Friday, September 11, 2009

On Being an African American in the Fifties - Part 1

I am working for the time when unqualified blacks, browns, and women
 join the unqualified men in running our government. 
 ~Cissy Farenthold

It's complicated, race in America. While I have plans to do blog posts on memories of each decade, I feel it is necessary to also do a separate posting on my memories of race for that decade.  I thought about it because of Rep. Wilson shameful heckling of President Obama with, "You lie," on September 9, 2009, while the President was giving his stirring speech on health care at a Joint Session of Congress.  Without the background on race, the rest of the story might not make sense.  And that's the purpose of the blog, to help me make sense of my life and experiences.

Real life has a way of making us change our focus as memories of past incidents creep forward in our mind.  His comments, the rowdy town hall meetings, and the frenzied actions of the birthers and teabaggers remind us that we've seen this before.  "It's deja vu all over again," as Yogi Berra remarked.  It also reminded me how much of our lives has been defined by race.

Segregation in the 50s' was legal (de jure segregation) in the South.  In the North it was called "de facto segregation" "in practice but not necessarily ordained by law" or "in practice or actuality, but without being officially established".  (Wikipedia)  That meant that we went to segregated schools, even though we had neighborhood schools, because we lived, not by choice, in Black neighborhoods .   In practice, landlords would not even show Blacks an apartment in a white neighborhood and banks would not give you loans to buy a home in a white neighborhood. There were some white areas of the city and suburbs where African Americans did not even think about visiting, (think Cicero, Illinois) unless they were working, and then they got out before dark.

In the North we could go into department stores try on clothes and buy what we wanted.  We could eat in restaurants and stay in most hotels.  The South was different.  Everything was separate, but definitely not equal.

I remember my first visit to Georgia in 1951 at the age of 14.  I was born in Chicago but all of the older family members were born in Georgia and came to Chicago during the Great Migration.  They thought it important that those of us born in Chicago take a trip South to see what it was all about.

An aunt took me on my trip because she was making her annual trek back to Georgia.  I was excited, not knowing what to expect.  Even though we left from Chicago, we traveled in segregated trains cars; they told us they had to do this because we were going South and the races didn't mix.  We couldn't eat in the dining car because that was reserved for whites.  We had to pack enough food to last almost 20 hours.

I loved standing on the gangway connection between the cars, relishing the country smells of cut grass and animal life, listening to the clickety-clack of the train wheels, observing the dilapidated housing the further South we went, and wondering about the shoeless people in the shabby clothes who waved to us on the train.   The further South we went, the worse the housing became.  The ramshackle houses were occupied by whites and Blacks and I noticed that most of the houses had another small shack out back.

In Social Circle, Georgia I had my first experience in a segregated movie theater.  We sat in the balcony and I still can feel the hard, wooden bench we had for "seats."  The whites had comfortable, separate seats on the first floor.  I cannot remember the movie that was on the screen because I kept trying to process the separation of the races and couldn't understand why we had to sit on hard benches.

And then we went to a restaurant to eat and had to enter though the back where we had segregated seating.  I scratched my head trying to figure why we ate in one area and whites ate in another area, even though the food that was served to both groups came from the same kitchen.  It didn't make sense to me.

I stared and stared at the colored and white drinking fountains.  By then I thought the South was crazy.  How could people live like this?  Don't get me started on the nasty, nasty, places they called colored restrooms.

The relative we stayed with had an outhouse and I made the mistake of looking into the hole we sat on. I was always curious about how things work and was never the same after that.  I developed the strongest bladder after that incident.  There was a gas station down the road and I walked there twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening after dinner, because they had real toilets.  I was only 14 years old but I convinced the owner that he had to let me use his toilet.  I think he felt sorry for this northern "fool" and never turned me away, even though he didn't have a colored restroom.

The best part of the trip was the food.  Each morning we went out to the fields to "get dinner."  Whatever we wanted to eat was in the yard:  corn, peas, greens, and the best watermelon I've ever had.  Then we had to kill a couple of chickens.  I'll never forget how fresh and tasty everything was.

After that trip, I understood why members of my family who were born in the North had to make the trip down South.  We needed to know why our relatives left the deep South and how "lucky" we were to live in the North.  We needed to experience what legal segregation was and why we shouldn't accept it.  We needed to know that our ancestors had suffered much worse.  We needed to know that we should never forget.

I swear to the Lord
I still can't see
Why Democracy means
Everybody but me.
~Langston Hughes, The Black Man Speaks


  1. Your post brings tears to my eyes. I remember segregation very well. I lived behind a restaurant and watched the blacks go in the back door. In high school I was attracted to a black boy, but we both knew better than to even think about getting together. I also remember integration when I was in the 11th grade. We were all so scared and nervous that day when the buses pulled up to our school. Our town closed the city swimming pool and our proms were cancelled...all because of the integration. It was very upsetting to everyone. We couldn't understand what the big deal was.

  2. Don't stop now! Yer on a roll!

    You've got a coupla years on me, and our skin pigmentation ain't the same. But I remember the "northern migration" of Blacks from the Deep South who moved north to escape conditions in the South, only to find that life was scarcely better, that people weren't much friendlier...that opportunities were just as rare.

    I was just a wee pup, then. But I was the child of immigrants/refugees myself, and my parents viscerally understood the struggles of the despised/unwanted/hunted/displaced. They spoke their minds freely at the dinner table and I came to empathize.

    I witnessed the hatred. The disdain. The "redlining", the "white flight" and the denial of opportunity. The 50's were a difficult decade, indeed, for those who fought for their country...only to find that their country cared not one whit for them...

    Do go on.

    Do go on.

  3. By the way, I LOVE the poetry of Langston Hughes!