“And so they had to negotiate both of those worlds. That’s what black people have always done.”
Recorded over Zoom. Edited by Rebecca Warner.
Transcript for Code-Switching
The journey of my parents to South Bend, Indiana is—to me, it’s very interesting. They both went to Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis. They were both born in 1922. They graduated from high school in 1940. My mother was a beautician and she was at the famous Madam C.J. Walker corner. My father worked at the Hook’s Drug Store on that same corner. He wanted to move to something that he personally owned. So that’s how my parents came from Indianapolis to South Bend, Indiana, when my father opened the pharmacy.
That had to be really hard on my mom, I would think, to leave everybody: her brothers and sister, friends… I mean, she was a beautician. She was making her own money. She was living her life and then she gets married and then this guy drags her off to small-town. You know, that had to be challenging. Had to be, you know? But God bless her, I thank her from the bottom of everything that I am for being the amazing mother that she was, you know? Because she could’ve turned that all around. She could’ve been a very bitter woman. But she wasn’t. She was just the opposite.
The west side of South Bend has this area called “The Lake,” right? It’s the predominantly black side of town. And my father’s original drugstore was at the center of that thing. Even though the store was in a predominantly African American area, all of the people coming in bringing product—they were all, you know, white people, so. Most of the men that came in to sell him stuff called him “Jim.” And so there’s the code-switching that goes on with him being “Jim Perry” for the people that come in and try to get him to sell this, that, and the other thing and the other people calling him “Rev” or “Doc Perry” in the African American community. And so he had to negotiate both of those worlds. That’s what black people have always done.
My father was the “deal with the white people” person and my mom was the “I’d rather not,” you know? She would’ve rather just stayed in the black community and deal with black kids. You know, you talk about culture shock. There was—when she had to leave Indianapolis and come to South Bend and help this man run this drugstore, she was coming in contact with more white people than she probably did.
It was a hard time for my parents that first year. The Studebaker plant, which is the automaker, employed a large number of the African Americans in South Bend. It closed. So, all of the people in that area that were supporting the drugstore and that he was supporting lost their jobs. He became the person that they depended on. You know, “Mr. Perry, can we borrow your lawn mower?” “Mr. Perry, you know, my prescription is, you know, four dollars. I only have fifty cents…” On, and on, and on.
After the Studebaker closing, it was kind of a depressed state for a lot of African Americans. They recovered somewhat because Torrington and Bendix–there were other factories that came to the area. Subsequently, the drugstore did well enough that my father was able to move. He was the first person in St. Joe County to receive a small business loan. He was the only black pharmacist in South Bend, Indiana and one of few, I believe, in the whole state. When all these other places started adding pharmacies, the mom-and-pop stores started going away. Because of his stronghold in the community and because of how he had been there for so many people when they needed their checks cashed, or when they needed half of their prescription, or whatever the case may be, he was able to survive.
It’s amazing to me when I think about what he did in the time that he did it—in South Bend, Indiana. A hundred thousand people! Maybe ten percent was African American? Maybe? And not only survive but to thrive. In his high school yearbook he said something about wanting to own his own business one day. And the fact that he did that, and in the time that he did it in? It’s kind of amazing.
There is a hall of fame in downtown South Bend, Indiana and my father’s picture is up on that wall. So he was very impactful, not as just being the pharmacy, or being a pastor—or, assistant pastor of Olivet AME Church. But he inspired a lot of people to just do better.
At his funeral, it was opened up so people can talk, and some people talked about my father as a pastor. Then other people talked about my father as a businessman and a pharmacist. And the only thing that was going through my head at the time was, “Hmm. Yeah, he’s all that. But he’s my dad.” And that’s something a little different.
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