“…abide by the local custom…”
Our contest has garnered entries that not only cross geographical boundaries, but generational ones as well. Katelyn Keim is a student in the seventh grade, and is the first entrant to imagine a conversation that may have taken place at the time our placard would have been prominently displayed. In February of 1960 the placard forged in 1931 was undoubtedly still hanging on wall in the state that just elected the man who successfully prosecuted those responsible for the church bombing that killed four young girls.
When the Greensboro Four, as they came to be known, refused to leave the Woolworth’s “white’s only”counter after being denied service, within days 55 segregated diners were swamped with protesters, demanding nothing more than a cup of coffee. The corporate response from Woolworth’s was to issue the policy statement: “(We will) abide by local custom.”
We can all be grateful, that someone as young as Katalyn, will not abide to injustice. Here is
by Katalyn Keim
Negroes! Keep out!
This is the sign that my father and I see when we approach Hamilton Diner in Montgomery, Alabama. But, ‘nfortunately, it isn’t the first. Nearly every diner in town has one of those signs hanged on its doors. The bold red letters stare me straight into the eyes. Challenging me. Taunting me. Suddenly, a well-dressed white man pushes the door open from the inside, and the smell of burgers and fries wafts through the air. My stomach grumbles. The man glares, and rams his briefcase into my father’s thigh.
“C’mon, now, Mary.” My daddy’s tough hand gently guides me away from the diner, but for some reason my eyes keep lookin’ at that God- forsaken place. It may be one of the dirtier white diners in Montgomery, but anythin’ is better than nuthin’.
People give Daddy and me strange looks as we walk on the sidewalk, like they can keep us from that, too.
“Maybe one day, all us black folk will have to walk on a certain side of the road, too,” my mother used to say.
I look at my daddy, who now has his hat over his head, and is walking with his head hung low on his shoulders, like a broken flower.
We stop at several different restaurants, all with that sign, until finally we come ‘cross one that says All are welcome. Daddy pushes the door to the diner open. To the far left there is a bar with beat up stools hastily placed around it. Crowded not two feet from the bar are the tables and booths. Nearly every single seat is taken by other people, coloreds mostly, which makes it difficult for Father and me to find a table for two. A white waitress with strawberry blond hair hands us our menus.
A few minutes later, she comes back to take our drink order.
“I’ll have a root beer,” Daddy says, hardly looking up from the table.
“Water, please,” I say, glancing up at the woman.
“I will be right back with those drinks. While I’m here, have you two decided on a meal?” The waitress said cheerfully.
“Mashed potatoes,” daddy mumbles.
“French dip,” I say, smiling at the thought of eating a good meal.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart, but we just ran out of the French dip. How about the chicken patty?” The waitress’s smile is nice, but when I look into her eyes, I see nuthin’ like pity, but like she is laughing at me on the inside.
Minutes later, the waitress comes back with somethin’ in a bowl. I realize that it is supposed to be the mashed potatoes, but they’re runny. I almost gag. Daddy looks at the dish, his eyes filled with shame, but no surprise. Next, the waitress sets down in front of me a simple slab of breaded chicken with a side of peas and my glass of water.
Next table over I hear a girl of about my age ask for the French dip. I glance over at her. The white girl with caramel colored hair is sitting next to her mother, who can’t decide what to order. I notice the white girl looking back at me. I give her a half-hearted smile, and look away shyly. I can hardly eat my chicken patty and peas, ‘specially when I see a tray with French dip go to the table with the white girl. After the waitress leaves, the girl stands and takes her plate of food with her. She walks toward me, no hint of pleasure on her face, and she takes my chicken and peas away from me. I almost protest, but then I see her place her French dip in front of me.
“Please, enjoy,” she says, and takes her seat and eats my lunch, while I eat hers. By now, everyone is staring at us, but none protest to what just happened. A while later, after my water and lunch is long gone, Daddy and I leave.
“Wait, Daddy,” I say, tugging at his hand.
“What now, Mary?” he asks wearily.
“I’m thirsty, can I go back and get a drink from the drinking fountain?”
“Fine. But I’m coming with you.”
Daddy walks me back in, and I see the white girl being scolded by her mother. Daddy leads me to the back of the diner. That’s when I see it. The most offending thing I ever did see. A drinking fountain labelled Whites to the left Coloreds to the right. With it’s big bold letters, it’s almost the centerpiece to the whole diner. I don’t know how I didn’t notice it before.
“What does that sign mean?”
Daddy sighs. “Outrageous things, Mary.”
“Like what?” I ask innocently.
“It means that white people believe that colored people are not as important as themselves. That’s why we can’t use the same drinking fountain as them.”
“I hate that.” I say, stompin’ my foot a little bit. “Do they show us any care? Any at all?”
“Not usually, Mary, but that girl that traded her lunch for yours, that was a sign of caring.”
It wasn’t until I was older that I fully understood why that sign was there. Not only were coloreds perceived to be of no value, but often times, we were considered invisible, especially when the whites intentionally bumped into us on the streets, and we were forced to give up our bus seats to them. We didn’t matter. I never forgot that day when I first began to understand racism by seeing that drinking fountain. That day when, for the first time ever, that caramel-haired white girl showed me that even though there is bad in the world, there is also good. Now I am a part of the good. I work for the the human rights movement, working for respect. I believe that at some time racism will change. I believe that time is now.