I was 5 years old, shopping in downtown Norfolk, Va., with my mother and little sister. We needed a restroom, and since I was the alpha male while my father was at work, I found one.
There was, however, a slight problem. My mother said we couldn’t use the one I had found. She patiently explained that it was only for “colored” people. That was my first conscious encounter with the segregated South, more than 90 years after the War Between the States.
I later learned that there also were water fountains for whites, and water fountains for colored people. There were signs that I couldn’t read clearly announcing who could use which.
It didn’t make much sense to me, but that was the way it was. I wish I could say for certain that my child’s sense of justice was provoked, and maybe it was. I hope I was outraged. I only remember was that it seemed very strange.
THE TERM “colored people” was the preferred and respectful term for blacks (later shifting to “blacks” and “Afro-Americans.” and still later “African-Americans”). On official forms asking for race, the choices were “Caucasian,” “Negro” or “Oriental,” but in conversation, the term “colored” was used for blacks. (For example, the NAACP’s self-chosen name was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.)
We used that term at home. My family never used the “n-word.” It was considered a bad word, derogatory and demeaning. I heard it some in school, but not at home.
America ran along two parallel tracks – one for whites and one for blacks, especially in the Southern United States, but also in the North. Not only were there separate water fountains and restrooms, but also separate schools and even (paradoxically and wrongly) separate churches. Churches should have been the one place, at least, where blacks and whites could be together, irrespective of color. Believers in Christ should be expected to worship together in unity.
Society was divided along racial lines.
IN SECOND grade in Baltimore, I attended school with a few black children. It seemed normal and natural. One black classmate helped me find my way around the new school and helped me find my lost gloves; race did not matter to us. My square-dance partner was a pretty, vivacious black girl who patiently put up with me as we do-si-doed.
Schools in the South were pretty much segregated until the late 1960s, when the “separate but equal” myth was destroyed and integration was fully implemented. Before integration, schools for whites and schools for blacks comprised two separate systems that were anything but equal. I was a 10th-grader in Florida when courageous kids from the local black high school braved public opinion in exchange for a better education and entered our previously all-white school. Some in the community predicted (hoped for?) violence. It never happened.
My first encounter with some of these black students was in football two-a-days in the 100-degree humidity of Orlando. Enduring this physical torture melts away superficial differences and bonds you with your teammates. Neither white nor black guys cared about color. All we saw were teammates who had suffered together and would play together in common cause. Later, we would play basketball together. We welcomed these guys, some of whom were fantastic athletes. We were happy to have them, and there were no problems – none.
In 1956, before Norfolk, I had lived in Appomattox, Va., where the Civil War ended in 1865. Other historic events unfolded while I was there.
The war’s end should have been the beginning of the end of slavery and racial oppression in our country. Yet, deep evil dies stubbornly. When slavery was declared illegal, the deep evil was only weakened and unmasked, and it retreated to less blatant forms of racism. Legislation outlawed slavery, but it could not outlaw maneuverings of some men to legally accomplish their own ends and to keep others under their control. It could not outlaw or change fear, pride, greed, hatred and selfishness in the hearts of men.
EVERY PERSON of every race can be a prejudiced bigot; each of us is capable of fear, pride and hatred. But whites were in control, and the whole structure of our country in the 1950s had been designed by some to legally continue the subjugation of blacks. This structure was passively accepted as a way of life by most of the others, many being overall “good people.” Yet, how often are “good people” willing to perversely accommodate themselves to systematic injustice or other evils? It is easy to conveniently turn a blind eye to evil and to rationalize that it is not our business.
Oppression and racism loomed large in 1950s America.
Virginia public education then was a hotbed of white-black conflict after the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka declared states’ segregated school laws unconstitutional. Several counties temporarily closed their schools to avoid integration. Prince Edward County resisted integration of black students into white schools until, in 1959, the county shut down its public school system indefinitely. Whites-only private schools were formed, perversely supported by state funds. For five years, from 1959 to 1964, there was no public education for black children, and thus, many black children received no education at all in Prince Edward County.
IN 1956, A GROUP from Prince Edward County visited teachers of adjacent Appomattox County in the high-school library, urging them to follow their example. There was a lot of discussion. The plan made sense. The white and black schools were separate and unequal anyway. They were so unequal that in some black schools of Appomattox County, records were not even kept. Closing the county schools wouldn’t affect things much for the black kids; they would simply go from a bad education to no education. Public school teachers would continue receiving paychecks in the new private system where the white kids would get a decent education.
The argument to shut down the schools was persuasive.
A 28-year-old teacher who was new to the school sat in the back of the library, listening. He had a wife and two kids. He had determined to keep his mouth shut. Since he was new, he thought he should just stay out of this battle: just sit there, learn what is happening, be polite, stay out of trouble.
He sat and he listened. But he was boiling inside, and his stomach began to hurt. His stomach always hurt when he got upset, ever since he had developed an ulcer after his infant daughter’s death a few years before. Now his stomach was burning and gnawing. No, it was killing him. But he stayed seated – until he couldn’t stand it anymore. He stood and spoke:
“Look, I’m new here. Most of you don’t even know me. And I don’t know much about politics. All I know is this: I have a contract to teach students at Appomattox High School. That means I’m here to teach. My contract doesn’t state whether I’m supposed to teach white kids, black kids or green kids. It only says I’m supposed to teach high-school kids. I’ll honor my contract. I’ll vote to keep the schools open. And I intend to stay and teach.”
He sat down. The mood in the room changed quickly. The teachers voted to stay and teach, and the schools of Appomattox County never closed. Ultimately they were integrated.
And the new, young teacher?
He was my father.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
– The Rev.
Martin Luther King Jr.
(The writer is an Augusta pediatrician. The column is an excerpt adapted from his forthcoming book, The Burden of Being Champ: Kindergarten Dropout to Pediatrician.)