A YANKEE SCHOOLGIRL FINDS HERSELF IN CIVIL-RIGHTS-ERA ALABAMA
In 1963 I was fifteen and living a bucolic existence in the farmlands of southern New Jersey, plunging into every activity high school could invent. Abruptly my father was transferred to Birmingham, Alabama. I jetted overnight into a world completely foreign. Teenagers I met drove cars, not bicycles, had cotillions instead of sock hops. We could barely understand each other’s dialects.
But such differences were only superficial; the real trouble lay much deeper. The Old South and the civil rights movement were fighting a duel to the death. As we arrived, a black church was bombed and children killed. The Commissioner of Public Safety, Bull Conner, turned fire hoses on peaceful demonstrators. I was bewildered to see BLACK and WHITE signs everywhere, even on opposite sides of the same drinking fountain.
As a Yankee, I received threatening calls at home, and trash was thrown onto our lawn. In algebra class, students sitting behind me burned me with matches. In November, President Kennedy was assassinated, and at school that day the relief was undisguised.
I went to see my guidance counselor. “I just want to fit in, to belong,” I wailed, echoing (without hearing myself) the larger national issue.
“Well, dear,” she explained, “these children were all born here. They know what the others eat for breakfast. They have family silver buried in the back yard.” (She was referring to the Southern practice of saving their possessions from Union looters by burying them.)
I left the guidance office in tears, feeling that what had been buried was the confident kid I had once been. I could no more create an appropriate family on the spot than a person could change the color of his flesh.
Finally came graduation. An ecstatic administration had secured Gov. George C. Wallace as the keynote speaker. Seven hundred of us, carefully dressed and perfectly behaved, crowded the platform. It was sweltering. The governor spoke of a “sinister movement that would reshape this nation. … When you go to college, there will be young men and women who will tell you that we must put human rights before property rights. …” He warned us that wherever property rights have been ignored, human rights have vanished. He closed his speech shouting about civil rights and communism; the crowd applauded. His raw emotion upset me, but now we all had to line up, shake his hand, and accept a three-by-five-inch photograph he had autographed. The stage lights burned hot; people pressed; it was my turn. He handed me his picture. I looked into his eyes, which were very black and not at all smiling. Suddenly I couldn’t stand it. I held the picture up to him, tore it in two, dropped the pieces to the platform, and walked trembling down the stairs.
During my college years, my father was transferred back to New Jersey, and we went home. As my life resumed some of its old rhythms, my painful experiences in the South receded to a dreamlike memory—somewhat, I suppose, like a military tour of duty in a foreign country.
Over the next three decades I wondered what had happened to the characters in that dream, how they were navigating a world changed many times over. Most of all I wondered about myself. What could I have done to change anything? What would have happened to me if I had belonged, if I had had silver buried in the back yard?
In 1972 my mother passed away, and her loss sparked an interest in genealogy. I began studying my father’s family, which had lived in New Jersey for 300 years. Casually leafing through a document from the county cultural and heritage commission, I came upon the following entry: “Keziah Burr Howell [a niece of my ancestral grandfather] became the first lady of New Jersey when her husband [Richard Howell] was elected governor in 1794. Their son William Burr Howell, a War of 1812 hero, traveled to Mississippi and became the father of Varina Howell. She eventually married a man many years her senior, Jefferson Davis, to become Varina Howell Davis, first lady of the Confederacy.”
My ancestral aunt Varina was Mrs. Jefferson Davis. At first I just sat there, and then I started to laugh. In seamless ways larger than we can know, we all are characters in the dream. On the other side of our regional and racial and political fences, we Americans have the same back yard. May God help us keep finding the gates to pass through to it.