As a young girl growing up in Louisiana during the 1930s, Thelma Williams understood little about the segregated world in which she lived. "What we [children] knew about [Jim Crow in our neighborhood] was almost rumor." Her parents and other adults in the all-black region of Shreveport rarely spoke about their encounters with white people or, in fact, mentioned much about whites at all. Instead, Williams recalls, adults were in the habit of whispering. Secrecy, she says, was a "kind of protection that we were given."45
Author Richard Wright remembers the same cryptic tongue with which adults spoke about whites. In his Mississippi neighborhood, every event involving white people seemed shrouded in mystery. For much of his childhood, then, the meaning of race eluded him. "Though I had long known that there were people called 'white' people, it had never meant anything to me emotionally," Wright explains. "To me they were merely people like other people, yet somehow strangely different because I had never come in close touch with any of them. For the most part I never thought of them; they simply existed somewhere in the background in the city as a whole." Conversations about race and racial confrontations frustrated and confused him so much so that he became obsessively inquisitive: "I soon made myself a nuisance by asking far too many questions of everybody. Every happening in the neighborhood, no matter how trivial, became my business." In his hunt for information, Wright discovered a great deal about the relationship between blacks and whites in the South and the tough lessons transformed him. "[W]hat I learned frightened me."46
Raised in the 1920s, the decade in which Charles Lindbergh piloted the first solo, non-stop flight across the Atlantic, Theodore Roosevelt Davidson developed a deep fascination for aviation. He spent his early boyhood in North Carolina collecting and building model airplanes, hoping to one day build and, perhaps, even pilot a real aircraft. In fifth grade, he secured a job sorting mail for Ritz Variety Store, a small business owned by a German immigrant. Davidson's white boss encouraged him to read aviation literature and learn more about flight technology. Mr. Ritz recognized his young employee's ambition, but remarked, "You know what, Davidson, it's too d--n bad you're not a white boy. If you were a white boy, you would really have it made." From that moment forward, Davidson remembers thinking, "it sort of registered in my mind how serious this [Jim Crow] thing really was." His parents, too, failed to offer him hope, reminding Davidson that he was black and therefore "you're just not going to fly any airplanes." Though discouraged, Davidson resolved to work much harder than whites in order to have any chance of achieving his goals.47
Black children coming of age in the Jim Crow South, unaware of the significance of skin color in determining the lives of those around them, often found their world full of puzzling rules and social contradictions. Seeking answers, many turned to adults, but found their responses to be vague or curiously stern. Little Mary Church was confused and heartbroken when a railroad conductor commanded she exit a whites-only coach. When she attempted to plumb information from her father, he forbade her to speak a word of the incident. As a family friend tugged young Louis Armstrong toward the rear of a New Orleans trolley, the five-year-old noticed a sign that read, "Colored Passengers," and pried his mother for its meaning. Mrs. Armstrong promptly scolded him, warning little Louis against asking so many questions.
Black parents in the Jim Crow South hoped to shield their children from the harsh reality of segregation by concealing their true feelings and attitudes with silence, humor, reproach, or evasiveness. Answers such as, "That's the way it is" were less than reassuring to disturbed or bewildered youngsters. But black southerners, wise to the mortal risks of inquiry and assertiveness, sought to prevent young people from behaving in any way that might make them targets of white violence. In the process, parents were often forced to ignore the concerns, curb the aspirations, and dash the dreams of their unknowing children. It was a painful and frustrating task for black mothers and fathers, but utterly necessary in such a perilous society.
Even without straightforward explanations, young black southerners inevitably learned of the power whites wielded in every aspect of their lives. They discovered—often after experiencing public embarrassment or harassment—the ways in which skin color alone determined where they and their friends could play, learn, sit, swim, eat, and drink. Each outing required special attention to placards designating "whites only beyond this point" or arrows directing black customers to "colored" entrances or counters. Troublesome encounters with whites revealed limitations; gestures, expressions, and words had to be carefully chosen, anger and discontent had to be masked, and white commands had to be obeyed at all costs and at all times. "[A]s you grow a little older," Theodore Davison explains of his experience as a young black man, "you begin to feel that you are under siege."48
The most traumatizing experiences for young people growing up in Jim Crow societies, however, were their initial encounters with violence inflicted by whites upon blacks. Rumors of beating, torture, and lynching, or "white death" as Richard Wright referred to it, were enough to haunt children and instill terror within them.49 "Nothing challenged the totality of my personality," Wright reflected in his adulthood, "so much as this pressure of hate and threat that stemmed from the invisible whites. I would stand for hours on the doorsteps of neighbors' houses listening to their talk, learning how a white woman had slapped a black woman, how a white man had killed a black man. It filled me with awe, wonder, and fear."50
Most young blacks, however, witnessed such brutality firsthand, often before their teen years. At the age of five, Benjamin Mays watched as a group of white men on horseback forced his father at gunpoint to remove his hat and bow to them.51 Raised in Georgia, young Martin Luther King, Sr. (father of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.) witnessed several whites beat a black man to death for demanding his paycheck.52 In 1907, eight-year-old Lucy Miller watched from her family's front yard in Daytona, Florida as a white mob dragged the corpse of a lynched black man through her neighborhood; the act, young Lucy learned, was intended to warn others against daring to "get out of their place."53 Six-year-old Pauli Murray hurried home after viewing the body of a black man lying in a field—shot to death for trespassing on a white man's farm. When she begged her aunt to tell her why such a thing would happen, the woman replied, "There are some things you'll understand better when you get older."54
By young adulthood—or even earlier—African-Americans in Jim Crow societies confronted the unnerving reality of racial hate. But the sort of antipathy that they grew to recognize was not limited to white animosity toward blacks. Along with fear and distrust, young black men and women learned to detest their white enemies. In fact, the sort of race consciousness that developed within black communities in the Jim Crow South was often closely linked to feelings of disgust and malice toward the white race. Author Richard Wright explains that acceptance into social cliques—for him, "the touchstone of fraternity—sometimes depended upon one's "feeling toward white people, how much hostility I held toward them, what degrees of value and honor I assigned to race."55 Martin Luther King, Sr., tormented by the violence he witnessed as a child growing up in rural Georgia, found some solace in loathing whites. The hate, he says, "helped me deal with the memories, the terrible dreams and recollections. To hate those responsible made it bearable, and so I indulged myself, and began to despise every white face I saw."56
Many also dreamed of revenge against those who, through legal barriers, verbal intimidation, and brute force, impressed upon them a sense of inferiority. However, black southerners, young and old, understood that retaliation and, really, any form of aggressive resistance to the Jim Crow system was futile; in a society controlled entirely by white institutions, acts of retribution would surely—and, invariably, did—result in swift and savage punishment meted out by white police, white courts of law, or white lynch mobs.
Each new generation of African-Americans raised in the Jim Crow South gained a deep and painful understanding of the racial boundaries that confined them in every aspect of their lives. Perceived racial differences, the children of the segregated South learned, mattered most. Ultimately, color was the "yardstick by which everyone measured everybody else," as Pauli Murray explains. "It seemed as if there were only two kinds of people in the world—They and We—White and Colored. The world revolved on color and variations in color. It pervaded the air I breathed. I learned it in hundreds of ways. I picked it up from grown folks around me. I heard it in the house, on the playground, in the streets, everywhere. The tide of color beat upon me ceaselessly, relentlessly."57 These were the devastating lessons taught in the school of Jim Crow society.