Bobby was a longtime co-worker of mine who used to tell me his coming-of-age stories. He & his older brother John (who I also knew from work) grew up in Chicago in the late 1940s. Their parents both worked for the railroad & they lived in company housing which was not segregated so many of their childhood companions were white & racism was no part of Bobby or John’s consciousness. When John was 9 or 10-years-old & Bobby about 8, their parents split up & their dad took the boys back to Memphis where his family lived. Memphis was under Jim Crow law.
Bobby described how overwhelmed he & John were facing racist hatred & segregation for the first time. Not just overwhelmed, especially John found it absolutely intolerable. So at the age of 11, John convinced Bobby to run away with him to get away from Jim Crow. For several years, they became migrant workers along with workers from Mexico & traveled the country following the harvests. When they were old enough to apply for regular jobs, they settled in Lynn, Massachusetts, a working class suburb of Boston. After he had a few bucks in his pocket, Bobby took a bus back to Memphis to visit his dad. He had been away from Jim Crow so long he’d forgotten the legal humiliations so when the bus stopped across the Mason-Dixon Line so passengers could eat lunch, Bobby followed the other passengers off the bus into the cafe. It became one of those slow-motion moments when everyone in the place turned around to glare at him because he was in the whites-only section. He was directed around to the back of the building where Blacks were allowed to eat. It always amused him that the cook for both sections was a Black fellow.
Even in Massachusetts in the 1960s, Blacks were excluded from the better-paying jobs so Bobby moved on to California for several years. He returned to Lynn in the late 1970s shortly before the local General Electric plant was under affirmative action court orders to hire Blacks, Latinos, women. We were affirmative action hires & that’s how I met him & John.