(My grandfather in his Detroit city bus driver uniform)
As Black History month begins this month, I began to think of those who have gone before and made great impacts. I was reminded though that there was no better place to reflect than on those I knew in my own family. I’m thankful then for a wonderful grandfather who helped make me who I am today.
My grandfather a man of inexhaustible work ethic would take on various jobs to support his family, realized the value of making a positive first impression for his would-be employers. As a result, regardless of his current income, he always practiced a thorough and meticulous regimen of grooming and military-esque attention to the details of his wardrobe. His shoes were always shined, his suits always “pressed” his shirts always starched, and his hair always cut and fingernails always maintained. He believed strongly that if one truly desired a particular employment position, his wardrobe and work ethic should reflect that fact. “Papa” as his grandchildren referred to him told me countless times growing up, “you should always look the part.” In other words, my attire should always reflect my academic or professional realities or aspirations and I should appear as if I fit-in to the desired environment.
This attitude also carried over to his work ethic. Due to his experiences with racism and negative stereotypes, particularly in the employment sector, he echoed a popular refrain of his day in the black community; “you have to be twice as good to be just as employed or hired, or promoted.” This was perhaps no more reflected for him than his efforts to provide for his family by bettering his own employment. In the 1930’s he first landed a job out of high school working at an automotive garage making $18 a week. His persistence however before the face of the then Vice President of Lincoln Motors, would land him a letter of recommendation for a coveted job working for the Ford Motor Company where he made what seemed like a baron-type salary of $5 dollars an hour or $200 per week.
Utilizing all of these attributes, my grandfather became only the second black bus driver to be hired by the city of Detroit where he faced less publicized, but equally as virulent racism in the operation of his duties. Through a relationship with former Michigan Congressman George Sadowski he was referred for the position, which at the time was also coveted and as an African-American, prestigious as most jobs were for blacks in those days were limited to the auto factories. Around the same time that soon-to-be one of Detroit’s most famous citizens Rosa Parks was being arrested for not riding in the back of the bus in Montgomery, my grandfather faced insults and white customers who refused to ride the bus when they saw that a black man was at the front of the bus, but driving it. He also had to endure going to work in an environment in which the white bus drivers would not even speak to him, save one driver whom he befriended and learned the ropes.
As was the custom in those days, he would begin his shift by boarding a bus already loaded with passengers, as the previous driver would disembark. Being prompt was a must for operating the downtown bus and he quickly learned to run his routes like clockwork to avoid costly delays. Early in career, he boarded the bus, wearing his well pressed uniform and while he was preparing to embark on the second leg of the route, a middle aged white lady, stood up, walked briskly up the aisle towards the front of the bus, demanding to get off. As she passed my grandfather she exclaimed angrily, “I will not ride on this bus as long as it is being driven by a nigger!”
My grandfather would share with me later that while obviously bothered by such comments he realized it was the better part of valor to keep his peace and his job. Reminiscing about that incidence he joked on day, “if she wanted to get off and walk, I didn’t pay that any mind. When all was said and done I was driving and she was the one walking.” Rather than respond verbally in that situation, as others of those that would follow him did, he saw the practicality in keeping his job and being able to provide for his family.
He would learn from those experiences and went on to own and operate his cleaning business where his attention to detail and pride in well pressed clothing could be put to good use. He also would launch a real estate company which would he would continue to operate well into his 80s. Even through success that he achieved with the company, his penchant being dapper was never confused with being ostentatious. He would shun the opportunities to drive more luxurious cars such as a Cadillac, as was popular among his counterparts, not simply as a mater of frugality but also as a counter-culture entrepreneurial strategy. He would explain somewhat humorously, “If I drive my prospective clients around a Cadillac, they might be impressed or they might conclude that I’m doing so well that I don’t need their business.”
I’m honored to have sat at the feet of such a loving, caring, hardworking, God-fearing man who impacted so many in his life, he may be gone but he will never be forgotten.