Telling the Truth

connecting the dots of my life

Tag: Segregation

moss-laden oaks loom | 1950s in the Deep South

moss-laden oaks, magenta azaleas

I posted this poem in 2014. It’s an attempt to capture my first impressions of the Deep South, including strict segregation between Black and White citizens. There were 5 of us in the car (Sister #4 yet to be conceived). We’d just driven from Southern California to rural Georgia, 15 miles outside of Savannah. Another world. One I’d never imagined in my 7 1/2 years of life. 

moss-laden oaks loom
magenta azaleas blaze
deep south path through woods 

* * *

Late summer, 1950

It’s past midnight
I’m asleep with Sisters #2 and #3
Are we almost there?

Mother’s tired voice wakes me up
Nothing but darkness outside
and cobwebby stuff hanging from tree limbs

A log-cabin tavern fades into view
Neon beer ads flicker on parked cars, old trucks
Daddy reluctantly stops for directions

He goes into the tavern.
Are we lost?
No. We just aren’t there yet.

Daddy drives slowly
No street lights no signs
The old road is dark, narrow, mysterious

Mossy oaks loom overhead reflecting
weak rays of yellow light from car headlights
Weary shacks line the road

Unexpectedly we pass grand fenced-in wooded lots with driveways to nowhere
Then modest houses and a few larger houses
The road ends abruptly.

Daddy stops, gets out, peers at the giant mailbox
He turns into the driveway
We’re there.

Deep South
moss-laden oaks, no blazing azaleas
Just heavy humid air, wealth next door to poverty, fiercely guarded secrets

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 10 March 2014, reposted with intro14 July 2020
Google image – Springtime in Savannah, Georgia

From my house to colored town

From my house to colored town in the 1950s,
A short half-mile drive, walk or ride on my bike.

Until I began high school, we drove through it every day.
When I began high school I walked to the corner of colored town
to catch the whites-only bus to a whites-only high school.
Until I was 14 I rode my bike to the corner and turned right
every time I went riding around the rural white neighborhood.

The road I turned onto made a big loop past dense trees and shrubs
hiding big houses on the river, No Trespassing signs posted everywhere.
I wasn’t allowed to ride my bike through colored town.
I didn’t want to. It felt like trespassing.  I wasn’t afraid.
But I wasn’t comfortable, either. I knew I was an outsider.

Colored town wasn’t hidden away in the shrubs or trees.
Most houses were lined up one right after another
along both sides of the narrow paved road.
No sidewalks, right of way or long driveways.
Just huge water oaks overshadowing a narrow rural road.

I was shocked and disturbed by what I saw.
Everything from simple, sometimes patched together houses
of wood and metal, some unpainted, to a handful of
more stable, sometimes unpainted concrete-block houses.
Some with small stoops.  No fancy porches.

Easier to live in during warm weather; a stretch in the cold.
Most had chimneys, some didn’t. Some had electricity, some didn’t.
Windows and roofs could be sketchy, patched with metal and cardboard.
There were usually children running around.
Sometimes I could smell what was cooking for dinner.

I got used to it, but I didn’t get comfortable with it.
I felt awkward driving by and having people stare
at us and our car. What were they thinking?
My little girl heart went out to them. We drove slowly.
Every now and then a young child would smile and wave.

Public high school meant riding the yellow bus for white kids.
It also meant leaving our house early in the morning
so I could walk the half mile and not miss the bus.
I liked walking.  I didn’t like standing at the corner
just outside someone else’s house, waiting for the bus.

This was colored town. I always felt like a trespasser.
Partly because I was standing in front of someone else’s house.
But mostly because it seemed my eyes were trespassing,
seeing private things, private property, the lives of others
who hadn’t invited me to visit them today.

One morning I smelled the aftermath of a fire.
When I got to the corner, the first house in colored town
didn’t exist anymore.  Charred remains, smoke still in the air,
an eery silence.  No walls, no children, no food cooking.
The death of a family’s private space in an unprivate setting.

My mind raced with questions I couldn’t answer.
Neither could either of my parents.
Where did the family go? What about all their clothes?
There weren’t even any people around looking at it.
It was here just yesterday.  Gone overnight.

The tavern sat at the other end of colored town,
perhaps a quarter of a mile from where I caught the school bus.
The rural neighborhood was different on the other side,
thanks to the tavern and its late night services for customers.
It burned down years ago, taking many secrets with it.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 20 February 2015

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