Growing up on 25th street, near Locust in the ‘40s didn’t give one a chance to encounter “people of color”. I suppose my first contact was with a janitor in high school who was to my recollection the only black in the building. He was a kindly person, a real gentle man, who felt at home enough there to attend our basketball home games on Friday nights.

My first negative experience wasn’t something personal with me, but with a friend of a friend. It was ’54, when Henry Aaron joined the Braves who came to town the year before. It seems Henry moved into the area of 20th and Center, encroaching on the neighborhood of this kid. I thought it would be cool to have a big league ball player living on your block, but not so this guy! Strange, I thought, and sad. Might be neat to invite him into the pick-up ball games generally going on in the street on summer nights! If Henry wasn’t busy elsewhere, that is.

Shipboard life in the navy was an abrupt change in many ways, not the least of which is the close contact with people from all walks of life, corners of the country, and, of course, color. Back then it was mostly white, some black, fewer Native Americans, and a small handful of Filipinos, who where still then relegated to the role of steward for the officers. Norfolk too, was a far cry from Milwaukee too. Or, so it seemed to me then. I’ll not forget the stares I got when I got on a bus and headed right for the back row so I could see everything going on. It didn’t take long to realize I was the only white boy back there, sitting among blacks who were probably make uncomfortable by my presence. Several whites in the front turned to stare at me. The driver didn’t take off, but glared at me in the mirror. Finally, I suppose he decided I was just a dumb-ass Yankee who didn’t know his place in life, and he took off.

I had a taste of prejudice myself in France where I was refused entrance to a restaurant because I was a “white hat”, an enlisted man, not an officer, who, by their definition must have been a gentleman. Perhaps they had a bad experience with some sailors in the past, but couldn’t they see I was sober, would remain sober, would leave a big tip, or did they take one look at my uniform and bar the door? What a stupid attitude I thought. But, of course, I had options. There were plenty of other restaurants to choose from. One of which would have been richer for my presence. Others, in other places, had no such options.

So, here we are in the enlightened age of the new century. Have things gotten any better? Perhaps. We certainly have a more diverse community. Many more Latinos, more Orientals, and they’re spreading out rather than being all bunched in small areas. It’s making for a much more colorful community, and one I’d hope would give rise to a more understanding and tolerant generation.

Last edited by g.   Page last modified on February 18, 2005

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