Longform

PRACTICE WHAT YOU TEACH

Page 2 of 6

Back then the neighborhood was integrated. Blacks and whites lived peacefully side by side, competing good-naturedly to keep their yards neat and their homes in good repair. Street after street spoke of proud ownership.

The Armstrongs lived across 49th Street from South Park, a place where children could play safely, even after dark. They were within walking distance of the University of Southern California campus and the Coliseum, and only about five blocks from the main business section of the area, Broadway Street.

It was a perfect place to raise kids. Unfortunately, however, theirs was not a perfect family. Delia's father was an educated man who had gone to Prairie View College in Texas, but he was also prone to violent rages. Most of his anger he vented on his wife, Zeltee, and eldest son, Scott.

Delia, a sickly child who suffered from emotionally induced bouts of asthma, escaped the worst of her father's wrath, as did her younger sister and brother, Mary Pearl and Theodore. But she would always be haunted by her mother's and brother's screams and the sight of their blood on the floor.

She was nine years old when her mother finally decided she'd had enough. Zeltee had disappointed her own well-educated family by getting pregnant at fifteen and dropping out of school. She had put up with her husband for years for the children's sake. But one day when he came home drunk, Zeltee and her children hid in the closet, and Delia heard her mother whisper, "No more. No more." Zeltee went to court to have him thrown out of the house and was soon divorced.

Zeltee went to beautician school and opened the Pink Cloud Beauty Salon in their house. After a few years she remarried and had another son, Preston. The nightmare of living with Delia's father receded, especially after the family moved to west Los Angeles to escape his harassment.

Zeltee expected a lot from her children. They were taught to take personal responsibility for their actions, and Delia was often charged with looking after her younger siblings. Her mother also insisted that the children speak the King's English.

"There will be no `dees' and `dats' in this house," she'd scold if she heard them speaking the patois of the streets.

It was a given that they would all graduate from high school--at least.
This expectation was hardest on Scott, who, perhaps because of the trauma of his earlier childhood, was often in trouble at school. But Zeltee stayed on him, ignoring his protests and shoving a newspaper into his hands every day.

"It's important that you know what's going on in the world around you," she'd say, then stand by while he read the paper from front to back. It was a constant battle, but in the end his mother always won. Scott graduated from high school and went on to trade school.

Zeltee never had that kind of trouble with Delia. A shy, awkward girl, she was happiest when surrounded by books in the safety of school.

Delia was a different kind of kid, a fact that became even more pronounced after the family moved back to the old neighborhood when she was in the eleventh grade.

The neighborhood had changed dramatically in the seven years since the family had left. Most of the property owners were gone, especially the white ones. The neighbors were now all blacks, most of them renters and many on welfare.

The once-tidy yards were unkempt and the houses badly in need of paint. But the new inhabitants didn't seem to care--not about the places they lived in and not about their kids, who often dropped out of school and spent their time hanging out on the streets.

"Hey, school girl, where you goin' with them books?" they'd taunt Delia as she walked past on her way to school.

They'd accuse her of being an Uncle Tom. It was unfair, she thought. She was as proud of her race as any of them; she just didn't equate being black with having to be ignorant. So she ignored the jeers and kept her eyes--and her mind--on where she wanted to go.

She took pride in the success of the black-owned businesses that kept Broadway alive. She was thrilled one day by the sight of Cassius Clay walking into a coffeeshop. And she would never forget the rainy day when the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech--a message of hope and pride--in South Park. When his supporters urged him to get out of the rain, King shrugged them off by saying, "A Baptist minister should not mind getting a little wet."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Steve Jackson