‘Too Black, Too White’ by Ely Green

Autobiography. Published 1 Jan 1970. University of Massachusetts Press. 637 pages.

This is the remarkable autobiography of Ely Green, a mixed race African-American / German-American born 11 September 1893 near Sewanee, Tennessee who died 27 April 1968 California.  

‘Ely’ is pronounced as in ‘Ely Cathedral’

‘Too Black, Too White’ is the unique autobiography of a smart, orphaned, unschooled boy of mixed ethnicity born to a 17 year old servant girl Lena Green in the southern state of Sewanee Tennessee in 1894.  His mother was a maid to a wealthy white family; one of the family’s three sons got her pregnant; she’d never say which. While in Sewanee, Ely was ‘known of’ by his white grandmother and treated with politeness though at a distance –  he was never formally acknowledged or supported in any way by that side of the family. 

Ely describes himself as the son of ‘one of [the] aristocrats of this town’ – ‘[his] mother a colored woman’ – making him a representative of the ‘melting pot of America’. This caused him to have to ‘walk the third path of segregation’ – which was to be neither black nor white which explains the title of the book ‘Too Black, Too White’.

One day, age about 9, Ely was happily playing with some white friends his age when they went as they had done many times before to the candy store for a milkshake but on this occasion a new clerk was behind the counter and he refused to serve Ely and call him a ‘nigger’. Tearful and hurt Ely asked his (step) mother for an explanation but she wouldn’t say a thing. She expect him to ‘work it out for himself’ – nor would his step-father explain the meaning of ‘negro’ so Ely turned to a local Episcopalian priest who made an equally poor job of explaining it beyond suggesting that Ely should try making friends with the black kids from then on. Ely was pale skinned, with European features, his hair was red, but curly hair – the only indication of his mixed ethnicity.

The words ‘Negro’ and ‘Nigger’ cannot be avoided in this review as they feature through out the book. Removing the word from the statute books and from every day language became Ely’s motivation in his life from a young age. Forever more the use of the words ‘nigger’ or ‘negro’ especially when used in malice made Ely angry, and could produce an impulsive, vengeful and potentially violent response – it is the touchstone for how Ely behaves throughout his life.  

At the time, being of African descent, with any trace of black blood at all, you are treated by the white population – especially by the poor white in the south, as living outside the written law. Ely describes this as ‘the tyranny of man over man’ and a constant reminder of how his grandfather had been ‘sold on the block’. Ely’s view is that the term ‘negro’, and all its derivatives, is used to ensure that black people ‘know their place’ which for a boy growing up means that he will never be considered as a ‘man’. He is made to understand that he should accept his fate or face dire consequences, something that is made very clear by the violent lynching of a local black man. 

After his mother’s death when Ely was raised at first by his African-American stepfather and his new wife, and then an African-American grandfather figure until in his mid-to late teens he was taken in and employed by a wealthy white family in Waxahachie, Texas.

Sewanee society was split three ways, between the wealthy white population, the compliant black population (who could be middle-class small business owners and farm owners as well as poorer domestics and workers) and poor whites. The land and business owning white class, who Ely called ‘aristocrats’ lived in the area known as the ‘Corporation’ while the black population lived in the part of town known as the ‘Bottom’. The third group, the poor white Ely referred to as ‘seggars’.  Ely felt that if treated forever as a ‘nigger’ then he could always only ever be either a ‘boy’ or when much old an ‘Uncle Sam’ – someone of no consequence who could only get by through child-like obedience to his white overlords of any class. 

Throughout his life Ely’s felt himself to be on a quest to understand where he should fit in, concluding that a man or woman should be judged only by their character, not the colour of their skin, and that labelling a ‘negro’ was deeply unjust, especially ‘under the American flag’.   It took a brave man to do the right thing at the right time and Ely was that brave man. Even as a boy he had a particular Christian sense of what was right and wrong brought up as he was under the Episcopalian Church with two ministers as godparents and guardians and to whom he often went for advice. 

Ely could be judged by his deeds, from his industrious hard work and his focus when learning a new task such as raking leaves, shoe-shining, collecting herbal remedies and wild foods, hunting animals for their skins, training hunting dogs, shooting a pistol or rifle, saving and later lending money, training to box and then car mechanics and learning to read and write. He was exceedingly enterprising in any job, being fastidious and abstemious and quickly making himself indispensable to whomsoever he found himself working. 

It was as a result of Ely pulling a gun on a white man who refused to pay back the money that had been leant to him that put his life at immediate risk and led him to leave Sewanee or risk ending up dead in the road, strung up from a tree. This is how he found himself running from his home town in Tennessee as a young adult to find work in Waxahachie, Texas.

Ely had a knack of knowing who to turn to. But he wasn’t afraid to ask questions nor would he accept answers where he saw injustice. 

He got work paving new roads where he was known as ‘little red’ and ‘skinny’. He is a zealous worker no matter the condition and is soon given responsibility for others. He caught the eye of local businessman Judge Oscar Dunlap of Ellis County who picked Ely out to work directly for him. Good looking, courteous and an able listener, Ely was soon all but adopted by the Judge’s wife and daughter. Though still a shoe-shining servant, mechanic and chauffeur, Ely was increasingly treated more like one of the family. It was the ‘Judge’ who told Ely to write something every day to improve his language, his vocabulary and his handwriting and to whom each night Ely had to discuss five new words with his employer.

The move to Waxahachie still had considerable underlying danger. When a white farmer tried to legitimise in law the marriage of his son to a black woman he was nearly beaten to death and his entire family had to abandon their land and move. He stands up for himself and repeatedly faces trouble rather than running or hiding from it

Ely fell in love with a beautiful African-American girl called Anita (also of mixed race – she could pass as white) but as she’s the college principal’s daughter whose brothers are training becoming doctors they look down on Ely. This simply spurs him on to get an education, if only by talking to people of significance and keeping up his writing.

He’s an observer of constant systematic injustice. He repeatedly risked his neck by getting involved and was saved by timely intervention of a white person of authority without whom he would certainly have been killed. 

Ely had grand ideas for wanting to enlist during the First World War.  “I am going to fight to change the statute of law of the United States government” he said, “to abolish the word negro, which is the name of a slave; this is why I have to go to France. When I come back I will be an American citizen. No one can represent the United States on foreign soil but a man. I will be a man.” Ely felt it would be better to die in France a man then in the US as a ‘nigger’.

Judge Dunlap had pulled strings to keep Ely from France, and then when Ely found a way to join a division that was being sent out, the Judge found a way to keep Ely from a combat unit. However, the Judge could do nothing to prevent Ely from behaving in ways that on several occasions put him in mortal danger of being murdered or court martialed and shot. 

Ely would go to fight for democracy, not President Wilson’s version, but democracy to ‘gain respect as a man. ‘I will be a black man to the US flag instead of being a nigger or Negro to the American soil.’ (p.390)

He arrived in Brest, France 19 June 1918 and was sent to St.Nazaire 24 June where he remained until 4 August 1919 when he was discharged. 

It wasn’t long before Ely, promoted to Sergeant, was set upon by Marines, fellow Americans – and from Ely’s perspective treated ‘worse than a German prisoner’. Having successfully prevented a mutiny he was falsely accused of being  the ring-leader, locked up, beaten and threatened with bayonets pressed against his neck and chest. For the seventh or eight time in his life, Ely was close to being killed and once again message got out to superiors, always white men, who were able to secure his release. 

Ely got his men around and a defining speech. It was 22 October 1918. These pages are an astonishing read (pages 414 to 419)

“Men, I am going to talk to you about servival (sic) …” 

He explained that they were in a helpless position there being 5,000 of them (African American soldiers being used as stevedores) and 25,000+ of them (American Expeditionary Force Marines in camps St.Nazaire.

He continued by saying that they could not fight guns with cargo hooks. They were ‘slaves’.

He recognised that they were ‘dying slowly’ with neither gloves nor coats against the October weather on the Atlantic coast of North West France but that he had been promised that these would be provided. 

He went on to say that he would not report any of them under any circumstances and he went on to say that on discharge they must insist as being recorded as black men under the American flag ‘to shed the Negro slave name’.

Ely described his experience of St.Nazaire docks under the control of white American officers during the First World War as a ‘hellhole of hatred’. On being discharged Ely was adamant that he would not be labeled a Negro Soldier, but an ‘American Soldier of the Texas battalion’.

During World War II Ely was tasked by the First Lady (Eleanor Roosevelt) to tackle the unions in the plane manufacturing plants that would not permit any black man to work in any but the most lowly of positions.

I’m a veteran of World War I. I’m a patriot of America that has shed blood for his country and has a right to defend his respect as a citizen’ he started his pep talk to the men he recruited. 

‘Too Black, Too White’ is an extraordinary record of survival against the odds when faced with the ghastly injustice of segregation and oppression, being bullied, isolated and grossly and unfairly treated by the nation that went to war in 1918 to ‘protect democracy’.  Stoically he called himself ‘a native of this melting pot of the United States’.

To better himself, in particular to improve his English, Ely was encouraged to do so by the family he lived with and worked for who were eager to  then see him become an ‘aristocrat’ himself, to be noble, virtuous, good loved and valued. Ely was extraordinarily astute –  by talking to and listening to the right people and posing difficult questions he gained the education he never had formally, ‘by talking to people you learn something from everyone’ he wrote. While he was a good listener and quick to learn and bright he was also easily riled and prepared to die fighting his cause. 

His stated mission in life was to try to love everybody. So he’s constantly trying, against the odds, to find his way in the world.  Ely felt he should be respected based on his character – as a man of equal standing amongst other men, as evidenced by his behaviour, and not on the colour of his skin. ‘Character is the greatest supremacy man has’ he wrote. 

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