I happened to be traveling through Galveston, Texas on June 19th two years ago. I went into a store to buy some Texas BBQ spice rub and the black female owner of the establishment had hung a large sign in celebration of Juneteenth. In an effort to get to know the people of Texas, I asked the storeowner about Juneteenth, as I had never heard of it. This woman explained to me that Juneteenth honors the day when enslaved people in the State of Texas were set free. “The Emancipation Proclamation had happened two years earlier, but Texas didn’t have a lot of Union soldiers around to uphold the new laws,” she explained. “Texas was late to the party, until June 19th, 1865, when a Northerner read federal orders for black Texans to be set free from slavery.” I was completely humiliated by my ignorance of this historic event. Juneteenth is now gaining the recognition that this day has deserved since it was declared by the State of Texas in 1980. Why, like the State of Texas had been after the Civil War, had I been so late to the party in learning what this day was all about? The following story is about a man who wasn’t from Texas, nor was he black. His name was Domenick and he lived in East Harlem, New York. But I believe that the woman selling me BBQ spice rub would have seen him as kin. Perhaps we will all see Domenick as kin after hearing his life’s story.
Domenick Guidice was born in 1920 to parents who had immigrated to the United States from Naples, Italy. At age 18, he was drafted to the United States Army during World War II, but served as a typist within the States, which suited him well. After all, Domenick wasn’t one to fight; he was a lover of words and a poet who scrawled words on every napkin of each diner he frequented through his teenaged and young adult years.
After the war, Domenick went to college and became an accountant. He worked for MGM Studios in New York City and made good money. But something else was happening during those years. The Civil Rights Movement had begun to unfurl, and Domenick started attending underground meetings to fight for racial justice. Domenick realized that being an accountant held little meaning for him. When the MGM office for which he worked relocated to California, Domenick declined to go. Instead, he began attending protests for Civil Rights in New York City. And by the year of 1963, he became a Captain Leader for the March on Washington. That was on August 28th of that year. Just two weeks thereafter, on September 15th, four black schoolgirls were killed in a bombing with sticks of dynamite at a church in Birmingham, Alabama. Domenick got in his car and drove from New York to Alabama to protest again. It was during this year when he met the love of his life, Joan Ferguson. Joan had been an actress in Greenwich Village. She watched a white American man being arrested with a few local priests during a rally for Civil Rights on the television. Joan joined the picket line after witnessing the quiet fury behind Domenick’s countenance as he was being hand-cuffed by New York City police officers. She married him less than one year later.
Domenick and Joan had two children. They moved to the South Bronx, and Domenick went back to college at the Long Island University to get a second degree. This college experience was far more in keeping with his personality, and Domenick secured his first teaching job educating 5th graders in the Castle Hill Section of the South Bronx. It was there that he instilled his love of poetry and reading to children of all races. Domenick brought a briefcase to work each day; because of his savoir faire with language, he referred to this briefcase as his “valise”. Within the valise, Domenick kept letters from his 5th grade students. These were the letters that were written towards the end of the schoolyear, which, as any teacher knows, are typically both flattering and apologetic in nature.
Because I know Domenick’s daughter, I was able to go through his valise just last week. Amongst the many writings therein were two letters from the principal of his elementary school which thanked him for organizing assemblies to educate the students on the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Even though Domenick was now a teacher and a father, he refused to stop fighting for racial equality. From his initial beginnings of working as an accountant for MGM, to his years of protesting publicly for Civil Rights, Domenick had redirected his life’s work towards teaching children. Because the pay for a schoolteacher was not nearly as good as what an accountant would earn, Domenick drove a taxicab each night to make ends meet for his wife and children.
Domenick’s life path was one that was imbued with great meaning, but it was not without personal sacrifice and anxiety. He kept a leather-bound book within his valise where he wrote his poetic musings. One can picture him with a furrowed brow in the teacher’s lunchroom in the 1980’s, scribbling his thoughts, concerns and worries about the future that the world held for his students. Amongst the many penciled scrawls in his leather-bound book, Dominick wrote this: “Humanity can be blessed many times over and also be incomprehensible. The long history of torture and degradation of the weak and innocent is yet to be eradicated by us. Many tears have been shed by the innocent and brave.”
Towards the end of his teaching career, Domenick developed early dementia. Very few noticed his forgetfulness and difficulty finding words, except for the black female principal at the Community School 6. Her name was Eloise and she was concerned for this teacher, who had only two years left before he could retire with a full pension. Eloise loved Domenick and knew that she needed to protect that pension for which he had worked tirelessly in helping children learn to read. So, she took Domenick out of the classroom, kept his status as a full-time teacher and created a position where he could assist other teachers in reading activities in the school. (Perhaps this was what Domenick had marched for all along; equality in work for all people, and the overriding belief that people could care for each other with justice and compassion. If only they dared to try).
Going back to the modern-day tale of my ignorance of Juneteenth, I am struck by many things about Dominick’s life. While the March on Washington was incredibly bold and daring, as was his trip to Birmingham Alabama two weeks later, it was Domenick’s day-to-day work which made him a true leader in the fight for racial equality. It makes one ponder and imagine, what if more people had done this in 1963? Even if they didn’t attend these large and famous protests, what if people took a personal stance on ending racism as they lived and raised children and performed the most mundane of tasks? Where would we now be as a society if there had been more Domenicks who cared about every child, every person, no matter the color of their skin, and who wanted to stop the tears “shed by the innocent and brave”?
It goes without saying that we wouldn’t be where we find ourselves today. As the world will finally celebrate with reverence a holiday as potent as Juneteenth on this very week, may we all learn from Domenick. May we be very careful about what letters, stories and ideas we carry within our ‘valises’ and bring forth to the world. May we remember that it needn’t be a holiday to carry out racial justice in all that we do. Domenick grappled with fear for the future, but what if our actions now would have eased that fear? What if we challenged ourselves about the nature of racial divide and did something every day to narrow the distance between each other?
In Domenick’s own words, “Humanity can be blessed many times over.” Let us celebrate Juneteenth with the soul of Domenick Guidice and the souls of the many people who suffered without reason from racial inequality. And let’s not stop on June 20th, either.
I think it is fair to say that people living in the Tri-State area have a skewed view of the State of Texas. I was guilty of this same cultural slant, and I imagined that life there would resemble what was depicted in the 1973 film, entitled The Great American Cowboy. I told my friends and family that I was taking a trip to Houston, Texas, to see if I might want to move there in a few years and they all wrinkled their noses. Even if the shocked WHY did not escape their lips, I knew what they were thinking, because I was thinking exactly the same thing. Why would anyone from the Northeast consider relocating to a place known for rodeo, intense heat and floods?
I had intense curiosity about Texas in general, but specifically Houston, because of the unusual event of Hurricane Harvey in August of 2017. I had watched coverage of this on the news and sat inert and in horror as people filled buckets with water from their backyards in order to flush their own toilets, moved furniture to the second stories of their homes (if they had second floors), while their cars sat unmoving, filled past the windows from the kind of flooding this city had rarely witnessed before. What was even more remarkable than the oddity of this storm was the way that the city of Houston helped each other thereafter. There was a story of the owner of a furniture store who welcomed the residents whose homes had been flooded to stay in his showrooms. Who were these generous people? I just had to find out. I booked a ticket out of Newark and flew to Houston in the middle of June.
I decided to order a ribeye steak with macaroni and cheese and a side of Cajun roasted Brussels sprouts. The marbling of the meat was stupendous, the spicy vegetables were the perfect compliment to a local Texas craft beer. Everyone was gearing up for the next game, which would be Brazil versus Switzerland. Some Brazilians had come to the bar, sporting bright yellow jerseys in support of their team. The bar was filled with people of every culture imaginable.
The next day, I went for a Thai massage. It was my very first, and I was startled and delighted by having the masseur kneel on all fours, walk upon my back and then twist my neck and spine in such a way that I was certain might cause a stroke. Upon leaving this massage (through which I emerged without any neurological impairment), I felt rejuvenated and ready for a new adventure. The Thai owner of the massage studio told me to go visit a friend of hers. “His name is John Henry,” she told me. “He is a famous barbeque master and makes his own products and spices. His storefront is on Little York Road. Tell him I sent you. He has been my next-door neighbor for over thirty years.”
There was a torrential downpour of rain on the way there. The rain had not stopped in Houston since I had arrived. But I was determined to meet this John Henry, and to endure the infamous Houston traffic. When driving in New York and New Jersey, we expect traffic and lots of it. I had scoffed at the tales of traffic in Houston. There is no way the traffic here I worse than in New Jersey. Maybe these Southerners do not know what traffic really looks like. Another falsity proven wrong by my standards! Houston has pretty bad traffic. And this was in early afternoon on a Monday.
This was John Henry. He showed me all around his business, including a “Wall of Flame” which showcased his years as a barbeque master for the Bush-Quayle administration. John had pictures of his ancestors from the early 1900’s which were prominently displayed, and John gave them credit for everything he knows about grilling. There were framed articles about him in the store as well, and he was referred to as John Abercrombie in the news clippings.
“Why did you change your last name from Abercrombie to Henry?” I asked him.
“Because nobody is gonna buy barbeque from an Abercrombie,” John said, as he chuckled. “But they’ll buy it from a Henry.” I bought several different spice blends from John and he gave me many extra samples as well. When I left the store after our very warm connection and walked towards my rented sedan, John said, “We’d be happy to welcome you to Texas, should you decide to live here. But you are going to need a pickup truck if you do.”
Later that week, I went to the closest local beach I could find. It was the first day without rain during my trip and Galveston is a small town situated along the eastern coast of Texas, just under a one-hour drive from the City of Houston. Many Houstonians warned me not to go there. “The water is brown and ugly. This is where the Mississippi River dumps into the water which then goes into the Gulf of Mexico.” I went there on a day that was inordinately hot. I bought a bathing suit at a roadside shop, but never got in it. Parking was a challenge, but I found a good spot near a seafood restaurant. I ate a lunch of fresh shrimp and gazed at the water. Strangely, it looked blue, not the brown that had been described. I remarked upon this to my waitress, and she said, “As a matter of fact, the water does look blue. It never looks this way. I guess it is from all the rain we’ve had this week.” When I asked the waitress about her experience with Hurricane Harvey, she replied, “Usually Galveston gets hit from hurricanes far worse than the city does. I live around here and we were so relieved that our beach town was alright. But we are very nervous about what might happen in the future.”
I drove back to Houston that afternoon. The legendary traffic was the same as what I would have expected when driving to or from the Jersey Shore at home. I arrived back at my rental apartment to process it all. After a nap by the pool, I met some friends on Bellaire Boulevard. This was about 13 miles away from my rental condo, in the Vietnamese section of town. I found a great Vietnamese restaurant and tasted seven courses of beef that evening. This was authentic Asian fare, and the neighborhood seemed like a little Saigon. I was urged by the waiter to go across the street for some shaved ice cream for dessert. The Vietnamese cashier talked me into a particular flavor of ice cream with which I was unfamiliar. He was only a teenager, but he was very convincing. His English was heavily accented. “You must try durian ice cream. Durian is delicious fruit that smell like natural gas. Smell very bad, you must get over smell and enjoy the flavor of ice cream. Very popular in my country.”
I had only one day left to spend in Houston. I walked the perimeter of Memorial Park in the morning and then returned to the very first place I had visited in the city. The Doberman’s Bar and Grill. It was going to be very hard for me to go home to the Northeast. I needed some good food, craft beer and the chatter of the local people to overcome the sound of my heart breaking. The truth of the matter was that I had fallen in love with Houston. I loved his vibration, I loved his diversity, I loved his very soul. While most ships and cities are referred to in the female sense, I found Houston to be a man. A very strong and enduring man, a person who would invite, but never beg or demand.
Much like a true gentleman, Houston protects and cares for his people. Many people who live there are transplants of New Orleans, in large part because of Hurricane Katrina. Houstonians welcomed those from this tragedy without reservation. These states of Texas and Louisiana are neighbors and they share that body of water where the Mississippi River releases into the Gulf of Mexico. Their propinquity may account for their kinship, because anything can go wrong with a large body of water, with land so close to sea level. Last September, Hurricane Harvey showed the City of Houston just how quickly everything could go wrong. Neighborhoods which were never classified as being in flood zones were covered in water. And what happened next was an outpouring of generosity and unity, as everyone in this area of Texas took care of each other. In speaking with the people of Houston, I learned that this surprised no one who resides there.
Doberman’s Bar closes at 11 p.m. But they stay open when patrons are there after hours. It was getting late, and I knew I had to get on a plane very early the next morning. I was talking to Chris, the owner of the joint, and I asked him why he had opened his restaurant just five months ago. Why had he chosen to take this impossible risk, in an area that could flood at any time?
“I believe in this city,” Chris said. His chin was strong and unwavering. “We love having visitors here in Houston. And don’t get me wrong, I love that people like you and others come around to taste this food and be with us. But I really want to take care of the people in my zip code, you know?”
That was the answer to my question all along. I really want to take care of the people in my zip code. This is the protection that makes the people in the City of Houston so friendly and alive. They know that their city flooded and it will likely flood again. But no matter how severe the next natural disaster will be, these people have each other’s backs. This is how people forge comfort and a sense of community. They may lose everything they have ever known, but they still have each other.
I had come all of this way to discover a place far more variegated than I had expected. The journey started by eating steak and watching soccer, to getting an authentic Thai massage, to meeting a famous barbeque master, then followed by a trip to the beach with water that has miraculously turned blue for a day, to being served a dish of malodorous ice cream by an enthusiastic Vietnamese teenager, with the finale of why I had come here in the first place. I had come to feel protected. Not by rogue cowboys with lassos and steers, but by people from all over the globe, who were intent on caring for each other.
When the flood comes, the people of Houston have something beautiful, strong and very masculine to rely on. May we all have that when the waters break into our own homes. May we carry that same message into our own locales. May we care for the people in our own zip codes. Thank you, Houston.
Sincerely, A Northern girl who loves you still