Continued from Late 1950’s – May Greene School -And the Lies I Believed:
I am conflicted about writing on the subject of racism because I don’t wish to dishonor anyone, especially my family, but I think that the story needs to be told. Maybe it’s just my conscience that needs to be unburdened but please tolerate me. The good news is that at the age of 16, I came to know the truth and I began to reject the lies and to fight against the racism that had been ingrained in me, some of it so hard to recognize.
To be clear, my mother would never purposely teach me a lie. I use the word lie because it refers to an untruth; my mother’s motivation was not to lie to me but she did pass on untruths unknowingly. At the end of her life, love won out over the lies she had learned. I will explain that statement at the end of this series of posts.
My step-father openly and verbally expressed hatred for African-Americans, using the worst kind of name-calling. It was blatant and unmistakeable. Even as a child, I recognized how wrong that attitude was.
I don’t think my mother ever hated anyone; at least she never expressed hatred in her conversation and never used name-calling. And I trusted her judgment (at least until I became a teenager). Until I became a teenager I wanted to please her and follow her advice.
As I have alluded to in previous articles, our home life was not happy and was, in fact, hellish. My step-father drank heavily and inflicted us kids with both verbal and physical abuse. From an early age, I stayed away from home as much as possible, finding other families to latch on to. Our Sprigg Street and Ranney Street neighbors provided the family atmosphere in which I felt safe and wanted. In the summertime, I only went home for supper and to sleep. In those days, I felt helpless in regards to the abuse at home. Such subjects were never discussed at school or church. I never sought help because I didn’t know that there was help. I just thought that that was ‘the way things were’, period.
The schools in Cape were segregated up until 1955 according to an article on Jefferson School posted at Cape Central High by Ken Steinhoff. Here is a link to that article: http://www.capecentralhigh.com/cape-photos/jefferson-oldest-standing-school-in-cape/
When I started school in 1956 at Franklin School, integration was a new thing and old ways are hard to change. The case for desegregation was a battle that had been fought both at the schools and in high court in many states and, finally, in the US Supreme Court. By law, the public schools were required to desegregate or lose federal funding. For more on the history of the legal case see this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brown_v._Board_of_Education At the age of 6 I had no idea that any of this was taking place.
Law can and does mandate changes in practice but can never mandate changes of heart. What we needed, besides laws being changed, was a change of heart in people, both African-Americans and Caucasians. That just doesn’t happen overnight and, of course, hearts and minds had not yet made the transition by 1956, when I entered first grade.
Additionally, since our neighborhoods were so segregated, integration only happened in certain schools, mostly May Greene. There were a few African-Americans attending Lorimier School as well, but May Greene had the most African-American students in Cape by far.
Because I had attended only white schools until 4th grade, the issue of my relationship with African-Americans had never come up. Once I moved to May Greene, suddenly it became an issue. Now I had a friend who was ‘colored’, Charlotte Taylor.
In the 5th grade, I had a school-girl crush on Charlotte’s brother. Mind you, we never so much as got near one another. I would see him on the playground playing with his friends and I would see him when their family drove by my house on Sprigg Street. That was the extent of it.
I don’t know exactly what precipitated my teacher calling me out into the hallway one day, but she asked me if it was true that I ‘liked’ Charles Taylor. I said, “Yes.” The expression on her face looked very serious and troubled. She then asked if my mother knew this. I said “No.” “Well, then, you must go home and tell her tonight because if you don’t tell her, I will”, she ordered. I thought, “I am in some kind of trouble.”
I did as my teacher instructed and told my mother that night. I found out that I was in lots of trouble. My mother cried and shook and said “What would your father say? Being a Baptist preacher?” She was referring to my biological father who lived very far away. I felt ashamed and knew that I could never be friends with Charles because it just wouldn’t be right. The reason it wouldn’t be right I was told was because I was white and he was ‘colored’.
- Whites and coloreds should not “mix”. So that was my first lesson in racism.
No particular reason was given. That was just ‘the way things were supposed to be’. I accepted it without further question.
As time went on, I also overheard conversations about whites & coloreds “mixing” and how sinful that was.
- Second lesson in racism – it is sinful for whites & coloreds to “mix”.
Looking back, I now realize that “mixing” meant dating or marrying someone of the opposite color. In the 5th grade, that was not totally clear to me. I just got the overall impression that I needed to avoid relationships with ‘colored’ people because we were different and it would be sinful.
By the time I started Junior High, the atmosphere between whites and blacks at school and on the school bus was volatile. Verbal and physical fights happened on a daily basis, especially on the bus. The girls were just as bad as the boys when it came to starting fights. It seemed like they were just hoping for a fight. I was scared to even look at a black person. All I wanted to do was get away from them.
One day there was an incident on the bus between me and an African-American boy. I was one of the first students on the bus so I sat in the empty seat directly behind the bus driver. An African-American boy came and sat down beside me. I knew that I should not be sitting with him based on what I had learned in the 5th grade so I asked him to get up. He looked me straight in the eye and said “No.” I then said, “OK, then let me get up.” He looked me in the eye again and said “No.” I then took my school books and hit him over the head with them. He let me get up after that. I am not proud of my actions that day and if I knew who and where that boy was, I would apologize to him for what I did.
Other wrong opinions of black people were added to my biases as the years went on:
- they were lazy
- they were dirty
- they were violent
- they were not to be trusted
Of course, these negative attributes are present in both whites and blacks, just depending on the person, not the color of their skin. I realize that now, but I did not realize it at the time.
The fights increased as we entered high school and there were problems inside the school hallways as well as outside. There was anger and hatred on the part of both whites and blacks. We were enemies, on different teams. We were in a battle and I was scared every day that I had to walk down those hallways between classes.
Then, in my junior year of high school, I moved to Illinois to live with my biological father and my step-mother. They lived in a small town in Central Illinois called Mt. Auburn. Population: 500. Mt. Auburn High School had a total of 100 students. My father taught 5th grade in Mt. Auburn’s grade school. There were no black students in either school. In fact, there were no blacks in the entire town.
It was in Mr. Thomas’ English class that I first was confronted with the error of my thinking regarding black people. Mr. T, as we affectionately called him, liked to give us the opportunity to discuss controversial issues among ourselves. He was always present to intervene if necessary but he mostly let us guide the conversation. We were allowed to argue our point of view in a civilized manner. The topic of racism was brought up one day. I expressed the opinions I had formed living in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. I was immediately brought to task for my obvious bias against blacks. I argued that they could not possibly know anything about the issue since they had no blacks in their school or community. I thought that I was the expert on this subject in this group. The debate continued and they said some things that stuck in my mind about ‘all men being created equal’ and ‘God-given rights to freedom’. Their words, coupled with what my biological father had to say about the subject, convinced me that I had been terribly mistaken and that my views were not pleasing to God. I decided at that time that I was going to change my thinking. I was 16 at the time.
As an aside, do you remember that my mother had said ‘what would your father say’ about the incident in 5th grade? I found out that my father was definitely not racist and that he would accept anyone of any color that his kids wanted to be friends with or marry. He saw no difference other than the color of the skin. He helped me to deal with my biased opinions and to see the truth and reject the lies that I had believed.
I have spent the last 45 years trying to get rid of the wrong thinking about blacks that I was either taught or gathered from overheard conversations when I was young and growing up in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. It has been a battle in my mind and heart. I pray that the Lord will cleanse my mind and heart. In situations I encounter in my daily life, I choose to treat people as I would want to be treated, whatever their skin color, white, black, purple, or polka-dotted (some tattoos are polka-dotted). I am grateful to my father, Mr. T and my fellow classmates at Mt. Auburn High for setting me straight.
To be continued……Please return for future articles or sign up for email updates in the column on the right side of the page. Did you live on or near South Sprigg? Did you perhaps go to May Greene School in the late 50’s or early 60’s? Do you know anyone else who lived or visited there during that time? If you would like to re-connect with some of the friends, neighbors, or classmates of that era and location, please let me know by comment below or by email to:
Thank you for reading!