I grew up in the American South. I remember colored washrooms and water fountains and swimming pools – clearly being black was thought to be water borne. If you think that’s bad, my mother remembered the sign posted on the way out of Durant, Oklahoma, the shit-hole she was born in. It read, “Any (N-word) caught in town after dark will be lynched.”
My home town, not a shit hole, was really two towns, separated by a railroad track. On one side of the track was Chapel Hill, home to the University of North Carolina and populated by professors and university staff and the merchants who serviced students and faculty.
On the other side was Carrboro, home to black millworkers, the legion of maids and yard men who worked for white people over in Chapel Hill and the taxi cab drivers who ferried them back and forth to their jobs. Growing up we thought taxis were exclusively for black people. Nobody else took them. We all had cars.
Each town had its own high school – and then, the year I entered high school, they didn’t. The high schools were integrated, merged into one and housed in a brand new building on the outskirts of town. The principal of the white high school became the principal of the new, integrated high school and the principal of the black high school, its vice-principal. What could go wrong?
Well, not a whole lot actually. Oh, there was a little pushing and shoving, some brandishing of lead pipes, but what really stirred the pot at my high school was interracial dating. That is to say, high status black boys – athletes or musicians – courting second-tier white girls. By “second tier” I mean nice enough girls ranking maybe a seven on the high school desirability scale – not quite enough looks and/or personality points to snag a high-status white boyfriend, but not a complete dog’s regurgitated snack either. (BTW: In case you think I’m being unduly mean girl in my estimation o, I had no boyfriend whatsoever in high school. Of any rank … or race. I don’t even want to speculate what the Hell tier I was on!)
This intermingling of the races (and there was intermingling) may have set white parents’ hair on fire and culminated in all manner of groundings and ultimatums, but the ones whose butt it burned most were black girls. They were furious and rightly so. They were also big. If you were a white girl, you stayed out of their bathroom. Because, yes, the school might have been integrated, but the bathrooms were not. This wasn’t a formal arrangement, but it was understood. And it was the black girls who enforced it.
One year I was on the staff of the school’s literary magazine and two of my fellow editors made a practice of hanging out at a filling station on the old Pittsboro Road, where they would goad the gas station’s owner — a hoary coot who looked kind of like Gomer Pyle’s evil twin — into making outrageously racist remarks. “If any of them (N-words) come around here,” he’d say, “I’ll bust me up a Pepsi crate and make ‘em wiggle.” We thought this was hilarious. Then, again, we thought abandoning a cow in the high school’s second floor lobby overnight was also hilarious. Do you know how hard it is to convince a cow to go downstairs?
Recently I read Kathryn Stockett’s novel, The Help, where a white employer fires her maid for using the family bathroom.
Then I remembered.
In the otherwise unfinished basement of the house I grew up in, was a bathroom. It was just off the back porch, which, in turn, was just off the kitchen. You could access it from the outside by a set of stairs. No one ever used this bathroom. It was smelly and full of cobwebs, and, besides, there were rats in our basement. My mother used to refer to them in the collective as “Willard.”
It had never before occurred to me what that bathroom was for. Our maids – Altherea, who didn’t do windows, Camellia and then Amelia, daughter of Camellia — all used the same bathrooms we did. After all, they were cleaning ladies. How could they be unclean? It was illogical.
But there could was escaping the obvious. The bathroom in the basement had been the help’s bathroom, the ‘colored’ bathroom. How could I have lived in that house all those years – with its butler’s pantry and its back staircase and the button on the floor in the centre of what was our family room, but had originally been the dining room, placed there so that the lady of the house could summon a servant from the kitchen without rising from the table. . . . How could I have lived in that house all those years and not known what that basement bathroom was for?
I guess I didn’t think.