This is one of my grandmother’s stories, in her own words. Considering the time and place, I think the story says a lot about her.
I first came to Charleston in the summer of 1967 to accept a position with the Social Security Administration. Because of a very limited budget, my children and I moved into a four-bedroom apartment in Orchard Manor, one of the city’s low income housing areas. Unless you’ve had prolonged contact with this type of situation, to say that life in the manor made Peyton Place seem like a Sunday school picnic should suffice. From a sociological standpoint, a study would probably show that the liquor consumption rose in proportion to the number of welfare recipients.
We lived in Bowman Court, which consisted of two twelve-family buildings facing a common court, or yard. This area was destined to be the site of many conflicts, both racial and family affairs, with almost nightly visits from the local police, attempting to restore peace.
Incidentally, there were 137 children occupying these twenty-four units, but only four fathers. One was a drug addict, one an alcoholic, and one unemployed.
When we moved there, all the apartments were occupied by Caucasians. Shortly after that the housing authority adopted a policy of admitting one minority family to each court in the Manor. Did they feel they were doing this one family a favor to “allow” them to be surrounded by twenty-three families who were different? Surely NOT! They should have had the foresight to see this.
Soon there was a vacancy in a first floor apartment, and the new tenants were a 35-year old Negro Vietnam widow and her eight children. Nancy had three strikes against her before she even came up to bat. 1. Her race…2. her marital status, and 3. she was a deaf-mute, which could have been a blessing in disguise, at least she couldn’t hear the racial remarks her neighbors were using. I visited Nancy the day after she moved in, and my sons invited her children to come play. Not another person in Bowman Court would have anything to do with them. For the first time in my life I was ashamed to be white.
Nancy and I became good friends, but I knew they were miserable because they were not accepted by the other families. I thought of an idea that would alleviate the problem. Knowing that children are curious about the unknown, I wrote to the head of the school for the deaf and blind. I explained the situation and asked for his help. He sent me a dozen 2 x 3 1/2 inch cards with the alphabet in sign language on them and I amde some duplicates so there would be enough to go around. Nancy’s children and my own joined me in the yard for all to see and started a training session. Most of her children, except the very young, were already proficient in signing. At first the other children ignored us, but soon their curiosity got the best of them, and as they gathered round to see what we were doing, our group expanded to include many of the 137 children.
In order to “graduate” and retain the card for their very own, they had to “talk” to Nancy, asking if one of the children could come out and play, if they could push Sherry, the baby, in her stroller, or if Kenny could play on their ball team.
They soon forgot their prejudices in an effort to “graduate” and attend a graduation party at our apartment each Friday evening, for all who fulfilled the requirement the prior week. We always had popcorn and kool-aid.
One young boy, knowing that I cut my own boys’ hair, asked if he could have a haircut for a graduation present. Thanks to word of mouth advertising, I soon became an unpaid, unofficial children’s barber.
Bowman Court was home to us for about eight months…and on our last night we spent time with Nancy and her children. We all shed a few tears, but I had a good feeling in my heart, knowing I was leaving them with friends.