The First Volley

As it turned out, we did have some illusions concerning the acceptance of our marriage by the rest of my family. I had mistakenly thought, or hoped, that with my parents firmly on our side the rest of the family would fall into line, or at least not openly interfere. Having spent a quarter of my young life in close contact with my father’s family I felt that I knew and understood the family dynamics. My position as the oldest (and favored) nephew may have contributed to a false sense of security. As with all families, there had always been a certain amount of gossip and back-biting, but nothing that had caused a permanent rupture in the social fabric. There certainly were differences in opinions, taste and life style, but these were handled mostly by not discussing them. The love of the land and the common ownership of it, which required cooperation and physical work, were certainly factors in preserving at least the appearance of family solidarity.

A week after my mother wrote so supportively to Tee and me, she got up the courage to write letters to the rest of the family. I was grateful that she did this and was hopeful that her good family relations would help smooth the way. Other than my parents, I had had little contact with my relatives for several years, because the need to earn money for college during the summer had kept me away from the Island. For the past year I had been living in a social milieu where my relationship with Tee was completely accepted – even among most of my fellow draftees in the army. I was soon inundated by a torrent of advice, criticism and even threats for which I was not prepared. A brief entry in my mother’s journal is, I believe, the key to explaining this:

“Nov. 24 1953 [Uncle] Arnold 20 minutes on phone. Blew his top about Pete!”

Uncle Arnold talking for 20 minutes and losing his cool was unbelievable! In a family not known for being communicative or emotional, Arnold was the most taciturn and calm of all. It must have been a great shock indeed to provoke this dramatic change in behavior.

Uncle Arnold Beveridge with a labor saving device. Arnold was the next oldest sibling to my father and I know they were close while growing up. They were close in age; their personalities were compatible; they had been school mates throughout high school and college; they were in the middle of the birth order with three older and three younger siblings, and unlike their father and other siblings neither of them was particularly athletically inclined. By 1953 their lives had diverged and they had different lifestyles and world outlooks, but traces of their childhood fraternity were still evident when I observed them together. According to my mother, Arnold was a millionaire. I don’t know how close this was to the truth, but he had done well financially as a corporate executive and obviously had more money than anyone else in the family.

Since he did not have a teacher’s long summer vacation, I saw Arnold less frequently and knew him less well than the rest of the family. He would show up on the Island for at most a week at a time – always on the 4th of July when he would bring firecrackers and the ingredients for home made ice-cream. We children would take turns cranking the hand powered churn. Uncle Arnold seemed remote and formal in his dress and manner. I believe he loved the Island as much as the rest of the family, but he did not fit into the family culture of “do it yourself” and “make do without.” I never saw him break a sweat working. Having more money than other family members, he tended to use it to solve problems that the rest of us put up with or worked around. One year he arrived for the 4th of July picnic in a chartered sea plane – landed in the water in front of the family beach. He was the first to replace his ice box with a propane powered refrigerator.

This is what Uncle Arnold wrote to me in the heat of the moment immediately upon receiving my mother’s letter:

7 South Pleasant St. Sharon, Mass. November 25, 1953

Dear Pete, I have just heard the most disturbing news of my life, and I just can’t believe that such a thing can happen. It’s especially difficult for me to write this letter, because one thing I’ve always promised myself I’d never do is to offer anyone unsolicited advice, particularly on the subject of how to live his own life. Unquestionably I don’t know as much on some subjects as you do, but I have had enough experience to recognize a situation in which a person is not justified in taking a step which may seem to him to be entirely his own personal affair.

I may have been misinformed but what I understand you propose to do just doesn’t make any sense. For myself, I’ve never worried about what other people might think of me, anymore than you apparently do, and I personally don’t give a damn for myself what people will think of either me or you no matter what you may do. But you’re proposing to start something you can’t possibly finish without hurting yourself, your father and mother: and your other relatives and friends, most cruelly. I just can’t comprehend it. I am bound to say that anyone who would actually do such a thing is both stupid and selfish, to the n’th degree, to put it in the mildest terms I can think of. I sincerely hope you will come to your senses before it is too late. Your family just doesn’t deserve this, and I think you’re taking a most unfair advantage of them.

I know you’ll think that it’s all very well for me to advise you not to do something you may urgently, even desperately, think you want to do. But you must be temporarily deluded by a situation which carried to a conclusion will only result in your losing your self-respect. You can’t win, and are bound to hurt those most dear to you. Any girl worth marrying just wouldn’t let you do it.

Maybe you just don’t care for your father and mother and brother, and most probably, you just don’t give a damn for your other relatives. But most normal people do, and realize that they have a certain responsibility towards them, which you are apparently ignoring. You just can’t ignore it, without incurring results which are bound to be most unbearable.

For instance, if you do this thing, I shall always deeply resent your ever again appearing in North Haven, whether or not you bring this girl with you. This isn’t a threat; it’s simply a most unpleasant fact which we may have to face. I feel so strongly on this subject that I personally would prefer to give up North Haven and all it means to me than to share it with you and this girl in any way.

Possibly it is too late to influence your decision, but I do wish to register my opinion with you, for what it may be worth. Please let me know if I might see you personally to talk this over with you, if you think I have been misinformed, or can be helpful in any way. There is nothing I wouldn’t do to keep you from completely ruining your father’s and your mother’s lives, as you seem determined to do.

Most sincerely, Uncle Arnold

When Arnold threatened to never set foot on the Island again and, by implication, to withhold all financial support, if I ever visited there, with or without “this girl”, the rest of the family must have taken notice. Arnold’s family, Aunt Priscilla and Cousins Irene and Frank, spent their summers on the Island in the Big House on the Point, which had been built by Grandfather Orris. My father and his other siblings had each built or bought their own cottage on the property. The Big House was still commonly owned, but it was agreed that Arnold should have the use of it in return for its maintenance and for paying the taxes on the entire commonly owned property, which I believe was about $1,000 a year in 1953.

Arnold started on a two month campaign. The threat of financial loss added urgency and vehemence to the ensuing avalanche. I am sure he contacted each of his brothers and sisters making the threat of withdrawal from North Haven. He and Uncle Lyford traveled to Alexandria two weeks later to confront my parents. A week after that he traveled to New York City to try to confront Tee, but did not make contact. A few weeks later Arnold and Aunt Olive were on the phone again with my parents. He threatened to write to the FBI. I can not imagine what he was going to say to them. He wrote to the Red Cross, which provides emergency communication, services and counseling for military personnel and their families. If he found someone there who agreed that this was an emergency requiring their services, I don’t know about it. He also wrote to my commanding officer, and persuaded Uncle Lyford to visit him at Fort Dix.

I was used to my family expressing strong opinions cogently and eloquently, but always in a respectful manner. “Stupid,” “selfish,” “deDomestic luded,” and “don’t give a damn”? This was not the language of civilized discourse. Nor was his feverish action campaign in character with the quiet, laid back, Uncle I had come to know. There was something visceral and irrational going on here. He said that my marriage to Tee would have “most unbearable” results and would “completely ruin” my parents’ lives, but does not offer any specifics other than his own proposed self exile from the family fellowship. I could understand that it might be awkward or embarrassing in his social and business circles to have a Black niece by marriage, and although he seems to specifically exclude this problem when he says he has ”never worried about what other people might think of” him, I don’t believe he was being honest with me or with himself.

He probably was honest when he said he was not as concerned about me as hurting my father and mother, and other relatives and friends “most cruelly.” Now I knew that the consequences of racism could be loss of life, home, job, and property – even today, even in the “liberal” northeast, but I don’t think these were the cruel consequences that Arnold feared. Maybe the clue is his statement that I will lose my “self respect.” That is to say I would lose my white privilege by associating with “them” and this loss would somehow transfer to the rest of the family. So I conclude from the tone of his letter and the ensuing frenetic activity that the driving force was fear – fear for himself, that is, not for me or his brother. If he had been truly concerned about the welfare of my parents or me, he could have said something like “I support your decision to marry the woman you love, and will stick with you no matter what the rest of our society may do or say.” In that way, he could have become part of the solution; instead, he became part of the problem – a big part of the problem – in fact, the driving force behind the problem!

I should not pick on Uncle Arnold. In fact none of my other relatives, not even my parents, ever made such a commitment of support. At that point in time, for most white people the idea of making a personal, public, commitment against racist policy and practice was unthinkable, or, perhaps more accurately, unthought-of. Only communists or other fringe members of society would do such a thing.

Arnold’s wife, Aunt Prissy, did make a pledge of family solidarity when she wrote my parents – but not exactly the kind I had in mind:

Sharon, Mass November 23, 1953

Dear Ida and Lowell,

Being a little too much on the emotional side it is difficult for me to express what is in my heart to tell you both. Believe me Arnold and I will stand with you thru this trying time as always. Our thoughts are with you – we so wish we might help. Remember the family is now experiencing a little of what you two have been living thru for months. I can not in my heart condemn Peter – he to me is a sick boy & I shall always feel that way. What comes to those dear to us and close to us hurts frightfully doesn’t it? I have wept, Ida – I shall weep more and I am trying God knows to understand. We are all shaken. Give us time to get back on our feet again. But we are standing by. With our love and yes, deepest feelings for you both, Priscilla

Aunt Prissy was generous and good. Her house and wide front porch and larder were always open to us kids to play and hang out, and we took advantage of it. She talked a great deal, but, to be honest, most of the family considered her to be an intellectual lightweight She had a tendency to put her foot in her mouth and did so in her letter to me, her “sick” nephew:

7 South Pleasant Street Sharon, Massachusetts November 30, 1953

Dear Peter,

We have been greatly disturbed by what you propose doing in the near future and sincerely wish you would think twice before doing so. It is difficult for me to admit I can not go along with you, Peter, even when I put the whole problem on a high plane. Marriage is at best a gamble. I often wonder how we come through it at all in a satisfactory manner. I know you are very close to the race problem – you have given much time and thought to it in these last two years. Far be it from me an average woman to say it is not a paramount importance. But I firmly believe there are well informed people trying to solve one of the knottiest problems we live with yet it is going to take many, many years to accomplish it. There are social laws we all try to adhere to and there is usually a reason for having them. Anyone with an elementary knowledge of biological facts and eugenics knows what happens when you deliberately ignore the plain truth. I fear the public will not interpret what you intend to do as any thing noble. It is even worse, Peter, because you have had advantages of education and the best of many things as you grew up. This will reflect on your parents and brother more than you will ever guess – every one of us will feel it – We do right now. I have been shaken by the news as I have never been shaken before and I can not feel it in my heart, Peter, that this is the right step to take As ever, Aunt Priscilla

So there it was in black and white what Uncle Arnold had been unwilling or unable to put in writing. True, even Aunt Prissy could not spell it out, but there can be no doubt about what she meant: apartheid is good and should be adhered to; we ordinary people should not meddle with the problems of race, we should leave it up to “well informed” people to take their time dealing with it –those good people that brought us the “science” of eugenics which the Nazis in Germany did so much to popularize; African Americans are inferior and association with them.