Don't Fence Me In

by Bill Slawter

No black human had ever been in my home when Amos 'n' Andy first appeared in my living room in the early 1950s on the screen of our Sylvania console TV with spindle legs. A few years later, my parents managed to hire an African-American lady who came weekly to help my mother with the ironing, but any earlier encounters I had with people of color were few and far between, and so minimal and fleeting as to leave no real memories.

There were no African-Americans living in Glenwood, the neighborhood in Greensboro where I spent most of my youth. Even Smith Homes, the city's first public housing project, which was located at the edge of Glenwood along Freeman Mill Road, had no minority residents. Like everything else, public housing was segregated. I never saw black customers in the neighborhood shops. I attended Clara J. Peck Elementary School on Florida Street, which was segregated. I went to Sunday School at Florida Street Baptist Church. No black folks there. It was rare to see a black man in Glenwood. I do recall seeing a few black women in the neighborhood, going to and from scattered homes to help out with domestic chores. These ladies generally came and left by city bus. Whenever I took the bus to and from downtown, one or more of them might be seated quietly in the rear.

This was a working class neighborhood. All of the adult males, and many of the females, worked outside of their homes. Clerks in retail stores. Gas station operators and attendants. Cooks and waitstaff in restaurants. All sorts of sales and delivery jobs, including milkmen who delivered door to door from trucks loaded with glass bottles kept cold with ice that we kids would sneak from the back of the trucks on hot days. We preferred the Pet Dairy truck's crushed ice, but would settle for chips from the block ice on the Guilford Dairy truck. Carpenters, masons, mechanics, and all types of craft and trade workers. Many worked in the textile mills that were scattered all about town. Some of the plants had mill village housing in which a lot of employees lived, but those villages could not accommodate the thousands of mill workers sweating it out three shifts daily at Burlington Mills, Cone Mills, Blue Bell, and others. My dad worked as a sales representative for a soap manufacturer, in a job that began shortly before I was born and continued until his retirement more than thirty years later. My mother never had a job outside the home, but never had a day off from taking care of the family.

The homes in Glenwood were modest, mostly one-story frame structures, with a brick or two- story house here and there. Generally more substantial than mill village houses, but nothing fancy. The streets were paved, and many had concrete sidewalks. Most households included young children, who spent countless hours outdoors playing in the days before our national addiction to TV and long before anyone ever heard of a computer. Kick the Can. Capture the Flag. Cowboys and Indians. Hide and Seek. Keep Away. Tag. War. Simple games requiring no expense and very little equipment kept us busy and out from under our parents' feet until after dark most nights.

It's hard to grow grass on a playground. Finely manicured lawns were not the norm. Our rented house where I spent my early years had a living room, dining room, kitchen, three bedrooms, a single bathroom, and a front yard that was perfect for drawing circles in the dirt to shoot marbles. A large oil-burning heater stood conspicuously in the dining room.

My parents moved to Glenwood from Burlington when I was three, along with my three older brothers, and one younger sister. A second sister soon arrived. I never thought of our house as being crowded except when I had to pee real bad and couldn't get into the bathroom. There was as much room as we needed, except maybe when my uncle got out of prison and he and his wife and their two little ones had to stay with us for a while.

I never gave much thought to what folks in my neighborhood had in relation to folks living in other parts of town. I seldom went anywhere in Greensboro outside of Glenwood, except to go downtown from time to time, either by city bus or in our family car. Neither bus rides nor trips by car passed through other residential areas so as to shed any light on how other folks lived. Glenwood was my world.

To the extent that I ever thought about what I had or didn't have in relation to others, those rare musings were comparisons to other kids living within a five-minute bike ride. A few of the neighborhood kids had parents who managed to provide more toys, better toys, newer clothes. And, more often than a lot of us, they had a nickel to buy a treat at one of the dozen or so shops along Grove Street and Glenwood Avenue. Perhaps a chocolate cream-filled doughnut from the Glenwood Bakery. A Baby Ruth from behind the counter at The Grove Street Cafe. A Coke from the machine at the filling station next door to the cafe. Or maybe penny candies from The Little White Store, an early forerunner of today’s convenience store, which had no name or identity other than its size and color. BB Bats. Mary Janes. Bit-O-Honeys. Tootsie Rolls. A piece of Dubble Bubble gum, which always included a miniature comic strip featuring a pudgy fellow called “Pud.” Such were the luxuries that defined prosperity at the age of nine.

We got our first television in 1952. A new CBS station in Greensboro was the only channel on the air. A year or two later, an NBC station began broadcasting out of Winston-Salem. We did not have a rooftop antenna to adjust the reception, but a twist or turn of the “rabbit ears” sitting on top of the TV usually did the trick.

My favorite shows were the westerns, and there were a lot of them. The Lone Ranger. The Gene Autry Show. The Roy Rogers Show. Hopalong Cassidy. Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok. The Cisco Kid. Most of the cowboys had a sidekick, often comical, who helped the star bring justice, law, and order to the Wild West. I, and I think every boy my age, knew the names of all of the stars, their horses, and their companions. The Lone Ranger had Tonto. Wild Bill had Jingles. Cisco had Pancho. All of the shows were sponsored by cereals or other food products. There was no better breakfast than Kellogg’s Sugar Corn Pops from a box with Wild Bill Hickok’s picture on front, riding his Appaloosa named Buckshot.

Conspicuously missing from the early days of TV were people of color. The westerns often featured actors of Mexican heritage, most notably The Cisco Kid and Pancho. African-American actors were seldom seen, although black singers occasionally performed on the variety shows. The only black actor or comedian I remember appearing routinely on otherwise white casts was Rochester, a butler on The Jack Benny Program.

Then CBS introduced its viewers, including my family, to Amos 'n' Andy, a weekly series that generally had an all-black cast. The central characters were Amos, who drove a taxi, Andy, who had no apparent means of income, and George Stevens, also known as The Kingfish, who likewise did not have a regular job, but often devised schemes to flimflam others, especially Andy, out of their money, Amos was a kind-hearted and soft-spoken man, who brought reason to the show and sometimes saved Andy from The Kingfish's attempts to exploit him. Amos was well spoken, as were other actors who appeared on the show at times. Except for Amos, however, the central characters mispronounced words, misused words, and spoke with an exaggerated, stereotypical black dialect.

The regulars on the show lived in apartments in Brooklyn. The interiors of those residences were not noticeably different from my own home. Nothing plush, just the basic needs of life. The male characters often hung out at The Mystic Knights of The Sea Lodge. George Stevens was the head man at the lodge, thus his nickname of “The Kingfish.” White actors appeared on the show from time to time, but I do not recall them ever being depicted with the same low level of sophistication as were the key black characters.

However far from reality Amos 'n' Andy may have been, that is the primary example of life as an African-American that I saw as a child. Without question, I was by and large ignorant of what it meant to be black.

Through the years, I had learned various ways to earn a little spending money. Delivering weekly handbills for the Glenwood Supermarket door to door in the community. Helping my brother, Jerry, with his paper route when he overslept and was in a rush. Mowing lawns. Kidnapping baby pigeons from the rafters of an abandoned dairy barn, and selling them for fifty cents apiece to my junior high shop teacher, who raised homing pigeons. But, by the time I was in eighth grade, my dad expected more.

One night at the supper table, he sternly glared at me and said I was “too old to be sittin' around not doin' anything,” and that it was time for me to find some regular work. In the 1980s, I saw that same scowl on the face of Principal Strickland when he called both Marty McFly and George McFly “slackers” in Back to the Future. I wasn't especially eager to enter the seven-day-a-week workforce, but I decided the prudent thing for me to do was to follow the career paths of my older brothers and get a paper route. At fourteen, I began delivering the Greensboro Daily News every morning.

We had recently moved to a new three-bedroom, one-and-a-half-story house my parents bought in Glenwood. It had central heat, but no air conditioning to cool the two upstairs bedrooms, which sometimes felt like an oven on sweltering summer days and nights. My paper route was located about a mile away. My deliveries were to the few remaining houses and the increasing number of businesses along High Point Road, and to residences on adjoining streets. The houses to the west included an area of approximately twenty African-American families. As was the case with other areas on my route, about one-half of them subscribed to the paper. For the next couple of years, I went to these folks' homes seven days a week, often speaking briefly with them as I made my rounds and they headed off to work. Every Friday afternoon or Saturday morning, I went to each of those homes, as well as all of the homes and businesses on my route, to collect forty-five cents for the week.

Interaction with my black customers was my first real experience with talking with people of color in any meaningful way. We didn't talk about differences between being black and white. We didn't talk about politics or civil rights. We talked about the same kinds of things I talked about with my white customers.

The only difference between my black customers and my white customers was that I had known plenty of white folks all my life. I knew some of my white customers before I began delivering their paper. Some of my classmates lived on my route. Since I had never really known a black person before beginning my route, I was somewhat curious. I believe that I was more observant of them because my young brain was beginning to try to figure out just what was so different about black folks that made them live their lives so segregated from white folks.

I started thinking about fences. This small minority community had no fence around it, but it began to occur to me that these folks' lives were restricted in almost every way imaginable by a multitude of fences that encircled, not just their neighborhood, but their entire lives, wherever they went. These fences were less penetrable than the giant fortresses around prisons, with their multiple layers of barbed wire and concertina wire across the top. They could not be gone around, climbed over, or tunneled under. Some of the fences were starkly conspicuous, while others were invisible. The “whites only” and “colored only” signs posted on restroom doors, water fountains, and other public accommodations did not require physical fencing. The signs themselves admonished blacks they dare not cross that “whites only” line. Restaurants, hotels, and motels didn't even need a sign to let black folks know they could not get service. Everyone knew.

In the fall of 1961, I began the tenth grade across town at Grimsley Senior High School. With two high schools for white kids in town, and one for black kids, GSHS served about one-half of the white population of the city, including kids from much more affluent areas. It soon became clear to me that we folks living in Glenwood didn't hold the worst cards at the poker table of life, but it was clearer still that the face cards were being held by others. At times I wondered whether Glenwood had an invisible fence around it that preordained a life of unfulfilled dreams. But as my universe expanded, so did my hunger for the opportunities I could see out there. I came to realize there were no fences around Glenwood. I did not yet know what it was that I was looking for, but I knew there was something. To me, it seemed that figuring out what I wanted to do in life, not whether I could accomplish it, was going to be the hardest part.

As I pondered what the future might hold in store for me, and thought about how I might scale the walls, fences, and barriers I would encounter along the way, my mind often drifted to my African-American customers. I had no doubt that with hard work, perseverance, a little patience, and a little luck, I could make it to that elusive goal I had yet to identify. But, I also knew there was no way, as a young white boy, that I would ever face the insurmountable barriers that the folks on my paper route had to endure. I could not help but ask myself, “What if I were black?”

Bill Slawter is a North Carolina native and has lived with his wife, Carolyn, in Asheville for forty years. He has a Bachelor’s degree in English and a law degree from UNC-Chapel Hill and has recently retired from the practice of law.

About Don’t Fence Me In—I have been working on memoirs focused on race relations, as seen through the eyes of a young white boy, before and during the 1960s civil rights movement in Greensboro. This piece was written as the introduction.