Growing up in the East End of Xenia was like growing up in a separate town from my white counterparts. The fact that they called downtown”uptown” was only part of the disconnect one had with them. Because the East End was so thoroughly segregated, with only a very few white women and the occasional white man living there, it was possible to feel that we had our own town which just happened to be connected to the rest of Xenia.
The East End, had an informal boundary of Monroe Street to the west, Third Street to the South and Church Street to the North. I can remember when the first family, Richard and Sue Betts bought a house that was on the other, i.e. west, side of Monroe. It caused quite a stir in the East End. Blacks had not previously been able to buy in any other area of Xenia, not even with cash, because it had been tried by more than one family.
The East End had its own businesses so that the only thing you had to go to town for was new clothes and cheaper groceries. We had small markets, Mrs. Smith’s and Anderson’s to name two, but they had limited stock and were relatively expensive. That meant most black families ventured out of the East End to buy groceries at James’ or Kroger’s. James’ was the closest to the East End and got most of the business. There was also Brewer’s market on East Main, but it had similar stock and prices as the black markets. It also had a very nice lady who worked there but who stunk to high heaven in warm weather.
I primarily went to Brewer’s before going to the movie theatre, which was around the corner on Greene Street. The candy at Brewer’s was cheaper and there were more choices. Due to my limited exposure to white folks I thought the reason the woman at Brewer’s smelled so bad had something to do with her ethnicity. I was not sure what the connection was, but I knew I knew I had never met a black person who smelled like that.
There were certain establishments in the East End that were considered important community centers. The first was Cue’s Drug Store, which was next door to Zion Baptist Church and the recipient of many a dime that had been given to the child for the collection plate. I was not allowed to go into Cue’s because “bad” people hung out there. That, of course, made it very attractive to me and I sneaked in whenever I could, especially to get a Tin Roof Sundae for 15 cents. A Tin Roof was vanilla ice cream, hot fudge sauce, whipped cream, nuts and a cherry, all served in a tall sundae glass.
Cue Rickman, the owner, knew my father well and so I often got treated to my sundae. He also probably knew I was not supposed to be in there. His establishment was not viewed as a good place for young women, but it was not in the same league as Jim’s Pool Parlor, across the street from Zion. I would never have set foot in there, except that Jim Wilson who owned it was our neighbor across the street and his daughter Sarah Anne was my friend. I had to go to the poolroom with her one time to get something from her father. We actually had to go to the office but I still got a thrill at the idea of being in such a den of inequity.
Besides drug stores and pool halls beauty parlors were the most fascinating places to visit for me. Having “good” hair I did not have to have my hair straightened. My sister, Barbara, was not so lucky in the gene pool and she did have to have hers done. This process was nothing like today’s relatively clean and simple procedure done with chemicals. The beauty parlor of the 1950’s and 60’s was a place of fire and smells. Ethel Jane’s was one and Mildred and Mack’s was another that my sister frequently. I preferred to accompany her to Mildred and Mack’s which was on the corner of Evans Avenue and Market Street and right across from Lincoln Elementary. Johnson’s funeral home occupied the front of the house and Mildred and Mack’s the back. Convenient, they could also do the hair of the corpses, but I digress.
At Mildred and Mack’s you went in, got your hair washed and then the fun time began. They had open fires in little braziers shaped like turtles, the flames coming up out of the back of the shell of the turtle. On these iron turtles they would lay wicked looking combs in the fire to heat. They would then slather grease, sometimes vaseline, sometimes something more exotic on a strand of hair and run the hot comb through it to straighten it out. This was done to the entire head. Some women had them put curls in their hair with a curling iron, likewise heated on turtle back and would leave the parlor with the hair on their heads in tight curls. They would then comb them out for church the next day, making a nice cap of hair for Sunday services.
I was desolate as a small child to be denied the drama and pomp and circumstance of the beauty parlor. My hair just got washed and put into two braids, or on state occasions in what was called Shirley Temple curls. People kept telling me how lucky I was to have “good” hair, but I felt like I was being denied one of the more glamorous events in the life of young women, the black beauty parlor.
Years later when we were integrated my white female classmates informed me that they washed their hair every day. I was horrified. I washed mine once a week. I did not understand that black hair, even “good” hair, does not make oil like white hair. I tried washing my hair every night and ended up with masses of the driest mess imaginable. It was not kinky enough to be an afro and it was certainly not straight enough to be fashionably poker straight like the trend that had even my white classmates ironing their hair to remove any curls. My hair, down to my mid-back looked like a black lion’s mane!
I can remember being offended when some of my white classmates complained that the black kids in the swimming pool at the YMCA made the water oily with their hair grease. They did not realize either that most black folks have to put something in our hair to make it shiny and manageable since our scalps do not know how to provide oil. I did not have any clue that white people’s hair did that either until a high school friend drove to my house one morning to show me her hair before she washed it. I was amazed! Fortunately for the white kids Pinecrest, the only “public” pool in town besides the YMCA did not allow black people to belong to it, not even when they lived in the neighborhood after integration. I wondered if my white peers wearing their Pinecrest Swim Club tee shirts to school realized how racist it was and how their proud wearing of the tee shirts made me think they must be racists too.
The East End was not perfect, but we did not have anything that we denied people access to because of the color of their skin. That is only one of the things we had to be proud of.