My father’s life course changed dramatically after he met my mother. Afro-centric, proud Bahamian-American, he was not disposed to out-marrying. But fate will sometimes take you and shake everything up.
So how did you meet mom.
At the University of Chicago. This was January of 1947 (my mother was not quite nineteen) there was a conference some kind of NSA National Students Association and at that time I was into photography and I was shooting pictures of various events around this thing. And while I was there doing this time a woman walked up, Alice Tenor, ended up being Alice Jennings, and said she was looking for a friend and I looked up on the roster and found out where she was and it was too complicated so I said, “I’ll just take you there.” And when I got there and there was your mama at the other end. That evening we had a dinner in a common area. When I went in, there they were, so I went in and sat with them. Your mother decided to plant one of my light bulbs. (My mother tells this differently. She says it was she who was lost, and she did have a notoriously bad sense of direction, and that my father helped her find Alice. There was a potted plant on the restaurant table and she, as she said, “was just planting bulbs.” That was my mother’s quirky humor.) Alice was making a move on me but your mom made a faster move.
How did you feel when mom came up pregnant and told you she was pregnant?
Well I was split, completely, totally. I never had a struggle that hard. We agreed that the best thing we could do was to have an abortion and she was in the position to come up with the abortion money, pretty much. Her friend Alice had been knocked up, I think by Ernie, and went and got rid of it. It was a regular big time doctor that would do it. And I decided that I couldn’t just let him his son go and I had to put a plea up for him in some way. And I thought of it in terms of my son.
Which is what it was.
So I said let’s get married and she went for it. We were on the el. (Chicago’s elevated train) The abortion was scheduled the next day or in two days. So we made that decision. I’m struggling. I’m suspended from school, I owed them some money or something.
And you were struggling because of the black/white, being a young father? (My father’s voice became very soft at this point in the tape and there were pauses between phrases, thoughtful, remembering.)
I knew I was going to get thrown out of the community and I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it at all. And I could not honestly say that I was doing this for her. I couldn’t do that. I knew she went with my son, so…I decided to do it. We’re talking winter now.
Wait you got married in August so she was pregnant in March, so that’s Spring.
Not in Chicago. We struggled, we had to figure out money and this and that and the other thing and that’s when we got the job at the camp. So we’re making serious scuffles. And I’m not in school that semester. We had to figure out money. I had to get back into school because that’s where our basic money would come from. We had to make the money to do that. She had a friend uptown who was big in the Boys Club and she went up there and a dude was there who said he knew of this camp and they needed some counselors. Our liaison was more or less a secret at that point. The dude said they were looking particularly for black counselors. I had good camp credentials. I had a lifesaving certificate and I knew all the camp stuff. I could build fires and tell Indian stories and so on.
We went and we applied. Your mother applied using her (family) home address and I used our address and we were both accepted to this camp. It was really four or five camps in which we used the same facilities, the same lake, the same dining room. But even in the dining room we each had our separate dining rooms. We didn’t eat together.
It was a boy’s camp. She was the mother figure for these youngsters. I can’t remember their ages but they were definitely below ten. I had the next ages, my guys were twelve to sixteen, somewhere in there. Each of these camps had a director. So I was assistant director. She was assistant director of hers.
Everything went kind of swimmingly until we got caught screwing.
Well that might mess up things in 1949 and in a camp.
It wasn’t just a camp. The camp was located in Winona Lake, Indiana which was the evangelical center of the Midwest. It had been founded by Billy Sunday, I think. They were some Christian folks you could not believe. So we said, “Oh, no, no, we were married all along!” Actually at that point we had planned to get married a couple of days down the road. So sure enough we took off that weekend, got married. Nice, nice place.
Did you have any witnesses at the marriage?
Yes. There was Ernie. We had a nice little group of folk. We had a little wedding party.
Not like a city hall wedding.
No we had a minister. He was from one of the new things, his church is big now. His was the persuasion that ended up being the Fellowship Church. We liked the thing, instead of love, honor and obey, which they had at that time, it was respect each other eternally, and we went for it. So it was really nice.
So the week after the wedding I came up with a kidney infection. I was just suffering so they got one of the guys to drive us into the doctor. So she stayed with me and he went on back. It was a Monday. We got the Sunday paper from Chicago Tribune and the headline said : More than 300 this year” And then they went on to explain how they had interracial marriages and it was increasing and most of the times it was a white woman marrying up in class and bloop de bloop de bloop…”a recent case is Reginald Major” (extended laughter) I’m sick, I’m in pain.
And you’re in the news! (Still laughing)
And that was the beginning of a tumultuous relationship that lasted over sixty years with two children, seven grandchildren, and twelve great-grand-children at the time of their deaths.