Thoughts About ‘Being Black in Tucson, AZ’

by on August 25, 2020 · 7 comments

in Civil Rights, From the Soul

by Ernie McCray

I’ve been a member of our group, “Being Black in Tucson, AZ,” for a little while now, commenting on a thing or two, but I’ve never introduced myself to you.

That being said I’m an 82-year-old dude who spent the first 24 years of his life “Being Black in Tucson, AZ.”

Since then I’ve lived in San Diego which is just an hour away by plane and five hours away by car.

I didn’t want to go too far. Because I dearly love my hometown.

For its physical beauty and power that make it a spiritual place for me: hiking trails in Sabino Canyon above refreshing pools and streams; powerful Sonoran winds that you can lean against; frightening monsoons that give the Santa Cruz River a chance to roar; majestic saguaros with their lovely blossoms.

For how far it has come since the Jim Crow days of my youth when people like me were limited as to when we could skate at the rink or where we could eat, sit at the movies, swim or play or even where we could work for pay.

For all the love I received from my family, neighborhood, church, school, and friends back then and the love I still bask in when I’m invited to town to speak or receive an honor of some kind.

I joined this group to keep that feel and I’ve felt right at home checking out posts of the best places we can get our hair done or cut or where we can enjoy some downhome delicious ribs or meet new friends.

I admire such simple expressions of love and was stoked when I took part in a conversation in the group about love that is so essential to our wellbeing: Black love. Love directed at making life better for us.

But I didn’t sense or get much love when I weighed in on an “All Black Event,” questioning if it made sense to create a day of fun in the park and tell a Black man who has a Latina wife and two half-Black children that he and his kids are welcome but his wife can’t come.

Whoa, what did I do that for? I mean I got some heavy shade thrown my way and wasn’t prepared to duck.

For just expressing a feeling I was told that old-timey Black folks like me are responsible for the conditions Black people are in today, that my generation has left this generation with “a legacy of integration” that we had “ignorantly fought for.”

In this young man’s way of thinking my generation should basically STFU and pass the baton on to young folks who know what they’re doing.

All I could think was “Come on, bruh, don’t treat us old brothas and sistas like that.”

Don’t look back on our time and grade us like our lives were a social studies assignment, no more than we should look back at those of us who were enslaved and comment on how they should have kicked “massa’s” ass and hitch hiked to freedom.

Every generation enters a world they didn’t create and feels around for a way to exist in that world. The best that they can.

There’s a picture in my photo album that speaks to me about my days on earth. It’s a photo of a cousin and friend and me standing on the corner of 4th Street and 10th Avenue in 1955.

Who knows what we were thinking.

But it was at a time in our lives when the gears of our country were shifting and small changes were happening. Sidney Poitier, a rising star, had just burst on the scene in “Blackboard Jungle.”

Ray Charles singing about a woman he had “way over town” could be heard all over town.

That summer my emotions whirled like a desert dust devil. Emmett TilI was horribly killed, putting me in a dark funk that I thought was going to drown me.

At about the same time Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat, filling me with a level of pride that covered every square inch of my insides.

And, because of the house I was raised in, I’ve striven to turn that world around with all my physical and emotional strength – and nothing I’ve done in that regard has been done “ignorantly.” I was fully aware of what I was doing and why.

I knew when I was winning writing contests and representing Dunbar, the “Colored” school, against White schools, as a 4th grader, that I was saying to the town you can forget that “Dumb-bar” nonsense.

I knew when I, at about the same time, puffed out my chest and called the director of the YMCA out for calling us Black boys “eight ball,” that I was protecting our dignity as human beings.

I knew when I used my status as a super-jock basketball dude at the U of A to bring a wee bit of attention to my community that I was doing what was right, just as when I got kicked out of a couple of Tucson City Council meetings for demanding equal rights.

Oh, it’s the little day to day acts that move the world by degrees and I left Tucson for my new town in 1962 with a couple of degrees and as an educator, writer, and actor, I’ve continued pursuing social justice. For everybody: People of color and poor White folks; gay, straight, and trans folks; folks with disabilities; non-English speaking folks…

And at a time like now, when there’s so much social change in the air, signified by all the people across color lines who are aligning with us Black folks after not doing so for many centuries, it saddens me that a young bright Black man, with good intentions, would say to me, regarding my thoughts on a woman – of color – not being welcomed to a Black event with her husband and her children: “You’re speaking to a brick wall here.”

But that’s something over which I have little or no control. All I can do is keep my love in play as the struggle moves on, using, with a few improvements, what I learned when I was “Being Black in Tucson.“

That’s my legacy.


{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

bobo August 25, 2020 at 12:18 pm

Mr. McCray,
Thank you for penning this. I enjoy reading your thoughts on the OB Rag and I wish more people everywhere could. I’m especially interested as a fellow Wildcat alum and former Tucson resident (many years after you of course).
I hope to be able to run into you on the streets of OB some day and would be honored to buy you a beer and pick your brain on basketball, education, social justice etc. Until then, THANK YOU for this amazing short memoir.


Ernie McCray August 25, 2020 at 12:32 pm

Hey, Bobo. Thanks for our remarks. Maybe when we figure out how to get out and about again we can share a beer and get into a “Bear Down” conversation.


Judi Curry August 25, 2020 at 4:40 pm

Hi Ernie. Interesting how memories play out. When I was a child my grandfather owned a hardware store in Watts. Down the street from him my Dad owned a furniture store and in my formative years that where I played during vacations. I remember having so many “black” friends and looking at albums there are many pictures of me and my friends. It wasn’t until I was about 10 or so when a neighbor in my all-white neighborhood asked me if it wasn’t possible for me to have “white” friends. She objected to my Dad or Grandfather bringing some of these kids home with me and even “spending the night.” And honestly, until that comment, I had no idea that any of us were “different.” Interesting, because I was a “toe-headed white girl with baby blue eyes”. Since that time I have always been aware of the injustices of “white vs black” and have been active in activities like “Black Lives Matter” (which was not the name of the groups I belonged to then…) I attended Rosa Park’s rally’s; Protested the Rodney King brutality – I knew several of the people that organized that rally. etc. I wish that I could apologize to you – and your “brothers” for the injustice shown by others. I cringe today when I pick up the paper and I see what happened to Mr. King is still happening – that it is being promoted by the man in the White House. I can only hope that your story is told over and over and over; not necessarily to “prove” anything, but so that others can rise above the disaster confronting us today; that black little boys – and girls – know that they can achieve success not just on playing fields, but because of their minds are every bit as smart – if not more so – as the white man. We have known each other for some time, and every day my respect for you grows. Keep talking, Ernie. People are listening.


Marie Johnson August 25, 2020 at 5:14 pm

Wow! I want to say that with everything I read by Mr. McCray. Once again he reaches into the soul and touches something in us, no matter who we are. There is a wonderful rumble of younger folks rising up who understand the history and experiences of those upon whose shoulders they stand. Their symphony is already swooshing upon the winds from Tucson’s Wasson Peak.


Shirley Sprinkles August 26, 2020 at 6:48 am

Once again, you nailed it, my “Homie!” Great story; greater writing! I love that you stay connected to our roots. We were privileged to have started our life-journeys in such a place as Tucson. Surviving Jim Crow gave us scabs that turned into deep scars. Today, they both protect us and inspire us for the work we must do until we reach the end of the road. WRITE ON!


Dave Baldwin August 26, 2020 at 11:16 pm

Thank you for this excellent memoir, Ernie, and thank you for all you’ve done for our younger generations. Your legacy is awesome!


Richard G Carter August 27, 2020 at 3:23 pm

Hello Ernie, We kids who came out of THS and became educators. Remained in TUSD for my 32 years–Title One some, middle school reading some, mostly 5th and 6th. My older brother–in your class–Paul, one as well, who’s connected me to your writings. That bring me sighs and treats of memories and welling up when they’re posted my way. Know we never spoke, but sure enjoyed watching your efforts in the Badger gym alongside the ’57 guys Tom Hassey and Jim Fox–my Badgers baseball teammate. Was there for my ’58 guys, Rollie, Don Rickert, Pete Thomas. And, so, playing baseball, knew Lee and D.L. Secrist ,whose dad, of course, the teams M.D. and TPS schoolboard president who most enrichingly and liveschangingly led creation of integration of all of us and our schools, Dunbar–and Roosevelt–Safford, Wakefield too, mine, Peter Howell and Roskruge. Yes, going down in late ’40s on Congress St. with Paul, I can hear the belligerent voice at old YMCA of the cranky “Chick” Hawkins. Question, if I may ? Within your group, what/any record of Frank Johnson? Befriended at Roskruge, then to THS. We’d meet at his home at 6th and 6th, walk downtown, movieswatch ( amongst the necking couples–racy stuff ) in segregated Fox Theater balcony. Last connected with him as he was organizing couple of Freedom Ride Greyhounds in front of UofA Student Union. ( “No, can’t go, Frank, too close to graduation and have a job. ” ) Those life decisions. Verdad ? Thanks for listening, Ernie, and for being the affecting writer that you are. Godspeed, and keep remaining safe and sound. And, surely, enjoying your June Gloom, that back-in-the-day, so many of we educator-Zonies, loved rushing over toward reinvigorating upon school-year’s ending.


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