Travel Forward to the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s….
Growing up ‘Black’ in ‘White’ Portland, Oregon was not an easy task. The times were such that the racism could suffocate and devour a ‘Black’ spirit. Some of the ‘White’ businesses posted signs boasting ‘white only’ or some other equally offensive barrier indicator directed at us Black folk.
In spite of the open racism and the barriers put in place by Whites, Black development managed to flourish and thrive. My ‘Black’ father started and operated ‘successful’ businesses that helped in supporting and sustaining our increasing-in-numbers Black community.
My father’s moving and storage business provided jobs primarily filled by the Black men and Black male youth of the community. Daddy’s accounting business handled government-mandated reports and forms for the Black community while also supporting Chinese, Mexican, and Cuban needs. Our family’s second-hand store (The 3 Js) had a rather steady stream of folk and often the store inventory was simply given away. Our customers included mostly Blacks, Mexicans, Cubans, and Roma peoples. The 3 Js also housed the humongous printing press that my father built and taught me to operate.
My mother’s multiple rental properties provided shelter primarily to Blacks, as well as Roma and other nonWhites. My father maintained the properties – repapering walls, painting, replacing windows and doors, changing locks, laying new flooring, handling electrical and plumbing problems, and more…. While a young child, I often tagged along with my father and helped with maintaining the rental properties as I was able.
I remember one Black lady in particular – a lady my mother met on the street. The lady was an ‘older’ Black woman who appeared alone and homeless. My mother invited the lady in and my family soon moved the lady into our apartments. We went shopping for food and other items necessary to make the apartment a ‘home’ for the lady. My family made sure there was always phone service to the apartment and we took care of all the utilities and more. My family also provided the lady – whom we eventually came to know as Mrs. Smith — with spending money.
Often, both my mother and I visited with the lady and listened to her ‘words’ and thoughts. I felt comfortable in Mrs. Smith’s company and I learned a lot. Always, my mother and/or I checked the refrigerator and kitchen cabinets and my mother and I would stock and re-stock the foods and drinks according to Mrs. Smith’s wants and decided-upon needs and more. My mother felt really close to Mrs. Smith. The time was c.1950-1960.
On a consistent basis – sometimes oftener than monthly – Mrs. Smith telephoned our family home and spoke of the government listening to her thoughts and spying on her via the walls of her apartment…. At those times, my father simply packed up supplies – including wallpaper and paints – and we went to the apartment and repapered and repainted the walls to Mrs. Smith’s peaceful delight. My daddy told me that what Mrs. Smith said could be true – the government could easily be spying on her and others of us. Daddy advised that we not discuss Mrs. Smith or her whereabouts with anyone outside our immediate family.
Daddy always seemed to have common sense solutions to any and all problems and he always showed patience and overstanding. My mother and father took care of Mrs. Smith, who stayed in our apartments until the day she ‘gave up the ghost’….
The evolving names of my family’s businesses included the Williams Avenue Development Company, Stroud Service System, Stroud Moving and Storage, and more. Although Daddy initially ran the businesses from our family home, he soon rented and leased buildings to house our businesses as well as the local NAACP…. Eventually, Daddy moved his businesses into a new building he contracted to purchase.
During the early days of our family businesses, Daddy and Mamacita used the same phone number for our house phone and our business location phone. However, due to the volume of calls coming in, Mamacita and Daddy had sequential number phones installed at both our home and business locations. And, as the population of Oregon grew, the number of digits in our phone numbers also increased.
My father was creative in all that he did. Whether on the golf course daily and walking from hole to hole on his hands or doing pushups on the course while lining up his balls on the greens, Daddy was creative. The ‘White’ golfers marveled at my father’s exceptional abilities on the course and often challenged Daddy in their veiled attempts to deflate what they perceived as Daddy’s unwavering ego.
Daddy was always a ‘family’ man and enjoyed the company of his children wherever he was. Daddy often said ‘If I can’t take my children with me to a place, then your Daddy does not need to be at that place….’ Rose City Golf Course in Portland became what my siblings, my mother, and I jokingly dubbed ‘Daddy’s second home’.
Because Daddy was often at Rose City, he often conducted various aspects of his businesses from the club house. Daddy was adept at all he did and he worked out the details of moving jobs, storage costs, and more by way of the phone located in the club house. In fact, Daddy was so good at what he did that he seemed to always be on-target with regards to the time needed to complete a job, space requirements for storage and so on.
As a child, there were times when I went along with the moving men on moving jobs. Although I was a child, I ‘carried’ my weight – lifting and moving household items and helping to pack and unpack the moving vans, etc. And, at the end of the day, my father gave me the authority to pay the workers and I maintained the receipts and records. Math was a favorite of mine and I was better-than-good at calculating.
My earliest memories include my father’s teachings. Daddy taught me how to think. Daddy taught me Math, English, Science, how to type, how to operate the printing press he had made, and more. As a result of my father’s teachings, I was somewhat beyond the course offerings at the ‘White’ elementary school my ‘Black’ family was legally required to help integrate during the 1950s.
Integration at Irvington Elementary School in Portland, Oregon was unpleasant at best. I was a third grader and faced the racial hatred of both the ‘White’ community of Irvington and its ‘White’ parents and their non-thinking and cruel children.
At lunch time, the White kids would open their milk cartons and splash the cafeteria floor with milk in hopes that I would slip and fall while walking in the cafeteria. Always, when I was ‘allowed’ to get up from my ‘assigned’ seat to get my food, I prepared myself for the inevitable and somehow managed to avoid falling although I was often splashed with the milk thrown by the White kids.
The White adults in the school cafeteria refused to offer me protection. Instead, the adults laughed along with the White children and encouraged more and more of the children to toss their milk in my direction. And, at times, one or more of the adults would even dare to toss milk in my direction. No matter the route I took to the food line, it seemed I was always subjected to such abuse and ugliness in the Irvington Elementary School cafeteria.
I remember my teacher Mrs. Spear especially because of her sheer ugliness towards me. The White children in my class were relentless in their abuse of me and I attempted to get help from my White teacher, Mrs. Spear. Needless to say, the teacher proved to be just as abusive in her racial hatred. Mrs. Spear not only refused to help me, she heightened the abuse and enabled all of the White students to do to me whatever they chose. Mrs. Spear openly stated that ‘my kind’ should not be going to Irvington School, etc.
Although I was a youngster, I knew that I had to be my own protector while at Portland’s ‘White and racist’ Irvington School. The daily abuse I was subjected to was forming a knot in my stomach. I knew that I was on my own and that I would have to do something to stop the abuse both in class and in the school cafeteria.
My father had always schooled me relative to racism. Daddy had prepared me and he had told me that when I was ready to put an end to the racial abuse at ‘White’ Irvington Elementary School, I would know what to do…. Daddy had explained that he could not be with me daily at school, however, he would support whatever decision I had to make in order to protect myself.
Well, that moment of truth finally came.
One day, after continued abuse and mockery and more in ‘White’ Mrs. Spear’s class, I made one last ditch effort to solicit help from my teacher. Mrs. Spear not only did NOT help, she pushed me and spoke ugly and uglier words to me while the ‘White’ students laughed and joined in. Mrs. Spear told the class that they could take whatever they wanted to take from me, etc.
Following Mrs. Spear’s angry push, I stumbled back to my desk. A White student named John came over to my desk, hit me, and ripped my pencil out of my hand. The lead from the pencil cut into the skin covering my hand. John and the other White students laughed loudly and began to chant and tease me further. My teacher Mrs. Spear also showed amusement before glaring at me angrily and speaking more ugly racist words.
As my stomach churned, I reached into my desk and took ahold of my ruler before approaching the ‘leader’ of the racist pack of White students – John. I politely asked John to give me back my pencil – a pencil my father had engraved with the name of our family business. John refused, laughed, and spoke ugly and uglier words as he threatened to ‘beat me up’.
In short order, I again demanded the return of my property. John grew visibly angrier as he balled up his fist and attempted to hit me. Needless to say, I was quicker and faster as I blocked his punch and simultaneously, as other ‘White’ students moved to descend on me, I took a firm grasp of my 3-edge ruler and swung it across John’s forehead.
The ruler broke off in John’s head and blood appeared to squirt out from his head as John proceeded to fall to the floor. And, as John fell, I grabbed my pencil from his hand and ran out of the classroom, through the school and out the front door with a mob of Whites – including the teacher – in hot pursuit.
Being fast, I outran the mob and – thank God – my father was home when I dashed through the front door of our house. I screamed to my Daddy that the Whites were going to “lynch” me because I had killed a ‘White’ male classmate – John.
Daddy calmed me down and assured me that no one was going to “lynch” me…. Daddy expressed that anyone so intent on doing me harm would have to kill him first. Daddy asked me to tell him all of what had happened. After that, Daddy took me back to school and we went directly to the Principal’s office.
The White Principal reached out to grab me when he saw my father and I enter his office. Daddy, however, blocked the Principal’s hand and directed me to sit down. Daddy sat down next to me as he listened to the hate-filled words the ‘standing’ Principal spoke.
During the course of the Principal’s tirade, the Principal stated ‘we all know John was NOT at fault because John comes from upstanding parents in this community….’ Quickly, my Daddy rose from the chair he was seated in and stood face-to-face in front of the Principal. Daddy calmly and pointedly told the White Principal that ‘Lulu comes from UPSTANDING parents in this community….’
Near the conclusion of the meeting, Daddy told the Principal that he, my Daddy, was going to buy me another ruler just like the one that had broken off in John’s head. Daddy then told the Principal that he was again directing me to use the ruler to protect myself if and when needed. And, Daddy told the Principal that if he – the Principal — or any other White adult ever again attempted to harm me at school, he – my Daddy – would personally handle the adults himself.
Word of what had happened, my reaction, and my father’s response quickly traveled throughout the Irvington community and beyond. Black adults openly applauded me for my bravery and strength. My mother – who was ‘fragile’ — feared for my safety. And, the racist non-thinking White kids at Irvington School decided to leave me alone as they quietly whispered to each other “Lulu is crazy”….
‘Don’t forget our reparations’.
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We are all works in progress.
Undying love for Black people!