As a child, living in the south, the possibilities for cultural enrichment were limited, because of segregation.1 We couldn’t go to museums or we had no outlets to improve our ideas or expand our notions of the world. So, that was the problem with segregation. You were confined. The confinement continues, but it’s taken a different shape. So, though African-Americans have more freedom and are less restricted, there’s still sort of like a psychological, cultural, and political confinement. But Chattanooga looked quite different during my recent visit there, than what I remember in the 1940s. There seemed to be more enlightenment and more diversity, and opportunities for African-Americans than I recall.


My uncle, with whom I stayed as my mother was trying to explore job opportunities in Buffalo, was very unusual in that he had learned a craft, he was a tailor, and he was the only African-American in our ghetto, who went to work in a suit every day. He worked at the downtown department store, Miller Brothers. And so, I remained with him for some months, and learned a lot from him, and he became a role model of mine.


Now, one of the reasons I defend Booker T. Washington, is that well, the Southerners had a different idea about Booker T. Washington than people in the North, was that it was because of my uncle studying with a cousin, who had graduated from Tuskegee, that my uncle learned the craft of tailoring, so that he could provide for his family. Now, also, later my mother wrote a book, her memoirs, called Black Girl from Tannery Flats. And she and my grandmother had jobs with the wealthy whites in the mountains. And they learned some of the strategies that they used to survive.2


So, if you were a black person in the south, and you had a powerful or important white people on your side, your life could be quite different from the average black person. So, we had a number of crises in our family, all taking place in 1930s. In 1930, my great grandmother, who was my mother’s mentor, died. In 1934, her father was murdered. Sort of like a stand-your-ground situation, where he knocked on the wrong door and was stabbed. It might be more complicated than that, but that’s the family story.


In 1938, I was born. And my natural father didn’t offer my mother any kind of support. But during all those crises — and my grandmother who was diagnosed as schizophrenic, had to be placed in a mental hospital for three years. Now, during that entire period, this powerful family called the Grote’s, a German family, used their power and influence to sort of ease the effects of these problems.

  1. Erroll Garner
  2. Step Up To The Plate
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