Inching towards Integration in Summerville, SC (1954 – 1970)

1970 Summerville Green Wave Basketball team

Note: Despite the academic-sounding title, I’m no historian, so the following is merely a personal remembrance of events that happened a half-century ago. Here’s a link to more legitimate article on Black history in Summerville. 

Like virtually every community in the South in the ‘50s and ‘60s, my hometown Summerville, South Carolina, was segregated. Black people could not patronize the town’s movie theater (when it was intermittently open), the bowling alley, restaurants, or laundromats. Even doctors’ waiting rooms were divided into “white” and “colored” sections, the way vets separate cats and dogs.  

Because the schools were “separate but equal,”[1] the only Black children I ever encountered socially were the children of domestics my mother and grandmother occasionally employed.[2] Racism was deeply embedded in my upbringing. Although my parents were kind to Black people – we actually once sheltered a Black boy in our house to protect him from abuse – my parents considered the African American race inferior.[3]

I remember one Saturday when our maid[4] Alice worked, she brought along her daughter Sallie who asked if she could watch Jump Time, a locally produced African American dance show modeled on American Bandstand. Jump Time wasn’t something we would have tuned into ourselves, but my brother David and I acquiesced, foregoing whatever Saturday TV fare we were accustomed to viewing at 1pm. After that visit, I made a point of watching Jump Time when I happened to be home watching TV at that hour. We’re talking the golden age of R&B, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin. And the dancers! They allowed the beat to lead the way, gracefully swaying and juking, turning what to me was a staid social convention into something primal and thrilling.

One small step.

Of course, Brown versus Board of Education had come down years before in 1954, so Summerville Schools were not in compliance with the laws of the land in 1957 when I first placed my hand over my heart and recited the Pledge of Allegiance in Mrs. Wiggins’s first grade class. At some point – I can’t remember the year – as a sort of compromise, the powers-that-were selected a few African Americans to integrate Summerville Elementary School. I suspect these students were chosen not only for their academic talent, but also for their Jackie-Robinson-like ability to withstand a certain amount of bigoted abuse. From my immature perspective, the transition seemed to go smoothly, or at least there was not that public spectacle of abuse that had occurred in Little Rock where Whites stalked Black children, screaming at them as they were escorted to school on the first day of integration. 

Little Rock Seven

After passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1965, our public parks became integrated, and my first co-equal social interactions with students from the Black high school, Alston High, began at the Laurel Street basketball courts. In the late ‘60s, a few of my friends and I joined the Blacks there playing on Saturdays and Sundays and sometimes after school. These Summerville High kids included Gordon Wilson, Tim Miskel, and a few transplants from the North whose names have faded from the fraying annals of my memory.

Players would choose a three-man team to challenge whoever had won the last game, and we played by African American rules. In my subdivision, Twin Oaks, you maneuvered  the ball to back court after a defensive rebound, but here you could tip in an opponent’s missed basket and receive a point. We counted by ones, and eleven was the winning score, though you had to win by two. I don’t recall even an iota of racial tension. 

One glorious sunny afternoon Richard Blalock, Gordon Wilson, and I won three straight games.

Unfortunately, after our third triumph, Carl Whetsell, a Black Summerville High student in my English class, asked me if I knew that two players on the other teams were starters for the Alston Tigers. I passed the info along to Richard and Gordon.  The next time we faced them, we immediately choked, never to beat them again, which suggests, to flip the cliché, that what you do know can hurt you. Anyway, we became friendly with some of our Black competitors, especially with a couple of kids known as Mookie and Tubby.

Once the high school was fully integrated in the academic year 1969-1970, knowing the Laurel Street Alston crew made the transition meaningful for me, and Tubby and Mookie joined us once at a party at Adam Jacobs’s apartment Boone’s Farm from person to person. Our parents would not have been pleased.

A much bigger step.

That year, the integrated basketball team, led by Summerville High’s Sherwood Miler and former Alston High’s George Cooper, made it to the State Finals. Although we lost that game, the very worst of the bad ol’ days of segregation were behind us. Athletics helped enormously in bringing the two races together in our sports-crazed town. People like to win, and when it comes to football, basketball, baseball, volleyball, and track, fielding an all-white team is a disadvantage. 

Black athletes like Harry Blake and Eddie Felder became local heroes in those days, though that is not to say that even they escaped the racial bigotry so entrenched in society, in both the North and the South. Most people weren’t then – and aren’t now – colorblind. The original sin of slavery continues to darken our days as the events of the year 2020 have demonstrated. Nevertheless, compared to many other communities in across the country, Summerville’s integration was, thank goodness, relatively peaceful.


[1] As I typed that phrase, my tongue was lodged firmly in my cheek.

[2] The fact that we were lower middle class suggests how low wages must have been. Of course, no social security taxes were involved. 

[3] This act of mercy was not popular with our neighbors. I was mocked at the bus stop for having a [racial expletive] as a brother. 

[4] I realize the word “maid” has fallen into disfavor, but it doesn’t designate a race and actually sounds better to me than “female domestic servant” or the euphemistic “helper.”  Imagine if Molly Maids changed its name to Dolly Domestic Servants or Molly Domestic Helpers. 

The Ravages That Time Had Wrought

The Wesley Moore at Yeats’s Tower 1979

What shall I do with this absurdity —
O heart, O troubled heart — this caricature,
Decrepit age that has been tied to me
As to a dog’s tail?
WB Yeats, “The Tower”

While Webster was much obsessed with death
And saw the skull beneath the skin,
Yeats was obsessed with the aging process,
The hollow cheek that drank the wind.

Fastened to a dying animal, his soul
Sought solace in a Martello tower
Where he climbed its winding stair
To compose swan songs in his waning hours.

Retrospective poems, autobiographical,
That rehashed old loves and battles fought.
Attempting to come to terms at last
With the ravages that time had wrought.

“No Joy in Mudville”

illustration by Kadir Nelson

When my wife Judy Birdsong received her death-sentence diagnosis of Peripheral T-Cell Lymphoma, I swore to myself that I’d never again let the outcome of a sporting event darken an otherwise sunny day. After all, just a few months before, I had allowed the season-ending injury to Gamecock running back Marcus Lattimore ruin an otherwise glorious afternoon in the mountain town of Saluda, North Carolina. Judy was healthy, bees were flitting among the flowers outside the loft we had rented, and the trees were, as Yeats put it, “in their autumn beauty,” a canopy of orange and gold beneath a deep blue cloudless sky. But there I was sullenly obsessing about a mere athletic event, a tribal association I have with a perpetually underperforming football team, peace and joy squandered, preempted by my agonizing over a goddamned sporting event.[1]

So I more or less gave up following sports, which given the cursed programs I pull for, including not only the hapless Gamecocks, but also the Atlanta sports franchises, was an act of wisdom. For me, “the thrill of victory” doesn’t compensate for the agony of defeat.” 

I followed the Atlanta Braves so religiously in the 90s that I would score the games at home as I watched them on TBS, my boys sitting watching with me as Judy puttered around peeking in every now and then. Eventually, it occurred to me that watching them wasn’t bringing me happiness but instigating anxiety. So I quit cold turkey.

Alas and alack! I’ve fallen off the wagon, have started following the Braves again! And the Gamecocks!

Friday night, instead of going to the Moonlight Drive-In with my wife Caroline and stepdaughter Brooks, I opted to stay at Folly to have my hopes dashed as the Braves squandered a two-run lead with poor base-running and relief pitching in a game had they won would have landed them in the World Series. They had triumphed the night before, which felt pretty good, but didn’t have me awakening in the middle of the night with a warm glow of serenity. 

In the wee hours of Saturday morning, however, my inner superintendent switched on the lights of my consciousness, and the first thing I thought of was the Braves’ defeat. There next to me lay Caroline, fast asleep, looking angelic with her glorious hair cascading from her pillow, and there I was dyspeptic, again allowing what should be a happy moment shadowed by the missteps of multimillionaires playing a game.

I say Fie on it! Fie I say! 


[1] By the way, the Gamecocks play Auburn Saturday, a team they haven’t beaten since 1933.

Doom and Gloom and the Amazon: Halloween Edition

illustration from the Library of Congress

Well, my son Ned who lives in Nuremburg and contracted the Coronavirus early in its planetary conquest, informs me that cases in Germany are again spiking, and sure enough, my phone flashed during last night’s woeful Braves game with the news President Emmanuel Macron has slapped a 9PM to 6AM curfew on the great cities of France. These Post-Christian Europeans with their rational approaches to contagion have been much more adept than we mega-church-building North Americans at containing the disease, so if the virus has returned with a vengeance to that venerable continent, you can bet we’re in store for a not very merry Christmas nor all that happy of a new year.

Add to that dolorous prediction, the reality that roughly half of the US population is going to suffer despair this autumn because their presidential choice will not be inaugurated on January 20th.  

For the Trump faithful, a Biden presidency will bring about the destruction of suburbia. The well-trimmed hedges and lawns of planned communities will soon be covered in the choking kudzu of socialism, with its artificially high minimum wage ushering in hordes of immigrant workers usurping the American way of life. No one will be safe to walk the sidewalks as the police will be defunded and public safety left in the hands of patriotic militias roaming hellscapes in a never-ending dystopian action movie.

For Biden supporters, a Trump presidency means the end of the American experiment as our democratic republic follows Russia, Hungary, and Turkey into the realm of authoritarian kleptocracy. All too soon, they fear, Trump’s visage will appear on Mt. Rushmore while Ivanka’s profile will replace FDR’s on our dimes.[1] A never ending torrent of his mean-spirited and mendacious tweets will corrupt our children with the Trumpian ethos of amorality, and no one will be allowed to protest because fascist militias will terrorize hellscapes in a never-ending dystopian action movie.[2]

Envy, O my brothers and sisters, the tribes of the Amazon. Here’s a snippet from Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosas 1990 novella The Storyteller:

The great trauma that turned the Incas into a people of sleepwalkers and vassals hasn’t yet occurred [among the Amazonian tribes]. We’ve attacked them ferociously, but they’re not beaten. We know now what an atrocity bringing progress, trying to modernize a primitive people, is. Quite simply, it wipes them out. Let’s not commit this crime. Let’s leave them with their arrows, their feathers, their loincloths. When you approach them and observe them with respect, with a little fellow feeling, you realize it’s not right to call them barbarians or backward. Their culture is adequate for their environment and for the conditions they live in. And, what’s more, they have a deep and subtle knowledge of things that we’ve forgotten. The relationship between man and Nature, for instance. Man and the trees, the birds, the rivers, the earth, the sky. Man and God, as well. We don’t even know what the harmony that exists between man and those things can be, since we’ve shattered it forever.”

So, if once again, we find ourselves in lockdown, stuck at home in a quarantine, it might be a good idea to abandon our screens  – this blog included ­– and wander back into the three-dimensional world and pay a bit more attention to “Man and the trees, the birds, the rivers, the earth, the sky. Man and God, as well” as Llosa’s narrator Mascarita suggests.

Oh, yes, and to keep a wary eye out for those militias. 

photograph by Jason Chambers

[1] By the way, when is the last time you’ve meted out change on a counter to pay for something?

[2] Quick news quiz. Which of the five freedoms of the First Amendment was Judge Barrett unable to recall in yesterday’s Supreme Court Senate Hearing?

Illustration by Patrick Bremer via The New Yorker

Two Stanzas of Ottava Rima Written within Ear Shot of a Skateboard Park (a reading)

Two Stanzas of Ottava Rima Written in Earshot of a Skateboard Park

I said, ‘It’s certain there is no fine thing
Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring.
WB Yeats

Willie B makes it seem so damned easy,
each iamb in it is appointed place,
but whenever I try it, I feel sleazy,
like a Wordsworth wannabe pissing in the lake.
Yet even to Yeats it didn’t come easy.
A line would take him hours. Better to “break
stones,” he whined, “in all kinds of weather”
than try “to articulate sweet sounds together.”

Form versus execution. I hear the clatter
of skateboarders’ failed attempts at competence.
They flip the board, fall off, curse, batter
their knees as they try to perform the tricks
they see on TV — as if mind over matter
weren’t a myth, as if practice makes perfect,
as if talent can be willed. I say
time to shut down this computer, call it a day.

Yet Another Nursery Rhyme from Ayn Rand’s A Child’s Apartment Complex of Verse

Delousing scene. Detail of a painting by Jan Siberechts, Farmyard

There’s no such thing as Santa Claus,
No such thing as God,
No such thing as Old King Cole,
No Wynken, no Blyken, no Nod.

There was an old woman, sure,
But she didn’t live in a shoe.
She didn’t practice contraception;
That part’s certainly true.

She had so many children.
Her homelife was quite wretched
Because the Catholic Church insisted
She practice the rhythm method.

So now her children’s stomachs growl
Cramped in subsidized housing.
Instead of playing hide-and-go-seek,
They spend their days delousing.

There’s no such thing as Santa Claus,
No such thing as God,
No such thing as Old King Cole,
No Wynken, no Blyken, no Nod.

Things Come in Threes

Swallow Tail Butterfly among Lantana
click for sound

Until they think warm days will never cease.

John Keats, “To Autumn”

Like the faint semi-tragic scent of tea olive,
the epitome of ephemera, the butterfly flits
among lantana and disappears.

Hummingbirds hover; barred clouds bloom.
The retreating sun draws in its long shadows,
Then slowly dims the lights.

Bravo! Encore! Encore!
Four to six weeks the doctors said.
A sleepless night but then again the sun!