History Sleeps In the Basement: Some Essays of Remembrance
Part One: The Beginning
A Lesson of Promise and a Memory.
I told this childhood story once before in public and without shame. My Granny Turner was old school. A brilliant woman ahead of her time and in an age when Black or “colored” women were limited as much by sex as by their race. My Grandfather had a great nickname of endearment for her: “Business Woman.” That meant she was no joke — except when she really did laugh so hard she could not stop. But, if I acted up, I was provided with the very democratic opportunity to “pick my own switch,” with which to be disciplined. Old school. Old rules.
My grandmother was born at century’s turn in 1900 and had become a pharmacist in a time when nearly all Black women (and most Black men) were unable to achieve professional status — not because they were incapable — but because the hurdles rose higher to always stop their strides. This was the inevitable logic of American Racism — a brand that had a generic canned variety, but could come in different flavors depending on its omnivorous desire to subjugate Black America in an age of legalized apartheid.
And as things would have it, I would spend an entire year with my grandparents — not as some children do because of family crises or need — but as some kind of childhood sabbatical into a family heritage and to the South.
My days at school were spent at an otherwise all white Southern preparatory school — for Durham, North Carolina was slowly awakening from de jure segregation in the best old genteel-style. Not a hateful, vicious separation; but still an adjustment to the previous decade’s sedate mandate of “all deliberate speed.” Integration would come to Durham, where the Duke heirs had established a Southern aristocracy by a somehow more quiet and condescending reign of racial separation. The unspoken words were: “Y’all know you don’t belong here.” But change would still come. And, I would be a part of it.
But more than this, Durham itself was different from many other Southern Black communities. In it was not just simple achievement, but actual success within the sphere of racially-separated life in mid-century America. Blacks had built an insurance company that would assume national prominence, and a significant community bank. Also, a liberal arts college and law school in Durham had been the place for apprentice teachers like historian John Hope Franklin. The Law School had trained the young Maynard Jackson and Floyd McKissick. And many others who would also serve.
I could not know as a child that once when my grandfather awakened early in the morning to check on the status of the young college student boarding with my grandparents — the latest in a line of extended family — that he was actually making sure that the talented young student would face no further repercussions for his pioneering student protest participation.
In the long lens of history, we assume that these protests were risk-free and televised events. In truth, men like my grandparents parents’ young student-boarder — and young men like Robert Moses and Julian Bond — were at risk of limb, if not their lives, in those early days of struggle. And yet, they still must live their own lives, get their educations, and find their way in life like anyone else. But, I know now, justice never left their sight.
I realize looking back that my real education during that one year came as powerfully from what I observed when I visited the basement quarters in my grandparents’ home — ”Mack” was there reading his great hero Cervantes in the original Spanish; for Mack, “Don Quixote” was a black man’s anthem. I would listen to the seeming far-fetched bravado of a young man majoring in Spanish, who still never bragged or boasted of his own courage in that time of change. Through that, I was being given my own quiet lesson. Perhaps, one that, in truth, only years have shown me plainly.
I think I remember that Mack said that it is our fate to embrace courage, like Don Quixote. At least that is what I want to remember. And, the embrace of courage can never be foolish. It never need announce its presence, or look for recognition; for it will always be well-recognized by anyone who matters. And it can and will persist no matter what the challenge.
One Late Summer’s Day
As a child I often spent summers with my grandparents in Durham, North Carolina. One year I stayed on to go to school.
It was, I think, in that year that John Hope Franklin came to visit my Granny and Grandad. My grandfather and Dr. Franklin had been colleagues at North Carolina College where Dr. Franklin wrote his book “From Slavery to Freedom.”
I recall Dr. Franklin’s son was with him for that visit and we were comparable in age. Thus, we were sent off to my grandfather’s cool and caliginous basement to “play.”
I distinctly recall that I wanted to go directly to my grandparents’ cabinet-size Crosley television to watch the afternoon airing of “Superman” featuring George Reeves. I mean what else could a ten or eleven year old want to do in the summer?
Instead, my new playmate asked me if I was interested in looking at his coin collection. I gathered all of my polite and dutiful respect for my guest and answered in the weakest affirmative.
We then spent that hour or so — an hour when Superman was likely saving Lois and Jimmy from dastardly crooks in big lapels while fending off assassins armed with green Kryptonite — looking at indian head pennies or Liberty dimes.
This was my first experience in learning that being a courteous host, even as a child, has enormous costs.
But, this was a high cost that brought with it no real future reward, except the ever abiding knowledge that somewhere in another neighborhood were always a few kids willing to bypass Superman for a closer look at an old Buffalo head nickel.
I like to believe that despite my brush with childhood numismatics, that my acquaintance would later learn the enduring value of knowing of Clark Kent’s ability to use a phone booth anytime Lois Lane cried out in distress.
Indeed, nickels are a dollar a dozen — give or take a few.
But, I can say well over five decades later, that the ability to change in a phone booth is a talent that will never be easily forgotten.
REMEMBRANCE OF SOUTH PAST (AS WE HEAR TALES OF SENATOR CINDY. HYDE-SMITH):
As a ten year old boy in 1964, I stayed the year with my grandparents in Durham, North Carolina. On the season’s change, the private school I attended moved its Phys. Ed. program from the upper and lower fields of the day school to the Durham YMCA. As that season of the year came, I was taken by the hand by my English and homeroom teacher, a kindly southern lady who had been given the unpleasant task of explaining to me the Southern facts of life: namely, that as a ten year old boy of color, I could not attend the Durham YMCA with my classmates. My classmates included a descendant of the Duke fortune and the child of a Durham physician and the son of the Director of the North Carolina Research Triangle. So, on the day that it became too cold to play in the fields behind the school, I stayed in a kind of makeshift study hall at school. Little by little, there were more and more of my classmates in the Phys. Ed. period study hall, including the children of Durham’s privileged class. By the end of the first half of Winter Term and upon my return from Christmas break at home, I was mysteriously admitted to attend the Durham YMCA. I never learned for certain that the parents of these classmates purposely boycotted the segregated Durham YMCA, but I did learn years later that my Grandfather had written a quiet and pointed letter to the Durham YMCA leadership in which he told of his own experiences with the Young Men’s Christian Association and the lessons he had learned there as a boy — Christian lessons. He ended the letter by saying, “I hope that in this Christmas season, you sir, can say that as to my young grandson Albert, there is room at the YMCA.” Dr. King had spoken just a year or so earlier from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I believe his words had been heard by white southerners — indeed, millions of white Americans — who simply wanted the opportunity to really live out the words of his message and meaning of that creed, that we truly are all created equal.
The Power of Prologue: The Credit.
I wrote a short vignette on this spot a long time ago about my formative years and the important year I spent walking between the worlds of the South in 1964–65. This was a year I. spent in Durham, North Carolina living with my maternal grandparents.
My grandfather taught at a school that would now be called an historically black college or university. At the time, it was known as North Carolina College at Durham. In those days, the world was only integrated in name. America had only formalistically desegregated. The reality was that every social
institution both public and private clung to racial separatism like a child holds to a favorite toy.
The schools were making only token and glacial efforts to desegregate in North Carolina in the middle sixties and my grandparents ordained that I should for that year attend an elite private school. It was where I was introduced to public declamation and coats and ties in fifth grade and to French.
It was also where I came face to face with genteel and polite segregation — that is the story I have already told — and it was a lasting lesson. It taught me and I like to think I taught others. For, it did not stop me. It only helped me see a dying legacy.
But that is not this story. Or, not the whole story.
As that school year was nearly over, I was introduced also to the preparatory. grade school competitions in all their pre-pubescent glory. Spelling competitions; writing or essay competitions; and others that have faded away in the decades.
I was the exception already at the school — the first and the only Black. It was the age of “firsts” for. Black Americans. And the lesson taught by the experience was not really whether Black folks could thrive in white environments — we had done that already for 350 years. It was another lesson — even for a ten year old.
As I look back, the lesson was whether we, as Black Americans, could pursue our lives and goals. as White America learned about its own heart and soul. The lesson was really whether White Americans — in this case wealthy Southerners — could learn their own humanity. it was a course not on the curriculum — but it was taught nonetheless.
But, back to the competitions and the year-end prizes.
The school held an awards and graduation ceremony at year’s end — something that I experienced throughout my later life at private schools.
My grandfather and maternal aunt were there to watch me receive awards. My name kept getting called. Some awards I knew about in advance, others were surprises.
But, in one instance and only one, I did not win. My fifth grade ego was bruised. But, the prize went to another pupil. I wanted credit for what I believed was a winning composition. But life doesn’t do what we want. My loss of the prize was quietly explained to my guardians this way:
“Albert won so many prizes — we had to give an award to someone else.”
Later, when the year end “report cards” were issued there was a note to my Grandfather from the school headmaster. He said in so many words that they were pleased to have me with them for that year — no word of the
“unpleasantness” that temporarily kept me from attending the previously segregated YMCA.
But he did say this: “Albert has been a credit to his family, a credit to himself, and a credit to this school.” At least, that’s my best memory of his words.
My grandfather soon explained that the headmaster in his own verbal tiptoes around the time and changes the year had wrought. had refrained from saying what else I was a “credit” to.
I can remember many things from that year. And, I learned a great deal — inside and outside the classroom — especially from my wise and brilliant Grandfather, who instilled in me that year a love of poetry to last my life. He had helped me when I had to recite a poem before the entire school.
I also learned that in the midst of ignorance there is often enlightenment and that wealth is no guarantee against stupidity.
But, thinking back about the headmaster who could not admit the fall of a white picket fence around his school, I now see there was actually another class I taught.
-Albert Turner Goins