I never understood how my dad— a poor kid from a Greek island who probably never saw a black person in his life before coming to America— was such a civil rights advocate.
Don’t get me wrong. He wasn’t an activist and wasn’t rushing off to parades and marches in support of his black customers at the Chateau Plaza Restaurant and Lounge on Pittsburgh’s North Side. But he was an advocate for the cause at home and at work— and did instill in his kids— the ideals we have embedded in us today at every opportunity he got.
As a kid I learned how to flip burgers at an early age. When other kids in my school went to soccer practice, I was at the Chataeu— waiting on tables, helping the servers and cooks, lugging empty cases of Iron City beer bottles to the storage room and interacting with people from all walks of life who patronized my dad’s restaurant and bar.
Manchester was an interesting neighborhood. The residential part was poor, and almost entirely black. But behind the houses were factories where white men came from throughout the city to put in their eight hour shifts. Alice Chalmers was there, as was a big shipping facility for United Parcel Service.
The restaurant was bustling— twenty four hours a day, seven days a week— with hungry workers from the factories and black families coming in for Sunday breakfast after church services wearing their bright hats.
This experience was a stark contrast to my days at school— in the North Hills, a predominately white suburb where the only black person in school was a football star named Vince Scott.
The disparity between my experiences at school during the day— and my evenings and weekends working at my dad’s restaurant had to do exclusively with my family’s ability to take advantage of the American dream of upward mobility and leave “the hood” where my dad first got his start— and where he built his business— when he first arrived in the United States as a war refugee from Greece.
But this experience— a long-time family secret that was whispered periodically at the dinner table— was also the reason why a white man from Greece was such an advocate for black people and often corrected me and my brother when we’d say something inappropriate, or bring home an experience from our 99% white schools while growing up.
My dad lived in the rough and gritty North Side of Pittsburgh alongside other poor and struggling people. He worshipped and was a part of the Holy Trinity community and was active in the parish’s move in 1958 from its old, tattered Sandusky Street church to its new building on West North Avenue.
In 1968 after the race riots that decimated the city and caused extensive damage throughout the North Side— he thought it was time to move out for the safety and well being of his family and headed north, into the white suburbs.
406 Wimer Drive was a great choice for him— a few miles across city limits, a good school district for his kids and a great location for his immigrant wife whom he had just brought from Greece a few years earlier to build a beautiful home. And the restaurant on the North Side was only a 15 minute drive.
And this one event in his life— buying his first home— is probably the defining factor that allowed my father to understand exactly what “white privilege” and “systemic injustice” meant.
That one event is probably why my dad raised us the way he did— always correcting us as kids when we made a joke about black people or said something inappropriate that we may have picked up from our very white neighborhood.
When my dad sought out to buy his first house in the suburbs, he actually had to prove— yes prove— that he was white.
Despite being a naturalized American with all of the proper deposit and down payment money to buy the house, he had to produce expired passports and birth certificates to convince both the bank and the real estate agents that were selling the house that he was white.
My dad was a short, stocky guy with a complexion like many of his countrymen— dark olive skin that would turn much darker in the summer. As you can see in the photo (he’s the shorter one), he could have easily confused someone.
It was an uncomfortable story at home and one that only came up a few times— but I remember it every time. I remember how angry my dad would become when a discussion on race would come up or I’d make some snide comment about Black people that I picked up from my very white school.
I remember once in high school we were preparing to take a school bus into the city to cheer on our football team. The opposing team was an inner city school and I made a snide comment about having to travel into “the ghetto” and “the animals” we’d be playing against.
It was the first— and only time— my dad ever slapped me.
“They don’t have it as easy as we do and those animals feed you,” he said after taking his hand away from my face. He went into his bedroom and closed the door and stayed in there for hours.
Another time— he scolded me again and reminded me about the time in 1968 when blacks made a human chain around the perimeter of his restaurant so rioters wouldn’t burn it down.
He told me that the Chateau was the only business in the strip mall that wasn’t damaged during the riots and that we have black Americans to thank for our very existence.
For me, my dad offered a course correction growing up. If it wasn’t for him— and his experience of white privilege and the injustice he saw that was built into the system against his own friends and customers at the Chateau Plaza— I would have probably grown up like most of the other white kids in my school— privileged and entitled, and I’d be on Facebook today calling out everyone who posts “Black Lives Matter” with a typical racist response that “All lives Matter.”
Because that’s what it is— no matter how much you want to believe it isn’t. Every time you say “All lives matter” in response to a BLM comment or post— it’s pure white privilege— and yes, it’s pure racism.
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