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The Red-Haired Princess

A common event in the black community was a Tom Thumb Wedding. This was an event that entertained the adults but young boys had to suffer through. A Tom Thumb Wedding was a mock marriage ceremony in which little girls would be dressed in bridesmaid dresses that were hand-sewn by giddy mothers and aunts. The betrothed was adorned in a wedding dress decorated with sequins and gossamer made by the same hands. I was a victim of this charade as an eight-year old. Not only that, I was the groom. The event was set at the historic Phillips Temple C.M.E. Church at 12th and West Streets in Indianapolis. At the time, it was the largest African-American owned auditorium in Indiana, with a seating capacity of 1,500, stained-glass windows, and a pipe organ from Chicago. The building is still there but shuttered now. However, my "nuptials" were held in the basement. My “bride” was Phyllis Ann, the daughter of a good friend of my parents. Cute but too young for me. But this was an arranged marriage. Nevertheless, with me in my miniature tux and Phillis on my arm in her gown, we followed the Flower Girls casting petals this way and that to the "alter." There stood my cousin, Jake, in robe and collar to officiate the ceremony. He led us through the vows written for us. We repeated what Jake read to us, we were announced “husband” and “wife” and I was to kiss the bride. I lifted her veil and gave her a quick peck on the cheek looking to see if this humiliation was finally over. I have no memory of what I vowed but no one has ever tried to hold me to it. I know the adult witnesses hoped to see an actual wedding between us eventually but that was never going to be.

My cousin, Jake, administering the nuptials.

We attended church at Trinity C.M.E. Church at 23rd and Martindale on the eastside of Indianapolis. C.M.E. are the initials for Colored Methodist Episcopal, which was organized December 16, 1870 in Jackson, Tennessee by 41 former slaves to have their own place to worship instead of the balconies of the white Methodist Episcopal, South churches. A white man had to attend services in some southern communities since gatherings of blacks were not allowed unsupervised according to the rules of the Black Codes imposed at the end of the Civil War. Colored was changed to Christian in 1954. Dad was one of the Elders and mom was deeply involved in the women’s groups and activities. I was in the youth group, which was my only circle of friends outside of Jack and Richard. Cathy was part of the group, a pretty, fair-skinned and intelligent girl I took a real liking to. It seemed the feeling was mutual.

We liked sharing space and at events would find excuses to be near. Cathy lived with her grandparents just a short walk from the church. As the group was gathering for another outing, Cathy decided she needed to change her clothes. I of course offered to walk her home and back to the church. As I sat in her grandparents living room on what seemed like a spring-less couch that swallowed me, her grandfather appeared to check me out as any protective father would do if a young man came around. The room was darkened by the pulled tapestry drapes and it was difficult to make out much detail of the room. Her grandfather approached and I’m sure he spoke to me but I cannot remember if he did because of what happened next. I was sitting sunken in the sofa about eye level to his waist. As he stood in front of me, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a pistol. He pointed it at me. This is why I cannot remember much surrounding this moment. But I clearly remember looking into the barrel of that gun. He pulled the trigger. I jumped as a flame came out the barrel. He lifted the "gun" to his cigar and drew in deeply with a smile. I think he chuckled but Cathy certainly didn’t as she returned to the room clearly upset with her grandfather. I never recovered from the event nor did our relationship after I left for college that fall.

Mysch Hall was the sister dorm sitting atop Hursh Hall in the Lafollette complex. That’s where Penny lived, a slender and brilliant black girl from Modoc, a small farming town in east central Indiana. I wasn’t sure it was actually on the map. This was surprising to me since few African Americans live in rural Indiana, unlike the southern states. When the enslaved were emancipated from the plantations across the rural south, many stayed close to the land they had farmed as free labor. With no property, or money, no assets other than their skills that had brought wealth to their masters, they had nowhere to go. They were still shackled to the plantations as sharecroppers, a cunning system of financial slavery. My grandfather and great grandfather had been sharecroppers in southern Kentucky. Finally, the wickedness and brutality of Jim Crow laws spawned the Great Migration, also known as known as the Great Northward Migration or the Black Migration. Six million African Americans moved out of the rural south to the urban Northeast, Midwest, and West between 1916 and 1970 with hopes of a better life, an escape from Jim Crow, an opportunity to obtain their piece of the American dream. A small percentage settled close to the farm fields of the plains where they could offer their skills passed down through the centuries only to find Jim Crow there as well. I assume this was how Penny’s lineage arrived in Modoc.

Penny and I had been dating long enough for our friends to think we were a match. We and some friends were playing with a Ouija Board one evening in the women’s lounge. All sorts of goofy questions were being asked to test the spirits controlling the pointer. When it was my turn someone said to ask who I would marry. Penny blushed. The puck began to move around the board this way, then that. It slowed and stopped at the letter "M." Penny doesn’t start with M. Maybe the spirits didn't excel at spelling. It began to move again circling the board round and round. Again, it slowed and came to a stop. This time the letter was "R." MR. Well, I thought, it was half right. Penny’s initials were PR. So much for Ouija magic.

Penny and I only dated for a short while after that. The lure of the Greek community of sororities and fraternities was strong for Penny and she pledged Delta Sigma Theta. My lack of interest in joining groups had carried over from high school and we soon spent less and less time together. I was never rushed by the Black fraternities, the Kappas or the Omegas, but surprisingly was once asked if I would be interested in joining the Betas by a friend. A black pledge in an all-white fraternity would have been a first on campus. It would have been another step in my further assimilation into the majority culture to achieve my goals. I admit I did consider it. The blow back could have been significant from both white and black fraternities. The usual labels would have been attached like “Oreo” or “Uncle Tom.” The idea of being characterized through the lenses of strangers because of my associations in addition to my color wasn’t new to me. But I wanted to control the labels I would acquire. I was on a mission from Dad. I declined the invitation. While Penny and I were still a couple, there was one very important encounter that occurred near the end.

One night, Fred, the husband of the Mysch dorm director suggested we surprise Penny for no particular reason. Just because we could. It was after hours. The doors and the elevator were locked. The women were safely secured for the night from the lustful heathens below. However, as the spouse of the director, Fred had a key to the elevator. We boarded and headed up to the top floor where Penny lived. The elevator stopped at the 8th floor. The doors opened. Fred, as was required, announced our presence to any girls who might be in the hallways by whispering in an inaudible tone, “Men in the hall.” There we stood looking straight down one of the two corridors of the "L" shaped building. At the far end of the hallway stood a girl in a blue nighty. The ceiling light reflected off her bright red hair. She quietly said, “Oh” and quickly sidestepped into a doorway out of sight. I didn’t realize then that I had just seen the girl that I would want to spend my life with. Marcia Richey. MR.

I would come to know that red-headed sophomore while we worked together on brother/sister dorm projects and events as residence hall leaders. She was not just pretty; she had a personality that fit mine hand in glove. Her big-hearted kindness and compassion were revealed in her every move. Like a moth to a flame, I had to get to know her. She was part of a group of girls that called themselves “The Dirty Dozen,” a real misnomer. I took to hanging out with them when possible when they were engaged in things where my presence wouldn’t be too unusual. The more time I spent close to her circle where I could watch her interact with others and with me, the more I was convinced I wanted to be a part of her life.

One day when the Dozen were getting lunch in the cafeteria, I got in line behind Marcia. As we moved through making our selections, I said, “I’m having trouble making a decision.” Consistent with her compassionate personality, she responded, “Tell me. Maybe I can help.” Just what I wanted to hear. “I’m trying to decide whether to ask you out,” I said smoothly. A surprised look swept over her flushing face, she grabbed her tray, turned and hurried to join the group at their table. Fortunately for me, there was an open seat next to her. The pursuit had begun.

The long walk to campus require crossing a wide-open grassy field far from the school’s classroom buildings. Thoughtful planning was required to make sure you had everything you would need before leaving the dorm for campus. Luckily for me the School of Architecture was just across the street in corrugated metal Quonset huts, remnants of the military training facilities left from the war. It had started to rain unexpectedly on this particular day. I wondered if Marcia had thought to take her umbrella. Knowing she would get soaked making her way back to the dorm if she hadn’t, I called Cathy, her roommate. “No. Her umbrella is still here,” she said. “I’ll bring it to you." Umbrella in hand, I put on my knight in shining armor and carried it to her building and waited for her class to end. To say my presence was unexpected would be an understatement, maybe more of a shock, maybe an annoyance. However, it was raining and here was an umbrella, so we walked the half mile back to the dorm together. This “dance” of need, opportunity and response continued for weeks before she finally could see how much I respected and adored her. I was very different from previous guys who had courted her, not the least of which my being black. She surrendered. What followed over the next 2 years could have been anticipated but we were deeply in love and nothing else mattered…at the time.

Marcia had grown up in small town Indiana (Bourbon, Syracuse, Churubusco) where no blacks lived. The daughter of a Methodist minister, they moved every five years when her dad would be appointed to another congregation. Her father had preached the Gospel of loving God with all your heart and mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself, although our relationship wasn’t what he had in mind.

Indiana had always been a very racist state, particularly in the rural areas, where little was known about blacks beyond the stereotypes portrayed on radio, TV and in newspapers. Media had been so effective in perpetuating the myths about black people that even Blacks came to believe some of the lies. What contact there might have been in small town Indiana would have been in the mills and factories of the cities. Small towns had unwritten Sundown Laws that required blacks to be out of town by sundown or risk the consequences. A young girl selling encyclopedias in Martinsville apparently unknowingly violated that law and was found murdered the next morning, her body dumped in a ditch outside of town. To my knowledge, there was never an investigation and certainly no arrest. Just another dead nigger who was where she had no business being. July 4th, 1923, Kokomo, Indiana hosted 200,000 Klan members and supporters for the largest gathering of the KKK in history. One of the last public lynchings occurred in Marion, Indiana having been promoted in newspapers and drawing thousands to attend. Post cards were made of white people standing beneath the corpses still hanging above their heads. Some photos were even taken with their children. The Klan was so pervasive in the state that at one time many of the state elected officials were openly members of the Klan. Edward L. Jackson from Kokomo was the 32nd Governor of Indiana and was known to associate with Klan leaders. I have often described Indiana as the most southern state in the north. This background in retrospect perhaps helped me understand Marcia’s father’s objection to our relationship. It is likely he knew of family members who were also members of the Klan and possibly attended the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in nearby Marion, Indiana. He understood clearly the cultural lines his daughter was going to cross and the hatred she was going to incur. And she did. He could not, regardless of his faith, consent.

Lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, Marion, Indiana, August 7, 1930

Marcia and I were inseparable. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, resident hall meetings and study hours. We found a new circle of friends we could share at the Wesley Foundation at the Methodist church on the other side of the campus. Since the dorms didn’t serve dinner on Friday nights, we could always be found there. One night we picnicked atop one of the Quonset huts of the architecture school nearly getting trapped atop as a lightning storm approached and a campus cop had parked below. Just as the thunder rolled over head, he left, we slid down the curved ribbed roof and ran for cover laughing all the way. A few times, Marcia came home to Indianapolis with me for the weekend. My very young sisters, Terri, 7, and Jackie, 4, loved it when she came. Marcia would cook with them standing on chairs to reach the counters. She won my mom’s heart and dad was warming up after having once said, “Don’t forget your people.” We talked about our future together, the children we would have, the loving home we would create and the fun of raising a family together. The love we shared was smeared all over our faces for all to see like peanut butter and jelly.

Photo taken by Marcia as I entered the lounge at the Wesley Foundation. 1968

Those who didn’t know us saw something very different. A white girl with a black guy was immediately assumed to be promiscuous, “putting out.” Guys, black and white, would openly “hit on” her. White guys would yell “nigger lover,” slut, whore and worse out their car windows, occasionally even throwing something. Once as we walked across campus alone, a campus cop stopped to ask Marcia if she was okay. And one night after we had finished studying in the men’s lounge, she was accused of something very serious.

Marcia had just finished correcting a mimeograph stencil of a curriculum she had written. The blue carbon dye was all over her hands and she went into the restroom to try to remove it. I waited. We said our good nights and she was let onto the elevator by the female hostess keeping guard after hours. Shortly after returning to her room, she received a call from Sue, her dorm director who asked her to come to her apartment. Sue told Marcia there had been a report that she was doing drugs. That she had been seen going into the restroom but there was no flushing heard. Marcia was confused. She didn’t drink, she didn’t smoke and she certainly didn’t do drugs! Sue said, “I didn’t think so.” Then she asked, “Were you with Charlie?” Marcia said, “Yes. We were studying together.” She explained the mimeograph stencil and trying to wash it from her hands. Sue responded, “Well that explains it.” Marcia asked, “Explains what?” Sue answered, “Marcia, you have so much to learn,” and wished her a good night. A week later the elevator hostess was fired. It wasn’t her first racist accusation. This all wore on Marcia one little cut at a time. Her parents’ disapproval, the ugly characterizations by total strangers, the vile name calling by people who had no idea of her giving spirit. But one night in particular shook us both.

Photo taken by my dad in front of my home in Indianapolis. 1969

One Saturday afternoon, we had decided to leave the safe environs of campus to see the movie, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" at the theater in town. It was dark when the movie ended and we needed to get back to the dorm before hours. But a black guy with a white girl walking back to campus through town was no way to guarantee you would make it. Marcia agreed it would not be the best idea. So, we found a phone booth around the corner, called for a taxi and stood there waiting. The shore fronts were dark, closed for the night. Dark trees lined the other side of the street and the lights of the school in the distance blinked through the leaves. The sidewalk and the street were well lit but empty. There was no one around; we were alone. A car approached from our left, an orange ’64 Mustang. As it passed, I could see three passengers, three teenaged white boys. The one in the passenger seat turned and looked in our direction. The car slowed and turned right at the next corner. I became tense. Moments later, the car reappeared coming around the corner to our left driving much slower past us again. This time the eyes of all three boys were locked on us and the car again slowed, turned the corner and disappeared. By this time, I was beginning to panic and rushed back to the phone booth. I called the cab company again yelling expletives into the phone. As I stood in the phone booth, the Mustang appeared again driving even slower then stopped in front of where Marcia was standing. The passenger was talking to her. Marcia leaned over to respond to whatever he was saying. Watching this through the glass of the booth, I screamed into the phone, “Get that cab here NOW!!!”, slammed it onto the hook and threw open the door. I walked hurriedly back toward Marcia. As I neared her, the car pulled away and again turned the corner slowly, eyes on us. Now I was terrified about what I imagined was going to happen the next time we would see that car. I turned to Marcia and said, “The next time that car turns that corner if anyone gets out, you run that way and I’ll stay here.” I knew if they returned again that I would likely die and Marcia surely raped. Hoping she could find a place to hide, I was willing make that sacrifice. This wasn’t a movie. It was a living nightmare. Suddenly, the taxi arrived, we jumped in without hesitation and made it safely back to campus. We paid the fare, got out and kissed the ground.

Marcia as we headed back to the dorm following a football game in the fall of 1969.

The following weekend as we sat in Marcia’s car in the dark she said we should run off and get married. Until a few years earlier that would have been illegal in most states. The 1967 Supreme Court decision in Loving vs Virginia denying interracial couples the right to marry was ruled unconstitutional. She was a senior doing her student teaching at a city school and preparing to graduate. As much as I wanted to be with her for the rest of my life, I still had another year of school to finish. And I knew what my dad would say, “If you’re old enough to get married, then you’re old enough to stand on your own.” I had worked throughout my time at school and in the summers to help pay for my education. I had applied for student loans every year and was denied each time. I needed mom and dad’s help to finish my degree. I couldn’t get married until then. I laughed and turn down her “proposal.” The following weekend, Marcia said it was over. The relentless racist harassment and threats had driven her to the brink. She knew what my answer to her marriage proposal would be. It gave her a narrow ledge from which to leap and leave all the torment behind. No more sordid characterizations and peace within her family was what she felt she needed. She had accepted a teaching position in Manassas, Virginia to put some distance between all of this and me.

Heartbroken doesn’t begin to describe the feeling of emptiness, the total loss I felt. I learned later that Marcia had spent that night playing Nancy Wilson's "Free Again" and crying until her eyes were swollen shut. For me, it was an indescribable, unrelenting pain that saturated my entire body. A pain more penetrating than a physical wound. I could see no end in sight, no way to stop this gut grinding misery. I had lost my perfect match. There was no going back and the future was blank. I sat in my darkened room staring at the window. Two stories up. That should be enough to end this torture. I seriously considered it. I understand why some people commit suicide when there’s no hope the unbearable pain will ever end and the fear of the next minute is greater than the fear of death. Marcia was gone and so was I. Racism had won.


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