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Recognizing the Hoax of “Separate but Equal”

“Separate but equal. That’s the way God wants us to live,” declared my Aunt Maggie. “Could this be right,” I wondered. “It doesn’t feel right.” My Aunt Maggie arguably qualified as one of the most devoted Christians ever known. “Disciplined and smart” described this little aunt of mine. How could I doubt her?

A year later in 1949, our little town integrated Latinos into our all-white schools. When several teenagers joined our fifth-grade class, it became evident that our schools had been separate but far from equal. Administrators decided, “Only English will be allowed. Anyone caught speaking Spanish must go to the office to be spanked.”

That year, a tall, thin, brown-skinned sixteen-year-old boy named Chris sat behind me. I liked Chris. We became friends who talked in class as kids who like one another do. One day, our class played a version of Truth or Dare. “Barbara, if you had to pick a boyfriend, which boy would you select? To which I quickly answered, “Chris.”

The class erupted in laughter. I felt clever about my answer. I had dodged saying that I really liked a freckled-faced red-haired boy named Jimmy. In addition, I believed I had given a humorous answer because, at that time, the idea of a nine-year-old white girl having a Mexican teenager for a boyfriend seemed like a huge joke. Today, I recall with great shame that Chris did not laugh. He did not smile. He did not even look at me. What seemed cute to me at the time turned out to be a cruel and degrading comment. I wish I could apologize to Chris today.

Five years later, Black students joined us in high school. Once again, the evidence spoke with crystal clarity. Black students had not been educated equally. However, two Black athletes brought amazing height and awesome skills to the basketball court. Suddenly, we realized, “We have a chance to make it to the state playoffs!” We loved these guys! They put our little town on the Texas sports arena.

Student leaders proposed, “Let’s have a school dance to celebrate!” Parents, (white, of course), joined the excitement and agreed to blow up balloons and make punches. The night came. The dance began. “Wow! Look at those kids dancing. Have you ever seen anyone dance like that?” “Never!” And parents decided we would never witness such beautiful dancing again. No more school-sponsored parties.

White parents certainly didn’t want to deprive their kids. In tight circles, they asked, “What can we do? Grim-faced fathers suggested, “Let’s create a club; an invitation-only club created exclusively for white and Latino kids.” Eureka! The “Jollytime Club” came to life with gusto and enthusiasm. The door to social interactions with Black students clanged decisively shut.

As I write this, I cringe with remorse over the wrongness in these memories. It does not seem excusable to say, “I was young.” Even as I sat on a red chair in my Aunt Maggie’s kitchen, I recognized unfairness. The crux of the situation seems to be that my aunt didn’t recognize the consequences of the “separate but equal” belief. I do not blame her for telling me what she believed to be true. I ask for forgiveness because I played the game.

Today, we continue to pay an enormous price for continuing to be separate and tragically unequal. We have no right to suggest, “Be patient. Forgive. Be peaceful.” We have no right to ask and yet, each one of us must engage in forgiveness and in healing actions. Our nation’s survival depends on our willingness to change our minds, open our hearts, and alter our behaviors. What alternative do we have other than killing one another on American streets?


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