My life history as a story of race

My previous two posts were about my reactions to Debby Irving’s Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race.  As I stop and think about it, I have been entwined with race and racism my whole life.

My parents

Some of my earliest memories of growing up in the little town of Williamsport, Md., are of my mother and father arguing about white guilt.  My mother would go on about how badly black people and native people were treated.  Finally my father would say, “I am not impressed with the American Negro.”

My mother would resume talking about how Negroes were denied basic rights and forced to ride in the backs of buses.  “Exactly!” my father would say.  “I’d never let anybody treat me that way.”

Or my father would say, “I am not impressed with the American Indian.”  My mother would resume talking about how whites stole the Indians’ lands and forced them to live on reservations.  “Exactly!” my father would say.  “If the Indians had what it takes, we would be the ones living on reservations.”

My father was not, in fact, unfriendly or unjust to black people or anyone else.   He was friendly and at ease talking to anyone, whether an African-American janitor or the Governor of Maryland.   He was not impressed by wealth or social status, and he did not look down on anyone.

I think this ability stemmed from a genuine liking for people, and interest in them, but also from a self-confidence based on knowledge of his own strength and competence.  He would not let anybody take advantage of him.

My mother was kind to everyone, but she had genteel standards of behavior, which included good table manners, correct grammar, no cursing and swearing, no dirty jokes and no racist epithets or remarks.

My mother was the daughter of a lawyer who’d fallen on hard times.  My father was the son of a poor farmer whose life consisted of unending physical labor.  My maternal grandfather died in bed.  My father’s father was found dead in his barn one day where he’d gone to do the morning milking.

Both my mother and my father were respected members of their community.  My mother was a school teacher all her working life, and lived to see the children and grandchildren of her first pupils pulling strings to get their own children into Mrs. Ebersole’s class.

My father was part of the first generation of his family to attend college, which is where he met my mother.  He had a varied career; at the time I was born, he was a clerk for the Works Progress Administration (WPA).    He ended up as a civil servant in the Maryland State Employment Service, which administered unemployment compensation benefits and a job referral service for the unemployed.

When he reached retirement age, he chose not to retire, which was contrary to the plans of his superiors.  They sent someone—who happened to be a black man—to take over the duties of his office, while my father sat on the sidelines.  He understood what was going on, and decided to retire after all.

He had no resentment of the black man who replaced him.  On the contrary, he praised him.  He said the man had the quality he most respected—”quiet competence”



Both my parents taught me to treat everyone with courtesy and respect, unless and until I had a good reason not to.  My mother in addition taught me to think of racism as both unjust and low-class.

In those days Maryland schools were still segregated.  I had a black playmate named Jim Tyler when I was a small boy.  He was a member of the Tim Mix Ralston Straightshooters club I organized, which was based on living up to the ideals of Tom Mix, the hero of a radio serial, and eating Shredded Ralston breakfast cereal.   As I grew older, I lost touch with him and never thought about him.

I was bookish, precocious and opinionated, and included to argue with my elders about matters of race and other things, mostly to their amusement.

“Be honest, Phil,” they would say.  “Would you be willing to have one of them marry your sister?”

I would answer that I didn’t have a sister, but if I did have a sister, in the highly unlikely event that she wanted to marry a black man, I wouldn’t be happy about it, but, if she really loved him, I could accept it.

The attitude of my elders was that I would give up my foolish theories when I became a mature adult.  Neither of these things happened.


College Days

At the age of 15, I won a Ford Foundation Pre-Induction Scholarship to the University of Wisconsin.   This scholarship enabled boys to go from the 10th grade of high school directly to college, on the theory that they could complete their college educations before becoming eligible to go fight in the Korean Conflict.   I learned later I got the scholarship based on a form of affirmative action.

Prof. Herbert Howe, who administered the scholarship program for the University of Wisconsin, initially decided to award the scholarship based on test scores and the letter of application.

What happened was that all the applicants with the highest test scores were from two high schools in New York City, the Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant High School.   In the interests of diversity, Prof. Howe decided to restrict students of those high schools to 50 percent of the scholarships, and to set aside 10 percent for Wisconsin residents.

He told me later that my own test scores were little better than average.   He decided to take a chance on me because I was an interesting outlier—someone who chose to be tested in history and English rather than the sciences, and someone from a rural high school in the South (he thought of Maryland as the South) rather than a big city.

My college grades were all right, but below the Ford average.  My subsequent career was all right, but not as distinguished as my college classmates.  All the arguments against affirmative action applied to me.

I don’t feel guilty or embarrassed about having taken advantage of an opportunity that was offered to me.  I don’t criticize anybody for taking advantage of an opportunity that is offered to them.

During the time I was in the program, I knew of no black Ford scholar.  Maybe there was one later or at a different college.  I never thought about this at the time.

My student days were the first I ever had a serious conversation with a black person or a Jewish person.   One of my favorite professors was a Dr. Cornelius A. Golightly, a teacher of philosophy.  He was a brilliant man, and kind to me.  I heard that he didn’t get tenure, supposedly because he was a pragmatist, and the philosophy department only wanted logical positivists.

As a student, I wrote for the college newspaper, The Daily Cardinal.  I was a champion of academic freedom, an opponent of Senator Joe McCarthy and an opponent of fraternity charters that excluded black members.


Military Service

After graduating from college in 1956, I volunteered for military service, including two years active duty.  This was in peacetime, and military service can be a good experience in peacetime.

The U.S. armed forces were probably the most diverse and multicultural institution in American society, and still are.   I met people from even more varied backgrounds than I did in college.  I encountered more black people then in positions of authority than I did for a long time afterward.

Now is as good a place as any to say that I never had any problem taking orders from black people, I never had any fear of black people and I never, so far as I know, was ever harmed by a black person.


Journalism in Hagerstown, Md.

I worked for The Daily Mail in Hagerstown, Md., from 1958 through 1974.   I made a special effort to write about racial discrimination, civil rights and Hagerstown’s tiny black community, although I was often blundering and naive in the way I went about this.

My friend Jim Yeatts, who was white, married Georgiana Bell, who was black, and I attended their wedding.  The Chief of Police had a detective park in a police cruiser outside and take note of every wedding guest.  That night he phoned my publisher to let him know that I was the kind of person who’d attend an interracial wedding.  I never thought my job was in danger, but this shows the predominant attitude in those days.

The story I’m proudest of having written was about a black riot when Gov. George Wallace of Alabama came to town during his 1972 presidential campaign.   The Wallace staff had a policy had a policy of having campaign appearances on National Guard armories, and the armory in Hagerstown was on the outskirts of the black community.

In the middle of Wallace’s speech, a group of young black men started to interrupt Wallace’s speech by chanting.  Their leader was named Ken Mason.  He happened to be the son of Bill Mason, the chief sheriff’s deputy, whose appointment was resented by white racist rank-and-file deputies.     A group of deputies grabbed Mason and started beating him, while a city detective blocked me from getting close enough to see what was going on.

I was later able to quote eyewitnesses, including the chair of the local Wallace for President committee, as to what happened.  He was willing to speak to me because I had always reported on the Wallace people fairly.

Anyhow, I ran over to the nearby county jail, which was besieged by angry black people.  They went on a rampage all that night, but only within their own neighborhood, which, however, was on a main through street.  Bill Mason pleaded in vain to do the obvious thing, which was to set up roadblocks to divert traffic.

None of the heavily armed deputies or police ventured into the riot area.  Only I walked through it—admittedly walking very quickly.

After the bars closed, many drove their cars through the area.  One driver—a recently-discharged combat veteran of Vietnam—was killed by a brick thrown through his windshield.  Ken Mason was later tried and convicted on charges of inciting a riot, and given a suspended sentence.

I was able to write a fair and accurate article as a result of having previously written fair and accurate articles about all concerned.  I am proud that people who wouldn’t talk to each other would talk to me.

As far as I recall, not one black person worked for my newspaper during this period in any capacity.  I hardly ever thought about this, let alone saw it as a problem.


Journalism in Rochester, N.Y.

I worked for the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, N.Y., from 1974 through 1998, the first few years as a copy editor and after 1978 as a reporter for the business news section.

Allan Neuharth, the CEO of Gannett Co. Inc., the D&C’s parent company, was a pioneer in compulsory corporate diversity, both in hiring and news coverage.   He emphasized the hiring not only of women, black people and other minorities, but people from diverse backgrounds—not just graduates of Ivy League colleges.

Neuharth’s great accomplishment was the creation of USA Today, which most people in the journalism world doubted could be done, and a staff drawn solely from elite backgrounds might have been more resistant to his new idea.

His affirmative action policy was, in and of itself, a good thing.   The more varied the backgrounds of a newsroom staff, the less likely they are to operate in a mental bubble and the more likely they are to understand their diverse readers and their communities.

But his commitment to advancing women and minorities also gave him cover for being anti-labor.   Gannett newspapers paid less and provided fewer benefits than average newspapers of their size, but that was overshadowed by his well-publicized anti-racism and feminism.

Our diversity training meetings seemed like exercises in divide and rule.   At one meeting, a staff artist (whom I hadn’t realized was gay) said that gays, women and minorities in the newsroom should join forces against the straight white males.

Later he was made an editor of The Times-Union, the D&C’s sister newspaper.  I have to say that he didn’t do anything in particular that was detrimental to straight white males.

Supervisors were encouraged to promote black employees.  In one case, a young black woman reporter who worked at an adjoining desk was (in my opinion) not being given enough credit for her work by her immediate editor, but was offered a promotion by a higher-level editor, even though she had sense enough to know what she was not prepared for that responsibility.

In another case, a young black guy was given a job that he didn’t have the experience to do.  Somebody no doubt got credit for advancing black employees, but he wasn’t given any help or mentoring.  He carved out a new role as would-be enforcer of racial correctness in news reporting.

Both of them eventually left.  I heard they both did very well in their new jobs.

The white diversity enforcers sought to broaden the definition of diversity to include more and more groups—the deaf, for example.   The black ones were concerned only about the descendants of enslaved black people.  Their interest was in improving the image of the “talented tenth” and not in helping extremely poor black people.

In my last years at Gannett, I became discontented in my job and sent out feelers about job possibilities at other newspapers.   The responses I got were identical.   They told me that they would like to consider my application, but were under orders that their next hire had to be a woman or minority.

I believe their real reason was that they didn’t want me, but wanted me to blame women and minorities rather than age discrimination.


Unitarian Universalism

The Unitarian Universalist Association is an eclectic religious sect, which seeks to draw on the wisdom of all the great religions and traditions.  We like to think of ourselves as being in the forefront of human rights.

I was a member of a Unitarian fellowship in Hagerstown, joined the First Unitarian Church of Rochester when I moved her, and since 1980 or 1981 have been a member of the First Universalist Church of Rochester.

At the time I joined, the Universalist church had a married couple as co-ministers—the Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed, a black American, and Donna Morrison-Reed, a white Canadian.   The congregation was in decline and on the brink of failure when they assumed their ministry.  It was largely due to their leadership that the church survived and flourishes today

I had great respect for Mark and Donna.  Both seemed wise beyond their years.  Both came from elite backgrounds compared to me.

Mark’s father was a distinguished physicist, and his mother was part of the Democratic power structure in Chicago; as a boy, he attended an international school in Switzerland.   But he was a troubled soul, which I did not fully realize until he published his autobiography, In Between.

Because of his background, he didn’t fit into the black community.  Because of his skin color, he was stereotyped by the white community.   Neither saw him as an individual.

He finally carved out a role for himself through writing books such as Black Pioneers in a White Denomination, which as about struggles of black Unitarian ministers against racial prejudice and discrimination in their denomination, and through helping white Unitarian Universalists understand their racial attitudes.   I hope he is happy in that role

My closest black friend in the church was a poor women named Bernice Cook, whom I’ve written about in a previous post.  Even though she had next to nothing herself, she was a friend to everyone and had a huge number of friends, both black and white.   She was a member of an extended family whose different branches included blacks, whites and Seminole Indians.

The Unitarian Universalist Association has a goal of overcoming racial prejudice among its members, especially its white members.  In pursuit of that goal, it has adopted what I call the language of white shaming, which is to accused well-meaning but possibly unaware white people of racism, white privilege and white supremacy.  My next post will be about why I think the use of such language is a bad idea.


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One Response to “My life history as a story of race”

  1. Anne Tanner Says:

    All that time that I sat down the desk from you in Rochester, I never knew much of this. Thanks for the post. I think you may have played yourself down a bit, but I found this fascinating. Anne Tanner


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