What I Was Taught About Race – A Southern White Boy’s Reflection

“They’s people just like us,” my Grandmother would say to me about people of other races. A simple observation, in 2015, but she was born in 1901. By the standards of the time, she was already “an older lady” when the schools in our home town were desegregated, and when the black folks and the white folks started attending the same churches. Although I understand they already mixed for special events, like the 1949 funeral of my other Grandmother, who died young of cancer. Grandmother Clara was beloved by her community. Not her white community. Her whole community.

When my Mother was a teenager in the 1940s, she came from North Carolina to Washington, DC to work in a clerical position for the War Department. She was riding a city bus one day. There were no seats in the front, so she sat in the back. The bus ground to a halt, and the bus driver came back to collect her. He led her forward and forced a man in front to give up his seat so that the “nice young white girl” didn’t have to sit in the back with the black people. She hadn’t thought twice about it, this high school girl from the South. Of course black and white people could sit together. Why not? But this DC bus driver would have none of it. I guess he didn’t know that this little girl had grown up never fearing for her safety or feeling uncomfortable with black people. Although they lived in a segregated district, they were her friends. Nor did anyone suggest to her that it might be unsafe for a white girl to walk through the black part of town. She didn’t think about segregation then. It was just what was. She thinks about it now, and she thinks we’ve made progress. But even then she wasn’t taught to hate those who were different. And, yes, she was taught that maybe Southerners were a bit backward when it came to racial issues.

Ironic, then, that two decades later, her husband (a native of the same North Carolina town) would be pulled over by the police in Rochester, New York, and advised never again to turn down the street he was on, because white men in Rochester, in the eyes of the police, weren’t safe in black neighborhoods. Ironic, also, that when my parents went to sell their home in King of Prussia, a few years later, and they showed it to a young black family, a deputation of men from the neighborhood showed up to make a cash offer for the house, rather than let their street “go colored.” My parents apologetically told their prospective black customers that they were willing to sell them the house, but that it might be an unhappy place for them to try to live. When living on Long Island, my father, interested in desegregated schools, asked a neighbor what the racial balance was at the local elementary school. The reply: “Are you kidding? We don’t have blacks in our schools!”

These were some of many surprises they received, though, after years of being told that the North was a more enlightened place. In Rochester, King of Prussia and Long Island, segregation was in force, and attitudes were not enlightened. The biggest difference they found between these places and their hometown was that the white people they met in the North were afraid of their black neighbors.

My Dad played, by group consent, on the otherwise all-black baseball team in his hometown. His teammates just thought he was that good a player. And they trusted him. When two of them had a contract to perform home renovations for a local white attorney, a contract payable by the square foot, they brought it to my father to verify the numbers. He taught math in the town, and his teammates knew that this was a white man who wouldn’t lie to them. My Dad taught me to be trustworthy, and to be sure to do right by the people who didn’t always get a fair shake.

My parents sent me to Sunday School at Rolling Hills Southern Baptist Church. Now I’m no fan of the Southern Baptist Convention. Jimmy Carter’s Americus Baptist Church split from it decades ago, and I understand why. But the gentle people of Rolling Hills taught me to do unto others as I would have done unto me, and we sang, every Sunday, the song “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.” Those were the messages I took away from the Southern church my parents sent me to.

If the use of “black, white, red or yellow” to describe people’s race offends you, I can only say I mean no offense, nor did the authors of the song. My late friend Georgianna Price, whose black ancestors were from Portugal, once told me she didn’t like the term “African American” because it makes assumptions based on skin color. And I agree. “Black” and “white” are not offensive words. The offense lies in the intent of their use. I find “sir” an offensive word when used by snarky young people giving bad customer service. I don’t think we should ban its use.

I am no more actually white than my friend Mrs. Price was actually black. (In fact she was bi-racial.) But I find the term useful and descriptive. I am white. I’d prefer you describe me as white and not “European American” or “Caucasian.” I am Cherokee, a bit. I’d prefer you describe me as “Cherokee” and not “Native American.” Because I am a “native American,” regardless of my Cherokee blood.

When I was in elementary school, my bus driver, Henry, also worked evenings as a custodian at my Dad’s office. Henry was of one of the old black Howard County families who attended Harriett Tubman High and lived here long before Jim Rouse decided to build Columbia. My Dad liked Henry. If my Dad liked someone, it meant they were honest and hard-working. So my Dad probably considered Henry morally superior to a lot of his federally funded co-workers. When Henry asked if he could make an offer on our old Pontiac station wagon, my Dad told him no, because it was already his if he wanted it. Henry had our old wagon repainted and fixed up and was extremely proud of it. From this I took away that my Dad judged people for their virtues, and rewarded those virtues wherever he could. He knew Henry was working two low-paying jobs to make ends meet for himself and his kids, and he thought Henry deserved his help.

These are the simple, perhaps naively received, experiences of one white Southern kid who grew up in the Sixties and Seventies. Draw from them what you will. But please keep them in mind as a lot of people seem to be suggesting that it’s the celebration of Southern history that’s responsible for the recent killings in Charleston. I grew up in a house where these lessons were taught and learned. In that house there was also a large portrait of Robert E. Lee. There were, occasionally, Confederate flags on display. We were Southerners. I prefer to believe we were typical Southerners–my mother and father, grandparents, sister and brother, aunts, uncles and cousins.

I also prefer to believe that Felicia Sanders, mother of Charleston shooting victim Tywanza Sanders, is a typical Southerner. After her son fell, Ms. Sanders shielded her granddaughter with her own body and played dead. That is a hero. That is a Southerner. We love and care for our own. I wish, instead of seeing Dylan Roof’s psychotic, pouting face everywhere, we could see the face of Felicia Sanders. I don’t even know what she looks like, but I think her face would show that there’s beauty and courage in this world, and, yes, in the South.

I realize that you can acknowledge the courage and virtue of Southerners without honoring the Confederate heroes of the Civil War. But here’s the thing: those Confederates are a part of our heritage. Like most men of every nation, most of them didn’t ask about philosophy when they saw their homeland threatened. They stood up and fought. They are no less brave, no less noble, because they lost, or because their government advocated things that were morally wrong. Every government advocates things that are morally wrong. Am I to spit on the grave of Thomas Rathbone, my Great, Great Grandfather, because he wore (and died in) the wrong color uniform?

My ancestor did not die for hate. He did not die to enslave people. He died to protect his family and his home. Insisting that his honors be stripped does not prevent the growth of hate, and it does not prevent tragedies like Charleston.

I also have to ask–when Adam Lanza killed 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary, we called for a “national dialogue” on mental illness. Why, when a comparable crime has been committed by another mentally unstable individual, are we suddenly more interested in taking down flags and renaming streets than we are in asking, “Where are we with that national dialogue we were gonna have?”

I can answer my own question. It’s because there was no one to blame for Sandy Hook, except Adam Lanza himself, and he was a messed up human being. But this time, we can point to unconnected activities and say that those are the root causes of Dylan Roof’s actions. Intellectually, we probably still understand that the trigger is not the gun. Roof did not need encouragement to be a psychopath. But, emotionally, white Southerners are an easy target.

Unless you’re a white Southerner.

If you are, well, that shit just hurts.





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  1. Pingback: On the Occasion of my Mother's 90th Birthday - Steven H. WilsonSteven H. Wilson

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