Editor’s note: The following piece offers one in a series of reflections on the Asheville area by Jerry Sternberg, who celebrated his 90th year last December. Along with this perspective, Mountain Xpress is committed to publishing material that reflects the full scope of the region’s diversity, and we welcome expressions of interest from community members in writing commentaries on race and other topics.
BY JERRY STERNBERG
Back in February, Black History Month reprised the good, the bad and the ugly concerning a whole race of people who were brought here in chains and have somehow survived more than four centuries of unbelievable persecution. But that story didn’t suddenly end on March 1: What follows is my personal version of Black history.
I grew up in the depths of the Depression in a middle-class family here in Asheville. Like most others, my family suffered difficult economic times, yet I never remember not having a Black maid in the house. As babies, we were bathed, fed, nurtured and disciplined by these Black women, many of whom left their own children at home to take care of us.
They became part of the family, often serving as teacher, decision-maker and psychiatrist. I’m convinced that they kept many a white child from going astray, and their sage advice saved many marriages. All of this for the princely sum of $5 to $10 per week plus discarded clothing and leftover food for their family.
Many of these “girls,” as they were demeaningly called, stayed with the same family for decades. When there was a wedding or other event honoring one of the children, they pleaded for an invitation “’cause these are my babies.” Just before the ceremony began, they would timidly walk into the back of the venue. Quite often their appearance was shocking. People we’d seen only in a hand-me-down housedress, run-down floppy shoes and a do-rag were transformed into beautiful, stately women with makeup, coiffed hair and their very best Sunday-go-to-meeting dress.
In terms of Black history, our education was a total fraud: We were brainwashed into believing that these alleged “subhumans” were perfectly happy with their lot. Like many others, I wallowed in the slime of Jim Crow laws that stigmatized and marginalized Blacks. I gave those laws little thought because the belittling was so common and seemed to be accepted by both Blacks and whites. Little did I know that speaking up or talking back was a sign of being “uppity” — or that a Black man’s making any kind of move on a white woman was life-threatening.
As students we read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Gone With the Wind and learned that Booker T. Washington had something to do with Black education and George Washington Carver found many new uses for peanuts and sweet potatoes. I guess I must have missed school the days they taught us about the Wilmington Massacre or the Tuskegee experiment. I also missed the day they covered poll taxes, literacy tests that college professors couldn’t pass and outright physical intimidation to keep Blacks from voting.
I remember listening to Amos ’n’ Andy on the radio, two white men who used a faux Black accent to caricature a pair of lovable buffoons. I also recall helping stage a minstrel show at the Jewish Community Center that stereotyped Blacks as fatuous clowns. I don’t remember hearing anything about the terrible plight of our Black citizens.
As I moved through Claxton, David Millard, Lee Edwards and, finally, the lily-white University of North Carolina, I was molded into a benign bigot. My experience in the U.S. Navy proved no more enlightening, as most Black men were consigned to serving as mess boys or doing manual labor on deck gang. I don’t recall ever seeing a Black officer.
By the time I was 12, my daddy had taught me the exacting skill of operating a beam scale, used to weigh our scrap metal and cowhides. He also taught me how to fill out the bill of sale, drilling into me the importance of accuracy. When we picked up raw materials, I would ride with a Black driver and loader; being illiterate, they couldn’t do the weighing and recording. Sometimes my father would give me money to buy our lunch, which was a particular treat for these men.
They almost always wanted to go to the Atlantic Quick Lunch on Depot Street. We’d park our truck around back and I would enter through the kitchen door. Lavinia, the very large Black cook, would greet me with a shriek, practically smothering me as she pressed me to her enormous bosom in a big, sweaty hug. I would give her the orders for the men and she’d send me to the dining room to eat with the white people.
Think about the message this seemingly innocent story sent to an impressionable teenager.
My family life did not express hatred for Blacks; on the contrary, we loved the Black people we came in contact with. I was never allowed to use racial slurs or be rude or unkind to anyone whose skin color differed from mine. My dad was particularly fond of his Black employees and went out of his way to be generous and kind to them; still, he clearly enjoyed the role of “Patron.” He was a pioneer in the scrap metal business when, during World War II, he hired Black women to take on many of the men’s jobs: assorting metals, operating a baler and an alligator shear. This wasn’t entirely altruistic, however, as many male laborers had gone into the military.
My father was rewarded with the fact that many of these women did a better job than the men had, particularly with the assorting. Being better educated, they were literate and could learn faster. He eventually promoted women to supervise both Black and white men and women. Notably, though, none of them ever made it to the front office.
Meanwhile, as a young adult, I was busy with my new family and a new job; I wasn’t particularly concerned about the first stirrings of a movement to elevate the African American community’s status. I do remember seeing the photos of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma and feeling saddened by the atrocities. On the other hand, my law-and-order mentality was saying, “What the hell are these people doing blocking this bridge anyway?”
To be honest, it was those very acts of civil disobedience — the lunch counter sit-ins by dignified young Black people, the reasoned speeches of Martin Luther King and the angry voice of Malcolm X — that gradually opened my eyes.
“As long as Black folks can’t eat at the Woolworth’s counter or stay at the Holiday Inn,” Malcolm X warned in a speech I heard him give in Chapel Hill, “there are going to be more people like me rising up.” I was also chastened by the humorist Harry Golden of Charlotte, whose writings made Jim Crow laws look so foolish.
At the same time, however, I — like many other white people — was frightened by the increasing racial turbulence of the time. That fear is reflected in the horrifying incidents of racial brutality that now seem to happen almost daily.
As the suppression of Black history has diminished, whites have increasingly had to confront the fact that Blacks are just as bright and capable as they are. What alarms some whites even more is that Black people, too, are getting wise to this closely guarded secret.
Over the years, my personal Black history has transformed me from bigotry to advocacy but, sadly, it has taken way too long.
Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at email@example.com.