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Thursday, Sept. 23, 2004 07:14 pm

Homecoming

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At 81, Jim Pendergrass is still "the baby" of his family
Photo by Ginny Lee

Like many native Springfieldians, Jim Pendergrass of south Springfield moved back to his old hometown after long making his residence elsewhere. In and of itself, that fact is hardly worth mentioning. What makes Pendergrass' homecoming noteworthy is that he was gone for 57 years and is now not only living in the same house in which he was raised but also sleeping in the same bedroom he shared with his brother long ago. What's more, he's sharing the place with his three older sisters.

"I'm 81 and still the baby of the family," he says.

Unlike Rip Van Winkle, who enjoyed a few too many draughts of liquor with the wee people of the Catskill Mountains and was away a mere 20 years, Pendergrass, who returned to Springfield from the Washington, D.C., area in 1998, asserts that not all that much has changed in Springfield since he departed on a troop train in 1941 for Fort Custer, Mich. Although institutionalized segregation and discrimination are now things of the past, he says the humiliation and disrespect that he and other African Americans endured left him with a bitter taste in his mouth, one that will never leave him. Those memories make him sensitive to the more subtle and insidious strains of racism that still exist in our society today.

"Segregation was a way of life," he says. "It was a very bitter experience; it was the constant pressure of being disrespected, looked down on, and otherwise maligned. I had to swallow a lot of indignities."

Pendergrass' odyssey took him to the South Pacific with the U.S. Army and eventually to a nearly 30-year career at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. While there, Pendergrass had a front-row seat for the drama of the civil-rights movement, which unfolded before him during the 1950s and 1960s, and he was a bit player in the move toward job and housing equality for African Americans.

Pendergrass graduated with the Springfield High School class of 1941. While there, he played French horn in the state-championship orchestra and was a member of the French Club. Soon after, the draft board called Pendergrass to service, as it did almost every other boy in his class, and after a brief period of enrollment at St. Paul's College in Virginia, he found himself duty-bound to Uncle Sam for the duration of the war. It was during the war years that Pendergrass had his first eye-opening experience with life in the Jim Crow South. After departing Michigan, Pendergrass' unit went to Mississippiby way of Memphis (where he and his fellow "colored" troops could not enter the train station). One night in the summer of '42, he and the entire regiment of more than 300 black men were rousted from their bunks as they slept.

"A white woman had been molested in some fashion, and supposedly she had scratched whoever had attacked her," he says, "so we stood in the camp lights, additionally illuminated by the car headlights of the local sheriff and the Mississippi State Police. We stood in formation while the state police inspected our faces, hands, arms, and chests."

Pendergrass eventually ended up in Hawaii, the Philippines, and Okinawa, assigned to a group that received, stored, and dispatched ordnance to the front-line assault troops. Many U.S. soldiers were casualties of tropical diseases, and the control of malaria was imperative to survival in the jungle. At each of his posts, Pendergrass assisted the malaria-control unit by seeking out and destroying mosquito larvae, as well as collecting and identifying sample specimens and sending them back to the States for further study.

After the war, Pendergrass earned a biology degree from Howard University but ended up working for the U.S. Post Office for five years. He had started working there during the Christmas season only but ended up staying on because good job opportunities for African Americans were practically nonexistent. Still, he chafed while laboring at the job, knowing that he could be doing so much more if only he were given the opportunity.

"I was the original disgruntled postal worker," he says. "At that time I had an automobile that was more trouble than it was worth. One day I was so dejected that I got in it and drove aimlessly. I ended up at the Smithsonian. I went to the personnel office and told the lady -- she was a black lady -- that I was a biologist. She told me that there was an opening in the Division of Mollusks. She sent me to the fourth floor of the Museum of Natural History, where I was directed to the head curator. He stopped short and said, "Are you a Negro?'

"He sent me back to personnel but had telephoned in the meantime to ask, 'Why are you sending me a Negro to inquire about the vacancy?' This was in 1955.

"I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to that woman. She was gallant. She was not going to see me turned down for that job. It became a cause with her. Mind you, this was a Friday afternoon. We sat down and filled out that application together. She said" -- Pendergrass raises his voice for emphasis -- " 'You take it back to him and tell him that you are qualified to have the job!' "

"So Monday I went to work at the Smithsonian. At one time, in the naïveté of my youth, I would have told you that it was happenstance. But in my maturity, I know that my steps that day were directed by God."

Pendergrass remained at the Smithsonian for 27 years, collecting, identifying, cataloging, and preserving octopus, squid, and other invertebrates. He recalls that it was tedious work that required him to learn patience and says that in his days there he "must've cataloged 5 million specimens. Yes, some days I asked myself, 'What is the purpose of this?' I learned this about the life of a mollusk: He stays in his bailiwick. He eats, rests, mates, retires, and dies."

Pendergrass says that Washington during the 1940s and '50s was a very Southern town, with a wide gulf separating the races in terms of jobs, money, and housing. He recalls that real change began with the Kennedy administration, and he remembers the profound sadness that he felt after JFK was shot. Later Pendergrass participated in the March on Washington, during which Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. He recalls many times seeing Robert F. Kennedy, attorney general and then U.S. senator, on the Mall, outside the museum.

"Every day I went to lunch on Pennsylvania Avenue with two other African Americans, and frequently we'd see him. He would stop and talk and ask about our jobs and how we were getting along. Although I was doing a curator's work, I had a watered-down job title, and I told him so. Within a week I was called into personnel and given a two-grade promotion. He saw us later and knowingly asked us how we were doing."

Pendergrass says that after his retirement, he worked in the Widening Horizonsprogram of the Smithsonian, which gave minority and underprivileged children a glimpse into the world of science. He also worked for the State Department, greeting international visitors at airports and shuttling them around our nation's capital, and he says that he made a host of friends through these pursuits.

Now he is living here quietly, grocery shopping, going to church, and occasionally attending the Muni. He subscribes to the Washington Post and enjoys reuniting with the SHS class of '41.

Divorced with two grown sons, Pendergrass returned to Springfield to take care of his two oldest sisters, Eunice and Margaret, after Eunice had a stroke; sister Ruth moved back from California in 2000 to take care of all of them. His brother Houston is deceased. Very little in the room the two brothers shared long ago has changed -- the furniture is still the same, Pendergrass reports.

If his parents could see them all living together under the same roof, Pendergrass says, "They wouldn't believe it."

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