Sunday, March 13, 2011
I grew up in an all-white neighborhood.
It was not Wasp Town though. More than half the neighbors were Jewish, and the rest were Irish and Italian Catholics. They were the first generation to escape the city and come to the fresh air of the burbs. My father was no exception: Brooklyn boy, first generation to finish high school, and civil service. My mother was a grocer's daughter from northern Westchester, so all right, she wasn't really a city girl, but she lived in Brooklyn for the first few years of their marriage.
My mother explained to me once that there was a temple a few blocks away, and that the Jews lived around our street because they liked to be able to walk there. That's how she put it. They liked to. Another time she mentioned a family who believed they should not even flick a light switch on the Sabbath, but they could ask her to come turn on a light they had forgotten to leave on.
I didn't think much about it. Whatever. When you're a kid, plenty of things adults do are inexplicable.
Jeffrey the kid next door was my best friend until he moved away. Alan the boy a few houses down was my other best friend. Susie the girl directly behind was OK too.
I attended the parish school, St Catharine's. None of those kids went of course, but I made other school friends, and once I was good at riding a bike I could go see some of them too. They were not far away. I had a nice little world going.
Based on my experience I formed the idea that most people were either Catholic or Jewish. We learned in school that there were also Protestants, but I wasn't sure I had ever met one. I don't know at what age the light dawned, but I still remember my astonishment that I had figured this wrong.
I had to travel to learn a few more things.
One summer that I would guess was 1960, our family went to visit Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. It was a longer trip then than it would be now, because the Interstates were not all there yet. We had to use US 40 through Delaware and Maryland. We did have the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. We passed through downtown Washington DC on concrete-paved roads in the summer heat. I don't remember seeing Richmond, but looking at maps, I don't see how we would have avoided it.
We stayed at a motor hotel near Williamsburg, from which we could take a GM "old look" bus a short way to the historic district. Of course I remember the bus. It would stand in a shady place for us to board. There were pigeons on the pavement and when the bus started up we were concerned it would crush them, but of course they all moved safely out of reach.
The old Capitol, Bruton Parish Church, the green, re-enactors dressed in colonial clothing, kids posing for photos in the stocks, yeah yeah. Not what I want to tell you about.
At the motel pool, there were some people with dark skin. I knew they existed, and here they were. There was no shortage of them in New Jersey, but I wouldn't have seen them where I lived. Those fabulous fifties.
I was fascinated that the skin on their palms was not the same even shade of brown as the rest of their skin. Who would guess that without seeing it? What a sheltered life I had.
In Chuck Berry's autobiography Autobiography he recalled that when he was a kid someone down the street had ordered a new washing machine from Sears. His friends called to him to come see the strange looking man who was doing the delivery and installation. It was a white man. They had never seen one, living their lives within their St Louis neighborhood. I laughed when I read that because I had lived the same thing in reverse.
I want to give my parents credit for not teaching us racism. They were pretty conservative, but I don't remember any slurs against ethnic groups or races. They did believe in stereotypes. My father commented to little me once that a place we were going to was a Jewish store. That was a compliment. His stereotype was that Jews knew how to run stores. The merchandise would be good quality and we'd get good service, so he wanted to go there. It's a thin line from stereotype to prejudice. But there is a line.
Near Williamsburg is another historical site called Jamestown. Jamestown was the first long-term English settlement in the new world, from 1607, and it was populated for about a hundred years until the people moved inland to what would become Williamsburg. For its 350th anniversary, the National Park Service constructed visitor facilities at the site of the colonial landing, and Virginia constructed a state historical park on an adjacent site that had been the colonial capital. The Jamestown Festival in 1957 attracted many visitors including the Queen of England. We would arrive only a few years later.
At Jamestown Festival Park we looked at reconstructions of 17th century houses and replicas of the three ships that came from England. The ships were so small— that's what everyone says, and it's true. Then we had to use the facilities. And there I saw something I still cannot believe I saw.
The Commonwealth of Virginia, in a state park, provided for its citizens and guests not two but four restrooms:
I had never seen the last two phrases before. I tried to guess the meaning and could not. Everybody is a color. I was "flesh" color in Crayola crayons. What did this mean, "colored"? I asked my mother.
She said something like, "it's what they do here". She did not defend it, and the tone of her voice made it sound like she felt like it was something out of her control that she wished was not there. "It's what they do here."
Williamsburg must have been a little ahead of the curve in Virginia. Maybe it was the Northern foundation money behind it. From the pool to this the same day. Just a needless insult, done for no reason but to put people down, and a fair amount of extra expense, to put up the walls to form two extra rooms.
Oh, outside the building were two water fountains. The one with the cooler, and then the pipe running five feet off from it to the other one, mounted a foot lower and under a sign that read "colored".
I was older before I understood what I had seen and what it meant.
But I know I saw it. In my lifetime. I am testifying. It was real. Not some story people tell you, not a dystopian fantasy in a movie. I saw it with my own eyes. It was real. I won't try to sell you anything about racism being dead, but at least we don't do this to people any more.
All of the Jamestown Festival site was renewed years ago. Now called Jamestown Settlement, it has all new buildings, and even the three ships were replaced by more accurate replicas. You can't see any trace there of what I saw. I hope some other site has preserved a wall of four doors like that one. So we don't forget.