I grew up in Eggertsville, a village that was part of Amherst, a town just north and east of Buffalo, New York. My family’s house was two blocks from the corner of Main Street and Bailey Avenue, the city line. Downtown Buffalo was about six miles from Main and Bailey.
In 1955, when I was eight years old, the neighborhood I knew stretched three or four blocks in each direction. The entire neighborhood was comprised of single-family houses. Some were colonials, not exactly a New England colonial, but the 1930s Buffalo version of a colonial. Many others were capes, some with full second floors, like ours. There were a few empty lots, places for young boys and girls to explore on an idle summer afternoon, and it always was a matter of mild excitement when the excavation equipment arrived to begin construction of another house. Once framed, a house under construction was a great place to explore. There were probably no houses in the neighborhood in 1900, just farmland. Without researching, I’d guess that by the beginning of World War II, fewer than half of the houses in the neighborhood had been constructed. The rest, like our house, filled in quickly after the war.
In retrospect, my neighborhood reflected the transition from early 20th century urban life to late 20th century automobile-centered suburban life. There was one local, family-owned grocery store fighting to survive against competition from the modern super-markets, two family-owned predecessors of the modern convenience store, a couple of gas stations and a barber shop. The University Plaza was six blocks away, with an A&P grocery store, a W.T. Grant five-and-dime, an Adam, Meldrum & Anderson department store (only two floors, not like the big AM&A store downtown), a drug store and other specialty shops. In my neighborhood it was possible to walk to every store you might need, but not quite so easily as in urban neighborhoods. In newer suburbs being built in the 50s and 60s, an automobile was an absolute necessity.
The people in my neighborhood considered themselves strictly middle class, just about all of them thinking of themselves as having risen from relatively humble beginnings. In fact, the neighborhood was better described as early, emerging upper middle class. There were multiple doctors and lawyers, some college professors. Many of the mothers had been to college; one had a Ph.D.
I didn’t fully understand when I was a child, but over time I gradually learned that the neighborhood was an ethnic melting pot. I had neighbors whose ancestors were German and Polish, English and Scottish, Italian and Jewish. Some had changed their last names, with odd collections of consonants and vowels having been lopped off to make the name more digestible for Anglos. My friends were all just a bunch of Americans. White Americans. The only Americans who mattered.
I knew a lot about the parents of kids in the neighborhood; I had only anecdotal information about adults without kids. I received virtually all of my information about the adults from my parents. I learned about the adults by asking questions and sometimes simply listening to adult conversations within earshot.
My mother was a genuine humanitarian in the sense that she believed in freedom for all and abhorred discrimination against any people of any kind. If you asked her to name a personal hero, she’d variously name Albert Schweitzer, Eleanor Roosevelt, or Jackie Robinson.
My father was a smart, well-educated man who grew up in urban Buffalo in the 20s and 30s, spending a lot of time in a bowling alley my grandfather owned. In other words, he grew up in an overtly racist culture where it was assumed that every Italian, every Pole, every Jew behaved in accordance with predominant, vicious stereotypes. There was little doubt that one purpose of the stereotypes was to keep those groups in their respective places in the economic order. I’m sure my father carried with him plenty of racist notions that had been transmitted during his childhood, but he knew better. He knew that although the stereotypes were in some respects accurate, they did not justify unfair and discriminatory treatment of anyone. He was, in a sense, a reformed racist. (Aren’t we all?) He was a reformed racist because he knew what was right. He also was a reformed racist because it was his only choice if he wanted to enjoy at least a modicum of marital harmony.
And so, from time to time there would be conversation at home about the neighbors who lived four doors away. I’ll call them the Scotts. I knew only one important fact about the Scotts: They were black. They were, so far as I knew, the only black people who lived anywhere in the neighborhood.
The message at home about the Scotts was something like “they’re good people, leave them alone.” Still, they weren’t the “good people” we were inviting over for picnics in the backyard. They were different.
Dr. Scott was a physician. He maintained a medical practice in the city, a practice providing medical care to black people. I do not recall if Mrs. Scott had a job.
The Scotts’ house was one of the larger, older houses on the street, a brick colonial. The Scotts had a lovely side yard – a separate building lot – that was well maintained by black gardeners who worked for the Scotts but for no one else in the neighborhood. The implicit message was that blacks have their own doctors, they have their own gardeners, they keep to their kind.
The Scotts either were childless or had adult children; in either case, there were no Scotts in the herd of baby boomers that roamed the neighborhood. I didn’t have personal contact with adults who didn’t have children to play with, so it wasn’t unusual that I had little contact with the Scotts. Still, they were almost like mystery people. I was curious about who they were, about what the inside of their house looked like, but I wasn’t about to knock on their door and ask them to tell me about their lives. I was eight.
When I was a small child, before my mother learned to drive, I would ride the E bus with her to go shopping downtown. Sometimes we’d ride just three miles to Jefferson Avenue. Sears & Roebuck was on the corner of Main and Jefferson. Other times we’d go all the way downtown, to go to the big AM&A with eight floors, the G. Fox of Buffalo. The ride was straight down Main Street, and I learned the route easily. As I grew older, I was permitted to ride the bus downtown on my own.
I was most familiar with Sears. Sears had a reputation in our household, as it did around the country, for having decent quality and fair prices. It was one of Mom’s regular places to look for clothing for the kids and utensils for the kitchen.
The Great Migration from the south came late to Buffalo. In 1940, only about 15,000 African Americans lived in Buffalo. In the early 1950s, when I was going to Sears with my mother, there were probably 40,000 African Americans. They lived on the East Side, east of Main Street. What I only vaguely understood at the time was that the heart of the black ghetto began only a block or two up Jefferson Avenue from Sears. The black ghetto is still there today.
Shoppers at Sears were white and black. I do not recall seeing any difference in how people were treated. Still, it was unmistakable that there was us and there was them. When we were done shopping, we took the bus or drove home, north on Main. The black women and their kids headed south on Jefferson, walking. They went home to the neighborhood where Dr. Scott’s patients lived.
Us and them.
My parents’ personal physician, the family physician, lived six houses from us. He and his family were social friends of our family. A general surgeon lived three houses farther away. He and his family also were social friends of our family. They came to picnics in our backyard.
When I was in eighth grade, I was playing basketball one night at the nearby elementary school gym and broke a bone in my foot. I barely could walk on it. My parents were out for the evening, and my older brother was babysitting for my sister. He called the family physician, who was not available, and then he called the surgeon. The surgeon came to our house, wrapped my foot and ankle, and put it in ice water to reduce the swelling. The next morning, we went to the hospital, and the surgeon reset the bone in a plaster cast. The bump on my foot today is my ongoing reminder of the episode.
So far as I could tell, none of us considered calling Dr. Scott.