My neighborhood!

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Alas February!

African-American History Month. Although traditionally the month has celebrated famous African-Americans, maybe it’s time to augment how that history is told with our personal history stories, ones that define and shape who we are today.

Here’s mine.

The neighborhood I grew up in conjures up images of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” Hal Rauch’s “Our Gang” with scenes of Mayberry from the “Andy Griffin Show” added to the mix. The folks in my neighborhood were caring, creative and resourceful because we had to be. Our survival depended on it.

Take creativity. We could transform a barren lot into an athletic field; broken mowers and wood from old houses into go-carts. With cardboard we could make old shoes reusable. Our moms could make leftovers stretch for days on end. Absolutely nothing went to waste.

On any given day or night, our streets were buzzing with activities – baseball, dodgeball, hopscotch, throwing rocks at street lights, backyard barbeques, sipping on bottles of cheap wine, you name it. We hopped fences, bruised knees and sped down hills on sleighs during winters and on cobbled together go-carts during summers.

Dogs chased cats, cats chased mice and we competed fiercely with squirrels and swarming yellow jackets over fallen pears, grapes, cherries and apples strew across back yards and vacant lots.

Locked doors? Are you kidding? They were unheard of as were advance notice that you’d be stopping by. The uninvited would show up at any hour and leave well-fed and uplifted by prayers, well wishes and brown bags loaded with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Kitchens were imbued with the aromas of frying chicken, hot rolls in the oven, green beans and occasional pots of chitlins and pigs feet. Cakes and cookies seemed to always be fresh out of the oven.

Our school on Sunnyside Street was the epicenter of educational and social activities and the feeder to the high school across town. The classrooms were always bustling, snotty nosed kids moving from classroom to classroom under the watchful, but loving, eyes of teachers.

The cafeteria on the basement floor served up hot lunches and cold milk and hosted Friday night socials where dance moves and “slow drags” were perfected and young hearts were joined and, as often, broken.

Out back was the basketball court where skills were honed, ankles were sprained, point guards spawned and young bodies were rounded into shape around the May Day pole and on spread out mats.

And along Sunnyside Street, a 10 foot wooden fence – later replaced by a wire fence with barbwire across the top – was a visible daily reminder of the insanity of segregation; keeping us away from the military school up on the hill where our mommies and daddies mopped floors, cleaned dorms and cooked for young white boys while their black sons and daughters were forbidden – and were often chased – from the schools sprawling athletic fields. But unbeknownst to the “authorities,” we figured out ways to cut holes through the fence and, under the cover of night, could slip in for beer or an occasional romantic rendezvous.

Within walking distance was Mr. Frank’s barber shop where haircuts were a buck twenty-five, where local gossip was swapped, truths were stretched and posters publicizing upcoming basketball games and dances at the armory featuring James Brown, Solomon Burke and Otis Redding.

Three churches were within walking distance along Augusta Street on the block with Mr. Cook’s Snack Shop where the best burgers, beers and fistfights could be found on our side of town.

Marino’s restaurant, a mom and pop store, the forerunner of today’s 7/11, was further up Augusta Street. Its window showcased comic books, bubble gum, Milky Way bars and RC Colas. Once inside there was lots of country music flowing out of the juke box with loud heeing and hawing through southern drawls lubricated by Pabst Blue Ribbon beers.

Okay, enough. In closing, what I’ve written is my story. I hope that it inspires others to write theirs during African—American History Month 2018.

© Terry Howard is an award-winning trainer, writer, story teller and senior associate with Diversity Wealth. He is also a member of the Cross-Cultural Academy, a Contributing Writer with The Chattanooga News Chronicle, The American Diversity Report and New York-based Catalyst. He can be reached at (470) 556-7310 or wwhoward3@gmail.com

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One comment on “My neighborhood!”

  1. RJ Hall says:

    How interesting it is that your story sounds a lot like my story, with the notable exception of the segregation you experienced. And yet, even my neighborhood contained gated and locked fenced areas around schools and businesses that we would sneak into, at least until someone called the local police to chase us out.

    How I wish that all of us today could focus on the common experiences and values that we share–especially as Americans–instead of turning every difference into an inviolable affront that must be beaten down until all individualism is stifled or, more likely, people “self-segregate” into tribes. It is tragic that we are, in effect, re-creating the segregated society that so many gave up their personal safety–and even their lives–to defeat not so long ago.

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