Thursday, May 28, 2009

Residential races II

In a post below I wrote of African American and white neighborhoods as if they were coherent wholes, zones of ethnicity within the city. And to a certain extent that has always been true. Asheville was segregated by law into the 1960s and has remained since a largely segregated city. But as with so many things, a closer look complicates the picture. Click on the image above to zoom.

Until the mid 1950s, the City Directory indicated that someone was black by adding a little “c” after the name. Whites were not identified with a “w” or any other sign: they were unmarked, signed as unsigned. Curious about residential patterns in Asheville, I once spent several days with the directory looking street by street at the distribution of races.

One thing that was immediately clear: blacks and whites did not mix. There were of course a few white households with live-in black servants. But for the most part streets were either black streets or white streets.

East End was black. South French Broad was white. Southside was black. Clingman was black. West End was white. Chicken Hill was white. Hill Street was black. Riverside was white. Courtland was white. Stumptown was black. The rest of Montford was white save for a scattering of live-in help and the end of Flint and Ocala and Magnolia streets on the east side of Montford, which were black. (Shaded areas above are streets with African American residents in the 1950 City Directory.)

Thus, it turned out, as these things usually do, to be a more complex picture than I’d assumed. I’d somehow got it in my head that the neighborhoods of East End south through Southside and then north along East Riverside were all black to Hill Street. I knew Courtland and Houston were white, and I assumed that was essentially where Montford began.

I thought Stumptown and the Ocala-Magnolia areas were African American by dint of convenience to the affluent white households of Montford. Convenience may have been a factor. But not the only one.

I had assumed, perhaps following patterns learned in other cities, that there were “sides” in Asheville, a black side and a white side. What was actually (and remains) the case was more like a patchwork quilt or a marbled cake: swaths of small black and white neighborhoods alternating with one another, such that walking across town from east to west or north to south one would pass through several different white and black communities.

One couldn’t walk far in Asheville without crossing into another race’s space. That seems to me to be an important, a crucial, fact to understanding the history of race relations here.

One woman I know, who grew up in Southside and Clingman neighborhoods, said that every day when she walked home from school she had to pass hateful whites who shouted insults at her. But she also knew some whites who looked out for her, made sure she passed through safely.

“You had people up here, you had stores, neighborhood stores, and those people were different. They were white, in the stores that I went to, and they were different. They treated you different. You had ... Hawkins and you had Browns – they were brothers and sisters – but we went to Hawkins more than we did to Browns, because with Hawkins, they didn’t even treat us like we were black. And they would watch out. I can remember Ella Mae saying, ‘Now, Nell, you go straight on home. I’m going to watch you, I’m going to watch you until you get to the top of the hill. You get to the top of the hill, you run.’ And when I got to the top of the hill I would always run. My mother would be on the porch waiting on me, because you never know when something was going to come out.”

It was a feature of Jim Crow segregation in Asheville – and judging from the history books it was true of other cities in the South as well – that though African Americans and whites lived on separate streets, they actually lived quite close to one another, separated more in principle than fact.

There was to be sure strict separation. Until the 1960s it was illegal to sell property to an African American in a white part of town. But in many cases the separate neighborhoods were so small that white backyards abutted black backyards. African Americans had only to cross a street to enter white space. And white kids had only to pick up a rock to throw it.

Of course, they didn’t always through rocks or hurl epithets at one another. Sometimes they made friends. One man I know who grew up in Stumptown spoke warmly of white friends from the white section along Riverside.

“I met some of my friends from long long ago when we used to play basketball and everything. I’d go over there and play, he’d protect me. He’d come over here, and I’d protect him. A lot of times you didn’t go in those neighborhoods and they didn’t come in our neighborhood, but I could go play with him and he wasn’t going to let anybody bother me, and it was the same way here. I’d have to say to them, now this guy’s all right.”

I’ve begun to wonder how proximity in the midst of separation, how friendship in the midst of acrimony, shaped understandings of race and place in Asheville. What did black youth think of white youth, some of whom were their friends even if most were likely enemies? What did white youth think of black youth?

Clearly it is a complex story. And like all stories, so much depends on detail.

I know a white man – I’ll call him Carl – who grew up toward the end of legal segregation. Carl remembers having a black friend who asked to come with him to his afternoon Bible class. His church was white, and Carl must have had an intuition about how the others would receive Walter, his black friend.

The two of them were standing in the front of the church as the minister was leading a group of other kids from the sanctuary to the classroom area.

“And all those kids, I’m standing there with my friend, and all those kids start going: ‘It’s a nigger. It’s a nigger.’

“Now my friend Walter was very much conscious of this sort of thing. The black power movement was going on. We would come home and he would tell me about how white people were evil. And we would debate. He’d say that’s why whites couldn’t play sports. And I’d name a good athlete, and he’d go, Oh, some are gifted. And he was telling me that white people were evil. Now to be fair to Walter, his uncle was actually killed in a Civil Rights demonstration of some kind. That’s something to bear in mind. And we’re children. And so I’m saying to him no we’re not (evil), no we’re not.

“And now I’m in the church and those kids are going ‘It’s a nigger. It’s a nigger.’ I heard them. We were standing together, and they were about from here to the end of the porch. And I’m like going ‘Oh, my God. This is just awful.’ I’m ashamed before Walter. I’m ashamed of these people. I’m ashamed to be associated with them.

“I’m ashamed that I got into these long debates with him, and all my debating points are out the window. And I don’t know what to do.

“Meanwhile the minister, who’s with all these kids, he’s coming, and he wants to get to the front of them to greet whatever the situation is, so he’s going – and he didn’t mean to, he was a good minister – but he said, ‘I will handle it,’ and he was pushing through the kids. And I’m like ‘Handle it? You’re making it worse! What are you trying to do?’

“And I went, I’m dead. I think I was so ashamed I almost blocked out what happened next, you know what I mean? I don’t remember how it happened. Except next thing you know, they go down out of the sanctuary and down the steps to the school, and Walter and I went out the door. Somehow the next thing I remember we’re standing outside the door, and I’m standing there with Walter, and he said, ‘Well, I’m going home.’ I don’t remember what he said to me. I think I just blocked it out. I said... I don’t know if I even apologized. I was too young. You know when you’re that young you’re stunned. You don’t even know to apologize.”

What a painful moment for both boys! And yet it does say something about the structure of segregation here that Carl was able to witness a bit of Walter’s world.

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