For three months in 1961 while my father trained to fly the F-101 at Maxwell Air Force Base, I spent a portion of second grade in Montgomery, Alabama, a city that made international news with its race riots earlier in the year.
Keep in mind I was a protected, naïve child of the North. I knew nothing of Martin Luther King, Jr., of civil rights marches, or even of any resentment that whites and blacks had for each other. Back then, the word, “African-American,” hadn’t yet been invented. Instead, the politically correct term in the northern states was “negro,” and the southern states held to the traditional “colored.”
Once Dad had finished his training and was assigned to a base in Niagara Falls, it was time to buy airline tickets to send us to our new destination. While waiting at the ticket counter—forever—in my seven-year-old mind, I spied two, side-by-side water fountains. Each sat under a label attached to the wall. WHITE and COLORED. Intriguing.
I approached them, not particularly thirsty. WHITE sounded boring. It must be regular water. They should’ve labeled it CLEAR. But COLORED. What would colored water look like? I skipped over to the colored fountain and turned the handle to find out.
A shriek from the ticket counter pierced through the hubbub of the busy airport, stopping everyone in their tracks, including mine. “Little girl, little girl, get away from there!”
How many other little girls might be here? I hadn’t seen any.
Mom was at my side as I pivoted in search of her. “Linda. You can read. Why did you go to the colored fountain?”
Why was I in trouble? Why had a stranger screamed at me? My lip started to tremble. “I wanted to see the rainbow water.”
A negro lady close to me in the crowd that had gathered, smothered a giggle. Mom smiled. Taking my hand, she led me back to the counter. After explaining what had happened, my dad laughed out loud. The ticket lady didn’t think it was funny.
While Daddy finished the transaction, Mom gave me my first lesson in race relations as they existed in our country. “Linda, we’ve been in Alabama for a few months, now. Didn’t you notice the negroes are called ‘coloreds’ here?”
I shook my head. I had never paid attention to anything except my home and my classroom.
Mom sighed. “Down here everything is separate for negroes and whites. So we’re supposed to use the white water fountain, and they use the colored fountain.”
It didn’t make sense to me that people had to use different water fountains because their skin color was different, but I didn’t question it. Besides, I was more upset that the colored water didn’t look any different from the white water.
At seven, kids accept what is, even when they know it’s not fair. Give them another five years. They’ll either perpetuate the mores of their culture, or they’ll rebel and work to create something new.
You’re certainly welcome to comment on the personal story I’ve shared with you, but my purpose is to set you up for the next time I post. I want to share three books that portray the prejudice within our American heritage, then move on to the prejudice tearing apart our country today. How can we heal the rift?
Dave Burnell, Creative Commons