I remember the very day that my childhood ended. I was thirteen, my big brother Mike was seventeen, and my little brother Tim was nine.
It was summer, and Mike and I were sitting with our mom in our parents’ bedroom watching "I Love Lucy." Tim was out riding his bicycle up and down the hills of our northwest Atlanta neighborhood, Collier Heights. It was the kind of community, back then, where parents let their children roam, certain that if the kids misbehaved, Mr. Kimbrough or Mrs. Knolly up the street would let them know. So we, the children, were free—our only obligation to check in occasionally for cookies and Kool-Aid, and to say farewell to friends the moment we heard our mamas bellowing our names out the front door at sundown.
The author, circa 1973, with her little brother and father; photograph courtesy of Valerie Boyd
Lucy made us laugh, hard. We were a working-class black family in the 1970s, and we knew that shows like "Good Times" and "The Jeffersons" were made for people like us. We enjoyed those shows—though we found J.J.’s clowning a bit tiresome, and saw George Jefferson as something of a buffoon—but nothing could make us laugh as hard as Lucy’s antics in those reruns from the fifties. That afternoon, we were guffawing at something Lucy did when the doorbell rang.
Mom went to answer. Now, thirty-five years later, my heart still quickens when I recall the alarming sound I heard drifting to the back of the house that day: A neighbor boy, Kent, struggled to choke out the words while gasping for breath after his desperate, mile-long dash to our tiny redbrick house: “Tim . . . Tim . . . Tim,” he sputtered. Mike and I lurched toward the living room and halted like cartoon characters behind our mother just as Kent finally spit out a full sentence: “Tim . . . Tim . . . got hit!”
Somehow, we got Kent to tell us more: A car had knocked Tim off his bike near Collier Park, almost a mile away. He’d asked Mom if he could go to the park and she’d said no; it was too far away. He’d disobeyed her, and now he lay bleeding in the street. Newly licensed driver Mike jumped into our sky-blue 1967 Galaxie 500 to go see about Tim. But the car wouldn’t crank, so he took off running. Mom instructed me to call my father, who was pumping gas at his Texaco franchise on Bankhead Highway, about a mile from our home. I don’t remember how I broke the news to him, but within seconds of hanging up, it seemed, Dad rushed into the house. He told us to get in his truck—we were all going to the park. But my mother refused. My dad and I tried to persuade her to go, but she would not be moved. If her baby boy was dying in the street, she didn’t want to witness it. So my dad went alone.
In that eternity while we waited for his call, for some news of Tim’s condition, I tried to comfort my mother, and myself. And I knew my childhood was over.
Tim, it turns out, was fine. A broken leg, a concussion, and a long pink scar on his face that we teased him about for years after it became invisible. The man who’d hit him was mortified and came to visit Tim every day at the hospital, bringing armloads of toys and apologizing again and again to my parents. It was that kind of community, back then.
But something had changed for me. I hadn’t lost my little brother, but I had lost the blissful ignorance of childhood. Suddenly, I had become aware of my own vulnerability, of the dangers that lurked beyond our door, just out of sight from the protective gaze of the neighbors.
Over the next few years, as I traversed the strange territory between adolescence and adulthood, that wispy, unnamed sense of peril I’d glimpsed that summer afternoon became real to every child in my neighborhood. During those years, in the late seventies, black children in Atlanta became suspicious of strangers and old acquaintances alike. We knew not to trust white people, but now we were afraid even of familiar-looking black adults who tried to chat with us at Food Giant or McDonald’s. Our fear had a name: “the missing and murdered children case,” later known as the Atlanta Child Murders.
Among the first boys to come up missing was Yusef Bell, and every black Atlantan over the age of eight memorized his name and mumbled a prayer for his mother. Even Channel 2’s Monica Kaufman (now Pearson) wore a look of genuine concern on the six o’clock news when she had to break it to her fellow citizens: Another child missing. Another search party organized. Another grieving, angry mother.
In those grave years—between 1979 and 1981, when at least twenty-eight young black Atlantans were killed—Tim was only allowed to ride his bike on our street. If he was ten minutes late from school, my mother became quiet and pensive. We all avoided eye contact until he walked in the door, quickly explaining his tardiness so the house could breathe again.
It went on this way until the summer of 1981: Tim had turned thirteen, unscathed, and I was preparing to leave Atlanta for college when a twenty-three-year-old black man named Wayne Williams was arrested and charged with two counts of murder. Never mind that the two people Williams was quickly convicted of killing were grown men in their twenties. Somehow, he was labeled the Atlanta child murderer, Monica Kaufman told us, so we accepted the verdict and sighed with relief, shaking our heads at the wonder of it all. I don’t think my parents ever seriously believed Williams was guilty of the whole bloody spree. But the murders seemed to stop after his arrest—or at least the media stopped reporting on them—and the ordeal appeared to be over.
We were free again. But never the same.
*EXTENDED VERSION OF THE STORY THAT RAN IN OUR FEBRUARY 2012 ISSUE
Valerie Boyd is an associate professor and Charlayne Hunter-Gault distinguished writer in residence at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism. Boyd, a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution arts editor, is author of "Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston" and the forthcoming "Spirits in the Dark: The Untold Story of Black Women in Hollywood." She has also contributed to publications such as Atlanta magazine, the Oxford American, and the Washington Post.