It is difficult for me to stay away from writing about our neighborhoods back in the day. For me, the memorable events and loving and caring attitudes hold a fascination that keeps me writing about the subject. Seemingly, these qualities cannot be duplicated. Most of us that grew up back then can relate to the impact that our closely-knit neighborhoods had on shaping who we are today. Just last week, my column focused on ways that discipline and respect, which we long for today, were shaped by occurrences in our neighborhoods. For those who invariably reflect on the good times we shared back in the day, neighborhoods brought most of our smiles and many of our precious memories. What fond memories will today’s generation have? Will their memories be of strong families? Will there be fond memories of family dinners on Sundays and holidays?
Based on today’s activities, their thoughts may be of dysfunctional schools in their neighborhoods. While many of us can name the teachers that had a positive impact on our futures, I suspect that for today’s youth those teachers may be nameless as today’s generation reach their middle age years. Will they laugh at the dress, t-shirts and baggy pants hanging below their posteriors as we laugh today at the Edwardian and Nehru Looks of the past? Without a doubt, there will be future generations that will frown on the braids and extensions for females and cornrow hairstyles for men today, in the same manner as the process and Afro hairstyles of the ’50s and ’60s.
For today’s young people, simple memories from the past may not even bring faint memories; they will have been lost as their generations pass on. However, if you are from back in my day, the strong impressions and values of the past help us to understand where we have been, what we used to be, what progress we have made and where we are sitting or standing today. The question that is troubling to many of us “old school folk” is, “Where will we be in the future? What will be the answer to questions raised in two of my earlier columns, probably two of my most controversial columns I have written over the past 10 years? Back then, I wrote on the topics, “Where Have All the Good Girls Gone” and “Are Young Men Hustling Backwards?” So, let us pause and reminisce as we have done on several occasions in the past about life in our neighborhoods back in the day.
While I grew up in a section of West Philadelphia referred to as the “bottom,” I recognize that I have many friends that grew up with similar experiences in other sections of West Philadelphia as well as North and South Philadelphia. Because of segregated living patterns, these were the only neighborhoods we knew back in the day; neighborhoods that we loved and cherished, not necessarily for their physical characteristics, but the intangibles that were there. These neighborhoods significantly shaped our character. But, as we became more educated and obtained better paying jobs and with desegregation expanding our borders, many of us abandoned these neighborhoods, moving to Montgomery County, Delaware County, Bucks County, Center City and South Jersey. In spite of our upward mobility, most of us, however, find the need to return to these neighborhoods for services that we cannot find in our newly settled, integrated, suburban neighborhoods. Women sometimes return to go to the hairdresser; men return to go to the barbershop. We return to buy and eat soul food. Most of us return to the neighborhoods to go to church. With but a few exceptions, we return to be funeralized. Back in the day, however, there were many other places that were found right in our own neighborhoods that allowed us to stay in our neighborhoods and support these businesses; businesses where we could obtain quality goods and services.
Where do people go to get their shoes repaired? I know that many of you throw out your worn shoes and purchase new ones. Some of us, yours truly included, still have soles and heels replaced on shoes, something that was quite common in the past. Think back to the old neighborhoods and you will recall that you one could find one, two, even three shoe repair shops in every neighborhood. Yes, one can find a shoe repair shop today, but it is a struggle to find one. Shoe repair shops are disappearing everywhere as the repair of shoes appears to be a lost art. If you find a shoe repair shop, they all have one thing in common. They are all operated by our senior citizens. In the future, these shops will simply be faint memories of the way our neighborhoods used to be.
Will I ever forget the store in my West Philadelphia neighborhood, located on the corner of Hutton Street and Fairmount Avenue? I suspect that you had a store like this in your neighborhood. This store sold but one item: Live chickens. While I have many memories of walking by this store, I have no memory of ever going inside. Back in the day, some families had to have fresh chicken and what could be fresher than one that you went into the chicken store and picked out, watched its neck rung and feathers plucked. Is there a live chicken store in any neighborhood today?
So, you need ice for a cookout or a party. Today, you go to a store or the supermarket and you purchase ice by the bag. Back in the day, however, you went to the icehouse. Do you have memories of going with a parent or family member to purchase ice? Recall how your father would place a metal tub, in the trunk of his automobile for the ice? Or, do you recall going to the icehouse alone, with fifteen cents from your mother, pulling your Red Ryder Wagon, to pick up ice for your family? Just as I have asked is there a chicken store in any neighborhood today, I must also ask, is there an icehouse in any neighborhood today? During the summer months, back in the day, if you had an icehouse in your neighborhood, you could count on a snowball stand being close by. There were no Rita Water Ice establishments in the past. Nor, were there any other type of stores or shops that sold Italian Water Ice. What we did have were snowball stands. Occasionally, an old fashioned snowball stand can be found in the heart of the neighborhoods as were found back in the day but it is indeed a rarity.
Where is your newspaper each morning? You may not find one at your front door. If you get a paper in the morning, you probably pick it up at the store or the newsstand. I know you recall when there was a paperboy; someone who went door to door to deliver your paper. So, what happened to the paperboy? Conversely, do you remember when you could buy a fountain soda or a milk shake in your neighborhood at the local drugstore? If so, then you remember that each drugstore had a fountain that sold all types of ice cream related goodies. Forget about finding a drugstore with a fountain in the neighborhood, you cannot find a drug store unless it is one of the chain drug stores. As you know, these drug stores have no fountains. The privately owned drug store with a fountain is truly a back in the day memory.
On your way to work, you pass several Dunkin’ Donut shops. But, do you recall how bakeries could be found in most neighborhoods. If you have had the experience of getting a nail in the tire of your automobile recently, you undoubtedly struggled as I did a few weeks ago to find a place to remove the nail and repair the tire. Try to find a place that repairs tires today. In the 1950s and 1960s all service stations repaired tires. You are truly from back in the day if you remember a Chinese laundry. If you remember these laundries, you may recall that most of them had red store window signs stating the name of the laundry in large black block letters with gray shadowing. It may be hard to believe that back in the day the family doctor and dentist offices were right in the neighborhoods. It may be even more difficult to believe that neighborhood doctors made house calls. You must also recall the viable shopping strips, viable shopping strips, where necessities and luxuries could be located. These were our “avenues” back then. Going to the movies today? If so, not in the neighborhoods! But, growing up in the 50s and 60s, there were several movies in walking distance to where most of us lived
There is no question that neighborhoods have changed. Those of us from the past will remember them as close-knit communities that shaped our personalities and instilled within us strong value systems. Back in the day, these same neighborhoods that bring tears to our eyes today brought joy and pride to us as they were neighborhoods that had virtually everything. But, as we abandoned our neighborhoods, they declined along with any hope for economic growth and development. While we may not be able to return to the times when the level of goods and services in our neighborhoods were at the level they once were, it is important that we share with our children the way things were back then. For, if we do not understand the past, we tend to relive it. So, talk to your children and grandchildren about our neighborhoods of the past. Emphasize the good schools and let them know that there was little or no crime. Take them on a trip to that time in our history when our neighborhoods, in spite of our educational and financial limitations were clean, well-kept, rich, full of excitement and character; take them on a trip to our past, as it may help them to understand that our neighborhoods today as well as our neighborhoods of the future could be the way our neighborhoods used to be, back in the day.
You can easily tell how time has changed by observing the behavior of our young people. At the outset, let me point out that I am not picking on young folk. I make this point because one of the copy editors here, at The Tribune, tells me that I regularly “beat up” on our young people. You should understand that I do not always give our young people a “hard time.” I only do so when I feel it is warranted. However, I make sure to give credit to our young people when it is deserved. Our seniors also get no excuses from me when they get out of line. In this column, however, my focus is on our young people. My criticism of our teenage and young adult population comes from my disgust with the undermining and destruction of things that our forefathers have accomplished through bare sweat and tears and put in place through difficult struggles. Now, I am not referring to material things that many of us have accumulated. Rather, my disgust comes from the behavior of our young people and, “truth be told,” some of our older people are included. So today I ask a rather fundamental question with regard to all that is going on in our communities. What ever happened to the old fashioned discipline and respect that was drilled into our heads, as well as in our hearts, by our parents and grandparents, back in the day?
The genesis for this column came to me several weeks ago when my Pastor, the Rev. Marshall Paul Hughes Mitchell, of Salem Baptist Church of Jenkintown mentioned in his sermon entitled, “Truth, Zeal and Purpose,” which discussed how our young people today have lost the respectful ways and mannerisms of the past. While I have touched on this subject in several columns in the past, I was driven to revisit this subject as it is a road that I should travel more often. So, I urge all of you to travel down this road with me again, this time with an emphasis on returning to some of our ways of the past. A trip down this long and difficult road might remind us that some of our children today do behave and act significantly different than we did as children and young adults. I have tried to understand why some of our young people today behave and respond to their peers and their elders in such a disrespectful manner. You see and hear them in school, stores and out in other public places. Their behaviors are much different than anything I saw in the past.
I have no explanation for why children behave and respond to their parents, in such negative ways, especially in public. Can you imagine a young child talking back to his or her parents? Can you conceive of young children using profanity in responding to their parents? Such behavior was inconceivable back in the day. In the past, behavior was built on principles that emphasized discipline and respect. Those principals were instilled in our young children through those gatherings around the dinner table; going to church together as a family on Sunday mornings; sitting on the porch after dinner; and, taking an occasional ride in the park. All were bonding experiences that contributed mightily to what we became later in life. With out question, most important in instilling discipline and respect within our children, back then, involved those old fashion techniques that came from strong family structures.
Some of you remember when there were special words, used by young people which denoted respect for their elders. They included words such as “yes sir, no sir, yes ma’am, and no ma’am.” Was there ever a time in the past when our children did not say excuse me in all cases when such an expression was warranted? At the dinner table, do you recall young children reaching across another person or across the table? Clearly, the answer is no as our parents instilled in us phrases such as “please pass me the bread,” or whatever was needed. Today, if gossip or a delicate subject arose, young people sit around and not only listen to the conversation but sometimes participate in the discussion. Back then, young children knew when to leave the room; but then again, adults did not engage in discussions in front of children if the subject was inappropriate for young ears.
Can you imagine going out as a teenager and staying well beyond your curfew hour? Or, worse still, what do you suppose would have happened if you stayed out all night? Back then, you would have been afraid to go out on a date, party or dance dressed in one of those scanty outfits some young females wear today; and, definitely young men would not leave the house with their pants hanging below their derriere as is often the case today. Then, there are those words; I know that you shake your head in disgust as four letter words flow from parents, in particular, if such language is used in front of children. Often, the words appear to be coming out of the mouth of a drunken sailor. It is even more appalling to hear a young child or young adult use similar language in speaking to a parent. I cannot imagine the thought processes of young people using profanity as is so common today, in particular, with a parent. Do they think using such language is cute? On several occasions, I have found myself running away from such situations, as I have been tempted to snatch up the young child and even the young adult and put my size 10 shoe up their rear end. A young child berating a parent in public, using profanity, was not something that we saw back in the day. I suspect if it did occur out in public, all bystanders would join in to physically discipline the child. During my era, young children would not dare show disrespect towards parents out in public, at home or even behind close doors. Now, what do you have to say about children calling their parents by their first names today? Do you think this could have happened, back in the day?
I recognize that it is extremely difficult for young people today to understand how different things were in the past. The fact that things are different has little meaning for some. If you have no frame of reference with regard to what is right or wrong, you have little understanding of what is acceptable or unacceptable. If all of your friends are behaving in a certain way then one does not see their behavior as being inappropriate. As often as we see parents disciplining children in an attempt to instill in them good manners and acceptable behavior, it is equally important that we see the kind of public or private display of love and affection that was so characteristic of relationships between parents and children back in the day. You recall how children would run to parents and loved ones to give them a big hug or a kiss. Whenever my grandson visits my home, I look for him to say goodbye whenever he departs. He understands that this is the right thing to do for it is something that is expected of him. You may also recall the many sights of parents walking down the street hand in hand with their youngsters reflecting the warmth and love characteristic of the past. Is it not a precious sight to see older children responding in a loving and respectful manner? You may recall how family members would go out of their way to purchase cards for mothers and fathers on special days; where are the cards and signs of love and affection today?
There is something to the words of the song by Marvin Gaye, “Save Our Children.” There is also something very powerful in the words “our children are our future.” But, how can our children be our future if we do not take steps to save our children. While many steps are possible, a basic and most fundamental step we can take today is to reflect on those days in which children were reared with strong commitment to principles of discipline and respect, the way our parents and grandparents reared us, back in the day.
More and more, we find that people are paying attention to their eating habits. A day cannot go by without the media emphasizing the importance of eating in a healthier manner.
There was a time when I ate almost anything at any time during the day. Snacks before bedtime were problematic. As for the three daily meals, lunch time was my biggest enemy: a big meal, a sugary drink and dessert were par for the course. In recent years, however, I have found myself among the healthier eaters. I have kept bedtime snacks to a minimum. In place of the unhealthy lunches I had while at a restaurant or at the office, I find myself purchasing or bringing from home a salad, soup, and/or some fruit. When I gaze around a restaurant or the company’s lunchroom, I tend to observe what others are eating; some eat in a healthy manner, while others practice very bad eating habits. Interestingly, the absence of the sandwiches that that many of us ate for lunch back in the day is noticeable.
If you were reading my column some ten years ago, you may recall that I traveled down this road back then. I mentioned that people were still eating turkey and roast beef club sandwiches; I also identified one of my favorites, a crabcake sandwich. Chicken salad and tuna salad sandwiches were referenced in my previous column, and I definitely had to mention the old standbys for those on the go. Can you think about sandwiches today without thoughts of a Philly cheesesteak, a hamburger or cheeseburger from MacDonald’s, Burger King or Wendy’s, or a hoagie from your favorite deli? I suspect some of you still have memories of eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I just know some of you still eat this sandwich today. While it may not be desirable to some young folk, it was in the past, and remains to this day a tasty sandwich that will easily satisfy your appetite when hunger strikes. If you had difficulty stomaching a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I wish I could see your faces as I share some of the other sandwiches consumed back in the day.
Some of you will claim I made up some of these. Not so; each of the sandwiches I have identified comes from friends and associates who have personally told me about them. Others are based on my personal observations. I wonder who recalls eating a lettuce, mayonnaise and black pepper sandwich. I suspect that the answer is no one; but while you may be surprised, I encountered quite a few people who not only ate this sandwich in the past but who still enjoy eating it today. Was a Spam and tomato sandwich, with a thin layer of mayonnaise, a favorite for you while growing up? Did you enjoy a sandwich of bologna and cheese? I must admit this is one sandwich I really enjoyed as a child. In spite of it being served regularly, I never grew tired of it. Could it be that it was on the family’s lunch menu regularly because of its price? Was there any lunch meat that cost less than bologna? I will still have a bologna and cheese sandwich today, except that it must be grilled. If you are a sandwich person, try a grilled bologna and cheese on whole wheat bread and it will indeed be a real treat.
If you are from back in the day, you might recall that toasters were not found in every kitchen. The few that were around were the wired frame type that only toasted on one side; it required manual handling to turn the bread and toast the other side. Then there were the pop-up toasters similar to those found in most homes today. In my home, we had neither. Our bread was browned or toasted by being placed on the oven broiler tray. Not many sandwiches were toasted. Plain bread of any type with sardines and mustard was not unusual. Then there was an expanded use of peanut butter beyond combining it with jelly. Do you know anyone who ate a peanut butter and bananas sandwich or a peanut butter and sugar sandwich? Does a tomato and cucumber sandwich sound appetizing?
Whenever I think of sandwiches, my mind always goes back to my days at Sulzberger Junior High School in West Philadelphia. As I gathered with others at the lunch table, a student went into his brown paper bag and pulled out a strange-looking sandwich, one I later learned was a baked bean sandwich. How this survived from home to school without the beans soaking into the bread is a mystery.It was a challenge to hold and eat such a sandwich. I have learned from some of my contemporaries that such a sandwich was not that unusual; according to them, it was not much different from a Campbell’s bean sandwich.
I suspect the same was the case with the person who told me she ate an applesauce sandwich. Do you think you could enjoy a stewed tomato or a barbeque sauce sandwich? I do not know about the stewed tomato, but a barbeque sandwich could hit the spot, especially with a side of potato salad and collard greens. While I am not a chitterlings person, a worker at my local YMCA told me that her mother served her and her siblings a special treat of “chittlin’s” on a hard roll with hot sauce and ketchup. I recognize that these are strange sandwiches, thus I ask: Were the creators of such sandwiches just creative? I do not think so! Rather, I suspect that because of limited resources and the determination not to go hungry, they were committed to not having to resort to the “wish sandwich.” Some of you can relate to the “wish sandwich”, as it was plain and simple; it featured two slices of bread that you wished you had something to put between.
I do not eat liverwurst today and did not eat it in the past. I just did not like it. But I know some of you were “liverwurst people” and loved it. Did you eat a liverwurst and bacon or a liverwurst and mustard sandwich? Did anyone, other than the person who described this type of sandwich for me eat a liverwurst and onion sandwich? Someone reading this column might have enjoyed a Vienna sausage sandwich. Would a sandwich consisting of mayonnaise and bread appeal to you? You may be like me and find it quite surprising that a number of people enjoyed a sugar sandwich back in the day.
You really must be from back in the day to remember the products we referred to as army surplus . Did your parents go out with a baby carriage or a wagon and return with a box of powdered eggs, dried beef in the can, Spam and cheese; all of which were used in full or in part to make sandwiches? I know you had an egg sandwich back in the day made from powdered eggs. An egg sandwich with bacon added is still one of my favorites today. Heated dried beef in slices of bread or on a roll was also a big sandwich in the past. Just the thought of this sandwich causes me to wonder when was the last time you had a French dip sandwich or a Reuben sandwich, one which was definitely not one of my favorites.
Some strange sandwiches were in abundance in the past; some are still eaten today. If any of these sandwiches have given you the desire to go back in time, or have tickled your curiosity to try as you have never had one in the past,, be bold. The next time you are at a restaurant or when inviting friends to your home for lunch, include one or several of these sandwiches. Without a doubt, you will get some strange looks. But, try to get the restaurant waitress or the visitors to your home to understand that you are just serving some of the kinds of sandwiches your parents served when you were a little boy or a little girl growing up back in the day.
This year is going extremely fast. Some homeowners have already started to put up their Halloween decorations. Merchants, far ahead of themselves, are advertising Thanksgiving food items. Here in September, some of you may already have Christmas on your minds. While I recognize that layaway plans are not as prevalent today as in the past, it is obvious that such plans still exist in some establishments. This was readily apparent from an email I recently received which emphasized free layaways for up to thirteen weeks. The national chain superstore which advertised this layaway plan has several locations here in the Greater Delaware Valley. If you grew up during the period when many of us had limited resources, yet had many needs as well as desires, you must recall that you could purchase almost anything by placing it on layaway back in the day.
Even if you did not engage in purchasing items under a layoff plan, I suspect that you have memories of your parents, other family members or friends making purchases through this delayed payment arrangement. It was commonplace for stores to arrange for shoppers to place merchandise on hold while making small payments until the cost was completely paid. I still recall signs in stores advertising that layaway was available to shoppers. If there was no sign, I remember my mother asking the salesperson if the store offered a layaway plan. If so, the purchase of a desired item was held by the store with a deposit and a specific payment plan. I understand from some of my friends that a fee was added to layaway purchases for the opportunity to make a purchase under a layaway arrangement but I do not recall such a fee.
Layaways were easy; everyone qualified for a layaway since there were no credit checks. Such arrangements involved no risk for the merchant. However, layaway involved some risks for the consumer. Perhaps you recall someone that signed up for a layaway plan and failed to make regular payments or failed to complete payments by the designated time. This happened quite often around holidays, in particular, Christmas. If you failed to make payments you lost the merchandise and also any money paid into your plan at that point. Since credit cards were not readily available, in the absence of cash, the layaway plan was the only way many of us were able to make a purchase, in particular the purchase of “big ticket items” back in the day.
My first personal experience with layaway was during my first year out of college, working my first job. I would often time walk down the street from my job and window shop. One day, after seeing a sweater in the store window over several weeks that I desperately wanted, I went inside to inquire about the price; a price which I knew I could not afford. Upon sharing this with the store manager, he advised that I could put it on layaway and provided the details for the layaway plan. I agreed to the layaway plan for the sweater and was given a deadline by which the full payment had to be made. I was given a receipt with my initial payment and each time I made a payment, it was recorded on the same receipt. I was told that my purchase would be held in the store’s layaway room. You may recall that stores had a separate room for layaway purchases. You can imagine my anticipation of getting my sweater once all payments were made and the gratification once I was able to take it out of the store. While I paid no additional fee for the layaway purchase of my sweater, it did open the door for a problem that some of you may have encountered under layaway plans. The ease and simplicity of making these layaway purchases, especially of pricey items, appeared to be quite manageable. However, this plan actually enticed me to overspend, overextend and overcommit myself by making unnecessary purchases, back in the day.
Layaway plans were also used for purchases other than clothing. If it was a television, you turned to layaway; a refrigerator, it was layaway; a sofa or dining room set, again it was layaway. If it involved toys that you told your children they would find under the Christmas tree as gifts from Santa Claus, often times, they got there by way of the layaway plan. The major problem was that if the item was being purchased for a special occasion such as Christmas you had to start making payments weeks, even months, far in advance. Interestingly, the reason why layaway plans came into existence in the past is the same reason why we see a resurgence of layoff plans in today’s retail environment.
An article by Bill Hazelton, CEO of Credit Card Assist, provides some background with regard to layaway. He indicates that layaway first became popular in the 1920s and 1930s when the Great Depression was in full bloom. It provided a way to make large purchases possible by breaking the purchase price down into more manageable payments. It is no secret that layaway plans started to disappear in the 1980s with the increase in the availability and use of credit cards. Thus, it should not be surprising to learn that layaways are returning because of the high interest rates that are now being charged for the use of credit cards. The return to layaway is welcomed news for some consumers who may have missed credit card payments and have poor credit. Missing a payment on a layaway plan has no impact on one’s credit score.
If you grew up back in the day and relied on layaway to make purchases on a regular basis, I know that you had some unexpected challenges. Did you ever have an item on layaway and the store went out of business? The reality is that you ended up without your merchandise and without your money. What happened after you made several layaway payments and then as sometimes happens your money became real tight and you were unable to complete the purchase? In some cases, because you did not have clarity with regard to the layaway rules, you forfeited the item as well as your money. Has anyone had an item on layaway only to have it go on sale? So, what occurred if a young lady made a layaway of a dress at this time of the year for New Year’s Eve and her eating habits were out of control? I do not know what happened when the new requirement is for a size 10 dress when the dress on layaway is a size eight.
While layaways of the past have seen a re-launch in recent years, such plans have drawn the scrutiny of congressional leaders such as U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer who is a staunch opponent of layaway plans.
Because there are no federal laws that control layaway plans, consumers must rely on the Federal Trade Commission Act against unfair and deceptive practices. The Federal Truth in Lending Act also comes into play if the consumer must agree to terms in writing to make all payments until an item is paid in full. Furthermore, there are those that argue that layaway plans are far worse in making purchases than credit cards.
Think about the old adage, “What goes around comes around,” as this is the case with the return of the concept of layaway today. If you are considering the purchase of something today, and you do not have cash and using a credit card may not be something that is available to you, layaway may be your only option. Just consider that it is one of those old fashioned ways to get things that you want and to get things you need today, just as our parents did, back in the day.
Choices for potential employment were limited for those of us growing up, back in the day, with plans to further our education beyond high school. As an example of those limitations, a close friend told me that he had a government job before going off to college. Four years later, with a bachelor’s degree as part of his portfolio, he returned home and accepted a so-called professional job that paid less than what he earned before completing college. Yes, job opportunities for Blacks with college degrees were difficult back then. I recently reflected on the job opportunities available to young people today with a colleague that were unavailable to us, when we completed college. A few of my friends continued studies to become doctors or dentists and some studied for the ministry. There were some Blacks that worked as insurance agents for black insurance companies; black communications and journalism majors sometimes found work as reporters at black newspapers. Those that advanced their education often became attorneys. But because of the limitations placed on us by the color of our skin, only a select few were going into a court room to represent clients. A number of black attorneys were only assured a steady flow of income by working in the post office, selling real estate or preparing taxes. There were college graduates that went on to become pharmacists and there were a handful of entrepreneurs. It was tough, back then.
Today, the sky is the limit for well-educated and well-trained brothers and sisters. Today’s young brothers and sisters can take advantage of professional employment opportunities that utilize one’s schooling, training, professional development experiences and community service activities. These opportunities permit them to go to an office in business attire to earn respectable wages or salaries. Today, our young people have jobs that were unthinkable for “black folk,” back in my day. How many black financial planners, bond counsels, television news anchors, meteorologists, economists, statisticians or human resources specialist or what we referred to as personnel technicians were around in the 1950s and early 1960s? Black automobile sales persons and record producers, which are quite common today, were rare during my era. After furthering our education beyond high school, what were the jobs acquired by many of us, back in the day?
No matter what success you may have attained during your careers, I bet that many of you became elementary school teachers after graduation. Now, I emphasize elementary teachers as there were few black secondary teachers here in Philadelphia then. At my alma mater, West Philadelphia High School, I recall but one Black teacher during my four years. So, going into teaching with a focus on elementary education was not unusual because our college training focused on those jobs that we knew were available to us. I do not know about your freshman college class, but my 1958 class was made up of boys and girls predominately majoring in elementary education. Working as an elementary school teacher was a realistic employment possibility. Back then, teaching was an honorable profession; it was respectable, meaningful and challenging. Teaching provided a sense of accomplishment because what one did in a classroom impacted on young people in a meaningful manner. An annual salary of $4200.00 was not much back in 1962, but the work of a teacher was gratifying. If you worked as a school teacher you may have joined the ranks of others who supplemented their annual salary by working in some of the after school activities, such as coaching sports or sponsoring after school clubs. Others supplemented their salaries with other employment after the school day was over. While the pay may not have been great, for many, the job of teacher paved the way for a middle class life style.
A number of you, like me, obtained your first job out of college with the Department of Public Welfare for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It may have been but for a few months or a number of years but if you worked as a caseworker, I know that you will agree that it was a challenging job; a job made more challenging because of the paperwork. I bet that others obtained employment with the city of Philadelphia as probation officers. Maybe you were not happy with either of these jobs but your parents were quite pleased. Such jobs as these offered two things that parents encouraged you to seek: A job that provided security and one that upon retirement provided a pension. Just like the job of a teacher, some of these workers held part-time jobs to supplement their incomes. How many of you worked at the Crime Prevention Association? Many remained in jobs as teachers, caseworkers and probation offices and eventually did well as salaries and working conditions improved and there were more opportunities for advancing through promotional opportunities.
Blacks also secured employment with the federal government. Members of my graduating class, the class of 1962, went on to employment with the Social Security Administration, Veterans Administration, Signal Corps and Internal Revenue Commission. I can vividly remember friends that graduated from college and successfully passed a government examination and anxiously waited for placement in a job. Being ranked as a GS-4 or GS-5 was like music to one’s ear, back then. Again, the requirement of decent pay, benefits, stability and the “black man’s dream,” a pension were there. Thus, employment by the federal government was very desirable for Blacks, back in the day.
Both law enforcement and insurance were areas of employment for Blacks. Earlier, I mention employment for many Blacks as insurance agents. You must recall that a number of brothers with college degrees or training in a business school worked for the North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company. They were perceived as holding respectful and dignified jobs. Some college graduates took the test to become a police officer as their college training did not provide significant employment opportunities. You probably have friends or acquaintances today, with college degrees, that have high ranking positions in the police department after starting their careers as street patrol officers.
We definitely cannot ignore the United States Postal Service. Back in the day, many college graduates found employment in the post office. In some cases individuals with law degrees were employed by the postal service as hourly employees. The post office was one of the few places where doors were open to black Americans. It too provided “good pay,” stable employment, flexible hours and a pension. In addition, the work was steady and reasonably clean. Whether the place of employment was in the post office sorting mail or going from house to house to deliver mail, by any standard, the post office provided a “good job.” Some of you must recall how impressed you were when you learned that someone you knew worked in the post office. Many of you, who did complete college, are “so-called” middle class and attained this status because of your employment in the postal service. There was dignity that commanded a great deal of respect as a result of employment at the post office. In the past, the post office was the place to work if you did not become a schoolteacher or a caseworker for the Department of Welfare. You may have worked full time in the post office while pursuing your college degree and continued working in the post office after obtaining your teaching job.
Then there was the Opportunities Industrialization Center, Inc. (OIC). While Reverend Leon Sullivan and Thomas Ritter created numerous job opportunities for the unemployed and underemployed, they also created employment for black professionals in fields that were previously unavailable to them. I recall, during the mid 1960s, there were five black Certified Public Accountants in the city of Philadelphia. Interestingly, four of them were employed by OIC. Quite a number, including yours truly, obtained training and experiences because of Leon Sullivan that enabled us to advance our careers with other companies and organizations.
Without question, job opportunities for black college graduates today have significantly improved. If you examine the list of CEOs of major corporations, senior vice presidents, bank presidents, utility company chief executive officers, managerial, technical and other fields of employment, Blacks are there.
Remember that old saying, somewhat paraphrased: We are not what we want to be; we are not what we are going to be; but thank God, we are not what we were after earning a college degree, as was the case, back in the day.