Third installment Janet Cheatham Bell memoir
June 27, 2013CHAPTER ONE GOING TO WAR continued
I was employed at Douglas Mac Arthur High School (renamed Heritage High in the 1980s) at 3465 North Center Road in the unincorporated suburban community of Saginaw Township. The population in the township in 1960 was 15,619. Township residents were proud of their sleek new high school that opened three years before I arrived. The architecture of the school looked as if the buildings had been moved from Florida or some other warm climate. The school consisted of separate buildings with walkways between them that were covered, but not enclosed. Most of the buildings, including the library, mocked the harsh Saginaw winters with ceiling to floor glass walls.
I was the assistant librarian for the high school. And, in a pattern that has echoed throughout my life, beginning with my first job as a library page when I was fifteen, I was in the desegregation vanguard. Mac Arthur had an enrollment of 1,403 students, and except for perhaps a dozen Chicano students—children of farm workers who had settled in the area—a black physical ed teacher and me, everybody else in the building was white.
Sam Moore, the principal, reminded me of an absent-minded professor more than the stern authoritarian often associated with high school principals. He was about five feet nine inches, a little paunchy, with brown hair and eyeglasses. On my first day, he gave me a tour of the state-of-the-art facility. I met most of the other faculty including the black PE teacher who was hired the previous year, a tall handsome man I’ll call Quincy. Quincy was charming as well as good-looking, but, alas, married. Mac Arthur’s white faculty and staff were either unconcerned about my skin color, or keeping their distaste to themselves.
I had only one contentious discussion with another faculty member while I was there. It was with O’Dell, the man who ran the audiovisual center adjacent to the library, but it was not about race. O’Dell was arguing that school district budget concerns could be resolved by not giving salary increases to female faculty. He decided that women did not have families to support, so they didn’t need to earn as much as men. Not only did I tell him how insulting his idea was to women, I also asked him what world he lived in where women did not have to provide for families. He didn’t speak to me after that. I was grateful for that.
There was only one person at Mac Arthur who irritated me, and she did it purposefully and regularly—the head librarian and my “supervisor,” Irene Galinas. The last stop on Sam’s tour was the library. Mac Arthur had the largest and most elegant school library I’ve ever seen. Its outstanding feature was a circular fireplace and lounge area in a pit in the middle of the expansive room. The sunken area was carpeted and the fireplace, undoubtedly the fulfillment of some architect’s fantasy, was encircled by cushioned sofas. Nobody in their right mind would have lit a fire in a high school library, so the fireplace was never used. This ornamental centerpiece was flanked on the windowed side by the circulation desk, the card catalog, and tables and chairs for the students; and on the other side by rows of bookshelves lined, but not yet filled with books.
Sam introduced me to the library staff: Sally Hinkin, the library secretary, and Irene. Sally was in her late thirties, petite and attractive with black hair. She was married with three children, the oldest of whom, Terry, was a popular student at Mac Arthur. Sally and I clicked and quickly became a team. She was smart, efficient, and gave me her unequivocal support. Sally also made sure I had whatever I needed including both supplies and knowledge of who the major players were in the school and the Township, including inside information that clerical staff always have because they answer the phones and type the memos.
Irene Galinas was a tall, slightly bent, white-haired woman who wore her misery on her sleeve. Faculty avoided her insofar as possible, and the students ridiculed her, sometimes within her hearing. In addition to being crabby, she was no longer competent, if she ever had been. It shortly became clear that Sam was not happy with her, but hadn't yet figured out how to scuttle a tenured faculty member. Perhaps he surmised that having a black assistant would sever Irene’s fragile hold on propriety. Sam had not told Irene I was black, and she was visibly shaken when we were introduced. At sixty-something and nearing retirement, Irene was dumbfounded that she’d have to share her work space with a Negro. As soon as Sam left she spewed her revulsion.
“And where did you get library training?” Her tone was doused in the certainty that no credible institution would ever have trained me as a librarian.
“At Indiana University. How about you; where did you get yours?”
“Indiana University…? That’s a good school.” Irene was apparently not expecting my response. She paused in her surprise before saying, “Well, at least you didn’t go to one of those awful little colored colleges.”
I had heard all manner of racist insults, but I was actually startled. I had never encountered such blunt bigotry in a professional setting. So this old woman is a real bitch. Well, it’s good to know this up front so I can be on guard. If I’m not careful she’ll run me out of here.
That was merely Irene’s opening gambit; from then on she created as many opportunities as she could to say something detestable about all black people or about me personally. One of her most odious remarks occurred after I had been there for a few months. I was filing cards in the catalog and she stopped to speak to me. In a voice gilded with sarcasm she said, “I would invite you to dinner, but I need to clean my house first. My house is so dirty I’ll bet your mother’s house is cleaner than mine.”
Wow, this heifer has no limits, including playing the dozens. Of course she knew I’d never eat a thing prepared by her, so either she was knowingly playing the dozens or thought she had finally come up with something certain to make me go off on her. Considering how I felt about racist white folks who salved their fears and insecurities by abusing blacks, I am astonished at how well I dealt with Irene. No matter what she said, I never responded or told her what I thought of her. Nothing I said would have changed her attitude, and she was too addled and pathetic to engage in an argument. I responded by consistently doing an excellent job, and documenting my aborted efforts to work with her.
Sally found Irene wearisome as well. We commiserated with each other, but also kept the library functioning despite Irene’s ineptitude. Whenever Irene’s venom spilled into what I perceived as a threat to my professional reputation, I immediately talked to the principal about it. Sam was always sympathetic and reassuring, so mostly I went about my work as if Irene weren’t there. The students and faculty also ignored her, usually coming to me for assistance. Sometimes when Irene saw me helping someone, she’d thrust herself between us and offer her own services. Each of us would quietly walk away then meet again to continue where we were before she interrupted.
I had a more serious problem than Irene. That fabulous-looking library nearly did a number on me physically. I was logging a few miles a day walking the library’s unyielding concrete floor with only a layer of linoleum tile between the cement and my high heels. The constant pounding jack-hammered my body into heavier and longer menstrual periods. I didn’t feel sick, but some days I barely had the strength to get dressed and drive to work. To conserve what vitality I had, I found as many reasons as possible to work in my office seated at my desk. I consulted a physician, but he had no more idea of what was happening to me than I did.
At the time, I was still living with my cousin’s family and Odahlia suggested that I see their chiropractor. I didn’t know what a chiropractor was, but I was willing to try anything. He realigned my body and strongly recommended that I give up my stylish heels for more sensible shoes. The shoes he proposed were flat, a neutral grayish beige color (is that called taupe?) with half-inch thick rubber soles that resembled tire tread more than anything else. They were not pretty, but as I returned to feeling like my usual self, they became quite fetching to me. I never left for work without them.
There didn’t seem to be much activity in Saginaw for single twenty-somethings, but a Mac Arthur English teacher Lucy Smith and I became friends. We met when Lucy brought her classes to the library. We found lots to talk about because we were both in our first post-college jobs. Sometimes we had lunch together and on occasion went for TGIF drinks. One day we were discussing our separate but equally dismal housing situations when Lucy suggested that we could live in Fontaine Gardens by splitting the rent. Fontaine Gardens was an expensive new apartment complex about a mile from Mac Arthur. I had seen it many times, but gave little thought to it because I’d already learned that I couldn’t live in Saginaw Township, let alone in its swankiest new apartments.
“Lucy, I can’t live there.”
“If we share the cost, we can swing it.”
“It’s not the money. Negroes are not allowed to live out here.”
“What do you mean, not allowed?”
“Lucy, have you ever seen any Negroes, other than Quincy and me, anywhere in the township?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t looked. But so what? That doesn’t mean Negroes can’t live here!”
“Do you think that every Negro in Saginaw simply decided to live together on the east side? Have you ever heard of a ghetto? …of housing discrimination?”
“Wait a minute. You’re not telling me that every Negro in Saginaw lives in the same neighborhood? That doesn’t even make sense! Do you live there?”
“What do you think? I’m a Negro.”
Lucy was a naïve, inexperienced Catholic girl from a small town in Minnesota. Her exposure to blacks before she met me consisted of watching civil rights activities on television. Like me, she had taken a job away from home in search of something—new experiences, excitement.
“I don’t believe this…. I can’t believe this!” Lucy was becoming agitated. Like many whites, she believed racial discrimination was confined to the former Confederate States.
“Welcome to life in America for Negroes.”
That weekend I picked Lucy up and brought her to my apartment and to see the Negro area of Saginaw. By then, because of my constant complaints, the bathroom had been enclosed with drywall, but the walls had not been painted and I still had a see-through kitchen. Mrs. Ferrell had accomplished her goal: she had a paying tenant. It apparently didn’t matter to her that the apartment was not presentable.
Lucy didn’t pretend it was acceptable. After a brief look around, she was insistent.
“Janet, we’ve got to move into Fontaine Gardens.”
“I’m game if you are, but it won’t be easy.”
“I really don’t think we’ll have a problem. This is 1964 and we’re not in the South.”
“I know you think that makes a difference, but I know better.”
A few days later, Sam called me to his office.
“Lucy tells me that the two of you are planning to move into Fontaine Gardens.”
“We’re going to try, but I don’t believe they’ll rent to me.”
“They won’t refuse somebody who works for the township schools. And if they do, they’ll have to answer to me!”
I was grateful for Sam’s support, although not surprised. I had learned that over some objections from the school board, Sam had insisted that Mac Arthur’s staff be integrated. He also regularly checked in with me to make sure I was comfortable and to support me in issues with Irene.
Lucy and I completed our applications for an apartment together and waited for a response. Although we made it clear we intended to share the apartment, her application was approved, but mine was rejected. When I asked why, the manager simply said they reserved the right to decide who lived in Fontaine Gardens. I told Sam what happened and he called the manager demanding to know why I had been turned down. He told Sam I didn’t pass the credit check. That was a bald-faced lie and I told Sam so. Following Daddy’s dictum that “a poor man ain’t got nothin’ but good credit,” I always paid my car note on time, and that was the only debt I had.
Sam visited Fontaine Gardens himself to convince them to rent to me. He was practically foaming at the mouth when he told me about it. “The manager looked me in the face and said, ‘We can’t do it. If we rent to her, before you know it, they’ll be swarming all over the place.’ As if he was talking about roaches or something! They will not get away with this, Janet. We’re gonna fight it.”
I was somewhat amused at Sam’s outrage; he had expected Fontaine Gardens to have some regard for an employee of the school system, but I knew my skin color trumped everything. I was delighted, though that Sam was ready to go to the wall with me. I had not come to Saginaw to test racial barriers, but fighting racism was what we did in my family, so I was up for it.