Me, White Child on Black Bus.
I was an 8 year old white child in the Fall of 1972. In August of that year was the first time I set foot in Alabama, in a small town, home to a white writer who had had cross burned in his front yard.
I didn’t know that famous author’s name until a couple years ago. I didn’t know he lived 3 blocks from me. I didn’t t know my parents knew him. I didn’t know we went to church with him. I didn’t know he wrote about the KKK. I didn’t know he interviewed MLK Jr’s killer. I didn’t know he wrote Three Lives for Mississippi. I didn’t know this discovery would lead me to my own haunting memories of racial discord as only a silent white child can remember.
Until I was an adult, I didn’t know the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed. I didn’t know little girls died.
I didn’t know my pain existed. It did.
Rebekah Porter later sent us more information about her life in Alabama. This is the rest of her story:
I live and work in Birmingham, but I grew up in north Alabama, near the Tennessee River, in a little town called Hartselle.
I left Hartselle in 1985 when I married (my husband’s home was in Oklahoma) and had really no desire or reason to go back. My parents had also left in ’85 to semi retire over in Mississippi (their homeplace). No other family was there and most of my friends were off doing their own thing at college and we simply lost touch.
So, Hartselle was sort of erased from me. Life went on in different directions, children, dogs, cats, career moves, bills, mortgage, etc.
Until I hit a wall per se in 2007. I had long dreamed and worked toward law school .. And finally my dream came true– in 2006, at the age of 40 something, I quit my job, gave my kids a bunch of new house cleaning responsibilities, went into debt and entered law school.
I was never happier.
It was the most thrilling time of my life. All my life I had been exquisitely quiet, reserved, and not ever assumed to have had great dreams of anything remotely related to law or debate or oration skills.
But that is exactly what I dreamed of. I was learning to think, to write, to argue, to talk — to professors, to panels of judges, to whole classes. Day after day after day.
I thought I was becoming who I was meant to be.
When grades came back tho, they said otherwise.
I had a dream, then it was gone.
I’m not sure how I carried on after that, but I did. Oceans of tears, soul searching, deep depression, shame and a gaping hole of “what now” followed my every moment of being.
I kept asking “who am I, really”, “where am I from, really”, “what is this place, the South”, “why do I seem to hate it so much”, “why won’t the South let me go”, “why am I different”, “am I different?”
So, I began to write. I wanted to find that little lost shy girl i used to be and give her hope, explain life to her and tell her a story. It was the only way I knew to help myself.
I remember the day I sat down at the computer and googled Hartselle, Al. If I was going to write my story, I had to find out about my little town I grew up in. I landed on wikipedia of all things and read that a man named William Bradford Huie had lived there. He had written books and had been a journalist and had covered some of the civil rights movement.
That stopped me in my tracks. I remembered that I had known of ‘some famous author’ that supposedly lived around the corner from us. So this is the guy!
I researched all about him. He was no saint. But he certainly was interesting and through his works, he taught me history that I had not really known, not really.
I knew about Rosa Parks. I had heard of the Selma march. I knew things used to be ‘different’ in the South.
I also knew this was the key to finding myself.
Skip back to 1972 when I first came to be in Alabama. Just prior to that … We lived in slick, suburban, highly educated Houston, Texas. The moon, Apollo missions, Houston, NASA… My dad and mom both helped send men to the moon. My dad was (and still is) a genuine rocket scientist.
What a fabulous time that was! Of course I didn’t really realize it at the time, but I did know I had a happy magical childhood there, and I was so proud to say my daddy worked “at NASA”.
Then he transferred to an office near the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama — and we moved. My parents bought a house in sleepy, rural Hartselle, about 30 minutes from Huntsville.
My first day in Alabama was also my first day of school. Third grade. There were two elementary schools in Hartselle. One had been “White” and one “Black”.
The school my parents took me to that August morning wad the Black school. It was “integrated” by then, but most the Blacks went to my school.
Until that day, I didn’t know about racial discord. I learned fast. The first little girl I met was also the prettiest little girl I think I had ever seen, and she had a bunch of perfect scattered ponytails with white ribbons all over her head. She asked me to play out on the playground. I was thrilled.
It didn’t take long til some of the white kids to inform me I needed to play with them.
When school was over that first day, we lined up for the bus, and somehow I figured out Bus 83 was mine. It would take me to my new home I hadn’t even seen yet.
I remember there must have been 7 or 8 buses .. All but one were about half empty and fairly quiet as they left the school parking lot.
My bus was full. It was packed. Kids had to squeeze in so the driver could struggle to get the door closed. It was loud. It was chaotic. It stunk to high heaven. I was petrified. I was on the Black bus.
And so it went .. My daily walk in history two times a day, five times a week, August through May. From third grade to the ninth.
My thoughts now about my thoughts then.. I’m learning things about discord and why I was conflicted and why I was troubled and afraid and glad. Glad, because I was smart enough to figure out all by myself — there was something quite not right about the way things were being done in this strange new place I’d found myself.
It’s like I had landed on the moon.
See Rebekah Porters 6 Word Essay @ The Race Card
Michele Norris is the host of NPR’s All Things Considered and the author of The Grace of Silence.