The year was 1969 and Philadelphia, Pa., was a hot mess. The streets were akin to the wild, wild west. Nobody was safe. Not the police, professionals, or little kids. Everyone was subject to catching a bullet. Lawrence and Minnie grew tired of watching the evening bloodbath known as the nightly news and began figuring out how to get out of Philly. Their youngest daughter was six, and the newest baby was six months old. Minnie worried about taking her daughter out of school, an established private institution with deep roots and a progressive agenda. Lawrence countered, “Yes, but things will be better in the suburbs.” He wasn’t worried about the children adapting; he worried about them surviving.
Southampton, Pa., is nestled deep in the bosom of Bucks County, 90 minutes away from downtown Philly. It’s one of those towns that you see on postcards and wonder if it really exists. It does. It’s charming, quaint, and both large and small enough that you can get to know your neighbors or never see them. When the young black family rolled up into the neighborhood in the summer of 1969, their new white neighbors noticed them. In fact, all the curtains in the big living room windows, all the way up to the top of the street, stayed open as long as the moving truck at the bottom of the street unloaded the family’s furniture.
Can you imagine the chorus: “My God, there goes the neighborhood!”
While unpacking, Minnie did her best to prepare her little girl for school on Monday. “Just show what you know.” “Be friendly.” “You can compete.” “Try not to worry.” But inside, Minnie worried. How would her baby be treated? Would she come home crying every day? Yet, she knew she had to let her daughter go. The next morning, however, their neighbors left a calling card on the front step, a viciously mutilated rabbit. Welcome to the neighborhood nigger.
To make matters worse, Minnie’s little daughter had volunteered to go outside to get the newspaper. She had found the unlucky critter, and her scream shattered the morning’s peace. Lawrence had just gotten to work when Minnie called. “You’ve got to come home now.” He made the return trip in record time. His little daughter was terrified and wondered if everyone would be killed. Her parents were adamant: “We have a right to live here. Many people have sacrificed their time, blood, and lives to give us this opportunity. We are going to be OK.”
The next morning Minnie watched from the kitchen window as her little girl walked to school, an all-white school. The students, the teachers, the cooks, the janitors — everyone was white, except her little girl. The first grade teacher, Mrs. Fisher, a tall, willowy blonde had prepped the class. “We are white crayons. Our new student is a brown crayon.” The little girl had been escorted from the administrative office to her new classroom. Once there, she hugged her teacher’s legs and held on for dear life as the teacher practically dragged her into the classroom, right into the middle, where the little one couldn’t escape the shocked stares. Nothing was said for an eternity-like minute, then a voice shouted out. “Are you dipped in chocolate?” Laughter followed from everyone, except the little girl who, by this time, had been directed to a desk. One of those desks you can stick your head in. And that’s what she did until the teacher insisted that she come out.
After a few weeks the kid dipped in chocolate had learned to survive. Then, she began competing, and a few months later, she was thriving. The neighbors, however, still weren’t friendly. Racial epithets defaced the home regularly. Strangers didn’t mind following Minnie around the grocery store. Others were bolder and followed Minnie all the way home, parking and watching while she unloaded the car. But in the middle of all that madness, the kids began to talk differently. Their parents now heard their daughters classmates say, “She eats like we do,” “She’s smart like us,” “We play together at recess,” “She’s my friend,” “Can she come home with me after school?” That little girl was me.
Today, I’m seeing the return of the worst parts of my past on the news. I’m witnessing things at political rallies I lived through, like being beaten and spat upon. I grew up with this.
Since my childhood, the negative feelings, emotions, and intentions changed for some, but not others. That brand of ugliness just became silent and slipped under the radar, waiting for a chance to resurface. It’s back in full force now and threatens to rip us apart, like the rabbit on my doorstep.
I had hoped never to see those days again, but, apparently, I was wrong.