I was apprehensive about our move to this strange new neighborhood. It was called “The Hill” and its residents were overwhelmingly white, predominantly Jewish. I didn’t know anyone there and we were the only Black family on our new street, Walnut Park. I was afraid that this move would replicate my experience at the Louis Prang School where, as the only Black kid in my class, I was isolated and picked on.
Our new home at 61 Walnut Park was a triple-decker. What’s that? A common feature of Boston’s residential neighborhoods is its “triple deckers”; wood-frame three-story, usually owner-occupied, apartment houses. We just two blocks away from Egleston Square, a major mass transit hub, necessary for most people in those days during World War II, when relatively few people could afford owning a car. Nice.
More good news. Our new home was just a 15 to 20-minute walk from my old Highland Park neighborhood. I was pleasantly surprised that I could hop on my bike and in five minutes or so, return to visit with my childhood friends.
My new school was still another happy surprise, not at all like the Louis Prang School. I was enrolled in the sixth grade at the now defunct George Putnam School on Seaver Street, a short walk away from home. In the school yard, the ultimate determinant of my educational career, I was quickly invited by my new classmates — all white — to join them in playing a kind of silly, raucous game that involved friendly pushing and laughing. I gleefully accepted their invitation and, to my pleasant surprise, found myself a part of my brand new school.
True, I was the only Black kid in my class, but it didn’t seem to matter to anyone. I was so darned happy to be accepted that I never thought about why I was so welcomed. The classroom work was much more challenging than what I was used to at the Dudley School, but I managed to do all right. And guess what? There was no rattan, no humiliation, no Olly Sanders, at the Putnam School.
One day in the late fall my teacher announced that she would delay starting a new subject segment until after the “holidays.” I was confused. There were no upcoming holidays on the school calendar. That’s when I learned about the Jewish High Holidays. I knew nothing about such religious holidays, and I didn’t think I knew any Jews. Why should we have to make allowances for “those” people?
On the day of the first holiday, I was stunned to find my school at least two-thirds empty. Then I was made speechless by the derisive, hostile, anti-Semitic language I heard from my remaining, mostly Irish, classmates. These were the same kids who had welcomed me with open arms just a few weeks earlier. Remembering the hateful Nigger Pile “game” at the Prang School, I kept my mouth shut. Later, I thought, if this is how they treat Jews – smiles to their faces, curses in their absence — then what were their real feelings about a Black kid like me?
My two best friends at the time were Steve Ladoulas, of Greek descent, who went on the become an attorney, and Stanley Warsaw, Jewish, who became an engineer. Stanley and I were such good friends that in 1999, we reconnected at our 50th high school class reunion and renewed or friendship, talking regularly on the phone and occasionally visiting one another, until his passing a few years ago.
In our Putnam School days, Stanley lived with his grandmother across the street from us, and he and I spent countless hours bicycling in and around Franklin Park. Years later, Stanley told me that his grandmother disapproved of our friendship solely because I was Black. Stanley’s reply? “He’s my friend, Grandma.” That was to me, a profile in courage and loyalty. I don’t use the term “friend” lightly, but Stanley Warsaw was a friend then and until his death.
Following the war, our neighborhood had an influx of Jewish refugees from Germany’s concentration camps. They were called “DPs,” for Displaced Persons. The eight-digit numbers tattooed inside their left wrists by their German captors drew no special attention in our neighborhood. And when they spoke their traditional Yiddish, I mistakenly believed they were speaking German.
It didn’t take long for our newcomers to incorporate a core value of my country: racism. A couple of the DP newcomers opened a small store across the street from our home. My pal, Donald Goldberg, and I both applied for after-school jobs there and were each hired. Trust me, I was brighter and more responsible than Donald, yet, Don was allowed to handle money and his job was an “inside” job. My job, like other Black kids I later learned, was an “outside” job, stay out of sight and brave inclement weather to deliver call-in orders to the store’s white customers.
It didn’t take me long to read that book. Sorry Dad, sometimes it’s not even enough to be “twice as good.” I learned the lesson. Yes, it’s important to be prepared and to strive for excellence, but sometimes even that’s not enough to overcome our legacy of racism.
Looking back, these newcomers weren’t the real problem. The problem was our caste system which solely by virtue of their color, imbued them with white privilege, immediately upon arrival in the U.S. For Black people, relegated to the lower caste, being “twice as good” is not enough for ; structural change is required for true equality. Without such systemic change, our beloved country will always use artificial race-based barriers to relegate Black people to inferior positions.
THEODORE ROOSEVELT JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL
Completing the sixth grade at the Putnam School, I was promoted to the seventh grade at the Theodore Roosevelt Junior High School (TR). My tenure at TR can best be described as eventful in its uneventfulness. It was uneventful in that, while I was one of only nine Black kids (three boys and six girls) out of about 200 students in my grade, I didn’t knowingly experience a single racial incident during my tenure there.
I got along well with my classmates, and, although my classes were naturally more challenging than my sixth-grade classes, I was an average student, performing at a much higher level than at the Dudley School.
TR was co-educational and for the first time, there were girls in my classes. Other than Aphrodite Chronopoulos, for whom I harbored a secret crush, the girls weren’t a distraction. The teachers kept a tight rein on the girls. One day, for example, a girl came to class wearing lipstick; she was swiftly sent to the bathroom to “clean that off your face.”
We boys didn’t escape the tight rein either. One time, Richard Janey, a Black kid, who was chronically late for school was warned by our home room teacher that that another lateness would send him to the principal’s office. A few days later, Richard arrived late again with his arm in what was clearly a phony, make-shift sling. He claimed that he had broken it earlier that morning. Inwardly, I laughed out loud. How could he try to pull such a stupid stunt? Apparently, our teacher shared my silent point of view. Richard was sent to the principal’s office.
For the first time we changed classes for subjects at TR, had homework, report cards and were graded by subject. Although we had no counselors, there was an unstated but pervasive expectation that many of us would go on to college and that we needed to start preparing now.
I took classes in algebra and, in the ninth grade, French. I remember the first story I read in French “Pas a Pas” (Step by Step), about a child who stoically persists in achieving a goal. In retrospect, it was no accident that our French teacher selected that book for us.
Joan Hill, one of the nine Black kids in my grade and who later became a good friend, used my home room desk for one of her classes and we’d occasionally leave friendly, platonic notes for one another inside my desk. I looked forward to her notes.
Many Black kids attended another nearby Boston junior high, the inferior Lewis Junior High School. But at TR, by the time I graduated, I believed that I would go to college. I didn’t know where or how, but I believed that college was within my reach.
I had a mixed reaction to that realization. Deep inside there was the ever-present doubt of my ability to meet expectations. Was I really capable of meeting others’ prospects for me. My family had decided that I would be a physician, yet, I had no clue about what I wanted to do with my life and no one with whom to discuss my inner demons.
Boston’s primary industry was, then and now, education, the arts and finance, and our teachers often referred to Boston as the “Athens of the West.” We were encouraged to make use of Boston’s abundance of colleges and universities, libraries, museums and so forth. These opportunities were free and available to everyone. It was also common for recent high school graduates to return to school to earn a few additional credits to qualify for college. The classes were free, and we called those students “PG’s” (post graduates) with no stigma and, perhaps, admiration for their focus and determination.
Notwithstanding Boston’s limited opportunities for Black people, Don, Juke and I took full advantage of these offerings, regularly visiting public libraries and museums. I was also introduced to the New York Times, courtesy of Mr. Shelton who occasionally brought copies from his workplace at Boston’s South Station. I liked the sports section, despite its focus on our hated New York Yankees.
Upon graduation from TR in June 1946, we had several options for high school: two neighborhood high schools and several specialized central-city high schools. I chose Boston English High School, an all-boys, tradition-bound athletic powerhouse, with high academic standards. Founded in 1821, EHS was reportedly the oldest public high school in the U.S. Its alumni include J.P. Morgan, Leonard Nimoy of Star Trek fame, Kahlil Gibran of “The Prophet,” General Matthew Ridgeway who succeeded Douglas McArthur and Ridgeway eventually ended the post-World War II occupation of Japan.
EHS’s rivalry with Boston’s Public Latin School, America’s oldest public school, regularly drew 20,000 spectators to Harvard Stadium for the traditional Thanksgiving Day football game. So intense was the rivalry that an EHS football player could earn his prestigious “E” only by playing against Latin School. No matter how well he performed against other teams it was “The Game” that counted.
During my ninth-grade year, when I was 13 and after Calvin’s return to civilian life, Ma and Dad’s long dysfunctional marriage finally came to an end. It was a foregone conclusion and they had apparently agreed not to tell Calvin of their separation during his wartime service since it might be a distraction and might jeopardize his safety. Their separation disrupted the intimacy of my relationship with Dad, but at long last there were no more of those frightening verbal arguments between Ma and Dad in our household.
Like other West Indian immigrant families, our home was the gateway into America for many of Ma’s family members who had not yet come to the U.S. Ma “sponsored” many of them, certifying to the government that these relatives would not become public charges and providing temporary living quarters until they were able to move on. I especially remember greeting my cousins for the first time: Ruby Wright, warm and outgoing; Enid Dixon, rather shy; Percival Wright, whose Patios accent — called “Jamaican creole,” by many — was so pronounced that I barely understood him; and Calvin Dixon who became like a brother to me.
Each one of my cousins provided a living example of the importance of family.
“BEAN TOWN” & THE RED SOX
Boston, both as a child and now, is the world’s greatest sports town. Period. End of story. And if you don’t believe me, check out its sports pages or websites.
We had two professional baseball teams, the Red Sox and the Braves. Each team played on alternating home series dates, and until the Braves moved to Milwaukee, there was a major league baseball game played in Boston almost every day between April and September. In addition, there was a doubleheader on Sundays and holidays. It was heaven for a baseball fan.
My beloved Red Sox were and are my passion to this day. Their rivalry with the hated New YorkYankees is legendary. If asked, during my childhood, I could give you the batting average of every single starting Red Sox and Braves player.
I remember my first Red Sox game at Fenway Park in 1946. I was 13 and had scraped up some money from my after-school job. We paid $1.25 for unreserved grandstand seats along the first base line, hoping to catch a foul ball. First impression? The grass. I’d never seen such a broad expanse of rich green grass. I was spellbound. Second? Batting practice. We saw future Hall of Fame players, Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, and Johnny Pesky up close, kidding each other, hitting balls into the bleachers. Wow. And oh, yes, we beat the visiting Philadelphia (now Oakland) Athletics 10-0.
Afterward, we went to the players’ parking lot, hoping to see Ted Williams. We didn’t see him, but we watched Dom Dimaggio patiently sign his autograph on every single kid’s scorecard before leaving. Star pitcher, Dave Ferris gave a couple of kids a ride a home. Imagine those scenes today.
Why am I such a baseball fan? Others may wax poetic, but for me it’s simple. It’s a connection with my childhood when all of us played the game. We shared bats and gloves; it was apolitical. It’s a game of inches and learning the strengths and weaknesses of your opponents. I can’t stand to watch a game on television, though. It’s too boring. But in-person, it’s another story. Besides, there’s always another day.
Somehow, my parents scraped together enough money to send Eleanor and me to overnight summer camps. Like many kids of that era, summertime was vacation time and what better way to spend it than a few weeks away from home?
Camps that were all-Black varied in quality. At age 11, a child drowned and I was bullied at my first camp, Nippanipick. At age 12, my cousin,,Rodney Howes, and I went to Breezy Meadows. It was all right, though I did catch poison ivy. To my knowledge, Calvin never went away to camp. Why? I have no idea. Money? Disinterest?
The summers of 1946 and 1947, at 13 and 14 years, I went to Camp Atwater. These were two of the most fun-filled — and life-changing — summer camp experiences of my childhood. Camp Atwater, in Brookfield, Massachusetts, sponsored by the Springfield, Massachusetts Urban League, is the country’s oldest summer camp owned and operated by Black people. The Springfield Urban League still owns the camp and it’s now on the National List of Historic Places.
Camp Atwater was special for two reasons. First, the counselors were all Black college students. I’d never met a Black college student. They told the usual scary fireside stories, which we actually believed, scaring us to death. The ghost of Moho, they told us, wandered about at night looking for kids to harm. “Look out, everyone! Moho is behind that tree!” They encouraged us to excel in any activity we participated in, especially my favorites, archery and swimming.
Second, I made new friends from as far away as New Jersey and Baltimore. One boy from Baltimore, Tim Boddie, and I became good friends. Later, we would reunite at Howard University, and still later, Tim actually achieved my childhood dream. He became a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force, often broke the sound barrier and flew hundreds of tactical combat missions in Vietnam. Tim was profiled in Time magazine, and retired as a brigadier general. Tim and I are still in touch with one another. It’s been a friendship of 75 years and counting.
My fondest recollection of Camp Atwater is that, despite my awkwardness, I won my first and only award for physical prowess: Most-Improved Swimmer, Summer, 1947. I knew a few basic strokes when I arrived at camp, but within two weeks, I was able to swim to and from a relatively distant island without stopping. That was huge. I couldn’t run fast or catch a ball, but I could swim. I was proud of myself.
I became a bit more self-confident during those years. Being bullied seemed to be in my past. I found that in school I could make friends and compete with others academically. I could achieve realistic expectations inside and outside of the classroom.
Over time, I’ve come to realize that through Camp Atwater, I experienced a highly successful program, designed by Blacks, operated by Blacks, and conducted for Black kids like me. Despite my whitewashed public-school education, I was the beneficiary of many opportunities not ordinarily available to other kids who looked like me. Nevertheless, even in the face of such potential, deep inside I was still haunted by a sense of loneliness and troubled by my grade school problems. I felt emotionally fragile, painfully shy – and fearful that the ground on which I stood was made of sand, might be washed out from under me at any moment. What was I to do?
TAGS: Anti-Semitism, Theodore Roosevelt Jr. High School, summer camp, Camp Atwater, Red Sox
© 2020 Lloyd A Johnson, LLC. All rights reserved.