A Big White Lie
For 26 years, Dave Myers was told he was white. Learning the truth, that his father was black, sent him on a quest for his identity and leaves him estranged from his family.
Sentinel Staff Writer
Every family has its secrets. There are things parents never tell children. There are lies that become family legend. There are stories that were never meant to be told.
Judith Hartmann's secret, when she married Bill Myers in 1959, was that she was pregnant by a black man.
When the baby born to two white parents came out black, the secret became a lie.
Throughout his childhood, David Myers was told that his skin color was a disease called melanism. He was lucky, his mother said, because the skin discoloration was all over his body, instead of just splotches of brown like most people had.
So despite his dark skin, Myers grew up in white, middle-class neighborhoods in Ohio and New York believing he was white.
"For many years I thought I was white. I thought like a white kid. There was a feeling in me that I didn't want to be associated with blacks. I wanted the story to be true," says Myers, a 45-year-old Orlando tennis teacher.
The secret shrouded in a lie lasted 26 years. Keeping it hidden all those years would turn Judy Myers into a hard, angry, unhappy woman, her family says. It made Dave Myers a defiant, rebellious, hostile child who would grow estranged from his parents, sisters and brother.
Learning the truth would send Myers on a search for identity. And it would convince him that his story is the story of America -- a white America that has been lied to, a black America oppressed and discriminated against, and a society unable or unwilling to discuss race.
When Judy Hartmann told Bill Myers that she was pregnant, he believed it was his.
And when the baby was born on Feb. 28, 1960 -- five months after their marriage -- he thought his son's skin color was jaundice. And then he thought there might have been a mix-up at the hospital.
And when his wife told him the doctors said it was a skin disease that had turned their boy's skin dark, he thought she was telling the truth. No questions asked.
Because that is the kind of man Bill Myers is. He is soft and gentle and pliable, his children say. He accepts life as it comes, assumes the responsibilities of a man, a husband, a father.
As far as he was concerned, Dave Myers was as much his child as the three daughters and son who followed.
If Judy said it was a skin disease, that was the end of the discussion.
"He never said a word," says Judy Myers, 67, who now lives with Bill in the Villages.
That attitude -- ignoring the obvious, believing the improbable -- filtered down to David and the other children. And in a family where everyone pretended that David was a darker shade of white, race was a taboo subject.
"There was no discussion. It never came up," says Bill Myers, 66, a retired welding engineer. "We hardly ever saw a black person."
The only blacks the Myerses saw in Stow, Ohio -- a white, middle-class town outside of Cleveland -- were in the papers or on the nightly news.
"That was the time of the ghettos," Bill says. "You read about the black ghetto on the east side of Cleveland, and the crime and the poor housing conditions."
When a young Dave Myers asked his mother why police in Alabama were spraying black civil-rights protesters with fire hoses, she told him it was because they were hot.
Everything Myers saw growing up in Ohio and then the small town of Olean in western New York, convinced him it was better to be a white boy with a skin disease than a black kid.
"Why would I want to be black?" Myers says. "I saw how blacks were portrayed in the media."
As much as family members acted as though Dave was just like the other kids, they knew he wasn't. And the difference started showing up in his behavior.
As Dave Myers entered adolescence, the trouble started. He became defiant, hostile and sometimes threatening.
At one point, Myers was sent to live with a foster family. Another time, he was kicked out of the house and lived in his car.
"I was the black sheep of the family -- literally and figuratively," he says. "I was always in the doghouse or always getting out of the doghouse."
If Dave was treated differently, it was because of his behavior, not his skin color, his mother says. "He was just uncontrollable. None of my other children acted this way," Judy says.
During those years, Judy Myers was an unhappy woman.
"She was a hard mother growing up," says Kathy Myers, 44. "Mom had a lot of anger inside her. She was tough, keeping all that inside."
The anger didn't end until, 26 years after David's birth, Judith Myers visited a psychiatrist who advised her to let go of the lie and tell her family the truth.
What she told her husband and children was that she had been raped by a black man.
"I was not angry," Bill says. "I was glad that this load was released from her, and it answered a number of questions at the back of your mind that never seemed to be fully resolved."
With a new story, Judith Myers became a new person.
"I was much happier. I had a load off my back," Judy says. "I protected it well for many years."
David Myers was living in San Francisco at the time. He came home one night to find a message from his mother on his answering machine. On the message, she gave him the name of the black man who was his father -- Fermon Beckette Sr.
Tales still differ
The way Fermon Beckette remembers it, there was no rape. He was working as an aide at a psychiatric ward in the same hospital where Judith Hartmann was a student studying nursing. She was 20. He was 10 years older.
They went out a few times. The sex was consensual. No rape.
"That's an old fashioned, Southern lie," says Beckette, now a 77-year-old retired steelmill worker. "Knowing the situation, I can see how she would deny it. After all, she had to hide it to save her marriage."
Judy Myers insists the rape story is true: "Any black who rapes a woman will say she asked for it."
But if shedding the skin-disease story liberated Judith Myers, it plunged David Myers into an identity crisis.
"When my mother told me the truth, I went through a period of being homeless -- three years," he says.
He was a black man who knew nothing about being black. His family wasn't black. None of his neighbors had been black. None of his classmates had been black. Few of his friends were black.
Myers embarked on a self-education about all the things he never learned about black history, black culture, and race relations.
He has 10 spiral notebooks filled with notes he has taken from the books he has read such as The Destruction of Black Culture, Theories of Race and Racism, The Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Race, Growing Up in a Divided Society, and Lies My Teacher Told Me.
And then he set out to meet his black family members. He found a half-brother in Cleveland who led him to his black father. They talked on the phone, exchanged photographs.
On June 22, Dave Myers met Fermon Beckette Sr. for the first time.
"He struck me as trying to be a journalist, like he was researching a story, a project," Beckette says. "He sounded like he was in search of his identity."
Beckette feels some sympathy for the son he fathered, but never knew. "If you don't know what color you are in this country," he says, "you are headed for a lot of problems."
'Poor me' discussions
At different times in his life, Dave Myers has checked the box for white, the box for black, the box for other.
Friends told him he was the whitest black guy they knew: He dressed white, he talked white. So for a time, Dave Myers tried to trade his Midwestern Ohio accent for a Southern black dialect, only to realize how dishonest it sounded coming from his mouth.
"It was a complete phoniness to me," he says.
After years of trying on different identities, Myers now believes he knows who he is and what he needs to do. He is the product of a black man and a white woman who must tell his story -- and his family's secrets -- so that blacks and whites can better understand each other.
"I hope that people can learn from my experience," he says.
So Myers has started his own Web site -- discuss race.com -- that features "The Dave Myers Story" and a list of books he has read.
But in his attempts to enlighten the greater society about the lies, secrets and deceptions of race in America, Myers often comes across as lecturing or chiding those he is trying to persuade, says Pete Lorins, a Haitian-born acquaintance who helped Myers with his Web site.
"I believe you cannot reach a good dialogue on race by telling people what they did wrong," Lorins says.
And it is that approach that has led to Dave being disowned by his family.
His parents and sister complain that they cannot have a normal relationship with Myers. Every family gathering, every conversation, leads to a past they have no interest in reliving. He wants them to face the truth; they want to eat chicken supper without guilt.
"He always has to get into racial discussions or the 'poor me' discussions," says Bill Myers. "He can't accept the way things are and go forward with his life. He has to keep stirring up the dirty water."
Dave's contention that racism is responsible for the problems in his life, his mother says, has made her more prejudiced against blacks.
"He has with his actions totally soured me on the black race," she says.
Dave and his mother haven't spoken for two years -- not since he appeared on a cable TV program and told everybody the skin-disease story.
And now, as the story spreads to the Internet and the pages of the Orlando Sentinel, Judy Myers says she is ready to take his picture off the hallway wall and throw it in the trash.
"He's not my child," she says. "He's not a part of our lives anymore."
Almost alone at library
Dave Myers stands alone in the community room of the Southwest Public Library in the Dr. Phillips area with his three tables of books on race.
Dressed in a white shirt, tie, striped suspenders and dark slacks, Myers leans against a table, waiting for the crowd to arrive.
For weeks, he posted fliers on "The Race Myth . . . debunked." The fliers identify him as "Dave Myers -- Subject Matter Expert" and direct people to his Web site.
But nearly two hours after the doors open at 10 a.m., nobody has arrived. Even the person he hired to set up audiovisual equipment hasn't shown up.
The lull gives Myers time to think about what he might say, what myths he might debunk, if anybody attends. There is so much that white America needs to know. So much that Southern blacks need to hear. But where to start, what to say, he hasn't quite decided.
"You have to play it by ear. It's like stand-up. It's contingent on what the crowd gives you," he says.
As the clock approaches noon, a middle-aged white woman wanders in, followed by her elderly mother.
"What are you doing here?" the woman asks.
"Well, I'm discussing some of the books I've read," he says. "It's really about what is going on in the United States. We have a race issue."
"I had a little black girlfriend when I was 6 and she was 6," the woman volunteers.
"Do you have any black friends now?" Myers asks.
"I don't have any friends at all," the woman says.
"I don't either," Myers says. "That doesn't matter much."
He is midway through a history lesson on W.E.B. DuBois that has morphed into a discussion about the Nile River, when the woman interrupts him.
"My son married a black girl and they have two beautiful children," she says.
"Well," responds Myers, "I think mulatto children are the wave of the future."
The woman's remark gives Myers the opening he needs to tell the two women his life story. When he gets to the part about being raised to believe that his skin color was the result of a disease, the ladies giggle.
"Have you ever met your father?" the mother asks.
"Yes, I did, just a couple of months ago," he says.
"And was he nice?"
"Oh, yes, he was very nice," Myers says.
"I'm glad you met your father," the daughter says.
Then they thank him and walk out the door. The two women are his only audience the whole day.
Myers believes the empty room proves how averse Americans are to talking about race -- its myths, its secrets, its lies: "The naked topic scares people away."
Disappointed but undaunted, Myers still envisions the day when his story -- the story of his family secret, the story of race in America -- will reach a wider audience.
In finding himself, Dave Myers fantasizes that some day he will find himself on Oprah.
Jeff Kunerth can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5392.
See related story on F6.
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