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Friday, 11 April 2008

Baby Pictures

By Sherry as told to Tamar Orvell of Only Connect

Babypictures I was born nearly 57 years ago, and grew up in suburban Atlanta, Georgia. I am all too familiar with racism and the humiliation of segregation. However, I was amazed by a call I got from my sister Marsha [shown in the photo on the right of me and behind Hattie Pearl, our mother].

Marsha told me about her son Corey’s conversation with our mother. It was about the baby pictures (long a sensitive subject for my siblings and one that our mother kept silent about for years). Last month, my twenty-something nephew asked her why there were no baby pictures of his mother.

Though we have baby pictures of me, the eldest, we have none of my four siblings. And until Corey's direct questioning, they remained puzzled and often grumbled that they felt slighted and hurt.

My mother’s answer was simple yet amazing. She calmly explained that when I was born, in 1952, photography studios where we lived would not photograph black people. So my parents drove to Auburn Avenue in downtown Atlanta and had my pictures taken in this black business and residential area. When the family grew rapidly, my parents were simply too busy to make the trek for my siblings’ pictures. “Why didn’t you ever tell us?” I asked her. “It was just too painful,” the reply.

No Eating Here; No Sitting There
My mother hated taking us for ice cream, she later told us, because while black people could buy at an ice cream shop, they were forbidden from eating there. We kids would pepper her with questions all the way home about why we couldn’t eat at the shop. She only recently admitted that she could not bring herself to tell her babies that America considered us second-class citizens.

While my mother continued to try to protect us, the horrible truth was encroaching steadily. One day it hit me with a force that still shocks me today.

Many Saturdays, she would drop us off at the Strand Movie Theatre, where we entered through the back door. When I asked why we went this way, she said it was cheaper and I accepted her explanation.

I don’t remember my mother telling us to sit upstairs in the balcony; probably, we intuitively joined the other black people. One day, all the balcony seats were filled. So I, age seven or eight, blithely went down the stairs, found an empty seat, and sat down.

Suddenly, a white man, shining a flashlight in my face, screamed, “Nigger, get back in that balcony!” Terrified and sobbing, I ran upstairs, sat on the steps and continued to cry. The black kids laughed hysterically, incredulous that I didn’t know my place. While I still hear the violent screams and the laughter, I remember nothing about the movie.

Vacation Bible School Fiasco
For some reason, a few white women came to teach Bible school at our church. All week, we had done arts and crafts, which I loved, and Friday, we would take our projects home. One night that week, the Klan http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ku_Klux_Klan burned a cross at our church. The teachers couldn’t return and I never got my project. I felt devastated, confused, and afraid.

Traumas of Integration
These sample ordeals should have prepared me for the coming trauma. But they didn’t. In 1965, I was among the first small group of black children to integrate the high school. My dad was so afraid for us that he almost forbade it, and he sat up all night long with a shotgun the night before our first day.

Everyone - students, teachers, administrators, and even bus drivers - threatened, harassed and humiliated us nonstop. After a year of this treatment, I finally got it. At the tender age of 13, I had an epiphany: They really do hate us and want to kill us! Until that moment, I had been clinging to the belief that this couldn’t possibly be true.

When I became the first black person to be admitted to the Beta honors club, I was ready. I stood in the line of inductees and heard my fellow club members scream at the adults, “You must have made a mistake, there’s no such thing as a smart nigger!” This time, I didn’t cry.

During the horrible integration days, my normally shy mother’s behavior was astonishing. She protected us vigorously and even threatened the principal that she would take him to the U.S. Supreme Court if he forced black children to sit together on the bus (this way, accommodating white kids’ demands to sit apart from us).

So, I suggested to my black classmates that we spread out and take a seat in all parts of the bus. In response, the driver told us to sit together (to create a separate block of seats for the white kids). When my mother confronted the principal with our reports, we were instructed to sit anywhere. Yet the white kids defied the order and stood rather than sit next to us.

I should have known my mother had such strength. During the early days of integration, we commuted many miles to the black elementary school, as we rode past the white school, packed like pigs in a raggedy school bus. Until the day my mother went to the black school and counted us as we got off the bus.

She enlisted the principal to join her in forcing the local board of education to give us another bus. When the board claimed it had no extra driver, an excuse for not getting the other bus, my mother found a driver.

Understanding and Gratitude
For a long time, I was so angry with my mother for not telling me the truth before the theatre incident and about the other horrors sooner. Eventually, thank God, I came to understand her dilemmas and I imagined how she must have struggled during those years (and, of course, throughout her whole life).

I mean, really, how do you explain something like racism to a child? Now, I am grateful for those few sheltered years under the protection and sometimes cover-ups of my beleaguered parents.

[If you would like to contribute to The Elder Storytelling Place, the guidelines are here. We would all be pleased to read your stories.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post

Comments

A story very well told.

In Northern Ireland we still have a few cross community difficulties, religion is used as the excuse and not skin colour
Thankfully I grew up in the South of Ireland oblivious to discrimination.

Loved the story. Says so, so much about family and how fiercely we try to shield the ones we love--and sometimes can't. Also speaks volumes about how damaging racism can be to the human spirit on both sides of the racial divide, and the strength needed to overcome its' hateful effects. I'm 51, and this story brought back vivid memories, (both good and bad), even though my "bad" memories as a little black girl growing up in central Texas are not nearly as significant as these are.

Hello Sherry,

My story yesterday was about the Air Force base where we were in 1962-64,in the South.

We were from Pennsylvania and the way we traveled to the base was via the Chesapeake Bay Ferry from Cape Charles to Norfolk.

In those days the ferry boat was strictly segregated. White ladies room/Colored ladies room. Whether or not you agreed with segregation, you obeyed the rules, so I and my family sat in the white section and never went near the "Colored" section.

The ferry was always crowded with people and that is the way we traveled for those years. UNTIL, September 15,1963 when the news came out that the 16th St. Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham,Alabama had been BOMBED and four little innocent girls had been killed.

That evening as we boarded the ferry I said to my husband, "I am going to sit in the "Colored" section of this boat to show my support to these poor people who must be so upset and angry about this tragedy. I have to let them know that most white people deplore this action and are in great sympathy with them."

When I went in the "Colored" people's sitting room I was a little hesitant but then I saw other white people in there,too. So I wasn't the only one who was humiliated and disgusted by the bombing. Gradually, at least half of the sitting room was completely integrated and we were all in tears about those little girls and their parents and friends.

As horrible as that bombing was, I consider those girls to be heroines for the cause, because the bombings gave impetus to President Kennedy's
Civil Rights Agenda and helped the Congress pass the Civil Rights Act 0f 1964.

Sherry, this is such a painful story. I rarely cry but I feel tears coming for all of the horrors that racism caused. (And, to a degree, still cause, to our country's shame.)

I grew up in Colorado Springs and didn't know racism existed there. I now know that it did, but I was not exposed to it. There were no segregation laws and schools were integrated long before it became the law.

In 1937 I was 12 years old and went with my grandparents to Florida for three months. Then I saw the ugliness of racism for the first time. The society was completely segregated and grown black men would get off the street and walk in the gutter when meeting me, a mere child. I asked my grandmother why they did that because it embarrassed me. She explained that they had to by law.
It was a shocking revelation and I weep for the humiliation that was caused by ignorance.

Years later my first knowledge that racism existed in my home town occurred when I gave a birthday party for my step-daughter and she invited a black classmate. The girl's mother (a beautiful young woman) called with regrets. At first I couldn't understand why her girl was not coming and then it hit me like a slap in the face; she didn't want her daughter exposed to insults. I assured her that we would be very disappointed if her child did not attend and we really wanted her to come. She then allowed her girl to come and the child was treated just like any other girl and, I hope, had a good time.

While there were no laws segregating the races in Colorado, there were still the bigots who were so inferior they had to demean someone else to feel good about themselves. The shame must be borne by all the whites that allowed this to exist.

Thanks so much for sharing your story. As a kid (white) growing up in Texas in the 50's of course I saw how blacks were treated. I didn't think it was right, but I had no idea what could be done. Integration was taking place in a few places (not in our town). I once commented that it seemed like it wouldn't be so bad to have an integrated school. The teacher asked me if I was a nigger lover. I was shocked to hear that from a teacher. I don't know what I answered.

To Sherry and her family, I say "thanks" for you courage and action in the face of meaness. Thanks for telling your stories, so we don't forget how far we've come and how far we still need to go.

Blessings,
Sharry

What a heartfelt story. During the late 1960s, I, a white person, worked in a city high school where the majority of students were black. I was in my twenties and will never forget my ignorance at the time. Being from the Northeast, I had no idea as to the extent of what was happening in other parts of the country. I received a crash course. The riots were bad. Since I had been acquainted with so many of the students, both black and white, I was on a “do not hurt” list. But, when whenever a riot erupted, everyone was vulnerable. I’m sorry these prejudices existed then and continue to go on in other ways.

Dear Sherry, we try to think of stories like yours as being far far in the past. Yet, the difficulties persist; how could it be otherwise for the consequences of those times also persist. Both you and Tarmar tell a good story and I am grateful that you have told this one. The sadness, confusion, the hurt are poignant. You closing questions are still so relevant today.

Our schools were not integrated until I was in the 11th grade, and my experience with people of color was very slim. I had no idea that any people were treated like that until I got older. I was appalled then and I still am. Your mom's need to keep you in the dark about things is understandable; a mother's wish to protect her children at all costs.

It brings tears to my eyes to hear these stories and to think of your poor mother trying to protect her little ones from the ugliness for as long as she could, bless her heart. Thank you for sharing.

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