Living in the South during Jim Crow days, though certainly less restricted than during the time before emancipation, was fraught with danger for people of African heritage.
Even though I grew up in those days, my “white” world in southwestern Virginia rarely intersected with those outside the segregated circle in which I lived.
The only people I knew as a child who had dark skin was a maid and a man who worked for my father and came to our home to do yard work as well.
I was vaguely aware of “white only” signs on water fountains and restrooms, but I was oblivious to the stigma and hardship those signs represented.
As an adult, I have made a conscious effort to learn more about that shameful time and to counter discrimination, especially in a personal way.
I have been honored by friendships with colleagues and other African-Americans whose lives have touched mine.
Jerrold Packard’s book “American Nightmare,” along with Calvin Ramsey’s play “The Green Book” and its accompanying children’s book, “Ruth and the Green Book,” have done much to educate me on the particulars and the cruelty of those appalling days.
Of course, at this time, it was customary for affluent Southerners to hire women of color to care for their babies and young children and, in the process, caregivers became extremely close to those little ones. Yet, interactions elsewhere were avoided.
Recently, I learned an additional fact about how discrimination was practiced. If a person of color purchased something from an establishment with a white clerk, the established procedure was for the African-American person to lay their money down on the counter.
The clerk would then pick up the cash and make change, which was then laid on the counter for the purchaser to pick up. This way, the clerk would never have to touch the hand of the African-American.
I was so startled by this revelation that I mentioned it to an African-American friend the other day. This friend is a well-known, much-honored, long-time resident of the small town in which we live in northeast Georgia.
She is a retired educator and an active volunteer in the school system and a number of other organizations that enrich our community.
When I related to her what I had learned, she smiled at me and shook her head. “Sara,” she said, “that happened to me yesterday.”
Stunned, I asked her to explain.
She said she had made a purchase and reached into her purse, pulled out a $20 bill and offered it to the clerk.
When the clerk just looked at her without accepting the money, my friend knew that she was expected to lay the bill down on the counter – her experiences of growing up during the Jim Crow days had educated her to her proper response to this prejudice.
My outrage for my friend led me to ask at which store this incident had happened, but she would not tell me.
I was humbled by her lack of anger or desire to retaliate and appreciated that her restraint was motivated both by her deep faith and her memory of days gone by.
The experience also made me aware of how oblivious I still am to the sensitivities of others, the slights and, sometimes, outright ugliness that characterize prejudice.
Whether the prejudice is based on race, education, socio-economic issues or differences of opinion on matters vital or trivial, our actions tend to reflect our attitudes to the detriment of our witness or effectiveness in sharing our Savior’s love.
Sara Powell is a freelance writer, former board member of the Baptist Center for Ethics and former moderator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia. She and her husband, Bill, live in Hartwell, Ga. Visit her website at LiftYourHeart.com.