Seem incongruous? How, you ask yourself, can I conjoin two such disparate concepts into one diatribe considering one went out with whites only water fountains? Pull up some grass and have a seat as my daddy used to say.
I was born and raised in the south and by rights should be a dyed in the wool racist. The fact that I am not is due to my father. He wasn’t born there and thus was not imbued with all the hate and ill feelings associated with the aftermath of the War of Northern Aggression. Having said that, I will point out that the animus was palpable in everyone and everything there. One of my early memories (1956) was going to the movies in Albany, Georgia to see Cinderella. Dad was stationed at Turner AFB and was the 31st Wing Commander. The theatre was on Main Street and, as was the practice then, there was a water fountain there. The sign above it said “Whites only”. Albany is hot most days. I asked my mother why that was. She dissembled and said it was simply the way things were. No long dissertation on the Civil War and emancipation. No diatribe that these southern Neanderthals were remnants from the stone age of common sense. Nothing.
Dad was the 4th Wing Commander in Goldsboro, N.C. in 1962 at Seymour Johnson AFB. He stopped by the Sheriff’s office to pick up a key to some acreage we dove hunted on. The Sheriff owned it and let us use it. It was fun going to the jail. If I’d been misbehaving, the sheriff would take me back to the lockup and show me my future fate if I didn’t eat my brussels sprouts.
One September afternoon we arrived and an older black man was there sitting across from the Sheriff. He winked at my dad, which I thought was weird, and said he’d be with us in a minute. What happened next was indelibly printed on my mind for life. I had no idea what the significance was but knew it was a watershed moment.
The black denizen was there to pay his poll tax and prove he was literate. This would entitle him to vote in the upcoming Presidential election. The Sheriff told him to hold up on the tax money and asked him to read a newspaper he had pulled out of his top desk drawer. ” Here, Denny. Read this. What does it say?” The newspaper was printed in Chinese characters or possibly Japanese. I wasn’t educated enough then to know the difference, but I knew something wrong was happening.
Denny said ” Well, Sheriff. I’ll tell you what that says. It says I ain’t gonna be votin’ in this election is what it says. I’se might sorry I bothered you folks today.” The Sheriff allowed as Denny was welcome there any old time, and if he somehow became literate in Chinese some day, well, he’d be eligible to vote then. On the way to hunt, I asked my father why you needed to be literate in Chinese to vote. My dad proceeded to enlighten me on southern politics in general and racism in particular. He said we were fortunate that it had been banned in the military and that some day it would be the norm everywhere. This was food for thought on the order of a 10 course dinner to me.
Martin Luther King had not spoken his famous line about how the content of your character far outweighed the color of your skin yet. As a matter of course, blacks would continue to be effectively discriminated against for many more years. I was 11 years old then and had no inkling there was a color line, even though there were no black students in my school. I knew that they often got out of line ahead of us at the local Piggly Wiggley Supermarket on the rare occasions my mother shopped off base. It seemed they had forgotten something and had to leave the line to go get it. It didn’t dawn on me that it was a perennial response every time we shopped locally.
When I was 17, my father was stationed in Sumter, S.C. at Shaw AFB. By now I knew there were “rules” and blacks crossed them at the risk of whites’ approbation-or worse. One of my friends’ dad owned a gas station/liquor store off base. This was a good friend to have, too, I might add. That’s where we got our 94 proof Orange Julius pints on Friday nights for the drive-in. They employed a black man to pump gas and clean the store. We were leaving and heading into town one evening and the young man was walking on the side of the road in the same direction. I pulled over and we offered him a ride. He was absolutely and completely terrified of the idea. We finally induced him into riding in the back back of the old Ford station wagon in the seat that faced backwards. As we drove I happened to look in the rear view and discovered he was slumped down out of sight in the seat. We dropped him off several hundred yards before his street because he didn’t want his folks to think he was “uppity”. That was a concept I hadn’t even considered.
I don’t live in the south anymore, but go back to visit with relatives fairly regularly-or did before I became ill. The same thing happens to this day in the Northern Neck of Virginia. A young black lady stepped out of line at the five and dime when I went in to get something. She looked in her basket and fretted that she must be absent-minded to have forgotten whatever it was. The white shopkeeper gave her that patronizing smile and nod of approval for her “politeness” in letting a white person go first. Bad habits die hard…