I grew up in southwest Virginia. I was eight years old when Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous speech in August of 1963. I don’t recall seeing it or even thinking about it. I do recall, however, the events several months later when John F. Kennedy was assasinated in Texas.
Perhaps this says something about my state of mind as a southern white boy in 1963. It’s not that I was a dyed-in-the-wool bigot. I just didn’t care about race relations at my age. In addition, I didn’t have enough experience with blacks to know much about them. This was most likely due to the fact that Virginia was still segregated at this point.
There are still bits and pieces of my memory that hint at a less than admirable view toward blacks at this stage of my life, however. I recall that the black neighborhood next to ours was called “nigger town”. I remember that a boy from that area came driving though on his bike one day at high speed. I always figured he was just trying to challenge us. So there was a natural division between blacks and whites in my mind. It was just the way it was.
Until I was 13 years old I believe I only interacted regularly with one black person: my best friend’s maid. Dorothy was kind of like a mother figure to me. My attitude toward her was that she was my friend’s caretaker when his mother wasn’t there.
Right before I turned 13 our school was integrated, in 1967. If I recall correctly, our junior high school had three new black kids. Three.
Then we moved to Baltimore. I suddenly was surrounded by ethnicity. I never remember meeting anyone of Polish descent until I went to the junior high school across the street. Then I sat next to this girl with a Polish name. It seemed really strange to me.
The most memorable moment of my 7th-grade year though was wrestling with Tyrone. I was sitting in gym class when the teacher instructed me to get in there and start wrestling with him. The emotion I remember was fear. “You mean I have to touch this guy”? In my memory there was something unclean about even shaking hands with a black person in that day and age if you were white.
I met an albino kid who asked me,”Do you think I am black or white”? I assumed he was black, but I really didn’t know.
So this is what characterized my relations with African-Americans as a child in the South: inexperience and fear-probably fear of the unknown.