Two little girls stand in an open field, close to each other but not touching. I’m the straight-haired girl with glasses, 7 years old, wearing a wool coat with plaid trim. The dark-skinned girl wears overalls with a white hat covering her black curls.
My smile is strained while my hands search for the safety of coat pockets. The brown-skinned girl stares straight at the camera, leaning on a hoe. She doesn’t pretend to smile. Does she work in the fields or garden? Who took this photo? I don’t remember this girl or day, but inherited the photo from my mother’s collection. Mom wrote 1953 on the back of the photo and nothing more, but the image brought me back to my girlhood in Mexico, Missouri.
White children and black children lived separate lives. The “Negro” kids went to their own school where they used second-hand Dick and Jane readers and history books after they were first used by the white schools. They lived in their own section of town on the other side of the railroad tracks.
My parents were more involved with black families than most white parents. Mom was from northern Ohio, so she saw the poverty and shunning and took gifts and food to families with new babies or when someone was sick. Dad had a relaxed relationship with black employees in his small building supply company, but no one questioned the boss-employee hierarchy.
Daddy loved Southern food and didn’t mind crossing the railroad tracks to get it—spare ribs, country ham, fried potatoes dripping with grease, and collard greens. My mom’s broiled chicken and baked potatoes couldn’t compete. At least once a month, we drove across the tracks to buy dinner—always take out. I went inside with Daddy to get our food, but only black families sat at the tables, wary of white intruders until they recognized Dad’s familiar face.
Daddy loved every kind of sausage and head cheese, so we drove the dusty roads to a farm where the black owner made the best head cheese, according to Daddy. “Head cheese is not dairy, but a meat jelly often made with flesh from the head of a calf or pig,” according to Wikipedia. Yikes! My dad found it irresistible. No one else in the family touched it, but I liked driving with Daddy to pick it up and hear him talk to the farmers about their crops.
Skin color meant everything in the 1950s in Missouri. It dictated where you lived, where or if you went to school, and where you could get a drink of water, eat, or sit in a movie theater. Mom invited brown-skinned exchange students from Asia or South America to our home, but the local people who lived across the tracks weren’t social friends. They either worked for my dad or for my mom cleaning and doing laundry.
I was young and didn’t question the set-up, but I’m sad and ashamed as I remember. Elderly black people called me Miss Ware and my brother Master Ware, even though he was just a boy. Audrain County was on the southern side during the Civil War and old social structures persisted.
Who was that serious girl with the hoe? What happened to her? Did she spend her life doing manual labor or did she find a new life out of the rural ghetto? And who was I as a child to live in a segregated world with so few questions?
Did you live in an integrated or segregated world as a child? We moved away from Missouri in 1957 when I was 12, just when schools were being integrated, but it was only in high school that I questioned racism. For more stories about my Missouri childhood, see How I Learned to Trust a Man. Read about a racial awakening in The Girl Who Believed in Good Government. Writing this story made me uncomfortable, but I decided to share it anyway. I still have so much to learn.