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Imitation of Life

This post is in response to those readers of Unrefined, Sugar who asked to hear more about the segregated South of the 1950s.

“Put that magazine down, honey!” my mother whispered. “It’s for colored people.”

The year was 1948 and we were in the L&N Depot in Knoxville, Tennessee, waiting for a train to Chattanooga. When Mother stopped at the newsstand, I picked up what I thought was a copy of Life magazine. I hadn’t yet learned to read and had instead reached for Ebony which, with its red and white title, was easily mistaken for Life. This is my first memory of the so-called “separate but equal” society of racial segregation.

Ebony and Life magazine covers looked remarkably alike.

Since I couldn’t read, I could just as easily have ignored signs proclaiming White Only and Colored Only and attempted to use the wrong rest room or water fountain. Racial segregation was something I never noticed, much less thought about because, except for maids. janitors and yard men (as they were called then), African-Americans were invisible. They weren’t in my school, church, restaurants or parks and kept to themselves in their own neighborhoods. I didn’t think to ask questions. It’s just how things were. A perfect example of the insidiousness of racism in the 1950s were the minstrel shows staged in grammar schools. I thought smearing black grease paint on my face and using “Chitlin’ Circuit” dialect was silly fun. I never recognized the not-so-subtle message of racial inferiority. The same was true of the Whites Only/Colored Only signs on the Knoxville buses.

I was in my teens when I had the first of several racial epiphanies and began noticing peculiar protocols. When I took our maid to the bus, she sat in the front alongside me; my grandmother’s yard man, however, rode in the back. I never knew why. Again, it was just how things were. In 1960, I took a summer job in a drug store where one of my duties was jerking sodas and serving them to customers at ice cream tables. The pharmacist/owner said that if any black people ordered sodas that I was to be polite but should put their drinks in plastic cups instead of the usual fountain glass. The message was clear: Drink your soda outside. The first time that happened, I did as I was told. The second time, I decided to serve a couple of black teenagers at one of the tables. I was scared to death and sure I’d get fired if I got caught, but my boss was too busy filling prescriptions to see what I’d done. I included that seminal moment in Unrefined, Sugar.

My real awakening came in 1961 when I read To Kill a Mockingbird. “A little child shall lead them,” as the bible says, and as I followed the adventures of Jim and Scout Finch, I finally “got” the injustice of segregation and a system that was in no way “separate but equal.” At the time, I remember being glad that Harper Lee, the author, was from Alabama. Latent Southern guilt was morphing into a very real, very uncomfortable phenomenon. My eyes were further opened during summer trips to New York City where I learned first-hand that the North was far from the perfectly integrated society I’d been led to believe. (Today’s headlines are tragic proof that American racism remains a national bane.) I also learned that Dixie didn’t invent segregation. Like slavery, it was a national practice until it migrated to the South to die. Its collapse under the civil rights movement was hardly overnight and certainly didn’t happen everywhere at once.

Today the Etowah Train Station is a National Landmark.

In 1963, when I was a student at Georgia Tech, I often took the train home to Knoxville. While waiting in the newly integrated waiting room at Atlanta’s Terminal Station, I noticed a young black woman carrying the same textbook as myself. She was a student at Spelman College, and after commiserating about our mutual curricula, we sat together on the train. Things were fine until we changed trains in Etowah, Tennessee, and found ourselves in segregated facilities. We had to sit in our “assigned sections” until we got back on the train where we continued without incident. Such was the surreal world of segregation.

Xernona Clayton, Program Director Johnny Johnson and I hear Julian Bond, Atlanta Hungry Club, 1970.

My education continued after I transferred to Georgia State University. I joined classmates doing volunteer work for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and by chance got to shake hands with Dr. Martin Luther King. It was a moment I will never forget, and my first encounter with near palpable greatness. After graduation in 1969, I worked as art director for the Atlanta Model Cities Program, a U. S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) program. The staff was three quarters African-American, so I was in the racial minority for the first time. My boss was Xernona Clayton, a celebrated civil rights activist and close friend of the King family who took me under her wing. I cannot imagine a more valuable mentor. I’ve never forgotten the day she took me to Ebenezer Baptist Church on the first anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination where I was privileged to hear his father preach. Later that year I was invited to create a program for a testimonial honoring his parents.  It remains one of my cherished possessions.

My program design for the Kings.

I worked for H. U. D. until 1971 when I moved to New York City where I lived for two decades and began writing novels. Xernona would become the most powerful African-American woman at CNN, win two Emmys and found the prestigious Trumpet Awards. She visited when she was in town, and I always called on her when I was in Atlanta. It’s admittedly an unusual friendship that, owing to time and circumstance, was odds on to fail. In the racially charged Sixties, it was unthinkable that white man could work for a black woman in the deep South, but Xernona had a ready explanation. “We had so much going against us,” she said, “that our only option was to become good friends.” Almost half a century later, she’s still right.

With Xernona, Atlanta, July 2018

 

5 Comments

  1. David Roman
    Jul 31, 2018

    I enjoyed that little peek into your past. David

  2. Richard Sutton
    Jul 31, 2018

    Thanks for sharing those experiences. They reveal the sad legacy in such intimate detail that I wish every American could also see how this has invaded our very souls. While I never experienced segregation, firsthand, my parents told stories when I was very young, of their time in Galveston: seeing it and dealing with the strange behavior racism forced upon them. When they grew up, in the Northwest and Mountain West, it was much more hidden, but still always there.

  3. Beverly Reep Cawrse
    Jul 31, 2018

    Excellent. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Liz
    Jul 31, 2018

    What a wonderful piece, Michael. Thanks for sharing these memories and photos. Everything you say rings so true, and surreal is the best way to describe it. I find myself using that term frequently these days as well…

  5. Mary Schroer
    Aug 13, 2018

    Thanks for sharing. I loved spending time with you this summer. Let’s do it again soon!

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