Growing Up in Segregation
Below is an excerpt from Uncommon Common Ground: Race and America’s Future, by Angela Glover Blackwell, Stewart Kwoh, and Manuel Pastor. For more on the book, visit UncommonCommonGround.com.
This excerpt was written by Angela Glover Blackwell
I grew up in a segregated St. Louis, Missouri, during the l950s and early 1960s. From talking to my parents, reading, and interviewing people about St. Louis during those years, I know that racism there was harsh. My personal experience there as a child, however, was almost completely devoid of any awareness of racism. For I had the benefit of a web of caring adults who must have spent 24 hours a day figuring out ways to protect their children from racism. Part of their job was made easy by the complete separation of the races. The schools, churches, social events, service organizations, and neighborhoods where we played and volunteered were all black. But separation from whites did not satisfy these adults; their aim was higher. They wanted their children to have exposure to the best that St. Louis had to offer without coming into contact with those who would seek to diminish us. What’s amazing is that they succeeded.
When I was growing up, St. Louis (then the ninth-largest city in the United States) was known for its outdoor opera, its wonderful museum (with the steep hill behind used for sledding in the snow), its world-class zoo, its magnificent city park, and its symphony orchestra. While all of these attractions did not hold my interest equally, they were all a regular part of my life. These determined black adults would take us to enjoy these activities, literally shielded from the rest of the world. At the outdoor opera, for instance, the children sat on the inside seats and the adults sat on the perimeter, shooting stares and threatening gestures at any child who might embarrass them or us. When there was a special exhibit at the museum, we were taken as a group to explore the arts with our own private docent. And so it was; racism all around and the children of the black middle class in St. Louis oblivious to its sting and burn, playing in St. Louis as if it were ours.
When we weren’t on reconnaissance missions, we were having a grand time within the community: Sunday school picnics, block parties, activities at the Phillis Wheatley Y (this, too, was all black), hay rides and apple picking in the fall, neighborhood Trick or Treat and Christmas caroling, social clubs, dances, and church, church, church.
Of course, it has taken the benefit of hindsight for me to appreciate the richness of the community that surrounded me as a child. At the time I felt constrained and watched. I have come to understand that for black people growing up in America during those and earlier years, community was the scaffolding around the mainstream of society that allowed us to move up. We were locked out, but we were not locked in. Through ingenuity and collaboration my black community created a parallel universe that took from the outer world what it needed to expand my horizons and make me feel that I could do anything. That strong, caring, resourceful, creative, demanding community shaped me, and its values and expectations continue to nurture me.
It was not until I went to college that I began to understand the racism that had surrounded me in St. Louis. Few of my classmates went to college because not all black children in St. Louis had the experience that I did. Our group of middle-class children, while large for a social group, represented a tiny minority of black children in St. Louis. Most of the black children were poor and were not protected. Segregation and racism hit them with full force. And those proud black adults I described were disrespected and beat down daily as they tried to earn livings, shop, buy homes, and generally provide for their families. In fact, every good thing I experienced had an ugly flip side. For example, I received a great education in St. Louis’s segregated public schools partly because the well-educated, well-trained teachers that I had were not allowed to do anything else. Then, I never thought about how frustrating it must have been for the journalists, scientists, actors, singers, athletes, mathematicians, and would-be senators who taught me to spend their entire professional lives in the only careers available to them.
After college I became an organizer, a public interest lawyer, a community builder, a foundation executive, and a policy advocate. I’ve had many jobs, but only one project—to do something about racism, injustice, and inequality; to help build a society in which all people can thrive, contribute, and participate fully—socially and economically. In searching for solutions, I never forget that community matters.