In 1970, while living in Dusseldorf Germany my father suddenly died. This required my mother and I to return back to the states. After living with my grandparents for a few months my mother bought an apartment house in Uptown New Orleans. It was a modest building that needed some work but it had six units. My mother and I lived in one and she rented the other five out. The rent combined with social security allowed her to become what is now known as a stay at home mom.
While in Germany I had attended the American International School of Dusseldorf for the four months we were there. I was exposed to children of numerous nationalities including Canadian, German, British, French, Dutch, Israeli, Indian, Japanese, and even Chinese. In addition the Americans at the school were from all over the United States.
Upon my return to New Orleans my mother enrolled me at St. Stephens, a neighborhood Catholic grammar school about six blocks from our house. In 1970 New Orleans had copious numbers of these schools, many just blocks apart. Our rivals included St. Henry’s, Our Lady of Good Counsel, St. Francis of Assisi, Our Lady of Lourdes, St. Alphonsus, Mater Dolorosa, Holy Name of Jesus, as well as two African-American schools, Blessed Sacrament and Holy Ghost. We all knew kids at these schools and we competed against each other in basketball and softball.
My seventh grade class at St. Stephens in 1972 consisted of thirty-four students, fourteen boys and twenty girls. Twenty were Caucasian, seven were African-American, and seven were Hispanic. We studied together, ate lunch together, and played together at recess.
In my neighborhood there was a group of kids who hung out together called the Milan Street Gang, because many of the kids lived on Milan Street. It wasn’t a gang like today. We didn’t do drugs or steal, and we seldom had fights. We were a sports gang. We played touch football, basketball, and softball and we would ride our bikes to other parts of Uptown to take on other “gangs”. We had Carlos, whose family was from Colombia, Howard and Carlos whose family was from Puerto Rico as was Juan’s, and Jorge, who came from Cuba. Spencer, Ben, and Allain had french surnames. Their widowed father married Brett, Carl, and Carla’s mom,also widowed, who lived across the street, forming a real life Brady Bunch. Ronnie’s mom was from Central America. Marshall and Johnny were of German descent and they went to the Baptist Church whose parking lot we used to play football and softball. Randy, Mike, Russell, whose family was Italian, and Jerry also were in the gang. We spent summers at the Jewish Community Center swimming, playing pool and ping pong, and of course basketball.
My best friend at St. Stephen’s was Chris. He was African-American but was passe blanc, meaning that he was light complected and his hair was wavy. It also meant that he could pass for white if he chose to. He was a superb athlete and very charismatic when it came to the fairer sex. Even today he still has that same roguish charm as a fifty year old.
It is now 2010 and we as a nation, while having made some strides, are still wrestling with the issues of ethnicity and religion. As an eleven year old I was aware of the dynamics of race. Chris and I would have long talks on the phone about the subject. At the time my mother was careful not to rent to blacks. She was of Italian descent,grew up during segregation, and was afraid to be a pioneer, worrying that if she rented to one black her white tenants would leave. As Chris and I discussed this we didn’t accuse each other of anything, we empathized and we hoped. Over time my mother did eventually integrate our house. I think her love for Chris helped her in that regard.
The one thing that all of us did have in common is that we were all receiving a good education, and we all came from similar economic backgrounds. We were different ethnically but aside from that we were on common footing.I had mentioned the Jewish Community Center earlier. It is ironic that in a part of the city that was predominantly Catholic our place to gather was the JCC. Membership was open to the public and it was affordable. It was a true community center and remains so to this day.
It occurred to me that relations with people of different cultures is less about race and religion and mostly about money. If you lack education and job skills you become hopeless. If you lose hope then you become dangerous. If prison offers more structure and security than the outside world then being sent there is not a deterrent to crime.
The reason all of us were able to get along and form life long friendships is that we met on, and functioned on, common ground. The foundation of this common ground was our school.
All of our students at St. Stephens were sent there by parents and family members who wanted their children to have tools to succeed and be happy. The public school system in New Orleans couldn’t offer that then and they are struggling forty years later to offer it now. But this is not just a problem in New Orleans, it is a national concern.
The key to building understanding and tolerance is through early intervention and having a sound and safe educational system that all can use. All children, urban or rural, rich or poor, are born open minded and tolerant. It is only later that biases occur.
Not so long ago Chris was in my living room and he said something that defined his humanity and his ability to love and live. He said that his race was not what defined him and he was not going to let it define him. He was just Chris. Chris the businessman, Chris the husband, Chris the father to his children, and fortunately for me Chris the friend.
There are lessons to be learned from the Milan Street Gang, St. Stephens, the JCC, and from people like Chris. Our educational system needs to become a top priority not for us but for the next generation of children. We will know we have arrived when the labels drop off and we just refer to people by their names. We will have succeeded when we start to live like Chris.