I grew up in Storrs, Connecticut, a faculty brat in a university town where minority people were few and far between. There were a few black kids in our high school -- the children of people employed at UConn. There were also working-class Puerto Ricans in the area -- American citizens but who knew that back then? -- who had fled north from the economically devastated US colony of Puerto Rico to work in a big textile mill in nearby Willimantic.
Storrs was a liberal community. The civil rights movement and later the early anti-Vietnam War movement both had early and active support there, our school teachers were for the most part liberals who went beyond the core curriculum to teach us to question things, and (within limits) to pursue our '60s-era interest in alternative life-styles and politics.
But I did get a sense for what real racism was about, despite living in such an island of liberalism.
My mother was a native of Greensboro, North Carolina, and her parents still lived down there, just outside of town in a huge log cabin on a pond. Grandpa, a decorated mustard-gassed veteran of World War I, and a super-patriot, was a no-nonsense coach and headed the physical education program for the segregated Greensboro School District.
A generous-hearted woman who left home to serve as a Navy WAVE during World War II, my mother ended up posted at the Brooklyn Navy Yard for most of the war. After meeting and marrying my Dad, and moving to Storrs, where the University of Connecticut had hired Dad as an electrical engineering professor, she become quite liberal in her views, including on race. (Though one vestige of her upbringing -- a conviction that mixed-race marriages would never work out -- never left her. "Think of the children!" she would say when I'd argue with her, as if it were obvious.) When we had crossed over into Virginia, and came upon one of those orange-roofed icons, dad stopped the car and we all piled into the cool lobby. I headed for the men's room, but was caught up short by the sight of two fountains along the wall, with signs saying "whites" and "coloreds." I asked my dad what that meant, and he explained to his wide-eyed son.I remember back in the '50s, when I was probably about 8 or 9 years of age, that we drove down to Greensboro to visit my grandparents. It was before the days of the interstate highway system, and in the heyday of that ubiquitous roadside rest stop, Howard Johnsons, a favorite of all travel-weary kids because of the many flavors of ice cream they sold.
The idea of people with different skin color having to drink from different water fountains seemed bizarre to me, and I remember going to the colored fountain, more out of curiosity than rebelliousness, because I wanted to see if the water was different. (I don't know what I expected: colored water?) My mother got upset -- I suspect because from her upbringing she was used to such things and probably worried that it might create a scene.
Then I went to find the men's room and was this time confronted by four, instead of two doors. That really floored me. Even at that young age, I knew that sh*t and piss were unpleasant smelling and dirty whether they emanated from white or "colored" bodies. I like to think I went into the "colored men's" restroom, but I can't remember what I actually did.
I left that Hojo's with my mind jolted. Now I was noticing lots of black people as we drove along deeper into Dixie, and it was obvious that they were poor, living in usually unpainted shacks and mostly walking, while the whites we saw were driving nice cars and living in nicer houses, where one didn't notice any black people.
When we got to Greensboro and to my Grandparents' house, which was called Pinecroft -- I think because the building had been a dance hall there in the pine woods before my grandparents bought it and made it their house -- I briefly forgot the lessons I was learning. There weren't any black people living around the neighborhood, and besides, the area around the pond was full of snakes and turtles and there were canoes to paddle around and to catch them. I was in heaven.
But one day my Grandpa offered to take me with him on some errand. It was a chance to ride in his big white convertible -- an Oldsmobile, I think -- so I was excited. On the way home, he stopped to get gas at one of those typical roadside gas stations that dotted the South -- a small dilapidated one-bay garage and office, and a couple of pumps in front.
Grandpa pulled up to the pumps and turned off the engine. He looked around (this was long before the days of self-pumping). It was a typically hot, humid summer Carolina day, with insects humming but no other sound. There was an old black man with curly white hair sitting in the shade on a stoop at the office door. He hadn't budged.
"Hey boy!" my Grandpa shouted rudely. "Git on over here and pump us some gas!"
As the old man, his bones clearly creaking and stiff, worked himself up to standing position and shuffled over towards the pump I watched him in shock and embarrassment. Why, I wondered, had Grandpa, who, while an old man to me at the age then of probably no more than 60, was still obviously much younger than this fellow he was yelling at, called him "boy"?
I knew right away at that point that something was seriously wrong.
As I grew older, and as we made subsequent pilgrimages to Mom's folks over the years, I came to understand that my grandparents were racists. That despite their having grown up in upstate New York before Grandpa got hired as a young man by the Greensboro School District, they had acclimated to the racist environment of the Old South quite easily -- something I often puzzled over until much later in life when I learned the racist past of the north in general, and of upstate New York State in particular.