22 Slices
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16. White Night and Dark Days

Davis, Belva Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

• • •

We knew her only as Miss Glover, a heavyset middle-aged woman with cropped hair and ebony skin—but what distinguished her from our previous housekeepers was her ability to move throughout our house without making a sound. She left our rooms spick-and-span. But in retrospect, her stealth should have been a clue that there was more to Miss Glover than met the eye.

I always made a point of establishing a rapport with anyone who worked for us. Miss Glover was my greatest challenge. She kept herself tightly buttoned up and answered my questions with trepidation, as though she suspected my innocuous chatter concealed traps.

Over time, I learned that she had no family left and was selling the house she once owned in California’s Central Valley. “Are you sure you want to do that?” I asked her. “You know, it’s always good to have a place of your own to go home to someday.”

“No ma’am,” she said firmly. “We need the money for the work of the church.”

Her church was called Peoples Temple, and by the mid-1970s it was attracting hundreds of followers. Its leader was a charismatic reverend who preached an amalgam of utopian Christianity, racial harmony, communal socialism, megalomania, and paranoia. Temple members called him “Father.” To the rest of the world, he was the Reverend Jim Jones.

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Davis, Belva Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub
Medium 9781936227068

3. Truth Isn't What You Want to See

Davis, Belva Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

• • •

I shared my journey with row upon row of uniformed soldiers. They filled each segregated car as the Southern Pacific train chugged across one state line after another. We all were bound for a common destination—a place on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay whose oak-studded hills had prompted settlers to christen it Oakland. By the 1940s, Oakland was a thriving metropolis and a western terminus of the transcontinental railroad. As we arrived, stretched our stiff limbs, and climbed onto stationary soil, I felt a curious combination of bone-weary exhaustion and antsy anticipation.

“End of the line!” announced the Southern Pacific Railroad conductor. Nope, I thought to myself, the beginning.

As I clutched my small, battered suitcase and struggled to follow my father bobbing through the crowd, I couldn’t help but be struck by the sheer number of white faces. In Monroe, whites were outnumbered about ten to one by blacks, and they never ventured into colored neighborhoods. But Oakland was overwhelmingly dominated by Portuguese, German, Irish, Italian, and Greek immigrants and their children. Blacks were barely more than 2 percent of the city population.

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17. Diversified Interests

Davis, Belva Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

• • •

I’m sometimes astonished to remind myself that I grew up in an era before colorization, when not only were television and movies almost exclusively black and white, but the people who starred in them could more accurately be characterized as white and whiter. On the rare occasions that I did see black people on-screen, they were playing sidekicks, servants, or slaves.

Back then—except for films made by pioneering black filmmakers such as Oscar Micheaux—the media gave me no black heroes or heroines, no depictions of black family life, and of course, no black journalists telling the stories of my community.

After I broke through one of those barriers and into the business, I felt obligated to help tear down other obstacles and make way for more people of color, so that we could transform the face of news and entertainment. Over the years, I’ve tried to mentor, support, and encourage dozens of young journalists and performers. But I also tried to advance the cause in a more systematic fashion, starting with my union.

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7. Lucky 13

Davis, Belva Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

• • •

I always suspected that the white family who owned KSAN never actually listened to it. But seemingly resigned to the need to give their San Francisco station its initial “black” voices, they made two cynical moves:

The first was to put their own black handyman on the air, introducing him as “Rockin’ Lucky.” The poor man had no experience or training in radio, and he spoke in a broken English that left black professionals cringing. But “Rockin’” became locally famous for his live remote broadcasts—usually done sitting in the window of a small business in a black neighborhood—in which he invited passersby to stop and chat between records.

The second move was to place in the prime afternoon-drive slot “Ole Jumpin’ George Oxford,” a polished DJ who spun rhythm-and-blues platters and percolated through his show with a patter of soulful slang. Acclaimed the most popular DJ in local Negro broadcasting for more than a decade, he would sign off with, “I love everybody—’specially you, baby!” Many listeners automatically assumed he was black, but he wasn’t, although he was always completely at ease at black events. In person, Oxford bore a resemblance to Walt Disney. He was KSAN’s hottest star until January of 1960, when rival Oakland station KDIA shrewdly hired him away. The desperate KSAN sued to preempt him from using either the name “Ole Jumpin’ George” or his signature sign-off on KDIA, insisting those were KSAN trademarks. Ultimately KSAN agreed that he could occasionally use “ole” on the air as a word, given that the guy did have a natural Southern accent and thus couldn’t stop himself.

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