When I was a little white boy living in Richmond, Virginia, in the 1950’s, there were six, maybe eight, Negroes in my world. Isabelle and Sidney, first and foremost. All the Negroes in my childlife lived in King William County. Sidney and Isabel. Adele. Burnell. Sally. All grownups but fortunately they had kids that my sister and I played with when we visited grandma. They were kids, we were kids. Race didn’t matter. At least from my young, naive point of view. At least, not yet.
One of my earliest memories of “race” as a subject came when Mom and I walked down the staircase to the cafe in the basement of Miller & Rhoads. (For those who might remember the famous M&R “Tea Room” — the unassuming little cafe in the basement was by far the better restaurant for a six- or seven-year-old boy. Hamburgers, fries, cokes, chocolate cake, and NO stupid fashion show!)
As we got to the landing, mom knelt down, and looked me in the eye. Getting a pre-visit “remember to behave yourself” talk wasn’t new to me. A year earlier, when questioned as to whether or not I was old enough to drink the Coke I’d just ordered, my response was “oh, yes, ma’am, beer, whiskey, most anything.” But on this day, the talk from Mom was different. A talk for which I’m forever grateful.
In the age of legal segregation with arrests made at whites-only lunch counters, Mom looked me in the eye and explain that “… there might be Negroes eating here today. I don’t want you to stare or say anything. They have as much right to eat here as you do.”
We have learned different stories, you and I. Here I am going to tell the story, my story, of growing up in the segregated South. As a little white boy. It’s the only way I can tell the tale. It’s the story I lived. But you, you lived a different story, didn’t you? When I as a child saw a portrait of General Lee hanging in the restaurant, it didn’t mean much. Lots of restaurants had pictures of Lee (especially when we visited my dad’s childhood home in North Carolina). It meant a lot more to you, didn’t it? It meant you weren’t welcomed to eat in that restaurant. Maybe at a window around back, your family could get second-best to go. Maybe not. Let’s you and I talk over dinner sometime soon.