Growing Up Black During the Segregated Era {Interview With My Son’s Grandparents} Part I

This is part one of a series that has truly and profoundly touched me. I've had the opportunity to interview both my son’s grandparents on his Daddy’s side. Being able to look through old pictures, talk to them, and research this sad and unfortunate time in the history of the segregated South in America, has been a personal eye-opening experience. 

For quite some time, I've been wanting to write for my son a special post about his African American/Black heritage. Though sadly enough my son’s Black ancestry has a dark history of oppression that needs to be shared from his grandparents own unique perspective. 

What better way to do so during Black History Month, and to teach our son his heritage through his grandparents, their history, also his story. My son is so blessed to have both his grandparents on his Daddy’s side alive, and well to share their story. 

They were born in the South during the 1930's in the midst of the Great Depression, and racial segregation. I interviewed both of them to get a perspective of what it meant growing up Black during the segregation era, and Civil Rights era. 

They will be sharing their own personal struggles, and life changing events that made them into the persons they are now. Amidst the segregation they were still able to further their education, and pursue a college degrees. My mother-in-law obtained a bachelors degree from Tuskegee University, and masters degree from New York University. My father-in-law went a step further and obtained a Ph.D. from the University of Miami, a master’s from Columbia University, and he obtained his bachelor’s degree from Morehouse College. The same university Martin Luther King, Jr. went to. 

Top mother-in-law, and father-in-law
bottom left to right: father-in-law's mother, and mother-in-law's parents with hubby as a baby.  
They both met in Alabama and married. Many years later they had a son who was born on the same year  that President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 banning segregation, and discrimination. 

They are currently both retired professionals enjoying their only grandson, our son. 

Today’s interview is with my mother-in-law. My baby’s grandma. 

Tell me about your ancestors, and parents? 
My great grandfather on my mother's side was a slave. He lived and worked as a house slave and lived on the plantation in Winnsboro, South Carolina. He worked to live on the land he was living on. When President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 declaring "that all persons held as slaves" within the Confederate state "are, and henceforward shall be free." He was free to go. However, he chose to stay since his master granted him the land that he earned working as a slave. He was very liked by his masters. This land was in fact inherited by my mother who was born in 1900. 

My Mom was a nurse she worked in the neonatal unit at the hospital. I was the only girl amongst four children. I had all brothers. 

My Dad worked in steel mill. He was good at his job, and it was a mixed mill with both Whites, and Blacks working there but they weren't allowed to work side-by-side. He went to school in Tuskegee. His job was to straighten steel bars. He was really good at it, and they’d call him all the time. He couldn’t get promoted, but he got paid good money. He worked all his life in the steel mill. 

Growing up did you ever feel there was a disadvantage growing up Black? 
Yes, we couldn't do things that White folks did. Arthur and I were just talking about the Christmas parade when we were growing up. They would take us to see a White Santa riding by, and he was throwing candy at the White kids. He never threw candy at us, we were just there staring. We were just happy to be there. 

In the restaurants we couldn't go in either. We had to go back in the alley,and order from a special window for people of color; and wouldn't dare to drink water from a White fountain. There was one for the Whites, and another for the colored folks. 

Everything was segregated we couldn't go to the fair, like you take our grandson. They only had one day where Blacks could go. I never went Mama just took one of us,  our oldest brother. There was also only one pool for Blacks, there were many pools for Whites. It was far from home, and we had to take the bus to get to the pool. 

Speaking of buses. When I was teenager they had these boards on the bus (we called them street cars) that read “color.” They might have been 6 feet long, and you had to walk behind the board all the way to the back and sit. Then in my early 20’s that’s when the Rosa Parks movement started because Rosa didn't find a seat in the back. At the train station there was also a “Color” side, and a “White” side. 

As an adult going to go the theater and watch a movie we had to go upstairs. This also reminds me of something else shopping. Even in the 1950’s when I was working you’d go to these nice department stores you couldn't try on anything. You have to purchase it, take it home, and then return if it didn't fit. Don’t dare put anything on your head either. 

Your Dad was Black but had fair (white) skin color; do you think life was easier for him because of that? 
I guess it was easier for him as long as they didn't see him with us. For instance, if we were with him they’d knew he was Black. Every time we traveled by car in the South we couldn't use the bathrooms. He could use the bathroom but we had to hide in the car. Then he’d tell us, “All right I’m coming up in a corn field.” So all of us can “go.” 

Did you have any contact with White folks? White friends when growing up? 
Oh, no never! We could get arrested. I didn't want to get arrested. 

Fast forward to this day and age because today we’re celebrating Black History Month. Do you think there still exists racism, and segregation to a certain degree? 
Yes, if you've grown up in this you just feel it, and maybe this person would be all right but you can walk into a room with a group of Whites you just feel like you don’t “belong.” A few years ago, my brother, his girlfriend, and I drove to Mississippi. We were looking for a restaurant, and pulled up and got out. We walked in, and it got quiet all of sudden all these Whites turning their heads and looking at us. However, the restaurant waitress, and everyone else that worked there was so nice. When we walked in we just got that “feeling” {she shakes her} it’s a strange feeling. 

I remember when I was in graduate school, my brother was coming back from Korea; and on his way he would come back through New York. I was living at the “Y” that was my first time living away from home, and I told him that I’d get a room for him at a hotel. I called and reserved the room. When we got there they asked our name and they looked at us; and told us no. This was during the summer of 1953 in New York. We had to run around, and look for a room for him. 

Even today, there are Black and White churches in town. Not because of the segregation, but it’s how it is. I wouldn't feel comfortable visiting an all-White church. It’s a strange feeling, and it’s there. 

How did you feel when Barack Obama won the presidency as the 1st Black president of the US? {Smiles, and waves her hands up in the air} Woo! Oh boy! It’s a wonderful feeling. 

Although the president is ½ Black, and ½ White, he’s considered and viewed as a Black man. You have a grandson who is ½ Latino and ½ Black how do you think the world will view him as?
He’s going to be viewed as Black, and he’s a good looking Black; and a smart one. 

What would you tell your grandson if he asked you, “Grandma what am I?” 
You’re my grandbaby! You’re my little apple dumpling, that’s what you are! {Laughs out loud!} 

Can you give your grandson some words of wisdom, about racism and prejudice? 
Give people a chance to prove themselves; whatever they say they are. Sometimes your first encounter could be different after you get to know them. 

What advice would you give him? 
Just to believe in himself, and whatever it is that he’s striving for or if he thinks he can do it no matter how they “other people” look at him try anyways. I like to be independent, and if they “other people” don’t want me I don’t let that drag me. I just say goodbye. Go on and do your own thing. I want him to be honest. It's important for him to be an honest man. 

How do you feel about interracial relationships, and about me? {I asked her to be honest. I've been married to her son for 6 years so whatever she said wasn't going to bother me.}
{We laugh!} I just had a lump in my chest. I was where did he find her? I didn't know you. It’s like I tell my grandson get to know the person first; but I was shocked! I wondered why he couldn't find a Black girl to marry, but deep down it’s not all that. It’s my son’s decision who he wants to be with. 

Why were you shocked? 
They’d be saying that Puerto Ricans would cut you all up, and I was thinking Lord, I don’t want you stabbing on my baby. {Everyone laughs!} 

I asked her where in the world did she get that from! She has no idea, and that's what she's heard. I will probably have to do a little bit more research and see where this negative perception of Puerto Ricans is coming from.  

After the interview we looked through old pictures. I thanked my mother-in-law for her time, and then went on to interview my father-in-law. You’ll read that interview in an upcoming post. 

My thoughts and reflection
It is our responsibility as parents to educate and teach our generation of the struggles of their ancestors. With that being said, this blog is a cultural journal for my son. For him to embrace, and be proud of his unique Latin and Black heritage. It’s an open letter for when he’s older so he can read, and learn how special he truly is.