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Being brown in a city of black and white

Linda Hutcherson grew up in a  biracial environment that was filled with love -- it was in fact a brothel run by her adoptive parents. But now she has seen Detroit become one of the most racially polarized cities in the U.S.'s Kari Huus has her story.
Linda Hutcherson, who is biracial, leaves her home in a nearly all-black neighborhood in Detroit.
Linda Hutcherson, who is biracial, leaves her home in a nearly all-black neighborhood in Detroit. Kari Huus /
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In a city that would become famous for segregation, Linda Hutcherson’s early memories of her household in Detroit are of carefree times amid a pastiche of skin colors. She had loving parents — a black father and a white mother. Her own skin was the color of caramel, and her sister, Cheryl, just a shade lighter than wheat. There was a steady stream of black visitors to the house, and a group of resident white women — prostitutes, as Hutcherson would only learn much later.

“It was pure joy,” she said. “We grew up in a house full of blacks and whites. We didn’t realize anything was wrong in the world of color.”

But race tensions were simmering in the city, and their inevitable eruption eventually transformed Detroit into one of the nation’s most polarized urban areas. For Hutcherson, the change has been depressing and disorienting. The neighborhood of her childhood long ago fell to the bulldozers of urban renewal. And now, at 55, the Detroit native feels alienated in her black neighborhood, and cut off from the city’s white population.

“I can remember how the city got blacker and blacker," she said. "Areas that used to have white people eventually became all black. Now the whites that do come in shoot down the freeway from the suburbs, straight downtown to (their) offices and never have to deal with blacks.”

When Gut Check issued a call for readers to share their views on the state of race relations in the U.S., Hutcherson was among the first to respond.

“I believe that the issue of race has been at a standstill for decades,” she wrote, adding that “overall there is a mutual distrust and misunderstanding continues between the races that keeps us from becoming a truly United States of America.”

High times in motor city
In the 1950s, Detroit was a great manufacturing city and a destination for black workers migrating from the South to work in its booming automobile factories. Hutcherson’s family lived at the heart of Paradise Valley — a community bursting with black-owned businesses, theaters, nightclubs and churches.

Hutcherson’s father, Leroy Pope, had ridden the city’s fortunes, parlaying his early shoe shining profits into a multi-million-dollar business operating vending machines. Her mother, Nelva, had come from a poor farm family in the South to become legendary in the city — both as a successful madam and as generous benefactor to schools, churches and other causes.  As a young woman she had lied and claimed she was “mulatto” in order to marry Leroy at a time when white-black marriages were prohibited.

Linda and Cheryl led privileged lives, attending private schools, studying piano at the music conservatory, and generally were pampered by their adoptive parents. They had each other as companions as they raced around town, playing in the history museum, eating ice cream at the Woolworth’s and attending performances at the Fox Theatre and Orchestra Hall. Every evening, Hutcherson recalls, the family sat down together for dinner.

At the height of her family’s prosperity, the Popes owned a six-story apartment building on Farnsworth Avenue. The family lived in one large apartment and rented others to other families. The basement apartment was where the prostitutes turned tricks.

When Hutcherson and her sister were out playing, they were instructed to bang on the window if they saw a police car in the area and shout: “Momma, the insurance man is coming!”

Hutcherson was fascinated by “the girls” and sought out their company. The women always wore prim housecoats and sipped cold drinks in the parlor between private sessions with their "guests," who were always black men. In their free time, the young women doted on her and complimented her on her golden skin.

“Growing up around them was pure joy," Hutcherson said. "To this day I’m more comfortable with white women than with black women. Oddly enough, I think it raised my self-image.”

Harsh lessons
But outside their home, it was hard to fit in. A lot of the early abuse was aimed at Cheryl, who skin was so fair that many of the black kids thought she was white. Even the old black women heckled her, assuming she was the daughter of one of the white prostitutes.

“‘Hey trick baby, go back where you belong,’” Hutcherson remembers them shouting.

“I was always just trying to defend my sister,” she said, even though she was younger by four years. “It just made my heart ache… because of her color (Cheryl) caught it worse than me in the neighborhood.”

Linda Pope (right, baby) as a child with father Leroy Pope and sister Cheryl.

Their most alarming confrontation came in 1959, when Leroy Pope took the girls for a Sunday drive in his big beige Ford. They were headed to Belle Isle, a popular picnic destination when a group of young white men pulled up behind them in a car, with the horn blaring. They were nudging Pope’s car with their own, threatening to run him off the road, and shouting obscenities.

“Hey nigger,” Hutcherson remembers them yelling at her father as they pulled alongside. “What are you doing with that white girl?” They were referring to Cheryl, then 10 years old.

“It was that moment that jarred my sense of security, my utopian world that I lived in,” she said. “That was my awakening to racism.”

Rattled by the incident, Pope turned the car around and returned home, but the conversation that followed was almost as unsettling.

“Mama blamed me,” Cheryl remembers.  “She said ‘When you saw them come up alongside, you should have ducked down so they wouldn’t see you…. You almost got your daddy killed because of you. You know how these people are!”

The two girls attended private schools to avoid being harassed by black students in the public school, Hutcherson said.

Longing to look different
Her sister longed to have darker skin, and Hutcherson said she remembers her squashing her nose down with her finger to encourage it to look more “black.” Cheryl’s one reassurance was that she knew her biological mother who lived in Detroit — and she was black.

Hutcherson also got to know her birth mother, who also lived in Detroit, but there was nothing reassuring about it.

Her mother, Jean, was a white woman from an Orthodox Jewish family in Cleveland. She came to Detroit with her white husband. After he was thrown in jail for attempted robbery, she was planning to return to her wealthy family with her two young sons. The problem was that she was pregnant again, and couldn’t return to Cleveland with this child — not least because the baby’s father was black. Through contacts, she arranged to give up the baby to Nelva Pope, who could not have children of her own.

Jean eventually returned to Detroit, and to Hutcherson’s father — with whom she had two more children. Hutcherson stayed with the Popes, but got to know her birth mother as a volatile, angry and openly racist woman.

“To Jean,” Hutcherson said, “we children were ‘niggers.’”

Jean also made no secret that she was ashamed of her black husband, and would order him out of sight when a white person came to the door.

“She had a horrible mouth,” Hutcherson recalled. “The things she would say, and the disdain she had of living in that situation.”

Racial fault lines
Discontent was on the rise in the city in the 1960s and a racial shift was well under way. As whites moved to the suburbs, many of the blacks who remained in the city were poor and overcrowded. The housing shortage was made worse by urban renewal projects. Huge sections of Paradise Valley and the adjacent Black Bottom were bulldozed to make way for Interstate 75, putting a real and symbolic hole in the heart of the black community. Amid growing police brutality and harassment of black residents, black militancy simmered, making it all but certain that there would be violence.

In 1967, when Hutcherson was 14, Detroit erupted into full-scale rioting. The catalyst was a police raid on a “blind pig” — an after-hours drinking party in a densely populated black neighborhood. The vice squad evidently expected to pick up a few people, but found dozens of black patrons inside the club at a party for some returning Vietnam veterans. As a major roundup ensued, an impromptu protest developed, followed by vandalism that quickly spread through the city.

Hutcherson watched in horror as the National Guard tanks rolled through her neighborhood. Initially, the effort to control the chaos sparked more violence. At the end of five days of rioting, 43 people had been killed, nearly 1,200 injured and more than 7,000 arrested.

“It was scary. I didn’t really understand it, because I never felt deprived, so I didn’t have that desperation of a lot of blacks,” she said. “I could see the despair, the oppression. But that wasn’t me. It wasn’t who I was or my life.”

The upheaval accelerated the hollowing out of Detroit. People who could afford it moved to the suburbs or out of the area altogether, deepening the despair and poverty in the city. By 2000, more than 80 percent of the city’s total population was African-American, compared to about 40 percent in 1967, and one in four households was below the poverty line. Analysis of 2000 Census data also indicated that it was one of the five most segregated cities in the nation by several measures.

After graduating from high school, Hutcherson’s journey paralleled the downward trajectory of the city. She lost touch with her better off, better educated friends —white and black. Her first marriage was a disaster. Although it resulted in the birth of her first son, it also led her into an addiction to heroin that derailed her for most of a decade. She had a second son in another disastrous relationship — to a man who was both abusive and a drug user.

It was not until the 1980s that she was able to shake her addiction, remarry and pull her family together.  She had 20 happy years with her second husband, James, whom she credits for saving her life and stepping in to help raise her two sons.  She completed most of an English degree at Wayne State University.

In search of identity
When James suddenly died of a stroke in 2004, Hutcherson was left alone in their tidy brick house in a quiet section of Detroit. Because of a back problem and diabetes, she retired from her job at the courthouse and lives off a small disability income. Nelva and Leroy Pope died years ago, and her sons are grown and not often around. Even her sister Cheryl and her husband moved to the suburbs a few years back.

There have been some efforts to reconstruct and revive Detroit’s downtown, Hutcherson said, but the sense of community is just not there. Where her family’s home once stood on Farnsworth Avenue there is a vast asphalt parking lot for the African History Museum. Vacant retail space, empty lots and boarded up homes add to the sense of displacement.

Linda Pope with sister Cheryl WilliamsKari Huus

There also have been efforts to start public discussions on race, she said, but so far she sees her hometown lagging. From her vantage point, Barack Obama’s momentum in the presidential race has been nothing short of stunning.

“I was shocked when he won those states that were mostly white states,” she said. ”I thought — wow! I thought 90 percent of white folks hate blacks. So he opened my eyes.”

But if the world is changing, Hutcherson sees little progress around her. Her neighborhood — on the other side of the Interstate from where she grew up — is nearly all black, she said, except for a few very elderly people. Her church congregation is black, and she rarely goes anywhere that she would meet non-African Americans.

She said she struggles to feel at ease with her black friends, who tease her for “dancing white,” and “talking white” and for having a “white butt.”

“Even the people that call themselves my friends, they tease me, and deep down it hurts," Hutcherson said. "But I don’t let them know. I just laugh with them.”

Embrace of race
It’s lonely, she concedes, but Hutcherson has a new passion. The little girl who was once entirely oblivious to skin color is now almost obsessed with exploring her roots—a complex racial and cultural stew.

“Race has colored my life from the minute I was born,” she said, beginning with the reason she was given up for adoption, and likely the reason she was adopted by a mixed-race couple.

“Mother’s business itself was based on race,” she said. The prostitutes were all white, and they catered specifically to black men, many of whom had moved from the South.  “It was a winning combination. The experience these men had was that if you just wink at a white woman you’d be lynched. So here, it was like they were in heaven.”

Now Hutcherson devours slave diaries, as well as books on Judaism, and dreams of traveling to Israel. Although she is a practicing Christian, she recently joined Jews for Jesus as a way of trying to connect with her Jewish heritage.

Spending long hours on the Internet, she has been able to find and communicate with white relatives on her biological mother’s side, foiling her birth mother’s best efforts to prevent her existence from being known.  She recently contacted a cousin on her biological father’s side by phone — a stockbroker — who was able to tell her a bit about the origins of her father’s family among sharecroppers in Mississippi.

She has long phone conversations with her half-brothers, and compares notes with Cheryl.

But unlike her sister, who views herself as African American, Hutcherson proudly embraces her biracial identity. She has been writing an autobiography in fits and starts — a little uncertain where to begin. But she knows there is plenty of material there.

“It’s funny,” she reflected. “Well, not really funny, but interesting — to have roots in the two most persecuted groups on Earth — blacks and Jews.”