Fifth Installment Janet Cheatham Bell Memoir
July 13, 2013Chapter 2 New Possibilities continued
I told Mama she had to take over with Rosie and Miguel, and after the July 4th holiday, I fled to my little Saginaw apartment. That meant driving back to Indianapolis for Daddy’s Testimonial Dinner on July 30, but the drive was nothing compared to looking at Miguel and seeing Paul. I spent the remainder of the summer visiting my Lansing cousins and taking short trips with Nannie, whom I knew best because she had lived across the street from us while I was growing up. I also enjoyed spending time with Gerry, a grad student I’d dated a bit at Indiana University. His family had a summer place in Ludington, Michigan, so he drove over to Saginaw for a visit.
At the end of July, my father, Smith Henry Cheatham, was honored with a testimonial dinner for his “outstanding contributions to the progress of Indianapolis.” After much pleading from Mama I got my hair straightened for that event. The banquet was held at the Fall Creek Parkway YMCA, and the program read, “Through more than three decades of unselfish service to Indianapolis and its most cherished institutions Mr. Cheatham has contributed to the tenacity of his growing city.” My perpetually active father was a Board Member of the Indianapolis Redevelopment Commission, President/Founder of the Southeast Civic League, Board Member of the Fall Creek YMCA, Worshipful Master of Fidelity Lodge #55, F. & A.M., member of the NAACP, Chairman of the Deacon Board and Superintendent of the Sunday School at Garfield Baptist Church. According to articles in The Indianapolis Recorder, about 500 tickets were sold at three dollars regular admission and five dollars for patrons. The whole family, as well as members of our extended family, was present for this grand occasion, and Rosie, a skilled and talented pianist, played a solo. I was happy for Daddy who relished the well-deserved recognition.
In June, 1965, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission ruled on my complaint against Fontaine Gardens and ordered them to (1) “accept the claimant’s application…, (2) pursue an equal opportunity housing policy in all apartments…, and (3) instruct all managers in the implementation of such a policy.” In the fall of 1965, nearly a year after my initial application to Fontaine Gardens had been rejected, Lucy and I moved in. The world didn’t stop or even catch its breath. Nothing happened. If my presence in the previously all-white apartment complex disturbed anybody—aside from the recalcitrant management—we never heard anything about it. A few months earlier (February 28, 1965) The Saginaw News, the city’s only daily paper, included an editorial in the Sunday paper titled “Clergymen Face Test of Lowering Saginaw’s ‘Brotherhood Barriers.’” The editorial was referring to a recent “interfaith, interracial” meeting to “strike down the barriers to brotherhood so evident in the continuing practice of segregated housing.” The editorial also included the following statement, “The recently publicized case of a Negro school librarian…being refused housing in the West Side suburb affords a current example of the use to which [the Michigan Civil Rights Commission] machinery has been put.”
The new apartment was all that I had wanted my first place to be. Although I was sharing the apartment with Lucy, I had my own room. There was a living room for entertaining guests; thick wall-to-wall carpeting, a sleek modern kitchen, and the two bedrooms were spacious. And there was the bonus of being less than a mile from work so I could sleep a little later in the mornings. My ex-husband generously loaded a borrowed truck with the living and bedroom furniture from my sister’s house and brought it to Saginaw. I was truly grateful because it saved me from adding a furniture bill to the higher rent I was paying. As a result, Lucy and I had another couch in our living room to go with the sofa bed from my unfinished apartment.
I also enrolled in a night class at the University of Michigan (UM) extension in Saginaw. I wasn't interested in earning another degree, but I had to do something about my insipid social life. Maybe I could meet some interesting men in a university setting. On the way to my first class meeting, I glimpsed a black man seated at the front of a classroom. Whoa! Was he a professor? I turned and went into the room I had just passed.
“What class is this?” I asked the fiftyish black man behind the desk.
“School Community Relations. It’s a graduate course in education. Did you sign up for it?”
“Are you the teacher?” I hadn’t had a black teacher since my segregated-by-law elementary school; and I’d never had a black professor. I wanted to be sure this was for real.
“Yes, my name is Al Loving.” He stood and held out his hand.
I shook his hand and said, “I want to be in your class.” No way would I miss a chance to have a black prof. I immediately replaced the class I had signed up for with his. Dr. Loving had been the first black teacher hired in Detroit's public high schools in 1935, and in 1956 the first black professor hired at the University of Michigan. Later he became a dean at Michigan, and on special leaves served in teaching and administrative posts in India and Nigeria.
His class reminded me of a sociology course I had dropped out of as an undergrad because I found it boring and ridiculous. But this time I enjoyed the social theoretics. Instead of being dismissive as my sociology professor had been, Dr. Loving indulged my questions about the application of textbook theories to the experiences with which I was familiar. He may even have welcomed them since they were not likely to come from any other student; I was the only black in the class. One exchange I remember is that the textbook description of the middle-class sounded a lot like my family, but I had already learned that education and income put us firmly in the lower class. When I asked Dr. Loving about this he said that though my family’s income was lower class, we had middle class values.
“As a result of the social and economic restrictions imposed on us, Negroes have created a class structure parallel to, but not matching that of whites.”
I had no idea there was a class structure among Negroes. As a child I knew some black families were better educated and had more money than we did; but all of us attended segregated schools and none of us could work or eat downtown. In the summers we were restricted from swimming in all but one city park pool; and Riverside, Indianapolis’ amusement park, had a Whites Only sign in front. If there were class differences among blacks, they hardly seemed to matter.
While I was taking Loving’s class, I became friendly with another young woman I met in the library. Sue was older than I, but working on her bachelor’s degree having dropped out of college to marry and have a family. We started hanging out together after we talked and discovered that we were both divorced and on the prowl. We’d get together after class or on the weekends and complain about the dearth of single men in Saginaw. Sue had been married ten years when her husband left her and their three school-age children for his young secretary. That had been six years earlier, but Sue never stopped talking about him. My own divorce was in its second year, but I was too enthused about my new life to have regrets or to think much about my ex. I presumed Sue was having difficulty letting go because her marriage had lasted longer than mine, and she had children. Unlike me, however, she received a divorce settlement. Without working she could maintain her family in their suburban home and take college classes! I’d never known a woman to do that well after a divorce. Not only that, but her family lived nearby and helped care for her children. Still, Sue seemed tormented. I was puzzled: why would an attractive white woman doing as well as she obviously was be so distraught? Sue, on the other hand, couldn’t believe how little I seemed affected by my “tragic” life—the death of a child and a recent divorce.
“Tragic? For the first time ever, I can do as I please and, believe me, that’s not a tragedy.”