The Word "Nigger"
When I was a child living in Navy housing in Wisconsin, I happened upon a black child playing near his back doorstep. Being curious but ignorant, I asked him, "Are you a nigger?" His mother heard me and came out the door wielding a large knife and angrily told me, "Get away from here." I never told anyone about this experience, but I have been supportive of minority rights since that day.
Grand Rapids, MN
Growing Up White in Texas
I am white, and grew up outside of Houston in the 1950s and 1960s. Jim Crow was still strong, but my parents taught me that racism and segregation were wrong, so I learned at an early age that the accepted way of doing things is not always the right way to do it.
I went to segregated schools until my senior year in high school, in 1966. Every morning, while I waited for the school bus (we lived in the country), I watched our neighbor Mr. Mitchell drive by in one of our school buses. It took me several years to figure out that the reason Mr. Mitchell didn't pick us up (he kept the bus at home) was because he was driving into Alvin to pick up all the black children to take them to the "colored" schools down the road in Dickinson. The Alvin schools only integrated in 1966 because Dickinson closed its separate and unequal high school.
I remember the little things, like the first time I realized that the gas station where we did business had three restrooms: women, men and "colored." I recall being particularly appalled (I was about 11) that the "colored" restrooms weren't separated by gender. It seemed very rude to make women and men use the same restroom.
Because our school had no black students, a lot of racist attitudes were directed at Mexican-Americans. Some of the teenagers would always say, when two Mexican-American girls got on the bus toward the end of the route, when seats were few, "Don't let those Mexicans sit down." I did, though, when I could.
What really gets me about all this is that it wasn't that long ago. I remember it and I know the people who helped change it. My father, a reporter, got to know the black attorney (George Washington) who represented Freedom Riders in Houston, and he came to our home with his family. I found out that he was the first black graduate of the University of Texas Law School. He still practices law in Houston.
I also know the first black woman licensed to practice law in Texas: Charlye Farris, who was admitted in 1953. I've tried cases against her. She still practices as well.
There were three black students in my law school class at the University of Texas in 1975, out of 500 students. It goes without saying that they were all over-achievers. Things may have been changing by then, but the change was still going slowly.
I came of age as things changed. While we still have a lot of problems growing out of race, we have made progress. Having grown up in Texas, I am sure that if the men who killed James Byrd a few years ago had committed that crime in the 1950s, they wouldn't have even been arrested. I suspect they thought that culture still existed, but fortunately we have made a few strides along the way.
Nancy Jane Moore
A Young, White Stranger in the Deep South
In 1962, the US Navy sent me to Meridian Miss. to serve at the new Naval Air Training Station there and wait for an opening at the Navy's training center at Memphis Tenn.
It was my first time in the Deep South.
I was from a border state, (KY) and an area where few blacks lived. I couldn't believe how blacks were treated there. A few years later I wrote this poem:
I don't know much about blacks,
I wasn't raised around them.
My contemporaries were suspicious of them.
They said that all the niggers wanted to do was play ball and screw white girls.
I never considered that a legitimate prejudice, since it's all any of us wanted to do then.
I came close to blacks for the first time while in the service in Mississippi.
It was the early 1960s, and a bad place to be of color.
Blacks there had no status, and no property. Worse yet, they had no identity.
There was slavery at Meridian in 1962.
They allowed themselves to be owned by their white employers and I heard them receiving their menial work instructions beginning with, "hey nigger."
I felt ashamed for all of humanity and knew that the bloody struggle that followed was imminent, and right.
Charles M. Whitt
South Shore, KY
When the sit-ins started in my town, I was a teenager. I had already seen that segregation and discrimination was irrational but had no idea of being part of the movement.
In my hometown was Kentucky State College (University now), which was a Negro College. That term seems so offensive now but that's what it was called then. Students from the college would sit-in at the Woolworth's lunch counter and then they began to sit-in at the restaurant where my friends and I would go after school for cokes and socializing.
Every day after school, there was a young black man sitting at a table near the front of that restaurant. He always wore a suit and never said a word to anyone as he waited to be acknowledged. The table where he sat did not seem to exist for the rest of the people there, but it was the first place my eyes went. I'm not sure how long this went on, but finally I impulsively decided to do something about it. I ordered a hamburger, French fries and a coke. When they came, I got up from my booth and took them over and set them in front of the young man. We never exchanged a single word.
As far as I know blacks were served at that restaurant from that day forward.
I would like to believe that I would have the courage to do that today if it were required of me, but the truth is, I had no idea of the full implications of what I had done.
I had not acted out of courage, but out of shame. I felt dishonored by the treatment of that young man and I was right because I have learned since then that anything that dishonors one person, dishonors all people.
Thank you for the opportunity to share this story.
Ann Jay Bryan
Growing up White
In my rural central Florida town (pre-Disney), I knew only two black people. One was the man who did our yard; I have the mower. Here is a poem I wrote (and have published) in his honor.
Elegy for E.K. Worthy
I drag the lawnmower from the garage.
One wheel needs oil. The blades
tick in the grass, and
I grip your grip in the handle.
Back then, before you'd pass out
among the rakes and empty gas cans
in the back of the panel truck,
spilling cheap gin from the Mason jar,
your boozy lips mumbled scraps of spells
some ancestor carried from Africa.
Your arms lifted, your eyes closed.
You said he was a tribal chief.
Every man who bought or sold him
died of fever within six weeks.
But those incantations just made me
half-drunk. I already knew about
the Saturday nights on Pine Street,
switchblades flicking in dim yellow funnels
of streetlight, because one Sunday
our back stoop creaked under your tale
of bolita, women, and steel.
Starched for Sunday school,
I tried out of shame or fear
to finish breakfast without staring
at the cut strung across your chest
like fresh plastic beads.
You died of the high blood-
too much drink, pork fat,
jumbled fury clotting the veins.
Now you're free up there,
nothing to mow, no hussy to beat,
and I pray the gin is Gilbey's,
the barbecue so lean and piquant
the halo buzzes on your Harvester cap.
You passed the jar but I didn't drink,
you cast the spell but it didn't take.
When you look down, sleek and content,
on a world that measured you yard by yard,
While They Struggled, We Were Unaware
I was raised in the segregated South, in Panama City, Florida, and graduated from high school in 1959. My parents were better educated than others in their families and also most of their friends. They did not exhibit any prejudice or make derogatory remarks or put down any of the African-Americans we ever came in contact with, BUT they never stood up for integration nor did they go to the trouble of educating us three children about people such as Ralph Bunche and just how wonderful a man he was.
I was introduced to Ralph Ellison and other black writers (my parents were both avid readers) but nothing was made of their race. Every time I heard an unkind or derogatory remark regarding a colored person (as they were called back then...unless someone really low-down used the N word) my parents always waited until we were in private and would say to not pay any attention to the person using this kind of language or statement... "things will be different in your time".
My mother was scared to death of the KKK and I remember on several occasions she would say "the Klan is gonna burn a cross in our yard if anyone hears us take up for the negroes". But I feel so deprived at thinking that George Washington Carver was the only black person who ever accomplished anything...outside music, dance or sports. He was the only person I ever remember that was mentioned in ANY textbook during my school years. I was so intrigued that I went to the town library and checked out my first biography to learn more about this "colored" person. When any black received any acclaim for any achievement other than music or sports it was always said "he must have white blood in him to accomplish that!"
I'm trying to make up for lost time by reading everything available pertaining to the era I grew up in and missed so much. I travel with my husband who is a Merchant Marine Chief Engineer all over the world and we have been fortunate enough to visit Africa...East and West. Also, we had our own charter business and taught sailing here in South Florida and have had many visitors who enhanced our knowledge of perceptions of African Americans. One really shocking incident was a couple from South Africa that "did not realize that apartheid was all that bad". It reminds me that we who grew up during segregation did not realize the struggles and bravery of the African-Americans. While they struggled, we were unaware. I am ashamed.
Sue Carol Elvin
Fort Lauderdale, FL
I remember well growing up in Houston, Texas when it only had two tall buildings, the Gulf building and the Neils-Esperson building. I rode a city bus from a green, wind-brushed neighborhood in the inner city to a public school. One always knew who was continuing downtown for the women had hats and gloves, and the men had suits. I was at a speech tournament at Reagan High the day that John Kennedy was shot. We all moved out into the soft rain, around the flagpole and stood quietly. The only sound I could hear was the soft crying of a black woman in the stairwell.
Only then did I realize how naive I had been! No blacks at Austin High, no Latinos, and the first Jew was Jon Goldenbaum, who was well liked by all. I collected golf balls at a golf course on Lawndale set diagonally from the Villa de Matel Convent. Again, no blacks, Latinos or Jews in that club or at any bank.
And the city was controlled by so few men, you could name them! Judge Elkins, Jesse Jones, Roy Hoffeinz etc. It was scary for me. How much more so it must have been for the black man that saved me from drowning in Viet Nam or my Jewish friend Ehud Caspi who had to go back to Israel to serve in the army, and for all the Latinos, long before ESL education. How naive I was, how naive I am now, hopefully in some different area. God bless the men and women who make it in the United States!
Kansas City, MO
Jim Crow on the Job, 1965-1966
In 1965 I started work as a laborer at the old Firestone tire factory in Memphis, TN. When the usual winter slowdown began I was given the choice of taking a layoff or working in what was called the compound room. I needed the income and took the transfer but I wondered why the personnel manager seemed skeptical about my choice.
When I reported for work I found that I was the third Caucasian in a group of about 60 men. The other two were the manager and a supervisor. Soon, the Caucasian headcount dropped back to two...because I became, for about nine hours each workday, a black man. Literally black.
The compound room, where raw materials were mixed to make rubber for tires, was the most dismal workplace I've ever seen. Huge quantities of finely ground carbon black were used in the mixture. The carbon dust saturated the atmosphere, cut visibility to about 30 feet and coated everything in the vicinity, including the workers. It adhered like paint and after an hour on shift, my African American co-workers and I were indistinguishable. It would take at least 45 minutes in the showers to get this off.
Jim Crow was in full force in this plant. Separation of lunchrooms, restrooms and drinking fountains was rigidly enforced with signs indicating "Colored" and "White". Raised in Maryland, I wasn't accustomed to this but understood that I had to observe it. (The difference in Maryland was that racial segregation was so deeply ingrained that it required no labels for colored and white. Instead, in Maryland you saw "Restricted" signs, meaning no Jews allowed.)
On my first day in the compound room I went to the "white" lunchroom. I was covered in carbon black. Another worker, obviously convinced that I was an African American, told me I had to leave because that room was for whites only. When I stood up, the table and bench were filthy with carbon black. I left and the next day I ate in the "colored" area. This wasn't an air-conditioned lunchroom such as that provided for whites. It was a couple of picnic benches jammed under a filthy stairway.
The white folks may have thought I was colored, but the black folks knew I wasn't. They all crowded at one table while I ate alone at the other. After several weeks of this, one or two gradually began to talk to me and eat at the same lunch table.
The work was filthy, brutal and dangerous. Numerous toxic chemicals were used but the workers were given no protection. I learned that the company had a man specifically assigned to tear poison labels off of chemical containers as they arrived at the back dock. They didn't want the workers to see them. We weren't fooled. We knew we were being exposed to poisons but emphysema, liver rot and cancer were long-term problems -- we needed the job, the paycheck right then.
This being a union shop, it was customary for most workers in other parts of the plant to take the last 30 minutes of their shift to wash up and relax before clocking out. In the compound room we black folks were forced to work right up to the end of the shift, then clock out and clean up on our own time.
One night I was cleaning debris from the trapdoor of a large mixing machine called a Banberry. I was suddenly jerked out of the opening by the back of my belt. My African American supervisor, trembling with a mixture of fear and anger, pointed at the status light on the machine. It had turned green while I was inside, meaning the machine had been switched to active by the operator who, returning from break, couldn't see me in harms way. It was my mistake; I had not tagged the machine controls. The supervisor saved my life. To those of us who worked for him, he was Mr. Ivy. To those who thought of themselves as white, he was just Ivy. Or worse.
For a month or so, most of the workers had little to say to me. They would show me how to do certain tasks and do them safely. These were things they learned on their own and taught each other because the company took little responsibility for their safety. Otherwise, most of the workers kept their distance. It took a while for me to be much more than a burden to them because the skills and speed required took time to develop. Basically, they carried me and helped me survive in a job that otherwise would have been available for a black man. I didn't really understand that fact and its implications until long afterwards.
I needed the paycheck, so I needed the job and I, like everyone else, did what I could to get to the end of each weary day. After a while, the other workers loosened up a bit and I'd be included in some of their casual conversation. I began to fit in - kind of. One thing never changed. After work, after a long scrub in the showers, I walked away, a Caucasian returning to a Caucasian world. The other men just went from one dark world into another. That was another thing that I didn't understand until long afterwards.
After a few months, a kindly older man called "Preacher" began to explain things to me. He said that there were still a few of the workers who didn't like having a white guy in their ranks and wouldn't have anything to do with me. Others started out suspicious but had begun to think I'd be OK. I asked why they'd be suspicious or resentful. (I was really that ignorant.) He told me that, for one thing, I didn't have to actually work like they did; that being white, I could have sat it out in the supervisor's office, pushing paper around and running errands. I told him that no one had ever told me that. He replied "You're not from around here or else you'd know it without being told." He then explained that I needed to be careful because my eating in the "colored" lunch area with "colored" people would not go unnoticed by certain white folks.
The next year production volume resumed and I was moved from the compound room to the tire room where the workers were all Caucasian. I didn't ask for the move - I was just ordered to do it. I noticed none of the African American workers, all of whom had seniority over me, were transferred out of that hellhole.
I then began building tires on the third shift. For about 60 days after I left the compound room, black pimples would erupt on my chest and back. This was the carbon black I had ingested working its way out of my system. The company nurse said it was normal and would stop after a while. I gradually stopped leaving a gray shadow on my bed sheets and pillowcase.
About 2 a.m. one morning a big, surly security guard packing a huge pistol on his hip slipped up beside my tire machine.
GUARD: Ainchoo 'at boy usta eat w' them niggers?
GUARD: You in that N-double-A-CP?"
GUARD: You one a them gummint boys?"
GUARD: FBI, civil rights, any a' them kind?"
The interrogation concluded with the advice that further provocations would result in violent consequences.
I quit in 1966 and I was out of the compound room for good. But the compound room has never been out of me.
It's been 36 years and the carbon black washed off long ago. But the spiritual experience of being black, even in that brief and minor way, is indelible.
God save the men who could not walk away.
Segregation in Maryland
When I was 11 years old (1962) our family traveled to Washington D.C. for vacation. When we stopped at a roadside restaurant I noticed a sign in the glass door that read, "Whites only." I asked my father what that meant and he said that Negroes were not allowed in there. I asked him why but he never answered me. I think he was as surprised as I was but I never forgot it. It was the closest I ever came to experiencing firsthand the reality of segregation. I am white and attended school all my life with black and white children.
When my father was called away to the Korean War, we lived with my maternal grandparents, who had a peach orchid (Leech's Peaches) in Levi, Tennessee, a place that is now a suburb of Memphis, but was then a small community between that city and the state of Mississippi.
My grandfather, Robert Taylor Leech, who was well into his 50's by then, worked that orchid all day every day except Sundays, from spring until fall. Usually his only help during those months was a black man named Charlie, but sometimes, when the crop was coming in heavily, there would be some migrant laborers, all of whom were white.
Mid-day, my grandfather would eat his lunch inside the house, at the kitchen table, while anyone working for him ate on the back porch, whether this was Charlie alone or Charlie and some white laborers.
On one of those occasions, one of the white laborers was offended that he and the other white men had to eat with Charlie, so he mustered up his courage and knocked on the screen door, calling out for my grandfather.
When my grandfather appeared, this white man said, "It ain't right that we have to eat with a nigger."
My grandfather looked at the man for a moment and then he said, "I believe you're right." And then he called Charlie into the house where he (Charlie) finished his lunch, sitting at the kitchen table, in between my grandfather and grandmother.
It's true that Charlie usually ate his lunch on the porch after that, but sometime in the evening or on a Sunday, he would come inside the house and sit in the living room with my grandfather where they would talk about all manner of things, but mostly about their families.
Something like that seems so small these days and like it was nothing, or less than nothing, but this happened during the time of Jim Crow, when there was Klan around there. It took some courage to do what my grandfather and Charlie did, and I so proud to have come from the one and to have known the other.
St. Louis, MO
The 1950s in the South
I worked on the family farm in tobacco every summer and was paid $4.00 per day just like the Black tenants. They were given a home, vegetables from the garden to stock their freezer, a hog when needed and beef when a steer was butchered. My Grandfather paid everyone the same white or black and expected more out of the white. No one was ever lynched or whipped because they missed work...they just weren't paid. The Blacks were humble, but you learned to judge everyone by how they acted. You liked some, and disliked others...color had nothing to do with it. Everyone seemed to travel to their own drummer. It was a good time to be alive in the South.
Ormond Beach, FL
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 know 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.
Seeing Discrimination for the First Time
I am a white female in my 50s. I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. I remember my first eye-opening exposure to discrimination. I was 10-12 years old, going with my sister to visit the doctor. This was our family doctor where I had been many times. For some reason, my sister parked her car in the back of the doctor's office instead of the front. I did not even realize the office had a 'back door'. We walked into the back door and I was shocked to see a small, dark room full of black people waiting to see the doctor - my doctor.
This waiting room was a disgrace. The chairs in the 'colored' waiting room were barely holding together - and there were only a few of those. Most people were standing up or sitting on the floor. It was hot and crowded and smelly. I doubt it had been cleaned in quite a while.
I had never seen a black face at the doctor's office. The staff must have had different rooms for the black people, probably in just as bad repair. You would think after all the time I had been going to this doctor that I would have seen a black person in the halls. Obviously the staff went to a great deal of trouble to keep us apart.
This makes me seem very naive, but we were 'protected' from seeing these things. We stayed on our side of town and left the colored folks alone. It just never occurred to me that there were not black doctors to take care of black people.
From this time on, I started noticing the differences in the races in Birmingham. It was a real eye opener. The high school I attended was one of the 1st in the state to have blacks attend. I grew up in a prejudiced household, not angry prejudice, just a quiet 'those people' attitude. My father spoke openly that having blacks in 'our schools' would bring us to 'their level', reducing the ability to get a good education. I don't think he ever realized the reason 'their education' was less than ours was because the state handled the black schools so differently.
After marriage, I went to a 'business school' in downtown Birmingham. The law said 'Jim Crow' is dead. But again I was surprised to see the reality of the hate and fear still alive in so many people. In my business school, I developed friendship with many young black women. We had so much in common. In the classrooms no one thought anything of blacks and whites talking and helping each other. Three of these black ladies and I went to lunch one day. Walking down the street, laughing and enjoying the sunshine. All of a sudden, one of the black girls stopped and said, 'Are you sure you want to go to lunch with us? It might cause trouble.' I looked around and saw all the businessmen staring at me with looks of disgust on their faces. My black friends knew that if I continued on to lunch with them, it could hurt my chances of a job after I completed my classes. I felt frozen. At that point I had not even 'noticed' that I was the only white person in our lunch group. I wish I could say I ignored the stares. Quite frankly I don't remember what I did, but I remember the shock that people would judge me for walking the streets with my black friends. That feeling created in me better understanding what it meant to be black during those times. It's a lesson I never forgot.
Black Officer in the South
As a white youth in rural Tennessee, I had little interaction with the few African Americans in our area until I left home. One incident: home from college, in 1946, I waited for a taxi at the train station in Nashville. A black Army lieutenant was there before me. When a taxi arrived, I said: "He's ahead of me." The driver looked at me as if I were crazy and said: "No, he ain't." I refused to get in, and waited. Finally, a battered sedan with a cardboard sign "Taxi" and with a black driver arrived and took him. I will never forget the look of humiliation on that officer's face and my own sense of helpless outrage that this man defending our country was treated this way.
Jim Crow Innocence
In 1956 my husband was drafted into the Army and was stationed just south of Baltimore, Maryland. I joined him there and became a Brownie Scout Leader. I taught the girls a song I had learned in Girl Scouts back in the 40s. It went Jump, Jump, Jump Jim Crow, take another twirl and away you go. Slide, slide and point your toe, then you take another twirl and you Jump Jo, Crow. I taught them the little dance that went with the words. The girls really loved it and being from Connecticut, I did not have a clue, even though I was 21 years old that in years to come that would be politically incorrect to sing that song. When I taught my children that song in the 60s they were mortified that I had actually taught that to the Brownie Scouts.
In our high school there were maybe five black students. We always elected them to class office, and the boys were athletes too. My history teacher scolded his classes for doing that, reasoning that once they got out in the world, they would have a great fall, not realizing how blacks were treated in other parts of the country.
Early Childhood Memory
My grandmother, who is now in a nursing home, was a waitress all her working life. As a white child visiting my grandmother in a cafe--I might have been 6 or 7 and had just learned to read--I asked her what the sign above the counter meant, "We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone." She said, without flinching, "It means we don't have to serve 'niggers'." My grandmother is the kindest, most generous woman I've every known, but that comment has stayed with me for over 40 years. Although Jim Crow might have been technically gone in Texas in the early 1960s, it was alive and well in my hometown.
Jeering at the Swimming Pool
As a youngster in Bellaire, OH in the early 1950's, we would go to the public swimming pool on Mondays, "colored day", and sit in the observer stands and jeer at the colored swimmers.
The Navy in Georgia in 1960
My father was up for senior chief in 1960 when we were stationed in Georgia. He had an oral and written test. During the oral interview he was asked if he would ever let his children play with Negro children. To my continued delight to this day he responded with "Yes, I would. I don't think children should be pawns in the ignorance of adults". It was such a brave response but my father has always been matter of fact about it. By the way, he did move up to the next rank.