A Tuskegee Story


Children in my neighborhood played with toy soldiers made of rubber. One day a large pile of soft sand was deposited right next to our house. Creating a mountain, we carved winding roads and tunnels into damp sand with our hands to play a game we called Bomb Hitler’s Hideout. Each evening at dinnertime, we left our toy soldiers in the sand and resumed the battle the next day. One day the entire mountain landscape disappeared. The sand had been mixed into cement to build a concrete front porch for the house. When the cement hardened I looked at the smooth floor in amazement, wondering if all of our toy soldiers had been ground down there. Although I checked frequently, I never saw any traces of those rubber soldiers.

The war was still on and I was issued my own ration book by the government. My portion of the domestic provisions allotted our family because of shortages included stamps for flour, sugar, a too-orange margarine, tinned meat, tires, and gasoline. Our kitchen table had a roll of toilet paper our family used for dinner napkins, and I grew up eating Spam, thinking it delicious. Our bread was soft and white, made by Colonial, and cost five cents a loaf. I loved Spam sandwiches as much as I loved the fish my father caught on weekends, which supplemented our diets for protein. We ate mackerel and grits for breakfast sometimes. I did not love the daily dose of Vitamin D my mother gave me each morning from the greasy brown Squibb bottle.

 

Thanks to Tuskegee educator Booker T. Washington’s foresight, our small segregated community supported doctors, school teachers, preachers, businessmen, farmers, bus drivers, custodians, homemakers, librarians, mechanics and pilots. These were astute, politically aware Race Men and Race Women in the original sense – proud and clear about their identities and worth. Tuskegee was a gilded cage like no other. Even our veterans were a special case for reasons then unclear to me.

I didn’t know any white people at all. There was a war going on in America, and we became the Emmett Till generation. In 1955 a young boy named Emmett Till was murdered for whistling at a white lady in Mississippi. But I doubted that was the whole story. For sure, this young northerner was out of his element, not understanding the ways of southern conflict. A prevailing sentiment among locals in those years was, “If you don’t understand it, kill it.”

Some people know Tuskegee as the site of the infamous syphilis experiment. My father worked on the medical staff at the Veteran’s Hospital from 1929 until his death from a heart attack at age 63. He joined the VA one month before the stock market crash of ’29 and stayed until his own heart crashed in 1958. As far as I’ve been able to determine, he was not involved in the U.S. Public Health Service fiasco, a tragic experiment that withheld treatment from rural black men and their families, even after the discovery of penicillin’s effectiveness. Some of my father’s associates were involved; I grew up knowing them and their children well.

Our childhood was spent living among the families of medical personnel on a section of the VA reservation called The Circle, a residential neighborhood on a large circular street anchored by an apartment building and surrounded by a dozen single-family bungalows on the perimeter. In the center was a stand of tall pine trees under which children played school and other games. Nearby yards were landscaped with magnolias, crepe myrtles, azaleas, fruit and nut trees – peach, pear, pomegranate, pecan, hickory and more. Fruits and nuts were so abundant that we had snacks to tide us over easily between meals. There were also clay tennis courts, a library, an auditorium, playing fields, a golf course, and broad expanses of open space and mowed lawns.

The VA Hospital reservation was a campus-like, gated community covering several hundred acres. There were administrative offices, a number of medical and surgical wards in separate buildings and a multi-storied psychiatric building. There was also a working farm with livestock, stables, a water tower and a power plant. The complex was surrounded by six-foot-high chain-link fencing, topped with barbed wire and guarded at front and back gates.

Tuskegee Veterans Hospital was conceived in the 1920s as a regional facility for southern Negro veterans of World War I. Comparable to a military base, the whole place was dedicated to the aftermath of wars. Memories were tamped down by inadequate methods of containment. Although it was intended to be white-operated, there was a problem: Alabama’s Jim Crow laws forbade white women to work where touching the bodies of black men would be necessary. A mixed-race staff of white doctors and black nurses – then in short supply – in Alabama was also untenable.

Eventually the hospital was given over to black doctors, nurses, and technicians recruited from around the country. They used this opportunity to train others at nearby Tuskegee Institute. The hospital thrived through the Depression into the New Deal, bringing comfort and security to many people who otherwise might have been neglected or starving.

 

My father graduated from Talladega College in Alabama, where he received his B.Sc. degree, in 1917. Talladega is a historically black college established during Reconstruction for the education of freed slaves and their descendants. In 1924 my father earned his M.D. degree from Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago. After completing his residency at Cook County Hospital he had private practices in Illinois and Arizona, before coming down to Tuskegee in 1929.

He was hired as Chief of Surgery initially, although he was not admitted as a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons until 1948, because of his race. There was a longstanding refusal to admit Negroes to this professional organization, which hampered continuing education, until blacks established their own professional societies. Throughout his career Daddy cared for black veterans during the day and taught medicine to nursing students during the evenings.

 

As a child my knowledge of history was spotty. I knew FDR was dead; Harry Truman had been President of the United States, followed by General Eisenhower. I liked “Ike” because Ike was a war hero. Hitler was dead, too. But what were the wars that brought these veterans to Tuskegee all about?  Who was proud and who was ashamed of what? Why? There were so many men – all ages, complexions, and body types. Some were in wheelchairs, some on crutches. There a was shyness about them, along with a lingering melancholy, as if somewhere their lives had gone off course, and they had ended up in a place they never intended to come. Is this how all wars end, with sickness and dislocation?

 

In Tuskegee everyone seemed to love my father. They gave him baskets of pecans or peaches as gifts. Some of his patients fashioned leather key holders and fishing lures for him in occupational therapy. His male friends, ones with whom he fished or played poker, along with the pretty nurses,  admired him. My sisters and I were admired by extension. They called us Dr. Mahone’s Girls. We knew we were special, but not exactly why. Were we in this place at the right moment in history like celebrated heroes?  Or had we ended up here unplanned, behind fences and barbed wire, captured like prisoners of war?

 

The VA Hospital reservation grew in reputation and size to over 2,000 beds. No doubt local whites rued the day they relinquished so large an undertaking – so attractive a setting with so substantial a payroll – to African Americans. We were called Negroes to our faces and niggers behind our backs, or the words were slurred to make us “nigras.” Success was achieved, not without struggle. Threats and intimidation from whites continued over the decades. The South remained a war zone.

One night Ku Klux Klansmen burned a cross on The Circle right in front of our house. It was Halloween and all the children, in our hand-made costumes, were out trick-or-treating that evening. An underground utilities project was underway in our neighborhood, so we had to navigate carefully around open ditches, piles of red earth, and those nasty black smudge pots smelling of tar used for temporary lighting. In that era we were dead serious about performing tricks whenever we failed to receive treats. Usually tricks involved something like soaping people’s glass windows, but occasionally we would steal the marbles from silver hood ornaments on automobiles.

Because of the smudge pots, the lights flickered and smelled bad which made the atmosphere even spookier for a Halloween night. We’d gotten some candy and done a couple of tricks, when suddenly our parents appeared, scooped us up, and carried us inside our houses. Word was spreading – the Klan was coming! From the safety of home I saw a cross burning outside in the pines and the memory of that scary night remains.

 

After much controversy, the Army Air Corps selected Tuskegee Institute as the training site for the first group of black men taught to be pilots and air support personnel. Eleanor Roosevelt came and flew with the ace flying instructor, and had her picture taken for all the newspapers. Since that wasn’t endorsement enough, the airman still had to fight assertions that blacks were not smart enough to fly airplanes. The Tuskegee Airman went on to perform bravely during World War II, continually disputing charges of cowardice. Men and women were damaged by violence, hatred, and the unarticulated terrors of war.

 

I felt tremendous pride about the accomplishments of my elders, in the face of Jim Crow and the hostility of the larger world. This gave Tuskegee’s young people – both girls and boys – a strong initial dose of self-confidence before we were required to fight our own battles. Nevertheless, as a child I was sad and aggrieved. One of the last things my father did for me before he died was to enroll me in a Quaker boarding school in upstate New York. There I would learn about pacifism and war resistance movements. This was an act of love on my father’s part and by then I was eager to go.

Barbara Mahone is a writer, painter and educator living in California. A collection of her poems, Sugarfields, was distributed by Broadside Press, with an introduction by Hoyt Fuller. Her writing appears in several journals and poetry anthologies including Runes, Nommo, and the Journal of Black Poetry. She studied with poet Robert Hayden and painter Aaron Douglas, both at Fisk University, and later joined the OBAC Writers Workshop in Chicago. Currently she devotes much of her time to work in Kenya.

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5 thoughts on “A Tuskegee Story

  1. Glenna Calvin

    Outstanding reflections! Greatly appreciate the personal insight of Tuskegee. I would like to make reference to this document in my curriculum. Google: In Defense: an American Legacy—the Tuskegee Experience. instagram: indefenseanamericanlegacy. Semper Fi! US Marine Corps female aviation division veteran.

  2. Melvin Todd

    Thank you so much for this story. I was a student at Tuskegee Institute from 1965 to 1969. Your memories of your life there has helped me place my experience there in to a better prospective. I can see more clearly how I was a benefactor of the blood, sweat, tears, talents and dedication of so many people before me.

    While I was a student under the care and nurture of Mother Tuskegee, our president always spoke about the “Tuskegee Experience.” It was only when I graduated and went out to see my fortune, and place in the world, that I discovered how much of an influence the “Experience” had on me. Tuskegee is truly a very unique and special place.

  3. JoAnne Simson

    Thank you for this brief memoir of your childhood in Tuskegee. It’s important to tell these stories and, hopefully, once more lance the boil of American racism that festers to this day.
    My childhood was spent in a very small town in Michigan; it must have been around the same time as yours. I remember the end of the depression and the rationing of World War II –and yes, the margarine that was much too orange and certainly didn’t taste like butter! But I didn’t know any black people when I was a child, and I wasn’t exposed to the subtle viciousness of racism until many years later. For me, trying to understand this cancer of the American soul has been a long, slow learning curve. I’m learning still.

  4. Anna

    Thank you for these rich memories. So much more to Tuskegee than the barbaric syphilis experiment, I am glad to know the history. AnnaI

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