The two-block postwar subdivision of modest homes where I grew up on the North Shore of Long Island in the 1950s wasn’t exactly the Gold Coast of Gatsby and Fitzgerald. It was part of a small crossroads community populated largely by families of Italian and Polish immigrants who worked on the big estates as maids and gardeners.
Greenvale, the postal address but a place sometimes also known as North Roslyn, was on the wrong side of AT&T magnate Clarence W. Mackay’s Harbor Hill estate. On the other side lived the more affluent newer arrivals from New York City in other new developments. Through third grade, we all attended North Roslyn Elementary School. Then a new school was built for the “rich kids” who were moved there for fourth grade.
That shrunk the North Roslyn school enrollment and placed me in a classroom where I was the only Jewish kid. I remember being called an ethnic slur, which was troubling but, to my 9-year-old self, not life threatening. There were no African-Americans.
North Roslyn was now essentially a ghetto school with very little learning going on, at least in my grade. My parents and those of a friend, Paul Guglielmino, managed to negotiate our transfer to the new East Hills Elementary School. So, for a time, we were bused from a lower-income to a middle-class school for a quality education. The experience made me deeply class-conscious and would forever shape my worldview. But, for me, race was simply not an issue. Virtually the only black people I encountered were maids working in the homes of more affluent friends in East Hills.
In time, I joined Boy Scout Troop 1, which met in the basement of a Presbyterian church in Roslyn Heights. Again, I was the only Jew, but there was also one African-American. His name was Edgar “Pickles” Crawford, and he was a good-natured participant in troop activities. My dad was assistant scoutmaster. Pickles and I were not friends, but I knew and respected him, as did everyone else.
Roslyn’s tiny black population lived near the Long Island Rail Road train tracks. In my 1960 graduating class of 221, there was just one African-American, a girl who later moved to North Carolina. Pickles was three years older than I, and I have no recollection of him at Roslyn High School.
But a few years after our time together in Troop 1, he got into trouble with the law. Allegedly inebriated, he had entered the wrong house where the owner, a white woman, was home. It was in Glen Cove. As it was explained to me, Glen Cove then might as well have been the Deep South.
So, while others of my more privileged, progressive classmates — who listened to Leon Bibb and John White records — picketed Woolworth’s in Great Neck in support of the Southern sit-ins, my dad and I went to court in Glen Cove to be character witnesses for Pickles.
I do not recall the precise verdict the unsmiling judge quickly rendered, other than guilty. Suffice it to say the defendant did not walk out of that courtroom a free man. But I vividly remember taking the stand and testifying to his good character.
My dad was a poet, an intellectual and a teacher but largely apolitical. We were not privileged, materially. I helped him deliver phone books in nearby Port Washington to help make ends meet. We didn’t discuss civil rights, or race. But, when it counted, he was there, an example for me in my first encounter with what seems to me now to have been a form of subtle but systemic racism in America. It shouldn’t take Black History Month to make the point; this is American history, and it resonates today.
Fast forward decades. Edgar Crawford was driving a cab and picked my parents up from the Roslyn train station. This was a chance, one- time encounter — and a warm moment of mutual recognition. He had never forgotten that we’d testified on his behalf.
And neither have I.
Eugene L. Meyer is the author, most recently, of “Five for Freedom: The African American Soldiers in John Brown’s Army.”