My family is having a public viewing on this Thursday, Apr. 7, at Angelus Funeral Home, 3875 S. Crenshaw, from 5p to 7p.
From Larry Elder’s book, “Showdown: Confronting Bias, Lies, and the Special Interests That Divide America”
My own father, Randolph, was born in 1915, in Athens, Georgia. He does not know his biological father, and various men passed in and out of his and his mother’s life. At age 13, my father came home one day and, according to his mother’s boyfriend, “made too much noise.” My father and the boyfriend verbally squabbled, with the mom siding with the boyfriend.
His own mother threw him out of the house. As he walked down the street, she yelled, “You’ll be back–either that or in jail.” Not much of a start. A black Southerner without a father, disowned by his mother, during the Depression.
He began a series of Dickensian jobs–hotel boy, shoeshine boy, valet, and cook for a white family. He became a Pullman porter for the railroad and a member of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. He traveled all across the country and visited California, a sunny place that seemed more liberal. When World War II broke out, he joined the Marine Corps, became a cook in the military, and fed thousands of GIs. He rose to the rank of sergeant and spent some time on the island of Guam awaiting a possible military invasion of the island of Japan. But, at the end of the war, he returned to the South, seeking work as a short-order cook. “Sorry,” restaurant after restaurant told him. “You have no references.”
References? How about that wartime stint on the island of Guam, cooking for and serving soldiers while awaiting the invasion of the island of Japan? No one hired him. They all said he “lacked references.” Disgusted, my father, who had just married my mother, packed up and left for California, vowing to find a job and send for her. My father again sought work as a short-order cook. Sorry, owners repeatedly told him, we need references.
So my dad went to the local unemployment office, and informed the clerk that he intended to take the first job that walked in the door. He literally sat for hours in the office until something came through.
The Nabisco Company, the clerk eventually advised him, needs a janitor. The work included cleaning toilets. “Would that be acceptable?” the lady asked my dad. Within a few months, Nabisco promoted him from janitor to supervising others. He also began a second job as a janitor, and, on weekends, cooked for a wealthy white family in the suburbs. He also attended night school three nights a week to get his high school equivalency.
By the age of forty-seven, my father had scraped together enough money to start a cafe, a lifelong dream. At first, he kept his regular job, covering his bets in case the restaurant failed. It didn’t. For only thirty years, my father awakened shortly after 4 AM to open the restaurant at 6:30. He never missed a day, never arrived late, and never served a bad meal.
The restaurant sat in the Pico-Union area, an increasingly gang-infested part of town. One of the city’s most notorious gangs, the Eighteenth Street Gang, calls Pico-Union their turn. But my father studied Spanish, employed Spanish speaking locals, served good food, and watched a generation of youth grow up, get married, and have children. Graffiti vandals sometimes wrote on the restaurant’s walls, but my dad never got robbed, mugged or otherwise physically harassed. People respected him.
No, my dad and I did not always get along. Gruff and blunt, my dad often intimidated my two brothers and me. But we never doubted his love or his commitment to his family. Yes, he knows racism, and experienced it during a demeaning, in-your-face era of white bigotry. Still, my father never railed against “racist” America. He now says, “Son, sky’s the limit.”
My mom and my father recently celebrated their fifty-third wedding anniversary. Through example, my father taught me the value of hard work, of perseverance, and of not making excuses.
Dad closed the doors on Elder’s Snack Bar, 1230 South Valencia Street, Los Angeles, California, about five years ago. He seldom took a vacation, and he built a successful business with a loyal, grateful clientele. He now busies himself, at age eighty-five with Spanish lessons and takes a one-mile walk every day. But then, no one who knew him expected any less.