By John L. Horton
Now that Black History Month is once again upon us and race relations are being put forth as a serious topic of discussion, and as the “Village Griot” and “Family Patriarch,” I have a story to tell and experiences to share. Please lend me your ears and allow me to be heard. This is my “story” about overcoming racism, prejudice and degradation.
I was born September 20, 1940 in the “colored wing” of Erlanger Hospital in Chattanooga, Tennessee. My birth certificate lists my race as “colored.”
My mother and father, born 1909 and 1902, respectively, were married and raised their six children — I am the oldest living — in the colored housing projects of Chattanooga and the rural town of Cedartown, Georgia. My father, a day laborer, deserted our family when I was 13. To support us, my mother worked as a maid and cook. We also received public assistance and food handouts.
I tell you this not because I want praise for having made something of myself. I share my story because I keep hearing Americans — white and Black — mention racism as they rant about politics and healthcare and the economy. I want people to see what this country was like 80 years ago, to appreciate how far it has come and recognize that overcoming anger and resentment, whatever the source, is the first step to progress.
History provides great role models and necessary perspective. Reading the history of my culture helped me to recognize that whatever I’ve achieved has been because people who came before allowed me to stand on their shoulders.
My mother, who had only three or four years of formal schooling, taught me to read, using comic books, magazines, and newspapers, before I started class at the all-Black public schools.
With her encouragement, I became an excellent student and developed good study habits, although I dropped out of school in the 10th grade to work as a day laborer and field worker.
As a youth, 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, all colored people lived together, attended church together, patronized colored barbers, beauticians, morticians, restaurants, hotels, night clubs, dance halls, libraries, movies, and such.
But no colored policemen, firefighters, contractors, journalists, social workers, teachers, entrepreneurs, lawyers, judges, mayors, council members or state lawmakers served the society at large. No matter their qualifications and skills, colored people were seen as inferior human beings and incompetent workers. In the mainstream newspapers and media outlets, colored people did not exist. They were not born. They didn’t graduate, become engaged, marry or die. Only if a publication contained a colored section was there a place to recognize the milestones of people who looked like me.
At age 17, I joined the Marine Corps (Active Reserves) and began what turned out to be a 30-year career. I was sworn in with two other colored Marines in Nashville. 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 the Andrew Jackson Hotel. We, three Black Marines, spent the night at the Nashville Colored YMCA.
These were signs of the times: separate drinking fountains, bathrooms, dressing rooms, recreation centers, community parks, swimming pools and public transportation. This was the America that I grew up in. This was the America that I learned in. This was my America.
An inward alienation and general distrust existed 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.
Joining the Marine Corps at age 17 opened up a new world of adventure and opportunity for me. These early years were never easy, but my world view and sense of achievement improved significantly.
When I first visited Norfolk, Albany, Georgia, and Jacksonville, N.C., the “Colored/Negro” personnel were segregated whenever we went into towns and communities. All this was happening while we were serving in the military and fighting for our country and the American people. It hurt. I was angry and resentful. But this was reality.
I could have quit. I could have fought back. But 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.
I wasn’t aware of the significance of Black culture, history and heritage until the late 1950s and early 1960s. In school I’d learned only about a handful of Black heroes and personalities such as Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, Harriet Tubman, Crispus Attucks and Sojourner Truth. However, I didn’t know anything about Jean Point du Sable, Frederick Douglass, Nat Turner, Daniel Hale Williams, W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, Henry Highland Garnet, James Weldon Johnson, Carter G. Woodson, Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, and so many others.
My lack of knowledge fed into a broader negativity and emptiness about Black people, especially during this era of legal segregation. I thought black people must be unworthy of better.
While in the Marine Corps, I read the first book about Black people that gave me hope and inspiration: the autobiography of Richard Wright, the classic “Black Boy.” I instantly identified with many of his travails.
And then my commanding officer, a white man, gave me my first textbook about Black history, “From Slavery to Freedom” by John Hope Franklin. For several months, I devoured the contents of that book, and to this day, I still use it, my Black Bible, for knowledge, reference, inspiration and teaching.
I pushed to earn my high school GED and eventually received associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
Over the years, I’ve taught Black history in Japan, in California, in Cherry Point, N.C., Memphis, Tenn., and Hampton Roads. I’ve 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, tribulations and triumphs of those who have gone before. I tell them to love themselves, to trust themselves, believe in themselves – and do for themselves.
When I feel dejected, I turn to my heroes. I draw on their struggles and victories and their countless contributions, restoring my appreciation for where Black people have been, where they are now and where they might be one day. I understand fully that I am being supported on the backs and shoulders of my ancestors who have come before me. As such, I always keep in mind Jackie Robinson’s ethos: “A life is unimportant except for the impact that it has on others.”