It’s a tough pill to swallow, but America is not as far removed from segregation as we would like to imagine. What adds to the mental distance we put between us and the 1950’s is that the idea of government-sanctioned discrimination is so foreign that for many people it’s difficult to envision how it could still have present-day effects. And while these present-day effects are challenging to comprehend, sometimes chance encounters put things into perspective better than we could have ever hoped for.
Dr. James Curtis (‘44) visited Albion’s campus last month, bringing with him decades of experience and education. While he notably stirred up the discussion at Dr. Carl Hart’s Common Reading Experience talk by challenging him on his position on drug legalization, he also revealed his retained brilliance that helped him pierce the veils of segregation in a pre-civil rights era America.
Born in Georgia, Curtis came to Albion after World War I as a young boy when his dad was recruited by the Albion Malleable Iron company. He lived in Albion and graduated from the college before eventually attending the University of Michigan Medical School while on path to a fifty year career at prominent institutions including Columbia and Cornell University. But while Dr. Curtis’ career is illustrious, his timeline isn’t linear, and his story isn’t typical.
Last week I met with Dr. Curtis at his ranch style house a few blocks behind Wesley to talk about his time at Albion and life growing up in the city. He invited me in, and after offering something to drink, we sat down in his comfortably furnished front room. Not knowing really what to expect, his recounted stories of growing up in segregation transfixed me as I was pulled back a half-century to when the Klu Klux Klan didn’t have to meet in the dark of the woods and the best seat I could have gotten at the movie theater didn’t depend on the time I got there. As I contemplated these distant realities, what may have been most striking wasn’t what Dr. Curtis was telling me but in the matter he was doing so.
Largely due to his brilliance, at a time of heavy segregation and racism, Dr. Curtis was able to evade many challenges the average black person faced. After reciting The Night Before Christmas in second grade, he was fast-tracked as a quick learner and given a custom curriculum throughout school. A particularly striking contrast considering that West Ward Elementary, the all black school that his siblings attended, had no curriculum, his experiences as a black student were not typical of the times.
“When you’re a very good student, you tend to have a lot of friends who want help,” Curtis said slyly when asked about his time in school. “Undoubtedly I got special treatment. I was spared a lot.”
And while this dodging of racism through intellect was truly something marvelous for Curtis, it was discomforting to see him smile all the while as he spoke. It made it feel like present day racism was a myth, that the plight of the black man had long since passed, and that segregation is something that can be looked back and laughed at. I had these thoughts until I started to contemplate that maybe he wasn’t smiling because of the end of a simple-minded era, but that maybe he smiled because he could see that we weren’t so much in a different position than a different time.
Still today it isn’t uncommon for members of the minority community to use education as a shield from prejudice. It is a commonly accepted tool of advancement in a way that simply isn’t the same for those who are white, and we are reminded of this through the pitter patter of pebbles thrown at our shields through comments like, “You’re so well spoken.”
Interestingly enough, Dr. Curtis was also a state and nationally recognized orator who competed in many competitions while an undergrad at Albion. His most compelling story of the afternoon came towards the end of the interview about an oratory competition at the University of Wisconsin. He recited an original oration titled, “Even as We Fight And Die” based off of the then recent Pearl Harbor attacks and the black cook, Dorie Miller, who manned a machine gun after his ship came under fire.
A few hours after reciting his piece, it was announced on the student radio that he had won. But 30 minutes later, it was recanted, and he received second place instead. On an all white judge panel, four out of the five had given him first place and one had given him dead-last. When Dr. Curtis asked why the judge gave him last place, the judge replied, “Because I thought you were the worst.”
It’s these stories that frame the amount of progress our country has made. Dr. Curtis was the son of a sharecropper, one of the best Albion students of his time, part of the first group to desegregate the University of Michigan Medical School housing and a faculty member at Columbia and Cornell University.
But Dr. Curtis was also black. He faced levels of oppression and racism that minorities in America will never see again. He got kicked off apple orchards for being the wrong color and drafted to the army even after being accepted into medical school, but through it all he persevered.
Stories like Dr. Curtis’ are contextualizers and reminders of the rewards of determination. Having historical context affects people at various individual level, but what is that effect for me exactly? I’m not sure, but I would rather not be sure then to have never have sought it.
Photo via the Historic West Ward