“Little nigger, get your ass on your side of the street!” said a drunk white man to 8-year-old Tracy Tolbert, now a Cal State Long Beach sociology professor. “From that moment on, there was no more childhood,” she said.
Tolbert, 53, a native of Cleveland, Ohio spoke about her experiences growing up black in the Midwest in a lectured titled “People Like Me Don’t End Up Like This” in Kreider Hall on Nov. 6.
The talk in the Cultural Diversity Lecture Series gave students the opportunity to hear first-hand what it was like for the professor to grow up in a gang-infested neighborhood during the 1950s.
She described as horrifying her feelings in 1958 after being told to move across to “her” side of the street because of the color of her skin.
Tolbert explained that the street she lived on divided blacks and whites in Cleveland. There was an unspoken rule that you kept to your side and “If you wanted something on the other side of the street, tough,” she said.
The young girl learned a lesson about racism from the drunk white man.
Tolbert also explained the poor conditions of her family’s life while growing up in Cleveland as a young girl. “I didn’t have anything,” she said. “I wore hand-me-downs.” Her neighborhood was polluted with drugs and alcoholism and was “a venue of social destruction.”
“Reading was my escape,” said Tolbert. As a young girl, she had a keen fascination for Dracula and King Arthur and his knights. “It was a mystical land that took me out of the ghetto.”
She also expressed avid interest in World War II, even at such a young age. Reading about the war helped her realize that even worse conditions than her’s existed in the world. “It showed me that I could get out of there if I wasn’t in the worst,” Tolbert said.
But in the neighborhood she lived in, the street gangs soon became a part of everyone’s lives, as many would find a sense of family and friendship among them, she said.
She found herself joining street gangs such as The Bishops in Cleveland. She explained that all the gangs would meet and fight to settle any arguments.
“What I soon found out was how angry I was,” she said. “The gang became my family and my home,” she said. “It became everything to me because it was the only thing I had to identify with.”
She told the audience of how drastic a problem racism was in the ’50s with one specific incident when she crossed the black and white street barrier and 50 white kids came around the corner. “They beat the f-k out of me,” she said.
Tolbert had a sledgehammer hit against her head and was hospitalized. Even today she has the scars from that beating.
At age 17, Tolbert had already been kicked out of two high schools and began wanting more than the street gang’s life, she said. She wanted the beautiful cars, money and respect that her street life couldn’t provide. “I went from gangs to organized crime,” she said. “They began to school me in organized crime.”
By the time she was 22, Tolbert was selling cars, guns and prostituting other girls. “I didn’t care…I did not have any moral conscience,” said Tolbert. “All I cared about was myself…I abused people.”
From here, Tolbert moved to Chicago to run a nightclub, “and then things went wrong,” she said. After running the nightclub for a few years, a lot of money was missing and the people she was involved with blamed her, she said. They beat her and held her to gunpoint making her think she was about to die. “Your spirit just leaves you when you think your life is over,” she said.
A phone call was made and the man holding the gun told her it was her lucky day and that she had 48 hours to clean up the mess.
Tolbert wouldn’t tell the audience how, but she did in fact “clean the mess up.” After that, she slowly began to turn her life around.
Soon after, now 30-year-old Tolbert moved to South Bend, Indiana to stay with her mom. “I thought the place sucked,” she said. One afternoon, as Tolbert visited the police station to pick up forms for a friend, she was approached by a secretary about a position in the police force.
Though very reluctant at first, Tolbert filled out the application. “‘You’re not doing anything’, I thought,” she said. This was the beginning of her career in the police force as a police officer. “I liked the job, I’m a total control freak,” she said. “I found that I really did enjoy helping people.”
Despite her rewarding experience in the police force, Tolbert knew she needed to finish her education with a college degree. “It’s hard to face yourself and understand that it’s your responsibility, not anyone else’s,” she said.
Tolbert has since published many books including “The Sex Crime Scenario” and “The Sexual Terrorism.”
She received her bachelor’s degree from Indiana University and was later accepted into a doctorate program at USC where she received her master’s in 1995.
Currently, she is a lecturer in the sociology department eccompassing Criminology and Sex and Gender Studies in her area of expertise at Cal State Long Beach.
“When you start to understand what’s real, you free your mind and your ass will follow,” she said. “The only thing holding you back is yourself.”