Guest Op-Ed: Remembrance of an Atypical Black American Boyhood

By Walter C. Carrington

(Editor’s Note: The Following Op-ed Is by the Late Ambassador Walter Carrington and Was Printed in the Boston Globe, and Later in the Everett Independent in 2017. It Was about His Unique Coming of Age in Everett, and His Words Are Enormously Appropriate Right Now in the times with Which We Live. Carrington Passed Away Last Weekend. This Piece Was First Published by the Harvard Book Store in Paige Leaves: Essays Inspired by New England.)

As I left my post after four years of service as American Ambassador to Nigeria, I told the press that I would, in the African tradition, be returning to my home village of Boston. Only Boston wasn’t my ancestral home. A city just north of it, of which they had never heard, Everett, was.

The older I get the more fortunate I realize that my growing up black in the America of the 1930s occurred in that working class town on the banks of a polluted Mystic River. Everett, then with a population of 50,000, had only 50 black families who were scattered throughout the town.

My younger sister, Marilyn, and I were the only black kids on the block in a town that was a sociological anomaly. I would learn many years later, while a Commissioner on the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD), that an Urban League study had found my Everett to have been the least segregated city of its size in the country.  So assimilated did I, as a youngster, become to my heavily Italian neighborhood that I could curse in Italian, with a Sicilian accent, almost before I could in English.  My pals were united more by their hard scrabble Depression-era circumstances than divided by their ethnic origins.  I would, decades later, see in the characters of Scorsese’s great film, Mean Streets, not only some of those I had grown up with but also the Italian pastimes, such as playing bocce and stomping grapes, I had so long ago enjoyed.

I existed in a racial cocoon. I was in and out of my friends’ houses as often as I liked. I never felt that I was treated any differently by my teachers or that I was unwelcome in any enterprise, except for the barbershops. They couldn’t or wouldn’t cut my kinky black hair.

It was on the seventh day, however, that the God of racial harmony rested. Unless you were a Catholic, Sunday was the most segregated day of the week. Like I, most blacks were Protestant. Feeling unwelcome in most of the white churches in Everett, we crossed the border into Malden to worship in one of that town’s two black houses of worship. Everett’s few black Catholics had no need to make such a trek.  They found a welcoming haven in their city’s Catholic cathedrals.

The black Catholic family that I knew best was the Walkers. Both sons were at Boston College. The eldest, “Chappy”, was a running back and a local hero. What excitement and pride I and all my friends felt when BC was invited to the Sugar Bowl in 1941. But, then, unwilling to disturb southern white sensibilities over a black player taking the field in segregated New Orleans, BC left Chappy home. This event, the sidelining of an 11-year-old’s idol because he was black, was my first awakening as to how different the world, outside the bubble I had been sheltered in, was.

It had always seemed that my religion distinguished me more from most of my white friends than did my color. My grandmother whose home I was brought up in after the divorce of my parents was, like most of the white Protestants around, a Republican. Hers was the party of Lincoln; the Democrats, the party of Al Smith and James Michael Curley and the Irish ward bosses of Boston. My first political memory was sitting, at age 6, in the rumble seat of her car as she drove to the polls to vote for Alf Landon for President.  Four years later, I would get into fist fights in the schoolyard over jeers directed at me because of my support for the man who was my first political hero, Wendell Willkie.  My classmates’ favorite taunt echoes still:

“The horse’s tail is very silky.

Lift it up and you’ll see Willkie.”

I had always felt growing up in Eastern Massachusetts that it was easier being a Negro kid than a Jewish one. Father Coughlin had a far too receptive audience for his anti-Semitic rants. Band members from the heavily Jewish populated schools in Brookline and Dorchester would often be set upon by Irish toughs after marching in the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Closer to home, I first encountered that hatred as a young teen. Saturday matinees at the local movie theater were a regular ritual my friends and I shared. One weekend when none of the guys was available, I invited Stanley Goodman, the son of the owner of the local candy store, to go with me. That evening a fire storm erupted.

Sitting on the stoop of the house of one of my friends, Victor lit into me. Why was I palling around with Stanley, (who, by the way, did not live in our neighborhood). Didn’t I know he was a Jew?  At 13 the only thing I knew about Jews was that Jesus was one and that there was a section of Malden derisively referred to as “Jew Town” where their older brothers sometimes went in gangs to beat up the boys and feel up the girls. I countered, bewilderingly, that Mr. Goodman whose store we often frequented was a very nice man.  Victor became more and more agitated as he tried to convince me that they were all Christ killers. Seeing that I remained unpersuaded still, he blurted out his trump card: “How would you like your sister, Marilyn, to marry a Jew?”  So stunned was I, that it remains the only sentence of conversation I can remember verbatim from my childhood. Perhaps it was a combination of the vehemence with which he said it and the absurdity of what he said. My sister was, after all, only 11 and it would be a long time before she would be contemplating marriage.  As I later worked in the Civil Rights movement, I would often recall the painful irony of Victor’s vitriol.

Just as on Sundays I would have to seek religious solace outside of Everett so too, in my high school years, on weekend nights would I have to go to Roxbury and the South End of Boston to attend dances and parties. Interracial dating, even in Everett, was the most entrenched of all taboos. That should not have been surprising since, of course, it was part of an America whose racist sentiments had been the norm since the founding of the Republic. I, also, could not escape the sting of what we now prudishly call the “N-Word.”  Often, outside my neighborhood, I would get into fist fights occasioned by having been called [such names]. Even some of my friends, with no malice aforethought, would casually refer to the numbers racket [with such words]. I would be embarrassed at Boy Scout campfires when Stephen Foster songs containing the word “darky” would be sung and at the movies when the audiences would laugh at the bug-eyed, shuffling antics of Stepin Fetchet and Mantan Moreland.

Growing up in a predominately white environment, however, did not weaken my sense of racial identity but, rather, strengthened it.  My life in Everett cut against the grain of most of the era’s stereotypes.  I was a popular kid in a sports-obsessed town who was not an athlete.  Our high school football teams were legendary.  They won more state and national championships than any other. They were memorialized in Look Magazine. The basketball team was a state powerhouse. Jocks were the most popular group in school. Yet I, who excelled, not on the field but on the stage as a debater and orator, was each year elected Vice President of a class of 500 of whom but five were black.

I often read in the national black newspapers tales of horror about white high school guidance counselors steering promising black students away from college careers to vocational ones. I was blessed to have one who insisted that I should settle for nothing but the best. With his encouragement I got into Harvard.

My friends were excited and anxious at the news.  They were proud that a kid from the neighborhood had made it that far but also worried lest I abandon my roots and old friends for the company of what they saw as the snobbish sons of the privileged. Thanks to having grown up where I did, my greatest apprehension, at Harvard, was not that I was black but that I was a public school graduate competing against so many who had gone to elite private schools.

I remain grateful that, for all its imperfections, there once was an Everett that prepared me, not only to survive in a predominately white America, but to prevail in it.   

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