Back to key childhood town today via the NYT opinion piece, I recalled Danville, VA. Tess Taylor, likely the age of my eldest son, wrote on how early Civil Rights protests hit even her white, establishment granddad.
In the very segregated setting only three miles above North Carolina, I went to elementary and junior high. Separate black/white schools were the norm. Even Greyhound was the white bus line versus the black Trailways. Some accommodations were not quite blended. I think of the Rialto movie theater, which kind of accommodated black folk, so long as they sat in the balcony. In fact, when I was eight, a friend thought he was tricking me by sending me upstairs with my bag of popcorn. When I noticed that the white people were downstairs and I was among rows of exclusively black people, I wasn’t bothered and watched the double feature (always at least a double and the Rialto had the Westerns and other action flicks). Later I wondered whether anyone in the balcony resented a white kid in their seats. If so, they didn’t let me know. After the movies, my classmate met me and looked chagrined. I think maybe he tasted his own racism and found his joke unfunny.
Taylor’s piece is on her grandfather’s modestly foolish upbraiding of a racist judge for coming heavy on black protesters for integration. It gives nice background on Danville as well as the perceived praise of her relative.
I’ve written on Danville here before. I lived there longer than anywhere until I moved to Manhattan after college and those were formative years.
Fortunately, my mother was not a racist and we were not infected by the malevolent disorder. She ran the Red Cross chapter, where black folk as well as white volunteered and received such services as blood, transportation, first-aid and home nursing training and such. Black folk were as welcome in our lives as whites. There were a few Jews, including the physician who rented to us, although I don’t recall knowing or even seeing Asians. It was a two-colored world.
We moved to a far more rural Chester — middle of the same state, but not at all a city, before going to Plainfield, NJ for high school. PHS was half black. Plus my classes were a quarter to half Jewish students. I took the bus to Manhattan every chance I got. I experienced intense culture shock, almost entirely in a good way. I did hear and see Yankee de facto segregation and overt racism though, as I did and do during my decades in Boston. The first time I heard anyone openly using the N word was in my first few days in New Jersey. The separation of races in old Danville seems to have minimized open disdain, plus likely the veneer of civility in the South.
Pic note: The building was my public library and had been the site of the last capital of the Confederacy. Danville came with extra baggage.
On a far more prosaic level, I can draw light lines to other cultural transitions. I think of common tools, such as computers. I went from a manual typewriter to an electric one, on to when being a computer user meant bringing your task, like data analysis to a programmer who typed out punchcards and handed them to you to pile into a huge computer for calculation, I went on to batch processing in a shared environment and to paper tape mainframes before dedicated (and very expensive) word processors before workstations and then personal computers.
The improvements in integration and race relations have not been as linear or incessant. Yet integration advances, even in places like Boston, although there’s still a lot of happen. To return to the weak tool analogy, much as occurred in my lifetime and my towns. I think of my wife’s late grandmother, who grew up from the era before electricity and automobiles. Like Mable Thames, I have seen and benefited from much. Keep it coming.