Saturday, August 04, 2012

The "White Experience" during Segregation.

African American friends tell us it is difficult for white people to understand the "Black experience." This was the phrase my husband and I heard over and over from Black friends in the Fifties and Sixties in church and civic groups and in our home when African Americans visited with us. It is true. This lack of understanding by any of us who have not walked in the shoes of another is the stuff of which hostility and even riots are made!

Perhaps some will find it interesting to hear something of the "White Experience." Of course none of us, whatever the color our skin happens to be, can speak for all. I was born in 1923, when the South was still trying to recover from the destruction of the Civil War and the beginnings of the Great Depression.
In our town many Caucasian workers worked from "sunup to sundown," twelve hour days for a meager living in one of the textile mills or anywhere they could find employment.

Cotton farmers all over the South during the Great Depression and the Boll weevil epidemic were giving up on trying to make a living in farming. My older cousin Aubrey Simms's told me he remembered as a boy of six, the very night in 1922 when my father told his father about his decision to sell his farm and move to town. Aubrey said his Dad replied, "Uncle Wilson, I will go to share cropping before I will raise my family in a Mill town."

Apparently my father, a hard working and intelligent Christian man in failing health, thought this his only option. I am told he worked in the Old Porterdale mill until he became disabled. He was bedridden for over a year and died when I was nine.

Most of the Black men we saw were the collectors of garbage or worked as unskilled laborers in one of the cotton factories. Textile Mills had been moved South for cheap black and white labor after the Civil War. They found plenty. Many southerners, both Black and White can point back to the hard working "Cotton Mill" experience as a part of their inheritance.


Many Black women worked as cooks and housekeepers and in child care for the poor White workers.

Sad to say, we each had our own schools and churches. However many of our schools had been destroyed and school tuition and books for high school and college were beyond he means of most of the people, Black and White.

It was customary and considered proper to socialize with ones own race. Thus Black workers come into the homes of White people through the back door to distinguish it as a service rather than a social call.

Class distinctions were also important, but were not always so obvious, nor so rigid. As Margaret Mitchell had Rhett Butler to illustrated in Gone with the Wind, with white skin, one could possibly make money by hook or by crook and sooner or later get legal and/or "respectful" and move up the social ladder. Possible but not likely?

The white experience was that many, if not most, white men and women were also poorly educated (or schooled...some, like my father was "self-educated") and worked 12-hour days. In those days, it took both paychecks to survive. Most children stopped school and went to work as soon as they were old enough. The burning of schools and churches in the South after Sherman's march through Georgia at the end of the Civil War had taken its toll.

When I came on the scene, this was the custom. This I saw and pretty much accepted in my childhood as "just the way things are." We had no social contact with African-American people at all. We had never heard the term “segregation, "integration "nor "discrimination.”

All the black people we knew were servants who seemed accepting of their status. As a child, I had noticed that Mama always treated kindly the "Colored" women who sometimes worked in our kitchen. My intelligent and hard working widowed mother worked as a weaver in the Cord Weave Shop of Osprey Mill in our small town. The "Cord Weave Shop" made heavy cloth for use in tent making, to reinforce auto, truck and tank tires among other such uses.

In those days it was a common practice for the Colored or Negro cook to eat at a "cook table" rather than with the family. A cook table was a table on the side of the wall where we mixed and rolled our bread, etc. The dining table was in the center of the room and sometimes nearer the stove and therefore warmer. Mama would always ask the Black lady, much to her seeming dismay, to sit at the dining table with us in cold weather. I suppose this seemed the same kind of paternalism that white workers dealt with from textile officials who gave out Christmas bags of candy, fruit and nuts to everyone in town - black and white - and who built schools and churches and tried to be good to all their "mill hands."

The textile mills jobs also required feet, eyes and brain but the workers were referred to as "hands." We referred to Black people as "Colored people" or "Negroes" – often with the Southern pronunciation "Negra" close to the sound of the "N" word. We were corrected in school (and sometimes in home) and told to fully pronounce the last vowel, "Negro." We thought it would be insulting to say "black, " as in "old black Joe". And it was considered ignorant by educated Caucasians then as now it is considered insulting and criminal to say the "N" word.

Incidentally "color," as on a "color chart" is not a good way, in my judgement to define any of us. I have never seen anyone with "black" skin. On a color chart, skin might be discribed as dark brown to light beige. Neither have I seen "white" skin. Caucasian might accurately be described as having light ivory to dark beige skin. ( But snow is "white" and it is no compliment nor insult for Christians to be told they can be washed "whiter than snow." We are taking about " soul" washing not skin.) Perhaps one day we will describe ourselves as either Caucasian or Negroid, instead of the inaccurate description of "Black" or "White" or the divisive "European American" and "African American" ?

Being from a Christian family, I never saw any African American person being physically mistreated. But in addition to many kindnesses, I also observed some indignities against them. Whether we are African American or Caucasian, many of us are sad to know that our intelligent, hard working and good parents and/or grandparents had little to no educational opportunities in the south until after World War II.
When I was a young teen, an attractive and bright young "Negro" girl came into our kitchen and said something to me (not to my mother) to let me know coming into our house by the back door was discrimination rather than just "custom." I had never before thought about this.

My husband Charles, 4 years older than I, remembered one young Negro man having rocks thrown at him as he ran away from “stealing” some apples from an apple orchard. Charles was a young boy at the time and didn't know for sure, but his fear was that the young man might have been seriously injured. Remembering these kinds of treatment against African Americans is tragic. This made a profound impression on Charles, although he did not know the people who owned the Apple tree or any of the people throwing rocks at the young man as he ran away down a railroad tract. Charles said he stood there as a little boy feeling afraid and ashamed and knowing in his heart the horror of the situation.

Charles and I often talked about this. This kind of behavior was so foreign to the Christian concept and the experience of Peter and Cornelius in the Bible that God is no respecter of persons. Even earlier, the Jewish law of gleaning taught that even a sojourner and a stranger was to be cared for and allowed to pick grain or fruit to eat from others' fields as he passed by.

Yes, there has been world wide slavery and class distinctions from the beginning of written history. It was still a fact in Bible times but never condoned in the Bible as some have claimed. After all, the major celebration in the Old Testament is the Passover of the Hebrew slaves out of Egyption slavery into freedom.


When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King, slavery was already a world wide practice along with “survival of the fittest.”

As G.K. Chesterson said, "the end of slavery was begun when Jesus died … although it took the church years to become powerful enough to defeat the powerful slave trade."

The South was only beginning to recover from the Civil War when the economic depression hit. After World War II, when things began to get better, and Charles and I became committed Christians, we spoke out for Civil Rights long before it became a politically correct posture for whites to take. We took some licks for this stance from those who did not see the need for such "quick change."

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. , A gifted Christian minister began to "speak out" with conviction, many Caucasians became informed and educated enough to join him in his fight to the death. Then in the Methodist Church we had white men and women like "Mrs M. E. Tilly" and others who held Methodist feet to the fire until most of us woke up and saw the evil of segregation.

In the 60's my husband, Charles Shaw was pastor of Trinity Methodist Church. Silas McComb had been the church caretaker for many years. His wife died and Mr. McComb asked my husband to participate in her funeral at their church, the Metropolitan Church, an African- American Methodist Church. Miss Lottie Duncan, our Trinity Methodist Church secretary, and I went to the funeral. The people in the church welcomed us warmly. I observed they read from the same Bible and sang from the same Methodist Hymnal as we did. Why were we not friends and co-workers?

Perhaps we can recover from some of the bitterness when we realize the issue of slavery is not altogether a Black and White issue! Less than 8 percent of the people in the South had “owned” slaves. Most were white but a few wealthy Black people and a few Native Americans also owned slaves.

History reveals there were white Abolitionists who gave their life for freedom and Civil Rights from the beginning of African people being sold by some Black Africans to some White slavers. From my own experience, I know of many white people who worked and prayed tirelessly for the end of segregation and for equal rights for all people. Today we see some White and some Black "racists." Hopefully it is a minority and most of us want the best life possible for all people.

47 comments:

Carol said...

Great post - as always. Your memories and insight are wonderful to read.

Joan said...

This is a very interesting and enlightening read. It is so hard for one generation to really understand the prevailing ideas that guide another generation -- and most people tend to judge based on prevailing norms of whatever generation that they themselves are part of.

beth said...

This is really a great read. Its a good lesson that I wish more would read.

Anonymous said...

Excellent, as usual! You have such a reasoned and thoughtful way of approaching such difficult subjects. Debi

janice said...

As usual, your insights are very perceptive and your wisdom and understanding extraordinary. I remember being taught by my Southern mother to say "Negro" (pronounced carefully -- rather than any sloppy version of the word) as a term of respect! I am thinking of sending this to a Negro friend who was offended that a history professor had a confederate flag among his memorabilia. I said to him that lots of folks -- including historians -- thought the Civil War was about more than just slavery and racial discrimination. Keep up the great work!!

Anonymous said...

Ruth, thank you for not letting us forget. I have many memories of the injustices of such things as the water fountains in public places marked "white" and "black" and not being allowed to call our maid "Mrs." because "we don't call colored folks Mrs." My family was involved in many areas of the integration movement in the '60s. My son Billy was the first white child to be a student in an all black school; my son John was one of the few white teachers at an all black school and I taught at Tuskeegee Institute one summer.It still isn't finished!

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