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 protesters 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 protesters 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.

jean on steps
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

 

School Segregation: Not All Negative

School Segregation: Not All Negative

The first day of school is always exciting. I’m sure that mine was no different when I walked into Albert V. Norrell Elementary School. Even though Brown v. Board of Education had struck down separate-but-equal schooling, my education started in an all-black school environment. I suspect that I didn’t notice. All the people in my world were black. We were all Negroes—in my family, in my neighborhood, at my church, and now at my school. Nothing new.

Norrell school photo
The author in front of her classmates at A.V. Norrell Elementary School.

At the time, nationally and in Richmond, Virginia, where I lived, people argued whether separate school systems were inherently unequal and whether black students were disadvantaged by this practice. In many ways, the evidence was clear. We received hand-me-down books from the white schools, our science labs, if we had them, had outdated equipment, and the school facilities themselves had only marginal upkeep.

But there was one significant difference. In that all-black environment, everyone was fully dedicated to the success of every student. From the janitorial crew, the cafeteria team, and the faculty to Mrs. Ethel Overby, our principal (the first black woman ever named to be a principal in the Richmond school system), they were all willing to do whatever it took to nurture our desire to learn and to afford us every possible learning opportunity. This reality was a powerful counterbalance to the deficits in the system.

I don’t believe that black students experience that degree of total commitment to their success anymore. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that teachers and administrators don’t want to see their students succeed. I believe that most do. But put simply, I also think that unconscious bias looms large in the education system. Far too many have bought into  ideas—preconceptions—about the pathology of black families, about the inability of black boys to focus, about the myth of laziness, and the list goes on. You know the stereotypes as well as I do.

I remember being surrounded by a cocoon of love and support. I can still remember the pride felt as I stood at school assemblies for the singing of Lift Every Voice and Sing, the Negro National Anthem. I knew I could do anything I set my mind to because everyone told me that I would be successful and everyone’s actions were intended to help me open the doors to success and to walk through them.

The older I get and reflect on the current state of affairs, the better I understand my father’s comment that integration was the best thing that happened to black people and the worst.

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For more information on unconscious/implicit bias, watch this.

Forever Friends

One day I got a call from a longtime friend. Madeline, a civilian employee of the US Department of the Army, was seeking a high-level security clearance and had noted me as a reference.

“The form asked how long I had known the person listed as a reference. When I wrote 50+ years, I startled myself,” she told me in her typical dryly humorous way.

We chuckled. How could that be?

It seemed like just yesterday we attended high school homecoming games cracking up at halftime as alumni from various years would be invited onto the football field: 20 years, 30 years, 50 years, even 75. We would laugh out loud and comment in that sarcastic, all-knowing-teenager way, “50 years! Can they still walk?”

Now it is our turn; almost 50 years since we graduated from high school. Sadly, Madeline won’t be walking out on the field for that 50th high school celebration. Dr. Madeline B. Swann, chemist, passed away on July 12, 2017.

You never think of your friends dying. Eight of us had been an unbroken circle since middle school. We were first the Junior Valianettes, then the Valianettes and then in our adulthood, the name that stuck was Divas. We had missed some years in between as we went off separately to college and established careers and families, but we came back together as we reached our forties. We always got together in Washington, DC to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Day and went to see the latest black-themed movies. Dreamgirls, This is It, and The Help stand out. We constantly talked about the challenges facing black people in America and bemoaned the ones we faced growing up in racially-segregated Richmond, Virginia.

When I told the group that I was writing a manuscript to try and capture our decades-long friendship—with the overlay of race in America—they were all supportive. But Madeline truly was one of my biggest cheerleaders. She loved the concept and the name I gave my book-to-be, Daughters of the Dream.

madeline-cross-stitch.jpg

Her last gift to each of us was a framed group picture with a cross stitch of each name on that individual’s gift and the inscription: Daughters of the Dream. Today I am even more committed than ever to finishing my book, and I know that Madeline is near, still cheering me on.