How Race Relations Touched Me During a Long LifetimeHistorians/History
Mr. Bornet, Ph.D. (Emory, ’39, ‘40G), is a native of Pennsylvania and a research historian with two Emory degrees, a graduate year at University of Georgia, and the history Ph.D. from Stanford University. Among his books are The Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson in the American Presidency Series in 1983, Welfare in America in 1960, and other books on Herbert Hoover, social welfare, radicalism, and unions. His 383 page autobiography is An Independent Scholar in Twentieth Century America (Talent, OR: Bornet Books, 1995). Emeritus Professor of History and Social Science from Southern Oregon University, he is approaching 90 in 2007 in the small but widely recognized town of Ashland, Oregon.
This is a particularly personal essay about American race relations as I witnessed them during my very long lifetime. In a challenging book, the president of Spelman College in Atlanta says the time has come to talk about race. I would like that; however, nearly final drafts of this article have had hard sledding from a handful of carefully chosen editors. Apparently I can talk about race, as Beverly Daniel Tatum urges in Can We talk about Race? (Beacon Press, 2007), but it may be that few are much interested these days in reading about race.
As will be seen shortly from my many examples of what I personally lived and saw, there has been massive change for the better in race relations in our country since I was born in 1917. This simple fact is hard for many to accept, for the burden of much writing on race remains downbeat, depressing, distressful, critical, and generally similar to sophisticated accounts published over half a century ago.
“Race relations never change” is still heard in the Land. After all, Professor Thomas Shapiro of Brandeis University offers plenty of evidence for this evaluation in his book The Hidden Cost of Being African American (2003). A few examples will suffice: The Census Bureau found out in 2005 that 17 percent of black adults have college degrees compared with 30 percent of whites. Economic data remains gloomy; thus median income for blacks is $30,939; for whites it is $50,622. The poverty rate for blacks is 24.9 percent; for whites it is 8.3 percent. Such figures as these unquestionably reinforce the gloom of racial pessimists of our day.
The reminiscence I offer here, however—that of a white scholar pushing 90—is a factual reminder that during the lifetimes of old timers among us there has been massive progress in black/white relations! Even skeptical readers of this admittedly anecdotal account will be reminded inescapably of innumerable changes for the better since my birth in 1917.
Let’s invite our minds back to the years immediately after World War I, that is, to the Prosperity Decade of 1920 to 1930, those years when this white boy—living in his totally white world--was climbing out of his crib into the Boy Scouts and trading his baby outcries for a silver cornet and bugle.
I am virtually certain there were no dark faces in my Welsh founded Twenties boyhood home of Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, well known as part of the Main Line. I certainly don’t remember any, although somewhere in my Lower Merion Township there were 2,019 Negroes by 1930. I clearly remember that my Lower Merion Junior High School did have a Negro freshman named Acklee who was one of the 69 of his race who dwelt in nearby Ardmore--where I played now and then in the Ardmore Boys Band. He sat behind me for a year in algebra class and teased me about my amateurish performances as lead in the school play and the school’s male cheerleader. He was the only Negro with whom I conversed during my first eighteen years. (I am certain of this.)
In those days, the superhero athletes of Lower Merion were my white cousins Paul and Folwell Scull, then enroute to All American fullback and Olympic quarter miler status respectively. Today, I am fascinated to consider that it is black basketball superstar Kobe Bryant who emerged from his Lower Merion algebra seat to his own superhero status! From the most recent census we learn that the Township that produced millionaire Bryant produced him out of only 2,694 black residents, more or less! I have to say that as a band member back then I must have rooted for totally white local teams, I think.
In those years before the Depression Decade my parents and I spent our summers at “family oriented” Ocean City, New Jersey, with my engineer father commuting by railroad a few days each week. White families were always welcome there as tourists, but in the 1920s anybody with a dark face was only allowed by the Authorities to visit one beach on which to sun themselves and swim in the ocean: the Fifth Street access. All the other two dozen beaches were sternly closed to Negro citizens. (“No detail too small.”) Yet that Northern coastal city’s population at the time consisted of 607 Negroes out of 4,899 residents, and nearby Philadelphia of most white visitors--had many thousands of black residents. I have a quite clear memory of watching African Americans making good use of that one beach they were granted. We white youngsters silently detoured around “their beach” while playing or migrating north/south on the sand. Segregation of ocean beaches on all American coasts is a thing of the past and has disappeared from all recreational activities one can think of.
Because the Depression quickly wiped out my engineer father (as construction ceased), I ended up graduating from an all white high school in distant and economically dormant Miami Beach in 1935. I was part of a class that was overwhelmingly Jewish and had some children of Cuban exiles--but no Negroes. Blatant housing discrimination against Jews, evidenced by vast numbers of “Gentiles Only” signs, showed there was equal opportunity racism in the Miami Beach of the 1930s. Today’s famous South Beach was then virtually a ghetto, but it was cheap, and we lived there many months a block south of Fifth Street. I had a huge morning paper route. It was nine square blocks of apartments and hotels. First to Eighth, and from the ocean half way to the Bay, was almost totally Jewish, with Yiddish commonly spoken by many elderly. Even so, Negroes were not allowed after 9:00 PM on the islands comprising Miami Beach. This was not a matter for any public discussion or public notice, by the way; it was quietly understood. (It can be assumed that the very rich may have housed some servants in their mansions with impunity, however.) Yet by the turn of the Century, 3,548 blacks were residing successfully on Miami Beach—coming to over four percent of its total population.
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Armed with a full scholarship, I arrived in distant Atlanta for college in September, 1935. Anybody could see that Emory University, a hundred year old Methodist institution with a venerable theological school, was then a totally white enclave except for commuting janitors and cooks. Only two years out of Pennsylvania, I was now supposed to forget anything my Philadelphia Quaker ancestors may have taught about equality in rights and an obligation to practice toleration. The year I enrolled in college in Georgia, 1935, was exactly 70 years from the last shots fired by Generals Grant and Lee, just as it is 72 years backward from 2007. This youth had studied the American Revolution when up North; in Georgia it was quickly clear that people preferred remembering their abortive War for Southern Independence.
Segregation in the South in 1935 was then total. My fraternity house on a campus in Atlanta’s suburb of Druid Hills, like all of them, had Negro servants in the basement preparing grits, greens, and fried chicken, but we brothers never went “down there.“ My venerable fraternity’s ritual, like most of them, was Christianity-based, but there was no thought at all devoted to racial equality there in local universities the mid-1930s. None. (A firm opinion). My white Glee Club director from rural Georgia lowered his voice to relate emotionally how he got his authentic version of our beloved Spirituals “direct from former slaves” in the Southeast’s small towns. We never doubted it! Glee Club members were, he said, being 100 percent traditional and authentic as we sang Negro songs with an emotion we absorbed second hand from him—and evidently from the slaves themselves!
We customarily sang locally at routinely segregated Glenn Memorial Church, which is only blocks from today’s Presidential Library of Jimmy Carter, who started a climb to fame by going to Annapolis from segregated Plains, Georgia. Our rendering of Negro Spirituals was applauded by white Methodist sponsored audiences from Washington, D. C. to Miami to New Orleans in the 1930s. We deserved it, for we white boys (including two Yankees) poured enthusiasm into every note and word. “Let my people go!” we demanded in one spiritual. (We proclaimed but didn’t comprehend. By the way: Emory got in 2006 a huge grant to study today’s campus race relations. In my time, I have to say, there weren’t any to study.
There was segregation in auditoriums and theaters. Our movie house adjacent to Emory was just off the campus, and I saw Gone With the Wind there in 1939. I remember taking the segregated trolley car to Atlanta in a tuxedo to usher at many community concerts. I fear I gave little thought to what Negroes thought about their balcony seats. When ushering, I once went out of my way to meet famous Marxist Negro sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois and talk briefly with him about books on Southern history. How I wish I had written a memorandum on my return to the campus, for the author of Marxist Black Reconstruction was to this history student a bona fide celebrity no matter where his seat was in the concert hall. Anyway, we enjoyed Lily Pons, Jan Peerce, and other stars in the same segregated atmosphere.
In spring 1939 an Emory professor drove several of us seniors to the annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association in Lexington, Kentucky. I don’t think there were Negro historians there, but unbeknownst to me John Hope Franklin (born 1915) was that very year taking his doctoral examinations at Harvard in between teaching at an obscure Negro college in North Carolina. The next generation of white students of Southern history would soon be reading Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom (1947) whatever his color. Still, his presidency of various historical associations lay far in the future. Things were going to change massively for Negro intellectuals--but not yet.
Leaving Emory after five years, I spent a fellowship year (1940-41) at totally white University of Georgia in beautiful Athens. Their slightly more than five hundred dollar grant to me (in “real dollars”) covered everything. I got it through a premier white historian of the South, E. Merton Coulter (admirer of my MA thesis), whose most important books among his 30 or more have been routinely condemned by Professor Franklin. Their reviews of each other’s writings over the years are not those of a mutual admiration society! I reflect on my year in Athens whenever I receive UGa’s distinguished monthly alumni publications throughout the year. They sometimes feature black student leaders, and they picture black faculty members who grace some campus deanships. The January, 2006 issue featured on the cover five handsome black brothers from a single family who—having first sung “Going Back to Athens Town” in 1979—now possess 11 Georgia degrees among them!
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I departed pre-war Athens to become a yeoman in Naval Intelligence in summer, 1941. Like Franklin at the time I desperately wanted to avoid service in the Army. I wonder if they had even one Negro in that elite intelligence activity? Quaintly, they demanded “third generation Americans,” I recall vividly. Anyway, it proved a haven keeping me out of the Army. Meanwhile, the doctoral candidate and beginning instructor Franklin in North Carolina found his answer in clever negotiations with his draft board. He persuaded them that Negro professors were in such short supply in his state they should be given deferred status as essential to the war effort! His contention succeeded brilliantly. Annually renewed deferments kept him out of service for the duration. He was indeed lucky, for the Army at the time had few ways of amalgamating a Negro intellectual into its segregated structure and, it couldn’t be bothered with the problem. Franklin’s brother, a Fisk graduate, wasn’t so lucky; he peeled potatoes or the equivalent month after dreary month. After the war, massively depressed, he committed suicide.
After many months on active duty, Yeoman First Class Bornet had the good fortune to get a commission (forced to leave Intelligence to do so). I was lucky. Franklin, burdened by race, might have drilled and peeled potatoes in the Army just like his brother, I fear. I would spend nearly three years as the influential Fleet Barracks Officer at the huge Naval Air Station, Alameda, California. My Negro compartment cleaners from Mississippi had about four years of seven month schooling. They were willing but essentially uneducated. Their teeth needed a dentist, and they were void in skills needed on the base. I used my influence in “catch up” training to try to turn them into slightly better assets for the war effort.
During wartime in late 1944 I married a small town girl from the Far West who would forge on to graduate (as class president) in June from University of Nevada, Reno. Close examination of her 1945 yearbook reveals one Negro male, a member of the football team and the military unit. (By the way, in 2005, her alma mater was named one of ten universities to win the Diversity in Athletics Award for services to blacks and women.) I used days of accumulated leave in late December, 1944 to honeymoon on a transcontinental train to visit my distant parents. My Western wife wandered naively into the Negro waiting room in wartime Atlanta, drank from the fountain earmarked for them, and inquired after a toilet. When upbraided by white strangers my spouse felt like an alien in her own country. The buzz she created was a clear warning that this was no joking matter. She was in a different world from the one she knew when growing up in remote Susanville, California, where the mores of the Deep South were of zero interest at the time.
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Postwar, our early married life was spent on the payroll of Mercer University in still solidly segregated Macon, Georgia. Today, I am fascinated to think that the very week of my arrival in Bibb County--January, 1946, the 6th to be exact--there was born in Macon an African American baby, C. Jack Ellis, who in 1999 would be elected to the first of two terms as Mayor of Macon. It was a totally white controlled town into which he was born, for sure! “They are allowing Negroes in the best stores downtown!” exclaimed my homespun landlady then (one whose husband was prominent on wartime Macon’s draft and tire rationing boards). A children’s public playground lay across from the rooms we rented in a house a block from my university employer. It was distressing when looking out our windows to find black nannies supervising white toddlers in a facility from which their own children were excluded. “We can’t live here!” exclaimed my resentful wife from the Far West who became increasingly disillusioned with her six months of residence in the Deep South (although our local white friends were charming to these newcomers).
My job that first postwar year was to interview disabled veterans to bring them the benefits of generous Public Law 16. I was immediately informed, quietly, that I could not set up dark skinned men for the vocational category Auto Mechanic because they couldn’t get jobs offering training in the adjacent South. Yet if they would agree to “move to Detroit” my federal government would unquestionably pay. In those months I wrote some outspoken columns for the Macon Telegraph as a creative hobby—mildly reflecting a Northerner’s take on central Georgia--but I now wonder now how safe that activity really was. We resided half a year in post-war Georgia, but as we faced the possible return of racist Eugene Talmadge to the governorship we decided we could not work and live in that blatantly segregated environment. I was no longer a callow college boy, and those four years spent in a war for Freedoms definitely left their mark. Nostalgia for Emory and Athens and those newly made friends were not enough.
The next interracial experience, that autumn, was when beginning instructor in History on the University of Miami faculty. With forty students per class, and five classes of students--almost entirely from the North)--I saw no Negro students on campus. I did, however, have vast numbers of New York Jews. (The New York Board of Regents had taken a hard nosed postwar attitude toward veterans whose prewar high schooling lacked liberal arts prerequisites. This was a fortuitous fact responsible for building the University of Miami student body literally overnight.) The drive and ambition of those urban white students—victims of academic discrimination and far from their homes--spoiled me for my later years of teaching.
There was no move whatsoever in the early postwar years to integrate that private southern university (so far as I can recall), even though the federal G. I. Bill should have been blind to race. World class football ultimately made Miami’s integrated Hurricanes nationally recognized. We attended those pre-TV games in free seats donated to my father, whose talented design of the structural and reinforcing steel for the double decking made it possible for the Orange Bowl to be a Miami feature attraction. (He couldn’t have fabricated that job in those postwar years without his largely Negro fabricating workforce, by the way, relying on their huge muscles on Miami Beach at Maule Industries during daylight hours.)
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Let’s move forward to 1950. By then, I was a super alert doctoral candidate at Stanford. I wrote confidently to President Goodrich C. White of Emory on November 14, “It is now time to admit a Negro student.” Full of my Mission, it took three pages for me to make the point to my reformist satisfaction. I said I wanted “to start the ball rolling in the direction it must and will go whether or not.” Now I wrote the alumni magazine and six other addressees that “Emory should have the courage to lead in Georgia…for the 20th Century is here to stay.” My next target was the Board of Trustees, who, I charged, had “shown little or no courage or leadership” toward integration. I had no effect at all, I think. Such a crusade was a decade too early. The President’s tactful reply was both noncommittal and polite, for Emory had been a family for many of us in years when fundamentals such as race were seldom or never challenged.
Having gotten the Stanford doctorate in history in 1951 and written an essay for the Journal of Negro History, I planned a journey East the next year on a Ford grant to research trade unions and radical politics. I quite naturally sought to schedule lunch with the Journal’s fairly new editor, Charles H. Wesley. “In all of Washington, D. C.,” that scholarly historian wrote in reply, “there are only two places we can have lunch: the café in the National Archives basement, and Methodist House.” (Actually, the Supreme Court lunchroom, too.) I never, ever forgot his astounding words, which were written after the close of the Roosevelt and Truman Administrations, and at the dawn of the Eisenhower years. We did indeed dine pleasantly in the National Archives restaurant (if a trace emotionally). It had been a devastating shock that anything like these restrictions could exist in the capitol of any nation that had just spent years waging a world war for democracy and freedom. “How do Negroes feel every day?” I pondered morosely in mid-century America.
There were no Negroes among my employee companions in 1950s downtown Chicago that I can recall (the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the American Medical Association). I am almost sure. Possibly the problem was sheer lack of availability of specialists, not entirely overt discrimination, I surmise. Rising to become part of the elite was no easy task for the grandchildren and great grandchildren of slaves and of the free but still handicapped Negroes of the North. The slope was inclined the wrong way. Today there is visible progress, confirmed to a degree in statistics, but there is still far to go to reach anything like equity. Anybody who knows much about American race relations can easily cite examples and find statistics that show how far we still have to travel.
By now it was 1961, and I was a researcher/editor with the administration of the prestigious RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California. I really don’t think we had Negro research personnel, but it’s hard to be sure. I wrote privately at the time to a towering Emory figure, the chairman of the Board of Trustees (a native born guardian of the Establishment), a no holds barred blast. My alma mater must not be “the last bastion of discrimination” against people of color in The South, I proclaimed! Emory should have the courage to lead in the mid-20th century. I have to admit it was a tirade addressed to an achieving bank attorney who had done me no wrong. I got carried away, for from his Atlanta bank tower across the continent he downloaded on this aggressive alumnus: “An interest [in Emory] that is unsympathetic, carping, lacking in understanding and reduced to the level of irresponsible name calling is to be deplored by any university.” Be advised: Emory will lose its tax exemption if the integration path I favored should be pursued. Put in my place (but definitely not cowed), I awaited an opportunity to badger him again….
Thinking back about that interaction: had I really gone too far when as an Emory alumnus I wrote that Atlanta peer of mine who was charged with real power: “It makes me weep to think of how your Board could have served us all well…. You dragged your feet.” Emory, I thought, would end up being “the last segregated school in all Methodism.” To be fair to him, perhaps that trustee and local leader--recipient of my alma mater’s highest honorary doctorate--should be quoted again from his outraged prose of May 23, 1961: “It is rather simple to pass summary judgment, not coupled with actual responsibility, while sitting in California.” As for me, I took off my Emory class ring and didn’t wear it again for a decade.
Rereading that reprimand now, I can see that this 1939 and 1940 Emory graduate couldn’t really empathize at the time with the legal consequences and difficulties that could come with the first Negro on Emory’s campus. It would be illegal, that lawyer proclaimed! Resisting his point of view way out West, I could see I was remote from the quiet struggles the better elements in the Georgia Establishment were waging doggedly on the integration question in those years both at Emory and University of Georgia. Out in California I clearly couldn’t understand “the situation.” I was clearly obsessed with Integration Now! As it turned out, in a very few years both blacks and women ended up routinely seeking academic majors at integrated and coeducational Emory. And as I have said, the University of Georgia also admitted Blacks as students and, as at Emory, watched them rise to leadership on the campus and as alumni. But I’m still glad I was impatient then….
It was in 1963 that the Emory school for nurses would admit Verdelle Bellamy and Allie Fort from among its Black applicants. (As the turbulent decade of the Sixties progressed, the word Negro was giving way to Blacks.) Bellamy was destined to be much honored, for she was featured in the Emory Magazine in autumn, 2005, when it summarized, “In 2004, one-third of Emory’s incoming nursing students were minorities. Emory has the highest percentage of black students of the nation’s top twenty-five universities, and about twice the national average of black faculty.” Reading that makes me glad I struck my tiny blow when I did. After all, in 2005 an Emory Law graduate of 1980, a highly qualified black woman, Leah Sears, became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia. And the Emory graduating class of 2006 was 12 percent black. Yes, times change.
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It is later in the 1960s. I have become chairman of the social sciences division of a regional Oregon state college. The local Ashland high school has no African American students. The college has several Africans, and a few males are imported for football, but there is an acute shortage of black women for them to date. It was then commonly claimed that “there is nothing to do around here.” It was clear enough what that meant. Meanwhile, as chairman I wanted to integrate my part of the all white Southern Oregon College faculty, but I had no black applicants. I settled on a competent dark faced administrator from India (an ardent Christian) to teach Law Enforcement. While at it, I hired our division’s first female instructor, a specialist in Asian history. Incidentally, we got several gay instructors, too.
Now I invited a close acquaintance from my historical convention days, black historian John Hope Franklin, to be an official college visitor for four days. The Bornets were delighted that his wife came with him. They stayed with the Bornets. When I observed that the Journal of Negro History seemed in no hurry to change its name to Black History, he said that as a matter of personal preference he avoided the term “Blacks.” (My memory is quite clear.) In Dr. Franklin’s 2005 vibrant autobiography he uses the terms African Americans, Blacks, and Negroes freely. Time can settle things. Meanwhile, whites have gotten uncertain on this nomenclature; also, on Latinos versus Hispanics, and Indians and Native Americans. Nomenclature is a divider, it turns out.
The Franklins interacted extensively on our campus. I don’t remember if they learned of the large 1920s KKK parades in our Rogue River Valley. Black Africans from Nigeria and Kenya and several from Ethiopia mingled with them. On the way to scenic Crater Lake the Franklin family and ourselves integrated the venerable bar in frontier Prospect (a tiny Western place) where mouths were open but not drinking much during the hour we lunched there. The deer and elk heads that covered the walls and the stuffed cougar and other torsos of animals were quaint decorations. I wondered at the time if John Hope and Auralia realized how pioneering was their long visit to a southern Oregon region still definitely uneasy about open hospitality to “Negroes.” Few, maybe no, Rogue Valley employers hired them in those mid-century years.
I was thwarted in my next attempt at an interracial gesture. I then thought an obscure multilingual Soviet specialist at Stanford named Professor Condoleezza Rice would make an affordable speaker for us on the Cold War. (It was the 1970s, and I had no idea how famous she was going to become as time passed.) She accepted my invitation with our customary $600 honorarium. Sadly for us, she cancelled at the last minute, for she was “needed in Washington.” About this time the Bornets got to host a Rotarian family of educators from Nigeria for most of a week. It was a pleasant experience, as our Rotary Club members tried to treat them as they would anybody else. Efforts to keep friendship alive through letters in later years proved abortive—as we were advised to blame the Nigerian mail service for the total silence from Lagos.
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In 1969 the Bornets journeyed around-the-world and ultimately to South Africa as senior faculty on the World Campus Afloat ship (now called Semester at Sea). In Capetown we whites were abruptly ordered to “Move to the front of the bus!” (Here was something different.) We quickly moved, for South Africa was not yet ready for any Rosa Parks type challenge to seating arrangements. In the waiting room at the “southernmost point in Africa” my wife again found herself, as in 1944 Atlanta, conspicuously illegal as she again used the “wrong” waiting room!
Two months earlier our shipboard students elected a handsome black youth, a Los Angeles optometrist’s son, to be campus president for the Spring, 1969, voyage. I resolved to take him with me to Rotary Club makeup in downtown Capetown. Here was an exceedingly formal environment where everybody took silent note of the only nonwhite face in the room. Nothing happened, however, even when we rose together and I presented him to the tie and coat wearing white power structure in the segregated tip of Africa. It was a delicious moment. I did realize at the time that British-influenced Capetown was by no means Africans Johannesburg. Also, I somehow knew that elite group would be polite to its guests.
In 1976 I was selected by Kansas authorities to research the career of President Lyndon B. Johnson for a book in their unique set that assesses all the presidents. (I had just completed coauthorship of a book on President Herbert Hoover.) It was comforting to be able to write about Johnson’s enthusiastic support of the three Civil Rights bills of his day. Three huge areas of discrimination were dealt body blows by that southwestern politician, who deserves ungrudging praise for his share in the 1960s triumphs on civil rights, even though deserved credit will always be given to martyred Martin Luther King, Jr. It does seem that Johnson’s courage and leadership from the White House should always be emphasized as well. In my long book The Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson (Lawrence, Kansas, 1983), I italicized my judgment, “Nearly all scholarly observers give high marks to this presidency for extending civil rights for minorities.” That seems less true today than then.
The year is 1987. With backing from scholar Mary Frances Berry (I have since learned) I was nominated in the Reagan Administration to serve on the Oregon Advisory Committee of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. Our chairman was an impressive Black federal judge from Portland. It was exciting to watch that specialist in social security law leading a room full of skilled and experienced white professionals. For years our group tried to make headway against discrimination of various kinds in the Northwest. Our attention gradually turned by century’s end toward Hispanics and Vietnamese, with Indians a special category in our region. Skinhead bigotry also arose. Black/white relations seemed to be much improved in the northwest region of America.
About this time I decided to do something meaningful with the 500 sheet music compositions from 1890 to 1930 left by my stride piano playing father from his Philadelphia days as an engineer. There were “coon” vaudeville compositions from the 19th Century, with words that may once have been funny but were now severely dated. I happily set up the Vaughn Taylor Bornet Sheet Music Collection at the state of the art Woodruff Library archives of the Atlanta University Center, headquarters of many Black universities, where I expect musicians and the history minded will enjoy leafing through its old time compositions. Students, I hope, can see the hateful stereotypes that once could occupy the nation’s stages. Blackfaced white comics are now a thing of the past.
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Sometimes my mind wanders back to my eight room, all white, grade school in the Main Line of Pennsylvania, or to my white companions at Emory, University of Georgia, Miami, and Stanford, where I can recall no dark faces among faculty or students (although there surely were some on the Palo Alto campus). My photo of 38 history graduate students of 1951 and 1952 shows no blacks. Today, as I have noted, the alumni publications of all four universities often feature handsome photographic evidence of today’s integration among faculty and students alike.
Recently I read, very carefully, black scholar John Hope Franklin’s noteworthy autobiography, Mirror to America (New York, 2006). I knew that its publication was a special event, and that I would be bringing a positive bias toward it, based on friendship years ago with the author. The book tries to portray the Nation’s race relations in such a way as to influence American public opinion and improve our race relations. This is no easy task, for as Professor Franklin says, “The difficulties faced when anyone anywhere in America attempts a concerted effort to ameliorate the baleful results of centuries of de jure and de facto racism are profound.”
Franklin is a contemporary of mine, only two years older than I. As student and faculty member he lived a black scholar’s experience to the fullest at the very best institutions. His book is utterly different from my own equally long autobiography, An Independent Scholar in Twentieth Century America (2005). With Franklin’s single minded concentration on race it also seems not to have much in common with diplomatic historian Norman Graebner’s triumphant A Twentieth-Century Odyssey (2002)—subtitled a “Memoir of a Life in Academe.” Mine is a comprehensive account of “a twentieth century life” lived in a changing nation. Professor Graebner (born in 1915) shows how a white scholar rose to the very top in the same era. Yet scholar Franklin, born the same year, won the Medal of Freedom. Graebner was often honored handsomely in both Illinois and Virginia with degrees and chairs. It was a pleasure to be their somewhat less honored contemporary.
These three memoirs contrast sharply. Dr. Franklin’s is an account of a black man’s stressful voyage through life, pursuing the consistent goal of participating in every elite aspect of the white man’s academia. He produces an impressive narrative of a life lived as a famous black scholar. His book indexes the unpleasant words segregation and racism scores of times. They were certainly not keywords for Graebner and me. Yet discrimination rooted in ideology, not race, was a common hurdle for relatively conservative intellectuals like me in the university world. Outspoken and independent individuals of my type could also expect to suffer in the military and corporate worlds, and I did. Today, an enormous literature shows how women struggled in those same decades, but they would go far to destroy their own barriers. Dr. Graebner displays what monumentally hard work added to great talent can achieve in the white world. Like him—but more obscurely--I was unencumbered by the burden of race as I gradually won my own Awards of Merit and recognitions. (Any two white scholar-historians could be compared with Franklin or another black historian in much the same way, of course.)
* * * *
These anecdotal racial memories offered here border on thin, but they are by no means irrelevant. My life through the better part of a century was that of a white child, youth, and adult from North, South, Midwest, West, and Northwest who witnessed overt, improper, illegal, disgusting, and dangerous race discrimination. It cannot be denied that for decades, during my earlier years, restricted drinking fountains and cruel lynching were common parts of a pattern--virtually taken for granted. No more. But now I’m an old man who lived through and witnessed an always changing and evolving America while trying in tiny ways to guide it.
It is entirely proper for John Hope Franklin to dwell, as he does, on American race relations as an unfinished project for persons of good will in both races to face squarely. This year, a C-SPAN speaker addressed the subject of “Race, History, and John Hope Franklin.” It was entirely appropriate, given Franklin’s preoccupation with race every step of his academic and public service way through life. It is true, however, that concentration on race is seldom found among America’s white leaders. It is bound to be hard for my white friends to look back—as I do here—and draw satisfaction from examples of progress in race relations during our lifetimes. But we must do it; and it is necessary for black leaders to do the same.
I wonder if distinguished scholar Franklin can derive any pleasure at all from the evidence offered here that a friend he made and lost track of long ago along life’s highway, can conclude that today’s race relations are far better than when he and Graebner and I were boys in the 1920s, youths in the 1930s, and young adults in the war oriented 1940s? I don’t think so, for the positive is not even remotely the central focus of Franklin’s book--with its emotional account of the slurs and slights, irritations and discrimination of his lifetime in what he tries hard to document as an “American race jungle” peopled by bigots and alive in hypocrisy.
People like me need to do our share to retain and expand good race relations, even though what Franklin calls “racial barbarism” is now far less prevalent--and is not about to come back. Still, my nearly two decades on a U.S. Civil Rights Committee (Oregon) taught me that we do need “eternal vigilance.” We especially require the memory of the way things once were. Professor Franklin’s exhaustive memoir of his life keeps alive white America’s awareness of yesterday’s race prejudice; at the same time it documents for us his lifetime of accomplishments achieved in spite of prejudice in law and fact. On the other hand, autobiographies of white scholars like diplomatic historian Graebner, and welfare, labor--and presidential historian Bornet--inevitably minimize race relations while focusing elsewhere. But then we white people were not the target of humiliating segregation in neighborhoods, restaurants, colleges, jobs, political office holding, and transportation. Discrimination was all there, before I was born and long thereafter, whether noticed or not. As Franklin says, “I knew, or should say know, what we are up against.” (p. 3) All who read his book will also know. But white readers cannot remotely feel what Franklin felt and portrays with such outrage in the pages and chapters of Mirror to America.
It is also evident that the central message of Spelman president Tatum in Can We Talk about Race? is not very welcome in white circles. She contends, with evidence, that there has been a resegregation of our schools in recent decades, in spite of court decisions and sturdy efforts by well meaning white leaders. Opportunities for cross-racial contact are diminishing, she says. We seem not to even know how to interact with members of the other race when blacks and whites happen upon each other. Her views are entitled to respect.
Nevertheless: As a lifetime observer of my Country with professional credentials to engage in that activity, I am of a mind to conclude that race relations in the United States, white/black relations, developed considerably for the better in my nearly 90 year lifetime. I’m sure of it. While slow to change, Americans seem to be somewhere along the road to the ideals expressed in our many constitutions, bills of rights, and laws. Most changes in black/white relations were for the better. Can’t we persuade new generations to endorse, advance, and preserve what was built by Americans of good will in the last century, while expanding what we did right into new frontiers?
Copyright Vaughn Davis Bornet