I was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the early ‘40’s where segregation supposedly did not exist. But racism did. My working class community was all white, and African Americans were referred to as “jigaboos,” or “jigs” for short. I never heard that expression used in the South, so I suppose it’s a northern term.
When I was six my family moved to North Carolina where there was a very clear line of demarcation between blacks and whites. Blacks were deferent to whites, and most interaction between the two was between employer and employee, or house owner and maid or gardener. Interracial dating was out of the question.
My parents were very unusual racists. They were exceedingly polite to all black people but related to them more like a master would his servant. They certainly considered them to be, with some exceptions, an inferior race. However, when a gardener in Philadelphia who worked on a millionaire’s estate where my grandmother also was employed as the cook asked if he could bring his family on vacation to our home in the South, my parents readily agreed. The man had a wife and six children and they all showed up on our doorstep one day in the summer. We had a small house with one bathroom and I don’t know where we put them, but they remained for a week taking in the splendors of the South.
I was eight or nine at the time and distinctly remember the man- who had never before been to the South- relating to my father an interesting and revealing story. While half way through Virginia, he and his family stopped at a service station to buy some food and use the toilet facilities. The attendant there told them as politely as he could that they were forbidden to use the toilet facilities because they were colored people. The gardener was shocked by this revelation.
“What am I supposed to do with my children?” he asked, waving his arm around. “They’ve got to go to the bathroom.”
The man shook his head and was genuinely apologetic. “I’d let you use the facilities but I’d lose my job if the owner found out. I’ll tell you what,” he said, taking the man’s arm and leading him outside. He pointed to a wooded area behind the service station. “Why don’t you take everybody out there and do your business. That’s the best I can do. I’m sorry about that but I could get in trouble for even letting you go there.”
I remember my father nodding when he heard this story and extending his commiserations. But, in fact, my father was a conservative man and a racist himself and did not believe that blacks and whites should be sharing the same facilities anywhere. And yet this family lived in our house and shared our facilities for a week. I guess they were considered different because we knew them.
In those days I remember that “coloreds” had a separate entrance to the movies and sat exclusively in the balcony. They sat in the back of the city bus. They did not frequent white restaurants or white hotels. However, they served as cooks, waiters, bellhops, and elevator operators in white hotels, and wore nice uniforms in the more upscale establishments.
I remember the first time an African-American sat in the front of the same bus I was riding. Two young girls got on and proceeded to the back. One of them suddenly stopped, however, and sat down around the middle of the bus, right across from me. Her partner laughed and said, “Come on back here, girl,” and beckoned. The girl got up reluctantly and made her way to the back while all the white people gave her angry looks. The next time I rode the bus an elderly African American lady with a head scarf was already seated toward the front of the bus. Nobody was paying her any heed. We adjusted.
The definition of a “Negro” could be difficult at times. Chapel Hill high school had a black basketball star during my high school years. He also dated a white girl from his class. There was something of an uproar about this because integration of the schools in North Carolina had not yet occurred, even though we were long past the 1954 Supreme Court decision banning racial segregation. The student and his parents, however, made it very clear that they were Indians from India and not African American, and therefore the rules did not apply to them. And they had the papers to prove it.
“He’s just as black as the ace of spades,” my mother said, shaking her head. “So, what’s the difference?”
I heard that opinion expressed often in my social group. I also heard that this particular individual was quite popular with his peer group in high school. He was accepted as one of them.
Now, it gets interesting. In the mid-fifties my father wanted to add an extra bedroom on to our house because the family was growing. He was gainfully employed and in good standing and my mother was a secretary but, even though he visited the loan officers in almost every bank in the city, no one would give him the loan. In desperation, he went to the local African American bank-the only one in the city-and they, wishing to expand their business into the white community, granted him the loan. My conservative and prejudiced father, furious at this slight by all the white banks, moved the family’s banking account to the African American bank.
I will never forget accompanying my mother the first time she cashed her check at this new bank. There was nothing but black people there. Suddenly, I was in the minority-a weird experience. Even stranger: our teller was a very black female. In fact, all the tellers were black females. She took my mother’s check and counted out the money and handed it to her under the bars. I was literally stunned. I didn’t know Negroes could count that high.
In 1960 I went off to college. The high schools and institutions of higher learning were still segregated in the South. The college I attended was all white and the teams we played in sports were all white. In fact, the only time I saw black basketball players was on television. I will never forget sitting in the assembly hall at this small conservative college in 1962 toward the end of the semester and hearing the president inform us that the board of trustees had decided to allow a black student to take a course in the institution that summer. I remember being irate. How dare these people infiltrate our institutions. They had their own!
However, in the same year I transferred as a junior to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and remember my first night on campus seeing a black male student escorting an attractive white coed to her dormitory. I stared open mouthed. Something like this was heretofore forbidden in the land I inhabited. But then I noticed none of the other students were paying any attention. Nobody seemed to care! I walked home realizing I was entering a new world.
In 1965 I moved to New Mexico where I was pursuing a master’s degree. Here I was confronted with a set of race relations never before experienced. The school was composed of Caucasians- called “Anglos” or “gringos”-, Hispanics, Native American Indians, and African Americans. Although everyone coexisted admirably at the school, there was considerable animosity in the town between the Caucasians and the Hispanics. I once witnessed a full-fledged riot between the two in a parking lot outside of a gymnasium in nearby Albuquerque. Furthermore, the Native Americans disliked both the Caucasians and the Hispanics, while the African Americans were largely ignored. Their numbers apparently were considered too small to be important in the great scheme of things. In fact, the basketball star at my university actually dated both a blonde Caucasian and a very dark-skinned African American at the same time. A few males on campus envied him openly. The final irony for me, however, came the day I asked a pretty Hispanic coed on campus for a date and she spurned me by saying, “I don’t date gringos.” So, now I was the object of racism.
It has been said that familiarity breeds contempt, but where race relations are concerned, I believe the opposite is true. Lack of familiarity breeds ignorance, and ignorance leads to prejudice and discrimination. In a progressively shrinking world, people of different religions, cultures and ethnic groups are going to be interacting more and more. It is incumbent that we develop a healthy familiarity with each other. Not to do so will lead to the same problems of the past and more complicated ones in the future.