June 23, 2020

Skin Color Defined Our Lives

Only photo of me with a black child although I lived in Missouri for 11 years

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.

My parents in Missouri, ~1947

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.

With my brother Jim at our Grandparent’s outhouse (no indoor plumbing)

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.


  1. July 3, 2020 at 1:40 pm



    Thank you for sharing so generously, Elaine, about a subject that is easier to avoid when one feels shame. As you wrote, most of have so much to learn (which definitely includes me), and holding ourselves back from our discomfort is not going to lead us there.
    I grew up in Miami, Florida, where my mother was passionate about her work as a teacher in predominantly black schools and would always tell us with pride about the children who would say of her, “She’s black, just like us.” And still the only black person I remember being in our home was a woman who came to iron our clothes for a couple of hours every other week. I remember feeling shame about it at the time and trying to be overly friendly to make up for something I did not yet understand. I still feel shame about it, along with the overwhelming injustice that has granted me so much because of my whiteness. As we work to dismantle the terrible system that has perpetuated white supremacy, it seems that the shame must be felt. Yet, as others have been reminding us, what needs to be healed is not shame but racism. And your post seems an important part of that healing process. Thank you.

    1. July 3, 2020 at 4:39 pm

      Elaine Mansfield


      Thanks for your story and thoughts, Anne. When I found that photo, I knew I had to write about my childhood experience. When racial injustice came to the foreground recently, it was the right time to share my experience. Yes, there is shame. I hope it’s the right time for cultural introspection and significant lasting change for all populations of color. So much needs to be done socially and economically and so much education is needed. It’s hard to know how this can happen in many parts of our country. Significant change is rarely easy or fast, but it’s happening. I have relatives who were prejudiced against Hispanics until their child married someone from Mexico and they had grandchildren who were biracial. They chose love. May we all choose love.

  2. June 26, 2020 at 8:07 pm



    Funny how insignificant moments can become so poignant with time. I grew up not knowing racism, in fact there weren’t very many black people in my city, hence never any racist issues. I shake my head when I think back and not a single black or Asian throughout my schooling. Now we are a melting pot like New York – only a lot more civil and try to play nice together. 🙂

    1. June 27, 2020 at 12:43 pm

      Elaine Mansfield


      Vic and I took our kids to Canada for family vacations, and I loved the interracial feel and lack of racial tension in Toronto. I loved Honolulu for the same reason–not the tourist beaches and hotels, but the city beaches and restaurants where Hawaiians spent time. (We went to Honolulu because Vic was giving talks at the University, but we stayed in the non-tourist areas downtown.) I loved seeing groups of teenagers of all colors hanging out together without tension. Vic and I noticed in one restaurant that we were the only white couple in the place. It felt good and right–and unusual for us. And I know indigenous Hawaiians have had a hard time like most indigenous peoples. May we human beings open our hearts.

  3. June 26, 2020 at 2:14 pm



    Magnolia, Arkansas … fifties … I never heard one racial dividing word from my parents. My best friend, Steve, lived next door. His dad had a shiny green robe with a dragon choking a cross on the front. There was that scary green hood with the eye-holes in it. I knew much later, that we lived next door to the Grand-Dragon of South Arkansas and North Louisiana. Steve said, in a sad voice, my dad says that one day I will go out with the real men and burn a cross on Sunday evening, after church on Sunday. This dissonant feel would get me through and be the force to find the real way, surely not this horror that I did not learn in Jesus’s simple parables.

    1. June 27, 2020 at 12:33 pm

      Elaine Mansfield


      Thanks for commenting Cragar. What an image. It stopped by breath. Church on Sunday followed by burning a cross. I wonder if the “Grand Dragon” was nice to you and other white children. It’s amazing how we humans can put parts of ourselves in concealed shadow boxes and hide them away from even ourselves.

      Magnolia is deep south (I just looked at a map). The county where I was raised was bordered on the north by the Mason-Dixon line. I didn’t know anyone from KKK and never heard there was a chapter in my town, but it could have been there. Hidden or in a neighboring town. The Presbyterian Church where I went to Sunday School talked a lot about helping the poor and taking care of each other, but the congregation was 100% white. It’s amazing how little the social and economic set-up was challenged by whites or blacks–until a few years later after we’d moved to a suburb of Detroit. My mom taught in a nearly all black commercial high school in downtown Detroit when I was in high school (my dad had died by then), and I began to understand a little more, but it was a slow process. The set-up conflicted with the deepest spiritual teachings of Jesus or any spiritual teacher.

  4. June 24, 2020 at 12:54 pm

    Lynne Taetzsch


    Thanks for sharing this story, Elaine. I grew up in the North, in New Jersey. We lived in Newark until I was in third grade, but then moved to Irvington–a safer, “whiter” neighborhood. Later my five siblings and I half jokingly called my father “Archie Bunker” for his racist attitudes. I believe we tried to shed them in our own lives, but I’m with you in still having a lot to learn.

    1. June 24, 2020 at 1:01 pm

      Elaine Mansfield


      Thanks for sharing your story, Lynne. There have been big changes from our parent’s day, but we have a long way to go. An essential issue begins at the polls as minorities struggle for the right to vote or even to have a polling place where they can safely vote. I’m glad it’s being brought to our awareness. It has to change.

  5. June 24, 2020 at 11:37 am

    Kathleen Morrow


    I appreciate this story. The youthful experience and perspective is so very important. How would anyone learn anything today if they were not told the story of the past? This is an important story of a not so distant past to provide the lesson for today. Thank you.

    1. June 24, 2020 at 12:56 pm

      Elaine Mansfield


      Thank you, Kathleen. It’s an uncomfortably recent confess/story and makes me ashamed, but it felt important to tell it. I appreciate your support.

  6. June 24, 2020 at 9:04 am

    Robin Botie


    I grew up in the suburbs of New York City, attending PS94 in the fifties. My neighborhood was almost all Jewish. I sought out the girls who were not, who lived near the railroad tracks. I went to their homes to play and even got to go to their churches with them. I loved those who were different. So by the time I went to junior high school there was the busing in of amazingly exotic African American kids and I loved it. They traveled in each day from Jamaica or Flushing, too far away to be able to visit after school or find our ways together on weekends. I had little idea of racism as our parents and teachers were very vocal, emphasizing that we were all equal. I vaguely understood that something else was going on, sensing more barriers in the way of our friendship than I could overcome. Delia Bynoe and Marilyn Jackson – where are you now? And how have you fared?

    1. June 24, 2020 at 12:51 pm

      Elaine Mansfield


      You lived in a different world, Robin, and a healthier world. By the time I was in high school, I spent time in Detroit, drawn by music and dance. My mom taught in a predominantly black business school in Detroit, so my exposure broadened. My parents, especially my dad, loved Harry Belafonte, Eartha Kitt, Sidney Poitier, and many show biz personalities and musicals like “Porgy and Bess,” but their personal friends were white. I hope and pray we’re all ready to do the hard work of embracing each other in a nonviolent way. It’s way past time.

  7. June 24, 2020 at 7:02 am

    susan scott


    I grew up at a time when there were always arguments, debates between my parents of the apartheid state we were living in. There was a golden rule however for no discussion of politics or religion at the dinner table. The opposition parties to the ruling National Party were very active as were various individuals, newspapers, churches, organisations.

    A memory – of being so cross at my parents for not allowing me to attend a party at Gordon’s Bay a good 2o km from where I lived in Somerset West. So I bunked, at night with a plan to catch a bus to The Strand, and then on to Gordon’s Bay. I had to walk through a coloured township to get to the national road. I knew someone was following me. This man come up to me and said words to the effect, lady, you’ve got no business walking alone at night, especially through this township. He was a coloured man. He walked me to the national road. I gave him the gold necklace I was wearing, it was either a cross or a Star of David. When I got to the bus station at The Strand my parents were waiting for me in their car. And no, they didn’t take me on to the party.

    Thanks Elaine for this post. There is no question of a white skin granting us privileges. And, that we project our own darkness onto others disowning it as belonging to ourselves.

    1. June 24, 2020 at 12:42 pm

      Elaine Mansfield


      As much as the arguments and debates sound difficult, I’m glad the issue was in the open for you, Susan. It was so underground in 1950’s Missouri–unacknowledged and unspoken. Looking back, we were stuck in something that couldn’t last. I always had kind personal encounters with my dad’s black employees in my Missouri childhood. There was no sense of threat, but then I didn’t walk through black neighborhoods at night. In high school, I loved music events in Detroit and dancing with racially mixed groups. Usually the performers were black. Motown music reigned and I loved the music and the example of people like Stevie Wonder. The list could go on. After my dad, my most beloved animus projection was Harry Belafonte. Thanks for your comment, Susan. I see how active your family is in standing up to racism in South Africa.

  8. June 24, 2020 at 2:24 am

    Marian Beaman


    The last time I attended worship at our church I sat beside a young, black man. Asian, Slavic, African, and Hispanic folks make up our membership. In the two-year-old class I teach, there is at least one Burmese child. One of my favorite colleagues at the College is black; she tries to promote my book too. And one of my closest neighbors in our former community, a black/hispanic couple, has invited us into their home for their son’s graduation, the husband and father activity in neighborhood leadership.

    However, my experience growing up in rural Lancaster County as a Mennonite was largely white. No Black people attended our school and I didn’t know any personally except Cheeno and Roxanne Duncan, who came from NYC as Fresh Air children to spend time in our country home, ostensibly a break from the hot city tenements. Our church delivered gospel tracts to tenement dwellers. The church leaders meant well, but I could tell there was tension in our mission: “We must help these poor people”seemed to be the subtext. Even as a teenager I sensed the attitude of condescension, if not superiority in this activity.

    On the other hand, my aunt and grandma opened their home for decades to refugees and immigrants, extending grace and a shot at citizenship wherever there was war: Vietnam, Serbia, countries in Africa. After I left home, my own parents provided comfort and friendship to mothers and children from Puerto Rico and Cuba, who took advantage of a second chance to rehabilitate their lives. (Gloria sometimes comments on my blog.) Thus, my immediate family provided models of inclusion, for which I am grateful.

    Your family, especially your dad’s actions seem a bridge between cultures in your segregated community: Mom invited brown-skinned exchange students from Asia or South America to your home; your dad patronized restaurants that fed his yearning for a different cuisine. Ha! But you mention, you too felt tension and shame at the segregation of races. You photos are poignant, the body language puzzling. Still, you ponder them with adult eyes through the lens of our fraught, national history. Like you, I can echo the sentiment, “I still have much to learn.”

    Such a timely post. It’s not easy to reckon with certain aspects of our past. Thanks for having the courage to publish it, Elaine!

    1. June 24, 2020 at 12:32 pm

      Elaine Mansfield


      My adult life has been different from my childhood, I’m grateful to say. I have close friends of various races although my world is still predominantly white. I miss my Hospice community which was more racially mixed, but for now volunteer work there is off. I know the attitude of condescension you mention and know that was part of my mother’s attempt to visit and help black families. The hierarchy was always clear. My dad’s relationships were lifetime friendships–and still the hierarchy was there.

      I’ve loved stories of your aunt and grandma and what beaming lights of racial tolerance and compassion they were. These models of inclusion only became part of my world when I went to Cornell–but Cornell wasn’t nearly as integrated in the 1960s as it is now. So I slowly learn and face my past so I can better support changes that have been needed for centuries. I can’t protest on the streets anymore, but I can help a little by being conscious of my part and improving what I contribute in the future. I’ve been anxious about publishing this, but if I’m not honest, how can I expect others to be? Thanks for your support, Marian.

      1. June 24, 2020 at 5:12 pm

        Marian Beaman



  9. June 23, 2020 at 11:38 am

    Deborah Gregory


    Thank you Elaine for sharing more family photos and stories with us, ones I haven’t heard before. Yes, who was this other girl? I’m struck by the determination of her stance in stark contrast to the discomfort held in your body. Her hands are raised, yours are dropped, her legs are closed, yours are open. Everything about her appears to be very different from you.

    How relevant and timely your post feels today, in light of the recent world-wide racial Black Lives Matter protests. For skin colour has defined lives, for not just our recent history, but racism and slavery have always been configured by race. Earlier today I read that as far back as the Middle Ages the name “Gypsy”(Romani People) had become the name of a slave race.

    I grew up on a rural farmstead until the age of ten when we moved to the local town. There were a few houses nearby, a little walk away, so we did see other people but didn’t mix with them so I guess my childhood was a segregated one in many ways, although I did attend the local primary school. Moving to the town, which a more like a big village, was a huge shock!

    Yet that’s where I met Susan, my best friend, who had been adopted by a local family. She was the only black person for miles and I loved her! We were as thick as thieves together until sadly we lost contact in our early 20’s when she moved to London, and to another life. I guess that’s why I love your photo, it reminds me of her! Bright Solstice blessings, Deborah.

    1. June 24, 2020 at 12:13 pm

      Elaine Mansfield


      Thank you, Deborah. I’m ashamed of this experience but still feel the need to write about it since my family was semi-conscious and aware and didn’t consider themselves racist–but they/we were. The whole culture made racism feel normal. Yes, my 7-year-old body is uncomfortable. The black child stands strong on her own turf. I know the photo wasn’t taken at my grandparents place and the girl’s stance tells me she’s secure on that ground. I probably felt like an invader.

      My country was built on the land and blood of Native Americans and the bodies and blood of slaves brought unwillingly from Africa. We’ve never dealt with it as a culture and it festers. Are things changing now? I hope and pray so, but we all have so much work ahead–and as long as the present occupant is in the White House, things will only get worse. I’m glad you had a black friend as a child. I didn’t, although I’m glad my own children did. I wonder what happened to your friend Susan. I wonder what happened to the little girl in my photo. Remembering motivates me to find ways to contribute to healing now.

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