By Stephen H. Sachs
6:00 AM EST, February 25, 2013
February is Black History Month. Baltimore is celebrating it by commemorating the march of African-Americans toward full membership in the American family. Although I am a white man born and raised in the strictly segregated Baltimore of nearly eight decades ago, I am joining that celebration.
The apartheid Baltimore in which I grew up has been thoroughly chronicled by C. Fraser Smith's "Here Lies Jim Crow," Antero Pietila's "Not in My Neighborhood" and Larry Gibson's "Young Thurgood." My own upbringing mirrors those accounts.
I was born into a "liberal" family. But we lived in an exclusively white world. Our neighborhood was white. The public and private schools I attended were white. My junior high school was named for Confederate icon Robert E. Lee. I did not have a black classmate until I went away to college. All of my parents' friends, and mine, were white. The only blacks I knew well were domestic workers.
I don't recall the expression of any overt racial animosity in our home in Baltimore's Forest Park. The ugliest racial epithet was never uttered. Occasionally, however, to my elders, they were "schvartszes" — blacks, in Yiddish, and a term of condescension.
Our elementary school play at P.S. #64 featured a classmate in blackface singing "Old Black Joe." And I know I engaged in smug racial innuendo. My friends and I at lily-white Friends School in the late '40s would harass each other with admonishments to "act like a white man."
This apartheid world encouraged and reinforced a strong sense of white superiority — and its necessary counterpart, black inferiority. We were educated; they were not. We were well spoken; they were not. We lived in nice neighborhoods; they did not. We were bosses; they were workers. Shameful as it is to admit today, I don't recall that it ever occurred to me then that such attitudes hurt, debased and justifiably angered our black fellow citizens.
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I have kept since childhood a little book that is a vivid reminder of the pervasive bigotry of that racist world. "Nicodemus and the Houn' Dog" is a simple, illustrated tale for children about a boy and his dog.
Nicodemus is barefoot and wide-eyed. His overalls are patched at the knees. He is a lazy, simple-minded Stepin Fetchit stereotype. His mother is obese, wears a bandanna, and speaks in exaggerated dialect ("Lawdy, chile, yo' caint keep no houn' dog 'roun heah. Take him 'long back whar he come from"). His little sister's hair has five tiny braids that stick straight up. All three characters have protuberant lips that the illustrations accent in red.
The entire tale is irredeemably racist. But as offensive as this degrading portrayal of African-Americans strikes us today, it was an unremarkable part of mainstream white America in the 1930s. For me, the most telling proof of the pervasiveness of that era's racial prejudice is this: On the inside of the front cover is the handwritten inscription "Steve Sachs 1/31/39."
The date is my fifth birthday. The handwriting is my mother's.
By the standards of 1930s Baltimore, my mother was a "liberal." But she was a product of this segregated town. The book was an unexceptional reflection of the world in which she lived, and a fitting gift for her young son.
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That world, of course, is very different now. Thanks to the determination of African-Americans not to settle for second class citizenship — and to the bravery and sacrifice of those of all races who fought, marched, picketed, voted and sat in, who were frequently jailed and sometimes beaten and murdered — we have begun to redeem the promissory note pledging equality that the Rev. Martin Luther King invoked at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.
The apartheid Baltimore of my childhood is long gone. One hopes that the attitudes of superiority and condescension that were both its cause and effect have disappeared as well. But, although many of us white Baltimoreans have worked hard to overcome them, none of us can be too certain that we have completely shed those prejudgments.
I believe that it will be our newest generation that will finally redeem that promissory note. And I offer this vignette as evidence:
A year or so ago, a good friend and I were discussing Baltimore's history of housing segregation. My friend asked my 12-year-old grandson, Jack, what he thought of a person who would refuse to rent or sell to an African-American. Jack at first seemed startled by the question, but then answered forcefully: "That kind of person has to be crazy."
Jack didn't say that such a refusal would be stupid, inappropriate, illegal or even immoral. He reflected a broader, more powerful sentiment. Such an act was "crazy" because it was far beyond the bounds of rational conduct.
I believe that he speaks for a generation that was born into a multiracial society and, unlike their grandparents, is unfettered by a legacy of institutionalized prejudice. For them, a racially diverse world is the new normal. Let us hope that it is these kids — black and white alike — who will be free at last.
Stephen H. Sachs was United States attorney for Maryland from 1967 to 1970 and state attorney general from 1979 to 1987. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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