Bass Mitchell: The signs, a painful time, Part 4
Editor’s note: The is the fourth and final part of guest columnist Bass Mitchell’s column titled “The Signs.” Read the entire column at http://tinyurl.com/y83bajbh.
I remember it well. We were coming home one day from working on that building. As we turned onto our street, we saw an elderly black woman walking beside the road, a bag of groceries in her hand. One of the daily summer thunderstorms had just let loose. She was trying to hold a tattered umbrella over her head. She was getting soaked.
“That’s Mrs. Smith,” Dad said.
He pulled over just in front of her. He got out of the truck and ran back to her. He took the groceries from her and escorted her as quickly as possible through the downpour back to our truck. I opened the door and reached out to help her inside. Dad handed me the bag of groceries, the bag was falling apart by this time. He ran back around and got inside.
We drove Mrs. Smith to her house. After a couple of trips, we got her and her groceries onto her front porch. Thank God the rain had let up some. She thanked us. We ran back to the truck, both of us drenched, and drove home. Mom couldn’t help but smile when she saw us. “I know there must be a good story behind this,” she said, stopping me at the door and making me take off most of my wet clothes before coming inside.
Later I found out that Dad knew Mrs. Smith and her family quite well. In fact, Mrs. Smith had a grandson who Dad hired to help him when I had to go back to school. That young man did know how to handle a hammer and in time started his own cabinet making shop. Dad used him to make cabinets for houses he was building.
As far as I know, Dad never said anything about all of this. But others told me much later that he did things like this for a lot of people in our community, and it didn’t matter their color.
So when our school was integrated in the seventh grade, it was no big deal to me. Lots of people were afraid and anxious about it, mostly politicians and parents from what I could tell. Most of the kids took it all in stride. We had very few problems.
When I got to high school, it was a little different. I loved sports and played baseball and football. That was the first time at least for most of us that black and white players were on the same teams. In some ways it was really like that movie starring Denzel Washington,
“Remember the Titans.” The black and white players didn’t get along at first. We stuck to our own little groups. Any coach will tell you that you can’t have a team, a good one, anyway, if it’s divided like that. Coach Conway tried to use this as an opportunity to break down some barriers and bring us closer together.
Now the coach didn’t have a lot of success in the beginning. In fact, the whole thing would have failed had it not been for Elijah Smith, one of the black players on our team. Eli, as we called him, was one of the best athletes I have ever known. Everyone looked up to him, even the white players, though some were jealous of his abilities. But as great an athlete as he was, Eli was an even better person. Eli made it his mission to help make us a team. He sought out the white players at lunch or recess or after practice, spending time with us, trying to get to know us and establishing some trust. To this day I don’t know exactly how he did it. But with his effort and that of the coaches, this group of players became a team, a kind-of band of brothers. That did a lot to help the whole student body to become closer.
A lot of these feelings and memories came back to me during the 2016 summer Olympics. Did you notice the diversity of athletes from our country? I was proud of them all, none more so than the women’s gymnastic team that for the first time won the gold. Simone Biles is African American, as is Gabby Douglas. Laurie Hernandez is Puerto Rican. Aly Raisman and Madison Kocian are white. Raiman is Jewish. I thought to myself, “This is America. This is what makes us a truly special and a great nation.” The thought also came to me that one day I sure would like to put that picture of them above the water fountain in that old building. In fact, I’d like to put it up everywhere.
It was tough getting all that “WHITES ONLY” paint off those restroom doors so long ago. It wasn’t easy because it had been painted and repainted many times. But it eventually had to give way. Racism, prejudice – they are like that. We’ve made some progress. But we must be vigilant. There are always powers out there who want to repaint and replace those signs perhaps with new words but the same old message. So it’s going to take a lot of effort to erase it, not just from policies, buildings, doors and walls, but most importantly from hearts and minds. I give thanks to God for my Dad, who first taught me this vital truth in the hallway of an old building and more importantly in how he lived each day. I hope I am passing along that same lesson to my children and grandchildren, for this really is the way to get rid of those signs forever. Just think – your greatest contribution to the world might not be something you do, but someone you raise.
Bass Mitchell is pastor of Manor Memorial United Methodist Church in New Market.