Shirley Rhett

Help me find my first black girlfriend

by Duane Ausherman

This is about Shirley Rhett, my girlfriend in Cleveland, Ohio, back in about 1966.  While I had black friends ever since the Kansas schools were integrated in about 1951, Shirley was my first black girlfriend.

She taught me far more about living as a black person than I would have known otherwise.  I had grown up hunting and fishing, so I was very comfortable with guns.  I owned a 32-rimfire revolver, but the barrel was too long to carry concealed.  So, I sawed it off.

She taught me that in order to go out in public, I had to have the gun on me at all times.  I was really in love with her, and it was a new experience, walking in public with my right hand in my pocket on the gun and my left hand holding her hand.

I remember one evening, I was in the bathroom, and she was in the bedroom.  I heard her yell out for me.  I quickly ran to her, and she was holding my gun, my empty gun.  I had cleaned it that morning and forgotten to load it.  I had spent the evening, out in public, with her and my unloaded gun.  Oops.

She taught me that we could only go to the upper-class white neighborhoods or down to the black slums.  Middle-class whites were the problem.  Black people smiled approvingly when they saw us together.  Only once did two teenage black boys hassle us.  She stepped right up and told them, “He isn’t our problem.” and they left a bit ashamed.

Once, as we leaving a movie theater in Shaker Heights, then an upper-class city, a friendly woman stopped us and asked Shirley if she had met her at Mrs. so and so’s place.  Shirley coldly said, “No,” and we walked on.  She later explained that the woman thought that she was domestic help at her friend’s house.  I would have never thought of that.  Wow, I was so naive.

I was the manager (janitor) at an apartment building in a partly Jewish and partly Italian area.  The building had six apartments, and I lived in a simple crude two-bedroom place in the basement.  The rent was very cheap for me. For the first two weekends that Shirley stayed with me, all was OK.  After the third weekend that she stayed with me, the other residents were coldly polite to me.  It was ok if I had a black girl in for sex, but after she was there a few times, it was obvious that I actually liked a black woman.  Is that sick or what?

I am writing this for a purpose, and I wish to locate Shirley.  She was probably born in 1940 and speaks perfectly white English.  While I knew her, she was working in a bank as a cashier.  She had a 5-year-old daughter, who would be about 61 in 2021.  I don’t recall her name.

Shirley wanted to move to a better neighborhood and found an ad that sounded good.  She called and set up an appointment to see the rental.  When she showed up, the woman answering the door took one look of shock and said that she had just rented it.  Because Shirley spoke white English, the woman had no clue until Shirley showed up.  Shirley was heartbroken, and I could do nothing to fix it.

My last conversation with her was a few years after I had moved to California.  She had been divorced from a white man when we met.  He was the father of her daughter.  She reported that her ex-had died, and she had inherited some money from his insurance policy.   She was planning to go on a trip and stop in California.  My door was open, and I invited her to visit.  I promised to show her around the San Francisco Bay Area.  She never showed up.

I know that there are detectives who can do that sort of thing, but I am hoping that, somehow, someone will recognize her.

That photo is the only one that I can find.  She is sitting on my bed and is a lovely woman.  She is warm and generous.  Rare for that time, she spoke white English.

At that time in Cleveland, white people still killed blacks for fun.  They would go out at dawn when blacks were at bus stops going to work.  They would just drive by and shoot at them.  This would be reported in the newspaper a few times a year.

Please help me find Shirley.  Contact me at:

Here is why I was different from other white men.  My mother hated racism, and if she heard someone make a comment, she would talk to them about it.

Our house was only a few blocks from the black neighborhood.  Yes, even housing was segregated.  When I was about ten years old, segregation ended, and black families started moving into our white neighborhoods.  It was a lower-class area.  Many moved away in a panic and got a low price for their house.  My family said that they would just wait for a while, and prices would recover.  They were right. 

My mother made friends with a black mother who lived on the street behind us.  Our backyards were separated only by fences.  That mother told me that they would only stay there until the neighborhood was mostly black and then move away to a mostly white area.  She wanted her children to attend better schools and learn to play with white kids.

Our family’s social circle was friends from our church.   I recall one of them asking my mother how it was working out to have so many black people in the neighborhood.    Her answer was that the blacks were a better class of people than the whites that had been there before.  I was too young to understand the class distinction.  

For a few years, our family had been planning on moving to the west part of Wichita so that we could go to school in Goddard, a small town 10 miles west.  We bought a property and built our house ourselves.  The neighborhood was upper middle class.  I loved living there because I could walk to good hunting and fishing.

Updated 30 March 2023