Jim Crow in the 1940s
Growing up in central Pennsylvania in the late thirties and forties, I remember a popular movie was not showing in my hometown of Bellefonte. We had just two theatres, but the movie was showing at State College, home of the great Penn State Nittany Lions. But negroes could attend only if they sat in a special section in the balcony. I often wondered how Jim Crow traveled over the many Nittany Mountains to State College, Pennsylvania.
I settled, very hurt, for a weak Gene Autry western.
Another slap-in-the-face was the local branch of the American Legion. Of course at age of 17 I was not eligible, due to no record of service in the military. But their policy was "no colored", so because of this I went into the Navy in World War II, where I got another dose of Jim Crow. The officers presumed us colored sailors to be suited to be cooks, waiters and house boys, with no regard to our background, education or aptitude. Imagine being segregated in civilian life and then have your government assign you to segregated units. To further humiliate us, we were assigned to separate sleeping bunks aboard the carrier.
This was not Mississippi in the 1920s. This was the 1940s. After the Navy, I joined the Washington Police Department. I could not drive any police vehicles in the nation's capital. When I was assigned on weekends, I could not arrest white people west of 7th St., I could only arrest whites when the white officers were off and we were needed to fill in.
Jim Crow was America's form of apartheid and the scars are still there.
Municipal Swimming Pool
During my early childhood days in Alamogordo, New Mexico, in the early-to-mid l950s, my grandparents owned and operated the local municipal swimming pool. This was before filtering systems were required and the pool therefore had to be treated with chlorine and other chemicals to maintain the cleanliness of the water. It was also drained once a week and refilled with fresh water.
The sign on the outside of the pool read: Hours 10am to 6pm Tuesday Sat. Colored: Sunday from 1pm-5pm. After 5pm on Sunday, my grandfather would drain the pool (125,000 gal.) and on Monday everyone would grab buckets of liquid chlorine and scrub the entire pool.
I asked my grandfather why we did this, and he said that the colored people were unclean and this would kill any bacteria that they would bring in. I also would ask my grandmother if I could go swimming on Sunday, and she would always tell me no, because that was the time when the "colored folks" could swim and I wasn't allowed to swim with them. This went on till 1957 and at that time the state required the new filtering system and my grandparents closed the pool because of the cost of the new equipment. This was an accepted practice during my early childhood.
Las Cruces, NM
Public Library Segregation
I am a middle class white. I was in grade school in Alexandria, Virginia, during the 50s. When I was growing up, I knew about segregation, but I didn't know the extent of it. It wasn't until the 90s that I learned that, before desegregation, the public library in Alexandria did not admit black people (even though their taxes help support it), and what is worse that there was no separate public library for the black population. As a child, I spent many happy and ignorant hours in that library, and I "learned", because they did not use the library, that African-Americans had no interest in intellectual pursuits. Such lessons that are intuited through ignorance, lessons that are not taught but that come through osmosis, can be the most damaging and insidious.
Norfolk, VA. Busses in WWII
I am not old enough (and I grew up in Canada) to remember this era myself, but my Dad told me the following:
My Dad was from New York City. During the Second World War, he enlisted in the Navy and was sent to Norfolk, Virginia. Upon boarding a public transit bus there for the first time, he went and sat in the back, as was the rule and custom in New York (Please Move to the Rear). The driver stopped the bus, came to the back, and addressed him in an apparently unpleasant tone: "Hey, sailor, y'all get up here in the front where y'all belong." The system could be restrictive in both directions.
More Water-Cooler Crow
I am 53 years old and will never forget the first time I got to taste "colored" water. I just knew it would be as special as kool-aide. I was in a department store in Pittsburg, Kansas. Imagine my disappointment when it tasted just like "white" water.
I became embarrassed and proud all at the same time. I think that set my mind then and there, this was wrong.
My College Roommate - Another Special Memory
Since my Mother and Father were from the Pittsburg, KS area, we decided it would be good for me to go to college there. We lived in Jacksonville, Florida; it was 1966. The only black person I had EVER known by name was a sales counter clerk at downtown May-Cohns. Her name was Annie, and my friend Sugie and I would always make a point to visit her.
You guessed it, my first roommate in college was a black girl named Lilene. My grandparents helped me move into my room, and we suspected she was black by some of the hair care products on her dresser. My grandmother and I decided that this could be a real good learning experience and I should look forward to it. I didn't tell my parents until the end of the first week. The next day, the Dorm Monitor called me to her room. She said she had noticed I was from the South and had a black roommate and wanted to make sure I was doing OK. Having just told my parents, I was sure this came from them. They had called my Father's brother, a Kansas state senator, who had gone to the college Dean and told them "She gets a new roommate by Monday, or she's out of here."
I cried with despair and righteous anger. I went to my Uncle and demanded to know what was going on. He had me call my parents from his house. My Father said he had many business associates that would be offended to know his daughter was rooming with a black girl. My Mother said, you don't have to tell them.
For the first time in my life, I stood up to them and said, "Come and get me. There is not one person on this campus that will point me out and say 'She has a n-- for a roommate,' but if I get another roommate for that reason, everyone will point at me and say 'Who does she think she is?'" I'm glad I never had to stand up to them again, I picked my battle wisely and I won my right to choose for myself how I would live my life.
Sadly, the beginning of the second week, we switched with the girls across the hall, that were in the same situation. If I had it to do again, I would not. But we all did remain friendly and by the end of 2 years, we had all become close.
Memphis on Spring Break
In the spring of 1967, two of my friends and I came to Jacksonville for spring break. On the drive back to school, we were low on gas and approaching Memphis, it was late. The highway was road-blocked and we were forced to enter the town. There were no streetlights, no cars, and no people. What was going on? The first thing we saw was some broken flowerpots in the road. Shortly after, on a side street, we saw 3 cars driving without lights in a tight group made up of two police cars and one civilian car. There were four men riding in every car. What is going on? We saw this formation several more times, made up of two and one, of either police or National Guard. This was really bizarre; I've never since seen anything like it. We finally found a taxicab and hailed him down. We were then surrounded by the formation of three cars and 12-armed men, one car in front, one car in back and one car on the side of us. They told us Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated this day and the city was on a complete blackout. They told the taxi driver to take us to their depot and let us get gas and to then lead us out of town. I got to experience first hand the aftermath of a pivotal point in history.
There was a march on Broadway in Pittsburg the next day. I was very young. I stood on the sideline and watched. As you can see, I haven't always made the right choice. There is a long way to go, but at least Jim Crow is gone.
Jacksonville Beach, FL
Water fountains labeled "white" and "colored"
Segregation was made real for me as a white Northerner when I took a train trip around the US in summer 1947 (I was 24). My return from the West Coast was by way of the Southwest and New Orleans. It was on that leg of the trip that I for the first time saw drinking fountains labeled "colored" and "white." This was not outright cruelty such as lynching or denial of voting rights, all of which I had learned about. It was not silly, as it at first seemed to me. I realized that for segregation to stick it had to intrude into the simplest everyday activity such as taking a drink of water. It was that very banality that brought home what it must be like to be "colored."
I chose not to drink from either fountain.
Why was Rosa Parks upset?
Having recently watched the Rosa Parks story on CBS I found myself laughing at thoughts from my childhood. I remember first hearing the Rosa Parks story in first grade. I learned that she was a hero of our country for her act of bravery and refusal to move to the back of the bus. However, what I didn't understand then is why Rosa Parks was ever upset? I rode the bus to school from kindergarten through 8th grade. What I knew to be true was that the back of the bus was the best place to sit and only the big kids sat there. So then wouldn't Rosa Parks be happy to move to the back of the bus? In first grade, I would have been.
What I didn't understand at the time was the true nature of Rosa Park's act and many of the other acts of bravery within the Civil Rights Movement. The reason why is because I have grown up with the destruction of the Jim Crow laws. Maybe the back of the bus wasn't so terrible. Maybe some of the restaurants that blacks could not eat in were not so great. However, the fact remains that African Americans were being treated as second-class citizens, as though they did not belong. Rosa Parks did not act because her feet were tried or because she really wanted that particular seat. Rather, what she was tired of was being treated as though she didn't belong. The Jim Crow laws kept blacks from improving their status or achieving equality.
It has taken me many years to understand the real meaning behind Rosa Parks' actions and to learn about the real purpose behind the Jim Crow laws. To be completely honest, sometimes I wish I still thought as I did in first grade. I wish I didn't have to know about the awful things that the races have done to one another, or understand affirmative action, or hear about hate crimes. I wish I could still be sheltered from the reality of racism still present today. However, it all does exist. How have the Jim Crow laws affected my life? The effects that they had on the black population are still very much seen today. While many want to believe that with the destruction of the Jim Crow laws came an end to prejudice, that is as na´ve as thinking that Rosa Parks should have been happy to get the back seat of the bus. It is often much easier to think that way, but then no changes would be made and we would only be fooling ourselves. Understanding the Jim Crow laws and their true purpose has given me the chance to make a difference. The harder question for me to answer at this point is how.
Chapel Hill, NC
Jim Crow was painful
Jim Crow really hurt. As a rural child, we thought it was stupid when we first began to be aware of it. We could all swim together in the lake, but when the town 20 miles away built a swimming pool, we thought that was stupid enough---who would ever choose to swim in a small concrete-walled hole when they had the choice of a whole big lake with fishes and other wonders? When we were told that only white children could swim there, we thought that was even stupider. Why on earth would we get cooties or whatever they were afraid of in a bright clean swimming pool when we wouldn't in the lake? We were told that we didn't understand, and that we would later. That was painfully true.
As we grew, we noticed the separate drinking fountains, restrooms and waiting areas. The white ones were always cleaner and nicer than the colored. The colored didn't even have separate restrooms for men and women, and I saw one such that was really filthy, whereas the white one I had been taken to was clean. It didn't make sense, but it was cruel. The cruelty came home when my aunt took the children for ice cream, and we had to eat the ice cream outside on the sidewalk because the granddaughter of our hired man was with us. That was no big deal, we didn't mind being outside. But she was little and had to go to the bathroom. My aunt, who was white, begged the white clerk to allow her to take the little girl to the bathroom, but he refused, and she wet her pants. My face was hardened against racism from that moment, and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., came like a hero to us all, black and white. Just by telling the truth, he freed us from the senseless oppression, violence, hatred, and cruelty that had held us all for the whole time of my memory and that of my family.
Buses/Streetcars: New Orleans, LA.
In the mid-50s public transportation in New Orleans was still segregated.
As a white 5-year-old I always tried to run to the back of the bus to sit on the long seat, but was prevented by my mother. Even though she was an ardent integrationist, presumably to avoid creating a scene, she told me I would "turn colored" if I sat in the back of the bus.
The streetcars that traveled on St. Charles Avenue had a two-sided removable placard affixed to the top of one of the seats on each side. One side of the sign read "colored" and the other side read "white". When the streetcar got too full in the back, a "colored" person would push the sign up a couple of seats to create more "colored" seating. Similarly, when it was too crowded in the front "white" section someone would move the sign back. The ironic thing about this is that the streetcars had no back or front -- they would travel forward or backward: when they got to the end of the line they didn't turn around on a u-turn in the track -- they just stopped, shifted the backs on the seats, turned the colored/white sign around and the back of the streetcar became the front. This confused me as a child; later I perceived it as deeply metaphorical.