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  • My grandparents on my father’s side were Jewish immigrants from Poland and Lithuania in the early 1900’s. They knew each other as young adults in New York. I know this because I saw my grandmother’s naturalization papers from 1912, with my grandfather’s signature as a witness.

    They married and moved to Atlanta where my grandfather started a very small hardware store in an area called Buttermilk Bottom.

    Buttermilk Bottom was in the heart of the city. It might have been a grand neighborhood at one time, with large wooden houses with ornate porches, even though many still had outhouses.

    At some point, the area was vacated by the whites and the grand houses broken up into rooms for rent, and more modest houses and shacks built to accommodate the black population.

    My father and my uncle started helping my grandfather in the store at an early age.

    When I was young, I would visit them at the store. I saw that this neighborhood was different from where I lived. Everyone on the street was black. The children AND the adults were in rags. The streets off the main street were still dirt, the grand houses and the shacks that surrounded them were rundown, and the outhouses were still there.

    Racism was rampant in Atlanta, but so was anti-Semitism, so as Jews in a Christian world, most of us kept a low profile. I couldn’t bring myself to say anything if a friend made a racist joke.

    I heard racial and anti-semitic slurs on the street, and on the buses. Even some of my relatives had bad names for blacks.

    My grandfather, my father and my uncles’ customers were ALL black, and the clerk they hired to help out was one of the neighborhood men.

    I saw they treated their customers with respect.

    In a time where blacks and whites never touched except in violence, my father helped people try on shoes or jackets, fixed their radios and their toasters and called them ‘Sir and ‘Ma’m.

    I knew that’s how I wanted to act, but I didn’t know how to express it. I was shy and I was scared.

    All I could think to do was sit in the back of the bus. I would get nasty looks from the white passengers as I moved back there and silence from my black seatmates. But that was OK; it still felt right.

    Buttermilk Bottom is long gone now. It’s an asphalt parking lot surrounded by highrise offices and condos, but I remember.
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