Not talking about race as a kid

Slavic neighborhood

Talk-to-Your-Kids-About-RaceSince June 1, a week after George Floyd, I have had lengthy conversations about race with three of my oldest friends. And by “oldest,” I mean I met two of them in 1958, and the other much later, in 1960. Yet I don’t remember talking about it when we were growing up. When I noted this with one of them, they said, “You ought to blog about that!” The problem is that I can’t really explain why.

For those unfamiliar, I should explain that I grew up in the First Ward of Binghamton, NY in the 1950s and 1960s. The city consisted of many Irish, Italians, and especially Eastern Europeans, second- and third-generation folks. There were black people in other parts of the city, but north of Clinton Street, which was a demarcation for “the Ward,” most folks were Slavic – Russian, Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, primarily.

At my school for K-9, Daniel S. Dickinson, I was often the only black kid in my class. There was a black young woman named Bernadette in 7th grade, coming from one of the feeder schools to our junior high. But she was gone by 8th grade to who knows where. Robert in 5th grade, who I’ve mentioned, was so academically challenged that he eventually ended up in my sister Leslie’s class, and she was three semesters behind me.

Also, in kindergarten, there was a “mixed-race” girl. She’s one of my current Facebook friends. By her account, I was very nice to her, even as most of the other kids were not. I have no recollection of any of this. Incidentally, I believe we have the same great-grandfather.

So NOW we talk

When I told one of my friends how traumatized when I saw photos of Emmett Till’s dead body in a magazine in 1960, I was asked, “Why didn’t you tell me?” I dunno. Why didn’t they tell me how their father put a stop to some racist taunts directed toward a man I knew at my church?

Another friend was pretty shocked that there were any racial problems in Binghamton at all. I’ve noted that back in 1964, over 200 black people complained in an open letter in the paper problems, jobs, and even “common courtesies.” Yes, I was pretty insulated in that geography triangulated by Dickinson school, my grandmother Williams’ house at 13 Maple Street, and my house on 5 Gaines Street. But I knew there was more to the story in the rest of the city.

I had long talks not only with the third friend but also with the spouse. Much of it has been generated by the contents of my blog over the last two months. “We didn’t know you were going through things like that.”

Theories

Maybe it was that I didn’t want to point myself out as different. Perhaps I didn’t think they’d understand. I talked with my sister Leslie about this. She had a similar situation, except that she did have one black classmate, Bonnie for a few years. They didn’t talk about race either. It was assumed that they were going through the same, or similar things and there was no need to verbalize it.

It’s like when I’ve seen a black person in a sea of white faces. Inevitably, one of us will give a nod to the other. It’s an acknowledgment of assumed common experience.

I suppose I should be grateful that my old friends and I are talking about race now.

Dear old dad in Newspapers.com

the Ongleys

When I was on my genealogical journey for my father’s biological male parent, I got a subscription to Newspapers.com. You know, memory is a peculiar thing. I took a deep dive into the records that mentioned Les Green. There were over 300 items in the Binghamton, NY newspapers, most before 1974.

The earliest may have a picture of Les and his stepfather McKinley in 1942 with other Boy Scouts and their dads. I discovered that he was involved in the 1960s as a leader in scouting at the Interracial Center on 45 Carroll Street. Yet in my brief tenure as a Cub Scout, I never got the sense that dad was interested in scouting at all.

I remember that my father was the production chairman of the Civic Theater, the community performance troupe. Specifically, I recall his involvement with the 1960 production of Guys and Dolls, which was very successful. Even then, I thought the show, starting with the title, was rather old-fashioned. (Sidebar: my wife saw Bob Hoskins perform as Nathan Detroit in London in the early 1980s, so she’s more favorably inclined.)

The previous Civic Theater production was Separate Tables by Terrence Rattigan. What I didn’t know was that Helen Foley, speech and drama instructor at Binghamton Central HS was the director. She was my public speaking teacher a decade later, but neither my father nor la Foley ever mentioned to me that they knew each other. Helen Foley, BTW, was also the favorite teacher of Rod Serling of Twilight Zone fame, back in the early 1940s.

BTW, the costumes for Separate Tables were done by my grandmother Agatha and “Mrs. George Ongley.” George Ongley was Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls. My family visited their family for a time at the Ongley home in suburban Vestal. They had a couple kids if I’m remembering correctly.

Fighting for justice

Unsurprisingly, most of the clippings in the papers of dad were of him singing and playing the guitar. I knew my father performed at the Binghamton State Hospital, the “first institution designed and constructed to treat alcoholism as a mental disorder in the United States,” several times. But I didn’t know he was President of the hospital’s volunteer council c. November 1963. I wonder why he was so invested in that institution.

He was involved in a variety of civil rights organizations, such as the William L. Moore chapter of CORE. Once, his white colleagues sent me into the local Woolworth’s to see if I, like other black kids, would be harassed by the employees or the police. I was not on that day.

Dad headed the Binghamton-Broome Council of the NYS Division of Human Rights head by 1969. Interestingly, the formation of this body was rejected by the Binghamton city council five years earlier. That action generated a third of a page petition in the paper. “There is not a single day when a Negro does not suffer the indignity… of discrimination” in the city. It was signed by my mother, father, and McKinley, as well as over 230 other adults, many of whom I knew.

My father was Chair of the Human Rights Advisory Council in 1972. Yet I did not recall that he claimed that he was denied entrance to a public billiards parlor in Binghamton because of his race in July 1968, taking his complaint to the state Division of Human Rights in September of that year. I don’t know what the resolution of the case was.

Finally, he was Director for Joint Apprenticeship and Training for the Associated Building Contractors in August 1972. When he lost that position, he ended up moving to Charlotte, NC in 1974. Les Green was rather remarkable when I was growing up. Happy Father’s Day.

Margaret Lia and Freda Gardner

Normandy invasion

Margaret LiaThe mom of my childhood friend Ray, Margaret Lia died recently at the age of 95. She was the Den Mother of our short-lived Cub Scout troop. I was terrible at the craft-driven things I was supposed to do, but she was very patient with me.

I always liked her light British accent. When Ray got married in October 1976 to Pam, I got to escort Mrs. Lia to her seat, and I was quite pleased by that.

I didn’t know this romantic story until I read it in the obituary: “Margaret worked as a stenographer when her company was moved from London to the countryside for the duration of World War II. It was there that she met and fell in love with Albert Lia, a US Army serviceman, whose troops were preparing for the Invasion of Normandy. During Albert’s time in Europe, they corresponded by mail and after the war, he proposed in a letter. Soon she was emigrating to America to become his war bride and their loving marriage lasted 60 years.”

Like most funerals in this period, “a memorial mass will be celebrated at SS Cyril and Methodius Church at a later date.” St. Cyril’s on Clinton Street in Binghamton was very close to my now-razed school, Daniel Dickinson.

“Please consider a donation to the American Civic Association, 131 Front Street, Binghamton, NY, 13905.” The ACA is “an organization committed to helping immigrants and refugees start a new life in our community while preserving their ethnic and cultural diversity.”

My late father, Les Green, was involved with the place. He, sister Leslie and I performed there at least once as the Green Family Singers. In March of 1969, I had my 16th birthday party there. And unfortunately, it was one of those mass shooting sites back in 2009.

A pioneer

Freda Gardner Freda Gardner was a member of my church. We served on a couple of committees together, including Education. We were part of the group working with Pastor Glenn Leupold when he was getting his doctorate c 2012-2015. She was wise, intelligent, compassionate, and always an advocate for equality and justice.

A fellow church member took her to a local presbytery meeting a few years back. He introduced her, at which point everyone laughed. “Oh, WE know Freda!”

Until relatively recently, neither he nor I knew she had been elected Moderator of the 211th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1999 and was the first female full-time faculty member at Princeton Theological Seminary. She was a force in the PCUSA, but never boasted about it.

As Pastor Glenn noted, “Freda was a life-long learner, possessing a masterful use of language. She could explain just about any theological concept with clarity and precision, enabling many to understand.” She was 91. As is often the case recently, “A memorial service will be held at First Presbyterian Church in Albany, New York, at a date to be determined.”

Blows against the empire

Will I see Summer before summer?

Aside from the day-to-day activities, there have been a few events I have missed. The Blows Against the Empire tour was canceled before it got to Clifton Park, near Albany. It wasn’t that I was desperate to see that show. But I was going to go with my oldest friend from my college days. And he was going to pay!

I was planning a trip to my hometown of Binghamton, NY in March 2020 for two reasons. I’m looking for the transcript of the October 1926 trial involving my biological grandfather Raymond Cone, at which my grandmother, then Agatha Walker, testified against him. I also wanted to track her location in the city directories during the 1930s. However, both City Hall and the local library are closed until they aren’t.

Also, my friend since kindergarten Carol, not to be confused with my wife Carol, was going to fly up from Texas to visit her mom. So I’d have a chance for a visit with her and perhaps my Binghamton-area friends. Not yet.

Postponed, so far

At the Proctors Theatre in Schenectady, I have a subscription. The musical Summer, about the disco queen Donna, has moved from March to June. Will that actually come to pass? Or Dear Evan Hansen, still scheduled for June? Or Come From Away in September? What does theater look like in the era of physical distancing? Does the economic model even work?

Then there are the ersatz gatherings. The weekly church services, which get better as the folks have figured out the technology. The Bible studies. The Google Hangouts, Zoom meetings, and whatnot.

Something that I have discovered about sharing screens on these platforms. Sometimes they can be quite useful. On one Zoom call, a guy with the same surname as some of my ancestors wanted to see my family tree. I’m going to be helping my friend with some librarian skills, and her seeing what I’m working on will be great. On the other hand, one ought not to feel obliged to share JUST because one can, technologically.

We’re muddling through.

July rambling: 45 es un titere

The Privilege of Being Normal

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The Privilege of Being Normal.

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Elijah “Pumpsie” Green, the first black player on the Boston Red Sox, has died. He was 85. Green played parts of four seasons with the Red Sox and one with the New York Mets from 1959-63, batting .246 with 13 homers and 74 RBIs. But his place in history was made when he stepped on the field as a pinch-runner against the Chicago White Sox on July 21, 1959. The Red Sox were the last team in the major leagues to field a black player.

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Ken Levine interview with director Jim Burrows, Part 1 and Part 2.

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Martha My Dear.

Why Americans Just Can’t Quit Their Microwaves.

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MUSIC

I’m Your Puppet – James and Bobby Purify.

Music from the new Lion King movie.

Indra by Gustav Holst.

Blue Bayou – Linda Ronstadt and the Muppets, recipients of the 2019 Kennedy Center Honors.

Coverville: 1269: Cover Stories for Suzanne Vega, Simple Minds and Soft Cell and 1270: The Trevor Horn Cover Story and 1271: The Hard Day’s Night Track-by-Track Album Cover.

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