March 27, 2008

Sherry's baby pictures, a portrait of Jim Crow segregation laws

Recently, Sherry and I chatted on Skype (she in Atlanta; I, in Tel Aviv). Our signature unstructured exchanges moving from personal stories to more public ones, took a sudden and dramatic shift back to the personal. “Did I tell you about Corey’s conversation with my mother?” she blurted out.

And out poured another scary true tale of the upshot of Jim Crow, underscoring the perfect pitch of Senator Barack Obama’s
recent 37-minute speech heard around the world. "But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now," he intoned, calling all the people of the U.S. to face it head on.

Tell your truth, Sherry,” I coaxed, write about Corey’s conversation with your mother, and use my blog as your virtual StoryCorps project booth.
” And she did just that.

° ° °

Baby Pictures
by Sherry as told to me
Hattie Pearl and daughters Sherry (L) and Marsha (R)
I was born 56 years ago, and grew up in suburban Atlanta, Georgia. I am all too familiar with racism and the humiliation of segregation. However, I was amazed by a call I got from my sister Marsha.

told me about her son Corey's conversation with our mother. It was about the baby pictures (long a sensitive subject for my siblings and one that our mother, Hattie Pearl, kept silent about for years). Last month my twenty-something nephew asked her why there were no baby pictures of his mother.

Though we have baby pictures of me, the eldest, we have none of my four siblings. And until
Corey's direct questioning, they remained puzzled and asked about it, but my mother didn’t really answer.

My mother’s answer was simple yet amazing. She calmly explained that when I was born, in 1952, photography studios where we lived would not photograph black people. So, my parents drove to Auburn Avenue in downtown Atlanta and had my pictures taken in this black business and residential area. When the family grew rapidly, my parents were simply too busy to make the trek for my siblings’ pictures. “Why didn’t you ever tell us?” I asked her. She just shrugged.

No eating here; no sitting there
My mother hated taking us for ice cream, she later told us, because while black people could buy at an ice cream shop, they were forbidden from eating there. We kids would pepper her with questions all the way home about why we couldn’t eat at the shop. Much later I realized that she could not bring herself to tell her babies that America considered us second-class citizens.

While my mother continued to try to protect us, the horrible truth was encroaching steadily. One day it hit me with a force that still shocks me today.

Many Saturdays, she would drop us off at the Strand Movie Theatre, where we entered through the back door. When I asked why we went this way, she said it was cheaper, and I accepted her explanation.

I don’t remember
my mother telling us to sit upstairs in the balcony; probably, we intuitively joined the other black people. One day, all the balcony seats were filled. So I, age seven or eight, blithely went down the stairs, found an empty seat, and sat down.

Suddenly, a white man, shining a flashlight in my face, screamed “Nigger, get back in that balcony!” Terrified and sobbing, I ran upstairs, sat on the steps, and continued to cry. The other black kids laughed hysterically, incredulous that I didn’t know my place. While I still
hear the violent screams and the laughter, I remember nothing about the movie.

Vacation Bible School fiasco
For some reason, a few white women came to teach Bible School at our church. All week, we had done arts and crafts, which I loved, and Friday, we would take our projects home. One night that week, the Klan burned a cross at our church. The teachers couldn’t return, and I never got my project. I felt devastated, confused, and afraid.

Traumas of integration
These sample ordeals should have prepared me for the coming trauma. But they didn’t. In 1965, I was among the first small group of black children to integrate the high school under the Freedom of Choice plan. One night, a few days before starting school, a cross was burned in front of our house.  So the night before our first day, my dad
sat up all night long with a shotgun.

Everyone — students, teachers, administrators, and even bus drivers threatened, harassed, and humiliated us nonstop. After a year of this treatment, I finally got it. At the tender age of 13, I had an epiphany: They really do hate us and want to kill us! Until that moment, I had been clinging to the belief that this couldn’t possibly be true.

When I became the first black person to be admitted to the Beta honors club, I was ready. I stood stoically in the line of inductees and heard students in the audience scream at the adults, “You must have made a mistake, there’s no such thing as a smart nigger!”

During the horrible integration days, my normally shy mother’s behavior was astonishing. She protected us vigorously and even threatened the principal that she would take him to the U.S. Supreme Court if he forced black children to sit together on the bus (this way, accommodating white kids’ demands to sit apart from us).

So, I suggested to my black classmates that we spread out and take a seat in all parts of the bus. In response, the driver told us to sit together (to create a separate block of seats for the white kids). When my mother confronted the principal with our reports, we were permitted to sit anywhere. Yet the white kids defied the order and stood rather than sit next to us.

My mother had such strength. During the early days of integration, we commuted many miles to the black elementary school as we rode past the white school, packed like pigs in a raggedy school bus. Until the day my mother went to the
black school and counted us as we got off the bus. There were 101 of us.

She enlisted the principal to join her in forcing the local board of education to give us another bus. When the board claimed it had no extra driver, an excuse for not getting the other bus, my mother found a driver.

Understanding and gratitude
For a long time, I was so angry with my mother for not telling me the truth before the theatre incident and about the other horrors sooner. Eventually, thank God, I came to understand her dilemmas and I imagined how she must have struggled during those years (and, of course, throughout her whole life).

I mean, really, how do you explain something like racism to a child? Now, I am grateful for those few sheltered years under the protection and sometimes cover-ups of my beleaguered parents.

Related post
Listening to StoryCorps’ Dave Isay and Atlantans tell their stories

Update | A month after publishing 
Sherry’s Baby Pictures, The Elder Storytelling Place weblog of Time Goes By cross-posted it with our permission, triggering a range of comments there, too.


Anonymous said...

I was amazed and moved by Obama's speech on racism etc., and also by your friend's stories on your blog. So real.

Pete said...

I grew up in a small city in Maine where the non-white population was zero. Everything we knew about issues of race came to us second- or third-hand, as received wisdom.

My first contact with African-Americans came in the military (almost no non-white faces at my college either). This was in 1969, when the civil rights movement was still reeling from the assassination of Martin Luther King.

In the military, blacks and whites had to get along as a matter of law. I behaved myself, but I didn't learn much. On one memorable occasion, I felt myself tensing up when I realized that mine was the only white face in the room. I was ashamed to be feeling what I felt, but such is the power of received wisdom.

I didn't really understand anything about segregation until I landed at the University of Tulsa in the fall of 1975. There in the library I was confronted with two drinking fountains about five feet apart. What was that about? An Oklahoma native explained to me that only in the '60s had the "Whites Only" and "Colored Only" signs finally come down.

Probably I can never have much real understanding of the black experience in America, but in that moment at TU, looking at those identical fountains, something changed inside me that will never change back.

When my daughter moved to a predominantly black neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY, in 2004 I made it a point to introduce myself to the neighbors. I had a nice time talking to a couple of guys about my age.

It can be that simple if people will only allow it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for providing, as StoryCorps does, the opportunity for story telling and sharing. And thanks, especially, for getting Sherry to tell her eloquent and moving story.

JeSais said...

Thank you Sherry (by way of Tamar) for sharing your stories. It made me cry. So sad that you had those experiences. And that while perhaps not in such a structured, institutionalized and publicly accepted way, sad that people are still experiencing these kinds of stories.

Tamar Orvell said...

All, your comments take away my breath. Dr. King admonished us to "... learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools." My blog posts are attempts to help me and anyone else to remember his words, and to act accordingly. The hope is to smash racism with hammers called truth telling, fact checking, and education for independent thinking. And there are other tools, of course.

Pete, I hope those two fountains remain forever at your alma mater, as memorials bearing witness to those whose lives were harmed, destroyed, or snuffed out by attitudes, behaviors, and customs that allowed and tolerated specific discrimination laws. Thank you for sharing your journey, from ignorance to awareness, and for becoming a different, evolved person.

jesais, Yes, "people are still experiencing these kinds of stories.... And, I am sad, too, for the perpetrators (and who isn't or wasn't... see Pete's brave comment) whose ignorance brought down communities, societies, and lives. None of these perpetrators, all “nice” people, who have appropriated religion for evil are absolved of responsibility for justifying and instigating hate and racism.

littlepurplecow said...

Thank you for sharing your story, Sherry. Uncovering past truths is a critical step in shaping the future.

listenclose said...

I'm writing from StoryCorps to let you know we saw your blog post telling Sherry's story, emphasizing the importance of listening to experiences and lessons. Sharing and listening is exactly what StoryCorps's mission is built upon.

Tamar, I wanted to write to let you know about a new initiative we're launching this year that might also appeal to your readers. StoryCorps is asking the whole country to set aside one hour on Friday, November 28th, the day after Thanksgiving, to record a conversation with a friend or loved one. We're declaring this day the National Day of Listening. We launched a website ( with more information and tips for a Do-it-Yourself style interview as well as a video walking through an interview scenario. Since so many Americans aren't able to make it to a StoryCorps recording booth, we're making it easier for everyone to share this experience in their own homes.

Again, thank you for writing about StoryCorps in connection with Sherry's story on your blog. Please share the idea of National Day of Listening and these Do-it-Yourself tools with your readers, family, and friends, helping us make the experience of listening as an act of love even more accessible.

Thank you again,