68 pages 2 hours read

Gregory Howard Williams

Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult

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Summary and Study Guide


Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black, published in 1995, is an autobiographical account of the childhood and adolescence of the American lawyer and educator Gregory Howard Williams. An exceptional achiever throughout his life, Williams devoted 10 years to penning this memoir that centers around his being raised to believe he’s white, only to be told as a 10-year-old boy that he’s of African American descent.

The book won the 1995 Los Angeles Times Book Award. It has received extensive praise from journalists, the legal community, and civil rights authors and is an often-used text in Afro-American studies. (Afro-American studies is sometimes also known as African American studies or Black studies). Williams candidly discusses the stark realities that he and his younger brother faced as light-skinned African Americans when—against the backdrop of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s—they dealt with prejudice from both white and Black citizens of Muncie, Indiana. Williams vividly details the cast of characters who populated his upbringing and the lasting effect of each on his life. Each day of his youth provoked an inner struggle between surrendering to despair and holding onto dreams of a better life. His memoir uses the graphic language he encountered throughout his childhood, including depictions of alcohol misuse, sexuality, and criminal behavior as well as racial slurs. This summary quotes such language and obscures the author’s use of the n-word.


Williams’s earliest memories center around living with his father (James Anthony Williams), his mother (Mary), and his younger brother (Mike) in a single room next to his father’s cafe and tavern. Located on US Highway 1 between Fort Belvoir and Alexandria, Virginia, the Open House Cafe has a front section that white customers patronize and a rear section where Black customers gather. The establishment sits on the dividing line between white and Black communities. Thus, living on the “color line” epitomizes Williams’s existence—and this reality never ends or varies.

In 1950s Virginia, the Alcohol Beverage Commission laws prohibit having white and Black customers under one roof. However, Williams’s father, Tony, continually skirts the law and talks his way out of ever-increasing predicaments. By age five, Williams must man the cash register in the cafe to ensure that customers pay and employees don’t steal. His father drinks heavily, and the constant, escalating hostility between his parents often erupts into violence. Likewise, violence plagues the tavern, where threats, fights, and injuries are common. Williams often observes lascivious behavior, partly because his father is a philanderer—he makes the rounds among the women who work at the cafe. Tony engages in other enterprises as well, and his successes enable the family to move into a two-story home in Alexandria.

Shortly after Williams senses that Grandmother Cook, his maternal grandmother, is keeping an important secret, Tony tells the boys that their mother has left him, taking their two younger siblings with her. Concurrently, as the Korean War winds down, the tavern loses clientele, and his other businesses fail. Their home is foreclosed on, so the boys live with Tony at the cafe. Tony later moves his sons to Muncie, Indiana to live with his Aunt Bess, who is Black. The boys discover that they’ll be deemed African American and, realizing what this means, are dismayed.

Tony returns to Virginia. During his absence, Aunt Bess decides to send the boys to an orphanage if their paternal grandmother, Sallie, won’t take them. Grudgingly, Sallie takes the boys to her tarpaper shack, where they share a cot beside the toilet. After several months, Tony returns to Muncie and moves in with Sallie. Her shack becomes the site of nightly drinking and gambling sessions despite the boys’ presence. Tony scares his sons by telling them how much better off they’d be in an orphanage. The boys plead to stay, and he relents.

Miss Dora, a religious acquaintance of the family, decides to take one boy into her home. However, through prayer, she resolves not to separate them and extends her offer to both boys. Tony accepts, though he wants to come along, which she declines. Tony promises to provide funds for the boys—a commitment he almost never fulfills. Miss Dora wants them to join her church. Williams decides against it because the pastor says that lawyers can’t go to Heaven. Although young, the brothers must work to survive. Tony habitually finds them jobs, telling them to share any money they make with him.

Tony has political ambitions and is made the custodian of Muncie’s city hall. Soon after, he’s arrested on a trumped-up burglary accusation and spends seven days in jail without being charged. When released, he abandons Muncie and his boys to stay with his Aunt Roxie in Louisville, Kentucky. During his absence, for the only time, their white Grandmother Cook appears in front of Miss Dora’s house. The boys sit with her in her car but learn little about their mother or her white family. Their grandmother refers to them using a racial epithet and demands that they get out of her car. The boys’ aunt, Mary’s younger sister, who lives nearby, tells Williams about how their parents came together and why the Cook family treats them as they do. She says that their grandfather is dying of cancer.

Williams meets and befriends Brian Settles and discovers that Brian, like himself, is biracial, which his family keeps secret. He speculates that many in the Black community share this plight. As Williams finishes sixth grade, his teacher promises that he’ll win the Academic Achievement Prize. He watches silently as a white boy wins it instead.

Tony enters a state-run rehab program. He seems to be recovering so well that he gets a job and lives in a trailer at the rehab center. The boys visit him on weekends. However, he’s soon drinking again—and concealing it from his employers. When a family relative offers to drive the boys and Sallie to the center to see Tony, the adults become inebriated and cause a one-car accident, which leaves Williams with facial scars and lands Sallie in the hospital for several weeks with broken bones. Tony brings Sallie home, sharing wine with her on the way.

After Sallie loses her job as a cook, Tony signs her up for Social Security. A seedy white man named Fred Badders begins a sexual relationship with her to access her Social Security. Each month, Sallie and Fred disappear, returning to Muncie only when the money’s gone. Williams and his brother Mike get into legal trouble when, with two older boys, they throw rocks at a freight train. The other boys receive jail time. A public employee speaks up for the Williams brothers, who only pay restitution. While Williams is grateful, Mike develops an insolent attitude and becomes increasing difficult to handle.

Tony resorts to showing off his boys’ talents at a bar. He becomes enraged, striking Williams, when he refuses to have a fist fight with his brother to entertain the drunken crowd. Walking home, Tony predicts glory for Williams and a miserable hustler’s life for Mike. Tony next hatches a plan for the boys to sell Christmas cards door-to-door and split the money with him. In defiance, Williams uses his money to buy basketball shoes. Enraged, Tony declares that he’ll abandon the boys and makes them attend a Saturday night worship service to seek forgiveness. Walking home, Williams witnesses his drunken father being thrown out into the street. As he carries his father home, Tony urinates, soaking Williams’s clothing. Tony’s drinking causes many outlandish situations. During one of his drunken tirades, Miss Dora nearly stabs him with a butcher knife.

On his first day of high school, Williams enters an auditorium where Black students all sit in one section and white students sit in another. Williams goes to the African American side. Mrs. Bartlett, Williams’s history teacher, assigns him a paper on World War II. He writes about the mistreatment of Black soldiers, which engenders in him a love of history. Meanwhile, a widower from Miss Dora’s church courts her and proposes marriage but wants her to move the brothers out of her house. Dora emphatically says that the boys are hers and if he can’t accept it, she won’t marry him. Williams realizes how much she has sacrificed for Mike and him.

John F. Kennedy comes to Muncie to campaign. As he stands on the dais, a man behind him rises and kisses him on the cheek to roars of approval from the crowd. Williams realizes that the man is his father. Tony spends a week in jail for drunk and disorderly conduct. In Williams’s senior year, Tony gets a night job cleaning a restaurant but calls his sons to do his work while he drinks. He promises to share his paycheck with them. After Tony gambles his paycheck away, Williams refuses to do his father’s work. Tony confronts him in Miss Dora’s bathroom, hitting him twice. Williams knocks Tony into the bathtub. Uttering threats, his father leaves, and Williams feels a sense of achievement and freedom. It’s his 18th birthday.

Williams takes Tony and his friend to Indianapolis, knowing that otherwise they’ll drive drunk. Mike is driving the car, and the two adults are drunk in the back seat. When a state trooper stops the car, Williams loans Mike his license, but the officer immediately catches on. A judge, however, dismisses the ticket after correctly determining that Williams’s greatest offense is trying to take care of the others as they misbehave. This is an awakening experience for Williams, who understands that he alone is responsible for his success or failure.

Mike’s misadventures escalate in his mid-teens, as he becomes involved with criminals. Williams broods about what he might have done differently to positively affect his brother’s life. During his senior year, Williams develops a relationship with a lovely white girl, Sara. They find ways to spend time together while keeping their relationship a secret. After his high school graduation, Williams scrapes funds together to attend Ball State University. His intellectually stimulating first year brings financial struggles. Sara graduates from high school a semester early and joins him at Ball State, but her family discovers that she’s dating Williams; ostracized, she breaks off their relationship. Williams gets financial relief when he lands a job as Muncie’s only Black deputy—and, at 19, its youngest one.

After a 10-year absence, Williams’s mother asks to meet with the brothers in Muncie. They learn that she and her new husband came to Muncie several times and saw them from a distance but didn’t interact with them for fear of encountering Tony. Mary wants to draw the boys into her life again, but Williams declines.

Williams concludes the book by summarizing his academic career and the stories of several people he wrote about. He and Sara resumed their relationship, and they married in 1969. His father died at age 61 after a brief period of sobriety. His brother Mike was blinded in a shooting incident in an Indianapolis bar. He concludes by noting that his experiences in Muncie remain with him indelibly, informing every aspect of his life.

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