Sunday, September 27, 2009

Thoughts about The Pain and the Promise

You will see this book listed on my book list. Mary Beth found it by "accident". This will be a long post as it is my reaction to what I read. I start by saying I am astounded that so much could have been going on in my home town, about which I knew very little. This book documents the people involved, both white and black, in the efforts to bring about integration. I knew very few of the black people, and almost all of the white. These were my parents friends, their children were my friends, and their sons my occasional dates. In my childhood, Tallahassee had about 25 thousand people in residence. Today is another world, totally. I did know that were sit-ins at the lunch counters downtown and boycotts of the buses, but had no idea of police brutality or jailing, etc. The editor of our local paper was very clever in what he did and did not print, and even that information was filtered through my dad. I had no idea the Episcopal clergy at FSU along with other clergy persons were deeply involved.

Since I lived both in and out of Tallahassee during the 17 or so years it took to bring about the end of segregation, and since Tallahassee is my town, I think I can offer insight into the years I was actually there. I was born in 1931. The only pertinent happening in my memory was from my early childhood when mamma and my nursemaid would take me downtown. I always called her Addie Pye Poogie since I tripped over her last name - Pryor. I can remember always wanting to know, and loudly, why Addie had a different bathroom than I did and I wanted to go and see it. More, I wanted to use it, because Iloved Addie. I also wanted to taste the water in 'her' fountain and see if it tasted different from that in 'mine'. I was an unusually curious child and 'why' was always my favorite word. My mother shushed me as best she could. I don't think she felt strongly about the situation, but was anxious that I not attract the attention of the people (white) around us who would probably wonder why Mary was raising a child who would ask these unsuitable questions.

In 1948, when the first 'sit-ins' started at the corner drug store downtown, I was a junior at Leon High school. Many of my friends went daily downtown to that boycotted drugstore for a coke after school. I didn't go, since my $2.00 monthly allowance didn't buy too many cokes and because I was expected at home to help with the housework. When I heard what was happening, I asked my mom why the store didn't just sell the cokes to whomever wanted them, and when they were finished they would leave. It made perfect sense to me at the time. She again shushed me and told me it would never work. Mom was not born into the carefully honed society of Tallahassee, but married into it. It was a very stilted, rigid society, but she enjoyed it and never understood why I didn't. I didn't run into the bus boycotts, because it cost money to ride the bus, and I usually didn't have any. As a child I was sometimes given a couple of nickels for rides back and forth to FSU for my piano lesson, but usually we walked. Just guessing, now, I would imagine it was near to a couple of miles each way, but we had always walked everywhere we went, so it didn't bother us. I heard about it however and, again, didn't see what difference places on the bus mattered. I didn't voice this to mother,however, because I knew she was fearful I would blurt out something that might make people ostracize her and dad.

Daddy worked in the Lewis State Bank, and I worked there from 1949-1953, all the summers, Easter and Christmas vacations from University. This helped finance my education. I was honored, when I graduated, to have the bank offer me a regular job - honored and very surprised - I am terrible with numbers. Daddy and I walked to work, back home for a noon main meal, back to the bank for the afternoon. I don't remember him ever mentioning the subject of integration to me so I have no sure knowledge of how he felt - but I can guess. My own grandfather stopped going to church for fear some unknown black person might show up to worship with us. How Christian of him! It sounds ridiculous now to say I simply didn't know what was happening regarding jailing, etc. The newspaper went into daddy's hands and the rest of us seldom saw it. Not much radio and certainly no TV existed. In the bank we had both black and white customers and never had any problem.

From 1951-1953, I lived in Gainesville, Florida, attending the University of Florida, from which I graduated in 1953. Later in 1953, I went about half way down the state to Citrus County to work in the county schools as a speech-language pathologist. When I arrived, one of the first questions from my new county superintendent was whether I would mind working in the black (segregated) schools as well as the white ones. I told him I had no problem with this. And I didn't. The only problem I saw was that the black schools were pathetically inadequate, as were the teachers. It is a miracle anyone ever learned anything there. But God is in the miracle business, and children who really want to learn will usually do so even in meager circumstances - and some of them did. I taught in a central hall there, with the only wood stove in the school, or on an unheated school bus, or in other inadequate places for teaching to take place. The white schools were not much better - I used freezing auditoriums or broom closets, or the ends of halls.

After the two years in Citrus County, I moved to Atlanta to work in a residential school for speech/language impaired children. I was there for four years, and had two children during that time. I returned to Tallahassee in 1959 to live with my parents and my children. I went to work in the local schools in my specialty, and in a still segregated situation. Once I was called to the black Miccosukee school to evaluate a high 'at risk' child and went gladly. I asked several people in authority, several times, if they wouldn't like me to cover the black schools. Each time, I was given an emphatic 'NO'. But my repeated questioning, I like to think, caused the school board to hire a black specialist for those schools. She was from the north and I was impressed by her education and training. She, in turn, was not impressed by the schools she was serving. Several times, she and I met in secret, at her schools, as she found she could not even understand the children when they spoke. I also tested with her. We never told anyone, because I knew they would tell me I couldn't go. On the theory that it's easier to say "I'm sorry" than to ask permission and have it denied, I just did it. Now, I don't think anyone cared enough to even see what we were doing. I sometimes wonder if I was ignored - maybe my readiness to go and help would have caused the house of cards to fall sooner than it did.

During this time period, I employed a caregiver for my children while I worked, as mother informed me she had no intention of raising my children. Well, ok. I insisted on registering Genie into the Social Security program, and we both paid for it. When I found that she could neither read nor write, I taught her to write her name so she could sign official documents with something other than "X". It was a real labor for us both, but she was really proud and lived to be grateful for the money I made her put into social security.

In 1964, I remarried and moved to Texas to live. My new husband asked me if I had any prejudice against Hispanics - I asked how I could when I had never met one? It turns out I didn't and don't. When we returned to live on the beach island in north Florida in 1991, I taught in both the Leon and Wakulla County school systems for 6-7 years in completely integrated schools. No problems there, but I did have to spend some time with my black students convincing them that they were really and truly just as good as anyone else and could, with work, be successful in their lives. It takes work for anyone to be successful. In 1999 I re-retired from work and we returned to Texas to be near our six children and their families.

One of the problems of integration, when it first happened was the fate of many of the black teachers. Their educational backgrounds were so deprived by the system in which they were educated, that they often lacked a store of knowledge common to more fortunate teachers. They were helped by all the teachers, and most of them made the transition and went on to be teachers in an integrated system.

In retrospect, I was raised in an atmosphere with a large strain of fear in it - fear of black people. No one was ever specific to me, but I was taught that Tallahassee was 60% black (not true) and that the black people might rise up and riot and hurt us. Silly as that sounds, this was a pervasive fear, and fear was all around us - thick as molasses. I think it was a justified fear and that the people who felt it knew perfectly well they were doing wrong, but they seemed to think they needed some group to whom they could feel superior. There is a cause for this, even if it isn't a reason - when you consider that we were also raised to be very very angry about the treatment of the south by the Carpetbaggers after the Civil War. Silly, you say, and years after the fact, yet the agricultural south felt the revenge of the Carpetbaggers more than anyone else, and Tallahassee is and was an agricultural area. Of the entire south, these farmers suffered more than any other group. Tallahassee was also one rather small town, surrounded by even smaller towns, much as San Angelo is today, in Texas. The only connection we had with the 'outside' world was every two years when the legislature came to town. Tallahassee was busy then - these men (yes, all men) came either to work or to party and plenty of both went on. So, in this atmosphere of isolation, there ws no one in town or near town with the sophistication to say, basically, 'hey, you folks just get over yourselves and get on with the world after the war (often called the 'war of northern aggression'). But Tallahassee had not forgotten the aftermath of the Civil War, to the point that it had seemingly become part of the DNA of their memories. They feasted on it. There is a hatred there, going back many,many years. And remember, the south is the only part of the United States on whose land a lost war has been fought. From the people I talk to now, this fear and hatred is finally dissipating. God knows, I hope so. It is past time we stopped looking back and looked forward. There will always be people who are so inadequate that the will search for someone to whom they can feel superior. Dumb as this is, it will probably always be true. But true integration of the public schools has happened in Tallahassee, of all places. Since there was no busing, some of the schools were largely still black and poor white. To the credit of the school board, they took the worst of these schools and inaugurated an IB (International Baccalaureate) program there, and it did draw many students with fine minds to the schools. If you get to know people it's harder to hate (or fear) them than it is if they remain a faceless group. Remember that. And if I remember fear, I shudder to think what the black people felt. I thank God daily for Martin Luther King for teaching peaceful resistance instead of taking up arms. Talk about a war on US soil! It would have been a massacre.

Another thing worth mentioning here is that our beloved governor, Leroy Collins blew his (very, very good) chance ultimately at the presidency of this country by going on public radio and telling Florida that the time for peaceful integration had come. Redneck Florida just blew him off for that, even though he was speaking his conscience and his conviction - as well as the obvious truth. To his credit, I am sure he felt it worth while to speak the truth as he saw it, but I grieve for the potential loss to our country. He could have been one of our greatest presidents. (redneck literally means you work out in the sun daily,and your neck is always burned from it.)

Once, during the years I worked at the bank, I was at a window in the savings department. My work there changed every two weeks as other employees went on vacation and I took their places. This particular day I could not balance my cash drawer at the end of the day, but was short. Happily, we were not required to make this up. The next day, the coach from Florida A&M University (then a non- integrated black school) came in and spoke to an officer. He was well known and regarded by the entire community. His message was that a man he knew came to him and said "that lady in the first window at the bank gave me too much money in change yesterday, and I am afraid I'll get into trouble if I to take it back". The coach was returning my shortfall. Just imagine fearing trouble for doing the honest thing. Their fear must have vastly exceeded ours, and ours made us pretty uncomfortable - I feel sure the discomfort came from knowing we were wrong, wrong, wrong. May God forgive us all.

In retrospect, if I am not prejudiced against people of other colors, am I prejudiced against anyone? I don't think it is prejudice, but frustration and exasperation I feel at the people who would like to kill me because my God is not their God, but I suspect their motives are prejudicial. Again, education is what is needed. I also am appalled at anyone who does not want to learn new things and do a better job of being a good citizen. Education is out there and it's free - go and get some and keep learning all of your life!

Living in a town (San Angelo) which is much like Tallahassee in its relative isolation and being surrounded by many smaller towns, what I believe will keep us clear of what happened in Tallahassee and other places, is communication. The internet has opened the entire world to us all, and we can't put the genie back in the bottle -although places like Iran have tried. We are more connected to each other than ever before. There are dangers here for us, but the benefits are incalculable. Thanks to whomever developed this kind of communication.

Thanks to those who managed to wade through this trip back in memory. It was illuminating for me to write it.


Barbara said...

Thank you, thank you for sharing this on your blog. You have given amazing insight into what happened and the lessons we should all learn. The most powerful lesson being that fear is at the root of prejudice and hatred. Love, Barbara

GreatSally said...

Absolutely riveting information. As a person raised in the mid-mid-midwest in the 40's and 50's I cannot even imagine life in the South ... some days I still can't.
By the early 50's the schools in Milwaukee were finding more and more seriously undereducated black kids entering the system.
Thanks for sharing. I learned a lot.
Love you!

Cathy said...

Loved reading this -- we banked at Lewis State Bank!

I remember the first black child who attended our "white" school - I was in fourth grade so that was the mid sixties.

I, too, wanted to know if the water in the colored fountain tasted the same in the public library.

Mary Beth said...

This rocks! I'm so proud of you for writing it...I know you worked hard and put a great deal of thought in. I am grateful that you are my mama!

MJ said...

Thanks to all of you who slogged through the whole thing. It was not easy to read the book, and took prayer and thought to think all of this through to the truth. I learned so much with this exercise - thank you MB for 'accidentally finding' this book. No accidents here.

Songbird said...

I'm grateful to hear your story; thank you so much for writing it.

Norma said...

A very interesting story. Thanks for sharing it. And now we have an African American president. You have seen a lot of changes. This president is also afraid of news coverage that gives the whole story, so what we are seeing is not so much race struggles, as power struggles, fear of not maintaining control.