Race Relations

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Grandma Cloughessey:  “There are Negroes in this town that go back before the Revolution but you wouldn’t know they were ever here”.

He only drank on Friday nights and Saturday, but he truly enjoyed Saturday.  Big Jim’s on Mary Street was my father’s favorite Saturday hangout.    In the old-country style of an Irish shebeen, Jim’s place was an undistinguished storefront of a three-decker tucked in a quiet residential neighborhood, without signage or exterior lighting so you’d likely not notice it at all.  Big Jim O‘Grady ran the place and his family had rented the space for two generations from the building’s owner, Johnnie Johnson, a black man who lived on the third floor with his family.

O’Grady could only legally serve beer and ale with his state-issued tavern license, but he kept a small supply of rye and other hard liquor on hand for the “shots ‘n beer” crowd for which this neighborhood supplied a powerful demand.  Aside from the drinking, however, the real attractions for dad were the local politics and of course the late afternoon singing.  All of these second and third generation Irish thought themselves decent barbershoppers but the sounds they made were often mournful and full of life’s disappointments as they finished their last few allotted drops before the trek home to wife, kids and the mediocrity of the lower middle class, mid-century factory town.

Occasionally dad would bring his two boys for the show of it.  Other fathers would do the same and we late middle-schoolers would horse around in front of the tavern or sit at the dusty card tables near the front windows and play setback, sipping ginger ale and munching on pickled eggs or a sad hot dog fished out of a boiling pot of water Jim kept on a hot plate behind the bar.  Saturday was rent day and Johnnie Johnson showed up one afternoon as I sat there with my brother Bob and “balls” McGarr, Bernie’s son and “Henry” Clynch. (His given name was Thomas but he looked so much like “Henry” in the Sunday Comics that the name stuck).  Along with the factory workers, there were two lawyers, a wholesaler of shoes, a dentist, postman and a plumber.  Some of these folks were fourth ward alderman or members of civic boards.  And the mayor might have been there as well.

Seeing a Black man in a white Irish bar in our town was nothing unusual, especially downtown where there were more and more Blacks coming up from the South to take jobs in the Farrell Corporation and Anaconda metal plants.  But there were apparently universal attitudes and traditions about racial matters that needed constant protection if not definition and I was to witness one today.

Johnnie was welcomed by everyone.  They all knew him or members of his family.  He was a member of the Prince Hall Freemasonry, an elder in Rev. Julian Taylor’s Macedonia Baptist Church and had served on the Public Works Board.  In true neighborhood fashion, everyone wanted to stand Johnnie a drink.  But Johnnie only drank once per week and only one drink per week; when he picked up Big Jim’s rent check.  He thanked and refused all the offers and took a seat at the near end of the bar as Big Jim poured a Rock and Rye into a whiskey glass and slid it to Johnnie along with an envelope and  the rent money. The whole exchange including the downing of his drink took no more than a few minutes and Johnnie’s skinny frame and graying, densely spiraled hairdo rose from its seat, thanked Big Jim and walked out the door.

Abruptly, with style and flourish, Big Jim took Johnnie’s glass and smashed it into the bin where all of the empty bottles were crushed to save space (there was no recycling effort in those days).  Cheers of acknowledgement arose in this proof positive that no white man would be inadvertently required, by virtue of an errant dishwasher, to sip from the same glass as a black man.  The status-quo had been protected.

It is no small irony here that the origin of the term “Shebeen” is actually African.  Since ancient times, African native women were entrusted by the tribe in the making of intoxicating spirits and they purveyed them through their own homes and were called Shebeen Queens.  No one ever asked Johnnie how he acquired this building and the right to house a tavern in it.  Outwardly, White people had no need to know the Black man’s business, as, truth be told, it was not as important as their own, he being Black.  But they loved to gossip. His people, had been in this community before locally recorded time.  Some said it was hard work in the factories, some that he inherited a small treasure, some thought he was a thief, and grandma Cloughessey always thought it was the “prohibition money”; but “you’d never know they were here”.

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