When did you first understand bigotry?
Willis Webb

Those of us who were teens and young adults in 1950s and 1960s Texas and the South can recall when we first began to recognize and understand that bigotry resided within and around us in our segregated society.

Before racism became headline news, I blindly accepted there was some separation although the idea of doing harm to anyone of color just because they were “different” never crossed my mind. There were certain “givens” for whites in a separatist society and, again, were accepted with little consideration. One inference of second- class citizenship for African-Americans was that not only were they inferior socially but intellectually as well.

That’s so backward-sounding today, it’s hard to wrap my mind around it even though I grew up in it.

However, two experiences in my teen times brought the realization to me that the inferior mind theory was, to put it politely enough for this family newspaper, a crock of malarkey.

It was my routine on 1950s fall Saturday mornings to roll out of bed and try to shake the cobwebs away from Friday night football hits plus late-night, after-game socializing before walking across town (in Teague, that was 8-10 blocks) to my girlfriend’s house.

Usually, she was still asleep and her parents were at work. Their African-American maid, who was the same age as I, was already there busily cleaning the house. Usually, while girlfriend slept, I went into the kitchen and the maid fixed breakfast for me.

Girlfriend’s maid was a very attractive teenage girl and, I discovered, quite bright. My first few Saturday mid-morning exposures to this young woman involved “ hellos” and breakfast. Little conversation took place.

Then, after putting breakfast in front of me one Saturday, the maid said, “I didn’t get much sleep last night and I’ve been working really hard since 7, do you mind if I sit down and have some toast and coffee?” No, I didn’t mind. We began to talk about school and family and the future for teens like us. I knew who her family was and that it was large. She told me she was the youngest of 12 and then gave me a mild shock: Every one of her siblings had a college degree and she was going to college next year just as I was.

A year later she was at Prairie View A& M and I was at Sam Houston State Teachers College. It was during that freshman year that the second revelation about equal intellectual capacity occurred.

In those days, hitchhiking was common and safe. Since my family couldn’t afford a car for one son much less all four of us, I “thumbed it” back and forth between Teague and Huntsville on many weekends. U.S. Highway 75, the predecessor to I-45, was the principal road then.

One weekend, as I headed home, an elderly farmer picked me up at the edge of Huntsville. When I piled into the car, he asked where I was going. I told him and he said, “Oh, well, I can get you a fer piece up the road.” I should’ve figured that didn’t mean “far” for me. He dropped me in Leona, a no-traffiic-lightwide spot-in-the-road.

I stood there for what seemed like an eternity as cars zoomed by. Finally, one stopped. The driver was an African-American man. I was a tad hesitant because I’d heard a few tall tales but I also knew that some whites greatly abused blacks in those days. And, I’d been thumbing long enough that I was way behind schedule, so I hopped in.

This African-American man, I learned in short order, was very intelligent, well-spoken and friendly. He was, in those days of dual systems, a “Negro County Extension Agent,” and a graduate of Prairie View.

It was an eye-opening, educational ride right to my house. We talked about everything under the sun.

After my two encounters, my views about “separate-but-equal” were altered and it was easy for me to embrace the changes that stood much of this country on its ear in the 1960s.

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2011-06-23 digital edition

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