Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Growing up in racially segregated Virginia in the Fifties

No one ever talked to me about racial prejudice that I can remember before we moved to Charlottesville in 1949, but Virginia was below the Mason Dixon line, and although I was only five and a half at the time, I can still remember clearly my first experiences with it--not with prejudice, but with the result of prejudice so deep and so amassed throughout a whole population it had become law ("Jim Crow" I found out later these laws were called, which I still think is a strange name for a law.)

I myself of course was not in the least prejudiced--there were no "colored people" (the term used by polite whites for blacks in those days) in Morrisville, that I had ever met anyway, none at all in Maine that I knew of, and the first black people I ever saw were in Washington D.C. sitting in a big crowds on the stoops of buildings we were passing by on our way down to Virginia on a hot, hot day. I remember hearing my mother and grandmother talking about the terrible conditions of the buildings where the people sat as we drove by--their tones were sympathetic for the people I could tell. "Terrible" was my mother's term, which I already knew was her favorite term and the one she used for anything which she thought was wrong. But we drove on.

It rained in torrents on the way down. We were in our old Plymouth, the one before the gray '51 Dodge my mother bought which lasted us the whole time we were in Charlottesville. The windshield wipers kept stopping on the Plymouth and my brother, who always sat next to my mother in the passenger's seat when we went on long trips, had to keep reaching out the window and nudging them into action again so my mother could see. "I can't see!" she would say with great alarm and out he would reach and get them going again. I recently saw a 1948 Plymouth and it all came back, that memory. But we made it to Charlottesville. My brother must have been about twelve, my mother forty-one, and my grandmother seventy-seven. My grandmother and I always rode in the back seat when we all went somewhere together, especially when we drove to Maine every Summer and back to Virginia again every Fall.

In my family going to the movies was something we all loved to do, and so right away after arriving and moving in we went to the movies at the Paramount theater in downtown Charlottesville. We parked along a side street next to the theater and went to the box office to get our tickets. Oh oh! Something was wrong! The lady wouldn't give us our tickets--she kept pointing up the street and telling my mother we couldn't come in! She said something else to my mother I couldn't hear and then my mother said "Oh! I'm sorry!" and told us (my brother and grandmother and me, all waiting expectantly) that the entrance for white people (that was us) was around front--this was the entrance to the BALCONY where only Colored People could go--and we were not colored. I was SO disappointed! I really did want to sit in the balcony, since I'd never sat in one before. We went around to the front and sure enough, there was another box office with another lady (white) selling other tickets to the same movie. So we got our tickets and went in and sat down. I looked way, way back and up and sure enough there was the coveted balcony with lots of people in it--black people. I still wanted to sit up there, but it just wasn't allowed. And that was my first experience with Jim Crow.

But soon enough I got to know and see lots of "colored people." Mr. Gardner came and worked for us every Sunday--he was black. After my brother went off to live at Christchurch School on the Rappahanock River, there was only my mother, my grandmother and myself at home, so I imagine he was hired to do any heavy work that a father would otherwise do. One day he and my grandmother made soap in the back yard with the fat my grandmother saved from cooking. This saved fat gave my mother occasion to observe to me that "Germans never throw anything away!" --referring to my grandmother's ethnicity (German and Swiss). I suppose this is a sort of prejudice--to this day I still think of all Germans as being very thrifty like my grandmother and never throwing anything away.

Anyway, she and Mr. Gardner, who was a very tall, thin man while my grandmother was rather short and stout (though still taller than I was), were mixing fat and lye together in the back yard in a metal garbage can--the kind my friends and I used the lids of (for shields) when we were sword fighting--I was watching intently. They were getting along famously. They were laughing and talking together the whole time. He would always have to repeat whatever he said to her about three times before she understood him, because he had such a thick, strong Southern accent that sometimes even I couldn't understand what he was saying and would have to say "what?" to him until I got it. He was a very patient man and kept repeating what he said more slowly and more distinctly each time until we got it. I think he must have had a lot of funny stories to share with his family and friends about this family of Yankees he was working for.

Back to the soap-making: they put ashes into it after the lye and fat was mixed enough, and then poured the whole strange mixture (after warning me not to touch the lye because it would burn me...?) into a large cardboard box in layers. Each layer of soap was covered with a sheet of newspaper, in this case the funnies from the Sunday paper, The Daily Progress. (I loved the funnies, even before I could read, so I watched with even more interest.) Then this was all allowed to solidify and the newspaper peeled off and the soap cut in squares with a knife--I watched the whole process, deeply impressed. The very best part was that the funnies came off on the soap and we had soap with the funnies on it!

Mr. Gardner's first name was William, but both my mother and grandmother always addressed him respectfully as Mr. Gardner. My mother told me that the other six days of the week he worked as a janitor at the University of Virginia hospital. "How hard he works, just imagine!" she said to me once with great respect in her voice. "He works every minute to support his family!" His son was just graduating from high school at the time she said this to me, and she also made a point of telling me Mr. Gardner was very proud of his son for doing that. I could tell she admired Mr. Gardner in every way. Later on during the Sixties when the civil rights movement was getting underway I used to imagine that Mr. Gardner's son had joined the Black Panthers now, because his father had worked every single day of the week somewhere, either at the hospital or with us, to support his family, and I thought probably his son must have resented that just a little, not to ever get to see his own father. And of course I sympathized. I never got to see my own father either (my parents were divorced), but at least I got to see Mr. Gardner one day a week, while his own kids never did apparently.

Mr. Gardner wasn't the only black person who worked in the neighborhood. There was a nice black lady who took care of the baby of the family next door, and whenever I got on the bus there were lots of people who would be either arriving for or leaving from work on the circle, though none of them lived there, all black people who lived somewhere else ( or so I supposed--I didn't really know or give it much thought). Riding the bus was something we children liked to do for fun--ride the bus on its entire route and end up back home again; our mothers always let us do this. My mother told me when she was little she used to do the same thing with her friends on the trolleys all over Trenton.

Anyway, one day I wanted to ride at the back of the bus, and so I did. But all the black people who were sitting back there (I had begun to notice they always sat back there!) kept staring at me and moving over to make room for me--or away from me and not looking at me. I couldn't understand why--I wasn't doing anything wrong. I told my mother about it and she told me that there was a law that said that only Colored People were supposed to sit back there, no whites--and I was white. Well, she might have warned me not to try and sit back there in the first place. Once again I had run into Jim Crow!

We went to the Thomas Jefferson Unitarian Church in Charlottesville--it was about the only time I ever wore a dress, even though Betsy Glancy (my arch enemy in school) used to say I shouldn't wear dungarees or pants to school, but instead should be "a little lady." Ugh! I hated that expression and told my mother what she said. My mother just laughed at the expression, and looked a little haughty, and said "How silly!" and sniffed! She was on my side always; she didn't mind if I wore dungarees every day and played with the boys, and neither did Betsy Hennemann's mother. Betsy was my best friend on the circle. We played football and baseball with the boys all the time, no problem. Our mothers were educated and liberated I realized later--the two went hand in hand. Indeed, Betsy ended up becoming a lawyer after being a stock broker for a while. We both made fun of Betty Ann Rex, my arch enemy on the circle and Betsy's next door neighbor.

Betty Ann Rex always wore a dress--and she hated me. She pushed me to the other half of the street, or tried to, whenever she could (it was her side of the road she said). But I was always stronger and could push her back. Her family had a "family council" every Sunday to decide what they were going to do that week, and she and her sister had regular chores to do like polish the floor with floor wax and hang out the laundry "just so." Betsy and I sneered at her ways and laughed behind her back--our families did things like talk politics and read books, not get serious about waxing the floor and deciding when a first date could happen.

Years later, in our forties, Betsy and I talked on the phone and still we could make each other laugh talking about Betty Ann Rex! Betty Ann Rex did play the piano really well; and she had a television (in my family you were supposed to read); so I would always try to be nice so she would let me watch I Love Lucy week nights or Walt Disney or Lassie on Sunday nights. It was hard though (being nice.) This was class prejudice Betsy and I were practicing against Betty Ann Rex and she against us, but we didn't realize it; and when my mother and I laughed at Betsy Glancy's expecting me to be a little lady, we were being feministic in our attitude, but we didn't realize it. These ways of speaking had no such names in those days. Prejudice was prejudice and it had no classifications, people didn't point it out and talk about it. It was just practiced.

But anyway, to church I did wear a dress, much as I disliked it, year after year. And one night, the year after I came back from going out west with my mother, when I was twelve, I wore a really beautiful skirt to church in which to go Christmas caroling. I actually liked it! It was made of satin and had sequins on it. It even was my least favorite color--pink--and still I didn't mind. (Perhaps I was just beginning to think of boys in a different light.) So I arrived for caroling with other kids in the Unitarian Church, decked out in this beautiful skirt and very happy. But when we left to go caroling, instead of going down the street --the church was on Rugby Road, near the University--we were all herded into cars and taken to a place I had never been or seen before.

I was so surprised! It was a place which had mud on the ground, it was very, very dark there, and there were lots of shacks all crowded together in a strange, jumbled, disconnected way --think Slum Dog Millionaire. The shacks were not much taller than I was I noticed, and people were milling around us in the dark where we couldn't see them, not really coming up close to us.

Then I noticed all the people were black--colored people! We lined up and we sang, while my squined, satin skirt, which was below my knees as skirts were in those days, got really muddy all around the bottom. Of course I didn't care much about that. I just was surprised to see where we were and what it looked like there. We sang Silent Night and We Three Kings and Away in a Manger--all the songs I knew well--but in a place I had never even imagined existed before. It was dark, there were no electric lights, it was muddy, and people were holding candles, the only lights around. It was purely surreal. When we finished singing we heard claps, and "thank you, " and "Merry Christmas"--that was all; and then we drove back to the church, and my mother picked me up, and I told her all about it. She too was surprised and didn't know what to say. I don't remember ever wearing that skirt again. Maybe it was ruined in the mud.

Where that place in Charlottesville was, I do not know. I have come to realize gradually that all cities have such places in them where people live in shacks and tents and boxes on the city's perimeter, or near its dump, and the bigger the city is, the more likely you are to find one. This one must have been Charlottesville's. Two years later in 1958 when we moved back to Maine and I went to live at Kents Hill, I heard on the radio about the segregation laws in Virginia being repealed and I read an article in a magazine (Look? Life?) about Lane High School being integrated--Lane was the school I had gone to for the eighth and ninth grade. There were young people my age interviewed in that article who talked about how glad they were about the new integration laws. And I thought "I bet they were!" I was thinking that now Lane High School, which had the state's worst football team, would now get the black kids' high school's football players: Burley High School, the black high school in Charlottesville, were state football champions! Lane High was definitely benefitting.

But I also thought "Of course! Why not? No big deal!" It was a generation thing, much like gay marriage is now among the young--a non-issue. I also thought of my church and the caroling I had done in 1956, and realized I had been part of the change that had come to Virginia. I had no inkling at that point that a major Civil Rights movement was to come. I just knew that I agreed with the new law that made the schools the same.

Years later I saw a documentary of Bobby Kennedy encountering really hungry black families in shacks in the country down south, and being really disturbed by it. I remembered seeing such places and people myself, black people who looked ragged and discouraged standing outside of falling-down shacks; I saw them while riding in the car with my mother to go horse-back riding on the weekends on the outskirts of Charlottesville. I remembered Bobby and Teddy both went to UVA for law school, and I remember thinking that maybe, like me, they hadn't really looked into --just at--the lives of the black people who lived on the outskirts of town in the country. It must have made Bobby Kennedy feel good that he was actually in a position, as Attorney General, to do something about it.

My mother of course thought it (integration) was all part of a sinister Communist plot devised in Moscow to bring our country to its knees, this undermining of the rights of states to decide for themselves whether or not they would be integrated. "Separate but equal" schools were alright with her --in principle. She did not seem to connect the lives of black people she actually knew--people she liked and respected--with these new integration laws. But I did. I was part of a generation just coming to age which would throw out all sorts of things which were to us non-issues in judging others--war, race, religion, straight sex, conventional clothing, music, art, education, or English erudition. These things mattered to our parents and other adults--but not to us. There was a generation gap. It wouldn't be long before we would say so, and rather loudly.

The year I graduated from high school (1961), the Sixties generation was still in high school, all the boys had crew cuts, and the girls all strove to look "clean-cut." But we had had our eyes and, more importantly, our minds opened already just watching older people being intolerant. The major prejudice of the future--PCism, in which you had to be tolerant or you were not tolerated--was still in the future. In 1961 the Beatles were getting popular in Liverpool and Germany, Bob Dylan was writing "The Times They are A-Changin'," and Barack Obama was just being born.

Slowly, over the next four decades, even my own mother's prejudices were worn down and discarded. The Soviet Union self-destructed in 1989, and I was so glad she was alive (82 at the time) to see it. "Wonderful!" she breathed with a sincere breath of relief! How hard she had fought all her life, even spying without pay for the FBI, against the Communists for the sake of her country! But for me, her real changes were reflected in the way she accepted my friendships with actual black people, the way she came to feel the Vietnam War was all wrong, and the way, eventually, she actually saw black people as her equals, personally. I know this became true because sometime in the Seventies, maybe the Eighties, she reported to me she had met a young professional black woman in some sort of job situation, and "She spoke just beautifully!" I can hear her repeat it again to me, her amazement and admiration very evident in her voice. "She was very well spoken, and very well educated!" And again she repeated, almost in disbelief, "...she spoke just beautifully--and she had beautiful manners!"

It was an observation on class. For my mother, class had nothing whatsoever to do with money, but everything to do with language, education, manners, considerations of others, and moral rectitude. If I were ever to bring up a prospective boyfriend, her first question would always be "Does he speak well? Where did he go to school?" This young black woman she had met had clearly won her deepest respect and admiration, for she had proved herself on a par with herself! That was an almost unfathomable thought for me--few were on par with my mother, at least in her eyes, and it was always evident to me in her body language exactly what she thought of people in these terms--acceptable or not acceptable. For me, it was more profound change than the Iron Curtain crumbling, my mother reaching that point. I am so sad she did not live to see and listen to Obama.

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