The Fifties Weren’t Like TV

Ku Klux Klan exhibit, Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Birmingham, Alabama. Credit: The George F. Landegger Collection of Alabama Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-DIG-highsm-05074]

When I was about nine years old I was taken with Tee, Robert, Mama  Katie, and Roger to a barbecue staged by the Ku Klux Klan. (Not being  very familiar with streets and highways outside my neighborhood at that age, I don’t know the exact location, but I think it was near Bessemer.) The event was well-attended, with Klan members swarming over a large park or farm. The place was decked out with both United States and Confederate flags, so it may have been the Fourth of July or Labor Day.

The scene was impressive, meant to be patriotic and religious. I had heard about the Klan all of my life, but I had never seen anything like this. I had seen Robert in his robe. I knew he went out to meetings and did secret things. I had heard him talking to other adults, so I knew that the Klan would take people out of their homes and “teach them lessons.” I understood physical discipline. I had not, however, been to a large-scale rally before. There were hundreds of people gathered on this vast piece of land.

Robert was very proud this day and had assumed his public persona, which was jovial and strutting. I think his intent was to impress my step- grandfather, Roger, into joining the Klan, for this was a special occasion that lasted all afternoon and evening, providing the perfect setting for recruiting new members. To heighten the effect, there was a large platform some three or four feet high and probably twenty feet across. Behind it were three crosses made from what looked like telephone poles, the center one taller than the other two. Throughout the evening, Mama Katie stayed fairly close to the car and kept me with her so I didn’t mix and mingle very much. But both Tee and Robert would go off into the crowd and come back, bringing someone with them to introduce to the adults. Some of the women, including Tee, had on white robes without hoods, and some had on hoods with the face mask tucked up inside. Many of the men were in robes and hoods, though many were not.

Off and on there was music: Christian hymns and patriotic tunes. I  heard the same songs that I heard in church: “The Old Rugged Cross” and “Onward Christian Soldiers.” And, of course, there were “Dixie” and “America.” Then came the speakers. Angry men. And passionate men. There were two who most stick in my mind. One was a man in a red and purple embroidered satin robe and pointed cap, and the other man wore green satin, also elaborately embroidered.

Although I don’t remember much of what was said, I recall that I felt uneasy and out of place. The men in satin robes drew great applause and were treated like celebrities—held in awe, it seemed. I asked at one point and was told, “That’s the Grand Dragon and the Wizard.” I didn’t really understand what was going on, but young as I was, I did know that I wasn’t intended to—only insiders were supposed to be fully informed. There were secrets and things said that meant nothing to me. And I knew it was supposed to be that way.

Burning of 80 ft. cross, KKK, 8/9/25.
Credit: Library of Congress, LC-DIG-npcc-27468

During the last speech, someone lit the larger of the crosses, and it burned high-reaching flames into the night sky. The satin robes of the men on stage glowed in the firelight, and the crowd became very loud.

We left after that. Mama Katie insisted. Robert was testy about leaving. Tee was nervous. I was frightened. My step-grandfather had little to say except for something in a joking undertone to Mama Katie about so many “people out in public in their bathrobes.”

As frightening as that burning cross and those strange men were, I would have been even more frightened if I had known then that the fear I felt would underscore the rest of my life. I had already learned to hide my feelings and to behave in public as expected. But that night I did not understand that this was not the way life should be.

Although most occasions were not this extraordinary,  as a child I did spend a great deal of time with Tee and Robert. There were several reasons why. My mother was often sick, and when that happened, Mama Katie was my primary source of parenting. When she went with Tee and Robert somewhere, I often was taken along. And when my mother was up and around, we would go to Tee’s to visit and, of course, Robert would be there. Sometimes Mama and I would walk from our house on Twenty-fourth Street to North Birmingham or ride the bus to shop, and after shopping, we’d go by the Chamblisses’ to visit or rest before heading home.

It was only thirteen blocks from our house to theirs. We would walk past Salamone’s store and the Armour meat-packing plant, which we called the “packing house.” Next came Village Creek, a wide, open ditch that traversed the city from east to west for the transport of sewage. We would walk across the bridge and railroad tracks into the “nigger quarter.” I knew the way but I did not know the people. Our contact with black people was limited despite the proximity of housing. Mama used to hire a black woman to help with ironing, and when no one was around to interfere, that woman’s little girl and I would talk and try to play. But there was an element of the unknown and a gap in communication which made play difficult. I came to understand that it was hard to play because we weren’t  “supposed”to. So why start something that would abruptly stop if an adult came in? It only took my mother briskly removing me once or twice to another room or the ironing lady’s stern look to know that something was wrong. (Twenty years later I hired that little girl to do day work in my home, and we did talk. We still didn’t quite reach friendship, but we did learn about each other.)

My folks were afraid of black people. There was fear everywhere. Some of the fears were nameless, but many had names. The greatest fear was of black men.

For years I had no idea just why they were supposed to be so scary, especially since most of the ones I actually saw were very old, like the black man who delivered ice in a mule-drawn wagon through the alley. He would bring the ten-, twenty-five-, or fifty-cent block of ice to the back door with tongs, and Mama would take it and struggle it into the wooden icebox because the iceman was not allowed to come into the house.

There were other black men who came to our back door in those early years, too. They would ask for work to earn food, and my grandmother would usually find something they could do for an hour or a half hour and then give them food through the back door. They would eat on the steps and then knock on the screen door to hand back the plate and jelly glass with a polite, “Thank you, Ma’am. God Bless you, Ma’am.”

Salamone’s grocery store, about two blocks north of our house, served white customers from our neighborhood, but they also welcomed business from the black neighborhood on the other side of Village Creek. The general attitude in my family was that Italians and Jews were somewhere between white folks and black folks, and when they chose to be with black folks, they became not acceptable as white anymore. So our dealings with Salamone’s store were limited to times when the smaller store closer to home didn’t carry what we needed.

I was forbidden to socialize with either Italians or Jews or to make friends with them beyond school hours, although one of the Salamones’ daughters was in my class at school. The prejudices were were not all racial. Catholics were also rejected with the attendant stories about “their” hatred for “us” and the sinister power priests held over parishioners. There was another Catholic girl in my class whose uncle worked with Daddy at Southern Line Material Company; his wife worked at New Ideal department store in downtown Birmingham, and she later helped me get my first job. Daddy and Mama and my friend’s uncle and aunt sat together at company parties, but they did not socialize otherwise.

We lived on the cusp of Norwood, which at that time was a moderately affluent community of large and beautiful homes, most of which are now either divided into apartments or have gone through deterioration and emerged into restoration. The area was totally white in the forties and Fifties and is now predominantly black, as is the case with North Birmingham. Even then, our street was barely respectable—lower to lower-middle class —  home to industrial workers, a bus driver, an insurance salesman, and retirees.

When everybody had moved out of Mama Katie and Roger’s house  except my family, which now included my only brother, Johnny, the hallway of the house was divided in half with a plasterboard partition, and the front half became my bedroom. Prior to that I had slept in the room with Mama and Daddy, but their room was awfully crowded with their double bed, my single bed, and the baby bed. So at age twelve, I got a room of my own. The back half of the hallway was converted into a kitchen for my grandmother. The front door was changed into a window in my room, and two new front doors were put into the front rooms on either side. The house then had two living rooms, three bedrooms, and two kitchens, but we all still shared the bath. The year I got my own room, we also got our first television, a sewing machine, and a vacuum cleaner.

Many afternoons and Saturdays were spent washing diapers in the ringer washer and hanging them on the line in the backyard to dry while we cleaned the house. From the time I was eight I had taken on more and more of the household chores, kneeling or standing on a kitchen chair at the sink or ironing board. After the chores were done, on Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons, the family would gather either at our house or at Tee and Robert’s house. The men would play dominoes or pinochle, and the women would sit on the porch or in the living room and talk or sing. Mama would send me to the kitchen to get a lighted cigarette from Daddy for her since he kept the package with him. During the summer I was six, I started sneaking a draw or two from the sweet-smelling Lucky Strike as I carried it carefully back to the porch to give to her. Before I finished elementary school, I was holding back lunch money to buy my own cigarettes and hiding to smoke.

In May 1955, when I was fifteen and my brother was three, my parents bought a new house in Tarrant City. During this time I had entertained thoughts of college after I graduated high school, although no one in my family had ever been to college. My friends were making decisions in tenth grade to take either the college-prep courses or the commercial courses. They were talking about Chapel Hill and Sewanee, and some from more affluent families spoke of Bryn Mawr and Smith, and the really bright ones were talking about scholarships. Those who knew they couldn’t afford to go out of state talked about the University of Alabama, Auburn University, and Birmingham-Southern College. I was truly excited and brought these conversations home. I had been double-promoted once, loved school, and the promise of higher education thrilled me.

I was told to forget it. I was told that my plan would be to finish high school and help my mother until I found a husband; then I would marry and raise a family. “You don’t need to think about college,” my parents said. “We’re not going to waste money like that. And you can’t go away like that by yourself.”

High school that fall was insufferable. With no hope of college, I had to sign up for commercial courses, so there were no algebra, chemistry, or physics, all classes I had looked forward to with great anticipation. To make matters worse, the misery of home was now unbearable. If all I could look forward to was more of the same, why bother. With that reasoning, I eloped to Mississippi with my teenaged boyfriend in October. We returned to Birmingham, but within a few weeks I quit school.

Six months after eloping, I was six weeks pregnant and in excruciating pain. The week of my sixteenth birthday, my mother went with me to see a doctor in Tarrant City. “If you want this baby, go home and go to bed,” he told me. “And stay there. Don’t get up except to go to the bathroom. Then you have a fifty-fifty chance of carrying.” He leaned against the door of the examining room and tilted his head to one side and said, “If you don’t want the baby, walk around the block and come back. I’ll take care of the damage.” Mama took me home with her in a cab and put me to bed. My young husband moved our things in, and we stayed in the bedroom that had been mine before I eloped.

One day that summer, Tee called my mother to say that Robert and his fellow Klan members were planning to have new robes made. They were going to pay to have the sewing done, and she wanted to know  if  we would help her do it. I had noticed that after the demonstrations against school desegregation at the University of Alabama during the past February that the Klan seemed to grow and take on a more public image. Members of the press sometimes showed up at rallies, and they had started running pictures in the newspapers, so apparently the Klan leaders felt a need to put on a better public appearance. My mother agreed to do the sewing, partly because extra money was hard to pass up back then, but mostly because Robert and his fellow Klansmen would think we were unpatriotic if we didn’t help out.

So Tee, my mother, their sister Viola, and I spent much of the summer of 1956 making Klan robes and hoods, cutting the pieces from bolts of white fabric. We followed a basic pattern and cut out several robes at a time. I worked on the handmade emblems that were sewn onto the left breast of each robe. The emblem was a circle containing a white cross, upon which was sewn a diamond. In the center of the diamond was a single red drop representing blood. Each component was a separate piece of cloth, and the components were stacked and then hand-stitched.

For the life of me, I can’t recall how much I was paid for each robe I sewed, nor do I remember actually receiving the promised money. I was enormously pregnant at the time and money was pretty tight, yet I saw the whole episode as an intrusion. It made me angry the way Robert preened and straw-bossed through it all. I didn’t like that my mother’s involvement with the sewing project that summer had turned my parents’ house into a temporary Klan robe factory. But participation was much easier than escape. So I sat on the sofa, stitched Klan badges atop my huge pregnant stomach, and resented every minute of it.

While this feverish activity to spruce up the Klan’s image was taking place in private homes like mine, the political push for states’ rights continued to evolve. Hill Ferguson, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama, and Governor “Big Jim” Folsom postured and plotted ways to block desegregation of the university, while the Klan continued to gain a strength and visibility it had not known for several decades.

In November 1956, my son, Robin, was born, and the next month Mama Katie and Roger moved into a house on Thirty-fifth Avenue in North Birmingham. My husband and I continued to live with my parents for about three months after Robin was born, and then we moved to an apartment.

Unfortunately the young man I had married was as immature as I was, and he expressed his frustration by beating me. During the year we had lived with my parents his behavior was moderate, but when we moved into our own place, his actions became more violent as he progressed from instability to serious mental illness. After two years the abuse grew so extreme that I felt our son was also in danger. In April 1959, the month I turned nineteen, I left with my toddler on one hip, a cardboard suitcase on the other, and the diaper bag slung over a shoulder, taking refuge with Mama Katie and Roger. Roger told me, “You’ll always have a home as long as I’m alive.” But in September of that year, my beloved Roger died.

The afternoon of the day he died, Roger, Robert, and my daddy had played dominoes while Tee and my mother visited with Mama Katie and me. My Uncle Howard and his family had stopped by for a visit, too—their oldest son had a birthday that weekend. And my Aunt Viola and her children had come. After everyone else had gone home, Roger, Mama Katie, Robin, and I sat down in the living room to watch Sunday night TV. Before long Roger told us he felt sick. He turned pale and started holding his chest. He told Mama Katie to call Uncle Howard, rather than an ambulance, to take him to the hospital.

When Howard arrived about a half hour later, he took Roger and Mama Katie to the Veterans Hospital on Birmingham’s south side. Not long after they left, Tee and Robert came to the house and sat with me while we waited for word from the hospital. Robert sat at the kitchen table and played solitaire and smoked, while Tee and I talked and puttered around the house. Robin napped, but he would not go to sleep soundly.

As we spread the word through the family, another uncle went to the hospital to join the vigil there. His wife called a little after one o’clock in the morning and asked if we had heard from the hospital. There had been so many calls that I thought she was asking for news, but when I told her that I had not heard anything in close to an hour, she told me her husband had called and told her that Roger had died just a few minutes earlier. Melodramatic as it may seem, the first thing I did was to pass out. Although the news was not unkindly delivered, it was abrupt and unexpected; and the hours of tense waiting had worn badly on nerves still frayed from my abusive marriage and emotional divorce.

When I came to, Robin was sitting on the floor near me, crying softly, the wall telephone was hanging clear, and my aunt on the phone was calling my name over and over. Tee was running-around and around through the kitchen into the middle bedroom, into the hall, back toward the rear of the house, through the small back hall and into the kitchen to start the circuit again. She was also screaming—keening really. And Robert was chasing her, trying to catch up and stop her. They made several circuits like that after I regained consciousness. I don’t know how long I had been out. When Tee saw me faint, she didn’t ask for information. She knew, of course, and lost her fragile grip on self-control.

I took up the telephone again and concluded the conversation with my aunt. Meanwhile Robert caught Tee and held her until she calmed down. A short while later Mama Katie came home supported by her two sons, other family members arrived, and the days and weeks of mourning began. I felt I had lost the person in my life who had been kindest to me, who had always shown that he really cared about me. And I had never even had to earn his love—he gave it freely.

Later during that difficult fall, I started my first job, working at New Ideal department store. I was hired before the holiday season and kept on afterward, a part-time job that paid 75 cents per hour. I worked hard and got a few nickel and dime raises until I was making a dollar an hour. When the first minimum wage law became effective in 1962, everybody, even the black maids and porters, were also making a dollar an hour. It says something about social conditioning that I complained; it says something about the climate in Birmingham that I was given a ten-cent raise to maintain the differential.

——————–

Shown below is a map of Birmingham neighborhoods prepared by the Park & Recreation Board, Birmingham, Alabama (September 1924), “Outline Map Showing Present and Proposed Park Areas Within the City”. Olmsted Brothers Landscape Architects. Brookline, Mass. File No. 3540, Plan No. 8. A full resolution file is available on the BhamWiki.

Tarrant City is in the upper center of the map. South of Tarrant City and between North Birminham and Woodlawn is a thick black line; this is Norwood Blvd. Village Creek is between North Birmingham and Graymont. Bessemer (not on the map) is southeast of Fairfield.

A detailed contemporary zoomable map on which you can locate  Twenty-fourth Street North and Village Creek relative to downtown Birmingham is available at the Jefferson County government website.

A Salamone’s Grocery Store is listed in the Birmingham area at 2219 24th St N.

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