Pete Sabey: Genteel segregation, northern style, then and now
I am an 86-year-old privileged white male, part of the Silent Generation — not a point of pride. Over the years I have become less silent. The “genteel segregation” that I experienced growing up in the ’40s and ’50s in Rochester, New York, ought to be long gone, but the state of race relations in this third decade of the 21st century causes me to wonder whether we can ever become a nation with liberty and justice for all. All? Really?
My dad, an eye surgeon, donated one day a week to a free clinic in the 5th Ward — very poor and in the language of the mid-20th century, mostly Negro. It never occurred to me to question why. Nor did it occur to me to wonder why the cross country teams from other high schools had several Black athletes, while my whole high school had not a single Black student, until the arrival of Obie.
Other than the wonderful partner I am married to, the best friend I ever had was Obie (Obadiah). When I was in 10th grade at the academically best of the nine high schools, Obie arrived as a ninth grader. In this 1,500 student high school, Obie was the first and only Black student. He was placed there by the minister of a prominent downtown church who plucked him from a Florida cotton field, rescuing him from a life of poverty.
After a year of home schooling, Obie arrived at Monroe High. The winsome smile that captivated the vacationing pastor made Obie an instant sensation with the students, although I now realize that he was frequently subject to what today are called micro-aggressions. The track team assumed that he would be a star runner. Nope. The drama club assumed he’d be a fabulous dancer and singer. Not close. Whatever Obie felt inside, he handled these outwardly harmless stereotypes with good humor: “Where did you get that fantastic tan?” “Oh, vacationing in Florida,” Obie replied.
To most of us, all seemed well until Obie and my friend Veronica appeared at a school dance. Some of the chaperoning teachers were appalled to see a white girl dancing with a Black boy. Veronica was pulled aside by one of my all-time favorite teachers, who sternly warned her never to be seen in public with Obie. Veronica expressed her shock to me. Word spread, but none of us, the appropriately named Silent Generation, had a clue what to do. We remained silent — oblivious to the carefully calculated genteel northern segregation of schools, neighborhoods, jobs.
That summer I returned to my job as a cabin counselor at the Rochester Y camp. Obie was also there, part of the maintenance crew. It never occurred to me to question why he was not also a counselor. After camper bedtime I was free to go to the mess hall for snacks and ping pong. Obie would show up, and we began to talk, ever more deeply. We formed a profound bond of friendship.
Obie was very intelligent, charming and popular, which made the pastor’s three older sons jealous. They demanded Obie move out. I was 16 and pleaded with my parents, to no avail, to let Obie move into our vacant attic bedroom with its own bathroom. I deeply regret not moving out rather than abandoning Obie. Obie graduated from Oberlin and Colgate-Rochester Divinity School. Ordained, he became a Rochester civil rights leader with fierce opposition from industrial giants Kodak and Xerox, whose employment policies Obie sought to reform. The relentless pressure led to an early death.
I shudder to think how Obie would regard today’s continued disadvantaging of Black lives in education housing, health care and wealth accumulation.
Mitch McConnell unashamedly thwarted much of our first Black president’s agenda, and continues to this day to demand Republican obedience to a program of protecting white supremacy at all costs. The GOP base doesn’t really love Trump. They love the racism which he legitimized and allowed to crawl out into the open. On Jan. 6, he almost succeeded in starting the second civil war, complete with Confederate flags, Bibles, a gallows — the closest any president has come to outright treason.
Now loyal Republican election officials have to go into hiding to avoid murder by mobs in thrall to the Big Lie that the election was stolen.
I am not silent. And I wish I could live long enough to see whether the decent majority can prevail.
The Rev. Dr. Pete Sabey has lived in Grass Valley since 2012. He retired in 2017 at age 82 from a 30-year career as a licensed marriage and family therapist in Davis, Claremont and Grass Valley. He earned a doctorate in counseling psychology from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
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Is that how I wanted to spend my birthday? Yes and no. The original plan was to take a weekend trip to the coast for a few days of relaxation.