Never a Victim

Friends often ask me, “How could you have grown up in segregated Richmond, Virginia in a stark separate-but-equal environment without witnessing overt signs of segregation?”

Their question stems from a truth I’ve shared with them: I have no memory of seeing whites-only and colored-only water fountains. No time when I was denied access to restaurants. No riding in the back of the bus. None of that. As a child, I had no understanding that my world was defined by race. People don’t believe me when I tell them this, but it’s true.

Some suggest that my mind has blocked the negative images or memories.

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My parents: Edna Charity Lucas and Howard Edward Lucas (next to our home on Edgewood Ave)

I don’t believe that. I think there is a far more powerful explanation: Edna Charity Lucas and Howard Edward Lucas, my parents. In hindsight, I know they went to great lengths, as many black parents did, to see to it that I never felt any level of second-class citizenship. Another thing: they did not talk about discrimination, at least not where I could hear. I think that was important in shaping my reality.

My mom would pack a delicious lunch for our trip to visit family in New York. Then halfway there, my dad would pull the car over to a roadside picnic area. No one commented that we were doing this because we couldn’t eat in restaurants along the way. My parents simply pulled out our lunch, put a tablecloth on the wooden picnic table, and we played games — looking for cars with license plates from different states — as we ate and enjoyed what we now think of as quality family time. And when my dad stopped at the Esso, now Exxon, service station to buy gas, we would go to the bathroom. I didn’t think anything of it. But his lifelong loyalty to Exxon was born from that company being the first to let blacks use the restroom facilities in their service stations, a reality that I learned from books, not from my dad telling me.

There was one childhood incident that probably was exposure to separate-but-equal, but I didn’t know it at the time. My mom and I had entered the train station to travel to visit relatives. I remember skipping ahead toward a seat. My mom took my hand and gently directed me to another area. I now suspect that she was leading me to the ‘colored’ area. No conversation, just a subtle re-direction. I don’t recall even noticing it at the time. The possibility/probability of this being a separate-but-equal memory only surfaced as an adult when friends questioned my experience of segregation as a child. Again, the important point was there was no preamble as I was being led away from where I was headed. At no time, did anyone tell me that there was something I couldn’t do or someplace I couldn’t go.

Of course, I lived in a segregated neighborhood and attended a segregated school, but I didn’t know I was being denied anything. My community was lovely, and I never felt as supported in any educational environment as I did in that school. My point, simply, is that the harshness of segregation as a reality that makes someone superior to you never consciously entered my psyche. Was this level of insulation by my parents positive or did it cause me to have an unrealistic sense of the world? I’m not sure.

All I know is that when whites entered my world via integration, I didn’t fear them, nor did I dislike them. I did not feel that they were the persecutor and I was the victim.  I think that is the most important point. Victims are powerless. Being a victim wears you down. You are continually looking for injustice, looking for where/how you have been wronged. It causes physical and mental stress. I am not saying that prejudice has not been a part of my life. Of course, it has, but that is not the frame that I start out with every day. Whites had, and have, more power than I do, but I have always approached my interactions with them as equals, even as a child. Now, as an adult, injustice surrounds me in the governmental processes and structures that have, with intentionality, disadvantaged me and my community. It is in the media that often portray negative images of black people. It is in the rhetoric of the current president of the United States. It is truly in the air I breathe. But, I am still not a victim.

My parents wisely, and bravely, chose to deflect—but not deny—segregation’s impact on me even as they raised me within its confines. They dealt with the reality of it, all the while telling me that I could do anything I wanted to do. Today, as I work for racial understanding and justice, I recognize that I was raised to be a daughter of the dream, never to be a victim.

Popcorn and Picketing

“Are the picketers out today?” a voice on the telephone asked, already knowing the answer. When the expected “Yes” response came, the caller replied, “Okay, then we won’t be coming to the movies today. They make the lines too long.”

At the time, my dad was the manager of one of the Lichtman movie theaters, a chain of segregated theaters in Washington, DC and across Virginia. The movies were a major form of entertainment. So, it wasn’t unusual for a group of us to be munching on popcorn and hot dogs and drinking cokes during a Saturday matinee at the Booker T, named for Booker T. Washington or the Walker, named for black entrepreneur Maggie L. Walker. We didn’t know that they got the movies a little later than the white theaters  only about ten blocks farther down Broad Street. And because we couldn’t go

Loews interior
The interior of the Loew’s Theater

inside those movie houses, we didn’t know of the opulence of their interiors. Many of the whites only theaters truly were old Hollywood movie palaces, Perhaps the most distinguished in Richmond was the Loews Theater that opened in 1928. It was the Loews that was called that day.

The voice on the phone was that of Debby Anderson Smith, one of my Forever Friends. Debby was only in junior high school when she made those calls. Remarkably, at the young age of 12, she had figured out a meaningful way to be a part of the civil rights movement. She was the youngest of three children. Her sister, Anna was in college, and her brother Bucky was in high school in the early ‘60s when the civil rights movement reached Richmond, Virginia, our hometown.

Perhaps, because she had older siblings, Debby, unlike the rest of us, had a deeper understanding of the movement. While we were sheltered from the conversations about protests, she heard them and watched as Anna, a student at historically black, Virginia Union University left home with her sandwich board to picket the downtown department stores. Thalhimers and Miller and Rhoads, like all the major stores of the time, denied blacks access to the upstairs fine dining rooms. She watched as her dad and Bucky drove off to Washington DC in August 1963 to participate in the March on Washington. And she watched as her parents regularly drove neighbors to the picket sites. Debby wanted to do something like her sister and brother, but her mother thought she was too young and that it was too dangerous.

That’s when Debby came up with her plan. She understood a fundamental part of the protest strategy: denying revenue to businesses got the attention of the power brokers. The protestors didn’t just march. They stood in line with others to purchase a ticket for the movies even though they knew they would be denied; therefore, the lines were long—very long—to get into the theater. When protestors were there, other customers wouldn’t want to stand in those long lines; so, the theaters lost money.

Simple calls telling the theaters that someone chose not to spend their money with them because they were being protested against, was Debby’s way of having her voice heard too. This was how she supported the movement.

While, in hindsight, we all felt that we had played a role in the civil rights movement simply by getting an education, dressing a certain way, talking a certain way and therefore being primed to walk through the doors of opportunity when they opened. Little did we know, until very recently, that our friend Debby played an active role. You go, girl.

When did black become beautiful? For me, 1968

The definition of beauty is elusive, subjective, and changes throughout one’s life. In fact, the concept of beauty, of witnessing it or of thinking someone is beautiful, is really an adult term used with adult sensibilities.

‘Cute’ was how we wanted to be described back in high school and my friend Jeanne Johnson was cute. Everyone thought so. She was bouncy and vibrant, always with a big smile and just the right, witty comment to perk up any conversation. A member of our then club, the Valianettes, she is now one of my Forever Friends. And in 1968 she was crowned homecoming queen at John Marshall High School, the first black homecoming queen at a white school in the city of Richmond.

We couldn’t contain ourselves as we cheered and jumped up and down in the bleachers. A black homecoming queen was something we had wanted since our sophomore year. In our junior year, with some degree of political astuteness, we had orchestrated a bloc voting campaign to make it happen. We focused on the one black candidate hoping the white kids would spread their votes over their five nominees, but they championed just one candidate, too.

In 1968 things were different. There was Jeanne at the biggest football game of the year being announced as THE homecoming queen. And it wasn’t just the black kids cheering for Jeanne. No bloc voting this time. No strategy. She had simply won. The white kids cheered, too.

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Jeanne Johnson wearing Miss Justice homecoming banner

Jeanne was popular school-wide, but it wasn’t just popularity being acknowledged that fall night. It was also a beauty contest. This was still the era in which girls and women were judged most heavily on how they looked. Back then beauty was defined by white criteria: fair skin, long, straight hair, curves but not too plump, were the standards of the day. There had been no black Miss America yet. No black girls were on the cover of Seventeen Magazine nor did we see many who looked like us on television.

That year Jeanne was recognized as THE girl, the all-round girl – smart, popular and pretty – to represent the school. Her selection as homecoming queen was a breakthrough. But it would still be many more years before dark brown-skinned girls were acknowledged for their beauty or before natural hair was seen as the magnificent crowning glory we recognize today. And the plus-sized beauties that seem plentiful in the black community are, even now, just beginning to get their due. Mocha-skinned, wavy-haired, curvy-in-the-right-places Jeanne was a visual bridge between what had been and what was to be.

Not only has our societal standard of beauty changed to be far more inclusive, so, too, have the rules that we use to define women. Just a few years after Jeanne was named Miss Justice, Helen Reddy released the song that would become the anthem of the women’s movement. Its powerful first line, “I am woman hear me roar in numbers too great to ignore and I know too much to go back and pretend” encapsulates how women were beginning to see themselves: strong, capable, aware of the past and positioned for the future.

Given that black women had been working for as long as anyone could remember, many saw the women’s movement as the white women’s movement. Perhaps. But no one can deny that doors opened for black women, too. Jeanne and all of the Valianettes are a product of both the civil rights and the women’s rights movements. Jeanne becoming homecoming queen foretold so much more to come.

May 2019 postscript — look what happened 50 years later

 

History Denied

“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” Marcus Garvey

I was an adult before I knew my great-grandfather, Henry D. Smith, my paternal grandmother’s father, had served one term in the Virginia General Assembly. No one actually told me. By chance, after my dad’s death, I came across a booklet at my aunt’s home called Negro Office Holders in Virginia, 1865-1895 by Luther Porter Jackson. When I asked my aunt why she had it, she simply said that her mother’s father was in the book.

“What?” I asked in bewilderment. “Why has no one ever told me about this?”

“There was nothing to say,” she responded to my astonishment and said nothing else about it even though I probed.

Negro Office Holders

From the book’s summary of his life, I learned he had been born into slavery in 1834. Through hard work as a farmer and distiller, according to the very brief paragraph on him, he amassed sufficient wealth to, at one time, own over 900 acres of land, including the Merry Oaks Estate, once possessed by the family that owned him as a slave. In 1879, he was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. End of story. But that couldn’t be the end. How did he accomplish this? Did he help others in the black community with his position and wealth? I tried to get my aunt to tell me more. Finally, she did but only a tidbit. “Your grandmother [Mary ‘Mamie’ Smith Lucas] was one of his last children, born to his third and final wife, Ella Wyatt Smith, just a few years before his death in 1901.”

“That’s it?” I persisted.

“Yes,” snapped my aunt, clearly angry. “He lost his land, cheated by the white man like we always have been. That’s it.” And that was all she would ever say about this chapter of my family’s history.

I knew that the history of black people generally had been denied to us—all of us—black people and non-black people alike. When I was a student, it was only through supplemental education that I learned about Marcus Garvey, or Langston Hughes or Charles Drew. I imagine the white community learned even less. Nothing was taught about the history of countries in Africa, but everything about the history of England. Regardless of this larger frame of history denied, what I didn’t know was that my own family also denied me my personal history.

As I have reflected on that, I think they may have been ashamed my ancestor was able to rise from slavery—to accomplish what anyone would be proud of—but wasn’t able to hold on to what he had attained. His legacy tarnished by downfall at the hands of the white community. We were bamboozled, as filmmaker Spike Lee says. A century after his death my aunt was still angry, and I suspect sad, about the trajectory of his life.

Wealth comes in many forms and often the most valuable inherited treasure is not material. It’s knowing the history—the stories—of those who came before us. The sum and substance of the people and their stories that ultimately led to our own existence. We are poorer when it is denied us. I don’t have the fullness of my great-grandfather’s story. I, too, am sad that his story did not end with the glory he probably envisioned. Nonetheless, I choose to release the familial anger and celebrate him. The late 1800s, not a generation after the end of slavery, my great-grandfather was a landowner, a business owner, and a state legislator. My heart is full of love and pride.