Worlds Apart: Growing Up in a Bubble in Birmingham
A large Confederate flag filled most of one wall of my grandfather’s study in his Birmingham home during the 1950s and 1960s. It was always the first thing I noticed when I walked into the dimly lit room—a startling shout of hot red and star-studded blue against a dark stone wall.
On the opposite wall was a painting of the Princess Pocahontas, who, according to genealogical research by my great-grandmother, was said to be our direct ancestor. I heard once that my grandfather, proud of being related to royalty but uncomfortable with the darkness of the princess’s complexion, had Pocahontas’s skin lightened a bit before he hung the painting.
My grandmother used to take me with her to the grocery store in her old Dodge. When I was about six years old, I remember getting into her car one day and asking her the name of a Black lady we had seen earlier that day. She quickly reprimanded me, “Pam, you never call a colored woman a ‘lady.’” Actually, she probably didn’t say “colored woman,” but something else. I remember feeling smacked down by the reprimand. And I was careful not to repeat that grave breach of etiquette in the following years. (more…)
And this was only one year
1963 changed my life. The tensions were growing, and everyone was on edge. Then, Easter morning between Sunday School and church, a couple of us dashed over to the local drug store in Homewood—a block from our very big Southern Baptist Church—to read comics and buy gum. As we walked back to our church, a car filled with African Americans pulled into our front parking lot. They stopped briefly, and I looked up to see what they were seeing. The church deacons were standing at the top of the stairs, their arms locked together as if they were playing Red Rover. Then they slowly walked down the stairs with their arms locked together. Their message was clear—they were not going to allow the African Americans to enter our church to worship with us.
Later my mother said, “Those people didn’t come to worship.” I told her I didn’t think Mr. P and Mr. H came to worship either. They were officers of the large insurance company headquartered in Birmingham, and used their church connections for business. I’ll never forget the look of determination on their hard faces.
In May, the protests began in downtown Birmingham. (more…)
My Dad’s Struggle to Do the Right Thing in Racially Charged Birmingham
I grew up in the South in the 1950s.
‘Negroes’ drank from water fountains labeled ‘Colored’; used separate restrooms from whites; and were relegated to sit in the back of buses.
My father owned a small retail store in downtown Birmingham.
We lived on the Southside of Birmingham and I often took the Highland Avenue bus downtown to meet my parents or friends.
My parents taught me and my brother and sister to be respectful, so one day I remember asking my father if it was okay to give up my bus seat to an elderly black woman. He sternly warned that I would risk being hurt by some hateful people.
My dad was kind and respectful to his employees, but at that time there were laws against ‘colored’ office workers and salespeople.
When it became clear that the Civil Rights law was going to pass and rules prohibiting ‘colored’ employment were about to change, my dad took the opportunity to hire a black office worker—likely among the first in a white owned retail store in Birmingham. (more…)
Author’s note: I’ve used the old-fashioned, at-the-time-polite terms “Negro” and “colored” to describe the African Americans who appear in these stories. I hope you will understand I have no intention to offend anyone by my choice of those terms. For integrity’s sake, I’m merely using the vernacular of the time. (From The Newspaper Boy by Chervis Isom, 2013, page xiii)
He pointed to large, raised letters near the end of the dusty eight inch steel pipe. With one swipe, I brushed them clean. “Made in Belgium,” I muttered, as if he needed my translation. Then he stalked away. I studied the dozens of identical pipe stacked in the yard. The electric grinder he had given me, now hanging from my hand, seemed wholly inadequate for the job I had been told to do.
As I dithered, trying to figure out the best way to begin, I noticed the colored guy—they called him Arizona—watching me. His neutral face showed no emotion, but I knew he must have been amused to watch a college boy flounder in ignorance and incompetence.
How do I begin? I wondered. Is there a place to sit? If I sit on the pipe, will it roll? There must be a trick to this somehow. Arizona watched quietly. After a few moments, I looked at him. “You done this before?” (more…)
The whole truth
Mom had a long list of values to instill in us. Probably at the top of the list was: “Always tell the truth.” Just as I entered fifth grade, we moved to Birmingham, where that rule was about to get more nuanced: there was “the truth” and there was “the whole truth.”
Dad moved Mom and us four kids to Birmingham so he could join the civil rights movement. He may have been the only white man in the state whose fulltime job was civil rights. Mom and Dad had cautioned us not to talk about Dad’s work. With our teachers, neighbors, and friends, that piece of the truth could mean trouble. We navigated a fine line, technically never telling a lie but holding back most of what mattered to us. (more…)