It’s Sacramento 1952 and you’re the first black family on your block. Ginger Rutland invites you to come laugh and cry with the Rutlands in, “When We Were Colored,” a play she adapted from her mother Eva’s legendary memoir.
The play, like the book from which it springs, tells the story of a middle class black woman born and raised in the segregated south before World War II who moves West to raise her children in integrated California after the war.
In this homage to her mother, Ginger Rutland, former television reporter, NPR commentator and editorial writer for The Sacramento Bee, puts her family’s story on stage. Performances of “When We Were Colored” will be at Pioneer Congregational Church, 2700 L St., the weekends of Aug. 21 and 28; Fridays at 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays at 2 and 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 6 p.m. Tickets are $20 and are available at www.brownbagticket.com or by calling 443-3727.
Ginger, a Curtis Park resident, sat down with this publication to discuss the creation of the play, her love and admiration for her mother, what it was like growing up going to the integrated neighborhood Sierra School and to shed light on stereotypes of the black experience.
“The stereotypical stories were that blacks were slaves, sharecroppers, that they were lynched, that they came from welfare mothers. But, not that is not authentic, there’s also a huge swath (of the population) that has been ignored,” she said upon introducing the play.
From the segregated deep south in Georgia, Ginger’s parents and grandparents were upper-middle class, despite her grandfather Isaac West Moreland’s societal position as a slave.
Shown here is Ginger Rutland, former associate editor of The Sacramento Bee. Now also a playwright, Ginger has taken the story her mother wrote, "When We Were Colored: A Mother's Story" and adapted it for the stage, with its first showing on Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Pioneer Congregational Church, 2700 L St. / Photo by Stephen Crowley
Eva’s memoir, which was first published in 1964 and used in sociology classes through out Sacramento, has been endorsed by Willie Brown, Jr., former mayor of San Francisco; Cornel West, activist, professor and author of “Race Matters.” After several printings of the book, it eventually went out of print and it wasn’t until 2007 when Ginger’s father, Bill Rutland, passed away that everybody at the funeral wanted a copy. So, Ginger decided to re-release it but changed the title (with stern consternation from family members) and added family photos, which were absent from the earlier printings.
While Eva’s book was first called “The Trouble with Being a Mama,” Ginger thought to make the title more evocative of the era and decided to call it, “When We Were Colored: A Mother’s Story” as the term “colored” was a polite description of black America.
Found on the back cover of the re-released version of the book, Brown writes: “Eva Rutland’s chronicle of child rearing during the transition from segregation to civil rights is warm, poignant, and funny. It is also a powerful object lesson in how and why women – as mommas and grandmothers – have long anchored the soul of Black America.”
For Eva’s particular situation, she lived her early years in a segregated South, a place where a certain comfort was felt. Around her, she saw middle and upper class blacks working in such professions as doctors, teachers, and funeral directors.
“It was like the Huxtables. Because of segregation, we had to have black business people who became leaders of these black communities. Some of these were wealthy, but (many) were solidly middle class. There’s a lot of them but you never read about them or see them. So mother wrote a story in which a world she grew up. She was protected, loved, happy,” Ginger said.
Having lived to age 95, Eva died on March 15, 2012 and her granddaughter, Eva Shields, wrote an obituary for the Curtis Park Viewpoint, which describes her as the “quintessential Southern belle.”
Born in Atlanta on Jan. 15, 1917, a granddaughter to former slaves, despite discrimination, Eva Shields writes, “(Eva Rutland) had a happy childhood.” In 1943, she married Bill Rutland, a civilian employee at the Tuskegee Army Air Base, and in 1952 they moved to Curtis Park. Eva already had published articles in the leading women’s magazine’s of the day, Redbook, Ladies’ Home Journal and Women’s Day, “not bad for a black woman in the 1940s and early 50s.”
“She grew up in the segregated South and loved it,” continued the younger Eva. “She worried about her children who would have to interact with whites in the integrating West of the 1950s and 1960s. Eva started writing stories about her children to tell white mothers, ‘My children are just as precious and just as fragile as yours. Please be kind to them.’ She compiled these stories into a book entitled The Trouble With Being a Mama, published in 1964.
“When she was in her early 50s, grandma went blind but she didn’t let that slow her down. She bought a talking computer and became one of Harlequin’s most prolific writers, eventually writing over 20 books for the well-known romance publisher.”
Ginger said Eva’s magazine pieces told about the transition from segregation to integration and as such told stories about her children, the PTA, “how Johnny can’t learn his Algebra” and other social problems brought to a relatable down-home level, with questions like: “Will they be accepted at Miss Diddy Wattie’s class? What happens they are called a nigger?”
Even though Ginger herself is an accomplished writer, growing up under the same roof as a Victorian romance novelist and magazine writer, to her Eva didn’t strike her as out of the ordinary.
“When you are a kid, it’s just your mom, but she was the president, the vice president of the PTA. She was the combatant mom and she was the girl scout leader, the little league mom. She was a classic ’50s mom. She wrote plays and the PTA would perform them. She wrote morality plays. She wrote a lot. Short stories for magazines.
“But, truly her writing career took off when she going blind when I was in college. She loved Victorian romances that featured lords and ladies. Her favorite author was Jane Austen. She wrote books patterned on that. She had white characters, but had black characters (through out). She would populate the novels with us to remind people that we’re there and people just like they are,” Ginger said with emphasis.
As Eva feared her children would be a minority in Sacramento, the move out West was brought on by her husband Bill’s military involvement.
Hired to work at McClellan Air Force Base, it was that chapter in the Rutlands’ lives in which Bill was trying to buy a house. While he saw “better than average track homes for $250 down near McClellan, Ginger noted, “There were restrictions on blacks, Asians, Jews” and being black, they weren’t allowed housing near the base.”
So, Bill was driven around town, looking at neighborhoods like Del Paso Heights and Oak Park, but neither of those neighborhoods, to say the least, felt like home. So, he drove himself around other areas and found Curtis Park. And he noticed, Ginger said, “If they are going to sell to Orientals, they will sell to us.”
But owning a house in the Curtis Park neighborhood came with a caveat for minorities. “They could only own above 2nd Avenue. Below 2nd, you couldn’t,” Ginger said.
This was before freeways cut through the area. There was no Highway 50 cutting through downtown. There was no 99. And Ginger loved her home and her neighborhood. “It was a two-story house. It was quite nice, treelined. It was an idyllic childhood. The Yees lived across the street, and Alfred. He was Japanese. So, there was a Chinese family across the street, Japanese, black and white people all around. It was a very integrated neighborhood.”
A student at Sierra School, Ginger recalls the demographic makeup with “some of everything, but there was mostly white people.”
While Eva’s notoriety grew as a writer, Bill’s job at McClellan was “to sell weapons of mass destruction to allies around the world. We’re talking the Middle East, Europe, everywhere,” Ginger said.
A family on the move, the Rutlands eventually moved to South Land Park with the help from a sympathetic white colleague of Bill’s, Ginger said. “The two of them always tried to buy a house and mom found a lot we could afford” at 35th Avenue and Holstein Way, “but they wouldn’t sell to her, so she went to a colleague of Dad’s and he bought the lot for her. They built (the home) from the ground up.”
Ginger started at The Sacramento Bee in 1988 and retired in 2013. Before that she was a television reporter for Channel 4 in San Francisco covering Sacramento news. Then she was at Channel 3 for seven years, followed by a job providing radio commentary for Capital Public Radio.
At The Bee, she was on the editorial board, often writing the opinion of the paper, and she also wrote columns. Her father’s favorite column his daughter wrote was in favor of President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, she said. “I wrote columns on gay marriage. You name it. I did stuff on the parking lot at the train station that was a mess, the cost of buses for kids going to school. I wrote a lot about pensions, which I thought were too fat. So public unions hated me, the teachers union.
“We liked charter schools and things like that. You write opinions and if they are any good, they are controversial. You take a stand and there were people on the other side. I tried to be fair, omniscient. In my own head I always said, ‘blah blah blah blah blah blah blah or not.’ I always try to keep aware that we always make mistakes.”
Asked what piece she was most proud of during her time at The Bee, Ginger said it was one that probably no one remembers, but was representative of the reason she went into journalism – to expose injustice. About a poor black man who had been charged with hit and run and assault, Ginger said there was something different about this man who wrote her a letter from jail. “He wrote all of these letters, some to the NAACP and one of his letters landed on my desk. As a journalist, you get letters from prisoners and you don’t pay attention, but this letter rang so true to me. I called his public defender. The woman who claimed to have been hit had a record of insurance fraud.” Meanwhile, the district attorney kept offering him dealings, trying to convince him to plead guilty and to get over it. But, the young man wanted to be in law enforcement and knew if he pleaded guilty he wouldn’t reach his goal. “The D.A. wouldn’t drop it and the people who were in the jury were like, ‘huh?’ The evidence was that he was a victim of a scam. In the end, he was not only acquitted but was declared factually innocent” by black judge Alice Lytle, a friend of Ginger’s.
Ginger wrote a couple of pieces on the young man, first when he was acquitted, then secondly when the judge brought back the case. And while she didn’t keep in touch with him, she wondered what
eventually happened to him.
While no one may remember those stories Ginger wrote about him, her legacy as a voice of The Sacramento Bee will never be forgotten and will stand the test of time, just as that of the writing of her mother Eva’s book, which will soon be brought to life with the performances of it starting this week at Pioneer Congregational Church.
“When We Were Colored” is a one-act, hour-plus play organized in a series of vignettes featuring three characters, Ginger, Bill and Eva, respectfully played by Brooklynn Solomon, Kelton Howard and Shawna James and directed by Maggie Adair Upton. What follows are biographies of the director and actors, courtesy of Ginger.
About the actors
Maggie holds a masters of arts in theatre from Sacramento State University and has been teaching, acting, directing and managing for the region’s theatre for many years. Currently she is a member of the Playwright’s Collaborative Steering Committee. Most recently she directed The Third Date at the Wilkerson for Ray Tatar; The Flu Season and Time Stands Still for Ovation Stage, and appeared as Queen Hecuba in Resurrection Stage’s Trojan Women. At Chautauqua Playhouse, she appeared in Maternal Instincts, directed Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile, and will direct a production of Calendar Girls there next year. As managing director at River Stage projects, she directed Five Women Wearing The Same Dress, The Waiting Room, and appeared in Sympathetic Magic. Her favorite directing projects include productions at the Thistle Dew.
Brooklynn received a bachelor’s of arts in theatre. Her credits include The Trial of One Short-Sighted Woman vs Mammy Louise and Safreeta Mae, as Victoria Dryer, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone as Mattie Campbell and North Star as Aurelia Taylor. Most recently she was seen in Celebration Arts’ productions of Bourbon at the Border as May Thompson, (a role which earned her an Elly nomination for best lead actress in a drama) and The Bluest Eye as Claudia.
Shawna just completed her freshman year at Boston University where she is pursuing her BFA in Theatre Arts. She has spent most of her summers training professionally at Center REP’s Young REP program and Interlochen Arts Camp. Some of her favorite shows include Every Five Minutes (Magic Theatre Arts.
If you go:
What: Performance of “When We Were Colored: A Mother’s Story”
Where: Pioneer Congregational Church, 2700 L St.
When: Aug. 21-30; Fridays at 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays at 2 and 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 6 p.m.
Tickets are $20 and available by visiting www.brownpaperticket.comor by calling 443-3727.