The Rambling Boy
Participating in the Civil Rights Movement
By LONN TAYLOR
As we get older we tend to deprecate change but there is one great change that has occurred in America in my lifetime that I am proud to have been a small part of and that encourages me about the future. I am speaking of the civil rights movement and the end of legal segregation in public places. It is hard for me to believe that when I was in college in the 1950s it was against the law for me to sit at a table in a restaurant with a black person, or to use the same restroom, or drink from the same water fountain. It is even harder for me to believe that I once accepted that as a normal state of things.
My own participation in the civil rights movement stemmed from something that happened to me in 1962, a uniquely Southern experience. I was working in a primary campaign in Fort Worth for a Democratic candidate for governor, Don Yarborough. We had two campaign offices in Fort Worth, one in a white neighborhood and one on East Rosedale Street, in the heart of Fort Worth’s black neighborhood. But because we were liberals we had an exchange program: a worker from the black office would come to the white office each day, and a white worker went to the Rosedale Street office. When it came my turn to go to Rosedale Street, I discovered that the office was above a cafe that sold beer and barbecue and that campaign workers were provided with both at lunchtime, and I decided to stay there for the duration.
The second day I was there I heard a voice say, “Aren’t you Clason Taylor’s boy?” I turned around to see Lenora Rolla, a black woman who had been a friend of my family for sixty years. She smiled and said, “I won’t tell your daddy where you are if you won’t tell my mama where I am.” Her mother, Mandy, a tiny woman from deep East Texas, had come to work for my grandmother Taylor in 1904, and Ms. Rolla and my father had been playmates as children. She grew up to have a remarkable career in Fort Worth as an educator, funeral director, and political leader. After we moved back to Fort Worth in 1956 she brought her mother to pay regular visits to my grandmother and my parents, always parking her Cadillac a block from our house so as not to offend my grandmother’s sensibilities, but always bringing her mother to the front door.
Ms. Rolla was one of the most striking women I have ever known. She was six feet tall and rail thin, and had an emphatic manner. She was not accustomed to being contradicted. That spring I joined her political organization, the Tarrant County Precinct Workers Union, and discovered a whole world of black Fort Worth professionals: doctors, lawyers, ministers, black people who were well-dressed and well-spoken. Like most Southern boys my age, the only blacks I had ever known were maids and yardmen. It was a liberating experience for me. We lost the primary, but my racial prejudices were completely erased and I acquired a heightened sense of the absurdity of segregation laws. For the next few years I participated in stand-ins and demonstrations in Fort Worth and Austin. I cannot say that I risked my life, but I got yelled at and shoved around a little, and arrested once.
The Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, but things changed slowly in Texas. I eventually moved away and did not visit again for several years. In 1988 my wife and were driving from Galveston to Fort Worth. We stopped in a café in Hearne for coffee and a piece of pie. In the 1960s Hearne had a particularly unsavory reputation for hostile race relations. It had an active White Citizens Council and was a “sunset town,” meaning that blacks were not welcome inside the city limits after dark. When we entered the café there was an armed deputy sheriff slouched in a booth, a pretty blonde waitress behind the counter, and an unshaven man who needed a haircut sitting on a stool at the counter. Shortly after we ordered an elderly black man came in and made his way to the counter. “Hey, honey,” he said to the waitress. “What’s for lunch today?” I literally froze. The hair stood up on the back of my head. I was certain that we were going to witness an ugly incident. Instead, the waitress gave him a big smile and said, “Bill, we’ve got ham steak and lima beans and it’s real good.” The unshaven man looked over and said, “How you doin’, Bill?” The deputy sheriff gave him a lackadaisical wave and went back to his lunch. Texas had definitely changed radically; twenty years earlier Bill would have risked being lynched for speaking to a white woman that way.
In the mid-1970s my friend William Seale, then a curator at the Smithsonian Institution, was visiting me in Round Top, the small Central Texas town in which I was living. We were having lunch at the F&M Grocery when William noticed two doors with the words “Colored Men” and “Colored Women” painted on them. They had once led to segregated bathrooms, but the F&M had integrated their facilities several years before and the rooms were being used for storage. “We’ve got to have those doors at the Smithsonian,” Seale said. “They’d be perfect for the Nation of Nations exhibit.” We spoke to the owner of the F&M, who was perfectly willing to have the doors go to the Smithsonian as long as they would buy her new doors, which they did. The doors were placed in the exhibit, which was about the different ethnic groups that make up America.
Fifteen years later I was on the staff of the Smithsonian and was walking through the Nation of Nations exhibit one day. I noticed an elderly black man and a boy of about ten, possibly his grandson, looking at the doors from the F&M Grocery. “What’s that all about?” the boy asked. The man explained that before the Civil Rights Act was passed black people in some parts of the country had to use separate restrooms in restaurants and other public places. The boy looked up at the old man and said, “You’re shittin’ me.” I have never been so proud to be an American.
Lonn Taylor is a writer and historian who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Story filed under: West Texas Talk