Black History Month often focuses on the exceptional, the memorable, the famous—and for good reason. It’s important to honor the accomplishments of the authors, activists, politicians, artists, and revolutionaries from America’s Black communities. But the stories of well-known people are not the only sources of valuable lessons and knowledge.
I was doing research for a story in one of our print magazines and I came across a book called Voices from Black Family Albums, published in 1982. It didn’t directly relate to the story I was working on but I found myself immediately captivated by the whole collection. Some of the stories were funny, some were tragic. Some of the stories felt like a window into the past while others felt 100% applicable to the modern day.
The stories here are powerful not because of their famous speakers, but because of their entirely ordinary nature. This slice of life from Tacoma’s history gives a rare look at our city and country at that point in time. If this resonates with you on any level, I highly recommend visiting the library’s Northwest Room and reading through the rest of them yourself. The following are excerpts from the book.
Voices from Black Family Albums is reproduced from a traveling visual exhibit. Like the exhibit, the book offers glimpses into the past and present of Black families living in the Tacoma-Pierce County area. It reflects what any set of family photographs must reflect—the inescapable consequences of history: slavery, segregation, discrimination. But it reveals something else as well: the ordinary daily lives of Black people—their memories, expectations, cultural heritage and sense of community. The book and the exhibit are about the life history of Black people as lived inside the Black community; to a far lesser extent are they about peoples’ lives as lived in relation to majority society.
Voices from Black Family Albums is a sampling of faces, places and words. It makes no claim to tell the whole “Black experience.” Rather, the book and exhibit were assembled from taped and written life histories generously shared by area residents.
Both book and exhibit came about as part of the All My Somedays Living History Project, sponsored by Pierce County Library and Tacoma Public Library under a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The purpose of the program is to discover how individual and family stories relate to the history of a community, town or nation. As such, the program explores the subtle interface between the personal and the public.
— Dr. Ron Manheimer Director, All My Somedays
All of these ladies were friends, and then all of us kids kind of grew up together. Once a year we would all go to Point Defiance it was a big thing and they would have more food than you can imag- ine. Each year’s gathering was beautiful. They were all really good cooks. We had cakes, pies, chicken, barbecue, potato salad, and you name it. We would stay all day long and just have a ball. I think this must have been a carry-over from the Southern days. When we came to Tacoma in 1943, there were very few Black people here. When you’d get ready to go get on the city bus to go downtown, people would look at you, because you were Black, like you were strange.
Standing on the platform, my surplus Army duffle bag slung over my shoulder, I looked up at lead-gray skies. The aroma of Tacoma attacked my nostrils. Dirty brick buildings across Pacific Avenue looked cold and foreboding. Watching the train round the bend on its way to Seattle, I felt a chill and asked myself, “Lord, what have I done?”
I’d come to Tacoma for the most part sight unseen. In April of that year, a week before the earthquake, I’d passed through. That Tacoma aroma had been tough that day in 1965, but today it was nauseating.
I went to my reserved room at the YMCA. After a nap, I stepped outside, only to inhale lungsful of that rancid Tacoma air. I remember thinking, I’d better become acclimated quickly; I was home now. I’d come to Tacoma because there was no Black funeral director in business here. I’d made my decision to open a funeral home to serve all races.
I stood on the sidewalk in front of 714 Market Street. A slight feeling of contentment began to ease my soul, even as I gagged on the foul air, even as I felt the wretched pangs of loneliness. I had taken the first step in setting up my residence in Tacoma.
They wanted to send me to Viet Nam in the sixties during the time of the race riots, and although I had stayed in the Army and made a career out of it, I still did not like it. I only stayed because it was the only way I could support my family.
When I was fighting in Korea for my country, a white salesman approached my mother, who was sitting on the front porch shelling beans, and asked her if she wanted to buy something he was selling. She said Naw thank you. And he tried several times to persuade her by offering to lower the price and finally to outright give it to her. But after each offer she said Naw thank you. He became angry and pulled out his pistol. He stuck it in her face and said “Nigger you know you want it.” When my mother wrote and told me, it made me mad. I was fighting in Korea and for what? Someone should have been over here fighting for us.
So when they wanted to send me to Viet Nam I wouldn’t go. With the race riots going on over here, I had no place or business fighting over there; my fight was over here, with the oppression that we were experiencing. So in 1966 I quit. I got out.
I don’t remember there ever being a Black Santa. I know there were times when you couldn’t try on clothes, so I am thinking, How would they let my son sit on a white Santa’s lap? In Texas in the 1950s, Black people were not allowed to try on clothes before we bought them. They did not use the word “Black.” They said “colored.”
I encountered the worst kind of racism in Detroit. Texas wasn’t as bad, because you knew what to expect in Texas. You knew you had only one day a week when you could go downtown to a movie or whatever. There was usually a day set aside for going to the park. Black people were not entirely excluded. But the races were separated from one another. You knew your place. People were friendly. In Detroit, you were supposed to be able to go anywhere, anytime, but there were certain places that you did not go to, ever.
This is a picture of the Soulful Santa—Jimmie Lee, city planner—and one of his favorite admirers, Tamara Anderson. For the past five years, Jimmie has enthusiastically played the role of Santa Claus for the Kay Street Boosters, serving as one of their celebrity Santas.
When asked why he does it, he says, “I love to play the role of the Soulful Santa because it gives Black children a Santa they can relate to. And besides, it is an opportunity for me to let the kid inside me out and have a great time.”
My grandmother’s sister is still living. This is a picture of her on the left. My grandmother, on the right, was fathered by a Black man, and Aunt Cora by a White man. They have the same mother, but they have different dads. Every other child in the family was by a White man.
You see, they were slaves. The White man who owned them could tell their mother that she couldn’t have her husband, any night he wanted to, because he was going to have her himself. She would have to tell her husband, and he would have to stay away, and he couldn’t do nothing about it and live. They had no choice. They had to survive. So I think she had about six kids by the White man and six of her own. And these are the only two I know about.
My husband Hardy Crisp and the twins. I think they were about two months old there, maybe three.
This is in Salishan; we got us a place out there after the twins were born. I didn’t know I had twins till the seventh month. I cried! “Oh, I don’t know what to do with two babies!” Even though I knew how to care for children, I didn’t want to start out with two babies. I was only twenty. And at the time Crisp was making 92¢ an hour.
They were little devils. But Crisp had the chest way out to here! You better believe it! “Twins – look what I did!”
Mother wanted us to see how she was reared. What she had to grow up under. But my dad did not like any parts of that life, and he didn’t care if we didn’t know about it. He was from Mississippi, so he lived the same kind of life she had lived in Louisiana. He said he didn’t see that it was necessary.
He said let them read it in the books. He was a stickler on schools. My daddy’s mother was a schoolteacher, see. And my dad to this day will read, read, read. He’ll tell you, still, read anything just as long as you read. Mother did not get the education that my dad did, but she wanted us to know these things.
Although I was a very proud Black man, I still doubted that I could succeed in college. In Oklahoma, where I came from, I probably would not have made it. Fortunately, my wife had faith in me. She enrolled us in night school without my knowledge, and convinced me to go to the first night of classes by saying that we were going to Tacoma Community College to hear Dick Gregory speak. This was a lie, but it got me into the classroom.
I produced a 4-point GPA my first quarter at TCC. This was great. I had a new view of my abilities. So my wife and I decided that I would go to school full time in the Fall on a basketball scholarship. Black males are programmed to believe that we can only make it through college with financial aid if we play sports; and I was very good at basketball. I made the basketball team, but after my first six weeks of full-time study, I decided that I really didn’t want to play basketball. I decided to make it through college using my academic talent to get the scholarship I needed. I told my coach that there were enough Black athletes and that we needed more Black scholars. He laughed in my face and said, “I’ll see you next season.”
But he never saw me try out for any sport. My first-year grades were so good that I won the Ford Foundation Scholarship, and a grant from the Back-a-Brother Program at the University of Puget Sound. This and the G.I. Bill were enough to support me through the next three years of college.
I am proud that I set my goals high. When I graduated from TCC, I was so full of pride that I glowed. When my wife and I entered UPS together, I knew I had conquered the world. I am Black and I am Proud and I am a Scholar.
The following people contributed the stories and photographs. However, the names were not associated with individual photos or statements.