"In the era I lived through, we called ourselves 'colored.' We were proud of being colored. We turned the word into a badge of pride rather than an emblem of shame. It still is to me."
--Earl Hutchinson Sr.
At 96, Earl Hutchinson is slight and wiry, with an alert and nimble mind. He is a survivor, born in the Deep South--Clarksville, Tenn.--when blacks were not entitled to rights whites took for granted.
It was not until he was 61 that the Civil Rights Act outlawed segregation. Yet, in the face of overt discrimination, he had supported his family, forged a post office career and, ultimately, claimed a spot in the middle class.
His new memoir, "A Colored Man's Journey Through 20th Century Segregated America," is both an autobiography and a mini-history of the black experience in America over the last century. The story begins in Clarksville, in a part of town where white people seemed as far removed from young Earl's world "as the sun and the moon."
Like many blacks seeking a better life, the Hutchinsons moved to St. Louis when Earl was a youngster. Little changed when they crossed the Mason-Dixon line.
"We lived on one side of the street, and they lived on the other side," he said.
St. Louis summers sizzle, but public swimming pools were off-limits to Earl and other black kids.
"We had to stand on the outside and watch the Caucasians swim."
And, although his house was close by a school, he had to walk three miles round trip to a black school. That took him through a neighborhood where white kids would sometimes gang up on him, bloodying his nose.
"They'd holler, 'Get the nigger!' "
That "was just the way it was," says Hutchinson, sitting in his spacious, bright apartment in Park La Brea, recalling nine decades of life.
"We understood that," he said. "I've never been bitter."
It was his son, Earl Ofari Hutchinson, 54, a Los Angeles writer and radio talk show host, who'd grown up hearing the stories, who urged his father to put it all down on paper. "Next thing I know, he's actually sitting down with his legal pad."
The memoir is a family collaboration. The younger Hutchinson says he "helped bring a coherent story line and timeline to it," and it was published by Middle Passage Press, an enterprise owned by his wife, Barbara Bramwell.
Forty-two years separate the two Earls, as do differing life experiences as black men. As a student at Cal State L.A. in the turbulent '60s, the younger Earl fought for a black studies program, joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Black Student Alliance, an activism of a kind unheard of when his father was his age.
At first, Earl Ofari was put off by the title chosen by his father for his book. He would never call himself "colored," a term he views as both archaic and derogatory. But, on reflection, he thinks, "It's perfect. That's what they called themselves. Anything else wouldn't make sense."
'Up Against the Wall'
Earl Sr.'s "that was life" attitude toward the discrimination he endured might seem to younger men too passive, too conciliatory. But to his son, he is a role model.
"He kept his family intact for a lot of years." He hopes younger generations reading how an earlier generation of blacks "were really up against the wall, and came through" will ask themselves, "Why can't I?"
In his own quiet but doggedly determined way, the elder Hutchinson effected change. Refusing to accept no for an answer, he forced the post office to promote him from an invisible back room job to window clerk. In the late '40s, using a go-between, he bought an apartment in an all-white Chicago neighborhood and moved his family in.
The next day, he recalls, signs appeared in the windows of the other houses on the street: "Unwanted occupant at 6357 Greenwood must go." A log was thrown through their window, and their fence pulled down, but the family stood its ground.
Early on, Earl Sr. had learned survival. He was only 16 when his father, a laborer, just didn't come home one day, deserting his wife and five children. Hutchinson says: "That was the last I would see or hear about him." Food baskets and hand-me-downs from neighbors saw them through.
At 18, high school diploma in hand, he landed a job as a St. Louis postal clerk and five years later transferred to Chicago. His imagination had been fired by seeing blacks who'd made it there and come back to St. Louis "driving shiny new cars" and wearing expensive suits and jewelry.
But Chicago, he soon learned, was no "promised land." There, too, neighborhoods were segregated, and tensions remained high from race riots a few years earlier.
One thing did live up to Hutchinson's expectations: the vibrant jazz scene on the Southside. Hutchinson, who played "a mean trombone," had dreamed of being a professional musician before opting for the security of the post office on the advice of his grandfather, who told him: "As long as the government's going, they've got money."