Fifty Years Ago Today

Just yesterday, a website that I follow tweeted this image that captured how bad things were for blacks in the Depression and how insensitive was the general population.   Margaret Bourke-White took photo in the aftermath of the 1937 Louisville Flood.  It inspired me to write this post.

By now you have certainly been reminded of what happened on 28 August 1963.  Here is my tribute to the brave people who brought our country toward racial equality, not all the way, but out of the depths of racism in which we languished when I was born.  Our country’s history is awash in dreadful details.  I have chosen to make this largely a personal account of things that happened to me and my family.  I begin long before I was born.

In Matewan, West Virginia in 1920, coal miners began a strike.  The mine bosses, in an attempt to break it, sent in outside miners as scabs—Negroes and Italians, thought to be the natural enemies of the white West Virginians.  My grandfather, Andrea Puglisi, who had been mining coal in western Pennsylvania for the previous eight years or so, was among them.  Per force, he took along his family—my grandmother, Concetta Bruno and their four (at the time) children.  Salvatore, my dad, was not yet four years old.  In 1987, John Sayles made a brilliant film called Matewan, which tells the story of what happened once “the wops and the niggers” were brought in.  Here is an illustrative scene which includes the brilliant James Earl Jones. 

Years ago, when my father and I saw the movie together, he wept at another scene, a bit later in the movie, where all the striking and therefore homeless miners—white and black and immigrants—and their families are camping in a clearing in the woods.  In that setting, a white man begins to play music.  Soon all who can, regardless of ethnicity, are picking up instruments and joining in.  My dad remembered that time.  “My father played the concertina,” he said.

By the 1940’s and 50’s, when I was growing up, there were strong pockets of racism in my all-white working class neighborhood in Paterson, New Jersey.   Ethnic and racial slurs were pretty commonly hurled around—some of them against us Italian-American; some hurled by our own against others.   Sam, as everyone including his children called my dad, taught us never to use such terms against anyone.  He was a gentle father, not given to threatening his children.  But then one day, my brother Andy, who must have been about seven or eight, used the N-word at the dinner table.  My father put down his fork.  “Son,” he said to Andy.  His calling my brother that was in itself a warning.  “If I ever hear you use that word again, I will put soap in your mouth, and you will never forget the taste of it.”  Andy and I both learned a lesson from that admonition.

I went to a small, Catholic high school.  In my second year, the one and only colored boy I had ever been in school with joined the class a year below mine.  Sam’s anti-racist lessons had made me more than willing, regardless of the nasty comments by some of the other students, to do the lindy with him at school dances.  One of the boys in my year threatened me with punishment if I continued to dance with him.  My response was, “Don’t be stupid”—a goal extremely difficult for some of the snot-nosed bullies in my town.
The end of the summer following my college graduation brought us the event we commemorate today.   I heard a lot of talk then pro and con about the civil rights movement.  “It’s about time,” was Sam’s remark, seeing the events on our TV.  “I only pray they don’t get hurt for standing up for themselves.”  Some of them got very hurt.  Some of them died.  But they did not give up.

Right around that time, at my job in an insurance company in New York, I met my first husband—a tall, handsome African-American man, ten years my senior.  He was a New Yorker born and bred, educated, charming, and a devout Catholic—something my seventeen years of Catholic education had taught me was essential in a husband.  Our courtship began a few months later while trying to comfort each other over the assassination of President Kennedy.  We became engaged.  My parents did not object, but my mother worried.  “Who will marry your children?” she asked.  I told her they would marry who loved them.  The marriage did not produce life-long love, but it gave me my splendid daughter.

She did marry who loved her—a brilliant, devoted husband and wonderful father to their four children.  He is everything my mother would have wanted for her grandchild.  And no more than my daughter deserves.

I have lived to see the child of a marriage like mine become President of the United States.  Right now, the radio pundits in New York are talking about candidate Bill Di Blasio’s African-American wife and mixed-race son and what an asset they are to him in his campaign for mayor.  I grin whenever I hear that.

Racism, unfortunately, is NOT dead, but we all owe the progress we have made against it to the people we commemorate today.  Watch and listen.  Remember and be moved.
Annamaria Alfieri