The Word: Me, My Dad and Race

It seemed like a pebble. Maybe smaller, it was just a grain of sand. It couldn’t possibly hurt someone. You couldn’t grasp it well enough to fling it. It was just a word, not a stiletto, not a buck knife with serrated edge. It certainly wasn’t a tomahawk, yet another ‘word’.

Oakwood, Ohio. I don’t think we saw black people after five PM. By then, the maids and gardeners had all gone to a bus stop, either the one on Patterson Blvd. or Far Hills Ave.

Every house seemed to have a dog. German shepherds were popular. A few folks would let them out just before 5 PM. Most houses sat on unfenced quarter acre and half acre lots. Thin woods separated back yards on parallel streets. The dogs, the shepherds, ignored the woods, their sport was on the street. The maids, universally feared the shepherds. Tracking the scurrying maids from house to house, the shepherds never left the grass. No barking. No biting. Just Snarling.

An innocent, I once tried to counsel the maids. Don’t rush. Don’t show fear. Command firmly. But, the Annies, Hatties and their sisters were trained to fear, just as the shepherds were to herd.

The maids bustled, heads down, to the end of the block. The shepherds trotted to their right, keeping to the grass, always threatening.

At the corner, many maids descended Patterson Blvd. They went down to the corner store on Schantz, just opposite the YMCA. Finally, they arrived at the bus stop.

There were no signs at the corner store. Oakwood is in the north. The copperhead north lay not far from the south, the still segregated Kentucky. Low cost labor from the briar patch loaded the trucks, worked the metal, and, one, the cash register at the corner store.

Need a cigarette? A soda? The toilet? No maid gave it a thought. The front door seemed as good as sealed. Real desperate? Go to the back, call out softly. Somebody might come, might even sell something. The toilet? I never saw a colored person use it. Yes, that is what polite people used to say instead of the word. I am not sure that I ever saw a “briar,” another of those ‘words’, use it. Kids, we went to the Y across the street.

Would any of the help have dared to go to the Y? Did certainty of rejection keep them in their places? Or was it the bus that wouldn’t wait?

It’s strange. I don’t remember much about my bus rides: who sat at the back? Were there rules? I don’t recall if the bus was a marble cake or a layer cake. You know, one with chocolate ribbons amidst the vanilla, the other with vanilla atop chocolate.

My parents were polite. My brother and I gave up our seat for any adult. Color didn’t matter, adulthood did. The bus wasn’t usually crowded when I rode it. I rarely had to give up my seat.

So, there it was, Oakwood. Black people were invisible from 8–5, absent from 5–8. A thin trickle in, then out.

You can imagine that the Harmon Avenue School, the one just past St. Paul’s Episcopal church, next to Hawthorne Hill, was whiter than white. We were so Teutonic that we had a special assembly to prepare for the school’s first Jewish student.

Oakwood was rich. Oakwood was educated. Oakwood was the epicenter of an earlier Silicon Valley before silicon. The Miami Valley as the Mechanical Valley. Home to the Wright Brothers and neighbor to Charles Kettering, Oakwood was a hub of industrious inventors. Without Oakwood’s engineers and managers, Detroit would choke.

Oakwood was unenlightened. Cheery cherubs floated through the elementary school spouting racist jokes. “Nice shoes, hey speaking of black loafers, …?” Or, “fight, fight, black and white, come on …” You can imagine the rest. Oakwood might as well have been a suburb of Tuscaloosa. If the word causes pain, the attitudes behind it were casual. They were so casual that six year olds could easily associate color and power. The industry and genius of Oakwood were white. The wealth and education were white. No wealth, no education, no industry: a loafer.

It wasn’t really genius, it was brutish hard labor. The devilish cherubs made the connection without reflection. White was superior. There was no sanction at St. Paul’s, nor the Lutheran church, not even the Methodists or Presbyterians and Catholics. This was the natural order in the prosperous north not long after Dr. King’s march. Children wielded racism as a lumberjack an axe, with ease, power, and destructiveness.

If these were the children of the brightest, most capable and the best educated, then imagine all of the other children.

Oakwood seemed to us, the privileged children, to be the heart of Dayton, no the Miami Valley. My parents were from California. Their lack of an accent marked their different ideas. Difference to some is like plaque to an artery. “About that accent”, one friend’s father asked in a Kentucky drawl, “what type of accent does your dad have? You aren’t from around here are you?” Actually, I was born in the Miami Valley Hospital.

My Dad’s plant, like any other on I-75, was unionized. Unionized and partially segregated. It was a folkway. Management didn’t change it. Management didn’t care. The factory roof was festooned with banners celebrating productivity and safety. The factory floor streamed in black and white rows.

Management, except the Californian, was conservative. Even a California Republican is liberal. Consider Earl Warren. He was supposed to be a conservative. But, the former Governor of California turned out to be surprisingly liberal. Dad was like Warren, he just wasn’t a Supreme Court justice.

Unions have strict rules about seniority. But, what should one do, if for the first time, a black man is senior? The soft Jim Crow of Southern Ohio whispered “by-pass him.” Dad didn’t.

Well, you know what hit the fan! Complaints. Shoulder bumps in the halls. Dropped equipment. Car parked in. Work slow downs. There were even calls from Detroit. And, then there was the letter. The letter seemed to be from the Klan. I never saw it. Mom and Dad discussed it. Should Dad back down? Should we move to California? Within this cacophony, the good people of Oakwood supported Dad — he should do what he thought was best. No hints, no suggestions, no nudges. Maybe they knew that change was on its way.

Dad supported his African American foreman. But, Dad begged his indulgence and tested Detroit’s patience. There would be a town hall meeting at the plant. The union reps would be invited. Management, except Dad’s right hand, would be absent. Detroit would not send anyone from head office. If he failed, Dad would be the scapegoat. If he succeeded, management would win.

The town hall came. No speeches. Dad could be awkward with long speeches. Just one question, “Do you wish to vote the union out of the plant?” Workers snarled like those german shepherds tracking the maids. You know who they accused Dad of loving. The regional union head exploded. The agreements with the company didn’t allow a rouge plant manager to kick the union out. “No,” Dad replied, “either the union supports its rules and the new foreman is black, or the union is out.”

In the 1960s, I think that every union worker knew exactly how much the union protected him — there were not so many hers as yet. Union workers were well cared for. Union workers were qualified. Union workers had a house, and often two cars. Their children had a future.

So you know how the story ends. The union rules were enforced. Union rules become color blind, and Jim Crow would slide a bit farther to the south. No copperhead would poison this plant. As far as I know, the chapter was closed. No more letters, no dropped equipment, no sharp shoulders, no parking issues, and work back to pace.

Perversely, the factory floor embraced Dad as pro-union. Race, it seemed was much less important Detroit, however, probably wasn’t too happy. Unions, after all, were the enemy. That perception would not help Dad later on.

Change came with fire, like those documentaries with burnt prairie being reborn. But, in Dayton, fire brought the national guard. Dad took my brother and me down the hill and across the river. There, we saw the National Guard. They watched the smoldering ghetto, bayonet atop carbine. Were they keeping us out or the African Americans in? Dad turned to us and asked, “what kind of country calls the army out on its own people?” He never answered. We were left, until now, to ponder what type of country are we?

Dad returned. He went to St. Paul’s. He was a vestryman. He and Father Simpson would work on voter registration. They were late. The Black Manifesto had been published. Annie, our maid, quit. “I’m sorry ma’am, I can’t do house servant work for white people any more.” Mom was crushed. Annie, she thought, was as much a friend as a maid.

To make sure the message was clear, armed gunmen barricaded themselves in many of Oakwood’s churches, including St. Paul’s. Doors locked, they read the manifesto and left. Everyone talked about it for a week. Then. Nothing. They didn’t come back and Oakwood didn’t change very much.

I knew the word once. The word was forbidden at home. My parents would not even tolerate it from their friends. My friends rarely frequented the word. Still, the word’s fellow traveling attitudes were everywhere. But, the word was not acceptable in Oakwood. Despite its absence, the word’s connotation permeated Oakwood.

The word can be relentless. It seeps through minds, drips onto tongues, then it flies out. A clumsy tool of humor, it thunks out as if fired from an assault rifle. A bizarre prop for companionship, it is flipped about as if a juggled Bowie knife. In my case, it was a sudden bludgeon of anger.

I don’t even recall why. What was the reason? We were at an integrated camp. An experiment by the YMCA. We were mixed by sleeping quarters and activities. Nobody was allowed to choose his own team. We were mixed, matched, remixed and rematched. Every activity brought new companions.

We were playing tennis. I have no recollection of the issue, the offense taken, or the point. But, my anger needed to wound. I succeeded. Bigger, stronger, and smarter than me, my adversary transformed into crumpled mass of tears. The word had delivered more pain than a ten year old’s punch. Whatever torment I felt, I gave back much worse.

I was lucky. The counselors, merely teenagers themselves, noticed. They counseled my victim and me. Then, in mid 60s Southern Ohio, the unthinkable happened. The camp leaders turned it into a learning opportunity. All campers, several tens of us, were gathered to discuss the word, its destructive power, its poisonous radioactivity.

My first firing of the word was my last. I think that every participant in that camp never returned to the word. Our long forgotten counselors, the managers, the teenagers delivered clarity with compassion and firmness. The word was always to be exiled from our speech and behavior. And, so it remains for me.

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Raised in Southern Ohio to become a globe trotter,…

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Abdulkader Thomas

Abdulkader Thomas

Raised in Southern Ohio to become a globe trotter,…

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