[Note: This is another in a series of posts about a white person who grew up in the South during the Age of Jim Crow and managed to come to terms with the question of race, though usually much later in life. The difference here is that, while I grew up during the Age of Jim Crow, I did not (exactly) live in the South. Rather, I resided in Maryland and in Delaware, both so-called “Border Slave States” at the outbreak of the Civil War. But the race issue was still a factor, and coming to terms with it has been a constant effort in my life over the past half century or so.]
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Middle River, near Baltimore, Maryland (1950s)—Victory Villa was a jerry-built development originally constructed to house workers at the nearby Martin Aircraft Company plant during World War II. By the time my family moved there after the war, the area was a White working-class neighborhood. And yet, the “N-Word” was heard frequently, especially from the lips of one of our neighbors, from New England, who had a large family and taught his sons not to take any “stuff” off of Black kids. Instead, he encouraged them to fight back, swiftly and effectively, if threatened or challenged.
The strange thing was that, as best I can remember, there were no Black people either in Victory Villa or in our local elementary school, but somehow that didn’t seem to matter. In short, I was raised in an atmosphere where Black people, though not actually present, were still somehow deemed distant threats.
I was a child of the television age, and a young “news junkie” as well. I found TV news film in the 1950s about civil rights simply mesmerizing. I watched a lot of it, and the experience reoriented my view of our American world: To me, Blacks became heroes, and angry southern Whites, villains. And, by the late 1950s, I fretted that the nation was headed down the road to a new Civil War (not that I understood much about the original Civil War, since I had just entered my teenage years in 1957).
I don’t recall a lot of comments from my parents about African Americans during this period. In retrospect, it seemed that they, like many of our neighbors, took for granted that Black people were exotic creatures who did not (thank God!) live around us, but who nevertheless represented some sort of vague threat. On the other hand, Blacks could be figures of fun: there was the “Amos and Andy” show on TV, for example; and I remember that, in elementary school, my grade put on a “play” portraying the story of “Little Black Sambo” (I was a tree).
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Newark, Delaware (late 1950s-early 1960s)—In my ninth grade year, our family moved fifty miles or so north of Baltimore, to Newark, a small town in Delaware where my maternal grandparents, Ike and Isabel Knighton, lived. Before our move, my siblings and I had spent time in Newark on the occasional Sunday, and, more importantly, during the summers, perhaps a week or two for each of us each year. But our parents, Ben and Betts, decided to relocate there, we kids were excited.
I was in ninth grade in Newark Junior High; I quickly made some friends, all of them White. The next year, I entered Newark High School, where, once more, the overwhelming majority of the students were White. In my graduating class, for instance, I only remember two Black males. One, Arnie, was an outstanding athlete. The other, Marvin, I got to know rather well, though perhaps for the wrong reasons. We were in the same physical education class, and each year we were the two heaviest boys. Thus, during the winter, when we had our PE unit in wrestling, Marvin and I invariably were paired as opponents. It was no contest—I landed on my back virtually every time we wrestled. But, still, I liked both Marvin and Arnie, though I didn’t socialize with either of them outside of class.
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The University of Delaware, Newark, Delaware (1962-1966)—one of two universities in the state, the University of Delaware was overwhelmingly White (in southern Delaware, there was a historically Black university, Delaware State). The Black students I remember from my UD years were athletes, some even fraternity men (in predominantly White frats). I recall no Black professors. All my friends were White, and I cannot recollect any Black students in my classes. I do, though, remember being surprised to learn that the paperback text on Reconstruction we used during the second semester of the American History survey course, Reconstruction: After the Civil War, had been written by a Black man, John Hope Franklin. That explained to me why Franklin’s account of Reconstruction was so different from the one I’d grown up with.
And then there was the Ku Klux Klan meeting I and a few college friends attended, when the KKK was trying to expand its reach into Delaware in the mid-1960s. That gathering enabled all of us to see White racism up close and personal and made an indelible impression on me. Although I still can’t believe that my friends and I had the nerve to attend that gathering, I consider the decision to do so a turning point in my understanding of the power of race.
Another important aspect of college for me was the ROTC program (Reserve Officers Training Corps), which all male students were required to take for the first two years, and were “encouraged” to take for their last two years. The era of the Vietnam War comprised years of incredibly shrinking draft exemptions, none of which seemed to apply to me, so I enrolled in Advanced ROTC. This enabled me to graduate on time, in June 1966. A month later, I entered the U.S. Army as a Second Lieutenant in the Quartermaster Corps.
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The U.S. Army: Fort Lee, Virginia, and Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Maryland (1966-1968)—my two years of active duty in the Army (1966-1968) put me into the first thoroughly integrated situation I’d ever experienced. During my basic officer course, my roommate was a Black graduate of Prairie View A&M in Texas. During his time at Fort Lee, my roommate had an unforgettable experience. He and a date were driving on a back road when they saw lots of lights nearby. Later, my roommate learned that he had cruised past a Klan rally!
As the home of the Quartermaster Center and School, Fort Lee offered numerous opportunities to African American officers and enlisted men. They were enrolled in courses, enlisted as instructors in the school’s offerings, and visible everywhere one turned. I got to know numerous Black troops, officers and enlisted men and, as a result, was launched into a thoroughly integrated world.
My next active duty assignment was at Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG), Maryland, a short drive from Baltimore. APG was the Army’s Ordnance Center and School, where officers and enlisted men learned about new weapons and equipment, how to use and repair them. Because so many of the enlisted men on post were students at the Ordnance School, kitchen police (KP) duty in the mess halls was not required of them. Instead, the Army arranged for kitchen workers to be bussed to the post daily from Baltimore. Many of these civilian KPs were young African Americans, working on a contract basis.
During my last six months at APG, I was assigned to the mostly-civilian Post Quartermaster Office. I spent time each day visiting dining halls, trying to ensure that the work being performed by the civilian KPs met standards specified in their contract. It was an interesting experience for me, an opportunity to watch integrated KP crews work together, more or less, and to get to know at least some of them “behind the scenes.”
My interest in the modern Civil Rights Movement had arisen in the mid-1950s, and, during my time at APG a decade later, it held pride of place, along with the Vietnam War, in “current events” I followed when my day job allowed. I well remember the assassination of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1968, and the civil unrest that followed.
End of Part 1
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: