Crossing Division Street

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

But they needed a white lookout. If they stood around the white church with their hands in their pockets trying to look innocent, the people over there called the cops. As I learned, the white people across Division Street would call the cops on them sometimes just for crossing Division Street, let alone entering a place of white worship.

Who could be a better good-eyes than the white preacher's kid? I was thrilled. Maybe I was thrilled because it meant that Mike now would be working for me. But I remember that I also was thrilled by the robberies themselves. It was dangerous work and very exciting. I stood in the half-dark echoing caverns of the church corridors and sang out my warning cues: "Oh, hello, Dr. Lewis! (The scratchy whisper of escaping feet around the corner.) It's nice to see you. (My eyes on Dr. Lewis' eyes to gauge whether he has heard.) I was just looking for my father. (He nods, maybe only now recognizing me, and turns his hearing aid toward me.) And now I have to go to the bathroom. (He turns curtly away)."

We made great money. I had money for all kinds of candy. I don't know why my parents didn't notice. My father was busy with his career and, like most men of that era, had little to do with hands-on parenting beyond his role as Household Minister of Justice. My mother was eccentric and kind, preoccupied with her own challenges. But I don't think parents in general noticed very much about kids in the early 1950s, because they didn't have to. They put their children out on the stoop every morning like empty milk bottles, serenely confident that society would come along in a clean white truck and fill them up.

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

My mother probably gets the credit for my ultimate social success at Jones. For all of her preaching about the white liberal's burden, she was really sort of a child herself, and nothing made her happier than seeing children running wild and having fun together. She invited the entire first-grade class to my birthday party--it may have been 30 or more children--and we had the very best time I think I have ever had in my life. I don't remember details, but I do have a general recollection of kids flowing in and out of the house and over the furniture and through the shrubbery in an endless wave, shrieking and chasing, gobbling down cake and ice cream, and I remember my mother clapping her hands and laughing out loud because she was having so much fun. She wasn't big on housekeeping.

As a father myself now, I know that's what really counts. It's not playing in the neighborhood or on the playground but being inside each other's houses, with your mamas looking on, laughing while you eat cake and ice cream. If you do that, you're true friends. After that party, I was welcome and had a name in everybody's house. The birthday party my mother gave me was the real reason for everything that ensued.

At some point during the party I remember looking up--I remember this keenly, like a blade cutting skin--to a spot just across the church parking lot. High on the towering stone wall at the back of the church was a wrought-iron balcony outside the room in the church attic where the choir practiced. Standing on the balcony looking down on the mayhem at our house was a squadron of white church ladies, their faces darkened by scowls. They didn't like my party. I realized years later they hadn't liked my mother.

Between January and the end of the year, pressure must have grown for my parents to get us out of Jones and across town to the white school, which had the felicitous name of Angell School. For years I blamed my removal from Jones to Angell on the church choir ladies who had looked down on my all-black birthday party from the choir-room balcony. My childish understanding of things helped darken my subsequent adult feelings about church ladies in some unfair and unfortunate ways that I am still working to overcome.

I doubt now that the church ladies were the whole cause of my banishment. For one thing, a lifetime as a reporter and many years on the police beat lead me to suspect that the church literature rack scam probably was less slick than we thought. I wouldn't be surprised to learn they had yanked me out of Jones and away from the gang in preparation for busting all the black kids. I know they did get caught sometime after I left Jones.

But another cause--what I now think was the most compelling one--came to me more or less out of the blue just a few years ago. Somehow the subject of speech therapy came up, and I found myself drifting out to the edges of the conversation, privately remembering that I had gone through some form of intensive speech therapy during my first months as a second-grader at Angell School. I don't know how scientifically advanced the business of speech therapy was in the early 1950s. When it came back to me I mainly remembered a speech lady--whom I recalled as red-faced and pretty mad at me--leaning into my face and telling me in an emphatic voice, "Jimmy, you must stop talking like a little colored boy!"

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