I could come back down to New Orleans

for wonderful visits with my people,

but I couldn’t stay.

Chicago and the North, where

I was used to Negroes being more free,

was where I belonged




IDA MAE SETTLED INTO HER ROLE as the sweet-natured but no-nonsense matriarch of the family now that her husband was gone. She had managed to re-create the village of extended family that existed on the plantations down south, her grown children and grandchildren surrounding her in the three-flat they had been in now for more than a decade.

The neighborhood had changed around them, had become all black and significantly poorer and more crime-ridden than it had been when they arrived. She and her family looked inward and lived their lives in the compound they created—her son, James, and his wife, Mary Ann, and their young children living on the first floor; Ida Mae living with Eleanor and her two children on the second floor; and a tenant named Betty, who was almost like a daughter to her, on the third floor.

There was always a commotion now that Kevin and Karen were out of high school and just starting their lives and Eleanor was divorced but with a full social schedule of house parties and lady friends from back in high school and new boyfriends, the phone always ringing for Eleanor.

Someone was always coming or going, wanting to know if the mail had arrived, if a job had come through, if a sweetheart had called yet, if a friend had said what time the party was, all of them expecting Ida Mae to keep up with this information since she was retired and home most of the time, and bending down and giving her a peck on the cheek as they got their coat and headed for the door again.

If they were all home at the same time, Kevin might be watching the White Sox in his room, Eleanor catching the news in hers, and Ida Mae watching a game show in the living room while keeping an eye on the drug busts and prostitutes on the street, which was usually better than any show on television anyway. There was a time back in Mississippi when nobody had a television—it hadn’t been invented yet—and now everyone had one and retreated into his or her separate world.

Holidays brought everyone together, especially Thanksgiving. It’s not clear whether anybody gave it any thought, but turkeys had been one of the reasons they were in Chicago in the first place. Maybe they would have come to Chicago anyway, it was just meant to be. In any case, in the fall of 1977, Ida Mae’s family was chosen out of all the families on the South Side to represent the typical Chicago family at Thanksgiving. Someone at Jewel, the Chicago supermarket chain, knew someone who knew Ida Mae’s family, knew James and Mary Ann, knew they were good solid people and that Ida Mae was beloved by all who came in contact with her.

Jewel brought a camera crew to their three-flat in South Shore. The dining room table was draped with white lace and candles, filled with platters of green beans and cranberry sauce and sweet potato pie and a roasted turkey at the head of the table. James with a mustachioed grin and his mother’s narrow face, Mary Ann in auburn curls and a white silk blouse, and three of their four children sat smiling and happy as if in dinnertime conversation around the dining room table. A photographer captured the moment.

The picture ran as a full-page ad for Jewel Food Stores in the Chicago Metro News on Saturday, November 26, 1977. The headline read “Platters Full of Plenty Thanks.”17 Near the center of the picture was Ida Mae with a platter full of salad, standing at the head of the table in a polyester dress, her white hair in a French twist, her big goggle glasses taking up most of her face. Her eyes looked directly into the camera and she smiled as if unburdened and free despite the turmoil outside her front windows. For now, she was taking up a whole page in an ad out of Norman Rockwell in a city that had resisted people like her coming north, and, for one brief holiday weekend, had made it to the big time in Chicago.

NEW YORK, 1978


INEZ WAS GONE, but the churchwomen bearing homemade pound cakes held little interest for George Starling. Inez was the only woman he would ever consider as a wife, however unhappy they had been. Now that she was gone, he was left to watch helplessly as the children he was not around enough to raise got themselves into fixes. He would try to impart wisdom from what he had learned from his own mistakes to children and grandchildren who did not appear anxious to hear it. He was getting to be looked upon as just an old man from the South. What did he know of the frustrations of being young and black and wanting to be somebody and all the temptations and obstacles they faced and what it took to survive?

He had been the one to set the course of their lives by migrating to New York before they were born. The parts of the city that black migrants could afford—Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant, the Bronx—had been hard and forbidding places to raise children, especially for some of the trusting and untutored people from the small-town South. The migrants had been so relieved to have escaped Jim Crow that many underestimated or dared not think about the dangers in the big cities they were running to—the gangs, the guns, the drugs, the prostitution. They could not have fully anticipated the effects of all these things on children left unsupervised, parents off at work, no village of extended family to watch over them as might have been the case back in the South. Many migrants did not recognize the signs of trouble when they surfaced and so could not inoculate their children against them or intercede effectively when the outside world seeped into their lives.

George’s two children would come to resent the overcrowding and the vice and concrete, the people on top of one another and the perils all around. Both Gerard and Sonya would succumb to them in one form or another then run from the toxic influences that caught root in the city. They would move to Florida, the Old Country, by the 1980s, Sonya to Eustis, of all places, which she found smaller and, after the death of Jim Crow, more welcoming, and Gerard to Miami, where he made unheard-of sums of money dealing drugs during the cocaine boom, falling deeper into the drug world he was initiated into as a boy in New York.

Gerard blamed New York for the road he had taken, and he hated the city for it, unable to own up to the choices he himself had made.

“If I hadn’t been born and raised in New York,” he once told his cousin Pat, “I never would have been on drugs. I wouldn’t have lived the life that I lived. I hate New York.”

Both of George’s children went in the opposite direction from the one George had taken, went back to the place he had left and made decisions he couldn’t understand. It was as if their return was a rebuke to his attempt to spare them the pain he had endured and to give them chances at decent schools and work options other than fruit picking, choices he himself had never had growing up.

George would rarely talk about his children, so great was his disappointment.

The one constant in his life was the job on the railroad that took him along the path of the Great Migration he had made himself back during the war. Down and back, South and North, New York to Florida and New York again. He was sixty years old and had been working the rails for thirty-five years. How many times had he plied this route, passed through Wildwood, Jacksonville, Savannah, Raleigh, Richmond, and Washington and on up to New York, again and again? How many thousands of migrants had he helped up the train steps carrying their luggage? How much history had he seen unfolding in the faces of the people boarding those trains?

He was nearing retirement and was doing precisely the same thing now that he was when he was twenty-five. He had not moved up or been promoted in all those years. He had tried to propose to his superiors improvements in service since he was in a position to see up close exactly what the passengers needed. But nothing ever came of it. He learned to accept his lot, and it got to the point where he just stopped applying for positions, like conductor or ticket taker, that it was clear he wasn’t going to get. Toward the end of his career, he got to be in charge of the luggage in the club cars. But it was really not much different than before.

As he had done when he first started, he would walk from one end of the train to the other all night long. He could rarely sit and never sleep during a twenty-four-hour run. All through the night, he had to take people’s luggage at every stop and put it away and reposition it and pull out the luggage for passengers disembarking. He walked back and forth, up and down.

Sometimes he would take Inez’s niece Pat with him on those night runs. He would get her settled in her seat and go to work.

“There never was a time that I saw him sleep,” she remembered. “He never complained. It wasn’t a gravy job, and it was beneath his dignity. He never got a chance to use his mind. When he first started, it was an honor to be a porter on that train at that time. But in reality, it wasn’t nothin’ but hard labor.”

The Great Migration had played out before his very eyes. Now it was coming to a close from a demographic, macroeconomic point of view. On the ground, it was maturing, the migrants and their families situated in the North, no longer nervous and starry-eyed, missing their stop or getting off too early or by accident in Newark. Now he was watching and helping the grown children and grandchildren of the Migration make their way back to the Old Country. The ways of the North had settled into most of them. Many of his passengers were born and raised in the North and were making their first visits to the South, rather than returning to a place they had known.

He could tell the original migrants. They were requiring more help getting up the steps, beginning to need canes, many still speaking in their southern accents. They were the ones sitting up straighter, more alert, their memories awakened, when they passed the fields of tobacco and cotton, the small church-steepled towns along the way and the groves of orange trees that George knew so well, because, mean and ornery as it may have been, the South was still the Old Country, the land where their fathers and mothers were buried, and these original migrants were heading home to it, at least for now.



ROBERT, a widower nearing sixty now, had landed what would seem the perfect position. He was doing precisely what had been denied him back in Louisiana. He was on staff at a hospital. And not just any hospital. He was physician to the staff of the West Los Angeles Veterans Administration Medical Center in Brentwood. It took up twenty-two acres between UCLA and the Brentwood Country Club. Its curving drives were named after the great generals of history—MacArthur, Patton, Pershing, the name he had gone by for the first half of his life. It was bigger and better than St. Francis, the small-town hospital that had rejected doctors who looked like him during the days of Jim Crow and had given him one more reason to leave the South. It would be vindication for all that he had endured back home.

He would make less than when he was in private practice, when he was limited only by the hours in the day and the energy he could muster. But he no longer had to concern himself with patient billing and office leases and could concentrate on what he loved most—doting on his patients, the employees at the VA hospital. Immediately, he set about getting to know everyone.

Some of the staff took to him right away, especially the few black ones who had migrated from the South like he had. Before long, he was car-pooling with some of them to get to work. They quickly learned that his other love was gambling, and they could tell when he had just gotten back from Vegas. They would drive up to his mansion early in the morning and toot the horn. Robert would scramble down the walkway, silk suit pressed and necktie in place, limping in his stocking feet with his dress shoes in his hand.

He brought his crushed velvet, jitterbug demeanor to the gray, humorless bureaucracy of a government hospital. He put his feet up on his desk as he always had and asked about his patients’ complaints and worries before pulling out his stethoscope. He had built an entire practice on understanding his patients’ personal troubles so that he could get to the bottom of their medical ailments, as he saw one as being connected to the other.

Migrants from the South treasured his bedside manner and had made up the majority of the patients in his private practice. But Robert was now in a world more like the one he worked in as an army doctor in Austria during the Korean War. Most of the patients, meaning the hospital staff members, were bureaucrats or military and not of his background. Some had come from the South in the parallel migration of whites seeking their own fortune in the wide-open world of California during the years of the Great Migration.

The whole enterprise was an adjustment for Robert. He was used to being in charge and the center of attention, running his office as he pleased. Now he had to be at work by eight in the morning. Bureaucrats wouldn’t put up with what his adoring working-class patients would accept. They wouldn’t put up with him coming in on a morning flight from Vegas, rushing in late with his silk suits and sacks full of money. He couldn’t charm his way into everyone’s good graces by offering to pick up everybody’s lunch tab with his winnings.

“That didn’t work when you working for another man,” said Limuary Jordan’s wife, Adeline, one of Robert’s sometime critics. “You got to follow his orders. You just don’t come and walk over them like that.”

His breezy airs did not sit well with some of the bureaucrats and their assistants. His being one of the few blacks in authority could have put him under perhaps even greater scrutiny. The bureaucrats began complaining about him, and soon he clashed with one hospital worker in particular. It may never be known precisely what happened. The military would not disclose details of the dispute, and Robert took the Hippocratic oath so literally that he rarely spoke of the specifics of any one patient. There were no legal charges against him, and he received workers’ compensation for the distress he suffered. But trouble flared, his colleagues said, after a white woman patient at the hospital complained about an examination. Robert had managed to survive decades in the Jim Crow South without crossing a white woman and had actually won the gratitude of one from Kentucky when he interceded in her delivery and helped her avoid a cesarean section.

Now, decades later, after he had built a name for himself and had taken a job he did not need, he was running into the very thing he had come to California to escape. There were whispers within the hospital of professional incompetency, perhaps the one thing he had never been accused of in his life.

Robert refused to give up his position. But it would be only a Pyrrhic victory. The hospital, he reported, moved him from the offices that he and the white doctors who preceded him had worked out of. It transferred him to an older building “in a cramped examining room next to a loud lavatory reeking with urine and feces,” he wrote in the mid-1990s in a letter of complaint to the Labor Department.

It was as if he had been hurled back fifty years to the Paramount Theater back in Monroe. It was nearing the eve of the twenty-first century, and it seemed as if Jim Crow would not die. His every move was scrutinized and the stress of the isolation weighed on him more heavily than anything in his life. He had made it to the paradise he had so believed in all those decades ago that he had bragged about it before even seeing it. Now, it had betrayed him in ways he could not have imagined.

He told his friends and family of his plight and the plight of co-workers who had also migrated from the South and were now helpless as they witnessed what was happening to him. He was so incensed that he complained to the Labor Department about the “personal isolation, professional and personal slights, rumors, [and] professional slander” he was enduring.18 He described “a continuous racist and stressful environment,” language that he rarely used in all his descriptions of life in the South.

He had given his life over to his patients to the detriment of his own family, a decision that would weaken his ties to his daughters and grieve him later in life when his choices could not be undone. He had sat at the bedside of patients who loved him for his devotion. And now a new one had turned on him and threatened the reputation that had taken him a lifetime to build.

Things only got worse. In seeking workers’ compensation, Robert was required to be evaluated by a psychiatrist with ties to the VA hospital. The psychiatrist seemed to dismiss what Robert told him and directed Robert to prove to him the difference in the size of Robert’s old office and the smaller one to which he had been demoted.

The psychiatrist “proceeded to command me to step forward,” Robert wrote, “pick up a commercial tape from his desk and stoop down in a servile manner to measure his office for square footage.” Something about a surgeon being commanded by anyone to stoop to the floor and take measurements brought back memories of the sirring and ma’aming back in the South and made him feel lower than at any time since perhaps his migration through the desert.

“I am humiliated and ensnared in an evaluation process which is untenable,” Robert wrote.

He had never wanted to make a federal case out of the times in his life he had been ill-treated because of the caste into which he had been born and the era in which he lived. But here he was making a plea to the government as he fought for his good name. The stress forced him to seek treatment from a cardiologist and from vascular and orthopedic surgeons and a psychiatrist. They told him he needed to quit to protect his health, but Robert did not want to go out that way, not after all he had been through, proving himself at every turn, starting with the decision to migrate in the first place.

The only good thing about the situation was that Rufus Clement had not lived to see it. Surely he would have told him that this was proof of what Clement had believed all along, that Robert would have been better off casting his lot in the South. Better, too, that big Madison hadn’t lived to see it either. Surely, he would have shed a tear for his little brother who so loved medicine and worked so hard at pleasing everyone.

The dispute dragged on for years as Robert sought relief through workers’ compensation for the toll the situation had taken on his health. One day in the middle of this episode in his life, he was walking down the red-carpeted aisle toward the club room at Santa Anita when it felt as if he were being stabbed in the chest. He was suffering a heart attack. He would require bypass surgery and would see his life slow down considerably.

He would soon take his own physicians’ advice and retire from the VA hospital. It was not how he wanted to end his career. The memory of what he felt was a forced ouster in his adopted home would stay with him for the rest of his life. He had seen roadblocks to black progress even in his beloved California. “And it’s harder and heavier the higher the paycheck,” he said.

As for Robert’s reputation, the one he fought so hard to maintain during his dispute with the hospital, it remained as it had always been. Patients from the VA hospital continued to see him, dropping by the house on Victoria to seek his advice. And many years later, the State Medical Board in Sacramento showed the record of Dr. Robert P. Foster to be free of any sanctions during the forty-four years he was licensed to practice medicine in the state of California.

But he would never see California the same. He would have many moments of joy from the old patients who consulted him and brought their children for him to examine and allay their worries long after he had retired. But he would never get over what befell him.

“He was dying on the inside,” his friend and patient Malissa Briley said.

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