To the Editor:
I remember very well the first time I ever saw a black person. It was 58 years ago, back in 1955. I was 11 and living in North Adams, in the western part of Massachusetts. He was a young boy, just a bit younger than me, about 9 or 10. I remember he was wearing a colorful shirt, short pants and sneakers.
I was with my friends, and he was passing by on the sidewalk between the home of Beulah Foy, and the street where we were playing baseball.
In the summer when we were playing ball, she would bring us cookies and lemonade, and she had the best house on the entire block when it came to Halloween treats. She was that kindly “old lady” we all loved. She must have been all of 45.
This time Beulah was different. She walked quickly from the side of her house, approaching the little boy and shouting, "Get out of here you little N***!” Get out of here! Go home to the rest of your family of N***s!”
I was surprised but didn't really feel much emotion one way or the other. It was only years later that I wondered what words of comfort his parents gave him when he returned home that day. All I noticed was that he began walking quickly and his eyes welled with tears.
Back then, my Aunt Eva lived in Fitchburg, in the middle of Massachusetts. To me, she was the kindliest woman I had ever known. I remember when she rented an apartment in the old triple-decker she owned. She put a sign in the window that said, "No Colored.”
Her father's name was Phineas. I never knew him as he had died many years earlier. She told me he worked in a carnival in the early 1900s running a game called, "Hit the Coon and win a Prize!” It was a simple game. A black man would stick his face through an opening in a large piece of wood, and customers would pay money to throw baseballs at him.
Growing up, I went to St. Joseph’s School, a single, not very large building encompassing all grades from first through senior high. The teachers were the Sisters of St Joseph and undoubtedly they were the hardest working and most dedicated people I have ever known. They told us America was the land of the free and that the Blessed Virgin had a special place in her heart for us because we were so special. In all the years I went, not a single black attended.
We didn't really think much about black people in those days, mainly because we didn't see very many of them. Of course, we knew that President Lincoln had freed the slaves, but we never heard of Jim Crow. We never knew, and our parents never told us, about a whole group of fellow citizens who were denied the opportunity of a decent job, a place to live or chance to go to a good school simply because they were black. And we never heard about the thousand and one indignities and injustices heaped upon them every single day.
Instead, our Sundays were spent listening to Msgr. Donahue rail about the dangers of "godless communism." And when we got older, we heard about the perils of premarital sex. It was a toss-up as to which was the greater evil. Blacks were never mentioned.
As I watched the inauguration of President Barack Hussein Obama and saw the sea of excited faces of all colors cheering and waving flags, I was awed at how much America has changed from when I was a boy. No words can describe it.
When the inauguration was over, I found an email waiting in my in-box. It was another of those right wing hate mails, this one charging the president with being in league with Muslim extremists.
So while the inauguration showed me that many people have changed, the email reminded me that many have not. And they never will.
Still, the memory of all those smiling faces and the sight of the nation's First Family should give us hope for America.