I can conceive of no Negro native to this country
who has not, by the age of puberty, been irreparably scarred
by the conditions of his life.…184
The wonder is not that so many are ruined
but that so many survive.
—JAMES BALDWIN, Notes of a Native Son
IDA MAE BRANDON GLADNEY
ONE DAY IN 1966, something hopeful called to Ida Mae, who was now fifty-three and a grandmother. She scuttled past the dime stores and beauty shops on Sixty-third Street with Eleanor’s little children, Karen and Kevin, in tow. They were rushing in the direction of a quavering voice on a loudspeaker. Up ahead, she could see a crowd of onlookers, the faithful and the curious, packed in the street and on the sidewalks near Halsted and sober-faced police officers circling the crowd on horseback.
She arrived late and out of breath. Years later, all she would remember was the voice saying something about “little white children and little colored children,” or so she thought, and all the people, hordes of them, straining to hear but tense from the police scrutiny and the vaguely dangerous nature of the moment.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was there in person and speaking before them. It was one of his rare appearances in Ida Mae’s neighborhood during his first major attempt to bring the civil rights movement to the North. Ida Mae almost missed it. She arrived too late to get anywhere near the podium. Neither she nor Karen or Kevin could see over the crowd that had gathered long before them.
“They had him way up on something high,” she said decades later. “And you could hear his voice talking through those horns.”
Ida Mae wanted to move closer to see him. That was what she had come for, after all. “I never did get close enough,” she said. “I didn’t want to push through the crowd. Everybody was so touchy. And I had kids, you see, and I just couldn’t pull them up in there. I never did get to see him good.”
Ida Mae was taken in by the sheer presence of the man, who by then had already won the Nobel Peace Prize, led the March on Washington, witnessed the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and overseen his epic battles against Jim Crow in places like Selma and Montgomery.
But Chicago was a turning point for King. His movement was aging, its actions drawing greater skepticism and its successes leaving him with fewer obvious dragons to slay. It was a campaign looking for a cause. The inroads into southern segregation gave King a greater awareness of the unresolved tensions in the North in the wake of the Great Migration.
“Negroes have continued to flee from behind the Cotton Curtain,” King told a crowd at Buckingham Fountain near the Loop, testing out a new theme in virgin territory.185 “But now they find that after years of indifference and exploitation, Chicago has not turned out to be the New Jerusalem.”
Yet the very thing that made black life hard in the North, the very nature of northern hostility—unwritten, mercurial, opaque, and eminently deniable—made it hard for King to nail down an obvious right-versus-wrong cause to protest.
Blacks in the North could already vote and sit at a lunch counter or anywhere they wanted on an elevated train. Yet they were hemmed in and isolated into two overcrowded sections of the city—the South Side and the West Side—restricted in the jobs they could hold and the mortgages they could get, their children attending segregated and inferior schools, not by edict as in the South but by circumstance in the North, with the results pretty much the same. The unequal living conditions produced the expected unequal results: blacks working long hours for overpriced flats, their children left unsupervised and open to gangs, the resulting rise in crime and drugs, with few people able to get out and the problems so complex as to make it impossible to identify a single cause or solution.
King was running headlong into what the sociologist Gunnar Myrdal called the Northern Paradox. In the North, Myrdal wrote, “almost everybody is against discrimination in general, but, at the same time, almost everybody practices discrimination in his own personal affairs”—that is, by not allowing blacks into unions or clubhouses, certain jobs, and white neighborhoods, indeed, avoiding social interaction overall.186
“It is the culmination of all these personal discriminations,” he continued, “which creates the color bar in the North, and, for the Negro, causes unusually severe unemployment, crowded housing conditions, crime and vice. About this social process, the ordinary white Northerner keeps sublimely ignorant and unconcerned.”
Thus any civil rights campaign in the North would not be an attack on outrageous laws that, with enough grit and fortitude, could be overturned with the stroke of a pen. Instead, King would be fighting the ill-defined fear and antipathy that made northern whites flee at the sight of a black neighbor, turn away blacks at realty offices, or not hire them if they chose. The “enemy” was a feeling, a general unease that led to the flight of white people and businesses and sucked the resources out of the ghettos the migrants were quarantined into. No laws could make frightened white northerners care about blacks enough to permit them full access to the system they dominated.
“So long as this city is dominated by whites, whether because of their numbers without force or by their force if they were in the minority,” the Chicago Tribune once wrote, “there will be limitations placed on the black people.”187
Still, despite the odds, King was compelled to go north—was called to it, he said—as had a good portion of his people in the still-unfolding Migration. He had made the journey himself when he went to Boston University for graduate school and while there met his wife, Coretta, another southerner. King’s campaign in the North was “in one sense simply reacting to a major shift in the epicenter of black America,” the historian James R.188 Ralph wrote. “It was following the great demographic flow of black Americans from the rural South to the urban North.”
King actually moved into an apartment in the most hardscrabble section of town, the West Side neighborhood of North Lawndale, where the poorest and most recent arrivals from the South had shakily established themselves. He had a chesslike series of encounters with Mayor Richard J. Daley, the mayor-boss of Chicago, who managed to outwit the civil rights leader at nearly every turn. For one thing, Daley knew not to make the same mistakes as his southern counterparts. He met with King, appearing cooperative rather than ignoring him or having him thrown into jail. He vowed to protect the marchers with a heavy police presence that sometimes outnumbered the marchers. It worked so well that the protesters rarely had the chance to contrast their peaceable courage against foaming-at-the-mouth supremacists because Daley’s police force didn’t let any white mob get near them, which kept the protests off the news and kept the movement from gaining traction, just as Daley had hoped.
That is until, after months of buildup, King went to march against housing segregation in a neighborhood called Marquette Park on the city’s southwest side. This was a working-class neighborhood of Poles, Lithuanians, Germans, and Italians who had not long since gotten their starter bungalows and were standing their ground against the very thought of colored people moving in.
It was August 5, 1966.189 A fist-shaking crowd of some four thousand residents had gathered in advance. Upon his arrival, they cursed King with epithets from a knoll overlooking the march. Many people in the crowd waved Confederate flags. Some wore Nazi-like helmets. One placard read KING WOULD LOOK GOOD WITH A KNIFE IN HIS BACK.
The march had barely begun when a heckler hurled a rock as big as a fist at King, striking him in the head, just above the right ear.190 He fell to his knees, and, as he tried to get up, the crowd pelted the demonstrators with bottles, eggs, firecrackers, and more rocks. Some in the crowd turned and smashed rocks into cars and buses that passed with colored people in them. Some twelve hundred police officers and two hundred plainclothesmen had gathered in anticipation of trouble, but this was one of the rare occasions that they were outnumbered by white residents primed for confrontation.
As the eight hundred King supporters tried to carry on the march, they passed men, women, and children on their front stoops, who called the marchers “cannibals,” “savages,” and worse.191 A column of three hundred jeering white teenagers sat in the middle of the street to block the marchers’ path. The police dispersed the youths with nightsticks waving, and the march was able to resume. But the teenagers repositioned themselves half a block down and sat in the street again. It took a second charge from the police to break up the young hecklers.
When the march wound down, the mob chased the buses carrying King’s people away. Rising in agitation that lasted for hours, the mob smashed an effigy of King, overturned a car on Marquette Road, stoned other cars, and fought police trying to clear the place out, requiring reinforcements to beat the mob back with clubs and shots fired into the air. In the end, some thirty people were injured and forty were arrested.
Some of King’s aides had warned him not to go to Chicago.192 He said he had to. “I have to do this,” he said as he tried to steady himself after the stoning, “to expose myself—to bring this hate into the open.”193
He had marched in the deepest corners of Alabama but was unprepared for what he was in for in Chicago. “I have seen many demonstrations in the South,” he said that violent day in the Promised Land.194 “But I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I’ve seen here today.”
Ida Mae watched it on the news that night and worried for the man she so badly had wanted to see. She expected this in Mississippi, not in the North. “No,” she would say decades afterward, “some places I just trusted more than others.”
NEW YORK, PENNSYLVANIA STATION, MID-1960S
GEORGE SWANSON STARLING
THE WORLD WAS CHANGING, and George, without trying, was on the front lines. In the South, the trains had been segregated for as long as most people had been alive. Now he was in the uncomfortable position of enforcing new laws that were just now filtering into everyday practice.
There he was, scanning the crowds on the railroad platform as the southbound Silver Comet stretched down the track, belching and ready to board. The train would pull out of the station at 12:45 en route to Birmingham with some twenty-eight stops in between. Passengers packed the railway platform, suitcases, hatboxes, overnighters, trunks, briefcases, and Gimbel’s shopping bags at their feet.
George went about his job of getting their luggage and helping them to their seats, but this time, he looked the passengers over in a way he never did before. He looked to see if they were in prim Sunday clothes or loud juke-joint get-ups, if the people seeing them off were self-contained New Yorkers bidding people good-bye or excitable southerners still new to the spectacle. He checked to see if they haughtily took to their reserved seats in the integrated railcar as if they owned it or if they were wide-eyed and tentative about sitting in the same section as the white passengers.
George was paying close attention because this was the mid-1960s. The trains in the North had always been integrated, but blacks had to move to separate cars before being permitted into the South. During the run between New York and Alabama, it had been George’s job to move the colored passengers from their seats in the white section and into the Jim Crow car before crossing from Washington into the segregated state of Virginia.
But after the sit-ins and marches in the South, things were beginning to change. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964, 101 years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation granting rights that would have to be spelled out again long after Lincoln was gone. Now blacks were entitled to the same privileges as any other citizens. They were not to be segregated in any sphere in life. But it would take time, up to a decade or more, for the message to sink in to those who chose not to recognize the new law.
In addition, it was not as if a copy of the Civil Rights Act went out to every black household. Some didn’t know what their new rights were exactly and had lived under the old order for so long that they were tentative about testing out the new one. In public conveyances, it fell to workers like George Starling, if they were so inclined—which it so happened he was—to alert their fellow migrants to rights they weren’t certain they could assert. On the train, it meant negotiating the tricky business of reorienting the black passengers when the train passed into or out of what had been Jim Crow territory.
For as long as most anyone alive could remember, this was the way things had worked on the railroad: a black passenger boarding a southbound train at, say, Pennsylvania Station in New York would be assigned a seat anywhere on the train and could sit there without a second thought until the train reached the border city of Washington, D.C. From the time of Reconstruction in the 1870s, Washington had been the dividing line between the free North and the segregated South. Black passengers getting off in Washington had nothing to worry about. But for those continuing south, the crews who ran the train, the porters who helped passengers on and off, and the black passengers themselves knew to gather their things and move to the Jim Crow car up front to make sure the races were separated when the train crossed into the state of Virginia.
The civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s changed all that, or was intended to. But custom had a way of lingering well after the ink was dry. So in the transition to integration, black passengers were not automatically granted the right to keep their seats no matter what their ticket or President Johnson said.
George was on the front lines in these early days of integration, when some conductors, many of them southern, held close the old traditions and ordered porters like George to move the colored passengers into the Jim Crow car, no matter the law. Some conductors, like many other southerners, resented the new laws that had been forced upon them. Others could always say that white southerners boarding the train below Washington were still not comfortable riding in the same coach as black people and might kick up a fuss.
As the train drew closer to Washington, the conductor gave George a passenger manifest identifying the passengers he wanted moved to the old Jim Crow car, meaning all the black passengers traveling below Washington.
George knew it wasn’t right and began discreetly approaching colored passengers as the train pulled out of Baltimore en route to Washington. He tried to alert them to what was about to happen and let them know they had a right to stay where they were. But it was a perilous act on his part. The passengers might get scared and turn him in. He might be accused of inciting the passengers and disrupting the orderly relocation of passengers who didn’t mind moving. It was especially dangerous because he was not heading north on the train but south into what might be considered enemy territory. Either way, he could be fired for what he was doing.
He knew he couldn’t be seen openly advising black passengers to defy the conductor’s orders. So from the moment he boarded the train in New York and began waiting on the black passengers in his charge, he paid close attention to them, scrutinized them to see which ones might be more receptive.
Then, as the train rumbled toward Union Station in Washington, and when he had made certain that the conductor wasn’t around, he began approaching colored passengers, one by one. He leaned over the seat and began speaking in whispers.
“Look,” he told them, “what I want to say to you is confidential, between you and me. If you don’t think you can keep it confidential, let me know now, and I won’t say any more. But it’s to your benefit.”
Then he would explain the situation.
“Well, now, going below Washington,” he would tell them, “they want us to move y’all up front in the Jim Crow car. But you have paid for a seat to wherever you’re going. You paid an extra fee to reserve this seat, and you’re entitled to keep this seat to your point of destination. But they not gonna tell you that. They gonna tell you, you got to move up front.”
He waited for their response, checked for a show of interest and curiosity instead of fear and distrust. Then he would know whether to proceed. If he felt safe, he would go on.
“What you do,” he continued, “is tell them that you don’t care to move. Just tell them that.”
Then he told them what to expect and gave them a little script. “They’re gonna give you an argument,” he said. “But just tell ’em, ‘Look, I have a reserved seat here from New York to Jacksonville. Washington isn’t my destination, and I’m not moving anywhere. Now, if you want me to move, you get the cops and come and move me. I’m not voluntarily moving anywhere.’ ”
He reassured them that they were within their rights. “They’re not gon’ bother you,” he told them. “Because they know if you got nerve enough to tell ’em that you’re not gonna move and if they force you to move, that they have a suit on their hands.”
But it occurred to him that he needed to protect himself. He couldn’t give any appearance of undermining the conductor’s orders or inspiring the black passengers to do something that would otherwise never occur to them. So he admonished them further. “And don’t go telling them, ‘Well, the attendant told me I didn’t have to move,’ ” George said. “Or you’ll get me killed. Just tell ’em you’re not gonna move. They not gonna move you.”
Some of them got scared at that kind of talk. So George gave them an out. “If you feel more comfortable, and you think you should go up to that Jim Crow car when you have paid to ride like everybody else, then you go,” he said. “I’ll move you.”
He forewarned them that if they decided to take the chance, they should know that he would have to feign indifference, pretend to have no knowledge of the matter if the conductor got involved. “He’s gonna be telling me to take you up front, and you gonna be tellin’ him that you’re not going, and I’m gonna just be standing there. I’m gonna be saying, ‘Naw, I ain’t got nothin’ to do with it.’ ”
By the time the train got halfway to Washington, he had a good idea of who he had in the railcar with him and which of them might be safe to approach.
“You could tell just by who brings them to the station,” he said, “how they depart, the conversations.”
But sometimes he would misjudge a passenger and come close to getting caught. Some passengers would loud-talk him.
“What? What the hell you talkin’ ’bout?” they’d ask, not comprehending his plan.
George would speak in an even quieter whisper to get their voices down, which only meant they couldn’t hear him and made them ask more questions, even louder than before.
“What? I don’t have to move? How come I don’t have to move?”
George would just shake his head and step away. “You know to leave them alone,” he said.
What gave George the greatest sense of defeat were the people who went up to the Jim Crow car anyway. “They move anyway to avoid trouble,” he said. “Quite a few would move up because the other attendants—they wouldn’t tell the people. They wouldn’t go to ’em like I would. Some of them would even support the conductor in telling them, ‘You better move. You gotta move.’ ”
George didn’t see it that way, and after all he had been through in the South, and even in the North, he felt it his duty to let the people know. It was the same George who tried to rouse the fruit pickers some twenty years before, to get them to stand up for what was due them.
In this case, on the train, George was fortunate. “None of them ever exposed me,” he said.
And what’s more, of the cases he saw, the people who resisted got to stay in their rightful seats. “Every incident that came up,” George said, “they left them alone.”
CHICAGO, SPRING 1967
IDA MAE BRANDON GLADNEY
IT HAD BEEN CLOSE TO THIRTY YEARS since Ida Mae and her family had come up north. The children were grown now. And by the late 1950s, the first generation born in the North had arrived. Eleanor, who had come north in Ida Mae’s belly, had gotten married right out of high school and had two kids. James and his wife, Mary Ann, soon followed with four kids of their own. Ida Mae held the babies close and prayed for the first members of the family born free in the Promised Land.
There were different branches now, and they were getting by, but still renting and not settled in a place of their own. From flat to flat, in and around the straining borders of the South Side, Ida Mae and her family had moved more in Chicago than they had when they were sharecroppers in Mississippi, as they had never moved in Mississippi like some of the people they knew because they had always stayed with their one planter, Mr. Edd.
They had lived at Twenty-first and State, Thirty-third and State, Forty-fifth and St. Lawrence, and were now in the 700 block of West Sixty-sixth Place. They had been all over the South Side.
They felt they had been in Chicago long enough without owning something. George had been at Campbell Soup for years. Ida Mae was working as a nurse’s aide at Walther Memorial Hospital. Velma was teaching, James was driving a bus for the Chicago Transit Authority. Eleanor was a ticket agent for the elevated train. So together, they had enough to put something down on some property.
Not unlike many immigrant families, they wanted to stay together and wanted a place big enough for all of them. Their search led them to a beige brick three-flat in a long-contested but, they believed, newly opened-up neighborhood called South Shore on the southern tip of the black belt. It was a few blocks west of Lake Michigan. The street was lined with oak trees along the sidewalk and brick bungalows and multiflats with little patches of yard in front.
They went to see the place at night.
An Italian car salesman and his family lived there. It had room enough for James and his family on the first floor, Ida Mae and her husband on the second, Eleanor and her kids on the third, or if necessary, a tenant to help with the house payments. Ida Mae and her family didn’t have enough furniture to fill the flat. They wanted the place and everything in it: the plastic-covered upholstery, the marble-topped coffee table, the lamps, the dining room table, the breakfront and buffet, and the baby blue draperies over the front windows.
The Italian car salesman said he liked them and wanted them to have it. The family paid thirty thousand dollars and moved in without incident. There was the little matter of a bullet hole in one of the windows in the front room, but Ida Mae didn’t let it bother her as it appeared the shot had been fired sometime before they moved in. Thirty years after they arrived in the New World with little more than their kids and the clothes on their backs, Ida Mae and her husband were finally homeowners in Chicago.
“It was beautiful,” Ida Mae said years later. “Trees everywhere, all up and down the block.”
Weeks passed. Ida Mae went to work one morning and came back that evening on the streetcar over on Exchange. She walked down Colfax in the neighborhood of brick apartment buildings, barbershop storefronts, and frame bungalows along a route that she was just beginning to learn.
It was then that she noticed something missing across the street from her three-flat. A house had vanished. The people across from her had moved it, or so it appeared. There was now a small crater in the earth where, just that morning, a house used to be.
It was a wonderment to Ida Mae and to James and Eleanor and the grandkids. Why would their nice white neighbors move their house clear off the street? Where did they go? What did this mean?
They would never see them again to get the answers. They would never fully know for sure what had happened or why. It would become part of their family lore, one of the things they would tell over and over again, shaking their heads and hunching their shoulders as they looked out their second-floor window at the sociology unfolding beneath them.
As it was, too much was happening anyway. Within weeks of the disappearing house, moving vans clogged Colfax Street. More people were vanishing, but those people left their houses behind. They took their sofas and upright pianos and were gone.
“Lord, they move quick,” Ida Mae said years later. “And then blacks started moving in. Oh, Lord.”
The whites left so fast Ida Mae didn’t get a chance to know any of them or their kids or what they did for a living or if they liked watching The Ed Sullivan Show like she did Sunday nights. They didn’t stick around long enough to explain. But some of the whites who left the South Side in a panic would talk about it years later and, to tell the truth, never got over the loss of their old neighborhoods.
“It happened slowly, and then all of a sudden, boom,” said a white homemaker who fled Ida Mae’s neighborhood around that time and was quoted by the writer Louis Rosen, who had been a teenager when his parents fled South Shore, in the book South Side.195 “Everyone was gone. Everything changed. Before you know it, this one, that one. And then you heard, ‘So-and-so’s moving.’ People didn’t want to be the last.”
A white father told Rosen, “I fought the good fight.196 I couldn’t stay there with my three kids—my oldest was only fourteen at the time. I made a judgment. I did the best I could.”
“It was like sitting around with a big group,” said a white husband.197 “ ‘Okay, guys, in the next year, we’re all going.’ ”
“It was who found a house first,” the wife chimed in.
“Exactly. And we all went,” the husband said.
To the colored people left behind, none of it made any sense. “It was like having a tooth pulled for no reason,” said a black resident who moved his family in, only to watch the white neighbors empty out.198
By the end of the year, the 7500 block of Colfax and much of the rest of South Shore went from all white to nearly totally black, which in itself might have been a neutral development, except that many houses changed hands so rapidly it was unclear whether the new people could afford the mortgages, and the rest were abandoned to renters with no investment or incentive to keep the places up. The turnover was sudden and complete and so destabilizing that it even extended to the stores on Seventy-fifth Street, to the neighborhood schools and to the street-sweeping and police patrols that could have kept up the quality of life. It was as if the city lost interest when the white people left.
The ice cream parlor closed. The five-and-dime shut down. The Walgreens on the corner became a liquor store. Karen and Kevin enrolled in Bradwell Elementary School and remember being, along with two other kids, the only black children in the entire school in 1968. By the time they graduated four years later, the racial composition had completely reversed: only four white children were left. South Shore would become as solidly black as the North Shore was solidly white. Ida Mae’s neighborhood never had a chance to catch up with all the upheaval and was never the same again.
South Shore was one of the last white strongholds on the South Side, the completion of a cycle that had begun when the migrants first arrived and started looking for a way out of the tenements. There were fifty-eight bombings of houses that blacks moved into or were about to move into between 1917 and 1921 alone, bombings having become one of the preferred methods of intimidation in the North. In neighborhood after neighborhood, with the arrival of black residents the response during the Migration years was swift and predictable.
It happened to ordinary people like Ida Mae and to celebrities like Mahalia Jackson, the leading gospel singer of her day.199 When she began looking for a house in a well-to-do section of the South Side, people held meetings up and down the block. A Catholic priest rallied his parishioners and told them not to sell to her.
“You’d have thought the atomic bomb was coming instead of me,” the singer said.
She got calls in the middle of the night, warning her, “You move into that house, and we’ll blow it up with dynamite. You’re going to need more than your gospel songs and prayers to save you.”
She bought the house. It was a sprawling red brick ranch and the house of her dreams, coming as she had from the back country of Louisiana. A doctor had broken ranks and sold it to her. As soon as she moved in, the neighbors shot rifle bullets through her windows. The police were posted outside her house for close to a year.
“One by one,” she said, “they sold their houses and moved away. As fast as a house came on the market a colored family would buy it.”
Even Hyde Park, an island of sophistication just north of Ida Mae’s working-class neighborhood of South Shore, succumbed to the same fears and raw emotion that overtook the rest of the city’s South Side.
“Shall we sacrifice our property for a third of its value and run like rats from a burning ship,” said a handbill circulated among white residents trying to keep blacks on the other side of State Street, “or shall we put up a united front to keep Hyde Park desirable for ourselves?”
Oddly enough, Hyde Park was one of the very few places where the alarmist rhetoric did not completely take.200 It was home to the venerable University of Chicago, which had its own interest in maintaining stability, and the neighborhood was blessed with some of the finest residential architecture in the city, giving many whites compelling and overriding reasons to stay. The neighborhood was one of the most expensive on the South Side, so blacks who moved there had to have the means just to get in. Thus Hyde Park actually became a rare island of integration despite the initial hostilities.
Still, it was surrounded by all-black neighborhoods in a deeply divided city. Entire communities like the suburb of Cicero remained completely off-limits to blacks, and whites would avoid so much as driving through whole sections of the south and west sides for the remainder of the century.
By the time the Migration reached its conclusion, sociologists would have a name for that kind of hard-core racial division. They would call it hypersegregation, a kind of separation of the races that was so total and complete that blacks and whites rarely intersected outside of work. The top ten cities that would earn that designation after the 1980 census (the last census after the close of the Great Migration, which statistically ended in the 1970s) were, in order of severity of racial isolation from most segregated to least: (1) Chicago, (2) Detroit, (3) Cleveland, (4) Milwaukee, (5) Newark, (6) Gary, Indiana, (7) Philadelphia, (8) Los Angeles, (9) Baltimore, and (10) St.201 Louis—all of them receiving stations of the Great Migration.
NEW YORK, LATE SUMMER 1967
GEORGE SWANSON STARLING
THERE CAME A TIME in the lives of many migrants’ children when the parents sent them south for the summer to protect them from the uncaring streets of the Promised Land or to learn the culture of their family of origin or of the Old Country itself. It was a ritual practiced more or less by most families to ensure that their children knew where they came from.
George and Inez Starling sent their daughter, Sonya, down to Eustis when she was thirteen. What happened there was the last thing they expected: she got pregnant.
“It almost killed my wife,” George said.
It was devastating after all they had been through and was the beginning of the most trying season of their lives. They had been married for twenty-eight years. Theirs had not been a happy union, but at least they had a family and had made out okay in New York, almost in spite of themselves, because they were hard workers and deep down good and decent people.
They had the highest hopes for their children, raised in a world free of the hardships they had endured in Florida. And now, it was as if the South and the backbiting country town they had left had reached back and punished them for having had the nerve to leave.
George had made a winless bargain. He had taken a job that kept him away from the very people he was working so hard to take care of, and he could not undo the damage already done. His absence only created a bigger gulf between him and Inez and left the children without a father most of the time and a mother with demons of her own to raise them practically by herself.
When they learned of Sonya’s pregnancy, George would not admit his pain. He reacted with resignation and had little sympathy for the despair Inez felt, just as, all those years before, she had had little sympathy for his earnestness in organizing the pickers in the citrus groves.
The wounds they both carried had hardened and calcified, and the crisis over Sonya—What would become of her? What kind of future would she have? How would they manage to raise the baby?—only widened the chasm. Each blamed the other and themselves.
When he finally spoke, George’s words cut deep. He said Sonya was no different from Inez. “It wasn’t on account of your purity,” he told her with the barbed edge that seemed to characterize more and more of their interactions, “that it didn’t happen to us. You can’t deny it ’cause you were doing it with me.”
Sonya gave birth to a baby boy she named Bryan. It was 1968. She was fourteen.
George, fatalistic now after all that they had been through, said all he could do was laugh. The sins of the father were visiting the children. He thought back to when he was in the tenth grade and a girl in his class turned up pregnant.
“She named me the father,” he said.
His first reaction was how did she know that he was the father, that just about anybody could have been the father. His second reaction was that there went his future. For the rest of his life, he would be picking fruit during the citrus season and digging up palmetto roots the rest of the time, pretty much the only work around.
“Let me finish the eleventh grade,” he remembered telling the grown folks. “I’d just like to finish out the eleventh grade. I don’t mind doing the right thing.”
The baby was born dead. “I was so relieved,” George said. “I never tried to find out if it was mine.”
Now his daughter had come to him with the same news the girl he dallied with in high school had broken to her family all those years ago.
“Now you know,” he thought to himself. “Now you know how that mother felt when her daughter said she was pregnant by you.”
And so when the crisis over Sonya came up, George could only laugh through his tears at how much of what he had sown he appeared to be reaping. “I never did tell my wife,” George said. “I didn’t try to tell my wife why I was laughing. It was retribution.”
It was retribution on several fronts. At around the same time that Sonya got pregnant, so did another woman. It was a woman George had been going out with behind Inez’s back. As their marriage strained under the weight of unspoken resentments, he gave in to temptation. It only made unpleasant matters even worse and life nearly unbearable for Inez, the discovery of two pregnancies she never would have imagined or wished for.
The sadness and irony seemed to be turning in on itself, and it all seemed to point back to the rash and fateful day that George tried to get back at his father by marrying Inez in the first place. It appeared in the end he was only getting back at himself.
The other woman gave birth to a son. The boy was named Kenny. He was born a few months after Sonya’s baby was born.
Kenny would grow up as an outside son, knowing his father, George, from afar and valuing him more than perhaps anyone else on earth because he was in some ways more like his father than anyone else and loved what little he knew of him.
LOS ANGELES, 1967
ROBERT JOSEPH PERSHING FOSTER
RUFUS CLEMENT AND HIS SON-IN-LAW, Robert Foster, were at opposite ends of the Great Migration. They represented the two roads that stood before the majority of black people at the start of the century. One man had stayed in the South. One had left it behind. Both had worked long and hard and had all the material comforts most any American could dream of. Yet both men wanted to prove to the other and to everyone else that his was the wiser choice, his life the more meaningful one.
President Clement was the tight-buttoned scion of the southern black bourgeoisie. Robert was a brilliant but tortured free spirit who had run from the very strictures Clement stood for. Clement was a distinguished accommodationist in the Jim Crow South—a beneficiary of it, in fact. He was not unlike the colored university president in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, whose allegiance was, above all, to the institution he ran, which had become an extension of himself. He was a pragmatist who had learned the fine art of extracting whatever he needed from guilt-ridden northerners or poorly credentialed but powerful segregationists who wouldn’t want him living next to them but might grant him a concession or donate to his cause, the colored graduate school Atlanta University. He was so vigilant as to his place in the colored hierarchy that he kept a card file near his desk, Time magazine reported, on every black person in the United States that he considered “worthy of a high position in Government and education” in case he got a query from Washington.202
Without trying, Rufus Clement had become an unwitting rival of Robert, not only for the affections of Robert’s wife and children but in both men’s unspoken effort to prove that where each man had ended up was the better place for colored people.
Robert had made out well as a noted surgeon in Los Angeles. But it did not rate with his father-in-law, Rufus Clement, who had staked his claim in the South and prospered. President Clement had avoided the messy confrontations of the civil rights era, saying at one point that he had been disturbed, as any right-thinking southerner might be, by the sit-ins but recognized that “this is the way in which they have tried to dramatize the way in which the American Negro has to live in his own country.” He reassured white southerners that “we don’t want to sit beside you, we just want to sit when we eat, like other people sit. We don’t want to intermarry with your people. We simply want to get a drink of water where there is a drinking fountain available.”
His patient and deferential ambitions paid off in 1953, when, against the longest of odds, he was elected to the Atlanta Board of Education—a first for a colored person there, while Robert, by contrast, was doing physicals and collecting urine samples for Golden State Insurance in what then seemed an unpromising start in California.
The Clements hovered over Robert and pulled at his wife and daughters from afar. And as they did, Robert retreated further into the world of his patients, his bookies, and the B-list musicians he liked to hang around with. He was drinking more and coming in late. He had fallen hard for Vegas and now had discovered horse racing. He joined the club room at Santa Anita, since now he could well afford it, and liked to catch the trifectas at Hollywood Park racetrack down in Inglewood.
He would go to Vegas whenever the spirit hit him and could play long and well. “I don’t need to eat and rarely need to go to the bathroom,” Robert would say. “I can go thirty-six hours.” He liked the Sands Hotel and the Las Vegas Hilton. He went so often and bet so much that the hotels started comping him rooms and meals. Some trips, he brought back tens of thousands of dollars. Some trips, he lost that much. But he was hooked.
While he was out betting heavy and looking for something that did not exist and that nobody could give him, Alice set about establishing herself as a proper surgeon’s wife. She joined the Links and the auxiliary of doctors’ wives and hosted teas and bridge parties for the same kind of social set she had grown accustomed to back in Atlanta. The girls took piano and voice lessons and came out at their cotillions in white princess gowns. They were living parallel lives, and Alice and the girls tried not to notice that Robert, whose long hours helped finance their ball gowns and socials, was trying to fill some hole that could not be filled and was hardly ever around.
At one point, Alice had had enough. She packed up the girls and moved back to Atlanta with the Clements, who surely had not approved of how their daughter and granddaughters were faring with Robert. Somehow Alice and Robert made up, and she came back to Los Angeles. But nothing really had changed. They had both come into their own and seemed less suited in some ways than before. Perhaps they had always been ill suited for each other but were just beginning to realize it, now that they had a life and a family and reputations to protect.
They reached a kind of understanding and came together on the shining occasions when their mutual love of hosting and socializing happened to intersect at the grand parties they threw and the costumes they wore.
It was a ritual, and they had an understanding. Robert dressed Alice. Robert bought the clothes. Robert chose the clothes. Dressing Alice was his personal project. He studied her as a surveyor would study an isthmus, knew her assets and liabilities as far as tailoring went, and accompanied her not so much as an advocate for her tastes but as a guardian of his own reputation.
When Alice started moving up in the Links and had more cotillions to go to, he was happy for her and wanted her to look good. But it was a defensive kind of happiness. He wanted Alice to outdress the other women. “I didn’t want those women to say my wife had anything less than the best,” Robert said.
In the early days, he would prep her before a big formal. “You got to go out there first, baby,” he would tell her. “You represent me.”
Every entrance was a production. They would approach the doorway of a ballroom. Robert would adjust himself and pause to let his wife go before him. “I’d walk two paces to the right and the rear and just watch her make that entrance,” he said. “And she could walk.”
Before every big occasion, the ritual was the same: the two heading to the store’s back room, the salesclerk bringing in dresses that Robert knew were all wrong for Alice, and Robert saying, “Pick what you like.” Alice would try on a dress. Robert inspected her and directed her movements.
“Walk,” he told her. And she would begin.
“Come to me.” She moved toward him.
“Sit.” She would find an ottoman and position herself.
“Stand.” She lifted herself up.
“Turn.” And she would do so.
“If the dress didn’t talk to me, it wasn’t her dress,” he said. “The salespeople go crazy. ‘Who is this man? Who is he?’ ”
Over time, he began to sort the big moments of his life by whatever Alice was wearing. It seemed as if he remembered the gown if he remembered nothing else. Those gowns got people talking, and it was exactly what he wanted to hear: Foster, you dress your women well. “I couldn’t be betting a hundred dollars on a horse and skimping on my wife,” he told me many years later. “I know I’m bragging, and I’m enjoying it.”
Sometimes the Clements would come out to visit them in Los Angeles, and Robert would put on his most charming performance to prove how well he had made out in the Promised Land. He invited the colored men of importance in the city to meet with his father-in-law and alerted the Los Angeles Sentinel so that the visit could be captured for posterity, as the Clements would have expected. The two men would never be close, but Robert knew how to put on a show when he had to.
By 1966, President Clement had risen to such a level of esteem at Atlanta University that a building was named in his honor. Clement Hall, an august red brick classroom building on the campus promenade, had its formal dedication on October 16, 1966. Alice and Robert’s youngest daughter, Joy, in bangs and a white headband, cut the ribbon with her grandfather right behind her. Alice stood watching in a pillbox hat and tailored dark suit and corsage. Bunny was there in a tweed peacoat and gloves, with her Jackie-Kennedy-in-the-White-House bob and beautifully chiseled sixties cover-girl face, in a show of support for her grandfather. Robert did not attend.
The man who had managed to oust W. E. B. Du Bois from Atlanta University by lobbying the university’s board of trustees all those years ago was in New York in early November 1967 for the regular meeting of that same board of trustees.
On the afternoon of Tuesday, November 7, during a break in the board’s proceedings, Clement collapsed in his suite at the Roosevelt Hotel. He died of an apparent heart attack. He was sixty-seven years old.
He and his wife, Pearl, had planned to embark on a round-the-world tour after the board meeting. Instead, plans for interment were made. Pearl would have to move out of the president’s mansion at Atlanta University, which had been her home and decorated to her liking for most of her adult life. She would have to move in with her next of kin, her beloved only daughter, Alice, in Los Angeles. Robert would have a wing with a bedroom and sitting area built for his mother-in-law and would try to make the best of it.
News reports of Rufus Clement’s death appeared in the Atlanta Daily
World, the New York Amsterdam News, the Los Angeles Sentinel, and elsewhere. The New York Amsterdam News wrote that, “in addition to his widow, he is survived by a daughter, Mrs.203 Robert Foster of Los Angeles.” Robert himself went unmentioned.
CHICAGO, FEBRUARY 1968
IDA MAE BRANDON GLADNEY
A POLICE WAGON pulled up to a West Side hospital over at Division and Kedzie, amid a rabble of placard-waving protesters on strike against the hospital, Walther Memorial. The strikers marched at the entrance in the biting cold. They were picketing for higher wages for the orderlies and nurse’s aides who did the kinds of things nobody notices until they go undone.
Inside the police wagon, bundled up with coats and purses, looking wide-eyed at the people protesting in circles along the sidewalk, were Ida Mae and her co-worker and friend Doris McMurray. For several weeks in February 1968, that was how Ida Mae went to work each day.
Ida Mae respected the strikers, knew them by name, had worked right beside them, and got along with most of them, but she wasn’t going to stand out there and strike with them. She had been working since she was big enough to get behind a plow. She had had all kinds of backbreaking, mind-numbing, sometimes dangerous and usually thankless jobs and had finally come into a position as a hospital aide. She had gotten the job in 1949, after more than a decade of scuffling from domestic to steel worker to press operator. She had finally come into a job she liked and that suited her temperament. She had come a long way from the cotton fields in Mississippi for the chance to work indoors with people rather than outdoors with crops and to get paid for the job and feel some dignity doing it. She had never stood up to a boss or refused to work or tried to petition for more money, even though she surely could have used it and more than likely deserved it. She had faith that whatever she needed would eventually come to her. The concept of not working a job one had agreed to do was alien to Ida Mae.
So when her union local announced it was going on strike at the beginning of 1968, Ida Mae and her friend Doris never considered that they would stop going to work. Decades earlier, colored migrants, unaccustomed to unions and not understanding labor politics, had been brought in by northern industrialists specifically to break up strikes. White union members resented the migrants and beat them for breaching the picket lines they had unwittingly been brought in to cross.
Ida Mae was not schooled in the protocols of union organizing, but she knew she couldn’t afford to lose her job and couldn’t see how not working was going to help her keep it. She was under more pressure than ever. She and George had just bought their first house, the three-flat in South Shore, and had new and different bills coming at them than ever before—from the mortgage to the utilities to property taxes and hazard insurance.
“My pastor was just begging me,” Ida Mae remembered. “Please don’t cross that picket line.”
Her children were worried for her. “They didn’t want me to go,” Ida Mae said. “But I wasn’t studyin’ them.”
George was his usual contained self. If he was scared for her, he didn’t let on. The idea of not going to work was as foreign to him as it was to Ida Mae. “I don’t reckon he ever knowed no different,” Ida Mae said.
She made no apology for doing what she felt was living up to her responsibilities. Even the union boss teased her and said he knew why Ida Mae couldn’t strike.
“She can’t stay off,” he said. “She got to pay for that three-flat building. She got to pay that house note.”
“You right,” Ida Mae said.
When Ida Mae and Doris told management they were going to keep working, the hospital arranged for a driver to pick them up at a designated location and escort them into the building.
One day, the strikers beat up the hospital driver after he had dropped the women off, and, for the first time, Ida Mae realized the seriousness of this thing. Then the hospital came up with another way to get Ida Mae and Doris to work: it arranged for a police wagon to pick up the two women at a designated bus stop.
“It was just like we were going to jail,” Ida Mae said.
They would climb out of the police wagon at the entrance to the hospital, and the police would walk them past the pickets into the building.
“Scabs!” some of the picketers, shivering on the cold sidewalk, would yell at Ida Mae and Doris.
“You a scab,” Ida Mae would shoot back, not knowing the labor union meaning of the word but hurling it anyway because, to her, everybody should have been working.
Ida Mae couldn’t let a heckler go unanswered, and it frightened Doris.
“Shut up, Ida,” Doris whispered. “Ida, hush.”
The two of them were working on the sixth floor in surgery and on their breaks could look out the window and see the pickets below. After so many hours outside, the strikers had to find ways to protect themselves from the freezing wind. They would scurry to their cars and sit for a while, and they would use buckets instead of the toilet in the building because the hospital wouldn’t let them in.
The strikers never threw anything but names at Ida Mae and Doris, and when the two of them looked back on it years later, they marveled that they had never gotten hurt.
“I wouldn’t do that now,” Doris said.
Ida Mae turned to Doris. “Well, I didn’t really understand,” Ida Mae said. “We all supposed to be working.”
CHICAGO, NEW YORK, LOS ANGELES, AND MEMPHIS, APRIL 1968
THE EVENING WAS unusually cool for Memphis in April.204 It was shortly before six o’clock, and Martin Luther King, Jr., was heading to dinner before attending a rally for striking sanitation workers. He was standing on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel on Mulberry Street just outside his room, room 306. A half dozen of his aides were with him, gathering themselves to leave. Someone reminded King of how chilly it was getting. He agreed and went to get his topcoat.
At the precise moment that he turned back to his room, a minute past six on April 4, 1968, a single .30-caliber bullet was fired into the balcony. The rifle shot, thought to have come from a flophouse across the street through the bare branches of the mimosa trees, struck him in the neck and severed his spinal cord. King was pronounced dead at St. Joseph’s Hospital at 7:05 P.M., Central Time. Within hours, the poor, colored sections of more than a hundred cities went up in flames.
That night, George Starling was rounding the corner at 131st Street and St. Nicholas Avenue in Harlem. He was returning home from a night out with the guys and saw the fires rising up ahead. He was trying to get to 132nd and Lenox, not yet knowing what had happened to set the people off. The whole thing was a blur, and he was looking for a way to get around the mayhem.
“It was in the direction of St. Nicholas Avenue,” he said. “It could have been on Broadway, St. Nicholas, or Amsterdam. It was up on that hill. They were burning everything up there. The sky was lit up like it was the end of time.”
He made his way home, and it was “only when I got into the house and turned on the radio that I heard the news that Martin Luther King had been shot in Memphis.”
The evening of the assassination, Ida Mae would cup her face in disbelief at the news playing out in a scratchy, continuous, uncomprehensible loop on the AM radio dial and the family’s black-and-white television set. She would pray for the soul of the man she so admired and had once almost seen during his Chicago campaign two years before as he had tried to free the people who had fled to the North.
On the other side of town, over on the West Side, police sirens wailed and rocks crashed through the plate-glass windows of grocers and liquor stores. Whole blocks went up in smoke in Chicago and on the streets of Newark, Detroit, Boston, Kansas City, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. The receiving stations of the Great Migration would burn all through the night after Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. And when it was over, some neighborhoods, the old places the migrants had packed into when the Migration began, would look like Berlin after an air strike during the Second World War.
The dispossessed children of the Great Migration but, more notably, the lifelong black northerners broken by the big cities let out a fury that made a mockery of the free harbor the North was reputed to be. A presidential commission examining the disturbances found that more black northerners had been involved in the rioting than the people of the Great Migration, as had mistakenly been assumed. “About 74 percent of the rioters were brought up in the North,” wrote the authors of what would become known as the Kerner Report.205 “The typical rioter was a teenager or young adult, a lifelong resident of the city in which he rioted.” What the frustrated northerners “appeared to be seeking was fuller participation in the social order and the material benefits enjoyed by the majority of American citizens,” the commission found.
The discontent of the young people unsettled the migrant parents who had fled the violence of the South. They could do little to dissuade their children from whatever role they might play in the outburst. It was too late to try to get them jobs at now-closed factories or the education they missed if they gave up on school, or, maybe most of all, the grounding and strength they themselves had acquired after having endured so much. The parents had come from the Old Country, had been happy to have made it out alive and make a few dollars an hour. What did they know of the frustration of the young people who had grown up in the mirage of equality but a whole different reality, in a densely packed world of drugs and gangs and disorder, with promises that seemed to have turned to dust?
Ida Mae saw the destruction on the news and, as usual, tried not to worry about things she could not control. George Starling managed to negotiate his way through the burning streets of Harlem. They had long since left the South where Dr. King had been killed. And yet they were pulled into the aftermath. In the North, the migrants grieved for the man who had worked miracles in the land of their birth and thus for them from afar.
It was Thursday, a workday, and across the country, Robert Foster, workaholic that he was, would have been in his office attending his usual overflow of patients at what would have been late afternoon on the West Coast.
His office on Jefferson and his house in West Adams were comfortably situated far from Watts, where the fires had burned three years before. Ever conscious of appearances and propriety, he would be nearly as incensed at the violence as he was stunned at the assassination. To him, spite never settled anything. It only gave your detractors more ammunition and, as it had back when the colored people in Monroe had urinated in the colored section of the Paramount Theater, only ended up hurting the people themselves.
To Robert, the whole world had just about gone mad. A few years before King’s death, Robert had been beside himself when he learned that Bunny, a student at Spelman College in Atlanta caught up in the zeitgeist of the movement, was talking about maybe picketing, too, as only a bourgeois daughter of the upper class would. It would not be trying to register poor people to vote in the backwoods of Mississippi—that was out of the question—but by, say, protesting Rich’s department store in downtown Atlanta with a white-gloved delegation of other colored college girls.
On this, Rufus Clement and Robert agreed: Bunny simply could not be seen being arrested with the riffraff, all because Rich wouldn’t let colored girls try on hats. Of course, Robert understood the indignity, had lived it after all, which is why he had raised her in Los Angeles and taken her to Beverly Hills for whatever she and Alice and the other girls might ever think they wanted.
It wasn’t that he was against the civil rights movement. He was all for standing up for one’s rights. It was just that, to his way of thinking, the way to change things was to be better than anybody at whatever you did, wear them down with your brilliance, and enjoy the heck out of doing it. So he had no patience for these sit-in displays, at least for his daughters anyway, much less actual violence. The day King died was a dark day all around.
It was around midnight that George encountered the destruction in Harlem. It wasn’t all the people out in the streets that got his attention. It wasn’t unusual for a lot of people to be out on the streets of Harlem if it were the least bit warm. What caught his eye were the flames.
That Thursday evening in April, George had been hanging out with the guys over on Prospect Avenue. He was talking baseball and downing boilermakers—a shot of Smirnoff’s with orange juice and a chaser of beer. He was trying to escape the disappointments of an underutilized mind and a sand trap of a marriage he was too loyal and upright to leave.
The men were so distracted by the vodka and the joshing over the Yankees and the Mets and the Dodgers, who had years before left Brooklyn for Los Angeles, and over the baseball season that was to begin the very next week, that they failed to register the assassination of one of the most influential figures in American history.
It was only when George finally made it into his car and back into Harlem that he realized that something terrible had happened.
“The sky lit up,” he remembered. “When I turned into 131st Street, as soon as I looked, I saw: ‘The whole sky is on fire.’ ”
George Starling knew what it meant to stare an enemy down in a life-and-death sort of way and had respect for Dr. King. But by the time King was assassinated, George was unable to marshal much emotion. He had grown up with that kind of violence against people fighting the system and half expected it. No, what had really shaken him was the assassination five years earlier of John F. Kennedy, the president so many blacks had placed their hopes in, Kennedy having come from the North and from what they saw as a more enlightened generation than previous presidents.
George was in Florida in November 1963. “I used to go down every October or November. I had just passed through Ocala, on the way to Gainesville, and it was in the afternoon,” George remembered.
“And I turned the radio on, and I heard them say, ‘And the President of the United States has been assassinated. He was shot, and he did not survive.’ Or something like that. And I said, ‘Now, what kind of joke is that?’ And then it came back on. You know they wouldn’t have risked repeating it over and over. And when I realized that Kennedy had really been killed, assassinated, that thing hit me. When I knew anything, I had run off the road. I don’t know what I was doing. And it just so happened that the shoulder was grassy. It wasn’t that much traffic. It was in the midafternoon, and I just brought the car to a stop, and I just sat there, and I cried like a baby.”
For some reason it was different with King than with Kennedy. Perhaps the losses were piling up and George couldn’t muster the same shock and pain anymore. “I didn’t cry,” he said. “I was just astonished. I was just numb. I couldn’t believe it. Then I thought about his speech. He predicted his own death whether he knew it or not. He told it. ‘I’ve been to the top of the mountain, and I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not make it there with you, but you will get to the Promised Land.’ ”
James Earl Ray, a forty-year-old drifter and prison escapee, would be convicted of the murder. Ray left a trail of evidence that he had been stalking King for months, but, until his own death in 1998, left questions as to what role he had actually played in the assassination.
Ray was not from the South, as the migrants who left it might have expected. He was from Alton, Illinois.
Precisely a week after King’s death, and two years after King’s brokered and dispiriting effort to end housing segregation in Chicago, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act of 1968, banning discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin in the renting or selling of property. King’s bruising fight for the people in the North would not be won until King had died.