Sep 3, 2012
Conclusion of a Housing Project Kid's Story of Race in 1960s and 70s NE Phila
by Rosemary Reeves
If you missed the first 6 parts of this series click on the links below:
Part Two: The Race War
In the calm that followed the peaceful Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention, life seemed to return to normal in Upper Holmesburg and I made a friend. “So, what kind of cigarettes are you going to smoke when you grow up?” I asked Dolores as we sat on the concrete steps in front of my parents’ house, having fun with cigarette candy. Dolores lived on the same block. She started talking to me one day out of the blue. That was the day after cops had come to our house because Dad was hitting my brother and I guess she felt bad for me. It turned out we liked each other. Dolores didn’t care that the other kids on the block made fun of me and my family. She wouldn’t join in on that. She stood up for me, too.
My pack was labeled Winston. The white sugary sticks came in a pack just like the real thing, with a red tip to resemble the lit end. Instead of inhaling, you blew and the force of your breath released a cloud of powdered sugar that looked like tobacco smoke. “Tareyton, I think,” Dolores said, “because I’d rather fight than switch!” We burst out laughing. “What kind will you smoke?” she asked.
“Virginia Slims, of course” I replied, “We’ve come a long way, baby!” Dolores giggled and we sang the Virginia Slims jingle in unison:
You’ve come a long way, baby
To get where you’ve got to today
You’ve got your own cigarette now, baby
You’ve come a long, long way!
Candy cigarettes were the tobacco companies’ way of brainwashing little kids into thinking smoking was cool. After the women’s movement started in the late 1960s they came out with Virginia Slims to get women to smoke more.**
Tom, the soldier I had been writing letters to, came home from the war safe and sound. It so happened that his family lived in Philadelphia, too. My mother invited him to visit. I still remember how excited I was when he showed up at the house to see me for the first time. Mom opened the door because I was too shy. “Hello, Mrs. Reeves,” he said, “I’m Tom.” He was a tall, good-looking young man with light brown hair. I smiled as he stood in the doorway, exchanging polite greetings with my mother. He said, “I really appreciate your little girl writing me those letters, Mrs. Reeves. Those letters got me through some tough times.”
Mom invited him in and that’s when he noticed I had been standing there quietly all the while. I blurted out, “Tom, it’s me.”
He smiled. “Little flower?” I ran up to him and gave him a hug. That was a great day. In the Fall I started sixth grade at St. Dominic and Mom caught a really bad cold. She asked me to go to Shelley’s Pharmacy to get her prescription filled. The store had done good business over the years and had become very busy. Shelley remarked from time to time that he was going to hire another pharmacist to help him dispense prescriptions. Unbeknownst to me, he finally did. When I walked to the pharmacy counter at the back of the store, I got quite a surprise. There, wearing a white lab coat and filling prescriptions, was a black female pharmacist. She was young and pretty, with a petite figure and her hair done in a stylish mini-afro. Before I even got to the counter, I stopped and stared at her for fear she was a figment of my imagination. A woman pharmacist! This was great news for me, because I was going to be a woman soon and I planned on having a career. Here was proof positive that doors were opening for all of the people who have been put down and kept down.
I stepped gingerly toward the counter and handed her Mom’s prescription. “Thank you,” she said, “It’ll be ready soon,” as if it was an ordinary circumstance on any ordinary day. Suddenly, a man waiting in line called her the “N” word. It was jarring and I just stood there, speechless. The poor woman looked up, but then tried to ignore it while she continued doing her job. To my astonishment, he said it again a moment later and my blood got hot. I knew what it was like to be bullied. I knew what it was like to be called names just for being different. I just couldn’t quietly stand by when it was happening to someone else. I defended her and he began to argue with me. “You must be some kind of foreigner if you’re on their side!” he said, as if sticking up for black people was somehow un-American.
Shelley had been working in the back of the pharmacy section, among the shelves of pills. Having heard the commotion, he intervened. Before he could ask what was the matter the man uttered the racial slur again. Shelley replied that he would not tolerate the abuse of his employee, nor the use of the “N” word in his store. Then he told the man to get his prescription filled elsewhere and promptly threw him out.
When I got home, Mom was at the kitchen table reading the Philadelphia Bulletin. I told Mom all about it. Mom said she was proud of me for sticking up for the woman. “A black female pharmacist,” I said,”Mom, do you know what this means?”
Mom replied, “Tell me.”
I tore up the Help Wanted – Male section of the Philadelphia Bulletin and said, “It means I can be anything I want to be.”
**Virginia Slims is a brand of cigarette manufactured by Altria Group (formerly Phillip Morris Companies). The brand was introduced in 1968 and marketed to young professional women using the slogan "You've come a long way, baby." Some media watch groups considered this campaign to be responsible for a rapid increase in smoking among teenage girls. Later campaigns have used the slogans, "It's a woman thing," in the 1990s, and "Find your voice." A report by the Surgeon General of the United States has interpreted these marketing strategies as attempting to link smoking "to women's freedom, emancipation, and empowerment." This report also tied the increase of smoking among teenage girls to rises in sales of Virginia Slims and other "niche" brands marketed directly to women. Source: Wikipedia
Posted by Rosemary Reeves