February is Black History Month, but Charlie Crane, 73, doesn't have to read about it, he's experienced it.
He is founding pastor of Greater True Light Baptist Church in west Modesto and chaplain at Hospice House at Samaritan Village in Hughson. He was born in Arkansas when segregation was the accepted way of life and where public facilities bore three signs: "white males," "white females" and "coloreds."
Even when he moved to Modesto in 1960, discrimination was rampant. Blacks "knew their place," Charlie said. They lived only on the west side of town. No businesses or government agencies hired them for anything other than menial jobs.
He details his life, family, discrimination and faith in his self-published book, "Image of a Black Father" (Xulon Press, $14.99). He sat down with The Bee last week to talk about his experiences. Here's what he said, with excerpts from his book in italics:
Charlie was born in Dumas, Ark., in 1936, the fourth child of St. Clair (Jab) and Cordie Crane. The family eventually would grow to 12 children.
The Cranes lived in a home with no electricity or indoor plumbing, and with plenty of cracks in the walls and roof. Charlie especially liked trailing after his dad, his hero throughout his life.
I'd think to myself, when I grow up I'm going to smoke Prince Albert tobacco and I'm going to chew my Days Work (chewing tobacco). I'm going to plow my mule, and I'm going to be just like Daddy.
Jab was a sharecropper. He raised mostly cotton and gave a share, usually half, of his crop's income to the landowner.
Charlie and his younger sister Dot were given from an early age what were called house chores, including feeding the chickens, milking the cow twice a day and churning butter once a week. As they got older, they also helped wash the family's clothes with lye and prepared meals with their mother.
In the evenings, the Crane family often gathered around the pot-belly stove in the winter or on the porch in the summer. Charlie's dad and his maternal grandfather, Paw, took turns dishing out stories and advice.
Many nights Jab repeated, "Guns and knives are used for hunting and gathering food for the table, not for protection. I never carry a gun or a knife for protection, because some fool will make me use them. I'd wind up killin' somebody, or they'd kill me. Either way, I lose. The only protection I used growing up, and even now, is a soft answer.
"Whenever you are asked a question, especially by a white man, answer softly." He'd add, "You boys do not look at, talk to or touch a white girl. These things are bad and could cost you your life. They will hang you."
Jab's tales of his rare trips to St. Louis sounded like fantasyland, a place where you could go into the front door of a movie theater, buy any kind of treat at the counter and be seated anywhere by an usher. It was a far cry from the theater in Dumas, where blacks went in a back doorway and climbed to the balcony, an area never cleaned.
Shopping was even more surprising, said Jab.
"In Dumas, you can't try on shoes. I went into a shoe store and started to try on a pair of shoes. The clerk said to me, 'You put your black foot in that shoe, I won't be able to sell it. If you try it on, by God you better buy it.' In St. Louis, you can go into a store and try on a pair of shoes, buy them if you want to. If they don't fit, you don't have to buy them."
During the 1940s, the war years, Jab was too old for military service. He decided to visit California with a cousin to see if he could find a better job. After a year, Jab was settled and returned for his family. But first, he took Charlie and Dot on a trip.
Dot and I took our first bus ride. We had to sit at the back of the bus behind the yellow line where all the colored people sat. The bus driver stopped the bus before sundown. Everybody got off and he said, "We'll be spending the night here. You've got to be here tomorrow morning by 8:00." Then he told Jab, "The colored quarters are that way," and he pointed across the railroad tracks.
In June 1945, the family left Arkansas by train. It, too, was segregated, with only the back two cars available for blacks.
The rear coaches were overcrowded because, in June 1945, World War II in Europe had just ended. A lot of soldiers traveled home on the trains. Even though colored soldiers had served their country, paid for our freedom, the Jim Crow laws kept them from sitting where they wanted on the train. Many other colored people on the train were migrating out of the South to the North or West to get jobs. The last two cars were packed full. People were standing up, yet the rest of the train rolled along nearly empty.
When the train pulled into St. Louis, the red caps, who were all colored, let us know we had arrived in a northern state and could move to any spot in the train we wanted. Adults and children joyously spread out all through that train.
Charlie was 9 years old when the family moved to government housing in Berkeley.
Our apartment had electric lights, indoor plumbing and water that came right out of the faucet! All the walls were painted inside and out. Besides that, there were no animals to care for. The toilet had a white bowl at the top and a white bowl at the bottom where we did our business. A person pulled the chain and it all disappeared. I didn't know how it worked or where it went, but I thought, "No more runs to the outhouse in the snow for me."
There were other new experiences.
Life among the tall concrete buildings in Berkeley wasn't segregated. As a matter of fact, before we came to California, our family hadn't known any Mexicans, Filipinos or any other nationality of folks. Dot and I hadn't even known they existed.
Jab was now able to give his children the kinds of things they never had in Dumas.
The first year we were in California, I got a pair of roller skates for Christmas. I learned how to roller skate, and I could skate all the way from 10th Street in Berkeley to the Fox Theater in Oakland.
But some feelings and habits were hard to change.
I felt extremely afraid of white girls because of what Jab and Paw had taught me about never talking to a girl with white skin. I knew that killing a black boy who looked at a white girl in the South was not a punishable offense. Because of that, I had always avoided speaking to, touching or even looking at a white girl. Then at Carnissas Elementary, they sat me behind a little girl who was kind of pudgy with rosy cheeks, and white."
Charlie wouldn't look at the girl or talk to her, even though she was friendly and kept trying to talk to him.
Finally, the teacher, also white, came by my house trying to find out why I wouldn't talk to the little girl.
Mom explained, "Charlie is probably shy of white girls, because of the hangings in the South." After this, the teacher moved me to a spot in the corner where I could study more easily. Now I sat behind a boy.
Some of the things Charlie and his brothers learned weren't so good. They began using blackouts to sneak out of their apartment, run through the city and help themselves to "little things," such as soda pop. They also got into fights with other teens.
"We did a lot of things that we weren't accustomed to doing at the farm," Charlie said. "We started looking at other kids and seeing how they acted. They were fighting and dealing and all sorts of trickery things to get money. We just did what they did."
Before they could get into serious trouble, Jab lost his job when the shipyards closed after the war and white servicemen began arriving home, taking what jobs were left. So he turned back to what he knew best, packed up his family and moved to a migrant camp outside of Dos Palos. Charlie was 12.
We ended up living in four old 25-pointed Army tents that rolled up on the side to get air. It was the same type of housing we'd had in Arkansas -- no electricity, no running water and outdoor toilets. ... Only Negro people who did field work seasonally populated the camps.
"To us, it was heartbreaking," Charlie said. "It was like taking a big step backward. We had to go back to living like slaves again. Sharecropping was pretty much like slavery, maybe just a little bit above. Sweating for a living. But actually, now that I look back at it, it was one of the best things that could have happened to us. It made us grow up without the gang mentality. It made us better people. None of us ever went to prison or any of that."
Charlie's life settled into a routine -- work hard all week, then party all weekend, smoking, drinking alcohol and chasing girls at a local hangout for black teens.
Then, in 1954, with the Korean War in full swing, Charlie graduated from high school and decided to make the Army a career.
I took 16 weeks of basic training at Fort Ord, among the sand dunes on the Pacific Ocean at Monterey Bay. The military had integrated six years prior to my enlistment, and I took the training with the white soldiers, ate with them and slept in the same barracks. I was proud to wear my new uniform because it said I was a first-class citizen.
Although the Army was integrated in many ways, jobs open to black soldiers generally fell into two groups, Charlie said: cooks and drivers.
I went out to the motor pool and passed a test for a military driver's license. Because I boxed on the fort boxing team, the commander wanted to give me an easy job. He liked me. He made me his company driver.
But one day, Charlie returned from an errand to find that the rest of his platoon had shipped out for Camp Kilman, N.J. He was put on a flight with another platoon going to Kentucky; from there, he was supposed to rejoin his unit.
They put me with a group of soldiers going to typing school. They all would become clerk-typists, and every single one was white. ... It was Dec. 19, 1954. The plane landed in Memphis, Tenn., for breakfast. The proprietor let the 55 clerk-typists go in to eat, but he stopped me at the door. I didn't realize what was happening at first. We'd been in California for a long time.
Then the proprietor said: "You can't eat in here. We don't serve coloreds. Go on around to the back."
Charlie was stunned. He tried to say he would wait on the plane, but the restaurant guy yelled at him, saying he had 56 meal tickets and he was determined to feed 56, so "go around to the back NOW!"
It looked clean, but it seemed ugly to me because I'd been singled out again. I was hungry as well as cold, so I ate a good breakfast. While I ate, I decided, I wear the same uniform those guys wear, and I can't even eat with the people I may die for. I belong to the federal government. I'm the property of the U.S. Army and I'm going to lay my life down for my country, but I can't even eat in a restaurant. ... I'll get through this, and then I'm going back to my family.
He returned, a bitter young man, to Dos Palos, where he fell into his old habits of hard work followed by partying.
Every weekend, I went back to my old lifestyle. I'd get drunk, dance, fight and get put in jail. I hated white people and wouldn't go around them unless I had to. When I did, I'd end up in fights with them. These fights weren't personal, they resulted from the way life had treated me. I had become discouraged with what being black meant.
The best part of this time, Charlie said, was meeting his future wife, Sherry. He was 20 and she was 14.
"We met at a dance in Merced," Sherry said. "I had a lot of cousins who knew him. They said, 'You don't want to mess with him. He's the wildest boy in town.' But he was very quiet and friendly. He had the nicest laugh, and a smooth way of talking.
"My mother tried to keep me away from him, too."
In fact, Sherry's mom packed up the family right after Sherry graduated from high school and moved to Modesto.
"She said it was so I could go to nursing school, but I think it was really to get me away from Charlie," Sherry said, laughing.
It didn't work; Charlie followed her to Modesto. The year was 1960.
I visited Modesto, a town of 30,000 people, much bigger than Dos Palos, with her family several times while they looked for a place to live. We noticed that the colored quarters in Modesto were referred to as the "West Side." It was not a segregated area, but it was the only place black people could live. Churches, schools, grocery shopping and social clubs were conveniently located in that area to keep us in our place.
Black folks could go anywhere in Modesto. There were no barriers or signs. However, many places had ways of making us feel uncomfortable. Most of the women who lived on the West Side of the city worked as nannies, housekeepers, maids, etc. The men worked as cooks, janitors, car washers or in the fields.
Charlie found a job detailing cars at Bill Hughes Used Cars at 11th and L streets. He was paid $10 a day. A year later, he married Sherry at Second Baptist Church on the west side of Modesto.
During this time Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached his "free at last" sermons. I knew every black person in this country could relate to the nonviolence movements in the South. I had mixed emotions. Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" message made me cry. ... I cried differently, in anger and bitterness, when I watched the news on TV and saw the cruel treatment government officials gave the freedom marchers.
He felt more affinity with the militant Black Panthers and their motto, "Burn, baby, burn."
They were angry at the things that had happened to black people like the Cranes, at the government for the inequality, and they took out their anger in fire and blood in places like Watts in Los Angeles. I was in Modesto, not Los Angeles, and that probably kept me out of more trouble.
The push for equal rights led to change across the country, including Modesto.
The results of the Civil Rights movement became apparent in 1963. Up until that time, only one black guy named Mel Williams worked for the city of Modesto. He pushed a little cart around collecting money from parking meters. The rest allowed to work in the city still worked on garbage trucks or as janitors and such. The 14th Amendment basically provided job opportunities, fair housing and higher education for minorities. Sports, education and politics started opening their doors to black people.
Though no company in Modesto had hired black people up to that time, except to shine shoes and such, Campbell Soup opened its doors. Nearly every able-bodied black person in Modesto went to work for them. Sherry and I went to work at Campbell Soup Co. ... We began to have the means to buy things we wanted.
Three years later, Sherry wanted to stay at home with their two children. Charlie agreed, and tried to find a better job.
In 1966, I put in applications all over Modesto -- U.S. Postal Service, Modesto Police Department, Fire Department. I went everywhere. Every application required an exam or some type of aptitude test. I took a two-hour exam for employment with Pacific Bell Telephone Co. There were no other minorities in the exam room. The administrator sat quietly in the front of the room. When I finished the exam and handed it to her, she said, "I've observed you cheating during the test." She ripped my test papers and told me not to reapply. I felt cheated for having no way to appeal her accusation and angry that whitey was closing doors in my face.
A friend told Charlie that United Parcel Service was accepting applications from minorities, so he went there the next day. He got a job, the first black person hired at the local company.
Peter Johansen, on the Modesto City Council from 1960-63 and mayor from 1963-67, remembers what life was like then.
"Black women could not get a beauty appointment anywhere in Modesto 50 years ago," he said. "There was one black barber on the west side of town. It was not easy to get a dental appointment for black people in the 1950s and '60s.
"I guess I stood on their behalf, enough to get some people trying to get me out of office with a recall petition. We had one black person out of 200 employees working for the city. The county had one. Bank of America had zero. Wells Fargo had zero."
Johansen crossed paths with Charlie several times through the years.
My pastor's wife, Mrs. Zepphyr Clark, came to my house one day to say that Peter Johansen, a friend of hers, had invited me to go to a Campus Crusade seminar at First Baptist Church.
Skin color was not a problem for Pete. He came often to the West Side just to visit. He visited our churches and talked of ways to meet needs on the poor side of the tracks. He wasn't afraid to come alone, and no one stole his hubcaps.
Charlie went to the meeting, although he said he felt like a "fly in a glass of buttermilk." That evening, participants talked about "Four Spiritual Laws," an evangelistic pamphlet put out by Campus Crusade for college students.
After discussing "Four Spiritual Laws" and realizing I'd never asked Jesus to come into my own heart to guide my life, I prayed right there to receive Christ as my Lord and Savior. ... From that night, Sept. 28, 1970, the sharecropper's son never smoked, drank or chased women again. I went home and became a husband to Sherry and a father to my children.
A few years later, when a long-simmering dispute broke out in the Cranes' church on the west side, Charlie drove his family to First Baptist Church in downtown Modesto.
"It took a lot of courage for me to go there," Charlie said. "My wife didn't want to go. The church just was not integrated. Really, there are very few black people going to white churches right now, and even fewer white people going to black churches. But this was where I had accepted Christ. And I knew at least one person, Peter Johansen, would accept me there."
It marked a turning point in Charlie's life. He became close with the Rev. Bill Yaeger, now deceased, who helped Charlie go to college and then sent him to seminary. In his book, Charlie said he has two fathers -- Jab, his biological dad, and Yaeger, his spiritual one.
"Charlie told me one time that my dad was the first white person who hugged him," said Lin Sexton, director of worship arts at First Baptist and Yaeger's daughter.
Master's degree in hand, Charlie was offered a job at First Baptist, but felt pulled to pastor a new church on the west side, Greater True Light Baptist Church. He served there for 20 years.
The entire congregation of Greater True Light Baptist Church went to First Baptist for my ordination service. All the First Baptist ministerial staff laid hands on Sherry and me, prayed, and presented me a Certificate of Ordination, showing their approval and support for the ministry at Greater True Light. That love and support between all those white and black people left me amazed.
Charlie lost several siblings over the years in heartbreaking incidents. But the biggest tragedy of his life happened in March 1982 when his firstborn child and only son, Kurry, was killed by a drunk driver.
"He was 19; he was going to be 20 on Mother's Day that year," Sherry said. "That was the most devastating, hurtful thing in my lifetime.
"He was on Carpenter Road, taking his girlfriend home. I had just seen him about 10 minutes before. The last thing I always said to him was 'Be careful.' He said, 'I'm always careful, Mom. I'll be back.' "
Fourteen hours after the Cranes arrived at the hospital, their son was pronounced dead. His girlfriend was in another hospital for weeks and survived. The other driver "was so drunk, he didn't know he had caused an accident until hours later," Charlie said.
There have been other ministries and changes for the family over the years. Charlie and his wife often took in family members and other young people in need of a stable home. In 1985, they opened Uncle Charlie's Home, a place for troubled boys ages 12-17. More than 150 boys passed through the home in the 12 years it was open. Charlie still hears from several of them.
Then there are his own three daughters. Shawna, 45, lives in Arizona and is focused on free-lance writing after years of working as a medical transcriber. She lives with her sister, Charlita, 42, who is the manager of a credit union. Youngest daughter Shdari, 38, teaches high school English in Merced.
Sherry's parents and Charlie's have died. Jab died in 1992 after two strokes. He was 92.
The Cranes' church was packed for his memorial service, conducted by Tim Simmons.
The pastor said, St. Claire (Jab) Crane did not have opportunity to attend school as a child, but his children did. He never received a diploma, but his children did. This man never served in the military or went off to war for his country, but four of his seven sons did. This man lived long enough to see the positive fulfillment of life in his children.
And his son, Charlie, has lived long enough to see changes in the treatment of minorities in Modesto.
"I've seen Modesto change a lot -- big changes, as far as employment," he said. "You can get a job if you have the skills or the experience. I think people like Gallo have stepped up to the plate and put blacks into high positions. A lot of the churches have opened their doors and integrated. The city started hiring police officers and opened other positions to other people. We even had a black chief. I think the Fair Housing Act was accepted very well by people in Modesto. Schools have opened their doors."
First Baptist has congregations of Chinese, Vietnamese, Laotians, Latinos and Indians meeting at its facility. Businesses no longer put "race" on applications.
It's not perfect, but it's much better, Charlie said.
"Modesto has been a good place for me, a growing place," Charlie said. "A place where I could raise my family. A place where I could have some accomplishments."
If he could change one thing, it would be to create more unity among the city's pastors.
"I think they've got a long ways to go," he said. "Even being in the same church service together isn't real comfortable. It hurts me to say that. They're all Christian. I think the secular world has done more than we have. We're all comfortable in our own churches."
But he counts many nonblack pastors among his close friends, including Wade Estes of First Baptist, Ross Briles of Sherwood Bible Church, Marvin Jacobo of Youth for Christ, David Seifert of Shelter Cove Community Church and Joel Richards at La Loma Grace Brethren.
And he loves his work for Community Hospice.
"We just got back from Hospice House visiting a friend and his wife, and they mentioned how Charlie blessed him by coming in and singing songs," said Johansen. "That's Charlie.
"Before my first wife passed away and my sister passed away, Charlie was right here, to sing to them and bless them," the former mayor said. "He has a great smile. We've remained friends all this time.
"Of course," he added with a laugh, "I might be a little prejudiced because I'm so close to Charlie."
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at 578-2012 or email@example.com.