The Children of Monroe

Cast to the winds of a double diaspora.

From The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson:

IN THE DARK HOURS OF THE MORNING, Pershing Foster pulled away from his father and brother, the house on Louise Anne Avenue, and his caged existence in the caste-bound, isolated South. The night clouds crawled eastward, the sky itself floating in the opposite direction from him in the damp, cool air. He pointed his Buick Roadmaster to the west, away from Monroe, and settled into the tufted bench seat for the nearly two thousand miles of road ahead of him, the distance that now stood between him and California, between Jim Crow and freedom.

He was setting out on a course that was well trodden by 1953. In the years before Pershing’s migration, many hundreds of people from Monroe and thousands more from the rest of Louisiana had joined the river to California. Mantan Moreland, a minor Hollywood figure who made a name for himself as the fumbling manservant and loyal incompetent of black-and-white comedies and Charlie Chan capers, left Monroe for Los Angeles during the Depression. It spread around New Town that he had been on his way to shining shoes in West Monroe and passed a tree with a colored man hanging from it. He left that day and headed to California.

A toddler named Huey Newton was spirited from Monroe to Oakland with his sharecropper parents in 1943. His father had barely escaped a lynching in Louisiana for talking back to his white overseers. Huey Newton would become perhaps the most militant of the disillusioned offspring of the Great Migration. He founded the Black Panther Party in 1966 and reveled in discomfiting the white establishment with his black beret, rifle, and black power rhetoric.

Another boy from Monroe who migrated with his parents to Oakland took an entirely different path. He would go on to become one of the greatest basketball players of all time. Bill Russell was born in Monroe in 1934 and watched his parents suffer one indignity after another. His father once went to a gas station only to be told he would have to wait for the white people to get their gas first. He waited and waited, and, when his turn seemed never to come, he started to pull off. The owner came up, put a shotgun to his head, and told him he was not to leave until all the white people had been served.

“Boy, don’t you ever do what you just started to do,” the station owner said.

As for Russell’s mother, a policeman once grabbed her on the street and ordered her to go and take off the suit she was wearing. He said that she had no business dressing like a white woman and that he’d arrest her if he ever saw her like that again. Bill Russell watched his mother sit at the kitchen table in tears over the straits they were in.

Soon afterward, his parents packed up the family and moved to Oakland, where a colony of people from Monroe had fled. Russell was nine years old. He would get to go to better schools, win a scholarship to the University of San Francisco, and lead his team, the Dons, to two NCAA championships, a first for an integrated basketball team, collegiate or professional. He would join the Celtics in 1956 and lead Boston to eleven championships in his thirteen seasons. He would become perhaps the greatest defensive player in NBA history and the first black coach in the NBA. There is no way to know what might have happened to Bill Russell had his parents not migrated. What is known is that his family had few resources and that he would not have been allowed into any white college in Louisiana in the early 1950s, and thus would not have been in a position to be recruited to the NBA. The consequences of his absence from the game would now be unimaginable to followers of the sport.

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