When it occurred to me that I could look up the names of Donald Hogan, Simeon Osby and Thelma Donnigan on the genealogical site I subscribe to, I hesitated for some time: although I had no qualms at all at the thought of spending weeks in a library looking up census information, newspapers, city Directories to find them, what information could emerge by merely typing in their names into a genealogical search engine seemed like an invasion.
Was it the speed at which information might be brought up?
Was it the sense that there surely was family, their families, who were pursuing the same genealogical research, and I would be in some ways trampling on their privacy? Before I had bought my own subscription, a friend had done some research on my family for me, and it had left me uneasy even while I encouraged her to find out all she could.
What was it that made me uneasy?
A sense that we are all now living in a fish bowl, a sense of the need for modesty, the thought that veils and curtains should be drawn somewhere. But I hate curtains except those that protect me from the strongest sun. I want light.
I wanted light on these three young African Americans who daily shared the High School ground my father walked on for three years. Who walked the city he walked in for the seventeen preceding years. I wanted the light cast by finding out about them to extend to illuminate our day.
Already, even before I typed one of the three names and the year of birth, already what I had found by paying close attention to the pages of The Capitoline, rippled into a greater consciousness of structured discrimination, and into a deeper understanding of today’s anger. Already there seemed to be a direct line, from the exclusion of the three faculty advisers for the Unity Reserves, from the segregation into the one club, from the small numbers graduating, to The Black Lives Matter movement.
Isn’t ninety years too long a time for racism and discrimination to persist and mutate? 1928 was long before Rosa Parks, Brown versus the Board of Education, Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. Fifty years have passed since those landmark institutional changes.
And still the angry young, the frustrated old, rise up in protest.
In 1928, was the institution of Springfield High proud for accepting blacks, unaware that the de-facto segregation showed it was merely paying lip service to integration? Was my father conscious of the hypocrisy, or oblivious to it?
What did my own double-edged reaction 90 years later – that on the one hand I should be so angry that there were there were only three graduating African American students, and on the other hand that I should find myself considering, how many Springfield schools had even three black students -- what did that say?
Could I dare to think that the three young people who managed to graduate with my father in June 1928, were both tokens of our Caucasian hypocrisy, and also markers for some kind of progress? What does progress means in that kind of context?
There are only four entries for Donald Hogan in the genealogical site I subscribe to: three of the entries are uploaded from the 1927 and 1928 Capitoline, and reiterate the information I already had, that he was a horn player, that he played in the orchestra, that he graduated in 1928. The fourth entry was a census that told me that he was born a week after my father, on October 19, 1910, in Springfield: like my father, he graduated high school before he turned eighteen. The entry also told me that he died in Chicago, Cook County, in August of 1986. Less than two years after my father. Nothing else.
But there is nothing ordinary about one of the four entries for Thelma Donnigan: the first three are uploaded pages of the Yearbook, but the fourth is an entry from the Springfield City Directory for 1928.
A William and Anna Donnigan, are listed above Thelma’s name, and a son of the couple, Harold, is listed below hers, but the three of them live together at a different address from hers, and cannot be her parents or, it seems, any kind of relatives. There seems to be no record of any of her family in Springfield: Thelma Donnigan, student at Springfield High, lives at 1105 East Washington Avenue.
Was she living with relatives who had completely different names?
Was she already living as a maid in the home of a white family? Did live-in maids list their names in city directories? Would a live-in maid have access to schooling?
Was she living with a man?
And then she is no longer in Springfield, but she is also not among the many Thelma Donnigans listed as living in any other part of the country. She vanishes from the records. Perhaps she disappears into the un-traceability of the married state.
What remains, a mark of shame as indelibly imprinted as any, on the society into which my father was born, and the dominant culture of which both he and I have been privileged beneficiaries, is a small, inconspicuous letter between brackets: (c).
Colored. Branded, like every other person of color in the City Directory for Springfield, Illinois in the year of the Lord 1928.