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.
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 . . .
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)