By Gwen Hilary
During the 1950s, Gwen’s mother, like many African American parents, ritually sent their children down south for the summer. Gwen remembers the rich experiences with her grandparents on the farm but also many painful and dangerous racist encounters which greatly impacted her.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: When-Summer-Came
- Why would African Americans send their children back down South in the summertime, after they had left behind the discrimination and mistreatment they often endured while living there?
- Have you ever experienced or seen others experience racism or discrimination of any kind? Describe the experience and how you reacted or coped with it.
- What are some ways that people can become advocates or builders of acceptance of others who are discriminated against in our society?
- The Gold Cadillac By Taylor, Mildred (Ages 10 And Up.)
- Born Colored: Life Before Bloody Sunday By Erin Goseer Mitchell. (High School)
- The Rosa Parks Story – DVD (2002)
- African American/Black History
- Crossing Cultures
- Education and Life Lessons
- European American/Whites
- Family and Childhood
- Stereotypes and Discrimination
My name is Gwen Hilary.
When summer came to Chicago, when I was a student in elementary school, I never got a chance to spend summers there. Each summer I was sent South to be with my grandparents and to spare… experience life on the farm. Now, during those years, when summer came, my mama worked from midnight until 8 o’clock in the morning. She would get home in time to see us off to school, and then get up again at 12 o’clock to fix lunch, and again at 3 o’clock to spend some quality time with us, from 3 until 7. That meant that she rarely got more than five consecutive hours during those working days.
So, when summer came, my mama got a chance to rest. She would prepare us a big shoebox full of food; chicken, bread, and cookies, and other things to take with us. But we didn’t know it was because she knew there would be no place along the route where we could purchase something to eat. I remember, one summer, when we were going South, that my sister and I had ridden the Greyhound bus for so many hours that we had to go to the bathroom, desperately. We bolted off the bus and rushed into a waiting room so we could get something to drink after going to the bathroom.
Now, we noticed that as we walked through, the men lowered their papers and some looked over the top of their glasses. When we got into the bathroom, the women stepped aside to let us go in, we thought that was quite nice. And then, we went to the bathroom, and we went to the stalls, and we washed our hands, and fixed the hair. Thought we looked kind of cute, as a matter of fact. And then, we walked through to where we could get something to eat and drink.
When we got to the counter, the waitress looked at us as we approached and said, “We don’t serve your kind here.”
Your kind? And we looked around and realized we had gone into the white only waiting room. We were so embarrassed and a bit afraid and we asked, “Where do we go to get something to drink?”
“The colored waiting room was around the back, over yonder.” And we walked out and saw an old dilapidated waiting room that said “Colored only.” And that’s where we purchased our beverage.
When summer came, we experienced racism in the South that we had never known. But there were wonderful days. You see, we went to school all year long. Black children in the South didn’t get out of school during the summer. Their school day ended or their school year ended, at the end of September maybe in October. It was then, that they would harvest the crops, pick cotton, and help the family raise money. My grandmama was a teacher in one of those schools down South. A one-room schoolhouse that housed students from grades 1 through 8. There were long benches and each grade was assigned a bench. And there was a potbellied stove that would keep the students warm in the winter. And over in the corner, was a table that held a bucket full of nice cold water and you could get a dip if you needed it. Now, there was also something else in that room.
There was a switch. Now that switch would make sure there was no disorder. But it also made sure that you attended to getting those lessons done. The worst time was when you were called to the front to spell those words that you had to learn each night. If you missed a word, you got a lick, smack, right in your hand. There were some mighty good spellers coming out of that school. When integration came, that one-room school was closed and all of the black children boarded yellow school buses each day, to ride to the brick, large schools in town.
When summer came, racism occurred in a way that I never knew existed in the South. I remember, that Emmett Till went down South with me. We were in the same school. Now, I don’t know if we were in the same homeroom, but we had classes such as art or music together. My name was Tarpley and his was Till. And as we sat in alphabetical order, he would have sat behind me in the seats that were bolted down. Six rows of eight seats, in each class room. I remember his eyes. Oh! Beautiful, beautiful brown, light brown eyes and a big smile. And he was jovial, always happy. Everyone liked him. But, you see, he had never gone South before and didn’t really understand what the South was like and the rules, that were very strict, for black child growing up in the South. His mama didn’t want him to go, but he begged because all of us were going. This was a ritual for many black families who had come North from the Great Migration to make a better living for themselves. They would send their children back to the farm, back to the family, to experience life. And so, Emmett Till went to Mississippi. I was in Arkansas that summer.
Now, while I was in Arkansas, my grandmother had sent me inside of the drugstore to purchase some items for her AND told us we could get some ice cream. Oh! It was so exciting! My sister went to purchase the items and I sat on a little, red stool, spinning around. And I said, “Black walnut, please.”
The young, white boy looked at me and he didn’t serve me. So, I spun around and I said it again, “Black walnut, please.”
Just then the door burst open and my grandmother rushed in and took both of us by the arm and she said, “She didn’t know any better. She didn’t know any better. We’re leaving, now.”
I couldn’t imagine why my dignified grandmother, who was a teacher, would give such respect to this white, teenage boy. She told me when we get outside, “Baby, baby, I should have told you. You can buy your ice cream in that store but you can’t sit down in there. You have to eat it outside.”
I remember we would go down to Mr. Tucker’s store on the corner. Mr. Tucker was a nice white man. But Mr. Tucker did not understand why we would not say “Sir” to him when he spoke to us. And I would say, “Mr. Tucker, I want a whining ball. Give me a red one.” Those were big, hard candies.
He said, “And?”
And I would say, “And, please?”
“And!” But I would never say “Sir” but he would always give me my whining balls.
When summer came, we had a chance to spend so much time with our eight cousins in our big frame house. We would make mud pies, roll car tires down the road. We could race each other and they’d look like big black donuts. We would grab the branches of the weeping willow trees, and swing out onto the water, and fall in with a splash. We would take lightning bugs, and put them on our ears, and we also would play with frogs. But when that lightning and thunder came, we children were told to sit absolutely still on the enclosed sunporch. My grandmamma said God was doing his work.
Well, those days are long gone, but will never be forgotten. The black community in the South was a special, nurturing place. It was a place where the wealthy and the poor, the highly educated and the illiterate, and those who were pillars of society and the derelicts, lived together in a community that nurtured and took care of each other. Now, the houses are gone. The barns have been torn down, and the land has been divided among the heirs. And we now rent that land out, and people raise soybeans and other crops on it. I’ll never ever forget those special days in the South when summer came.