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John Bryant, Class of 1947

John Bryant remembers what it was like to be a black kid in the 1930s growing up in Richmond. He was born in 1924 and lived on South Twelfth Street. Neighborhood kids hung out at Tenth Street Park.  When playing together, there was no difference between the poor kids (which he said he was one) and the Reeveston kids (which were the rich kids) that lived from 16th Street on east.  All the kids, black and white, seemed to get along.

They attended three grade schools on the south side of town: Finley, Vaile, and Garfield.  All three schools shared the same principal. While at Garfield on South Twelfth and A streets, he said the kids liked to play on the circular fire escape after school.

But sometimes black kids were not treated as well by adults. A black child could not take swimming lessons at the YMCA in the ‘30s and ‘40s. John remembers signing up for lessons with his classmates at school, excited to learn how to swim. He remembers his teacher coming to him and telling him he could not go with the other kids because he was black. It was the first time he felt that being black was a bad thing. Then later, if the kids went to Kressge’s or to a store to get a fountain coke, other kids who were some of his white buddies could all sit at the counter. But not John; he had to take his coke outside. It was hard for a young black boy to understand why he was treated differently.

In high school John has very fond memories of his teachers.  He didn’t play on sports teams but enjoyed playing tennis and baseball.  All his life he liked music.  He remembers cranking up the Victrola and was fascinated by the art on the record labels.

His family was too poor during the Depression for him to take piano lessons liked he wanted to, but he enjoyed singing in the church choir and at school. He has fond memories of Ben Graham and Miss Mary Minnick who were his high school choir teachers. He liked to go to the local teenage hang at the Devil’s Den, (later the TAC CLUB) which was located at the YMCA. At the YMCA, color or wealth was not a divider. He even served as treasurer of the club where all the high school kids gathered after ball games to dance and play Ping Pong and listen to 45s.

The 45 record had only been available since 1945. The old 78 records were sold until 1944 when Columbia Records produced a 33 but it wasn’t popular with the kids. RCA Victor finally came out with a 45 with a big hole in the center and the kids loved it. The jukebox full of 45 records kept music in the air at the Devil’s Den every weekend. Later those records and his love of music would help to shape his career.

World War II was drafting boys out of high school and John was drafted in his junior year.  He reported to the navy at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Chicago, Illinois, in October 1943. Because it was so close to winter, the ships were not on the water. During his time at the GLNTC, he never was aboard a ship or received training. He was finally sent to San Diego, California, where he ran into his high school classmate, Bill Borton, who took him aboard his first ship. John served state side during the war, spending time at bases in Idaho and San Diego working as a cook. “I fed a lot of people”, he remembers. At that time, black soldiers were assigned to the kitchen and were not allowed to man guns on ship.

He was discharged in the spring of 1946 as a second class petty officer. He returned to Richmond and was determined to finish his high school classes. That fall, forty-six soldiers came back to high school to finish school and get their diplomas, but many of them soon quit, finding it too hard to fit in after their time in combat.

John took a few classes that summer and entered his senior year in the fall of 1946. He was engaged to his high school sweetheart who had finished her schooling while he was away.  She wanted to be married right away. John felt he needed his high school diploma to provide for a family properly. His fiancé did not want to wait and married someone else.

John was glad to be back in school. He felt close with many of the teachers whom he thought favored the returning soldiers. Lowell Stafford was his homeroom teacher and taught civics. It was hard for John to learn from Mr. Stafford at first because he talked very fast, and John could not understand him. He would call on a student with a question and it rattled John because Mr. Stafford talked so fast. Being shy, John often stumbled trying to answer questions. He finally went to Mr. Stafford after class and told him that talking so fast and then calling on him to respond was too frustrating and hard for him.  After that, to Mr. Stafford’s credit, he changed his mannerism and it was easier for his students to understand. If John had a problem with anything, he went to Mr. Stafford for advice.

Bryant also remembered Frances Peacock who taught U. S. History.  Mr. Peacock had only been married a couple of years and had a new baby boy.  If the history lesson became too hard, the boys would ask Mr. Peacock about his new son and the conversation would change, and they laughed to themselves since they got him off subject.

John held several different jobs for the next ten years but the one that would change his life was when he began working at Specialty Records Shop in 1956. He sold 45s to the kids who would come in the store, go into the listening booth, and then buy their favorite records. From The Beatles, to Elvis, the Doo Wop groups and the the Beach Boys, music was an important way to enjoy being a teenager. John enjoyed the kids, and they liked him.

If you were a teenager in the ‘50s and ‘60s, you most likely stopped in the Specialty Record Shop in Richmond to listen to the latest 45s and purchase records of artists you were hearing on the radio or seeing on TV shows such as American Band Stand or The Ed Sullivan Show.

The Specialty Record Shop was an institution for young adults. It began in 1947 when Miss Kelly and Miss Bass could not find rhythm and blues “soul music” in town. Both their husbands worked at Belden, so the ladies began the record shop as their own project. Part of the memories of most teenagers also included the man that ran the shop, John Bryant.

John continued to work at selling records and mentoring his customers until November of 1979 when the owners told him they were closing the shop the first of the year. Not sure of what to do next, at fifty-five, he had to start another career.

John was at Coleen’s Diner and ran into Wayne Stidham, class of 1934, who worked at Second National Bank. He and Wayne had been friends and played handball together at the YMCA. Wayne gave John a job as a teller at the bank.

John recalled, “I was scared to death to come to work that first day.”  As chance would have it, a customer came in and wanted to cash a large check.  John had been instructed by the head teller, Ron Bass, that if the check was for more than two hundred-and-fifty-dollars, he had to ask to see the customer’s ID.  When he asked for this customer’s ID, he became irate and refused. John said, “I had been told that if this happened, I was to go to Mr. Bass and ask for assistance. So, I did.  The customer gave me his ID and every time after that, he would stand in line and waiting for me.”

John still loves music. He sold his collection of records when he moved a few years ago but listens to classical and popular music. He said, “I cut my teeth on the blues,” and he sings soulful gospel at Oak Park Church of God.

He was ninety in June and he doesn’t drive. He walks a lot and stays active for his age.  He has fond memories of Richmond School and his teachers. He has even fonder memories of the students who came to him to buy their music, get his advice, and talk to him about what was going on in their lives.

John Bryant never married and has always lived in Richmond, a town which he loves.  He attended the class of 1958’s Fiftieth Reunion as an honored guest, speaking to “his kids” fondly, remembering his time at the record shop. Though his color may have caused him to be treated differently as a child, it was never an issue with his kids.



  380 Hub Etchison Parkway, Richmond, IN 47374

 (765) 973-3338