“Little Stevie Wonder.” “Hi Dora.” I like Dora. She calls me little Stevie Wonder. I don’t know why, but she does. She takes me places in my stroller. She looks after me, because my mother teaches school. I am very fond of her.
One day, she takes me to the park. She strolls me around the roads under a canopy of trees. These trees are much taller than the ones at home. She stops and says to me, “Please don’t tell your family what I am about to do.” She removes her panties, squats and has diarrhea.
Not only was her skin different, but now we had a secret and she was the only person I ever saw poop outdoors. She’s not like anyone else I know.
It was only as I got older that I understood what happened. The year was somewhere between 1964 and 1966. The park had restrooms, but would have been “whites only”. This would discourage blacks from frequenting the park. Because this was one of the white sections of town, there were probably no “coloreds only” restrooms at any of the stores near the park either.
My hometown had recently been part of the civil rights movement. Since 1960, there were sit-ins at lunch counters. Starting in May of 1963, out-of-state student activists and local civil rights leaders stepped up the protests to include demonstrations and marches. Among the issues being contested was the segregation of public facilities. Unfortunately, on June 10, 1963, the establishment fought back. Somewhere between 50 to 60 people were arrested that afternoon. By the evening protesters holding a vigil in front of the courthouse were dispersed by the police using nightsticks and fire hoses.
I have recently become aware of the The Negro Motorist Green Book. It was published from 1936 to 1966. It was a guide for black people to use while travelling in segregated areas. It told them which restaurants and hotels would serve them. Can you imagine what it must have been like to travel to a strange town and not know if you could order a meal, spend the night or even use the restroom?
By the time bathrooms were integrated in my hometown, two things happened. The five and dime* installed a pay toilet. It cost a dime to use the toilet. The idea was that since more black people were living in poverty, they couldn’t afford to use it. The store made their toilet a country club that “no longer” practiced explicit racial discrimination by policy, but used the more subtle racial discrimination by economics instead.
The second thing that happened was instead of integrating the restrooms in the park, the parks and recreation department shut them down. I believe this may have been another subtle form of discrimination. Since blacks lived further away, they are less likely to visit the park if there are no restrooms. It didn’t work.
In the seventies blacks would bring their cars to the park to wash them. I heard some of my friends parents grumble about it. Eventually, the roads in the park were turned into dead ends. This discouraged driving in the park. Unfortunately, this worked.
In the early eighties, I was still living in in my hometown and worked in the local hospital. One day as I was going into the restroom, I noticed that something had been sanded off of the front of the bathroom door. I squinted and read “coloreds only”. Why the hell didn’t they throw the door out and buy a new one? It was a grim reminder that those days weren’t that long ago.
*Five and dime–this was a generic term for stores that sold inexpensive items. The name came from being able to buy everything there for a nickel or a dime. By the sixties, this was no longer true, but the expression persisted anyhow. Today’s Dollar Store carries the same merchandise that a five and dime did.
©2017 Stephen L. Martin
Photo: Civil rights protesters being assaulted with fire hoses on what became known as Bloody Monday.