My good friend and former partner, Paul McCary, reacted to some of my stories about my childhood by writing about his life as a child in New London and Waterford. Here’s what Paul wrote:
Mark, thanks for the Eggertsville essays. Much of your experience rang true for me. It also highlighted some differences in our backgrounds (and likely the contents of our suitcases of baggage, if there can be such a thing).
I grew up in New London & Waterford CT with a second generation Irish father and a first generation Greek mother. Mom came to America as a 10-year old in 1924. Though she was totally assimilated (did a crossword puzzle every day), she often spoke Greek to her siblings and others from the “Greek community.” Dad worked at the Electric Boat shipyard as a welder and union member. Neither of them attended school past the eighth grade (though Mom got a GED when she was in her 80s).
We had one lawyer in our neighborhood, but most Dads either worked at EB or Pfizer, owned very small businesses or were in the Navy. In Waterford, where we moved when I was 5, there were usually one or two Black families in town, none anywhere near our neighborhood.
So I heard more of the subtle and not-so-subtle racist chatter among adults than you did. I learned that “mavri” was Greek for Black. One common theme in the adult conversation was to recount the discrimination that the adults had faced based on their immigrant status, then observe that “we were able to overcome those barriers by hard work and persistence. And we didn’t get handouts from the Government. Sure, Roosevelt combated the depression with WPA and similar programs, but you had to WORK for the money. We did it, Blacks should too.”
Their expectation that Blacks could pull themselves up as did the Irish, Italians and Greeks of course ignores a couple of details. First, our ancestors weren’t slaves. Second, their skin was white. While I don’t doubt that Greeks and Irish faced discrimination, it was nothing like the barriers facing Blacks.
The growing role of government — especially the 1960s War on Poverty — seemed to add fuel their racism. Prior to that, it seemed that people tended to get help, whether that be housing or employment, from family members, church members, etc. The idea that people could get money from the government without working created a lot of resentment (“They’re lazy. And our taxes are paying for it!”).
As a second/third generation immigrant white American, I experienced zero discrimination. To my ears the racist comments sounded wrong (and at some level most of the adults, and certainly my parents, would acknowledge that). But that’s a long way from erasing what I heard and saw.