Times Past

Lessons still being learned in race relations

Grandsons Joe and Kyle Lewis.
Grandsons Joe and Kyle Lewis.

We couldn’t understand why our longtime friend and former student might be concerned over the safety of his middle school grandsons on a balmy August evening in San Luis Obispo in 2011.

Liz and I, along with most Americans, clearly needed more education in this matter.

We’ve written about Joe Lewis before. Joe was one of Liz’s students at St. Elizabeth High School in East Oakland in 1965-66. Joe’s Louisiana-born mother, Edna Lafleur Lewis, worked as a maid and his father, Joseph Lewis, Jr., as a custodian. But they made every sacrifice they thought necessary to provide their only child with a great education.

We will never forget when we were invited to dinner at their home in Berkeley in 1966. Joe entertained us on the saxophone and organ, even singing from a Mussorgsky opera in Russian.

We’ve kept up with Joe and were privileged to attend the ceremony where he received his master’s degree from St. Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif. Twice, Joe and his grandsons have stayed with us in San Luis Obispo. We thought that La Mesa de Los Padres would provide all of us with a special treat when they came to visit in 2011.

Their visit coincided with the 714th anniversary of the death of our patron saint, Louis d ‘Anjou, the Bishop of Toulouse in 1297, for whom Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa is named. La Mesa supports historic preservation at the old mission. There are musicians, dancers and fine foods. Servers are in historically-themed costumes.

Joe’s grandsons, Kyle and Joe Lewis, were going to help, along with Willie and Biba Kirschner, who were about the same age. Biba and Willie wanted to show them something of our downtown after dessert was served.

But first Joe wanted to talk to Laura and Tom Kirschner, Willie and Biba’s parents, who were attending La Mesa with us. Laura and Liz were surprised when Joe quizzed them about the safety of his grandsons, who lived in a more cosmopolitan, racially diverse area.

Laura remembers, “I was thinking that his worries were mistaken. Then, later, I realized that he had more insight and experience than I did! And that he wanted to set his grandsons up for success. What great kids and what a fun night that was!” The Lewis children stayed all night with the Kirschners.

The events of this past year helped us to more fully understand Joe’s concerns. We asked him to reflect on how he would feel about those worries today.

Joe wrote:

“I had grown up in the East Bay. About 1957, my parents took me to visit my grandfather’s farm and my mother’s birthplace in rural Louisiana. I went to the movies with two of my cousins. We had to sit upstairs in the balcony. I put a dime in the Coke machine. No cup came out, but the Coke did. I went to the counter and told the white attendant what had just happened. He shrugged his shoulders and looked away, as if to indicate: ‘Too bad, black boy.’

On our trip home we were waiting at the Jennings, La. train station. I saw a waiting room labeled ‘White Only,’ and I saw a drinking fountain with the same sign. I was thirsty, so I went up and drank from the ‘white’ fountain. No one said a word to me, but my mother told a lady in the ‘White Only’ waiting room: ‘Oh, he didn’t mean to do anything wrong; he just doesn’t know anything about this.’

“It meant nothing to me at the time it happened, but looking back on it, I felt sorry for my mother that she had to ‘apologize’ for me.”

Joe went on to tell us of other incidents, most of them taking place in California, that gave him cause for concern for the welfare of any young person of color. These concerns helped shape Joe’s remarkable life. We will be writing about them in future “Times Past” columns.

Those enduring concerns are the reasons behind San Luis Obispo’s annual Martin Luther King Scholarship Fund barbecue. The barbecue takes place on Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 7. Please save the date!

This column is special to The Tribune. Dan Krieger is a professor emieritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association. Liz Krieger is a retired children’s librarian for the San Luis Obispo County Library.