This month marks the 60th anniversary of my first trip to the Deep South and my first experience with institutionalized racism. It was quite a journey.
My mother hailed from Bryan, Texas – famous for being close to College Station, the home of Texas A&M. For me, it would become infamous for being the home of some mini-minded bigots. In 1955 there was little possibility of making the nearly 1,500-mile trek to Texas by air.
So we did the next best thing. My father bought a brand new Chevy station wagon – a red and white Nomad, as I recall. My parents packed five kids and luggage for seven people for a week into that wagon that my mother referred to as a “stagecoach.”
There were no superhighways back then so travel involved going through a lot of little towns, big cities and tiny hamlets along the way. It started to change for me in Tennessee when we stopped at a gas station.
I was headed to the restroom in a big hurry but had to stop when I read the signs over the doors. One said “Men” and the other “Women,” but a third sign said “Colored.” I was confused. We didn’t encounter many African-Americans in South Buffalo but I competed against a few in baseball and they didn’t seem a whole lot different than us.
I asked my father about it as we waited. He grabbed me by the shirt collar and hauled me off to the car with a very serious warning never to raise the subject again on the trip. That just made me more confused, but confused was a whole lot better than making my father angry, so I complied. Later, when most of the other kids were asleep, he told me that “things were different here” and to ignore the difference.
By the time we reached Bryan, we were all glad to get out of our stagecoach. We were greeted with heat that I’d never known. After the newness of seeing hogs in my Texas granddaddy’s front yard and walking a hundred yards to use the outhouse in the backyard, we needed some relief from the heat. One of my mom’s brothers said he could take us to a swimming pool and that was like getting a gift from the Almighty.
Before leaving home, my mother had bought matching T-shirts for myself and my two brothers that were emblazoned with “Buffalo NY, The City of Good Neighbors” on the front. We wore them to the pool.
We weren’t 10 feet inside the pool fence when the catcalls started.
“New York? Y’all sleep with them n------ up there and now you want to use our pool?” The rest of the fledgling KKK members chimed in, but it was hot and there was water so into the pool we went. In less than five minutes my brother Jim, the oldest of the siblings, was surrounded by a cluster of really angry Texas teenagers.
It was hard to understand what they were mad about. They didn’t know us. They didn’t know how we lived. We weren’t moving in next door and none of us said anything about the Confederate flag on the pool fence. But rather than get lumped up by the band of bigots, we cut short our stay at the pool.
The rest of the trip was sort of a blur. But I never forgot the virulence of those kids at the pool or my father’s words: “things are different here.”
It seems like they still are.