Monday, May 02, 2005

SEARCY ’46-’56 – Part 14

Chapter Nine

Tom Pry

Race Relations

I had a passing thought to be facetious about this, and dismiss the whole subject with a 3-word paragraph: “There were none.” (Omar S., note: I spelled it right, and know what it means, too).

Instead, let me begin this piece with two TRUE stories:

STORY #1 Shortly after moving down here in the summer of 1953, my born-and-bred-y**k** father was reading the Want Ads in the Arkansas Gazette. At one point, he called for our attention, then quoted from the paper: “Wanted, boy 18-50, for ….” and, wonderingly, “If that’s what they call a ‘boy’ down here, what in hell does it take to be considered a ‘man’?”

STORY #2 In 1965, I was visiting a friend on mine, in Chicago. His office was downtown, since he worked for the legendary Earl Nightingale (the original “Sky King” on radio, for the record).

Having an hour or so to kill in the middle of a quiet afternoon, I went into a handy Walgreen’s on Michigan Avenue. My waitress at the otherwise-empty counter was an attractive colored (we were a few years away from the term “black”) lady of about my age. When she brought me my coffee, I commented, “Do I detect a faint note of the south in that voice?” Um-hmm.


“A place you’ve never heard of.”

“Try me.”

Yep, you guessed it: Searcy. We found it amusing that, in the middle of a city of about 3 million people, two people from Searcy should stumble across each other.

As if that weren’t stretching credulity to the breaking point all by itself, it turns out she was one of the daughters of Ollie Mae Dockens – the only black person I’d ever met in Searcy.

Sure, I’d seen a few “colored people” from a distance around town, but to actually KNOW one, to speak with one, it just wasn’t done.

The more I thought about my encounter with this nice lady, the sadder I got. Assuming she was more-or-less a contemporary of mine, this means that this well-spoken, intelligent, and attractive lady and I had gone to the same school system, less than a mile from each other, for several years without ever meeting or knowing each other.

This due to a ludicrous doctrine called “separate-but-equal.”

Yeah, sure.

Kids today, black and white, have no conception of what it meant to be black in the south, Searcy being no exception.

(In fairness, everyplace has its prejudices. I had a girlfriend once who was half Tarascan – Mexican – Indian. As a child in Boulder, Colorado, she remembers leaning over to get a drink of water from a fountain, when a “white” woman slammed the girl’s face into the mouthpiece on the fountain and demanded to know where in hell she – a Mexican kid --got the nerve to drink out of a “white person’s fountain.” The fact that the child was also half-German was not evident).

Black men, regardless of age, had to accept being called “Boy” by whites, no matter what the relative ages of the two people involved.

The Bald Knob train station had both “Whites Only” and “Colored” waiting rooms, the stationmaster’s and baggage office separating the two, which were at opposite ends of the small building, lest one infect the other, apparently.

Businesses – and governmental buildings -- with water fountains for their clientele labeled the fountains the same as MoPac labeled their waiting rooms. Invariably, it seems, the one for whites was run through a cooler, the colored – if, indeed, there was a second one – was NOT run through a cooler.

At the Rialto Theatre, us little darlings sat downstairs, the colored kids sat up in the balcony.

Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

Mind you, none of this was done out of meanness. It was Just the Way Things Were.

My first “steady” in high school was cute as hell, if not an intellectual giant. Her parents were wonderful, and took me right into their family. Her dad was what, in later years, I’ve described as a “thinking bigot,” the term coming about because he wasn’t blindly prejudiced. Instead, he could explain exactly why he felt a certain way about things concerned with separation of the races – and was secure enough in his beliefs that he could hold philosophical discussions on the point with the mouthy 15-year-old kid who was dating his daughter, without either of us descending either into anger or “.. because I said so, that’s why!” irrationality.

Early one Sunday afternoon, he and I were sitting in the livingroom, going over the subject, while Steady and mom were cleaning up the remains of Sunday dinner (that, too, was The Way It Was). Specifically, I was talking the point that school integration was not only harmless, but inevitable. Dad was taking the opposite tack.

In the middle of all this, Steady came bustling through, on her way from Point A to Point B, and heard just enough to stop dead, put her balled up fists on her cute little hips, and loudly announced, “I’ll never go to school with niggers, never!”

In what I thought was a reasonable tone, I asked her, “Why not?”

Her mouth locked open, and the look of puzzlement on her face was so apparent and ludicrous that even her Dad started to crack up.

No one had ever asked her that question before, and she didn’t at all have an answer … nor did she attempt to invent one, just shook her head and stomped out of the room with what little dignity she had left.

If you can beg, borrow, or steal a copy of the Original Cast or Soundtrack albums of “South Pacific,” listen to the song, “You’ve Got to be Taught.” It sums it all up very nicely.

And it was all so pointless.

Everyone knows about the big Central High School flap in the autumn of 1957. There are a couple of things that preceded it that you probably DON’T know.

In the late summer of 1955, I had to go up to Fayetteville, to the University, for a special one-day class. While there, I paid a courtesy call on the Fayetteville band director. He was getting ready to take the band down to the football field for marching practice, and I went with them. The football team was just finishing up on the field, and I took a look. Then I took a SECOND look, before asking the band director, “Uh .. do I see some black faces out there?”

“Yep. This is our second season of integration.”

Any problems? “Well, last year we had a couple of teams that said they weren’t about to play against niggers. We pointed out to them that we’d be there and, if they weren’t, then we’d win by forfeit, and thanks for the freebie. That ended the problem: they all showed up.”

56-57 found me in Conway, attending what is now UCA, but was then Arkansas State Teachers College (it started out as Arkansas Normal School, and then we came along).

In December, the news quickly flashed through the student population: second semester would see niggers in the 700-strong (a new record!) A.S.T.C. student population.

I think the only thing that kept things from getting truly ugly was the fact that we still had a goodly number of Korean War vets in our student body. The Armed Forces of the United States had been integrated in 1948 by order of President Harry Truman, so these guys knew the truth of the matter: people are people, and skin color doesn’t even rank second on the list of reasons for not liking someone.

The younger, more inexperienced students concocted all kinds of rude-to-gruesome schemes during the interim between announcement and arrival of the handful of day students who drove up from Little Rock every day, and stayed huddled together for self-preservation when not in class.

None of these schemes ever happened, and we had no problems with integration, when it finally came, on the A.S.T.C. campus, because the most rabid redneck had no trouble seeing that these were just very nervous kids, gathering their courage and their hopes in order to get an education.

And, it just occurred to me, in using the campus snack bar/book shop under the auditorium, they also integrated the eating place – EIGHT MONTHS before Orval Faubus showed the state’s ass to the world.

In looking back, I don’t know whether to feel guilty or not. Of my 8-1/2 years of grammar school, 7-1/2 of them had been in integrated (i.e., y**k**) schools. If anyone was a minority, it was me: a VERY blonde, slightly bucktoothed, quite freckled kid with a faintly southern accent … in a neighborhood of Armenians, Jews, Italians, Blacks, etc. As Woody Allen said about his parents sending him to an interdenominational day camp, “They beat up on me without regard for race, creed, or religion.”

I guess I learned early on that, if you were going to hate someone, do it because of their sins as an individual, not because of their involuntary membership in one of any number of racial, ethnic, or religious groups. (The only religious “prejudices” I recall were, first, jealousy because the Catholic and Jewish kids got so many holidays and, second, envy of the happy, musical sounds on Sunday morning coming from the first black church in the neighborhood, built in an abandoned garage half a block down the street).

(While we’re on the subject, I tried to join my peers by joining the Chicago Jewish Boys Club. With regrets, I was rejected. I salved my feelings by announcing I was a member of the Chicago Jewish Goys Club, “goy” being a Jewish word for a non-Jew).

Guilt? Why didn’t I say or do more?

I assuage the guilt by realizing that, except for the above mentioned incidents, the subject of race relations just never came up. I couldn’t even exercise the same politenesses with the colored that I did with whites – because, with one sterling exception, I had absolutely no contact with them.

That one exception was Ollie Mae Dockens.

For many of us, she was the only member of the “Colored Community” we ever met. She was a good representative.

Ollie Mae worked in the school cafeteria, and made such world-class cornbread (among other things), that the Citizen still occasionally reprints her recipe (a bit of sugar in the batter).

And she was a NICE person, cheerful and giving, strict but smiling.

If any of the little rednecks in our class had tried giving her a bad time, there would have been no end of volunteers to pound some sense into the little bigot’s head.

And this brings us, finally, around to True Story #3.

Not too many years ago, while working at Alltel in Little Rock, I was telling True Story #2 to a young black secretary with the company, lamenting along the way the friendships that never happened because of this “separate but equal” nonsense.

Herself a graduate of SHS, she listened politely, then smiled and said, “That would’ve been my Aunt Alice in Chicago.” HUH? “I’m Ollie Mae’s granddaughter.” Oh.

Truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction, and race relations as they were prior to the 60s now seem like very strange fiction.

Let us hope the day comes when nobody at all can remember it, let alone believe it.

(Series originally published late 2003/early 2004 on the old site).


Post a Comment

<< Home