A kind of “noblesse oblige” attitude
My family lived in Avondale, Alabama, until we moved to a farm on Lower Rocky Ridge (south Jefferson County) in about 1960. Our mailing address was Route 13, Birmingham, and I always considered myself as being born and raised here. I was just a little girl and was pretty sheltered from anything that was going on in 1963, but I do remember a few things. We had a maid who worked one day a week for my Mama. Her name was Lillie, and I have two distinct memories regarding her.
When I was little, people didn’t refer to black people as “black”; they said “Negro” but due to our Southern pronunciation, it came out sounding like “Nigra.” My mother called me into her bedroom one day and told me not to say “Nigra” around Lillie because it hurt her feelings; I was told to say “Colored.” I remember laying on Mama’s bed and crying because she said I’d possibly hurt Lillie.
The second thing was I was on the floor playing in front of our little black and white TV one day. All of a sudden my mother came in from the next room, very upset. She ran back to the bedrooms where Lillie was working and said, “Oh, my God, Lillie, they’ve shot the President!” They both came back out and stood watching the coverage from Dallas.
My son and I have recently discussed the Civil Rights movement, which is why these memories came so readily to mind. I wasn’t raised to think black people were bad or to be hated or feared, but there was a kind of “noblesse oblige” attitude, in that we should “take care” of them which surely implied that they must be inferior in some way. I remember my brothers (10 and 12 years older than me) saying their favorite Christmas tradition was when Papa would bring home toys and they would go with him to the “colored” section and give them out to the little children. It’s the only thing I ever heard mentioned about Christmas when they were small. This practice stopped at some point, because I never went along–whether because we lived farther out or because they realized it might be taken the wrong way, I don’t know, but something changed.
There was also an older black man named Henry who worked for my grandmother in Woodlawn. When she moved out to the farm, Henry often came out to work and I can remember trailing along after him all over the property from the time I was barely able to toddle. I learned to drive the Farmall Cub tractor sitting in his lap. People may find it hard to believe that white parents would let a middle-aged black man “babysit” their baby girl while he worked in the garden or repaired fences–out of sight of the house–but they knew he wouldn’t hurt me or let anything happen to me. I know that continued from the time I could barely walk until I was almost a teenager, because he gave me dating advice. He told me that boys really liked those “Sadie Bits” cars and I should learn something about them. It wasn’t until I was 15 that I found out that what he and I called “Sadie Bits” were actually “Mercedes Benz”!
I do realize I was sheltered and that my family moved out of town during the “white flight,” but they had purchased the farm in 1955, and it was always in their plans to have a place to grow food. The reason given was that one side of the family had nearly starved during the Depression and they never intended to be without land again if they could help it!
It seems to me that one reaction you don’t hear anyone talk about was the sense of hurt and betrayal that some white people had because they did not consider themselves racists and in their own minds at least, had only tried to be helpful. I know there were some awful people (all colors) who have done awful things, but there were truly good, well-meaning people (all colors), too.
Kelly Martin Laney wrote this story for Kids in Birmingham 1963, in the fall of 2013, during commemoration of the 50th anniversary of civil rights events in that city.