My last post was sort of two stories in one and while I completed the story of how I met my best friend, I didn’t complete the story of my desegregation experience.
It’s been bugging me all day, so if you don’t mind, dear reader, I’d like to finish it now.
The city I grew up in was a hotbed of civil rights activity. My hometown was where the famous Woolworth sit-in took place on February 1, 1960, 2 years before I was born.I grew up eating at the lunch counter which I understand is now at the Smithsonian Museum.
Racial tension was just part of my life in that city. By 4th grade we were getting out of school early for bomb threats and fights breaking out in the hallways. When I went in to 5th grade my town finally gave in and desegregated schools in 1971 and instituted a busing program.
My very prejudiced father was irate! I was only 9 years old and while I knew what was going on I was confused.
Because my mother had been very sick from the time I was born, my father hired a black woman as our maid. Her name was Gracie. I loved her. My father would pick her up from her house in the morning and take her home when he came home from work. She stayed at the house all day cleaning, cooking and looking after me. After my mother died Gracie would often stay overnight with me if my father had a business trip that took him out of town. She was an integral part of our family. We really couldn’t function without her.
I loved Gracie deeply, she was a rock, someone I could depend on. And I believe she loved me, too. Gracie was an older woman and she did not change with the times that I was watching. She called my father, “Master Jack” and me, “Miss Jill.” I believe that was her way of showing respect, my father didn’t demand that of her. She also wore a uniform, her choice as well. I thought it was a bit old fashioned, but that was her way. But as respectful and polite as she was, she was strong and proud. She never told me about her personal life even when I asked about her wedding ring and if she had any children. She’d smile at me and chuckle (I can see her now) and say, “Lawdy, Miss Jill, poor ole Gracie can’t remember.” She’d hum and talk to herself while she ironed or cooked. Her presence was such a comfort. I never saw her read or write so I’m not sure if she could. Gracie was a mystery but one of the few sources of love and stability in my life.
And even though my father was one of the most prejudiced people I’ve even known, I didn’t adopt his way because of Gracie.
So, when I was bused across town in the 5th grade and my tall, beautiful, mocha-skinned, modern, educated teacher assumed that I was going to be a little, cocky, disrespectful, white kid and she addressed me as such I was confused. Why would I be disrespectful? Why was everyone “straightening me out” when I hadn’t done anything wrong?
Well, 5th grade was difficult, scary, confusing and just plain irritating especially since I had to sit by Angel the only other white girl in the class. (You can read about her in my previous post, Throwing Rocks)
The next year was better. My teacher was different. She was like Gracie but without the penchant for subservience. She treated us all the same no matter our skin color. She talked to me like a person, not like a white girl. Her approach to helping us all make the transition into desegregation was not to lecture us or make us feel like something was wrong but she made us feel like family.
She gathered up all her little 6th grade chickens and we followed her to her house in the neighborhood where our school was. I remember clearly walking down the buckled sidewalk in her black neighborhood. A neighborhood, that if my father knew I was walking in would have made him lose his mind! A neighborhood he would have never driven through much less walked through. I laugh thinking about that! We must have looked a sight! People were staring at us we skipped and laughed behind that little, round, mother hen of a teacher.
We got to her house and some of her family were there preparing a fish fry. She welcomed us into her home and showed us around. We saw her family photos and her furniture and her kitchen where laughing, happy people were busily preparing food just for us. We sat in her backyard and ate fish, slaw and hushpuppies. We had a grand old time.
In that one act of kindness, my teacher had mended a tear between us that our parents had started. She knew, as kids, we wouldn’t have a problem going to school with kids of a different skin color. But she also knew we were old enough to be watching the news and listening to our parents and feeling the pull to adopt their way of thinking instead of what came natural to us – love and acceptance.
She was a wise woman. We had a tough year and she was a healing balm.
As if desegregation wasn’t enough, 6th grade was when we had to go to mandatory sex education class. Talk about a shock!
But not only that, one of our classmates was accidentally shot by his brother. I don’t know how in the world my teacher arranged it, but she made sure we all attended his funeral. Again, we followed her down the buckled sidewalk, but this time all dressed up in our best, scared and with tears to the church.
After walking past the casket and seeing our friend, not looking like himself, my classmates and I took up the first two pews of the church. It was terrifying. It was heartbreaking. But my teacher hugged us and made sure we were ok. And we were ok as long as she was there.
I hated leaving my 6th grade teacher but I had to go to Junior High, a whole new world. 5th & 6th grades were a breeze compared to what was coming.
But I won’t go into that now.