By Joe Pratt
As a white boy with working class parents, racism was in the air I breathed in my youth. Jim Crow touched every part of my life. Racial attitudes handed down by poor whites in the South for generations remained pervasive and unrelenting in my world in the 1950s and early 1960s. The underlying reality was stark: We might not have much else in life, but we did have our white skin. Jim Crow laws embodied these attitudes, while providing the legal means to enforce them.
Port Neches, Texas, was a strange battleground in the war over segregation. A refinery town in “mid-county” of Jefferson County, it had grown up as a place for white refinery workers to live. In Houston, deed restrictions were used to segregate neighborhoods by assuring that blacks could not buy houses. We took it one step further. Our town was covered by one overarching, unwritten deed restriction: No blacks were allowed in Port Neches. My mom worked for a time at “Van’s Frosty,” a family-owned burger joint down the street from our home. In keeping with Jim Crow tradition, it had a separate window marked “Colored” around on the side. Surely that window was never opened. Blacks who lived in the neighboring cities of Port Arthur and Beaumont drove through mid-county with great reluctance and only out of necessity. They did not make a habit of making a leisurely stop at Van’s Frosty for a burger, shake, and fries.
Yet even without blacks, we were obsessed with race. Our Southern Baptist preacher felt compelled to tell us that the Bible endorsed slavery and white superiority. Our politicians, unions, and newspapers reinforced Jim Crow attitudes. Our teachers remained silent on the subject, even after the civil rights movement began to deliver “teachable moments.” Although some in our town did not preach or practice racism, few if any voiced opposition or even tolerance. Our parents and grandparents casually used racist language considered so vile today that people substitute such phrases as “the N-word” for the historically-correct word that embodied Jim Crow attitudes and power relationships. Whites took this racially charged word as a common name for their black dogs, and they used it to refer to black people as regularly and as matter-of-factly as they said “Hello.”
But racism in Port Neches seemed tame in comparison to that in rural Texas. On my dad’s weekends off, we often drove back into the late nineteenth century to Hemphill, Texas, some hundred miles to the north. This was the county seat of Sabine County in East Texas, where my parents had grown up. Here poor white and black subsistence farmers and tenant farmers lived together, and Jim Crow lines were more clearly drawn and more enthusiastically enforced. Small dramas of black subservience played out daily on the town square. Black men addressed whites with eyes deflected and often with a short “Yesuh,” or “Nosuh,” in response to a question. If whites and blacks met on the sidewalk of the square, blacks stepped down and allowed whites to pass.Just beneath the surface of such encounters lay the threat of violence and the shared memory of violence.
I remember a family of blacks stepping down for me when I was a boy. I had been taught to be respectful of my elders, and this was an important lesson that race trumped even in the order of things under Jim Crow. Only decades later, as I raised my own child, did I reflect on the pain and humiliation it had to cause parents to practice such subservience in front of their own children.
A division grew steadily between my parents and me. They held to the uncompromising racism of the rural South, while I absorbed new perspectives from a more open world amid an expanding national culture that reached into all of our lives. In this world, sports were an obsession. My sports heroes were three fiercely successful competitors, the basketball player Bill Russell, the baseball pitcher Bob Gibson, and the football player Jim Brown. All three were black and proud. Courtesy of my older brother, I heard Delta Blues singers like Jimmy Reed. The music of Little Richard and Chuck Berry was in the air on the Beaumont radio station, as was the amazing sound of Ray Charles. At the movies I watched Sidney Pottier in “A Patch of Blue,” and cheered the newsreel of Floyd Patterson, an African American, reclaiming the heavyweight championship by demolishing the Swedish boxer Ingemar Johansson. When I began to find my own books to read, I admired the dignity and strength of “Nigger Jim” in Huckleberry Finn, enjoyed the sarcastic observations about the defense of segregation in New Orleans in John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, and was strangely moved by the little book Black Like Me, which recounted the “adventures” of a white man passing for black in our Jim Crow world.
Te pivotal media message in my personal confrontation with Jim Crow was the television coverage of the demonstrations in Birmingham in May of 1963. I watched Bull Connor use his fire hoses and dogs to protect me–and states rights and the Southern Way of Life–from the communist menace presented by dignified, orderly protestors demanding their Constitutional rights as American citizens. And the question arose, “Which side am I on?” The answer was easy: “The one standing up to Bull Connor.” The harder questions came later, with the growing realization that I was breaking ranks with my parents and almost everyone else who had helped raise me in the village that was Port Neches, which in addition to being a good place to come of age was also racist to the core.
My parents made clear their position: “Joe, this is how we were raised. You are not going to change our minds. If you can’t accept that, then you should leave our house.” I left at seventeen when I moved away to college. By the luck of the draw, as a freshman at Rice I was a suitemate of the first black undergraduate there, Charles Freeman. That year, my education began in earnest with exposure to ideas and people from outside the South and with daily contact with my suitemate. For the first time, I came to know a black person as an individual, not a political or cultural abstraction.
Like the vast majority of white Southerners, I gradually adjusted to a better world, one without Jim Crow. I finally came to rest in a teaching job at the University of Houston, which has enjoyed one of the most diverse student bodies in the nation since its desegregation in the early 1960s. The world of UH is so far removed from the world of my youth that at times I smile in wonderment—and wish that my mom and dad could have lived to see this new world and the place I have made for myself in it.