I got here.
· No. I am not going to encourage them to come, for they might not make it, then I would be blamed.
· Wish all the colored folks would come up here where you ain’t afraid to breathe.