by Patrick O’Neill
A Lesson from my Mother
My mother was born in 1910, and obviously grew up in a different world. She admitted to me that when she was young she “took it for granted” that Black people waited on white people (chauffeurs, maids, waiters, etc.). The fact that we had cousins in the South (Richmond, VA) probably reinforced that at least somewhat.
Her view changed one day on a bus in the 1930s in Richmond. As she explained to me, even if Black and white people rode the same bus, it was partitioned, with Black people sitting in the back, past a “line” on the floor.
One day as she was riding the bus, an elderly Black woman carrying groceries got on the bus and proceeded to the back, only to find there were no seats left.
My mother was sitting right on the “black / white boundary line” – the very last row reserved for whites. When she saw that the woman was elderly and burdened down with packages, without thinking, she simply stood up and offered the lady her seat.
When she did, as she put it, “All hell broke loose.” The bus driver pulled the bus over and came back to where my mother was sitting and asked her what she thought she was doing. “I’m giving up my seat to this woman!” The driver’s answer was: “She sits in the back!” My mother’s answer (not too polite at this point, as she felt the driver was out of line!) was – “I know the rules, but there are no seats left in the back and she is old and has packages so if I want to give her my seat, that’s up to me.”
The bottom line is, they were both put off the bus (she and the Black woman, who had done nothing and did not engage in the “debate” at all!).
As they were standing there (waiting for another bus!) my mother said to the woman, “How do you stand this sort of thing?” to which the woman replied: “Honey, it happens every day! If it’s not this, it’s something else!” Then she calmly walked away.
Now, I wish there were a happy ending to this story: The fact is, my mother never saw this woman again and my mother did not become a civil rights activist in the 1930s in Richmond, or at any other time, for that matter.
However, it did bring across to her what she always called the stupidity of bigotry. The fact that she couldn’t even give a seat to an elderly woman out of what to her was more common courtesy than a civil rights statement.
As I said, my mother grew up in a world with a different set of assumptions than we have today, and I’m not sure she even questioned the “system” per se. And to be honest, that day on the bus, I don’t know if she would have taken this same stand for a young Black man, but this fact that she couldn’t give up her place in the bus right on the dividing line between one seat and another angered her for years after the event. It never turned her into a radical activist, but it left an undeniable impression on her, which she passed on to me, about the sheer stupidity and unfairness of segregation anywhere, not just in the South.
A Lesson from my Father
I grew up in an all-white neighborhood in an almost all-white town, so admittedly my exposure to diversity was tainted in my younger years – very limited until college.
One day, when I was about eight, a “rumor” went flying around the neighborhood that a Black family was moving in. People started talking about selling their houses, moving to another neighborhood, etc.
My father, who was never an activist nor an ideologue started saying to those neighbors: “We don’t even know these people! They could be the nicest people in the world and you’re all ready to move out before they even move in! You haven’t even seen these people!”
Now, to jump the gun and tell you what was really happening – a white woman was moving into the house. She was married to a Black man (who was actually biracial, but that’s a moot point). They were divorced but were still on friendly terms and he was helping her move in. Someone in the neighborhood saw a Black man moving in furniture and just assumed it was a Black “invasion” of the neighborhood!
Now the ultimate irony of this is that my father and I were standing on the porch when this man came out of the house across the street to unload some things from his trunk.
To me, he just looked like a nice “old” gentleman (he was probably 45 at the time, but to an eight-year-old, that’s ancient!)
My father looked at this man and said: “Is this the man they’re all talking about?” He said: “Why that’s Tommy! We grew up together. I haven’t seen him in years!”
My father called across the street. Tommy came over, gave my dad a big hug and asked him “Is this your little boy, Bill?” He ruffled my hair, chatted with my father for a while (explained he was helping his ex-wife move), then said he had to go.
I turned to my father and said: “That is what all this was about – that nice old man?” (Given that my father was a few years older than Tommy, I’m sure he appreciated that!)
My father said, “Let that be a lesson to you, bigotry makes people stupid and that makes them do silly things, like selling your house before you even meet the new neighbors.” Granted, what my father said was not exactly Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” but it taught me a lesson in the stupidity of intolerance and fear of the unfamiliar.