BY RON STEELMAN – June 4, 2020
There was only one black kid in my 4th grade class. He didn’t seem so different from me at all: except for two things: a) his dad was a doctor, and rich; and b) I doubt his mother bought his clothes at the church’s ‘Trading Post,’ where my mom bought used clothes for me and my two brothers. When we were born that little black kid and I didn’t have any choice over the color of our skin.
EPISODE #1 – “The Maid”
It was 1954 and I was a happy nine-year-old. It was just about time for lunch and my little brother and I were sitting at the kitchen table waiting to grub up on our baloney sandwiches. It was ‘Saturday cleaning day’ and every other week my mom hired a Negro woman to help her clean. This was long before the proper terminology was “Black” or “African-American. Several of the maids were older and would often regale us with stories about their hard lives. None of them owned a car. My mother had to go across town to pick them up on the South side and then take them home. Mom would also try to help them out financially, even though we were barely middle-class. Often Mom sent the maids home with their pay and a full bag of groceries. One of the older maids would even con my mother into stopping at the State Store on the ride home. Mom didn’t drink at all, so seeing her scurrying back to the car from the booze store with a brown bag made me laugh.
This particular Saturday there was a new maid named Jesse, a beautiful, shy girl, maybe 17 or 18-years-old, and very polite. She was several cuts above me in the “polite department”. Now, I had learned I could be funny at age five when I cracked up our neighbor and my parents over some stunt I pulled. So the poor maid became a test audience for me. I was hoping to create a little laughter to wash over me again.
Mom had just placed my milk and the chocolate syrup on the table. As I stirred the chocolate into my milk I thought of a wonderful “joke.” So. . .I said to sweet, proper Jesse, “I guess your skin is brown ‘cause you drink a lot of chocolate milk, huh?!” That was a real knee-slapper for a nine-year-old clown (we didn’t call it “stand-up” back then).
You could hear the tire screech as time came to a dead stop. Something was wrong. I looked at Jesse, who looked away from me and quietly looked down at her plate. Tears slowly filled her eyes with several drops coming down her cheek. Ouch! What had I done?
My mother apologized several times. I don’t remember what I said or did at that moment, other than feeling very small and wanting to crawl under the table. Seeing the hurt I caused made me realize the power of my words. What a comeuppance! Until then I thought all my jokes were hysterical. That’s the moment I decided to cut all racial jokes from my fantasy stand-up act.
Later I learned of the song in the Broadway musical South Pacific, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.” Sung by the character Lieutenant Cable, the song is preceded by a line saying racism is “not born in you! It happens after you’re born…”
EPISODE #2 – “Watching my black and white TV”
I had a lot more to learn about this black and white thing.
“The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a civil-rights protest during which African-Americans refused to ride city buses in Montgomery, Alabama, to protest segregated seating. The boycott took place from December 5, 1955 to December 20, 1956, and is regarded as the first large-scale U.S. demonstration against segregation. Four days before the boycott began, Rosa Parks, an African-American woman, was arrested and fined for refusing to yield her bus seat to a white man. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ordered Montgomery to integrate its bus system, and one of the leaders of the boycott, a young pastor named Martin Luther King, Jr., emerged as a prominent leader of the American civil rights movement.” -– History.com
The Little Rock Nine – Governor Orval Faubus attempted to block nine African American students from enrolling in the Little Rock, Arkansas Central High School in 1957. President Eisenhower sent the National Guard to force the integration of the school. The Governor had no choice but to integrate.
Elizabeth Eckford walking through a crowd of white students. . .all by herself.
These integration situations made me wonder, why do these white people so hate these black people?
(Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images)
Elizabeth Eckford, as she appeared at the Little Rock Nine reunion at Little Rock High School in 2010.
Was I taught to be a racist? No, absolutely not. I was simply born WHITE and that got me part way there. None of my Black Vs. White experiences were violent confrontations. They were intimate moments when I began to learn who I was in the grand scheme of things. While watching the black and white confrontations on my black and white TV I decided who I didn’t want to become.
EPISODE #3 – “The Soldier”:
I fell in love with California in 1957 when we went to see my uncle’s family in San Diego. I was dying to go back. Now it was 1958 and my mother said, “You will turn 13 on May 20, so let’s go buy your bus ticket before then so you don’t have to buy an expensive adult ticket.” My mother grew up in the Depression, so being frugal was in her bones. I was thrilled she was focused on buying the ticket, and not on the fact that I was going to travel by myself all the way from Columbus, OH to San Diego. She supported whatever I wanted to do.
I think my mother must have gotten some heat from her friends about letting little Ronnie travel alone all the way to California. They warned, “You just never know what kind of terrible people he’ll meet on that bus.”
Mom finally caved and contacted the Traveler’s Aid office in the St. Louis bus station. She told me I was to check in there when we changed buses. I thought that was silly, but who wanted to argue? I was going, wasn’t I!
Mom and Dad took me to the tacky Greyhound station in downtown Columbus at about 11 p.m. one early June night. That station was the pits back then and those busses were more like donkeys than greyhounds. My parents pestered the driver several times making sure he knew I was traveling alone. He was unimpressed. He seemed to be distracted, more worried about the quality of the engine and the tires. I didn’t care. I got to ride shotgun in the front seat across from the driver. So, off we went. The dark highway danced ahead of us in our headlights. I couldn’t wait to get there, although I was probably asleep in an hour. Unfortunately, the driver must have been a psychic, for we broke down in a couple of hours as we crossed the Indiana state line. Delays. New bus. Behind schedule. Onward.
We had a short bathroom break in Indianapolis. When we re-boarded the bus, my shotgun seat was taken, so I found one further back next to a negro soldier. I wanted to talk to the soldier because I had seen the Little Rock Nine on TV. They had to be guarded by the troops President Eisenhower sent to force the integration of schools in Little Rock, Arkansas. I don’t recall seeing any Negro soldiers on TV back then, but I wasn’t really noticing those things yet.
This soldier was real “spit and polish”, even though he couldn’t have been more than nineteen or twenty years old. His private’s uniform was crisp and you could see your face in his shiny shoes. Clearly, I thought his uniform was cool. He was quiet; guarded, I guess. After a while he warmed up to me. He must have figured that the chubby, friendly white kid wasn’t a threat.
Of course, the air-conditioning decided to crash in our rattletrap-Greyhound and it got stinky-close in there. Some opened their windows, the ones still working. The soldier shed his uniform jacket, folding it very precisely and putting it up above the seats. That’s when he rolled up his shirt sleeves and I saw the scars on both his forearms. Neat rows of horizontal scars, several on each arm.
“Wow,” I said. “Did you get those in a battle?”
He quietly explained and slowly mimed to demonstrate, “In my neighborhood we all had to carry straight razors.”
“Oh,” I said. “You mean like switch-blades?
“Much sharper,” he said, holding his hand out. “You snap your wrist out to open the razor, pull fast to the left to cut someone, flip the handle over in your fingers and cut back to the right. These scars on my arm happened before I learned how to do that.”
“Wow, that’s a lot of fights.”
“These were from one fight. I practiced flipping it back and forth. I can cut someone four or five times before they know what happened, before they can move their arm away.”
Through the night I listened to the stark differences between his life and mine. He told me many tales about racial inequities in his violent neighborhood. There weren’t any racial issues in my ‘white bubble’ of a neighborhood.
We had fallen into catnapping in the early hours of the morning. The bright lights woke us as we rumbled into the St. Louis bus station. We were both hungry and wanted breakfast. I asked him to wait a minute, though. I sheepishly revealed that I had to check in at the Traveler’s Aid office. He said, “No problem.” Happily, the door was locked and the joint was empty. So I was vindicated. I didn’t need no stinkin’ Traveler’s Aid. At 13, I was now an adult world traveler!
Our first stop was at the restrooms. I noticed weird signs marking two bathrooms for men. I didn’t think St. Louis was in the South, but Negros were forced to use different bathrooms and drink water from separate fountains. In St. Louis?! We stepped up to a lunch counter right outside the station door. We sat up on the stools ready to order and immediately the counter guy snaps at me, “I can serve you, but I can’t serve him.”
I was stunned. I couldn’t believe the hate in his voice. My soldier-friend quietly said to me, “I’ll see you in a few back at the bus.”
All of a sudden I got angry and I looked at the counter guy and barked, “Hey, if you can’t serve him, then you can’t serve me.”
The soldier gave me a surprised look. We went off together and found a place approved for “Negro breakfasts.” The food and the company was fine, but ever since then I’ve had a bad taste in my mouth for St. Louis. At that point my exposure to race in America was just beginning.
EPISODE #4 – “Count Basie’s Drummer”:
Cut to summer of 1961. I was fifteen years old, and had just finished my Freshman year playing drums in the high school band. I got a call at home from my former math teacher. He wanted to know if I would like to attend a private party at the classy local Cabana Club. Why? Because he knew I was a drummer and might like to hear the band that was going to play there.
I said, “Gee, thanks. What band is it?”
“The full Count Basie Orchestra, complete with his famous show drummer, Sonny Payne.”
I was just beginning to learn all about jazz and famous jazz musicians. I already had some of the Count’s records and couldn’t believe he was playing locally. When I arrived I was introduced to Mr. Basie and Mr. Payne. Mr. Payne invited me to sit right next to him during the entire performance. I was ga-ga watching and listening to all the musicians. He was such a nice man. He even invited me to sit-in on the last number. I was terrified I would mess it up somehow, so I declined (more about that later). I asked him for his autograph and I’ll never forget what he wrote: “Thanks for asking. – Sonny Payne.” He was a class act and I never forgot how kind and gracious he was.
EPISODE #5: “A New Kind of Summer Stock”
Summer of 1967 I got my first union acting job at a professional Actors Equity theater based at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Antioch was a bastion of liberal studies, professors and students and thus was one of the first theaters in the country to employ “color-blind” casting that summer. I got a big kick out of the fact that the actress who played my sister in a production of Moliere’s Tartuffe was an African-American lady. The cast didn’t care. The audience didn’t care. And I certainly didn’t care. Her husband was also an actor/director there who helped me get my next acting job at the professional McCarter Theater based at Princeton University. And to boot, when the season ended, they let me sleep in their apartment when I went into NYC for more auditions. Nice people.
EPISODE #6: Count Basie (part 2)
In 1978 I was the creative director at an advertising agency in Columbus, Ohio. A client of the agency was a chain of popular music stores. We booked Count Basie and his orchestra to record five radio and television commercials to promote the music store.
Count Basie was getting pretty old and tired by then, but when the lights came up he was the consummate professional flashing his happy smile. I showed my storyboards for the commercials to him so he knew how the they were supposed look. Of course, he performed the music perfectly and knew how to play to the cameras.
When we were done shooting the
videos,he signed one of my scripts
with the following:
“Ron, you are my man.” – Count Basie
* (I really wish I had had the confidence to sit in with the Count Basie Orchestra when I was a kid. However, working with him at this level kind of made up for that missed opportunity.)
We all must work to understand each other as best we can. White, black, brown, or yellow, we’re all human beings living together on this planet. I realize my experiences were not violent confrontations. They were intimate moments when I began to learn who I was in the grand scheme of things and learned who I didn’t want to become.
I also learned about the heinous Cornerstone Speech that purported to describe the “great truth” of white supremacy and black subordination upon which secession and the Confederacy were based: “that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.”
We must eliminate the racism. Let us start by voting for a new moral leadership in the U.S., one that will eliminate the systemic racism that is blowing our country apart. And restore trust in our police and legal system.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
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