My lesson in being colored began in earnest when we rounded the steep curve from the holler and moved into town when I was seven so that I could attend school. The first time I heard or remember being called "nig**r" was by two white boys passing my house on Franklin Street. I intuitively knew that that name made me the "other".
In Marion, we lived in a racially mixed neighborhood, my neighbors across the street and to the right and left of my house were white. Betty Repass who lived in a large two-story rooming house across from our house was one of my babysitters. The other was Bobbi Louise, a colored girl who lived with her family in a two-story brick home on a huge lot on which the colored kids in the neighborhood often played softball. In all, eleven colored families lived in my neighborhood. Relationships were cordial but the rules and customs of Jim Crow were understood. I sometimes played with the two white girls across the street, but we never entered each other's house. By and large, we lived separate colored and white lives in the same neighborhood.
I definitely understood the power of being white when it was time to enter school. The colored kids had to walk at least two to three miles to school. Up the hill to and across the main street then up another hill, through Iron Street, a colored section to Carnegie High School. Carnegie was a brick school built during the Rosenwald era. Miss Thompson taught grades 1-3 in one room, Miss Campbell 4-6 across the hall, Miss Ellis 7-9 at the other end of the hall, and "Fess" Dabney (short for professor) taught grades 9 -10 and was the principal. Students graduated from Carnegie and were able to attend college after completing 11th grade. There was a large auditorium in which Friday chapel as well as spectacular dramatic and musical programs created by Miss Thompson, also the music teacher was responsible. The cafeteria was in the basement and the bathrooms were outside.
Attending Carnegie was a typical experience for colored children. Over-crowded classrooms, not enough textbooks, old textbooks, no lab equipment, and no library. Our educational resources, materials and our structure were definitely separate and unequal.
Next to Carnegie, was the colored pool, which Miss Thompson opened and operated in the summer. There is a very famous state park, Hungry Mother State Park located in Marion, that colored were prohibited from using. Here there was everything from horseback riding to boating, swimming, and picnicking. We colored had to drive 25 miles to a public picnic area for colored only.
Jim Crow was pervasive in Marion. We colored understood and felt its weight. Aside from separate schools were separate sections of the theater, colored sat in the balcony, separate eras for colored at the drive-in, no admittance to dining establishments or hotels, and standing at the counter to purchase an ice cream cone. It was an interesting separation, integrated neighborhoods, but none but the least social interaction. There was no predominately colored neighborhood, and cultural and social relationships were related to benevolent societies and two churches. The largest colored church, Mt. Pleasant Methodist was not located in a colored neighborhood but in a white area at the southern end of town.
It became clear to me when we moved to town that my life as a colored girl would be different, that I was and would be treated like the other. "Nig**r", a name I seldom if ever heard in the holler was a constant refrain in town. It was in town, however, that I learned my most important lesson about self-empowerment from my very own father.