I decided I had enough, this was the last time he’d ever hurt me. I pointed the gun at him and told him to get the hell out of my face. I never wanted to see him again. His eyes were scared and his body froze. The paralyzing fear he forced down my throat for years finally found its way into his. He grabbed his shit and left, and I did the same. The next day, I told my daddy I was leaving. I had to get away if I ever wanted to be free. I kissed him goodbye and I moved to Fort Madison, Iowa. Not too far from Cedar Falls, but far enough to give me a fresh start.
The first day I arrived in this small town, I got myself a trailer, nothing fancy, but that was alright. It was mine and that’s all that mattered. I went walking the same day through town looking for work, and turned out, the Holiday Inn across town was hiring. I had an interview and got a job as a waitress all the same day.
I walked to my job everyday and worked for my minimum wage. Many would question why I left a doctor just to live alone and work as a waitress in a hotel, and my response was, I knew I deserved better. Even if it came from nothing. Sometimes you have to leave something “good” to make space for something even better.
I caught a bus ride all the way from Ashtabula, Ohio to Fort Madison, Iowa. There wasn’t much to do here, but there was a family, and that’s all I wanted.Yeah, I had “family” in Ohio, if you wanted to call it that. My step-mom beat us every way you could imagine, so the moment all my siblings and I could leave, we did. There was over ten of us, and shit, sometimes I lost count myself.
Anyways, a lot of my aunties ask me when I’m gonna find me a beautiful black woman. Can you guess, I did, but things went sour when she went away into the army. So I often find myself out having fun, living in the moment, if you know what I mean.
One night with some friends, we heard about this dance club at the Holiday Inn, so we decided to check it out. I get ready and shape my fro a bit and put on my black dress pants. We hop in the car and make our way across town.
It’s November 1977, and “Lovely Day” by Bill Withers plays over the speakers. It’s my night off and I decided to have a few drinks with some friends and dance. We sit at the bar and watch all the men and women dancing as we sip our drinks. It’s been a few months now and I was finally able to relax in this small town. It felt good; I was safe. As I kept watching people dancing, I noticed someone new walking in. He was tall, handsome, and had a nice pair of black dress pants on. (That part really caught my eye.) I told my friend to ask this mystery man if he’d dance with me.
I think I would’ve been more nervous as he walked towards me if I hadn’t had a few drinks first. He asks me what my name is and I shout “Roberta!” over the music. He tells me his name, but I can barely hear him. It doesn’t matter though. As I looked up at him, his grin was huge and his eyes were sincere. I said a silent prayer he’d say yes and dance with me.
The moment we get there, I tell my friends this isn’t too bad of a place. Everyone’s dancing and having a good time. After a few songs play, a man walks up to me and points to a petite white girl across the room. She’s sitting at the bar with long red hair, and her skin glows under the bar lights. She’s wearing a fancy pants suit. I think to myself, what does she want to do with me? When I tell him I know who he’s pointing to, he says she wants to dance with me. I walked over, trying to figure out how old she was the entire time. She looked so short, she could’ve passed as a sixteen year old. I shouted hesitantly over the music, “What’s your name?” She replies, “Roberta.” Her smile seemed shy but excited, I told her my name is Paul.
She asks me if I want to have a drink and dance. I say yes right away to the drink, but then tell her that I’m gonna need to see her I.D. first. I wasn’t taking any chances. I hear my friends in the background tipsy and cheering me on. I laugh and look back at them, we always joke about how we’re gonna get ourselves a white woman one day. She pulls out her I.D. and it says she’s nineteen. A nineteen year old white woman and a twenty-five year old black man. Not something I was used to. I decided I’m here already, might as well dance with a beautiful woman too.
We danced as “Sunday Kind of Love” by Etta James swirled through the room. Every couple swayed side to side, and so did we. I was dancing with a man I’d just met, but already caught feelings for. My guard was up, but slightly softened by his big hands around my waist. We danced like this for countless songs, and by the end of the night we had barely noticed the time flying by. I hadn’t had this much fun with a man in a long time, I didn’t want it to end. By the last song, I was finally able to catch his name from his friends yelling it across the room. Before we knew it, everyone was leaving to go home for the night.
As we headed to the exit, Paul stopped and asked me “So when you gonna grow up?” A six foot man dancing with a short of five foot woman all night, I’m sure his neck hurt. He teased me the entire length of the parking lot, and then we finally said goodbye. I knew I’d see him again, the night was too perfect for it to be the last.
Even though my family teases me for being interested in a white woman, I can’t help it. Something is magnetic about her and I keep going back. I visited her all the time at her job. I made sure to time it so that I sit in her section and she’d be my waitress. I loved how cute she looked in her little outfit.
After a month of knowing each other, we finally had our first date. I asked over and over, but she’d never let me know where she lived. I never pressured her though, I was sure if she wasn’t showing me it was for a good reason, but hey, I was in no rush.
It’s more common for a black man to date a white woman in the 70’s than a white man to date a black woman. Regardless of which way you put it, not everyone was having it. After a while of dating, we knew there was just some places we couldn’t go, or else there’d be trouble. It really just depended on the owners of the place, ya know? We didn’t care though, we’d just tell them to fuck off and we’d go somewhere else.
People talk just so they have something to do. One of my family members favorite line to say is “Really Paul, why do you date a white woman? There are so many nice black women,” and my response is always, “I don’t care if she’s white, green, or purple. I’m gonna date who I wanna date and it doesn’t matter what shade.” They usually just shake their heads, but it’s my life. How are you going to tell me how the hell I should live it?
As Paul and I started dating long term, my mother had a lot to say. She would favor white men over Paul and always say to me, “I thought you’d date a white guy.” I’ve never figured out why the color of my boyfriend is so important. I’ve lost a job because I would walk a black man to the door after he’d eat. My boss watched us closely and finally, one day, he finally just fired me- with no explanation. However, Paul and I both knew why, it was pretty obvious.
On March 26, 1983, we got married. The tall handsome man from that November night was all mine. We had a small house wedding, nothing too spectacular, but it was still special to us. Many of Paul’s family members attended with doubts that a black man and a white woman could actually get married. We sure proved them wrong, didn’t we?
We weren’t your traditional American couple, as you could probably already tell. We were a bi-racial husband and wife, we weren’t rich, and we didn’t wait till marriage to have children. A baby boy born in 1979, and a baby girl in 1981. We did everything we could for these beautiful children, even in times when it felt like we had nothing.
As Roberta and I began building our lives together, we didn’t realize how many stops in the road there’d be just because of color. Many times we were denied houses all because he saw the color of me and my children’s skin. My wife would have the green light for us to rent a home, and then they’d see us and suddenly, the “for rent” sign is back up. What kind of bull is that?
The day my child was born, my mother said to me that I was going to hell for having a child with a white woman. She also told me that the child was cursed. How could the child be cursed if they were born from love though? That’s what they don’t see, it doesn’t matter what color someone’s skin is, you can love whoever you want.
At times, even around the children, I’d tell my wife how useless I am because I’m just a janitor. She had a doctor before me, how could I compete with that kind of money? She’d remind me, even from the beginning, she doesn’t care if I’m a doctor or a janitor- she loves me no matter what I do. Money isn’t what holds a relationship together, love is. All that matters is we love each other, we’re in our children’s lives, and we work together to take care of them. I guess what she said is true, because we’ve been together for 43 years.
I love you Grandma and Grandpa, and thank you for sharing your 70’s love story with me.