Light Notes

Black History Month brings back my first lesson on racism

I imagine in everyone’s history there’s a dark moment, something that may have felt painful at the time but perhaps not fully understood.

Yet in retrospect, it can be seen as a defining moment.

One “Kodak moment” comes to my mind particularly during this Black History Month; the days marked by reflection on the milestones achieved by African-Americans. And this incident happened to me when I was a little girl, probably not much older than five or six.

It was the early 1950s when many middle-class Americans owned only one car; to have two vehicles in the driveway was beyond most folks means. My earliest recollection of the old Plymouth is riding with my mom through endless stop-and-go street traffic, the smell of exhaust filtering through the open windows. Freeways and the luxury of air-conditioning were still a few years away.

We lived in a small suburb of Los Angeles, but my dad had to be driven to and from the heart of the big city for his job. He worked the Union Pacific railway lines as a brakeman — the uniformed man who waved an “all clear” to the engineer from the rear of the passenger cars. My mother’s job was to be inside at Union Station to greet him when he returned from his route.

I can still remember him striding through the station on one occasion and wrapping me in a hug, his navy blue uniform smelling like faraway places and clove gum. Still nauseous from my long ride into the city, I begged for a drink of water before we left on the drive home.

While my mom stood watch over my father’s suitcase, he and I weaved through the teeming crowd to a nearby drinking fountain. And that’s when the dark moment happened — captured forever in my memory as surely as if I’d snapped it with a Brownie camera.

Just as Dad approached, a little black-skinned boy reached for the fountain handle. In one swift move my dad pushed him aside and motioned for me to drink.

I’ll never forget the hurt and mixture of fear in that child’s face. And I’ll never forget my empathy and shame. Although I didn’t understand the implication of my dad’s racial action, I did understand injustice. We should have waited our turn.

Over the years, that memory lingered. So one night, in 1964, when a small group of my fellow college students asked me to march with a candle singing We Shall Overcome, I didn’t hesitate.

I may not have been able to right a personal wrong that happened many years earlier, but I could help change the future.