Times Past

Racial intolerance continues to have impact decades later

Joe Lewis playing the piano at age 14.
Joe Lewis playing the piano at age 14.

Joe Lewis has had a good life. Happily married since 1968, his three sons are college graduates. We encountered Joe’s friendly, mischievous smile when he was a student in a civics class Liz was teaching at St. Elizabeth’s High School in Oakland in 1965.

Joe is a self-described “people person.” But that wasn’t always easy.

Joe is African-American, and from the beginning, his parents said he “had to be better than anyone else” because of the color of his skin. So they invested everything in Joe’s education. Despite their meager wages as a custodian and maid, they sent Joe to Catholic schools. Joe studied hard and got the A’s his parents expected.

But there was a price beyond tuition.

In the late 1950s, when Joe was in second grade at St. Augustine’s in Oakland — an almost exclusively white school — a kid came up to Joe on the playground and said, “Betty likes you!”

“I say, ‘Betty who?’ thinking of a girl in our class named Betty Vance. He answers, ‘Betty Crocker. She likes all brownies.’ ” Joe recalled. “Racism?!”

That and incidents little Joe encountered at a drinking fountain and movie theater while visiting his grandparents in Louisiana taught Joe something about race.

That’s why Joe is concerned for his grandchildren. Even the prospect of his two middle-school grandsons walking around downtown San Luis Obispo at night raised worries about their safety when the family came to visit in 2011.

When we were talking about Joe Lewis with Ann Follette of Los Osos, she recalled a very painful time in her life. It was 1959, and she followed her husband, who was drafted into the military, to Huntsville, Ala. Ann got a job in the office of an orthopedic surgeon and a radiologist.

“What bothered me the most is that I couldn’t let black people sit in the waiting room,” she said. “They had to sit on a bench in the hall, and only after all the white patients were helped would they be seen. Besides, the doctors wouldn’t let me call them by their last name. I could never call them by a title, not even if someone was a college professor.”

“My way of rebelling was to quietly use their last name or title.”

Once, at 8 a.m., Mrs. Follette let a “black woman and her baby sit in the waiting room. A white woman came in and didn’t say anything except what a ‘cute’ baby. One of the doctors came in and looked like he was going to have a stroke. He got so red and made me usher them into the hallway.”

Mrs. Follete marveled that the doctors considered themselves very good, church-going Christians, calling people “brothah” [sic] and “sistah.”

“Four complete months of frustration. My stomach was always in a knot!” Even remembering, Mrs. Follette shudders.

In the upscale community of Piedmont in the 1960s, Joe experienced a similar stomach-wrenching episode.

Joe plays piano, organ and saxophone. “I was about 15, taking private music lessons at a studio in Piedmont. My father would drop me off. After the lesson I’d take the AC Transit bus home to Berkeley.

“One Saturday morning, I’m sitting at the bus shelter with my saxophone case, minding my own business, when I’m approached by a policeman. He asks me who I am, what's my name, what was I doing there. I told him I had just finished a music lesson. The officer asks me ‘where,’ and I gave him my teacher’s name. End of story — until I went for my lesson the next week. My teacher said a policeman visited him to ‘check out my story’ because there had been a home robbery several days earlier.”

Joe asks, “Was that racist? Don’t know, but I’m sure I didn’t look like a criminal, and I have no doubt that if I had been white, it would never have gone to that extent — if I was even questioned at all.”

Joe’s and Ann’s experiences, along with their concern for the future, are reasons why you will want to support San Luis Obispo’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. High School Scholarship Fund Barbecue at the Elks Lodge in San Luis Obispo. Tickets cost $10. You can “take-out” or “dine in.” The barbecue takes place on Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 7. Please save the date! The barbecue supports more than a dozen scholarships that are color blind and based on financial need

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The 59th annual Chinese Student Association’s Chinese New Year Banquet will be held Saturday in Chumash Auditorium at Cal Poly. Doors open at 5:45 p.m., and dinner begins promptly at 6:30 with an evening of entertainment planned. Reservations are a must. Call Irene Chen at 805-874-7418 or email calpolycsa@gmail.com for information or to make a reservation.

Times Past is special to The Tribune. Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus 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.