By Margo Macartney
Part #1 Denial in San Diego
In 1965 I was married to John P. We had been keeping company for about a year, and we thought we could make a marriage. We were young, he a very good looking Black man from Los Angeles. We lived in California, in Synanon, a fully integrated commune of ex-addicts who came in all colors and ages. From our tiny corner of the world, we were involved and part of the Civil Rights Movement. No matter that we were on a beach in Southern California.
Synanon had residences in Santa Monica, San Diego, San Francisco, Oakland, Marin County, Detroit, and New York. People were shuffled in and out of these facilities depending on needs, and John and I made the rounds, coast to coast. And as we moved from place to place, we followed the speeches of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, and John Lewis.
Even though my brother had disowned me and made life difficult for my parents, John and I were protected from much of the societal backlash of a mixed-race marriage. My parents and the rest of my family accepted John, and his family accepted me. Both families were gracious. My mother later told me they went to see the Hollywood movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” which she said gave them some perspective on their situation. They invited us for holidays and seemed to like John.
John and I lived in Synanon, with other inter-racial couples, and people of all shades living together. It was, as I said, a completely integrated community. People were forced by proximity to get to know one another. What we learned was that words brought down barriers if they were honest words. People’s prejudices and preconceived ideas of others couldn’t last long once people began engaging in real conversation. “Love has no color” was a popular concept.
At one point John and I were rotated to the San Diego facility, where John was the director. I did administrative work, but my first job was to find an apartment — a place for us to live. I don’t remember the exact year; maybe 1966. That was the first — and the only — time blatant racism hit me in the face in my time with John. I would find an apartment, bring John at the end of the day or when he had time, and it would have been rented. Over and over and over again.
When I discussed my frustrations with the San Diego community members, frustrations that had blossomed into a general hostility for all of San Diego, I found the local friends of Synanon in complete denial. “There’s no racial prejudice in San Diego” they would exclaim, blindly, over and over and over again. They tried to persuade me that the apartments probably just got rented. I got tired of the conversation.
Eventually, we did find an apartment with a lovely landlord. The landlord liked John and often engaged him in conversation. After we had lived there a while one day, he quietly asked about John’s heritage. “I’m just curious,” he said. John, with his abundant charm, laughed and said he was a mongrel and recited his roots, which included ancestors who were former slaves, a white grandmother, and a grandfather from the Philippines. Our landlord laughed and said, “we’re all mongrels, aren’t we?”
Part #2 Oakland: Making a Difference & Heart Break
By sometime in late 1967 John and I lived in a Synanon community in downtown Oakland, then a rundown poor, and mostly black ghetto. The streets had boarded-up businesses, drug trafficking obvious to the casual observer, winos drinking in doorways, sirens at night. In the middle of this poverty loomed a 13-story building that had once been a posh athletic club that we, Synanon, had purchased. We began to rehab the building, which had a swimming pool, a big kitchen, and a dining room and I don’t know how many rooms, large and small.
Despite the poverty, the neighborhood also had some excellent restaurants, among them soul food restaurants and Chinese restaurants, so small they only admitted ten or twelve people. Also, amazing to me was a Chinese laundry where you could have your laundry done if you saved up your WAM (walk around money) and pick it up clean, in a tidy blue paper-wrapped bundle a few days later. I had never experienced anything like that before, nor have I since. On one corner was a big drug store, one of the big chain drug stores. We noticed the prices there were higher than at the same drug store in Beverly Hills. It was impossible not to notice the exploitation.
We were there to make a difference, to make Oakland and the world a better place. We began to work with the Black Panthers, who held Saturday morning pancake breakfasts for the Oakland community. In Synanon we lived on donated food, and we shared it with the Panthers and other groups.
More often than not the adults in these impoverished families were working two jobs and had babies to care for. They had no time to watch the older kids, who ended up on their own, playing in the streets.
We met with Oakland city and police officials, and we started a day program, after school during the school year, and an all-day program during summers and vacations. We invited the kids, some as young as nine or ten, to come in and hang out in our building, as long as they were clean and carried no drugs and had written permission from their adult guardian. We were a curiosity in downtown Oakland, so there was plenty of interest.
My husband John was in charge of that program. Most, but not all of the kids, were Black. We called them “Notions.” I don’t remember why, but it was the “Notions Program” (possibly because it was somebody’s notion to do it). We fed them, taught them manners, let them swim in the pool, play pool at our table, under supervision, and shared our lives with them, giving them the attention that they did not receive at home. We sat them down in our talking circles we called “games” to work out differences and allowed them to use their foul language in these circles. Other than that, we expected them to use polite language.
They were safe. We loved them. They were interesting, curious kids, and Synanon was full of life, creativity, and vitality in those days. It was a healthy and thriving community of idealistic people who wanted to be involved in civic life and contribute. We were involved and full of enthusiasm.
On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated. It was devastating to all of us, but more so to my husband John. We had followed and been inspired by Martin Luther King’s words, convinced that his prophecy, bending the long arc of the universe toward justice, would prevail and the world would find justice, and we imagined we were part of that vision.
John didn’t talk a lot about King’s death. He would mention it in Synanon games, the talking circles we sat in twice a week, but the issue was bigger and had affected him more deeply than I had realized. It ate at him. At the time, he was working in a business venture Synanon had, Synanon Industries, selling pens and pencils and ad specialties to businesses all over the country. Synanon Industries was a step away from the original mission.
One day the following year, he solemnly told me he was leaving Synanon. He did not ask me to join him. He told me his people needed him. I was stunned. My defense mechanisms never immediately kick in. I freeze. I had no idea what to do or say. I was hurt, angry, and immobile. He left almost immediately. I walked around wounded and emotionally bleeding for months.
We had of course known we were a mixed-race couple, but race was a minor issue in our lives. Our battles were the same ego battles that all couples face. One day in the middle of an argument about something we started to laugh because we realized it wasn’t us, it was my mother and his father in a battle, and it made us laugh. People accepted us as a couple. But the race issue was there, like a specter in the background, whether we acknowledged it or not.
A couple of years ago I received an unexpected email from Wendell, a now grown-up Notion. Wendell moved into Synanon when he was eighteen, without ever having used drugs. He had gone to school, was raising a family, and worked as a social worker. In his letter, he thanked me for the attention I paid to him when he was a kid and told me how much that attention meant to him, how important it was, and how it changed his life. He explained it was the attention he could not get at home. It was humbling to me, as I hadn’t realized I’d given him all that much attention. Follow this link to Wendell’s story of being a “notion” in Oakland https://synanon.com/2021/06/20/wendell-an-oakland-story/
Part #3: Keeping the Flame Burning
The end of my marriage did not end my interest in justice or civil rights. I went to law school after I left Synanon. I worked for years as a public defender. I viewed my job as holding the prosecutor’s wings to the wall to make sure the evidence against my client was valid, which sometimes was, and sometimes not. I was successful in getting some cases dismissed because of insufficient evidence. Even if my client was guilty, often the case, I aimed to keep the punishment reasonable. Many of my clients were from Mexico, the crimes they faced involved moving drugs across the border.
I no longer practice law, other than a sporadic case for a friend. I’ve devoted my time to art, in particular, ceramics.
Ceramic piece in progress by Margo.
I’ve remained politically involved, marched with others carrying signs, protesting injustice. Now that I’m officially “old”, I just park myself with signs, supporting Black Lives Matter, keeping the post offices open, and urging people to vote. John Lewis always continued as an inspiration. And now he is no longer here.
View Margo’s response to the passing of John Lewis on TOTA World https://www.tota.world/article/3272/
Categories: Places, Uncategorized, Women
Dear Margo, You and John were among the first who greeted Buddy and me upon our getting acquainted as squares, visiting Synanon. We found out Synanon had moved into our neighborhood, Hillcrest, San Diego, because a cop car pulled up as we were walking home from work. We were houseparents at the Boys and Girls Aid Society, a broarding house for deliquent kids. The two policemen yelled, and one pushed Buddy up against the wall. The other made sure I stayed where I was. They looked at his ID, recognizing Richard Buddy Jones name, but not sure from where. Buddy said, “I play football, San Diego State for Coryell. Probably saw me in the papers.” The cops eyes brightened. “Buddy Jones, of course. Hey I am sorry. We thought you were from that drug addict place. They are the only Black people here…” They let us go on. We knew Synanon was moving to San Diego from Jack and Marion Harrison, who knew about segregation in SD, and thought we might have trouble, and Synanon could be a resource. The next Saturday night party we showed up. Oh my, interracial couples like you and John, were the first on my radar. Then I heard accents, New York, New Jersey, Southern, Mid-west, and California. Every color of the human rainbow filled the room. Later, you went out of your way as I began to show up to welcome me, along with Ruthie, Fran Scalza, and Nora’s mom, oh my forgive me, I cannot remember her name at the moment, and later Lena. Once I knew there were children, I began to show up during the day and brought my brown son Richie, and later when he was born, John-John with me and hung out with mothers and children. I thank you Margo, and the other women, who pulled me in.
PS: Thank you Cory for doing this. I will send you stories from my book that are about my Synanon experience.
Wow, Shirley thanks for sharing this. xo Cory
Lovely stories Margo. I remember John and loved him a bit too. Stallone and I used to crackup at the beautiful eyebrows he had. Stallone said he looked like the devil on the deviled ham can. I remember you suffering when he left. I felt as bad for those Notions in his tribe. I felt he abandoned them.
Margo, I shared most of that with John and you and remember the agony you suffered when he left. I felt for you then and still do. I missed him for years too and still wonder what happened to him since he left. I was in a mixed relationship before I entered Synanon and one with Candy Latson for a while in Synanon. Needless to say it was much easier in Synanon than in New York; all those stares! Plus of course Carl Lee and I were using drugs.
Thanks for filling in the back story before I met you, Margo. John’s leaving must have been a terrible shock: Do you know what happened to him? It sounds as if he had had a calling …?
Good read Margo. John was before my time in Synanon but having been in a mixed marriage in Synanon and more than several mixed relationships, I can truthfully say that Synanon was the ultimate slice of a life untainted by the narrowmindedness and stupidity of racism. I think that fact had more to do with the Game and its dichotomy than any other elevated sense of morality of the individual players and residents.