Coming of Age in the South
Jul 2, 2015
This is not a blog I want to write nor a Throwback Thursday I want to remember. But I think I must. Just a series of vignettes, quick verbal snapshots:
…about age 4, New Orleans. Though blacks and white did not socialize, neighborhoods were remarkably diverse. Carrollton, where we lived, was carved from an old plantation. New (at the beginning of the 20th century) white neighborhoods surrounded old slave quarters. One street over was a black neighborhood, complete with church. Funeral processions occasionally marched down our street. My playmates and the black children all went to the small grocery store on the side street for lagniappe—free cookies or candy kept in a big jar by the cash register. One day the children got in a name-calling fight. As I recall, the white children hurled the n-word first; the black children responded, “Po’ white trash!” When I went home and told Mama, I got a lecture that I never forgot. “Never use that word. Say colored people or nig-rah.” (That was New Orleanian for negro. Mama never uttered an “-er” ending or pronounced a long “e.”) Other relatives might use that word, but it was never spoken in our house.
We moved to Texarkana a couple of years later. I learned about segregation the way probably all Southern white children did. I sat in the back of a crowded bus. I drank from the wrong water fountain at Belk-Jones. An African-American couple—he was a retired Baptist minister—visited our church regularly. They were seated in a back pew by themselves. Mama said that Brother Harris had instructed the deacons to seat them. I didn’t understand until much, much later how courageous he was.
…age 14 or so, Tallulah, Louisiana. I went with my aunts to their ladies dress shop each day when I visited them. They also owned a children’s shop in the other half the building, and they asked me to watch it while the manager went to lunch. Afterwards, my aunt asked me if I had any customers. I said, “Yes, Mrs. Jones bought something.” They didn’t know Mrs. Jones, so they pressed me for a description. I said she was a “colored woman.” My aunt was furious. She told me never, ever to call a “n-” “Mr.” or “Mrs.” I should only use first names.
…1957, Texarkana and Little Rock. Central High School was integrated by court order. Some of my classmates were in the National Guard, and they were called up. They left home to serve with the troops protecting those nine African-American students. But new students arrived at my high school. Little Rock residents sent their children to live with family and friends, rather than leave them at Central High School. Look at the photo. Read the placards. Sound familiar? History has a way of repeating itself.
…1959, Latham Springs Baptist Encampment, site of the freshman retreat, Baylor University, Waco. Our speakers were a pair of Baptist Student Union missionaries to the Philippines, Dan Pratt, an opera singer, and Bill Lawson, an African-American preacher. It was my very first exposure to a black-white team. Lawson, who went on to be a prominent pastor and civil rights activist in Houston, was the first black BSU summer missionary. You had to belong to a Southern Baptist church to be appointed, and Southern Baptist churches didn’t accept African-American members. But Lawson was in Austin, and an Austin church allowed him membership.
…1961, Baylor, Waco. Dr. Charles Johnson, distinguished old sociology professor and a true Southern gentleman from Mississippi, told our introductory class that African-Americans had the same intellectual capacity as whites. Meanwhile, missionaries to Africa were talking about young men who wanted to be ministers to their people, wanted to come to America to attend the colleges the missionaries had attended, told “no, Baptist colleges don’t admit negroes.”
…1962, all over Texas. Sit-in’s at the movie theaters in Austin, other demonstrations. Henry Holcomb, a Lariat reporter, drove to Old Miss to cover its forced integration. First Baptist Waco voted to instruct its deacons not to seat African-Americans. Seventh and James Baptist voted to instruct its deacons to seat African-Americans. Baylor students changed churches. The Faculty Senate passed a resolution calling for the integration of Baylor. As Lariat editor, I reported it and I wrote an editorial of support.
So today, this week, this month, my heart is breaking. It’s been more than 50 years, and there’s still so much hatred in this world. From the Birmingham church bombing to the Charleston church shooting, too little has changed.
Photo: Demonstrators protest the integration of Central High School, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957.