By: Vernetta Clayton
Happy Birthday Mama: I Remember, I Remember Forever Your Strength! DESEGREGATION: 1962 TRAIN RIDE WITH MAMA 2 TAMPA
My mother and I took the train to my Aunt’s in Tampa, Florida. We couldn’t even go in the dining car at the front of the train. Every few states we would get off in the train depot; if there was a “Coloreds” sign, then we could use it & get back on the train. If not, it was a long ride with me whining and asking why, why, why? We sat on the train as the other passengers got out at the train depot and went into the restaurants. I was around 7 and worrying my Mom. Always the “Why” child and haven changed: I questioned her, over and over, “Why can’t we get off?”, “I’ve got to use the bathroom!”, “I’m hungry, I’m hungry… they are eating, why not”? “Why, can’t I play with that little girl?”. Never will I forget that time, and that day my mother taught me that you got to set that chin strong and overcome fear & injustice! My Mother got off the train. She tightly held my hand, led me right into the train depot restaurant. She leaned close over me protectively, holding my hand up in the air as we maneuvered between the tightly seated tables. We sat down at an open table right in the middle of the restaurant. Ladies snatched their heads, the men grumbled. The little girl that kept playing with me on the train was looking at me and looking at her parents. I later came to understand that was a segregated, public train depot restaurant.
I knew about prejudice, because my 2nd grade teacher Mrs. Bayer grimaced and wrapped her arms around herself, every time one of us colored kids approached her. Yet, Park Elementary school’s principle placed the big projector in the center hall and showed us films on Hitler, Communist Russia with the cold war in full effect. In those films we also, learned about “Propaganda”, we were taught how masses are people are indoctrinated, how they were rallied and influenced to participate in communism and inhumane, injustice; with pictures of German soldiers marching the Jews to the concentration camps. 1962, John F. Kennedy, had been elected President just two years before; and 5 years after my junior high school sewing teacher Thelma Mothershed-Ware began school desegregation as a high school student and member of the Little Rock 9. It was the year before I laid eyes on my very first black teacher. Mrs. Azalee Biggs-Dye, the wife of one of the 1st black state police; St. Clair County Crime commission; and 1971 the 1st black E. St. Louis Police Chief. She stooped down beside our desk; kept me in at recess and played the piano to teach me the time tables; she whispered encouragement & moreover, never left, not one of us behind in our education; or, self-pride!
The restaurant atmosphere was heated and eyes rolled, they pointed and stared; but, my Mother Barbara Bush-Nicholson maintained her compo sure and her face or her stance, did not change. You could feel the tension in the room; and in my Mothers tearing blue eyes. We didn’t move, but the waitress wouldn’t come to our table, either. Finally, the waitress came over and bluntly said, “We don’t serve colored here”, looking over her shoulder towards the cash register and manager, she said, “You’ve got to go!”. Today, I wonder, if my mother knew of Gandhi’s non-violent civil disobedience movement. Seems she always, thought after that trip that people were looking at her in restaurants. Seemed so tired of the, always being asked about her blue eyes in elevators by white people; it happened twice in the week of her death; and the day before her death as she lay hooked to a ventilator on her death bed, in Barnes Hospital intensive care unit; where a young white, female doctor, insistently asked me “Is that the color of your Mom’s eyes?”. I replied, “Is she jaundice”; she countered, “No, are her eyes really blue?”. I say to her, “you are a doctor can’t you shine the light in her eyes and see; what difference does it make?”
We continued to sit in that restaurant, didn’t move. My Mom’s gripped my hand tighter, looking around and behind her, she was biting her lips. I looked around at the uproar building in the room. Noticed, the only people like me, were black folks reaching for the order slips. I could see Negroes cooking behind the bar in the kitchen. They had all lined up in the order window and were just standing there, not reaching for any more order slips. The people started to holler at us, “You niggers get outta here”, right now!”. One of the men gestured with his head to my mother, towards the door. Another one peeped from the kitchen door and pointed to the door. The waitress approached, said, “We don’t serve your kind”. I remember reflecting on our magical journey to Mississippi; and thinking but is Florida where Mickey Mouse a hero for all lived at Disneyland! Then this Black man poked his head at the exit and beckoned for us. When we got up, and moved slowly out the door. A black man with bent in his stance, his feet moved nervously and hurried…hugged my mother and patted my head. He gave us a big brown, grocery store size bag full of food, coca cola drinks and water. I remember us on that train, all alone and my being so hungry, I just pushed the food in my mouth. It seemed the best food I have ever eaten in my life…together, my Mom and me had crossing the lines of segregation and she taught me, you got to stand strong for your beliefs, for your rights as a human!!!
HAPPY BIRTHDAY MAMA! People are always telling me, “you’re strong”, “you’re a strong woman” even in the weakest days & times of my life! I know where I got it, my father was gentile, negotiating smiled proudly when he too, always said: “Don’t you worry. Your Mother is strong!”. You grilled in me her life philosophy, “Be an independent thinker, always think for yourself!”; “The world is not a merry go round, and people are not always fair; but bend over backwards to do your part; but don’t let nobody break your back“. Thank you Mama, for telling me, “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer…Mathew 21:22”; and “ Don’t you let nobody mistreat you, even if they are bigger or part of the law… because God is on side of the righteous…The bible says it in Deteronomy 20 & 1”!!!! Yes, it does Mama, yes, it does: “When you go to war against your enemies and see horses and chariots and an army greater than yours, do not be afraid of them, because the Lord your God, who brought you up out of Egypt, will be with you” (Deuteronomy 20:1)! Thank you for your daughter’s strength training, I’ve needed it time, and again in this world!!!