By Ken Karch
It came out of the blue. An assignment for me from my social studies teacher. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t know it was coming – after all, my social studies teacher seemed to know what she was doing. She was about 60 and had bags under her arms that shook when she wrote on the blackboard. She’d been at my grade school since Adam and Eve. Would I ever be that old?
I was 13 and we were studying the US, state, and local government. Endless memorizing of names and dates, presidents, and cabinets. How laws were passed. All the stuff that bored an A student who just wanted to get out and play baseball. Or go into the local mom and pop grocery store and try to filch cigarettes when the clerk was not looking. We had this neat hiding place in an abandoned coal storage yard about two blocks from my house where the old Chicago Northwestern used to store coal for its steam engines. It had been closed down for several years as diesel engines began to replace them, and it made a good hiding place to smoke and read dirty magazines. I lived on the south side of the tracks, so I could do that. The north siders all had their noses in the air. The railroad tracks divided the community.
My assignment was to meet and interview Percy Julian, Jr., the son of a prize winning chemist (someone said Nobel Prize, but I wasn’t sure what was so important about that). He was exactly my age, but he went to one of the 9 other grade schools in our community – Oak Park, Illinois. The home of Frank Lloyd Wright and Ernest Hemingway. The world’s largest village (60,000 people in 1940). The village of churches (over 100 of them). And dry – no taverns. Oak Parkers were good people.
And Oak Park was lily white in the early 50s.
But Percy’s family was black. The first black family to move into Oak Park. A big house on the north side. His father was obviously well to do – probably from the chemical formulations he’d developed. And one night a shortly after they’d moved in, it was bombed. No one was hurt physically, but the message was clear – we don’t want you here. My assignment was to visit with Percy, Jr., meet his family, and report back to the class my impressions. Trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, with my level of political sophistication at the time.
My visit was arranged, short, and pleasant. I wondered in later years how much my father influenced this event. A life-long Democrat, his political hero was Norman Thomas, many-time Socialist candidate for President. Always a quiet champion for civil rights.
Many Oak Parkers had rallied around the family after the bombing, trying to figure out ways to calm the divided community. I reported back to my class my impressions of the really important stuff – the bowling alley in the basement and the story of the smell of explosives. They were nice people. Why would anyone want to chase them away?
Following this encounter, for the next four or five years, Percy and I became good friends in high school, working on a number of high school projects together. I remember with great admiration Carol C., who went to the Junior Prom with Percy – a courageous step for both. When graduation came, we separated and went our own ways.
The assignment had clearly made an impression on me. Three years after the interview, at 16, I presented a seminar on prejudice to my church’s adult group, and listened to the still all-white audience, including my girl friend’s grandfather, rail about property values coming down if blacks moved in. Later I realized that Bertrand Russell was probably right when he said that the trouble with Christianity is not that it’s been tried and found wanting, but that it hasn’t been tried.
That same year, while passing through Little Rock as we were heading south for a vacation, I saw the “whites only” rest rooms in gas stations and restaurants, and realized how big an issue this was. Later, I got involved in the civil rights movement, but that is another story.
I learned some time ago that my friend Percy, Jr. had passed a way, after a distinguished career in civil rights.
A few years ago, I chanced to go back to Oak Park to see the old places I came to know so well during my first 20 years. And now, the grade school I attended in the early 50s, Nathaniel Hawthorne, has been renamed Percy Julian Middle School.
More on the Julian’s story is available at the Washington Post.Print This Post