The Equity Factor

One Detroit Child’s Confusing Introduction to Prejudice

In her story about moving to a changing Detroit neighborhood as a three-year-old, author Kat Harrison recalls, “Purchasing a home in a white neighborhood was not an adventure for the timid.”

(Photo: Patricia Lay-Dorsey)

This piece, “Turner Ronald Carter the Third,” appears in A Detroit Anthology, a new book that brings forth voices from a city that is rich in stories through essays, photos, poetry and art. Contributors include Grace Lee Boggs, dream hampton, Tracie McMillan, Thomas J. Sugrue, Shaka Senghor and many others. A Detroit Anthology is the first to publish Kat Harrison, a lifelong Detroiter who embarked on a new career as a freelancer after many years in the corporate world.

We were the third colored family to move onto the 5100 block of Linsdale Avenue in Detroit. The Horton clan next door and Howard and Mattie Brogdon, across the street with their four children, had taken gold and silver honors a few months earlier. My parents gladly accepted the bronze, and we settled into the six-room lower unit of our brick two-family flat at 5080-82 Linsdale.

It was late in the year in 1952. I was three years old, living in a toddler’s paradise. I wasted no time musing over the social significance of moving to this tree-lined street from the tiny attic apartment in my aunt and uncle’s A-frame bungalow in River Rouge. Instead, I busied myself with more urgent matters: Finding hiding places, playing peek-a-boo in the hall mirror, making noises (all sorts) in the big, echoey rooms. What could I have known or cared about prejudice and discrimination at that age?

Whether I understood it or not was immaterial. The reality was this: We — along with the Hortons, the Brogdons, and others dotted across our neighborhood — were in the avant garde of a cresting pas de deux that was shifting blocks in a few west-side neighborhoods like ours from all-white to all-black, often in the time it took the sun to set and rise.

Giving credit where it is due, our move would have been impossible without the U. S. Supreme Court’s 1948 ruling in Shelley vs. Kraemer and McGhee vs. Sipes. This decision settled several lawsuits that arose, in part, out of the purchase of a house at 4626 Seebaldt Street in Detroit by Minnie and Orsel McGhee Sr., which is located only eight blocks from ours on Linsdale.

The facts of the case are simple and familiar. (Think Raisin in the Sun played out in real-time in Detroit in 1945.) When white neighbors discovered the McGhees, a very light-skinned colored couple, had purchased the Seebaldt house, they tried to get the McGhees to abandon their home. Mr. and Mrs. McGhee, who were my friends Reggie and Kathleen’s grandparents, neither bent nor broke.

They rejected offers to buy them out, endured blazing crosses on their lawn, and fought escalating lawsuits through local, state and federal courts. Supported by the NAACP, a young lawyer named Thurgood Marshall led the legal team that took their case, which had been joined with the St. Louis-based Shelley case due to the factual similarities, to the Supreme Court.

To call the Court’s verdict in the Shelley and McGhee cases “landmark decisions” buffers the cushions of understatement. Despite post-World War II frigidity on issues of racial equality, a pre-Civil Rights-era Supreme Court ruled that restrictive covenants in deeds intended to prohibit the sale of residential property to non-whites were unenforceable. Say what?

With that ruling, colored homebuyers’ field of residential dreams widened considerably, not only in Detroit, but across the country. Nevertheless, purchasing a home in a white neighborhood was not an adventure for the timid. Colored home seekers were often quoted substantially higher prices than their white counterparts. For instance, my parents bought our house for twice the amount the seller — a single white man named James McNaughton — had paid for it a few years earlier.

Then, there was the problem of long-term financing for the purchase. Conventional mortgages were not available to colored homebuyers — even those, like my parents, with a $3,000 down payment and solid jobs at US Rubber and the US Post Office as references. Like others of their race, they settled for a land contract through Bank of the Commonwealth to purchase the house at 5080-82 Linsdale. It was, at the time and for many years, the only bank in town that would handle real estate transactions involving colored people.

The Supreme Court decision didn’t fling wide the doors of housing equity, either. It took one weapon out of the well-stocked arsenal of bigots who, driven by fear and prejudice, worked hard to maintain racial segregation in their own back- (and front-) yards. Some even enlisted their children in the battle, as I was to find out one not-so-normal summer day.

Ours was a quiet street in a quiet neighborhood, even during the transition from white to colored. I was four or five years old, and my mother allowed me to play outside by myself, as long as I didn’t venture any farther than the walkway that led to the sidewalk. I’m sure she was no more than a whimper away, but I felt like a big girl being left on my own like that.

Mindful of the weight of the trust she’d placed on my tiny shoulders, I usually stuck to the porch, which was partially shielded from the street by several tallish pine trees that grew between the house and a well-trimmed row of reddish prickly bayberry bushes. As an only child, I was used to finding my own amusements. Being outside and alone was not a problem for me.

One day my solitary playtime was interrupted when a little blond boy joined me. I don’t think at this time in my life I knew the difference between white and black. My mother was light-skinned, “high yellow” some would have said, and my father was dark, dark brown, “black as the ace of spades” as I was once told by a man at his workplace. With both ends of the spectrum on display at my dinner table, color was irrelevant to me. I was not surprised when a white boy appeared, simply because I didn’t know what a “white boy” was.

My visitor seemed older than me but not by much. When I think of how he looked, I am reminded of Tommy Rettig, the original child actor on the Lassie series, or Macaulay Culkin of Home Alone fame.

“I’m Turner Ronald Carter the Third,” he announced.

Always in hostess mode, even as a youngster, I welcomed him, introduced myself, and offered to share whatever toys were handy. He must have turned out to be a decent playmate, and we enjoyed whatever we did until it was time for him to go. The signal for his departure, I believe, was a whistle that cut through the curtain of white noise that surrounded that unremarkable summer day. Turner Ronald Carter the Third perked up at the sound, like a dog that heard his master’s call. We said goodbye, and he left, walking exactly five houses down the street to the four-family flat in which he lived.

The houses on our block were mostly two-family flats. Owners, like my family, usually lived on the first floor, and renters occupied the upper flats. The four-family flats were rental properties. Their owners — absentee landlords — lived elsewhere. They were transient lodgings, some more well-tended than others, through which most tenants, who were on their way to someplace else, better or worse, sojourned for only a little while.

Turner Ronald Carter the Third, child of the rented four-family flat down the street, came and played with me, daughter of homeowners, a couple of times after that. I was glad for his visits. As an only child, living in an all-adult world, it was nice to spend time with someone who saw things closer to my eye level. He must have been appropriately behaved and played fair, although I did suspect him of stealing my teddy bear, but maybe that’s because of what came next.

The last time I saw Turner, he marched down the street toward my house like a boy with something serious on his mind. I was standing on the walkway as he passed me. I don’t think he uttered a word of greeting. I started to follow, thinking he was heading to the porch, but reconsidered, stopped, and watched. What was he up to? Something was different because he halted midway up the steps. Then he hopped onto the lower of two concrete slabs that capped the brick balusters flanking each side of the stairs.

Turner turned toward his four-family flat, facing the space between the house and the lawn where the pine trees rose behind the bayberry bushes. He stood there for a second or two. Then, he undid his pants. And as I watched, Turner Ronald Carter the Third shot a stream of urine into our shrubbery.

I didn’t need an anatomy lesson to know that he had pulled out his you-know-what and did number one on my shrubs. I also didn’t need to consult Emily Post to know that his conduct breached every rule of etiquette and polite behavior for a visitor on someone else’s property.

Well, I never! Had I been wearing pearls, I would most certainly have clutched them. “Ewwwww,” or a sound to that effect, is what I said.

Turner closed his pants and jumped from the stairs, his expression a blend of pride and embarrassment. No need for the summoning whistle. He ran, as if chased by a posse or my outraged parents. Maybe he ran because he needed to reach the safety of his own home before he could be caught. Maybe he ran because he knew what he had done was just plain wrong. Maybe he ran because we had been playmates and he was ashamed to look me in the face. Or maybe he ran because that is what he had been told to do. Who knows? Of course, we never played together again. I suspect his family moved shortly after this incident.

When I reported his gross, indecent behavior to my mother, my story focused on his naughtiness. She probably understood the motive and the message it was intended to send, having grown up in segregated coal towns in West Virginia. Rather than tarnish my young soul with a discourse on the many, varied and sordid ways racial prejudice could be expressed, she took a higher road.

Mama agreed. Turner Ronald Carter the Third was indeed a very bad boy who lacked home training of the most basic sort. But, as a little pitcher with very big ears, I might have overheard the phrase “poor white trash” whispered when the incident was discussed with my father and other adults.

For many years, I dismissed Turner and his violation of our shrubbery simply for the gauche, low-class act it was. After all, he lived in rented space, while I lived in a home that was owned by my parents. Maybe that’s the way his sort behaved, I thought. Marx was right, although he was making a completely different point. Class was the essence of life’s struggles. Turner Ronald Carter the Third and Kathryn Ann Bryant belonged to different classes, mine being more refined and elevated than his, and that was that.

In later years, my musings about Turner’s defiant and deviant act led me to think that he was the weapon his parents used to register their displeasure with the arrival of unwanted colored neighbors. He became a one-boy unwelcome wagon, a symbol to be manipulated, like a flaming cross or a rock tossed through a window.

Now a 60-something adult, I can’t imagine how such a young child in the 1950s could have devised such a plan by himself. Nor can I believe that the call of nature had been so sudden and urgent that he could not have been more discreet in answering it. How sad and cowardly it was to use a child to insult another child, neither of whom could have possibly understood the motivations and bigger issues at play.

I googled Turner Ronald Carter the Third as I was finishing this essay. The search was fueled by curiosity and the ease of finding people on the Internet. I didn’t have a plan if I found him. What might I do? Confront him? Make him ’fess up? Go for coffee at Starbucks?

I found someone who might have been an older version of the boy about whom I wrote. The images I found startled me. They were in a lovingly assembled pictorial memorial to a man who lived in Taylor, and served and died in the Vietnam War. About the right age, his name was Turner Ronald Carter, Junior.

Could Linsdale Turner be Taylor/Vietnam Turner? Could he have announced his name as “Junior” rather than “the Third”? Possibly. It was a long time ago and, while the story is true, my recollection of his familial suffix could be faulty. Now, I’ll never be sure if he was second or third in the line of Turner Ronald Carters.

When I read of his death, I felt sad, and I hoped the young man captured in the smiling blond images was not “my” Turner. Inexplicably, I felt linked to him, somehow, maybe because we were both Baby Boomers, whose shared experiences — from Milky the Clown to the Mickey Mouse Club, from Edgewater Park to the Bob-Lo Boat, and from Soupy Sales to the Selective Service — were greater than someone else’s perceived differences between us on a summer day on Linsdale Avenue in the 1950s.

Postscript: I believe the boy in my story is the same person whose pictures I found as a young man on the Internet. I gave him a fictitious name because I was truly saddened to learn of his death and didn’t want to disturb his family’s memories of him, should this essay reach them somehow.

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

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