I grew up in the Chouteau Court Housing Project in Kansas City,Missouri.
These red brick buildings,still existing today, were a noble experiment
at giving poor people a clean,safe place to live. The experiment
started in the late 50's in KC. Since they still had segregation
in those days, the Federal Government had decided to try an experiment.
They had a black neighborhood already, TB Watkins, a Mexican area,
and a 'white'' community, Guinotte. They built Chouteau and decided
that they would intregrate there. My family moved in around 1958.
The 3 story buildings were plain but well constructed. 40 years
later they still look much the same.
Who lived in these buildings? Mostly women with their children.
Women who had either been divorced or never married and were living
in poverty elsewhere usually on welfare. There were some men-disabled
guys who had lung diseases or polio or other crippling diseases
and could no longer work. Then there were the "secret fathers.".
Since welfare didn't allow able bodied men to stay with their
families these guys would either not marry the mothers or were
boyfriends. They had to come home at night and not be around
days when the welfare folks would come unexpectedly and check
around. Not many of my peer group (7 years old at the time) had
fathers that they saw. One of my friends did have a dad who came
around alot...he was called Guitar Red because he played guitar
like Chuck Berry and would get drunk and play concerts on the
back steps of their porch. Another one of my friends had a father
who was old and physically disabled and so he was allowed to be
at home. I had a father who didn't live with my family. He was
remarried and I saw him every once in a while. My mother got
a check of $25 a week from the child support people,which was
then deducted from our welfare check. Summers I would go and
stay with his parents on their farm and he would see me on weekends.
Where did we project dwellers get our ideas of what men were
about? Well, it was usually from teachers at school. There were
some dedicated teachers who seemed to understand that kids needed
to know what men were about and they made it a point to stay involved
in our lives. The social workers of the area were concerned about
it so they got the YMCA to come in and take us on bus rides for
swims at the Y. This didn't always work right. Once I was with
5 of my school friends and we had ventured into a magazine store
and saw a picture of our YMCA instructor nude on the cover of
a magazine with his parrot. We bought the magazine and took it
to school to show them what ole Captain Dan was up to and he lost
his job. Another of our teachers, Homer, liked to touch us young
students on the ass. Since we didn't know that was strange-still
too young-it finally got him fired when he started taking young
students home to his house for wrestling matches. Still, we did
find some good role models for men among some of the teachers
and some dedicated ministers of churches in the area who formed
What did the idea of father mean to us in the projects? Looking
back now it seems to me that a father was the person who didn't
live with you, paid money to your mother, and you saw occasionally.
He had no place in your family unit except its history. I must
have been 18 years old before a man had ever been in a power position
around me-when I was working for a summer church program. Still,
we survived and grew up to be men ourselves. Some of my fellow
project dwellers ended up in prison or dead before we even got
out of high school. Some of them ended up dead in Vietnam-the
projects was the prime supplier of cannon fodder to infantry units.
For those of us who made it out of the projects relatively intact,
some went on to jobs in the steel mills and some went on to University.
I was lucky that I got picked to go into a training program to
be a counselor in a city prison farm-they lacked poor whites who
could be recruited into some federal training programs and I got
picked. When I went to work in the prison I met the fathers of
some of my growing up friends-alcoholics,drug addicts, street
hustlers, and some just down on their luck who stole and got caught.
I saw many of my friends going through the jail system also.
Were they there because they didn't have fathers? I don't think
so. They were probably there because they were poor and didn't
have many options in life or didn't have the breaks I did.
I don't remember Fathers Day in the projects. It must have been
celebrated by some but it wasn't in my neighborhood. When one's
father was coming, it meant that you might be going to live with
him because your mother couldn't handle you. It might mean that
you were getting an ass-whipping. I remember my father but many
of my neighbors didn't. That is one of the reasons I continue
to work to help men stay fathers or learn to become fathers. That
is why I help women with children who are victimized by this system
still today, like my mother was. I work that my kids can remember
Fathers Day as a positive day.