CLEVELAND, Ohio - It always began the same way. The men in the family would start early, building a fire in the grill using newspaper and charcoal poured from a bag. We kids would be cautioned to stand back as the men fiddled with match after match until the fire was big enough to get the charcoal glowing.
The Fourth of July celebration in the days of my youth in Cleveland were mostly confined to the backyard. In the 1950s and early 60s, the homes of my parents and my uncle and aunt were side-by-side, but under one roof. We lived on a street of mostly duplex houses. Some of my cousins grew up next door and were as close to me as if they were brothers and a sister, because of our proximity to each other.
On the Fourth of July in the early afternoon, my father and my uncle would pull the grills into the driveway and get them fired up for a day of outside cooking. My cousins next door and I would be joined by other cousins from the city. Parkgate Avenue would often be the gathering spot for celebrations, because of our ample backyards, front yards, and the playground across the street.
What does July 4th mean to you? Leon Bibb shares Clevelanders' perspective. Watch in media player above.
"Go in there and tell mother the fire is ready and she can break out the meat," my father would say. "Ask her if she needs any help in the kitchen," dad would add. "If she does, go help her," he would order.
With that, the first of the pork ribs would be brought out on large plates. Once the flames had subsided and the charcoal was red hot, beginning to ash on the edges, the ribs were gingerly placed on the grill rack. Someone would sit next to the grill armed with a spray bottle to mist over any flame that might leap up.
"We don't need a big flame to cook the meat," my uncle would say. "We just need the heat from the charcoal."
The ribs took up most of the space on the grill, but there was always room left for hamburgers and hotdogs which we kids insisted on. Those foods served as appetizers for the main course which would come later. Hotdogs cooked on an open grill in the backyard of our Fourth of July celebration always seemed to taste better than the hotdogs we boiled in water on the kitchen stove.
By mid-afternoon, the Cleveland Indians baseball game would be on the radio and the portable Zenith or Philco would be tuned to the game. With the voices of kids playing, the sounds of baseball would fill the backyard air.
"Great day for baseball here at Cleveland Municipal Stadium," the play-by-play man would say. "Ballplayers playing under a high sky with not a cloud," he would add, painting the picture of the game about five miles from our home in the city. By then, the other men in our extended family would have gathered around the radio. Among the men would be other uncles or friends of the family. They were all dressed in khaki pants and sports shirts.
The men gathered around the radio would only give the baseball game half of their attention. They would comment on the Cleveland Indians, but they mostly discussed issues of their lives. July 4th was a day away from work. In the backyard, the men were comfortable enough with each other that they did not have to watch their words or their thoughts on politics, as they might at their jobs.
In the 1950s, most of the men in my family -- my father, uncles, and older cousins -- were about ten years out of the Army. They were men who had fought in World War II and came home, married, and began families. With their wives, they had bought their first homes using the benefits of the GI Bill for veterans. The neighborhood was comprised of families where the chief breadwinners worked in industrial plants, the Post Office, or were public school teachers, medical doctors, and dentists, or a few other professions.
Invariably, around the grill fires, the men talked of their jobs just as their parents and grandparents had done the same around fires of earlier decades. They also spoke of race relations and their hopes the generations which would follow them would see openings in racial integration. The times were of the 1950s and early 1960s when the Civil Rights Movement was mentioned daily on network newscasts and newspaper front pages.
We were part of black America closely watching how civil rights were unfolding and at what cost it would take to attain the full freedom on which the Fourth of July celebration was based.
"I think we got to push hard to get the country to open up jobs for all of us," a voice said around the grill.
"We worked hard in the war and then when we got home they wanted us to get in the back seat again," said another.
"You know when we boycott, we show we have some economic strength," would be the comments of a third voice.
We kids could not help but hear the talk as we romped in the backyard. Many of the lessons I learned about race relations in this country I learned listening to the adults talk in family gatherings.
Still, it was not all talk of heavy subjects or politics. After all, it was the Fourth of July, and that meant a day away from work for most of the men in my family. For all of us, it meant barbecue ribs served with potato salad, Cole slaw, watermelon, and pies of cherry and apple. The men would do some of the heavy lifting for the meal, but it was the women, with aprons around their waists, who would serve the food. The men usually served the drinks - lemonade, Kool-Aid, and soda pop.
Beer was also available. We kids watched the adults open their cans and bottles of beer, which were usually Cleveland beers. P.O.C, Leisy Light, Stroh's, and others would help wash down succulent meat pulled from the rib bones.
Between bites, we kids would run through the backyard, up the driveway, across the front lawn, and back again. We would play hide-and-seek, darting between the Buicks, Chevrolets, Fords, and Chrylsers parked in the driveway.
Once the sunset and the sky took on a lavender color, lightning bugs would come out, blinking their eerie yellow as they hovered over neighborhood lawns. Armed with empty mayonnaise jars, we would catch the bugs in such a number that the bugs off-and-on lighting resembled small lanterns. Before the night would be over, we would release the bugs so they could return to their families, wherever the lightning bugs nested.
At the same time, our evening would also begin winding down. The Indians baseball game now complete, the radio would be tuned to a station playing the hit music of the time. The women, exhausted from the work of the day, would gather in the kitchen and talk of their lives. The men, still cradling bottles of beer and smoking cigarettes which lit the night air, would sit on darkened porches and chat about their lives.
The conversations ran the gamut from their days in the military to their hopes for their children who were born at a time of change. Race relations, employment opportunities, and economics peppered their talks.
We kids would settle in with talk of games, and girls, and boys, and baseball. We would watch the stars come out and make wishes on the first one we saw. The moon would continue its run across the sky. The music from the radio would waft through the yard. Nat King Cole would sing "Dance Ballerina Dance" and the women would sit back and take in his velvet voice. The men would speak of going back to work the next day.
In the distance, we could hear someone setting off fireworks. Sometimes in the night air, we could see a sky rocket streak into the night. From the steps of our front porch, my cousins and I looked up at the skyrocketing firework and watched it explode high above the trees and then fan out in a brilliant array of sparkles. Within a second or two, the firework would disappear into the July Fourth night.