From the legendary civil rights activist and author of the million-copy selling Warriors Don't Cry comes an ardent and profound childhood memoir of growing up while facing adversity in the Jim Crow South. Long before she was one of the Little Rock Nine, Melba Pattillo Beals was a warrior. Frustrated by the laws that kept African-Americans separate but very much unequal to whites, she had questions. Why couldn’t she drink from a "whites only" fountain? Why couldn’t she feel safe beyond home—or even within the walls of church? Adults all told her: Hold your tongue. Be patient. Know your place. But Beals had the heart of a fighter—and the knowledge that her true place was a free one. Combined with emotive drawings and photos, this memoir paints a vivid picture of Beals’ powerful early journey on the road to becoming a champion for equal rights, an acclaimed journalist, a best-selling author, and the recipient of this country’s highest recognition, the Congressional Gold Medal.
|Publisher:||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.78(d)|
|Age Range:||10 - 12 Years|
About the Author
Melba Pattillo Beals is the author of the bestselling WARRIORS DON’T CRY: A SEARING MEMOIR OF THE BATTLE TO INTEGRATE LITTLE ROCK’S CENTRAL HIGH and the recipient of the 1995 American Library Association Nonfiction Book of the Year award and the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. Dr. Beals was given a Congressional Gold Medal for her role, as a fifteen-year-old, in the integration of Central High School, Little Rock, Arkansas.
Read an Excerpt
CHAPTER 1 I’ll Figure It Out Later
THE FIRST THING I REMEMBER about being a person living in Little Rock, Arkansas, during the 1940s is the gut-wrenching fear in my heart and in my tummy that I was in danger. I didn’t know why exactly, but clouds of dread engulfed me every evening when day turned to night. I sensed from the very first moment of consciousness that I was living in a place where I was not welcome. By age three, I realized the culture of this small town in the Deep South was such that the color of my skin framed the entire scope of my life. It brought with it many ground rules designed to imprison and control everyone who was not white. Of the eighty-eight thousand residents, sixty-six thousand were white, while twenty-two thousand were black. The white people and the black people lived in separate worlds that seemed to intersect only when absolutely necessary. My big questions from the beginning were “Who set up my community that way and why?” and “Why do whites get more privileges than we do—more houses, more books, more pets, and more food, more merchandise in all the downtown stores, all the police officers and firefighters, and all the transportation?” Even the city buses belonged to them. When I felt frightened and overwhelmed, which was often, I would clench my fists so hard that my knuckles would hurt. Then I would press my open hands into my sides as hard as I could. I would let go and do it again and again until I felt in control of the terror bubbling inside me. In order to feel safe, I always wanted to stay at home with my mother, Lois; my grandma, India; my papa, Will; and my baby brother, Conrad. Sometimes I stayed in my own room with my Raggedy Ann doll, who I called Mellie, my other stuffed animals, and my books. It was the only place I felt totally safe, as if I belonged; there was love and good in that small world for me. There was nobody there to be mean to me and call me nigger. Our home was welcoming and cozy. There were always aromas of tasty dishes, flowers cut from our backyard in vases, doilies that Grandma India crocheted on tables, and squares of tapestry she had made on the walls. Tattered but freshly swept carpets covered the highly polished hardwood floors, and the rooms were filled with antique velvet-covered chairs inherited from my great-grandma. Grandma always hummed as she baked, especially when she prepared gingerbread men or coconut cake. I always felt loved, protected, and wanted by all the adults in my life. On most days, my brother and I stayed in the house, pretending we were other people by dressing up or playing with paper dolls, puzzles, and blocks. When Grandma was outside, we followed her into the gated backyard, where we rolled around with our big red wagon and helped her water all the plants. Come four o’clock in the afternoon, Grandma would let me go with her to the garden in the rear of the backyard to water what she called her four-o’clock plants. Often, I would stand beside her and wrap my hand in her freshly starched housedress as the water sprayed in my face. I never knew why she called them four-o’clocks; still I would remember for the rest of my life that this was the best time of my day. I waited for that watering all day because I could often have Grandma to myself. I felt the most akin to her because I resembled her more than I did my mother. She stood tall, with a medium body, and black curls about her shoulders. Her complexion was the same golden brown as mine. She made it okay for me when other people called me “big for my age” or said, “She’s very dark skinned compared to her mother.” Garden time was a time when I could tell Grandma all the things—even the secret things—I was thinking about that I could not tell other people. I could ask her about what I didn’t understand in the world. It was a time I could ask her where God lived. People were always talking of God, and I wanted to know where exactly He was. I wanted to go visit Him in heaven to ask Him what was going on and why we had to be treated so badly by white people. When would it end? I could ask Grandma questions like “Who is God? I don’t really see Him. Is God stronger than the white people? Could He teach them to share with us?” She would always end our talks in the garden with “That’s enough for today. A wee one like you doesn’t have space in her head for more deep thoughts. I don’t understand why you choose to talk about all these topics. You have too much worrying in your head, baby. You’re like a baby warrior! What about the joy of being a baby—about dolls and teddy bears? Let’s think about other things. How about helping me with dinner, young lady?” I would hold my breath, unclench my fists, and wait for tomorrow. She was my very best friend and someone who always filled me with hope.
Sometimes later in the afternoon, we would listen to classical music, and Papa Will would sit on the big green velvet chair in the living room. I’d sit on his lap, and he would read to me, teach me my multiplication tables, or put together a puzzle. Often he would tell me about his sisters and brother and their life on a farm. His father was a minister, as were his uncles and many cousins. My Uncle Ben was a traveling minister. I always felt safe when I was with Papa because to me he was as tall as the sky. He had broad shoulders and dark golden brown skin that was much like mine, as well as wavy black hair. No one was as big and protective as he was; no one ever made me feel safer than he did. Mother Lois would come home by five every afternoon from her job at Baptist College. Some nights she would gather her books, take the chicken or peanut butter sandwich that Grandma handed her, and head out to the University of Arkansas, where she was taking classes for a bigger, higher degree—something called a master’s degree. I didn’t know what it really meant but figured it must be huge because she had so many heavy books. She said she would get a better teaching job and earn more money with that degree. If Mother was studying at the kitchen table, with its chrome top and red leather chairs, I would sit at the table with her and turn the pages to look for words that I knew and pictures, which were most often not there. She would pick out a word and tell me what it meant—words like pedagogy and phenomenon. I would always giggle because I thought, Now I know something that none of my friends know. “Dinner is served,” Grandma would call. “Melba Joy, sit down, fold your hands, and let’s say our prayers to thank God for the food we have!” My favorite time of day was always dinner, when each of us was around the wooden table in the dining room, with warm aromas escaping from the hot dishes in the center. Grandma usually made fresh biscuits and vegetables for us even when we were only having a tiny speck of meat. Blessings, lemonade and milk, and laughter surrounded us in a joyful bubble. On Sundays, we would have a new roast chicken for dinner. The meal would also include potatoes and a vegetable. By Thursday nights, the Sunday chicken that Grandma had roasted was down to a few threads in the soup we would eat. Yes, it was the same chicken we’d had all week, but with all the spices she added, she could make the soup smell and taste like something new and draw me to the kitchen. On Friday nights, we would have fish, and then on Saturday, we would have tuna fish casserole with green peas. We would all sit together laughing and talking and loving each other across the table. It was during these times that the world seemed perfect to me. I just wished the white people would disappear in a puff of smoke somewhere forever. Next was the family cleanup and a lesson of one kind or another—the alphabet, math, poems, or memorizing the sequence of the presidents of the United States in the order they served. After study time, Grandma would say, “Find your pajamas and get a washbasin and take it to the bathroom. Cleanliness is next to Godliness. Start from the top down. Wash down as far as possible and then wash possible.” As Conrad got a little older, he would race me to the washbasin in the sink. If I lost, that meant I had to go get the washbowl off the back porch. Then we could bathe in our one bathroom as long as we had our backs to each other and kept the door open. We had only the one bathroom, but I was grateful that it was indoors. Some of my friends did not have that privilege, and had to go outside to use the bathroom, no matter what the weather was. If we had finished our baths and were ready for bed well before eight, it was story time, but we had to be in bed by eight o’clock. One of the three adults would read to us. My mother told me she had read to me when I was in the womb before I was born. By age four, I was overjoyed every night to be cuddling on the bed and listening silently. When Conrad was old enough to join me, it was even better. After story time, though, huge fears took me over. The Ku Klux Klan was a group of people responsible for much of my evening dread. Just after reading time ended, either on weekends or when we got word of trouble, Mother and Grandma would begin the ritual I watched for my entire childhood. They would close the windows, draw all the curtains and cover them with black cloth, dim the lights, and silence the radio. It brought a terror to my body that descended like a cloud and stalled anything I might otherwise do. It made me run and hide in closets, cry, and hold my breath. “God is everywhere, and we all belong to God. He is the world,” Grandma would reassure me. “He is stronger than the Ku Klux Klan. He loves us. Nothing happens to us that He doesn’t want to happen.” That would always leave questions hanging in the air for me, though. “Does he want all this bad stuff to happen to brown people? Why? What have we done to deserve this treatment?” There also came a time that when I laid my head on the pillow, I had extra worries even on top of the Klan, because I’d noticed that Mother and Papa Will were not as friendly toward each other as they had once been. They did not laugh together, hold hands, or tell jokes to each other as they had done before. The last thing I wanted was what had happened to some of my friends’ families: a divorce. It worried me, and I tried to figure out what to do. When I talked to Grandma about it, she said, “Pray.”
We lived on a corner of Cross Street in a four-bedroom house. Cross Street was paved, lined with small pretty white houses and many colored shutters. Sometimes working white men in their uniforms or their navy striped suits drove up and down the gravel road that ran alongside our yard, making the dust and small rocks grind under their wheels. It was a thriving thoroughfare, but if white strangers doing business came along the road during daylight, we were warned not to speak to them. It made me sad when Mexican farm workers were transported along that same road, like cattle packed in the backs of trucks, calling out to us to please marry them and rescue them. Our street was a quiet one, with respectful neighbors who were friendly, attentive, and churchgoing on Sundays. There was Mr. Major, the plumber; Miss Austine, the hairdresser; Miss Brooks, the nurse; Mr. Elders, the dentist; and a whole array of kind working folks. Like almost all women in our community, my grandmother was a maid in a white woman’s kitchen or at the Marion Hotel. My mother was a librarian at Baptist College and sometimes taught classes at other schools. Papa was a hostler’s helper at the Missouri Pacific Railroad. The people in my community always greeted my brother and me with smiles and hugs, telling us how smart and precious we were. Sometimes during the afternoon or on Saturday, we would have friends our age—Caroline, Betty Ray, Clark, or Robert—and their mothers over to play. We didn’t have lots of friends, as Mother wouldn’t let us go visit others. She said home was always the safest place to be. Our friends, also around age three and four, lived a block away. Their mothers would visit with the adults, and I’d always hide and listen to them talk about our world and what white people preferred. At times, though, I feared the visits from any other adults who would come to talk to Mother, Papa, and Grandma about what was going on outside our community. I listened in as they discussed their thoughts and tried to figure out what life-threatening activities the Ku Klux Klan might have planned for that night or the next in our neighborhood. Grandma had explained to me that the Klan was a bunch of white men. They were law-abiding city officials by day. But by night, they put on white sheets and masks, carried fiery crosses, and did lots of evil things to our people. Sometimes they even killed a member of my community to punish him or her for being what they called “uppity.” Sometimes the murders would happen for no reason at all . . . just for sporting fun. Many of the violent, frightening things that happened to us happened after dark. I had learned early on that as long as I stayed in the places where our people were allowed to go and I didn’t venture outside our community, everything seemed okay. That was, until nighttime. Mother Lois and Grandma India spent a lot of time talking to neighbors and friends and sharing frightening stories of things the KKK were doing: taking away our people’s jobs, taking away our cars, beating us, yelling at us, threatening to kill people, and yes, actually killing someone if the person did something the white people thought was disrespectful. My little brother, Conrad, didn’t understand that we were treated differently, because he was too young, but I did. It seemed to me that the grownups must have thought they could say anything out loud in front of me and I wouldn’t really understand what they were talking about because I was so little. They were wrong. I took in every word, and I spent all my waking hours listening closely to the adult talk, trying to figure out their words, what they meant, and why they never spoke up, and pondering my world. How did I get here? How long did I have to stay? I imagined there must be places beyond Arkansas where my folks were treated better. I kept secrets about how much I understood of our world. Early on, I could tell that the white people in Little Rock believed we had to do whatever they wanted us to do. I told myself that it must be that God liked them better than us. They treated us like they owned us. Whatever they said was taken as something to be heeded by my people, who repeatedly analyzed it and struggled to precisely obey their wishes. Everything they said was like a warning that if we did anything they considered wrong or said anything rebellious, bad things would happen. Everything they didn’t like was punishable. Their personal opinions ruled us—there seemed to be no authority in charge to direct them as to what was fair. The terror that this caused would haunt me all my young years.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 I'll figure it out latter 1
Chapter 2 When fear comes home 14
Chapter 3 Black is an Inconvenient color 21
Chapter 4 A head full of questions 31
Chapter 5 A Church full of angels 37
Chapter 6 Rules of my survival 50
Chapter 7 Dimming the light of my dream 62
Chapter 8 Into the real world outside 73
Chapter 9 I'm not alone 85
Chapter 10 Becoming a real student 91
Chapter 11 The world is my birthday gift 99
Chapter 12 Hope that the world can be mine 111
Chapter 13 Blessed 123
Chapter 14 Santa is in town 134
Chapter 15 Television and bomb shelters 141
Chapter 16 Finding my piece of the pie 148
Chapter 17 Angel in a white sheet 156
Chapter 18 Who is Jim Crow? 171
Chapter 19 My life forges ahead 177
Chapter 20 Marching forward 189
Note to Readers 212