I Married a Black Man
As a white college student in the 1960s, I married my anthropology professor who was a hereditary Mende chief from Liberia, West Africa. After 30 years of marriage, we wrote together Slaves to Racism: An Unbroken Chain from America to Liberia, which describes the effect of racism upon his home country, comparing it with America’s racism. In it, he used examples from his experiences in the black community during the 1950s & 60s when blacks were referred to as Uncle Tom if they were too friendly with white people. The following is an excerpt in his words:
Billy was a Successful Black Man in the 1960s
My first wife, Ruth, had a cousin Billy who was a very gifted mechanic. He owned a garage in Traverse City, Michigan. Most of the whites in the area brought their cars to Billy because his prices were reasonable and he was very good at what he did. He had a blacksmith shop at his garage and even made some replacement parts. He made a lot more money than other Negroes in the area.
One summer, when Ruth and I visited Billy, we picked grapes with some Negroes in the area. One of the men said, “Are you strangers here?”
Ruth said, “We’re from Lansing.”
“Well, we gotta a good mechanic round here who can take an old car and make it new. He’s from Tennessee originally.”
“What’s his name?”
Blacks in the Area Called Him an Uncle Tom
“Everyone calls him Billy. He don’t mix with our folks, but boy, does he eat out of the palms of those white folks. They keep him hoppin’. Fixin’ old junkers for ‘em, day and night.”
Someone else said, “The guy thinks he’s somethin’ – somebody. He works his butt off. He got so many cars there till he doesn’t know which to work on first. He’s got two helpers but he does most of the work hisself. He’s a greasy person. I don’t know how his wife takes it cause he’s workin’ all the time.”
The first man said, “He’s always helpin’ others and those others are mostly whites. All the time you go there, he’s fixin’ some redneck or peckerwood’s car. Even when it’s rainin’ or snowin’, they get him outta his bed to haul their car in. I told him, ‘I wouldn’t do that, Nigger. They won’t do that for you.’ ”
Everyone laughed. He went on, “White folks can make fools outta us and he’s the biggest fool ‘round here. He’s never doing nothin’ for hisself. He’s never understood the concept that God helps them that helps themselves.”
Ruth said, “Well, is he better off?”
“He pays the bills and the tax people get the rest. You can’t get away from these white people. One way or another they’ll get you.”
When we got back, I told Billy what happened. He told me, “They think I’m an Uncle Tom cause I don’t turn white people away when they come. Niggers have cars that are junkers and I fix them too. There’s three or four at the garage right now that they never picked up.
“The difference with whites is, they use their cars. As soon as I fix ‘em, they pick ‘em up. They don’t always pay the full price but I make ‘em sign for the balance and I get it the next time they come. I’ve lost some money. But takin’ whites to court would be a waste of time. Look, Ben, they pay me enough to keep me in business.
“Besides, I’m a Christian. I sing every Sunday on a radio broadcast. So I’ve got to behave like one. I’ve got no problem in any automotive parts store. They say, ‘Billy, you want something? What can we do for you?’ How many other niggers do they tell that to?”
“You got that right, Ben! That’s why they call me Uncle Tom. I tow cars day and night and the tow charge is included in my work. That’s my job. That’s how I make my livin’.”
I Wrote our Love Story
After my husband died in 2009, I coped with my grief by writing our love story, Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl and the African Chief.