My parents grew up in Pittsburgh’s South Side neighborhood during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Like many other ethnically diverse places in the United States at that time, city neighborhoods often were divided up between African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics, Italians, Poles, Irish, Jewish, German and many other ethnic groups, dating prior to World War I. Racism was everywhere in Pittsburgh then, even between nationalities that shared the same skin color.
My father lived in the epicenter of it all, nestled in a double-brick row house along Carey Way near South 18th Street. At the age of fourteen, Dad took a newspaper carrier job, delivering the Pittsburgh Courier for a few years before working in a butcher shop during his final years of high school.
The Pittsburgh Courier was one of the leading African-American newspapers in the United States during its publishing between 1910 and 1966 (New ownership has called the newspaper New Pittsburgh Courier since 1966-67). Its customers on the South Side were on the east end of “The Flats” between South 26th Street and South 29th, and a few houses that snaked up the back half of “The Slopes” on Josephine Street. It was quite a walk from Dad’s house, especially carrying 30 to 40 papers eight city blocks and then climbing the hill toward the end of his route.
Each week, he collected the money due from each customer and turned his receipts into his supervisor. He also thanked his customers for the extra money they gave him during Christmas. Dad never told me how my grandparents felt about his first job, but he did tell me about the reaction he got from some of his friends. His friends couldn’t understand how Dad could work for a black newspaper publication, a black supervisor and interact “with all the blacks” on the back half of the South Side.
To Dad, his customers were people. People like all of the Polish families he knew from church and school, smashed between South 13th and South 20th. People like the thousands of mill workers that walked to their jobs at all hours of the day. Dad had a very progressive attitude toward race relations, especially in the turbulent era that he was a witness to.
During his time in the United States Navy, Dad continued to encounter people that had a difficult time accepting others that were of a different skin color. Dad did his best to avoid these individuals and went on to meet many good, hard-working, disciplined men while he was stationed at Pearl Harbor, San Diego and doing reserve work in Philadelphia. All of the guys were from different economic and cultural backgrounds, but Dad just saw men. Not black men, white men, Latino men, California neo-suburban men and men with a southern drawl, just men–his Navy buddies.
THE PHILADELPHIA JAZZ CLUB STORY
The most memorable story Dad shared concerning race relations occurred in 1969. Racial tensions were at an apex in the United States and Pittsburgh had its share of police-involved fights and riots. At that time and through the early 1970’s, Dad would occasionally travel to Philadelphia for four weeks to do reserve work and complete his duty to the Navy.
One particular summer day, Dad decided to leave the barracks in South Philly and walked north on South Broad Street. He heard from another reservist that there was a small jazz club and bar not too far from base, and that they had live performances daily by local artists. A marine happened to hear Dad’s conversation and insisted he accompany Dad to the club to catch a few drinks. Dad didn’t mind the company, but he soon realized that the marine was a “tough guy”, telling him heroic tales from his time served during the ongoing Vietnam War and apparently doing his best to emasculate Dad on their walk to the club.
The two of them arrived at the club. They paid a small cover charge and made their way toward the bar. They each got one beer and found a spot to sit down. As Dad started to take in the music, the marine pokes at him to get his attention. Confused, Dad wanted to know why the marine had a scared look on his face.
“What? What’s wrong?”
“Look around. They are all staring at us. We’ve got to get out of here.”
“Who’s they? Who’s staring?”
The marine, who just ten minutes prior was telling Dad about his heroism and strength in combat was frightened of the fact that he and Dad were the only two white men among approximately fifty black men. Annoyed, Dad told the marine to shut up, drink his beer and listen to the music. After a few songs, it was clear to Dad that the marine was squirming to leave the club, so they left despite Dad’s wishes to stay. Dad felt that the marine’s uneasiness was drawing more attention to them than the music. Dad was pissed at the marine, and despite being fifty pounds lighter and six inches smaller, told him how he felt.
“So you’re a big, tough marine, huh? We’re all in there for the same reason, to listen to music, and all you saw was a bunch of black guys that were going to beat your ass.”
The marine didn’t say much to Dad on the walk back. Going to the club Dad said he couldn’t talk enough about himself. The same, ugly preconceptions that some of Dad’s friends had instilled in them years before were shared by the marine years later. Stereotypes that kept people apart instead of bringing people together.
GOING FORWARD–STEREOTYPES AND MY SON
Before going to preschool, when my son was home or being watched by my in-laws, he noticed that people were different but treated everyone the same. Now that he has gone to school, he has learned some not-so-nice preconceptions about race, gender roles and class structure. When pressed on where he obtained such “knowledge”, he has stated that his classmates tell him these things. This is proof that parents can have influence on the lives of others beyond their children.
In the coming years, I will continuously teach my son what my father taught me: Don’t see the person by their color, ethnic background or by how much money they have…see them for who they are as a person. If a person is good, then be like that person…no matter what color their skin is, man or woman, rich or poor…follow their example.