Ringing the Bell September 2014
By Reggie Beamon
I am just amazed by the number of Waterburians who spent the past months traveling—from California to the Cape, people documented through social media a great vacation season as Waterbury was represented everywhere. Of particular interest were the well written treks of Waterbury’s African American community over those months. From jazz and popular concerts held in places where only a few years ago blacks were not welcomed, to church missions across the United States and internationally to Kenya, India, Haiti and Ghana, our black community was mobile.
I thank all who felt it was necessary to let the world know of their journeys over the summer months. Reading those stories from our Center on Bishop Street had me reflecting on growing up in Waterbury and walking through Bishop Street. Hundreds of black neighbors would gather and discuss the events of the day, especially in the summer months as the factories would close for two weeks which began for many what looked like a reverse migration of blacks to the South.
On the street, there was no talking of a real vacation, as it was always, in what I heard, about “going home” or “visiting a relative” down South who was sick or needed help on a farm, and returning to Waterbury with a ham, sweet potatoes, collards, or other produce of farm labor by southern relatives. Those discussions were never associated with enjoying well deserved time off from the workplace, although seeing relatives one hadn’t seen in maybe years and sharing news of life in the industrial North and introducing new family members to southern relatives did speak of joyous moments.
Sprinkled into those colorful narratives were the horror stories of the trips on the road, of being pulled over, the early version of what today our laws describe today as “racial profiling” by the police. Stories of the police powers in southern counties or highway patrol taking some unfortunate person’s vacation pay were told on the street with enthusiasm and passion and a humor associated with hurt. You could hear so many sad stories—at my young age it seemed like person after person was doing their best to top the other person’s account of what happen to them.
In lieu of traffic courts, fines for alleged violations were either paid on the spot or the ‘violator’ taken to the house of a judge or to a jail. The stories and memories of the accounts of lynchings, beatings, and other forms of brutality and terrorism certainly fresh in the minds of blacks stopped on the road, served as deterrent to seeking legal recourse during a period when ‘separate but equal’ status was legislated as racial progress.
Reverend Leon Sullivan in Build Brother Build wrote, “The real change began in May of 1954, when the Supreme Court issued a ruling that segregation in the public schools was unconstitutional. Prior to that time we lived in a Black America and a White America. Black Americans lived for the most part in black neighborhoods went to black churches and attended black schools…worked on black type jobs. Ours was a black world while White Americans lived in a different atmosphere all together. There were two distinct Americas”.
That same year Ruby Bridges was born. Six years later, the Nobel Prize Winner novelist John Steinbeck embarked on a journey across country chronicled in his account TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY. In New Orleans, he came across ‘the cheerleaders’, white housewives of New Orleans, screaming hysterically threats, racial slurs and other obscenities at the six year old Ruby as she was escorted by United States Marshals to school as also depicted in the iconic painting The Problem We All Live With, by Norman Rockwell.
Yes, four years earlier, in 1956, President Eisenhower signed a bill for the interstate, and before the first highway was completed, Americans began to take to the roads.
For us, unfortunately, Jim Crow had not fully died. Even as ‘colored only’ businesses were available, the choices for blacks for lodging and food were few, and in some states blacks could not stay in a hotel or even get a meal on the road, purchasing gas remained the only option as a resting place. Segregated rest rooms on a ferry, along with cars parked in a separate area; coupled with the aggressive policing of northern state’s license plates were all the norm. Travel, without a good reason, for the sake of an enjoyable vacation, was out of the question.
With vivid memories of waiting for that two week vacation from the workplace for my parents and from school for my brothers and me, to travel down South, preparations began months in advance. Trips to the grocery store to get weekly food would as that time neared be a way to spend a little extra to make sure adequate food, usually chicken and fruits and sodas, before we hit the road. Often I wondered if my father carried in his wallet enough money for the ‘colored toll’ if we had the misfortune to be stopped.
In the past 60 years, as Sullivan wrote, “still change is coming”, and it is. Opportunities to not only vacation at ease, but to just travel, sightsee or to be wherever you want with friends, families, and organizations, illustrate real change.
Since the 1970’s, the economic standings of black Americans have grown. With a diversity of earning opportunities, coupled with new Civil Rights protections, a first generation of blacks are freely able to go wherever they want and proudly tell their empowering stories on social media.
At WOIC we thank God for allowing us to see the change Sullivan envisioned. Our mission is expansive, throughout our nation and in many countries around the world, without restrictions.
It has taken a while and a massive struggle to arrive where we are, for this equalizing opportunity to participate as full citizens. As we look on how far we have come and what we have accomplished and what remains to be done for a better future, maybe that is why WOIC’s 40th Anniversary remains such a milestone, because, on the journey, it has not been that long ago.
Now that schools are back in session and we come closer to the election season, one repeating moniker often heard this time of year is “change”.
We ring the bell today in praise of an inclusive America that continues to change.