Alabama was known for many things but not many outside the realm of the racial divide between blacks and whites. The capital city of Montgomery had been best known as the cradle of the confederacy and home to the first US White House.
Montgomery was the birthplace of Civil Rights, the march on Selma with Martin Luther King Jr. and the place Rosa Parks stood up for herself on that infamous bus ride.
Now that was a history to be proud of.
Not so amazing were the grim reminders of the painful past. Practically every street in Montgomery, every church and every historic landmark held nostalgic tales of infamy. For townsfolk there were many lesser-known horrific facts;
You see, that there’s the tree where they lynched Gator in ’58. That’s the house where one of the seven men who raped Recy Taylor lived. I’m not saying we don’t have crazy whites and blacks saying racist stuff but they usually live deep in the forest.
Montgomery’s historic downtown had become run down and less than appealing with storefronts now decorated with desperate and hungry people, many altered by the effects of invisible crack-pipe smoke. No right-minded tourist had browsed this part of the Deep South in years and years.
The general consensus of upstanding Alabamians was; if you were white, the west and south side were to be avoided at all cost and if you were black, good luck finding a job or place to live. “Most of the whites have moved out to Pike Road where they paid a pretty penny for them houses,” a store clerk said.
Some thought it was due to a bad attitude that black folks still blamed white folks for slavery ‘when no black or white person alive today had owned or been a slave.’
“It’s juvenile and ludicrous I say! My family goes back 150 years and we never owned a slave. I don’t know why they are so hung up on it!” said a white Anglo-Saxon, as he spit his Shoals tobacco across the porch floor.
Rarely was it mentioned that the output of slavery was far beyond the human to human business deal. That all systems, policies and laws had been implemented with a slavery-is-okay mindset. That racism was the firm bedrock of America. The culture functioning on the belief that one beating human heart was superior to another. For so long the US façade had been pretty on the outside yet was being destroyed by termites on the inside.
It was America’s precarious house of cards.
Eunice Johnston lived with her parents in a bungalow [some called it a shack] on low-income Columbia Street. Her mother Martha was an elegant but frail white woman, while her father Curtis was a hardworking barrel-chested black man.
Eunice guessed her neighborhood would have been called a suburb if it were outside the city like Pike Road was with its cookie-cutter likeness. Yet, she’d never seen her type of house with its crooked window shutters and leaking roof, on TV except maybe surrounded by red and blue police lights on COPS.
After WWII American real estate zones had been established across the country assigning ratings based on a home’s proximity to trains, roads and schools. The output was captured on a special red lined map which translated to property value. If an area went from unlined to red lined its worth sank like a stone to the bottom of a sewer.
Three guesses as to who the predominant populations of red lined areas belonged to?
The black communities of major U.S. cities, thus giving birth to the ghettos known today. Concentrated areas of poor racially segregated people had not been lumped together before the red lining business.
When a black family came house hunting the white folks got nervous. If they succeeded in their purchase it was inevitable the neighborhood would be red lined. They won’t be happy until they turn this into a ghetto. Red lined maps propelled terror and drove fire sale prices in what real estate experts called block busting.
Montgomery had many red lines on its map.
The Johnston’s weren’t wealthy by any stretch but their modest home sat amongst some of the richest history in the South. Nearby stood the long abandoned Holt Street Baptist Church, the meeting place for the community during the Bus Riders Boycott and the first mass meetings to protest the arrest of Rosa Parks.
Eunice’s parents had been well connected to Civil Rights up North and had affiliations to the Black Panther Party. Curtis had been involved in organizing breakfasts for underprivileged school children.
Eunice had grown up hearing all kinds of neat stories. For years she’d heard her father recite stories word-for-word adding charming pauses and sly winks in her direction. She loved his stories but as she got older she’d only smile and nod as he read them to the famous movement friends who would drop in to socialize.
With her parents being interracial in the South, Eunice was accustomed to a certain amount of attention paid to them. It was rare they would go unnoticed at a shopping mall or family restaurant.
Alabama had a nasty penchant for racism to say the least. It would become the last state in the country to overturn the ban on interracial marriage.
In the 1990s, polls in Old South states showed a quarter of people were opposed to marriage between blacks and whites. Later still, when a poll asked if interracial marriage should be illegal, 46% thought so and 14% weren’t sure. (1)
An amazing number of Alabamians felt this way.
In the late 1950s, a seventeen year old Mildred and her childhood sweetheart, Richard 23, drove 90 miles north to marry in Washington, D.C. because interracial marriage was illegal in Virginia.
Upon return they were promptly arrested and charged with unlawful cohabitation because their marriage certificate was not recognized as valid.
They plead guilty. The judge sentenced them to one year in prison or the choice to leave the state for the next 25 years. Living together unmarried in a ‘loving’ relationship was still illegal in some states. This was in America. (4)
Eunice imagined the Loving’s were her parents. She knew Martha and Curtis had gone through stuff back in their day but hadn’t paid much attention to detail until she learned the Loving story in school.
Alabama was all Eunice knew so when she saw evidence of progress on TV she took it with a grain of salt. She guessed the best was yet to come for Montgomery!
It was a well-known fact; Alabama don’t take kindly to criticism from outsiders. Even songs had been written about it. After Neil Young wrote about slavery and segregation on the songs Alabama and Southern Man; Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd responded in kind with the more upbeat and radio friendly Sweet Home Alabama.
Alabamians official motto was we dare defend our rights but for those who had lived their whole lives there, the real motto was something like we shall not be told what to do. That suited Eunice just fine because she didn’t like being told what to do either!
Her first calling had been a fashion stylist and makeup artist. She spent hours working on her blond-haired Mattel bust of Barbie. She perfected fluorescent hair color techniques and elaborate braid work. However, her dream had dwindled recently, since she thought women of color should be encouraged to wear their hair natural.
“Sure, that’s easy for you to say Eunice. You’ve got good hair. It’s loose and wavy, especially when it’s all grown out like that,” the ladies at mother’s choir practice had said.
Eunice inherited her father’s brown hair and curls mixed with her mother’s fine hair giving her looser ringlet curls. Martha said her own hair was so fine she feared losing it altogether. Sometimes mother straightened her hair and sometimes Eunice wore it like Orphan Annie by adding a colorful bandana.
Her aspirations evolved as she got older with the inclination to be a singer. Ever since that day she recorded her voice singing in the shower she knew she was way better than those contestants on idol shows.
When she was about 7 years old she felt compelled to articulate her thoughts about life to someone. She tried with Martha but could never muster the exact words to convey the feeling of not fitting in, “Mummy, I’m not the right something… I don’t know,’ then she would just stop.
Her apprehension stemmed from rarely feeling secure in herself. She had only felt peaceful when she had a quiet place alone. The exact childhood timing was a blur as logical thinking took center stage and emotion took the back burner. There was no rational time to think about feelings and she wasn’t convinced feelings were a real thing anyhow.
Eunice intuitively saw the world as a Tetris game where people’s moods touched down in front of her. After a while, she realized it was best not to assume the rest of the world thought like her. To assume was to imply she’d had the foresight but she hadn’t. She had a knack for working through plausibility in her mind before making decisions.
Therefore, it was easy to see problems in other people’s arguments. Most people who knew her didn’t want to hear her opinions.
She never felt cheated though. It was fine vicariously absorbing peoples pitiful emotions. She’d size them up, draw a conclusion and secretly hold onto their pain making her feel superior.
She had grown so accustomed to seeing things through everyone else’s perspective, she lacked the confidence to reveal her own unique view. She’d be taken aback if people reacted negatively about her findings.
Didn’t everyone think of every fucking angle too? And why the fuck do I have to wait around for them to catch up? Out of pity or sheer exhaustion, by the time she started school she had accepted dumbing herself down to fit in.
Eunice identified with her black heritage most circumstances but gave up when it came to her father’s family in Georgia. They loved her dearly but were hung up on percentages. Daddy’s family thought she was far too pale to be considered black, “Oh no dear, you’re our special princess,” Grandma Cora said.
When she was with them she was free to embrace her real self in a way that wasn’t always possible anywhere else. They expressed opinions all day but practiced live and let live.
The most important thing being biracial taught her was she had no right to question the identity of other people and wished everyone else had lived by that standard.
Her mother’s family in Montreal didn’t count as she didn’t remember ever meeting them, although mother insisted that she had once. In the context of white people, Eunice’s curly hair, darker skin and freckled nose stuck out among the blond, blue eyed set.
Whatever her racial specifications were, being a unique and attractive girl may well have carried her through many storms.