restricted access 1. Growing Up in Memphis
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~ 1 ~ Growing Up in Memphis Because of the friendly feeling that I have for Negroes, especially many Negro friends who I hold in esteem and affectionate regard, it is with reluctance that I call attention to weaknesses common in the race. But since these multitudes of Negroes have joined together with others in pressure groups to force on us national programs that would mean calamity to our posterity, there seems to be no honorable choice but to inform the public of what appears to be in store for us if we yield to these pressures. If we can continue to develop a program of friendly cooperation between the races, with separateness in social life, we can go forward in promoting the talents of the white man and the Negro and can contribute to the welfare and happiness of both. Otherwise, tragedy lies ahead for the American people. — a declaration by the society for the preservation of state government and racial integrity, louisiana, 1955 I n late summer of 1959, I was preparing to leave the small world where everything I was—and to some degree much of what I am still— had come into focus. At such times, when we approach the boundaries between the confines of childhood and the larger world of adults, a fog of excitement about what is to come reduces our ability to reflect on what we are leaving behind. It seems to me now that the courage and endurance that was to characterize my experience in the next five years was a potent legacy of the small world of South Memphis where I grew up in the late 1940s and 1950s. In those days, black Memphis was a separate and isolated society. Even though the heavy hand of white oppression was everywhere, I didn’t connect the dots and recognize that mine was a small intertwined world in the grip of the larger white-dominated society. In the midst of this slow-burning violence , my family managed to create an insular yet supportive little world off 10 the education of a black radical the corner of Mississippi and Walker in South Memphis. I am told that I was born in 1941 in a little shotgun house—about as plain and functional a home as it is possible to imagine—off Mississippi Boulevard, on Wicks Street. It was a quiet and sheltered place to be born, full of hope and gentle wisdom. My earliest memory of that world is of a rented duplex on Ford Place, significant in my mind later as our next-door neighbor was a girlfriend of the man who was to become the legendary B. B King. He would saunter down the street, guitar under arm, to court one of two sisters. Ford Place was a block of wood-frame shotgun and duplex houses. It was sandwiched between Mississippi Boulevard one block west—the major business and residential thoroughfare in black Memphis—and Porter Street, a block east. Porter Street was the western boundary of the city’s largest public housing project, LeMoyne Gardens. Not far away was the kindergarten and grade school where my long encounter with education would begin. A few years later, we moved to a nicer duplex three houses up, which my grandfather, D. A. Bailey, built for us. D. A. held a prominent place in our small, sequestered community. As a builder and contractor, he was a man strong and intelligent enough to negotiate the thicket of oppression to help create for us this haven of strength. I am named after D. A., whom my brother and I called “Papa.” Actually, his name was spelled “Darmy” and pronounced “Dee Army.” He went by the initials “D. A.” in an apparent effort to simplify a name given to him, as family lore tells it, by a Gypsy midwife in Mississippi. Like Papa, I struggled with the name, so between the eleventh and twelfth grades I added the apostrophe and made the A uppercase in the hope that friends would pronounce it correctly rather than call me “Darmie.” The family story goes that Papa was born to Ferry and Mary Jane Bailey in Michigan City, Mississippi, a country area fifty-seven miles away along the Tennessee-Mississippi border. After his father died in 1922, Papa, with his older brother, Uncle Albert, moved to Memphis—often called the largest city in Mississippi—as young men seeking a larger opportunity. Papa’s first wife, Georgia Sease Bailey, had died when my...


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