"The Negro in the North": South African Novelist Alan Paton Dissects the Racial Situation Beyond the South
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“The Negro in the North”: South African Novelist Alan Paton Dissects the Racial Situation Beyond the South

by Alan Paton

Alan Paton’s first novel, Cry, the Beloved Country (1948), communicated the tragic dimensions of South Africa’s system of apartheid to a world audience. In 1954, Paton was asked by Collier’s magazine to observe and interview Americans about this country’s system of racial segregation. For this second of two articles, Paton, a co-founder and president of the Liberal Party of South Africa, traveled to urban areas in the West and North in order to relate personal stories behind practices such as the restrictive covenant in housing markets, mob violence against blacks in housing projects, and discrimination in employment. Despite the widespread racial injustice he found, Paton predicted that “segregation is dying” in the U.S. due in large part to the struggles of blacks themselves. He concluded that Americans could find hope in the “advance of the Negro” and the recent Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.

The Negro in the North

Housing and employment hold the key to the problem of integration of the Negro into the life of America. The cry of the Negro is no longer, “Let my people go”; it is, “Let my people in.” There is hardly a community in America where the purchase of a house by a Negro in a hitherto “white” section does not cause resentment, leading at times to violence. In Louisville, shots are fired and bricks hurled through the windows of Andrew E. Wade, a veteran, and the cross is burned outside his house. In Philadelphia, mobs batter the house bought by Wiley Clark and force him and his wife and four children to sell out and look elsewhere for a home. In Levittown, Long Island, and in Levittown, Pennsylvania, Mr. Levitt builds 33,700 houses, but no Negro need apply.

While I was in the Deep South, gathering material for the first of these articles (Collier’s, October 15th), I visited Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and spoke to Lieutenant Melvin Scott. Lieutenant Scott, a Negro, comes from Los Angeles, where, he told me, he felt he was free. Yet I went to Los Angeles, and looked for the sore spot, and it is there, too. I found it also in San Francisco, which, both Negroes and whites told me, is the nation’s “freest” city.

The great weapon of the segregator has always been the restrictive covenant, intended to guarantee forever that a white-owned house would pass only into white hands. The covenant has been used against Orientals, Mexicans, Armenians, Hindus, whatever the local prejudice is; Orientals have even used it against Negroes. In 1926 such covenants were upheld by the courts. In 1948 the white neighbors could sue the traitor who sold to a Negro, but could not revoke the sale. In 1953 they could not even sue. The covenant itself has not yet been outlawed; perhaps someday it will be.

But I heard that there is yet another covenant, an unwritten one, that a white realtor must not sell white-owned property to any colored man. That is how I met Mr. George Valentine in California.

Mr. Valentine sold a piece of land in a “white” section to a Negro. Though the neighbors tried to stop it, the colored man built his house and moved in, and lives there today without incident.

But Mr. Valentine had broken the unwritten law, and he has had to pay for it. He was not anxious to talk about it . . .

Mr. Valentine had broken the unwritten law out of his loyalty to America. He wanted to see his country worthy of the moral leadership of the nations.

Mr. Valentine was a realtor in a big way, because he wanted to sell America to the world.

There was another reason why Mr. Valentine did not want to talk much. His son is in the business too, and has just married and started a family. He too has had to pay for his father’s breaking of the unwritten law. Big deals that normally would have come his way have been taken elsewhere. Both men look as though they have suffered. The older finds it painful that his son should suffer for his father’s principles. The younger finds it painful to discover that one’s own friends can make one suffer for doing what is right, but he does not want his father to know how painful it is. I guessed that the father was an upright man, who had never thought to lead anything but an honorable and uneventful life, and that he had brought up his son in the same way. But they had touched American morality on its sorest spot, and life was not uneventful any more.

Into this intimate and painful situation the writer of the novel was welcome to enter, but not the writer for the magazine. Yet the story must surely be told, for it shows clearly the struggle between ideal and practice in this area of American life, and gives its hint that the ideal is very powerful. And the reason why it is powerful is because it is held powerfully by some Americans.

If I had California property to sell, I know where I would go.

I Met a Realist

Mr. George Henry Gordon, of 505 North Fair Oaks, Pasadena, is a realtist, not a realtor. That is because he is a colored man. He was cutting his hedge, and the sweat was pouring down his face, but he asked me in. Mr. Gordon took the simple view that an American should be able to live where he is able to buy. He expressed this view with a kind of sturdy serenity which I have seen so often in Negroes, and which I was learning anew was the outward sign of moral strength.

“This unwritten covenant will break down,” said Mr. Gordon. "You can’t go on doing what is wrong. Not long ago a white owner told me he was willing to sell his house to a colored buyer, but he asked that such prospective buyers should come and see the house after dark.

“I wouldn’t do it,” said Mr. Gordon. “I told him I did my business in the light.”

He did not stand on the table to make this tremendous statement, nor smile apologetically for so extreme a view. He just went right on mopping the sweat from his brow.

“We’re too afraid to do right,” he said, "and often nothing happens at all. I told one timid colored woman that I was sure she thought much more about the neighbors than they did about her.

“Don’t believe what they say about Negroes bringing down property values. They often live in shabby houses because that’s all they can get. Look at the nice houses on my own street. Do you think they’re worth any less than before? White people take fright, signs go up all round For Sale. If they’d wait, they’d get their price. If they sell in panic, they lose; but it’s their own prejudice they’re paying for. A month later their house is worth what it used to be, sometimes even more, because of all the Negroes who want to get a house.”

“Are you an NAACP member, Mr. Gordon?”

“Yes, I am,” he said, “but I think the time has come for us to change our name. We should now be The National Association for the Advancement of All People. Until man rids himself of racial pride and fear, he can’t make a better world.” . . .

See what has happened. In 1934 the Federal Housing Administration regarded itself as a business organization, and regarded Negro occupancy as harmful from a business point of view. In 1937 it actually published a model race-restrictive covenant. In the words of Mr. Loren Miller, of Los Angeles, one of the most powerful Negro fighters against the covenant, “the FHA sowed race-restrictive covenants through the country far and wide.” The FHA dropped the model covenant in 1949, and declared it would no longer insure loans in new developments where there were covenants. . . .

An American Drama

It is fascinating to consider why the struggle between ideal and practice should be considered to be so especially American. It is the American drama. One of the great scenes of it is being played today, in the theater of Trumbull Park.

Trumbull Park is a low-cost housing project of 462 apartments opened by the Chicago Housing Authority in the white section called South Deering. In 1950, the CHA declared that there would be no racial discrimination in its projects; “the laws of the state of Illinois make it a criminal offense.” Thereafter, Negroes moved into a number of new developments, but no Negroes moved into older CHA projects in “white” neighborhoods.

As in so many cities in America, the congestion in housing occupied by Negroes and its generally squalid condition set up a pressure that endlessly seeks relief. That was how, on July 30, 1953, the Donald Howards came to Trumbull Park, hitherto an all-“white” project. It was Mrs. Howard, who does not look like many Negroes look, who got the apartment. Suddenly the CHA realized that its ideal had been fully translated into practice. There were Negroes at Trumbull Park.

Before that, the Howards had moved from room to room to room, always looking for something bigger and better and cleaner, a place where their children could play. And at last they got this place. Mrs. Howard could hardly believe it; Donald Howard said, “This is it.”

That was it, sure enough; in the weeks that followed, the Howards lived as very few human families have had to live. There were people in South Deering who were determined to get them out. They milled about in front of the Howards 'apartment; many times a day, and every day, they fired off giant fireworks, which are known as aerial bombs and are forbidden by Illinois law. They shouted insults and smashed windows; they were kept back by hundreds of policemen on duty day after day. The Howards lived behind boarded windows, their children in terror, all youngness gone, in a cacophony of bombs and curses and smashing glass. Christians did this, not knowing or not caring for the fierce words of their Lord. The Howards wanted their rights as Americans, and they wanted some place to live. In the end, tried beyond their strength, they moved away.

But before the Howards left, the CHA had moved ten other Negro families into the project. It was a grave decision to make. It was thought to be right, but as to expediency, the CHA took a grim leap in the dark.

When I first visited the project in Trumbull Park, with Dan Weiner, the photographer, it was a lovely day of spring, with trees in tender leaf, and tenants sitting in the sun. You wouldn’t have known it was Trumbull Park, if it hadn’t been for the bombs going off in South Deering, and for the police everywhere at every turn, and for the fact that it was only the white tenants sitting in the sun. The white tenants of the project take no active part in South Deering’s fight against the Negroes; you learn that some do little kindnesses, and some are hostile, and most are cold. It’s an unreal world, white children playing, white women staring, white and colored policemen smoking, colored men and women and children sitting behind blinds, the sun shining and the trees coming out in leaf, and the bombs. The bombs don’t go off all the time; sometimes they stop, and it’s just when you think: “Maybe, maybe there’ll be no more,” that they go off again.

I met Mr. Herman King, one of the colored tenants, a veteran. He is a big man, and he talked to me quietly, but he talked to me like a man who has some deep internal pain, and wishes wistfully that it were not there, but that is how it is. Sometimes he stopped talking and looked out into space, which was not very far, because the blinds were down. . .

“We nearly moved out once,” he said. “Then we thought of all the work done to get Negroes in. I wasn’t prepared to see it wasted. So I felt obligated to go on. I didn’t come in as a crusader. I came to get a place to live. I’m a man of principle, but no man wants to die for it if he can live. But I’m going to stay. I had to become a crusader after all.” . . .

“I was coming home from work one day last February,” he said. "There was a tremendous crowd, shouting and yelling. I thought I would get out of the bus farther on, and get back through the south end. But in trying to avoid one crowd, I walked into another. They had sticks and stones and asked me where I lived. I told them I was lost, and lived in some other place.

"‘Get out, ’they said, ‘and get out fast. ’

"A woman shouted, ‘Beat that nigger’s brains out, ’but there was an old man there who kept on saying, ‘Don’t hurt that nigger, he don’t live around here. ’I often think of that. I reckon that old man saved my life.

"I started walking. My heart was in my mouth, but I was acting calm. Someone yelled, ‘Pick up some speed, nigger. ’

"So I picked up some speed. A stone hit me. I am proud to this day that I had no weapon on me. Something told me to stop, and something told me to go on. They called out, ‘Faster, nigger, faster, ’and something told me, ‘No, ’and something, ‘Yes. ’So I went faster.

“When I reached the big street, there was a bus right there, and I got in. But before I even sat down, every window on that side was broken. I moved over, out of the glass, and every window on the other side was broken too. The driver stopped the bus, which was the last thing I wanted. He sent for the police, and they took our names, but I didn’t dare to give my right name, because of my wife and children. I got off the bus some long way off and sat down on the edge of the sidewalk for twenty-five minutes, trying to pull myself together. Then I got up, but there was hardly any strength in my legs.”

He sat for a long time remembering it, His face was covered with sweat, and he wiped it off.

“That night took seven years off my life,” he said. “I’ll never get used to it.”

We sat in silence for a long time.

“When we go to work, the police escort us to a bus four miles away,” he said. “One day as I left the house, one of the teen-age boys fell in beside me, step for step. If that happened to some other kind of man, he could slap the boy down. You might break, you might do something. But you can’t break. If you break, lots of other things must break too.”

He saw me looking at a card that hangs on the wall. Smile, it said.

“Sometimes I can’t,” he said. . . .

Dan Weiner, with his two cameras hanging from his neck, went walking with me outside the project, into South Deering. On 106th Street, Mr. Blue Denim eyed us from the other side. As we passed, he turned so that his eyes could follow us.

“Let’s go speak to him, Dan.”

We crossed over, and asked him how things were going.

“We mean to get the jigs out, that’s all.”

“Who’s we?”

“All of us,” he said. “We’ve got no leader or president. We all feel the same. There’ll be a race riot, sure enough. You wait a few weeks.”

"What do the churches say?

“I’m a Catholic,” he said, “and a good one, I’d say. But the church hasn’t got a right to tell me who I should live next to. And the church knows it, too, because it hasn’t said anything about Trumbull Park.”

“I read somewhere that it did,” I said.

“That’s Bishop Sheil,” he said. “He’s a liberal, and he talks too much.”

To my astonishment I saw a very dark man walking toward us.

“Who is this?” I asked in a puzzled way.

He smiled tolerantly at my ignorance.

“He’s a Mexican,” he said. We don’t mind Mexicans around here." . . .


In 1945 the average income of Negro city-dwellers reached a high of 66 per cent of average white city dwellers' income; the proportion has now declined, but Negro average income—both urban and rural—has gained.

America has now 15,000,000 Negroes with an annual purchasing power estimated at more than $15,000,000,000, a figure said to equal that of Canada, certainly not one of the poor countries of the world.

Radio and TV are giving more attention to this growing market. But there are still few Negro announcers, salesmen or executives. The press is competing for Negro advertising, but it does not employ Negroes to any noticeable extent, except for janitors and occasionally a special reporter. There are no Negro pilots in the airlines, no Negro engineers nor conductors on passenger trains. The number of Negroes employed as clerical workers and craftsmen rises, but the proportion is still less than half that of the whites—and in professional occupations less than a quarter.

The unemployment rates for Negroes are 50 per cent higher than for whites. More Negro wives have to work, and both men and women carry on longer. Big new factories open, but they are looking for Negroes only for lesser jobs. Negroes still are, in general, “last hired, first fired.” . . .

My Conclusions

I heard many a time the generalization that the white Northerner loves the Negro race but not the persons, and the white Southerner the persons but not the race.

In the end I discarded this generalization. But one part of it has an approximation to the truth. The white Northerner is in general a supporter of the proposition that all men are created equal; he would not hesitate to have a Negro in his house, but you seldom meet one there. It is this white Northerner who asks me eagerly when I get back: What did you see, what did you think? It is he who is touched by the story of Ada Sipuel, the Negro girl who defeated Jim Crow at the University of Oklahoma, and it is he who shrinks from the stories of Trumbull Park. It is he who wants to talk about the Negro he does not know.

What did I see? What did I think? What did I think was really happening in America? I approach these questions with a due sense of my qualifications and my lack of them.

By now I assume that it is an incontrovertible fact that segregation is dying. The evidence is massive. I take it to be a fact of immense significance that the leaders of Negro action, who can without great error be identified with the NAACP, have set 1963, the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, as the year by which all forms of segregation and discrimination should have been rooted out forever from the life of America.

The President of the United States has stated unequivocally that in the District of Columbia, in all the armed services, and in all areas where federal authority clearly extends, he is fully committed to this same goal.

It must be recorded again that the protagonist in this struggle has been the Negro himself. This is not to belittle the part that has been played by non-Negroes, in the NAACP itself, in churches and Jewish organizations, and in labor unions, by civil liberty leagues, by fighters of every kind.

Yet it seems proven that the burden of this struggle has been borne not by those who fought for others, but by those who fought for themselves. This may seem a melancholy conclusion to some, derogatory to altruism; but it seems to me a sturdy fact of life. I do not think it establishes the inherent moral superiority of the Negro; but it re-establishes that out of adversity great strength is born.

This adversity is now on the decline. Will the great strength stay on, now part of the Negro soul? Or will it waste away? As America accepts the Negro more and more fully, will this strength be poured into herself, so that she can play more surely her role in the world? Will she understand more deeply the problems of Asia and Africa? Of the far future no one can speak, but of the nearer future one can have every hope, as the Negro is more and more admitted to the high offices and the high responsibilities of the republic, and more and more uses the power of his vote. . . .

So in this century it was the Negro, of all Americans, who clarified the principles on which the democracy of America was based. It was he who kept on reminding America what kind of nation she was. It was he who used persistently, as free men should, the power of law and court. But as America could thus thank God for him, so could he thank God for America, that he lived in a country where such things could be, where man was both bound and made free by the law. . . .

The implications of the decision of 1954 are far-reaching. If separate educational facilities are unequal, what enforced separation is not? Segregation is thus seen not through a haze of sophistry and altruistic cant, but through the clear air of common sense, as something indefensible and unjust, even evil. . . .

Many Americans are too pessimistic about their own country; they measure their moral strength in terms of sleeping-tablet consumption, Kinsey reports, juvenile delinquency and McCarthyism. Let them try measuring it as well in terms of the advance of the Negro. Let them try measuring it in terms of justice, which, so often defeated, has a way of conquering in the end.

Perhaps it might be true, after all, that a nation gets the Supreme Court that it deserves.

Source: Alan Paton, “The Negro In the North,” Collier’s, 29 October 1954, 70–72, 74–75, 77, 79–80.