The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Day 70
Thursday, Dec. 1, 1960 – New Orleans, Upper Ninth Ward
Steinbeck says in “Charley” he wanted to go to New Orleans to witness the anti-integration protests at a public school. Though he actually left from his wife’s sister’s place in Austin, which is 500 miles west of New Orleans, in the book he describes picking up Charley at the vet in Amarillo and driving south and east across Texas to New Orleans, a total of 1,000 miles. Hardly sleeping, he says he traveled in the bad ice storm that actually did hit southeast Texas Nov. 29 and 30. He writes that he arrived in “frozen-over” Beaumont, Texas, at midnight and in Houma, Louisiana, at dawn. In New Orleans that morning he says he parked Rocinante and took a cab to William Frantz Elementary in the Upper Ninth Ward. To start at Day 1 of Steinbeck’s trip, go here.
Steinbeck goes to school
William Frantz Elementary – then an all-white school in a virtually all-white working-class neighborhood – was making national headlines. The city of New Orleans had taken its first token steps to integrate its public schools. The crowded grade school was ground zero in a bitter civil rights battle that segregationists and white parents could never win but were viciously fighting anyway.
On Nov. 14, 1960, the city’s color barrier was broken at William Frantz by little Ruby Bridges, the 6-year-old first-grader immortalized in Norman Rockwell’s painting “The Problem We All Live With.” Three other first-grade girls integrated a second school in the Lower Ninth Ward. When Bridges, escorted by beefy federal deputy marshals, showed up at William Frantz in her little white dress and white socks, it was like a bomb went off under Jim Crow’s bed.
The white teachers in the school immediately quit. White parents pulled their kids out and began mounting large daily protest rallies in front of the building that included racist signs, spitting, slashing tires and throwing rocks. Two days later thousands of white extremists and teenagers went on a rampage in downtown New Orleans and, as the whole nation watched, a Southern city thought to be (relatively) progressive on matters of race was turned upside down and disgraced.
Steinbeck was following these events from Texas as he prepared to make his dash home to New York. He decided he had to witness the ugly drama playing each morning outside William Frantz Elementary. He was especially interested in the well-publicized “Cheerleaders.” He characterized them as “stout middle-aged women,” but from the old newspaper photos and newsreels they looked like mostly young, white working-class mothers. The mothers stood across the street behind barricades yelling crude obscenities at Ruby Bridges and the few white parents who braved the boycott by walking their kids into the virtually empty school.
On what was probably Thursday, Dec. 1, 1960, Steinbeck writes that he arrived in New Orleans, parked his truck and took a cab to the school. He says he joined the morning circus at exactly 8:57. That was the time Ruby Bridges arrived each day. The barricaded sidewalks and streets were crowded and angry. Police were there to keep people from being hurt. Local and national media were there in force….
Going to New Orleans to see the Cheerleaders in action was the only deliberate act of journalism Steinbeck made on his entire trip, and it paid off. It gave his book of fictional encounters, musings and memories some needed punch and passion and a newsy edge. Not to mention a welcome dose of reality.
Being where real people are doing real things always has a way of producing strong writing, whether you’re a newspaper reporter covering a house fire or a great novelist covering a race war. Steinbeck’s Cheerleaders scenes, unlike any other in the book, prove it. In probably less than an hour, he found a powerful ending for “Charley” without having to rearrange the real world much at all.
— Excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”