Last Sunday was a glorious day for Salem Baptist Church of Jenkintown, where I have been a member for approximately 30 years. This was an inspiring and emotional event; a chapter in the life of our church that many of us had prayed for over the years.
It was a day when members, friends and dignitaries came together to participate in two services; the Installation Sunday morning worship and the afternoon installation service for our new pastor, the, Rev. Marshal Paul Hughes Mitchell. He had visited our church on many occasions and had been pastor in residence for the past several years while we searched for a new pastor. The religious teachings he provided in a common-sense manner, his leadership skills, his sense of humor and his personality led our congregation to believe he was the pastor we were searching.
If you have followed Salem’s recent history, you can understand his reluctance to assume such a position. Yet, with an uncertain future, he worked hard to bring Salem to what he describes as the warmest and most friendly church in the world. We were uncertain this day would ever come. But, through the grace of God, there we were realizing our dreams and prayers as Marshall Mitchell officially became Salem’s pastor.
Speakers on the program represented a Who’s Who of religious, political, business and civic leaders. The program was long, but the time passed quickly as everyone stayed on task as a result of the skillful orchestration of the program by the Rev. Britt Armando Starghill, pastor of the Kaighn Avenue Baptist Church of Camden, N.J. There were many memorable lines from people like the Rev. Floyd H. Flake, pastor of the Greater Allen Cathedral African Methodist Episcopal Church of Jamaica, N.Y., former U.S. Congressman and Pastor Mitchell’s mentor. We heard from Pastors Alyn E. Waller; Gus Roman; W. Wilson Goode; Wayne Edward Croft; Charles Quann and Albert Franklin Campbell, Sr., who delivered the message. Then there were c leaders including U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, District Attorney Seth Williams, Philadelphia Tribune CEO Robert W. Bogle and John Neugent Mitchell, a brother of Marshall Mitchell. The singing by Salem’s Mass Choir, the choir of Pinn Memorial Baptist Church and the group Manifest was inspiring. But of all, the words that were spoken, the words of some of the more seasoned pastors, struck me as they emphasized something that Marshall Mitchell epitomizes; the growing changes in our churches and religious communities that are being spearheaded by younger pastors. We heard statements such as, “Things will move quickly under Marshall Mitchell,” “There will be new ways of doing things, and we must be ready for change.” While I am certainly on board in terms of new ways of doing things at my church, I also smiled as I fondly reflected on how things were when I was a little boy going to church, back in the day,
I have high regard for the importance of family values and the role church has played in shaping and supporting values that most of us embraced in the past. Going to church back in the day was non-negotiable for children and young adults; it was an absolute must. Even though I may have been too ill for my parents to send me to school, illness was never a reason for missing church. Looking back, I recognize that a strong family structure provided by parents and rooted in the church led to disciplined and respectful young people, quite unlike what we see today. Preparation for church occurred on Saturday evening. We took baths, and while your bath water was running, your mother took out the outfit you wore but once a week, and placed it on the chair for the next day.
Sunday was a very special day during my childhood. The most memorable aspect of Sunday for me was putting on my Sunday clothes and going to church. In the past, this was an important part of church practice for parents and children. No one was in church, as we see today, in jeans or in casual attire. We all put on our Sunday best to go to church and parents were proud to show off the cleanliness and neatness of their children. My parents felt that to enter the House of the Lord, you had to present yourself in an acceptable manner.,
Some fun activities for young people are not prominent in church today, but were fundamental to church life and actually encouraged church attendance. There was a church-sponsored basketball league here in Philadelphia. Young men represented their churches just as they represent their high schools today. Young men who played in these church leagues speak fondly of playing at Camphor Memorial Church, First African Church and the Christian Street YMCA. Many young men who went on to become stars in their high schools got their start in church leagues. Churches also had track teams that represented them in meets throughout the city. If you look in showcases in church lobbies today, you might find trophies for participation in basketball and track. Some, such as Zion Baptist Church, had baseball teams in organized leagues. Participation in these athletic events required affiliation with a church. While you may not have wanted to go to church, you had to if you wanted to participate in its sports events.
Back in the day, children went to Sunday school first and then attended church. Sunday school, too, was mandatory. Children go to Sunday school today, but not in the numbers they did in the past. Teenagers and young adults taught Sunday school lessons. Those who participated were generally the same youngsters who participated in the youth choir. These choirs sang regularly, not on an occasional basis, as is sometimes the case today. Even though we may not have been members of a church, we were permitted to sing in its choirs, which were factors in instilling values typically associated with the church. I believe that much of the wrongdoing we observe today would be reduced if churches could regain the edge that they provided back in the day.
Young people also had opportunities to participate in talent contests in church. Not only could they showcase their vocal talents, they were able to demonstrate their abilities in dancing, playing musical instruments and writing and reciting poems. These were ways in which young people could demonstrate their special talents while at the same time developing relationships with the church. Just listen to how some of our young people speak today and you cannot help but reflect back to church recitations of the past. They were often held around a holiday. Young people entered contests to demonstrate their oratory skills.Church members were instrumental in helping young people to increase their self-confidence, back in the day.
There was no limit to activities that drew young people to church in the past. Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas usually meant participation in a play. Parents and children looked forward to holiday plays. Do you recall playing an angel or wise man? Perhaps you played an Easter bunny or an Easter egg. You may have played a pilgrim. If it was not a holiday play, it may have been participation in spelling bees; Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts; o, it may have been a recital that focused on the talents of one child. When is the last time you attended a Tom Thumb wedding? Do churches still conduct fundraisers in the form of baby contests? Whatever happened to dances and other social activities sponsored by churches when many of us were growing up? Whatever the activity, it represented one of the ways in which churches involved young people in their activities and subsequently church, back in the day.
While I look forward to a new way of doing things, as emphasized by several speakers last Sunday, there are just some things that would bode well for the growth of churches, in general and Salem Baptist Church of Jenkintown in particular. Thus, I support and encourage Marshall Mitchell’s efforts to move in new directions; to take on new challenges; and, make changes, as he is already doing. But I also hope he will resurrect some of those proven practices characteristic of churches during my childhood; practices that made us want to do things that served us well in making us responsible adults; things that were fundamental to building strong Black families, strong churches and strong communities, back in the day.
Earlier this week, I was reviewing the subjects of the more than 500 columns I have written since 2001. Grocery shopping was one, citing my dislike of this task because of the difficulty I have finding things on my shopping list. Navigating through a supermarket is quite a challenge for me. But going to the market today causes me to reflect on fond memories of the Saturday mornings I spent with my mother shopping for groceries. T
Today, we shop for groceries at a variety of supermarkets such as Shop Rite, Pathmark, Whole Foods and Acme. Back in the day, my family’s weekly grocery shopping was in just one of these markets. My parents’ early Saturday morning shopping began shortly after my father completed the job of filling gallon jugs with fresh spring water. He would tell my mother, “I’ll be back shortly to take you shopping.” I would then help him load the jugs into his car. After traveling to Fairmount Park and filling the jugs with fresh spring water, enough to last until the following Saturday, we would return home and it was time to go food shopping.
When I think about food shopping, one image will be with me forever is that of my mother pushing the shopping cart around Food Fair, Penn Fruit, Atlantic and Pacific, or A&P, as it was known in the past, or yes, Acme. These were the major supermarkets then. The Acme at 43d and Locust was not far from our home. This was my mother’s favorite. For many years, I thought Acme was actually pronounced Ac-a-me, as this was how my dear mother referred to it. While my father drove us to the market and drove us home, he was not visible once we arrived there. He usually sat in his car until we were finished shopping.
My mother would begin filling up her shopping cart with products that have disappeared from the store shelves today. I remember many of these items to this day. Do you remember Mee’s bread? What about Bond bread, Friehofer’s or Tip Top bread? Do you remember the A&P’s assortment of breads, cakes, rolls and doughnuts? Back in the day, A&P stores had their own baked goods departments. Did you, like me, pester your mother to load up with cold cereals? Was the solution to this a Kellogg’s variety pack? In this package you could get cornflakes, Rice Krispies, Shredded Wheat, Krumbies and others. Quaker Oats, Aunt Jemima’s Ready-Mix Pancakes and Pillsbury’s Flour are still around.
I readily recall many other items that I saw in my mother’s shopping cart. Morton’s Salt, French’s Mustard, Premium Crackers, Carnation Evaporated Milk and Sealtest Ice Cream were among the products I vividly remember. Also, there was an assortment of beverages such as Sweety Soda, Puerto Rico Soda, Royal Crown Soda and Mom’s Old Fashion Root Beer. The great heavyweight champion Joe Louis had his own brand of soda, Joe Louis Punch, that was popular with Black families. I know you recall the early days of margarine. Do you remember the clear packages with the yellow pills that you squeezed to give the margarine color? What about large brown eggs? Can I ever forget holding onto the shopping cart as my mother pushed it along, peering over the top and seeing the last items she generally picked up; items like Lava Soap, Camay Soap, Duz Detergent and Rinso Detergent? Many of these brands have been left back in the day.
Memories of looking at the mirrors behind the produce counters still make me smile. For years, I watched the images in these mirrors thinking that there were real people walking at another level in the store. I tried to understand how these people got to this upper level. When we finally arrived at the checkout counter, my father would reappear to assist in getting the many bags to the car. Once home, the items would be carefully put away, by my mother, of course. She knew exactly were she wanted them stored. The meals my mother prepared and the dishes we ate leave as many fond memories as the shopping itself.
Many of the foods my mother purchased resulted in some of my strange eating habits which are probably comparable to the strange eating habits that some of you had back in the day. One of my favorite memories is that of my father eating hot biscuits with Karo Syrup. I just loved hot water with evaporated milk and sugar. I thought this was an awesome beverage, especially when it was served with peanut butter crackers. Rice was a popular item in my household, as it was in many Black families. Usually my mother would serve it with green peas or string beans. I loved to place the string beans or peas on top of my rice and then spread a thin layer of mayonnaise on top. I do not know how or why I developed a taste for this, nor do I recall when I stopped eating it this way.
Some of those back-in-the-day items are not always found in the market today. What about fatback? Is anyone game for kidney stew served with white potatoes and gravy? What about chicken feet to make a rich chicken feet stew, or rabbit stew with brown gravy? Do you recall seeing Spam in the market today? Spam could be served with pancakes, as a sandwich or with spaghetti. Many people still eat pig’s feet today. Although most of us still eat fried chicken, does anyone still fry their chicken in lard? Perhaps you are one of those families that did not engage in a high volume of grocery food shopping because of receiving government-issued cheese, peanut butter, powdered eggs or other items.
On a Saturday evening following a full day of shopping, putting food away and completing a meal for the entire family, my mother was back in the kitchen baking cakes and pies for dessert on Sunday. Rolls were also baked and went like hotcakes at Sunday dinner. Sunday dinner back in the day was a mid-afternoon meal, not the traditional evening meal. There were no instant mixes used to prepare baked goods back then. The cakes, pies and rolls were all prepared from scratch. I just loved watching my mother prepare the batter in her large brown mixing bowl. I can still see the batter being poured into the pans to go into the preheated oven. I would anxiously wait around until all the pans were filled so I could run my finger around the bowl. I can still taste that sweet batter, although I have not had this experience for at least 40 years.
Grocery shopping back in the day was more than just shopping for food and incidentals. Shopping was also an opportunity for conversation and information gathering with the cashier, the butcher, the produce man and your neighbor. Preparing the food was more than just cooking. These times created a bonding experience among family members. For me and countless other youngsters, it provided those moments when mother, father, sisters and brothers came together as a family unit. This was especially true when we sat at the table, always at the same time, with no excuses for not being present. Grocery shopping, preparing the food and coming together to eat are family experiences of bygone years. It is an experience that was unique and aided significantly in the building of the family and family values. It would bode well for all of us if we could return to the spirit of grocery shopping, food preparation and eating together in the manner that families did back in the day.
There are a number of ways to keep tabs on the amount of money you spend in these challenging economic times. Unless you fall in the two percent category, I know you are attempting to make sound decisions about your expenditures.
I suspect housing repairs are considered in lieu of purchasing a new home. While three years may have been the limit before purchasing a new automobile, you find yourself extending your automobile’s life span to five or more years. Your coats, suits, dresses and shoes last much longer than in the past. Vacations, if there are vacations, are close by and in driving distance; air travel must wait for another time. Going out for dinner does not occur as frequently. Monies that we once put away for a rainy day are being spent now, because today is a rainy day. Yes, things are different and improvements in our economy are moving along much too slowly. I thought about how my financial circumstances have changed in recent years and the changes I have made to cope with higher prices and stagnant incomes when I visited the cleaner’s to drop off my shirts last week. There was a time when I dropped off shirts once a week; now these trips occur every other week as I am managing in some instances to get two wears out of a shirt. These are shirts I may wear for two hours to church; or dark-colored shirts I could wear all day. I carefully check out the cuffs and collars. If the shirt is soiled, it goes into my hamper. I did not do this in the past, but the economic conditions of today have caused me to change my habits in many areas. So, in the name of saving money, I fondly resurrect things my parents and others did to make ends meet or to pinch pennies, back in the day.
While pinching pennies by wearing a shirt more than once may be a bit much, some other practices might work for you. I hope you do not throw away your socks once you notice a hole in them. Somewhere around your home is a needle and thread, and for some people, a hard-boiled egg, that extends the life of a pair of socks. People placed the egg in the toe of the sock if this was where there was a hole. It aided significantly in darning the socks. You may be old enough to recall when darning socks was a routine practice. Even nylon stockings did not go into the trash if runs could be stopped with clear nail polish. If your skirt or pants must be hemmed, you can beat paying a tailor. A straight pin or Scotch tape will do the trick, not just temporarily but over an extended period of time. When you were staying in a hotel and you did not want to pay to have your pants pressed, you neatly folded them, placed them under your mattress and awakened in the morning to find a nice crease. There is no shame in modifying one’s behavior to save a penny or two. Call it cutting corners, or being frugal, thrifty or cheap, pinching pennies is how our parents survived and provided for us, back in the day.
Some years ago, I wrote about the creativity of our grandparents and parents in being economical. I referred to a picture of me that hangs on the wall in my basement. It is a clear reminder of the things many parents did to make ends meet. The shirt I wear in the picture was not purchased; it was made with my mother’s own hands. Making clothing appears to be a dying art. Many of you can recall going to school, a dance, a prom or church wearing something your mother or a family member had made. Sometimes, it was something you had made yourself.
How many of you recall shopping in the basements of department stores such as Lit Brothers, Gimbel’s, Strawbridge and Clothier and John Wanamaker? Some will argue that going to outlet malls today is evidence of pinching pennies. This does not compare to cutting corners by shopping in bargain basements and those famous stores on South Street back in the fifties, sixties and seventies. Krass Brothers and Johnny Kohler men’s stores were two of the premier places to shop. But these were a step up for me. My father often took me to his favorite penny- pinching store on South Street, Big Hearted Jim’s. Big Hearted Jim’s was typical of stores on South Street. Salespeople would stand out in front urging customers to come inside to shop. They would also stand behind you and hold the back of the garment to make it appear to fit.
How many of you wear hand-me-down clothing today? As popular as this was in the past, this practice is slowly disappearing. When I was a teenager, I could count on visits by my uncle from White Plains, N.Y. While these only occurred twice a year, on each visit I usually received four or five hand-me-down suits. No one made a big fuss over this in the past. I hear awful stories from parents that attempt to get their children to wear hand-me-down clothing today. Their children refuse them even if they are from an older brother or sister. I am not ashamed to admit that I pinch pennies by finding my way into consignment shops, thrift shops, flea markets and yard sales for clothing and accessories as well as household items. Just last week I received a number of comments about a gray and pink bow tie I was wearing; it came from a thrift shop, something no one knew except me.
What were some of those other penny pinching things you did, back in the day? How many of you took your lunch to work as opposed to patronizing a restaurant? While brown-bagging was popular back in the day, some people, including yours truly, are doing this today. If you try it, I’m sure you will see that it is more nutritious and is definitely more economical. A barrelful of pennies can be saved by taking your lunch to work.
Let me mention a few other practices from the past for pinching pennies. Some have eliminated their landline phones and only use a mobile phone. Are gas prices driving you to the poorhouse? Some people have switched from the recommended high-test gasoline to regular gasoline. While you are able to pinch pennies on a short-term basis, you may encounter major repair costs in the long term. If while traveling you need shoes shined, it will cost you six dollars at the hotel shoeshine stand. In keeping with your penny-pinching philosophy, you smooth Vaseline all over your shoes. It gives you an instant shine without spending a dime. You may recall putting tape on the bottom of your shoes to repair a hole. You can also save more and avoid buying new shoes by replacing half-soles or full soles on your shoes. When your family had one of those early televisions that only had three channels and your antenna broke which destroyed the reception, what option did you have short of purchasing a new one? A clothes hanger was perfect for the job.
If you could not afford to get your refrigerator repaired, the outside windowsill was an alternative for keeping things cold in the winter. Placing bottles that contained liquids upside down would allow you to get the last drop. During your college dormitory days, when you had no hot plate, you could fill a teacup with hot water in the bathroom and add your teabag for a cup of tea. Do anyone in your household save used aluminum foil for reuse? Or do you buy your reading glasses off the shelf at CVS, Sam’s or Wal-Mart rather than use a prescription? Perhaps you take twice as long at the supermarket because you must sort through that stack of coupons held together with a rubber band to find the ones to use on that day. Things like this were done routinely, back in the day.
Until our economy makes a full recovery, perhaps you should tuck this column away and refer to it on a regular basis. You could seriously consider borrowing some of the practices I have shared with you and pinch pennies as many used to, back in the day.
I am disgusted. Not only am I disgusted, I am ashamed; I am embarrassed; and I am frustrated. Certain behaviors on the part of Black folk have made me feel this way for many years. I ask myself, what in the world is wrong with Black people?
My embarrassment usually surfaces at this time of the year as a result of some of our practices that should have changed long ago. As many of us have advanced into the good life of the so-called middle class, we have grown further away from what other races do. This is not something new for me. I have touched on this issue before. As I move beyond the celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday and Black History Month, this issue behind my disgust and frustration becomes more evident, more pronounced. These special days bring many of us together at special luncheons and dinners to celebrate and acknowledge the work of King and the advances of Black people in America.
While none can argue about the significant gains of Blacks in America, we can agree that in some respects there have been far too many failures. What I reference is not endemic to these two annual celebrations for Black people. It occurs during the entire year. When we participate in affairs sponsored by our churches, fraternities, sororities and schools for class reunions, anniversaries, weddings and even funerals, we fork over thousands of dollars to facilities we do not own. In fact, many of these facilities fail to have people working in them who look like us. We are probably the only racial group in America that ignores that power of the almighty dollar. If my father was alive and I shared my frustration over this situation with him, he would speak with pride about how Black folk, due to the segregation and Jim Crow laws of his era, had places of their own, back in the day.
This is not the first time I have complained about my brothers and sisters when it comes to the economics of race. In 2007, the170th anniversary of the founding of Cheyney University took me on a venting spree. It had nothing to do with this fine university; rather my reaction was related to the venue where this celebration occurred. I pointed out that Drexelbrook Catering of Drexel Hill, the site of this celebration, is a fine facility for a first-class function. But,what I saw then is the same thing I observed during the King and Black History celebrations – the relationship between money and power.
This scene repeats itself whenever we require banquet facilities that can accommodate several hundred people. We spend our hard-earned money with businesses we do not own. We are the only racial or ethnic group in America that goes to places other than our own, “skinning and grinning” with no appreciation for the power of the almighty dollar. I really cannot blame white establishments that cater to the Black dollar but ignore Blacks in terms of sharing in the riches of their businesses. The blame must fall squarely on the shoulders of Blacks. In the 1980s, my siblings and I held a celebration for our parents‘ 50th wedding anniversary. We chose the Hyatt Hotel (currently the Crowne Plaza) in Cherry Hill, N.J. to accommodate approximately 150 guests. In negotiating the contract, we insisted that Blacks be visible in working this affair. Since money talks, Blacks did work at this memorable event.
We must support, 3801 Market St., one of the few Black-owned facilities in the Philadelphia area that can accommodate a large gathering. I occasionally hear people complaining about this facility. If there is something you do not like, such as atmosphere, food, service, parking or have other concerns, work with the facility to make it better. After all, those white facilities you patronize while wearing your minks and fine garments are not perfect either. How can this facility grow and improve without our support? At the same time, our brothers and sisters cannot take us for granted. They must give us quality service at competitive prices. If you must go to a white establishment, do insist, as we did for my parents’ anniversary celebration, that if there are no Blacks employed, that they should search the Internet; perhaps they will find a website called “Rent a Nee-gro.com” and hire a brother or sister, if but for the day. You will at least enable someone Black to earn a few dollars while at the same time enabling your money to circulate in the Black community, something integration forced us to do back in the day.
Fancy halls or hotel ballrooms were unavailable to us for our wedding receptions, birthday parties, dances, reunions, meetings and other gatherings in the past. Thus, places like Trott Inn, Ebony Lounge, Postal Card, Pyramid Club, Barber’s Hall, Reynolds Hall, O.V. Catto Hall, Tippin’ Inn and Loretta’s High Hat of Lawnside, N.J. and other Black-owned establishments, while not big enough for large gatherings, were the beneficiaries of the monies we worked hard to earn. However, along came integration; which destroyed our Black economic structure just as it destroyed many other things we used to control and that benefited us. You can include education in the mix.
You may also recall that when we did not go to a club or hall, our activities were held in the basement or activity building of a church. I have been giving much thought to the role churches should or could play in our economic development. A number of churches have facilities attached or associated with them that could accommodate banquets. My own church, Salem Baptist Church of Jenkintown, has a gymnasium-size room that is part of its Family Life Center. When renovations are completed, this room will be ideal for wedding receptions, reunions, banquets or other large gatherings.
But here is one major issue that Salem and other church facilities will face. You know there are problems with even raising the issue of serving alcoholic beverages. It is an absolute no-no. Whenever I hear this argument, I wonder if the God the Catholics and Jews serve is different than the God we Baptists serve. My fraternity has held some of its major events at synagogues where alcohol was served. Just last week, several Black alumni groups held an “Old School Cabaret” at the church-affiliated St. Raymond Hall. Why are such affairs okay for Catholic and Jewish facilities but considered taboo for Black church-affiliated facilities? Even if we leave alcohol out of the equation but include music and dancing, this is also off limits. Do we not serve the same God? As I debated this issue with an associate, regarding alcoholic beverages being permitted in church facilities, not in the sanctuary, he asked me to reflect on Jesus’ first miracle. This apparently took place on a hillside, so it is not on point with the issue I am raising; however, it does have a relationship. In case you’ve forgotten your Sunday school lessons, this is where Jesus, at a wedding celebration in the Galilean village of Cana with his mother and his disciples, turned water into wine. I know this is a sensitive issue, so sensitive that most churches have moved from serving wine during communion to serving a juice. Now, I have no intention of getting into hot water with members of my congregation, my pastor or some of my preacher friends. I know better than to try to argue in support of embracing alcoholic beverages in church facilities. Rather, in my favorite expression of President Obama, “I’m just saying …”
I do not want anyone to question where the funds would come from to build and support Black banquet establishments. D. Park Gibson in several of his books on the economics of the Black community made it clear that there is a great deal of money in the hands of Black folk. Just ask some of the companies where the difference between their profit and loss is the Black community. Since I have focused on Black churches, can you imagine what we could do if all Black churches went to the same bank in an organized manner and announced all of their deposits would be going to this designated bank starting in January 2014? Can you imagine the leveraging ability for economic growth and development, which could include a first-class banquet facility, if Black churches pooled their monies?
Every year I ask myself if I will live to see the day when we as a race will have a first-class banquet hall or a first-class hotel; a place where we can celebrate our Martin Luther King luncheons, our Black History luncheons, our wedding receptions, family reunions, cabarets, fraternal and social club activities and those many other affairs that require a large facility. I must admit that being in the fourth quarter of my life, the answer is most likely a painful “No”. It is indeed regrettable that in spite of our improved education; improved housing conditions and improved earnings we have been unable to continue in the footsteps of our parents and grandparents. There is no reason we should not be patronizing places that we own, just as our ancestors did, back in the day.
Every year since I began writing this column, I have paused in February to reflect on the Black experience. February is Black History Month and while I regret that too many of us only think about Blacks and their contributions during this month, I must admit it is better than not celebrating our Blackness at all.
Over the years, I have presented subjects that were educational as well as controversial. Whenever I write about where we were as a race, where we are today and where we may be in the future, I am reminded of words from my father. He would frequently remind me, “If you have no idea where you have been, it is hard to know where you are going and when you have arrived.” I have written about Tom Lynch and his strategies to control slaves; a strategy which remains evident and true today with regard to how we treat and interact with one another. A column in which I expressed admiration for Uncle Tom annoyed some readers, and my fondness for the “Amos’n’Andy” television show caused some to conclude I had lost my mind. Last year, I devoted my column to my own Black memorabilia collection. This year, I shall continue sharing things that are educational and also controversial by reviewing Black games from back in the day.
Some friends and colleagues were surprised that there were Black-themed games years ago. I suspect that some of you are too. However, if you think real hard, you probably will recall the “Sambo Dart Game;” which featured a metal board and a spring gun with rubber-tipped arrows. This dartboard showed a stereotypical image of a Sambo with targets and numbers surrounding him. I doubt seriously if you know of “Neddy N-------‘s Jigsaw Puzzle.” This typical racist game from the past is a jigsaw puzzle about the size of legal paper with a Black man with stereotypical features at the beginning of a maze. In the middle of the maze is a watermelon, and you must draw lines to show the Black man’s route from the start to the watermelon. Other jigsaw puzzles, neither of which I have ever seen, are “Chopped Up N-------s” and a 1905 puzzle entitled “Woozy Jig,” where Black men in formal evening clothes are dancing in a wild manner.
While these were offensive, some of the most racially aggressive games were found in carnivals, seashore resorts and fairgrounds. Can you believe that there were such games as “Dump the N-------,” “African Dip” or “Coon Dip,” in which hitting the target caused a plank where a Black person sat to be dumped into a tank below? There were also games with similar names except that a Black man or an image of one would stick his head through a hole on a painted canvas, usually with a cotton plantation scene. Players would attempt to hit him in the head with a ball or some other object. Now, just consider the names of some other games with outrageous names, like: “Garden Aunt Salley,” “Hit Me Hard,” “Rastus,” “Little Darky Shooting Gallery,” “Jolly Coon Race,” The Picaninny Toy Target” and the “Darky Tenpins.” There were also books as well as a game of the “Ten Little N----- Boys.”
Most board games were played with dice and paper money. They contained a beginning and an end with Black figures portrayed in an extremely derogatory nature. Most of these involved a chase of the Black person by a white person or an animal. As you would expect, the Black person always lost. Denis Mercier has addressed this issue in a web-posted document entitled, “From Hostility to Reverence: 100 Years of Black Imagery in Games.” He points out, “Games of the late 19th and early 20th centuries reflected racial attitudes ranging from the benign to the aggressively violent. Although some of the games of the first period stereotyped African Americans as comical entertainers, many revealed an intense white hostility toward Blacks.” It is interesting to note that Mercier’s message argues that Blacks enjoyed the negativity directed at them; they felt no pain from the assaults because no real pain was inflicted. You may be troubled to learn that this negativity toward Blacks only started to disappear in the past 25 years, as Blacks invented and marketed games themselves.
As a serious collector of Black memorabilia, I have many Black games in my collection; many stereotypical. Many years ago, I had the opportunity to purchase a pinball game at a local toy show. It was not your typical metal pinball machine, but one made of wood with Black images on the bumpers, targets and table section displays. The figures were both demeaning and insulting. It was not the price, but the size that caused me not to acquire this item. I questioned how I would get it home and where I could display it without taking up too much room. I. saw it only once and have never seen it again in my more than 30 years of collecting Black stereotypical artifacts. It is one Black collectible I wish I had purchased.
In 1970, Psychology Today published a board game, based on some of the concepts of the game of Monopoly, where you decide at the start whether to play as a Black or as a white person. The game, “Black and White”, is essentially a property-buying game. The races compete against one another in making economic progress, but the odds are clearly stacked against Black people by having different rules. Whites start out with $1million and Blacks with $10,000. The rules were similar to life for Blacks back in the day; Whites could buy property on any part of the board, but Blacks were limited to certain areas. If whites ran out of money, they declared bankruptcy. If you ran out of money while playing as a Black person, you went on welfare. It was controversial back then, but was conceived as a painless way for middle-class whites to understand Black life .
Another game in the style of Monopoly from the late 1960s is “Godfrey Cambridges’s 50 Easy Steps to The White House,” about a Black man running for president in 1968. Players move along the board to get to the White House. Stops on the board include “Sorry! The apartment is rented”; “Your son intermarries, go to Africa in search of your roots (identity), lose two turns”; and “You were seen lunching with Stokely, Go to Jail.” It was billed as “A great new game for discriminating people of all races!”
Are any of you familiar with the “Fat Albert” game? Or, what about “The Harlem Globetrotters” and “The Jackson Five” games? Then there is “The X Game” from 1991. It is a cooperative game in which players, rather than competing against each other, must cooperate to win. Everyone works together to achieve a common goal. The objective is to beat the system in order to win the game. This game is used to represent Malcolm X’s philosophy of Black nationalism. Negative images of Blacks in games disappeared entirely during the civil rights years as stereotypical images became too controversial for toy and game makers. In recent years, we’ve started to see Black Americans surface in games. Through their growing political and organizing clout, they could demand games that encouraged Black pride. So, in 1974, we saw games such as the one created by a mainstream manufacturer, ED-U-Cards, a division of KPB Industries of Bethlehem, Pa. which offered a flash card set, ‘Famous Black People in American History.” The game involves showing a charcoal portrait of a famous Black person, giving a clue and asking for that person’s identity. But, much of the change in focus and the demand to include positive images of Blacks in games was met by Black entrepreneurs. We did as we had once done; we did not sit around and beg others to do for us, we did for ourselves by creating and producing our own Black-themed games.
As we celebrate Black History Month, it is clear from the “Little Black Sambo” games of years ago to games like the 1987 “Black American High Achiever” that things have significantly changed. In spite of where we are today, I believe we should always pause and revisit the tway things used to be. Some people argue that these negative games represent an era that should be left alone. Others, however, like me, do not want to experience the days when these negative games indicated the state of affairs in America, but also stress that they are things they do not want to ever forget. They believe, especially in rearing their children, that these negative games and other conditions played a major role in shaping the character of America and the state of mind of Blacks and all races and groups in this country. So, we must make visits to the past such as the one I have taken in this column. For in many respects, life today was shaped by much of what we did and what others did to us, back in the day.