For two weeks in January, I traveled south with my husband, Paul, and Dr. Francois Clemmons, a trip that was to become a journey through a part of my own life.
We were in Sewanee, Tennessee at the University of the South, where Clemmons received an honorary degree in fine arts. From there, we headed south to Salem and Montgomery, Alabama; up to Atlanta, Georgia; over to Raleigh, North Carolina; up to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia; and home.
It was a trip into the long-ago past that I am not a part of, and also a past that is my past, that brought me right up to the present day.
I saw a part of the past that most young people today have not been a part of, and I want to say, “Hey, guys, those years — those are my years; I saw them, lived them, and here I am before you. That past is not so far from you. The 20th century may seem way in the past, but for me it is still alive and present, as it is with some of your parents and many of your grandparents.”
For me, the important part of my past was to see and understand how the end of the U.S. Civil War was not the end of the oppression of black people. The only glory in the Civil War was the fact it kept us together as one country, proclaiming slavery to be illegal — not two countries, one slave and one free.
Imagine if the United States had become two countries, and you had to have a passport to go from one to the other. Imagine if we would have had a fight over a wall — to build or not — to keep the slaves from trying to get to freedom. For a long time after the Civil War and the breakdown of Reconstruction, we did, indeed, build walls called Jim Crow laws, and our local, state and federal government passed laws and regulations of all kinds to keep the “coloreds” out, to keep them from developing their potential as human beings, to keep them from being “as good or as intelligent” as white people. Keeping them in their place and giving them only what we thought they deserved — and then it was usually with a fight.
Those were all real walls. They may not have been concrete or steel and they may have been invisible to many, but to the black people they were very real, very cruel, very strong, often violent and hard to break down. They existed all over our country, not just in the South. We can’t forget that racism existed in the North also. Those laws affected everything from where blacks lay their heads, lived, worked, ate, played, borrowed money, traveled, what jobs they got or type of education — everything. It has only been with their perseverance and some white people willing to fight with them that progress has been made in the right direction of real freedom. And even today, there are still some not so invisible walls and racism is alive and well across our country.
There are a number of things that really stood out to me as I traveled with Paul and Francois from state to state; from Fisk University, a historically black university in Nashville, Tennessee; to driving across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Salem, Alabama. Then to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, The Legacy Museum, The Rosa Parks Museum, all in Montgomery, Alabama. And on to The King Center and the home where Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia; visiting churches, walking in the streets, eating in restaurants and sleeping in motels.
It was not “White,” it was not “Black.” It was a mixture and not with just a few blacks and lots of whites. It was a beautiful mixture of many tones of brown and many tones of white, leaning at times to more browns. It was going into a hotel and Paul and I being the only whites.
It was great to be with Francois sharing this experience. We were in this together on equal footing. We were sharing a part of our lives we had both lived, in completely different ways. We were sharing a history that our ancestors shared again in very different ways, he as a black person and Paul and I as white. We were seeing it through our eyes and each other’s eyes. And that’s when it hit me, when something sunk in that I had never given a whole lot of thought to, even though I knew it was there. And it all has to do with the history of our country and what a poor job white people have done in sharing it with our children in our homes, schools and communities. Purposely and carelessly, we left black people out of our history, putting in only what whites wanted in a very racist manner.
I need to back up a little bit here and tell you a little something about my own growing up, because it was not usual, as we would think of usual. When I was born in North Carolina in 1940, my parents worked at an integrated summer camp that was supported by the northern labor unions and socialists. After World War II (my dad refused to fight and worked in the Navy yard repairing ships), my parents moved to New York, where they worked for a camp again supported by the labor unions, and from there, we went to Burgundy Farm Country Day School in Alexandria, Virginia. My formative years were in New York and at Burgundy.
All of this is important because they were all integrated, a mix of blacks, whites and other people of color. This impacted me for the rest of my life. The camp in New York was made up of almost all poor black and Puerto Rican children from New York City. Burgundy was a private school established in 1946 that was also integrated. Usually a private school at that time was for only whites. In 1946, you must understand, that was a really big deal.
I was actually raised in a very sheltered integrated environment, where I ate, played, swam, worked with, learned from and with, groups of people dedicated to nonviolence, equality, love, caring and respecting the worth and dignity of each individual. Worth and dignity of each individual, one of the principles of Unitarian Universalists, yet my dad never attended church and didn’t believe in God. How can that be? As long as I can remember, I grew up caring about, helping and loving people and animals. Was I color blind? Of course not. It just didn’t make any difference, and when you are a kid, it doesn’t make any difference until somebody tells you differently.
Thus, until I became an adult, even though outside my world it was all around me, I didn’t realize how bad racism was. Even when I saw the drinking faucets — one for colored, one for white — and separate bathrooms, I could not understand why. I can remember, just like the little black child, wondering why we couldn’t both use the same one. What would happen to me if I drank from the colored one? I could not comprehend that people could hate and be so mean and violent toward a person just because of their skin color.
As a white adult, it was hard to accept the hatred that existed, not just in the South but also in the North. Hard to accept that white people, especially white males, made the ultimate decisions, from the day they took the black people into slavery up until this very day, what they could or couldn’t do; from within our homes, our schools, our communities, our states and our local, state and federal government, white people had all the power. I found that to be very troublesome and scary. And I realized what an unusual childhood I’d had within a very prejudiced country, a country I believed when it proclaimed equal rights and justice for all, and realized it wasn’t true at all. That, in fact, even today the whites are still saying what blacks can and can’t do depending on how laws and regulations are written, what we tell our children and how we treat black people. Blacks are still slowly moving forward, but still too often at great costs.
So, where am I today? I feel I’m in the middle of a mess. I can so clearly see how we have whitewashed our history when it comes to black people, again in both the North and the South. We have done generations of children a terrible misdeed and even harm, I dare say, to leave out the importance of black people in our lives since before this country even became a country. It has been through giving black history its own space that it is finally coming out the huge role they have played in our history right up into the present day in all walks of our lives — not just in sports and the entertainment industry. But giving them their history and us our white history doesn’t solve the problem of getting rid of racism.
This is the thing, when you look at both histories; in lots of ways, they tell the same story. When I was visiting those cities and museums on my journey, what I saw was a black/white history. In most ways, I just don’t see how you can separate them, and that is the story that needs to be in our schools and communities. Since this country brought people over from Africa and made them slaves, our lives have been intermingled. There is no escaping it. From Day One, we have been mixing blacks and whites. From slave traders, to slave owners, even presidents, we have been mixing things up. Sex has no bounds, and neither does love. Slaves made the economy of the South work, and the North and Europe accepted it because they benefited from it. People in bondage and the free people they became continued to help build our infrastructure, feed us, care for us, teach us, doctor us, fight in our wars, discover, invent — the list is endless. We even had cowboys who were black. And we kept right on intermingling and crossing barriers, while many whites continued to want to make you black even if you have white in you and for some odd reason, want to keep whites white even when they may, in fact, have black in them. It is all so very crazy and quite foolish, really.
And finally, we are still making history together; we are still trying to move forward together and to break down those white barriers that are so unjust. We can’t remove racism until people are ready, and as long as we ignore the negative impact that white people have had down through the years on blacks, we can’t overcome racism toward blacks. And we can’t overcome racism by trying to rationalize and only talking about the good we have done. We have to stop saying the Civil War was not about slavery but rather the culture and economy of the South. It was all about slavery, because that culture and economy was built upon slavery and depended on slavery, and in the end, that was its weakness, because it wasn’t sustainable.
We have to include the negative and its ugliness, as hard as it is to face. We are one country, and to stay together as one country as a democracy, we must give all of us the chance to be our best and do our best, no matter our color. We can only do this by pulling together and working together, no matter our color, to make it happen.
Frances L. Stone lives in Orwell.