Growing up on the White Side of Jim Crow
(Author’s Note: The human heart is a key factor in worship. Jesus lamented that worshipers in His day got the motions right on the outside but inside, their hearts were far removed from God. Heartless worship is useless. This essay continues my testimony of my heart’s journey out of racial prejudice. Stephen Phifer)
The state: Arkansas. The county: Phillips. The towns: Helena and West Helena. The times: 1950s through the 1970s.
Of Levees—Some floods will not be held back.
Of Lies—Culture does not often tell the truth.
Of Life—It must be observed as well as lived.
I don’t want to write this. I do not want to face the ugly racism that was so deep in the culture in which I was born and raised. There are two issues that I need to address: racial injustice and white privilege. The first has been an issue with me since my first awareness of its existence when I was 13 years old. The second is a recent awareness, a truly confusing one that is still struggling to come to the surface of my mind.
My history spans these years. I was born late in 1949 and I left home for good in the summer of 1975. I was educated there and began my professional life there. I was part of the class of 1967 at Central High School, the last class to graduate all white. I was there when the school integrated in 1965 and I taught there during the first years of desegregation 1971-1975. In this essay I will relate turning points for me in the gradual realization that things were not right in Phillips County. My birth date always made my age and the year the same, at least until late September each year. I was a child in the 50s, a teen in the 60s, and a young professional in the 70s.
My earliest memories were of home and family and church—all white, of course, except for our maids. We were poor people but my Mom and Dad both worked. Mom’s mother lived with us and could take care of my brother and me, allowing Mom to work outside the home. We had a series of older African-American women in the home each day to take care of Grandma and help with the house. This was the common practice and was not considered a sign of wealth. I grew up with these maids/care takers whom my brother and I called by their first names. Every couple of years one would disappear and another would take her place. Once I asked Dad, “What happened to Viola?” His answered made no sense to my childish mind, “She got too independent.” Never one to leave a matter alone, I persisted. “I thought independence was a good thing. Didn’t we fight a war for it?” I don’t remember Dad’s answer but it was clear that American independence did not apply to Viola.
Understanding the Layout
Racism was inherent to life in Helena and West Helena. Helena, with a fine natural harbor, is situated on the west bank of the Mississippi River about 60 miles south of Memphis. She sits at the southern tip of an unusual land mass, Crowley’s Ridge, that rises up to 550 feet and runs north from there to Southeastern Missouri. Helena was founded early in the 19th Century and by the early 20th Century the town had grown into a prosperous agricultural center and a transportation hub for river and rail traffic. This prosperity was based largely on the backs of sharecroppers, most of whom were black. The city was locked in by the ridge on the north, the river on the east, and vital farm lands to the south. To provide living space for their workers, business leaders converted a plantation into a community called West Helena.
That was where I grew up, very much in the shadow of Helena. My father worked for Helena businessmen. It was a good place to grow up. The education I received prepared me for a lifetime of study and work. Though we were not of the upper class, I personally benefited in uncounted ways because my father and mother (Mom was a department head at the hospital.) were well respected in the city. They were good workers and they were white. One way I benefited was the quick qualification for a State loan for college when Dad and his boss went across the street to the courthouse. I have tried to make their confidence in me a wise move for that man and his family. Athletic skill and good looks made room for my older brother in school society. For me, it was the combination of football, musical talent, and interest in the arts that marked my path out of social obscurity. Recently, the class of 1967 gathered for our 50th reunion. It was a wonderful meeting; all high school rankings of popular and unpopular were erased by 50 years of real life. We all agreed Helena-West Helena was a wonderful place to grow up.
There was another truth in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s to which I was a reluctant witness. This alternate truth is invested with a word I will not use—the N-word.
- At the west end of Plaza Street, West Helena’s main business district, sat a broken down neighborhood. We called it N-Town.
- North of downtown Helena was an even larger N-town on the other side of the levee protecting downtown Helena from the spring floods of the river.
- On the south side of both towns the cotton fields stretched to a little town with a tragic history hidden from us, Elaine, 20 merciless miles away.
- Just to the west of Helena’s main drag, Cherry Street, a minimal economic district, Walnut Street, for “Colored Only,” did a brisk business, especially on Saturday night. There was a motel and a theatre and several small cafes where the Delta Blues got its start.
- Black folk did venture onto the south end of Cherry Street. The JC Penney store was there. That’s where I remembered the Jim Crow signs.
- As for Walnut Street—white people did not go there.
It was a successfully segregated world: black from white, money from poverty, hope from despair. As a child I lived in my assigned place and never questioned the assignments of others.
Language was the fence built around these ghettos.
Jokes, usually involving the appearance of negroes, kept “them” at arm’s length. I wish I could erase these “jokes” from my mind but they are written deep in my brain. Please don’t make me repeat them here. I told them. I laughed at them. I repent of this. God, forgive me! The effect of the “jokes” for us was to keep “them in their place.”
Other things were commonly said about African-Americans to enforce this repression. I will quote some of the things I heard so often:
- “I got nothin’ against N-‘s—in their place.” This always struck me as wrong. Who decided what was their place?
- “They is some good-uns!” We all knew this was true. What we did not see was the amount of practiced theatre black citizens mastered to appear to be “good-uns” in the eyes of whites.
- My 7th grade Social Studies teacher called black people “nigras,” as if this were a sign of enlightenment.
- Our American history textbook called the Civil War, the “War between the States.” So did our set of the 1956 World Book Encyclopedia.
The Teen Years—the 60s
Part of the culture of prejudice was hidden in the uniforms of history. On July 4, 1963, the centennial of the Battle of Helena was a major celebration among us white folk. I was 13 years old. At the same time the Civil Rights struggle across the river in Mississippi was making the nightly news. These two events, the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, merged into one issue in my 13 year old mind. Thanks to Mark Twain, an epiphany sealed the deal.
I had been reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, every summer since I was about 9 years old. I saw it as a great adventure story and I loved the romantic idea that, if the story were not fiction, Huck and Jim would have floated their raft past Helena. That year, because of the mental merger mentioned above, the book read differently. Lines I had read without notice before, suddenly struck me. Two especially:
- Huck, posing as Tom, explains to Tom’s aunt why he is soaked—a boiler blew up on his steamboat. She asks if anyone was hurt. Huck answered, “No’m. Killed a N-.”
- When Huck is conscience-stricken over his decision to not turn in his runaway slave friend, Jim. Holding a note to identify Jim as a runaway, Huck cannot turn his friend in even though his culture told him not to do it was a great sin. He says: “Alright, I’ll go to hell” and tore up the letter.
I remember that I stopped reading and looked up. Suddenly I knew that my culture could lie to me. The book became a different kind of adventure story.
The Battle of Helena
With actual Civil War battlefields to play in and with a hometown hero like, General Patrick R. Cleburne, (He was Irish and never owned slaves; he fought for Arkansas.) to admire, my interest in the war deepened over the years. When I could drive, I would often go to the Confederate Cemetery to sit and think. With the realization that my family existed 100 years after the war, I couldn’t help wondering what I would have done back then. There was a Confederate soldier standing atop a tall obelisk as the central monument and the center of attention. When I stood directly underneath the soldier and looked up at him, I found that he was looking down at me. Our eyes actually met. For some reason I performed this staring match every time I visited. It was as if he were hurling a question at me, “You can’t judge me. What would you have done?” I wanted to think that I would have thought for myself and stood for the rights of man. Something inside told me it was more likely that I would have done what every other young man did; I would have fought for my country—Arkansas. This realization causes me great shame.
At various places in the cemetery there are references to the “Lost Cause.” This was never defined in the cemetery and I desperately hoped it wasn’t slavery. I spent time in the County Library reading about the lost cause. Reluctantly, I had to face that it was slavery and not Southern Independence. My pride in the South began to divide into a respect for brave deeds and a disdain for the Confederacy. The founding documents of the Confederacy included a statement of the inferiority of the Negro as less-than-human. A lie from hell was fundamental to the Confederate cause.
For me and my Baby Boomer friends, learning to drive and having access to a car was the ultimate freedom. We could explore on our own the wonders Helena and the wilds of Crowley’s Ridge. “Dragging Cherry” was the major entertainment for the white kids and their friends with cars. It consisted of U-Turns at both ends of Cherry:
- one around “the Doughboy,” a monument to the soldiers who fought in WWI, and
- the other at the south end of Cherry in front of Nick’s Café, a favorite hangout for white kids.
Hours of driving time and untold gallons of gas were expended in this repetitive, delightful, white exercise. But we never went one block west to Walnut Street.
Going north to our ball fields and the public swimming pool (Whites Only) we had to cross the levee that protected downtown Helena. It was fun to drive straight over it, but I always had a sharp pain in my heart that so many people lived on the unprotected side. If the levee protected downtown, it must at the same time, threatened the houses north of it. How was that right?
I never really saw the poverty in those black neighborhoods. It was as if I had blinders on when I drove by or through our “N-towns.” My eyes were not opened until years later, toward the end of the war in Viet Nam, when my college band director was the guest conductor at Central. I was proudly showing him the harbor but he was struck by the black neighborhood on the south end of Cherry. Several houses had burned and some had simply given up and fallen down. He was appalled and suddenly I saw this poverty through his eyes. My teacher said this: “Steve, it looks like one of Nixon’s bombs went off right here.” 40+ years later his words still sting.
Musicians led the way.
In college, I was the first of several musicians from Central to get music scholarships at Arkansas A & M College in Monticello. In my sophomore year, several of the bandsmen who had integrated Central three years before also received these scholarships. I was the only one who had a car. Giving three of my black friends a ride home at Christmas one year gave me another experience to broaden my awareness. About 50 miles from home, I wanted to make my usual stop at Henderson Truck Stop at the intersection of Highway 49 and Highway 79. My friends were suddenly not interested in going in. I was oblivious to their objections—I always did this! Finally they consented and 3 black college guys and 1 white guy walked into a truck stop. I asked for 4 cokes. The man said they didn’t have any. There was an open coke box right in front of me full of cokes. I pointed that out. He said he didn’t have any for us. I finally got it and we went back to the car still thirsty. For several miles no one said anything. Finally, I started apologizing. They started laughing and said there was no need. They were glad I had that experience. Now I knew what it was like, a little.
In college a unique civil rights struggle involved our band. For years the unofficial fight song was Dixie. That was fine then, but by this time black musicians made up a large group within the group. As a band, we decided not to play Dixie anymore. The rednecks went nuts. The football team was having a bad year so there was more yelling at the band than for the team. We heard a constant refrain of “Play Dixie!” But we didn’t.
Meanwhile back on the home front…
In the 60s my mother became the head of food services for the beautiful Helena Hospital situated on the face of Crowleys’s Ridge. She employed a mostly African-American crew. These ladies were all devout Christians and were known to go to prayer at a moment’s notice. Mom loved them and they loved her. She was fair with them and respected their skills and dedication. Our holiday meals were prepared by these masters of the kitchen.
Meanwhile at home there was LaVerne, the last of our maids. She was a real family friend who loved my Grandmother in spite of Grandma’s extreme prejudice. Oh, my grandmother kept up a good front complaining about all the “N-s” on television. “They’re just getting to where they are putting ‘em up everywhere!” We excused this. She was from Mississippi and we knew Mississippi people were worse than we were! Still, she loved LaVerne, her friend and caretaker. When my grandmother died my senior year, LaVerne bravely crossed the color line and came to her funeral.
In the summers I worked with my Dad. My first conflict between two contradictory things my culture taught me happened there. A black man somewhat advanced in years worked there named Sandy Williams. He was a great guy, so nice to me. Once when he and Dad and I were working on the same project, I called him “Mr. Sandy.” I did this because my folks had taught me to respect my elders and, to my mind, Sandy certainly qualified. Dad took me aside and told me not to call him that again. I protested that I was only doing what he taught me to do. Dad made it clear that Sandy was a N- and the rule didn’t apply to him. Later I realized that Dad was probably wary of the grief he would get from the other mechanics if they heard me calla N- “Mr.” Regardless of Dad’s motives, this was the first brick to crumble from the wall of prejudice Jim Crow built for me. For the next few years, I did “N-work” with the men who washed cars and did the grunt work for the dealership. I found them to be great friends. One, a fine singer named Frank, even wrote a song with Dad and me!
In my junior year, 1965-1966, Central High School integrated. A few brave souls came over from Eliza Miller High School and some of them were in the band. One of them, a trumpet player named Bill Wilkins, was the son of one of the best known black music educators and entertainers in the community. Now, all these years later, Bill and I are friends on Face Book. I was so pleased to hear that Bill remembered me as one of the “good guys.” He continues the work of helping me see the things that were invisible to me back then. He is an author and community leader. Just in the last few years, Bill helped me see the truth about the Battle of Helena, July 4, 1863. For the first time, I saw re-enactors in a different light. Bill’s words: “I can’t stand to see Confederate soldiers walking the streets of Helena. It looks like white supremacy to me.” This observation cracked open a door in my mind.
In the late 60s, the southern culture of hate surrounded us. We had our own White Citizens Council and even a prominent man from our church bragged of membership. A vague feeling of impending change made for troubled white hearts in the county. We could not see that a levee was about to break.
A Young Professional—the 70s
I earned my music degree in June of 1971. Desegregation was court-ordered that same school year. My Jr. High and High School band director, N. Stanley Balch was a wise man, a native of Memphis, who saw the changes coming and prepared for them. As far back as my senior year of high school, Mr. Balch started building a relationship with Chester Guydon, the band director at Eliza Miller High School, the all black school of the “separate but equal” days. I even sat on a panel with the Jr High director, Bill Stiles, and Mr. Balch to judge Mr. Guydon’s band in preparation for their state contest.
Little could I know that just as I was finishing my degree, Mr. Guydon would die. I was offered the job as director of the Jr. Varsity Band (9th grade) Mr. Guydon had occupied for the 1st year of Desegregation. At age 21 I took this racially sensitive position as the white and black students and faculty attempted to create a brave new world at the demands of the court. We were no longer “Buccaneers” and “Indians,” we were “Cougars.” I was standing in the place earned by a black hero whose children were in the high school band. I had so much to learn.
During the years of desegregation I learned much about black culture. Truth be told, the black community lost a valuable institution with desegregation when all-black schools disappeared. Only the black church remained as a traditioning force in the community. What did I learn?
- Thanks to Mr. Balch, I learned there was a black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice,” and I learned the song. Years later when serving as music minister in a multi-racial church in North Carolina, I did a choir and orchestra arrangement of the song. It took me two tries to get it right.
- I sought out the shop teacher, the legendary Prof Seaton, whose room I was assigned as homeroom teacher, to learn from him how to deal with black students. I learned that as a black man he could teach in ways that I could not.
- I listened and paid careful attention as the curtain that had always existed between whites and blacks began to lift.
- In those days, “forced busing” was an issue. I quickly saw that it was only then becoming an issue for white families. Black families had always dealt with forced busing. The distance between students living in Helena or south of town to Eliza Miller way to the west of West Helena was a great one. But this was never a cause of concern for the white establishment.
- During those years, I chose the first black majorettes in Central’s history.
Against the backdrop of an anti-desegregation all white school founded to keep the color lines in place, we created a safe place for all young people to find and develop their talents in the arts.
Another Story from My Teaching Days
One of my 9th grade musicians, Freddie Oliver, lived a long way south in the cotton fields toward Elaine. His mother was a very religious woman who didn’t want Freddie to play in the band. He really wanted to play but she had the idea it would lead him to drink and a life of sin. Since I was a young preacher, I took it on myself to go to their home and talk to her. For the first time in my life I entered a share-croppers shack. It was like a set for a movie: newspapers for wall paper, holes everywhere you could look through. I didn’t know people lived this way. I assured her I would look out for Freddie and she put him in my hands. He turned out to be a fine player. I hope I kept her trust.
The other band directors and I were members of the West Helena Lions Club. Each week we encountered wild stories about what was going on at Central—none of it was true. We also had to answer this question from the business leaders, “Can they really learn?” We were glad to answer the question in the affirmative and with a 1st Division Band on the field and in the concert hall every year.
The 70s were a time of great prosperity for whites. Local industries were doing well and paying high wages. Not high enough, apparently, for the workers at one factory kept striking, in spite of warnings that the company would pack up and move out. Thinking it a bluff, the final strike was called and the doors were locked. This precipitated an economic downturn from which the towns have never recovered.
At the same time, racial tensions reached a breaking point and black patrons initiated a boycott of white businesses in Helena and West Helena. The population was approximately 70% black and 30% white. The power was 100% white. The combination of departing industry and protesting consumers broke the backs of the two little towns by the river. The decline was perpetual and only in the last few years have brave souls sought to reverse the slide.
I find it so interesting that recovering from each of these histories requires cooperation between blacks and white. There is now an annual Blues Festival that attracts blues fans from around the world. Blacks and whites mingle as a delighted audience on the south end of Cherry Street where the Jim Crow signs used to be posted. As for the Battle of Helena, a major shift is underway. In addition to the Confederate Cemetery, there is now “Freedom Park” where statues of Negro soldiers stand guard. I am praying that the town (They have at last become one town: Helena-West-Helena!) will come to celebrate the Battle of Helena as a victory and not a defeat. I know it was for me.
Two previously ignored histories are coming to light, one to be proud of and the other a source of great shame.
- During the Civil War, runaway slaves, called “contraband,” followed the Union Army into Helena. Under the guidance of the army and of abolitionists from the north, Helena became a center for the education of freed slaves, even drawing a written commendation from President Lincoln. This was a great shame to the southerners who lived in Helena at the time but it can be a source of pride for southerners today. Along with the battle, the glorious aftermath of freedom is a story yet to be told.
- 100 years ago the greatest slaughter of black citizens in US history happened just 20 miles away in Elaine, aided and abetted by the power structures located in Helena. For years this massive crime was covered up. False histories called it the “Elaine Race Riot.” Now it is called by its more accurate name, the “Elaine Massacre.” Phillips County has the distinction of leading the entire nation in the number of lynchings. The trial of the accused black men went all the way to the Supreme Court and is counted as the beginning of the 20th Century Civil Rights movement through the justice system. Today a beautiful monument stands across the street from the courthouse. It is designed to resemble an altar in the Anglican tradition and it a place of repentance.
The proper handling of these histories requires the cooperation of the races.
White Privilege or White Supremacy?
Thankfully, these are not synonymous. I reject white supremacy as a lie from the pit of hell. As a teen this passage spoke to me definitively from the Bible:
Colossians 3:11 NKJV
…where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all
In Christ there are no racial distinctions—all are truly equal before God.
As for the white privilege I have unknowingly enjoyed, I feel as if another levee is about to break. I never felt advantaged. In fact, I felt I had much to overcome if I was going to amount to anything. My parents were not educated; they were intelligent and skillful but not educated. We were always on the brink of poverty, kept safe from the fall by hard work and the grace of God. I somehow always knew that I would go to college and I suspected that I could learn something important to tell people about and make a living with what I knew. I was aware of the American dream and the war my father fought to preserve it. I knew it was my turn to justify his bravery and that of the many who did not come back.
Yet all of this boiled in me with a white flame beneath. I was grateful but I gave little thought to those in shanties, now replaced by government housing, to the people whose very appearance disqualified them for the American Dream. Like Viola, independence did not apply to them.
There has to be something more than this guilt I feel. There has to be some way to amend, some way past the levees and the lies, some way to find the life.
Of Levees—some floods will not be held back.
Of Lies—Culture does not always tell the truth.
Of Life—It must be observed as well as lived.
<em> © 2019 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved</em>