- Text smaller
- Text bigger
Ten years and 11 months after Brown v. Board of Education, I landed in Memphis, Tennessee. “Landed” is the best term to describe it because I felt like an alien. My father had died four years before, and my mother remarried a man from Memphis.
My brother, old enough to drive and in college, was the first to put his foot down in the “new” state, was with us for a few days then left back to the North, where he as a sophomore in college. We spent the weekend together getting a taste of famous Memphis barbeque. Then he left and I started private school, which after public school seemed like a fun adventure. The adventure stopped the moment I entered the classroom and all the students – it was a girls’ school – stood up as the adult entered the room.
Things got stranger during the day with an assembly after school, provided by the “Muthers Club.” I asked, “What’s the Muthers Club?” “Like your muth-er and father,” one girl answered. We were told by the invited speaker not to wear “stooones” (stones like diamonds) before five, always wear white gloves and that it was easy to tell a woman from Memphis by that fact that women from Loosiana (Louisiana) and Alabama wore proper hats and gloves. This was my introduction to private school in the South circa 1965.
We lived in the “White Station” section of Memphis where the only blacks I saw were those who got off the bus to be maids.
Like people who speak so slowly that you have the urge to speak faster, the segregation I witnessed led me to speak my mind every chance my teenage brain and mouth would allow. A welcoming tea for my mothers was a chance to talk about the hostess’ maid, who was not granted a pay raise from $6 a day. The girls in my class spoke about people using the “N” word. Martin Luther King was someone who no one had anything good to say about, save my only friend who had grown up in Memphis and whose Jewish father went to Harvard Law School and was given the only black roommate.
I would launch into daily rants about integration only to be told that the school was integrating with me because I was Jewish. They did not forget to remind me that the “other” girls’ private school in Memphis did not accept Jews. That was a clear “keep your mouth shut” message.
The pre-graduation ceremony took place in May about the time of the 11th anniversary of Brown v. Board. Girls, all white and dressed in white dresses, held flowers and sang. To celebrate the end of the school year, my mother took me to dinner and the new movie, “A Patch of Blue,” which has Sidney Poiter kissing a white woman. The local theater was supposed to remove that scene but somehow left it in. A showing earlier in the day must have had some Klansmen attending, because as we left the theater in the evening there were at least 50 Klansmen in full regalia handing out pamphlets, saying they were “friends of Jews and Negros,” and they wanted to make sure that Africa was for Africans, and Israel was for Jews.
It was a shocking scene even for the racially tainted 1960s. I kept doing my thing at school so much that 25 years later, I picked up my yearbook and read inscriptions that I had since blocked out: “You n—-r lover” and “You’re Martin Luther King’s first cousin” and finally a drawing of the Confederate flag and the words ‘The South Shall Rise Again.”
Now, in 2014 on the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, we can’t imagine an entire city or community or school being so isolated and white. This change happened in less than two generations. It seems impossible – impossible that kids would have taken their parents’ views and acted on those views. Change happened and happened quickly. It seems unimaginable to people who grew up later, in a different time.
We now have the gift of a diverse society, and that has made America stronger. There is still work to be done, from unequal sentencing in prisons to unequal high-school and college graduation rates and employment numbers, but we have come a long way since 60 years ago. We should all be proud of what we have accomplished, even if there is much more to do.
Media wishing to interview Ellen Ratner, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.