Immigrant Bengalis

Shades of Racism in the Sixties

Pronoy Chatterjee


 ​​​When I arrived in the United States’ “South” in the early 60s, the land was being torn in racial hatred, violence, hostilities against African-American blacks or “colored people,” as they were identified in those days. There were bloody riots in the streets, houses on fire, assassination of activists and protest leaders, and parades all over against the discrimination of blacks and for their equal opportunity access to education, housing and the job market.  It was during that time that I came to USA with my wife, accepting a National Academy of Science’s research grant to do scientific research in a US Government lab in New Orleans, Louisiana. I was told by the institute’s personnel manager to avoid the downtown area, because of sporadic riots on the streets. I was also briefed on the racial profile of the city and how to move around, keeping a distance from the “colored” people. Our next-door neighbor, an elderly Dutch immigrant, talked to me in a low voice not to invite any “colored” people in our home, to avoid any problem in the neighborhood. He was a nice man; he cautioned me thinking that I being a foreigner might not have an understanding of the depth of racial hatred that existed there. 

Although there was so much hate filled racism all around the city, against “coloreds,” we never encountered any such hateful action directed at us, in spite of our darker skin color and different ethnicity. Apparently at that time, whites hated blacks (African Americans) only, not all people of color.

During the first few months, when we did not have our own car, we took a bus to go downtown for shopping, On our way back, while waiting at the bus stop, frequently someone would stop by and offer us a ride in their car and they were all whites. Some of them continued to maintain contact and became good friends in time. They invited us to their lakefront homes or took us to their favorite clubs for having dinner of raw oyster, boiled shrimp and pecan pie for dessert. I guess, they were curious about us as we were different from them and some wanted to impress us by taking us to an exclusive “whites only” club where there were elaborate seafood dishes and drinks. Anyway, it helped me to gain some experience on common white people, besides my professional acquaintances. My impression of white Americans in general remained positive.

I met Dr. Tinkori Pati in New Orleans. He was a veterinarian and a professor of Dillard University where the students were exclusively black African Americans. He introduced himself as Dr.Tek Pati and humorously mentioned that he was a horses’ doctor. He was a bachelor who had a black girlfriend, with curly hair but white complexion. Dr. Pati often bragged that he had already been in the United States for eleven years, so in all respects he was an American, and obviously he meant white American. In time, we became close and started calling him Pati Saheb, rather than Dr. Pati.

Having a girlfriend of the black race, Pati Saheb could never get an apartment in a white neighborhood. He lived in the black residential area and that was his resentment, which he openly expressed in front of his black girlfriend.

Pati Saheb had a boat and he loved fishing. I had a chance to go for fishing with him on his boat in the swamps of Plaquemine Parish at the suburb of New Orleans. He also invited another friend who was his girlfriend’s cousin. While sitting quietly on the boat, keeping the fishing line taut, I saw Pati Sahib and his black friend keep on consuming hard-boiled eggs one after another; they finished about two dozen eggs by the time the fishing expedition ended. At the same time, they also caught more than a dozen catfish and trout. Pati Saheb was very comfortable with blacks and had many black friends, so he avoided mixing with whites in order to stay away from any racial issues.  

Ten years later, while I was living in New Jersey, I went on a trip to New Orleans and had a chance to talk to Pati Saheb on the phone. He invited me to his big house in the suburb of New Orleans, in a totally white residential locality. I heard that he finally got married and had two children. When I went to his house, I saw his wife was a white woman, not the black girlfriend whom we had met before. His past resentment for living in a black locality just to maintain the relationship with a black woman was finally resolved by marrying a white woman. Thus, Pati Saheb finally overcame the racial adversity that always frustrated him while with a black girlfriend.

When my two years of research assignment in New Orleans ended, I accepted another research position at Princeton University in 1965. At that time, I had a brand-new Volkswagen Beetle that I bought with thirteen hundred dollars in cash a year before. I decided to drive down to Princeton with all my belongings on a rooftop rack, wrapped in plastic sheet and securely tied with a rope. I started my journey to north with my wife and three-month old daughter.

I stopped at the parking lot of a restaurant in a small village in Tennessee, which was really a tavern, when my daughter started screaming at the top of her voice because of hunger or diaper rash, I didn’t know which. It was twelve noon.

We walked to the restaurant entrance when a white lady came forward, looked at us from top to bottom, and said, “Sorry the restaurant is closed.”

“How come?” I said. “I see people are eating inside, and you have two guests who just entered,” I added.  

She replied rudely, “Sir, didn’t I tell you the restaurant is closed? Don’t you understand English?” Then she locked the door and moved inside.

I then drove down to a convenience store-cum-gas station and comforted our child with food and diaper change. Thus, I had my first taste of a racist touch, as we travelled north, after two years of staying in the United States’ south.    

I continued the journey further north, towards New Jersey, to reach my destination of Princeton. The housing department of Princeton University had informed me earlier that my apartment in a junior faculty housing complex would be ready for us. However, when I arrived there, I was told that because of certain paper-work mess-up, it would take a while to get my apartment allotment.

I got stranded, didn’t know where I would stay for a few weeks with my wife and an infant baby. Fortunately, my friend Amal Mukherjee, who was doing postdoctoral research at Rutgers University and had a one bed-room apartment over a butcher shop on Albany Street in New Brunswick, offered me to share the place with him until I settled down in Princeton. So, I with my wife and daughter stayed with him in his living room.

The next day, when I reported to my department at Princeton, one of the graduate students of the department, Tim Pickering (who was white) volunteered to help me find a temporary lodging based on the advertisements in the local newspaper, until Princeton university straightened out their paper-work mess and allotted me an apartment.  Tim started calling places looking at the classified section in the Princeton Packet newspaper. After trying several ads, he found a vacancy in a small private house, where the owners expressed keen interest to rent their second floor on a monthly basis to someone associated with Princeton University. Tim jumped up with joy, having a success in achieving his goal. He asked me to immediately go with him to the place to settle the matter before it was gone.

We drove down to the address and parked the car on their driveway. It took us about forty minutes from the time of calling to get there. Tim rang the doorbell. I stood behind him.

A middle-aged woman opened the door and greeted Tim with a smile on her face. Tim introduced himself and she welcomed us to get inside the foyer. Tim mentioned about the ad and she asked Tim who would be staying, was it him alone or he with his family. Pointing to me, Tim said, “No, this gentleman will live with his family -- wife and a child. He has just joined the university.”

She looked at me, from top to bottom. Her smiling face turned gloomy. She stuttered, “Oh no, you know what, right after you hung up the phone, a woman with whom I had talked before came in and gave me a deposit. So, I cannot commit anything now; you can call me next week”

I saw Tim’s ears turn red; he requested her to give the apartment to me with full one month’s advance, but she would not budge. Tim and I both realized why she changed her mind.

On our way back, we both remained silent; we kept thinking about our encounter with that woman. Before parking the car in front of the Frick Chemicals building of the university, Tim remarked, “You know what? These assholes in our town, they show as if they are liberal Princetonian elites, but in reality they all are morons and damn racists.”

After this, Tim called a few other places, responding to vacancy ads in private homes, and told them upfront who would be renting, “a foreigner from India,” but we had no luck. All seemed to have been rented or got pledges for rent with a rental deposit paid an hour ago.  I gave up and decided to stay for a month with my friend in New Brunswick downtown above the butcher shop.

Finally, after a month and a half, we moved to one of the university’s junior faculty quarters, called Hibbens Apartments, on Faculty Road in Princeton. Our two-story unit was on the fifth floor which had a balcony overlooking the Carnegie Lake. Thus, our ordeal of finding a place to stay in Princeton came to an end; but the memory of my experience while travelling from south to north remains. In the south, I assumed even before travelling to this land, that I would have to face some sort of racial discrimination, but I never had to. Whereas, in the north, I thought people were more broad-minded and liberal, but there I found that the racial prejudices were ingrained in whites, in a deeper but subtler way. However, that was decades ago; now the racism may have changed its color or shifted its mode of action, but it still exists. It cannot be erased from the minds of those who experienced it. The past racial discrimination still reverberates in the present in different shapes and color. 

(Posted June 1, 2018)

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​Comments received from Bharati C. on June 4, 2018: "I enjoyed your article titles as  "Shades of Racism in the Sixties" just recently posted by Debojyoi Chatterji. Your article was so interesting , informative and rich in experience that words cannot express how I enjoyed it. Racism was also prevalent in England and other western societies  which were white based people. Racism existed in different forms, in different cities and in different work places termed as Discrimination and it still exists but in a milder form. However, the world has progressed, modernised and people have realised that society cannot improve by sticking to its own clanonly  be it white or black or coloured. Your article is very  valuable in the eyes of the young generation who are born in this almost anti-racial modern world and who knew nothing of the tempest that affected the pat lives of their older generation.  Over the passage of time people have realised that we have become so much of Americans, so much of British, so much of Germans, so much of Swiss , so much the the members of a petty tribe, of a paricular clan that we no longer consider ourselves to be the inhbitants of the great grand globe which comprehends the whole human kind. Now we are all CITIZENS  OF THE WORLD."

Comments received from Anil M. on June 7, 2018: "Your article brought back long memories of New Orleans. They were very different times. There has been an uneven progress in race relations in this country in the last fifty years.. Resentment against Asians is not overt but subtle. Despite all that Indians have done very well."