I was talking with a young black woman recently while standing in a long line at the train station. She was a college student, smartly dressed, on her way to visit her parents. We chatted about the movie “The Help.” We’d both liked it. “I’ll bet you’ve seen a lot of history,” she said, noting my white hair.
The line moved and we boarded the train. I thought about what she’d said. Yes, I have seen a lot of history. As a young mother in 1951, we lived in Shorewood, a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I had been invited to a tea for Pearl Buck, a huge honor for me as I’d read and loved her books. And here I was, in the same room with the woman who had written on of my favorites, The Good Earth. It seemed almost unreal. She gave a talk about her experiences as a girl in India and China. Then told of going to a home in a tiny village in India. There, in a place of honor was a picture of Abraham Lincoln. The family knew nothing about America or that Lincoln had been a president. They knew only that he was a man who had freed slaves. Miss Buck told stories of the kinds of discrimination she’d seen and how that had molded her life, one spent doing what she could to eliminate discrimination.
I listened in awe and wished desperately I could do something, anything, to help create a world where all people were seen as equal. When my chance came to sit with her, I told her I wanted to help. She asked what I was doing. Apologetically, I explained that I was a wife and had small children. She smiled and patted my hand. “My dear,” she said. “You have the most important job in the world. What you can do is go home and raise those children so they will grow up free of discriminating against others for any reason.”
Then in 1956, we moved to Atlanta, Georgia, a segregated city. We were a young couple with four small children, damnyankees recently transferred to this beautiful city. This would be our fifth move in nine years. But we had no choice. In those days when the corporation said, “Move,” you asked, “How far?”
So here I was in a city so different from the middle-western small towns I’d grown up in. I had read about segregation. When I was in high school, I’d paid all of twenty-five cents to join a group against the poll tax. I’d read about discrimination and had signed all the petitions. But now I was living in it. My daily life was filled with the tasks of a wife and mother—cleaning, cooking, laundry, childcare. My friends were the women who lived in the nearby townhouses, all southern white women. In this white urban setting I felt like a fish out of water, struggling to discover who I was in this new environment. Wondering what I could do about the situations I thought so unfair. I longed to do something out in the world that might make a difference, something to help break these crippling chains of segregation.
My day finally came when I had to take a bus. At last, maybe I could do something, make some kind of statement, a difference perhaps. I waited on my corner until the bus I needed arrived. And when it did I deliberately walked to the back and sat in a seat beside a black woman. The driver called out,” Ma’am, you’ll have to move.”
“I’m fine right here,” I called back.
He turned off the engine, got out of his seat, and ambled up to me. He seemed tired and bored by it all. “Ma’am, the law says I cannot move this bus until you move to a forward seat. This here’s for colored.”
I looked at the woman beside me. Her hands were clenched and I saw a thin gold wedding band. She wore a neat brown wool coat and hat to match. Her low-heeled pumps were similar to mine. She was about my age, probably a wife and mother just like me. A bag of groceries sat on the floor beside her feet. Perhaps she was going home to cook dinner for her family. She pulled herself toward the window and looked down into her lap.
“I don’t mind sitting here,” I said.
She tilted her head toward me. “Please move,” she pleaded. “Please. They won’t arrest you.”
Her quiet words stunned me for I knew it was true. I got up and moved.
And then we were transferred again. A stint in New York, one in Detroit, and then during the middle 60s, we moved to Mount Lebanon, a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My children were older and I was more able and willing to do battle. I became an active player in the Civil Rights movement. But nothing my friends and I did could equal what so many had lived through.
I’ve never forgotten the courage of that woman on the bus. I often think of her and of all the others who lived with dignity in such conditions. I blush with shame and embarrassment to think this country of freedom could have allowed such things to go on. We’ve come a long way, thanks to the courage of so many, but there’s still “way” to go.