Racism: As a child in 1950s' US South, I witnessed segregation and there's still a long way to go before we achieve Martin Luther King's dream – Professor Joe Goldblatt

In the 1950s in the Deep South of the United States of America, segregation limited the human rights for millions of African Americans.

Demonstrators picket in front of a school board office protesting against segregation of students (Picture: National Archive/Newsmakers/Hulton Archive via Getty Images)

One of these human beings was Jewel Nelson who lovingly cared for my sister and me. Each year on June 19, Jewel would take my sister and I to visit the Great State Fair of Texas.

She selected this date as it was traditionally when African Americans would visit the fairground in large numbers. However, as I recall, now 50 years later, whilst there were thousands of people of colour at the fair, my sister and I were the only two white children.

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When you have this kind of experience, you notice other things as well. For example, I noticed large white signs with bold black letters above the entrance to the toilets that announced “Coloured Only” and the same signs in a small size above the drinking fountains.

I also noticed how the smartly dressed African American children accompanying their parents would tease us from time to time because we were the only white children attending the fair. Each time there was a tease, taunt or nasty word, Jewel would place her arms around our shoulders and shepherd us away to safety.

Forty years after that experience I found myself near the fairgrounds giving a speech to a local organisation. I decided to invite Jewel to now be my guest for the fair and we attended during its official run in October.

I explained to Jewel that I was doing research for a new book and needed to interview the head of public relations at the fair and asked if should would like to accompany me to my meeting. She readily agreed and we were invited into an elegant office and served tea in fine porcelain cups.

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A sign from 1961 in Jackson, Mississippi, reads 'Waiting Room For Colored Only by order Police Dept' (Picture: William Lovelace/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

During the interview, I asked the head of public rlations about the period of segregation in the 1950s and she frowned, put down her tea cup with a loud clatter and said “We never had segregation. Black folk were always welcome at the fair.” Then she smiled and continued sipping her tea.

After our meeting when we were out on the fairgrounds that were now filled with thousands of people of all colours, I asked Jewel about her view of the 1950s.

She lowered her regal head and said: “The lady was wrong. We were not always welcome. We went to the fair on June 19 because that is the day that Lincoln freed the slaves and it is called Emancipation Day. On this day we could use any toilet we wished, we could make purchases and we could sit down an enjoy food and drink. On other days, we could not.”

I was grateful to Jewel for reconfirming the truth I had experienced 40 years earlier. However, I realised at that moment that truth, as proven by the head of public relations at the fair, is often a relative construct.

A few years later when I was leading a large professional development programme in Washington DC, one of the members of my staff asked for a private meeting with me.

This member of staff was African American and no shrinking violet. She walked into my office, closed the door and then opened the draft catalogue that we were to approve to advertise our classes. She turned each page and asked me: “What do you see is missing in this publication?” I looked carefully at the text and the photographs and, for the life of me, could not see any omissions.

Then this very talented professional woman asked me in a gentle but firm voice: “Where are the African American faces?” I was flabbergasted because indeed we had omitted the faces of individuals in our programme whose presence constituted over 30 per cent of our enrolment.

We corrected our error and, after this change, the number of African Americans in the programme grew significantly and within a few years over half the students were men and women of colour.

These individuals also grew professionally because when they enrolled many were secretaries, clerks and administrative assistance and when they earned a new qualification in events management, they were promoted to managers and earned significantly more.

Each of us has the possibility of working to learn to become an anti-racist. However, this must first begin with the recognition that there is so much we do not know about race as confirmed by Jewel and my member of staff. Once we recognise what we do not know, we may move toward truth and reconciliation, as did the followers of Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

We are fortunate in Scotland that we have great human beings such as Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Edinburgh Council leader Adam McVey, who are helping us recognise truth by educating others such as they are doing with the rewording of the sign on the city’s Dundas statue to reveal all of the historic truths about slavery.

Once this truth spreads then we may move toward reconciliation and perhaps, as the Rev Dr Martin Luther King eloquently proclaimed, then and only then “justice shall roll down as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream”.

A few weeks ago, the US President Joe Biden signed a new bill designating 19 June as an annual national holiday. This is another positive step on the long road to anti-racism and I believe that Jewel and many others will welcome this recognition of truth that may in time lead to reconciliation.

Joe Goldblatt is emeritus professor of planned events at Queen Margaret University. To read his memoirs visit www.joegoldblatt.scot

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