The Japanese-American truck driver who is giving the young black sailor a lift into Honolulu from Manana Barracks, the black naval camp near Pearl Harbor during World War II, keeps staring down in the direction of the sailor’s hips. He asks several times “Are you comfortable?” and apologizes for his uncomfortable truck. The sailor is perplexed, reassures the driver that he is quite comfortable. Finally, the driver blurts out, “How do you fellows manage this?” “Oh my God,” the sailor moans to himself. “Is this guy talking about how Negroes have huge dicks?” It turns out that the driver is worried instead about the sailor’s tail. The white sailors at the naval base have told him all about the tail the coloreds have at the end of their spines.
The young sailor, Vernon Jarrett, is used to myths about the “coloreds.” In northwestern Tennessee, where he grew up, the tall stories abound. But this is a new one, and he doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. The truck driver had been commiserating with him about the terrible treatment blacks were getting in a white Navy.
And yet, despite the segregation and mistreatment, Jarrett had a good time in the Navy. For one thing, it took him to the big city. All the blacks who enlisted from his part of the country were sent to boot camp in the black section of the Great Lakes naval base about 40 miles north of Chicago, which was such a wonderful adventure for a youngster from Paris, Tennessee, population 9,000, that Jarrett would come back here to live soon after he was discharged. Among the many wonders he experienced in Chicago was a speech by Aleksandr Kerensky, an early leader of the Russian Revolution, who was driven from power by the Bolsheviks and exiled to the U.S. People like Kerensky were barely rumors in Paris, or in Knoxville, where Jarrett went to college, or even in nearby Nashville, a big city by southern standards.
From Great Lakes, Jarrett was sent to Cape May, New Jersey, not far from New York City. Jarrett’s most poignant memory of New York is of getting into a fight in an Automat with a loudmouthed anti-Semite. Jarrett says he made so much trouble in Cape May that the Navy shipped him back to Great Lakes and finally to Hawaii. “They didn’t know what to do with us educated blacks in the Navy,” he says. “They should have made us officers like they did with the educated whites, but they wouldn’t do that so they kept shifting us around.”
Apparently the instruction sheet the Navy put out on how to handle “Negroes” didn’t include information about college-educated blacks. It wasn’t just that he was educated; Jarrett was not very subservient. He protested loudly when he and the other blacks were forced to shave off their mustaches. “You don’t know what a mustache means to a Negro,” he tried to explain. For blacks, he insisted, a mustache is a sign of manhood–in that time of Jim Crow it was one of the few symbols of masculinity that a black man could call his own.
“We had one meeting with the commander and then gave up. We just couldn’t make a dent in him,” Jarrett says.
He and his friends didn’t always give up so quickly. At Cape May, they staged a hunger strike when the mess hall was resegregated after a brawl. In Hawaii, Jarrett almost hit an officer who was insulting Jews. He told the man, “You’re a poor-assed representative of America. You sound just like Hitler.” When the officer asked for his number, Jarrett said “Go fuck yourself” and walked away promising, “I’m going to report you.”
Jarrett’s protests were not always face-to-face. He was the editor of the black base newspaper in Hawaii. “It was a civil rights paper,” he says with his characteristic chortle. Despite attending college on a football scholarship, Jarrett had been editor of the college paper. He was determined to be a journalist; he even bought, on time payments, a typewriter, one of the few in his dormitory. Back in high school his father, much to Jarrett’s chagrin, had made him take a typing course after school. “The kids all teased me,” he says, but now he is grateful to his dad for those lessons, as he is grateful to him for so much else.
Vernon Jarrett is still covering civil rights, in his three-times-a-week columns in the Chicago Sun-Times, in his twice-weekly 4:50 PM commentaries on WLS TV, and in his early Sunday morning WLS TV call-in show. He has earned what black Tribune columnist Clarence Page describes as “a very special position in the black community, as a commentator who reflects the attitudes, the anger, the frustrations, and the goals and aspirations of black Chicagoans. He is like James Baldwin, who said, ‘I’m trying to bear witness to the truth.’ Vernon is a grand old-fashioned teacher.”
He is still protesting injustice (including the injustices blacks commit against blacks), still raising hackles in the white community as he raised hackles in the Navy. But it is not likely that any of Jarrett’s protests will receive more attention than the last one. The evening of November 30, the day that Mayor Harold Washington was buried, Jarrett attended a memorial service being held at the University of Illinois at Chicago Pavilion. Jarrett had something to say. WBEZ personality Richard Steele, emcee of the program, recalls turning around to find Jarrett at his elbow and professor Conrad Worrill of Northeastern Illinois University, who organized the event, explaining that Jarrett would now make a few remarks.
Jarrett’s few remarks caused a furor in parts of white Chicago. It was such an impassioned speech he made to the 10,000 assembled in the Pavilion, and to the WBEZ radio audience, that in the course of it he wept. He pleaded with the people to save the late mayor’s legacy from the folks at City Hall who were conspiring to elect a foe of Washington to succeed him. He described those black aldermen and their friends who had been consorting with Washington’s white enemies as “slaves.” He exhorted the people not to “return to slavery.” He warned against blacks who would settle for the spoils of “plantation politics” and cried, “If we don’t do something about them, they will destroy us before the white man can get to us.”
Clarence Page points out that this is an admonition that goes back to slavery–militant blacks have always warned their cohorts against the devils in their own woodpiles. Few blacks, says Page, were particularly surprised by Jarrett’s speech. But they were moved. They wrote and called to thank him for speaking out.
But some white folks were flabbergasted. They were unaccustomed, as Page describes it, to “high-pitched oratory common to black speakers, especially churchmen.” One white who heard a portion of the speech on the WGN TV news was former alderman Edward Vrdolyak. Not a man to sit still when he is outraged, nor to pass up an opportunity to gain the spotlight, nor to shy from chastising blacks, Vrdolyak went to WLS TV and the Sun-Times the next day and demanded “immediate action” against Jarrett. He also appeared on the other afternoon TV news programs, denouncing Jarrett and suggesting that the public call ABC and the Sun-Times, whose telephone numbers he provided. That afternoon, a leaflet appeared on the streets: “IMPORTANT If you want Vernon Jarrett fired from the Sun-Times and Channel 7 call 321-3000”–the Sun-Times’s phone number.
WLS aired Vrdolyak’s demands, but the management did not respond. However, the Sun-Times, two days later, printed a front-page editorial signed by the publisher, Robert E. Page, that said the paper had received “a huge number of telephone calls all day Tuesday complaining that Vernon Jarrett . . . actively contributed to an atmosphere of intimidation and potential violence by a speech he gave . . .
“Some . . . demanded that Mr. Jarrett be fired immediately. Some others said that any action against Mr. Jarrett would be terribly unfair and a signal to the proreform people that we as an institution favor machine politicians.
“I want to make it absolutely clear . . . that Mr. Jarrett made those remarks not as a representative of the Sun-Times but in his personal capacity.”
In the Sun-Times newsroom, some white reporters were “pissed.” “We couldn’t have done that,” says one reporter who requires anonymity, and goes on, “We should have repudiated his remarks. As it was we didn’t really say anything.”
The Sun-Times has a large black readership to take into account, and it responded to rumors that Jarrett had been fired. “There were so many calls that they had to refer them to public service, where the poor guy was in a spasm,” a reporter says. Out in the neighborhoods, some Sun-Times boxes were trashed.
Clarence Page says, “After the Pavilion speech, I got into arguments with several journalists, all white, who said he was getting outside the journalist’s role. He was acting in an unprofessional manner, they said. I retorted, “How do you feel when Pat Buchanan gets up and makes a speech to Cuban exiles in Miami to whip them into a political fury? Or when he gets up at a convention of the Moral Majority and whips them into a fury on some issue? He is a columnist like Vernon in the very same paper. And Phyllis Schlafly is also a columnist [not in the Sun- Times]. To call it unprofessional is ludicrous.”‘
Jarrett heard directly from some of his readers. One letter said, “I only buy the Sun-Times on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays [when Jarrett’s column appears] and I wouldn’t buy it at all if it were not for the tremendous respect I have for you.” Another said, “Thank you for speaking out. Many white people don’t seem to know what our struggle is about–that’s why they’re so quick to censor us.”
Having stirred up so much protest against Jarrett, Vrdolyak is, he says, “at peace with myself.” He says, “I didn’t go after Jarrett. I just made public–or more public–what he had done because everyone ignored it and I was outraged. Do you know some of the words he used?”
To my response that I was not outraged by Jarrett’s words, Vrdolyak said, “I hope I’m speaking English. You wouldn’t be offended in the slightest to have someone who has a TV commentary and an article in the Chicago Sun-Times three days a week, you would like to have him go to every high school and grammar school in this country and say to them, if they don’t do something about them, they will destroy us before the white man can get to us? What this guy said is the same language the KKK uses, the Nazi party uses, right-wing, far left-wing, crazy groups use, and here it’s what is supposed to be a responsible journalist. The Sun-Times took a lot of heat for it.”
To my comment that he had helped to raise the temperature, he replied, “I told the truth about it. I never lied about it. Did I do the right thing? You bet. Would I do it again? In a second.”
Would Jarrett repeat his words if he had a chance to make the speech over again (a question put to him by some of his WLS colleagues)? “It’s a silly question,” he says. The speech was impromptu. He said what he felt. Of course in similar circumstances he’d say what he felt again–and it must be remembered that just a few hours earlier he’d attended the funeral of Harold Washington.
Jarrett was, indeed, very close to the mayor. Washington’s press secretary, Alton Miller, remembers that “Vernon was one of the few people who could show up unannounced at City Hall and be in talking to the mayor for a few minutes between appointments or for very long conversations at the end of the day. He had all the mayor’s phone numbers and called him at any time.”
Jarrett remembers calling Washington once just to ask him for a name he couldn’t recall at deadline time. “What’s somebody calling the mayor for somebody’s name for?” he laughs. When Washington was inaugurated in 1983, he invited Jarrett to ride with him and Mary Ella Smith to Navy Pier for the ceremonies and to sit onstage with him.
Was that speech, as Robert Page said that readers had complained, “contributing to an atmosphere of intimidation and potential violence”? Clarence Page has another theory: “On the contrary,” he says, “Vernon was reflecting frustrations that were being felt and was acting as a safety valve because, by voicing their frustrations, he created an emotional release. There are many people in the black community who share this view.”
What Vrdolyak doesn’t realize because he has so few ties to the black community–he does have ties to some aldermen and former aldermen, such as the present mayor–is that Jarrett has been an activist in the community since he came to Chicago in 1946. He says, “I hadn’t been in Chicago a minute before I was out working a precinct against Bill Dawson [Congressman William Dawson, the famous black south-side politician who took his orders from the Democratic organization but ruled his community]. I worked the 43rd Precinct of the Second Ward for anybody running against the machine.” His antimachine politicking helped get him fired from the Chicago Defender, a frequent supporter of organization candidates.
In 1982, Jarrett, by now a Tribune columnist, was one of the handful who urged Washington to run for mayor; he’d known Washington since the late 40s, when they served together on an NAACP committee campaigning for a fair-employment practices commission in Illinois. He worked for white candidates as well as black, so long as they ran against the machine. He sat up all night with Harold Washington watching the election returns after Washington challenged Mayor Michael Bilandic in 1977–Jarrett had urged Washington to run.
Jarrett didn’t often work a precinct after the first few years, but he served on publicity committees, made speeches, and contributed money when he could. In the 70s he handed out leaflets for Alderman Leon Despres when the machine opposed him. Making a political speech was nothing new to Jarrett.
But he is no militant. He is an old-fashioned black moderate. Now white-haired, paunchy, though still strong and healthy, Jarrett, in his mid-60s, lives a comfortable life, moving between a nine-room co-op apartment in South Shore and a house in Michigan. He is a friend to ministers, politicians, businessmen, teachers, and children throughout the black community. Walking down any street with Jarrett is like accompanying a celebrity on a publicity tour. Everybody knows him and wants to shake his hand.
Clarence Page says, “In the context of the black community, he is a conservative.” But that makes him a militant in the eyes of whites with no knowledge of the anger and disestablishmentarianism of most blacks. In the Sun-Times newsroom, for instance, “the whites are generally offended by Jarrett,” says one reporter. “Some of us feel as if he is personally assaulting us with his often incendiary rhetoric. On the other hand, he doesn’t offend me as constantly as George Will does. Vernon has his smooth moments.”
Jarrett offers an explanation. “I’m not a journalist in a vacuum. I’m a role model in a sense, as a successful person. These youngsters have to believe that there are some people who are successful–some of them think I make a lot more money than I do, that I’m up in the half-million class, which I’m nowhere near–but I want people to know that you can be a successful person and not be an Uncle Tom or a sellout. This is part of the big response I’ve had since the Pavilion speech. The most flattering thing is to walk into a church and have everybody stand up and applaud.”
That happens fairly frequently these days to Jarrett. Last December 28, less than a month after his Pavilion speech, he was given a Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Award at Saint Sabina Church. Jarrett got more applause than Mayor Sawyer. Again, at a birthday rally for Martin Luther King at Quinn Chapel on the south side, Jarrett got a round of applause when he was seen entering the church and the usher parted the huge crowd to make way for the perennial latecomer.
It is said at the Sun-Times that Jarrett “doesn’t know how to tell time.” Perhaps Jarrett is now making up for his compulsive punctuality as a youngster in Tennessee.
Not that the grocery store where he worked back in Paris really demanded that he be prompt. The owner preferred him late, clumsy, dirty, lazy, dishonest, and stupid, and thus evidence of the soundness of his general attitudes about blacks, Jarrett says, with the laughter that punctuates all his speech. “I got fired for being on time, clean, and hardworking.”
His father, William Robert Jarrett, the principal of the local black high school, had got him the job at the Piggly Wiggly, and he wanted to “impress my dad.” He worked hard while the other black employees sat at the back of the store and swapped “lurid sex stories about how long they could do it, how much they could drink, and how much they could lose at craps.” Jarrett was embarrassed. “I’d think they were a disgrace to the race,” he says, “but I noticed how they’d do all this and the owner loved them. He loved to listen, with his friends, to all that ugly bragging. And while they’re doing that, I’m doing my job.”
Only a few weeks after he’d started, Jarrett overheard the owner telling an employee that he was “going to get rid of the kid.” Soon after he accused Jarrett of stealing a bag of candy and fired him.
Jarrett looks back on the sexual braggadocio of black southern men with sadness. “Blacks have such a long history of taking little things and making them more significant because there was so little they could do. What you heard–still hear–around the barbershops and the pool halls was that it was criminal not to make a woman happy. There’s no excuse if you don’t. You can’t blame the Ku Klux Klan, or Senator Bilbo, or segregation when you are in bed with a woman. You’re on your own and it’s one of the few times you are. You have an excuse for not having a job, for being uneducated, for the clothes you wear, for almost anything external, but not when you’re alone with a woman. Sometimes I thought the older guys were saying these things for the benefit of us kids. How do you make a woman call your name? She’s gotta call your name. It’s almost like a preacher in a church wanting the people to say amen. If a minister in a black church can’t get a response from his audience, he’s a failure. I’ve seen them not want to leave until they get their response. Like speaking in tongues.”
Returning to the men in the Piggly Wiggly, Jarrett says, “To these guys, white control was a fait accompli. They were serving out their term. They had been sentenced to life under white people–a life sentence. They had almost a sixth sense that the man wanted them to degrade themselves. He never fired them. He fired me.”
On the other hand, he says, “Sex is a matter of good treatment, a philosophy of making someone feel good when you can’t do much else to make them feel good. Which is not the worst philosophy in the world.” Recalling his experience as a bellhop in a Knoxville hotel, Jarrett says, “I used to hear the old bellhops talk about how badly the whites would treat women in the hotel, like they didn’t care whether the woman got anything out of it or not.”
Jarrett’s sexual education was greatly enhanced by his experiences in the hotel where he worked while he attended Knoxville College. He watched older black bellhops service the “needs” of the city’s elite and traveling salesmen alike. “Their basic pay was for helping to provide women to men customers. These are black guys getting ‘a good clean colored girl’ for these white guys. You kept your locker full of half-pints–Tennessee was dry in those days–that you sold to the salesmen and the big shots. Some of them had their special bellhops. You had to have the capacity to dehumanize yourself as soon as you hit the door with those drinks. You might walk in there when they’re nude or having sex, and you’ve got to act as if you’re a big dog. You see nothing, hear nothing. It was worse when the woman was white. Of all the crimes in the south, that was the worst. You had witnessed a nude white woman. But you were some animated piece of equipment. You wouldn’t matter. You do look, though, and you go tell the other bellhops ‘Senator So-and-so, or the police chief, or some other big shot is up there stone drunk.’ But he trusts you and asks for you because he knows you can get him a woman. You take her up the back elevator. You’ve both been around long enough so she knows you know how much she gets and she splits it 60-40, 40 for you. I didn’t do that. It was too much for me. But I did take setups to the rooms and I did my share of observing.”
In the Piggly Wiggly, Jarrett remembers, one of the worst rumors that might circulate about a man was that he was a “no-fucking Negro.” The men would eat raw eggs and take all kinds of potions to improve their potency. “But oral sex was out,” Jarrett adds. “If the rumor got around that you did that, they said you were cheating. You were supposed to take it straight, like straight whiskey. But the amazing thing about these people is that they could be, at the same time, so happy to see a kid like me going off to college. They had written off their own futures. They said, in effect, this is it for me. I don’t have any education and I have to work for this man and these are the conditions of employment. But these same people, when they were in their own homes or alone with other blacks, were completely different, standing up tall, being very respectful to each other. The janitor in my father’s school was the president of our church. I think that duality accounts for the psychological, not to mention the physical, survival of blacks. I have seen people even in their 70s be one person one minute and an entirely different person the next, depending on who they were with. On Sunday morning, walking down the street to church, you’d never believe these people were the downtrodden. Here they were, going in and out of white folks’ homes and businesses bowing and scraping, never called ‘Miss’ or ‘Mr.’ or ‘Mrs.,’ but in private they called each other by those titles. My mother always referred to my father as ‘professor’–just an ordinary schoolteacher without a college degree–but that ‘professor’ was important. I think that dual identity was the technique of survival, but you wonder how they kept their sanity.”
In 1946, now discharged from the Navy, Jarrett returned to Paris to think about what to do next. With some of his Navy savings he paid off the taxes on his parents’ property. Though his father was the principal of the high school and his mother was a teacher, and though they had both worked all their lives, they were still too poor to keep up with their taxes. (Robert Jarrett left his house, $2,000 cash, and a little life insurance when he died at about age 81. He was still working.)
One evening Jarrett took his mother to the local movie house to see the Marx Brothers. His father refused to go along, just as he had refused to go to that movie house all of Jarrett’s life, because it required him to enter through a dirt alley, go up a dark back stairway, and sit in the “buzzards’ roost” in the balcony. (The one time the elder Jarrett consented to attend with his sons was the night in 1938 when they went to watch Joe Louis “beat the living hell out of” Max Schmeling, in the first round of a fight that Jarrett says was the most significant event for blacks since the Civil War.)
Jarrett and his mother enjoyed the picture, and as they walked home he put his arm around her. Suddenly a car filled with white teenagers passed them, slowed down, and backed up. They had been drinking, Jarrett says, and one of them yelled, “Hey, is that a nigger hugging a white woman?” Jarrett’s mother was one of those children of slavery who looked “as much like a white woman as any white flower of southern womanhood.” One of the girls in the car said, leave ’em alone! but the boys were not done with this apparently interracial couple. Back and forth went the car while the kids yelled obscenities. Finally, having gotten a better look, one of them exclaimed, “She’s too old to be fuckin’ around!” and another shouted, “That bitch ain’t white! No nigger’s gonna be putting his arm around a white bitch right there on the street.” “My mother kept a straight face through the whole thing, but I exploded inside,” Jarrett says. He ran after the car for about half a block and then turned back. “I could have gotten killed,” he says.
“My mother didn’t say a word, just held my arm. Nobody said anything to anybody. I said to myself ‘Shit, I’m leaving.’ I called my cousin in Chicago and said I was catching a train.”
Jarrett wasn’t prepared for Chicago. “I had a hard time coping. I saw more antiblack venom than I’d ever seen in the south. I’d seen more segregation in the south, but in Chicago there was more real venom, like when they set fire to the house of the distinguished scientist Percy Julian.”
Segregation in the south, Jarrett reflects, was based more on habit than hate. Ralph Johnsonius, a man for whom he’d been a houseboy as a teenager, was a traditional racist capable of congratulating Jarrett the day Joe Louis won and telling him, “It was about time someone beat that Nazi.” And as much as he could be, he was gracious and helpful to Jarrett’s aging parents.
“He did little things for them,” Jarrett said. “He did what he could. These were some of the undercurrents of white people wanting to express their feelings but they didn’t know how in a society that said you had to be separated.” These undercurrents may explain why, after a few years of violent resistance to desegregation, the south today is more integrated than most northern cities. And why Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was successful with his message of love in the south but failed in Chicago in 1966.
Jarrett’s powerful feelings about the south are evident in the tales he tells of his childhood and youth, and in the tales that were first told him by his maternal grandmother, a former slave who’d defied the law to teach herself to read. It was because she had this ability, says Jarrett, that the slaves on her plantation knew Grant’s army was coming to liberate them, not to resell them, which is what their owners had been saying. Because she could read the newspapers, the slaves went out to meet Grant’s army instead of helping defend the plantation or going into hiding. Jarrett’s mother was born in a log cabin within walking distance of General Grant’s old headquarters in Saulsbury, Tennessee.
Jarrett’s grandmother on his father’s side, Martha Jarrett, was dead before he was born. He didn’t know much more about her than that she never lived in anything but a log cabin and was a strong woman who “insisted my dad go to college.” But he was inspired by the picture of her that sat for many years in the Jarrett living room. “I used to sit and look at that face and try to imagine what she would want me to do. I’d have imaginary conversations with her. I’d make up stories about her. That woman’s face stimulated my mind more than anything else.”
Jarrett remembers the lessons he learned from his coworker Joanne–“we never knew any blacks’ last names”–the laundress for Ralph Johnsonius, who supplemented her $3.50-a-week salary by playing the white man’s game. It seems that late of an afternoon, after a few drinks and a game or two of craps, Mr. Raf and his male guests enjoyed donning sheets and going down into the basement where Joanne was doing the laundry. As these “ghosts” descended the stairs, they would moan “Joanne, Joanne, I know what you did with my husband. It’s time, Joanne, it’s your time.” And Joanne would go down on her knees and wail and scream for forgiveness until finally the ghosts forgave her and returned upstairs for a hearty laugh. And Joanne would get up, dust off her knees, and go back to her ironing. Later, she would go to the glass jar on the kitchen cupboard and collect the $15 or so they had left her for her performance. She explained to young Jarrett, who was horrified, “You got to let them feel superior. They gotta know that I know who they are. I ironed the pants sticking out from under those sheets.” “In a thousand ways,” says Jarrett, “blacks were always letting whites feel superior to them to maintain their jobs and their safety.”
Joanne “had supreme contempt for whites. She had a big thing about using the toilet. The Johnsoniuses didn’t let the blacks use their upstairs toilet; they had one for us in the basement, which was better than a lot of places where you had to use the bushes or an outhouse. When they were out, I would race upstairs and sit down on their toilet, just for spite. I’d put my behind down there just to be evil. I’d sit there and read the newspaper. One time, Joanne came and snatched me up and said ‘Don’t ever sit down there behind those people. They got germs.’ She handed me a newspaper with a hole cut in the middle. Finally, I learned what those newspapers with the holes in the middle hanging in the kitchen were for. They had that white woman believing that they were used to keep some evil spells away. Blacks believed that whites had brought them tuberculosis, syphilis, all kinds of diseases.”
These lessons in living with whites were not the kind that Jarrett would ever learn from his prim, elitist schoolteacher parents. His mother never gave her first name to any white person. To whites she was A.S.–for Annie Sybil, but no white person would ever call her Annie, she said. When his father died in 1949, his obituary had to be placed in the newspaper by a white man, but it did appear. “Fessor” Jarrett was described as a “‘kindly, reasonable negro,’ with a lower-case ‘n,’ of course,” Jarrett recalls with a wry smile.
The side of Jarrett most people see resembles his description of his father: always calm, deliberate, laid-back. The elder Jarrett shocked Vernon when he cried as his first son, Thomas, was awarded a master’s degree at Fisk University. In 1898, Robert Jarrett had helped build this very chapel, now historic, in which they were sitting. He had come to Nashville seeking an education, and ended up laying bricks and nailing down pews in this chapel because he could not afford college. Later, Robert Jarrett got a teacher’s certificate from Knoxville College. “Professor” Jarrett talked and smiled through his tears, Jarrett remembers, breaking the rule of strict silence during public meetings that he maintained at his own school.
Jarrett’s mother laid her own hand on her son. A stern puritan, she was always certain about right and wrong. She and her husband were both very religious. Prayers were said before every meal and at suitable times in between. “I guess I’ve got some of my mother in me,” Jarrett says. He got religion at a revival meeting the summer he turned 12, after his mother told him that his parents were responsible for his sins until he was 12 but thereafter they were his own. He was standing with his friends outside the church one hot summer night, playing “the dozens”–a favorite black game–when he was suddenly stricken with the realization that this was his 12th birthday. “Today,” he cried, “is the beginning of the end.” He raced into the church and sat on the “mourners’ bench” for those who wanted to be saved. He cried and shouted for forgiveness. He was saved. “I had a religious experience that night,” Jarrett says, though it seems to have worn thin over the years.
Jarrett says there has been in Paris, Tennessee, as in much of the south, a dramatic change. Not many years ago, there was a parade in town celebrating the county’s contributions to education. Among the college presidents who had emerged from Paris were Jarrett’s brother Thomas, who by then was president of Atlanta University, and Mordecai Johnson, retired president of Howard University. “They gave them a big welcome, very warm, very enthusiastic,” Jarrett says. “I haven’t seen such a switch in Chicago. In the south, there were always signs that people wanted to do better but were trapped in the system.” But, he adds wearily, “none of this makes any sense.”
Jarrett says, “Integration never entered my mind as a kid. I accepted segregation. It was normal. I didn’t expect to be able to go to the University of Tennessee or even to get into the football games. They let us sit on a hill overlooking the stadium. The problem we had was not demanding integration but how to avoid being wiped out by the mere way we talked, the way you held your head, the way you carried yourself, the way you dressed, the way you answered questions. [Emmett Till, a Chicago boy visiting Mississippi, was lynched there in 1955 for the way he looked at a white woman.] Any of these things could make people hate you. How did people live this dual life? The most remarkable thing about black people in the south was how they could live in two worlds, one for themselves and one for white people. That’s why people were so shocked by my speech. People thought ‘Oh, Vernon doesn’t feel all this stuff that deeply.’ When I broke down and cried, my voice indicated a depth of sincerity and defiance and people were shocked. They didn’t know that side of me.”
That side of him, he implies, had been reserved for a few black friends and for his family. His son Bob, now finishing a gynecological surgery residence in a Michigan hospital, telephoned after the speech to say that several of his friends had called to tell him about it. “I was proud of you,” Jarrett says his son told him. His younger son, Tom, an engineer at WLS TV (Jarrett says he had nothing to do with his son’s getting the job), accompanied him to the Pavilion and was shocked. “He never expected to see me cry in public,” Jarrett says.
A few whites had also been shown this side of Jarrett. Alton Miller says, “Anyone who really knew Vernon and knew how passionate he is wouldn’t have been surprised by that speech.”
When he arrived in Chicago in 1946, Jarrett stayed with his cousins and hunted a job. His second day here, he took some copies of the base paper he’d edited for black sailors and went to the Chicago Defender for a job. Four months went by before they hired him at $40 a week. “Hell, I would have paid them to let me work there,” he says now, but in fact he had exhausted his savings by the time he got the job. He was a general assignment reporter, covering murders, fires, and all kinds of human interest stories. The fires got to him. “They were awful in those buildings that, after the war, with the housing shortage, were cut up so that 12 apartments became 36 and people had no exits. That’s when I decided that being a straight reporter was something I was going to have trouble with.”
Assigned to a story about a woman who’d been living in a railroad caboose and whose two children burned to death when the caboose caught fire while she was away shopping, Jarrett refused to ask the customary questions. It would be too painful to the woman, he believed. “The Defender photographer asked me if I wasn’t going to get a statement from her. I said no and made him put down his camera. He said, man, this is part of the job. I said, I’ll be goddamned, this is too personal. This ain’t for me!”
Jarrett also wrote stories about blacks moving into white neighborhoods. “The sociologists at the University of Chicago gave it a war flavor, with words like ‘penetration,’ ‘invasion,’ ‘consolidation,'” he recalls. For partly journalistic and partly political purposes, he spent the night with a young couple who became the first to cross the Maginot Line of 61st Street when they moved into the 7100 block of Saint Lawrence Avenue. “The man had a master’s degree and his wife was a nurse, and he thought that if black people were the ‘right’ types, no one would bother them. Boy, was he wrong! He almost cracked up under the strain of that harassment.” Jarrett’s life was threatened at a housing development near Midway Airport when he tried to cover a couple of black families who were moving in there. He was escorted out of the project by police.
Local politics was Jarrett’s favorite beat. He covered many of the political stories of the time; black political figures, including Harold Washington’s father, Roy, a prominent Third Ward precinct captain, knew him well. Jarrett wasn’t completely shocked when he was fired from the Defender after two and a half years of a steady campaign, in the pages of the paper and on the streets, against Congressman Dawson.
Young, idealistic reporters frequently got into trouble with the editor of the Defender, Charles Browning. Shortly after he left the paper, and while he and Oscar Brown Jr. were putting on a daily news program, The Negro News Front, on WJJD radio that was sponsored by Brown’s wealthy businessman father, Jarrett and several other former Defender reporters opened the Chicago Globe, a black newspaper whose layout resembled that of the Chicago Daily News. The editor was a former Defender editor who’d been fired and the chief financial backer was the American Typographical Union, whose members had been permanently locked out of the Defender after an industry-wide strike in which all the other newspapers in town settled. Good journalists these young people were, but businessmen they weren’t, and the Globe lasted only a couple of years.
Meanwhile, Jarrett had married Fernetta Hobbs, a legal secretary, and while she supported them he tried to find a way to earn a living. For a time he worked for the Associated Negro Press, which supplied national and international news to the quite considerable black press that existed in the 50s. “We would rewrite stuff from other papers, let’s face it,” he says. He also wrote a sports column for the ANP, and did a little free-lance work. “I hardly survived,” he recalls, “but I enjoyed it.”
But then his wife got sick and went into the hospital. When it was time for her to go home, Jarrett couldn’t pay the bill. Times have changed since 1952. Today, hospitals send you home before you’ve recovered. At that time if you couldn’t pay the bill, they kept you there. Jarrett heard about a job at the Strick Trailer Manufacturing Company on the far south side. He went out to apply. There he met “a Jewish guy who I’d met while we were picketing Billings Hospital because they wouldn’t admit blacks.” It was a lucky day for Jarrett. The young man had just married into the Strick family and been taken into the firm. He immediately hired Jarrett, but told him that because he himself had just started on the job, Jarrett would have to wait a couple weeks. “I must start today,” Jarrett told him. “I’m desperate. I need to get $75 to get my wife out of the hospital.” “Is that all you need?” the young man laughed, “and he peeled off $75 from a roll of bills and said ‘Pay me back when you start to work.'”
Jarrett went through a couple of manufacturing jobs before his foreman at the Ford assembly plant on the far south side said to him, “You know, I don’t think this work is for you.” Jarrett replied, “You know, you’ve been wrong about everything since I’ve been here, but this time you’re right.” Discouraged though he might be about earning a living in journalism, factory work clearly was not the way Jarrett wanted to support his family; in fact, all along he’d been taking courses in journalism and radio, even though one instructor had warned him that he didn’t have “the physical equipment”–meaning a white-enough voice–for a job in radio. There were no blacks on the downtown newspapers, in radio, or in the newly emerged television. “So I started my own public relations business, handling black businesses, but I was out of my element. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
This was rock bottom. His son, Bobbie, was four and a half months old. Jarrett was sitting in a restaurant listening to “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” when he broke down and cried. He was dead broke and had no idea of where to go or what to do. Jarrett had experienced plenty of racism while he was growing up, but he had convinced himself that he would become someone important. His parents had been important: hundreds of people came from all over the county to attend their funerals. His mother had wanted him to be a preacher; his older brother had received a PhD from the University of Chicago and was now teaching at Atlanta University. Yet few people in Paris, Tennessee, even finished high school. “Make something of yourself,” the townsfolk had admonished him. Jarrett was expected to bring them pride. (While he was at the Defender, his father had asked him to come home to make the high school commencement speech. He exaggerated slightly Jarrett’s accomplishment. “He made it seem as if I practically ran the paper,” Jarrett says now, laughing loudly.) And here he was, past 30, with no foreseeable future, a failure.
As he sat in that restaurant crying, he felt a hand patting him on the back. “This guy had been watching me. He remembered me from the Defender and the Associated Negro Press when I’d written stories about him when he had sued the University of Texas Law School because they wouldn’t admit him. I remembered him then. He asked what was wrong. I told him ‘I have a son not old enough to walk and I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do for him.'” The man suggested Jarrett go to the Chicago Urban League for help.
The Urban League found a job for Jarrett as a salesman with a brewery in Saint Joseph, Missouri. “I stayed there four years,” he says. “They gave me a car and expenses and I went from tavern to tavern talking to people. It really helped shape my philosophy. I spent nearly four years sitting around bars and supermarkets just talking to ordinary people.”
But he couldn’t stay away from the news business. He took a couple of TV courses at the University of Kansas City, bought some secondhand photo equipment, and became a sports photographer. He free-lanced as a photographer and writer for “practically no money” for the black Kansas City Call, and caught on with Jet as a stringer while his wife went back to college and got a teaching certificate. “By the time she finished her degree,” he recalls, “we were on our way back to Chicago. My friends had said I was copping out, that I was wasting away, that Kansas City was just too nice–it was very nice–so I came back to Chicago. An old political friend got me a job with the Community Conservation Board, part of the Department of Urban Renewal. I really jumped back into writing. I did a history of Woodlawn, as the project director of that area. Then I made a speech in Englewood about the history of restrictive covenants. Somebody called my boss to complain. He called me in and explained that when I made a speech as an employee of the city I was representing Mayor Daley. I said what! ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘you are in charge of the Woodlawn Project, you represent the city.’ So I said ‘I’m sorry, I can’t live my life so that I have to worry about everything I say,’ and left.”
Jarrett took a $1,000-a-year pay cut to go to work for a black insurance company, whose owner he persuaded to let him publish a company newspaper and write the executives’ speeches. “I covered Martin Luther King Jr. in that little company newspaper,” he smiles.
Now it is 1968. Spring. Martin Luther King has just been assassinated. The media must move speedily to cover the funeral of the black martyr. WLS TV asks Daddy-O Daylie, a black radio personality, and Warner Saunders, then director of the Better Boys Foundation, to put together a show. The theme is to be “Don’t mar King’s memory with violence.” But there is rioting regardless. Now WLS decides to create a weekly black-oriented program and asks Daddy-O Daylie and Saunders to organize it. “Daylie agreed only on the condition that he could have a black producer. There weren’t too many blacks who knew anything about television. They hadn’t been let in. Daddy asked the station manager ‘Where did you get your first white producers?’ From radio, the guy said. ‘Then I’ve got just your man,’ Daddy told him, meaning me. I’d had that program with Oscar Brown and then later I had another one on WSBC called Minority Report.” The station hires Jarrett for $100 a week to produce a one-hour magazine-type show.
In the aftermath of King’s death, there was a rush to somehow atone for the past discrimination against blacks throughout American society. At last Jarrett’s time had come. He added to the WLS job a position at Northwestern University teaching black history. And as Jarrett was leaving a south-side political meeting he met an old adversary, Fred Walls, the former secretary of the late Congressman Bill Dawson. Walls had become editor of the Chicago edition of the Pittsburgh Courier, a venerable black newspaper. “Walls looked upon me as something of a curiosity, I think, always protesting something that Dawson was doing. He said to me ‘You’re going to waste. You ought to be writing for a newspaper. Look at all these guys who don’t know anything getting good jobs. Why don’t you apply to one of the dailies?’ I said I’d been thinking of doing just that. I said I would go to the Sun-Times, which at that time was a liberal newspaper. Walls said ‘No, don’t go to the Sun-Times. Go to the newspaper that might need you. Over at the Tribune, they don’t have a black readership. They need you.'”
By this time, Jarrett says, “My little prestige has taken a great leap. I was president of the Citizens Schools Committee. I told them about this idea and they thought I should do it.”
Jarrett was hired by the Tribune in 1969 on a trial basis to write one column a week. By 1971, he was on staff and writing three. He moved to the Sun-Times in 1984, he says, because that paper had a much larger black readership that he wanted to reach. The Sun-Times also offered him much more money. Five years ago, WLS asked him to do two commentaries just before the 5 PM news. And he still has his early-morning Sunday call-in show on the same station.
Carl Rowan often writes about Washington politics and national issues to which race is incidental, as do William Raspberry and Clarence Page. Vernon Jarrett writes and talks almost exclusively about black politics, black history, and black social problems. He says, “The reason I write so consistently about race is because I don’t know too many white people who take an in-depth interest in black people. Maybe I go overboard at times, but I have the feeling that I’ve got to make up for what other people don’t or can’t do. And I genuinely feel that those of us who have accomplished something ought to set examples for the kids.”
Jarrett’s concern for kids is regularly expressed. In his column last February 11, he argued that the libraries should stay open the next day, Lincoln’s birthday, instead of closing, as a tribute to Lincoln and to Lincoln’s contemporary, the ex-slave Frederick Douglass, both self-educated men born in February. And Jarrett took this opportunity to tell his readers about Douglass’s reaction when Lincoln proposed sending blacks to colonize another land. Said Douglass: “The president of the United States seems to possess an ever increasing passion for making himself appear silly and ridiculous, if nothing worse . . .”
That isn’t the kind of sentiment Americans are accustomed to on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, but it could not have surprised frequent readers of Vernon Jarrett, ever irreverent in the service of his people. He commented, “Just from reading Mr. Douglass’s rebuttal to Mr. Lincoln one must be impressed with the language skills, analytical ability, and eloquence of a black man who never attended school a day in his life.”
Sitting in his extraordinarily cluttered Sun-Times office for the last of many hours of conversation, munching on a slice of packaged pie, Jarrett expands on his interest in helping kids. In 1976, he says, during one of his frequent rides around town just to see what was happening, he was struck once more by the number of basketball games being played in the streets. “One of the best I ever saw was played without a ball. The kids were passing, dribbling, tossing an imaginary ball. They even called foul.”
He asked himself, how did blacks come to dominate basketball as they do? and decided that blacks dominate basketball because black culture embraces the game to the point of saturation. “These kids are so hungry for recognition and self-esteem,” Jarrett says. He reflected on Eastern Europeans who had immersed themselves in unfamiliar sports and in time dominated the Olympics. What if black kids could be encouraged to immerse themselves the same way in academics?
Jarrett worried this question for a year and then called on the NAACP. The NAACP liked Jarrett’s idea so much it bought it whole: creating ACTSO–for the Afro Academic, Cultural, Technological, and Scientific Olympics. There’d be 23 categories of competition in science, art, and the humanities. And the winners in each category would receive an Olympic-style gold, silver, or bronze medal and up to $1,000.
The first year, 1977, high schools in 14 cities competed. This year, 463 towns and cities will be involved, and in Chicago alone, 1,000 students will compete. Local groups such as churches raise the money to send their champions to the national meet, which is held in conjunction with the NAACP convention. The kids are dined (and perhaps even wined a little bit) at a big hotel and the overall champion of the entire Olympics receives an additional $10,000 contributed by various businesses. As many as 4,000 kids compete in the national event.
“It’s like an Academy Award dinner,” Jarrett says proudly. He continues to take an active role in ACTSO, speaking at local meets and helping to arrange the national meet, which is largely funded by corporate donations. “I spend about 50 percent of my volunteer time on ACTSO,” he says, and proudly recounts the success stories of some of the winners. The judges, academics from major universities, not only pick the winners but give them written advice about their careers.
Jarrett keeps in the trunk of his car, to give to kids he meets in his travels around Chicago, books by and about blacks. At the moment, he is carrying copies of The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass and copies of a book of poems by Gwendolyn Brooks.
For years, Jarrett has been planning to write some books and plays of his own; they’d be “about the day-to-day triumphs of the little people, how they survived, how they kept their sanity. You read a lot about heroes, but not about the black-on-black love that prevails among the little people, the people you never hear about unless they do something wrong.”
He will not retire, he insists. “Hell, no,” he says. Still strong and healthy, he doesn’t smoke and drinks hardly at all, though he is overweight. He maintains a busy schedule of meetings, luncheons, radio and television appearances, interviews, reading, and writing. “My father took a week off from work when he was 81 and in the middle of a laugh dropped dead. I intend to go the same way.”
He may be making a speech when the moment comes. He will surely be thinking, talking, laughing, or crying about some aspect of black life.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.