All these current discussions about race relations, especially as applied to Blacks, has got me thinking about the evolution of my own thinking on the subject. Growing up, my parents would not tolerate disparaging remarks but my grandmother used the N-word and made critical remarks about the Blacks she encountered in Spokane.
My dad supervised a number of Black women on the WPA project in Spokane that indexed the Spokesman-Review. He had a lot of praise for those women and a lot of empathy for the situations that drove them to this project. He praised the quality of work they did under very unpleasant conditions in the basement of an old warehouse with trestle tables of saw horses and plywood with only bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling for light. In time, we all had to change our word for Brazil nuts.
At that time, Pullman had no Black population. It wasn’t until after World War II that one family moved in — the father used his team of horses to plow gardens and dig the holes for basements. The mother worked in Washington State University housekeeping and their little boy was well-liked in grade school. They lived in a house on Harvey Road. The mother passed our house on Alpha Road on her way to work.
One day, my dad came into the house in tears. He had been talking with her out front. She told him that she was returning to school to become a teacher so she could teach in a big inner-city school because her son was being treated so well here in Pullman that she feared that, as an adult, he wouldn’t know the reality of treatment in the larger world.
She worried that he wouldn’t know how to handle himself when encountering prejudice and could get into trouble as a result. That dose of reality hit us like a bombshell. We hadn’t realized things were so bad outside the Deep South. We had read the newspapers and heard on the radio about lynchings, voting problems and segregation but they seemed far away.
Lately, I’m realizing how incomplete my American History classes were about Black history. The incidents of the Tulsa burning in 1921 or the fact that a number of slaves weren’t told about their freedom until two years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed the rest were never covered.
I can blame that in part with the fact that none of my American History classes ever got beyond 1900 or World War I. The prof simply ran out of time. I suppose after all the passage of time, American History can’t now really be covered adequately in less than two semesters.
When my daughter was born in 1953, Bellingham then had no Black people so when she was about 3 years old, she had never seen a Black person. On a train ride, seeing a Black porter for the first time, she said “man has a dirty face.” I don’t know if he heard her, but if he did, I hope he heard my answer and approved. I calmly said “no honey, it’s just the color of his skin” and said no more about it hoping I was handling it well.
My first real interaction with Blacks was in Lansing, Mich., where we lived in a mixed neighborhood. I worked with a Black woman on my job and we had several hours a day to discuss race relations in general and Black life in depth. It was a true education. She was so patient with me explaining their problems, how they would like to be treated; our discussions ran the gamut. This was during a time of racial turmoil, with Malcom X leading the protests. He came from Lansing so it was a big topic of conversation. My Black neighbors were equally patient with my ignorance.
I hope these memories help explain some of the undercurrents happening now. Our country has a lot of catching up to do to put things right.
Lenna Harding lived her first 20 and past 43 years in Pullman. A longtime League of Women Voters member, she served on the Gladish Community and Cultural Center board. Reach her at email@example.com.