By RHETT JONES
My brother, Gary, and I grew up on Chicago's far (and black) Southside. In the 1940s and into the 1950s, Al Price was our next-door neighbor. We always called him "Mr. Price," and so I do not know whether Al was his full name or short for Alfred, Alvin or Albert.
He and my dad were friendly neighbors. They went to professional wrestling matches together. As Mr. Price had only a small daughter, Natalie, when we were growing up, Dad often told Gary and me to cut Mr. Price's lawn or shovel his sidewalk. As the Prices and Joneses lived next to one another in row houses, it did not take much for two energetic boys to shovel beyond the invisible line separating sidewalks or cut grass on the other side of the invisible line separating lawns.
I remember a puzzled Mr. Price once saying to Dad, "Your son is always reading; doesn't he ever get tired of it?"
I ought to but don't recall my father's reply; it was probably a variant of his toilet-paper story. He'd once told my mother that with nothing else to read, I'd read the label on toilet paper. She laughed, and it became a story Dad often affectionately repeated to family and friends.
I recall that Mr. Price said that if my father had no objection, he could get me lots of things to read. He did.
Mr. Price "ran on the road." This meant that he was a Pullman porter.
My former student W. Jeffrey Bolster's acclaimed work, "Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail," demonstrates how black sailors in the 18th century knit together black communities in Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, Latin America and North America. As they sailed from one port to another, they carried with them the bad news of the rising tide of slavery and racist oppression, as well as the good news of strategies for black resistance. What black sailors did in the 18th century, Pullman porters -- by far the most aggressive black-dominated union in the United States -- did in the 20th.
As Pullman porters traveled, they linked blacks in our country together by providing them with real-time information on the many battles against Jim Crow.
As a child, I knew nothing of this proud history. I was just grateful that Mr. Price brought me things to read. He gathered for me what passengers had left behind on his trains. Once in a while, he would give them to me face to face, but mostly Mr. Price would just pile them up -- newspapers, magazines, books, programs, pamphlets, all -- on our back porch.
Chicago is known as the Windy City for a very good reason, so sometimes he would put a couple of bricks on top. I'd come out and there all these treasures would be.
Each time I saw Mr. Price's wonderful pile, my heart raced! These were not the usual things I read in school. As I didn't know Mr. Price's schedule, I never went out looking for anything; thus I was always delightfully surprised when they turned up.
This month is African-American History Month, encouraging us to reflect on how black entrepreneurs, artists, inventors, political theorists, scientists and other achievers contributed to our country. But none of these famous folk could have existed without a network made possible by black people like Mr. Price.
Racism is a powerful force, and without the support these people provided one another, black Americans would not have survived. They might even have come to resemble the sub-humans so many whites believed them to be.
Of course, I have no way of knowing what Mr. Price thought as he carefully piled up paper on our back porch. But his generous actions were typical of the black networks that provided help, including information, during some very ugly times.
X Rhett Jones is a professor of history and Africana studies at Brown University. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,