Growing up in the East End–the black part of town–of Xenia in the 1950’s and 60’s was actually rather idyllic. Because the town was so thoroughly segregated the East End had its own culture, its own mores, its own leadership, its own businesses, its own schools, and its own vibe.
I lived on East Market Street–at 536 to be exact, next door to East High school which was connected to Lincoln Elementary School by an enclosed breezeway. As a result I not only never had to walk far to school, I was never really away from school. It was kind of a given that the long sidewalk in front of the school was my property and I kept a hawk’s eye out for other kids playing Mother May I or hopscotch or roller skating. That was my turf!
Life in the East End in those days had patterns and customs that were not optional if you wanted to be considered of “decent family.” Wanting to be considered of decent family was highly valued and one’s status in the community was based on how many of the customs and mores you upheld. You had to go to church, your children had to do well in school, you had to be in a stable marriage, you had to not have any kind of suspicion of being involved in any way with the police, you had to have at least one car ( very few people had two), you had to keep your house in decent condition, you had to belong to civic and church clubs. My parents belonged to the Masons, the Links, the Ever Ready Club, The Woman’s Missionary Society, the Bridge Club, the NAACP, and the Twin Seven Club. My father was a deacon at Zion Baptist Church, my mother sang in the choir.
My two siblings, Barbara and Robert were 11 and 10 years older than me. That means there were four adults in the house and someone’s responsibility was to make me happy. That, probably more than any other family dynamic helped mold my personality. Even today I feel like it is the responsibility of most people to make me happy and I have to remind myself that this viewpoint might not be widely held and, or adhered to.
Our house, next to the school was the perfect vantage point to see what was going on in the community. East was one of the centers of the community after all and lots of meetings took place there besides PTA and other school oriented meetings. The best thing, though was the Memorial Day holiday.
If someone could package the feeling I had as a fifth grader on the last day of school in 1959, knowing that there would be no school for three months ( although I loved school in general ,I loved my summer break too!) and knowing that Memorial Day was right around the corner we could make a mint! Summer meant lots of great things and Memorial Day kicked it off just right.
Because the Xenia Memorial Day was segregated the black part of the parade assembled at East High. They then marched downtown where they met the white portion of the parade at the Fire House on East Main Street and then the parade progressed with the white section in the front and the black section bringing up the rear.
East had a dedicated and brilliant band director, Louis Rhodes, who made sure the uniforms were snazzy and the instruments were shining. He also made sure that everyone playing one of the instruments knew what he or she was doing and made sure they stayed in step. The East band was, in the opinion of many, black and white, by far the best band in the parade.
In those days you got clothes four times a year only for sure. For the beginning of school, for Christmas, for Easter and for the summer. Girls wore dresses to school, so summer was glorious in that you could wear jeans or shorts. My mother would assemble an expedition in late spring to drive to Dayton (which seemed much farther in those days than 18 miles) to buy my summer clothes. We always went to Rike’s the fanciest store in the region, without going to a boutique. You had to get dressed up to go to Rike’s and if we were lucky we would eat lunch in the ultra swanky Coin Room on the third or fourth floor. My mother took it as her absolute duty to make certain my clothes came from Rikes. She did not think that Sears or Penny’s would do, especially not for a Memorial Day outfit! I would be seen wearing this outfit by virtually everyone in the East End because of the parade assembling next to my house.
I would sit on the front porch as instructed until I could not stand it anymore and then I would join all the other kids hanging around the band members and other marching units–the Masons, the Eastern Star, various black clubs, and of course, the boys who were busy putting either crepe paper or playing cards in the spokes of their bikes depending on whether they wanted to be decorative or loud. Girls did not ride their bikes in the parade, it never even occurred to me to wonder why, that being a different time.
The band would be practicing. If it was hot they would have their tunics partially unbuttoned and their fake fur hats sitting on the grass. Adults who were going to be in the parade would be lining up, deciding who was in what row and if they were going to do some kind of step what it would be. Kids like me would be running between all of the different units, making pests of ourselves, and feeling part of something magical.
Then, at a given time the drum major would blow his whistle and all of the band members would fall into line, the other units would line up behind them and they would set off down East Market Street, the band playing a lively tune as they marched. That was the signal for all us kids to scramble for our parents so we could head downtown ( I was fascinated when I started going to school with white kids in the 9th grade to find that they called it “uptown!”) to see the parade.
We felt we had seen the black section so my folks would drive downtown and park near the courthouse. Sometimes we got there soon enough that I got the much sought after seat on the cannon on the courthouse lawn. This seat got you up high enough to see over everyone’s head, but it was usually occupied by a white boy who had gotten there first. I think I may have been one of the few girls to straddle the cannon and watch the marchers from my perch.
After the Memorial Day Parade there were two things to do. Decorate the graves of your loved ones if you had not done that before the parade, and then have a picnic, either in your yard or with friends or, if you were feeling very adventurous, at nearby Bryan State Park. We did not have any dead loved ones in the area since my parents were not from Ohio so we always just went straight into picnic mode.
Memorial Day never changed during my childhood. There was always the band, always the gathering at East, always the segregated parade, always new clothes and always a picnic. Life was more regimented then, more proscribed by peer pressure and group mores, which in some ways was very limiting, but in other ways was very comforting. Knowing what was going to happen is not boring to a ten year old. Memorial Day was like an old friend I could count on to bring fun and family and friends and food.
Sometimes I think I would give up not having to march at the back of the parade to recapture that sense of community and pride.