Fourth Installment Janet Cheatham Bell Memoir
July 4, 2013
Sam told me to contact Father Richard D’Onofrio, pastor of Saginaw’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and a member of the Saginaw Human Relations Commission (HRC). Aside from his invaluable assistance, what I most remember about Father D'Onofrio is his telling me that he left the Catholic Church to follow his priestly calling as an Episcopalian because he wanted to marry and have a family. After D’Onofrio put some pressure on Fontaine Gardens, the manager called me and said if I gave them a $150 deposit, they would consider my application. One hundred fifty dollars was a third of my monthly income. I had just finished college and relocated. I did not have $150, which is exactly what Fontaine Gardens was counting on.
I went to see Father D’Onofrio and told him what they said. Without hesitation, he picked up the telephone, called the manager at Fontaine Gardens and told him he’d have the $150 to him within ten minutes. According to a report in The Saginaw News, February 19, 1965, the manager “hemmed and hawed and then said not to bother to send the money.” Obviously, it was going to take more than informal pressure to stop Fontaine Gardens from practicing racism. A lot of frustration had built up in Saginaw about housing discrimination, particularly the ban against blacks on the west side, but apparently there had been no formal complaints. Because I was a young, educated woman who had moved to the area to work for the Saginaw Township school system, my case was seen as the ideal wedge to end the entrenched custom. The Negro librarian at MacArthur High School became a local cause célèbre.
D’Onofrio advised me to file formal complaints with the Michigan Civil Rights Commission (CRC) and I did. The CRC invited me to testify at their meeting in January 1965. During my testimony, being young and full of myself, I chastised Saginaw Negroes for not having eliminated housing discrimination before I came along. The following month, the housing issue and my case were the subjects of a “long, rancorous discussion” at a meeting of the Saginaw Human Relations Commission held in City Hall. The Saginaw News covered the meeting, and my name made the newspaper. I clipped the article and sent it to my mother. Forty years later, I found the yellowed clipping in her scrapbook.
Three days after that acrimonious city hall meeting, Malcolm X was assassinated. My anger over his death turned to despondence when I learned that he was killed, not by white racists, but by black men! How could they? No matter who was pulling their strings—Elijah Muhammad or the FBI—didn’t they have any pride, any loyalty? I felt cheated and betrayed. Who would tell crackers the truth now? I first became aware of Malcolm X when I saw him on television in 1959 being interviewed by Mike Wallace. I had never heard or seen a black person being that forthright and honest with whites, and on television no less! From that moment on, I wanted to know everything Malcolm X said or did.
It was many years later that I learned the FBI was secretly writing letters, tapping telephones, and generally creating chaos to turn Malcolm’s rift with the Nation of Islam into an unbridgeable chasm. A year before Malcolm was killed, Elijah Muhammad had said, “This hypocrite is going to get blasted clear off the face of the earth,” effectively ordering Malcolm’s execution. In homage to Malcolm, I stopped having my hair straightened and started wearing an Afro. It was my way of announcing that I was a proud, militant, Malcolm X-type woman.
The following year other black folks picked up Malcolm’s mantle and stopped dissembling in the presence of whites. California’s Black Panther Party for Self-Defense organized in Oakland, and Stokely Carmichael, chairman of “Snick,” the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), issued a call for BLACK POWER. That's what I'm talking about! To my delight, each new group was more aggressive than the preceding ones. This decade of radical change had begun in 1954 with the legal strategies of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) in Brown v. the Board of Education; then Malcolm brought the separatist ideas of the Nation of Islam to our attention. In the meantime the freedom rides, boycotts and marches of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) were taking place, and moved on to the strategic sit-ins and systematic voter registrations by SNCC. In a couple of years I'd be cheering as the Black Panthers exercised their right to bear arms by striding into the California legislature carrying guns.
END OF CHAPTER ONE, GOING TO WAR
CHAPTER 2 NEW POSSIBILITIES
In every moment of our existence, we are in that field of all possibilities where we have access to an infinity of choices. Deepak Chopra
I wanted a more active social life than Saginaw had to offer. Wurtsmith Air Force Base was located in nearby Oscoda and occasionally black guys from the base came to town. I briefly dated one of them, but otherwise my social and sexual life left much to be desired. I rarely met single men my age, and never at the house parties given by Odahlia and Rance’s friends. All of them were married, and the wives were not particularly interested in having a young, unattached woman around. The best thing about those parties was that I got a chance to play some good bid whist games; sometimes there were two or three going at a time and we’d play rise-and-fly.
Aside from the drama of trying to desegregate Fontaine Gardens, there wasn’t much going on. I was so lonely that when the school year ended in June 1965, I went home for the summer. Blacks in Indianapolis were horrified by my un-straightened hair. I got a few “right on’s,” but most, reflexively seeking social approval and acceptance, could not understand why I would expose my nappy head, especially in front of whites. Mama and my sister Rosie were particularly disgusted and didn’t bite their tongues about it. Mama was so ashamed of my hair that she didn’t even want me to go to church with her; something she usually insisted on. Indianapolis was nowhere near ready for the changes the civil rights movement was stirring up. It didn’t seem to occur to them that whites barely noticed us and cared little about what we did with our hair. A couple of whites at my job who did notice a difference in the way I looked merely observed, “You cut your hair.”
I loved the coarse, kinky texture of my hair; it felt substantive. I had always dreaded those hot combs on my neck when the beautician was doing her damndest to get every little nap. I was glad to be done with the hair-straightening ritual. But the staring disapprovals of other blacks and my family’s open censure eventually got to me and I went back to the hot comb. A year later, after Kwame Ture’s (then known as Stokely Carmichael) powerful and persuasive orations about BLACK POWER, I found the courage to be who I wanted to be and gave up straightened hair for good.
I also went home that summer to help Rosie. After three years, she and her husband Gordon were expecting their first baby in June. My marriage settlement—living room and bedroom furniture—was stored in their second and third bedrooms, so I stayed at their house and slept in my own bed. Miguel Eugene Mickey was born June 28. Rosie didn’t nurse Miguel, so when she came home from the hospital I got up at night, warmed his bottle and fed him while she slept. While taking care of my nephew I was overwhelmed with memories of Paul, the three-month-old son I had lost four years earlier. I had so thoroughly repressed my grief that I never consciously thought about the loss of my baby. But when I looked at Miguel, I saw Paul. Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, I was terrified to relive that shattering period of my life and had to get away. What I told myself, and anyone who asked, was that Rosie complained too much, not only about my hair, but also because she expected maid service as well as child care.