Melton A. McLaurin, Separate Pasts: Growing Up White in the Segregated South (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1998), 176 pages including 2 photos and one map of the town of Wade.
This was a delightful memoir but a hard read. McLaurin grew up in the 1950s in town of Wade, North Carolina. This village was along Old Highway 301 and the Atlantic Coast Line, just northeast of Fayetteville, North Carolina. Things were changing in the South in the 50s and shortly after McLaurin left Wade, cars driving south on 301 bypassed Wade on Interstate 95. And there were other changes under foot. Starting in the seventh grade, McLaurin began working at his grandfather’s store across from the “Black” elementary school. McLaurin focuses on his work at the store and his encounters with the African-American community which provided insight into the segregated South on the eve of its demise. This book opened my eyes as I was born in the next county to the west, a year before McLaurin left Wade for college. Our experiences of growing up in the South were different, yet in many ways similar.
McLaurin’s grandfather was a man respected by many in “The Bottom,” where most of Wade’s African-Americans lived. He was one who extended credit when needed, especially in the off seasons when there were little work for the men in that community. He was also able to intervene on their behalf with government bureaucracy. One story is about a hard working woman named Viny Love who lived alone with her son who had cerebral palsy. When she was shunned by a county welfare agent, he took it upon himself to get action from the county. In pondering the event, McLaurin realized that he was okay to risk social censure to help “deserving” blacks. Yet, even with that he also understood that his grandfather thought of them as human, they were incapable of fending for themselves and ”Irrevocably flawed.” (132) McLaurin’s family didn’t allow him to use the “N” word, and he realized this was primarily used by lower classed whites; however, he came to learn that just because one didn’t think it was appropriate to belittle those of another race didn’t mean that they were above racism. As he pointed out, African-Americans didn’t come to his home (except to work and then it was through the back door). Nor did he go inside one of their homes. There was one exception to this, when an elderly couple invited him into their kitchen for some pumpkin pie after he’d made a delivery for his grandfather. By the standards of the African-American community, this couple was well off, but McLaurin was shocked by how little they had.
Most of this book is about the McLaurin’s memories of interacting with particular individuals from “The Bottom.” He writes about teenage boys playing basketball together and the disgust he felt when he realized that he had wet a pump needle to inflate the ball after he’d been in the mouth of a black boy. He tells about the talk of sex, about myths of the men and women of the Black community. He tells about his talks with “Street,” an African-American man who was considered crazy by both races (he was a Jehovah Witness). Although McLaurin later realized the shallowness and fallacies of some of Street’s arguments, he did credit Street with forcing him to more deeply question his Presbyterian upbringing. And he tells about the one older black man, Jerome, who, like McLaurin, was a Yankee fan. When he’d come into the store, the two of them would discuss baseball. No one else in the community liked the Yankees, according to McLaurin. The whites didn’t because their name and because they were just too good through the fifties. But they weren’t liked by those in the Bottom, either. They were mostly Dodger fans as they were the first team in the major leagues to integrate. The Yankees was one of the last teams to integrate when they signed Elston Howard in 1955 (there were three other teams that integrated after the Yankees: Tigers, Phillies, and the Red Sox).
In what had to be one of the more painful stories to write, McLaurin confesses about an incident when he, with a group of other white boys, taunted Sam, an older black man. In the lead up to the event, the reader realizes how of mob mentality can take over. This is McLaurin’s confession:
“There was, I knew, no excuse for my behavior, and with that knowledge came a growing sense of guilt. It sprang partly from the realization that I had betrayed the family’s expectations, especially Mother’s, that I have violated the basic human dignity that my family acknowledged blacks possessed. Yet there was another sense of betrayal, deeper and more personal. I realized that I had hurt Sam, had hurt him deliberated, and worst of all, had hurt him for his race.” (109)
This memoir was originally published in 1987. It was reissued in 1998, with a new afterword. At that time, McLaurin was the chair of the History Department at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and he reflects back on his adolescent years through the lens of the 100th anniversary of a terrible racial tragedy in Wilmington. These stories are easy to read, yet difficult because of the subject matter. McLaurin is not writing as a historian but as a memoirist. As one who grew up as segregation was waning, I would recommend this book as a glimpse into a world that thankfully has ended even though there is still remnants remaining. I find it odd that McLaurin now lives (or at least when this book was published) where the old Uncle Henry Kirkum’s Oyster Roast stood at the mouth of Whiskey Creek. I grew up not far from there and from the fourth to the sixth grade, I sat in Bus #6, an orange over-sized stub-nose bus, as it passed Kirkum’s on the run through Masonboro Loop Road and on to Bradley Creek School.