Charlie Giving a Shoe Shine to My Brother Back in the Fifties

I grew up in the South during the fifties and sixties and our schools were integrated when I was in junior high. What was it like growing up in a white universe only in the days before Martin Luther King?

I was just a child but noticed things. When I was young my mother didn’t drive a car. When we wanted to go downtown to shop or see my grandparents we would have to take a bus if my father was working.

I remember seeing black people sitting in the back of the bus. I remember shopping with my mother in Woolworths downtown and noticing the separate black and white drinking fountains. I was so naive that I didn’t realize that the separate drinking fountains were a racial designation until one day I decided I wanted to try some of the “black water.”

My mother stopped me and it was then that I found out that blacks couldn’t partake of the same water as whites. I wondered why and if it bothered Charlie, the black man who worked for my grandfather.

Because I was shy I had some difficulty making friends when I left the cocoon of elementary school and entered junior high school. I hardly ever spoke to anyone unless they first spoke to me. My first encounter with a black female student came in the hallways of our junior high school in my eighth grade year and it wasn’t pleasant. She threatened to beat me up for what reason I will never know.

Those were difficult days though I am sure for black students joining whites in the schools of the south and Arkansas had a pretty shameful record. Black students were dealing with adolescence as well as a completely new environment that I am sure in many ways didn’t seem friendly to them.

I started to come out of my shell in high school and attempted to befriend a fellow art student who also happened to be a black female. Sandra was caustic, and brittle but had a very soft heart. I kept persisting in trying to get to know her in our art classes and discovered that she was also pretty shy underneath her bravado. She was so talented that she won a scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago.

My children are amazed that it wasn’t until junior and senior high school that I ever met and got to know any blacks except for Charlie.

My grandfather had The Rightway Cleaners on the main street of our town during the fifties. He employed a black man named Charlie who assisted him in his dry cleaning business and also had a shoe shine stand. Charlie was one of the sweetest and kindest men I remember from my childhood.

When we visited my grandparent’s cleaners Charlie always insisted on shining our cowboy boots. He would give us pennies to use in the gumball machines and would sometimes show us all the big bills in his wallet. He laughed a lot and being around him made people smile.

My grandfather died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of sixty in 1961 and although my grandmother tried to keep the cleaners going with the help of Charlie her epilepsy became so bad that she had to give it up. After she closed the shop we didn’t get to see Charlie anymore and I remember missing him.

My mother told me that Charlie was from a family of very educated people who all lived in the North. She said that he had a brother who was an attorney. So I guess Charlie may have gone North.

Thinking back on all these memories of a different time and place tells me that our country has come a long way. There’s still more progress to be made of course but the Rev. Martin Luther King almost single-handedly led us back then. His legacy needs to be honored and preserved.