“We returned to our places, these Kingdoms
But no longer at ease here …”

Journey of the Magi … T.S. Eliot

“….trapped in a history which they do not understand,
and until they understand it,
they cannot be released from it.”
The Fire Next Time …James Baldwin

“Black people will never gain equality in this country….. This is a hard-to-accept fact that all history verifies. We must acknowledge it, not as a sign of submission, but as an act of ultimate defiance.”
Faces at the Bottom of the Well …. Derrick Bell

“Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged
Bird that cannot fly.”

Langston Hughes

This is a personal attempt to understand why I am who I am. It is also an attempt to understand my life as dominated by a single “moment” of time. That “moment” in 1968, soon after Dr. King’s assassination, came as I “promised” to devote my life to work against white racism. That solemn, joyful, tearful “moment” has been at the center of every major decision of my life since that day. Now, writing forty years later, I begin to believe what is not understandable. My life has been dominated by that “moment” even before the “moment” came to me. That I can never explain, but I believe it.

As I began this attempt it became clear that “who I am” is inextricably woven with the story of the organization for which I served as Founding Director for twenty-eight years, Community Change, Inc. It is also a hope that the story of the organization will be a reflection on its role in the anti-racist movement. To tell the story of the organization more fully it would be necessary to include names and tributes to many individuals who have been vital to that story. An attempt to include all would have certainly failed to include some. My uneasy solution has been to include specific names only when they are so integral to the story that to eliminate them would be to change the story. That judgment is also a dangerously personal one, for which I can only ask forgiveness for any offense.

by Horace Seldon

Written over periods when memory demanded it.

Often when I have read about the life of some other person, I have found myself resisting what seems to be too much attention given to the childhood and family. “Get on with the real story”, has often been the impatience with which I begin the reading. Yet, now attempting to tell something about my own life, I realize that I must begin with family. That is, after all, where we all start.

The life which my family gave me was one of “ease”; never did I think of us as wealthy, and by any standard we were not. Not wealthy, but much “at ease”. If there were worries about financial stability, they were not shared with me. Most of what I wanted came with careful planning. Life at home, life in the world, was one of projected ease. That “ease” was based in financial stability, but extended also to views of the world. I was sheltered from social issues of disparities and discrimination in the body politic, or even from the body politic itself.

The family into which I was born on November 1,1923 was composed of my father, Newman Henry Seldon, 40; mother, Alice May Foss Seldon, 39, two sisters and a brother. Sisters, Beatrice and Lucile, were respectively 15, and 14, at the time of my birth; Richard, was 4. Another son, Foss, had died in 1915, not then two years old.

That my sisters were so much older became significant at several points later, but my first remembrance of that fact was their telling of coming home from school to “find me in a drawer”, that November 1st. A bureau drawer as my first crib belies what was really a comfortably furnished home.

The difference in age with my sisters leads me to a remembrance from my second year in High School, when Miss Barkley, who taught French, was sure that I had not studied my first lesson. We were supposed to know how to tell Miss Barkley, in French, how many brothers and sisters we had, and the age of each. She would not accept my answers, sure that I had failed to learn the French numbers! She made me report after school, when I finally convinced her that I did indeed have sisters so much older.

With older sisters, I watched them grow into adulthood and separate lives. Beatrice, the oldest, worked in a downtown drug store, and that pleased me because sometimes after school my friends and I visited the store, where she served us ice cream sodas! Hers was a fairly “normal” life, growing in love, marrying Arthur Jenkins, giving birth to one daughter, living uneventfully until Arthur’s death, after which she was not happy. Lucile and I continued in relationship with her until her death, but the last years for Bea were difficult and troublesome for the three of us.

A Break in Family

Part of the difficulty was rooted in Lucile’s much more complex family relationship. She had worked for my father in his insurance office, fell in love with a man in the office, Clifford R. Cusson, dated him while his ill wife was dying, and then secretly married him. My parents could not forgive her behavior, and the family was broken. She and Cliff left my father’s agency, established their own competing insurance business, and my father claimed that they had “stolen” clients from him. Cliff was a local politician, was elected to the State House of Representatives and then to the Senate, a popular figure among many. I came to appreciate, and like Cliff; I now understand that in the process of coming to know his friends I was experiencing an early fracturing of the stereotype of the “many”, whom my parents greatly disliked. Memory tells me that Cliff was a registered Republican, but acted more like a Democrat, and that was probably enough to satisfy my Father’s dislike. Cliff also came from a “background” which was not appreciated at home. It was many years later that I would name that as a dawning consciousness about prejudice based on “class”.

There were years when I was growing up during which neither Beatrice or my parents had contact with Cliff and Lucile. There must have been some attempt, because I remember Cliff and Lucile being in our home for dinner sometime after their marriage. During the meal, at one point I was in the kitchen with mother, and for the only time ever, I heard her speak words of intense hatred. With a raging face, mother whispered to me that she hoped Cliff would strangle on every mouthful! I knew then that the break was complete! That incident may also have been an early encounter with the ways in which harbored anger can explode and distort a peaceful and beautiful person. If that could happen to my Mother, something deeply sinister could happen to anyone!

While the family was separated, my parents allowed me to continue in relationship to Lucile. They must have discussed that option, but I do not remember them speaking about it with me. I don’t remember even thinking about why they allowed that, or what that might have meant to them as parents. Uncertain, still today, reflection leads to a belief that I was living at some level an unstated hope and forgiveness never articulated by my parents. It may be that even they did not know the significance of letting me stay in relationship to Lucile; it was something they did because of who they were, and what they knew to be right about “family”.

I often visited in Cliff and Lucile’s office, on Merrimack Street, directly across the street from my father’s office. I had meals occasionally in their home, went to Boston with Cliff to observe the Senate in session, even one time sat in on the Senate Highways and Motor Vehicles Committee, which Cliff chaired. On at least one occasion, I traveled with Lucile and Cliff to visit New York City. Cliff was known for his swearing, which was a way he and his legislative chums conversed. I can remember hearing him cautioning his friends not to use that language in my presence.

I liked Cliff, even came to accept the swearing and “roughness” of his exterior behavior, patterns abhorrent to my parents. His manner of speaking conveyed strong emotion, unknown in my family. I came to accept the swearing as simply a way of expressing strong feeling, nothing more. It is probable that somewhere in my remote self my personality was being prepared for a much later time, when I too would express my emotion in strong voice and word! Those who know me in these later years will differ in opinion about the appropriateness of my sometimes flaming tongue. Opinions aside, the emotions of today may be an echo of Cliff’s depth of feeling.
Then came the time, I believe it was when I was in College, that Lucile quietly shared with me the news that Cliff was dying from cancer, and that life would be short for him. I wondered if I should tell my parents. I did tell them, and am grateful for that decision. My parents went to visit Lucile and Cliff before his death, and I am sure that it made a lot easier the reconciliation with Lucile which did come after Cliff’s death. Those years of family separation remained, lost opportunities.

Childhood Years

My older brother, Richard, I still remember as one with whom I tumbled on the grass in the back yard, as he allowed me to pretend wrestling him to earth. Together we picked from our two apple trees, and one pear tree. We shoveled snow together in winter and rode our tricycles together in summer. Richard died when he was nine, and I, only five; the “hole” left was my first experience with the wonder of death. Richard suffered from spinal meningitis. Days before his death there were nurses around the clock, tending to him in our home. Fond memories of my brother are accompanied still by a strong view of Richard in a casket in our front “living room”, as my father lifted me to say goodbye. I know now the power of that moment for my father, who then had seen two boys die, and whose hopes for a son now rested solely in me. In the fourth grade of school, I was often ill; my parents were openly frightened about my health, and in some ways they became protective of me in those early years. A lasting legacy of that protection is my continuing hesitance to feel comfortable as a swimmer in open water. As I write I can hear the cautioning voice of my parents as I dog-paddled too far from shore!

Through those early school years I was frequently ill, contracting the usual childhood maladies, but also limited by conditions which today could easily be diagnosed in psychological terms. Fourth grade was especially difficult for me, since the teacher was one with whom I was in constant conflict, and she frequently yelled at me in class. I was terribly frightened by her, hated school, and managed to stay home “sick” often. My parents tried any number of “remedies”, including putting me on a regimen of drinking “Ovaltine” more often than I cared to. It was advertised as some sort of magic elixir for kids like me! On the physical side, I knew I worried the family; I remember well, one occasion when I was confined to bed. My visiting grandmother entered the room, stood by the door looking at me, shaking her head sadly, saying nothing. Her expression is still clear to me; I knew she was worried about my condition.

Judging People on My Experience

School memories do not often occupy my thoughts today. One thing I was learning as I approached High School was not to trust negative attributes which others gave to teachers. I was learning to judge them from my own experience. In seventh grade I sat in home room with Miss Haseltine, who in appearance was grim, and everyone said the experience with her would be grim also. My strongest memory of her today is the time when she took me and one other student to visit the home of John Greenleaf Whittier, on the outskirts of Haverhill. I thought of her recently as I encountered the words of Whittier while studying his role in the Abolition Movement, with Garrison, one of my “heroes” of history. That visit may have been the first seed of my present focus on the history of that nineteenth century movement! Miss Haseltine was never a favorite teacher, but I discovered one who cared for her students. I was learning not to quickly accept the negative predictions of others.

A similar learning occurred as I moved into eighth grade. I heard stories of “dynamite” Russell, the tall, “piano-legged” woman whose dictatorial style dominated her room. “Everyone hates her” was the common judgment. My actual experience with her gave a “lie” to all I had heard. An able teacher, she taught me the value of discipline in attention to assignments. I came to admire the once-dreaded!

At Home

The house I knew as home until marriage, was a comfortable six-rooms at 6 Shawmut Avenue, in the Bradford section of Haverhill, Mass. An ice-box in the cellar was regularly serviced by men who delivered the cakes of ice which I helped chip so that they could fit more fully into the box. In the cellar there was also a washing machine, and two large set-tubs which, as a youngster I learned to use for rinsing clothes before hanging them to dry on a line in the back yard, or, on rainy days, on lines strung in the basement. That is where I was introduced to the mysteries of women’s undergarments, the corsets! A quaint old second toilet also was there, with the flushing water closet suspended overhead, controlled by a metal chain. A coal furnace stood in the center of the cellar; it became a regular duty for me to keep the fire stoked with coal, and to empty the ashes. In another corner of the cellar was a “vegetable closet” where apples from our trees were stored for the winter, and where I was sent daily to choose from rows of jars of mother’s preserved fruits and vegetables. That same basement was the place where I was banished to wait for “Papa”, whom I knew would spank me when he came home and mother told him what forbidden thing I had done. The waiting was always worse than the actual spanking!

Groceries were delivered after mother phoned an order, or sometimes were picked up by father on his way home from work. Because we were dependent for services on delivery people, letter carriers, and because people needed to use the sidewalks, I learned very early in life that shoveling after a snowstorm was an important part of being thoughtful, to make it easier for others. I remember that mother insisted that I must shovel as soon as a storm was over so people in the neighborhood could walk safely on the sidewalk. It was one of my first lessons in community responsibility.