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"OPAL"

A True Los Angeles Story 
from Dr Don Noyes-More Ph.D.

Read Another Story From Dr Don!

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1957-1961

      As a small child my perception of African-Americans was that they served white people - they cooked, cleaned, and did things upper class white people rarely did. There were no African-Americans in my school. As a young boy I had no idea where they lived or where they came from. They were just present when needed. No one in my family ever discussed them. African-Americans did not attend our theaters nor did I ever see them in restaurants. They did not shop in our stores nor use our banks. Only from time to time would I see an African-American on a bus or even in a car on LA’s Westside. They were never at the beach in Santa Monica, or Malibu. This was 1950's -1960’s Los Angeles, California, not the South. To my family, to me, to my friends, African-Americans were invisible. There was no talk of "those Ni**ers," or anything like that. I never even heard the word "Ni**er" until I was 14. I remember that when I first heard it I was more puzzled than shocked.

African-Americans were among white people like cars - something to be used, someone that was to do those jobs we didn't do for ourselves. 

I was only part white. My mother was Native American and passing as “white”.

1963

There was a short news piece on TV. It was something about "Negro civil rights," and about segregation. "What's se-gra-ga-tion, Mom?" I asked, truly puzzled.

"It's a set of laws to keep Negroes in their own area, like a Chinatown of sorts" my mom answered.

"Why do we do that?" I asked even more puzzled.

"It's just the way things are done down south," she answered.

I was now starting to get a picture, "Mom, do we do that here in California?"

"Oh no, we don't have laws like that," she answered with a high-pitched moral tone in her voice.

"Mom, then why is it all white people where we live?" I asked with lots of concern in my voice.

"It's different here, Donnie, Negroes want it this way. We don't force them to do anything in California."

And with that my Mom ended our conversation. My mom was acting a bit bothered. Now I was slowly pulling it all together. In the South white people are truthful, in the West we lie! That "lie" nagged at me.

I wanted to know about segregation, the South, integration, and about all the stuff on TV and radio which was now becoming a daily news event. I started to ask questions of any Black domestic I could find. At first all I got were meek, side-stepping answers or mean glares, or "Your questions are going to free me right out of a goddamn motherfucking job!" I was total in my need to have my questions answered. More than once I was told to "Go away, get!" But slowly a few people opened up and shared with a little boy they’re deep hurt, frustration, and anger. Their stories of injustice made me angry about my own country, about our race laws, and mostly about a seemingly good people left out of society. I was angry at my mother's refusal to see how things really were for other Americans. In reality we were hiding in the white shadows of Los Angeles.

I watched Martin Luther King's march on Washington and was thrilled. I saw that there were thousands of people hungry for freedom and justice. I was excited.

In November John Kennedy was murdered. That ended up being a long week in front of the TV. We were all shocked. America was a sad place. I was an angry boy.

I was ashamed African-Americans were ignored and their feelings never even thought about nor given any concern. I understood feeling voiceless and being ignored. Never was this to be the case again. The fire of a newly found social consciousness was burning inside of me. The kettle was starting to boil. 

1964

I began taking bus trips to the University of Southern California and the Los Angeles County Museum in Exposition Park next to USC. That area of town was beginning to become African-American, and I felt very exotic as a "White" in a mixed-race environment. The Saturdays I went to the museum I would get on the Vermont Street streetcar. Most of the times I got on the streetcar there was the same old Black lady sitting behind the driver with bags on the floor in front of her. We got to know each other over a few months. Her name was Opal May Robertson. She was born in 1884. 

She told me what it was like growing up poor as a share-cropper's child in Texas, about living on beans, greens, and cornbread and only going to school through the 3rd grade. As a child she only wore shoes part of the year, and they were always hand-me-downs. Her family ended up being pushed off their land and they became "Pickers," cotton pickers from morning until night. Opal had nine sisters and brothers all helped with work. One Saturday a white lady came into the little shack of a house where the children were doing chores. The big kids were watching the small ones. The white lady told the children that their parents died in a wagon accident. Opal could not even remember any funeral. There were no relatives who could take the children. The brothers and sisters were separated and never saw one another again. Opal ended up working for a white family in the next county. They moved to California and took her with them. The man of the family was a railroad supervisor. Opal took the white family's last name as her own.

 Opal would recount out loud all the names of her brothers and sisters and did so very slowly for me more than once. The names were recited as if she were reading holy writ. “Daniel, Martha, John,….”

Opal decided she was going to get an education and finished her high school education. She was the only Black allowed in a night school course in Los Angeles at that time. During World War II she worked in a war plant and made good money. "Those was good times for Negroes in LA," she said with great pride. After the war she was fired from her job and went back to work as a maid for a white family. She never had a family of her own and in 1964 she was alone and living in a rooming house, by herself on South Vermont Street. "Good things will be coming now. Freedom's, coming now," she said with deep warmth on her face. "Oh Martin (Luther King) he knows us and the white man. He'd do it and we'd all do it." She smiled. She looked earnestly at me and said, "You go’ in to see da' day too. But not me, I be too old now. But it's go’ in to be here, one day!" She pressed her hand on mine, "It'd be love that will keep us all, God's love." I just stared at our hands pressed together and never forgot it. I helped her off the streetcar. I tried to take her bags for her. "It's OK, I be do’ in dis' all my life. You be a good boy now and get on."

"I'll be back soon," I smiled.

"You be back this way again, but not fo' me, fo' som'thing else. You'd be anxious fo' good things." 

I walked down the street towards the County Museum. I never saw Opal again. 

Opal was right. I became really anxious for good things. I wanted to be in the forefront of a movement to make things right. I saw injustice as an illness that could be fought in the same way we cured polio. I felt if one was not a part of the solution then you became part of the problem. I was going to try and be part of the solution.

Spring 1965

I participated in my first civil rights march a few months after last seeing Opal. I was just a kid. There were thousands of people from all classes, nationalities, and religions. The civil rights pin I bought at the march was of a black and white hand clasping, and on it was inscribed: 

"FREEDOM NOW!"

I felt it was Opal and my hand clasped together. I placed it over my heart and 45 years later I still have that pin. 

In 1965 I started as a new and unusually young participant in the struggle against racism and war. I was a youthful and strong-minded boy on a mission to help create a new world. I was to join the WEB du Bois Club (Socialist), and Students for a Democratic Society in a search for the answers of peace and freedom. I found in radical politics a sense of freshness, vibrancy, and idealism lacking in American politics. I felt there was a world to gain. To this day I am proud of the effort I made, and hold dear the ideals we saw as possible. I still believe Socialist values are attainable, and I still Struggle along with the masses. 

"A little rebellion now and then, is a good thing, and is necessary I

in the political world as storms in the physical."

Thomas Jefferson - 1787

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