I was born in 1943 in Louisiana. I lived in a small yet prosperous neighborhood of mostly black families, one or two Mexican families. No white people. Similarly to all the scary stories that were told to the white people about us blacks, we heard many stories about the white people that made us on edge. One chant they used to say was “Don’t smile at that white man, don’t smile at that white lady, because if you do they’ll lynch you right in front of your baby”. I was scared for a while especially being a child and only hearing one story. I used to see white people and run the opposite direction. But this was in Louisiana.
I moved to California In !951 when I was only 8 years old. My dad was in the Navy and growing up – my Mom and Dad always trained me not to get too attached because we would have to move. Here I am thinking we would have to move neighborhoods. I did not think “the move” would be us having to move across the country.
My dad was from the Cayman Islands and he came to America and found my mom in New Orleans. They fell in love and he took her to Louisiana, to work in the Navy. Same as now he was taking his whole family to California.
California was different. There were many tall building, whereas in Louisiana most buildings were the same size. I didn’t know where to start exploring. In a strange sense I felt more comfortable.
I lived in San Francisco, we had a 3 bedroom / two bathroom house. The rent at the time was only 350 dollars. Since my Dad was in the Navy he still had ¾ of his paycheck left to provide for me and my 4 siblings.
In San Francisco there was no prejudice. There was a mix of everyone in my neighborhood alone. And everyone got along. There were many jobs for all people because the work force wasn’t as big, as it is now, to where the large business such as Coca-cola, were able to turn down well-working people.
In my favorite neighborhood in San Francisco it was like a humongous market. You could smell many things, to spices, to fish, to fruit, you could even smell the nearby sea, underneath the Bay Bridge. All races were there selling their foods. My uncle for example had a lotion stand and he made so much money off of it he was able to start a mini business, that was prosperous for 3 years until he decided to take a new approach in life.
In 1957 I was only 13 years old and I got sent to Mississippi for the summer to visit my Grandparents. One dark, and hazy night me and my sisters and brothers were walking home from a movie, when a group of white kids in car tried to run us over. They didn’t catch us because when they started to speed up, we hopped over the fence. On their way back around to look for us, my brothers, and sisters and I had gathered up rocks, and bricks, and when they came around, we threw them at their car, ultimately making them crash. We ran home and told our grandmother, hearts racing. All she said was “Y’all the group of four black kids they speaking about”. Turns out, before we had even managed to make it home a report had been filed, and they were looking for us. If they caught us we would be lynched. Because of stories such as Emmet White, we were scared for our lives and knew we had to get the hell out of there.
My Grandmother packed us up and drove us to her house in Louisiana and I didn’t go back to Mississippi for another 20 years.
Now life is considerably more difficult, though there are more rights for us black people – work is considerably harder to find. And for an old man like me that isn’t the best of situations to be in. But I make it work.
I am so grateful to have grown up in California where there are more opportunities, and I didn’t have to live all my life in Louisiana. If that was the case we probably wouldn’t make it very far. Though I didn’t live there that long, it still showed me as much as California did and taught me to value my upbringing.
This story was written by Erin Gray after interviewing his father. Erin is a high school student in the SF Bay Area.