The Folklore Project
Memories of Segregation
By Dee Thompson
I was born in 1962 in Augusta, Georgia, so I should have clear memories of living in the time of segregation. But I don’t really remember anything about it, except two incidents.
My parents — college-educated Episcopalians from old Southern families — were very careful to raise me and my brother as non-racists. If we had ever used the N-word, we would have been spanked.
We had a black maid, but she was called Miss Daisy, and we knew to obey her without question and treat her with respect. I never saw my parents treat anyone, of any race, with anything other than respect and politeness.
The first time I remember being even aware of segregation, I was about 4 or 5 years old. Mom and Dad and my brother and I were on a trip, and we stopped in some tiny town to use the bathroom at a rest stop. I got out of our old station wagon and went over to where there were restrooms. I had curly blonde hair, blue eyes, and dimples. People who noticed me — particularly women — usually used words like “precious” and “dollbaby” and slopped sugar all over me, to an annoying extent.
That day, I really had to go. I saw a bathroom door with the word “WOMEN” on it, and I recognized that word even though I couldn’t read. I didn’t notice the word “COLORED.” So, I used that bathroom and then walked outside and to get a drink from the water fountain. I had just started drinking when a white woman with a beehive hairdo and a mean face came running over and started screaming at me, “She’s drinking from the nigra fountain! I saw her come out of the NIGRA BATHROOM!”
I was absolutely terrified.
My mother appeared suddenly and grabbed my hand and just hurried me out of there. I think she told the woman to just leave me alone. I was shaking with fear. I remember nothing else about that day or that vacation, but the woman screaming at me is seared into my memory.
The next memory is far worse.
My brother, Bruce, had his eighth birthday party at a skating rink in Augusta. This was about 1968. I was 6. Mom had handed him a stack of 20 invitations and told him to give them out to his friends at school.
Mom and Dad took me along to skate, too. I had skated on the driveway at home but never at a skating rink. I was beside myself with excitement.
We went in the door, paid, and rented our skates. I remember skating and, of course, the cake and presents for my brother. And I remember this: A child walked in who was in my brother’s class, an African-American boy. Bruce went over to say hi. The owner of the rink was taking the money, and as soon as the black child and his parents walked in, the owner’s face changed from smiling and welcoming to hard and unsmiling. He refused to let the child come in and skate, even though he had been invited to the birthday party.
“We don’t allow no niggers in here! Get OUT!” the man hollered.
My father got up and walked over to the owner and argued, but the man wouldn’t back down.
The owner was ugly and snarling at the black child and his parents. He wouldn’t stop until the black family left the building. Shortly after that, we wrapped up the party and left.
As we were walking to the car, Mom and Dad stopped to talk to boy’s parents and apologize. They were mortified.
On the way home, there was silence in the car, except I remember Dad telling us, “One day soon, things like that won’t happen. Things are changing.”
What sticks in my mind is that my father saw an ugly situation and tried to correct it, trying to reason with a racist. We all felt terrible for the black boy who couldn’t skate that day, just because he wasn’t white. I remember being so puzzled that the rink owner would be so mean about something as trivial as skin color.
I have never forgotten that. I asked my mother recently, who is 82, about her recollection of the event. She said the black child’s mother called a couple of days before the party, and said the skating rink was segregated. Mom was very upset. She called the skating rink owner, and he was ugly on the phone. Mom called Dad, who called the owner. Nothing worked. Finally, the mother of the black child said they would just come by and let the child give Bruce a present, but he wouldn’t skate. Mom felt terrible, but she couldn’t move the party location because she didn’t know who Bruce had given invitations to, so she couldn’t call the other parents.
I vividly remember the turmoil when the black family walked into the skating rink, and my parents’ horror at the situation.
My brother has never forgotten it.
A few months after the birthday party, the skating rink closed. Mom cannot remember exactly why, but she thinks my dad had something to do with it. He was a banker and knew a lot of folks in Augusta, and knew the owners of the skating rink’s building. He died in 1996, so I can’t ask him about it, but he was always championing diversity. He hired the first black manager at his bank a few years later.
The South has changed so much since then.
My children — who are adopted — are mixed race, Russian and Asian. They went to schools here in suburban Atlanta, where white children were not the majority, where there was about an equal representation of black, Hispanic, and Asian kids. They have friends of all races. They don’t even view race as interesting.
Now grown, my daughter has a longtime boyfriend who is black. My son’s best friend is Hispanic. He has dated Hispanic girls. We have friends of all races.
Obviously, America isn’t a place of perfect racial harmony yet, nor is Atlanta. However, there has been a lot of progress, just in my lifetime.
I learned the ugliness of racism as a small child. Now, my own children would never think of treating someone of a different race any differently simply because of race. It would never even occur to them.