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"No Other Life"  
 
Photo by Candace diCarlo  
 
By Gerald Early  

By Gerald Early
Photos from Temple University Urban Archives


In the fall of 1955, my mother became a school crossing guard for the St. Mary Magdalene di Pazzi Catholic School, located on the northeast corner of Seventh and Christian streets in South Philadelphia. My father died in early 1953, when I was about nine months old, and since his death, my mother had been doing work of one sort or another, none of which she found satisfactory. She then went on welfare. Her options were few, as she had not finished high school and could not take a job that would keep her from her children all day or all night. (At the time, my oldest sister was nearly six years old and just starting school.) She did not like being on welfare and desperately searched for another job. It took more than six months for her to get the school crossing-guard job. This job was ideal for her situation, because it was part-time but spread out over the day. No particular segment of the day—the morning opening bell, the lunch hour (children were sent home for lunch in those days of truly neighborhood schools), the afternoon dismissal—required more than 90 minutes of her time. In effect, she didn’t need a baby-sitter.
    The job had two drawbacks. First, welfare rules at that time required that if she took the job she would have to reimburse the government for the amount of relief she received. Second, the school for which she was to serve as crossing guard was an Italian-Catholic institution that did not admit blacks, or indeed anyone who was not Italian-Catholic. Indeed, her employer, the police department of the city of Philadelphia, was hesitant about placing a black woman at that school and would have preferred having a white woman there. I suppose they could not find one. Both of these conditions gave her momentary pause, but she took the job, anyway. In two years, she paid back the government. She kept the job of guiding Italian-Catholic children over Seventh Street and Christian Street for over 20 years. She was never fully aware of the fact that she was, in her way, a civil rights pioneer. In her own minor way, she broke a significant barrier in race relations.
    My mother carried herself with a great deal of dignity; she is very black-skinned and felt she had to. She couldn’t fall back on providing white people the visible comfort of being light-skinned and, thus, from the point of view of the herronvolk, just slightly removed, as it were, from being “one of us,” or at least clearly better than “the rest of them.” Because she wore a uniform—a cap that looked very much like a policeman’s cap, a long, double-breasted blue coat in the winter, a blue jacket, white blouse and gray skirt in milder weather—the Italian kids in the neighborhood called my mother “the lady cop.” The uniform, I think, intensified the dignity my mother brought to the job and made the Italians respect her all the more. As a boy I was certainly proud of her every day I saw her on that corner. She glowed with what I can only call a kind of African nobility transfigured to an American frequency, looking a great deal like her father, who was very black-skinned as well. Surely, the fact that she had the job and was such a success in it had a significant impact on my life. It made it possible for me to grow up among Italian-Catholics, people who under most circumstances loathed African Americans with a passion that took on the grandeur of an artful design. Generally, I liked the Italian-Catholics I lived with very much, even though I knew they were very racist, with the typical resentments and narrow-mindedness of a patriarchal working-class culture that in many ways resembled the black working-class culture that I knew but in some important, vital ways did not. I had learned enough about the Italian-Catholics to know that I did not ever want to be one or to be like one. By the time I was a teenager, I knew I never wanted to be an ethnic.
    However racist they were, their racism was never directed at me. It always went around me, and I was indulged in ways that no other blacks in the neighborhood were. I was always a pretty bookish, studious boy, and far from resenting it or feeling threatened by it, the Italians were extremely supportive of my timid intellectual ambitions. “Jerry, you go to school and make something outta yourself. Don’t be like these bums around here. You a smart boy and you can grow up and be a great man,” our Italian landlady, Mrs. Curci, said to me all the time. They all said that to me—the shop owners, the fruit-stand merchants, the parents of the kids my mother crossed, the kids themselves I played stickball and softball with. I don’t mean to say that I did not have some unpleasant moments with the Italians, but they were very few and they did not bother me much, not because I did not take these racist moments seriously but because I had seen them in other guises and understood, or at least could fully sense, the remarkable complexity of their humanity. My life with black people, both then and subsequently, would have been a great deal easier if the racism of the Italian-Catholics had been more directed at me, or if those few unpleasant episodes had been greater in number.
    The St. Mary Magdalene di Pazzi Catholic Church is located on Montrose Street, one of the those narrow side-streets that Philadelphia is noted for, midway up the block, between Seventh and Eighth. It was founded in 1852 and is the oldest Catholic church in the city. It still sits, cathedral-like, massively medieval in its institutional glory, among the tiny, neat rowhouses as a kind of bulwark of Little Italy against the disorder and squalor, the heroic and rebellious chaos of the blacks who lived just a few blocks away in their own little rowhouses and in the Southwark Plaza Projects at Fifth and Carpenter streets. For that was the unofficial name of the neighborhood in which I grew up: Little Italy. Ironically, the oldest black church in America, Mother Bethel, founded by Richard Allen, is just six or so blocks from St. Mary’s. It is one of the strange facts of history that black people had actually been living in this ward longer than the Italians. People forget that Du Bois’s 1897 classic book, The Philadelphia Negro, was about the very ward that I lived in, anchored by the Mother Bethel Church.

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