My bonus mom, Susan, wrote this to her granddaughter, my niece, Jasmin, four years ago. She gave me permission to share it with you. We must remember how historic this is. We must never forget. And we must silence those who would have us return to a time when yesterday would not have been possible. Yes, we can.
Dear Jasmin, January 2004
Today, many businesses and schools celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. I have been thinking of how things were as I was growing up, and wanted to share some of them with you. Many things have changed in regard to civil rights, but I still see many incidences of discrimination today. I wanted you to know some of the changes I’ve seen over the years. I’ve never understood why many people seem to have a need to look down on others, or not treat others with kindness. It saddens me.
My earliest memory of civil rights activities was when I was about 9 or 10 years old. I had gone shopping with my mother in Charleston, WV. We were in the Diamond Department Store. There was a coffee shop on the first floor and a cafeteria on the fifth floor. We were looking around on the first floor and I noticed that there were a number of African Americans sitting at tables in the coffee shop, but they were not eating (we called them Negroes at that time). I remember thinking it was not fair that a person could not eat where they wanted just because their skin was more tan in color than mine, so I went over and sat with them. When my mother discovered where I was, she came to “fetch” me away.
I remember my grandmother talking about how nice her mailman was. He had a degree in engineering, but was unable to work in his field because he was black. She was sad for him. Blacks had to live in separate neighborhoods, usually in substandard conditions. They could not eat in the same restaurants, swim in public pools, or use the same bathrooms.
The year before I was born, Blacks could not vote in primary elections. The year I was born, they could not travel across states in the same bus as Whites. Later that was changed, but if they did ride in the same buses, they had to sit in the back and then give up their seat if a white person needed it. I was 10 when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. That event accelerated the civil rights movement.
It wasn’t until I was nine years old that segregation in schools was ruled by the Supreme Court to be illegal. Many states didn’t comply with this law until years later and many casualties. There were white schools and black schools, but the black schools didn’t have as many books and their materials were usually substandard. There were black colleges, because the students weren’t allowed to attend other schools. There was a black college in Dunbar, WV, which was about 8 miles from where I lived. As a matter of fact, the first black student I ever went to school with was a girl my own age, NJ. This was in Junior High school. Her parents paid to have her go to our school, since black families still weren’t living in white neighborhoods. She was the only black student in the whole school. I remember a friend and I went shopping in town (that was before malls). We met NJ there and decided to go have lunch. This was about 1959 or 1960. Anyway, we went to a local diner that had wonderful hot roast beef sandwiches. We sat down and waited and waited. Many people came and went, but no one served us. NJ said it was because she was black. I was appalled and insisted we just stay.
Each summer while I was growing up, we would go to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina for a family vacation. Usually there were several families we knew who would meet there for a week or two. It would take us two days to travel to the beach, so we had to stop along the way to spend the night. I remember talking with my friend NJ and discovering that the motels wouldn’t let blacks stay there, so if they traveled, which was rare, they would have to make arrangements with a black church in another area to see if one of the families in their congregation could let them spend the night. They could also not eat in “white” restaurants, or use “white” bathrooms. Often the “black” bathrooms were clear across town. The world was a much different place at that time. As for the beach, blacks could not swim in white sections. However, the only sections left for them to use were the worst stretches of beach that no one else wanted to use.
I remember that the first summer I was in college, Pat, my future sister-in-law and I went to Myrtle Beach, SC to work. We started working as waitresses at a Howard Johnson restaurant. I remember the manager told us that laws had been passed that blacks could legally eat at “white” restaurants and that if any came into that restaurant, we were to serve them on paper plates and “get them out as soon as we could.” We went to another restaurant to work, but it was very similar in attitude. The next summer, I took a bus from Charleston, WV to Richmond, VA to visit friends. When I arrived, I went into a restaurant in the bus terminal to get some coffee and wait for my friend. It turned out that I was in the “black” restaurant because Virginia still had segregated restaurants, bathrooms, etc. I was stunned, but stayed where I was.
Until I was about 19, blacks had to pay a poll tax to vote. Because many could not afford this tax, it kept them from voting. This was a legal way to discriminate at that time. That was one of the things that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wanted to change. His way to change was through peaceful demonstrations. This has always proved to be the most effective means to bring about change, and the poll tax was eventually eliminated. Dr. King gained a lot of respect among people by taking his peaceful approach. In my experience, usually violence brings about more violence.
It wasn’t until I was about 23 that the Supreme Court passed a law saying people could not discriminate when renting or selling a house. Even though there was a law, the practice to discriminate with housing continued. When I was 37, I was living in Indiana. There was a practice among realtors where they would only show houses in certain areas to blacks. The same applied to securing home mortgages. I was taking a couple of classes at a nearby university and was asked to help. We would call a realtor or apartment complex and set up appointments. Next I was to go alone to talk with them about buying or renting. Usually they were anxious for me to come. I then had to tell them that first I would like my “husband” to look at it as well. Then, the professor would send an African American man to come with me to see the place. When we arrived, which was usually within a half hour, the realtor or manager of the apartment facility would say that the place had already been taken. This was in the Fall of 1982, I believe.
Discrimination was not just about blacks, however. The discrimination against women was even more subtle. It was not until I was 15 that a law was passed that said that if a man and woman were doing the same job, they should have the same pay. Before that, women always were paid a fraction of the salary of men for doing the same thing. It wasn’t until I was 19 that the Supreme Court eliminated job and school discrimination against women. Before that, it was ok for someone not to hire you, or for a college not to accept your application, just because you were a woman, even if you were more qualified than a man. Basically, women were encouraged to either be teachers, social workers, nurses, or secretaries. The other jobs were “men’s” jobs. A few women were able to break through this barrier, but this was very rare. Sometimes, if their husband owned a business, they would help, or take over after he died. There were exceptions to this, of course, but it was not the norm for women to pursue a “man’s” career. They weren’t regarded as terribly feminine if they did. As a matter of fact, I remember my father saying that the reason he was sending me to college was to “meet a good man” and “settle down and raise a family.” My brothers went so they could get good jobs. It was just a different world then.
I think it is important for your generation to know that it hasn’t been long since many people began having the same right to eat where they want, or attend a school of their choice, as well as to be able to live in their choice of neighborhoods. I want people to remember the past so that the mistakes made will not be repeated in the future. Your generation has many advantages that were not available to mine. Hopefully, you and your children will benefit from the efforts of people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others.