By the time I started going to school, legally enforced segregation was a thing of the past. I never saw the ‘whites only’ and ‘colored only’ signs once displayed everywhere in the South. I didn’t know that in the not-so-distant past there were places African-Americans were not allowed to go, things they were not allowed to do. And I didn’t think it was upsetting to have an African-American boy in my class. I do clearly remember being curious about why his skin color was so different from mine when I first saw him, but only for a little while before I shrugged it off and decided it didn’t matter. He was just a boy going to school for the first time, the same as me.
Growing up in the South, racism was (and still is) all around me. It wasn’t until I was nine or ten that I began to understand what it was. It was a terrible shock for me to realize that others were hated or thought inferior simply because of the color of their skin. When I became aware of segregation and the Civil Rights Movement, I wanted to learn more about it, and have done so when possible in the years since then.
What It Was Like is a short story collection describing Lois Watkins’ personal experiences of growing up in the segregated South. Her memories are shocking, horrifying, and heartbreaking to read, particularly if the reader has no personal knowledge of what things were like in those dreadful times.
Some of the memories she spoke of involved people or places I was somewhat familiar with but didn’t know the complete story. The one that disturbed me the most was how, at age 11, she saw a photograph of a deceased Emmett Till in an issue of Jet Magazine.
At the age of 14, Emmett Till was beaten, mutilated, and shot. His body was discovered three days later in the Tallahatchie River. His mother insisted on an open casket, wanting the world to see what happened to her son in retaliation because he supposedly flirted with a white woman.
Commonly known as the Tulsa Race Riot, the story about the destruction of “Black Wall Street” (a thriving, successful community of African-Americans in Tulsa’s Greenwood District) is similarly hard to read. On May 30, 1921, an African-American boy was falsely accused of raping a white girl. The district was burned to the ground, leaving thousands of people homeless. The numbers on casualties vary widely, from as little as 30 to as many as 300 or more. Upwards of 1,000 people were admitted to hospitals for treatments of injuries. 191 businesses were destroyed, along with over 1200 homes.
Ms. Watkins gives several examples of the things she experienced herself—such as the painful ordeal of having her hair regularly straightened and why she had to do it, the forbidden taste of water from the ‘whites only’ water fountain and the discovery of how even the things they were allowed was sub-standard to what white people received, and always knowing she had to stay in her ‘proper place’. It was heartbreaking to read of how her family moved to California, thinking they were leaving segregation behind them, only to discover that the ways of segregation were not exclusive to the South.
The best way to learn about something is to hear (or read) stories about it from someone who experienced it… particularly when it deals with something that was part of America’s shameful past policies. History is often revised to be made more palatable to modern society, and it’s only by hearing personal experiences of others that we can be certain those shameful parts of our history are not left to fade from memory.
I learned a lot about what things were like during segregation from reading this book. Anyone interested in this part of America’s history would likely find this book an informative, as well as emotional, read. The only way to avoid the mistakes of the past is to know your history. Given the state of things in America at this time—the debate over Syrian refugees, the blatant racism you see all over the internet, the events that inspired the Black Lives Matter movement— in my opinion, makes this book (and others like it) absolutely relevant to the turmoil we’re experiencing as a nation.
Give this book a read. It’s definitely an eye-opener.
Author: Lois Watkins
Title: What It Was Like
Genre: Memoir, Middle Grade
Published: February 23, 2016, by First Edition Design Publishing
About the Book
A series of short stories describing childhood experiences in segregated Little Rock, Arkansas during the 1940’s & 50’s.
Lois Watkins was born in Little Rock, Arkansas during the era of segregation. After attending segregated public schools for six years, she moved with her family to Los Angeles in the summer of 1957, just before the desegregation of the formerly all-white Central High School. She knew several of the members of the Little Rock Nine, brave students who challenged the segregated education system.
Lois has had a very eclectic career. She served as an education specialist for over 500 colleges and universities for the U.S. Department of Education, Region IX, in San Francisco. She was the preview manager and supervisor
of subsidiary offices for the third-largest-in-the-world fine arts and antiques auction house, Butterfield and Butterfield. She also served as program manager for the CDC-funded program REACH (Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health) at the Seattle and King County Public Health Division.
But her most rewarding experience has been as a substitute teacher for the Seattle Public School District. She had spent seventeen years trying to write the great American novel when students, upon learning that she lived during segregation, inundated her with questions, asking “What was it like?” She realized that while there are many books describing Civil Rights heroes and events, something was missing: a description of day-to-day events of life during segregation. That’s what she’s written: a book that answers those questions her students asked.