How Things Used to Be

How do you explain Jim Crow to elementary students? Gwendolyn Hook’s If You Were a Kid during the Civil Rights Movement might be a good place to start.

I grew up in an area called Little Dixie. Most of my neighbors were descendants either of the Choctaws who were force marched to Indian Territory in the 1830s or of the European immigrants who came shortly after to mine coal or hide from the law. I had no idea what segregation was or that we lived in a segregated society.

Kids only know what they know. And unless we introduce them to other worlds…through books, museums, or travel…it is all they’ll ever know.

I was in college in the 70s before I had black friends. When I read the 1977 Newbery Medal winner, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor, it was like a smack upside the head. Black schools got the worn out textbooks that the white schools no longer wanted?

A few decades ago, I wrote a column, “The Oklahoma of My Youth,” for Singles Free Press. I interviewed my friend, Minnie Woodard. Her mother taught in the black school in Chandler during the day and cooked for white families in the evening.

Minnie, herself, was in high school when Chandler schools were integrated. A scrappy basketball star, she traveled on the bus with the team. But when the team stopped to eat on the way home from an away game, she couldn’t go into the restaurant with the white players. The restaurant would take her money, but she had to eat on the bus.

Minnie shared her story with me. I shared her story with my readers. If we can’t live it, we have to read it.

Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness…”

As far as I know, none of us can travel back in time. Fortunately, there are books and stories, both fiction and nonfiction, that can introduce us, young and old, to times and cultures other than our own.

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