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Humbles column: Early downtown memories yield mixed emotions for African-Americans

By Gladman Humbles

Gladman Humbles, a retired Paducah firefighter, is an occasional contributor to The Paducah Sun. As part of Black History Month, Humbles recalls earlier days in downtown Paducah.

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"Going back downtown" brings memories of one African-American's experiences - memories that stir emotions, emotions of delight and dejection. This was a time when Paducah's downtown was a mixed bag of racial rapport, probably different from any other small Southern city.

Going downtown was a dress-up occasion. Black males liked clothes that fit - knife sharp creases in pants and shiny shoes. Women wrecked their budgets to show off in nice, pricey clothes.

Rosenfield's on Broadway was the "in" place to buy clothes. If you couldn't sport the Rosenfield's label, you weren't "in." Eddie Norris was always "in." Eddie was Rosenfield's presser and delivery man and dressed better than Rosenfield.

My father, William Humbles, shopped where Paducah's famous humorist, Irvin S. Cobb, shopped - at Wallerstein's on the corner of Third and Broadway.

Once Dad bought a bunch of "long johns" and stored them in the basement until they dry rotted. Years later, when he tried to put on a pair, the legs fell off. Embarrassed, he blamed Wallerstein's and stopped shopping there.

Conway's Barber Shop on the first floor of the 10-story bank building at Fourth and Broadway was the classiest shop downtown. Shines were 20 cents, and tips were great. Conway's was a big job jump from "Two" Street, where shines were a dime and tips a surprise.

"Put down" racial talk turned me off. But Monday mornings at school, I wrapped a 10-dollar bill around a bunch of ones, put on a Rosenfield's outfit and impressed the girls that I was rich. This little charade turned me on to the extent that I forgot about the racial talk.

"Two" Street bustled with activity, especially on Saturdays. I worked in a barbershop on Second, between Broadway and Kentucky Avenue. The Red Fox Saloon was on the Kentucky Avenue corner. Watching fights through the window was more entertaining than watching fights at the movies. Once a man and a woman brought their fight outside. The woman was getting the worst of it. My mom had admonished me not to meddle in other folks' business, especially on the job. I forgot Mom's advice, and very politely, I asked the man to please stop hitting her. They paused long enough to tell me to mind my own business - and suddenly, I remembered Mom's advice - and started minding my own business.

Two black cooks sent sweet and savory smells drifting down Two Street. Lambert's was always full at lunchtime. I talked Mrs. Lambert into putting a couple of tables in the kitchen. It was a bit hot, but the 35-cent plate lunches plus drinks and dessert on the house "cooled" things down a bit.

The Market House buzzed with activity. Dad liked to haggle, and Mom had to can bunches of vegetables. I lightened her load with a money-making idea. Soon I was pulling my little red wagon through the neighborhood, selling fresh vegetables. Dad was proud of his little entrepreneur "money-making" son, and his 6-year-old son was proud too!

Two situations existed on South Fourth Street between Broadway and Kentucky Avenue that were indeed odd and contradictory.

If you were black and downtown, you could sit down and dine at the Dixie Café. A man in a straw hat would welcome you in. The only annoyance was a little boy running around the store pestering people. Mr. Albert Jones, the owner, believed that "little boy" would soar far beyond "Dixie." So he named his son "Albert" without the "Jr." and "Little Albert" did soar. He went from an FBI agent to hold more public offices than anyone in Paducah, and possibly the entire state, winding up as mayor of Paducah.

Another odd situation.

If you had black feet with ingrown nails, you needed to go home and cut them out. Dr. Connie Lee, an African-American with an office near the Dixie Café, worked on white feet and had a "White Only" sign on his door to warn black folks not to enter.

Two more odd situations.

Kresge's five and dime was on Broadway near Fourth. Black and white folks rubbed elbows standing up at the hot dog and hamburger stand. But black folks could not sit at the lunch counter where stools were. They had some good hot dogs but an odd way of doing business.

The Paducah city bus exchange was at Fourth and Broadway.

Remember Rosa Parks? She put the civil rights movement in motion by refusing to give up her seat to a white person and was subsequently arrested.

And had Mrs. Parks lived in Paducah, she could have sat in any available seat and not have had to give it up to anyone. Sitting on the same bus seat next to a white person - but no sitting down at lunch counters. Odd indeed!

"Hello, boy." Black males didn't like to be called "boy." I decided to give Mr. Michael, owner of Michael's Hardware at Second and Broadway, a piece of my mind and tell him to stop this "boy" business. I was in my mid-20s at the time. An elderly white man entered in front of me. Michael greeted him, "Hello, boy." My day was spoiled. Mr. Michael called everyone "boy," except women. He called them "girls."

Some downtown businesses didn't discriminate. Banks didn't make small loans. Pawn brokers did. Many African-Americans always needed money to make ends meet, and the pawn shop was the place to go.

Three brass balls hung suspended outside of C.C. Cohen's at Second and Broadway. The shiny balls could be seen a block away, letting one know a pawn shop was inside. But the three balls also gave a warning: "Two to one - you won't redeem the goods you pawned." C.C. Cohen, the little man behind the counter, also sold clothes. "Two to one" black folks wouldn't go in to buy clothes.

Mr. Reid owned a pawn shop, was robbed and wanted out. Bill Rayburn was out and wanted in - so he bought himself a pawn shop for $20,000 on Broadway between Second and Third. Bill didn't need the three brass balls to bring in business. His colorful personality, magic tricks and uncanny ability to pay a few dollars more than competitors drew customers like a magnet draws nails. Business was so good that he paid off his note within a year.

Bill and I became close friends after he and I retired. A jug labeled "Paducah Distillery - 6-year-old Bourbon" aroused my curiosity. I asked Bill why he kept this antique jug in his showcase.

Bill replied, "A lady brought that jug to me that belonged to a good friend of mine who passed. She asked me to keep it and think of the good times her dad and I had throughout our friendship. Later, a man offered me $650 for the old jug. I turned the offer down."

I asked, "Why?"

He replied, "I just didn't think it was right. And besides, my word meant a lot more to me than $650."

Until Prohibition in 1920, Paducah Distillery for years stood where the C.C. Cohen building now stands. Another sniff of history coming from an old whiskey jug.

Jean told Jean to put her name in the box. "What for?" asked Jean Flye of the other Jean, a clerk at Hank's Hardware on Broadway.

"You just might win a new car," said Jean to Jean.

Jean Flye thought, "Black folks never win anything anyway," and then stated, "I can't win, and I can't drive." Reluctantly, Jean dropped her name in the box.

Jean Flye did win. And Jean Flye did learn to drive. Each time she drove her shiny new Renault down Broadway, she honked at Hank's.

When Merrill Lynch talked, everyone listened. When Bernice walked, everyone looked, especially men. After working at several downtown stores, Bernice landed a job as a window dresser at Penney's and hit her glass ceiling. Bernice had the perfect personality for a sales lady. Her persistent smile and courteous demeanor would have enhanced sales. The tradition of "white jobs" and "colored jobs" destroyed her desire to become a sales lady. Bernice landed a better job - the Paducah area's first African-American rural mail carrier, and I landed Bernice and became a happy man for 38 years.

The downtown I knew went out when the mall came in. Things weren't right back then, but it's good to remember the good times going around Paducah's downtown. It wasn't all good, but it wasn't all bad either.

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