Walter Edward Presley

My dad was a member of the Black Panthers. Not the gun-toting, militant group of the 1960’s but the gun-toting, militant group of the 1940’s. 

He was part of the Greatest Generation and fought Germany in WW II as a member of the 66th Infantry Division in Northern France. They were known as the Black Panthers, because Panthers were alert, stealthy, and strong.

After the war, he returned home to Fort Smith, Arkansas to resume life and raise a family. He eventually opened up a small furniture store to support us. 

I am a baby-boomer and grew up in Arkansas during the time when the Governor of my state deployed the National Guard to prevent 9 black students from attending Little Rock Central High School. I grew up amid racism and segregation. 

However, my family was not of this mindset. My grandparents lived in the “colored section” of town for as long as I can remember. Roberta was their next door neighbor and she grew the sweetest tomatoes I have ever tasted, although I never liked her okra, even if it was deep-fried. The joke is that my grandparents integrated the black neighborhood long before blacks integrated the white neighborhoods, but no one ever gave them any recognition.

My father sold furniture to anyone who wanted to buy it from him and a chunk of his revenue was from customers who were black. He treated all of his customers with the same degree of respect in public and in private. I remember him taking me and my brothers to the segregated, all-black Lincoln High School football games. I look back on it now and think maybe that was his attempt at marketing. We certainly stood out from the rest of the crowd and simply attending Lincoln High football games may have been good for business.  

When I was about 8 or 9, I was trying to sort out this race thing. One day, I distinctly remember asking him why he sold furniture to “colored people”. This was an important question to me, and so he bent down and looked me eye-to-eye and said “because their money is green, the same as everyone else”. It was as simple as that.  

Perhaps it was mere capitalism that forged his view of race. I know that he did not discriminate against anyone with money who wanted to buy furniture. 

I never heard my dad swear or say a curse word, not even the word “damn”. However, my older brother Bill, told me he once heard our dad swear. He was helping Harry Werner deliver a 3-room furniture deal to a customer in Oklahoma and the couch was always placed on the pick-up truck with the back of the couch next to the cab of the truck. 

The trip to Oklahoma involved some highway driving and along the way, one of the couch cushions blew away. It vanished somewhere along the highway and when they got back, Harry told my dad what happened. My brother was standing next to the truck with the couch sitting on the back of the pick-up, missing a cushion. My dad was smoking  a cigarette and my brother said that he pulled it out of his mouth, threw it on the pavement, and said “shit”. That’s the one and only curse word my brother ever heard him say. 

My father was my role model and I grew up thinking he was the smartest man in the world. For a period, I actually thought he was Superman. Literally. My father died when I was young and my memories of him will forever be seen through through the eyes of a 10 year old boy. I wish I knew him better.