Wednesday, April 09, 2008

A Question of Race

Race relations are much in the news these days, thanks to the presidential run of Barack Obama.

I grew up and have spent most of my life in the confines of a generally white area. My county is about 94 percent white. Most of the more rural communities surrounding the city are about the same, or less. The city is about two-thirds white.

My interactions with people of color (or black people, I honestly don't know what to call anyone these days) were few. My family was like most in those times - racist and bigoted. You know the kind - black folks eat watermelon and fried chicken and have lots of babies so they can draw welfare. It's an unfortunate attitude that I fear continues to this day.

I started school in 1968. Virginia as late as 1964 was struggling with race relations in public schools. According to this Wikipedia article, many counties tried to get around the federal laws by creating private schools and academies. Segregation existed then. I think it still does, covertly.

As it is with many things, my thoughts and feelings about race have been formed from my own experiences, some of which I am going to share.

My learning career began with kindergarten at East Salem, for at that time this is where we lived. Salem had only a year before become a city.

I think I was in a summer school type of situation for kindergarten, but I am not certain. In any event, I rode a bus from elementary school to my grandmother's house every day.

One day the bus driver said she had to pick up kids at the vocational school across the street. Normally the bus was filled with white students under the age of 12 or so.

The students she picked up were black male teenagers. I do not know if these were the first black persons I had seen up close, but these fellows scared all of us.

They snarled and got down in our faces, hissed at us and left us petrified. They took our notebooks from our hands and tossed them in the aisle. They were loud and boisterous and went out of their way to make us scream. Young girls, myself included, sat frozen in terror, holding hands, tears streaming down our faces. I can still hear the bus driver yelling, "Ya'll sit down back there, stop scaring them kids," as she continued along the route.

Stop after stop, little boys and girls fled the bus in terror and ran sobbing into their mother's arms. I did the same; I remember fleeing as quickly as my little legs would carry me, running the half-block to my grandmother's front porch. I flung myself into her bosom and cried as I told her what had happened.

I remember my uncle, a teenager himself, cursing because these youth had terrorized me. Had he been there, he proclaimed, he'd have stopped it.

Doubtless the phone at the school rang a lot the next morning and the principal and other officials received angry visits from parents, although I do not recall what happened in my own family.

Nothing like that ever occurred again in the time I remained at that school. By the second grade I was in a rural county in a new school system, with different incidents about to take place in my education on race.

Over the years I have thought of this incident often. I have had nightmares about it. But generally I recall it as an incident involving young teenagers who were having fun at the expense of a bunch of little kids. I do not to see it as an incident of race, mind you, of black youth scaring white youth, even though the truth of it is they were black and the rest of us were white.

I see it as young teenagers taking advantage of a bunch of little kids. But I feel sure that in five-year-old wisdom, at that time I was as scared of these young men because they were black as I was because they were working hard to scare us.

Thankfully this episode, while creating a lasting impression, did not make me fearful of either black people or teenagers.

Next up: Part II (it's the entry below this one).


  1. That is one scary story about the big kids on your bus. I remember how frightning it was to have older kids scare me when I was little.
    I grew up in Danville, Va where it was half black, half white in our school. Most people didn't care but we also had our share of bigoted people who didn't hesitate to say what they felt about whites and blacks being friends. The issue just always seems to be there no matter what, especially nowadays with reverse discrimination becoming more the norm.

  2. We had no diversity where I grew up either. Only black kid that I recall. But I didn't grow up with any overt racism, although the busing in South Boston (only 25 miles from us) sure stirred up a nightmare.

  3. I don't know the answer to racism. I hope there is one.


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