2015-04-28 / Columns

Welcome To My World

We Know Segregation By Its First Name
by Larry VanDeventer

BW and I live in suburban west Indianapolis in Plainfield. We are born and bred Hoosiers, Caucasians. I grew up on a farm in Highland Township, Greene County, Indiana. She grew up on a farmlet of 10 acres north of Worthington. Her dad worked in town. I am not going to say how long ago that was because I don’t want to get into a fight with BW for revealing her age. We met in high school sometime near the middle of the last century and now you know the rest of the story.

Two women were discussing age and birthdays. Ann asked, “When is your birthday?” Lynn replied, “In June.” “June, huh, which day?” “Well it is on the 18th.” Pressing harder, Ann said, “Now we have established that your birthday is June 18, but what year?” Lynn smiled through her teeth and replied, “Every year.”

We married a couple years out of high school and I continued in college while she worked. After about a year of marriage, I began to serve my military obligation in the U.S. Navy. After boot camp at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, Chicago, I was assigned to the U.S. Naval Mine Base, Charleston, South Carolina. The deep south. The people there were still fighting the Civil War. They could not say the names Grant or Sherman without sneering with disgust.

Racial segregation still flourished in the South that Rhett and Scarlet knew. There were white and black water fountains in bus stations and on the streets. White students populated the public schools and blacks were relegated elsewhere. In movie theaters, if allowed in, blacks were required to sit in the balcony as quiet as a country church on Friday morning. Blacks could not eat in restaurants with whites. They were required to eat elsewhere. The thought of intermarriage would bring talk of hanging, shootings and all-out war between the races. Black residents were limited to living in the ghetto and if they worked as maids, gardeners or servants they had to be out of white town before sundown under penalty of law and fear of reprisals. Churches were likewise segregated. Local whites used highly inflammatory words and denigrations when referring to blacks.

After that we lived a short time in Louisiana and then in Arkansas before moving back to Indiana in the ‘60s. We know segregation by its first name.

Last week we spent some time in Montgomery, Alabama as part of a two-week spring trip. In February 1861 Montgomery became the first capital of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis presiding. It moved to Richmond, Virginia, to represent a clear threat to the White House. We visited the information center, the statehouse, the renown Baptist church where Martin Luther King preached, the Hank Williams museum and other attractions.

One of the must-see places was the Rosa Parks Museum. We know all about that noble lady. She used one word in 1955 when asked to get up and give her seat to a white rider. The word was “No.” Her courage ignited the Civil Rights revolution that did not end until that piece of paper crossed the desk of President Lyndon Johnson ending segregation. We bought our tickets and waited. The doors opened and we entered the anteroom to begin the tour. About 20-plus black elementary students came in to learn their history which was altogether fitting and proper. The docent arranged for them to sit as she talked to them. They behaved as thousands of other elementary children around the world. They comported themselves most properly. The room continued to fill with 95 percent black patrons and about six Caucasians including BW and me. We were seated in a sort of “L” shaped arrangement. Seating was first-come, first-served.

As the room filled two elderly black ladies entered. Noting this I stood and motioned to one of them to take my seat. This is what a gentleman does wherever he is. She smiled at me and nodded “No, thank you.” I motioned again. She respectfully declined and squeezed in another place with some people she knew. I motioned to the second lady who was struggling to walk and it was evident she would have trouble standing. If I say a person is elderly, write it down that person is elderly. I know elderly. Some of my best friends are elderly. I know how they act, how they talk, how they walk and even how they sit and get up. She graciously accepted my seat.

As I said earlier 95 percent of the attendees were African Americans. They seated themselves as they entered. The group was mixed male and female and was tilted toward the over fifty set. Many members of the group were men. I sat beside a black man. None stood to offer these two ladies a seat. The irony of this setting did not escape me.

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