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Surviving Jim Crow

The Loving Arms of the Black Community

I used to say that I was born and raised in Jim Crow South Carolina. I don't say that anymore. Now I say, I was born and raised in the loving arms of the Black community of South Carolina.

I changed because, despite the harshness of the South of those years (I was born in 1948), lately I have come to realize that the true miracle was the care, protection, and Black love that surrounded me, protected me, and guided me in those years.

Within the limits of Jim Crow, my family, my neighbors and my teachers created a space in which I could feel safe and in which I could grow.

In the segregated high school, for example, I learned French from a teacher who loved me. Later, moving to Los Angeles, I attended an "integrated" high school, and I took Spanish.

I remember the French.

Yemi Toure
College Park , GA

Better, Not Bitter

When we were poor...
We were poor in capital resources in the 50s. Yep. We ate well and dressed well. Dad drove a new '57 Mercury that we all lovingly referred to as the "Big M".

We drove from Oklahoma to the beaches of South California or to Chicago every summer. We were able to take those trips because dad had three jobs. He never bothered to tell us how much he had to work to make ends meet. But we never had reason to ask, either, because he was always there when we needed him. On those California trips we packed a lot of fried chicken, bologna, cheese and crackers. We normally drove 1200 non-stop miles to get there. Why? Well, because of the effect Jim Crow attitudes had on my dad's career we had little money to spend on restaurants and motels. Due to its effect on business owners, we could not have slept or dined in even if we could have afforded it. Along route 66 I witnessed plenty of "no colored" signs at Phillips 66 gas stations and the like. But they were at least kind enough to let us pee out back and drink water from a dirty, dingy looking ladle that was set up next to the nice porcelain water fountains. Nevertheless, Jim Crow's positive effect was that dad had a driving desire to insure that his three boys were going to be exposed to the rest of the world in spite of old Jim. Thanks, Jim. Because of you I got to see the country.

She made us read...
Mom was a wonderful housewife who demanded that, among other things such as cleaning house and washing dishes and such, we read books. During summer vacations we were driven, in the "Big M", to the public library behind George Washington Carver Jr. High. But reading came easy to us because we were taught, by example, as we each exited the womb.

I remember one of the biggest days of my young life being the day our parents bought the World Book Encyclopedia. I almost lost it when I saw those transparent multi-colored overlays of the human body. We learned so much about the world, some of which we'd seen, by having this wealth of information at our fingertips. In fact, we had a little thing at our house that when someone would ask a somewhat bewildering question about a subject, the common reply was "look it up". And we did. My folks were bent on insuring that we weren't held back by the same Jim Crow that held them back. Thanks Jim, for applying the pressure that made me and my two brothers so knowledgeable about so many things.

The son of a janitor...
After my dad cut his workload down to two jobs, the family actually pitched in to help him with the 2nd one. We cleaned a two building, three floor Baptist church. Yep, we made it spotless after the congregation's Wednesday night fried chicken dinner and on Saturday mornings so it would be ready for their Sunday worship. We also locked up on Sunday nights. I'll never forget the Wednesday night I trailed behind my dad through the parishioner populated hallways of the educational building when a little blonde boy about my age exclaimed (negatively) to me, "The son of a janitor". Although I took it hard back then, I came to take much pride in being the son of a janitor. Ha, I'll bet he'd never stuck his feet in the Pacific Ocean...something I'd done on several occasions. Another thing this job helped to generate was a true knowledge of family togetherness and it taught us some labor skills that we'll never forget. Jim, if I didn't know better, I'd think you were my friend or something.

He sat in my class...
Having attained the respectable level of "Head Custodian" in the Tulsa Public, my dad was able to maneuver his career so that he reported to work at the same schools which I attended. This man was so bent on me getting an education that whenever I'd get bad marks, he'd actually come to my class...march right in...and take a seat in the rear of the class. Why, that ole' Jim Crow was so mean to my dad that he made me learn about subjects that were once illegal to be taught to him.

1st day on the job...
After being so kind to me all of my life, Jim Crow showed himself in a real and bitter way when I was about 25 years old. On my 1st day on the job, the very 1st official act that my new boss performed was the following. He walked into his office where I and two other new hires waited and addressed me with the question, "Ronnie! Why do y'all get so mad when someone calls you a boy or a nigger?" I replied with "the same reason y'all get mad when someone calls you a honky or a peckerwood". (Please excuse the use of these outdated colloquialisms). From that day on, the man used everything in his toolbox to oust me from that job. Well, I'm proud to say that after three promotions and a wonderfully blessed 27 year career, I'm still here. Jim, you tried the ole' sucker punch but it didn't work. Sorry!

Because my folks taught me years ago to look way beyond my physical boundaries, I take every opportunity to live and work in a manner that is not limited by the actions of others or by artificial boundaries that we perceive are set by others. Although Jim Crow unjustly beat the tar out of many folks who blazed the trail before me, Jim's baseless cowardice and utter stupidity has unwittingly paved the road to success for so many other Black people like myself. Thanks, Jim, for making us better and no longer bitter.

Ron Reaves
Snellville, GA

Living Through Jim Crow

I was born and raised in Baltimore, MD. Most people think that Jim Crow only applied to the Deep South. This was certainly not true. We not only had bus rules (blacks to the back), but we had separate drinking fountains!!! My high school had no it is 100 percent black!! My first year in college in Elkins Park, PA, I became friends with an Afro-American. At the end of the semester he said "Maybe I will see you in Baltimore, and we can shock everyone by sitting next to each other on a bus!!"

Myra Bearman
Rancho Palos Verdes, CA

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.

Beckie Leone
Jacksonville Beach, FL

Simple Man's Solution to Racism

South Louisiana has its share of racism. But in the simple lives of rural Cajuns, music took priority over racial prejudice. This is a story about my Uncle "June" Fontenot and his friend Bois Sec Ardoin. Both men are still living: Bois Sec is now a famous Zydeco musician. My Uncle June remains unfamous but happy.

My Uncle June told me that when they were young, growing up in the small village of Duralde, LA, near Mamou, Uncle June (white) and Bois Sec (black) used to travel to local dances (fais do-does) and get extra money as musicians. These were all-white dances, but no one minded if Bois Sec, a black man, was on stage as a musician. Uncle June and Bois-Sec were good friends, and they were much more interested in music and making money than worrying about racist issues. But the audience was less liberal, and there were SOME things that just were not proper. For instance, white men and black men didn't usually drink from the same fountain back then. When Uncle June and Bois-Sec played together, they usually shared a bottle of wine on stage. To appease the subconscious Jim Crow attitudes of the crowd, my Uncle June would always take the first sip, put the bottle down, and then Bois-Sec would take the second sip.

After the next song, Uncle June would reach to the same bottle and take the "first sip" again, with Bois-Sec taking the second so as not to taint my uncle's lips. But of course they were drinking after each other, on the same bottle all night. I think that this was not a "conscious" plan by the musicians, but rather a simple solution that was worked out accidentally. Again, I could never deny that racism thrived in South Louisiana, but in the lives of hard-working, dignified, rural farm workers, there were also elements of tolerance, mutual respect and great friendship that often went un-noticed.

Dr. Gary LaFleur, Jr
Thibodaux, LA

Jim Crow's Effect on Poor Whites

The South does not consist only of descendants of slaves and descendants of slave owners. Whites have always outnumbered blacks by 3:1 and most slaves were owned in large groups; therefore, the vast majority of whites did not own slaves.

The white upper class maintained their hold on power by convincing the poor white majority that they had more in common with the "squires" than with the blacks.

Slavery deprived the South of a middle class. The plantation owners and bulk traders had no use for skilled and unskilled paid labor when slaves were cheaper, and since this labor lived on the plantations, towns did not grow, and so most whites were subsistence farmers. This system benefited the gentry who used race fear to keep the poor whites in line.

This legacy lives on today in the South, when you see the number of whites, who will not do "nigger work," the type of low-skilled work that is cheerfully done in the North by all races at fair wages. This has historically held down wages and the value of work in the South.

It was in the South in the 1930s that a nascent, mostly white, labor movement was put down with far more brutality than Northern managers would have contemplated. This showed the true value that the southern moneyed class placed upon their fellow whites, and they were able to do so by using the lower class whites to keep the blacks down by staying down with them.

This strategy continues into the present time as the Republican party gained control in the South by convincing most whites that the equal rights movement was really a big government effort at taking what little they have and giving it to their "inferiors."

Until the scholarship begins to focus upon a message to the majority of whites in the South that they have been victimized by racism and have more in common with blacks than they do with the upper class, there is going to be a race problem.

I want the reporter who went to New Iberia, LA to go back there and find a dirt-poor white trash old man, the sort of white man who would not have stepped into the street when meeting the upper class white, but who would have averted his eyes, and ask him how things were better in Jim Crow days. That would be an educating interview.

I was born and raised in the south by parents who emigrated from the north in the early 1950s, so I was raised during the civil rights movement by whites who did not see themselves as having anything to lose by it. As an adult, I moved north to the area where my parents came from, and among the white people around me I have detected differences in the way they perceive blacks, differences in the way they perceive immigrants, and, most profoundly, differences in the way they view work.

Alan Bratburd
Haymarket, VA

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