Sunday, June 10, 2020
My father was born and raised in Tupelo, Mississippi. Most of my paternal family still lives there. My mother was from Arkansas. They both went to St. Louis, Missouri, looking for work. They met, married, and I was born. I am then a Missourian. We moved to Kentucky when I was eight years-old, because my father was transferred there for work. I was raised to love the South and to be proud of my heritage.
My father, being raised in the deep South, had strong feelings about black people. He didn't hate them, in fact, one his childhood playmates was the son of a sharecropper who lived on his uncle's farm. He really liked the little boy and they had fun together. But that boy was not allowed inside his uncle's house. I'm sure neither of the boys questioned that. It was just the way things always were. The sad belief was, that black people were not the same as whites, and shouldn't mingle with them. I'm pretty sure that's how my dad felt, albeit it horrible. My father would occasionally use the "N" word, but my mother would correct him. My sister and I would never have used that word, because my mother said, that "it wasn't nice", and that we should call them "colored people" This was about 1947. Segregation in the South was very real and we didn't even use the same bathrooms or water fountains. Not big steps from slavery and feelings about black Americans back then. Disgusting!
My sister and I were not around any black people growing up. Schools were segregated for our early education years, and very few black children were in my schools (I attended seven schools) after that, until high school. The only black person we ever saw as little kids was the ashman. He would come to our flat in St. Louis and clean out the ashpit, at the end of our backyard. We could hear him coming. He road in an old horse drawn wagon, and we could hear the horse's steps on the bricks in the alley. He was an old man in baggy clothes and wore a floppy hat. The wagon moved very slowly down the alley, stopping intermittently to clean out the next ashpit. The ashpits were usually made of cement. That's where the ashes were dumped from the big coal furnace, that heated the four-family flat were I lived. People would also burn rubbish in the ashpits as well. I never saw it flame but I do remember it smoldering.
We were afraid of the ashman, and would run out of the backyard when he came. We were taught that black men were bad and might hurt us. We were afraid of them and my mother instilled that fear in us. She told us later in life, that she was quite old before she saw a black person. The man came to town with a traveling fair. So hard to believe, that an entire little town had no black people living there. My mom said that there was a sign at the edge of her little town that warned black's [insert N word], to be out of town before dark. How unbelievable to think about that actually being a posted sign. Not that far from the feelings held during slavery, it was 1924, in Leachville, Arkansas.
We moved from St. Louis when I was eight years-old. We were leaving a large, busy city to live in Louisville, Kentucky. I still remember a neighbor man, in St. Louis, asking me, what I was going to do with my shoes when I got to Kentucky? I asked him what he meant, and he said, that all the people in Kentucky went barefoot. We were headed south and I wasn't going to leave my shoes in St.Louis, no matter what that man said.
It was 1953, we moved to this new place where the people talked funny. Unlike the big city and our big, four-family flat, we lived in a small two bedroom bungalow. We lived in Shivley, a suburb of Louisville, our street was long and was off the Dixie Highway. My family loved it there. We had a big yard with lots of grass. There were kids to play with and the neighbors were very friendly A neighbor lady came to our door with cleaning tools offering to help my mom get our house in order, shortly after we arrived. My mother nicely declined, not used to the southern hospitality in Kentucky. It was a culture shock for all of us.
I was always very proud to be a Southerner. The rebel flag was something that we were proud of. We had a strong sense of pride about our heritage, and it could still be heard jokingly, that , "the South will rise again". We sang the song "Dixie" in grade school with great pride, when we lived in Kentucky. "I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten"; It was a song about the South, but I never realized what we were actually singing about. It had an almost romantic, nostalgic feeling for us. a time of long ago, with Antebellum homes on plantations, weeping willow trees and warm days in the sun. At no time did we think about the slaves who'd been picking that cotton, or how they were being mistreated or killed. We never thought about the fact, that the "Masters" of the plantations paid money for them, like buying a new cow or pig. Never did we think about the rapes and whippings. Never did we think, about children taken from parents and often worked to death. Never did we think, that everything on that plantation was created and kept working by slaves. Never did we think, about these people being captured and piled onto boats like lumber, traveling across rough oceans. And, never did we think, how many arrived sick, or not make it at all. No, we just sang the happy song and felt proud of our heritage.
It was while I lived in Kentucky, the Brown v.The Board of Education case began to move forward. A man named Oliver Brown, filed a class-action suit against the Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas. In 1954 the Supreme Court justices ruled unanimously that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional. While Kansas and some other states upheld the new law, other local officials in the South defied it. A later good example was in Arkansas, where Governor Orval Faubus, called out the State National Guard, to prevent black students from attending high school in Little Rock in 1957.
After three years in Kentucky, my dad was transferred to Bloomington, Illinois. We were only there two years and I was fine with that. My first teacher was mean to me, and didn't like the Kentucky accent I'd acquired. She would correct me often, and I remember the first day she very sternly told me, her name was Mrs. Maze. NOT Mam! They didn't seem to like southerners in Bloomington. There were no black children in my grade school there. I don't ever remember seeing someone of color there at all . Bloomington is a college town and was very small in 1956. From there we ended up in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
It was 1957 and I was thirteen years-old. I still talked funny, and I remember that my first homeroom teacher equated my southern accent with stupidity. Not a pleasant welcome. I remained proud of my southern heritage, but worked hard to lose the harsh Kentucky accent, in order to fit in with the other seventh grade students. I was still proud of the rebel flag and the civil war heroes of my heritage. I remember as I got older and people would talk about the South and slavery. I felt that slavery WAS a horrible thing, but my ancestors never had slaves. That wasn't about me or my family. What did I have to be ashamed of? The South had a romantic charm in my mind and it was part of my identity. I was born in the Midwest, but I'd lived in the South and my father's pride in being a rebel drove the feelings home. Schools in the North were integrated but racism was still very prevalent. The black families lived on the other side of the railroad tracks from were I lived. I wondered what kept them in a certain area. Why the railroad tracks divided us. It was only about two months ago, when I learned about "red lining". This is segregation, and it was here where I lived, in the North. There is so much to read about red lining in Grand Rapids, but I must keep as brief as I can in this already long post. It may turn up again in a later post.
I'm embarrassed to say, that it was as recent as only a few years ago, that I was struggling with my Southern identity. Thinking that my dad and my family should be proud of being Southerners. I still couldn't understand what the rebel flag actually stood for, I thought it represented my heritage. It wasn't until I re-read history, that I understood. It finally hit home. The people I'd been so proud to be a part of, were fighting for the right to keep slavery. It didn't matter whether or not, they actually owned slaves. They were fighting to continue this abomination. Still, I thought, I'm sure that most of those people from the South were forced to fight. They didn't have slaves, so why would they want to risk their lives fighting to keep slavery? This question was finally answered for me yesterday, as I researched for more information about slavery in America and the South.
The average man in the South went to war to keep slavery, because they were convinced that it was a good thing. How did this happen? How could these good, God fearing men, my ancestors, fight to keep people enslaved? This is what I found in my research. It was when the civil war began, that three protestant churches became divided. Half of each of these three churches went North, because they were against slavery and the other halves remained in the South. Preachers in the South used the bible to teach parishioners, that God wanted them to use slaves and that it was God's way. They would quote passages from the bible to support their preaching. They were taught that they were better Christians and better people in God's eyes, if they condoned slavery. They supported the idea, that it was a divine message to keep the black people as slaves. These churches worked to maintain their class system of white man over all, including women. Once again, religion used to control. In addition, others spread false information that instilled fear into the white communities. They were told that if they didn't support slavery, the slaves would rise up and kill all the white people. Slaves had to be kept down and controlled. If they were set free, it would be the end of their lives as they knew it. Consequently, when the Southern army was formed, the men were fighting because God wanted them to, and to protect their families from slaves. Religion and fear used to control the masses. This in no way excuses their fight for slavery but in their minds, they were killing for God and their States. It doesn't seem possible that good people could be manipulated into something so unconscionable. Whats-more, it unfortunately, is not a new concept. It's happened before in history, and it may be happening right now. People believing and following, because it's God's way, and because they have a leader whipping them up to rise up, against what is right and caring for one another. Just look around today and see how the similarities apply.
Politically, slavery was encouraged, especially from the North, because of the need for cotton. More slavery meant an increase in much needed cotton, and money in their pockets. These white men may not have owned slaves in the North (although some did) and may have looked the other way, when people were being used, and treated as animals; but they were as guilty as the slave traders, and those who bought slaves for their own use.
The reading I did made things so much clearer to me. I understood why people who didn't have slaves supported and fought for slavery. They were brainwashed into it. This has happened time and time again throughout history and it happened then as well. I will continue to read and research about slavery in America. I am reading about how and where it began. I've always hated the thought of slavery and felt horribly for those who suffered. However, the little we learned in school did not prepare me for the truth. The truth about one man owning others and treating them like property, or worse, not as a brothers and sisters of humankind. The truth about why my ancestors fought as rebels honoring the rebel flag.
This is why black lives matter. This is information we all must learn. White people have kept themselves deaf and blind where civil rights are concerned. The black man isn't being tied to a whipping post today, but he is being shot and hanged. It is time to open our eyes? This atrocity did happen and not that many years ago. I am going to continue to read and understand what the people of color have gone through, and are continuing to go through. It's hard to believe that after four-hundred years things have continued, and have not been addressed. I pray that this is the time. That we will join together against bigotry and hate. That we will begin to understand not only the pain of black Americans, but the ignorance of white people in America. We must delve into thoughts and feelings, and listen to one another.
It is clear now that some of my ancestors fought to keep slavery going. That this horror is represented by the rebel flag. The flag doesn't stand for all the wonderful things southerners and the South represent. It represents the killing of people. Killing people who were fighting to be set free, the people who were bought and paid for. The people who were used and abused in every way. Human beings being persecuted and dehumanized. The statues of the Southern generals are not a part of the romantic South. They are of the men who wanted to continue slavery and fought to make that happen. I continue to love my southern relatives and the South. People are different there. They are warmer and friendly, than the Northerners I now identify with. There are also my younger relatives who work in schools. Loving children of all colors and teaching that love is the way. Change is slow. It does take time. Everyone, everywhere will not change. Which is why we must continue, black, brown, white and all others, to fight racism. Maybe now the words of Dr. King will begin to come true. A dream of love and unity for all.
Thank you for letting me share my feelings and my discoveries. I am an ignorant white woman trying to better understand the plight of my brothers and sisters of color. If I have overstepped myself in anything I have said here toward and about people of color, it was not intentional.
Remember Covid-19 will not last forever and Black Lives Matter.