My buddy and I had ridden our bikes several blocks to the northwest – farther than we were supposed to. The sun was going down, and we knew it was time to head home. But we looked at the forbidden land just a hundred feet or so away.
That was where they lived, and it was pretty much where they stayed. From years of hearing stories, I imagined streets where chaos ruled. Where knives flickered in every direction, and people lived in ramshackle huts. Where a white man would be dead in minutes if he dared stepped over the line. In my imagination, there was an eerie glow over the neighborhood.
“You ever noticed they all have big scars down their faces? That’s from all the knife fights,” my buddy said. Darkness was coming on fast, and without saying any more, we turned our bikes around and pedaled back to our Crestwood homes.
The word wasn’t shocking in those days, and neither was the notion of having such a place as Niggertown. They had to live somewhere, after all. And they were kept there – not only by law, but by the banking practice known as “redlining,” which continued well into the 1980s and possibly beyond. The “red line” was the boundary defining where a bank would lend money, and where it wouldn’t.
It was part of complex system that had evolved to ensure that black people never threatened the established order in which whites were superior. If you couldn’t get a mortgage, you couldn’t build a nice home. And you couldn’t build equity and accumulate a measure of wealth to pass on to your kids.
A.G. Gaston, the brilliant businessman who happened to be black, earned a fortune by lending inside the red lines. My own grandfather, a klansman with a fourth grade education, crossed the red line in a different way – by acting as an itinerant pawn broker for black co-workers in the foundry where he worked. If you ever needed a watch, he had plenty to sell.
Everything about society in Birmingham in the 1950s and 1960s was orchestrated to keep the races separated. There were – by law – white and “negro” schools, and they didn’t play each other in football. (That would have required that they touch each other.) They didn’t enter theaters by the same door, or use the same restrooms, or sit together on the bus. Each bus had a white line that divided the white section from the “colored” section – a rule that annoyed me, because that long seat in the back of the bus looked like a really fun place to sit.
And always, there was the assumption that black people were less than human. Once, I was sitting in the car with my dad when a flamboyantly feminine black man walked across the street. Dad asked, with a puzzled look, “Can niggers be queer?”
The funny thing is, Dad refused to vote for George Wallace. Sure, as an official of the bus system, he favored and enforced the separated seating. And he worked regular shifts as a “color guard” keeping black people from invading our worship at Woodlawn Baptist Church. But Wallace’s brand of racism went into a place where my father couldn’t go. It was a strange tension between ideas, but it made sense at the time. I can’t explain it; you just had to be there.
But that’s all behind us, right?
Let’s look at it this way. Birmingham today, according to the U.S. Census (2013 estimate) is 73% black. Median household income is $31,445, and in the recent ACT Plan scores, 4.84% of Birmingham’s 10th graders met or exceeded math standards.
Meanwhile, in the area’s wealthiest over-the-mountain community of Mountain Brook, which is only 1% black, the median household income is more than four times that — $131,281. And 73% of that white city’s students met or exceeded the state’s math standards.
Vestavia Hills, similarly, is only 3.8% black and has a median household income of $81,067. And 54% of its 10th graders met or exceeded the standards.
This gets complicated very quickly. Do Birmingham students do poorly because nearly three-fourths of them are black? Or because they’re poor? Are they poor because black people are inferior?
Or is it, maybe, because even now – two generations later – we still have Niggertowns, where people still find it hard overcome generations of rules that were designed to keep them separated?