By Jim Marquardt
1963 was a watershed year in the history of Civil Rights in the United States. On August 28, 50 years ago, the March on Washington gathered some 250,000 people on the Mall and culminated in Martin Luther King Jr’s famous speech, “I Have a Dream.” That year was also the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves in our country, yet some 10-million blacks, mostly in southern states, were still prevented from voting. We visited a few of our African-American neighbors in the Sag Harbor community and asked about those eventful days and the long struggle for equality.
As a youngster, Gloria Brown lived with her aunt and uncle, Bessie and Lafayette Atcherson, in Washington D.C. and attended a segregated grade school. In 1954, the Supreme Court ended school segregation and two years later Gloria entered Theodore Roosevelt High School, considered one of the finest in D.C. Some teachers had objected to admission of black students for fear it would hurt the school’s high ranking, but Gloria says that most teachers were professional and worked to educate all students, regardless of color.
Her most vivid memory of the Civil Rights struggle came earlier when she was seven years old and took a train to Spartanburg, South Carolina for a relative’s funeral. She discovered that when trains headed south from Washington D.C., black travelers were restricted to one railroad car. She remembers women and men, including an uncle, sitting on luggage or standing all the way to Charlotte even though there were seats in other cars. In the South her family warned her not to look white people in the eye lest you appear “uppity.” On auto trips south, when nature called, they ran into woods to relieve themselves because gas stations might not let them use toilets. If they stopped for a meal they searched for black eateries or entered “around the back” of a restaurant. Gloria says she was lucky to have a family that gave her books to read, and told her, your job is to do well in school. And she did, rising to the top of her class.
Audrey Gaines was born in Southampton Hospital in 1943, soon after her mother arrived from Emporia, Virginia, not wanting “to pick cotton anymore.” At the East Hampton school in the early 1950s, she was the only black child in first grade. She remembers her teacher reciting “Eeny Meeny Miney Mo, etc.” but hopes it was more thoughtlessness than prejudice. When a little older she was surprised that white children yelled the “N” word at her, but the real shock came later when she and another teenage friend traveled south on a Greyhound Bus that stopped for lunch in Richmond, Virginia. At a snack counter they stood with other travelers waiting to order food, until they realized they were being ignored. She finally noticed a sign marked “Colored” and realized they had to go to a separate line.
Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination shook her and she joined a community action group in the 1970s. Audrey holds a master’s degree in clinical social work and became Director of Youth Services in East Hampton, working mostly with Hispanic youngsters. She regrets that the program has been defunded.
Maymette Carter grew up in Durham, N.C. in a middle-class family that owned an insurance company and she was spared the worst of the black experience. She attended separate public schools for blacks. (The “separate but equal” doctrine called for equality in railroad cars, schools, voting rights and drinking fountains, but in fact the services were far from equal. It was not until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that segregation was ended in all areas of public accommodation.) Maymette says that school integration upset relations between the races, the white community becoming resentful and establishing “Christian Academies” all over the South. On the other hand she feels the Civil Rights Act actually was a relief for some white people who were embarrassed by Jim Crow laws.
Maymette graduated with a bachelor’s degree in science from North Carolina College for Negroes. She moved to New York City in 1942 where her daughter gained admission to the prestigious Hunter College Elementary School. During WW II she worked in a war plant in Long Island City, and afterwards taught math in the Bronx. She says New York wasn’t all roses, that proprietors, for instance, kept blacks out of restaurants by claiming to be full. Soon after the war, she earned a master’s degree in social work and later taught the subject at Manhattan Community College. She was thrilled by the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr’s speech. Maymette says that when problems occur in our lives, we should understand that black Americans have the same problems, with the added burden of simply being black.
Joe Ricker isn’t black, but he too had a run-in with Jim Crow. After their father was transferred from Maine to Pensacola, Florida, in the late 1940s, Joe and his brother, both teenagers, were riding on a city bus. They noticed a black woman standing just behind them. When his brother got up to give her his seat, the driver yanked the bus to the curb, turned and yelled, “You pull that crap again, I’ll throw you off the bus and call the cops.” What Joe remembers most vividly was that the black lady stood frozen in place, never changing her expression, and stared out the window, frightened to be involved.