Foster Dickson, editor, Children of the Changing South: Accounts of Growing Up During and After Integration (Jefferson NC: McFarland, 2011) 189 pages.
This was a personal book for me. In 1963, my family moved to Virginia where I started the first grade in a segregated school. When I was nine, we moved back to North Carolina where the schools had been integrated, but only slightly. They were “neighborhood schools” and mine was over 95% white. Then, as I began the 9th grade, court-ordered busing forced the school district to ship students around the country in order to achieve a 70% white, 30% African American mix. Reading these essays by those who lived through integration, I recalled many of my own experiences.
Foster Dickson, a teacher in Alabama, assembled a collection of essays from African-American and white authors who had grown up during and after the end of the segregated South. Those writing the essays came of age from the late 1950s through the early 1990s. The older ones lived through the movement; the younger ones recall what their parents experienced and how it is now to live in a world that has changed. These essays point out the cost of segregation. As horrible a system it was, there were losses even for those who benefitted the most from change. Ravi Howard’s essay “Elevator Music” recalls the iconic Ben Moore Hotel in Montgomery, a center of the black community and a place where his parents bumped into Martin Luther King, Jr. in the elevator. After integration, the hotel went out of business and is now abandoned. On the other side of the equation, white students left their traditional schools as many fled (taking their money and support with them) to the private academies that began to dot the South. This shift left the public schools much poorer.
Fear was a common experience that crossed racial boundaries. I remember in my own life, how afraid those of us who were bused from Roland Grice to Williston in the 9th grade were when we were transferred to a school in a strange part of town. Many of the African-American writers also wrote about their fear, as Lean’tin Bracks explained in his essay “Covered Walkways.” “If the Ku Klux Klan-type people would blow up four little girls, then it was open season on us… Will the police come to help us or hurt us?” Others recalled the experience of cleaning ladies, both African Americans who worked in the low paying jobs as well as white women who by availing themselves with such low-cost labor were allowed to break into new fields. Leslie Haynsworth’s essay looks at the economics of cleaning ladies and she wonders if she would avail herself of such services if they still existed. Another contributor, Becky McLaughlin, tells about her parents joining a Presbyterian Church in Arkansas during a time of family turmoil. Her parents not only became involved in church, but her father who’d been a crop duster moved the family to Africa where he worked as a pilot for the denomination’s mission board. Coming back to the States four years later, she spoke of how hard it was to re-enter society that was still holding on the vestiges of Jim Crow. Another “white” contributor spoke skeptically about his family’s “Indian blood,” wondering if there might not be a dark secret in his past. An African-American contributor wrote about the absence of vacations and swimming opportunities for her people and how, when her family moved around the world (her father was in the military), they tended to stick close to the base and not tour around because of a “Jim Crow” mentality.
Many of these essays are creative and they are all a joy to read. I was reminded of the aroma of curing tobacco and found the “third person perspective” used by Kathleen Rooney to describe her “first-person experience” to be especially effective. Preceding the collection of essays is an introduction by Foster Dickson, in which he reviews recent historical and literary studies of the South, starting with W. J. Cash’s work in the 1940s. Foster also notes how the Civil Rights movement in the South paralleled the movement for Women’s Right, the changing political landscape, and the “rebranding of Dixie” into the Sunbelt. Foster also provides insight into each of the essays. This book captures a number of voices of people who have experienced the Civil Rights movement, first hand. One of the more obvious weaknesses of the book (in addition to the$35 cost) is that all the contributors are well educations and most of them are in higher education. There seems to be an overweight of “English professors” among the contributors, which makes for great writing and enjoyable reading. However, the selection of contributors leaves voices out. Having been raised up during the Civil Rights movement, I remember the large number of drop-outs (of all races). Obvious these folks, as well as high school graduates who didn’t go on to further their education are not heard in this book.