Crossing Division Street

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

I had never been close to black kids before, but, more important, the first-graders at Jones must never have been up close and personal with very many white kids before that day, either. It wasn't like the segregated South, where white and black children often grew up playing with each other before institutional segregation intervened and walled them apart in the schools. In Ann Arbor, which was not segregated, white and black kids barely even caught glimpses of each other across Division Street until the first day of junior high school.

Clearly etched in my memory of that first day at Jones is the moment my one white face came into the midst of their many black faces. I found myself in the center of a mob of children on the front steps of the school, all of them very curious to know who I was and, more urgent, what in the hell I was. A child approached me and clamped fingers on my sun-whitened burr-cut head. A boy came up to me slowly and leaned forward to peer into my face. He took a step backward down the steps and then announced to the crowd in a tone of evenly mixed amusement and revulsion, "His eyes are blue!"

The next several weeks on the playground were sort of like medical experiments: If you hit one of these white things in the mouth, what might come out? I remember only fighting, fighting and fighting. One afternoon when I came home bloodied and tearful, my mother took me to the living room and sat me down on the sofa. I remember this speech clearly, and I still think it was probably a good speech in the longest view of life.


The Schutze brothers, left to right, Bill, Jim and Paul, with their parents, the Reverend W.R. and Peggy, circa 1951
The Schutze brothers, left to right, Bill, Jim and Paul, with their parents, the Reverend W.R. and Peggy, circa 1951

She told me all about slavery and the evils that white people had visited on African-American people. It was a terrible story, and for a while my tears shifted from self-pity to compassion. The moral of the story was that I needed to feel sorry for the little colored children at Jones, and I needed to try to help them become better people, by which I assumed we meant they needed to be more like us.

I was a first-grader, and I would guess now that the story probably worked well while we were on the couch. But the next morning when I was running down Division Street as fast as my feet could carry me, with the Mike Burns gang inches from my back and snatching at my shirt, I assume my effort to feel sorry for Mike was a failure.

My mission as the Great White Liberal Hope of my first-grade class suffered another challenge, because not too far along in the school year the psychological lines of color began to blur and fade. We were very little, after all, and we were not yet fully imbued with the importance of our differences.

I'm certainly not saying the lines ever disappeared entirely. I have a specific memory of the day the teacher--the only other white person in the room, as I remember it--called us to her knee to read us the story of Little Black Sambo. And who knows? Maybe in the relative context of the early 1950s, she saw Little Black Sambo as culturally relevant.

Depending on your age, you may or may not remember Little Black Sambo as the story in which an African boy climbs a tree and taunts the tiger to rush around and around at his feet until finally the tiger churns himself into butter. She introduced the story by saying something to the effect of, "Sambo, like many of you in this room, was a little colored child."

I remember distinctly that the eyes in the room drifted and turned, whirled and lifted until finally every eye was on me. Someone said, "Jimmy's the only one that's not," and there was laughter, for which I was grateful. But even when the laughter had subsided, I still felt eyes lingering on my uncolored skin. I was Little White Sambo, and I remember that I hated my difference.

At some point during the months between the first day of school and Christmas vacation, a miracle transpired. I was approached on the playground and offered a position in the gang, which I learned was not the Mike Burns gang at all but the Eugene (last name forgotten) gang.

Mike was just enormous. He must have been held back. But Eugene was the boss. He was cool and slick. I remember only one of the other kids--Johnny Johnson, a happy funny guy who always had a big buck-toothed grin, even when he was caught red-handed. Especially when he was caught red-handed.

I don't know if I knew then why I was so honored. Of course, I know now. The Eugene gang was in the after-school business of robbing coins from the religious pamphlet racks at St. Andrews Episcopal Church, the big white church across Division Street. Eugene had picked up on the fact that I was the preacher's kid. The Eugene gang had its act fairly well down. They knew where the good racks were that got filled up with money every Sunday. Mike was able to pry the coin boxes off the racks with his bare hands.

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