And That’s the Way It Was

Long before he narrated our nation’s milestone events as the anchorman of the CBS Evening News, Walter Cronkite was a cub reporter in Houston. In these excerpts from his forthcoming memoir, A Reporter’s Life, the eighty-year-old recalls his early days in the newspaper business—and the dark days of segregation.

Walter Cronkite was born in St. Joseph, Missouri, in 1916, and his family moved from Kansas City to Houston when he was ten. Here, he recalls his introduction to the racial and cultural mores of his new hometown in the twenties. • I regret that my memory has lost the last name of Louis, for he should be remembered. He was one of the delivery boys at the delivery boys at the Alabama Pharmacy. He was one of the blacks who made deliveries by motorcycle to the more distant addresses. A couple of us white boys rode bicycles to the closer customers.

Louis was probably the oldest of the motorcycle boys—I think he was in his early twenties. He wasn’t very attractive and was totally uneducated. He had a muscular body and a leonine head with rather gross features and a strange fringe of whiskers that ran up along his cheekbones from just under his nose to his ears, an upside-down beard. He claimed that the higher one shaved, the higher hair would grow until eventually it would cover one’s eyes. As a recent initiate to shaving, I was terrified by the prospect, until it seeped through that all the clean-shaven men in the world weren’t growing hair over their eyes. This was an argument, however, that Louis could not grasp.

Louis had a musical talent that would be left undeveloped. He played haunting melodies that he made up on an ocarina, which he called a sweet potato. As we sat on our bench outside the drugstore, I heard for the first time blacks talk of their problems in a white world, a world then of total segregation, light-years away from the civil rights legislation of the sixties.

Already, a few years before, during our first week in Houston, I had discovered racial discrimination. I am sure it existed in Kansas City as well, but there we saw few blacks and they seemed to move more freely in our white society. The discovery, then, came with brutal force.

Dad had been lured to Houston to teach at the dental college and share an office with a wealthy dentist, a leader of the community. I shall call him Dr. Smith because any relative who survives him today surely would be ashamed to be associated with this incident. We had been in Houston only a few days when we were invited to Dr. Smith’s for dinner. He lived in River Oaks, Houston’s first extensive, exclusive residential real estate development. After dinner we retired to the front porch for what to a ten-year-old was a welcome relief—ice cream was ordered from the drugstore for immediate consumption.

It was pleasant out there on Dr. Smith’s wide veranda, rocking gently in the wicker chairs, the air heavy with the aroma of fresh-cut grass and early spring flowers. The Spanish moss that draped the big oaks was still a wonder to a boy from the Middle West. Then the pop-pop of a motorcycle broke the calm of the deserted lane. The black delivery boy shined his flashlight along the curb and toward the sides of the house. Not finding an obvious path to the kitchen door and seeing us on the porch, he came up the walk from the street.

Dr. Smith stopped his monologue about the wonders of Houston for the first time that evening. He stopped rocking, too. With each step the delivery boy took up the walk, he leaned an inch farther forward in his chair. Now the tension was palpable. If this scene were being played in a film drama today, we would go to slow motion at this point. That is the way I remember it.

The delivery boy reaching the first step below the porch—holding out the brown sack and its carton of ice cream. Dr. Smith charging out of his chair. The boy taking one more step before Dr. Smith reaches him, a huge fist extended before him like a battering ram. The fist meets the boy’s face, square at the tip of his nose. The boy goes flying backward to the lawn. The bag tumbles to the steps. And Dr. Smith shouts, “That’ll teach you, nigger, to put your foot on a white man’s front porch!”

Never before or after did I see my father in such a seething rage. As the bloodied delivery boy scrambled to his feet and back to his motorcycle, Dad said, “Helen, Walter, we’re going now,” and he escorted us down the front steps, followed by Dr. Smith’s mystified entreaties.

Dad ignored Dr. Smith’s offer of a ride and would not pause to call a taxi. We walked. And we walked. River Oaks was at the edge of town and sparsely settled then. We were lost along its winding lanes at each turn of which we expected to see lights with the promise of a telephone. But we walked in the dark of this strange town until we came upon a busier street and a passing car that stopped for Dad’s hail.

I did not fully understand then the import of the offense or of Dad’s courageous response to it. Although fully dependent upon Dr. Smith to launch a new practice, he broke off the relationship and struck out on his own.

I couldn’t have had a more searing example of racial injustice than this, my first brush with it. There was another confrontation not many weeks later, when my mother was warned that I should not play with a black boy who lived in a neighbor’s servants’ quarters down the block.

You might do that up north, but that isn’t the way we do things down here,” she was admonished.

Again my father’s indignation rose: “They turn over their infants to be wet-nursed by a colored woman and their children to be raised by them and then they won’t let the children play together. Some system!”

Mother drove our maid the three long blocks from our house to the streetcar line at day’s end and invited her to share the front seat with her. Calley

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