“It won’t be easy, you know,” said Cousin Gwen. “They won’t take any foolishness up there. Especially from a colored boy.” She was standing on the sidewalk in front of her apartment building in a wrinkled pink housecoat and worn bedroom slippers, giving me some last-minute advice. Her face was the texture and color of a raisin. Her eyes were penetrating.
My parents and I had driven up from Virginia the night before on our way to Draper, the boarding school in Connecticut to which I had been admitted. We had spent the night at Gwen’s apartment in Harlem, and now my parents were sitting in the big Buick Roadmaster, waiting for me to climb in. “This is quite an opportunity you have,” said Gwen. “It’s so rare that any of our boys have a chance to go to these schools.” “I’m looking forward to it,” I said, doing my best to sound confident. Until she retired, Cousin Gwen had been a schoolteacher in Harlem for forty years, and as I listened to her, I felt like one of her pupils. It occurred to me that forty years of teaching members of the race had left her with an unerring ability to detect imposters.
“You’d do well to keep to yourself at first,” she said, “until you know who you’re dealing with.” Looking back, I’d say it was the best advice I’d ever been given by any adult, including my parents, although I didn’t pay much attention to it at the time. I was eager to get going and she must have recognized it. “Well,” she said with a resigned sigh. “Just remember when you’re up there, they’ll need you back home when you’re finished. Don’t end up like Joe Louis.”
In those days, the life of Joe Louis was a cautionary tale for every colored boy from a comfortable home. A big, yaller nigger, as my father would say, Louis was the son of an Alabama sharecropper who became the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. He would make the white folks jittery just by climbing into the ring. In the photographs I saw of him as a child, he was always pokerfaced, the kinks in his hair greased to perfection. He was the most famous Negro of his day, and he made millions of dollars. And lost every cent. He could knock you out with a six-inch punch, but he didn't know what to do with his money; so he trusted the wrong people. They would come to him like courtiers, with a promise of something for nothing. “just sign here, champ,” they would say, and he would sign, lending his name to a candy bar, a milk company, a restaurant, a toy doll, a saloon, assuming all of the liability for a fraction of the assets. By the end of his career, he was penniless, reduced to greeting guests at the doors of nightclubs and working as a referee at wrestling matches to pay off a tax debt too huge to comprehend. Through ignorance and carelessness, he had allowed his chance at independence to slip through his fingers, and had been returned to slavery by the government.
We reached the school just before lunch. I reported to the headmaster's office with my parents, and the secretary, a tall, dignified woman with short, iron gray hair, directed us to the dining room. “We've been expecting you,” she said with a soft smile. “Mr. Spencer would like you to join him for lunch at the headmaster's table.” The dining room was bustling when we entered. Four hundred pink-faced boys in jackets and ties, more white people than I had ever seen in one place in my life, were seated at long wooden tables noisily comparing notes about summer vacations, summer romances, course assignments, and teachers. And just as the school's catalogue had described, at the head of each table sat a member of the faculty "to insure civility and to promote appropriate discourse." At the opposite end of the table sat a student in a white cotton jacket who was assigned to wait on the table for two weeks.
Tall, pale, and slender, in a brown tweed jacket and a bright red bow tie, the headmaster, Oliver Spencer, stood when he saw us entering the room and walked over to greet us.
"Well, this must be the Garrett family," he said. "I'm Ollie Spencer." His wide smile exposed a mouthful of crooked, tobacco-stained teeth. I could imagine my father, who was a dentist, cringing at the sight. Mr. Spencer extended his hand, which my mother accepted without removing her glove. She was still conducting a final inspection, before deciding, once and for all, whether to leave her only child in this place.
"Did you have a good trip?" said Mr. Spencer, making what I came to recognize as headmaster small talk. He pumped my father's hand and then mine with an excess of enthusiasm, not even waiting for a reply. "Come and join us for lunch. We've saved three places for you." We began a brief but conspicuous journey to the headmaster's table, observed by everyonne else in the dining room. For several seconds, amid the din of voices and the clatter of tableware, a hush fell over the room and ccccconversation stopped while everyone took a good look. I was the first, you see, the first colored student in the eighty-seven year history of the place, and I suppose they could be forgiven, at that point, for gawking.
My parents and I were seated next to each other, at the head of the table, and introductions were made all around. Across from us sat Mrs. Spencer, plump and hearty, with rosy cheeks and long blond hair piled loosely on top of her head. She was wearing a white cotton blouse and a pale blue seersucker jacket. For some reason, she reminded me of a teller in a bank. Seated next to her was Mr. Wilcox, a mathematics teacher and a dour man with a bald head, a bristling mustache, and heavy, tortoiseshell glasses that he preferred to look over rather than through. And next to Mr. Wilcox was Peter Dillard, president of the sophomore class, the class I was entering, who was wearing a navy blue blazer and who looked as though he had recently stepped out of the shower. Of the three, Mrs. Spencer seemed most curious.
"Well, how are things in Virginia?” she asked. Her eyes were gleaming. I was uncertain if she was asking about the weather or if she wanted to know the truth, but my father intervened.
"Hot," he said. "It's always hot this time of year." "Well, it's been pretty warm up here, too," she said. "We've had very little rain. My garden is just parched." My mother had been silent up to that point, and I was wondering what she was thinking. I had been looking at dried-up gardens in our neighborhood all my life, and I had never heard one described as "parched." I wondered if mother had, and what she made of the headmaster's wife.
"Very fine school you have down there in Charlottesville," said Mr. Wilcox, biting off his words like pieces of raw carrot. We let the comment twist slowly in the wind, hoping no one would catch its scent. Of course, Mrs. Spencer did.
"Oh my, yes!" she squealed. "The university! Tell me, how is Charlottesville? I haven't been there in ages. Such a lovely town, don't you think?" “We sent three seniors there this year," chimed in an aroused Dillard, the class president, as lunch arrived, lugged on a large metal tray by a student waiter.
All three seemed oblivious to the fact that until very recently I could not attend the University of Virginia, under any circumstances. I wondered how widespread was this ignorance among the rest of the school population. I was certain my parents were uncomfortable with the implications of this discussion. They had tried to shield me from the indignity of segregation whenever possible — arra...