Biographical Non-Fiction posted July 9, 2024

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A chapter in the book Growing Up in Mississippi

Friends Come in all Colors

by BethShelby

Back home in Mississippi, it took a little while for the euphoria, from having my horizons broadened by my trip to Texas, to wear off. I was now aware that everyone’s life wasn’t as much like mine as I had imagined. I realized I was fortunate to have grandparents living near me and a dad who lived with me and brought me treats from the store every night. These were things my cousin didn’t have in his life.

Living in the country had other advantages. The thirty acres of trees and fields which my house and that of my grandparents sat on was all my private playground. Dave couldn’t walk ten feet without being in a neighbor’s yard. I had a nighttime view of the most amazing sky where thousands of stars danced above me. I hadn’t even noticed the sky in Texas with streetlights everywhere. Here, I could go to sleep to the peaceful nighttime sounds of frogs and crickets chirping and the occasional hoot of an owl. 

My dad decided it was time for me to learn to ride a bike. The grocery store had a tall men’s bike, which the delivery boy, J.P., used to take small grocery orders around town. Dad started bringing it home every night. He promised, if I could learn to ride on it, maybe I would get one of my own for my birthday in September. 

My legs could barely reach the pedals, and there was no way I could sit on the tall seat and pedal too. The high metal bar across the middle was painful when I kept falling on it when my feet slipped. With Daddy’s help holding on, I eventually learned to keep it in balance and ride it for a few yards. I was getting bruised so badly Dad decided not to wait for my birthday. He surprised me with a smaller, lighter and more suitable Western Flyer girl’s bike. From that day on, I was hardly ever outside without being on my bike. 

There was a black family, or likely more than one, renting a large older house on the same gravel road we lived on. They never paid any attention to us, as groups of them walked by on their way into town. Because the groups walking past seemed to change often, we assumed they rented for a short while and other families took their place. It was mostly women and children who walked past. Our house stood back from the road and we only saw them from a distance. Since black and white families didn’t socialize in those days, we accepted they likely wanted to be left alone.

Mother insisted she didn’t have ‘a prejudiced bone in her body’, but since she didn’t know anything about the black people who lived below us, she was nervous there might be someone living there who could do us harm. For that reason, on Saturdays when Dad wouldn’t get home until nearly midnight, she always insisted we go before dark and wait at my grandparents’ home until he got off work.

One day, two little black girls about my age were walking past and saw me in the yard with my new bike. One of the little girls yelled, “Hey girl, did you git yo’self a new bicycle?”  

Yep, sure did.”

"Can we come see it?"

"Sure. Come on over.  I’ll even let you ride it.

They came into the yard eagerly, and I was delighted. I couldn’t believe there were actually kids my age in my neighborhood who could be my friends. We told each other our names, and in no time, we were laughing and giggling like old friends. Neither of them had ever been on a bike, so I got busy teaching them how to ride. They caught on pretty fast. It was much easier to learn on a smaller girl’s bike than it had been for me.

Eventually, I took them in the house and introduced them to my mother. She was surprised, but smiled and tried to be cordial. The girls were awed that we had a piano. I showed them how to hit the keys in a pattern to play a simple tune. When they had to leave, they promised to come back to play with me again. After they were gone, my mom shocked me by bringing out a bottle of disinfectant and a rag. She scrubbed down the seat of my bicycle and also the piano bench. “Why are you doing that? They are just kids. They weren’t dirty.”

“I know, Honey, but we don’t know them, or what diseases they might be carrying. We have to be  careful. They probably don’t wear underwear, and I’ve heard a lot of black people have venereal disease.” 

I was horrified. I finally had someone to play with, and this was her reaction. Well so much for my mother’s total lack of prejudice, I thought. They were a lot more fun than some of the white girls I’d played with.  I knew my Daddy was prejudiced against almost all races, but mother always fussed at him about his attitude. He even had negative things to say about the Jewish people around town, although his first employer was Jewish, and Dad thought he was wonderful. I think he might have resented other Jewish families because they owned most of the businesses in Newton.

Mother didn’t tell me I couldn’t play with my new friends or have them over. She probably felt a little guilty over her initial reaction. My mom couldn't handle thinking of herself as having prejudice, but it is hard to overcome what you have grown up with. In later life she did learn to love and respect those racially different from her.

It wasn’t the last time I played with those little girls. We played together often until school started.The three of us ate watermelon together and played games we made up in the loft of our barn. Mom even paid them in nickels and dimes to help me pick and shell beans. After school started in August, I never saw them again. It was likely their family had moved away, and another family had moved into the old house.

I think prejudice is often fear and misunderstanding which comes from a reluctance to get to know someone different from yourself. When you become acquainted with those of other races, you start to see them as friends rather than a threat.

However, another incident occurred later on in the year involving a couple of young black men who lived in the same rental house. This time, something occurred that would justify Mother’s fear and suspicion. Poverty and lack of education is a factor, when it comes to petty crime. Like people of all races, not everyone is someone you can trust. 



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