Eps 103 Meet Leon Grimes

Leon Grimes shares his stories of growing up in Havre de Grace

Leon Grimes shares his story with wit and humor! Born in Havre de Grace in 1942 and growing up as a black man here gives him a different perspective. Interestingly, he loves our city and enjoyed his youth here. He shares his story of attending the Colored Schools of his day, living in the “Projects”, and never understanding why his grandmother told him they were poor.

Listen to him share his job at Harford Memorial Hospital as an orderly and later a nurse. In his early years there, it was still a segregated hospital.


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Born: 3/30/1942  at Harford Memorial in HdG     interview: 5/26/2016

My name is Leon Grimes. I was born March 30, 1942 in Havre de Grace, Maryland. I started school in 1949 on Alliance Street. Schools were not integrated then and it was called Havre de Grace Colored Elementary School and Havre de Grace Colored High School. It was all in the same section. We had first, second, third and fourth grade there and the bigger building was the high school. In 1955 they built Havre de Grace Consolidated on Oakington Road. I started there in the sixth grade and I graduated from high school June 1960.

After I graduated from high school, I started working at Harford Memorial Hospital as an orderly. The hospital had a floor for colored and that was the first floor. Second, third, and the third wing and third north were all the floors for the white.

Now if all the beds were filled on the white floor, then the whites could go on the colored floor. But the coloreds couldn’t go on the whites floor. Therefore if they didn’t have any beds on the colored floor then they had to put the colored on the stretcher. They had separate bathrooms. They were marked ‘white’ and ‘colored’.

I know in 1963 that still existed. I’m not sure when it changed. I’m not sure if it changed when the schools finally were integrated in 1964 or not because they passed the law before 1964 but they never enforced until 1964. I worked there until 1963 when I left there to go for training to be a nurse.

I came back and worked at Harford Memorial Hospital until 1970. Then I went back to Baltimore and worked at Baltimore City Hospital until 1978. Then I came back to Havre de Grace because I had to take care of my grandfather and was here ever since.

But as a child in Havre de Grace, I was raised in the projects on Wilson Street. The project, there was only one section for coloreds and it was on the upper part of Wilson Street. That was the only section that black people could live in. All the other parts of the project were for white people. A.J. Fair was our mail carrier and he lived on Bloomsbury. That’s where all his kids were born. I don’t know what year he started his real estate business.

Everyone got along fine.

(What about eateries and things, were they segregated?)

Where A.J. Fair’s office was that was a black section where the bars were for black people. His office was called “Club 100.” The bars weren’t integrated yet. Also on that same side, there was another bar call Joe Durbin’s (?) and that was a black bar. In 1964 I think is when everything changed.

But people were happy. More so than they are now, I’d say. Havre de Grace was an interesting place. That’s when the canning house was there and the race track was here. They brought in a lot of interesting people. I learned to ride horses on the race track – not in the races – I learned to ride horses and walk horses.

I remember Dollar Days. All the merchants would put their tables on the street. That was a big to-do!  I think it was always on a Wednesday when stores were closed. Then they had the Dollar Days. It was interesting. And I remember when, on Halloween, all the stores downtown, from the colored school and the white school; the store owners let you paint pictures on their store windows. They had judges and you won a prize for the best picture that was painted on the store window. That was interesting. Everybody took part in that.

In the summertime when schools were closed, the Havre de Grace High School used to block off Congress from one corner to the other. In the summer, black students and white students, they all could go there to register. Every day you could go there and play games. They played music. You could do whatever you wanted to do as long as there were no problems.

One thing I do remember is Driver’s Education when we were going to school. They had Drivers Education at Havre de Grace High. We also had Driver’s Ed at Consolidated but all of a sudden it just stopped. Then they only had Drivers Education at the white school. That’s probably why I don’t drive. I think if they’d had the program, I probably would have. Once you got to a certain grade, you could take Driver’s Ed. By the time I got in that grade, it was gone. I don’t know why.

When I graduated, they hadn’t enforced integration yet. I graduated in 1960 I think they passed it in ’58 but they didn’t enforce it.

(what did you do for fun when you were little)

Little, living in the projects as far as a playground, I guess you called them the ‘monkey bars.’ We had our own recreation center, right up in the corner of Wilson Street where we lived. We had just one set of Monkey Bars. And we played ball in the field there. If it was your birthday, you could use the recreation center to have your party. And I remember my aunt having her wedding there. It’s hard to explain. People were happy. It didn’t bother us that we lived in that one little area.

We just had fun. All kids played together. Whites and blacks got along.

(they probably weren’t dating at that time)

Ha ha ha. Their parents may not have known. Ha ha ha ha ha But it was going on. I know some women today that were back then. Iit existed back then; it wasn’t as open as it is now. Well, one thing in my household, my parents never raised us that it was a difference between whites and blacks. That conversation never came up. Everybody…You were just a person. I feel the same way now. I never had a problem with it. And like I said, I never heard it in my household.

Now it seems to be more of a problem than it was back then. Even the students when I volunteered at the Elementary School, those students didn’t know anything about whites and blacks. They just knew Johnny was my friend.

But when they get into Middle School, that’s when it all changes. I don’t know if it’s something going on in their household or their parents are having more conversations with them. But their friends get to Middle School and it changes. Not everybody. It’s obvious.
The differences when I was coming up, I went to an all-black school, so most of my friends were black. Now they all go to school together. In elementary school they don’t pay color any mind. We had our own dances and socials. And we never had new books! All of our books came from the white school when they got new books.

We never had any problem playing together after school. Because the way it was located where we lived, it was a circle and the road went down about a block. But across from us was a white family and on down they were white people. The other side was a black family but the other side of them was a white family. But we knew each other. Miss Spencer was a nurse and she lived across the street from us. If she wanted something she would talk to my grandmother or my grandmother to her, I mean the color issue never came up. When we had to come into town here, we had to walk past all those houses (white) and we had to walk past them on our way to school. Nobody ever said anything.

…When my aunt bought her house on Juniata, Italians lived there. In her entertainment room there was a door. When you lifted it up, it was a walkway that went all the way over to Erie Street. They could go down in there and walk over to Erie Street and avoid the police. In my aunt’s garage, there was another opening to a tunnel in there.

She has linoleum over the floor now. The bedroom where I slept on the third floor, there was an opening. I could go through there and I could even stand up inside! The house was on Juniata where I used to live. I think it went to the Bernardi’s, I’m not sure. Any of those houses you went to after 2 a.m., somebody would sell you something!

Oh yes, Lawder store on Stokes. Lawder that works for the city – his grandfather owned that store. and is married to the Correri girl, his father owned that store. They sold everything in there. He used to sell hard cider. I don’t know where he got it. Erie Street’s where all the Italians lived. If you wanted anything after hours – like wine or anything, you could knock on their door and get anything you wanted. I remember all that. I remember all that. But it was fun times back then!

…As far as kids playing, we played stick ball, or we be out on the street playing baseball or dodge ball. I don’t think the kids know what dodge ball is now. When my niece asked me what we did all day to keep busy, I’d say, “We really didn’t do a whole lot, but we were outside all day.”

I used to like when the older people would tell us stories. They’d have a whole group of children hangin’ around. My niece would ask, “What did they do in the olden days.” That just freaked me out. I told my sister that it seems like when I was coming up, old people looked old. Now they don’t seem to look as old to me.

I mean, I’m 74, I know I’m old. But my grandfather looked old at 60. My grandmother’s shoes had a square heel on it and they were tied. One thing that has changed, I think people had more respect when I was growing up. Children had more respect for their parents.

In my grandfather’s house when you got out of bed in the morning you didn’t dare come downstairs with your pajamas on. And you had to say, “Good morning.” Another thing, my mother smoked. My grandfather told her that ladies didn’t smoke out on the street. When she’d see him walking up the street, if she was outside, she’d put the cigarette out.

As far as walking up the street, the man would always be on the outside. My niece would say, “What are you doing?” And I told her this is the way I was taught.

Even at dinner, we had our own little table and the adults had their table. If they had guests, you ate at your table and they ate at theirs, but once you were through with dinner you had to go outside. You couldn’t hang around while the grownups talked. I was scared… I don’t know if I was scared or if I just had more respect for them. You knew what you could and couldn’t do. Now kids don’t seem to have any respect.

When I was twenty-three, I went in training to be a nursing. I came home one weekend and I didn’t bring any books. I was twenty-three. My grandmother said, “Don’t you have anything to study?” I said that I didn’t bring my books home. She said, “Well, then you go check the Greyhound and you go back down and get some books and then you come on back.” And that’s what I did! She said, “If you’re not going to study, then there’s no sense going to school.” And that’s what I did. I caught the Greyhound and went back and got my books and came back.

(did you work as a kid)

No, I never had a job until I went to the hospital. I never had to. I got whatever I wanted – my two sisters and I. I never thought I was poor. My grandmother would say we were poor, but I never knew what she was talking about.

All the younger kids had jobs. But if I needed money, my grandfather would give it to me, or my grandmother. My mother would say she didn’t have money. She kept her pocket book behind a chair. As she was telling us this, she’d be walking toward the chair, we knew she was going to give us the money.

(being raised that way, where did you develop your values that you have today)

Oh, I was spoiled. I tell everybody I had two sisters but I thought I was ans only child. My sister still tells me to this day that I’m spoiled. I know my grandfather… well, my grandmother spoiled all of us.

But she also taught us different things. When everybody was twelve, my grandmother told us we had to learn how to clean, to wash our clothes and to iron. We were in the house all days on Saturday and we all had something to do. I was always the last one to go outside because I didn’t want to do it.

My grandmother would tell my sisters, “I don’t care if you have but one dress. But you wash it every night and iron it.”
To this day…. I didn’t have to iron this. But I did last night! I can’t stand wrinkled clothes.


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