During my pediatric rotation as a student nurse, I went into the ghetto day care centers of Chicago to understand the well-child in order to better care for the sick child. I was shocked when one little 4 year old black boy kept rolling the sleeve of my sweater up to see if I was the “same color all the way up”.
Was my childhood any less segregated?
Looking back I realize that I grew up in a seamless segregated world as a Methodist preacher’s daughter. From Amish country to South Philadelphia, and my final years in a small insular town in the Blue Ridge Mountains, there were no black students in my schools.
My senior year in high school I wrote a paper on “Man’s Inhumanity to Man” based on The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It was 1962 and I had no idea of the Civil Rights Movement or Jim Crow.
Years later, on the heels of the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, as my husband and I walked down the street to the hospital where we trained, it was something else to see the armored tanks rolling down Michigan Ave. towards the demonstrations at the Chicago Democratic Convention. We could see the fires burning from the rioting on the west side of the city.
Eventually, in 1975, we moved with our two young daughters to Elizabeth City, North Carolina. They had just learned to swim, but the only pool in town had been filled in rather than have it be integrated and open to blacks.
We joined the Hope Group, founded by a white business man, Cader Harris, and the first black county commissioner and educator, WC Witherspoon. Our goal was to promote racial harmony through diversity by reaching out to the schools and community, and by eating together in local restaurants and worshipping in each other’s churches. W.C. Witherspoon and I were both Methodist preacher’s kids. He would sit down at our piano, like my dad, and I would get out my violin. W.C. would recite poetry. It reminded me of my father’s sermons, and I began to think of him as my adopted African American father.
The Hope Group supported the theater production of a book by Tim Tyson, Blood Done Sign My Name. I was shocked to learn for the first time that 400,000 black slaves made the South the richest economy in the world. I missed that history lesson. It’s been a slow awakening to finally understand what Jim Crow was all about.
One of my happiest moments was when I got to introduce my father to my African American father. They never let go of each other’s hands as they recited the lines of the poem Outwitted, which they both knew by heart.
W.C. started with, “He drew a circle that shut me out.” Dad went on, “Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.” W.C., ”But love and I had the wit to win,” and Dad, “We drew a circle that took him in!”