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Discovering Racism and then Discovering It Anew

Charlottesville awakening

Then I went to find the men’s room and was this time confronted by four, instead of two doors. That really floored me. Even at that young age, I knew that shit and piss were unpleasant smelling and dirty whether they emanated from white or “colored” bodies. I like to think I went into the “colored men’s” restroom, but I can’t remember what I actually did.

I left that Hojo’s with my mind jolted. Now I was noticing lots of black people as we drove along deeper into Dixie, and it was obvious that they were poor, living in usually unpainted shacks and mostly walking, while the whites we saw were driving nice cars and living in nicer houses, where one didn’t notice any black people.

When we got to Greensboro and to my Grandparents’ house, which was called Pinecroft — I think because the building had been a dance hall there in the pine woods before my grandparents bought it and made it their house — I briefly forgot the lessons I was learning. There weren’t any black people living around the neighborhood, and besides, the area around the pond was full of snakes and turtles and there were canoes to paddle around and to catch them. I was in heaven.

But one day my Grandpa offered to take me with him on some errand. It was a chance to ride in his big white convertible — an Oldsmobile, I think -- so I was excited. On the way home, he stopped to get gas at one of those typical roadside gas stations that dotted the South — a small dilapidated one-bay garage and office, and a couple of pumps in front.

Grandpa pulled up to the pumps and turned off the engine. He looked around (this was long before the days of self-pumping). It was a typically hot, humid summer Carolina day, with insects humming but no other sound. There was an old black man with curly white hair sitting in the shade on a stoop at the office door. He hadn’t budged.

“Hey boy!” my Grandpa shouted rudely. “Git on over here and pump us some gas!”

As the old man, his bones clearly creaking and stiff, worked himself up to standing position and shuffled over towards the pump I watched him in shock and embarrassment. Why, I wondered, had Grandpa, who, while an old man to me at the age then of probably no more than 60, was still obviously much younger than this fellow he was yelling at, called him “boy”?

I knew right away at that point that something was seriously wrong.

As I grew older, and as we made subsequent pilgrimages to Mom’s folks over the years, I came to understand that my grandparents were racists. That despite their having grown up in upstate New York before Grandpa got hired as a young man by the Greensboro School District, they had acclimated to the racist environment of the Old South quite easily — something I often puzzled over until much later in life when I learned the racist past of the north in general, and of upstate New York State in particular.

In any event, that early eyeful I got has stayed with me, and it colored my attitude towards my grandfather ever since. I know he was a kind man, and I believe my mom that he was a devoted coach to both the white and black athletes he trained over the years, but I always felt uncomfortable about his racism, which he never bothered to even try to hide.



story | by Dr. Radut