August 21, 2009

The Maturing of My America.




Racism was an ugly fact of life in the America of my early days, but I didn’t give it much thought. In our all-white town, Wilmington Massachusetts, miles from Boston’s black ghettos and farther still from the absolute segregation of the southern states, racism was not a subject for discussion; neither at home nor in our schools or our churches.

All my baseball heroes were white because there were no black players in the Major Leagues until 1947, when the color bar was lifted so that Jackie Robinson could join the Brooklyn Dodgers. It took another three years for pro basketball to admit a black player, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, who had to clown with the Harlem Globetrotters until the New York Knicks let him in their locker room. We didn’t hear of black war heroes because military units were segregated by race, and the bravery of their soldiers was given no publicity.

Although slavery had been abolished in America’s south at the end of the civil war, blacks there still faced discrimination in every aspect of their lives: kept from voting by rigged registration rules; banned from the best schools and even cafés; forced to ride in the rear of buses. It is fair to say that the USA did not become a truly democratic nation until July 2, 1964 (five days short of my 30th birthday), when President Lyndon Johnson signed the civil rights bill banning discrimination in voting, jobs, education and public services. Another milestone, of course, was the election of a multi-racial president, Barrack Obama, in 2008.

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In 1949, when I was 15, I was exposed to the ugliest faces of racism. It was during a 1,500-mile trip with my parents to the Deep South, my first venture out of New England. In the Northeast, racism hid mainly below the surface of life. But in Biloxi, Mississippi, it could not be ignored; it was in your face all day long. For the first time, I saw drinking-water fountains separated by “White” and “Colored”. One day I went to the local post office to buy some stamps for a post card and saw a line of black people waiting for service. As I took my place in the back of the line, the white postmaster shouted “Hey, young man, y’all come up here!”. Obediently I went to the counter, and he asked what I wanted. Right then I realized that in this sinister land, whites had absolute power over blacks. As I walked out with my stamped postcard I felt ashamed for accepting my newfound privileges. But I didn’t protest because I too was afraid of these white people.

Ethnic struggles existed. When East Boston, the Italian district, played South Boston, the Irish neighborhood, in high school football, there were always stupid riots between the two immigrant groups, with streetcars being tipped over by angry mobs. But my ghetto-less little hometown was an ethnic showcase of “melting-pot America”. When I was in elementary school our landlords at 98 Boutwell St. were the Belluccis from Italy. They had a handsome, hand-built stone house next to our primitive rented cabin, and an outdoor bocci bowling court that was the center of Sunday gatherings of their many relatives from the Italian areas of Boston. Rosie Belluci called me Giulio instead of Junior, my family nickname. My lifelong friend “Scratch” O’Reilly’s parents were both from Ireland, and his future wife Anne Frotton was one of many Wilmingtonites descended from French Canadians. Mike Elia’s parents were from Albania and ran a gas station and grocery store on Lowell Street (Mike too became a town grocer). Phil Nelson’s grandparents were Scandinavian; his mother grew up in New Hampshire speaking Finnish. I was a second-generation American on my grandmothers’ sides: “Nana” (Brennan) McInnes was from Ireland and “Gramma” (Johnson) Ferguson was born in England.

One of the most celebrated figures in town was a Greek immigrant, George Spanos, who had a diner in the square. George didn’t speak English very well, but he loved the town and covered the walls of his place with photographs of Wilmington youth in football and army uniforms. During World War II local servicemen wrote to him from the European and Asian fronts, and whenever one was killed in action he cried as if he had lost a son. He had no children of his own, and his sick, bedridden wife never left their apartment above the diner. People affectionately called him the Mayor of Wilmington, an honorific title because the town didn’t have a mayor and still doesn’t; it hires an administrator called a Town Manager.

When we first arrived in Wilmington in the late 1930s the town was controlled by prosperous people with British roots that ran deep. They were doctors, bankers and town officials. But immigrants and their offspring were rapidly taking over. Among many stories of upward mobility, that of my classsmate Ralph Lepore, descendant of Italian-Americans, stands out. In the 1950s, before student loans began opening higher education to lower-income families, Ralph pushed himself through medical school at New York's Columbia University, working night jobs to pay tuition and sleeping in a wretched Harlem tenement house to save on rent. Years later he bought the charminig, white-clapboard house of Dr. McDougal, a respected figure of Wilmington's Anglo-Saxon patrician class, and replaced the sign outside with his own: "Dr. Ralph Lepore."

Excerpt from "Memoir of LeRoy Ferguson, Jr." Unpublished.

1 comment:

Ana said...

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