Too poor to go to Provident Hospital, a private health care facility for black folk which was in their south side Chicago neighborhood, Katie Sherrell gave birth to her first child, Robert Sherrell Jr., at Cook County Hospital on Feb. 22, 1939.
Katie was a head turner. In her younger days, she had been crowned Miss Thirty-First Street Beach. A dark skinned woman with hair down to her waist, Katie had migrated with her parents from Hattysburg, Mississippi to Chicago along with thousands of other African Americans from the South in an attempt to escape Jim Crow oppression and find work in this northern city.
Bob Sherrell’s mother was a fighter. During her pregnancy, her doctors had advised her that because of her pleurisy, she should have an abortion. Years later she would tell her son, “I made the decision that I was going to bring this child into the world or die.”
Katie hated the word Negro and would never allow her children to use the term when filling in the place marked race on forms. “Negro is the white man’s terminology for us,” she would say. “You’re black. You’re not a Negro.”
Bob’s mother, perhaps, got that kind of language from watching Malcolm X on John Madigan’s Saturday evening TV show, At Issue. Malcolm, who was a regular on Madigan’s program, would demonize white people saying that “the blue eyed devils” were responsible for most of the problems facing people of color in this country. Katie would argue with the Black Muslim on the TV screen, saying, “Don’t you worry about the blue eyed devils. You worry about the black eyed devils,” alluding to the black on black crime she witnessed. She’d argue with Malcolm, but she kept on listening to what he said.
When Bob came home on the last day of school in the spring of 1950, his mother opened his report card and found a letter from the Chicago Public School system telling her that her son was being transferred from Oakenwald, an integrated school, to Oakland, a school which was 99.9% black. She responded by organizing a group of mothers who marched down to the Board of Education and filed a petition. Bob was reinstated to Oakenwald.
Around the beginning of the Twentieth Century, a famous debate over how African Americans should respond to race discrimination went on between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. Du Bois promoted what historian John Hope Franklin called “determined and aggressive action in order to secure full citizenship. They [Du Bois and members of what was called the Niagara Movement] reasoned that the day of temporizing was over. A war was on, and they decided to fight to the finish.” 2 (From Slavery to Freedom, p 44.)
Washington countered DuBois’ demand for immediate equal rights by counseling black folk to be patient, respect the law and earn the favor of whites by acquiring skills which were indispensable to the white community. In a famous speech at the 1895 Atlanta Exposition Washington, the founder of Tuskegee Institute, declared, “In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the five fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” 3 (Franklin, p. 391)
DuBois pictured the world in terms of a battle in which you had to make a stand and fight. Washington viewed life more in terms of a test that you had to pass by proving your competence. Katie Sherrell thought more like Du Bois regarding how to respond to the racial discrimination she encountered every day. Her husband, Robert Sherrell Sr., who was also born in Mississippi, was more like Booker T.
The difference might have been due in part to complexion. Whereas his wife was dark skinned, Robert Sr., whose mother was the product of an interracial marriage, could pass for being white if viewed from a distance. At that time, even more so than now, skin color mattered.
The way Bob’s father dealt with the race issue was to work harder and better than anyone else and thereby make himself valuable to the white community. Classic Booker T. He worked the night shift as a mechanic for the Greyhound Bus Co. at 39th and Cottage Grove. In the summer when Bob was home from school, Robert Sr. would pick his oldest son up after finishing work at Greyhound and drive to a string of used car dealerships along North Broadway, between Lawrence and Bryn Mawr.
Bob’s job was to keep his father awake on the drive from Hyde Park to the North Side, act as the dark skinned assistant as his father made the repairs necessary on the used cars to make them saleable, and then do the math when it came time to be paid. Robert Sr. had only a sixth grade education and needed his son to make sure they didn’t get cheated.
Robert Sherrell Sr’s competence was respected by the men he worked for. Bob remembered Jack Levine, one of the used car lot owners, trying to close a deal with a prospective buyer and calling to his father, “Bob, come on over here and tell them what you did to this car.”
When the work was finished, Sonny, as Robert Sr. called his oldest son, would clean the tools with gasoline, total up the bill and then get two Hostess Twinkies and a carton of milk with money his father gave him. “I liked working with him,” Bob recalled, “because it got me out of the house and away from my six brothers and sisters, but the other reason was I felt really close to him. Sometimes I tear up about it even now, because I just remember being together.”
Robert Sr. would never allow his wife to work, taking on a third job, if he had to, in order to put food on the table and pay the tuition for six of his seven kids who were attending Holy Angels Catholic School. He was conscientious. “His thing was to always do things right,” Bob said. “If you did something wrong or half assed it was a big sin. He would never let me forget it.”
His father was a perfectionist. He owned a 1953 Plymouth station wagon with wood side panels. Every fall, just before the snow would fly, he would make Bob sand down the panels in preparation for a new coat of varnish. After sanding for hours, he would ask his father if his work was good enough and hear his father reply, “Uh, uh, Sonny. You got to get this better.”
“I hated that damn car,” Bob recalled. “My hands would get numb because it was late in the fall and it was always me he’d call on. Never my brothers or sisters.”
He would preach two things to his son: 1) don’t f___ up and 2) keep your nose clean. That was the way to deal with life in general and race in particular.
Thus, Sonny received two messages about how to make his way in a world in which race was one of the major challenges—one message from DuBois through his mother and the other from Booker T. through his father.
Katie and Robert Sr. were extremely conscious of class as well as race. They were poor, but they weren’t lower class. The people who lived in the projects, like Ida B. Wells or the Robert Taylor homes, might be lower class and ignorant but not the Sherrell family.
Katie was the language cop, not allowing anything but standard English to be spoken in the house. Even liar was considered to be a four letter word. “She wouldn’t allow us to use words that even sounded like street talk,” Bob explained. “If I used the “L” word, I’d get my face slapped. My mother would just have a fit.”
The Sherrells never permitted their children to hang out on the front porch. In their minds, it was being a porch monkey, something that was low class and ignorant.
Soul food might be considered to be good cookin’ by some but not in Katie’s kitchen. “The only pork I had with any regularity was bacon,” Bob recalled, “and ham at Easter. The only soul food I had was what my mother considered to be home cooking. She wouldn’t have anything to do with the greasy stuff.”
“My mother and father were always fighting stereotypes,” he said. “They were determined not to be ordinary.”
Katie and Robert Sr. liked watching the Ed Sullivan Show, because he would sometimes feature Nat King Cole and Mahalia Jackson. They also, which seems strange at first, enjoyed watching Amos and Andy, two black characters who were buffoons. Bob explained, “That show was the only time you could see black people on TV on a regular basis. The important thing is that we knew we were not like them, sort of like white people watching the Three Stooges.”
Bob learned well the lessons his parents taught him: 1) don’t f___ up, 2) keep your nose clean and 3) don’t be ordinary. He performed well enough in grade school that his father would take him to his grandparent’s house where he would entertain them by being a little encyclopedia. “I would go over there,” Bob remembered, “and they would say ‘now tell us about science,’ and I would tell them what I had just learned about the solar system, and my dad would tell them how well I knew how to add and subtract.”
Likewise, he not only was chosen to be a patrol boy at Oakenwald but rose to the rank of lieutenant! “I was always an authority,” he said, “but I wasn’t an authority hound. What I longed for was rank and meaning, to be acknowledged as being smart and significant.”
Representing is the term some African Americans still use to convey the feeling that they could never be just themselves but were being watched and judged as representing their whole race. “Always,” Bob said, “I was always representing my race first and then my family. Always. It was a heavy burden for a kid to bear.”
Sonny got rewarded for being a “scholar and a credit to his race,” as black folk used to say when they wanted to compliment a boy who earned the respect of, especially, white authorities. His report cards from Oakenwald were complimentary enough that he was placed in honors classes in his freshman year at Hyde Park High School.
In subtle ways, his parents also let him know that they were proud of him. His mother, for example, would not say the words but sometimes would spontaneously give him a big hug for no reason at all. In the same way, his father would never say “good job.” What he would do is pat him on the shoulder which meant the same thing. “And I heard that,” Bob recalled. “I literally got a pat on the back. That touch that I always felt. That closeness. More than words. Just a closeness, that I was OK.”
The Hyde Park neighborhood in which Sonny Sherrell grew up during the years following World War II was something of a “leave it to Beaver” world. . .that is if you knew your place and never tried to make it in the white world surrounding it. Almost every home had a father who was working, and many families had an “Aunt Jessie.”
Bob’s Aunt Jessie worked as a domestic in Highland Park and was poor, but she had dignity. She told him the story about how she was walking on a crowded sidewalk in the Loop one day when the elastic in her panties broke and the underwear began to fall down her legs. “Honey,” she said, “I took one step forward and another step back. I just kept walkin’ and I never looked back.”
“I can just see her doing that,” Bob said. “She would always say ‘I’m not just survivin’. I’m thrivin’. It wasn’t because she had the best clothes. It was because of how she carried herself.”