“That Name”

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I was recently at my birth home in Apalachicola Florida soaking up sun, enjoying seafood and wonderful long visits with family and friends. Because of Florida’s longstanding relationship to disturbances in the Gulf of Mexico – hurricanes – we decided to have the trees on the property pruned back from the house. For this task we hired Joey and John’s Tree Service.

My family moved to Apalachicola in the early 20th Century from Alabama and Georgia. They came to this part of Florida because of a lumber company that was cutting dead head cypress along the Apalachicola River. My mother’s father was a river boat pilot and my dad came along with his brothers to work in the lumber yard. My parents met and married in 1926 and I am the last of their nine children.

The house that we had the trees pruned back from has a relationship to the lumber business that brought my parents to Florida. When my parents purchased the land for their home in 1947 they did not have much money left to buy materials to build a house. It just happened that the lumber company was giving away old houses that had been used as camps for the men who cut the cypress along the river and one of the houses became my family’s starter home. The core of this existing house is that old camp from “up the river.”

Growing up in Apalachicola was a mixed bag. There was an abundance of sunshine, water to play in, the best seafood and some of the best colored people on God’s green earth – that is what we were called back then. Not Negro. We were Colored. And all social arrangements were segregated – whites and coloreds did not mix. Well almost. You see colored women were domestics for white families so my mom cooked and cleaned for white families until she retired in the mid 1960s. No she did not get a pension. One of her sons went off to the Army in 1966 and arranged for her to receive an allotment, a sum of money taken from his military salary every month. This money and the fact that my dad had retired and my sister and I could now receive survivor social security benefits made it possible for our mother to retire.

My siblings and I attended the Holy Family Catholic School for colored children through the eighth grade transferring to Wallace M. Quinn High School for coloreds for high school. In my senior year of high school (1967) the schools were integrated – 13 years after Brown.

So back to the trees pruners. Joey was trying to place me in his memory of black youth growing up in Apalachicola. I am older than Joey. He remembered my older brother Ed Tolliver who was elected to the Apalachicola City Commission, served as Mayor of Apalachicola and later became a County Commissioner. Joey knows my nephew Arnold, the oldest son of my brother Ed. He could not place me.

After about two days of work and visiting Joey said to me “I am not prejudice or anything. But I can’t vote for Obama. There is something about his name. I was going to vote for the Mormon fellow (Romney) but he is out of it. I am going to have to vote for McCain.”

I live in NYC now where I am a college professor at Hunter College School of Social Work and the president of a consulting firm. I do not get to have conversations with many Joeys. The white students who attend my college are products of Northeast, progressive families and schools. In fact, many of my white students would be uncomfortable talking with Joey and would probably think him a bit of a ‘hick’. In class I often tell my students that the mark of a well educated person is that s/he can engage anyone in conversation. It is not necessary to agree with what is being said. What is required? Listening and remaining in the conversation.

As a colored child growing up in Apalachicola I heard names that were out of the ordinary. There were Tarantos, Zingarellis, Fortunas, and Maribellas. Today I have a home in an upstate New York town where the names are Cuddieback, Quick and Krupnich. In fact what are Apalachicola and Sopchoppy if not strange names?

I am indebted to Joey for this wonderful conversation. There are Joeys all over this country struggling with this name thing. Here is what I have to say about the name, would you vote for him if his name were Wewahitchka?

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Willie Tolliver published on August 22, 2008 10:37 AM.

X: The Disintegrating Families of White America was the previous entry in this blog.

XI: Black Genies, White Bottles is the next entry in this blog.

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