E. Elmhurst man recalls 9 decades of change
The plain-spoken, 89-year-old East Elmhurst resident dreamed as a child of being a jazz singer, but a war and his own domestic life interfered with those hopes. But nine decades later his spirit is unbroken and he is quick to voice his opinion on the current state of black politics in Queens."People in the North, they're not like people in the South. They're a bunch of flakes," he said. "Here we have a black man running for president of the United States, and nobody's sure who they're going to vote for. Now Helen Marshall is going around pushing Hillary."Summerlin's own history began in the South. Born in Georgia to a sharecropper, his mother moved the family to New York City from Florida in 1932. He said his family has had several historic firsts in the city. His sister was the first black female cab driver, he said, while other relatives were the first blacks to own a supermarket in Harlem.Summerlin, who has lived in Queens for 62 years, said the biggest change he has seen is the influx of people from Latin America and South America."They're not accepting us and we're not accepting them," he, referring to the African-American community in his neighborhood.Summerlin is no stranger to intolerance. He said his whole life was changed by his treatment in the Signal Corps in World War II.While training in the New Mexico mountains, Summerlin was riding in a 24-truck convoy when the driver lost control on a tight curve and plunged into a 250-foot ravine. Five men died, and Summerlin suffered a crushed chest, broken ribs, broken collarbone and a broken jaw.He was taken to a nearby hospital where, he said, the discrimination began."Everything was segregated," he said. "It was 21 days before I could get help with my jaw. They would look at me, grin, and keep on walking."Summerlin said the hospital staff finally X-rayed his jaw and wired it shut, but neglected to repair his broken, jutting collarbone, leaving his left arm incapacitated.When he got strong enough to refuse to stay in bed, Summerlin said he was transferred to a service battalion at Langley Field, Va."They didn't know what to do with me," he said. "They wouldn't give me my guns back. I had a concussion, and they were afraid I'd shoot one of the white officers and get away with it."As he cleaned white officers' quarters and did laundry, Summerlin said he became more and more bitter. Then, after several weeks, the commanding officer of his unit found out Summerlin was an entertainer in civilian life and asked him to perform for the officers. It was a chance to start singing again, something Summerlin had done since childhood. He turned it down."I said to him, 'I'll sing when I feel like it,'" Summerlin said.He was promptly transferred to Mitchell Field in New York, where he began to receive treatment for his injuries. Doctors removed part of his collarbone, restoring some of the use of his left arm, and plastic surgeons removed much of the "key lard" - a term Summerlin uses to describe growths of unsightly, protruding scar tissue - that had accumulated on his face.Summerlin was discharged in November 1944. He promptly married and bought a house in Flushing.He tried for a year to break into show business before taking up performing on the side. He said he and his band spent four years playing for social gatherings and small clubs, but that work dried up with the advent of rock 'n' roll."Everything went haywire when the guys came with their guitars and their amplification," he said. "They would take $15 apiece for the night, while I was paying my guys union scale."He joined the Postal Service in 1961, working there for 18 years before retiring and moving to East Elmhurst.Summerlin continued to perform occasionally, including a one-year stint in the Rockaway Revue, a performing troupe of senior citizens. He said he left after a disagreement with the owner."Backstage one night, I had on my own outfit: black jacket, red shirt, black slacks, black shoes. It wasn't my usual costume. She said to me, 'That's a good looking suit.' I said, 'I've got a bunch of other surprises for you,' and she said, 'don't try to surprise me, or I won't let you perform.'"He said he left after his contract was up."If you kick my butt, as soon as I can get away from you, I'm going," he said.Summerlin said he still sings occasionally, but just for fun."Life is short," he said. "There's some things in life that I will never have. I don't have the money. And there's some things in life I will never do. I don't have the time. But if I get some of the things done, I have to make myself satisfied."Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.
Updated 6:58 pm, October 10, 2011
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