March 10, 2008
An Open Letter to Erma, Mattie, Homer, Alvin, Elaine, Charlene, Jeanette, Runell, Mary Linda, Johnny Sue, Billy, and Catherine.
In the fall of 1965, I entered Statesboro High School as a sophomore. This was only the second year in the existence of this new school building on Lester Road. But more was new than the lockers and desks awaiting me that fall. There were also new faces – darker faces than those I had been accustomed to in my Statesboro schools. Some of you were students who began Statesboro High School that year, the first year that the high school was integrated. And some of you remained and graduated with my class in 1968. Others decided to leave and return to William James. And others of you joined the class our junior or senior years. But all of you were my classmates. And one of you is no longer with us. This letter comes too late for Homer.
Like many of you, I was born here in Statesboro in 1950. And like you, I grew up in the days of Jim Crow laws. But unlike you, these laws did not affect me in obvious ways. My white privilege allowed me access to every store, restaurant, and entertainment spot in town. And for the most part, I was pretty naïve about the evils of racism. Oh, I did notice things – as all children do. I remember when I was 5 or 6, standing in the “Whites Only” line at the Dairy Queen with my dad, waiting to get a cone. It was a hot day and there were lines at both the “white” and “colored” windows. Perhaps that’s why I noticed the differences. So I asked my dad why all of the white people were in our line and all of the colored people were in the other line. My father shared this unique explanation with me. He told me that we were white – and that we stood in our line to get vanilla ice cream, while the colored people stood in the other line to get chocolate ice cream. Of course, I immediately told him that I wanted chocolate! And he said, “No, you are white, so you get vanilla. That’s just the way it is and you have to accept it.” Well, I didn’t realize that vanilla was the only flavor served at Dairy Queen. (That was even in the days before dipped cones.) But his answer stuck with me. And it has served as a metaphor for what happened in my life. Indeed, I just accepted the differences and did not question them further. Yet, I still took notice – like when boxes were being filled at my elementary school (Mattie Lively) with our old worn-out textbooks. I asked what was going to happen to them and was told that they were being taken to the “colored school” for the children to use there. “Separate but equal” was never the case in Bulloch County.
To be fair to my parents, they never overtly taught me to be a racist. They didn’t have to. Everything in my society, from the Dairy Queen windows on, taught me that white folks and black folks should function in separate social environments. And my society not only taught me that “separate” was right, it also taught me that I was in the superior group. All I had to do was look at the water fountains. The “whites only” fountains were clean with cool, refrigerated water. Not so for the “colored” fountains. And of course, my church reinforced these standards. In the 60’s we also were witnesses to television news programs showing activities of the Civil Rights movement. But these were presented in ways that made me fearful. I’m sure it must have been covered, but I don’t remember seeing much of the peaceful demonstrations that I can now view in documentaries of that time. The emphasis on our news seemed to be on riots and angry black people wanting to “destroy our way of life.” The propaganda worked. I was afraid and fearful of the possibilities of integration. And I did not understand why in the world you would want to leave “your” school and come to “our” school.
The Brown Decision, virtually outlawing segregated schools, was handed down by the courts in 1954. Yet the schools in Statesboro had managed to remain completely separate for the next 10 years. The latest effort to satisfy the courts had been the school system’s “Freedom of Choice” plan. This plan was one in which parents could “choose” their children’s schools. Everyone knew what choice was supposed to be made, though, and the schools remained separate till you and others made the bold decision to be pioneers in the effort to integrate our schools. So there you were, walking through our halls with your heads held high and a determined look in your eyes. And there I was, afraid of you, mad with you, but curious – oh so curious about folks like you.
For the next three years, we did our high school activities and really had very little interaction with each other. I found out later that there were lots of folks who were interacting, though very negatively with you – trying to run you down with their cars and hurling insults and rocks. I didn’t know about these occurrences because I never attempted to really get to know you. I did make a connection with one girl that was life changing. I used to be one of the folks at school that was a “cut-up” and class clown – someone who would make jokes about things and try to lighten up everyone’s attitudes. When we were in the hallways, one of you would “cut up” with me in similar ways. And we became friendly with each other. I would like to say we were friends. But I never invited you to my house and you never invited me to yours. We were about as friendly as a white girl and black girl could be in those days I suppose. And I remember thinking that I was more LIKE you than I was my white friends. We were both from middle class families with parents that emphasized a strong work ethic, and we were both so fun-loving. We were “kin” in many ways. But I kept that thought to myself – not daring say it aloud. That thought of our kinship, however, cracked through the armor of racism that I had built around me. And I began to open my mind to the possibilities of a wider world of humanity. I never thanked you for that.
This year I have been involved with others in planning the 40th class reunion for the Class of 1968. We haven’t had one in 30 years and I’m very excited about seeing folks again. Focusing on my high school classmates and high school years has been a time of joy and sorrow for me. One of the sorrows that I have is that I missed out on a real opportunity to get to know some fantastic people. And I missed out on an opportunity to provide a welcoming hand of fellowship. This was my loss and I can’t retrieve it. But I can apologize.
- I’m sorry that I did not make an effort to understand why you were coming to SHS.
- I’m sorry that I did not meet you in front of the school and say hello.
- I’m sorry that I was afraid of you and avoided being in places where several of you were together.
- I’m sorry that I avoided sitting by you in class.
- I’m sorry that I was involved with negative conversations about you and did not speak up when you were put down.
- I’m sorry that I didn’t encourage you to join the clubs that I was in or join the flaggette team.
- I’m sorry that I didn’t invite you to my 16th birthday party. It would have been a lot more fun with you there.
- I’m sorry that I didn’t find ways to get to know you – really know you and understand you individually, rather than seeing you as “one of those black students.”
- I’m sorry that I didn’t recognize the remarkable opportunity that I had in that place and time in history to be a part of something special with you.
- And I’m sorry – oh SO sorry, that it’s taken me 40 years to say, “I’m sorry.”
I hope you can forgive me. Who knows? Maybe it’s not too late for some of us.
|Three classmates together in 2014|
Jane Altman Page