In a dialogue generated by the meme about Donald Trump's Grandfather being arrested in connection with a KKK rally, my daughter asked if my Dad had been a Klansman. My Dad was not, but my Grand-Daddy Jenkins was. He told me that at the time, it was more of a vigilante movement in the still somewhat lawless West Texas, mainly concerned with keeping young ruffians in check. By the time I was around, he strongly disavowed what it later had become.
But in my youth, we were all, somewhat, products of our age, largely unevolved socially, as far as racial relations were concerned, but mostly without malice.
Hamlin, the town where I was born and lived until I was nine, had a sizable black ghetto in the northeast quadrant of town. It had the reputation of being a sanctuary for the criminal element from the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. It was largely autonomous and under the influence of an enterprising lady known as "Stabbin' Annie", who ran a saloon of sorts. My family was a bit disturbed one day when I told them I had delivered flyers all over that neighborhood as a Cub Scout, and I got the full safety lecture. Actually, I had found the residences to be pretty well maintained and not too dis-similar to our part of town. And I had been received quite warmly by the folks there. Except for that, pretty much our only contact with the black community was with Aleck, the shoeshine man in Mr. Moore's Barber Shop. My dad and he loved to talk baseball, as well as other sports. Bear in mind that Branch Rickey brought in Jackie Robinson to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947, when I was four years old.
A couple of incidents that I recall being told of sort of told the tale of the Hamlin of that day's black experience. One obliquely involved my Dad. He was waiting at the hospital to pick up my sister Gwen from work one night (At the age of 17, she was an LVN and Dr. Perrin's office nurse.), when Dr. Elmer Hawkins came out and asked him if he had "anything to pull an ice pick out of a N----- with". (The patient had made the mistake of going after Annie.} So, my Dad loaned him his vise-grips. (Annie was exonerated, based on a self defense plea.) The second was a tale involving Mr. Foster, who was, as City Marshall, the absolute stereotype of a potbellied worthless southern lawman. The story went that a young black lady came up to Mr. Foster at his "post" (hanging out at the southwest corner of S. Central and S. 2nd) and told him that she had been raped. He looked at her and replied, "I didn't know a N----- woman could be raped."
We moved to Olney in the fall of 1952, shortly before I turned ten. There were only six black families in town, all living in a small cluster on the northeast side. That spring my dad and several others, under the guidance of the folks from Mineral Wells, organized a baseball Little League, and we built our park just east of the black families' homes.. Since they didn't have enough boys for their own league, obviously, we integrated them into our league.
In the spring of 1954, I saw my first in-person MLB game, an exhibition game between the Giants and Indians, who played in Spudder Park in Wichita Falls as part of their trip back East after Spring Training in Arizona. The big attraction was Willie Mays, who was just returning from his stint in the Army. We were not disappointed. Not only was that game a preview of that year's World Series, but Willy made a catch in deep center field that was pretty much a preview of his iconic catch of the Vic Wertz fly ball to center in the deepest part of the Polo Grounds in the first game of that World Series.
Sports were in the vanguard of integration when I was young. We idolized star players without regard to race. Boxing, beginning with Jack Johnson, the Galveston Giant, winning the Wold Championship in 1908 and track and field, featuring Jesse Owens dominating the 1936 Hitler Olympics - both individual sports - led the way. Baseball was the first team sport to integrate for good at the major professional level, and it was followed quickly by basketball and football (The NFL had a smattering of black players in its formative years, and the Cleveland Rams were forced by the City of Los Angeles to integrate when they moved there in 1946, as part of their stadium lease. But those two black players were not allowed to actually compete, only making token appearances.).
Entertainment was another area that was integrating early on. While many of the roles when I was young were of the "Stepin Fetchit" variety, more serious entertainers were beginning to emerge. Part of that impetus was provided by Ed Sullivan, whose Sunday evening variety show was liberally sprinkled with black artists. The TV series Amos 'n' Andy was another vehicle for looking at black life. While it only ran from 1951 to 1953, it was in syndication for the next 18 years. Admittedly, it relied heavily on stereotypes, but it did serve to give white folks a point of empathy with blacks. Musicians like Harry Belafonte, Nat "King" Cole, and Louis Armstrong were well received by all audiences.
In the summer of 1956, we moved to Gainseville, but we moved on over to Whitesboro in the spring of 1957. Honestly, I don't remember anything about any black people in Gainseville, partly because we were at the lake most anytime we had a free minute.
Whitesboro was just that - white. One of the service station operators told my Dad, "There ain't a damned C--- in town. They're not allowed to let the sun set on them in this town." This was not a terribly uncommon phenomenon in that area in those days. The Texas Almanac of the day prominently featured a photograph of the sign across Greenville's main drag referencing the region's dirt and demographics, "The Blackest Land and the Whitest People".
In high school in Whitesboro, the Principal, Charles M. Estes (whose summoning notes ended cryptically with the dreaded C ME) made one statement to prepare us for our entry into the real world, "Integration is coming, so you might as well get used to it." To the best of my memory, that was the only thing that was ever said about that subject. (Mr. Estes, who also taught physics and trigonometry (although we couldn't get enough people to sign up for a trig class when I was there) was one of the best educators I have ever been around. Mrs. Ruth Wylie, my English and Speech teacher, was another. Her classes also contained a healthy dose of philosophy, ethics, counselling, and discussions on a wide range of topics.)
Two events at WHS stand out in my memory, as far as race relations are concerned. In my sophomore year, all of the basketball players took a field trip down to North Texas State University to see the Mean Green play Oscar Robertson and the University of Cincinnati in a Missouri Valley Conference game. (Grinnin' Jim Mudd had a great game and got the Green into overtime, but then the Big O totally took over the game.) Then sometime in my Junior or Senior year, the Midwestern University Choir from Wichita Falls gave a concert in our gymnasium. They featured a black bass that was very, very good. What is striking in my memory is that I do not recall the race of either Oscar Robertson or the MU bass even being mentioned.
I should also point out the influence of North Texas State University (now the University of Texas at North Texas) in our area. NTSU was where many of our graduates went to college. That school integrated in stages between 1955 and 1956, peacefully and without major incident. So the community already had kids going to an integrated college by the time I moved there. http://www.unt.edu/northtexan/archives/s04/history.htm
So, even in this all-white community, race was a non-issue, and we were totally amazed and not a little embarrassed at the strife going on in the Deep South. Having said that, our vocabulary still included the "N" word, although to us, it was not a pejorative, it was just a word, like Japanese, Chinese, German, Jew, Mexican, or Arab. (We did have rarely used pejoratives - the "C", "Z", "Ch", "K", "K", "S", and "RH" words, respectively.)
Probably our worst fault was being patronizing and condescending. It was like respect was something we could bestow as we saw fit, not something that everyone was inherently due. Illustrative of that was the group of us from the Baptist Student Union at East Texas State College/University that periodically visited the First Baptist Church of Commerce's Mission in that city's black ghetto. We also visited the nursing homes, and jails in the area.