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.
My mother worked the cash register and she noticed that there was a very nice, bright, young black man who came in every week to make his payments. She recommended that my dad hire him.
Some of my dad’s white employees were not happy. His most senior employee was an older woman who told my dad that she knew it was wrong, but she would not agree to work in the same office with a ‘colored’ man.
So my father set up a desk for her in the shoe department at the back of the store.
That seemed to pacify her and within a few months he hired several more African-American employees in the office and on the sales floor.
On occasion I’ve had the opportunity to hear Civil Rights leaders speak. Some have been critical of Southern merchants—many of whom were Jewish—as not being as proactive as they would have liked to embrace integration.
But it’s important to understand and to have a perspective on the lives of Jewish businessmen and their families in the 1950s.
This was just a few years after the Holocaust where six million Jews including 1 ½ million children were slaughtered by Hitler. The KKK [Ku Klux Klan] and segregationists in the South hated the Jews as much or more than the blacks.
Between November 1957 and October 1958, there were bombings and attempted bombings in seven Jewish communities in the South.
On April 28, 1958, 54 sticks of dynamite were planted at Temple Beth-El, located on the Southside of Birmingham within two blocks of our house.
Maybe my father could have done more, but he certainly would have risked the wrath of segregationists on him and my family.
He did the best he could.
By the way, the young man my father hired was Bunny Stokes.
Bunny, after a number of years working and being mentored by my dad, was hired by A.G. Gaston, a legendary Birmingham black business man, and he soon became the Chairman and CEO of Birmingham’s Citizens Federal Savings Bank.
Bunny is an exceptional man and became a role model for others.
My dad took a great deal of pride in Bunny—and felt he had helped create opportunities for Bunny and many other African-Americans.
My father died much too young at 54—nearly 50 years ago.
He lived through difficult times, but he did it respectfully and with a desire to make things better.
David Sher’s story first appeared at ComebackTown, a blog whose purpose is to “have a conversation on how to create a more prosperous metro Birmingham.” The story is republished at Kids in Birmingham 1963, in November 2018, with his permission. Click here for more about Mr. Bunny Stokes.