As I watched the final night of the Democratic convention, I reflected on how I was brought up segregated in Asheville. It was made clear that I shouldn’t drink from the black water fountain at Sears, or use the black men’s room on Pack Square, or sit in the back of the bus or in the Plaza Theater’s balcony. I wasn’t permitted to attend Stephens-Lee High School, which looked like more fun than Asheville High—especially when I saw their incredible, high-spirited marching band in parades.
The implication was that these black people weren’t clean and had terrible diseases. Strangely, there was a huge exemption for the black women who toiled in people’s homes—cleaning, serving food and raising the children. Often they were the household’s most beloved and respected member.
I was programmed to be a reflex racist, which I have never overcome—a dangerous thing for a member of a Jewish minority that’s also subject to reflex bigotry.
Watching the convention brought up many thoughts and memories, and I plan to write much more on this subject. For now, there are two vignettes I want to share.
When I came back in 1955 after serving in the Korean War, I went back to work for my father as a scrap-metal buyer.
It’s a little-known fact that during World War II, there was a secret facility on a TVA lake in far Western North Carolina where the Navy tested ammunition. The base had been closed down, and I placed a bid and bought a large truckload of scrap metal from it. I went to pick up this scrap with a black truck driver and two black helpers who were riding in the bed of the truck. Two of these men had served in the military; at least one had seen combat.
As we crossed into the county where the facility was located, a sheriff’s car pulled the truck over. The driver was told to stay in the truck; the sheriff wanted to talk to me. He asked where we were going, and I told him and showed him the paperwork.
Within earshot of these workers, he told me that I couldn’t bring in black men to work in that county. Incensed, I told him that I hadn’t served nearly five years in the Navy to see these men treated this way. I told him this was a federal-government job, and I was responsible for the labor to load the scrap.
He told me I would have to go back and get a white driver and he would meet me at the site the next day, at the time I chose, and provide labor to load the scrap.
I started a speech about personal rights. He cut me off, saying: “Look here, Navy boy, this truck has a bald tire and the bed is spread too wide. That’s enough to lock you and their black asses up in the county jail for several days until the circuit judge shows up.”
I was tempted to call his bluff, but I was afraid of what these mean-spirited people might do to these innocent men. I more than reluctantly acquiesced, and we turned the truck around and went back to Asheville.
The next day, I showed up at the appointed time with a white driver, and the sheriff had a dozen prisoners who, supervised by shotgun-toting deputies, did a very efficient job of loading the truck.
Neither my men nor I ever mentioned this incident again, because it was so profoundly embarrassing for us all.
I had a good friend who had a jewelry store on Patton Avenue. They had a housekeeper whose teenage son Walter—a very fine young man—worked in the store after school and on Saturdays to earn extra money to help out in his fatherless home.
The watchmaker took Walter under his wing, teaching this young man the art of watch making, for which he demonstrated an extraordinary proclivity. By the time he was 18 he’d become quite skilled.
Tragically, he lost his job because customers refused to leave their watches for repair, fearing that this black man would steal the jewels from them. (For the record, watch jewels cost about 25 cents each.) Walter came to work for me in my refuse-hauling business and was the best truck driver I ever had.
One day he missed a pickup at an industrial plant because the gate was locked. He returned to complete the task, only to be berated by the plant manager using nasty racial expletives.
Walter, who was such a respectful gentleman, was deeply hurt and reported this to me. I called the plant manager and told him we were discontinuing his service. He slammed down the phone, saying he would get another hauler.
He called back an hour later, having learned that there was no other hauler in his area, and asked what he could do. I told him that if Walter chose to return, he would have to sincerely apologize and it must never happen again.
Walter moved on to a very good job in an industrial plant; unfortunately, he passed on a few years ago.
But as I watched Barack Obama—a handsome, eloquent young African-American—make a brilliant speech accepting the Democratic candidacy for president, I had a lump in my throat. Remembering Walter and those three other decent men who were so terribly abused, I thought, “This moment is for you.”
Whether or not Obama is elected, the sun has risen on a new world of humanity, and the up-and-coming generations will right so many of the wrongs committed by members of my generation and those who came before me.
[Jerry Sternberg has been active on the local scene for many years. He can be reached at email@example.com.]