Yankee with a Southern Accent
I lived in the south all of my formative and young adult years (Georgia for 2 years and Alabama from age 4 to 39). However, my parents were not southerners; my mother lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, up until her marriage at 25; my father was born in California, and his family lived in the Midwest during most of his teen and young adult life. He graduated from a Wisconsin college. They did not agree with the segregation of black and white people; however, I was not aware of tension between my parents and our neighbors.
Though I was born in Akron, Ohio, our parents moved south for my father’s work, first to Georgia, and then, when I was 4 years old, to Trussville, Alabama, a suburb of Birmingham. The only experience I recall with African Americans during the period in Trussville was as they walked along the sidewalk adjacent to our house or in the grocery store. I never knew anyone’s name or had any conversation that I recall. I believe I was no more than 6 or 7, and maybe younger, when my mother instructed me in a very serious manner that I should never call or refer to a Negro man as a boy. She said that I might hear others say this but it was wrong and very important that I should not use the word ‘boy’ in speaking with or about a Negro man. She explained that she learned this as a teenager when her uncle returned to Milwaukee from a business trip to Mississippi where he had heard Negro men addressed with the word ‘boy.’ Mother was very clear that adult Negro males were men and that it was wrong to use the term ‘boy’ to address or refer to them.
This conversation preceded the historical events that filled my elementary school years: the Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision, 1954; the Montgomery bus boycott, 1955-1956; the integration of Little Rock High School, 1957. There were additional conversations with my mother throughout these years. She was not an activist and neither was I, but we were open in our opposition to segregation. She was the only registered Republican in our small town for many years. [Editor’s note: At that time the Democratic party dominated most elections in Alabama.] I had a good school experience but always regretted that Alabama schools did not integrate during my tenure, since I graduated from high school in 1962. My first experience with integrated schools was in Berry, Alabama, 1970.
The Freedom Riders were attacked several times during their ride through Alabama in May 1961. It was now mid-September 1961, I was 17, and after cheering at my high school football game I boarded a Greyhound bus in Birmingham, Alabama, heading to my first ‘college weekend’ – at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. After I changed buses in Chattanooga, the bus was very full, with several men standing in the aisle. I was seated by the window and the man seated next to me kept trying to engage me in conversation. He probably thought me a little older and I considered him inappropriate, maybe ‘fresh’ would have been the term. My responses were curt and I kept my head turned toward the window and the midnight blackness of the hour – but he was not discouraged. The bus provided local service and as we traveled, passengers began to disembark. After about an hour, my seatmate left the bus. As the seat was vacated, I felt relief that he was gone but immediately was gripped by fear when I realized the only remaining standing passenger was a Negro man. As he moved to take the seat, I was sure that when he did, violence would break out; that the passengers would not accept a Negro man sitting next to me. But they did, no one said or did anything, including my new seatmate and me. What a difference a state made; we were in Tennessee, not Alabama. After several miles he also departed the bus. The weekend was enjoyable.
Each Monday morning, our senior English class assignment was to write an essay during the class period. On the Monday morning following the bus ride, my essay was about this experience; I titled it “Humanity.” The teacher posted my essay on the school office bulletin board. I wrote about this experience a second time as part of the entry into my freshman year at Emory University, fall 1962. I don’t have a copy of either writing; however, writing it for both of these assignments signifies the importance of the experience in my life; and has helped to make it one I remember clearly.
Barbara Morland shared this story with Kids in Birmingham 1963 for publication in August 2020.