John Ali: Baltimore, Chester, & Beyond
In this interview, John Ali, Jr. describes some of his memories of growing up with his father, Mustafa “John” Ali, a seaman from Sylhet, in the 1930s. John, Sr. had jumped ship in Baltimore in the 1920s, married John, Jr’s mother, Mamie Chase, and for a time moved their family to Chester, PA, where there was a small community of Indian men working in the Sun Shipbuilding plant and other nearby factories.
Vivek Bald: So you said that people, before they jumped ship, they already knew… how did they know where to go and what to do?
John Ali: Well, you know, you’d be surprised that many of these fellows had contact with people at home so they would write back and forth… Or, if someone was coming here, maybe from the very beginning, they decided ‘okay I’ll be jumping ship there.’ Or maybe they [jumped ship] in New York and they thought they were coming down to Chester [but instead] they went to Buffalo or Detroit or some other place, you know.
VB: Before, we talked about the immigration authorities coming to your house looking for seamen who had jumped ship. Did you get a sense of, for example, if the men stood out when they first arrived, you know, were they wearing different kinds of clothes [work clothes from the ships]? What did they do to fit in over time?
JA: I’ll tell you something – not necessarily when they arrived – but … [like] you already said about people in New York and Harlem, [these] guys wore some nice clothes. Baltimore, Maryland had a reputation where all the [Indian] guys were dressed extremely nice. Chester too. Now Chester, Pennsylvania, my father and those people when those people went out, they always had on a complete suit, including a vest. … I grew up with guys always being well-dressed. We sort of picked up on things like that. I have a reputation now for being well-dressed, but it stemmed from that. And of course, they didn’t think they could compete unless they had the vest, you know. And by the way, hats too. They wore their hats and gloves in wintertime they wore their overcoats and things like that. You’d be surprised how well-dressed they were in Baltimore and Chester.
VB: So when they were working during the day they would be in whatever work clothes, but then when they were out at night, they would dress.
JA: Right. Or during daytime if you had to be out all of Saturday or something. When they went out to visit or something, they put their suits on.
VB: You said that your father moved around a lot for work: from Baltimore to Chester to Buffalo, then back to Chester, and then after moving the family back to Baltimore again, he went to Gary, Indiana, and finally Detroit. What work was he doing in these places?
JA: I know that in Detroit he was in the Chrysler Company. You know, Chrysler automobile company. He actually ended up retiring from there too. And, Chester he worked at several companies. I can’t remember just what they were, but he worked for several companies there in Chester too.
VB: You mentioned there was a Ford plant in Chester. In my research I’ve also found there was a big ship-building company, the Sun Ship Building Company.
JA: Yes. Oh yeah I remember that. And I’m trying to think of something else in there. Another big place down there [in what] they called Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania … It’s right out from Chester. And I’m trying to think of the company down there. I’ll never forget; it was a big tar-like, almost looked like a smoke stack, where fire was burning 24 hours a day … And I do remember that shipyard–you know I think [my father] may have worked for them too. I remember that. Chester was an usual kind of city there. Actually Chester was very segregated at that time. The Italians had complete control; they had segregated schools until they got to high school. [And in the movie theater, blacks] sat on the lefthand side and the whites sat in the center and the righthand side. [And when the white section] became full, they would move the minorities back from the lefthand side and let the whites come sit in front of them. So it was really a segregated city.
VB: And this was back in the thirties, was it?
JA: Yeah uh-huh.
VB: So the Indian men, where did they sit in that theater?
JA: Well they would’ve sat on the same side as the black people … Again, as far as white people were concerned, they were doing it based on color. Anyone who has a different color.
VB: Well I wanted to ask you a bit more about Chester … the neighborhood where you lived in Chester, what it looked like, and what your memories are of that town.
JA: Chester was definitely segregated … And I don’t think the whites were too much a majority, but the Italian people did control it. I remember speaking to a person I worked with here in Atlanta, a couple years back. His mother lived in I think it was Lee, and she taught in Chester; he was white and she was too. And he said he remembers his mother saying ‘gee you oughta see how those Italian people treat’ what they call ‘negroes’ in Chester.
VB: And what did Chester look like? The kinds of buildings– do you remember were you close to the factory?
JA: Well believe it or not at one time we lived not too far from the Ford plant. In fact there was a rather large expanse of land in front of the Ford plant they kept in really good shape and we used to go over there and play football with the older boys. And, we did a lot of things back there in the winter time we would ride sleds down the hills. Quite a few of us had sleds. That was something that we looked forward to. In the winter we could ride sleds down the street called Lord Street… Oh, and I think Chester at that time had a bad water supply, so a lot of us paid people to go to, I think it was Chester Park, to bring spring water to town and sell it to us. Because Chester was known for having bad water … [And] as far as going to school and things like that. One had to walk to school, no matter where school was, you know. They had one junior high here and one high school here. Like there was only one junior high for blacks at the time and there were several elementary schools, but no matter where you were, you had to walk there. And then the one high school was integrated. That was so strange … In later years, Chester became known as … the poorest city in the United States; you ever hear that?
VB: Another question that I have is about food. And about your father and his group of Indian friends. What did they–
JA: Always curry and rice. There was always curry and rice available after dinner, that pot of curry and rice would be on the back of the stove for any other friends who came around to eat later. And someone always came around. Even in later years, after I grew up, and I went up there, to see some of my father’s old friends and things, they still had that pot at the back of the stove, with that curry and rice. And of course you couldn’t have any pork in the house at any time. The wives who wanted pork would sneak it in at a time when the men weren’t there; you know you couldn’t cook it.
VB: So they would actually cook it when the men were away?
JA: Yeah, periodically. You know, but all the curry was made of beef and shrimp and fish, you know. And all the Indian guys were experts at cooking curry and rice. Even my brothers right now. I never learned to do it, but–
VB: So, how did they get their spices?
JA: Oh, from the regular stores. Regular stores … I would have to go to market and get things like vegetables, to bring back home, and curry powder and pepper. Two main ingredients in curry … Some of [my father’s friends] lived in West Chester … and some lived in Chestertown, Maryland. Those friends were always coming around to visit … They would come around our house sometimes in the evening and listen to the six o’clock news and [my father] was interpreter for them, you know.
VB: Yeah, you mentioned that – could you describe that scene? Did you have a sense of what it what they were interested in hearing on the news?
JA: During that time, India was on the news fairly often because [the British] were always doing something there.
VB: So your father, there’d be news coming on the radio, and your father would be translating it for his friends because they wanted to know what was going on back home.
JA: Uh-huh, right.
VB: After those new bulletins, would they get into discussions or —
JA: They would have some discussions and sometimes they might eat and from time to time they would play cards too, you know.
VB: Also I was interested to hear more about Baltimore because I know that you spent more of your childhood there in Baltimore—
JA: Well I told you that Baltimore, one of their main black [districts was] on Pennsylvania Avenue … West Baltimore. And it was a neighborhood where they had … the better type of nightclubs. And they also had all sorts of theaters, movie theaters up and down the street. The Regency, The Royal, The New Albert … all on Pennsylvania Avenue. Then there were bars and casinos, a strip club, a comedy club, you name it. On that same avenue, even in later years, that’s where they had The Royal Theater. They had all the top musical acts of that day: Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington … And you probably haven’t heard of people like Andy Kirk, Delta Rhythm Boys, Sammy Davis Trio, Will Mastin Trio. And then Miles … You know, when I was growing up, I used to go down there on Saturdays for 75 cents and see the movies and see the floorshow. Occasionally, my friends went. But my god, I can tell you, Ella Fitzgerald, Lionel Hampton, some all-girl–25 piece band– all girls up there from California.
VB: And this Indian restaurant you mentioned, run by another man who had jumped ship, it was right there on that part of that strip?
Not sure if being today’s well-heeled, highly(?) educated South Asian is a good thing or bad thing. I am a Bengali and came from Kolkata as part of the Globalization and IT-boom. We go through our own set of challenges such as Immigration issues etc. But when I think of the folks who came here during the early and mid h century, I feel lucky to have come to this country at a time when there is better acceptance and respect for south asians. Congratualtions to the author for sharing such an exciting piece of history very well-researched.Although I dont have any direct connections with the folks mentioned in this article, somehow the article still touches my heart. Probably it tells the inner me that migrations from one country to another have always been difficult, and I am lucky to be in a better situation than my previous generation was in!