Race matters: The Garden of Eden

I remember Mattie Bell.

She was small and dark brown, she called me "Kate," and I felt secure being with her.

When I knew Mattie Bell, my family lived in a small cottage in a tract of houses called Copeland Park constructed quickly for wartime workers in Newport News. Mattie Bell took care of me and my brother, and she is the first African American I remember, although my parents called her and others of her race "colored people."

Recently I found a postcard Mattie Bell sent me from New York when I was five years old. I still don't know her last name. Did I know then the difference between races? When did I learn that race matters?

I remember Adeline.

She was dark and gnarled and talked funny.

She lived with my Great Aunt Nannie and her husband, Uncle Harvey, and my great grandmother Ewing at Coleraine, a lovely old white frame farmhouse with a long front porch in Southside Virginia. They lived simply: There was no running water, but electric lights and even a refrigerator– not an icebox– were added later.

Adeline was born either during or just after the Civil War in which my great grandfather served as a courier for General Jeb Stuart. My grandmother told me many stories about Adeline, who was a part of her life before she married my grandfather and moved north.

To visit Coleraine, we drove south on roads winding through flat open farmland– in those days, fields and fields of leaf tobacco and peanuts and other crops, the landscape broken with a copse of woods or an orchard set on a small hill.

I remember a girl my age.

Near Coleraine, my mother took me to a tenant house where another mother watched me while my parents attended a funeral. Even though I was a child the house seemed tiny, maybe only two rooms, spare and clean, the dirt floors swept until they were hard. There was a girl my age, and we ran from one room to the next in make-believe play. I surprised myself with the thought: "Why, she's just like me!"

It was the moment I first realized that race is supposed to matter.

My great grandmother died and then my great aunt, and Adelaide. Coleraine was sold. We moved to Arlington and stopped going to Southside. I never saw the girl again.

I didn't know that she was growing up in the community where, only a decade later, the children would challenge the separate (and unequal) schools of Prince Edward County in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case that changed the complexion of the South.

I remember Mrs. Hamilton, the General Education teacher in my junior high school. In General Ed, a mixture of social studies and government, we often discussed news while we worked on projects. Mrs. Hamilton, younger than my parents, talked to us like grown ups.

I was 13 when I learned that some people wanted to desegregate the schools in Virginia. I didn't realize they were talking about schools in Southside where I was little. What's more, I didn't understand the fuss.

I assumed that coloreds lived separately and went to separate schools because they were different from us, and we're not meant to mix- whites stay with whites and coloreds with coloreds. It's what I was taught. My parents never said bad things about colored people, but I understood our way of life.

One day in class we started talking about segregation. I asked Mrs. Hamilton: "Why shouldn't the races stay separate, since whites and coloreds look different and everything?"

She paused to consider my question. As she spoke, her dark brown eyes looked directly into mine.

"Yes," she said, "Caucasians and Asians and Negroes are all different races, different colors.

"They're like all the varieties of flowers. Each flower is unique with its own beauty." I nodded in agreement.

"Yet we mix the flowers together in our bouquets and in our gardens. We don't have to separate them because they're different; in fact, together in the garden, they're even more beautiful."

"I see children like that," she went on. "They're all flowers in the garden. Each one is unique, but together they form a beautiful bouquet."

I didn't argue. Mrs. Hamilton made me think. In fact, this simple image of the garden changed my heart and mind irrevocably.

But not all at once. It took a few years for me to give up the old view– separation and segregation– and embrace a new vision of, first, desegregation and then integration.

I remember Porgy and Bess.

When I was a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the early 1960s, I believed that segregation was wrong. I read in the Daily Tar Heel about sit-ins at the lunch counters in nearby Greensboro. Because I could go where I wanted, I never thought about how segregation affects the daily life of Negro women who wait on me at Woolworth's but who cannot eat there or use the bathroom.

I saw George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess at a local movie theater. The next week, I learned that local Negroes who requested admittance were told they could come to a special "colored" showing. I wondered why whites and Negroes couldn't see this all-Black film together. Some students and faculty organized a boycott, and many walked a picket line outside the theater on Franklin Street. Too shy and unsure to picket, I decided to boycott all movies.

When a law student invited me to double-date to see Peter Sellers in The Pink Panther, I told him I couldn't because the theater was segregated. Although he was surprised, he didn't question me, and we went elsewhere to drink beer. But word got around, and the next weekend when I attended a law school banquet, several other students asked why I wouldn't go to the movies. I replied that I believed segregation was wrong. They asked if I wanted to marry "one of them."

The banquet speaker was Sam Ervin, the same Senator who would later be lauded for his statesman-like handling of the Watergate hearings. But in 1961, playing to the all-white crowd, Ervin derided the idea of desegregation. Some laughed at his comments. I didn't think he was funny.

I remember Mrs. Graham and I remember David.

Later that spring, one of my sorority sisters wanted to invite David, the one Negro undergraduate at UNC, to our sorority house for dinner. Mrs. Graham, our elderly housemother, replied that he couldn't come to dinner, but that he could address us afterwards. I was embarrassed that David would know he was being dis-invited to eat with us. But if he was embarrassed or hurt, he chose not to show it. As we sat around the crowded room, he talked about Martin Luther King, the students in Greensboro, and the coming demise of segregation.

I remember Ted.

In the summer between my junior and senior year, I went to a conference on the United Nations in New York where I met Ted, a black youth my age from Brooklyn. We ate meals together, traveled together on the subway, laughed and talked together. Sometimes, when we talked, I forgot he was black and I was white.

The walls were slowly beginning to crumble.

And I remember the water fountain in the Hillsborough Court House.

In my senior year in college, just before the November election, I accompanied Eddie to the Orange County Courthouse to cast an absentee ballot for John F. Kennedy for president. As we entered the historic courthouse, we saw bathrooms marked "colored" and "white." But it was the two water fountains that caught my eye: one designated "colored" and one "white."

All my life, I had accepted the system of separate schools and neighborhoods for Negroes and whites, separate waiting rooms in train stations, separate bathrooms, Negroes giving way on the streets and moving always to the back of the bus– figuratively as well as literally.

Yet on that day, faced with the water fountains designated by race, the absurdity of segregation splashed before me. Eddie and I took turns defiantly drinking the cool clear water from the "colored" fountain. And even though we drank our fill, no one witnessed our protest.

But with each sip of water from the "colored" fountain and each movie I didn't go to see, I knew I would never go back to accepting the system that insisted on separating one group of human beings from another. Instead, I stepped into the garden that Mrs. Hamilton described– a place where the mixed colors make the garden even more beautiful, a place where race doesn't matter.

Kay Slaughter is an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.