My introduction to the hatred of racism was stark and unforgettably poignant. I was nine years old.
With my family, I had just moved from my birthplace in East Providence, Rhode Island to Pensacola, Florida. Before the move, I had no idea white people hated black people. I wasn’t aware of color.
Raised a Catholic, our new neighborhood was located in St. John’s Parrish. However, since we moved in the middle of the school year, for my older brother, Danny, and myself, St. John’s School was at capacity. We had to go to school in downtown Pensacola. We were enrolled at St. Michael’s which required a city bus ride.
My dad was a U.S. Naval officer. He arranged for Danny and myself to ride our bicycles from home to a fellow officer’s home. So, on a Monday morning, we set off on our thirty-minute ride. Once there, we met the woman of the house who showed us where to park our bikes and the location of the bus stop. The lady was kind enough to wait with us on the sidewalk in front of her house.
The bus arrived about ten minutes later. Danny and I boarded the bus. Danny paid our fare, and he sat down on the seat directly behind the white haired, bespeckled bus driver. I didn’t want to sit up front.
While growing up in Rhode Island, my grandmother would take me to downtown Providence on a city bus which stopped a half block to the right of our street and on the main street, Pawtucket Avenue. We always sat in the very back of the bus. With memories of my then lucid grandmother, the rear seat became my favorite seat.
Without noticing anything different or strange regarding who was sitting up front versus who was sitting toward the back of the bus, I walked the long isle to the back and sat down in the middle. I was the only person sitting in the long, brown leather seat. The middle allowed me to look out both windows, right and left, as well as out the back window.
Once I was seated, the bus doors closed and the bus began to move. I was enjoying my ride as I dangled my feet which didn’t yet touch the floor. I recall a few people sitting toward the back watched me. I smiled at them, and they smiled back.
Several minutes later, the bus stopped to pick up other passengers. Before the bus driver shut the doors, I looked up to see Danny walking toward me. At first, I thought he had decided to sit in the back seat as well. I was wrong.
He stood in front of me and said, “The bus driver said you couldn’t sit back here. He told me to tell you to come up front to sit.”
I recall asking why to which Danny answered, “I don’t know, but he said you couldn’t sit back here.” I
I wasn’t convinced as I barked back, “Well, you aren’t my father, so I don’t have to do what you tell me to do. I like it back here! This is my favorite seat.”
Danny looked disappointed as he turned around and walked back to the front of the bus.
I was looking out the side windows and waiting for the bus to begin moving again. Suddenly, however, the doors, which the driver had shut, burst open with such fury that its thunder ripped through the silence of the bus. I was frightened as I looked up to see the bus driver now standing looking back down the isle.
We all waited as the tall, skinny, white haired driver pointed a long arm and a long, skinny, crooked finger at the back of the bus. Now other passengers were turned around looking at me when the driver yelled, “You, little girl. You better march yourself up here to the front, or I am going to put both you and your brother off the bus right here. Now, march!”
Scared to death, I got up and walked to the front and sat next to Danny in the seat directly behind the driver. I recall one old lady smiled at me as I walked toward the front.
Later that evening, I told my mom what had happened and asked her why I had to sit up front. She explained that we now lived in the south which was a very different place than where we used to live. Rhode Island, she explained, was a northern State. She continued to assert that, in the south, black people were not allowed to interact with white people. She tried her best to explain the meaning of segregation, telling me segregation applied to every interaction, even on bus rides. White people were allowed to sit up in the front portion of the bus, while black people had to sit in the back. White people and black people weren’t allowed to sit with each other or in the same vicinity. Through observation, I would learn that if all the rear seats were occupied, black people who boarded the bus had to stand in the aisle, holding on to the metal poles above their heads until one of the “blacks only” seats became vacant. Even if there were vacant seats in the “whites only” portion of the bus, black people were not allowed to sit in those vacant seats.
The next day, my second day of school, my bus ride to and from school was an entirely different experience. I watched as white people got on the bus and sat on the forward side of the middle door, while black people walked to the seats behind the middle door. No blacks sat up front, and no whites sat in the back. Soon I was noticing other differences. During that school year, I watched little old black ladies with their grocery carts filled with grocery bags board the bus. There were always more black people riding the bus than there were white people. Too, most of the blacks were women of all ages. I recall one little old lady boarded the bus with her loaded grocery cart. There were no vacant seats, so she had to stand. Her face expressed exhaustion. Plus, she was very short in stature, causing her to have a difficult time reaching up to the overhead rail to hold on. Several times, when the bus would stop, she stumbled nearly falling to the floor. I was seated in one of the long seats which faced the center of the bus. I watched this lady struggle. I felt sad that I had to keep my mouth shut because I wanted to get up and give her my seat.
My mother was right. Segregation was everywhere.
All Department stores had four bathrooms. Two were marked as White Men and White Women while two other doors read Colored Men and Colored Women. Also, there were two separate water fountains in every store. One had a sign above that read White Only and the other read Colored Only. I also began to notice that black people rarely looked directly at white people, while white people always looked suspiciously at black people. It was a difficult, confusing three years living in Pensacola.
I never adjusted to living in the south. I couldn’t wait to move back to Rhode Island. Although my parents never talked at length about the separation, intuitively, I knew it was wrong. Sometimes, when no one was looking, I smiled at a black woman if she looked at me. Some smiled back while most did not, but immediately looked away from me.
As it causes pain for all decent people, I am sad that our country is once again experiencing the angst of hatred by one race against others including blacks, Mexicans, Latinos, and distrust of those whose religion is the topic of scorn. The most depressing piece of this new hatred and distrust is fostered and encouraged by the President of the United States, Donald J. Trump. When I was that young girl living in Pensacola, Florida, I couldn’t understand how or why white people could hate another group of people because of the color of their skin. I am no longer that little girl, yet, I still have difficulty grasping the hatred the has reared its ugly head recently.
During my years working as a regional manager for McCormick, I recall traveling to the Miami area. I loved Miami because, like New York City, it was a great example of our country’s proud heritage called the melting pot. So many different ethnicities live in the Miami area. I loved traveling to Miami for its wealth of diversity.
I don’t know what the future holds for our country. There’s so much hatred and fear that seems to permeate our country. Even some liberal minded people seem to fear and resent the undocumented people who live and work hard in the U.S. What on earth do people have to fear?