AN ELDER’S BLACK HISTORY MONTH STORY: FROM DEGRADATION TO ACTUALIZATION (THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED…)

By John L. Horton

I was born September 20, 1940 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. My race was listed as “Colored” on my birth certificate. It still is to this day. I was born in the “Colored” Wing of Erlanger Hospital.

My mother and father were “Colored,” married, 37 and 41 years old, respectively. My father was a day laborer and my mother was a domestic maid and cook.

I was raised in the “Colored’ housing projects of Chattanooga and the rural town of Cedartown, Georgia. My father deserted my mother and four other siblings (one brother and three sisters) when I was 13 years old and in the 8th grade. I was the oldest of the five children at home. To survive, my family received public assistance, food handouts, and my mother’s work as a domestic maid and cook.

My mother taught me to read (comic books, magazines, and newspapers) before I started school. This was quite an accomplishment since she had only three or four years of formal schooling.

During this time, I attended all-black public schools in a highly segregated society. With my mother’s encouragement, I became an excellent student and developed good study habits. I attended school in Chattanooga, except for one year in Cedartown, Georgia. I dropped out of school in the 10th grade to go to work (day labor and picking fruits and crops).

Later, at age 17, I joined the Marine Corps (Active Reserves) and began what turned out to be a 30 year career. Prior to joining the Marine Corps, I lived and thrived in all-black neighborhoods and communities. The only interaction I had with white people was when I worked for them, or they sold goods and services in the “Colored” community.

In my experience and to my knowledge, all “Colored” people lived together, attended church together, patronized “Colored” barbers, beauticians, morticians, restaurants, hotels, motels, night clubs, dance halls, libraries, movies, etc., in those days (1940s, 1950s, early 60s).

In the mainstream newspapers and media outlets, “Colored” people did not exist. For example, “Colored” people were not born, engaged, married, graduated, and/or died. If they were listed in the mainstream newspapers and other publications, they were separated into the “Colored” section/columns.

During my early youth, there were no “Colored” policemen, firefighters, contractors, journalists, social workers, teachers, entrepreneurs, lawyers, judges, mayors, council members, state senators/delegates, etc., for the public/society at large. No matter their qualifications and skills, “Colored” people were seen as inferior human beings and incompetent workers. In short, “Colored” people need not apply for these kinds of jobs and opportunities. Also, white people never “worked for” black people in those days.

For so many years, I “felt” the shame, guilt, burden, disappointment, injustice, and inequality of being a “Colored” person and citizen of America. I always knew this particular situation and peculiar reality were not my fault or of my doing. And, yet, there was nothing that I could do about it.

I “felt” anger, outrage, hurt, disgust and resentment. I “felt” what W.E.B. DuBois called the “twoness/duality” of being black…and being an American. It has been rightfully stated that a person might not remember what was said or done to him/her; however, they will always remember how they were made to “feel.” That was I.

Even in the “Colored” community, there was an inward alienation and general distrust based on “complexion and skin hue.”: If you were white, you were all right; if you were yellow, you were mellow; if you were brown, you could stick around; and if you were black, you should get back.

Sometimes it was so bad that some “Colored” people with “white/European” features began “passing” for white. In my own family, this occurred among “light-skinned/high- yellow/red-boned kin folks. It could get so bad until “light-skinned” black folks didn’t trust “dark-skinned” black folks. Please! So sad! So debilitating!

When I joined the Marine Corps, I was sworn in with two other “Colored” Marines in Nashville, Tennessee. Three white Marines were sworn in a few minutes before us in a separate ceremony by the same Marine major/recruiting officer. The night before, the white Marines slept at a local hotel (Andrew Jackson Hotel). We, three black Marines, spent the night at the Nashville Colored YMCA.

This was the “sign of the times”: separate drinking fountains, bathrooms, dressing rooms, recreation centers, community parks, swimming pools, public transportation, USO’s, YMCA’s, and the like. This was the America that I grew up in. This was the America that I learned in. This was my America.

Growing up, I was always strongly advised and lovingly encouraged as a young black male to: be respectful and courteous to all white people; cooperate fully with the police; never look or stare at white women; always carry food and toilet paper when traveling a distance; never be loud, boisterous or disorderly; never appear to be “uppity,” or arrogant; never maintain direct/intense “eye contact” when talking to/with white people in authority.

Joining the Marine Corps (age 17) opened up a whole “new world” of adventure and opportunity for me. These early years (1940s, 1950s, 1960s) were never “easy” or too comfortable for me. But, I must say that overall my world view and sense of achievement changed significantly for the better.

When I first joined the Marine Corps and visited Norfolk, Albany, Georgia (Marine Corps Supply Center for the East Coast), and Jacksonville, North Carolina (2 nd Marine Division), the “Colored/Negro” personnel were separated/segregated whenever we went into (civilian) towns and communities. White military members went into white neighborhoods and communities. And, black military members went into black neighborhoods and communities.

Only on the various military bases was there “integration” and “race mixing.” Once you went to (civilian) towns in the South, you were “regulated” and “segregated” by the local populace and authorities. All this was happening while you were serving in the military and fighting for your country and the American people. Talk about hurt. Talk about anger and resentment. Talk about “reality.”

I could have quit. I could have fought back and reacted in a destructive manner…for me. However, I chose to learn from this bitter experience and become the person that I hope to be. Over the years, this proved to be a great choice on my part.

It was Eleanor Roosevelt who said: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” So true. So very true. Over the years, I have discovered that life can be an empowering experience and rewarding journey if one is willing to look, listen and learn.

For example, I wasn’t aware of the significance of black culture, history and heritage until I came of age during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Before then, I had spent most of my life not knowing about the many African-American achievers and the accomplishments.

In the (black-white controlled) schools of Chattanooga, I learned only about a handful of black heroes and personalities such as Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, Frederick Douglass, Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, and once in a while Harriet Tubman, Crispus Attucks, and Sojourner Truth. However, I learned nothing of the likes of Phillis Wheatley, W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, Henry Highland Garnet, Jack Johnson, Daniel Hale Williams, Madam C. J. Walker, Paul Robeson, or their great dreams and amazing achievements.

To boys like me, this lack of information and knowledge fed into a broader negativity and overall emptiness about black people, especially during this era of legal segregation and other Jim Crow laws. I “felt” as if black people were unworthy of better treatment and undeserving of fair practices from the (white) society at large.

While in the Marine Corps, late 1950s, I read the first book about black people that gave me hope and inspiration on a personal and collective basis. It was the classic “Black Boy,” the autobiography of Richard Wright. I instantly identified with many of his travails as a “black boy.”

It was at this time that I read my first textbook about black history in the early 1960s.

The “godsend” book, “From Slavery to Freedom,” by John Hope Franklin really opened my eyes and substantially educated me about black history, culture, tradition, and heritage. (Interestingly enough, the book was given to me by my white commanding officer, while stationed at Quantico, Virginia.)

For several months, I read “From Slavery to Freedom” cover to cover. I devoured the contents of that book. I realized that I and other black people have been great before and could be great again. To this day, I still use this “Black Bible” for knowledge, reference, inspiration and teaching.

Inspired, I began to intensely read more about black history. During this time, I also pushed on to earn my high school GED. This began my journey to other educational milestones while still in the Marine Corps. I received associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

Reading all kinds of black history, especially autobiographies and biographies, I discovered how much black people had done, not only in America and Africa, but around the world. I began writing articles and participating in black history and cultural diversity activities inside and outside the military.

In the 1970s, I began teaching black history for Los Angeles Community College while stationed in Okinawa, Japan. Upon returning stateside, I did the same at Cherry Point, N.C., Memphis, Tenn., and Norfolk/Hampton Roads.

Over the past two decades, I have worked with troubled youth and dysfunctional families. In the process, I have used black history and African culture to motivate and uplift them. I tell them about the trials and tribulations – and triumphs – of those who have gone before. I explain what Jackie Robinson meant by, “A life is unimportant except for the impact it has upon others.”

Too often, I have not been as successful as I would have liked. There have been successes, but it is the failures and crises that keep me up at night. Even so, when I feel dejected, I turn to my black history heroes. I draw on their struggles and victories and their countless contributions. This restores my appreciation of where black people have been, where they are now and hopefully where they will be one day.

In closing, I was somewhat apprehensive about writing my “story.” Now that I have done it, I hope my “story” of overcoming racism and negative race relations helps others. In that light, I leave them with these words of hope, encouragement and adventure: (1) love yourself; (2) trust yourself; (3) believe in yourself; and (4) do for yourself.

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