I would like to wish a long-ago friend of mine a happy 60th birthday today, even though she will never see this. She and I became friends in 7th grade when she became a student at St. Mary Grade School, a school that taught grades 1-8. At that time, public schools ended their elementary edcation at grade 6, and students went to “junior high” for grades 7 through 9. Typical of that era in the 1960s, students went to the public schools in their district. There was no crossing of district lines then as there is now. Depending on the socioeconomic status of the district, some schools were safer and better than others. St. Mary Grade School acquired a number of new students at the beginning of 7th grade, all of them female and all of them African-American. Their parents didn’t want them attending the public junior highs in their neighborhoods.
Kim and I became very good friends, and as the friendship blossomed, we wanted to do things that were typical of young teenagers. We wanted to hang out at each other’s houses, have an occasional sleep-over, that kind of innocent stuff. I thought nothing of bringing up the suggestion to my mom for her okay, not even entertaining the thought that she would deny the request.
She said no. I was shocked. I didn’t understand what the problem was. Kim was a quiet girl and got very good grades in school. She wasn’t a troublemaker. There was nothing about her not to like! I wanted an explanation. The explanation I received was that she was “colored.” It wasn’t appropriate to have close relationship with “colored people.” I could be friends with her, but it was not right that she spend time in our home, have meals with us, spend the night.
I was incredulous. I had no idea how a situation like this could possibly exist! I was living in a home with two bigots, and I was angry about it.
I thought it might resolve with some time and patience, but it didn’t. Kim said to me one day that her grandparents felt we were getting too close and needed to back off from our friendship. (She and her mother, a divorced woman for many years, lived with her mother’s parents.) They felt that she was becoming too “white.” I was as dismayed and shocked with their attitude as I was with that of my own parents.
Kim and I remained friends for several more years, but the friendship never really grew much after the initial obstacles. I could never forget the hurt and disillusionment of finding out how harsh and unfair the world could be to two teens who went into a friendship colorblind to what lay ahead.
I try to understand what my parents and her grandparents were feeling. Desegregation of the public schools had only occurred in 1954, the year before Kim and I were born. The incident of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat in the colored section of the bus to a white person after the white section was filled occurred in December 1955. Even though the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, granting African American men the right to vote by declaring that the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” was ratified on February 3, 1870, blacks were still excluded from voting. Through the use of poll taxes, literacy tests and other means, Southern states were able to effectively disenfranchise African Americans. It would take the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 before the majority of African Americans in the South were registered to vote. 1965, people! I was ten-years-old before our government said loudly and clearly enough that that shit has got to stop! Racial tensions and civil rights demonstrations were frequent in the 1960s, and the March on Washington in 1963 was huge, involving 250,000 people.
My parents were born in 1916 and 1919. Kim’s grandparents were born earlier in the century. Black people and white people did not mingle socially. It was the way it was. In the 1960s when Kim and I met, the concept of close relationships between the races was still very foreign and unsettling to many. We were caught in those turbulent times.
I know where Kim lives and where she has her pediatric practice. I’ve sent holiday cards. We exchanged a couple of brief sentences on Classmates.com some years back. I came away from those encounters feeling that she was too busy to pick up a relationship from decades ago. The time had passed, at least for her, to follow that path. I felt sorrow over that. I think we would have had a lot to learn from each other, a lot to share.
Happy birthday, KIm, and many, many more!