Growing up black in era of segregation

Author: Even as his book heads into a paperback printing, Leon Tillage continues to share in person the stories of his childhood.

March 06, 2000|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

The accidental author had not heard the news from his New York publisher. Retirement has kept 63-year-old Leon Tillage pleasantly preoccupied -- from fishing excursions to Ocean City with his pals, to making pork chop dinners for a lady friend, to dropping by his grown son's apartment to teach the boy how to cook something besides hot dogs.

Tillage hasn't spent much time thinking about the book publishing business since retiring from the Park School, a private school in Brooklandville where Tillage was a janitor for 31 years.

Who knew Tillage's 1997 children's book, "Leon's Story," would have such a shelf life? Certainly not the author.

The book was based on the oral history of Tillage, who grew up a sharecropper's son in the Jim Crow South. Each year, he'd speak to Park School students about growing up black in segregated North Carolina. Children's book illustrator Susan Roth, whose daughter attended Park, convinced Tillage to write his memoir, which she would illustrate. A book project was hatched.

After the initial run of 4,000 copies, their publisher had no plans to print more. But nearly three years later, "Leon's Story" is in its ninth printing. The memoir is on five state school reading lists, says Kate Kubert at Farrar, Straus & Giroux (Maryland is not among them).

Tillage's book also has won several awards, including a Boston Globe-Horn Book award, a Smithsonian magazine Notable Book award, and an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults award.

But the exciting news for Tillage is that "Leon's Story" will be out in paperback in the fall. He looked stunned when told.

"Really? That's great," Tillage said, moments before speaking Friday to a seventh-grade class at Park. Retirement aside, the school occasionally invites Tillage back to repeat his stories of riding in the back of buses, drinking from "Colored Only" water fountains and participating in Civil Rights marches in his home state.

A central part of "Leon's Story" also recounted the death of his father, Ivory Tillage, run over by a car while walking near their home in 1951. Although police ruled his death an accident, "Leon's Story" suggests Ivory Tillage was killed intentionally because he was black.

Tillage's memoir, like any memoir, reveals the vagaries of truth and memory. But for Tillage and others, his story never gets old.

"I always thought it was such a wonderful story," says Roth. She had no idea that their book continues to roll on; the paperback plans were also news to her. Roth has since left Baltimore for New York, and hasn't kept in touch with Tillage. "Please send Leon my very, very best," she says.

Her best was conveyed to Tillage at Park, where he was back in his element. The man, who the kids sometimes called "Turn-key" (for the glob of keys hanging off his pocket), was group-hugged. "Are you behaving yourself?" Tillage asked them.

Another fan, Susan Rittenhouse, asks Tillage to sign a copy of his book for her. She spent three weeks recording "Leon's Story" as a book for the blind in Maryland. The book has been translated into French, German and Spanish. (At Park, a scholarship fund in his and brother Linwood's names still offers financial aid toward school trips for Baltimore students.)

For his visit Friday, Leon Tillage wore a gray pinstripe suit, walked with a cane and had a cigar in his breast pocket. He doesn't smoke (never has), but a proud, new grandfather had given him the stogie, and it looked good enough to keep tucked in his pocket. At 1: 30 p.m., Tillage was escorted to a lecture hall and an audience of seventh-graders.

Larry Gilbert teaches the "Life Skills" course:

"In this class, we get to look at things from a different vantage point," he said, before introducing Tillage. "There are first-hand accounts of life in other communities."

During Tillage's 30-minute talk, the former school janitor taught another round of students the definition of sharecropping, on how "you would protect the younger kids" when stoned yourself by white boys, and how "you must remember, all people aren't bad."

About a third of the class had read his book and knew exactly what he meant when recalling "Getting on the bus twice." Once to pay, then off, then back on through a side door, Tillage said again.

"Is that your picture on the cover of the book?" one girl asked.

"Yes," Tillage said. "Cute guy, isn't he?"

Tillage's talk was in character with his book: simple, plain and without a scent of bitterness or hatred. Recalling having coffee thrown on him at restaurants or having German shepherds set loose on him are stories he calmly passes along as if relaying the score of last night's baseball game.

But the students had only read about this chapter in U.S. history. His first-hand account stopped their fidgeting and caused at least one hand-held video contraption to be shut off voluntarily.

Because the image of a black teen-ager climbing atop a truck to fight off two dogs got their attention. In Tillage's story, a white man comes to his rescue and threatens to shoot the dogs if the owner doesn't call them off.

"What if that man wouldn't have stopped them?" asked a white student roughly the age Tillage was when the attack occurred.

"The dogs would have probably ripped me apart," Tillage replied, before adding how he had spent hours hiding in a roadside ditch until he felt safe from the dogs.

There were no more questions.

"OK. I can go now," Tillage said.

He had received two rounds of applause and one Park School coffee travel mug, which would be good to have on a fishing boat off Ocean City. As for the "Life Skills" students at the school, they were assigned homework for the weekend.

"I would get hold of Leon's book, and I would read it," their teacher said.

Or wait until the fall, when it's out in paperback.

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