As I remember, Missouri didn’t have segregated public transportation when I was growing up. That is not to say that racism didn’t flourish here. It did. I just wasn’t aware of it until fifth grade, when I was ten.
Mom emphasized in every way she could that all people were created equal. Sometimes I’d tell a story that indicated I thought I was better than someone else. Immediately, my mother would set my thinking straight.
“Dolores, don’t brag about your gift for numbers. What about Barbara June? What’s her gift?”
“Playing the piano.”
“And your brother?”
“Figuring out how to do things.”
“See? Different gifts. Noticing that makes all the difference.”
Arrogance wasn’t tolerated in our home. And anything smacking of intolerance was even less accepted. My mother believed in the “brotherhood of man.” At school, the nuns seemed to think that only Roman Catholics and a few other “saintly people” would go to heaven. Mom quashed that idea.
“Dolores, do you think God’s prejudiced?”
“Probably not. It’s not right.”
“He’ll welcome anyone who helps others. Just concentrate on that.”
Given this background, I was ill prepared for the blatant hatred of racial prejudice when I encountered it on a Kansas City streetcar.
I was taking the streetcar to my grandmother’s house. All the seats were filled. In the aisle, children, women, and men stood packed together. My father would have said, “like sardines.”
I stood pressed against two young women, one of them pregnant. I was turned toward the right side of the car and spent my time reading the ads posted above the windows. I looked up, not down.
At the next stop, the man sitting in the seat next to which I was standing stood up, excused himself, and began edging his way through the crowd. I’d been taught that pregnant women and women with young children were always to be given special consideration. So instead of simply sitting down, I turned to the pregnant women and said, “Mam, would you like this seat?”
She glanced down, and her pretty, white face twisted. She frowned. She grimaced. Her lips thinned. Her eyes became fierce. She glared as if in disgust.
I followed that glare downward and saw, sitting with his hands clasped and pressed between his legs, a young boy, no more than my own age. I looked back up at the woman, her face so ugly now, and asked, “Mam, do you want the seat, being pregnant and all?”
“I’d never sit down next to that n-----boy if you paid me. He’d contaminate my baby,” she hissed.
So I sat down. I wanted to reach and take his clasped hands from between his legs and shake them and say, “It’s alright. My mom’d say she’s just ignorant. But that’s no excuse for being mean.”
But I said nothing for he was staring fixedly out the window, his right shoulder turned away from me. I said nothing, but I thought lots. I wanted to know if that happened often. I wanted to tell him how my classmates used to laugh at me. And how I cried because of this. I wanted to know if he felt like crying. I wanted simply to know that boy.
Where did he go to school? What subject was his favorite? Was he good in arithmetic too? Did he have a little brother? What would his mom say about that pregnant white woman? How often did someone treat him like that? How scared was he?
I asked nothing. We sat in silence, riding the streetcar. By the time I got off at the corner of 39th Street, the aisles were empty. No one had to make the choice about whether to sit next to that ten-year-old black boy. No one had to choose whether to be contaminated.
I never forgot. That hate-filled, ignorant woman will always be for me the face of racism and that shuddering young boy, his hands clasped between his knees, will always be its bitter fruit. On Saturday, I’ll share with you how that one incident led to my first foray into civil rights.
Before you leave this story today, please click on the following link to read Rita’s story of her encounter with God on the bus.
(Continued on Saturday . . . )
Photo of streetcar from Wikipedia