Race Matters: Jim Crow, SoCal-style
To many Black Americans for whom America’s dastardly past was “that long ago,” reminders of an ignoble history are not that fleeting
Sign advertising the Lewis Mountain Negro Area in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia. Photo: National Parks Service (public domain)
Sordid remembrance of an American past yearning to breathe free again in the Trump era
EDITOR’S NOTE: As the cry “Black Lives Matter” reverberates across America, birthed by an onslaught of deadly violence by police against young Black urban males and some females, ultra conservative voices on the far right vilify the movement decrying that Black Americans should get over America’s less than noble past on race relations. But to many Black Americans for whom America’s dastardly past was “not that long ago,” reminders of an ignoble history are not that fleeting.
For Denise Shaw, a resident of Ontario, Calif., memories of racial tyranny never fully withered. In recent years including the present under President Donald Trump, who has courted a base that includes White Nationalists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan terrorists, for Shaw, those sordid memories are regaining clarity. The following is her recollection.
By DENISE SHAW
ONTARIO, Calif. — Recently, I read an article in an old edition of The Negro Motorist Green Book, a safe-passage travel guide for Black Americans traveling in the U.S. during the “Jim Crow” era. It gave Black people a heads up where to travel safely and lodge. My folks traveled the historic Route 66 from Chicago, Ill. to California in 1956. They cooked food in advance of leaving home and we also ate convenience food on the road like cold cuts and crackers.
We slept in the car because many motels and hotels did not welcome Blacks. I left Chicago in a quilted snow suit because it was snowing and cold. When we arrived in California, I remember asking my Mom about the ubiquitos palm trees. I remember her laughing and telling me — “you won’t need that snow suit.”
The lure of a better life and opportunities without the stress of overt prejudice was the dream. Mom wrote short stories and Los Angeles was alluring. It was home to Hollywood and the Movies. The reality was Black female writers didn’t have many opportunities. It was so bad she’d submit her photo just to test the waters and not to waste time. Her love for writing and reading never waned as a senior. She’d often buy books from second hand stores for her reading pleasure.
We eventually settled in East Los Angeles. During the 1950s Black Families didn’t live West of Broadway because of the real estate “Covenants, Rights and Restrictions” in the housing laws which applied to rentals, leases, and home ownership. Leaving cities like Chicago and Skockie, Ill., where segregation was rampant, where Blacks struggled to live and work, was a relief.
Yet, Blacks, Latinos, and other non-Whites would learn quickly that even lovely Los Angeles and its many suburbs were hostile. Places like Westchester, Lennox, Orange County, Fontana … were dangerous places for Blacks to travel through in the 1960s. These communities, like many in the Midwest and South were dubbed Sundowner Towns — that is, it was prudent to be out of these towns by sundown. Fontana was the West Coast headquarters of the KKK. It’s a different story today. Now, those knuckle heads are up in the nearby foothills and mountains calling themselves “survivalists,” and preparing for a race war.
I’m not just talking about incidents way back in the 1950s.
Unbeknownst to many, the “DWB” (Driving While Black) controversy is not a wholly recent phenomenon. In the early 1970s, I was on the way home after work, traveling through Irvine in a black Cadillac with my friend and co-worker Angela White. We weren’t en route home on the streets of Irvine about to stop for a bite to eat to let the traffic subside, when we abruptly were pulled over by police. They ordered us out of the car and made us sit on the street curb. The officer told us there had been a robbery in the area and the suspect was seen driving a black Cadillac.
The officers searched the car and our purses before allowing us to be on our way. It was humiliating and frightening. Normally, Angela drove her Volkswagen and we were never stopped by police. But two Black females in a new Cadillac in New Port Beach and Irvine in the 1970s was a problem.
After being permitted to leave, we immediately got on the I-5 Freeway north to Los Angeles, nervously looking in the rear view mirror all the way home.
At our place of employment, we where the only two Blacks in a 10-story high rise. The place was hostile to us, as we routinely found expletives written on the dusty windows of Angela’s Volkswagen. Once, someone even turned over the potted plants in our office leaving soil strewn everywhere.
Going out for lunch was a drama, too. Some restaurants made us wait longer than other patrons, while other diners took the incentive to serve us quickly so others wouldn’t complain.
At home, real estate sales people routinely knocked on my door wanting to speak to the man or lady of the house, acting shocked when it was me. I was forced to place a “No Solicitation” sign on the door.
In 1995 the Klan marched in full regalia to the court house in the quiet bedroom community of Ontario, Calif., throwing items from their cars at the home where I lived. Drivers of their “Red Trucks” used to burn rubber in front of our house as they yelled obscenities at us. Standing in line at the grocery store was confrontational at times with White folk getting out of line so they wouldn’t have to stand next to a Black person.
My youngest child repeatedly was called the n-word in school. I didn’t learn about it until she was grown. She was protecting me, knowing full well I would have gone to her school and turned it out. Straight A’s will incite the haters, especially if the student is Black. The best and the brightest have to be very pragmatic, strong, and confident to succeed.
The day after O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murdering his ex-wife and her boyfriend, I was laid off my job without prior warning. As the only Black at the company I worked at, it was obvious the action was White backlash. The cold looks, stares, and doors slammed in my face during the trial made my blood boil. The acquittal was the final straw for the bigots and haters.
I was also laid off again on Nov. 12, 2012, without warning, two days after President Obama was elected for a second term. Mitt Romney owned 33 percent of the company where I was employed in Irvine, Calif., in good ol’ Orange County. The company was Mormon-owned.
Now, in 2017, we’ve got 45 in the White House. I feel like it’s Groundhog Day. I thank God for Jesus Christ and His redemptive power. Forgiveness is powerful and a command, so I pick up my cross, daily and follow Jesus. Times and people’s attitudes change, but God’s Word does not. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Remember you’re a child of the King and an Ambassador who will one day return to your eternal home, as we are just passing through this life.
Even in harsh times such as these, love never fails.