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Jump Jim Crow (Part 1 of 2)

Out of the segregated South: oral histories from the Great Migration


Read part 2 from this 2 part series here

Around 1830 in Cincinnati, Dan Rice, a white minstrel who performed in blackface, came upon a small, ragged Black child singing "Jump Jim Crow." He added the song to his repertoire, and it became a popular part of his performance. Six decades later, the term "Jim Crow" was adopted as a name for the legal segregation of whites and Blacks in the American South.

            This is the story of members of the Rochester community -- Black and white -- who grew up in the Jim Crow South. They were part of the Great Migration North that came in several waves during the first half of the 20th century.

            In 1865, after the Civil War, the 13th amendment to the United States Constitution abolished slavery, but any semblance of true freedom would take at least another century. Former slaves were granted citizenship rights and equal protection under the law in 1868.

            In the Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1896, the Supreme Court upheld a Louisiana law requiring railroad car accommodations for Blacks and whites to be "separate but equal." The "separate but equal" rule (known as "Jim Crow") was extended to other forms of transportation, schools, hotels, restaurants, and various public establishments. In the South, there were, in effect, two Americas.

            Reading these facts is one thing; hearing directly from the people who lived through it provides a more complete picture of what life was like in Jim Crow America.

The Southerners

Thirteen Rochesterians - nine Blacks and four whites - were interviewed for this article.

            • William Hall was born in Oviedo, Florida. He is retired after serving for 25 years as director of the Baden Street Settlement.

            • Nicky Harmon was born in Atlanta, Georgia. The wife of an Episcopal minister, she has assisted in running the Packard Manse Conference Center in Boston.

            • Jessie M. James was raised in Sanford, Florida. The author of two books, James taught personal development and leadership skills at Rochester Institute of Technology.

            • J.W. Johnson was born in Birmingham, Alabama. He is a retired professor of English at the University of Rochester.

            • William A. Johnson was born in Lynchburg, Virginia. He has served as Mayor of Rochester since 1994.

            • Evelena Lee was born in Memphis, Tennessee. She is retired after working for 30 years at Convalescent Hospital for Children (now called Crestwood Children's Center).

            • Katherine Logan was born in Memphis, Tennessee. She retired as a principal in the Rochester City School District.

            • Katherine Terrell was born in the mountains near Ashville, Tennessee. From the age of five to 20 she lived with her family in Niagara Falls. After her marriage in the late 1930s moved to rural Tennessee. She is retired from the Rochester Public School system

            • Alice Walters was born in Ahoski, North Carolina. She is retired after 31 years as a case worker with the Monroe County Department of Social Services.

            • James Walters was born in Jenkins, Kentucky, and raised in Gary, West Virginia. He is retired from a career in public service.

            • Ann Watson was born in Marietta, Georgia. She is a retired fiber artist.

            • Joe Watson grew up on the Southwest side of Atlanta, Georgia. Before his retirement he was Professor of Graphic Design at Rochester Institute of Technology.

            • Jimmy White was born in Sanford, Florida. He is the owner of the Oaktree Lounge and VIP Limousine Service. He was a heavy equipment operator for the City of Rochester.

The farm

After the abolition of slavery, and well into the 20th century, most Southern Blacks had no other option but to continue working in the fields for white farm owners.

William Hall:All the farms in those days were owned by whites, sort of a vestige from the Civil War when white families settled in there. Then later, as the slaves were dispersed, some of them ended up working for the farmers.

            I can remember the house that we lived in. We referred to it as a shotgun house, just a building maybe 24-feet long, one kitchen, two bedrooms. Living rooms were unheard of. No bathroom, all outhouses. No running water, no electricity.

Jimmy White: Our schooling back then, we were only going to school three months out of a year and you worked nine months. At the age of seven you would find something to do. I used to go out in the celery farm. My uncle was a foreman. I used to help out and he'd give me a little spending change. My step-father, he was working six days a week and you know what he got a day? One dollar. And the little place where he was staying, [the owner] charged my family one dollar a month rent.

            The house was tin roof. When it rained, my God, it seemed like Niagara Falls was comin' down on me. We lived on one side of the structure and on the other side there was another family. We didn't have electric lights. We didn't have running water. There was a little spring 30 or 40 yards away from the house where water continued to come up. No bathroom. We had to use the outhouse. To take a bath you have to heat up water on a wooden stove. I used to dread the summer months when hurricane season came. That usually starts around May, June, July, and it can get really, really scary.

Jessie M. James:I learned how to cook because my father, he worked on the farm with the hogs. My mother worked in the field planting celery, cabbage, collard greens.... Then when they would come in, they had to cook. Since I was the oldest one, it was my job to start cooking.

            Our grandparents, they owned their own farm. In summer all the grandchildren -- wasn't that many, maybe five or six of us -- we would help with the picking of the beans and the peanuts, tending to the tobacco, the watermelon, the sweet potatoes. We'd dig 'em up and put them out so they'd get dry, and sell them. He sold whatever he needed to sell. Then my mother and her sister would come and can, like two or three hundred jars of different things that we had put together. Then another uncle would come and drive them all the way back to Florida, to Sanford. Then they'd sort of divide them up.

Katherine Terrell:They'd go to work about four o'clock in the morning. They'd go out in the field and if a little frost came the crops were all dead. Then they'd have to [plant] all over again. After the tomatoes did come up, if there was a speck on a tomato then it didn't sell. Every time I see a tomato I respect a tomato 'cause I saw them; they came up the hard way. You got to go put each plant out there to make a living.

Domestic work

In urban areas, Blacks often took menial jobs as servants. They earned meager wages, but little had changed in terms of their status in society.

Ann Watson: My mother went to work at my father's furniture store so I was raised by a Black woman. She was with me all the time. Lula was there to mind me, to see that I didn't get in any trouble and I didn't get hurt. She also did the cooking and all the housecleaning. She did everything that needed to be done around there. An interesting thing about her: She was a Black woman who looked white, so she had a combination of issues there that she dealt with, and I was aware of that.

            She had arthritis or rheumatism, and we had back steps that went down from the back porch. I don't think they had a railing on them. Those were the steps that Lula used. And I kept saying, "Why can't Lula go out the front door?" They wouldn't let her go out the front door. I had a real fondness for Lula. Until she died I kept in contact with her, and it had been years since she worked for the family.

J.W. Johnson: There's a picture of me -- I must have been about 2 months old -- being held by a Black woman, Daisy, who came in to clean. She did the housework; she did the washing and ironing. Although we didn't have a lot of money to spare, there usually was a Black maid. Daisy was with us quite a while, then Rosa. Rosa had a little boy and she would bring him over and we would play together.

            Everybody was so poor in those days, comparatively speaking, I think probably the maids worked for their food or whatever they could take home. Sometimes they would slip away an extra egg and by and large my mother understood this and would say, "Well, I see Rosa took an egg." They really were on the verge of starvation. They were dressed raggedly in hand-me-downs. In that picture of Daisy she's wearing some 1920s clothes that I'm sure my mother gave her.

Nicky Harmon: We always had somebody cooking. In fact, we always had the same person all the time I was growing up, and she lived on the premises. There was a room and bath over the garage and she lived there. They were long, long hours. Two half-days a week off -- Thursday afternoon and Sunday afternoon. She cooked breakfast, lunch, and dinner all the rest of the time. That was about the only time I had any contact with Black people. There was a laundress who came in. She was also Black. For a while we had a man who drove for my parents. I learned later -- my mother didn't tell me this at the time -- but his father was one of the most prominent white men in Atlanta and he knew that and he was a very bright person and very frustrated, understandably. He was a heavy drinker; he was sad.

Evelena Lee: My mom did domestic work in the home of a wealthy family in Memphis. She worked that job for quite some time. I'm an out-of-wedlock child, which was wonderful for me because it was a wonderful relationship with my mother. I remember when her wages was moved to $7 a week. Now that was not a Monday through Friday week; that was a Monday through Sunday week, half-a-day Thursday -- supposedly half. In the morning she needed to be there to prepare breakfast and clean the house. She didn't leave until after the businessman came home, she served dinner and cleaned the kitchen. Then she was employed at a Laundromat and they were paid $12, so she came home and we were just rejoicing. Whoa! $12!


It was not until 1954, with Brown vs. Board of Education, that the Supreme Court ruled segregation in public schools unconstitutional. The next year the court ruled that integration should be carried out "with all deliberate speed." But desegregation continued to move at a slow pace until, in 1969, the court ordered integration of all school systems "at once."

William Hall: The school I went to was in the heart of the Black community. Some of the kids walked 5 miles a day to get there. It was a one-room schoolhouse, so this one big room was separated by one grade in a corner, one grade in another. The Black schools were obviously inferior to the white schools. We got the leftover books that came from the white schools. Getting a book to take home was out of the question. There were no friendships with white kids. The white kids had a much bigger school. They were bussed in from all around. So the buses that would be transporting the white kids to school would pass by a batch of Black kids walking to school.

Joe Watson: Back behind us was a small hill and on that hill was a Black school, a Black church, and a small Black community called Bush Mountain. Both the school and church were little clapboard buildings. Our grammar school and high school were traditional institutional brick buildings. Of course there were no Black kids in my school.

Jessie M. James: It was a little, one-room schoolhouse. Everybody, all the children, went there. We had maybe one or two teachers. We all walked to school. It couldn't have been too far, maybe three or four miles or more. Keep in mind, we didn't have transportation, buses and cars. There may have been one or two cars that everybody in the community used. There were dirt roads, no paved roads. Our shoes, you kept them clean. Now you might have put a newspaper in the soul of the shoe or you might have found some other creative way. We were very creative 'cause you had to rely on your mind, you had to rely on your thinking and what I can do to make this work, whatever it was. We all learned how to sew at a very early age to make our own clothes.

            We each had to learn a Bible verse that we said every morning. They had lots of plays so we were always acting out the different plays that we had at school. The teachers had meetings. The parents had to come to the school and see your work that was on the wall. That was always a big thing. And all parents went. But keep in mind we didn't have a lot of places to go, so everything that went on was a big thing.

            If you misbehaved, they had a palmetto. In Florida there are bushes that grow palmetto. They look like palm trees, but they only grow so tall. They would go out and cut one off. You would strip the thorns off. The parents encouraged it. The neighbors encouraged it. If you was misbehaving, they'd say, "I know your mother don't know you're acting like that." I got it several times. I got it on the legs. It was always your hand or your legs.

Nicky Harmon: The school I went to was all-white. The Civil War was called the War Between the States; you were not allowed to call it the Civil War. In those days, Georgia, and I don't know about the rest of the South, had a separate Memorial Day. We did not celebrate Memorial Day in May. There was a Confederate Memorial Day in April, which was celebrated with parades the same way Memorial Day is celebrated here.

            When I was in high school I took part in a contest that was sponsored by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. You were to write about a Civil War general or somebody important in the Confederacy. I wrote a paper about Alexander Hamilton Stephens, who I think was the vice president of the Confederacy. I got a medal from the UDC for this paper, which I was very pleased about. I really didn't have a clue.

Alice Walters: I remember taking typing and there was, like, two or three typewriters in there for a class of 30 people so, needless to say, you were not going to learn what you had to learn about typing because you couldn't get to the typewriter. There was no public library Blacks could go to. In a small, rural town, there was no bookstore. You had to rely basically on your own resources.

Joe Watson: We moved to a small town outside of Atlanta. The high school was right across the street from our house. I remember going out with my father and we were going to walk a couple of blocks away to get cigarettes or ice cream. Across the street in the football field were a whole bunch of guys with their Klan suits on and they had a bonfire going. They were having a Klan meeting at Russell High School in the football field. I said to my father, "What's that?" and he said, "Don't worry, they won't bother you." Later, when I looked back on it, I thought, this was obviously sanctioned by the high school. There must have been 20 or 30 people out there.

J.W. Johnson: I worked for the Birmingham Public Library beginning at the age of 16, and I would make deliveries to the various branches. I couldn't help noticing and feeling very bad about that fact that the deliveries of new books, supplies, and so forth were never the same to the Black branches as they were to the white. There was one in a school in Smithfield that gave me an insight into what the Black grammar schools were like and they were just unbelievably bare, no books, nothing like I had gotten used to going to the very good high-school system in Birmingham. We had an exceptional educational system for whites in Birmingham, but not at all decent for Blacks.

Evelena Lee: It was an excellent education because there was no foolishness. I, and every student in every class, was there to learn. However, when myself and others moved from there, it didn't matter if it was Chicago, Indiana, or up to Rochester, the schools would not accept the grade we were in. We were always put back a grade. It would have been fairer to provide an exam.

William A. Johnson: In 1963, the year I graduated from high school, the white high school in Lynchburg was desegregated. E.C. Glass High School was named after a United States senator from Virginia, an ardent segregationist. That was his legacy. It was never integrated during my time in high school. I was in sixth or seventh grade when Brown vs. Board of Education came out. There was no effort to desegregate the schools from 1954 to 1963. Finally, four Black kids stepped forward and successfully integrated E.C. Glass High School.

            Today there are two high schools in Lynchburg, both fully integrated, but the Black high school doesn't exist as a high school any longer. This was a scene that was repeated throughout the South. If you talk to a lot of Southerners, they'll tell you the school they went to has now been downgraded to a middle school or some sort of alternative educational center. It was as though these schools were not good enough. They were good enough for us, they were good enough to educate me, but they weren't good enough to educate white kids, and the town fathers made a decision to shut those schools down.


James Walters: I looked up to Jackie Robinson as a role model. Later on Monte Ervin, Roy Campanella, Joe Black, Don Newcomb. I read a lot about what they were going through. My father would take me to exhibition games and I got to see a lot of Negro League players. I was fortunate enough to play against a few Negro League teams.

Evelena Lee: We had an African American youngster, good football player, excellent student, and he was playing football in one of the surrounding towns of Indiana and they just took him... You see, the football cleats at that time had the metal. He was so spiked up all over. We were so hurt when he came back.

James Walters: I was still in high school but I was playing with this semi-pro team called the Gary Miners and we would travel from state to state. We stayed in private homes because we weren't allowed to stay in hotels. I recall playing in Virginia once and we were playing a white team. We had one fellow, real dark, and every time he came to bat, they'd start screaming, "Here comes that red one again," trying to make fun of his dark skin. He was an excellent athlete. He just went up there and took it out of the park, ran around the bases with a smile on his face.

Evelena Lee: I was very active in sports in high school. Track and field was my thing -- high jump, broad jump, 1,500 meters. We would be in our dressing room and one would say, "I'm gonna take first" and "I'll take second," "I'll take third." We were competing against each other, but we were determined we were going to take every first, second, and third place in that track event and we did, year after year. There was that drive, that motivation.


Jessie M. James: Some of them we even got along with very well. We knew their families and so forth, but there was not much interaction with them. Their school was way over from where we lived. It was a better school, because I can remember we always got the books that had been marked in. But at the same time, for me, it was just a good time because we had to learn and we had to read.

            When I came home with my little papers, I'd have to sit at the kitchen table while mamma did her cooking, I had to study and write and do the homework that I had before I could go out and play. Number one, you came home, you took off your school clothes, and you put on your play clothes. Then, after you got something to eat, you got to the table and you did your reading, math, whatever you had to do. That was routine. Then whatever job you had to do, you did it.

Jimmy White: I think of my childhood as a happy time. I made the best of what I had. I was a working kid. I'd go to school and I had a little job in the downtown area. I lived about 8 or 9 miles from downtown. I had a job washing dishes, and I was making $6 a week. I must have been about 10, 11. As a kid, I believed in trying to have my own. I didn't want to depend on my mom or my stepfather to give me handouts. I shined shoes -- 10 cents a shine, 5 cents a shine. I had a little job in the barbershop downtown shining shoes. They might tip you a nickel.

            I had a childhood. To me that was my childhood. I was out hustlin', trying to make some money in order to buy my own notebooks and pencils to go to school. I was working at the drugstore after school from 4 to 10 p.m. I think the most I made there was $6, $7 a week. I was delivering medicine to people's homes.


Joe Watson: There were colored drinking fountains, and the colored people sat in the back of the street car. That's what they were called then -- colored. My mother called them that, except she did call them niggers, but it didn't have the meaning to her that it has now. She didn't mean it to be derogatory. She didn't have much education.

            Later, my mother had had a stroke and I guess she was suffering from dementia. We were getting ready to sell the house and they were going into a nursing home. This was the west end of Atlanta and it was changing from a middle-class white neighborhood to a middle-class Black neighborhood. There were quite a few houses for sale. The woman next door said: Let me select your Realtor for you. She was a white woman and she wanted the neighborhood to stay white.

            We said we're going to find our own Realtor, so we picked a Black guy. So the phone rang and it was the Realtor. I put down the phone and went to find something he wanted to know about. My mother picked up the phone and said, "Are you a nigger?" And this was the 1970s. He said, "Yes, ma'am." He understood that she was old enough that it didn't mean the same thing as if I had said it to him.

Jimmy White: The word "nigger" at that time was just like you sayin' "Hi, Jimmy." You might go to a store and the clerk might say, "What you want, nigger?" Black people didn't use it as much as they do now. The term "nigger" was insulting to Blacks at that time. Very few Blacks used that terminology when they were talking to one another. That was a fightin' word at one particular time. Whites used it freely. I've heard it so much, it's just like going to the faucet to get a glass of water.

J.W. Johnson: We referred to African-Americans as colored people. We did not use the n-word. It was considered ill-bred to use that word.


Jimmy White: Music was very, very popular. We had what we called juke joints -- not nightclubs, but where, at night, you hang out, you play records, you dance. A lot of time they have bands there, play music. It was a fun time. BB King was very popular. We used to be very happy when BB King would come through. That's how I met him.

            The Blacks, they danced, they had big fun amongst themselves because that was the only way they could get rid of the frustration. If they get frustrated with the job site or the living condition, they go out and dance and sing and they have fun. Biggest part of your musicians that come through Florida at that time was blues artists. Jazz was something you didn't hear. Blues told a story like what the Black man's life was and what his life was with his woman.


Jimmy White: Church was a must for Blacks back then. You go to church every Sunday; you go to Sunday school every Sunday. On Sundays you did not take a marker and draw in the yard -- we used to call it hopscotch. You honor that church day. Your grandmother, your grandfather, your mom, and everybody made you do that. That was a way of life.

Jessie M. James: At church, on certain Sundays, they would have long benches outside and all of the people would bring meals. Good eating! We would just sit out there and eat and have a good time. All the kids would run around and play, and the older folks would get together. You got to know your neighbors -- who was well, who was not well, who had difficulties. You just got to know everybody in the village that we lived in.

Joe Watson: They seemed to have an awfully good time and I always loved the gospel music. I never heard it in a church but you'd hear it on the radio. Nobody admitted to listening to gospel music or hillbilly music, but when you were in your car by yourself, you listened to those stations. I talked to other people later and they did too.

Ann Watson: My father's warehouse was next to a Black church. So I would be in and out of there occasionally. There would be singing in the church and they also had some beautiful white roses in front of the church. I'd walk by and I remember lingering and listening to the music. Then, when I went to camp, of course everybody in the kitchen was Black and they would get together at night and sing gospel music and you could hear it. That was something I really enjoyed, but you didn't talk about it.

            The thing that always came to me was the South was so Christian and yet they could treat a group of people the way they treated them. It just didn't match up.

Eating out

Barring Blacks from restaurants was legal until the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 forbade businesses that served the public (restaurants, hotels, etc.) from discriminating.

Ann Watson: My father hated Martin Luther King. I think they thought Blacks were animals, and that went across the board. We went to Chicago to the furniture market and one time a Black couple came and sat next to us and he couldn't eat. It just made him physically ill.

Alice Walters: My family did not talk about segregation, but we knew it existed because we could see it all around us: segregated schools, we knew that you couldn't eat in restaurants. I grew up as a child who loved hot dogs. And I could buy a hot dog, but I had to take it outside to eat it. I couldn't eat it there.

            There was a farm close to us with white people living there and one of the girls was my age and we became friends. I remember once we went to get a hot dog. There was a group of us together, but she was the only white one with us and we went in there to get the hot dogs. She wanted us to stay in there and eat. So we said, Look, we can't stay here. We knew that we can't stay there, so all of us went outside and ate our hot dogs.

Ann Watson: One of the places we used to go to lunch was Lester Maddox's place. He had a myna bird. It was a cafeteria. He stood up at the front of the line with a microphone and talked incessantly. He would be talking about the colored people. Then he'd say, "All these folks work for me and they enjoy working for me, don't you?" And they'd all say "Yeah, we do." We always went and sat in the back so we didn't have to hear him. He had ax handles to keep Blacks out of his restaurant. Later they were selling ax handles as souvenirs. We just laughed, we just hooted when they said he was going to run for governor. We thought nobody'll ever elect him. They did.

White only

Jim Crow laws covered all aspects of life, from restaurants to barbershops. The laws were specific enough to forbid marriage between whites and Blacks "forever" in Maryland and absurd enough to require separation in cemeteries after death in Georgia.

Katherine Logan: We sat in the back of the bus. Just like in the theater, you sat in the balcony. Couldn't sit on the main floor. That's just the way things were. I was aware of the fact that it was segregation and you lived in such a way that you didn't bring harm to yourself.

Alice Walters: If you had to go somewhere on a bus they did not have a station as such. One of the counters was at a drugstore. The white people could go inside to get their tickets, but you had to go around to a window to get your ticket. No matter how cold or hot, or rainy you could not go inside of a drugstore to wait until the bus came.

Ann Watson: Lula used to take me to the theater and I'd go sit upstairs in the colored section. I was very aware of the separation, but I loved going up there. It was a fun thing to do.

J.W. Johnson: One thing that struck me very much when I was a child was that in the department stores the drinking fountains were labeled white and colored. And the colored fountain was about six inches lower than the white one. That always struck me as terrible. They had to bend over and stoop to get a drink of water.

Joe Watson: That Black water fountain told you, as a kid, that there must be something really bad about these people that they had to have their separate water fountain.

Evelena Lee: There was a store called Lowenstein's. It would be like Sibley's. At Christmas time they'd put on performances and, being Afro-American, we had to sit upstairs. My mom always made sure I was in the front row.

            I think, now that I look back -- because we were not allowed to sit in the front of a bus, we had to sit in the back, and if there were whites all the way to the very back then you stand 'cause no matter how far back they come, you still sit behind -- I now understand that she wanted me to know that I had a right to sit in the front. If I sit in the back it's all right, but it's a choice you made.

            When Santa Claus came to town, it was a big deal, so my mother always put down the newspaper and I'd sit right on the curb, in the front for the parade. When I'd hear the band, I'd start squirming. My mom would say, "You have to go to the toilet." She'd very patiently take my hand and walk till we could find a toilet along the way that said "colored." Past quite a number that said "white."

            I asked her one day, "You know, every year I'd pull that. You had me there so nice and early, nice seat. Must be the anxiety of knowing the parade is coming. You would never jerk my hand, you never hit me, and you never yelled at me." And this wonderful lady says, "To hit you, to yell at you was not what you needed. I needed to take care of your need."

Nicky Harmon: There were white and colored bathrooms in railroad stations and, I'm sure, in department stores, although I don't remember specifically ever seeing a Black bathroom in a department store.

Joe Watson: I don't remember there every being Black bathrooms in the department stores. There were not Black bathrooms in Rich's, or Davison's, or Kress. I worked for a men's store in Atlanta in the mid-1950s, and it wasn't even a consideration that there would be Black toilets.

William A. Johnson: I remember working on the polls in a fire station in Lynchburg. To be a poll-watcher, you had to be a registered voter. I volunteered. I was sent across town to this fire station. All of a sudden I needed to use the bathroom very badly. I said to the firemen there, "Is there a bathroom?" He said "Nope." I said, "I know they live in the firehouse; isn't there a bathroom here?" He said "Nope."

            I said, "Can you tell me where there's one?" He said, "Probably at the service station down the street." The doors were locked. This was the early 1960s, but there were still signs saying "Whites only." You'd have to deal with these kinds of things.

Jimmy White: At that time, it was the way of life. We didn't know any other life but that. When you go to a downtown area, they might have drinking-water spouts and on the fountain it would say "white only." You went to a lot of bathrooms that would say "white only." You couldn't go to the bathroom. It's the thing: once you leave home, unless you're going to visit a friend, if you're out in the downtown area, in a small town there was no bathroom available for a Black folks unless they went to the bus station. They had separate waiting areas: colored here, white there.

Alice Walters: If you went to the movies, the whites sit downstairs and we had to go upstairs. That was the same way it was when I went to college in Greensboro. In a larger city, the movies there, you had to go upstairs. But people could come to that movie who spoke another language, and they could go anywhere they wanted to no matter what their complexion was. They didn't have to go upstairs. I always felt that that was wrong. Why is it that the American Blacks couldn't go to a movie theater? We were born here. Someone comes from another country, they can sit where they want.

Nicky Harmon: One thing I remember about myself when I was at Wellesley -- I had been totally convinced intellectually that Black people were just like white people. One day I woke up to the fact that when I got on the bus, if there was a Black person sitting next to an empty seat, I would walk right by them and walk to the first empty seat that was by a white person and I thought: Oh, so I've been espousing all this stuff and continuing to act in the old way.

            It was good that I recognized that, but you don't get rid of the emotional content of what you're brought up with overnight. And I have to hand it to my husband [an Episcopal minister]. He's the one who has brought me a long, long way.


Jimmy White: Country kids, they have a little different look on life because you're on the farm, and the people that run and own these farms, they have kids too. We played together, we played football together, rode on the tractors together. So it wasn't a type of thing where you would be completely be isolated.

Jessie M. James: For those who couldn't write they would depend upon the teachers or other people in the community. They would take the letters to them and they would read what they had to say and then they would turn around and answer the letters for them.

J.W. Johnson: I really led, for a very long time, a totally segregated life. My grammar school was all-white, my high school was all-white. In the Navy, everybody was white, in the program I was in. When I went back to college at Birmingham Southern, it was all-white. Harvard was the first time I encountered a Black man who was getting a Ph.D., but there were only one or two there. Vanderbilt, again, was all-white.

            It sounds like it was completely segregated, but it really was not. There were Black people around all the time. There was usually a Black woman in our house. They lived in alleyways, shanties. They lived in very deplorable conditions, and the Depression made it worse. They also lived in little enclaves back in the hollow a half-mile from the white district or in the industrial areas along the railroad tracks.

William Hall: In those days it was total segregation, so the Blacks lived on one side of town and the whites lived on the other. We used to refer to it as across the railroad tracks and, literally, that's the way it was. You could go into almost any community in the South then, and if you went across the railroad tracks the Blacks usually lived there. They usually lived on the south side of the tracks. I guess the wind blew in that direction. The trains were coal-fired back in those days, so the smoke always blew in the direction of the Black community.

William A. Johnson: We didn't have any segregated neighborhoods in Lynchburg; we had segregated streets. The street that we lived on is one block away from the main thoroughfare, a big avenue; it would be like East Avenue -- mansions on that street. No Black people lived on that street. The only Black people on that street were maids who worked in those houses. But the buses ran down that street, so we had to go there.

            The house behind our house was so big it's now a private school. The girls who lived there even had ponies, which was against the law. My grandfather went down -- even though the man who owned the house was a big businessman and vice mayor of the city council -- he went downtown and filed a complaint.

            What happened was, in the summer my grandfather loved to go out and recline on his porch. He had a chaise longue; he enjoyed himself. But when those ponies were over there and the wind blew that smell back toward his house, he said something that I'll never forget: "A man has a right to enjoy his front porch." They had a little stable there. They had to take it down and take those horses out of there.

            We made money in the winter shoveling snow. We went to that same house, and we knocked on the door. The man who owned the house came to the door and we said to him, "Would you like to have your walk shoveled?" It was massive. The house was set about three-quarters of a block back from the street. He said, "How much?" There were three of us; we said, "Three dollars." He said, "OK." We went to work. We got the sidewalk shoveled.

            Mr. Cohen himself came to the door and handed us a dollar. I rang the doorbell again. This time the maid came to the door and I said, "Tell Mr. Cohen he owes us two more dollars." She came back and said, "No, he'll only give you a dollar." I said, "OK." And I handed her the dollar back. I had to be 10, 11 years old. I said, "Tell him thank you very much." And we went and put all the snow back on the walk and then went on home.

What makes them different?

Joe Watson: I remember one time walking down the street. There was a Negro woman waiting at a bus stop. I said something about that lady. My mother said, "That's not a lady, that's a woman. She can't be a lady if she's Black." I was probably 6, but I thought at the time that didn't make any sense at all.

Nicky Harmon: It was a very segregated life. I can remember asking my mother one time something about Black people -- why they had so little and we had so much. The response was, "They're like children and they're perfectly happy as long as they have enough to eat and a roof over their head." I'm surprised I even asked the question, but I do remember asking. I was not a particularly inquiring kind of child. I mostly accepted everything at face value.

            It wasn't really until I went off to college when I was 16 and started taking sociology courses that I began to recognize the real anomalies. I can remember coming home at Christmas time, probably my freshman year, and saying I had learned in Sociology that Black people and white people, there was no difference in them, they were just the same intellectually and in every other way, and they should be treated that way.

            My mother had a fit. But she moved a long, long, long way in her lifetime. Absolutely amazing when I think about it, because she grew up in the South, she had all the usual prejudices, and had grandfathers and relatives who fought in the Civil War. She remembered from her childhood a Civil War reunion in her home in Jacksonville, probably about 1915, where all these old soldiers got together and woke everybody in the house up with a rebel yell. So she was thoroughly indoctrinated in all of that -- as was I, but not to that extent.

The Depression

Ann Watson: In the early 1940s, following the Depression, it seemed like every few weeks there'd be either a Black guy or a white guy who would come by in the morning and knock on the door and ask if he could do work around the house or do something for a meal. Black or white, my mother would always tell them to sit down and she'd make them bacon and eggs and coffee. They'd sit on the front porch -- they wouldn't come in -- and eat, and she'd always put the coffee in a canning jar. I don't know why you had to have something special to drink out of.

Nicky Harmon: We lived not too far from the railroad tracks, and during the Depression one of my childhood memories is streams of people coming to the door wanting money. My mother would never give them any money but she would feed anybody who came to the door. They'd go around the back, and she'd give them a sandwich or something to eat. I don't remember, but I think they were mostly white because it was a very middle-class area, and I would imagine that many Blacks would be afraid to go around in a neighborhood like that ringing doorbells.


Jimmy White: It's really uncomfortable sometimes. You go to a five and dime store and you're standing waiting to be waited on and a white person come up, you might never get waited on. You might stand there for quite a while before they ask you what you want.

Nicky Harmon: My father was born in California and spent most of his growing up years in Hawaii, so he came from a totally different background. He used to tell the story of his mother coming to visit them in Atlanta one time. They were living on a streetcar line. His mother happened to look out the window and see a Black woman waiting for a streetcar. A streetcar would come along and didn't stop, just go right on by and leave her. Then another one went by and did the same thing.

            Finally, my grandmother put on her hat and coat, went out and stood at the bus stop. The next streetcar that came along stopped. The Black woman got on and my grandmother went back in the house and took off her hat and coat. She was at least aware enough of what was going on that she did that little infinitesimal thing. Like my Father said, she was no flaming liberal, but she had a sense of fairness. He seemed to have grown up virtually without racial prejudice.

Aunt and uncle

Joe Watson: My mother always called Black men that would come to the door -- or that she might be talking to on the street for some reason -- if it was an older Black man, she'd call him uncle. I don't know where that came from.

J.W. Johnson: In a sense they were part of the family. It was not the sort of thing that's idealized in Gone With the Wind, but my mother's generation actually referred to older Black people as uncle and aunt as in Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben's rice. By the time we came along, that was just not what you did anymore. There was not that kind of remnant of slavery.

William A. Johnson: I really never grew up with the notion of victimology. We didn't spend a lot of time talking about horrible things about being born Black. And yet, you couldn't escape it. You live in your circumstances. It was manifested every day, and now and then people would go out of their way to remind you of your station in life.

            It would always really bother me when some younger white person would call my mother or my aunt by their first name. My aunt was a very distinguished woman -- a public school teacher and principal for 42 years -- and she'd have her former students call her Mrs. Scott. And yet, some white kid could call her Edna. I recognized I couldn't challenge these kids. It was a certain sense of entitlement people thought that they had.

Katherine Logan: I remember having the newspaper carrier come to the door. He was just a young kid. He would call my mother auntie, aunt. I remember one day my mother told him, "Don't come back any more." He wanted to know why. "'Cause I'm no kin to you."

            Instead of calling you by your name or Mrs. Whoever, they'd call you auntie. A woman was auntie and the man was uncle. That would always burn my mother and every adult I knew. They didn't like it, but that was the culture.

Aunt Fanny's Cabin

Ann Watson: There was a restaurant called Aunt Fanny's Cabin. It was down in Smyrna, Georgia. It was an institution in that area. It was in the 1950s and in the 1960s. It was an expensive restaurant. They were all dressed up like Mammy in Gone With the Wind or Aunt Jemima. They had a string around their necks holding a board with a menu on it and they recited the menu to you.

Joe Watson: The Black waiters and waitresses were all dressed up in -- it was supposed to be like Aunt Fanny was a slave. The time I remember going there in the early 1960s, all of the waitresses and Black people working there looked very sullen, like they weren't happy about it one bit, whereas in an earlier time they might have acted the part. I remember feeling like everybody was uncomfortable. They were uncomfortable; I was uncomfortable.

Knowing your boundary

Jimmy White: At that time it didn't bother you, because you know your boundary; you know where you can go and where you can't go. Your parents taught you right and wrong. And you always got to say "yes sir" and "no sir." Don't talk back. Be polite.

Katherine Terrell: I can hear him now. You had to say, "Yes sir," if they call you. "Yes, sir." It was a different world. You had to respect them. They would always let you know that they were the top dog.

Katherine Logan: It was unfair. It didn't mean you liked it because you did it, but that was the way of life, and if you didn't want to get beaten up or verbally abused, you did what was expected of you. Because you lived in segregation, you knew there were things you weren't supposed to do, and you'd hear people talking about what happened to other people who did differently.

Jessie M. James: We learned confidence. We learned how to be independent. We learned how to take care of ourselves. We learned not to get into any trouble, not to follow people around or go someplace you have no business going. You had that kind of wisdom and knowledge as a child.

Alice Walters: In my hometown the people that were there, they were complacent; they did not protest. It's like the saying goes, everybody knew where their place was and that's where they stayed.

James Walters: When I was going to get my Social Security card, I was about 14 years old, and my uncle and I were in downtown Cincinnati. This white guy, a stranger, walked up to us and said, "It's none of my business, but what are you boys doing up here?" My uncle looked at him and said, "Just like you said, none of your damn business." And we just continued to walk.

Jimmy White: The only thing they did was they fought against it and they got themselves in trouble. They either got put in jail or made to leave town. A lot of times, if a Black worked for a farmer and he's a good worker -- 9 times out of 10 all Blacks were good workers at that time -- if his son would get in trouble, he would go to his boss man and say, My boy did so and so. And the boy probably is a good worker too.

            This farmer could save your life. He could determine whether you stay, live, or go. He could call the shots because you worked for him. The expression was "You his nigger." A lot of Blacks did things and got away with it because they were good handy people on the farm and the farm owner needed them, so he protected them up to a certain point.

James Walters: My mother and father raised us not to bow down to anybody but the man upstairs -- that's God. We tried to treat everybody right, but we expected to be treated fairly, too.

            My sister was walking down the street and this white kid on a porch, he spat in her hair. My sister ran in the house. She was about 13 or 14 years old. She went in and slapped the kid. She walked out and continued to go to the store. So, on the way back, all these white men and women were gathering and this one white guy was a friend of my father's and he walked out and said, "What's going on?" They said, "This girl slapped the boy and we're gonna get her when she comes back." He said, "I'll tell you what, if you put your hands on that girl, all of you better leave here, because Daniel Walters is going kill every one of you."

Leaving town

Katherine Logan: My father left home as a teenager. He worked on a farm, and when it was time for lunch there would be a bell that would be rung at the big house, and all the field hands were supposed to come to the big house for lunch.

            This particular day he did not hear the bell and at some point he looked up and determined by the position of the sun that it was lunchtime. And he went up to the big house and the owner cursed him for being late. He told him he didn't hear the bell and they had words. And then the siblings and people who worked in the fields advised him to get out of town, because he would more than likely be killed.

            So he left and he never went back to Mississippi. He went to Memphis. He didn't have any relatives there. That had an impact on his life. I think it influenced the way he behaved as a husband and a father because he was not a family man, to be there for his family.

Alice Walters: The Kiwanis Club was selling raffle tickets for a Cadillac, and they went to a service station and asked an attendant to buy a ticket. So he bought a ticket and he won the Cadillac. They did not want to give him the Cadillac. They would give him money, but they didn't want to give him the Cadillac. I guess he filed a suit and the NAACP got involved. I think that in the end he did get the Cadillac, but he had to leave Ahoski. That was something I never forgot.

Jimmy White: During my time, there wasn't no such thing as a Black man getting involved with a Caucasian women. I was taught if I was walking down the street and meetin' a white woman, I would cross over and go around because at that time, they might scream, they might say false things that you did or said, so you don't give them the opportunity to put you in that kind of predicament. If you meet them on the street you go around and you dare not say anything insulting.

            I remember once I was working at the drugstore. This woman did something and I said something to her and she threatened to tell her husband. I was scared to death because I knew what would happen. I might get beaten up, shot, killed.

Emitt Till

Thousands of Blacks were lynched in the early part of the 20th century. As late as 1955, 14-year-old Emitt Till was lynched in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman.

Jimmy White: I remember the Emitt Till case real well. He was down in Mississippi visiting his grandfather. He lived in Chicago. The Chicago environment is a whole lot different than Mississippi or the lower part of the South. He forgot where he was. He wasn't used to that. You can't whistle at white women, and that's what got him in trouble. He was a pretty good-lookin' boy. He must have been about 13 at the time when he got murdered, and he probably had been pretty popular with ladies in Chicago. He figured, you go out of Chicago, you can do this too.

Evelena Lee: All of our Black, African-American newspapers showed the picture; I'll remember it forever, seeing this youngster. I felt terrible. He was being treated worse than an animal.

William A. Johnson: Jet magazine and Ebony -- most households took those magazines -- they published those pictures of Emitt Till, all bloated and everything. I remember that very, very clearly. But we didn't have that stuff going on around Lynchburg, even though the joke was, Lynchburg was named after John Lynch. John Lynch, in 1734, caught a man who stole one of his livestock and he hung him, and after that the first person said, "Oh, he's been lynched." Now, that might be folklore, but when I went away to college, people said, "Where you from?" "Lynchburg." "Oh boy, I know what they do down there."

            [According to Collier's Encyclopedia, "It is believed by some that the term is derived from the activities of a Virginian named Lynch who organized bands to try and punish outlaws and British sympathizers during the time of the American Revolution."]

Jessie M. James: I was real angry. I couldn't imagine anybody being lynched for just looking at another person. That just sort of brought back other images for me because at the time when we were reading about this case, in our community, we would see white males in cars come in the neighborhood and pick up women, but nobody talked about it. It just didn't seem to make a whole lot of sense when you see this going on.

Nicky Harmon: My father had been involved in a case of a near-lynching in Georgia. Way back when he was a lawyer, he was also in the National Guard. A Black man was arrested for rape in Alberton, Georgia, and he was about to be lynched. They called out the National Guard, including my father, and they spirited the man out of the jail in a National Guard uniform and got him to Atlanta.

            In the meantime, my father did not think he was guilty of the crime. Through my father he got a lawyer, so he did end up getting a trial, which was as fair a trial as a Black person could get in those days in the South. The man was found guilty and put to death anyway.

Joe Watson: We didn't hear about lynchings.

In part 2: voting, migrant work, desegregation, life in the North, the Rochester Riot.

Read part 2 here