There’s an old black expression I would hear among the adults when I was a kid. “Man, I felt like a fly in a milk bottle!” I would come to fully understand its meaning as I started school in the fall of ’63 at Westlane Junior High School, a nearly all-white school. Everything was different. Though there were no official uniforms, most of the kids dressed the same in their button-down shirts from Roderick St. John’s, an expensive clothing store in something called a “Mall.” Penny Loafers and creased, cuffed slacks must have been State Issued.
Kids hung out in groups in the hallways between classes circling the alpha dog of their pack. They must have exited the womb at the same time. These guys had been in school together since before they learned to walk, another advantage that would prove to be useful in time. I learned about cliques before I could spell it. I would later learn how much this structure shaped this new world. Members of these groups seemed friendly but George was the only one who buddied-up and we still, to this day, remain friends.
I can testify to the importance of changing Zip Codes. I’m a product of it. Who knows? It might have saved my life? I have no idea what became of the kids I knew in the old neighborhood with a few exceptions. But only one that I know of went on the have a career. The rest were consigned to the path assigned to them hundreds of years before by men they never knew or learned about. They went on to punching the clock for some low wage job working for "the man" in a factory in town or cleaning white homes and doing laundry. I’m sure many, out of hopelessness, fell into drink, drugs, sex and violence. Some surely found a prison cell if not death on the streets. The police were to be avoided. It was clear most of them did not want to be there and their demeanor left no doubt. Indiana had been a thriving home for the Ku Klux Klan. In fact, at one point a large number of state government seats were held by Klan members and associates. I have often referred to Indiana as the most southern state in the north. There’s no doubt those attitudes patrolled the streets of our neighborhood.
Washington Township was one of the wealthiest in the state and the schools were evidence. Everything was there just as my parents had hoped. Other than desks and chairs, it bore little resemblance to Elder W. Diggs. They had green chalk boards instead of cracked, black slate. The desks didn’t have ink wells from a time past. It didn’t take me long to realize the challenge that lay ahead. Eight years in underfunded public schools had left me far behind my new classmates, about a year and a half behind to my estimation. I was humbled after being a top student for the years before. But my naivete dampened my panic. I got to work.
Westlane Junior High School now a Middle School.
Memories of that one year at Westlane have largely faded now. But it eased me into the world of white culture that was on full display as I started my sophomore year at North Central High School. The building was brand new and immense; maps were given to the arriving sophomores. It was the product indeed of a wealthy tax base that would spare no expense for its children. Its staff, resources and curriculum qualified it as a college-prep school, at one point rated among the best in the nation. Classes were challenging. Some were more difficult than some I would later encounter in college. I loved it and some of my teachers, like my irreverent chemistry teacher, Mr. Robert Watson, who told us about the astounding work of the great chemist, Dr. Usonovitch, still bring a smile. I’m sure Dr. Watson delivered that joke every year. Or Mr. Comstock, my history teacher, who brought history to life and probably is responsible for my fascination with it today. It was about the who, what and when. But it was the context which told the story of its significance that we were tested on. Then there was sociology. My teacher was a nice enough lady but her life experience was foreign to mine to that point. It was clear to me she had a very narrow view of life in America, which brought out the assertive side of my personality. For that I thank her. But it was obvious she didn't approve of my challenges to her point of view. I guess my "C" grade was likely a reflection of that.
The student body was littered with the offspring of corporate executives, bankers and lawyers set to climb the ladder to the top led by an impressive core of educators. Some of my classmates went on the become nationally known figures in their fields. What a blessing. I had arrived. This was the doorway mom and dad had sacrificed to open for me. I was just one generation from sharecropping and three generations from slavery in the rolling hills of Kentucky. My paternal, 2nd great grandfather, George Russell was born enslaved about 1831. He was emancipated from the David N. Russell farm from which we took our name. While slavery itself was dehumanizing, I believe life on the Russell farm was far, far better than on the torturous southern plantations.
Oddly, an interesting sign of that was found in the cemetery on the farm located within eyeshot of where the main house had stood. What is unusual about this graveyard is that slaves were buried at the back of the same plot as the family. Field stones at the head of settlement depressions mark their locations. On one trip there, I was wandering the among the tombstones of the Russell family when I caught a glimpse of a stone barely visible through the grass that had grown over it. We cleared away the grass to uncover a headstone, brushed the dirt away to reveal the inscription. It read, “Cashy Russell, wife of Sandy Graham, Died Jan 6th1853, Age 18 years,” the only headstone for any of the enslaved. Cashy was likely a house slave the family was fond of and was the first to be buried in the cemetery. Just days later, David, her master, died. Cashy may have been my 3rd great aunt. I still maintain a connection with the white Russell family. We’ve come a long way.
Slave cabin cornerstone from the Russell farm near Elkton, Kentucky.
Cashy Russell's tombstone on the Russell farm southeast of Elkton, Kentucky.
New arrivals to North Central were given maps to navigate the maze of locker lined hallways. Still, kids were late to class having gotten lost along the way. My class was the first to complete all 3 years in the new buiding. I think I learned more in the hallways than in the classrooms that would serve me the rest of my life. Those junior high cliques folded into the social clubs that were a precursor to the fraternities to come. These were the domain of the in-crowd who set the standards for those who wanted to fit in. Beautiful girls, handsome guys, athletes, cheerleaders. The who’s who of any school. I admired these kids and wanted to be a part of their world but this was where my real education began.
I was still too small and skinny for basketball and certainly not football, a bit of an egghead, a creative nerd. My artistic skills caught the attention of a member of the Rebels Social Club. He asked me if I would create a poster of the club’s logo. I was surprised but felt almost honored to be asked. After some hours on the garage floor it was done. He came by to pick it up and thought it was a great job. Was this an opening? Was it? The first ask was never followed by a second to join the club. Finally, at 15, I was beginning to see the color of the landscape and my place in it. I was the fly in the milk bottle. I began to learn.