Growing Up Colored

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You wouldn’t know Piedmont anymore—my Piedmont, I mean—the town in West Virginia where I learned to be a colored boy.

The 1950s in Piedmont was a sepia time, or at least that’s the color my memory has given it. People were always proud to be from Piedmont—nestled against a wall of mountains, smack-dab on the banks of the mighty Potomac. We knew God gave America no more beautiful location. I never knew colored people anywhere who were crazier about mountains and water, flowers and trees, fishing and hunting. For as long as anyone could remember, 
we could outhunt, outshoot, and outswim the white boys in the valley. We didn’t flaunt our rifles and shotguns, though, because that might make the white people too nervous.

The social topography of Piedmont was something we knew like the back of our hands. It was an immigrant town; white Piedmont was Italian and Irish, with a handful of wealthy WASPs on East Hampshire Street, and “ethnic” neighborhoods of working-class people everywhere else, colored and white.

For as long as anyone can remember, Piedmont’s character has been completely bound up with the Westvaco paper mill: its prosperous past and doubtful future. At first glance, the town is a typical dying mill center, with a crumbling infrastructure and the resignation of its people to its gentle decline. Many once beautiful buildings stand empty and unkempt and testify to a bygone time of spirit and pride. The big houses on East Hampshire Street are no longer proud, as they were when I was a kid.

Like the Italians and the Irish, most of the colored people migrated to Piedmont at the turn of the 20th century to work at the paper mill, which opened in 1888. All the colored men at the paper mill worked on “the platform”—loading paper into trucks until the craft unions were finally integrated in 1968. Loading is what Daddy did every working day of his life. That’s what almost every colored grown-up I knew did.

Colored people lived in three neighborhoods that were clearly demarcated, as if by ropes or turnstiles. Welcome to the Colored Zone, a large stretched banner could have said. And it felt good in there, like walking around your house in bare feet and underwear, or snoring right out loud on the couch in front of the TV—swaddled by the comforts of home, the warmth of those you love.

Of course, the colored world was not so much a neighborhood as a condition of existence. And though our own world was seemingly self-contained, it impinged upon the white world of Piedmont in almost every direction. Certainly, the borders of our world seemed to be encroached upon when some white man or woman showed up where he or she did not belong, such as at the black Legion Hall. Our space was violated when one of them showed up at a dance or a party. The rhythms would be off. The music would sound not quite right: attempts to pat the beat off just so. Everybody would leave early.

Before 1955, most white people were just shadowy presences in our world, vague figures of power like remote bosses at the mill or tellers at the bank. There were exceptions, of course, the white people who would come into our world in ritualized, everyday ways we all understood. Mr. Mail Man, Mr. Insurance Man, Mr. White-and-Chocolate Milk Man, Mr. Landlord Man, Mr. Po-lice Man: we called white people by their trade, like allegorical characters in a mystery play. Mr. Insurance Man would come by every other week to collect premiums on college or death policies, sometimes 50 cents or less.

I guess some chafed more than others against the mundane impediments of the color line. “It’s no disgrace to be colored,” the black entertainer Bert Williams famously observed early in the century, “but it is awfully inconvenient.” For most of my childhood, we couldn’t eat in restaurants or sleep in hotels, we couldn’t use certain bathrooms or try on clothes in stores. Mama insisted that we dress up when we went to shop. She was a fashion plate when she went to clothing stores, and wore white pads called shields under her arms so her dress or blouse would show no sweat. “We’d like to try this on,” she’d say carefully, articulating her words precisely and properly. “We don’t buy clothes we can’t try on,” she’d say when they declined, and we’d walk out in Mama’s dignified manner. She preferred to shop where we had an account and where everyone knew who she was.

At the Cut-Rate Drug Store, no one colored was allowed to sit down at the counter or tables, with one exception: my father. I don’t know for certain why Carl Dadisman, the proprietor, wouldn’t stop Daddy from sitting down. 
But I believe it was in part because Daddy was so light-complected, and in part because, during his shift at the phone company, he picked up orders for food and coffee for the operators. Colored people were supposed to stand at the counter, get their food to go, and leave. Even when Young Doc Bess would set up the basketball team with free Cokes after one of many victories, the colored players had to stand around and drink out of paper cups while the white players and cheerleaders sat down in the red Naugahyde booths and drank out of glasses.

I couldn’t have been much older than five or six as I sat with my father at the Cut-Rate one afternoon, enjoying two scoops of caramel ice cream. Mr. Wilson, a stony-faced, brooding Irishman, walked by. “Hello, Mr. Wilson,” 
my father said.
“Hello, George.”
I stopped licking my ice cream, genuinely puzzled. Mr. Wilson must have confused my father with somebody else, but who? There weren’t any Georges among the colored people in Piedmont. “Why don’t you tell him your name, Daddy?” I asked loudly. “Your name isn’t George.”
“He knows my name, boy,” my father said after a long pause. “He calls all colored people George.”