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The sign about says it all. . .

Recently in a post, I made reference to the days of “Jim Crow.”  Actually I phrased it in such a way as to be somewhat confusing, because I wrote, “The memory of the openly practiced “Jim Crow” days in the South, and the contrast with today’s silent and hidden segregation everywhere.”  Pseu, one of my favorite bloggers and commenters asked me what “Jim Crow days” are.  It is a fair question, and one that I told her I would try to answer later in the week.

So today’s “word” is “Jim Crow,” and writing it or saying it makes my stomach turn, because it refers to a shameful and terrifying era in the United States.  “Jim Crow” as I will speak of it today is gone, having been outlawed some decades ago, but in many ways, it is alive and well, having managed to cloak itself in a number of different disguises, not the least of which is the huge inequity among race statistics in the US prison population, and the inequity in salaries and job opportunities between whites and non-whites in this country.

For the technical definition of “Jim Crow,” please visit http://www.uic.edu/educ/bctpi/historyGIS/greatmigration/gmdocs/jim_crow_origin.html – a site at which you will learn the origin of the term, and find links to more information.

I was born in the deep South – Beaumont Texas – in 1951, and therefore grew up smack dab in the middle of the Jim Crow era.

Rather than write about it, I want to relay a couple of experiences I had as a rather “innocent” young white girl.  My parents were staunch and openly vocal on their feelings in favor of equality among all the races.  They were devout Christians and believed that everyone was a child of God and equal in God’s eyes; as Christians they could feel no other way.

If my parents made any “mistake” in educating me about race relations, it was that they did not inform me that so many other people felt differently – many of those people were acquaintances and friends – about the relationships between blacks and whites.  Because of that lack of education, I had a couple of experiences that taught me about the Jim Crow era – and I probably learned from those experiences far more than my parents could have taught me by simply telling me.

We shopped at a grocery store in Beaumont, a chain that existed in the South at the time, called “Weingarten’s.” In the store there were water fountains provided for customers of the store.  Actually, there were two water fountains, one with a white spigot knob that had inscribed on it “Whites Only,” and another similar fountain, except the knob was brown in color and had inscribed on it “Negros Only.”  I say that the fountains were similar because the fountains for whites had refrigerated water, the “Negros Only” fountain had no refrigeration.

I do not remember the specific reason I had for drinking from the “Negros Only” fountain, but I was thirsty, and there was a water fountain, so I reached up and got myself a drink of water. The “Whites Only” fountain may have been in use, with a line of people waiting their turn.  I suddenly became aware of the fact that there was someone behind me, waiting for a turn at the fountain I was using.  I finished, wiping my mouth with a swipe of my hand, and turned to see a black woman waiting behind me with the oddest look on her face that I had ever seen. Mixed in her eyes was  evidence of amusement, curiosity, wonder, and derision.  I remember seeing her lift her eyes in the direction of another black woman across the aisle, and exchange a silent expression that meant, to me, “can you believe this stupid white child?”  As I walked away from the fountain, I was touched on the shoulder by a rather large elderly white woman who informed me of my error, and told me to go and wash my mouth out at the white fountain.  I “might have caught some germs at the black one.”

Another incident concerned a train trip.  I was a member of a girls club, similar to the Girl Scouts, called the “Blue Birds.”  Beaumont was part of a tri-cities area called “The Golden Triangle,” and consisted of the cities of Beaumont, Port Arthur, and Orange.  One of the adventures my flight of Blue Birds went on was a train trip.  We rode the train from Beaumont to Orange and back.  Probably a round trip of less than 50 miles

We boarded the train, and each of us went looking for a place to sit.  I was a rather independent sort, and remember looking through the window in the door that divided two cars and noticed a lot of empty seats – many by the window.  A window seat was something we had all searched for.  I told my friends, and boldly opened the door to the near-empty car, which was, unbeknownst to me, the “Jim Crow” car.  I took my seat next to the window and was delighted to have found such a fine seat.  It was several minutes before the conductor – a white man – came in to collect the tickets from the passengers.  Up until he came in I had not noticed that i was the only white person on the car.

I saw on his face, when he saw me, a similar look to the one the black woman had given me in the grocery store, except mixed into his expression was anger and superiority and shock at my audacity.  He took my ticket, then grabbed me by my forearm and “escorted” me out of the car, explaining to me in a loud voice the grievous error I had made and asked me where my mother was and informed me that he was going to tell my mother on me.  He did.  My mother had a few choice words for him, which I do not recall, but I do remember that the conductor walked away shaking his head.

I could tell you more stories, but I’m already over my word limit for the day.  Share your own thoughts, memories, or comments with me and my other Gentle Readers below.  I’ve said enough. . .