I finally had the chance to watch the recent movie, The Help, about the lives of "colored" maids in 1963 Mississippi. I recommend it highly to anyone not yet born at the time, or who were there but might have forgotten what it was like in America not all that long ago.
It sent me running back to a letter I had written my parents while I was a 21-year-old Naval Aviation Cadet in deep-south Pensacola, Florida...a green-as-grass boy from the North in a world I'd never realized existed. It was 1954, nearly a decade before the events portrayed in the movie. I was amazed then and I am amazed now at how human beings can behave the way they do, and how "people of color"--one of the many euphemisms (Negroes, Blacks, African Americans) applied to a large segment of our population could possibly have tolerated such treatment, or how any society calling itself civilized could have permitted it.
Here's one of my letters, word for word as I wrote it fifty-eight years ago:
I’ve met a very interesting character down south. His name is Jim Crow. He is a barefooted little girl, an old man in coveralls, a well-dressed man in a business suit. I had a nodding acquaintance with him the first day I arrived in Pensacola and rode a city bus. A sign says “WHITE seat from front to rear of coach―colored seat from rear to front of coach―Florida Law.” He is so quiet at times, you are scarcely aware he exists. At other times, he is a vicious, despicable animal.
As I said, at times you aren’t even aware he is around, until suddenly it dawns on you that he is conspicuous in his absence. It came to me in a drugstore, when two well-dressed women came to the fountain. Though there were plenty of empty seats, they stood at the end of the counter and asked for two milkshakes, which the counterman made and gave to them in covered paper cartons. They disappeared then―I don’t know where they went, but they were gone.
It was then I began noticing―the bus, trains, and plane depots with their “Colored Waiting Room”, the restaurants, the theaters (“Colored Entrance” via an outside fire escape to the balcony), the “For Colored Only” taverns (in the slum parts of town, of course). It is most apparent, however, on the transportation systems.
Coming back to downtown New Orleans from the amusement park, Pontchartrain Beach, I was almost the only person on the bus as it started back from the end of its run. I sat, as I usually do, about even with the back door. The silver hand-rails along the back of each seat, I noticed, had two holes drilled in the top. I gave it no notice until six Negro teen-aged boys got on the bus. They came to the rear and picked up a wooden sign from the back seat and placed it on the hand rail of the seat across from me. It said “For Colored Only.”
On the bus from Mobile to Pensacola, I sat alone in a seat for two while five Negroes stood in the aisles. A mother and three small children got on the bus; the kids were cute as only colored children can be. One was a little girl about three, in bare feet, carrying a huge handbag. She came grinning down the aisle with her two brothers, who were carrying large bags of groceries. After a few minutes, the little girl, who hadn’t yet learned that Negroes must stand if whites sit, started to crawl up onto the seat next to me. The mother scolded her and started to pull her off the seat, but I said if she wanted to sit there, she was perfectly welcome to. The mother was evidently surprised, and said “thank you,” and the little girl sat clutching the handbag and grinned at me as the bus roared on….
Back in Pensacola, a Negro Marine was the only colored person on the bus back to the base. He sat in one of the side seats like we have at home. Five or six white kids, about ten to fifteen, got on and stood clustered up around the back door. There were a lot of empty seats―the side seat opposite the Marine, and the entire back seat. The bus driver stopped the bus and said “Would you colored folks mind sitting in the back so these people can sit down.”
I pity the Negro sailors, marines and Navcads stationed here. They can live with use, eat with us, and sleep with us, but they cannot ride a public bus with us.
It's hard to imagine, now, that we once were like that; we've come a very long way. But the ghosts of the past still lurk in the shadows of today; and we forget at our peril.
Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please take a moment to check out his website (http://www.doriengrey.com) and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs (http://bit.ly/m8CSO1 ).