Saturday, January 05, 2008

My experience with "white" and "colored" drinking fountains

I was reading a comment in the Daily Kos diaries and someone wrote that there are times that someone had to take a chance to refuse to sit at the back of the bus or to drink from the "whites only" water fountain. That reminded me of my first experience with such fountains.

In 1957 when I was seven years old I went on vacation from California to Louisiana where my mom grew up to visit my Aunt Irma and Uncle Jack and cousins. My mom was from Louisiana and dad was from Kentucky, and they had moved to California after WWII for the opportunities and to get away from the Southern racist society. My mom didn't want her children growing up in that culture. When I went to see her home town at the age of seven I knew nothing of the prejudice of racism.

In Louisiana my grandmother was a dirt poor single mother raising several kids and did sewing and dress making for the African Americans who lived just across the neighborhood's social divide. But at age seven I didn't know this history and my grandmother who was then nearly 80 and also living in California never talked about it.

One day I visited Uncle Jack at the lumber mill where he worked and he took me for a tour around the giant operation to see where the logs were sliced and then turned into boards. The large tractors carrying trees, the giant saw blades six feet across, the incredible noise of the saws, were all very impressive to this young boy.

At one point I got thirsty and looked for a drinking fountain. I saw two water fountains about 20 feet apart. One was the rectangular metal refrigerated cooler type and the other was a dirty white porcelain type not much larger than a salad bowl. The metal cooler fountain was higher and harder to reach. So I naturally went to the porcelain one and took a drink. The water was cool and refreshing.

When I returned to my uncle's side he scolded me and said I was not to drink from that fountain because it was for the "coloreds". I didn't quite know what he was talking about. He said I should drink from the other one and asked me didn't I see the signs? I looked again and sure enough the signs that had not even registered on my consciousness because I had never seen them before were posted above each fountain, "whites only" and "colored". That seemed like the stupidest thing I had ever seen or heard. Of course it made more sense to me to get a drink out of the porcelain fountain because I could reach it on my own. The water was the same water from the same pipes, and I didn't care if it was refrigerated or not. I asked why, but Uncle Jack said that's just the way it is. But I could see by the look on his face that he was dead serious so I didn't talk back or ask any more questions about it.

But from that day on I knew that adults were no longer to be trusted blindly to make sense, and that the reason of my own mind was a higher power and to be trusted more than what any authority figure, even a relative, had to say.

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