I remember the old neighborhood so well. The stretch of barbed-wire that went across the back of our lot was put up by John Thomas to keep his cattle in. Down the hill past the barbwire was a creek and back up on the other side was the neighborhood where the “colored folks” lived.
I could plainly see the black children playing in their yards. They were playing games and running and having a good time just like my friends and me, but we never played together. We never spoke , or waved at them. We were not allowed to. It was the 1950’s and 60’s and there was a dividing line between whites and blacks. In some places the dividing line was imaginary. At my house it was real; it was the creek. If I crossed it, I was too close.
Racism and hatred towards others is something you learn, not something with which you are born.
Today, I live in a neighborhood with black families, Japanese, Latino, and probably others….and it doesn’t matter to any of us that our skin may be a little different in hue.
Here are a few recollections of racial memories from my childhood.
There were two or three sections of Greenville, SC that were called “N’-town. Anytime that we would drive close to or through one of the neighborhoods, I was scared to death because of the things we were told about blacks.
I’ll never forget one day when I was about six years old we were in Sears buying school clothes. I walked up to a water fountain and started to drink. My brother Jerry grabbed me by the arm and said, “Boy can’t you read! That water fountain says, ‘Colored’…Drink out of this one marked ‘White’!”
That’s right! separate water fountains for whites and coloreds. It’s hard to believe that I grew up during such a period in history. And riding the city bus for us was a treat. If we wanted to go downtown to shop or to a movie, we could walk a mile to the bus stop and catch a city bus. Big problem though – We couldn’t sit at the back of the bus. I always wanted to sit at the back of the bus, but I was taught to read the sign over the driver’s head that read, “All coloreds sit at the rear of the bus.” But as a child I wished I was colored so I could sit at the back. None of my family or friends thought that was an amusing idea.
I’ll never forget the first black person I talked to other than the janitor at our elementary school. I was a junior in high school. I was taking the SAT college entrance exam at Greenville High School in 1967 and blacks were allowed to take the test with white students for the first time. I walked out for fresh air and to get a Pepsi at the nearby gas station during a break between tests. A black girl walked out at the same moment and we were forced to have to speak. So we walked together to get a Pepsi and made small talk, but it was a unique experience. I didn’t tell Mother about it. I was afraid she would faint from fear that , well, I might be getting too friendly with one…You see, it was the times. The times were different.
We had to integrate our schools by law during my final year in high school. We had one black student during my senior year at Parker. He was a curiosity and was everybody’s friend.
When I went to North Greenville College I got to know more blacks and more racism too. One day, my friend David Whitfield and I went to Lee’s Restaurant down the road from college. We went there often to fill the gap between college meals. On this particular day, a black truck driver walked in and asked Mrs. Lee for a barbecue plate. Mrs. Lee said , “Well I’ll fix you the plate, but you’ll have to go out back under the tree to eat it. Mr. Lee don’t allow no coloreds to eat in here!”
Over the past few decades I have become dear friends with many people, not all white like me.
Several years ago, I worked with Greenwood’s first black mayor, Floyd Nicholson when we were both at the same school. I was his administrative assistant for a while and we shared many memories of what it was like growing up in a segregated era. He is a South Carolina state senator now and has achieved far more than he could have in the 1960’s.
We shall still overcome! We shall understand!
If you really carry out the royal law prescribed in Scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself.