In 1962, I graduated from Booker High School in Sarasota, Florida, proudly as my class valedictorian. Those years had not been without sacrifice for me; like my mother, I lived with a relative to complete high school rather than taking the 50-mile roundtrip to attend Dunbar High School in Fort Myers.

While the perception of a colored school, teachers, and students was one of inferiority, I received a superior education that provided me with the competency, confidence, and commitment to excellence to go out into the wider white society.

The next step, going to college, was not an option for me. The role designed for me as a colored girl who completed high school was simply to do domestic work of some sort. In the early 1960s, I could not become a teller in the bank, a clerk in a store, or an entry-level employee in a government or corporate office.

The reality of what was expected of me as a colored girl was made perfectly clear when I was only thirteen years old. My mother was always very proud of her daughter when telling a group of white women that I had completed my typing course. One of the women, surprisingly, asked my mother if I could come and do some typing for her. My mother agreed as I typed for residents in my neighborhood. When I arrived at the woman’s house, she guided me to a bucket to wash windows rather than a typewriter. To say the least, I was shocked but assumed the colored “performance identity,” moving very slowly with the task. I used some excuse to give my mother a call. Hearing what was occurring, my mother came immediately to pick me up.

I left without saying a word to the woman. My mother was angry that the woman had lied. I on the other hand felt pity for the woman, a white woman so insecure of her “place” in society that she would be threatened by a 13-year-old child learning a skill rather than being condemned to a menial work life.

With only one microscope in our lab, I was equipped to master biological science in college. With few and used books, the “pushing” of my English teacher made it possible for me to win first place in two county-wide essay contests. I left Booker High School to attend a predominately white university in the Midwest, a university five times the size of the little fishing village from which I came, and never missed a beat. No, there was no affirmative action at the time; I was simply the product of committed and masterful teachers, most of whom held graduate degrees.

Going to school in Sarasota and coming home by the Trailways bus on Friday evenings was often traumatic. Each week, I stood at the back of the line with other colored people, waiting to board the bus with anxiety in my heart and mind. I hoped that the last two rows of seats before the back seat would not be taken by whites. I was lucky sometimes and not at other times.

The lack of any sense of personal space was most depressing and uncomfortable. The backseat of the bus for this colored girl meant a disregard for our humanity, the view that we were not separate individuals but one underserving entity. The continuous smell of exhaust made me nauseous. Some sixty or so years later, I am still uncomfortable taking a bus.

As I was now going out into the wider world, leaving the security of my encouraging and nurturing community, all of my experiences, even the inconvenient and sometimes traumatizing ones, prepared me for my life ahead. I was to show the world who I was—the truth of my identity—not “tragically colored”, but an empowered colored girl ready for the challenges I would face.