Stories about life in Liddonfield housing project and its impact on the Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood of Upper Holmesburg. These true stories reveal how government policy affected the lives of real people, from the project residents to area homeowners during the 5 decades of Liddonfield’s existence. Stories and articles are written by a former resident of the project.

FIGHT THE STIGMA!

FIGHT THE STIGMA!
Rosemary Reeves, Blogger, standing on Philadelphia Skyline

Aug 14, 2012

Part 4 of a Housing Project Kid's Story of Race in 1960s and 70s NE Phila

 If you missed the first 3 parts of this series click on the links below:




by Rosemary Reeves


“It is difficult to divide the race issue from the economical struggle.”  Huey Newton, Minister of Defense, Black Panther Party 

By May of 1970 my brother Barry had been back home in America for a year after having served two tours in Vietnam.  He bought a motorcycle and I rode behind him with my arms around his waist while he steered the bike through the Upper Holmesburg neighborhood. After a while, we stopped at a red light.  A couple of long-haired guys pulled alongside us in a rusted Chevy.  The one on the passenger side said, “Nice bike, man!”

“Thanks,” my brother replied.  

Then the fellow stuck his arm out the window of the car and made the peace sign with his fingers.  I smiled and made the peace sign right back, but my brother ignored it.  The light turned green and they sped off.  “Damn hippies!” my brother remarked. 
Barry turned down a side street and took it slow.  “My country is not the same,” he said, “Even you aren’t the same, Squirt.  You talk like them.  You talk like the hippies.”  

Before that day, I thought American soldiers would appreciate the efforts of the peace movement to stop the Vietnam War, to bring them home safe and sound before there were more casualties.  But I was just a kid.  Things were far more complicated than that.  Soldiers who made it home from the war got the shock of their lives – a changed America where young men did not so willingly follow the call of duty.  American boys were burning their draft cards and fleeing to Canada to escape induction into military service.  They were protesting the war in the streets and on college campuses.  This left the veterans who served in a state of limbo, waiting for accolades that did not come.  It left them feeling betrayed by the rest of their generation.  It confounded, mystified and confused them.   They had left the chaos of war only to find upheaval in the United States.  The sacred American traditions they fought to preserve had been deemed by many as old-fashioned, non-egalitarian, racist and sexist.   

My brother had been raised on the old America but I was much younger.  Shortly after my life began, so did the civil rights movement.  I was raised hearing voices of dissent clamoring for change through the television set.   Throughout my existence charismatic leaders like Martin Luther King as well as more forceful leaders like Malcolm X and Huey Newton dominated the air waves and newspaper headlines. 1970 brought my idol Gloria Steinem, who was leading women into demanding equal rights with men.  The peace movement was in full swing.  There had been some type of political protest movement in America for almost every day that I lived, so it was only natural that I was attracted to and often quoted the slogans of civil disobedience.

When my brother said, “You talk just like the hippies,” it was with a kind of sadness and resolve, as if his baby sister was lost to him forever, as if we were destined to part ways.

Barry dropped me off back home on Carwithan Road and roared away towards his own place.  I said hello to my mother.  She told me I received some mail, a letter from Tom.  He was still fighting in Vietnam.  It had been about nine months since we became pen pals.  At the start of the school year, my new teacher had the students write letters to American soldiers whose names we each picked from a list.  A lot of students stopped writing after a short time, but I kept it up.

My Dear Rose,

How is my little flower?  Whenever I see a flower over here I think of a rose and you.  We have been very busy over here.  I get very tired…When you pray, ask God to give me strength.  Ask him for peace…So much is to be gained by working together as brother.  No good comes from hate.  Only destruction and waste comes from war.
I like to think of you and all the people back home.  I live for the day when I return home.  I have learned to appreciate so much that which I once took for granted.  Hope you are happy and all is well.  I guess you are looking forward to the summer and the end of school.  I too am looking forward to the summer.  That is when I’ll come home.
I look forward to your letters.

Peace,
Tom

When I finished reading it I sat down on the couch next to Mom, who was flipping through the Philadelphia Bulletin.  She asked how Tom was doing.  I told her his spirits were down.  “I wish I could help him,” I said, “I wish this stupid war was over.”
Mom remarked, “You do help him, by writing him letters.”  She went back to reading the Bulletin.  Mom opened the newspaper to the center page.  The York Shop in Mayfair had a big ad for two dollar blouses.  I got excited.  Other kids made fun of me because I only had one outfit to wear and what I wanted most of all was clothes.  I said, “Mom, look!  Only two dollars!  You can afford that, right?  Could I have some new blouses?” 

“We’ll see,” she said.

My sister Jean was sitting on the other side of me on the couch.  “Hey, Mom,” she remarked matter-of-factly, “Pass me the Help Wanted.”  Jean was looking for a job.  She and our sister Maureen wanted to share an apartment together.  Maureen was working as a waitress.  She had an apartment already and was waiting for Jean to move in. 

Mom turned the pages to the classified ads in the back of the paper.  It was divided into sections.  The first section was Help Wanted - Male.  That took up several pages and listed jobs for postal workers, doctors, repairmen, plumbers and electricians.  After that was Help Wanted – Female, which listed jobs for secretaries, maids, waitresses, babysitters and nurses.  After that was Help Wanted - Male or Female, which listed teaching positions, factory work and jobs for telephone operators at Ma Bell.  Mom handed Jean the job ads, except for the Help Wanted – Male section, because those jobs were just for men.

At school we were learning about all kinds of weather like hurricanes, snow storms, lightning and stuff.  I had to do a report on tornadoes, so Mom let me go to the Holmesburg Library by myself come Saturday.  It was just a short trolley ride past Pennypack Park.  I walked over to Frankford Avenue and took the Route 66 trolley.  Sitting across from me was an old man wearing glasses, a brown cap, t-shirt and plaid pants.  Next to him was a middle-aged woman carrying a huge purse.  There were a handful of other passengers in the mostly empty bus.  The trolley normally filled up as it went in the direction of Bridge and Pratt el station, where it was headed, but I wasn’t going nearly that far.

At the stop across from Liddonfield housing project where my family used to live, this black kid got on the trolley carrying a big boom box radio.  He balanced it on his shoulder as he boarded, tossed a token in the fare box and walked down the center aisle while Jimmy Hendrix sang Foxy Lady through the air waves.  He sat down in one of the side seats and tapped his foot to the tempestuous beat of the song.  

Foxy Foxy
You know you're a cute little heartbreaker Foxy
You know you're a sweet little lovemaker Foxy
I wanna take you home I won't do you no harm,
no You've got to be all mine, all mine Ooh, foxy lady

It was unusual to see a black person in the neighborhood.  All conversation stopped.  The relaxed atmosphere in the trolley gave way to uneasiness.  Everyone in Philly, both black and white, had been walking around in a state of suppressed paranoia for quite some time due to the rumors of impending race war.  Race was extremely significant.  So, for this black kid to suddenly appear in the Lily White Northeast playing Hendrix in a Perry Como neighborhood was quite a bold statement in and of itself.  Knowing how the “N” word was so freely used in these parts, I was on edge over whether somebody was going to say it in front of him or to him.

If he had been middle-aged or a woman, I’m pretty sure things would have gone on just fine without a hitch, but he was a young black urban male raised on the slogans of Malcolm X.  The whole scene was like paper and matches.  A little friction between the two sides was all it would take to create the spark that ignited the powder keg.

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