Monday, February 27, 2017

Sundown

My home town in Southern California was named for John Greenleaf Whittier, a New England poet, Quaker and avid abolitionist. My parents moved us there in 1949 before my first grade year.

We’d moved to California from the Boston area. Mom liked Whittier because of the old homes and large trees in the uptown area and because of Whittier College. And I think she felt at home in a town named for a New Englander. I’m pretty sure neither she nor Dad realized it was a Sundown Town.

Whittier is east of Los Angeles proper. Mom used to take us to East Los Angeles – a predominately black neighborhood – to shop for clothes. We were often the only white people in the store. I don’t remember being bothered by it. But in downtown L.A. the fancier department stores had separate colored and white dressing rooms.

Whittier itself was very white. Even the Mexicans (yes, we called them Mexicans) didn’t come to the older sections of town, a fact no one in my family commented on.

But in 1949, the Whittier School District was already bussing Mexican kids, scattering them through the district. The elementary school closest to where most of them lived hadn’t prepared them well. They’d spoken Spanish at recess and often in class. Those who went on to middle and high school couldn’t compete.

So I shared classrooms and lunch tables with Mary Ortiz, Carlotta Chac√≥n, Julie Perez and Nettie Aguilera. I thought of them as friends, though we parted when the school day ended – they on one bus, me on another. They lived in an area we called Jim Town. I don’t know whether it was within the city limits, but it was clearly within the school district boundary.

Then, in 1957, a black family came to Whittier. The father had been hired as director of a juvenile detention center. He wanted to live where he could walk to work so his wife could use their car during the day.

The detention center was inside the city limits. So was the house they wanted to buy. That’s when we learned about the Sundown Law. They couldn’t buy that house, at least not until the law was repealed. Thankfully, the city saw wisdom - perhaps with some outside encouragement - in doing just that. The three children from that family became the first black kids to attend Whittier High School.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Hidden Figures, Twisted Facts

The movie Hidden Figures brought back memories of the IBM ‘uniform’ of the early 70s: white shirt, skinny tie, black pants. All male.

Except not always.

In 1970, I was hired as a computer programmer in a place with many other women programmers. In the mid-70s, a co-worker and I were puzzled at our invitation to a meeting for “older and non-traditional workers.” We were certainly not older! We were surprised to be considered female in a male-dominated profession.

No surprise, then, that I was enthralled by the movie Hidden Figures. I bought the book.

I know, always a bad idea. Or, in this case, a good one. The movie got the message across, that women and especially black women are rarely acknowledged.

But Hollywood once again twisted the story to make it more . . . more engaging? More outrageous? More macho-heroic?

The three women – Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughn – initially worked in West Computing but for far less time than the movie portrayed. Katherine was reassigned by Dorothy after two weeks, Mary after a couple of days.

Katherine never ran back and forth for restroom breaks. She simply used the available facility and no one objected. And she was not the only woman in the Flight Research Division. While her seatmate got up and left when she first sat at the desk, they quickly became good friends – unlike the adversarial relationship shown in the movie.

Mary Jackson integrated the evening classes at Hampton High School with permission from the City of Hampton, not with that little speech to the judge. And her reaction to getting inside that coveted building? Surprise that it was not as imagined, just a musty old school building.

I began to doubt the whole movie and was relieved to read that John Glenn did in fact ask to “have the girl check the figures.” The girl he had in mind was Katherine Johnson.

These women were accepted because they were brilliant and devoted to their work. I don’t claim to the same level of brilliance, but my female co-workers and I were also accepted for our skills and dedication.

So, Hollywood, even with the exaggerations, you delivered the message. These women not only broke barriers for black women, they made sure to bring many of their sisters with them.

Hooray – for them, for the story now told, for a message of hope.