YOUR CIVIL RIGHTS STORIES
In 1956, before Title IV was passed in 1972, my twin sister Diane Strain McClelland and I were freshmen in high school when it was announced the school was forming a boys' tennis team. When we asked the administration if we could have a girls' tennis team, they told us "No, since we have intramurals." We told them, "No, we want to have an interscholastic team like the boys." So the administration thought about it, then came back to us and said, "If you can get 50 girls to turn out for the team, then it could justify to them a need for this team." We then took on this project with lots of energy by doing PA announcements and posters around the school that resulted in 60 girls turning out. With the turnout exceeding their requirement, they decided to allow the tryouts for two days. Diane and I did make the six-member team. After our team was formed, the athletic director had to reach out to other schools in the area to form girls teams so we would have teams to compete against. Even though the boys had nine interscholastic sports and us girls only had one, our team was the first to bring a state championship to the school. I was also fortunate to become the first varsity four-year letterwoman. When I got to college in 1961 and tried to start a girls' tennis team then, the administration resisted so it wasn't formed until later years. This experience was a turning point for both of us so we have spent most of our lives working to empower the downtrodden and in most recent years by helping to certify women-owned businesses in six states through a national certification program called WBENC. This certification is needed since there are a number of male-owned businesses that try to look like they are women-owned to gain the advantages in the marketplace. Our fight for equal rights continues and we try to enlighten the younger women to not take their freedom for granted and to get involved. We seek to make a difference every day.
One summer, when I was about 14 years old, my friend's family invited me to go to Florida with them on vacation. This would have been about 1967. On the drive down from Pennsylvania, we stopped at a small gas station in a rural area of Georgia. The gas station was pretty beat-up and worn down. On the porch, were three or four African American boys between the ages of 8 and 10 quietly sitting on a bench. My friend and I went in and bought a couple of Cokes. In those days, Coke came in a glass bottle and a deposit was required for the bottle. The idea being when you returned the bottle you got your deposit back. The soda pop company then sanitized and reused the bottles. We paid for our Cokes and noticed the owner of the gas station, who was white, didn't charge us a deposit. We asked him about the deposit. His response is something that has stayed with me for 45 years as vividly as if it had just happened. In the gruffest and meanest voice he said, "Those n... outside will pay it. They're lazy good for nothings and don't do nothing but collect welfare." We hurriedly left. Walking past the boys still sitting on the bench I thought, "This is unfair; why should they pay for us? And they're just boys." I also thought that we should have just left the money for the deposit on the counter and left, but he frightened us. I had never experienced blatant and just mean bigotry before. It shook me to my core. Once in the car, my friend and I repeated what happened to her parents. They explained discrimination and racial hatred to us. And in fact, the uncle's wife we were going to visit was routinely harassed in her community because she was German. She was called a Nazi and other nasty names; their property was spray-painted even though World War II had been over for two decades. While we continued our drive to Florida, that old man and his hatred for those little boys kept popping up in my head. I didn't get it. They were just little boys. Over the years when I think of that time, I'd wonder about the lives of those little boys. What didn't we see, if just asking what the deposit was on a bottle caused such a stir? I still do not get racial hatred.
My father was the most fascinating storyteller/historian I knew when I was a teenager in the 1960's in rural southeastern Ohio. Frequently, while watching the nightly national news about the civil rights movement and all that was taking place in the South (i.e. sit-ins, marches, voter registration, etc.), he would tell me and my siblings about his life experiences as a young boy growing up in Hazlehurst, Miss., during the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s and as a man serving in the U.S. Navy during the 1940s and 1950s. I remember one particular time I asked him about how he got a somewhat small, but deep scar on the right side of his forehead. His answer was a simple, matter-of-fact one. He said a white man threw a rock at him. When I asked my father why, he said, "Because I was black." I don't know why his statement stuck with me through the years. I guess I thought he would tell me some dramatic background story to indicate why he had received such an obvious, permanent wound — but there wasn't any. The rock was thrown simply because he was black. The individual throwing the rock was a fully grown adult white man. My father was just a young black child of about age 10 that happened to be in his line of sight, and he took advantage of the opportunity to call him a derogatory name and show his disgust for this black child by throwing a rock. Another history lesson from my father was when he told me who could actually go to school. He said that to go to school in Mississippi during his childhood, that a black person had to be "light enough to show a blue vein", and then he proceeded to turn his arm over and showed me his wrist area. He held the palm of his hand forward, yet tight and said, "see this blue vein of mine — because you can see it, that means I was permitted to go to school" According to my dad, anyone not light enough to show a blue vein could only work in the fields. Also, his mother was a schoolteacher. At that time, if a black person had completed the eighth grade, they could teach. I was fascinated by this whole story.
Next page: More civil rights stories. »