I was born in Chattanooga, TN in 1934. My parents were white but Jewish so not quite white in the view of many whites.
They were struggling at the time to remain middle class. My father and grandfather (an immigrant from Lithuania) owned two movie theaters for colored (the term used at the time) people, the Bijou and the Grand. Also, my father was a promoter, bringing black bands to Chattanooga along with
Aimee Semple McPherson, the evangelist.
My mother was a housewife. She was helped by Pearl, a black woman. I loved Pearl. She took me to the circus once and I learned that black people were not allowed to sit with whites except she could sit with me since she was my nursemaid. I was only four or five at the time but even then I thought this was very unfair. The concept of people being mean to other people was a shocker. And for no reason that I could see. I showed her the inside of her hands which were light. She patiently told me that in spite of that she was not white. Pearl loved children. I was so sad for her that others didn’t see her the way I did.
That is how I was introduced to the race issue.
My immigrant grandfather would tell me very little about his life in the Russian Empire. I didn’t hear about pogroms from him. Immigrants like him had their secrets too.
Michele Norris is the host of NPR’s All Things Considered and the author of The Grace of Silence.