Like most large cities, Birmingham is a collection of neighborhoods. The city sits in a rolling valley stretching between two mountain ridges. Small towns and mining camps grew together as the Magic City reached out to them with city services. Just north of downtown, for instance, are Fountain Heights, Druid Hills, and Norwood. Immediately west are West End and Ensley. To the east are Woodlawn, Avondale, East Lake, Inglenook, Roebuck, and Huffman. To the southeast are Forest Park and Crestwood. All of these neighborhoods and others fall within the city limits of Birmingham.
Before transportation became easy after World War II, the separate areas were more like small towns than they are today. My family mostly lived on the north and east side of town. My maternal grandmother, Mama Katie, divorced her husband more than a year before I was born, and from then on she would rent a house and several of her children would live with her, pooling whatever income they had for rent, electricity, coal, and food. As a child I thought in terms of “our room” rather than “our house”; and until I was 15, my parents and I lived, in one place or another, with Mama Katie.
I remember the day in 1944 when all of us moved into the house at 2004 Twenty-fourth Street North. Daddy had left for navy boot camp that April, so the residents of the new house would be me and Mama, Mama Katie and her second husband, my mother’s younger sister Mary and her daughter, and mother’s older sister Viola. Like my daddy, Mary’s husband had been called to war. My new step-grandfather, Roger Whitaker, had bought the house, and we all moved in. Roger didn’t actually sleep there for the first several months; he married Mama Katie that fall and then moved in. It seemed I had always known him, and I liked him.
Between the time I was four and six, the only men in my life regularly were Robert Chambliss and Roger Whitaker, the only two family men who were not in military service. Roger was patient, quiet, and altogether pleasant. I’ll never forget the time he came home wearing an overcoat and a felt hat. Standing in the living room, he opened his coat and started emptying pockets. He had milk, cigarettes, Hershey bars, and fruit stuffed in the pockets of his coat and suit. It was like a party. All of those things were very scarce and rationed, and even with ration books, there were short supplies and very little money to buy anything. Of course, at that age I didn’t understand the economics, but I did understand the excitement.
Roger would sit in a chair on the front porch with my cousin on one knee and me on the other, allowing us to play with his double chin and ears and shirt collar until we went to sleep. Often we would wake from the nap without his having moved. He smelled of Old Spice aftershave and friendly sweat, and he had a steamer trunk that held his life and his history. Roger would go into that trunk for important papers or some item he needed, and I would “help” as he sorted out his things. He had military identification from all five branches of the armed forces, and he had an ID card from the Treasury Department. He kept his trunk locked, and it seems that no one but me ever saw some of those papers.
Roger was on a disability pension from the army and carried in his back several large pieces of shrapnel that could not be removed. He lived in constant pain and wore a custom back brace, but he was the kindest, most gentle man I have ever known. I have been thankful that during my formative years, I had Roger’s pleasantness to balance Robert’s gruff, fearsome arrogance.
Our house on Twenty-fourth Street had originally been built as a four-room cottage with a wide hallway down the middle. Onto the back of the house had been added a kitchen with wooden walls painted green, a screened porch, and a bathroom. The bathroom and the kitchen opened to either side off the back porch. Another doorway led into the kitchen from the middle room, but the only entrance to the bathroom was from the screened porch. In winter this was often difficult or impossible to manage, so we treated it as if the bathroom were outside and used chamber pots at night. The hallway became a common living room, and the other four rooms were used as bedrooms. Daddy and Aunt Mary’s husband, William, came back from the military in 1946. Uncle William built two rooms onto the back of the house, making a separate apartment for himself, Aunt Mary, and my cousin.
My cousin and I started school when we were six at Seventeenth Avenue School, a two-story building with six classrooms. The first few weeks were rough, as they are on any first grader, but my cousin and I had such a close and dependent relationship that we clung together yet behaved as sibling rivals in the new environment. Our teacher talked to our parents about separating us so we would become part of the class rather than two kids in a tough situation together.
My cousin was transferred to North Birmingham School, and after a few more months she and her parents moved out of the house to live closer to the school she attended. It was awful at first, but soon the sheer joy of learning took over.
I had been taught nursery rhymes and poems and songs at home, but I had not yet learned to read. Learning to read, for me, was nothing short of spectacular. I loved words, and numbers, and colors. And I loved to sing.
I grew up hearing my mother and her sisters and brothers sing in harmony together, so I was ignorant of the fact that many people don’t hear music in their heads. I had simply always sung with my family, and loved the way the harmony resonated. My teacher got excited when I tried out for the school Christmas show, and she put me on the program; she also arranged to take me to every class in the school to perform. I was in heaven. The only spotlight I had previously known was criticism. I was scolded at home anytime I did anything to call attention to myself. In school, for the first time, I was experiencing what it felt like to shine just a bit.
Even though I wasn’t a healthy child and suffered frequent bouts of respiratory problems and eye trouble, those first few years of school were an exuberant time.
When I was in the fourth grade, the city built a new addition to my school, and the name was changed to F.D. McArthur Elementary School. The construction was exciting to watch, and the new school was exciting to occupy. So at nine years old, my world expanded into a much larger building and a larger, more diverse group of kids.
All of my schoolmates, of course, were white. The only black persons at my school were the janitor and a couple of women who worked in the lunchroom. I don’t recall that I even wondered where the black children who lived three blocks from me, across Village Creek, went to school.
Nor did I wonder whether any of the children I went to school with were taken to a Ku Klux Klan rally, as I was later that year.
Tee and Robert lived in Lewisburg, north of Birmingham, until the mid-1940’s. In 1946 Robert built a house on Thirty-second Avenue in North Birmingham. This house would be their home until Tee died in 1980. I remember being taken there while the house was being built. Robert used redbrick tiles—not bricks, not concrete blocks. The tiles were cheaper than bricks and nicer than blocks. I recall that he ran into a problem with an inspection because he had not left air space between the inner walls and the outer walls for insulation.
For many years Robert kept an old gray-green panel truck that did not run in the backyard. The back of that truck served as storage for many things, and it was not to be touched or bothered in any way. The backyard was chain-link fenced, and they always had a junkyard dog guarding the place. There were several in succession named Sport. Each was a German shepherd Robert had trained to be mean. He beat and abused his dogs so they instantly obeyed him. Every dog he had would cower before him, and it would attempt to eat anyone he pointed to if he said, “Sic ’em.” It wouldn’t let anyone it didn’t know into the backyard. Even the people it knew were not allowed onto the porch without orders from Tee or Robert. One day Mama and I had walked to their house and entered the yard through the alley gate. The dog waited until we got onto the porch before it lunged and pinned my mother against the wall. Front paws on her shoulders, snarling into her face, he did not let her go until Tee pulled him off.
We went to visit Tee and Robert a lot during those years. But since we lived with Mama Katie, who tended to stay home and let her children come to her, Tee and Robert were often at our house too. The domino and card games the men played migrated between our kitchen and their kitchen. Shortly after mother’s younger brother Howard married Mary Ida, they moved in with Tee and Robert and lived there through the birth and early childhood of their four children. The Chambliss house seemed to get smaller and smaller.
In 1950 either Robert or Howard bought a television set. It was the first one in the family, providing an even better reason to go visit Tee and Robert. I believe that our visits would have diminished otherwise, because I recall that my parents were not often enthusiastic about going there. One or the other, or both, would insist on not staying late. The television changed some of that. But still, while we were there watching TV with Tee and Robert, we got to hear Robert’s version of the news broadcasts, and we heard him curse and rail whenever a black face appeared on the screen. He especially hated Sammy Davis, Jr., and the white performers who appeared with Davis.
Tee was a born comic and could turn almost any situation into a comedy routine. Whichever dog they happened to have was usually made to be part of the show. She fed and petted the animals, and her nature was such that they were invariably loyal to and indulgent of her. She taught each in turn to speak and sing, which of course were forms of howling, yet she would ad lib dialogue with the dog so that it seemed as though it were actually responding appropriately.
When she would be particularly aggravated with Robert and had no defense against him, she would dress the dog up in Robert’s clothes, and as the dog walked on its hind legs, she would dance with it and carry on conversations, calling it insulting things in a very sweet tone of voice and smiling all the while. We children and her sisters were usually her only audience, with perhaps one or the other of her brothers or an in-law present. The routine would progress from funny to hilarious, and Tee would find it funnier than even we who delighted in her antics. Eyes streaming with tears of laughter, she would end up laughing so hard she would race to the bathroom, thighs clenched holding her bladder. We often said that Tee would rather make someone laugh than eat when she was hungry. Her sense of humor served her well much of the time, but it failed as time passed and the pressures of the life she was forced to live bore down upon her, lining her face, stooping her shoulders, and driving her blood pressure to dangerous heights.
Robert would not allow her to wear slacks or to smoke. Old fashioned and straight-laced, he was a Bible-believing man although only an occasional churchgoer. There were certain protocols of “faith” and doing “right” that simply constituted the-way-things-were with him. These protocols he expected everyone around him to observe. For example, at every meal Robert said the blessing. He called it “returning thanks.” I can hear him now, every word, every inflection, every pause:
Kiiind heavenly Faaather
We thaaank thee
For theeese table blessings
We now bow to receive.
For Chriiist’s sake.
Always precisely the same. Humble and plaintive. Never a variance. Then he would raise his head and resume the sentence he had been in when interrupted to pray. As often as not, the first words he uttered after saying grace were “Goddam sumbitch…”.
One time when we were sharing a meal with them, Robert’s grown son was asked to return thanks, and when everyone had bowed their heads he recited his father’s blessing word for word. However, he said it rather more rapidly, that is, in a normal tone of voice and at a normal pace, rather than in the plaintive drawl that characterized his father’s delivery. Robert drew back his fist and threatened to knock his son away from the table if he didn’t say it right, and he was dead serious. It was not that Robert felt himself mocked, it was that the son had not been properly humble and pious. The son said it “right,” and the meal progressed.