Brothers Barry and Tommy Moser were born of the same parents in Chattanooga, Tennessee; slept in the same bedroom; went to the same school—and were both poisoned by their family’s deep racism and anti-Semitism. But as they grew older, their perspectives and paths grew further and further apart.
Barry left Chattanooga for New England and a life in the arts; Tommy stayed put and became a mortgage banker. From attitudes about race to food, politics, and money, the brothers began to think so differently that they could no longer find common ground. For nearly forty years, there was more strife between them than affection.
After one particularly fractious conversation, their fragile relationship fell apart. With the raw emotions that so often surface when we talk of our siblings, Barry recalls how they were finally able to traverse that great divide and reconcile their troubled brotherhood before it was too late.
In We Were Brothers, “Barry Moser writes about the savagery of racism and the savagery between brothers with thoughtful introspection. In his efforts to understand both what he did and what was done to him, he has given us a beautiful and deeply compassionate examination of life” (Ann Patchett).
“A powerful evocation of an era in which African-American children could play in a white person’s yard but weren’t allowed into the house. And it’s a moving portrait of two men—loving but wary, and capable of beauty even in the presence of the ugliest flaws.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Might prove especially poignant and comforting to people navigating difficult family relationships.” —Michel Martin, weekend host of NPR’s All Things Considered
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SHALLOWFORD ROAD ORIGINATES at the western foot of Missionary Ridge, the scene of a fierce and bloody battle in the Civil War, part of the greater Battle of Chattanooga. The road ascends steeply, northward up the side where it crowns the brow of the ridge, and then gently descends the eastern slope until it levels out and meanders out into the country. My brother, Tommy, and I grew up in a small five-room house on Shallowford Road just after it levels out at the eastern foot of the ridge. Number 509. It was a white bungalow, the most popular style for houses built in America between 1930 and 1940. It had a low-pitched gable roof and an unenclosed porch supported on the corners by square, tapered columns that sat on masonry pedestals. This style of architecture originated in southern California and gained popularity nationally because the houses were so practical and easy to build. Bungalows became so popular that a customer could mail-order one and have it shipped and assembled on site. It was said that a bungalow could be built by anyone who could swing a hammer.
Arthur Boyd Moser, our father, bought the house for my mother, as best I can figure, from a family named Childers sometime around 1930. If that is so, it may have been a wedding present for Mother since she and Arthur Boyd married on November 11, 1930. It was right next door to the house belonging to Mother's brother, Floyd Haggard, and his wife, Grace. Mother's sister, Velma, and her husband, Bob, lived next door to Floyd and Grace, one house farther up the street toward the ridge. All our houses faced onto Shallowford Road, and from all our front porches we saw the same landscape on the other side of the street: a steep clay bank the color of tumeric, the result of the road being cut out of a hillside; the hill from which the road was cut, which was covered with dun-colored grass; and two houses at the top of the hill. The last time I drove by in 2009, it was all overgrown. There is no longer any evidence of the tumeric-colored bank, the grassy field, or either of the two houses that stood on the high ground.
My father made a lot of money. I have an incongruous photograph of him wearing a shirt and bow tie with STANDARD OIL embroidered above the breast pocket. He has a change maker hanging from his belt. But a man doesn't make the kind of money Arthur Boyd made, nor live as well as he did, by pumping gas. No. He made his money illegally. He shot craps in basements in Chattanooga, a rough and tumble town in those days. Even when I was a boy, the city had one of the highest crime rates in the nation, a manifestation, I was told, of making illegal corn whiskey. Ironically, it also boasted one of the highest per capita ratios of churches.
He drove around town in a big black Buick convertible. Mother said that it was the only car in Chattanooga with a radio in it. I don't know whether that was true or not. When he had a particularly good night at the local tables he'd come home and wake up Mother and off they'd go to Chicago to shoot craps in speakeasies in the Windy City. Mother told stories about the mobsters she ran into and the machine guns she saw up in the balconies of the Chicago gambling joints.
Arthur Boyd was a large man. He stood well over six feet tall and weighed about three hundred pounds. Mother didn't even come up to his shoulder. There were no clothes in an ordinary haberdashery to fit him, so he had them made by a black tailor named Napoleon "Nap" Turner. From the photographs I have of my father, he mostly favored light-colored suits and matching ties, fedoras, and shoes. Arthur Boyd (most everybody called him by both his given names) was an easygoing man who rarely lost his temper, though when he did, Mother told me, he threw skillets and broke furniture. But he never hit her.
I was told that I took after him in looks and personality. I wouldn't know since I never knew him, but I am an easygoing man who happens to have a god-awful temper. Like Arthur Boyd's, it rarely goes off, but when it does, I tend to break things, too.
Tommy on the other hand took after the Haggard side of the family, resembling our irascible uncle, Floyd Haggard, more than he did Arthur Boyd. Floyd was a tall man, handsome, who favored dark suits. He had a beautiful smile (when he smiled) but his temper was quick and often violent. He nearly killed a friend of his once for throwing him a peach.
"Hey, Floyd, catch!"
Floyd turned and caught it, not knowing what it was.
He had such a loathing of the texture of an unwashed peach that he recoiled even at the thought of touching one. He nearly beat his friend to death because the man knew about this aversion and hoodwinked him into catching it anyway.
ARTHUR BOYD'S GAMBLING DAYS ended when he was thirty years old. He developed brain cancer and died on August 1, 1941. He had been hospitalized in Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta for several months, during which time he lost most of his cognitive functions to the tumors that were swelling inside his head. He could count only to ten, and when he got to ten he went back to one again. And again. And again. Despite everything, he always recognized Mother's footsteps when she came walking down the hall toward his room. His face lit up and he smiled, Mother told us.
I was ten months old when Arthur Boyd died. Tommy was just about to turn three. Years later Tommy told me that he had a few memories of the man and his car, but they were very hazy.
When Arthur Boyd died, Mother's luxurious life came to an abrupt end. Just as the cancers had ravaged his brain, they also ravaged his accumulated wealth. In the early days of her youthful widowhood, all Mother had were the gifts he had given her — the bungalow, an engagement ring that was a full carat diamond in a platinum setting, a few furs, a car, two baby boys, and his Social Security.
It was a long way down for her.
Before she and Arthur Boyd moved into their pretty little house they lived in a comfortable apartment downtown where Mother had a black maid who reported to work in a gray-and-white uniform and answered to Mother's silver bell. I never heard that woman's name, or if I did, I don't remember it.
Even though the bungalow was paid for, there was hardly any money for upkeep and maintenance, so the property declined. Rats moved into the basement, and since there was no money for exterminators or pest control, they thrived. Not even a dozen of the large Victor rattraps were up to the killing job. When Tommy was older he did all he could to keep the house painted, the hedges trimmed, and the lawn manicured, but the lack of money inevitably showed, so while we were growing up it became an ordinary little house and Mother became familiar with a mortgage — eventually two of them. Had it not been for Mother's childhood friend Verneta, I am not sure she could have coped.
VERNETA WAS A BLACK WOMAN. Mother called her a "nigress" (accent on the first syllable, which rhymes with fig) when she had to call her by something other than her name. She lived in the large green-and-white farmhouse at the top of the hill across the street from us. It was very rare for black and white families in the South at that time to live that close together. Rarer still when the black folks' houses were on the higher ground. Be that as it may, there was always a pleasant harmony between our families because, as my mother often said, we all knew our places, both black and white. Knew and respected them.
Verneta helped take care of Tommy and me after Arthur Boyd died, but not in any formal capacity as a nanny or a maid. She did make her living as a domestic, but she took care of us boys because she loved Mother and was Mother's closest friend. Tommy and I both adored Verneta.
She and Mother grew up together in the 1910s and 1920s, a scant fifty years after Appomattox. These were the days of forced segregation when black and white children could not learn together, worship together, or eat or drink together in any public place, but they could run barefoot together in the summertime and play and laugh and become lifelong friends, as these two little girls did.
One of the places they played together was in the family grocery store.
Will Haggard, Mother's father, owned and ran the store until he died in 1931. Her sister Velma took over and was running the store when Tommy and I were little boys. It had a wide front porch and double screen doors with metal push plates declaring that COLONIAL BREAD IS GOOD BREAD. All that remains of that store today is a slab of concrete at the corner of Shallowford Road and Rockway Drive.
The porch was where men gathered to sit on benches and drink Cokes and swap stories. It was dark inside the store, especially when you came in from bright sunlight. Up front, near the screen doors, was a candy case that had a lot of nose prints on the glass that Tommy and I left. Behind the candy case were two wooden counters. An ornate brass cash register sat atop one, a small roll of brown wrapping paper on the other.
The interior walls were shelved from the uneven wooden floor to the stamped-metal ceiling. They were full of provisions that needed no refrigeration: Krispy saltine crackers; Ovaltine; jams and preserves; cans of coffee, fruits, and vegetables; PET Milk; patent medicines; and cartons of cigarettes. Green pendant lamps hung from the ceiling in two evenly spaced rows. There were small windows up near the ceiling that let in a little light that was often hazy from Velma's cigarettes.
Farther toward the back of the store was a refrigerated case where fresh cuts of meat, wieners, cheese, and eggs were kept. Sticky yellow flypaper hung here and there, each one black-dotted with its emerald-eyed victims.
Behind the meat case was a walk-in cooler. Sides of beef and pork hung inside as well as a few bins for produce that needed or benefited from refrigeration, watermelons in particular.
Next to the cooler was a storage room. It had a single double-hung window that looked west across a hay field toward Missionary Ridge. A light bulb hung from the ceiling by an electrical wire that was tied off in a bowline knot and looked for all the world like a hangman's noose. You turned the light on by pulling a cord that had a bus token tied to the end of it. This was where Will Haggard kept his bulk stores: cracker barrels, flour barrels, salt.
One day in 1918 or 1919, my mother, who was always called Billie, and little Verneta were playing together at the store as they often did. Mother's older sisters, Velma and Annie Lee, came slapping in through those two big screen doors and announced that they were going downtown to see a moving picture show. They wanted to know if little Billie wanted to come along.
Well, of course little Billie wanted to go along — and so did little Verneta. They both got all excited about it, and in my imagination I see them jumping up and down and squealing. But then one of the older girls reminded Verneta that she couldn't go. I can hear Annie Lee saying something like,
"V'nita, don't you go bein' silly now. You know you caint go. Why, you know better than to even ask."
Verneta commenced to cry. But then, with a sudden jolt of inspiration, she ran to the back storage room. She pulled the cord and turned on the light. She threw the lid off the flour barrel, climbed up on a chair, bent over as far as she could, and stuck her little face into the flour. Then she ran back out to the front of the store and took Billie by the hand. The white dust made her little black eyes seem all that much blacker. I see motes of flour in the air and a trail of it on the floor. And I hear her hopeful question,
"Now can I go? Now can I go?"
It would have been like my mother to put her arms around Verneta and to try to wipe away the caked-on tears when she was told, once again, no, she couldn't go. Would have been like my mother to hold her friend and console her, because even though both of them had been taught what their proper and correct places were, it didn't mean that they couldn't love and comfort each other, as Verneta loved and comforted my mother when Arthur Boyd died and she helped take care of Billie's two baby boys.
AS I SAID, Tommy and I adored Verneta. She was in our lives nearly every day. She changed our diapers and made sugar tits for us to suck on. She took us to the park, and up the side of Lookout Mountain on the Incline, one of the steepest incline railroads in the world. But even so, Tommy and I grew up deeply racist. Why, I wonder, with such a woman in our early lives, a woman we spoke well of, and for whom we had deep affections, did we feel the way we did toward black people? Three black families, all kin to Verneta, lived right across the street from us, and no harm ever came to anybody in our family or theirs. There was never an unpleasant confrontation of any kind. There was no enmity. No animosity. Nevertheless, Tommy and I were taught that black folks were not — check, make that never — as good as we were. Not even the black dentist who lived in a fine stone house on the West Brow of Missionary Ridge that overlooked the city.
One day I was visiting Velma when she and a friend were drinking coffee in Velma's spacious kitchen. I was sitting at the table, too, just listening. They were talking about that dentist and I heard Velma say,
"Law, I'd never let that nigger put his hands in my mouth."
"Hmmph. He could buy and sell you, Velma."
"I don't give a damn. I still wouldn't let him put his fingers in my mouth."
"Yeah, but you let niggers cook for you."
"Well, that's what they're supposed to do."
"Your sister lets one of 'em take care of her babies."
"How's it different?"
"It just is."
This was the sort of exchange that we grew up hearing from our family and from friends of our family. "Nigress" was the kindest word I ever heard applied to a black woman, and that only came from Mother when she referred to Verneta. Occasionally I would hear the more polite term, "colored," but more common was "coon," or "jigaboo." I don't think I heard the word "Negro," pronounced properly, until I was in high school. I certainly never used the word, nor did anybody else in our family. I remember one time referring to a black woman as a "lady," it could have been Verneta, and was soundly rebuked.
"There aint no such thing as a nigger lady, Barry. Don't ever forget that."
The word nigger was used as casually as the word butter in our family. Brazil nuts were "nigger toes." Black-eyed Susans were "nigger heads." A hard storm rained "cats, dogs, and little nigger babies."
Despite this environment, Tommy and I were brought up to respect, even like, an individual black person. But as far as our family was concerned the black race was slow, shiftless, and ignorant.
Very smart individual black folks were an exception. They were relegated to a place of out-of-the-ordinary loathing: Booker T. Washington. George Washington Carver. Ralph Abernathy. We had never heard of Paul Laurence Dunbar or W. E. B. Du Bois, but if we had, they, too, would have been dismissed as uppity niggers who thought they were as good as white folks. Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson held special places of contempt in the Shallowford pantheon of negrophobia as did Jackie Robinson and Nat King Cole.
I walked in on Velma one time while she was watching TV. She and Bob had the first TV set on our block and she was watching some program where Nat King Cole was singing. She was standing, wringing her hands when I walked in. When she saw me she said,
"Law, honey, you caint even turn the tee-vee on anymore without there being some black nigger on it."
I thought she was going to have a stroke when she spied a black family looking at a house that was for sale across the street from her backyard. Why that bothered her, and having Verneta and her family across the street in the other direction didn't, I don't know. Familiarity, perhaps. Or maybe because the Gholstons' houses were farther away. But all she could say standing there peeking through the curtains was,
"What am I gonna do? Law, law, what am I gonna do?"
MOST BLACK MUSICIANS, however, escaped our white reproval: Fats Waller and Jelly Roll Morton were particular favorites, as were the Ink Spots, Cab Calloway, Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington, and our fellow Chattanoogan, Bessie Smith.
We approved of the movie actor Stepin Fetchit because he was shiftless, slow-witted, and knew how and when to hold his hat in his hand. That's the way we liked our black men. He knew his place — on the screen. And my family liked him. A lot. Had they known how wealthy and influential he was offscreen they would have hated him, too.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "We Were Brothers"
Copyright © 2015 Barry Moser.
Excerpted by permission of ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part One: Shallowford,
A Summer Day,
Part Two: Above the River,
Part Three: Brothers,
About the Author,