"You have to leave home to find home," Ralph Ellison scribbled on one of the manuscript pages of his never finished novel-in-progress, and the line is an apt description of his rediscovery of the Oklahoma of his youth in other times and places. His affinity for the Territory in which he was born and passed the first 19 years of his life seemed to intensify as the year of his departure—1933—receded farther and farther into the past.
Although he returned to Oklahoma only once before his masterpiece of a first novel, Invisible Man, was published in 1952, and thrice thereafter, Oklahoma remained for Ellison what F. Scott Fitzgerald, another brilliant American writer from the provinces, referring to the middle-west, called "the warm center of the universe."
Emotionally, Oklahoma City and fields and woods surrounding the town provided the one comforting point of reference for the 23-year-old Ellison after a physician's incompetent diagnosis triggered the unexpected, sudden death of his mother in Ohio in October of 1937. Two days after her death he writes a desolate letter back to Oklahoma addressed simply, "Dear Folks," in which, with a trembling, stiff upper lip, he reveals his grief and his determination to overcome his sense of emptiness and loss. From Dayton, he soon writes Richard Wright, his close friend of a few months, that the streets of Dayton "are very much like those of Oklahoma City, home."
Intellectually, Ellison developed his ideas about the fluidity and complexity of American culture and personality from the range of his experience in Oklahoma. He more than held his own among American writers and thinkers by virtue of the "mammy-made" pragmatism engendered by virtue of his faithfulness to what he called his "cold Oklahoma Negro eye." In the last few years of his life, he wrote long reminiscences in the form of letters to old friends from Oklahoma, and, when asked to account for the strain of optimism and patriotism in his reading of America, he cited early experiences in Oklahoma as sources of that "sanity-saving comedy" and tragicomic sensibility he saw as the birthmark of American possibility.
one of his last public appearances, an address at the Whiting Foundation
on October 23, 1992, Ellison used a recurring incident
For Ellison, Oklahoma, the country of memory, remained the very crucible in which the American covenant was tested. It is fitting that Bob Burke and Denyvetta Davis have devoted much of their biographical ink to Ellison's Oklahoma ties. Their attention to Oklahoma public records and the testimony of those acquainted with Ellison gives the volume an inimitable flavor of southwestern cooking. As time passes, and Ellison's legacy to American literature and letters only continues to grow in importance and intensity, I expect Oklahoma to figure more and more prominently in scholarly accounts of the sources of his talent.
To understand the true meaning of the Renaissance writings of Ralph Ellison, one must first inquire into the sociological climate of the Oklahoma in which he matured. Ellison was born in 1914, when the struggle for equality for blacks was in its infancy. Oklahoma was only seven years old as a state—only on paper were blacks free and equal.
President Abraham Lincoln took the first step to abolish slavery when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 during the Civil War. Over the next few years of healing in the war-torn land, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments to the United States Constitution were ratified, giving full citizenship to blacks.
After the Civil War, there was a substantial population of blacks in what would become Oklahoma—remnants of families of former slaves, called freedmen, who had accompanied the Five Civilized Tribes to the eastern part of the state known as Indian Territory.
Continuing patterns of racial segregation in the Old South caused many blacks to look toward the western frontier for economic hope. The vast stretches of fertile lands in Indian Territory and the undesignated areas of what would later be Oklahoma Territory and western Oklahoma acted as a strong magnet for black families who believed they could find their "place in the sun" in the new land.
When a large section of Unassigned Lands in central Oklahoma was opened for settlement in a dramatic land run in 1889, many blacks came—taking advantage of the fact that the government did not officially permit any discrimination. On April 22, 1889, at the sound of gunfire announcing the mad dash for free land, the color of a man's skin did not hamper his ability to set out in a wagon, on a horse or bicycle, or run toward a homestead to call his own.
Oklahoma Territory was forged from the plains of western Oklahoma in 1890. During territorial days, blacks were a healthy part of the electoral process. Blacks voted regularly and some ran for public office. The "free" atmosphere resulted in trainloads of blacks coming to Oklahoma—both families of means and those who came with only the clothing on their backs.
Black boosters such as Edward P. McCabe had visions of establishing an all-black state. On April 22, 1890, he founded an all-black town, Langston City, named for John Mercer Langston, a black congressman from Virginia. Langston was billed as "the only distinctively Negro city in America."
In his newspaper that was distributed in black communities in the older states, Langston passionately pleaded for "moneyed Negroes" to settle in Langston. He wrote, "What will you be if you stay in the South? Slaves, liable to be killed at any time, and never treated right; but if you come to Oklahoma you have equal chances with the white man." The Kansas City Times reported on efforts to have 100,000 blacks in Oklahoma by the end of 1890. Even the New York Times referred to Langston as a "black Mecca."
A growing number of whites feared McCabe and others might actually succeed in carving an all-black state from the newly settled territories. The fear bred hostility from the much larger white population. White reaction to rumored mass migrations of blacks ultimately killed McCabe's idea of becoming governor of Oklahoma Territory—even though he was appointed deputy territorial auditor, the first black to occupy a major political office in the West.
The plight of blacks in Oklahoma and in all of America suffered in 1896 when the United States Supreme Court declared in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson that separate but equal facilities for blacks did not violate the federal constitution's guarantee of equality and freedom for all Americans. Tragically—because whites controlled the territorial legislature and most city councils and school boards—black schools, parks, and other public facilities were never allocated sufficient funds to be "equal."
During talk of joining Oklahoma and Indian territories into a new state of Oklahoma, President Theodore Roosevelt let it be known that he would not allow Oklahoma to join the Union if its constitution did not reflect equality of races. In fact, Article I, Section 6 of the proposed Oklahoma constitution read, "The State shall never enact any law restricting the right of suffrage on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."
The hollow "paper" victory for blacks was tempered by the true feelings of white leaders who called for constitutional segregation of the races. Segregation was a key issue for whites who insisted that blacks be kept apart in schools, on railroads, in waiting rooms, and in other public facilities. The Democratic Party became the champion of the effort to make segregation part of the constitution. When Democrats won all but 12 seats in the constitutional convention, it was a victory for white supremacy.
Constitutional Convention Chairman William H. "Alfalfa Bill" Murray, of whom Ellison later wrote in discourses on his early years in Oklahoma, told convention delegates, "We must provide the means for the advancement of the Negro race, and accept him as God gave him to us and use him for the good of society."
In a cruel and bigoted speech, Murray said of blacks, "As a rule they are failures as lawyers, doctors, and in other professions. He must be taught in the line of his own sphere, as porters, boot-blacks, and barbers... it is an entirely false notion that the Negro can rise to the equal of a white man in the professions or become an equal citizen to grapple with public questions."
Blacks vigorously fought against the approval of the new state constitution. Protest groups called the document "a Jim Crow constitution," a term derived from a comedy act in the 1830s when a white comedian painted his face black and called the character "Jim Crow."
Blacks despaired when the constitution was approved. Historian Jimmie Lewis Franklin noted, "They again dug in for another intense fight to prevent the new state from erecting a Jim Crow system to limit their rights. They would fail. Their children, and their children's children, would have to drink from the bitter cup of discrimination and segregation for many years to come."
With the vision of an "all-black" state evaporated, some blacks still had hope that when Oklahoma became a state on November 16, 1907, they could enjoy all rights of citizenship. However, attempts to make blacks second-class citizens continued.
The first bill considered by the new Oklahoma legislature required separate railway cars and waiting rooms for black and white passengers. The law called for "conspicuous" signs in "plain letters" indicating the race for which the public facility was set apart.
Subsequently, the legislature approved bills that prohibited marriages between whites and blacks and prohibited black children from attending white schools. From the beginning, black schools were under funded, falling woefully short of the constitutional mandate for "separate but equal" educational facilities.
The election of a black Republican, Albert Comstock Hamlin, to the Oklahoma House of Representatives from Logan County in 1908, frightened white segregation leaders. Their answer was State Question 17, an overt move to follow the lead of other southern states to disenfranchise blacks.
Oklahoma voters approved the state question in 1910, amending the state constitution to provide a literacy test for all voters. Essentially, the new law required that any voter must be able to read a section of the state constitution, but exempt any person whose ancestors could legally vote before January, 1866, the year that blacks were granted the right to vote. It was called the "grandfather clause" and was seen by black leaders as an open and obvious attempt to grandfather in white voters and shut blacks out of the electoral process.
Many of the nation's constitutional scholars agreed with black leaders. However, the first few efforts to overturn the grandfather clause in the Oklahoma Supreme Court fell on deaf ears. Oklahoma City newspaper editor Roscoe Dunjee took up the cause in 1914 after two Logan County Election Board officials were indicted for violating a federal law that made it illegal to refuse to register a potential voter on the basis of race.
In June of 1915, the United States Supreme Court, in Guinn v. United States, upheld the convictions of the two election officials and threw out Oklahoma’s grandfather clause as an unconstitutional attempt to abridge the right of a citizen to vote on the ground of ancestry. The Guinn case was the first national victory for a fledgling black organization known as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Within weeks, Oklahoma leaders looked for new ways to circumvent the United States Supreme Court decision. In a special session of the legislature that was marked by a near riot with the hurling of inkwells, paperweights, and books when Republicans and Socialists accused the Democrats of racism, Oklahoma legislators passed a new law that required all unregistered voters in the state to register in a 12-day period beginning April 30, 1916.
There was a widespread conspiracy by registrars to refuse to register blacks who again were locked out of the electoral process. That law was not successfully challenged until the United States Supreme Court struck it down 18 years later, in 1934, in the case of Lane v. Wilson.
In 1914, black children attended classes in rickety school buildings—cold in winter and hot in spring and fall. Most black adults had virtually no say in the election of local and state officials. They lived in segregated rows of shacks in the poorest parts of town. Both black men and women were relegated to the worst and dirtiest jobs and were paid wages far inferior to their white brothers and sisters. Equality, as guaranteed by the federal and state constitutions, was an empty promise for blacks who called Oklahoma their home.
Thus was the state of affairs in Oklahoma City as Ralph Ellison prepared to enter the world in 1914.
Chapter 1: Meager Beginnings
Oklahoma City was born grown. Unique among all land settlements in history, nearly 2,000,000 acres in central Oklahoma were opened in the Land Run of 1889. Soldiers held back thousands of modern pilgrims standing in rows 20-feet deep, separated from the Promised Land "not by an ocean, but by a line scratched in the earth with the point of a soldier's bayonet."
Writing in Harpers, Richard Harding Davis later pieced together the moment, "The long row toeing this line are bending forward, panting with excitement, and looking with greedy eyes toward the New Canaan, the women with their dresses tucked up to their knees, the men stripped of their coats and waistcoats for the coming race."
Thousands of men, women, and children—in buggies and buckboards—on bicycles, horses, mules, and oxen—and by foot, leapt from the starting line at the sound of cannons and rifles at noon on April 22, 1889. Some prospective homesteaders even dived from the windows of slow-moving trains. Most of the hearty souls were armed only with wooden stakes with which to mark a parcel of land that would be their new home.
By nightfall, Oklahoma Station—the early name of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railroad stop on the prairie that became Oklahoma City—had 12,000 inhabitants. Groups of men gathered under trees to form governing bodies and commercial clubs. There was bedlam. No one really knew who owned what piece of land. Tents and shanties were thrown up by settlers to prove they owned that location. If forced off by someone bigger and more vociferous, they moved on to find another poor soul more timid and less possessive of their claim.
One water well near what later was the corner of Main Street and Broadway Avenue constituted the city's water supply. The owner briefly sustained a brisk business of selling water for a nickel per cup until self-appointed authorities stopped the practice for humanitarian reasons. Everyone was thirsty after dashing at least 15 miles from boundary lines to the choice land along the North Canadian River.
Even though Oklahoma City instantly became the largest city in Oklahoma Territory, the territorial capital was established at Guthrie, 25 miles to the north. When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, Guthrie served as the state capital until state voters approved a move of the seat of government to Oklahoma City in 1910.
There was a housing and population boom in Oklahoma City after statehood. As far as the eye could see, houses and businesses sprang up. New immigrants arrived in the city daily.
But there is another side of the story of early-day Oklahoma City—the rarely told history of black families that made the Run of 1889 and came later to establish their homes.
Hard and fast rules of segregation forced blacks to live in groups on land others did not want. Black families built small, shotgun houses in places labeled Sand Town, West Town, Walnut Grove, and South Town—and the authorities made them stay there. Within a decade of statehood, the City Council of Oklahoma City passed an ordinance that made it a crime for blacks to build schools, churches, or community centers in any ward of the city that was at least 75 percent white.
Intolerable were the living conditions in the black villages when spring rains flooded houses and washed away garden spots from which families were fed and sustained for the year. But the blacks held on to their spots, hoping for better times.
That tinge of hope in the air was what brought Lewis Alfred Ellison and his wife, Ida Milsap Ellison, to Oklahoma City in 1910. Lewis was the son of a South Carolina former slave, Alfred Ellison, and his wife, Harriet Ellison. Ida also grew up in the deep South, in White Oak, Georgia, in a family of sharecroppers. The two met in Lewis' hometown of Abbeville, South Carolina, when the Milsaps came calling on relatives.
After working on farms and on new railroad construction, Lewis enlisted in the 25th United States Colored Infantry in 1898. The 25th was part of the famed black Indian fighters called "Buffalo Soldiers." While stationed in what is now southwestern New Mexico, Lewis had access to the fort library in which he read magazines, newspapers, and poetry.
Lewis spent three years in the cavalry and left with a sour taste in his mouth after being court-martialed over a misunderstood incident involving an alleged refusal to drill properly. Without income and dishonored by his government, he returned home to Abbeville.
Lewis and Ida married in 1909 and moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where Lewis worked in a restaurant, as a construction worker, and in a candy kitchen. They heard stories about opportunities in the new state, Oklahoma, "the promised land." Soon they traveled by train to Oklahoma City and rented a house east of Stiles Avenue at 407 East First Street. They moved into an apartment built onto a rambling, two-story house owned by Jefferson Davis Randolph, a man who later would serve as a friend and role model for their son, Ralph. The First Street apartment was home to the Ellisons for four years.
Lewis and Ida Ellison's first son died as an infant. But their hopes of having a family were buoyed in the fall of 1913 when Ida became pregnant. A second son, Ralph Waldo Ellison, was born in the humble Ellison home on First Street on March 1, 1914. A third son, Herbert, was born in 1916.
Lewis made a living for his family by selling coal and ice to residents of the black section of Oklahoma City. Although a common laborer, he loved poetry and insisted that his second son be named after the 19th century writer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson—although Ralph Waldo Ellison abhorred his name because of constant kidding about who he really was—Emerson or Ellison. In fact, he later shortened his name to Ralph W. Ellison and pledged early in life that he would never read Emerson's works.
The Ellison family prospered enough to move into a house on North Byers Avenue—a section that was mixed with black and white families. The new home had a large yard where Ida raised guineas and chickens. The family budget was apparently sufficient to buy Ralph a tricycle. One of his earliest memories is of "pedaling like mad" with a small lard bucket hanging on the handle bars to put out a fire he had set in the backyard trash can. As he played fire department, Ralph made the sound of a fire engine "to the best capabilities of my high, shrill voice."
The Ellisons lived next door to the family of Dr. Ezelle W. Perry who came to Oklahoma City in 1915 with his wife and six children to become pastor of the Tabernacle Baptist Church. He was president of the Oklahoma Baptist Convention for more than 40 years. Ellison remembered one of the Perry's fighting roosters attacking him as a child—setting in motion Ellison's lifetime curiosity of birds.
On June 19, 1916, tragedy struck Lewis Ellison and his family. While delivering ice to a dirt cellar of a grocery store, he slipped and a heavy block of ice punctured his stomach. As was often the custom, young Ralph was with his father on his ice delivery route. A bystander took Ralph home as Lewis was rushed to nearby University Hospital.
Massive infection set in and Lewis remained in the hospital—even while his wife was giving birth to their second son, Herbert Maurice Ellison. By the middle of July, Ida consented to an experimental surgery for Lewis—a final effort to save his life, to thwart the infection that had control of his body. On July 19, 1916, one day after the experimental surgery, Lewis died.
Forty years later, Ralph remembered the final time he saw his father alive:
Lewis' body lay in the back room of a local funeral parlor for days until Ida could raise sufficient money to pay for the funeral. Finally, Lewis was buried in the colored section of Fairlawn Cemetery in an all-white area of north Oklahoma City.
After Lewis' death, Ida took her two sons to Abbeville, South Carolina, to visit their grandfather, Alfred Ellison, a former slave who worked as a local government marshal during Reconstruction. But after a visit with Lewis' family, she traveled back to Oklahoma to be close to friends who had lent their prayers and support to her after the death of her husband.
Left to earn a living for her sons, Ida worked as a nursemaid and housekeeper. But while short of material things, Ida gave her sons something far more valuable—the desire to learn and achieve. She brought home discarded books, opera recordings, and magazines such as Vanity Fair from the homes of the affluent families for which she worked.
The discarded trappings of white families enlarged Ralph's life. He once mused, "You might say that my environment was extended by these slender threads into the worlds of white families whom personally I knew not at all."
"These magazines and recordings and the discarded books," he continued, "spoke to me of a life which was broader and more interesting, and although it was not really a part of my own life, I never thought they were not for me simply because I happened to be a Negro. They were things which spoke of a world which I could some day make my own."
Formal education for Ralph began in a kindergarten class in the basement of the Avery Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church—then at the Frederick Douglass Elementary School near Reno Avenue and California Street. The segregated school was the center of social, civic, and educational activities for most black families in the area.
Because of segregation, Ralph was forced to walk by a brand new school, Bryant Elementary, where only white children could attend. Instead, he walked eight blocks to Douglass. It was not a safe route for children who were required to climb flights of stairs to a viaduct that arose over the tracks of the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad. Ida told Ralph to never talk to strangers, especially as he walked past factories, warehouses, and the city's notorious red light district.
In his black world, Ralph became aware of the cruelty of segregation. If he and his mother rode a streetcar, they were forced to sit in the rear. By 1921, there were 12,000 blacks in Oklahoma City, and most relied on the street car system for transportation to distant points in the city because they could not afford a car or truck.
Each streetcar was equipped with a long, adjustable bar that divided white and black passengers. Oklahoma City's black newspaper, The Black Dispatch, often printed complaints from blacks who had to stand in the aisles, "packed like sardines," even though there were plenty of vacant seats in the area of the cars reserved for whites. The newspaper said, "When a Negro sits on a vacant seat in the white section, the trouble starts."
But at least the streetcar could take Ralph and his mother and brother to distant places such as the Oklahoma City Zoo. That is, until local officials passed a law making it illegal for blacks to visit the zoo, unless they were accompanied by white people. Ralph wondered, "Had someone black done something bad to the animals? Had someone tried to steal them or feed them poison? Could white kids still go?" His mother said, "Quit asking questions, it's the law... only because some white folks are out to turn this state into a part of the South."
Once, Ida decided to test the crazy law. She dressed herself and her sons in their finest and rode the streetcar to the zoo on a Saturday afternoon. They slipped into the zoo amidst a sea of white families. But trouble arose when they were leaving. A white man dressed in a black suit and a white straw hat met them at the gate and demanded, "Girl, where are your white folks?" Ida replied, "What white folks? I don't have any white folks. I'm a Negro."
With the sound of anger in her voice, Ida stood her ground. She said, "I'm here because I'm a taxpayer, and I thought it was about time that my boys had a look at those animals. And for that I didn't need any white folks to show me the way."
As long as Ralph Ellison could remember, he believed Oklahoma to be different for black children and their opportunity to succeed. He never dwelled on his family's meager possessions or status in a majority-white city or the problems associated with visiting his favorite animals at the zoo. Instead, he focused on the positive things about growing up in Oklahoma. In Shadow and Act, he recalled, "Oklahoma had no tradition of slavery, and while it was segregated, relationships between the races were more fluid and thus more human than in the old slave states. My parents... had come to the new state looking for a broader freedom and had never stopped pushing against the barriers... It made for a tradition of aggressiveness and it gave us a group social goal which was not as limited as that imposed by the old slave states."
Ida Ellison gave her two sons hope for the future—emphasizing the possibilities of what they might become. On Sunday afternoons she took them on walks through the wealthy white sections of Oklahoma City and by shop-window displays of fine clothing, furniture, and elegant Lincoln automobiles. The intrinsic thought planted in young Ralph's mind was, "For me none of this was hopelessly beyond the reach of my Negro world... because if you worked and you fought for your rights... you could finally achieve it."
Even though he was black, Ralph knew many white people. He worked for them and bought from them. Whites owned the grocery stores. There was a Jewish family that lived around the corner from the Ellisons and were friends of his mother. There was even a family from England that owned the Blue Front Grocery across the street from the Tabernacle Baptist Church.
Ralph learned to deal with whites:
By early adolescence, the idea of Renaissance Man was firmly entrenched in the minds of Ralph and a half-dozen of his friends. One of his playmates and fellow dreamers was James Edward "Jimmy" Stewart, who lived a few houses from the Ellisons for a while and went to Orchard Park Elementary School, on North Peach Avenue. The Orchard Park School was housed in the bottom two rooms of a two-story house.
Stewart, two years older than Ralph, identified with Ralph because he also had lost his father while young. Stewart became Ralph's lifelong friend and correspondent and was a leading figure in the civil rights movement for a half-century in Oklahoma. In the foreword to Stewart's biography, former United States Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young called Stewart "a powerful player in the movement toward change in this United States."
With Stewart, Ralph explored his local environs and beyond. They often visited Ralph's cousins in a black area known as West Town—rows of shanties built along the shifting North Canadian River, a few blocks west of downtown Oklahoma City.
Boys of the era had to search its riverbed looking for deep enough holes in which to swim. The river was filled with only slivers of water during the dry season but often left its banks and did massive destruction during heavy rains. More than once residents were hauled to safety in boats when floodwaters crept around the foundations of their rickety houses.
Youngsters from West Town learned to swim at Sandy Bend on the river, just north of the present Exchange Avenue Bridge, and at a popular picnic spot known as Gargoly, the only public swimming area for blacks in early Oklahoma City.
Near Sandy Bend was the old Western League baseball park. From a nearby hill, Ralph, Stewart, and other friends watched games from afar. Admission price was only a nickel but a nickel was scarce and was better used by the family for a loaf of bread. Ralph expanded his world by attending carnivals that were featured at the old show grounds between Exchange and Reno avenues.
Ralph often asked his mother about the origin of his name. He discovered that his father read a lot and enjoyed Ralph Waldo Emerson, a literary name that was quite popular with pre-World War I blacks eager to show off their knowledge of a hoped-for world. Ralph could not understand why he was not named for his father—although he discovered his older sibling who died as an infant was his father's namesake. Ralph asked, "But why hadn't he named me after a hero, such as Jack Johnson, or a soldier like Colonel Charles Young, or a great seaman like Admiral [George] Dewey, or an educator like Booker T Washington, or a great orator and abolitionist like Frederick Douglass? Or again, why hadn't he named me (as so many Negro parents had done) after President Teddy Roosevelt?"
For a time, Ida and her boys moved from Byers Avenue into a white middle-class neighborhood where she was custodian for some apartments. Ralph was intrigued with the mystery of radio and built crystal sets and circuits consisting of a few tubes from instructions found in radio magazines.
Once while searching for round ice-cream. containers which radio enthusiasts used for wrapping wire to form a coil, he met a white boy, the son of the pastor of Oklahoma City's leading Episcopal church, who shared his interest in radio. Ralph gave Henry Bowman Otto "Hoolie" Davis some of the discarded cartons and they became friends. Interestingly, for decades, Ralph never knew Hoolie's real name until an associate at Yale University put him in touch with a historian for the Episcopal diocese of Oklahoma and traced Hoolie down and solved the mystery of his childhood friend.
Hoolie had been stricken with rheumatic fever and was tutored at home. In his spare time, he constantly took apart and reassembled his parents' radio and built radio circuits of his own. Starved for company, Hoolie's parents encouraged Ralph to play with their son—so the radio experiments flourished for a while. Ralph remembered, "I moved back into the Negro community and began to concentrate on music, and was never to see [Hoolie] again, but knowing this white boy was a very meaningful experience." "It had little to do with the race question as such," he continued, "but with our mutual loneliness (I had no other playmates in that community) and a great curiosity about the growing science of radio. It was important for me to know a boy who could approach the intricacies of electronics with such daring and whose mind was intellectually aggressive. Knowing him led me to expect much more of myself and of the world."
Ida tried hard to give her sons a good life. When Ralph was five, she moved into the vacated parsonage of the Avery Chapel AME after the pastor moved into a new home. In exchange for the free rent, Ida cleaned the church.
That Christmas was a memorable one for Ralph. His mother bought him a small roll-top desk, a tiny straight chair, and a toy typewriter. However, Ida was straightforward with her boys about their economic plight. She explained they could not have bicycles like other boys in the neighborhood. Instead, Ralph and his brother made their own toys, fished and hunted, listened to music, and "spent a great amount of time reading and dreaming over books."
Ralph's imagination was not always good for his pets. In one of his stories, he mimics the real-life story of when he and his brother took baby chickens and made small parachutes for them. Then, they climbed to the top of the chicken house and dropped the chicks to the ground below. A neighbor lady told Ida—and the boys were in great trouble with their mother. Ralph's first remembered treasure in life was found in an alley—a large photographic lens that gleamed "with crystal mystery and it was beautiful." Ralph used the lens to burn holes through newspapers and could pretend that it was the barrel of a cannon, a telescope, or the third eye of a monster. He constantly played with the lens, "looking through it with squinted eyes, holding it in shafts of sunlight, and trying to use it for a magic lantern."
Older boys offered Ralph other treasures such as agate marbles, knives, tops, grass snakes, and even horned toads for his lens. But Ralph held on to his treasure. In Shadow and Act, he recalled, "No one, not even the white boys I knew, had such a lens, and it was my own good luck to have found it. Thus I would hold on to it until such a time as I could acquire the parts needed to make it function. Finally, I put it aside and it remained buried in my box of treasures, dusty and dull, to be lost and forgotten as I grew older and became interested in music."