I was born in Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton Ohio because in Xenia there was no real hospital. (Greene Memorial was not built until the early 50s) There was McClelland Hospital, a kind of clinic, but it did not let black folks spend the night there, out patient only. I do not think most white kids were born in McClelland either, it was not anything near a full service hospital, but surely my mother, being black and me kind of needing to be near her during the birth thing, was not going there.
I was raised in the East End of Xenia, actually living next door to the black high school and elementary school, East High and Lincoln Elementary. I often wonder if my passion for education came about through osmosis from living next to the campus of the black schools.
My father was a tailor with a shop in Fairborn, Ohio, about seven miles or so away. We did not live in Fairborn because black people were not allowed to. Years later when I was in high school the town asked my father to move there because they were getting heat from the federal government when black men and women stationed at Wright Patterson Airforce Base found out they could not live there. He declined since he did not want me to be the only raisin in the rice pudding at Fairborn High School.
My father, Robert Mann Sr. and my mother Melva Liles Mann had moved to Ohio as part of the huge black diaspora in the 40’s before I was born. She was originally from NC, he from Hampton. My mom worked at different jobs, at Wright Patterson Airforce Base as a secretary, as the secretary of the president of Wilberforce University, one of the two historically black universities within four miles of Xenia, and other similar clerical jobs. We were middle class.
I did not really pay much attention to money or status based on money growing up. While Xenia was truly segregated, you could not buy a house in the white sections of the west or north sides of town if you were black, not even with cash, because it was tried, your status was not tied so much to money as to other variables of class and behavior. There were rich people whose children I was not allowed to associate with because of the way their money had been acquired. The first time I realized that money was important and that people had differing amounts was when I was in the fifth grade.
I was a tomboy. Because the best playground and ball fields were next door to my house and because the only two girls in my neighborhood were both very dainty, I mainly had male friends. One day I was sitting on my porch after school when Davy Allen, our families were friends, came by with a couple of other boys and asked if I wanted to play baseball.
I said sure. My mother was a work and therefore not at home to remind me to change my clothes, so I went over to play baseball still in my school clothes. In those days girls wore dresses to school and I had on a dress I can still see in my mind’s eye this almost 50 years later. It was pink and white and had a raised pattern of small flowers on the pink part alternating with stripes of a white kind of brocade looking fabric. We played baseball and all was well until I crashed into the chain link fence trying to catch a pop-up. My dress snagged on a piece of the fence that was sticking out and when I pulled away it ripped all down the back from my neck to my waist, one straight rip.
I had to go home and change clothes then and I did. When my mom found the dress I got scolded for not changing into play clothes before I went out to the playground. She informed me because the dress had not ripped where there was a seam it could not be mended. She told me she was going to have to throw it away, and I got the same lecture I am sure you have dear reader, about thrift and waste not, etc. Within two days the entire thing was forgotten.
This was in September–one of the reasons my mother had been so testy was that the dress, like the school year, was new! In November I was in gym class and noticed a girl who was in my same grade, but not in my class wearing a dress very similar to my poor pink dress, which I presumed my mother had made a rag. Imagine my surprise when, as we were undressing for gym, the girl Linda A., took off the white cardigan she had been wearing with the dress and I saw that the dress had been sewn back together down a long tear from the neckline to the waist.
I was hit by a thunder bolt. I realized suddenly that my mother had not put the dress in the rag bag, but had put it in the Goodwill and that Linda A.’s family must have gotten it there. That one of my classmates had to wear clothes from a charity shop ( this was long before it was fashionable) was amazing to me, and disturbing. Her family did not seem that much different from mine, if they were poor were we poor too?
I never asked my mother about the dress. I did ask Linda where she got it after working up my nerve and she told me she did not know her mother had gotten it for her. Sadly, I knew.
My friends make fun of me for giving money to beggars. They say that the people are probably drug addicts or alcoholics. I always tell them that I am not giving them money for them, I am giving them money for me. I am still paying for tearing a dress without thought that ended up being worn to school by a classmate.