Posted by: David Carlson | January 23, 2009

Black and White

Black and White is a subcategory of my Memoirs.  The title implies the old cliche that  the real world before color TV was in fact black and white.  For our grandparents it may have been sepia.

The title of this posting has a more serious tone.  My white experience in transition and transformation from the 50’s to the 70’s in particular,  and my current outlook.  President Obama’s telling of his Kenyan father’s American experience 60 years ago got me thinking.

In brief, my current outlook requires more than mere tolerance when I promote the Baha’i principle of race unity.  Anti-racism is a partisan political approach in my experience.  Anti-this or that may be a necessary step, but I prefer inclusion, not exclusion, and definitely non-violent action.

The black and white before color TV.

Racism and racial slurs were part of my culture in the 1950’s.  My dad recalled for me the signs in windows in Amery, WI., prohibiting Negroes, Jews, and Indians.  KKK was active in the area.  The signs were gone during my childhood. I was proud of my roots in the Amery Area.

The signs were still posted in Montgomery, Alabama in 1966 when I was stationed at Gunter Air Force Base for boot camp.  Separate drinking fountains and theater entrances.  Blacks were still riding the back of the bus I rode.

Earlier the same year, I was walking the streets of downtown Amarillo, Texas among a small group of Macalester College students.  It was a warm January night.  We walked for blocks.  The streets were well-lighted.  In front of the public library stood a huge oak tree infested with mistletoe and  filled with noisy night birds.  A similar size group of black youth approached, and we were on the receiving end of the racial slurs.  No confrontation, no physical contact, no retaliation; each group went its way.  I don’t recall any other personal experience of black racial rage, except in the telling by black friends.  Not until the 1980’s did I learn of the rage among American Natives.

My dad’s job as a mechanic at R.J. Flanigan Tire and Battery on Dale Street at Ashland in St. Paul, put me in a discontinuity zone between extreme wealth on Summit Avenue to the south, and the black Rondo Avenue neighborhood to the north, being bulldozed for the construction of I-94.   I worked part time for Bob Flanigan, and after he died, I worked for my father. He moved the business west to Snelling Avenue at Hague.  We just missed the long hot summer burning of the businesses along Selby Avenue, two blocks north of the old station.  One of my favorite lunchtime restaurants, the Louisanne, was among those torched.  So was the black barber shop my dad frequented.

Not only was the black population displaced and moving through the Selby-Dale neighborhood, but the Jews had been moving from the flood plain across from downtown St. Paul, some settling in the Summit Avenue neighborhood, and others moving to Highland Park.  The Native American population was moving into town, and Minneapolis already the largest urban population of Indians.  In St. Paul, the American Indian Center was on Payne Avenue, always a transition zone for immigrants and shifting populations.

Blacks, Jews, Indians, and politicians were among my dad’s customers.  Two Jewish men parked their junk truck in his garage, where chauffeurs  had parked the Summit Avenue limos in the 30’s.  Actually, their specialty was hauling toxic waste, such as used storage batteries.  Another Jewish man kept his candy truck there.  A “white Negro” customer, my dad said, was a community organizer.  One American Indian tried to pay for his gasoline with a trunk full of used books, while I was on duty.  Some of the wealthy forgot to bring cash too.  Muriel Humphrey ( wife of Senator Hubert Humphrey) paid for her gasoline with a pearl-handled derringer, which my sister now owns.   Bob Flanigan did not get along with his politician customers, and found both entrances of his driveway blocked with street construction after an argument with a very young Walter Mondale. You wouldn’t know from his customers there was a race problem in the neighborhood.

My first residence, from 1946-48, was an apartment building on Marshall Avenue, about a half  mile north of Flanigan Tire and Battery, a block east of the current Martin Luther King Jr. Center.

Marshall Junior High was in the Selby-Dale neighborhood.  I went to Cleveland Junior High on the East Side of St. Paul.  If there were more than half a dozen black students in my school, I didn’t know them.  We were a tough crowd nevertheless.  There was a similar discontinuity  between wealthy neighborhoods near Lake Phalen and the rest of us, who didn’t know we were poor until it came time to chose the Johnson High School Hockey team. Some of the priviledged players would go on to become incredibly wealthy businessmen.

By eighth grade I was too short to make the Cleveland basketball team.  I was the scorekeeper and manager.  When we played the nearly all black Marshall squad, the score was lopsided.  80-something to 12 against us in one game.  I don’t recall that there was racism displayed on the court or in the  locker rooms.  Our school did not have good facilities, new textbooks, or the best qualified teachers.  Marshall was noticeably worse. It smelled unclean.

Transition at Macalester College

Macalester College on Snelling and Summit Avenues in St. Paul, made an effort to recruit minority students.  I wouldn’t have qualified for entrance myself, based on high school grade point average, and could not have paid the high tuition of $1100 per semester without a grant-in-aide, if students from the poorer neighborhoods of the Twin Cities were not also recruited.  There were 95 percent National Merit Scholars in my first college math class.  I was not one of them.  I quickly changed my major from math to economics.

In the Fall of 1964, I had no idea that Macalester students were among the freedom riders busing to Mississippi.  When I was at boot camp in Montgomery, I walked into George Wallace’s campaign headquarters, and came out with a stack of Wallace for President bumper stickers.  I was unaware of the problems in Alabama.

Heedlessness, the Baha’i scriptures say, is a major source of prejudice of all kinds.  The Forerunner of the Baha’i Faith, the Bab, told the world leaders of his time (1844-50) they were responsible for the ignorance and suffering of the people, and they “ought to have known”.  Only Queen Victoria responded directly to similar letters written by Baha’u’llah in 1867.   Pope Pius IX was in office during the time of the Bab and Baha’u’llah, and may have been influenced by the message. In 1868  he called the first Ecumenical  Council since the 4th Century under Emperor Constantine and Pope Sylvester at Nicea.

Even though my best friend at Macalester College was dating a young Baha’i woman in 1966,  I learned from her eight years later that they had broken up over religion,  I did not hear the word “Baha’i”  until 1972.  I was heedless.  I became a Baha’i in 1973.  I remained heedless about many things, but I became thoroughly informed about the principles of the Cause that is establishing the unification of mankind.

Power belongs to the people as a consequence of the failure of the religious and political leaders to heed  Baha’u’llah’s message.  We are responsible for the pain of a collapsing world order, as well as holding the responsibility for action in the present moment when there is an opportunity to make rapid progress.

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Responses

  1. i like that you’re exploring this theme here. did Grandpa get his haircut at the barbershop or just stop in once in a while?

  2. I think it was a regular haircut. I don’t recall seeing a barbershop like it since then in the vicinity of Selby and Western. There may be one between Dale and Victoria. Next time you are in St. Paul, drive down Selby from the Cathedral to Lexington and see who is hanging out.
    There is more to write in this posting. I haven’t found a way to indicate an update date stamp on an old posting.

  3. This is a fascinating account. I liked the hockey team picking criteria.


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