I didn’t grow up in the most progressive household and my parents were hardly politically liberal during the 1960’s they did try to do the right thing. Until I was nine we lived in south Texas and it was a little behind on the times, even in 1967. I published this memoir on the old blog in July of 2012.
I finally watched The Help last week and was pleasantly surprised. I had avoided it because I thought it was going to be a cute chick flick about sassy Southern woman who can’t keep a civil tongue and have an over enthusiastic taste for whiskey cocktails. ( except for the “Southern” part, I think I just described myself. No wonder I wasn’t interested) I was worried it was going to be a Steel Magnolias rehash or another Fried Green Tomatoes. Both of which are fine films about southern women overcoming sexism and racism. But been there done that, read about six books about it and what more can be said? This is exactly why I didn’t bother with the book. This movie was incredibly deep and thoughtful and now I’m going to bother with the book. It also stirred up some early memories for me. And in hindsight, I think that’s why I avoid things about the south in the 1960’s.
In 1965, we moved from San Antonio Texas to a little town forty miles north of Houston Texas and 12 miles south of a little town Conroe. It was country. And it was definitely Southern Country. In between our brand spankin’ new housing development in the middle of the Big Thicket and Conroe was a little settlement–Tammany Hall–which was little more than a general store, a gas pump, some houses, and a couple of churches. It’s where the “colored folks” lived. I don’t remember noticing schools, probably because their schools were further down the road in Conroe. But it certainly wasn’t colorful unless you counted the rose bushes and hydrangeas in front of the dingy white ramshackle houses.
I liked riding to Tammany Hall; especially If I was with Dad in the front seat of the bouncy white pick-up truck, windows down so the brown smell of cedar and San Jacinto River would drift through the cab as we crossed the old steel suspension bridge. Trips with him meant the hardware store which held the crisp smell of new wood. While Dad made his purchases I would run my fingers through the nails and the screws to hear them splash and bang against the galvanized hanging bins. and There was a hardware store that smelled like new wood and I would run my fingers through the nails in the gigantic bins. The ice house (that’s Texan for little general store) was close by and I liked to go in there, too because the man behind the counter always gave me a piece of candy until one day when I was six or so because I stole a piece of Double Bubble. My mom did exactly what she was supposed to do when she discovered it and made me present the wrapper to the gentleman with an apology for being dishonest. I can still see that guilty wrapper on the old counter and hear my voice mumble a heartfelt “sorry I stole this”. He thanked me for my confession but he never offered me candy after that. I still remember that lesson when I see a piece of Double Bubble. Maybe that’s what keeps me so honest.
Once a week me and Mom would make a trip into Tammany. I never understood why my mom was so nervous about being there. I can remember watching her grip the steering wheel, her eyes always forward and she would shush me if I tried to talk to her. We would meander through old roads and stop in a neighborhood of shotgun houses, all of them white in varied states of disrepair but the yards were unfailingly neat and well-kept, free of refuse and cast offs. Our cleaning lady lived in one of these houses. We never went to the door to get her, she was always by the side of the road waiting for us.
I didn’t grow up in the privileged white southern class of old money. We were decidedly the up and comers in the Upper Middle Class so we didn’t have a full time domestic to look after me and my sister but we did have someone weekly to help once a week with the “heavy cleaning” (whatever that is) and the ironing. I can’t remember her name but I remember her as small, silent, and pinched. She never smiled and did not interact with Sister or me. I also remember wondering if the only thing she owned was a gray dress. Every time we saw her she had on a gray dress with a white collar. It never occurred to me this was the standard maids uniform. It finally occurred to me last night when I was watching The Help. It made me feel hopelessly ignorant and lily white.
A few months after we started using this cleaning lady, we stopped going to get her and the only explanation I heard was: “She’s a drinker.” Frankly, that’s probably too much information for a five year old. In hindsight, I feel deep sorrow for this woman, she probably drank because her life consisted of ironing white women’s clothing, and cleaning behind their couches which cost them more than she made a year. After my parents fired the first cleaning lady, we didn’t have help for a year or two until my mom required surgery and wasn’t allowed to lift or exert herself for a few months. Mrs. Hall the antithesis of the first lady, came almost every day and she cooked, cleaned, and looked after me and Sister. She also wore “real clothes”, bright and colorful house dresses. She was a big woman, warm and friendly. Just remembering her makes me smile. And oh my God that woman could cook, too. After she left us she opened a restaurant in a town to the south of us. We never went out to eat but Dad took us to dinner there a few times and it was a special occasion. I remember how happy she was to see us in her restaurant; stepping out behind the counter to hug us.
One particular day we were in Tammany, I remember having to go to the bathroom RIGHT THAT MINUTE and I wasn’t taking no for an answer. My mother became even more panicky and she told me we couldn’t stop because there weren’t any “white restrooms”. This confused me and I started to cry. My mom turned the car around and we went back to the ice house. I climbed out of the car to scurry to a door on the side of the building. I went inside did my business and was headed back to the car when I saw a water fountain. Of course I was thirsty now, too. Whining is thirsty work. A man came from around the building. In my mind’s eye he is bigger than life, bigger than Dad. I can still hear his voice, forty-five years later:
“Y’all can’t drink there. It’s the colored water.”
This guy had just put down a gauntlet. I was a hardheaded four year old who happened to be in love with all things colorful. I was suddenly desperate to see this fancy water come from the fountain and I wasn’t taking no for an answer.
My mom was out of the car and at my side, grasping my hand.
“She just came from the restroom.”
“That one? That’s the colored terlit”
Now I was really confused, there wasn’t anything colorful in that bathroom, it was gray and dark. I started to whine about a drink. I was more curious about this colored water than I was thirsty. Would it come out of the spout like the dancing fountains at the shopping mall in Houston? Would it change colors as it flowed or would it stay the same color? Would it be a bright magenta or violet blue? (my two favorites)
“She’s thirsty and she’s going to get a drink.”
My mother grasped my hand and pulled me past the man who suddenly seemed smaller when she was with me. She held me up to the fountain so I could drink. I was terribly disappointed and my thirst wasn’t really sated because was the same old water we had in our faucets and home and the same old boring old clear water which came out of the fountain in the store. I was angry the big man lied to me. The water was just the same.
A couple of years later, we happened to stop at the ice house. Visits to the old store were few because a big grocery store had been opened. I was playing outside, probably throwing pebbles at the building while I waited for my mom. I noticed a thin layer of white paint over lettering near the outside water fountain and the bathroom. It was hard to make out but it seemed to say: “COLOREDS ONLY”. Unfortunately, I knew what those ugly words meant. My dad had explained them after I came home crying from the first day of first grade.
I met Phoebe on the playground and we had an instant connection like little girls often do. I was fascinated by her huge brown eyes and luminous brown skin. She had pig tails scattered over her head each one fastened with a different clasp in a festive and bright color. I was in awe and envious of her remarkable hair-do. I remember running into the school holding her hand. I can still feel the joy of finding a new friend. I didn’t know anyone in my class and I was a little shy, very self-conscious about my height and my thick glasses. We found seats next to each other but were stopped short by Mrs. Todd (yes, I remember her name).
“Laura Ann, what are you doing?”
“Me and Phoebe are sitting here!!” I said breathless because I had made a new friend.
Mrs. Todd yanked my hand out of Phoebe’s and led Phoebe away from me like the child was guilty of a crime. “No she isn’t, the colored children are sitting here.”
“But you said we could choose–“
“No back talk! SIT DOWN!”
I looked across the classroom and saw a small group of African-American children watching as Phoebe was led to another seat. We weren’t allowed to co-mingle on the playground either. Me and Phoebe would exchange fleeting and secret waves every once in a while but soon even that stopped as we drifted into the group we were dictated to belong.
This was 1967. Isn’t that shameful? Despite the fact I had no control over the adults around me this story fills me with shame and regret. It makes me ashamed because neither one of my parents reported the teacher’s behavior. But this was probably because it didn’t occur to them to say anything; the schools weren’t even legally bound to desegregate until the next year. And even then, our school became mysteriously white the next year. The African-American kids who had been there were put in another school.
Oh so many years later, as I write this, tears threaten. I wonder what ever happened to Phoebe. I wonder what she was thinking when she was told she “didn’t belong” on the white side of the room. I know this memory hurts because I was an innocent child confused by why it was so important I stay away from Phoebe. My parents were not progressives by any stretch of the imagination and they were distrustful of people who weren’t like them. It’s the way they were raised. So it didn’t occur to them to take action or even tell me the teacher’s actions were wrong. They didn’t even speak to how inappropriate the teacher’s behavior was. Thank God I was given an inner voice that rose above my environment. It also hurts because I know the sour taste of being humiliated and I helplessly watched another child endure that. I hope that day in 1967 was the last time Phoebe was ever a victim of bigotry. I hope she went on to become everything she wanted to be and do everything she dreamed of doing. Even if it was simply being allowed a friendship with a tall and, skinny white girl with coke bottle glasses.