In September 1946, at the age of 17, I left New York City, where I had been born and educated, to travel alone 24 hours on a train to Nashville to attend Fisk University. I had left a life of freedom and opportunity in the world’s most prominent city, and arrived in a little, smoky, dingy southern city embedded in segregation, discrimination and untold prejudices against me as a Negro female Yankee, to attend a segregated college in the deep south.
When I arrived on the Fisk University campus in the heart of North Nashville where the majority of the Negro population lived, I was surrounded by students, teachers and the population of black citizens all around me. I was happily located in a community that was reminiscent of the Harlem community where I grew up.
Fisk’s campus was like an island separated from the segregated mainland. We had a theater, churches, businesses, hospital, restaurants and all the other necessities of a small city around our campus. If we desired to leave the campus and venture out to downtown Nashville to shop or visit a movie theater, the Nashville city bus was available for 5 cents. It was always filled with black residents and students, therefore we didn’t have to adhere to the demands of segregation and fill up the back of the bus first. We could sit anywhere on the Jefferson Street Nashville city bus.
Fisk had students from all over the United States. The freshman class of 1946 was their largest class with the influx of dozens of service men who had served in World War II.
They had a football team. The first football game I had ever seen was at Fisk. At the first tackle, I screamed in fear, thinking that someone surely had been seriously hurt, or even killed, with half the team sprawled out on the ground. To my surprise, they got up and did it again and again. Nobody got hurt and nobody died.
I loved Fisk, the students, the campus, the activities, the classes and all the handsome men who had come to live on campus. Yet, there were times that my heart ached and I felt humiliated by the surrounding segregation and discrimination.
I hated having to walk down a filthy alley in downtown Nashville to purchase a ticket to attend a movie. Then, I had to climb up a dirty staircase to sit upstairs in the segregated “colored” section to see the movie.
I hated going in Woolworth’s 5 & 10 to shop and not being able to purchase a cold drink at the lunch counter. There was no place downtown where a black person could get anything to eat or drink. I hated looking for a dress or shoes and not being allowed to try them on.
I hated the fact that Fisk women were mandated to wear our best dresses, gloves and pearls when we shopped downtown.
And most of all, I hated Nashville’s Main Public Library.
During my sophomore year, I was writing a paper for my Sociology class, and the Fisk library didn’t have any books on the subject. I rode the city bus downtown to the Nashville Main Public Library and asked the librarian to help me locate the information on the subject.
She did so on four days, and I copied down the information on note cards. On Friday, at closing time, I still needed to finish copying additional information. To be allowed to take the books out, I requested an application to join the library and it was given to me.
After I filled it out, the librarian read it and inquired, “Are you a student at Fisk University?”
“Yes,” I responded.
She looked startled and angrily stared at me.
“Well! We don’t allow “n------” to use this library.”
I was wounded and felt as if I had been stabbed in my heart. I was in such pain.
“But, I have to finish my research paper by Monday. What am I to do?” I sobbed bitterly.
“Just don’t come back here,” she responded angrily.
I cried on the bus all the way back to Fisk. Even today, 72 years later, I still feel the pain in my heart when I remember it.
Everything was segregated. We drank water only from the “Colored” water fountains. We were forced to ride in the back of buses and in the front car of trains.
When we arrived in the Dixie Flier into Louisville, the train Conductor walked through the cars demanding that all the Negroes move to the segregated front car which was behind the wood and coal burning engines. Billowing black smoke and fumes entered the segregated front car, rendering us dirty with soot and smoke through the open windows.
We were not allowed to eat in restaurants or stay in hotels. When driving north, we had to drive to Ohio to locate food and lodging. All the service stations had three rest rooms; one for “white males,” one for “white females,” one for “Colored,” for both black men and women. Bus and train stations had separate waiting rooms, with old dilapidated chairs in the Colored Waiting Room, and comfortable attractive furniture for the White Waiting Room.
There were few jobs available for black college graduates other than as educators in segregated, poorly equipped schools. The black high school graduates had to take menial jobs, or migrate North for better paying jobs, and freedom.
Worst of all, Negroes were either not allowed to vote, were fearfully intimidated or forced to pay a poll tax, rendering the entire black citizenry powerless and destitute.
Thus, was born the Civil Rights Movement to rectify the degradation that the southern black citizens had tolerated since the end of the Civil War.
These are only a few examples of overt discrimination and segregation that has existed throughout the south. In my last chapter, I will describe those that we have endured in Giles County. Then, I PRAY, that each individual will better understand and appreciate the myriad reasons why we, African Americans — joined by our white sisters and brothers who love all God’s children regardless of color — are marching in prolonged protests throughout Tennessee, the United States and the entire world.
All we want is to live as American Citizens in “ONE NATION UNDER GOD, INDIVISIBLE, WITH LIBERTY AND JUSTICE FOR ALL.”