First installment, Janet Cheatham Bell Memoir
June 17, 2013Because of how the system works, I must send you the first installment although you may have read it already. YOU WILL RECEIVE THE 2nd INSTALLMENT ON JUNE 20 and an installment each Thursday after that.
Chapter 1 Going to War
Racism is in large measure a form of psychological warfare. Johnnetta Cole
Michigan has burly pugnacious winters, unlike the little sissified three-to-four month cold spells in central and southern Indiana. Heavy snowfalls with towering wind-swept drifts begin early and last well past the calendar’s barren proclamation of spring. I distinctly remember a year when I pulled my boots from the back of the closet in early November and wore them every day until May. My first job after college was assistant librarian at Mac Arthur High School in Saginaw, Michigan, so I moved there in the fall of 1964 in time for the opening of school.
I had lingered at Indiana University (IU) the summer after I graduated because my bed in the rooming house on Fourth Street was the only home I had. My ex and I had split up the previous summer and departed the house we shared, storing our household furnishings with relatives. When I realized early in the marriage that it was not going to be “happily ever after” as I had envisioned, I wanted to go home to my parents. But Mama made it clear their house was no longer my home. Whaaaat? I couldn’t believe it, but she wasn’t joking and would not budge, saying emphatically, “Your place is with your husband.” Talk about feeling abandoned! I was devastated at the time, but her rejection forced the realization that I was on my own, and ultimately made me get serious about finishing college. Now, in the same month, my divorce was final and I’d gotten my degree. I was out of a marriage that had felt like a stone dragging me underwater and as an educated woman I could take care of myself. I was ready, really ready to make my way in the world.
I couldn’t wait to get out of Indiana. If I was a little nervous about going away by myself, my anticipation of a new venture more than made up for it. Aside from my years in Bloomington at IU, I had spent my entire life in Indianapolis. But that was over! I was moving to a place where I didn’t know anybody. Aside from the high school principal who hired me, I had never even met anyone from Saginaw. Finally, I could live my life without the oversight of a parent or husband.
After I told my parents I was moving to Saginaw, Mama begged me to accept the offer I’d received from the Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS). But I’d had enough of IPS—after attending a segregated elementary school, being marginalized in an “integrated” high school, then having to fight their racist policies to do student teaching in the school of my choice, I wasn’t giving IPS another swipe at me. When that plea didn’t work, Mama pulled out her scary bag. “Don’t you know how dangerous it is out there for a single woman? What will you do if something happens in a place where you don’t know a soul? Anything could happen to an unmarried woman running around by herself!”
I was a twenty-seven-year-old divorcée, but as she had done throughout my life, Mama dealt with me as if I were a developmentally delayed ten-year-old. “Ma, you were younger than I am when you left home. You were a single twenty-year-old when you came to Indianapolis.”
“That was different. I had to leave home if I wanted to go to high school. And I stayed with family. It was unheard of for a single woman to go off on her own.”
Mama left her home in rural Tennessee in 1926, and it may have been unheard of then for an unmarried woman to live alone, but that was exactly what I intended to do. However, I hadn’t counted on Daddy’s typical resourcefulness. He plugged into the family network looking for connections, and lo and behold, found a cousin in Saginaw. I think Cousin Odahlia Rance was related through Daddy’s mother, but the how hardly mattered. If there was any family relationship it was understood they would take you in when you were new in town. Mama was thrilled. I can’t say I was peeved to learn there would be a friendly face in an unfamiliar town; but my determination to live on my own was unchanged. I would stay with the new-found cousins only until I found a place, a couple of weeks at most.
Either in protest, or because she couldn’t handle it, Mama decided not to join us on the ride north. Daddy picked me up and I loaded his car with my clothes and books. The two of us drove to Saginaw with a stopover in Lansing where we had lots of relatives. Mama’s uncle, Maynard Johnson, and all ten of his children and their families lived in Lansing. Most of the men worked in the city’s General Motors Fisher Body Plant. I imagine that Daddy stopped in Lansing, not only to visit, but also to let them know I would be living nearby, and to show me that close family was a mere two hour drive away.
Saginaw in 1964 was a small city of over 98,000 people, more than sixty-five percent of whom were homeowners. They boasted several industries including iron foundries and manufacturers producing everything from corsets and girdles to car steering gears and transmissions. An indication of the city’s rapid growth was that two new hospitals had been built since 1950. There was also a significant farming community in the fertile Saginaw River Valley that attracted migrant workers to harvest the beans, wheat and sugar beets. The local sugar factory refined 42,000,000 pounds of sugar annually. The city was served by one daily newspaper, The Saginaw News, three radio stations and two television stations. Along with the nearby towns of Bay City and Midland, Saginaw operated the Tri-City Airport.
My Saginaw cousins, the Rances, lived in a comfortable and relatively new home at 345 South Twenty-First Street. Odahlia, her husband Beale, and their three young sons—Kelvin, Ronald, and Jerrold—were a picture-perfect middle-class family. She taught in the city school system and was a slender attractive woman, ten years or so older than me. I don’t remember if they had an extra bedroom or if they put the boys together and gave me one of their rooms. I was grateful for their hospitality, but knew I wouldn’t be there long. Mama hoped I’d be with the Rances long enough to see that I needed to come back home. So far as I was concerned, I would never live in Indianapolis again, but life has a way of calling you on your “never’s.”
The first thing I had to do was buy a car. The Negro part of town was ten miles from Mac Arthur and I didn’t consider relying on public transportation to get me there every morning. Daddy was the family’s car aficionado so I asked him for advice. He said I should finance through a bank rather than the dealer, and to find out how much I could borrow before I negotiated the price of the car. He also offered to co-sign the loan because he knew I had no credit history. Once the bank confirmed that I was employed by the Saginaw Township school system, they didn’t hesitate to finance the car. I knew I wanted an inexpensive, but brand-new car—one I could afford, but that was somehow unique. Plymouth had just come out with a new model called a “fastback,” the sporty aerodynamically designed Barracuda with a huge tinted rear window. The slanted rear window gave the car a shape that resembled its namesake. I liked the jazzy look and settled on a white one with a gold-colored leather-like interior. Buying my first car without Daddy’s help was one more step on my stride to total independence. As I expected, the Barracuda got lots of attention wherever I drove it.
I needed the car not only to drive to work, but also to follow up on leads for a place to live. It was turning out however, that finding an apartment in Saginaw was as unlikely as finding a wealthy man in prison. For starters, blacks were barred from living on the west side of town where Mac Arthur was located, and the landlords were not shy about saying so. I found this out when Odahlia told me about a west side rental posted at the Saginaw Board of Education. Martha Ludwick, the woman looking for a renter, told me straight-out she did not rent to Negroes. My cousin was not surprised, but she thought it was worth a try. Most Saginaw residences were single-family homes and there were no apartment complexes on the east side where blacks lived. It was beginning to look as if my only option was renting a room in somebody’s house—somebody, that is, other than Odahlia and Rance.