Gates learned to talk back in W.Va.

By Steve Korris | Jul 30, 2009

CHARLESTON -– "Boy, you crazy sometimes," Henry Louis Gates Sr. told his namesake son in Piedmont about 50 years ago.

"You know that you can get into trouble talking back to white people, don't you?" the father of the future Harvard University historian said.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. kept talking back to white people. And, on July 16, he was in the center of a national sensation when he was arrested for talking back to a white policeman.

The charges didn't hold up, and some voices protested that he received special treatment as a member of the elite class.

The elite class, however, doesn't holler "your mama." His rough and righteous outburst didn't come from Harvard. It came from Mineral County.

Gates grew up in Piedmont, a town on the banks of the Potomac River bordering Maryland. His father worked at the nearby Westvaco paper mill.

"Until the summer of 1968, all the colored men at the paper mill worked on 'the platform' -– loading paper into trucks," he wrote in his 1994 memoir titled "Colored People."

His father would argue about Martin Luther King, he wrote, "to see how long I could think up counter arguments before getting so mad that my face would turn purple."

Colored people couldn't sit down at the Cut-Rate or the Rendezvous Bar, he wrote, or buy property or move into the white neighborhood or dance with white people.

"Not to mention try to get a job in the craft unions at the paper mill," he wrote. "Or have a drink at the white VFW or join the white American Legion, or get loans at the bank, or just generally get out of line.

"Other than that, colored and white got on pretty well."

He wrote that his mother, Pauline Gates, didn't fear white people.

"She simply hated them, hated them with a passion she seldom disclosed," he wrote.

He wrote that at age 10 at a Little League game in Westernport, Md., he "told off a white man" for his rude treatment of a black man in his 60s.

"I do remember that I was unable to control myself, unable to contain my anger," he wrote. "I found myself acting without thinking.

"I felt the blood rushing to my face, and a flood of nasty words poured out of my mouth, just this side of profanity."

Everyone on the first base side froze in silence, he wrote.

"The colored held their breaths, and Daddy looked like a cat caught between two fighting dogs," he wrote.

He wrote that his father finally stepped in, "started woofing" at the man and gently pushed his son toward the colored men on their lawn chairs in right field.

Back in Piedmont his father bought him a caramel ice cream cone, to go, he wrote.

His father asked him if he knew he wasn't supposed to talk back to older people, he wrote, and asked if he knew he could get in trouble talking back to white people.

He wrote that he battled with uncles "especially when I stopped being a Negro, turned black, and grew the first Afro in Piedmont, West Virginia."

He wrote, "Mama, defiant of her brethren, would not censure my new style; I was her baby, come what might."

Only later did he realize that many colored people in Piedmont experienced integration as a loss, he wrote.

"The warmth and nurturance of the womblike colored world was slowly and inevitably disappearing, in a process that really began on the day they closed the door for the last time at Howard School, back in 1956," he wrote.

Tension in the family focused on rights and responsibilities of children and their relation to authority, he wrote.

"I heard it times beyond counting: That boy's got too much mouth," he wrote. "Because I flouted the rules, they thought I would come to a bad end, and they took pleasure in letting me know that.

"Down deeper, I think they were frightened for me. And deeper down, I think I frightened them."

At 16, he and friends Roland Fisher, Jerry Price and Rodney "Swano" Galloway watched television news and argued with Henry Senior.

"We'd fall asleep in my bedroom, the four of us, then get up and argue with the Old Man some more," he wrote.

He wrote that he bought the Washington Post every day, read it at lunch in school, and shared the results with the others.

Three of the four graduated in 1968. Gates enrolled at Potomac State University in Keyser about five miles away.

English professor Duke Whitmore "made the study of literature an alluring prospect" and urged him to transfer to an Ivy League school, he wrote.

He applied to Yale and took a summer job in the mill's personnel office.

He recruited black people for craft unions and administered necessary tests, he wrote.

"In three months, each union had been integrated, with barely an audible murmur from its members," he wrote. "Things were changing in Piedmont -– a little."

He fell in love with Maura Gibson, a white girl from Piedmont who took a summer job as a waitress in Rehoboth Beach, Del.

"We were hassled at the beach," he wrote. "I personally integrated many places at Rehoboth Beach that summer."

One day, he wrote, a white guy sicced a Saint Bernard on them.

Her father found out they were dating, he wrote, and soon the whole valley knew.

"We were apparently the first interracial couple in Mineral County, and there was hell to pay," he wrote.

He and Maura heard students calling them names from Potomac State dorm windows.

When friends warned his parents about threats, he wrote, they replaced his unreliable Chevy with a new Mustang.

Then Gates and his friends decided to integrate the Swordfish, where college kids listened to live bands.

"We were silent as we drove into the parking lot," he wrote. "There was nothing left to say. We were scared to death but just had to get on with it."

They walked to the middle of the dance floor, he wrote, and "a homely white boy with extra greasy blond hair recovered and began to shout 'niggers' as his face assumed the ugly mask of hillbilly racism."

White boys formed a circle around them, he wrote, and the owner broke through and started screaming, "Get out of here."

The owner slammed Fisher's head against a wall, he wrote, and the other three dragged Fisher out the door.

Gates wrote that he drove them to his home. His mother bandaged Fisher's head, he wrote, and his father asked, "What'll y'all do now?"

They called the Human Rights Commission, Gates wrote. Commissioner Carl Glass interviewed the four.

Glass then offered the owner an option of integrating the Swordfish or shutting it down, Gates wrote. The owner shut it down.

Gates then learned that West Virginia State Police opened a file on him and identified him for possible custodial detention if race riots started.

"I remember feeling sick and scared and then, when that passed, a little flattered," he wrote.

"I took it as a sign that it was time for me to leave the Valley and go Elsewhere," he wrote. "I did leave it, that very fall, packing my bags for New Haven.

"But leaving it behind was never a possibility. It did not take me long to realize that."

Today, Gates is a member of the Harvard faculty. He previously taught at Yale, Cornell and Duke.

On July 16, Gates returned from a trip to China to find the door to his Cambridge, Mass., house jammed. Gates and his driver tried to gain entry to the house. Responding to a report of a possible break-in, Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley arrested Gates and charged him with disorderly conduct. Prosecutors dropped the charges, but the incident spurred a new discussion of race relations in the country. Gates and Crowley were to meet July 30 with President Obama, a friend of Gates, at the White House to discuss the incident.

At the back of "Colored People," Gates acknowledged all who helped him write it.

"Finally, I would like to thank my family, friends and the members of the Class of 1968 at Piedmont High School for their loving support all these years," he wrote.

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