Memories of Segregation/Oppression of Blacks (1)

On the heels of this year’s M.L. King Day, and as we come into what is known as Black History Month, it seems a good time to speak of race relations.  A few months ago, when I wrote about relatively minor, conflicted feelings related to race (here and here), Sally Clark, a dear family friend, responded.  Since she had some very rich experiences through the years, I invited her to write a guest post.  This is the first of her reflections, and I look forward to sharing another of her mini-memoirs in the future.

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Memories of Segregation/Oppression of Blacks

Guest post by Sally Clark

As I was growing up in Oklahoma City in the 40s and 50s, my world was totally white. Everything was segregated: schools, neighborhoods, churches, colleges, friendships, busses, water fountains, movie theaters, swimming pools, restaurants, bathrooms, marriages, etc.  It didn’t dawn on me until I was a teenager that things should not be that way.  I’m not sure exactly when it hit me. I do remember a chorus from Southwestern Christian College (a black college in Terrell, TX) coming to perform in a park for our congregation.  (I think the performance was probably held in a park because blacks were not allowed in our church building, but I’m not sure of this).  As I sat there listening to the wonderful voices, it hit me that “they” were people just like us….but NEVER would we “mix.”

I can remember riding the city bus and seeing the sign, “Rear seats for colored.”  It might be very crowded at the back, and there might be empty seats in the front, but the blacks did not dare sit down in the front.  They stood crowded into the small space at the back … and if the bus was very crowded with whites, the whites could even take the seats reserved for blacks.  When we went to public places, there would be two water fountains; one said “white,” and the other said “colored.”  Mother and Daddy used the word “nigger” in reference to blacks.  When they were being “polite,” they used the word “nigra.”  Over the years I really hated this; I couldn’t stand to hear them say these words.  But in even later years, I had to realize that that is the way they were brought up. They did not hate blacks; they just thought black and white were two different worlds.  They were good to the people who worked for them, but still considered them inferior.  One story that I heard about Daddy, I did not learn until after he died. In the early 1950s (long before the days of fast-food), people might eat out at a nice restaurant (I can’t recall that we ever did; we just didn’t eat out!) or in a cafe. Daddy was a contractor, and his best worker was a black man named Henry Dorsey.  One day at noon, they decided to go to a cafe.  When they entered, the owner said to Daddy, “You can come in, but that nigger boy [he was not a boy; he was at least 40 years old!] has to go around to the back door.”  Daddy said, “If you don’t serve my friend, you don’t serve me!” and walked out!  I was so proud of him when I heard that story. (I wish I had known it while he was still alive.)

1954 (the year that I started college) was a very important year regarding segregation.  That fall, it became the law that public schools must be integrated.  There were all sorts of protests and violence during this time.  Whites did not want their world “polluted” by blacks.  They especially did not want their neighborhoods to be invaded by blacks.  And the worst thing of all was the idea of racial intermarriage.  It was just unthinkable.  (It was actually illegal in most states!) There were protest marches, killings, bombings, etc., by people who did not want “race mixing.”  Harding College was totally white, of course, and this didn’t seem right to several of us “socially aware” students.  I remember (probably my junior year, when the Little Rock schools were integrated with much protest and violence!) that the Student Council president, Bill Floyd, wrote up a petition, which was very mild; it said something like, “We the undersigned wish to let it be known that IF someday in the distant future Harding decides to integrate, we will be in favor of it.”  Pretty mild.  As I recall, something like 80% of the students AND faculty signed it.  Well, the Harding president, Dr. George Benson, didn’t like this at all.  When he heard about the petition, he got up in chapel and made his famous “black birds, blue birds” speech.  He said that Harding would NEVER be integrated; it just wasn’t expedient, and it wasn’t natural to have races mix.  He said, “Just look at nature.  Even the blue birds stay with blue birds, and black birds stay with black birds.”  It was several years later that it became “expedient” to admit blacks, but for many years, there were still rules against interracial dating.

In 1964 when I was on my way to Miami to get a plane to Peru, my friends Jeanette Read, Gloria Shewmaker, and Eunice Shewmaker were with me as we drove along through Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and Georgia (from Texas, where we had all gotten together).  We were in a car with NJ license plates (since that is where we were all teaching at the time), and we were sort of scared.  It was very dangerous for “outside agitators” (people who came down south from the north to help with civil rights, helping blacks register to vote, etc.).  Just a few days before we drove through Mississippi, there had been a murder of three northerners—Cheney, Schwerner, and Goodwin (I think those were the names)—who had come down to help.  When we entered our motel room that night, we wondered if the car would be vandalized—or worse—while we were sleeping.  Nothing happened to us, but we were glad to get away from there.

I remember a “bus incident.”  It was probably in 1956 shortly after Rosa Parks (black maid) was arrested for not moving to the back of the bus.  (She was arrested in 1955, and bus segregation became illegal in 1956.)  It was after working at Rothschild’s one day, and I went out to catch the bus home.   It was VERY crowded with lots of whites standing.  There was one empty seat; it was on the aisle next to a black woman sitting in the window seat.  NO ONE (white) would sit by her … but I did!  As I sat down, everyone was staring at me, and giving me the “hate stare.” A favorite expression to describe people who did what I did was “Nigger lover”… and I’m sure that that is what the people were thinking.

As the years went by, I became more and more interested in equality and saw the total ignorance of people who thought that whites were superior to blacks.   A book which made a HUGE impact on me was Black like Me by John Howard Griffin.  The book was published in 1961, two years after he learned what it was like to be black.  John Howard Griffin was a white Texan reporter, who in 1959 took some capsules (prescribed by a dermatologist), exposed himself to ultraviolet light under a sunlamp, and stained his skin to make himself appear darker.  In this condition, he traveled in the Deep South and “passed” as black for a month, experiencing what it was like to be perceived and treated as a black.   It was just unbelievable!   It really opened my eyes.  So many things were horrible for him—for just one month—and I could only imagine how it would be to live that like all the time.   As I write this, it makes me want to read the book again; I just went to my bookcase to get it out, but it’s not there; I guess I gave it to someone.

Many more things happened in my life as I got more personally involved in interracial life, but I’ll tell more about that when I write about interracial adoption.

To be continued . . .

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Special note:  since Ms. Clark authored this mini-memoir, a widely publicized article was posted by an Arkansas journalist.  For this even more informative (although less personal) treatment of the same topic, click here.

These articles may also be of interest:

USA Today article on the healing of racial divides in the Church of Christ

Feature blog on two men in the center of black-white integration at Abilene Christian University

Full-length article on the above men (move to p. 51)

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Chocolate is good, right? (Part 2)

This post, contrary to natural expectations has nothing to do with nutritional guidelines, chocolate’s relationship to estrogen, or even with willpower.  It’s actually about black-white race relations.  This is Part 2 of 2 (I’m not insightful enough to write more than 2 posts on this topic.)

I suggested at the end of yesterday’s post that “separate but equal” may be bad in some instances — probably worse than I realize — but is not inherently bad.

Although we all know exceptions, the various races are largely separate and have been so for quite some time–since Noah or Babel, I suppose.  I’m no sociologist or anthropologist, either, but it might be more apt to say that cultures are more philosophically separate than races.  Culturally similar beings naturally flock together.  I’m not one to decry the existence of black churches and white churches, either.  This status quo seems perfectly natural to me, and not a problem to perpetuate, as long as — and I hasten to add this — there are no animosities or disfavorable glances from one “side” to the other.  Seems to me that periodic get-togethers would be a good idea if a black church and a white church of similar stripe are within reasonable proximity:  the stripes, after all, would presumably represent a good deal of common ground.  However, the fact that people have collected around cultural similarities, whether race is a factor or not, says to me that those natural similitudes and affiliations may be played to, as long as they are not viewed as absolutes for eternity.

In melting-pot cities, I naively, un-observantly wonder if there is actually much integration in any sub-sphere.  2% of me feels guilt when others talk about cities — how God is in the cities and how they love the diversity and feel called to “ministry” in the city, etc., ad culpum (would that be the Latin for “toward guilt”?).

College students where I teach now seem to live somewhat more above racial considerations than I lived when I was their age.  A black student comes to our home every now and then with a group of students, the rest of whom are white.  Sometimes, I think about Mary’s race, but most often, I don’t.  One might say she is more “white” in her  upbringing, and in her current aspect.  She is easy to be around because she is more or less “like us.”  There are other black students, on the other hand, who seem to have chips on their shoulders and who naturally repel me by their mannerisms, their loudness, their dress, and other sub-cultural elements.  I speak here, of course, of only two races, more or less.  The actual situation is more complicated, with multiple racial groups and crossover groups at hand.

A few weeks ago, I heard a story — told by a black student with terrific comedic timing, incidentally! — about a faculty member’s child who, when passing a black student on the sidewalk, called out “Look, mom!  There’s a slave!!!”  (Major embarrassment ensued — far surpassing awkwardness.)  No slight was intended by the young child, of course.  It was merely an application of a recent learning, without wisdom or perception.  The problem comes not in the event but in the adult baggage surrounding the event.

The other night, I had Jedd on campus, and we went to the library.  A very dark-skinned female student came up to the counter as we were leaving.  I suspect she was Jamaican or Sierra Leonian or something — not a light-brown, American “black.”  The girl had an attractive countenance and was larger than life to my 34-month-old son.  He looked right up at her and warmly assessed, “You look like chocolate!”

She smiled and talked to him a little more.  Jedd’s comment was genuine, patently un-racist, and was probably at least marginally conciliatory.  I smiled and said nothing, trying not to look embarrassed or too anxious to get out of there.  Chocolate is good, right?  I mean, to say someone “looks like chocolate” is a positive, or at least neutral, thing.  Trying awkwardly to “correct” my son would have been inappropriate, I quickly thought, and I was pleased with my lack of overt reaction, although I was inwardly feeling pretty awkward.

As we walked away, I thought about race and tried not to carry my adult baggage too muscularly.  I hoped the girl was doing roughly the same.

I don’t like to think about race.

I’m not sure Jesus thought much about it in His human time, either; after all, He really only lived and moved among people of one race.  There’s not a lot of direct scriptural advice when it comes to race.  It’s up to us to apply principles of grace, love, and … well, of Jesus.

Chocolate is good, right?

This post, contrary to natural expectations (and that is of course the way this shaker-upper likes it!), will have nothing to do with nutritional guidelines, chocolate’s relationship to estrogen, or even with willpower.  It’s actually about black-white race relations.  Stick with me to the end of Part 2, if you don’t mind.

I might first confess that in my years, I haven’t given all that much energy to race relations.  A brief personal travelogue in this sphere would include a mention of Maggie, a “colored” woman who, in the 40s through the 60s, was certainly no “slave,” but who worked for various households of my maternal extended family under an evolved, tacit agreement.  Maggie was trusted, much loved . . . and rode a bus to work instead of living on any Tennessee plantation or property.  She cooked, she took care of children, and she cleaned.  I think Maggie was probably very appropriately treated in that context and was certainly well regarded, but rarely could such an employment arrangement “work” in the current decade.  It seems to me that race relations are in a way more sensitized among civilized folks than they were 50 years ago, notwithstanding the extreme wrongs of Central High, high-profiled assassinations, and the doings of the KKK.  At any rate, when Maggie Perry died, the Ritchie family mourned, having felt very connected in love and in history.

My grandfather, who taught at Harding, a Christian college-turned-university, from the late 40s through the 70s (incidentally, or perhaps not so incidentally, not all that far from Little Rock’s Central High), was on the good side of the thinking at the college.  There were for some time major fissures on that campus related to race, premillennialism, and other complicated issues.  As I have it, the president of the college was a symbolic caricature of the white citizen of the U.S. during the 60s–he championed a mission in black Zambia, but refused, for a while, to admit blacks as students to Harding, saying “they have their own college.”  It’s one thing to recognize that your primary clientele is white; it’s quite another to refuse admission to a person of another race.  This institution is my alma mater, as well, and although I don’t recall any particularly strained relations, there was no real integration, either.  Veronica and Angela were black students in my discipline–about 1% of the whole, I’d say.  Another Christian social club (no fraternities or sororities, of course) was formed and given the name “Skotia”–Greek for “darkness.”  While there might have been a token white person in the club, integration was not clearly not yet a reality.

I was later an employee of Highland Community College, an institution that had famously denied entrance to one George Washington Carver.  Big mistake.  And one that was not talked about much while I taught there.  I wasn’t ever sure whether it was public embarrassment for having made a stupid move 100 years before, or just that no one wanted to talk about the implications, because the school was lily-white still, save for a few imported football and basketball players, and a couple students from urban Kansas City.  From reports, the integration that has occurred at Highland in the last ten years has been more along lines of sexual activity/orientation than along lines of race, which is curious.  The Midwest/Heartland location isn’t all that receptive to a lot of any kind of change in thinking, but I would have thought race things would be easier to deal with there than gays.  It’s a basically hardworking, family-values kind of Americanism that rules in Kansas, although it’s more lapsed-Lutheran than bona fide Christian.

Personally, I was subjected to a rather late iteration of “desegregation” (it was pasted in the headlines and in our hearts with this pejorative notion and has basically retained a negative identity) in New Castle County, Delaware.  Forced busing was the most obvious manifestation of the governmental fiat to make schools “equal”–which of course isn’t possible and will always result in problems at least as great as the ones it tries to solve.  There was not much real integration.  According to Wikipedia, “The requirements for maintaining racial balance in the schools of each of the districts was ended by the District Court in 1994, but the process of busing students to and from the suburbs for schooling continued largely unchanged until 2001.”  Schools were generally perceived to be weakening for years, and charter, private, and “magnet” schools have proliferated.  Further on the personal side, I still laugh about the unusual manners and habits of the urban black students who were forced to come to my school in the suburbs.  My father — ever the impartial, kind, see-the-gold-in-everyone sort of teacher — came home with a story of a city black student who reacted strongly to a teacherly hand on the shoulder, but other than that, I remember only positive or neutral references to his new black students.  It probably didn’t hurt that he was also a coach.

Although we still hear of isolated instances of unfair treatment by police, by racial profiling at borders, I think so-called “Affirmative Action” as a matter of policy, in our country, should now be obsolete.  Racial quotas in places of employment ought not to be allowed anymore.  And yet I know there are extant pockets of deep prejudice that lead to injustice rather than mere separation.  I’m not a political scientist or philosopher, and am only thinly connected to philosophies in our country’s educational system, but I don’t really think “separate but equal” is inherently bad.  It may be bad in some instances — probably worse than I realize — but it’s not inherently bad.

To be continued . . .