YOUR CIVIL RIGHTS STORIES
I grew up in a small Oklahoma community in which segregated, black neighborhood pockets existed in several parts of town. My mother worked for the McAlesters, for whom the town was named. I remember my mom took me with her to work, and I played outside on the porch with Becky, the youngest granddaughter and member of the McAlester clan. The McAlesters loved my mother and enjoyed her superb culinary talents. My mother was an excellent cook and nutritionist as well. One time Becky's friend saw me with Becky on their circular porch, playing. She came up to Becky and curiously inquired who the "colored girl" was and why Becky was playing with me. Becky shared who I was and before she could finished the introduction, her friend commented that she had heard that colored people had "tails" like monkeys and asked if Becky had seen my tail. I could tell that Becky was embarrassed as the friend turned to me and asked me directly, "Do you have a tail?" It did me so well to flip up my dress and pat my butt toward her as I happily asked, "See, do you see a tail?" She left the playing area, upset that I had insulted her and that Becky had witnessed it and not disciplined me. I smiled the rest of the day, thinking how clever it was to show her my butt at her request. This was my first effort to ensure civil rights for me.
I am a white woman, raised to adolescence in England in a multicultural environment, by southern American parents with no hint of racial prejudice in them. I was unprepared for the harshness of the South when I returned in 1960. Even though I left the Catholic Church at age 18, I will never forget a lesson taught me by Father Armand Gregoire at Our Lady of Grace in Avon Park, Fla., when I was a teenager in 1964. On an early Sunday morning, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on the statue of Mary at the front of the church because we were the only integrated house of worship in the county. Parishioners showed up early to the remove the rubble of the still-smoldering cross. Father Gregoire came running from the sanctuary waving his arms and yelling "Stop!' He said the act was an act of hate and that if the rubble was removed the act of hate would be forgotten. He said we must leave it for the townspeople to view every time they drive by, because leaving it was an act of forgiveness that would eventually be seen as an act of love. The remnants of that burned cross lay there for many years to come, but no other act of hate was ever committed again the church by the Klan.
Joyce Russell Terrell
In 1961, I integrated Gar-Field High School in Woodbridge located in Prince William County, Virginia. My father, Rev. James P. Russell, was the president of the NAACP. Roy Wilkins selected attorney Sterling Tucker to represent me at a hearing in Richmond because I had been denied admittance to the all-white high school. I was 13 and had seen the Little Rock film clips over and over, and was afraid for my life. This was a county where the KKK reigned supreme and where the first battle of the Civil War was fought in Manassas. I was denied admittance to the school and I was relieved. Weeks later, while looking at the news, the reporter made the announcement that the ruling was overturned and that I would be integrating the previously all-white school. That night the Klan shot up our house. Little did they know that Daddy had a small arsenal in his closet. He ran around the house and returned fire. Shot for shot! By morning Bobby Kennedy sent the federal marshals to advise me to get out of the area until school started. My dad drove me to our family homestead in North Carolina. He brought copies of the Washington Post, which included articles of the integration, and put them in the local all-white stores. I think to prove a point that he was a man and not a boy. Two nights later, a huge cross was burned across the road. That moment was the end of my childhood. On the first day of school, my mother drove and police cars were in front of me and behind me. When I arrived at the school the whole student body was standing outside and the media had been told to leave and there went my Ruby Bridges picture for historical purposes. I reluctantly walked to the front door as the students moved back so I could get through. At the main entrance Principal Herbert Saunders said, “Welcome to Gar-Field High School.” I walked through those doors and a hell began that no child should experience. I stepped out of that car a colored girl and arrived inside the building a young black woman. My sister Deborah and brother Cameron integrated Occoquan Elementary School and brother Jimmy Russell integrated Fred Lynn Middle School. My father, James P. Russell, singlehandedly with his children desegregated the school system in Woodbridge in spite of threats, numerous hate calls and the KKK. I hated the horrid experience of integrating alone and have carried this with me all of my life. At this time, I feel that I did my part so that we now have an African American man as president of these United States of America. Yes, I integrated a high school alone and felt that if I could do that, I could do anything. There are thousands of Civil Rights stories and mine is one of them. God bless you.
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