Thursday, February 24, 2011

Song # 10: Breaking Down Walls

      In song #3 I wrote about my "new father", Harry Harmon, who married my mom when I was four years old and gave us a new name.  With his name, we also inherited his reputation. I am thankful to say it was a good one, but even more importantly, Dad, along with other coaches, helped to change the attitude and reputation of an entire community by standing up for the rights of Afro-American and Hispanic people who lived there. I was not aware of how unique his influence was until a few years ago when Mom told me about Dad's absence of prejudice and how he was among the Little League coaches who insisted that every child who wanted to play on a team should be allowed to do so, regardless of race. It was only a few days ago that I learned how their courage to stand up for what they believed to be right helped to change an entire generation of Crane children.
     We moved to Crane in 1959 when Dad accepted a job with Texaco. I was getting ready to start first grade and had a new baby sister who occupied a lot of my mom's time. Dad had fixed up an old bike for me, and I was free to roam within limits. Having come from the isolated Pegasus Gas Camp where there was next to nothing to do, I was delighted to explore the modern, two-story public library, swim in the three free city swimming pools where swimming and diving lessons were also offered at no cost, and participate in the free summer recreation programs offered to the town kids during the summers. Dad was excited about the Little League and Pony League games and Golden Glove boxing as well as the Crane High School football, baseball, and basketball teams. He was quite the sports fan. 
     As a family we joined the First Baptist Church where my young parents, at only twenty-five and twenty-six years of age, became actively involved in teaching the youth. Mom also became a working member of the Women's Missionary Union that participated in mission efforts both at home and abroad. She was well aware that mission fields exist in our own back yards. It wasn't long before Dad was coaching Little League or Pony League teams and helping with Golden Gloves, and Mom was  having the young people over for cocoa and her homemade giant sugar cookies.
     The swimming pools were located at our city park, the summer recreation programs were held at the exhibition hall nearby, and the baseball games were at the fields just north of that. We lived just up the road on Elizabeth Street, and I was allowed to walk from our house on  hot summer afternoons  to the swimming pools and to other activities around the park. We often had picnics near croquet courts that were laid out for the public to enjoy.
     Behind those croquet courts, the baseball fields, and the city park was a long, stone and mortar wall, which I always assumed was just the boundary line of the park.  Beyond that was the section of town where most of the "colored folks" (as we called them then) lived. The black boys would walk across  from their neighborhood to participate in  the Little League games.  We were often in that part of town for the baseball games or because some of the poor folks lived there, as Mom and Dad were frequently helping out a family in need, black or white, who were down on their luck. I noticed on those trips behind the wall that there was another school (Bethune)  and even another swimming pool in that part of town. It seemed odd, but it was understood that those were the places where the "colored folks" went to school and swam. However, there were no separate ball fields to keep the races apart.
     Once Dad started coaching Little League, he was eager to have all kinds of kids playing on his teams. He himself had grown up poor, the youngest of nine children being reared by a single, widowed mother, and he was not a practitioner of racial or social prejudice. Even though schools were not yet integrated in Crane, Dad chose interracial teams. Dad's team performed well, and  a few of his players became some of Crane's best athletes.  Other coaches also led the way toward integration by having integrated teams.
     Back row, left to right: Assistant Coach Cecil Gibson, Vance Gibson, (unknown), Ellis Lane, Billie Perdue, Mark Evans, Coach Harry Harmon.
     Bottom Row, left to right: Randy Robbins, Bill Caldwell (another contact says "Mike"), (unknown), Jackie Jeffrey or Jackie Ellison, Vance Newland, Ron Gurley, Dexter Tooke, Tommy Jones or Jackie McCoy .
(June 11, 1961, Double "E" Photo, 1107 S. Catherine, Crane, TX)

     When I tagged along with Dad to practices and games, I got to know the guys on his teams. They probably don't remember me, but I admired them and ran after their foul balls when they knocked them out of the park. Some of those balls even rolled over by "the wall". I eagerly retrieved them and sometimes got a free snow-cone for my efforts. 
     It's funny how the kids on the teams didn't seem to have any problem getting along with each other. I have since learned that it was the racial blending of the Little League teams that helped to smooth the path and prepare the way for racial integration in the public schools later and to break down the walls between the races in Crane. I am proud of my dad for being a catalyst of this change.
      That same stone wall behind the ball fields, I discovered recently, was more than a boundary for the park; it was a physical  and concrete reminder of the hard-held beliefs of some of the town leaders that the Blacks should be kept in their place and separate from the rest of the white folks and their children.  I discovered this disturbing fact by reading "Hiding in Plain Sight: The Crane Wall", an article by Margaret Elder Collins written February 16, 2011, and shared with Crane historians. Ms. Collins lived in Crane for two years in the 1950's. In her article she describes how the wall was built at the direction of the FHA to allow higher priced homes to be built in the area and to prevent endangering of their property values by being in proximity to the "colored" part of town. She even relates stories of black families being uprooted and physically moved behind the wall. I reprint here a quote she uses from Friday Night Lights, a book about West Texas football,  by H.G. Bissinger:

"Crane was the kind of town where the big hangout was the Dairy Mart on Sixth Street because it had curb service, where Saturday afternoons meant plunking down a quarter for a matinee at the movie theater on Fifth Street and Saturday nights meant either a dance over at the county exhibition hall or a drag or two up and down North Gaston looking for girls and a little beer.

Fathers liked Crane because there was steady work in the oil field.  Mothers liked Crane because there were few temptations that could entice their offspring.  But not everyone liked it and L.V. Miles (Boobie’s Uncle)  had been one of those.  For him, as for a handful of others who had the same skin color, the Crane he grew up in might as well have been on another planet.

His life had been defined by a five-foot high wall of rock and concrete.  It ran along a street and had been built so the whites who lived on the edge of Niggertown would not have to see it."

     It was quite a revelation to me to learn that a seemingly innocent wall, so familiar to me as a child, had been erected for the purpose of shutting a group of people away from the eyes and concern of the white townspeople. The separate school and swimming pool were built to keep them in the part of town "where they belonged". It somewhat reminds me of how Native Americans in our history were forced onto reservations. How terrible that the Miles family (mentioned in the quote) felt they had to move to another city to escape discrimination.
     I, however, saw a different side of Crane. I was never aware, during the ten years we lived in Crane (1959-69) that the wall was intended to be a segregation wall. It certainly didn't serve that purpose for my dad's team members, the Little League baseball teams, or for us as a family. By the time we were in high school, I think that most of my generation were oblivious to the wall and its purported meaning--but perhaps I speak only for the white kids.  Nevertheless, it never entered into our conversations, and both Afro-American and Hispanic kids became our friends. Most of the e-mails I have received about the wall and this photo have been in agreement about the wall, but in disagreement about who all is in the photo! 
     Here is a quote from an e-mail from Randy Robbins (first boy, left, bottom row): 
       "After living in the world away from Crane, I soon realized that men like Vance's dad, my dad Jeff, and Harry Harmon were ahead of their time in trying to change attitudes concerning racism. It was fathers and coaches like Harry who contributed to many of my generation's hatred of injustice and an enduring belief that "all men are created equal." When this picture was taken desegregation through Brown vs Board of Education was a few years in the future. I have always been proud that my hometown was ahead of the curve with respects to racial equality, and the the two men in that picture provided the foundation of that pride."
Thanks, Randy. 

     Over time, our community became less racially divided in other areas. Not long after Daddy started coaching in Crane, he was approached by a Hispanic man who also wanted to coach baseball. Knowing that Dad was unbiased, he asked Dad to speak for him.  The next year the Hispanic man had his own team.
     Crane had excellent schools, and I received a superior education there.  The students and community benefited from the influx of oil money. The races were kept "separate, but equal" for many years, but the wall of that separation eventually came down.
     When the black students finally came to "'our" school, several were already "old friends" to me. Although I am sure there were many others, I remember Leon, Jackie, Daisy, and Yolanda Jeffrey, Argie Hollins, Terry "Duffy" Neal, and Louis and Tommy Jones. Tommy was a super basketball player, making the Texas 2A All-State Basketball Team for three years in a row (1968-69) and scoring 51 points in one game.   At one spectacular game we attended, the cheering shouts of the crowd in the gymnasium were so loud I thought my head would burst. I looked at Dad, only to see him cheering for Tommy, with tears in his eyes, eight years after Tommy had been on Dad's Little League team. 
     I wore Terry Neal's football number on my homecoming mum along with that of another player (who was white) for the Homecoming Game during the 1968 season; they were BOTH my friends, and I wanted to support them both. At least 25 years later I ran across Terry at a jazz club where we were both listening to a famous saxophone player. He related a story to me that I didn't even remember. He, however, had never forgotten an occasion in school when the two of us shared a candy bar, and he was stunned that a white girl would take a bite off of a black boy's candy bar. It never occurred to me to do otherwise. "My mom and dad didn't teach me that way," as they say. We hugged and cried over our friendship from so many years ago. There were no walls between us then, and there are none now.
    Walls. Even today, portions of the wall behind the ballpark still exist. I am told it even has a historical plaque on it to remind present-day people of Crane's past, no matter how distasteful that past may be. I am grateful to my parents for living out their Christianity in their daily lives and for teaching me that physical walls can neither keep out  nor lock up the human heart. Walls will not deter the hand of God when He chooses to move them. Remember Jericho? The walls came tumbling down when the people obeyed God and moved at His direction. 

 "For He Himself is our Peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. And He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near; for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father." Ephesians 2:13-18 (NASB)

P.S. L. Crumley writes this about the photographer:
"I think his name was A. L. Elrod.  He worked for my father at Texas Electric as a linesman.  He took photos of weddings ect. on the weekends."


Keith Street said...

Judy, Great blog. I've been on that wall not knowing the original content. Duffy was a pall bearer at my mothers funeral. Oct,17,1970 killed in a car accident on the way home from a McCamey football game. Drunk driver. Leon, Archie were sitting right behind Duffy as the football team was honorary pall bearers. Thank God for parents who taught me to look at the heart not the skin in choosing my friends. Visit my blog, hopefully it was provide encouragement.

Judy Googins said...

As of March 1, 2011, this blog has been revised to reflect information that continues to come in from readers. Thanks to those of you who lived in Crane longer than I did (and are older than I am, ha-ha).

becksreadsbooks said...

Judy, this is an awesome post. Having grown up visiting Crane every summer, I'm always fascinated to learn about the town and how it used to be. I actually found your blog by searching google images for "Vance Newland" and wondering what I would find (if anything) because I'm his daughter. This is actually a picture of his older brother, Jim Newland! I instantly recognized it because my grandmother has it in a photo album.