Your Stories of Racism: An Earlier Era

In our fifth installment of a series prompted by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Letter to My Son,” readers share their experiences with bigotry before 1980. Are they much different from our recent stories?

A workman cleans up derogatory inscriptions as black students enter Hyde Park High School on Oct. 21, 1974, as Boston enters its sixth week of court-ordered busing. (AP)

Many hundreds of emails have arrived from readers responding to Ta-Nehisi’s request for “your stories, your experiences with racism and its physical consequences.” The first and second sets of stories were mostly about African Americans in the 21st century. The third batch broadened our scope to non-black readers while the fourth continued beyond the borders of the United States. The latest collection, seen below, brings us back to the U.S. and back in time—to the 1970s and ‘60s. From an African American woman:

My first experience with blatant racism occurred in 1964 when I was eight, in rural California. I was playing jump rope during recess with some other girls when a white teacher named Mrs. Cane came over.  She accused me of hitting another student and claimed she saw me. I said no, I did not hit anyone, and like a typical eight year old I almost started crying. I had never been in trouble before. The other students around me all joined in telling Mrs. Cane, “No, she didn’t do anything.” But Mrs. Cane persisted.

Finally, the girl who did apparently did someone admitted it. Mrs. Cane walked away but soon returned, very angry, calling me a “little black nigger” and adding, “I know you did it,” and walked away again.

Now I began to cry. I went to the principal’s office and told her what happened. She knew my parents and my mother sat on the PTA board. I begged the principal not to tell her; something in me wanted to protect my mom from being hurt. I felt a sense of shame and did not want her to feel it too.

The following day, Mrs. Cane found me on the playground and yelled at me, then smiled: “You thought you were going to get me in trouble, but I’ll call you want I want.” Her face was red with rage. I had never seen anyone so angry about being wrong and taking pleasure from mocking a child.

At 59 years old, I have never shared this experience with my
mother. A part of me still  wants to protect her.

A 57-year-old black man has an even scarier memory:

As an eight-year old in Edenton, North Carolina, while crossing the campus of what then was a white segregated school to attend a basketball game at our Black school, I was chased by a carload of white teens and young adults screaming racist insults at me, clearly intending to do harm to me. It was only my quick thinking to dart under a parked bus that saved me.  

A 58-year-old white woman fought through her family’s intolerance:

I was reared by parents who were vocal about their support for the civil rights movement. But as Montanans, my family’s experience with non-white people was mostly confined to foreign and black students as neighbors in graduate housing. So when we moved to a D.C. suburb and I found myself as a 13-year-old attending an integrated school, making friends with the black children in my homeroom, I discovered that my parents’ ideals were not meant for the real world. Their support for civil rights did not mean they supported personal friendships or romantic relationships between white-identified and black-identified people.

I remember one day when my mother—after expressing surprise that I had told her about my friends at school without mentioning they were black—said to me: “You can respect people without being their friends or going to their parties.” She told me that I could make those decisions as an adult but not while I lived at home. My parents forbade me from attending parties when they learned I was the only white child invited, forbade me from dating black boys and, upon discovering that I was dating a black classmate, forbade me from even talking to black friends.

My white classmates agreed with my parents. I was confronted at school and on the bus about why I was hanging with black kids and asked more than once if I was a nigger lover. Not being familiar with the term, I had to think about it, but I decided that if being a nigger lover meant that I appreciated and enjoyed the company and full humanity of my black friends, then yes, I guess I was a nigger lover.

Another woman in her fifties also reflects on her upbringing:

I did not know my dad was prejudice until I was eleven, in 1975. I brought a black girl home from school and he said she could not come in the house because she was black. That was devastating to me.

We had slept in our former black babysitter’s house on numerous occasions. We even called her dad “Daddy Bill.” My younger brother had a black friend and they played together all of the time, but I do not recall the friend ever coming into our house. My dad never had said anything bad about black people. I think he was more afraid of what our new neighbors would think of him. I never tried to bring another black person home with me again.

A chilling memory from a black woman in her sixties:

I was 19 years old in 1971, when my grandmother bought my first car, an MG Midget. On a Saturday afternoon I went shopping on Miracle Mile in Coral Gables, Florida. As I was putting my bags into the car (the top was down), a white officer on a motorcycle pulled up behind me and asked for my license and registration. He went to his bike to “check” me out. My license, registration and insurance was current, so he returned them.

In my softest, humblest voice, I asked the officer why he stopped me. I wanted to know because I was still in the parking space and had not started the engine yet. The cop leaned in to my ear: “If it wasn’t broad daylight, I’d beat the shit out of you.”

Needless to say I was horrified and in disbelief. My body shook with fear all the way home. I am 63 years old now and I remember that day like it was yesterday. I have been in fear of white police officers since then.

A white guy in his fifties witnessed a cruel and senseless act:

When I was in the first grade, living in New York City, one of my good friends was a black boy named Isaac. This was right around the time Martin Luther King was assassinated and, although I didn’t understand everything that was happening, there was anxiety in the air that even a six year old could feel. One day, Isaac and I were in the schoolyard, talking at the chain-link fence next to the sidewalk. A white man passing by suddenly spit on Isaac’s face. I can still see his wet glasses and feel my sense of incomprehension at what just happened.

I didn’t see Isaac again after first grade and I often wonder what his memories are of that day and how it affected him. Almost 50 years later, I still ask myself how a man could spit in the face of a child.

Another white guy witnessed an extreme form of terror:

I was part of the first fully-integrated class of students coming through school together in a small town in North Carolina. One day, in 1970, some black kids were playing with me in our front yard. The neighbor across the street came out on his porch, shot a shotgun into the air, and yelled “Don’t ever let me see those niggers in this neighborhood again.”

We all ran inside while my mother tried to talk to the stupid redneck. In the house my black friends bawled pitifully, beside themselves. They never came back.

Another white reader attests to his own experience:

I was hesitant to write in, since I’m about as white as you can get and didn’t feel qualified to talk in this space. But here goes. I was caught up in busing and desegregation in Baltimore City during the mid 1970s. After six years at an elementary school four blocks from my house, I was sent to a junior high several miles away. The population in that school was 80% black and 20% white.

Most of the intimidation I experienced at that school was getting thrown into a locker, pushed out of the way, and quite a bit of verbal abuse. One time I was walking out of the school building at the end of the day and heard “I’m going to get me some whitey.” Next thing I knew I was getting hit in the side of the face by a kid with a piece of pipe in his hand. After that, my mother got a job and put me in the local Catholic school.

Lastly, an African American guy tells a long but gripping story:

I grew up in a central west suburb of St. Louis. My family moved to the “county” in 1972 to join the wave of black professionals and business owners relocating to the suburbs to find better schools and housing than weren’t offered in the inner city. My neighborhood was 40% black and 60% white, but we all got along relatively well. Our parents had instilled in me a strong pride in our race, while being accepting of others and acknowledging that others may not be accepting of us.

My elementary school had a Boy Scout troop. The majority of the troop was black, but the important part was that we were Scouts. We tried to adhere to the lessons that are taught in Scouting—service to the community, stewardship of the land and other high-minded ideals. But most of all we looked forward to hiking and camping.

In the summer of ‘79, my troop attended the Summer Jubilee, a week-long camping excursion where hundreds of the area Boy Scouts came to camp and share in the fraternity of Scouting in the hilly wooded land around a huge lake just outside of St. Louis. This was a magical place for me.

My majority-black troop was run by one of the best human beings I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. Jack was very pale with sparkling blue eyes and would flush easily. Slightly rotund and easily sunburned, he had a deep booming voice but was kind and patient with us.

One day our troop was charged with building a monkey bridge, a kind of rope bridge built with logs. As we completed it and admired our work, a troop of white kids passed by and proceeded to call us niggers, shouting that niggers couldn’t build a bridge.

Well this didn’t sit too well with us, so we started to converge on the offending troop when Jack comes running down the hill shouting “Boys! Boys!” The other troop’s Scoutmaster was there too. We explained to the adults what happened, but no contrition was offered by the other troop’s Scoutmaster, and all Jack could do was shake his head in sorrow and disgust. In my young mind, I decided we would have our revenge.

The opportunity came near the end of camp. I was on a trip to get water from the pump, and walking back I saw the offending troop heading to the showers with towels and soap in hand. Their Scoutmaster was with them too. I knew this was my chance, so I dropped the water bags and dashed back to our campground. I told them to make sure they had their scout knives, because we were going to get them back for calling us niggers.

We proceeded to sneak down the path slowly, hoping to catch them mid-shower. One of my fellow scouts asked me what were we going to do. I had no idea; I just felt anger at being racially attacked. So I stopped walking and looked around. Then the idea popped in to my head: “Everyone gather as many rocks as you can find.” The smallest of us picked up the biggest rock he could lift. I told him not that big; get small ones. The kind you would skip across the lake.

Since the showers were a walled area without a roof, I thought we could just throw rocks at them from above. We couldn’t see where they were standing, so I had us split up to cover all four sides of the rectangular structure and throw the rocks so as to hit the opposite inside wall. On my signal, we began to throw rocks. The sounds of Ow! Hey! and other cries of pain began to ring out, so I knew my plan was sound.

We kept throwing rocks until the din of cries became whimpers and the sounds of little boys crying. We started to make a break for it back to camp, but I started thinking they need to know who did this, so I said to the fellas, “We’re going in to let them know it was us.” Everyone looked at me like I was crazy. Perhaps I was, but I knew I had the offending troop where I wanted them. I told everyone to pull out their knives.

Now, the scout knife is a small knife with a three-inch blade. It’s pretty dull until you learn how to sharpen it with an oilstone, for your oilstone merit badge. We had just earned ours so they were overzealously sharpened like razors.

With knives drawn, my patrol followed me into the showers. Before me was the offending troop and their Scoutmaster—naked, wet and covered in soap, huddled in the middle of the showers (smart thing to do, since we were aiming for the inside of the walls). I didn’t really know what to do next. I decided to give them a speech that opened with a silly grade school rhyme that black kids used to say (I was only twelve, after all):

I am not a nigger, I am a negro. But soon as I become a nigger, I will let YOU know.

Then I said, “Now we got you. We got you at your most vulnerable—you’re cold, naked and wet!” (In my mind this was the worst place to be.) “You’re lucky I’m a follower of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., because we could really hurt you. I want you to remember that next time you want to call another black person a nigger.”

Then I walked up to their Scoutmaster, knife still drawn: “You should really be ashamed of yourself. You’re an adult, you’re a Scoutmaster! You’re supposed to lead by example and you said nothing when they called us niggers. We’re all supposed to be brothers—we’re Scouts!”

He said nothing. We walked away. (The irony of resorting to such a violent stance is not lost on me now, and then.) The rest of the day was uneventful. I wasn’t sure what would happen to us, but I didn’t care. I had satisfied my soul.

That evening, our co-patrol leader, who hadn’t been at the showers, came back from his Order of the Arrow initiation. There was a big bonfire, where other boys who went through the initiation received their sash. We were proud because he was the only black kid to receive the award and he was one of ours.  After the speeches praising the virtues of Scouting, we left the assembly to find the offending troop lined up to face us.

I thought we were in big trouble when their Scoutmaster stepped up to me. But he looked me dead in the eye and said, “I have been ashamed and I owe you an apology and I sincerely hope you accept it.” I said I did, and he outstretched his hand, I shook it, but he corrected me and said to give him the Boy Scout handshake, so we shook again. The other Scouts shook our hands with the Boy Scout grip and we went our separate ways.

I was 12 then, so I didn’t have the maturity to see how that event could have gone so poorly. But to quote President Obama: “I think we are born into this world and inherit all the grudges and rivalries and hatreds and sins of the past, but we also inherit the beauty and the joy and goodness of our forebears.”