Crossing Division Street

How do white people learn what to think about race? It's best not to think about it.

When I was very little we lived in a succession of hick towns in Maryland and Michigan. Back then not many people had romantic notions about small-town life. Sinclair Lewis had made living in a small town in the Middle West a kind of intellectual sin. I have to imagine their sojourn in boondocks Michigan was a tough price for their religious convictions. I think it was an especially tough price for my mother to pay for my father's convictions.

His first big career move was to Ann Arbor, Michigan, a university town, where he became the associate rector of the big downtown Episcopal church, St. Andrews. Ann Arbor, which described itself immodestly in those days as "The Athens of the Middle West," was a northern town, of course, and a place of learning and enlightenment where people looked with dismay and disgust on the racial habits of the people of the former Confederacy. The Union had militarily vanquished the rebels only 86 years before my family moved to Ann Arbor, placing the War of Rebellion well within the living memory of the national culture at the time.

The civil rights movement was still ahead. During the movement years, Ann Arbor would send both money and people to the South to fight the abomination of racial segregation. Tom Hayden, a founder of Students for a Democratic Society, husband of Jane Fonda and so on, preceded me on the staff of the University of Michigan student newspaper, The Michigan Daily, by only a few years. It was while he was writing for the Daily that he traveled south to witness and take part in the great struggle for universal voting rights, sending back missives that helped ignite the fires of white student activism.

I always loved Ann Arbor--its gentle hills, lush green canopy of trees, generous parks, ivied walls. I remember thinking even as a little boy that I lived in a beautiful place. But later, when I returned as a university student and found the place champing at the bit to reform the racist South, I was seized by memories of my own first-grade year there. (Unlike the years on either side, I do remember that year fairly clearly.)

Just to heighten the irony, in the mid-1960s at about the time I came back to Ann Arbor to go to college, someone was suing to force the closing of Jones School on grounds of de facto segregation. The town, especially the university community, was enraged. Almost everyone in Ann Arbor seemed to believe it was unthinkable, preposterous, wrongheaded and absolutely upside down that anyone would even think of accusing the Athens of the Middle West of racism.

I kept quiet. I didn't know what to say. I was a kid, of course. But I did know for a certainty that in the early 1950s, when we had moved to Ann Arbor, there was a street down the middle of town called Division Street, and most of the people on one side were black, and absolutely everybody on the other was white. I continued to grow up in the North after we left Ann Arbor, so I was raised with the impression that the division of northern towns and cities into separate white and black enclaves was not segregation. Nobody ever said what it was. I try now to think my way back into a town that had a street called Division Street right down its middle like a big skunk stripe, and where the people in the town were shocked and dismayed when someone dared suggest that this arrangement amounted to racial segregation.

But it's too far back. I can't do the math. It's just how it was. Racism and segregation were the debased practices of those bad people we had righteously smote in the Civil War, and the deal with Division Street was something nobody ever talked about. Lucky for us.

The rector of St. Andrews lived in a Victorian mansion out off Hill Street in the neighborhood where the senior university faculty lived. As associate rector, my father was assigned a little stone Englishy-looking cottage across the parking lot from the church. The previous inhabitant had been the former sexton (Anglican janitor), now retired. The church was on Division Street. Jones School was one block away.

I don't know this as fact, or I don't remember it well enough to say I do, but judging by all that happened later it must have been assumed by the church and the community when we first showed up in Ann Arbor that my parents would find some way, some hook or crook, to get my brother and me across town to the white grade school. (And, of course, that school was never thought of at all as the white grade school, and no one would ever have called it that, even though I distinctly recall adults referring to Jones as the colored school. The liberal North was a complex place.)

I do know, and my brother confirms, that it was the conscious decision of my parents, with their Roosevelt-liberal St. Louis public-housing social-organizing years still fresh in their hearts, that Bill and I would do good works by attending the neighborhood school.

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