Coming of Age at Alexander Hamilton Junior High School

A black teen during the ’60s, our writer navigates Cleveland’s daunting racial geography: the foreign manners of his white classmates, the seductive anger of the kids on his street. Would he find his way?

Every day in fall 1960, when I was in fifth grade, I left my almost all-black neighborhood on East 137th Street in Cleveland, rode the No. 14 bus down Kinsman Road and arrived at 93rd and Kinsman in another country.

Old women passed, pulling wire carts as they might in the World Book Encyclopedia’s pictures of Krakow or Warsaw. They bustled by me, heads down, muttering to themselves. At the school entrance, I might see such a tiny elderly woman — Polish, Hungarian or Serbian — approach a nun, whose black robes billowed in the wind, and kiss the ring on her finger.

Photo Courtesy of the Cleveland Public Library/ Photograph Collection

I had rarely seen as many white people as I did in my new classroom at Boulevard Elementary, where I was starting classes in Cleveland’s program for gifted students. Boys and girls my age now filled my view, their names studded with strange consonants. I gazed at them with incomprehension. The white girls wore tiny crucifixes on golden chains around their necks. In nervousness or boredom, they extracted prayer beads of coral, green and earthy brown.

Most imposing were the classmates who impressed everyone. Bobby Pawlek, a long, lanky boy, could beat anyone in the class at chess. Small, gentle Dale Weimer, her brown hair cut like a bowl’s rim across her forehead, wore short dresses, black leotards and velvet shoes shaped like dance slippers. She already held the teacher’s attention while describing books or pictures.

Amid such classmates, I discovered my insignificance. I was a voracious reader, absorbed every night in charts of bird species, frontier families, Robert Fulton and the steam engine, the Mayan calendar, the building of Brasilia, Czar Peter the First, the travels of Marco Polo. With all those images and ideas running through my head, I had fancied myself a special person. But among other gifted children, I was unexceptional.

Within three weeks, my awkwardness at my new school filled me with fear, anger and resentment — which is how I responded to our class-graded, 20-minute oral presentations. An exceptional talk could receive an A-plus, but only by unanimous vote.

Dale Weimer gave a stunning talk, and the teacher held a second poll to decide whether to give her an A-plus. Filled with spite, I alone voted against the grade. The class reeled with shock. William West, a stocky, popular black student — perhaps representing the class — appealed to me during recess. I held my ground. Dale Weimer received only an A. For a moment, my competitive position seemed promising.

Photo Courtesy of CSU/ Press Collection

The class, however, was outraged — angered, it seemed, more by the flouting of their will than by any real concern for Dale. And their anger deepened when I refused to relent, bitterly defending my vote. Their contempt took the form of ostracism. I was consulted about group projects no longer. A total outsider in the class, I turned to the room’s encyclopedias and atlases.
Alone, I searched my imagination for my classmates’ place in my accustomed world. I decided they reminded me of the green, winding plants in the one other place where I had seen so many white people: Segelin’s, a large garden supply store on Carnegie a few blocks from our church, Antioch Baptist on 89th and Cedar. Among the clay pots and sacks of fertilizer, one might find a brilliant orange or pink flower. There my father once pointed out to me the pink, bulbous head of Louis Seltzer, then editor of the Cleveland Press.

Looking at him, I remembered Janice, a girl a year or so behind me at Boulevard. She was very blond, her arms — pink with a slight glow — covered with thin, brown hair. She probably was as afraid of me as of any other city black. I thought of her glow as tropical, brightly poisonous, like some hothouse flower.

In time, I seized upon my oddness as license to do whatever I pleased. I approached Janice to inquire what she had done that weekend. She informed me that she and her family had gone to Sokol Tyrs, a neighborhood community center where she performed gymnastics. I imagined her in a black leotard on a trampoline. I must have stared, for she blushed. The privacy of her neighborhood life — wholly apart from blacks — had been invaded. My father had told me that Italian and Hungarian gangs chased blacks away from their turfs bordering University Circle, where I took music lessons. Summoning up Janice in her leotards, I had clearly crossed one such racial line.

I did not listen to the rhythm and blues and jazz on the local radio stations, but I knew the music from the quick dance steps two black classmates in short dresses performed between classes and during recess. One weekend in the car, I listened with my father to Tommy Dorsey’s big band music or to the Texaco Opera program. I took piano lessons at Boulevard on weekdays and at the Cleveland Institute of Music on Saturdays.

Every few months, the piano teacher at Boulevard held a recital. My parents attended these events, relieved that I was doing well at some socially acceptable activity. The white principal, who greeted other parents at the door, did not acknowledge my mother. Quietly walking down an aisle, wearing a simple flowered dress, Mom would sit silently in the front row. My father, who worked until late afternoon, arrived after the performance had begun. To my eye, as he walked in wearing a white shirt, black pants and a tie under his dark wool coat, he carried himself with the easy dignity of the bank officers at Society National. He, too, went unacknowledged. I realized then that for all my parents’ love for Cleveland, they were strangers here too.

The year I finished sixth grade, my parents — alarmed at the deterioration of the Mount Pleasant neighborhood — moved to the Lee-Harvard area, which had only recently been integrated. This was my first encounter with Cleveland’s odd racial geography. The move meant another long bus ride for me. Since Lee-Harvard’s Charles W. Eliot Junior High School had no enrichment classes, I attended Alexander Hamilton, a junior high on the Mount Pleasant border, for seventh grade.

Every morning I took two buses back to the neighborhood my parents had just escaped for a strange homecoming with my Robert Fulton classmates whom I had left to attend Boulevard.

My parents discussed the ironies of it all at the dinner table. They had departed Mount Pleasant as it filled with black newcomers from the inner city. Years earlier, when they had moved into Mount Pleasant, both the Eastern European immigrants and the black middle class were leaving.

The whites went to the suburbs emerging on Cleveland’s southwest and southeast. The blacks settled in once-white, middle-class neighborhoods just inside the city limits, such as Lee-Harvard. A few years later, they would move on to Shaker Heights or Cleveland Heights. The black bourgeoisie and white immigrants left behind a wasteland. Eager real estate agents sold houses there at inflated prices to their desperate, striving, inner-city clientele. The increasing presence of blacks induced the remaining whites to leave.

By the time we moved to Lee-Harvard, blacks had already arrived in numbers. And any black’s appearance in a neighborhood, my mother eventually observed, foreshadowed the darkening of the entire block. As I walked the street on Saturday morning, groups of boys, 13 to 15 years old, wearing jeans and ragged T-shirts, swaggered with a stride called the “pimp walk.” Their long steps and swinging arms announced their angry possession of Lee-Harvard. And they’d say as much to anyone who’d listen: They wouldn’t tolerate any white boys — meaning the whites who lived across the nearby Shaker Heights line. Even the streets seemed to submit to their transistor radio blaring RandB.

Watching these boys, I reflected that they, like my parents, had discovered that blacks were unwelcome in Cleveland’s white ethnic world. That knowledge had made them angry. They glared at me, a newcomer. Would I join them or was I chickenshit? I looked back at them, saw the anger that had welled up within me at Boulevard, and was horrified.

Similar young, volatile blacks surrounded me at Alexander Hamilton. They filled my homeroom each morning and mobbed the halls between classes. As my marks declined in the eighth and ninth grades, I gradually admitted our academic kinship.

Near the end of the seventh grade, I dawdled to the bus stop, found myself already late for school and decided to cut class. Drifting around Lee-Harvard, I caught the 56A two stops farther ahead than my accustomed stop at East 173rd Street and Walden. I got off the bus at 135th and Corlett.
Enlivened by my daring, I bought a cake from a tall, large-veined, suspicious woman at a Hungarian bakery. She apparently spoke little English. Her equally bad-tempered sister probably handled the store’s business. Neither liked the black teenagers who drifted into the shop. Such stragglers routinely stole from the opened window display. Sometimes the sisters called the police, who often nabbed by-standing students and drove them away in squad cars. Cleveland’s juvenile courts did not trifle with such offenders. A conviction might, the word was, lead to reform school. A second rap might mean worse.

Remembering all this, I became alarmed and hurried out of the shop. I rushed to the school’s guidance office to answer for my tardiness with a confected excuse that left me unscathed. I had never been late before, so I was sent to class not detention, which was limited to repeat offenders.

My academic performance continued to deteriorate. Seated in algebra classes according to average, I found myself among the very worst performers. I was more convinced than ever of my mediocrity. I felt my earlier hopeful self mocking me. Indistinguishable from the goof-offs around me, I spent my time gazing at Evelyn Nowacki’s long-stockinged legs.

My classmates now wore the shiny pants, pointed shoes and silky knits advertised in the Kinsman shop windows. The clothes shimmered with the brassy rhythms of the records on WJMO, the beat of the boys pimping down my street. This throbbing spread through me. Distracted by any female shape, my eyes followed my slender, blond algebra teacher, not the equations on the blackboard. A girl’s partially unbuttoned blouse or the lift of her breast as she yawned might wholly unhinge my attention.

My confusions deepened as my father warned me about sex while tending the lawns late Saturday afternoon. He was a custodian in inner-city schools. He had seen the horrors there: young girls with babies, allegations of teachers shot in high schools. All of this disgusted him. Out in
the yard, his anger boiled. Although these warnings inhibited me from speaking to a girl in any but the most formal way, they could not control my dreams.

My mother told me once in passing that my father would rather go to the electric chair than raise a sexually promiscuous child. Night after night, I fantasized myself strapped into the death instrument, only to be reprieved by wakefulness. My classmates’ tales of their escapades among the Kinsman prostitutes burned daily in my ears. My parents, insisting that I dress in chinos, blue oxford shirts and loafers, perhaps understood my emerging feelings too well.

As a paperboy for The Plain Dealer, I was greeted by RandB sounds at my customers’ doors as I made collections. The music sinuously suggested the rage of Cleveland’s black East Side as the city’s population tilted toward a Negro majority. The tunes seemed a soundtrack for Cleveland’s most outrageous racial events: brutal murders, the arrest of numbers runners. Once, at school, I saw a black teacher arguing with a small group of black boys. Cassius Clay — not yet Mohammed Ali — had just beaten Sonny Liston, and the boys waved a newspaper depicting a triumphant Clay. As the teacher answered, the students swelled and pressed upon him. The teacher grew quiet. His face dropped, and he quickly left the room.

I did not escape these confrontations at school. Unable to open a locker, I asked a teacher for help. When the effort was unsuccessful, the short, squat, white assistant principal appeared and insisted I help him. We finally succeeded, tugging with all our might. Puffing and sweaty-faced, he demanded to know why I had not opened the door myself. “What is the matter with you?” he asked. “Are you a faggot?”

I stood shocked. It was a telling, if rhetorical, question. By the word “faggot,” he meant my weakness, my clumsiness. He insulted me sexually to fling a racial taunt. Was I not, the assistant principal was implying, one of those tough niggers who confronted him face-to-face every day in the hall?

I was outraged. Why had I been so good? Outside my homeroom door strolled angry black boys, claiming freedom from any restraint, most of all their own. Afraid, the assistant principal parked his car out of their sight. That was something to consider.

The violence of my thoughts had never goaded me to action, but during summer school, when I was taking algebra, a large swarm of blacks outside the Hungarian bakery did.

The crowd poured into the street one noon, swirling with energy. Some drifted into the store. The two proprietors usually communicated to their young black customers with pointed fingers and grunts. During an exchange with the women, the blacks took offense, and a tall, silk-shirted youth demanded — improbably — a large cake on a far shelf in the display window. At a loss, one of the sisters opened a case door, leaving the opposite end ajar.

From the opened display, the youths grabbed buns, cakes and pies. As the crowd grew, the pilfering became a spree. I ran out of the store into the waiting 56A, but the driver had parked his vehicle.

Inside the now-filled store, the glass windows leaned and swayed under the students’ weight. Two policemen arrived, inadequate to their task. Four squad cars appeared. The shopkeepers disappeared, their display case emptied.

Two policemen stormed the bus, angry with frustration, and accidentally brushed the new yellow calfskin shoes of a skinny, arrogant light-skinned boy who lived across the street from me. “Don’t they teach you cops any manners?” he yelled.

“You, get off the bus!” one of the policemen demanded, taking him out. The crowd watched.

The police talked to the boy, then returned him to the bus. The crowd greeted the cop with laughter.

“You stupid motherfuckers,” an anonymous voice called as the policeman turned his back to leave. He looked around, unable to distinguish the speaker among the black faces. Hopelessly, he walked out.

“Faggot,” I yelled as he turned.

Not bothering to look, the cop shrugged his shoulders, leaving the bus. The crowd outside had drifted away. The policemen drove off.

I still felt some sympathies with the street boys the rest of that summer, but something changed. I received an A in summer school algebra. My pediatrician, Dr. Henry Saunders, growled that I had a brain if I used it.

In ninth grade the next year, I remained bitter toward most of my teachers, who had feared a black majority and now despaired at our presence. But I warmed up to the brilliant exceptions. Mildred Brady, a slender, smart, 40ish woman, was my first black literature teacher. She taught French lit to some very restless black students, who were finding it easier to laugh at, rather than with, Molière. She liked to speak a few words to her few remaining Italian students in their native tongue. Mr. Pfeiffer, a large white math teacher, made logic real to me in geometry.

I had made a connection between the bookish world inside myself and the grove of academia outside. That June my anger had also been released. It had floated aloft and dissolved, like one of those wispy cirrus clouds in the hot Cleveland summer sky. Something that looked like hope remained. I seized upon it gratefully. I began to feel lucky, exceptional. My mother noted one day that I had begun to smile.

Phillip Richards is an English professor at Colgate University.

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