Remembering Segregation in the South

                                                                    Remembering Segregation: 

                                            A personal recollection of discrimination in the 20th Century South



Elton Camp

            I was born in 1940 in Alabama.  As a young child, I was only vaguely aware of the existence of anybody other than white people.  North Alabama hadn’t been an area of large plantations requiring enslaved persons, so black people were few where we lived.  In the early 1940s, homes didn’t have television to show what went on in other parts of the country.  I was too young to care about the newspaper except for the comics.  With a single exception, white characters populated them. One of my favorites, “The Phantom,” often depicted black people.  That the pygmies and the wise Guran, mentor to the Phantom, were presented in a positive light was possible because they were jungle residents of Africa, not Americans.  Even so, outside that one tribe, native blacks, although extremely muscular and well armed, were depicted as ignorant and superstitious people who cowered in fear in the presence of the Phantom or any other white person. As far as I was concerned, the natives were only background.  It was the Phantom and his beautiful girl friend Diana Palmer that I liked.      

            We occasionally saw movies in which a black person appeared in some minor role, usually that of a servant who addressed the lordly master in dialect.  Their lines were typically restricted to “Yes, Suh” or “No Suh.”  At the mere suggestion of a ghost or other danger, the person’s eyes became big as saucers—the saying was always saucers, never eggs or tablespoons.  He might utter some inane sentence such as “Feet make tracks” as he fled in abject terror.  It never failed to bring a laugh from the section of the theater where we were seated. 

I never knew the reaction of the small portion of the audience seated at the very back of the balcony, but I suspect it was groans rather than mirth.  Negroes were grudgingly permitted admission to the Carol Theater with its magnificent marquee.  I had glimpsed them as they entered a separate door at the side to climb a stairway, but where it led I didn’t know. 

“Why are those people in the alley?  Where are they going?” I asked my father. 

“Hush and come on here. We got to get our tickets,” was his only reply. 

I learned about the segregated seating only by accident.  My family regularly selected seats toward the front of the balcony to avoid looking over hats.  One day I had what I thought was a great idea.  “Let’s go all the way up this time.”  My father whispered, “We can’t.  That’s where the niggers sit.” 

Overt racism wasn’t at that time exposed in our home, so that was the first time I’d heard the infamous “N” word.  Recalling black people entering the side door, and ascending the interesting set of steps, I immediately perceived its meaning.  At that time, the word didn’t necessarily indicate extreme racial bigotry.  Unbelievable as it seems now, it was often casually used by black people as well as white.  I was just disappointed that we couldn’t watch the movie from on high, not repelled at the idea of sitting with Negroes.  Young children are seldom prejudiced until others inculcate the view. 

The back few rows set aside for black patrons were so dimly lit that the moviegoers were almost invisible.  Social pariahs, they could pay their money, get into the place, watch the movie, and depart without offending their betters.  They surely must have had restrooms of some type, since they didn’t share the ones in the lobby with respectable folks. 

A handful of blacks lived in a run-down section of Albertville, but I seldom saw any.  The main exception was when we shopped in town.  A Negro woman and her daughter, who was about my age, used the same inexpensive clothing establishment that we frequented.  We saw them often. White customers ignored them and clerks waited on them only if a white person didn’t need assistance. 

Once, a clerk abruptly walked away from the woman in order to ring up my mother’s purchases.  Although she had come from the more prosperous whites in southern Alabama where prejudice is rampant, she didn’t approve of mistreating people, especially children.  “Finish with her first,” my mother said in a tone that the clerk didn’t dare disobey.  “Thank you,” the black woman silently mouthed. 

Those shopping trips were the only times I was within arms length of a black person until I was nearly ten years old and spent a few minutes playing with a boy my age whose father had come to our house to see about work.  We got along well, climbed up into the barn loft, and discussed the inadvisability of stepping over fishing canes, but quite naturally, I never saw him again.  Although his home was five miles from mine, we lived in separate worlds. 

When I enrolled in the first grade in 1945, to the best of my knowledge, no public school in the South admitted blacks except those that had been specifically built for them.  The doctrine of “separate but equal,” as allowed by the Supreme Court, was in full sway. 

The facilities for colored were always separate but rarely equal.  In Marshall County, there were numerous conveniently located schools for whites, but all black children were assigned to a single school in Guntersville.  Its location was on what was officially called Lakeview Hill, but derisively termed “colored hill” in everyday conversation.  It might have borne an even worse name except that there was already a “Nigger Mountain” in full view across the lake from the school.  For children living in outlying locations, quite a bus trip was required.  Some left home by six o’clock and didn’t get back until nearly five. 

The school’s principal had a last name, Johnson, but only his given name was used.  All whites, including children, called the intelligent, capable man “Roosevelt,” rather than Mr. Johnson.  No other principal in the county was addressed in such a disrespectful manner.  Aware of the consequences of doing otherwise, he responded genially and cooperated with prevailing social conditions.  Did that make him an “Uncle Tom?”  Some might say it did, but others might describe him as merely being realistic.  The man was in a position to do a great deal of good.  To make waves would have resulted in his dismissal. 

Each year, the teachers in Marshall County were required to attend a professional development meeting in the City School Auditorium at Guntersville. One year, they got quite a shock.

“Have you heard that the niggers are gonna meet with us this year,” Mrs. Smedley said to a coworker with a mixture of shock and outrage.  “I just don’t know what the world’s coming to.”

The rumor the bigoted woman had repeated proved true.  In September, there they sat on the back few rows of the auditorium, dressed in their best clothes.  They diverted their eyes and spoke only if spoken to.  A few of the older ones showed their discomfort at the situation by using the printed program to hide their faces.  Fear of retaliation, even though the change wasn’t of their making, was realistic. 

“If anybody doesn’t like it, he can take it up with me,” boomed the aged Superintendent of Education.  “Don’t call me a nigger lover. I’m just tired of them having to go all the way to Birmingham for the workshop when they can get it right here at home.”

It may have been that the school system having to pay their expenses for the forced travel played some role in his decision.  That he was to retire at the end of the year and had no fear of losing his position could have been another factor.  It may even have been that near the end of his life, he felt remorse at the role he had played in segregation.  He was a revered father figure and intimidating enough in appearance and demeanor that none dared question his decision. 

Even after the superintendent’s departure, the integrated annual meeting continued.  Eventually, black teachers were allowed to sit where they pleased.  A small victory had been won on behalf of human dignity.  There were few such instances until the Federal government stepped in to enforce civil rights in the sixties.

The racial climate in much of North Alabama was far less radical that in many parts of the state.  Outsiders may think of Alabama as the home of bombing, lynching, and Ku Klux Klan violence, all designed to keep black people in slavish subjection.  Those types of things certainly took place, but mainly from Birmingham and south.  Bull Connor, fire hoses, and the nickname “Bombingham” for the largest city rightly besmirched Alabama’s reputation.  The lower half of the state had been the location of large antebellum plantations and the slaves required to make them profitable.  Slave descendents were present in large numbers, sometimes making up the majority in counties of the Black Belt (a reference to the soil, not race).  North Alabama had few large farms with slaves and thus a small black population.  Prejudice was real, but less violent.

The Civil War had been over for so long that the facts of history had grown dim.  There were those in the local area who spoke of “damn Yankees” and expressed the hope that “the South will rise again.” 

“It’s my heritage, man,” declared a poorly groomed man in his thirties who stood shirtless and shoeless alongside a rusty truck pointing toward a Confederate flag proudly displayed in its rear window.  Behind him stood a four-room house with scaling paint and a worn out roof that sagged noticeably in the center.  His yard was overgrown with weeds and two dirty children played on the front porch.  Smoke rose lazily from a metal stovepipe that extended through the wall. 

Unbeknown to him, his ancestors had been poor white people who held no slaves and had participated in the Civil War only because they had been compelled by the planters to do so.  If he imagined that they resided in white columned mansions and sipped mint juleps, he was gravely mistaken.  The actual “heritage” of the more prejudiced was typically poverty and ignorance.  Such people desperately needed somebody worse off than themselves to view with contempt. 

To be sure, small groups of the Klan operated in North Alabama, but rarely openly.  For the most part, they confined themselves to occasional rallies and scattered burning of crosses in the yards of people whom they, for one reason or another, didn’t like. 

It was, however, a “given” that black people could sing and dance due to their natural rhythm developed centuries before in Africa.  All were aware of their criminal tendencies and laziness.  Nobody could dispute that all blacks looked exactly alike. 

Because they were so few, the black people in Marshall County had little choice but to go with the flow.  As long as they weren’t “uppity,” they were likely to be left in peace.  So as not to be regarded as not knowing “their place,” they always went to the back door when calling at a house where whites lived, looked at their shoes when talking with their betters, never disagreed and interjected, “Yassuh, yose right ’bout thet” at regular intervals.  If it became necessary to write to a white person, the correspondent was expected to place “colored” after his name at the end of the letter.  To fail to do so was to invite trouble. 

Most storeowners condescended to sell to them.  Once money was in the cash register, it was hard to quibble over its source.  But if food was served on site, the best they could hope for was a separate door at the back where Negroes ordered and took their food home in a brown paper bag.  More commonly, they weren’t served at all.  

                Drinking fountains were provided in duplicate with a sign reading "White" for one and "Colored" for the other.  Negroes were never described as "black" or "African-American" in those days.  The huge, square drinking fountain on the grounds of the courthouse at Guntersville was even-handed in its service to the public.  Two sides born the sign "Colored," and the other two, "White."  I still recall the day, as a chilld, when I unknowingly outraged public morals.

As I walked away from the fountain, a man demanded, “Boy, what do you think you’re doing?”  I looked around to see incredulous stares and hear a few sniggers.  Alarmed and confused, I hurried back to my mother who had waited while I got a drink. 

“You drank from the colored side,” she whispered.  A grin showed that she really didn’t object to the violation of protocol, but she hurried me away before anyone could make an issue of my transgression. 

No respectable hotel accepted them as guests, but it hardly mattered since such a luxury was beyond the means of people who barely managed to eke out a living at menial tasks.  Only major cities had separate hotels for blacks, so extended travel was difficult.  That type of discrimination in housing continued even into the early 1970s. 

Public restrooms were another area where racial lines were tightly drawn.  Many service stations had signs to indicate that their facilities were for “White Only.”  A few provided a single extra restroom designated as “Colored.”  It was for use of both males and females.  The courthouse at Guntersville was far more accommodating.  Large, well-maintained restrooms were provided for “White Men Only,” and “White Women Only,” but down a steep set of concrete steps were, of all things, two restrooms for “Colored” that were separated by gender.  I never saw the inside, but the doors had flaking paint and cracked windows.  More than once, I saw nicely dressed black ladies peer down the stairway and quietly walk away. 

There was a friendly, intelligent young black man in Guntersville who drove the Coca Cola delivery truck.  Johnny smiled, spoke to everyone and most responded in kind.  He was the only member of his race in the county who was a registered voter.  Nobody seemed to mind, especially since he apparently told white people what they wanted to hear. 

The key to keeping blacks in subjection was to prevent them from voting.  Most counties had few, if any, black voters, even the ones with a majority of black citizens.  Before passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, a series of strategies were used to prevent it.  

The poll tax was an annual charge for voting.  The $1.50 charge seems trivial by today’s standards, but was a substantial amount to poor people in those times.  Alabama’s fee was the highest of any of the southern states.  To make matters worse, the tax was cumulative from age twenty-one for males and from the first vote for females.  Over a period of time, the amount due to be allowed to vote became alarmingly high. A person who hadn’t paid for ten years owed fifteen dollars.  For comparison, in 1945, an ordinary house cost $4600, a car $1020, and a man’s shirt $2.50.  It was a significant barrier to voting. 

An editorial, quoted in part, from the Tuscaloosa News reveals the open racism that was espoused prior to civil rights legislation.  “This newspaper believes in white supremacy, and it believes that the poll tax is one of the essentials for the preservation of white supremacy.  If it is undemocratic to argue for white supremacy, we plead guilty to the charge.”

The poll tax also disenfranchised many poor whites as was intended by the aristocracy of south Alabama who were its authors and who managed to dominate the State for decades by means of a Constitution they wrote. 

An additional barrier to voting existed in the form of complex voter registration procedures designed primarily to exclude blacks.  Alabama supposedly had a uniform statewide procedure for registration, but it actually varied from county-to-county according to the one holding the office of registrar.  Race entered mightily into its administration. 

It was necessary to go to the courthouse to register when the registrar’s office was open, usually mornings or afternoon only a few times a month.  That required getting off from work for which a person could be discharged.  At the very least, pay was cut.  Just to reach the office wasn’t easy for blacks.  The sheriff and his deputies often hung around on the open days to discourage undesirables from attempting to register.  The office clerks tended to be arrogant and insulting. 

“What you doing here, boy?” demanded the sheriff of a middle aged black man who appeared at the courthouse.  “Not thinking ’bout tryin’ to vote now are you?”

“No, Suh, I’se jest here t’ pay my taxes,” the frightened man replied.  He had good reason for concern.  Blacks who attempted to register might be severely beaten. 

I found information about registration procedures and documents on the Internet at the following location:  After all these decades, I couldn’t rely on personal recollections for such details.  A comparison of that material with what appears here will show that some material is quoted directly.  It’s important to acknowledge that.  All the dialogues and much of the commentary are my ideas. 

Despite the indignities he had to suffer, if a black managed to get the application form, he found it to be four pages long including various oaths.    Under penalty of perjury, the applicant had to swear that each answer was true and complete.  The information supplied wasn’t kept confidential and might be used to prosecute him. 

Some counties also used the “voucher system” that required someone who was already a registered voter, under risk of perjury, to declare that the applicant met residency requirements.  

“Mr. Pharnham, I’ve known you since we were boys,” remarked Fred Harris, a teacher at Lakeview School.  Now that I’ve finished college and got a regular job, I’d like to set an example for the children by voting.  Could I get you to vouch for me?”

The banker shifted uneasily and adjusted his tie.  He liked and respected Fred and the man had an account at his bank.  “I’d like to,” he responded quietly, “but I’d have to go to the courthouse with you and we’d be seen.  People might change to the Citizens Bank.  Fred, I’m sorry.  I just can’t do it.”  Few whites would risk vouching for a black. 

In counties where no blacks were already registered, there was little prospect of being approved.  In other counties where some blacks were registered, regulations limited the number of applicants for which one person could vouch.  Growth in black voters could occur, but only very slowly. 

Signs at registrar’s offices typically read as follows:  “Applications for registration must be completely filled out without any assistance or suggestions of any person or memorandum. After 10 days applicants names and addresses are published for two consecutive weeks in the newspaper. They cannot be ruled on for 14 days after the second publication. Therefore it can take as long as 33 days before we can give you an answer as to your application being accepted or rejected.”

The requirement for newspaper publication was a serious threat.  It announced to employers, landlords, lenders and mortgage holders that the person was attempting to register to vote.  Retaliation was virtually assured. 

“Rufus, I’m going to be needing that house of mine you’ve been renting,” Mr. Isbell informed his tenant after seeing his name in the newspaper.  “Get moved out by the end of the week.”  The man had no choice but to comply. 

Questions on the application sometimes seemed harmless but weren’t.  The following few are actual examples.

“Are you a college student and where?”  Colleges that admitted blacks obtained funding at the pleasure of the white legislature if public and by wealthy donors if private.  When the college was notified that a student was attempting to register, the troublemaker might be disciplined or expelled by the institution. 

“List places you have lived in the past five years” might seem an attempt to establish residency, but its real purpose was to allow location of arrest records for black applicants. 

“Have you ever been declared legally insane?”  Few would hold that an insane person should vote.  This seems a reasonable question until one realizes that many Negroes who resisted segregation were declared insane and forcibly committed to asylums to be cured of their mental illness.  Thereafter, they could be prevented from voting on the basis of insanity. 

“Ever been convicted for any offense or paid a fine for violation of the law?” Reasonable enough except that under Alabama law of that time, anyone convicted of a crime could be denied the right to vote. Blacks were prosecuted at a far higher rate than whites, sometimes because they took part in civil right demonstrations.  It was an effective method of preventing large numbers of blacks from voting. 

            The applicant had to swear that he is not affiliated with any group that seeks overthrow of the State of Alabama.  Even the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were held to be among the groups dedicated to that goal.  To admit to membership meant that the application would be disapproved.  For a member to deny association constituted perjury and could lead to imprisonment.  Some judges even held that nonviolent resistance to segregation laws were an attempt to overthrow the State. 

            Once the application was complete, the literacy test was the next hurdle.  The applicant was assigned a portion of the Constitution to read aloud.  Selection was entirely up to the registrar and could range from a long, complicated section filled with legal terms to a section of only one or two sentences.  The registrar marked each word he believed the applicant had mispronounced and might require oral interpretation of the section to his satisfaction. 

            Registrar Richards demanded of a young black man explanation of the following:  “In all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be Party, the Supreme Court shall have original Jurisdiction. In all the other Cases before mentioned, the Supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make.”  The applicant was rendered speechless as would be virtually all people of any race.

            From the next applicant, a white man, he asked the meaning of,  “No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.”  The response, “That tells what it takes to be president,” was quickly given smiling approval. 

Next, the applicant was required to copy by hand a section of the Constitution or else write it down as the registrar dictated it, sometimes indistinctly.  White applicants usually were allowed to copy, Black applicants usually had to take dictation. The registrar then judged whether the applicant was able to “read and write,” or if he was “illiterate.”

The next part of the test was a series of questions.  There were several versions of the test, some far more difficult than others.  Kept in a large binder, they were supposedly picked at random. Somehow black applicants managed to get the harder tests.  The following are examples of actual questions from the one given to blacks. 

Name the attorney general of the United States.  At what time of day each four years does the term of president of the United States end?  If the president doesn’t want to sign a bill, how many days does he have to return it to congress for reconsideration?  If the United States wants to purchase land to use as an arsenal, whose consent is required? Prior to the adoption of the Constitution, the organization of states was known by what name?  What is a tribunal?  Name one area of authority over state militia reserved exclusively to the States.  In what year did congress gain the right to prohibit migration of persons to the states?  Which part of the constitution gives the federal government the right to call the state militia into federal service?  The president is forbidden to use his power of pardon for what type of crime?   How many of these could you answer?  I think that I know two of them. 

            After all that was complete, the application was later reviewed in a secret meeting by a board of registrars.  The decision as to qualification was their call entirely.  A person who answered all the questions correctly could be judged unqualified and one who missed them all could be declared qualified.  Of course, the race of the applicant never entered into their decision.  Interestingly, one question on the application was as to “race,” and a person with only one black great grandparent was considered black. 

            By the time I finished high school in 1958, Brown v. Board was the law of the land.  Yet, not a single black child in Marshall County attended any school other than Lakeview.  During my undergraduate college years at Jacksonville State, the only blacks on campus were janitors and maids.  The college had a substantial and effective international program.  Among those admitted was a young man from India.  When he was seen playing tennis on campus, the phones began to ring. 

            “What do you mean taking in a nigger?  You’ll lose all your students,” “I was gonna let my kid go there, but not now.”  Caller after caller expressed outrage.  The explanation somewhat mollified them since the student’s facial features and hair texture apparently cancelled out the blackness of his skin.  Yet, the next year, the college enrolled no students from India. 

It was only when I entered graduate school that I was in class with black persons.  George Peabody College in Nashville was private and enjoyed a sizeable endowment.  Although most students were white, it had been integrated for many years.  People of various nationalities and races worked together without friction.  Yet, Peabody was the only truly integrated college in the State. 

            During the sixties, as white people saw segregation crumbling before the Federal onslaught, some hardened their attitudes.  Many gas stations erected signs, “We serve white customers only.”  Coin laundries had appeared and with them “White Only” signs. 

Even when law and the courts were firmly on their side, black persons suffered indignities. 

            “This fish is terrible,” a black man complained as he sat in a locally popular eating spot.  The rank odor of ruined fish was easily smelled three tables over.  “If you don’t like what we serve, you don’t have to eat here.  Nobody else is complaining,” the manager said curtly.  The place made a practice of keeping spoiled meat to serve to such welcome customers. 

            “Anytime I take a trip, I have to take extra money to pay traffic fines,” a distinguished black man lamented.  “I get stopped by the police more than once every time.”  He was known to be a careful driver. 

            When fair housing laws were passed, unwelcome travelers were greeted with the words, “I’m sorry, but we don’t have a single vacancy.  The neon signs that formerly had openly declared “Vacancy” all but disappeared. 

            Slowly, but surely, things changed.  A black man now serves as president of the United States.  Martin Luther King’s “dream” has yet to be completely fulfilled, but to a great extent black people did “overcome” the worst elements of segregation. 

“We shall overcome.  Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe.  We shall overcome some day.  We'll walk hand in hand.  We shall all be free.  We are not afraid.  We are not alone.  The whole wide world around.  We shall overcome some day.” 

Although there’s a long way to go, the anthem of the civil rights movement has been fulfilled far faster and more completely than most would have imagined to be possible. 

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A personal recollection of discrimination in the South during the 20th Century.