Leonard Reed, Chapter two, part two
The Oklahoma social worker's reaction was typical of a time when racial integration on the American stage was still a touchy issue. Minstrel shows sometimes featured both races, but always in segregated scenes, and the great African-American comic Bert Williams had begun appearing in the Ziegfeld Follies starting in 1911. Some Broadway musicals and revues featured fully integrated casts, notably The Southerners in 1904, but in provincial America the color line between blacks and whites behind the footlights was still strictly observed. In 1920, with the exception of Williams, the stars of vaudeville and the Broadway stage---Eva Tanguay, Irene Franklin, Bert Leslie, Ed Wynn, Leon Errol---were all white.
Given Reed's fair complexion and wavy hair, the Oklahoma do-gooder's assumption and shock are understandable. The mere fact that eight-year-old Reed was on stage at all was bad enough; this was the period when association with show business brought with it the kind of second-class citizenship normally reserved for blacks. Signs in boarding houses across the country still proclaimed "No Actors or Animals Allowed." Nearly every major citycontained representatives of the Geary Society, an organization formed to protect minors from the evils of working on stage. Posted notices warning blacks to remain segregated were common, especially throughout Southern and midwestern white America; whites crossing over into black territory was equally taboo. . . especially when it came to young white boys cutting up on stage with a bunch of ragtag Negro entertainers. However, public notices directed against racial interaction never meant much to Reed as a boy; he just considered himself to be somewhat above it all.
On his mother's side, a great great grandmother and great grandfather were Choctaw and Negro. Reed's grandmother on his mother's side was Indian and his grandfather was half-black and half-Creek, thus making his mother a four-way mix of black, Creek, Choctaw and Cherokee. Choctaws had been slave owners, and his paternal great great grandparents were descended from unions between slaves and their masters.
The Oklahoma of Reed's boyhood was still wide-open wild-west territory. For him, entertainment meant doing things like hoisting himself up into trees and knocking possums off their branches. Recalls Reed:
"Possum and sweet potatoes, that's what we usually had on Thanksgiving and the other holidays. It's something you did in the dead of night as a two-person operation. The possum hangs on the limb sleeping, and one of you creeps out and shoves him off while your partner stands below with a gunny sack and catches him."
Lightning Creek, where Reed was born, was adjacent to the village of Hayden, but neither site exists any longer on the Oklahoma map. Both were near Nowata, now a populous area fifty miles north of Tulsa. Lightning Creek, Hayden and all the other little dots on the map had come into being because of a trading post that was established a short while after the Cherokees sold land in the area to Delaware Indians of Kansas in the mid-19th century. Soon the town of Noweta, as its name was originally spelled, grew up around the post. When the railroad was built through the area in 1895, two company surveyors are said to have named it Noweta at the suggestion of a Cherokee woman who said that the word meant "We welcome you to come." Later the spelling was changed to Nowata because of a post office error.
Reed retains the memory of his mother at her funeral when he was two, but he never met his father, a white peddler who sold blankets and whiskey to the Indians. Major Reed had not been married to Leonard's mother Sarah Landrum when the boy was born, which might have been overlooked by the Indian community, since sexual relations between Native Americans and blacks, Chinese and whites were a fairly common occurrence at the time. The real problem was that Major Reed was unable to wed Leonard's mother because he was already married to Sarah's sister, Helen. When both women became pregnant by Major Reed, he was run off by tribal elders and forbidden to return to the territory. Helen went with him and the couple settled in California. And had it not been for the existence of the black press, Reed would probably never have met any of the half-brothers and sisters she subsequently had by Major Reed. Daily newspapers such as the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier, were read regularly, not just locally, but nationally by hundreds of thousands of black Americans. Reed's social and professional activities in the 1930's were charted by these and other periodicals on an almost daily basis, and it was through reading these stories in the black press that siblings of whose existence he'd only been vaguely aware up until then were able to get in touch with Reed for the first time.
In 1992, Reed's half-sister Hermie Reed (now Crowder) is cheerfully philosophical about Reed's writing about what some might consider to be their somewhat shocking family background:
"We're just about the only ones left, I guess, so it doesn't matter now who knows about all of it. Besides, these kind of mixed up situations were, unfortunately, fairly common with blacks back then. Everything Leonard says about my father also being his father is true. One thing I don't believe I ever told Leonard is the fact that one time when I was a little girl living in California in the early 1920's, a friend a mine came back from a basketball tournament in Kansas and said he'd seen a fellow---I'm sure it must have been Leonard--- who looked just like me and did I have any brothers living inKansas City? I told him 'no,' but then later on . I asked my mother about it. She just waved me away, but then when I was in my teens she told me all the truth about my father having children by her sister as well. Till the day he died, my older brother Harvey denied Leonard was related to us. But Harvey was very strange, kept to himself, and was thought of as an odd duck by just about everyone who knew him."
Children of mixed parentage such as Reed and his kin tended to be only partially accepted by Indians, who were generally unwilling to identify with Negroes, and such offspring found themselves shunned by whites as well. Many sections of the country even had their own epithets for such racial outcasts. In South Carolina they were called Brass Ankles; in New York and New Jersey, Jackson Whites; in Tennessee, Melungeons; and in Louisiana, Red Bones. But Reed's early years were so migratory and multicultural that he had little sense of racial identity or even the concept of race. Those taking care of him were also of a variety of races, and for a while Reed was entirely unaware of the concept of race and merely surmised that everyone in the world simply possessed their own unique skin tone.
After his mother's death, Reed lived in Hayden with his Indian grandmother for two years. She became too old to take care of him, however,and he was soon launched on a ten-year odyssey of being passed from one household to the next. At first, the households were in the general vicinity of the reservation. There were the Montgomerys, distant relatives of his grandfather who were black. After that came the Statlers, white and unrelated. Both families lived in Nowata. In addition, there were probably several other care givers whom Reed has since forgotten.
Passed from family to family, Reed finally began to be aware of racial differences. Whites who took care of him treated him as white, but he overheard racist remarks about himself and others and grew confused---especially after he would then be shunted off to live with blacks and saw first hand how badly they were treated by whites. This was especially true when Reed went to live with mixed-race husband and wife, Bob and Ella Taylor, who would become his foster parents for nearly five years.
Reed was subject to continual beatings inflicted by Bob Taylor, which caused him to run away from home almost every time the opportunity presented itself. The Taylors moved around the Midwest on a fairly regular basis, seldom remaining in one place for any length of time, and the nomadic lifestyle only served to boost the frequency of these attempts to escape from his sadistic foster parent.
The lore of passing runs deep in black culture. In his autobiography, Black and White Baby, singer Bobby Short writes of a friend light enough to pass:
"He was what colored folks called a 'Mey-rye-nee.'The word is Negro slang, and I'm spelling it phonetically because I've never seen it written down, but old-timers explain it as a derivation of 'Merino,' a breed of sheep with thick curly coats. Another long-gone expression that my brother Bill used to use was: 'Three-quarters Kelt with molly-gloss hair,' which meant a colored person with fair skin and light hair. . .'Kelt' was Negro slang for a white person, and the 'Molly' in molly-gloss has some sort of Scotch-Irish connotation."
Throughout his life Reed would have to struggle with the ''problem'' ofbeing a very light skinned black. But even as a six-year-old, he was discovering that this seeming conundrum also had an advantage. He would go to the white section of nearby Hayden where Bob Taylor or any other black man would not be able to pursue him. When he reached the forbidden zone, he would then "meet a little white boy and play with him. He'd ask where I lived. And I'd tell him my mother and father were dead."
By the time Reed got to the fanciful part about how he came from Coffeeville, Kansas with "a guy in a wagon," he had his new friend eating out of his hand. . ."Well, c'mon and stay with us. I'll tell my mother and father. "Blacks didn't dare go over into white sections to try and find Reed. It sometimes took Bob Taylor weeks and weeks to catch up with him. When it finally happened, it was usually because of Reed's carelessness. On several occasions his downfall proved to be going down to watch the trains come in on Sunday. It's something that everybody did. Whites on one side of the tracks, blacks on the other. More than once Reed forgot and stood on the black side, and that's how they caught him.
Now, it was 1937, thirty years later, and his existence was as complicated as ever by his racial lineage. Even though he didn't look black, had the Pontiac, Michigan hospital authorities been aware of certain factors regarding Reed's lineage, all merciful considerations would surely have been swept aside and Reed would have been shipped off to the area "colored" hospital faster than you could say Hippocrates. A disruption which would certainly have meant his death; and another addition to the list of perhaps thousands of African-Americans killed---murdered---by such practices.
NEXT SUNDAY, APRIL 8, CHAPTER THREE