Second Installment Janet Cheatham Bell memoir
June 20, 2013
Everyone, including Odahlia, called her husband, who owned an insurance agency, by his last name, Rance.
Odahlia was visibly nervous about having another woman in her house, taking care to know where I was at all times. Although I was embarrassed by her vigilance, I understood where she was coming from. Rance’s playful glibness, which no doubt served him well as an insurance salesman, could be interpreted as flirtatious, although he was always respectful to me. Undoubtedly she knew things about him that I didn’t. Late one night when Rance was out, Odahlia actually opened the door to my room, looked in, then closed it again without saying a word. I don’t know whether she was expecting to discover him there, or to find me gone.
Most east side rentals were rooms in homes where they needed help paying the mortgage. And none of them were places where I felt comfortable leaving my things while I went off to work. I was as diligent as an ant preparing for winter, but it was impossible to find a place I considered acceptable. I had been looking for more than two months when Odahlia announced she had found something for me. It was an upstairs apartment, almost, at the Ferrell household at 219 North Ninth Street.
Mrs. Rosa Ferrell was a street-smart and financially ambitious woman who sprinkled her conversations with biblical references to reinforce her claim to religious piety. I was told she owned two houses in addition to the one she and her family lived in. For additional income, she was converting the attic of their residence into a kitchenette apartment. The conversion was not complete, but she and Odahlia decided that it was far enough along for me to move in.
I was so glad to see a place with a private entrance that I was willing to put up with the half-done apartment; it was certainly better than renting someone’s spare room without even a lock on the door. The almost-apartment was smaller than I would have preferred—I’d have to live, sleep, and eat in a room about ten feet long and four feet wide—but I was more aware of the missing walls. Studs for the kitchen and bathroom walls were there, but the drywall had yet to be attached. The miniature appliances and plumbing were installed in the little kitchen and the bathroom, which was so tiny I couldn’t step out of the bathtub without bumping into the sink or toilet. Mrs. Ferrell also had house rules about noise and male visitors; neither was allowed. Did she really believe I’d want visitors with a see-through bathroom? I bought a sofa bed to sleep on, and when the bed was down, I couldn’t open the room’s only door. I’d had a far grander vision for my first apartment.
Salting the wound of my disappointment was the nearly ten mile drive to get to my job on the west side of Saginaw. Each morning that I grappled with traffic and icy streets, I was reminded that people who looked like me could not live in the section of town where I worked. Was this Michigan or Mississippi? Michigan’s laws didn’t officially support racial segregation, but whites have always been free to break the law when they want to restrict black people.
In Saginaw the Maginot line was the Saginaw River that flowed south out of Saginaw Bay splitting the city into east and west. Originally, when the area was the center of the nation’s lumber industry, there had been two different towns, East Saginaw and Saginaw City, on opposite sides of the river; the two were combined into one in 1890. That river became a more effective barrier than the Berlin Wall—many East Berliners managed to get over the wall, but only one black family resided west of the Saginaw River. The Porterfields, who were light enough to be mistaken for white from a distance, apparently were living on the west side before the black population in Saginaw grew to a point that whites felt threatened. Like many northern industrial cities, Saginaw became inflexible about where blacks could live as the Great Migration swelled after both world wars when large numbers of blacks left the South looking for jobs and to escape oppression. Between 1920 and 1930 Saginaw’s population grew from 61, 903 to 80,715. Just 2,000 more people were added between 1930 and 1940, but another 10,000 came between 1940 and 1950. In the time-honored tradition of American racism, blacks could work wherever they managed to get hired, but were only allowed to reside in specified places.
I was particularly insulted by this rigid boundary after black folk had demanded an end to such apartheid conditions a year earlier in Birmingham, Alabama; standing their ground despite the brutal assault by Bull Connor’s dogs and water cannons. That attack on peaceful citizens spurred President Kennedy to send a new civil rights bill to Congress. Kennedy reportedly said, “The civil rights movement should thank God for Bull Connor. He’s helped it as much as Abraham Lincoln.” The president was also trying to save face as leader of the “free” world. Other nations were vocal in their outrage that an elected official in the U.S. would be so publicly vicious. Yet, here I was, in a northern state still being subjected to the same kind of racism. I was furious and let everybody know it.
I was also surprised by the narrowness of Saginaw’s arrangement. At home, although blacks mostly lived apart from whites, our neighborhoods were scattered throughout the city. And there were occasional areas, like my neighborhood on the south side, where blacks and whites lived on the same street. Then there was an upscale neighborhood on the north side, that we dubbed the Golden Ghetto, where Indianapolis’s black elite—physicians, lawyers, businesspeople, preachers, and teachers—lived. The Indianapolis residential version of racial discrimination was the only model I knew, so I expected to find a similar pattern everywhere. I’ve since learned, of course, that each locale has its own spin on housing segregation. In Saginaw, all Negroes—seventeen percent of the 1960 population of nearly 100,000—no matter what their income or status, lived east of the river, and that included me.