[WARNING: Contains very offensive language, but it was necessary for the story.]
January 23, 1976
Jo Thomas was on the couch watching the CBS news out of Seattle. His wife came out from the kitchen where she had been drying the last of the dinner dishes.
“Anything on the TV about him?” she asked.
“Cronkite gave a short memorial at the end of the newscast, then they played a bit of ‘Old Man River’”
“He hated that song.” she stated matter-of-factly. “They had tributes to him all day on the CBC. You’d think he was Canadian.”
“Do you want a drink?”
“After I finish putting away the dishes. I’ll just be a minute. Why don’t you pour them? . . . Put on his tape.”
May 18, 1952
Jo’s father, Daffyd Thomas, had a lot of work to do making sure everything was set up properly for the concert. As the event organizer for the International Mine Mill and Smelter Workers Union he was used to organizing conventions and picket lines, this was very different. Union activist, actor and world famous singer Paul Robeson would be giving an open air concert for Canadian workers at the Peace Arch Park.
There was a catch - by presidential decree Robeson wasn’t allowed to leave the United States. But, they had found a way around that draconian measure.
Peace Arch Park, just north of Blaine Washington, straddles the border between the United States and Canada. Within the park, Canadians and Americans were free to wander about with no regard to which side of the border they were on. This freedom wouldn’t apply to Robeson, who would be restricted to the US side of the border.
A flatbed truck, parked on the US side of the border, would act as his stage. Robeson would be performing in the US to an audience sitting in Canada. A roped off area behind the trailer served as a rest and security area for the performers and the staff. There were chairs and picnic tables setup. A US union was providing security.
Unknown to them at the time, the FBI had been sent to provide extra security. Hoover [J. Edgar Hoover head of the FBI] did not want a repeat of the riots that occurred when Robeson had appeared in a concert near Peekskill New York. He vowed there were to be no incidents at this concert. Not that Hoover had any love for Robeson, he just didn’t want any distractions during Eisenhower’s run for Presidency. He didn’t want anything that would look bad in the newspapers.
They were just getting ready to leave for the concert when the phone rang, there was a problem. There were always last minute problems - this one wasn’t a big one, but it did need a bit of diplomacy.
Daffyd knocked on his son’s bedroom door.
“That’s OK” He opened the door and stepped into his son’s room. “I need a favor.”
Jo looked up at his Dad. He was wearing his ‘I hate to ask you to do this BUT . . . ‘ look. Jo’s heart sank. Whatever it was, it wasn't good.
“I just found out a friend of Mr. Robeson is going to say a few words before the concert. And” - Jo knew there would be an AND - “he is bringing his daughter.”
Jo didn’t need to hear the rest of what his Dad was saying. He was asking him to babysit some kid for the day. You don’t grow up in a family of union activists without developing some negotiating skills - this would look good next time he asked his Dad to use the car.
“Sure Dad. Be glad to help.”, anticipating getting the car for at least the next few weeks.
The rest of the morning was a bit of a blur. His Mum, Lynn, had made a basket lunch. She always packed too much, more than enough for two people. (His parents would be having lunch with the VIPs - Jo would have to look after himself.) She put a blanket along with the picnic basket in the back of the car. By 8:30 they were on their way. His Dad wanted to get there early.
“We are expecting between 2,000 and 3,000 - so parking may be a problem.”
About 10:30, Jo was helping his Mum finish setting up the tables in the tent where the VIP’s would be having lunch when his Dad came to get him. Mr. Robeson’s friend had arrived early.
Daffyd introduced Jo to Mr. Robeson’s friend and his daughter, Margret. Jo just stood there - tongue tied. She was not what he had expected.
He had never thought of himself as shy. Some girls had even said he was too forward. Then again, he had never met a girl like Margret before. She was absolutely stunning. Slim and almost as tall as him she exuded self confidence. She just stood there smiling at him, waiting for him to say something.
His Dad broke the silence.
“Why don’t you take Margret over to the concession booth and get a Coke?”
“Call me Maggie.” She turned and headed towards the booth.
On the way to get a Coke, Jo finally found his voice.
Over their Cokes they went through the usual ‘getting to know you’ talk. They found they were both over achievers with high expectations. She was in her senior year at high school, had already been accepted at Howard University but, she was confident her application to Harvard would be accepted; he was a freshman at the University of British Columbia but was transferring to McGill University in Montreal in the fall; she was Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday; he was Nat King Cole and Tony Bennet; they both liked Paul Robeson.
After about half an hour he reached over to hold her hand, fully anticipating it would be batted away.
As they walked around the park he told her of growing up in Wales, the war and moving to Canada in 1947; she told him about life in Georgia; her mother dying when she was eleven and moving to Washington DC one year later.
They continued walking and talking. Talking about everything and nothing, not paying attention to where they were. Their wanderings had taken them deep into the US side of the park.
Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, there was a large man in front of them. He was about an inch taller than Jo and at least fifty pounds heavier. He stopped about two feet in front of Jo, his fists were clenched, his breath smelt of beer and was spouting pure hate.
“You n***** loving Commie bastard. You don’t belong here. Go back to Canada and take that n***** bitch with you.“
For the second time that day Jo was speechless. This was so far out of anything he had ever experienced he was unsure of what to do.
Not Maggie. She didn’t flinch. She was cursing him out, she wasn’t backing down.
When the stranger turned towards her, Jo stepped between them. Maggie hadn’t let up, she was still cursing this brute.
They stood there toe to toe. Jo had never been in a fight before and didn’t want to start now. He just wasn’t sure if he wanted to turn his back on this lunatic.
Maggie was suddenly silent. He could feel her tugging on his jacket.
“Let’s go. We have to go.”
There was more than fear in her voice, there was absolute terror.
“Let’s go. We have to go.”
A hand came down hard on Jo’s shoulder. He hadden noticed the State Trooper that had come up beside him.
“Are you trying to start a riot boy?”
Turning to face the Trooper, “It wasn’t me, he's the one that started it.” pointing at the stranger.
The Trooper released Jo’s shoulder and took a step back, his hand was now resting on his weapon. The stranger had backed off even further. Maggie was beside him. She was trembling remembering what her father had drilled into her ‘Don’t run!’ when the thing she wanted to do most was run and find her father.
Jo realized his mistake almost as soon as he said it.
“Are you sassing me boy.”
Jo and the Trooper stood eyeing each other. A small crowd had started to form.
‘At least he won’t shoot us with this many witnesses around’ The thought of him and Maggie being taken to the Blaine jail was not very appealing either.
Another person was entering the fray. He was holding up a badge.
“FBI . . . This is a Federal park officer. This is my jurisdiction, I will take care of these two.”
The Trooper was angry, he didn’t like having his authority being challenged. He took out his anger when dispersing the crowd that had gathered. Maggie wasn’t sure if she should be scared or relieved. She decided to be relieved.
The FBI agent was also angry. Angry that he had been assigned to watch Maggie and that he had to usurp the Trooper’s authority. ‘The locals wouldn’t like that’
“Get back to the security area behind the stage and STAY THERE. And, for Christ’s sake don’t hold hands.”
They walked back to the security area in silence. There were a few other people in the area, they found a table in a corner away from everyone else. Jo finally broke the silence.
“You were more afraid of the Trooper than that lunatic.” It was more of a question than a statement.
She looked up at him. Speaking so softly he could barely hear her.
“I had a cousin back in Georgia, he was only twelve. . . . He saw a Trooper watching him from his car. . . . He got scared and started to run” She was sobbing. “The Trooper got out of his car and shot him in the back.”
He passed her his handkerchief ‘Screw the FBI’ he thought. He reached across the table and took her hand. They sat there for about five minute. Maggie looked up.
“I’m OK”, she lied.
“Mum packed a picnic basket. Will you be OK while I go and get it?”
“Yes”, she lied again. “Go and get the basket. I could use something to eat.” That wasn’t a lie.
The 2,000 or 3,000 people his father had expected had grown to between 25,000 and 30,000 with cars parked as much as three miles away. Having to walk around the growing crowd, it was over a half hour before Jo got back with the basket and the blanket. He kept going over the events in his mind. It was one thing to read about racism in the newspapers, it was quite another to experience it first hand. Racism existed in Canada. He had seen it in the way the Chinese students were treated. But, never like that.
As Jo set out the items in the basket, Maggie spotted her father. She ran over to him, threw her arms around him, and told him of the morning's events pointing to Jo and the FBI agent, who was now standing at the end of the stage.
Her father went over to the FBI agent and thanked him for rescuing his daughter. Then started towards Jo.
Jo was standing at the end of the table. He didn’t know how much trouble he was in. He was supposed to show Maggie around, not get her attacked. He was wracked with guilt and completely surprised by what happened next.
Her father stuck out his hand. A bit confused, Jo shook his hand.
“Son, it wasn’t your fault. Just remember, it is different down here.”
He turned to his daughter.
“They have a buffet lunch. Do you want to join me?”
“No. I would rather have lunch with Jo.”
Her father smiled “Stay safe” Then walked toward the tent where lunch was being served.
Having their lunch sitting side-by-side at the picnic table, the morning's events were beginning to fade. As Maggie finished the piece of apple pie Jo had cut for her, she turned to him
“He was right, you know. It wasn’t your fault. . . . It was my fault - I knew better than to hold hands with a white boy.”
Jo was shocked, skin color had never been a part of the way he viewed the world. He was saddened that this girl, who he was falling in love with, would view the world that way.
He sat for a minute then, looking her in the eye, “It wasn’t your fault. . . . Don’t ever think like that. . . . Please, don’t choose who you like based on their skin color.” He wanted to say ‘love’ but thought the better of it.
His mood lightened.
“If people get that upset seeing us hold hands . . . . imagine what they will be like once we are married!”
“Married!” she sputtered. Then laughingly “In your dreams.” punching him on the shoulder.
‘Yes’ he thought. ‘You will definitely be in my dreams and probably my nightmares too.’
The opening acts had started, except for them, the security area was empty. Even the people in charge of security had moved to the front of the stage to watch the show. Jo spread out the blanket. They were quite content where they were, sitting side by side on the blanket.
Too soon the concert was over. Jo and Maggie had exchanged addresses and phone numbers and were standing with their parents saying their final goodbyes. Paul Robeson came over.
“Daffyd, Jill. Thank you - this is much more than I ever expected. I wish we had some time to visit but we have a train to catch.”
Then turning to Jo.
“I hear you had quite an adventure this morning”
Jo’s parents looked puzzled, he hadn’t told them of the day’s events yet.
“Remember to always stand up for what you believe in.”
Robeson turned to leave, Maggie and her father joined him. They had just gone a short distance when Maggie turned around, ran back to Jo, kissed on the cheek, then whispered
“Get your degree. I would never marry a dropout.”
Jo gets up, gets two glasses from the cabinet and pours two bourbons. ‘The second best thing to come out of America.’ Getting some ice from the fridge, putting the tape of Paul Robeson’s songs in the cassette player he heads back to the couch.
“Joe Hill”, their favorite song, had just started when Maggie joined him on the couch.
“What are you thinking about?” she asked.
“You have to ask?”
She smiles “No - I guess not. . . . Would you really have fought that guy?”
“I like to think so.”
“He would have whooped your sorry white ass.”
He smiles “It would have been worth it”
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I like that there's basically a happy ending, that love wins out, since there's definitely ugliness in this story. It's nuts that something so harmless as walking and holding hands could lead to such hate, almost to violence. This line, "And, for Christ’s sake don’t hold hands," stood out. In his mind, the agent probably believed this was good advice, which is crazy. Other than that, I think the back and forth between Jo and Maggie was well done, both in the past and in the present.
Thank you for the comment. We tend to view interracial dating with a modern bias but, it wasn't until June 12, 1967 that interracial marriage was legal across the United States. In 1955 Emmett Till was beaten and shot for talking to a white woman.
Good story! I have been to that part of the country. That part and over in Northern Idaho, can be a tightrope to walk. I would think someone could get shot for the behavior those young people exhibited publicly. Excellent ending!
Thank you - I spent a little time in Washington State visiting friends in the late 1960's. Even then, the racism was horrific.
Michael… your story was well-written and had all of the elements of a good plot… interesting characters, theme, rising tension, and finally resolution. I’m glad that even though your writing career didn’t take off as you would have liked it to when you were younger, you never gave up on your dream. It’s never too late to start.
Thank you. I think writing is one of those skills where you never stop learning.
Yes! I totally agree. ☺️
Good, but sad, accurate description of racism of the time (and sometimes still). I like how the story flows and how you used flashback.
Thank you for the comment. I am glad you liked the flash back -- I wasn't sure how well it would work.