A gradual awakening
By Lyn Sheffield
Editor’s note: The following is the seventh narrative accepted for publication in the Advocate’s new South Carolina Stories of Racial Awakening Project. The Advocate will select as many as 10 narratives to be published in the Advocate, one a month for 10 months. See guidelines, here.
I am a child of the South. I grew up in Small Town, South Carolina, where my parents were active in our all-white Methodist church.
My hometown was strongly segregated with definite areas of town where only blacks lived and other areas where only whites lived. I remember the water fountains marked “White” and “Colored.” On Saturdays many people went to Main Street to shop—white people on one side of the street and black people on the other. Seldom did anyone cross to the other side of the street.
From elementary school on, I was a frequent visitor to the county library. It never occurred to me to wonder why I never saw any black people in the library. That was just the way it was. When my mother and I rode the Greyhound bus to visit my grandparents, I often asked to sit on the back seat. I was always told it was saved for “other people.” The attitude of most white residents seemed to be that they were superior to the black residents. I was told that it was important for things to be separate but equal. It was a long time before I realized nothing was close to being equal.
I do remember the times when Daddy Grace, the well-known black church leader, came to town. The parade formed at the train station with Daddy Grace seated on a “throne” on the back of a flatbed truck. The parade then moved to the United House of Prayer. My friends and I were not allowed to go to Main Street to watch the parade. However, when it turned from Main onto College Street, we would be on my friend Martha’s front porch where we had a bird’s eye view. I remember the sound of the great music and the folks joyfully dancing. I was fascinated by the rhythm and knew I would never be able to dance like that.
The black people I knew in my childhood worked for my parents or grandparents. Both of my grandmothers had wonderful, loving black ladies who worked for them. They had not enjoyed many advantages in their lives. I think of them often and smile with good memories. I hope they knew how much we loved them. When a black person worked for my daddy on the farm, they were given food along with a mason jar filled with iced tea to take to the backyard for lunch. When I asked why they didn’t come in and eat in the kitchen, I was told simply, “This is the way we do it.”
At Christmas I would ride with my daddy as he delivered Christmas gifts to the black folks who worked for him. We took bags of fruit and meat from our freezer. Everyone seemed glad to see Daddy and the gifts. Were they?
In the mid-1960s, my church created a policy on how black visitors would be treated if they should show up. My husband and I happened to be visiting one Sunday in the early 1970s when the first black visitors arrived. The plan went into effect when the ushers seated the three young black men, neatly dressed in suits and ties, on the front row. I was very annoyed when several church members immediately walked out. However, I was pleased after church when many church members went to greet the visitors. Leading those was my Uncle Bob, who was very welcoming and honestly delighted to see the young men. The visitors could not have had a warmer welcome.
In 1965, I began my senior year in high school. That year about 15 black students chose to integrate the white high school. My friends and I were told by our parents not to cause any trouble and not to be mean. We were instructed to ignore the new students. We ignored very well. Over the years it dawned on me how very brave those students were. I wish I could see each one of them now to apologize for my behavior and to tell them how much I admire their courage.
After college, I left the state to attend graduate school. It was there I met Lilla, my first black friend. Lilla had taught high school for several years and was working on her Ph.D. She taught me many things about being a good teacher, about smiles, laughter and friendly greetings, about calmness under pressure, about friendship.
I remember the night a group of us ate in a local restaurant, four white women and Lilla. Several white people walked by our table and make rude remarks or glared at us as they walked by. I had never been on the receiving end of that hate, but Lilla had. She remained calm and quietly set the example for us. We ate our dinner and ignored the bullies. Lilla has had a long, successful career as a professor at a state university. Someone told me recently that Lilla has been the first black friend for many white people.
Good things have happened over the years. As a high school teacher for 30 years, I had contact with wonderful African-American students and fellow teachers. I formed many friendships and was blessed. I have met many delightful African Americans in my community. My cousin recently retired after serving as head librarian in my hometown. At her retirement ceremony, she was lauded as being the person who opened the library to all people, making it a place where all are welcome.
My racial awakening did not come with one major event. It came slowly over the years. I thank God for sending good people into my life to teach me. I apologize to those I mistreated.
We have come a long way since my high school graduation, but we have a long way to go. It seems the rumblings of racial problems have been very strong recently. Why does it take us so long to learn to be loving and accepting of all?
Sheffield, age 68, is a white female and a member of Clemson United Methodist Church, Clemson.