Imagine the fear. Seven years old and being shaken off the ground by the collar of your shirt. Then the tall menacing figure of an adult security guard asks, “are you stupid boy”? That’s exactly what happened to me in 1958.
My parents and I were visiting my Great Aunt LaLa in Georgia. We had gone to a national department store to shop. I was thirsty and went to get a drink out of the fountain. A “coloreds only” sign didn’t register with me. Shoot, I didn’t even know what “colored” meant, but soon I would find out.
My great aunt lived in a small town. She owned the land around her home, owned the general store and she even read palms. She, like a lot of white people in the south at the time, had an Afro-American woman who cooked and cleaned for her.
My uncle had just cut the head off of a chicken for dinner. I was awestruck! The bird was running around with no head. The dogs were barking and rolling on the ground as if they too couldn’t believe what just happened. Yikes…I had never witnessed such a sight. Naturally, I was curious how this chicken, full of feathers, and no head was eventually going to be our evening meal.
So, I pulled the kitchen chair over to the counter as the young lady was busy soaking the bird and plucking its’ feathers. I remember how nice she was. She looked kind and certainly showed a lot of patience with me.
My lips must have really been flapping with a bunch of inquisitve questions when suddenly my aunt barked, “Denny…ya’all want to come in here”?
I climbed offf the chair and went to the front room. I could see the young lady from where I sat. My aunt then said, “boy, you see that girl in there? Well, that’s my colored help. You don’t talk to them, eat with them or sleep with them. You understand me boy?” “Yes Aunt LaLa”, I sheepishly replied.
The fact of the matter is, I didn’t understand then and I don’t understand now. That moment in time is forever burned in my brain. It’s as if someone had put a branding iron there.
Years later, as an adult I had a business acquantance who was from the same small Georgia town as my aunt. We became fast friends. He was Afro-American. I called my then 94 year old aunt to ask if she knew this man’s family name. She thought for a moment and did recall that his grandfather was the colored doctor who was only allowed to treat the colored people in the area.
My aunt must have also remembered her talk with me so many years before because she ended our conversation with, “you know Denny I’ve changed with the times. I realize you can talk to colored people and even eat with them, but please son don’t sleep with them”.
I guess in my old southern Aunt LaLa’s mind that was progress.