Vernon Can Read!

A Memoir


By Vernon Jordan

With Annette Gordon-Reed

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As a young college student in Atlanta, Vernon E. Jordan, Jr. had a summer job driving a white banker around town. During the man’s post-luncheon siestas, Jordan passed the time reading books, a fact that astounded his boss. “Vernon can read!” the man exclaimed to his relatives. Nearly fifty years later, Vernon Jordan, now a senior executive at Lazard Freres, long-time civil rights leader, adviser and close friend to presidents and business leaders and one of the most charismatic figures in America, has written an unforgettable book about his life and times.

                The story of Vernon Jordan’s life encompasses the sweeping struggles, changes, and dangers of African-American life in the civil rights revolution of the second half of the twentieth century.


Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., one of the major civil rights figures in American history, is a senior managing director of the investment firm Lazard Frères & Co., LLC and a senior counsel to the law firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld. He lives in Washington, D.C.
Annette Gordon-Reed, a graduate of Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School, is a professor at New York Law School. She is the author of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. She lives in New York City.






IN THE SUMMER OF 1955, at the end of my sophomore year in college, I worked as a chauffeur in my hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. It had not been my first choice of jobs. I was originally supposed to work as a salesman for the Continental Insurance Company, which had made me an offer during a campus interview at my school, DePauw University. When the interviewer said there was an opening for me in the company’s Atlanta office, I jumped at the chance. It was the perfect arrangement for me. I would have a job in the place where I most wanted to be—at home in Atlanta. At the end of the term, brimming with the confidence of a young man with two years of college behind me, I packed my bags and headed south thinking everything was in place.
After a few days settling in with my family, I put on my best suit and headed downtown to the Fulton National Bank Building, where Continental had its offices. I went up to the receptionist’s desk to present myself.
“My name is Vernon Jordan,” I said. “I’m a student at DePauw University, and I’m here to begin my summer internship.”
The receptionist seemed in need of a translator to help clarify what I had just said. She was, at that moment, like a machine whose gears had ground to a halt and was struggling to get restarted. When she finally realized she’d heard what she thought she’d heard, she called for the man in charge of summer workers. “You won’t believe this,” she told him, “but there’s a colored boy out here who says he’s a summer intern.”
The supervisor, a tall fellow who looked to be in his mid-thirties, came out. I introduced myself.
“I’m Vernon Jordan. I was hired to be a summer intern in your office.”
His reaction was not unlike the receptionist’s. But he quickly composed himself and took me inside his office. An awkward moment passed before he said, “They didn’t tell us.”
“They didn’t tell you what?” I asked, even though I suspected where he was heading.
“They didn’t tell us you were colored,” he replied. At that time in history, we had not yet become “black.”
He went on. “You know, you can’t work here. It’s just impossible. You just can’t.”
Of course, segregation was still very much a fact of life in Georgia in the summer of 1955. I was well aware of that, and of the rules that were still propping up the system. But I had thought—hoped—during those months after my interview that I had somehow made my way around them. It was my policy then, and it remains the same today, never to expect defeat before making an honest effort. Also, by then I’d come to think of Jim Crow as a lame horse that was about to be put down. The feeling was in the air. And I wanted to do whatever I could to help speed the process along. But it wouldn’t happen on that day at the Continental Insurance Company.
Although I was disappointed, I knew there was nothing to be done about the situation at that particular moment. As I got up to go, my never-to-be-supervisor, not wanting to leave things as they stood, said, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’m going to call J. L. Wolfe Realty. We do business with them sometimes, and we can see if they can give you an office.”
While Continental was willing to honor its commitment to hire me, under no circumstances could I sit in its offices as an employee. J. L. Wolfe Realty, a black-owned real estate and insurance business on Auburn Avenue—“Sweet Auburn,” the heart of Atlanta’s black business district—was the proposed solution.
The Continental representative called Wolfe Realty and explained the situation. The head of the company agreed to give me an office out of which I sold Continental’s income-protection insurance policies to black businesses employing five or more people. On occasion, my white supervisor came down to my office to make calls.
It was absurd. As a black person, I could not sell the policies of a white company to black businesses while sitting in the white company’s office. Yet my white supervisor could come in to the black business office and sell the white company’s policies to black firms. This was a prime example of the craziness, the backwardness, the inefficiency of Southern life.
The job was also very boring. Although I managed to sell some individual policies (mainly to my mother’s friends), I couldn’t muster even a minimal interest in my work. My lack of enthusiasm certainly didn’t help when it came time to sell policies to people who were not friends of the family.
When I could stand it no longer, my mother, who knew I was deeply unhappy, suggested an alternative. The summer was passing, and the opportunities for other office jobs had dwindled. I wanted to work. So why not, she asked, work the balance of the time using other skills I had? I was a good driver and, like many young men in the 1950s, I was in love with cars. My mother ran a catering business, which meant she had contacts within most, if not all, the prominent white households in Atlanta.
That is how I became a chauffeur for Robert F. Maddox.
Robert Maddox was one of the leading figures in Atlanta’s white elite for most of the early part of the twentieth century. He was mayor of the city in 1910, and before that he had been active in the civic and social affairs of the town. A man of finance, he was the president of the First National Bank of Atlanta and president of the American Banking Association. Maddox’s interests and influence were wide-ranging. He had a fabulous garden on his grounds and was, for a time, the president of the Garden Clubs of America.
In many ways Maddox was a symbol of the New South—open to business and economic development and devoted to progress, as long as it was within certain boundaries. When Booker T. Washington gave his famous Atlanta Exposition address (sometimes called the Atlanta Compromise), Maddox had been among the dignitaries on the platform, listening while the “wizard of Tuskegee” assured whites that blacks would make no immediate press for social equality.
Maddox was very proud of having built the first very large home in Buckhead, one of Atlanta’s most exclusive neighborhoods. When I encountered him, he was well into his eighties, a widower living alone in that spectacular house, attended by a small group of servants: Joe, the chauffeur and butler, whose place I took for the month of August, when he was away; Lizzie, the cook, a middle-aged woman who played the piano at the Mount Zion Baptist Church; and Troy, the yardman.
Every morning I picked up Lizzie and brought her to work. If needed, I would then press one of Maddox’s Palm Beach suits as Lizzie fixed his breakfast. When she finished doing that, she would take the meal up to Maddox and then return to prepare my breakfast, which I ate in the butler’s pantry. Lizzie also made breakfast for Troy. But Troy worked in the yard and, according to age-old protocol, was not allowed to eat inside the house. His meal was handed out to him by Lizzie, and he sat on the back porch of that huge Southern house and had his breakfast.
My routine varied little. Maddox, in his old age, was a creature of habit. He would come downstairs, get his hat, and select one of his many walking canes. We’d go out to the car, a four-door blue Cadillac. In a bid for independence, Maddox usually insisted upon opening the passenger door himself, although he could have used my help. I would drive him from the back of the house around to the front and stop near the rose garden. At that moment, Troy, cued by the idling of the car’s engine, would appear from the garden with a single rose—sometimes red, sometimes white or yellow—for Maddox’s lapel. Then our day’s journey began.
At Maddox’s insistence, we took the same route each day: down West Paces Ferry Road, right on Habersham, down to Peachtree Battle, left on Peachtree Street, and down to the First National Bank Building, where Maddox kept an office. He would go up and stay sometimes ten minutes, sometimes two hours—I never knew what to expect. But I knew that whenever he finished, our next destination would be the Capital City Club, where Maddox, and sometimes a companion we might pick up along the way, went to have a drink and lunch. Then it was back home for Maddox’s afternoon nap. So, by 1:30 at the latest, my duties as chauffeur were over. I had nothing to do until six o’clock, when I took on the mantle of butler and served dinner.
Maddox had a wonderful library that soon became a place of refuge for me during the dead hours of the afternoon. Shakespeare, Thoreau, Emerson—it had everything. What I read most eagerly, however, were the various books of speeches in his collection. There are few things I enjoy more than a good speech and good preaching. I’ve tried my hand at doing both. The experience of saying aloud what needs to be said in front of a group of willing listeners is intoxicating. The good speaker or preacher is apart from the audience but always with them in some fundamental way—rising when they rise, falling when they fall, directing them but being directed as well. When a speaker has a talent for doing this, there is nothing more exciting to watch. This is all better as live theater, but the power of a truly well-written speech can come through even when read silently.
One book in Maddox’s library contained Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Exposition address. Maddox was deeply impressed with Washington, as the well-thumbed pages of that part of the book showed. Maddox had vigorously underlined one particular passage, to the point of damaging the page, where Washington had said of the races, “In all things purely social we can be as separate as the fingers yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” This was Maddox’s credo, but, obviously, not mine. I was, after all, sitting in his private library.
I sat there day after day, drinking in the atmosphere of the place—the smell of the books, the feel of them, the easy chairs. The way of life that the library symbolized—the commitment to knowledge and the leisure to pursue it—struck a chord in me that still resonates. I wanted all this for myself and my family. This was what going to college was for, to become a part of a community that appreciated and had access to a place like this. I knew I belonged there.
Lizzie, on the other hand, did not think so. Whenever she saw me headed in the direction of my sanctuary, she would remind me that the place was off-limits to servants. Although I had never heard Maddox himself say so, it seemed likely that this was true. I was sure of one thing, however: This was not really any of Lizzie’s business. And I would tell her gently, but firmly, to mind her own. She continued to bother me about it until I decided to play hardball.
Lizzie, it turned out, had her own little secret. She had an operation going on with the local grocer. He would overcharge Maddox, and Lizzie would look the other way in return for provisions—hams, turkeys, and the like—that she would take to Mount Zion for after-church dinners. I suppose she thought it was all somehow in service of the Lord. But I don’t think even He would have been able to help her if Maddox’s family had found out about this. After I casually suggested this to her, I heard no more carping about servants in the Maddox library.
One afternoon, as I sat reading, Maddox walked in on me. He had awakened early from his afternoon nap and had come down in his underwear, with a bottle of Southern Comfort in one hand and a glass in the other. He was clearly startled to see me there.
“What are you doing in the library, Vernon?”
“I’m reading, Mr. Maddox.”
“Reading? I’ve never had a nigger work for me who could read,” he said.
“Mr. Maddox, I can read. I go to college.”
“You do what?” he asked.
“I go to college.”
“You go to college over there at those colored schools?”
“No, sir. I go to DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana.”
He pondered this for a moment.
“White children go to that school.”
“Yes, sir.”
Then the inevitable.
“White girls go to that school.”
“Yes, sir.”
“What are you studying to be, a preacher or a teacher?”
“Actually, I’m going to be a lawyer, Mr. Maddox.”
“Niggers aren’t supposed to be lawyers.”
“I’m going to be a lawyer, Mr. Maddox.”
“Hmmm. Well, don’t you know I have some place downstairs for you all to sit and do what you want to do?”
“I know. But I didn’t think you’d want me to take these books down there. They should stay in the library.”
He looked around and finally said, “Just read then—just go ahead.” He turned and walked out. I thought the matter was closed. I soon found out it was not.
His children and their spouses came for dinner that evening, which was not uncommon. Ed Smith, married to Maddox’s daughter, Laura, was the chairman of the First National Bank, and Maddox’s son, Baxter, was its executive vice president. Maddox was at his customary place at the head of the table. As I moved among them serving soup in my white jacket and bow tie with a napkin draped over my arm, Maddox said, “I have an announcement to make.”
“Yes, Papa?” one of his children said.
“Vernon can read.”
More silence. Maddox went on.
“And he’s going to school with white children.”
No one made a sound. Finally, and with a great deal of emotion, Maddox said, “I knew all this was coming. But I’m glad I won’t be here when it does.”
The truth is that his guests were all quite embarrassed by this display because they knew I could read. They knew I was a college student. Maddox’s children had hired me, through my mother. My ability to read was not a detail they had thought to mention to him. Why should they have?
For my part, the whole business seemed so absurd that there was nothing to say. I served dinner, poured the water and wine, and left them to themselves. This was not the last of it.
The next day I drove Maddox and two of his friends to lunch. One was his frequent companion, Jim Dickey, another widower who lived across the street from him. The other, ironically, was James Robinson, whose grandson (also named James) in the 1980s was the chairman of the American Express Company where I was, and remain, on the board of directors. The three of them sat in the back talking about various things. I was lost in my own thoughts until Maddox’s voice cut through my reverie.
“Jim?” he said to both of them.
“Yeah, Bob?” they responded.
“Vernon can read.”
What did Maddox mean to accomplish with this? I knew that some of the people who worked for him could read. Indeed, as I think back on it, I’m sure at some level he knew, too. But it was necessary for him to act as if he did not know it—at least not in any way that could change the way he viewed the brown faces who busied themselves in his service. The simple fact was that he never thought about those who worked for him in any way that did not directly affect their duties to him. We were merely entities who drove him around town, cooked his meals, brought him his food, and kept his house and yard in order. Why think about whether reading and mathematics meant anything to us? (Although I think he should have paid more attention to Lizzie’s use of math.) In the end, that part of our lives just did not matter.
When I have told this story to younger people, they often ask why I was not more angry at Maddox. How could I have continued working for him under those circumstances? While I was certainly annoyed by what was going on, I did not think then—and I do not think now—that it would have done any good to lash out at this elderly man for his aggressive backwardness. Each of us has to decide for ourselves how much nonsense we can take in life, and from whom we are willing to take it. It all depends, of course, on the situation and people involved.
I knew Maddox, or more precisely, I knew his type. I was aware of and had borne the brunt of the forces that helped shape him. He had lived his life as though Booker T. Washington’s program for black-white relations in the South had been enacted. To me, Robert Maddox was not an evil man. He was just an anachronism. And with the brashness of youth I mentally noted (and counted on) the fact that his time was up. I do not mean just his physical time on earth—but I believed that the “time” that helped shape him was on its way out. His half-mocking, half-serious comments about my education were the death rattle of his culture. When he saw that I was in the process of crafting a life for myself that would make me a man in some of the same ways he thought of being a man, he was deeply unnerved. That I was doing it with money gained from working in his household was probably even more unnerving. These things, however, were his problem. As far as I was concerned, I was executing a plan for my life and had no time to pause and re-educate him.
I kept reading in Maddox’s library, but he never again announced to anyone that I could read. This story does not have a happy ending, with the old man coming to see the error of his ways and taking on the role of mentor to the young man; I would find mentors in other places. The character of our relationship, however, did change slightly, but perceptibly, after he was forced to focus on who I really was. He became much more inclined to speak to me at times other than when he wanted me to do something for him. As we drove around, he sometimes tossed out a comment about a current issue with the expectation that I might know something about it. At the very least we could have a conversation. That held true over the course of the next few years when I worked for him during the summers and on vacations from school.
The story is told, and I am not sure it is true, that in 1961, when I escorted Charlayne Hunter through the mobs at the University of Georgia to desegregate that institution, Maddox was watching the well-publicized event on television. By that time he was no longer living in the house (in 1963 he would sell the property to the state of Georgia, where the governor’s mansion now stands), and he was living in a smaller place in Atlanta attended by a nurse.
The nurse recognized me and said, “Mr. Maddox, do you know who that colored lawyer is?”
“I don’t believe I do.”
“It’s your chauffeur, Vernon.”
Maddox looked hard at the screen and said, “I always knew that nigger was up to no good.”
I FIRST THOUGHT SERIOUSLY OF WRITING a memoir in the 1970s. Though still a young man, so much had happened to me—I had come so far in life, and black people had come so far during my lifetime—that the moment seemed right to tell the story of this process as I had lived it and seen it. An incident in the winter of 1970 prompted my thinking along these lines. My daughter, Vickee, who was eleven years old at the time, was talking to our housekeeper, Mrs. Gaines. We were all new residents of Westchester County, New York, having moved there from our home in Atlanta when I became executive director of the United Negro College Fund.
Mrs. Gaines, who had been with us back in Atlanta, came along, and her presence was greatly appreciated and much needed because my wife, Shirley, had multiple sclerosis and was at the beginning of what would be a long, difficult, and valiant struggle. We were all very far from home and depended very much upon one another. In the evenings, after Mrs. Gaines had prepared dinner, we would all sit down together, eat, and go over the day’s events or whatever else came to mind.
One evening, Mrs. Gaines told a story about taking the bus from Cuthbert, Georgia, to Gainesville, Florida during the era of segregation—a trip that had taken her further south and into even more harsh racial terrain.
She got on the bus and took a seat in the middle section, sliding over to be near the window. Only one other passenger was on the bus, a white man sitting up front. Not long into the trip, another white man boarded the bus, walked over to where Mrs. Gaines was sitting, and said, “Get up and move further back. I want to sit here.”
Vickee had been listening with great attention. She asked, “Well, what did you do?”
“I moved,” Mrs. Gaines replied, as if it were the simplest thing in the world—no emotion, just in a totally matter-of-fact manner.
Vickee was indignant and certain. “I wouldn’t have moved,” she declared.
Mrs. Gaines leaned over, touched Vickee on the shoulder, and said, “Yes, Vickee. You would have moved.”
That colloquy between the generations opened my eyes. I had been in the thick of the civil rights movement almost from the time of my daughter’s birth, as a lawyer, organizer, and, now, as the head of an institution that symbolized black aspirations. Yet it was clear that my child knew nothing of the world in which I, her mother, and Mrs. Gaines had lived. This was at the height of the “black power” movement. The music Vickee listened to, the images she saw on television, all suggested that empowerment and the choice of rebellion were open to all. She could not comprehend the oppression, the enforced servility, the downright meanness of life for blacks in the Deep South.
The three adults sitting at that table knew what could have happened to Mrs. Gaines had she refused to move. The white man, or the bus driver himself, could easily have beaten her up, left her beside the road, and called the sheriff, and she would have been arrested for vagrancy. All for refusing to do something that she should never have been asked to do in the first place. We knew how that story could easily have played out. Vickee did not. A whole universe of understanding was missing.
I decided at that moment that someday, I would try to do my part to bridge the gap—to tell the story of those times from my perspective; to explain how we had gone from the days Mrs. Gaines knew to a time in which a young black girl could be so confident in her humanity that she found it unfathomable that anyone could try to take it away from her. This is, I believe, the most important American story of the second half of the twentieth century, and there are many ways to tell it. In my case, a simple fatherly impulse to explain to his daughter “how he grew” has given rise to this very personal take on the black experience since the end of the Second World War.
Although it has taken me much longer than I thought it would to get to it, I am very glad I didn’t follow my impulse to write the memoirs of those times while I was still living them. Distance and age have brought me a sense of perspective that now allows me to attempt a more substantive and illuminating depiction of that era. My thoughts are clear.
That is why this book effectively ends in the 1980s, when I began a chapter of my life that is still being written. All that has happened to me since then is too close to be considered true memories. Perhaps sometime in the future, when I have had the chance to bring the meaning of my life out of the public arena into greater focus in my own mind, I will revisit this business of writing memoirs.
But in the meantime, I choose to stick with what I know and believe fervently about the progress of black life during the decades of which I write. I hope what follows will be instructive to readers today, and for anyone in the future who wants to know something of what these times were like, as well as the events that took us away from them.

WHEN I THINK ABOUT THE EARLY PART OF MY LIFE and how it helped make me the man I have become, it is so clear to me how lucky I was to have been born and raised in a world of structures. There was the structure of my family, the structure of the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, the Gate City Day Nursery, my schools, the Butler Street Colored YMCA. But above all else, I had my family.
I know for certain that the world my parents created for me, as I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, has made all the difference in my life. And when I say “created for me” (and I should include my brothers Warren and Windsor in this), I mean that literally. It was as if the world had been built for the three of us, and it was just our job to make the best of it.


On Sale
Jun 17, 2009
Page Count
352 pages

Vernon Jordan

About the Author

Vernon E. Jordan, Jr. is a senior managing director of Lazard Frès & Co. LLC in New York. He was previously president and chief executive officer of the National Urban League, executive director of the United Negro College Fund, Inc., and director of the Voter Education Project of the Southern Regional Council. He served as chairman of the Clinton Presidential Transition Team in 1992 and is senior counsel at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, LLP.

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