A New York Jew, a Black Southern College and the KKK Walk Into a Bar …
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because truth is definitely stranger than fiction.
By Noam Freedman
“Why don’t you come with me?”
Mike and I had been schoolmates in high school but didn’t become friends until the summer of 1980, when we were both headed to Hunter College. We had just discovered, after several months of hanging out, that he worked for the veterinarian who practiced, and lived, in my grandfather’s old house on Lexington Avenue.
“Dr. Asedo is YOUR grandfather?” he had said in disbelief. I told him that, growing up, I had given a lot of thought to following in my grandfather’s footsteps. So he said, “Why don’t you come with me?” I did not know what he was talking about initially, but then he reminded me that the next fall he was going to Tuskegee Institute, and that they had a six-year associate/graduate degree program for their veterinary school.
Lacking any kind of “bigger picture” plans, and figuring, worst-case scenario, it would be an adventure, I applied late, got accepted and, in late August, two New York City Jews in a red mid-’70s Pontiac with a bad shimmy between 60 and 65 MPH made their way down to Tuskegee, Alabama, to attend an all-Black college. I had concerns about cultural differences, a few in regard to being immersed in the Black community, but many more about being immersed in the Deep South.
See, I was very much a New Yorker. I moved quickly, I thought quickly, I spoke quickly, and I had little patience for those who did not. On the flip side, I liked iced tea, barbecue and corn bread. While en route, I stopped somewhere in the Carolinas for the night. Across the street from the motel was a bar, so I popped over to grab a drink before turning in. I ordered a pitcher and headed for an empty table. A guy sitting with two of his friends called me over. He said, “No one drinks ’lone ’round hee-yah. Pull up a chair!” I joined them at their table, and the obligatory line of questioning began.
There was a small, dilapidated building just off campus with “KKK” painted on it in large red letters, and when one of the students was found dead in a ditch, there was speculation.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Noam. Noam Freedman.”
“Freedman?! … That JEW-ISH?”
“Yup!” said I.
“You a Jew? … Where your horns?”
I calmly offered that we, Jews, did not in fact have horns, and was fully prepared to explain that it was an error in translation that resulted in the myth, perpetuated by Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses, but he almost immediately followed with, “Where you from?”
“New York City.”
“A Yankeh?!” he shouted, adding, “Well, we don’t ho-eld no grudges no mo-wuh … do we, boys?”
Then he asked me what I did and I told him that I had just spent the summer working as a bouncer for rock bands but was now headed down south for school. I did not bother telling him where.
His final question was, “So, you beat people up for a living?”
“I guess you could say that,” I said, and with that, the question-and-answer portion of our evening had come to a close. The four of us sat in awkward silence while we finished our drinks.
Mike and I met two girls our first week at school, Lynette and Shari. They became our close friends, with Mike and Lynette becoming a couple, eventually marrying and settling in the South, while Shari and I dated some and spent a lot of time together. We were in all the same classes, studied together and hung out a lot.
Shari was quite beautiful, and if anything can make a “White Guy” at a “Black School” less popular it’s having a pretty Black girl on his arm. One night we were on our way home from somewhere when we pulled into this industrial park that we would go to when we wanted to drink some beers away from prying eyes, and judgments.
This place was just outside of town on the way to I-85. It was a large gray metal industrial building at the end of a very long driveway. There was a large parking lot, but over the past few months we’d never encountered anyone there at night. That night we were very surprised, though, when another car pulled down the driveway behind us. As we reached the end of the driveway we could see dozens of cars in the parking lot.
The woods around the building, we noticed, were glowing orange with the flickering light of what we imagined was a large, though unseen, fire. There were lots of guys heading around to the back of the building. One of them, not far from us, I realized, was wearing a long white robe.
I told Shari to duck down under the dashboard, and I put the bag of beer and snacks on the seat to help obscure her. Then I rolled down my window, stuck out my arm and tried to look as redneck as I could as I pulled back out of there, nodding and pointing “hello” as I went. Hoping all the while that no one would notice the New York State license plates on Michael’s car.
I knew that there was Klan in the area. Hell, it was Macon County, Alabama. There was a small, dilapidated building just off campus with “KKK” painted on it in large red letters, and when one of the students was found dead in a ditch, there was speculation that the Klan might have been responsible. I even had an encounter with a Klan member in the square in Montgomery, but I could never have conceived of them holding a meeting so close, not just to the campus, but to the town of Tuskegee.
It didn’t seem to make sense to report them since, really, we hadn’t seen anything. But we never drove down that driveway again.
- Noam Freedman, OZY Author Contact Noam Freedman