Saturday, March 12, 2011

Racism: My Experience.

As a child I lived until the age of twelve in Germantown, a district of Philadelphia, which was founded in the late Seventeenth Century by Francis Daniel Pastorius, originally a Lutheran, later a Quaker. It was the first German settlement in the New World and Pastorius was my great, great (add as many "greats" as necessary) grandfather on my mother's side. Germantown is known as the birthplace of the anti-slavery movement in the Americas because of a petition against black slavery he initiated in 1688.

The part of Germantown where my family lived was divided into blocks that had larger homes on one side of the block, where the white folks lived, and smaller, though neatly kept homes on the adjoining side, where the black folk lived; forming all white streets alternating with all black streets. In between were largely open spaces, some the remnants of former farms. Many of the blacks worked in the white folks homes on the other side of their blocks. I loved to ride my tricycle at what I imagined was train-like speed around our block passing first the white side of the block, then the black, so there was a comfort with the proximity of the two races.  As with most northern, American cities in the forties and fifties, there was de facto segregation. The elementary school I attended had only one black student, Billy was his name, and the fact that I remember his name is a reflection of the fact that Billy was important, both because he was a popular kid and because his presence meant our school wasn't officially segregated. It never occurred to me to question where all the black kids I passed on my bike rides went to school and I still have no idea, but no doubt there was a local, nearly all black, elementary school somewhere in the neighbourhood.

My grandfather was a racist of the noblesse oblige variety. He would expect black people to move aside when he walked down the sidewalk and, at the same time, he would bring back fish and game from his cottage that were not eaten by while folk for his black neighbors on the other side of the block. I remember a newspaper photo that showed him proudly giving the keys of a new car to the black man who looked after his own car. One afternoon I was walking with my family back from my grandfather's garage when we came upon a group of people that had gathered in the street. An older, black woman had been struck by a car and was bleeding profusely. The driver of the car that struck her had driven away when he realized it was just a black woman he had hit and we stayed with the injured woman waiting for an ambulance to arrive. After several minutes, the ambulance pulled up, the attendants got out with the stretcher, took one look at the woman, put the empty stretcher back into the ambulance and drove off'. Although I was only five or six years old, I was shocked and asked my parents why they'd left. My parents replied that it was because the injured woman was black and they didn't transport black people, so we had to wait for an ambulance that did. I can still feel a sense of shame, sadness, anger and disbelief in the pit of my stomach as I recall that scene; being excited, as a child would be, with the dramatic arrival of the ambulance to rescue the injured woman and, then, the horrible feeling that something was terribly wrong when they drove away; a feeling that was a primitive, formative experience of moral outrage.

We moved to an all-white suburb across the Delaware River from Philadelphia when I was twelve.  With the end of World War II there was a major migration of blacks from the southern states. who were escaping segregation and searching for a better life in the north.  Some real estate agents, seeing a chance to make much money, adopted the tactic of discretely approaching homeowners on the white side of the blocks, suggesting that black families were about to purchase a house on their side and that if they didn't move quickly the value of their homes would tumble. The agents would offer to sell the house at a better than market price and without advertising in any way that it was for sale. After obtaining the owners agreement to sell, they would find two or three, newly arrived, black families to purchase the house, guarantee and, sometimes, subsidize their mortgage. Their hope was to profit from a panic sell off of most of the white-owned homes on the block.  They were nearly always successful.

Certainly, racism was an important component of such panic; however, for many home owners, including my parents, economic well-being was as important. As we have observed from the recent economic downturn in the USA, the majority of people have most of their economic worth invested in their homes. When the value of their home falls, the economic and emotional consequences are considerable. My parents attempted to organize other homeowners to remain in the neighborhood, arguing that we had always been comfortable living with black people as neighbors and that the threat to the value of their homes was almost entirely due to panic selling. Most people would agree with them, then secretly put their houses on the market and the downward spiral in value continued. In order to recuperate some of its value, they put our home on the market, but publicly, and sold it. Moving to an all-white suburb provided a hedge against experiencing a similar loss again. Their choice is an illustration of making a decision, which in fact is largely rooted in and promotes racism, even though that choice is ostensibly taken on the basis of concerns for economic and emotional well-being. While it's easy to condemn such a choice, I've found myself making it more than once, which is, I think, true of most of us white folks.

Moving to Virginia to go to college in 1958 confronted me with my first experiences of blatant, institutionalized racism; more pervasive and casually accepted than I had experienced in the north. I had chosen the College of William and Mary for several reasons and one of them was that as a teenager I had a romantic vision the Old South. I enjoyed reading books like Gone With The Wind and House Divided; an attraction that probably tagged me as having a certain gay sensibility; as did my enthusiasm for  summer stock productions of Broadway musicals. The role that slavery and racism played in that romance stayed below the level of consciousness, until I encountered racism, southern style. The battle over school desegregation was raging and Virginia had just closed all public schools to prevent integrating them. William and Mary, being funded by the state, was forbidden to accept black students, something it was rumored to be on the verge of doing. In addition, the college and all other state supported institutions were forbidden to fly the federal flag, which meant that the main flag pole at William and Mary, the base of which had a bronze plaque stating that it was a gift to the college from the KKK, only flew the Virginia flag. The state flag was repeatedly vandalized by several students, who were mainly from the north, and each time was replaced by the college. Finally, some clever saboteur just cut and removed the cable that ran up the pole and it was left flag-less for the rest of my time at the college.

All public facilities, such as toilets and drinking fountains, were still segregated. More than once I would be eating with fellow students at a restaurant when a black couple or family came in and would be told by the staff that blacks weren't served. Amazingly, there was never a situation when those who were refused service argued or reacted with anger; they simply left, sometimes annoyed, sometimes even apologetic. As for myself, my friends and other customers, we just continued eating in an awkward silence. Neither myself nor my friends would have approved of such discrimination, but we did nothing. I think if anyone had objected, we would have supported them, but no one wanted to be the first to "make a scene." Anyway, since we were all living in rooms with no kitchen facilities, would we have given up eating in restaurants? All of which were segregated, except for the ones beyond a student budget, owned by the corporation of Colonial Williamsburg.  Such situations presented an exercise of white privilege more blatant than anything I had experienced in the north. Although my response to those situations might be defended on the basis of youth or being in a strange culture with different mores, I appreciate that even such a passive exercise of privilege is indefensible. Attempting such a defence sounds a bit too much like the similar excuses given by some Germans for not having spoken out against the Nazis. And, at the same time, my own experiences give me pause in expressing outrage against those Germans who were silent.

During the time I was a student I worked as a guide for Colonial Williamsburg. In my third year I was stationed one day as a host in the capital building; the seat of the first parliament in the New World. It was raining very hard and there were two school groups waiting outside to be admitted to the parliament chamber: one group from a black school, the other from a white. A colleague admitted first the students from the white school to one side of the chamber and I made the decision to admit the black students to the opposite side. After the presentation and after the students had left the chamber, the hostess in charge of the building approached me, clearly enraged. She remarked, "You may be from the City of Brotherly Love, Mr. Garside, but that's not how we do things down here. You are never, ever to do that again." I was surprised she knew I was from Philadelphia and taken aback by her anger. She had always been very friendly and gracious to me. I simply replied that I wasn't about to let the black students stand out there in the rain when there was ample room for them in the parliament chamber, not to mention that they were on the other side of the room. She turned and bustled away in her Eighteenth Century farthingales and, subsequently, I was called to work less and less frequently; within a short period of time I wasn't called at all. That experience and similar ones have led me to be very wary of Southern Hospitality. It appears so very welcoming and gracious, but is often a facade, which changes swiftly to anger and rejection, if you say or do something that offends their particular mores.

My worst, experience with racism in the south eerily resembled my first in Germantown. It was a beautiful Autumn evening and I was on my way to dinner.  I came across a group of people milling around a large, open area of campus. I had no sooner noticed the crowd than I heard emergency vehicles arriving and walked over to check out what was happening. Four or five black workers had been digging a ditch in the field for a drainage pipe and the sides of the ditch had collapsed, trapping several of the men under the dirt. As attempts began to be made to dig the men out, new on-lookers arrived bringing bottles of beer and the scene took on a carnival atmosphere. Newcomers would ask what was going on as they arrived and would be told, "Oh, nothing. Just a couple of niggras buried in a ditch." The families of the workers arrived and were kept to the side of the crowd, which was totally white, and away from the ditch. I could hear them keening and crying above the laughter and jokes of the crowd. Two of the men were dead when they were dug out and only then did the police disperse the crowd enough to allow the men's families to identify the dead and injured family members.

As was the case with seeing the injured black woman left bleeding in the street, I can still feel the sense of shock, shame, sadness and outrage I felt as a part of that crowd; at experiencing their callous, hateful reactions to human suffering based simply on the colour of the skin of the victims. I'm not generally comfortable with moral outrage, associating it with an expression of self-congratulatory righteousness of true believers. I'd like to think that outrage expressed at the infliction of or indifference to harm caused to another, innocent human being is other than outrage over the violation of a particular moral or religious code. Perhaps I'll reflect more on that hope at another time.  For the present, I simply want to record that those exposures to racism contributed significantly toward a commitment to social action and responsibility.


  1. As a native Canadian who grew up on the East Coast, the scenes you describe were ones that were only visible to us through news footage or movies (i.e. To Kill A Mockingbird). The medium upon which we saw these events unfold added to the mythology of the civil rights struggle. It was something that happened in the USA. We could be a bit smug in assuming that it would never happen here. But you only had to spend some time in Halifax in the 60's & 70's to know differently. In Moncton,blacks were extremely rare. But bigotry abhors a vacuum so we had natives to appease that devil.
    The predjudence I grew up with was based on statusand religion. Unfortunately, that is still very prevalent and also institutionalized in government and education policies.Like you, it also shaped my commitment to social justice.Great post as usual. Thanks.

  2. I was in Texas in the nineties, and "Southern Hospitality" still ruled... I'm sure it still does. Texans are all sweet and honey-this and honey-that, as long as you're white. As for Blacks, they're still called niggers in private.