Remembering My Adult Education Students
The Learning Place
By Rudolph Lewis
LEARNING TO BE BLACK
* * * *
Learning the Differences
In 1967, at the age of six years old,
I realized that I was black. My maternal grandmother
told us about how she used to work back in the 40s in
Durham, North Carolina, in a cotton field, picking
cotton. She made very little money, but would work hard,
long hours. Grandma used to tell us how tired she was.
She would have so much pain in her feet and hands.
But the white man didn’t care about
what pain she had as long as his work was done. My
grandmother would come home and just drop in the closest
chair. Despite her physical exhaustion, she always had
time to love her “grands,” no matter how much pain she
Grandma moved to Baltimore in 1966.
She took on a new job, working in a white lady’s
house—cleaning floors, washing clothes, and cooking. The
white lady was Miss Edith. She was older than Grandma.
Miss Edith was nice and sweet as can be. She respected
She was a loving and caring type of
white person. She not only loved my grandmother, but she
would come over to our house on Forest Park Avenue to
visit Grandma. Miss Edith would bring food for Grandma
and goodies for us.
Because of stories I had heard, I
thought all white people were mean and evil. I told
grandma that I would never work for white people. But
when I met Miss Edith I told my grandmother that Miss
Edith was very nice. My grandmother said, “All white
people are not the same. You not only have nasty whites,
but you have nasty blacks, too.” Miss Edith was only one
of the whites that don’t mind the color of your skin.
She treated all people the same. God will bless her.
In 1968, my mother and father told me
Martin Luther King had been gunned down and killed. Dr.
King tried so very hard to get blacks and whites
together. I know I will be part of this great man’s
dream. Dr. King’s dream will one day come true for some
people, but there are some people out here today that
don’t believe we are equal to whites. There are still
many of us who suffer from an inferiority complex
because of the devastating effects of racism.
In 1970, when I was about ten years
old, I attended Liberty Elementary School. Mrs. Collins,
my fifth-grade teacher, told my class that it was hard
for our parents and their parents and all
African-Americans who lived under the system of Jim
Crow. She told us they would get beaten by white men for
looking at white women or talking to a white man in the
Mrs. Collins also taught us about the
arrest of Rosa Parks because she wouldn’t move to the
back of the bus. I realized that if I had been on that
bus I would have received the same treatment. I knew my
complexion was just as dark as or darker than hers. I
felt that we were being punished for the color of our
Mrs. Collins also told us that blacks
had to go to different schools from the whites. Blacks
weren’t allowed to drink from the same water fountains
as the whites. Racial bias existed prevalently in all
areas of employment. For example, black talented actors
and actresses weren’t able to get work unless they could
pass for white or were willing to play stereotypical
These history lessons made me feel
sorrow about what African-Americans had had to tolerate.
I was very glad slavery was over and that Jim Crow was
coming to an end. For all blacks had been through, I
felt that I really could hate whites justifiably. But I
remembered that my grandmother said all white people
were not the same.
Mr. Howard, my sixth-grade teacher,
taught us a song by James Weldon Johnson, a black poet
and a former official of the NAACP. This son, “Lift
Every Voice and Sing,” which was adopted as the Negro
National Anthem, filled me with hope, pride, and joy.
This song will remain with us for the rest of our lives.
I realize that the things that were taught me have to be
told to my children.
* * *
Across the Mason/Dixon
I was born in McKeesport,
Pennsylvania, seventeen miles southeast of Pittsburgh.
In September 1940, I started the first grade. My class
was mixed with white and colored students. I not only
went to school with them, but I also went to their homes
and ate at their family table. Some of my white friends
did the same at my house.
I recognized the differences in the
color of our skins, but from what I could see everything
was the same. I was raised by my grandmother, and, in
the thirties, forties, and fifties, you didn’t ask
questions about such things. People didn’t talk openly
about racial matters.
When I was young, I wondered why some
were Black, some were White, some tall, some short, some
boys, some girls. After a few years older, I saw the
difference between boys and girls. At that time a lot of
things were not answered, and at that time they didn’t
get answered. I started school September 2, 1940, and
all the teachers were White and the race issue was not a
In July of 1950, I was 16 years old,
my birth day was November 8, but before I reached my
next birthday I joined the Army. We all being from the
same city got on the same train. We went to Pittsburgh
to meet all the rest of the people going to the service.
Believe me, there was a lot of us from all city in the
north heading to Washington, D.C.
When we got there to the Washington
train station they took all the colored people and put
us in front of all the other train carts right behind
the engine. We asked the porter working that area, why
did they separate us. He said, “You are heading south
and that’s the way they do things down here.” I heard an
older man with us talking about the South and the way
white people treated colored people in the South.
I still didn’t understand enough.
When the train got to Columbia, South Carolina, we got
off the train, but we could not go in the station where
the Whites went. We went to the back of the building to
a small room and that is where we stayed.
* * *
Learning about Skin Color
I believe it was in the sixties, when
I was about 10 or 12 years old, that I first learned the
difference between the races. I had noted how some
members of my family were very fair-skinned and others
were very dark.
I began to talk to my mother because
some of my people were white; some were Indian. And I
wondered why. My mother told me why. During slavery
time, we were sold and bought. The white man lay with
black women; the white woman lay with black men. That
was what caused our genes to be mixed and different skin
colors to appear among African-Americans. That is why
some of our relatives look white, my mother explained.
My mother also told me how we got our
last name. During that time the white man was wealthy
and rich. When they bought our fore parents as slaves,
they gave them their last name. As they continued to buy
them, they named them because they owned them. Their
names, however, might be changed if sold to someone
I also learned as a child Negroes
couldn’t go any and everywhere and be welcomed. When
they got on the bus they had to set in the back of the
bus. They couldn’t drink out the same water fountain. We
were unable to eat in the same restaurant together. We
had certain seats assigned to us because of our race.
Our race has had to suffer many
things and endure them. We’ve never seen life easy. We
always had to struggle; we’ve had to take hard knocks.
We were looked down on as nothing and nobody.
We’ve had to fight for our rights and
privileges. Nothing was comfortable or pleasant. For
Negroes even now it still makes a difference. Some are
still hung up on their skin color. They believe because
they are white they are right; because we are Negroes,
we have to get back. Not any more.
Today as a Negro parent, I have
talked to my children and explained to them the same way
my mother took time to talk to me about skin color.
Never be ashamed of your race or your color because we
have had to pay a price for that. But one day we were
given our equal rights and freedom because somebody had
a vision and a dream and kept on fighting until it came
* * *
Down from the Big
By Pamela White
My grandmother was born and raised in
Sumter, South Carolina. As a child, I can remember her
talking about what she encountered as a black woman in
the South. She worked for a white family that owned a
huge plantation that mainly grew vegetables. She told us
the white man didn’t want them to learn to read. She was
told that reading wasn’t the right of a black person in
the South. But she learned to read anyway. The first
book she remembers reading was titled Black Sambo.
She would tell us stories about
herself as a child growing up in the South. One
particular story which stuck in my mind was about my
grandfather. He was arrested for hitting a white man
because he refused to shine his shoes. That refusal cost
him two years of his life. And there was nothing we
could do to help him.
My grandmother would always tell us,
“If you don’t do nothing else in life, learn to count
your money. The white man will cheat you if you don’t
know better.” She remembered working at the big house,
doing housework and the laundry for six days a week at a
dollar a day. And when she would go to get paid, they
would try to give her $4.25, $4.50, or $5.25. But
because she knew how to count, she would speak up for
the rest of her money.
One time or another, we all have felt
some kind of racial prejudice in our lives. I personally
experienced bigotry as a child, I was seven years old. A
friend of mine, a white boy invited me and my sister to
his house for dinner. We were all sitting at that table,
getting ready to chow down. Then his parents came home
from and work and started yelling at us and him. “What
are these niggers doing sitting at my dinner table?”
At that point, my sister and I ran
out the back door. I felt bad being called a “nigger,”
but I knew we didn’t do anything wrong because he had
invited us. It wasn’t long after that they moved. He
said his parents told him that too many “niggers” were
moving into the neighborhood, bringing down the value of
It was at this point, the reality of
being “black” in America hit home. Back in those days,
the term NIGGER was only for the black race. I would ask
my mother, “Why am I black?” She would respond by
saying, “God made white people and black people, and all
of us can’t be white. So he made us black. But God loves
us all.” This helped me adjust to being black in a white
As an adult, I have experienced all
types of discrimination by being black and a female. I
try to educate my children about bigotry and racial
discrimination. I let them know that racism is here to
stay and that they are of the black race and live in a
white’s man world.
I tell them also that we all have to
live in this world together and that we should never let
the color of our skin stop us from trying to reach our
goals in life. We have laws to curb racism. If they
encounter any discrimination in life because they’re
black or their sex, laws are on the books to protect
* * *
Pitching for Honesty on
I realized the difference between
black and white people in America when I was just a
little girl. My mother would take me to the hospital,
and the doctors and nurses would make us wait so long.
But when a white person came in with their child they
would take them in the back of the hospital to see the
doctors right away.
I felt bad. I felt like it was wrong
to take that person ahead of me. I felt they were doing
it just because they were white.
I turned and looked at my mother. I
said, “That’s not fair. They took them before us, and we
have been sitting here for hours.” But I found out in
life this happens all the time.
Blacks have to wait longer in life
than whites in a lot of places. That’s because this is a
white man’s world, and we just live in it.
* * *
Mother's Thoughts and Me
I was a little girl about eight years
old when my mother told me about her past. She looked
into my eyes and told me how she had to walk to school
in rain, sleet, snow, and hot sun. She told me also how
she had to scrub floors for white people. She said they
were nice to her, but she had to make a living for her
Then she moved onto better things.
She worked at Pimlico Hotel cleaning shrimp for white
people and taking trash out to the dumpster. At the same
time, she was going to night school. She had stopped
going to high school to take care of us.
I guess what she was trying to tell
me was that I will face what she has been through. While
my mother told me this story, I felt sad because my mom
shouldn’t have had to face that alone.
It took me a long time to see what
mom was saying to me “Strive baby, strive. You’re my
child. You can do it. For I did it, so you wouldn’t have
to scrub floors nor pick cotton for no one.”
I was mad at the white people; but I
got over it because they couldn’t keep my mother down.
Now I see I’m different that I can recall what mother
has been through. So now I can strive for better things.
* * *
Coming of Age
I lived on a plantation in Florence,
South Carolina with my grandmother. On the plantation,
we raised chickens, guineas, and hogs; we also had a
cow, mule, and goat. Every evening, we had to free them
after we got from school or when we came out of the
field. We helped around the house, carrying water inside
for the night, getting wood for the fireplace, cleaning
the yard, and helping to wash our clothes. We also
worked in the field planting all kinds of vegetables:
okra, tomatoes, green beans, green peas, squash, corn,
sweet potatoes, white potatoes, mustard greens,
watermelons, cucumbers, turnips, cabbages, onions, hot
pepper, garlic, and collards.
We raised tobacco, cotton, wheat, and
ribbon cane. We also grew our fruit trees: grapes,
peaches, pears, cherries, plums, and apples. In the
afternoon all of the children in the neighborhood would
get together to pick blueberries and honeysuckle. We
would also gather pecans, walnuts, and hickory nuts.
In the summer of 1948 when I was
about seven years old, my grandmother asked my cousin
Cynthia, Daisy, Gloria, Bertha and I to walk three miles
to the crossroad confectionary store to sell a dozen
eggs. At the confection store, there were lots of white
kids. They were saying “nigger” over and over.
Our school was named Elim High. We
walked three miles to school and three miles back. The
school was close by the store where the white kids
lived. So at lunch time, they would come down to our
school and pick at us calling us “nigger” for no reason.
We couldn’t fight them because their parents would have
killed us, or, at least, so we thought.
The next time, I became aware of my
color was when my mother and stepfather lived on Mr.
Grant’s plantation. So at lunch time I played with the
Grant’s children—Bobby, Larry, and Fred. We combed each
other’s hair. They asked me why I’m black and not white.
I did not know what to say. So I said I must have stayed
in the oven too long.
I believe I was about eight when I
worked for the Grants, handing tobacco and working
around the barn. I would overhear the white adults talk
about our color in an unpleasant way. Later when I was
ten, I went to work for the Grants, cleaning their
house. I stayed the night with them, sleeping with them.
When I got older, colored girls and
white boys liked each other. Then my grandmother
explained to me that I was black and they were white.
And they would kill us if it would go any farther. So we
dealt with that in a nice way.
Mrs. Grant took me to town with her
kids. I could not go in the movies with them, so they
would go and buy me candies, popcorn, bananas, and
peanuts. We got along all right by staying in our place,
back down South.
I can say I had a good life of being
black in some ways. Now I forget that I am black. I
don’t see myself as black, but as a human being that God
posted 5 April 2006
* * *
The Ditchdigger’s Daughters
Yvonne Thornton’s memoir
The Ditchdigger’s Daughters has
captured the hearts of readers everywhere
since it was first published in 1995.
Translated into 19 languages, featured on
Oprah, and made into a TV movie, this
heart-warming and inspiring story chronicles
Yvonne Thornton’s family; at its center is
her beloved, unschooled but wise father
Donald Thornton, who demanded that all five
of his daughters not only excel in school,
but go on to become doctors. Four of them
did; the other found her calling in law and
became a lawyer instead.—Dafina
Thornton's frank, relaxed manner makes it
accessible to general readers as well as
students of women's or African American
memoir. Worth considering also for those
looking for inspirational reads.—Library
Freedom's Teacher: The Life of Septima
By Katherine Mellen Charron
traces Clark's life from her earliest
years as a student, teacher, and
community member in rural and urban
South Carolina to her increasing
radicalization as an activist following
World War II, highlighting how Clark
brought her life's work to bear on the
civil rights movement. Katherine Mellen
Charron's engaging portrait demonstrates
Clark's crucial role—and the role of
many black women teachers—in making
education a cornerstone of the
twentieth-century freedom struggle.
Drawing on autobiographies and memoirs
by fellow black educators, state
educational records, papers from civil
rights organizations, and oral
histories, Charron argues that the
schoolhouse served as an important
institutional base for the movement.
Clark's program also fostered
participation from grassroots southern
black women, affording them the
opportunity to link their personal
concerns to their political involvement
on the community's behalf.
* * *
Greenback Planet: How the Dollar Conquered
the World and Threatened Civilization as We Know It
By H. W. Brands
In Greenback Planet, acclaimed historian H. W. Brands charts the dollar's astonishing rise to become the world's principal currency. Telling the story with the verve of a novelist, he recounts key episodes in U.S. monetary history, from the Civil War debate over fiat money (greenbacks) to the recent worldwide financial crisis. Brands explores the dollar's changing relations to gold and silver and to other currencies and cogently explains how America's economic might made the dollar the fundamental standard of value in world finance. He vividly describes the 1869 Black Friday attempt to corner the gold market, banker J. P. Morgan's bailout of the U.S. treasury, the creation of the Federal Reserve, and President Franklin Roosevelt's handling of the bank panic of 1933. Brands shows how lessons learned (and not learned) in the Great Depression have influenced subsequent U.S. monetary policy, and how the dollar's dominance helped transform economies in countries ranging from Germany and Japan after World War II to Russia and China today. He concludes with a sobering dissection of the 2008 world financial debacle, which exposed the power--and the enormous risks--of the dollar's worldwide reign. The Economy
* * * * *
Salvage the Bones
A Novel by Jesmyn Ward
On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—
* * *
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
* * *
Ancient African Nations
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Negro Digest /
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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Only a Pawn in Their Game
Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for
George Jackson /
* * *
The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
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