Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Logo
Apply to SIUE
Insitutue of Urban Research Header


Ruben Yelvington, former editor of the Metro East Journal, Civil Rights Part I


But first, a little about me so you understand my perspectives.

My mother was from Grapeland, Texas She had an eighth grade education
but was a licensed school teacher! My father was from Hamburg, Ark.,
returned from World War I to take a job as a railroad "detective"
protecting company equipment, including Grapeland, during the great
railroad strike. I also had an aunt on my father's side who lived in
Grapeland. I am not sure how my father and mother met.

They established a home on 12th Street, St. Louis, a "slovackia"
neighborhood.

I suspect -- I have never researched it -- that railroad strike was a
product of returning white soldiers finding their jobs were taken by
blacks, willing to work for lower wages. Sound familiar? Si Si.

Search what you can about the East St. Louis race riot.

If my memory is correct, the census in Mississippi in the 1920s would
show 10 blacks for every white male. Before blacks won the right to
vote, there were 10 black males for every white in Mississippi, probably
the highest such ratio. Since my father worked for the Terminal
Railroad in St. Louis, we were eligible for passes on all lines coming
into St. Louis. Each summer my mother and I headed south to Texas or
Arkansas or both to mooch off farming relatives. There was a Great
Depression, you know, and although my father had a job, his work week
was cut from 7 to 5 days to enable more to me employed and we were far
from eating high on the hog. But that is another story.

For some reason, trains reached our rural destinations in the middle of
the night. When we returned, we awoke in total darkness. An uncle
brought out mules or horses and hitched them to a wagon, we loaded
suitcases and I can still here the jingle-jangle of the chains that held
the animals to the wagon as we drove to the nearest "flag stop." We
would pass by the shacks where the blacks lived. Sure, slavery had been
abolished, but not the slavery of poverty. If it was the dawn, we saw
the bare bottoms of black children as they jumped through the windows to
get out of sight.

I had uncles and aunts who were owners of farms. They hired cheap labor
-- black. I had other uncles and aunts who were share croppers
themselves. Share croppers were somewhat independent. In good years they
reaped a percentage of their harvest for themselves. I remember folks
in Texarkana, on the Texas-Arkansas line, who share cropped alongside
blacks. As a kid, I played with the black children. We were "big city
folks" when we came calling. The locals asked what we raised "up North."
They guffawed when I said "Kids." It is hard to explain, but men of
the soil shared a common bond and they cared about one another, black or
white. But at the same time, each new his place. I recall being
lectured by Uncle Jim in Grapeland, Texas, because I stepped aside to
let a black coming toward me to pass on the sidewalk. But he took food
to an ill neighbor who was black.

It seemed to me there was residential segregation in the South based
more on economics than skin color.

I speak now from experience that I did not have then. I had no
sensitivity to race relations. But on looking back...

I was in Memphis "once upon a time," in a department store, and a
black child was playing around an escalator and in danger of being
injured. A well-dressed white woman ran across in front of me to rescue
the child. I sensed I was an observer to race relations southern style.

In a racially segregated community, as was East St. Louis throughout the
40s, there was fear between the races that did not exist in the South.
But...

In my teen years, when we drove to Arkansas, we sometimes drove south
out of Memphis to Greenville, Mississippi then west into Arkansas, past
many many cotton fields, all worked from hoeing to picking by blacks.
Well, not all.

I had kin working cotton fields, and when we arrived during hoeing or
picking seasons, I got to sharpen a hoe and chop cotton, or hook a strap
from a huge heavy bag and crawl down a cotton row picking. Cotton bowls
have sharp thorns and those with tender city skin find blood oozing
around their fingernails from punctures. I wasn't expected to keep up.
Never the less...

Files were stabbed into fence posts to be available to sharpen hoes
tomorrow.

Some enterprising northeners had already invented cotton picking
machines, but in Mississippi, with its 10-1 black-white racial ratio,
they never worked good enough. After blacks won the right to vote,
suddenly the machines replaced blacks in the cotton fields, and the
white fluff left in the cotton bowls became insignificant. Blacks in
untold numbers fled north and the states that had the most generous
public assistance programs had waves of immigrants. Illinois was one of
the most generous, and Chicago and East St. Louis experienced overnight
population jumps. The new residents were unschooled, un-prepared for any
complex job, but eager to work in the packing plants or labor-intensive
industry that had thrived in the East St. Louis area.

Life is complex. This is an over-simplification. The black migration
preceded to some extent the cotton picking machines. Black parents had
heard of relief -- public assistance -- plans up north where cousins or
aunt and uncles lived, and wanting education opportunities for their
children, had sent them to live with aunts and uncles. Though they were
segregated, they could experience schools.

Leaping into one of your specific questions

The Kefauver Crime Committee in the early 1950s, forced J. Edgar Hoover
to admit that organized crime existed -- something he had denied.
Hoover was busy chasing "communists" in the motion picture industry and
elsewhere. And in those pre-television days, the radio thrill shows
were about "G-Men," fearless protectors of law and order. I was afraid
to lean against a mailbox -- I might damage it in front of a G-Man.

Besides, I was busy singing as I walked barefoot in the streets of Oak
Park, hoping to be discovered and become a singing cowboy in the movies.


All the findings from the Kefauver probes are reachable through Google.

This is going to take time.


I will get around to my newspaper days next.

Rube



facebookoff twitteroff vineoff linkedinoff flickeroff instagramoff googleplusoff tumblroff foursquareoff socialoff