Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Backstory: A Saga of Interracial Love and Migration

Storyline:  When you can't figure out where to start, start with yourself and move outward.

My father and mother were both born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1938 and 1936 respectively. My father, James is African-American, and my mother, Patricia is Irish-American. He was a tall, slim, brown skin handsome man who had a generous heart and a bright smile. She was petit with a fair complexion, light brown hair, hazel eyes and my dad said that she never met a person who couldn’t be her friend. They met in the late 1950’s at the local Five & Dime Store, where she worked at the ‘colored lunch counter’ and he worked across the street at the local pawn shop.  Each day he would leave the Reliable Loan Office at 831 Market Street and walk about 50 yards across the street to eat lunch at S & H Kress at 822 Market.

Ironically, at a time when the south exuded segregation, my white mother would serve my black father his lunch. With no regard to race, they soon fell in love and made a commitment to be together, and decided to have me. I always tell them they were ‘brave in love’ during a time when Tennessee had laws that forbade interracial marriages. If they displayed any affection in public, they could have been arrested, jailed, or killed.  Knowing their fate, they tried to hide their relationship from their family, friends, the public and most importantly from the law. Over time, it became increasingly difficult for them to disguise their affection and love for each other.

Prior to 1959, no one in either of my direct ancestral lines had moved from the south. My ancestors seemed to be content with their planted southern roots, but these two changed this tradition and became part of the second wave of the nation’s Great Migration north. They migrated to Chicago when the racism in the south became so volatile that Patricia’s family threatened to lynch James. This is not to say that everyone in the south was racist, but there were institutions, laws, and a culture that promoted and enforced racism. My parents were victims of this system.

My father would secretly go to spend time with my mother at her home during the late night hours. They would also drive to a rural area of the city to my father’s cousin’s home where they could spend time in a more relaxed and safe environment. In 1959, determined to be together, they moved to Chicago. They saved their money and travelled separately to their new place of residence. My dad arrived first to prepare for my mom. Their first home was located in the Hyde Park neighborhood, as this community has always been known as progressive with a diverse population. My parents lived at 1015 E. 57th Street in an apartment building where many interracial couples resided. Dad gained employment quickly and worked as a janitor at the Chicago Osteopathic Hospital right around the corner from where they lived. My mother was a waitress at a local diner. Like most families during this era, my parents strived to make a better way of life for their family.

Two months after my mother’s arrival, I was born at Cook County Hospital in April 1960. My birth certificate does not list my race, but my father was listed as Negro and my mother was listed as white. This was an interesting contrast to ‘colored’ the race listed on my dad’s November, 1938 birth certificate. When I look back at the photographs of my parents during this period, they looked so happy. One photo that stands out is a picture of them in 1958 at my dad’s cousin’s home. The photo is a 3 x 4 horizontal black and white. My mother in her white dress is cuddled up with my dad on the couch with the biggest smile. They looked so young and so in love.

They acclaim it as a time rich in social history for them and the nation. Unfortunately, even the Promised Land of the north could not sustain an interracial relationship. Their ‘separate, but equal’ skin tones became difficult for them to negotiate. The pressure of their cultural differences and the climate of the nation devoured their love. My parents never married and eventually split up in 1961. My dad enlisted in the U.S. Army and my mother stayed in Chicago. They never spoke again. Two years later she met a man, married him and eventually moved west to California. Her husband was white and she thought it would be easier for us both if she placed me for adoption.

In 1963, I was adopted by a wonderful family that my parents had known in Chicago. It was an open private adoption with all parties present except for my father who did not learn about the adoption until 1964 when he was discharged from the Army. This backstory of interracial love that compelled my parents to migrate north became the context that lends depth and purpose to my own story.  A child born at a time when change was inevitable.

The only photo found for S&H Kress
Chattanooga, Tennessee