The following piece will also appear as an appendix in The Kingdom of God, Volume Three: Learning War No More by Tom A. Jones. Sheila wrote this 25 ago when she and Tom lived in Concord, Massachusetts. At the time, she wanted to submit it to the local paper back in their hometown in Alabama, but Tom’s parents asked her not to. They feared it will just arouse resentments. The Concord Journal in Massachusetts liked it, but asked her to condense it into a much shorter piece, but she could never see how that could be done. After Tom wrote his chapter as Alabama Tom, he and Sheila got this out, reread it and decided it should, too, should be included in his new book.
She grew up across town. The same town, but a very different town. She was only three years older than I, but we had never met.
You see, she was black and I was white. In our small southern town, we did not know kids of the other race.
Shirley Thompson was her name. We walked the same downtown streets, but she could not sit at the counter and order an ice cream soda at the corner drugstore. She and her friends did not have the opportunity to complain about the Cokes that were too sweet and too syrupy as my friends and I did.
They were not allowed to sit in a booth at Walgreens and eat the fresh, hot rolls made by Exxie, the black cook whose secret roll recipe enticed white patrons to return again and again. Blacks were barred entrance by the sign posted in the front window: WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO REFUSE SERVICE TO ANYONE.
We shopped at the same stores. Like Belk-Hudson. The water fountains were on the second floor—neatly labeled COLORED and WHITE. I don’t know what we whites thought would happen if we drank from the colored fountain—we simply would not have. Our prejudiced society prompted us to watch out for each other: “Don’t drink from that one! It’s for coloreds.”
The blacks had their own theater in their section of town—Baptist Bottom, it was named for the marshy area under the Tennessee river. If they attended the Colbert Theater in downtown Sheffield, they paid the person in the designated colored booth and ascended the steep stairs to the one-third of the balcony allotted to them.
Once I went to the movie with a friend, along with her black maid and nanny, Li’l Ellen. Of course, she could not come with us to the white section—most of the theater. So we went with her. We paid at the colored booth, climbed the stairs, and sat with the blacks on their side of the high wall—the wall separating the two races from each other.
Of course, at that point in history, the whites did not fear a call for equal rights from the blacks. They simply feared the unknown. They feared giving up their prejudices and relating to people who were just like themselves. They feared believing that was true.
How painful to relive those times. We whites did not even think to question the racism and injustice of it all. Just as we did not question our eye color or our birth date.
Since I didn’t know Shirley while we were growing up in Sheffield, let me tell you how we did get become acquainted…
The Birth of an Idea
Sitting in my home in suburban Boston, Massachusetts, I am a long way from that little town and from those painstaking attempts to “protect” the whites and to confine the blacks. While reminiscing about my childhood one day, I became acutely aware that other kids grew up in Sheffield the same time we white kids did. I got the idea that I wanted to meet someone who graduated from Sterling High, the all-black school, around the same time I graduated from Sheffield High. I wanted to talk to a person who had a different view of living in our northwest Alabama town, a person who was black and who lived in a part of town that was only three miles away from my home, and yet so far away.
After making several calls to school personnel in Sheffield, I was given the name of Shirley Thompson. She was instrumental in arranging reunions for the former students of Sterling High, so she seemed a likely candidate to answer some of my questions.
I entered the number given to me, wondering exactly how I would explain the reason for my call. How would Shirley respond? Would she be offended in any way? She answered with a friendly “Hello,” and I began to explain why and how I had gotten her number. I’m sure she must have been a little thrown off, but she responded graciously to my quest and request. We talked about our different perspectives on growing up in Sheffield and agreed to have lunch the next time I came to Alabama.
That time was April 19, 1994—one day after I became 46 years old. Twenty-eight years after I had graduated from the segregated high school on the other side of town from Shirley’s school. I knocked on the door, eager to meet Shirley in person. An attractive woman with warm eyes and an engaging smile invited me in. After we talked and became better acquainted with each other, she confessed, “You know, I was surprised when I opened the door and saw that you were white. Somehow I had thought that you were black and had grown up in a white family.” Because of her past experiences, I think it never occurred to her that a white person would be searching out this missing piece of her childhood history.
We sat on the couch as Shirley showed me the keepsake book for Sterling High for the year of 1950, two years after I was born. For whatever reason, that was the only book she had available. Sterling did not have a yearbook like Sheffield’s, but every few years they produced a type of keepsake book like the one she was showing me. Especially meaningful was the picture of her favorite teacher, Mrs. Lewis, who was teaching thirteen years before Shirley graduated from high school.
Real People, Real Names, Real Feelings
Somehow it warmed my heart to see the picture of the cheerleaders. Their names were listed underneath. They were no longer just distant people who encouraged the football team as it played in the Sheffield High stadium when the whites were not using it. They were real people with real names and real feelings—just like all the other teenagers in Sheffield, Alabama, in 1950. As I looked at the picture, though I was only two years old when it was taken, I felt a connection to the past that had eluded me until now. I felt a connection to the cheerleaders who would have been cheering in 1966 when I graduated from high school.
We talked. We mused. I shook my head in disbelief and embarrassment as I recalled the inequities of segregation. As we talked, she smiled—a beautiful smile. A smile made strong and confident by years of struggle and survival—and by years of success.
Meet Reverend Stewart
To give me a better understanding of her high school, she offered to take me to meet Reverend Stewart, who was once principal of Sterling High. The building is long since gone, as the town of Sheffield was integrated years ago. On the block where it once offered betterment, not only to black teenagers but to veterans seeking the education that had long evaded them, now stand several homes with well-manicured lawns.
Reverend Stewart lives in one of those houses. Out back of his home, in a small storage building painted purple and gold, he displays and stores memorabilia from the school—snatched as the wrecking crews were poised and ready to raze. Pictures of graduating classes. Faces. Names. Some my age, but never known by me or my friends.
Reverend Stewart, a kind man in his early 80s, was happy to give us a peek at his treasures. He asked our indulgence to brag about the Sterling High chorus – “the best around.” We allowed that indulgence and were easily convinced by his accolades. Students wore hand-me-down robes from Sheffield High. But they sang their hearts out—because robes do not make the chorus. The heart and the talent do.
Shirley told me more about her favorite teacher, Mrs. Lewis. In the tenth grade, she had called Shirley to do better than C work…and she did, graduating from high school with As and Bs. Being believed in is a powerful impetus. She was part of the 1963 class of 23 students.
Because of her mother and her special teacher, she was a driver. Her mom taught her always to have a skill to fall back on—you never knew what life would bring you. A skill she learned, and she learned well. A talented pianist, she plays regularly for the Missionary Baptist Church in her neighborhood. But, two courses away from a Masters in Business, Shirley does not have to fall back on her piano playing.
A Determined Mother
While we had been at her house, Shirley had motioned to the bedroom, telling me about her mother, Velma. Day after day she lies in bed. She does not speak. She stares and sleeps and eats. She has Alzheimer’s Disease. But she is a hero. As we drove to eat lunch, Shirley told me more about Velma. She was a mother who was once strong and full of stamina, able to stretch a dollar to Birmingham and back; a mother who did housework for different white women in town, bringing home $2.50 to $3.50 per day; a mother who always fed her family—food given by an employer, chickens from the yard, rabbits shot by her husband in the dead of winter, and fresh or canned vegetables from her garden. No matter what, they always ate.
Shirley told me of a determined mother, one who had decided that her children would go beyond her tenth-grade education. Somehow, some way, with her incredibly low salary, she even bought each of her graduating seniors a car. She wanted to set them up for success in every way, although material success was less important to her than moral and spiritual success. A committed mother. A tireless mother. A mother who is cared for with the same type of enduring love she has given to her daughter through the years.
Building a New Bridge
I appreciated so much Shirley’s willingness to tell me about her life. Although I know that some of what she shared was painful, I did not sense bitterness about the past. Instead, I sensed a confidence and gratitude about the present and the future.
We entered the restaurant and were seated in a booth. We could have together complained about the syrupy cokes, but she drank water and my Coke was just fine. We each had croissants, but they weren’t as good as Exxie’s rolls, thirty years ago at Walgreen’s. A black woman and a white woman, sitting together in a restaurant in the South—the way it should be. The way it should have been a long time ago. We shared more from our lives: our kids, our hopes, our faith, our hearts. Her mother is in the final stages of Alzheimer’s. I buried a father who died of Alzheimer’s.
Yes, we grew up a few miles apart in the same town—at least in the Rand McNally Atlas. In reality—a very different town. But Shirley and I are not very different people. We are people who connected and people who are now friends. A bridge was built from north Sheffield to south, over the railroad tracks. A bridge untimely built, but built nonetheless. And bridges are for crossing.
In Sheffield the kids go to school together now – black and white. Belk-Hudson is closed, and the separate water fountains have long since rusted in a junk yard. Blacks and whites sit wherever they want in restaurants and in theaters. Coworkers of both races in local businesses enjoy, for the most part, an easy camaraderie. Certainly, Sheffield is a very different town now than it was thirty years ago. But with the removal of these societal boundaries, one must question the removal of the heart boundaries. Civil rights laws cannot legislate the movement of walls built deep within the hearts of people.
Churches still teach that we should love like Jesus—black churches teach it at 10:00 on Sunday mornings, and white churches teach it at 11:00 on Sunday mornings. Perhaps we all need to look into our hearts and see if there are still two signs—neatly labeled COLORED and WHITE.
On a subsequent visit Shirley and I met again for lunch. This time we enjoyed the sweet, but unspoken, satisfaction of eating at a trendy Cajun restaurant two doors down from the old Belk-Hudson building in downtown Sheffield, the store that once had maintained separate water fountains and restrooms for blacks and whites. As we continue to share our hearts and lives, we became more bonded to one another.
When I dropped her off at her house, we prayed together and expressed our love and appreciation for each other. We have truly become friends. The bridge we are building is strong; I think we both know that with time it will only become stronger.