One of the big 15 minutes stories of this summer’s Olympics was the black female swimmer who won gold. Unlike Gymnastics’s, Simone Byles, who won all of the gold and followed in the footsteps of another black Olympic gymnast the swimmer seemed was a first for her sport. There is a reason for this. Black cooties.
For all I know I just coined that phrase and if have I will have earned eternal damnation. Sorry, but I can’t think of a more accurate way to capture an essential truth of my growing up and America’s growing up. I picked up the unwritten understanding that there was something about black American’s skin that made it suspect. My Dad, a decent fellow, told me with certainty born of childhood experience that black people smell different. I disputed this with him but he was adamant so that I scrambled for a logical explanation. Dad grew up in hot Missouri and Kansas before the era of air conditioning. He encountered blacks mostly consigned to manual labor who perspired heavily on hot days. Because a lot of them lived in shacks propped up with cement blocks with limited plumbing it was a challenge for these hard working people to take America’s mandatory daily baths.
When I was growing up little white kids couldn’t help but wonder if dark skin could wash off. Why you had only to notice that the palms of their hands were as pink as ours. Surely this proved that blackness could be rubbed off.
I understand that a lot of black Americans are tired of the curiosity their physical differences provoke. I have written about the time I embarrassed my Mom by asking a black woman about those differences while we were riding a bus together. Even now white folks ask black folks if they can rub their hair. Just yesterday as I was pouring through Newspaper.com’s millions of pages of online newspapers I found a story while looking up info on my Dad’s uncle a Kansas legislator. In 1965 (the same year as the Voting Rights Act) a law was proposed in the sunflower state that would require barbers to offer haircuts to black customers. White barbers were up in arms and said things that are astounding to modern ears: From the Ottawa Herald of Feb 18, 1965, “’I don’t know if there is a barber in town who can cut their hair, It’s just like shearing a sheep,’ an Ottawa barber said.”
And consider full body immersion. I took my swimming lessons at a Howard Johnsons or Holiday Inn Motel until motel management told my Red Cross teacher that he had to stop letting black kids in the pool for lessons because their customers were complaining. To this day blacks learn to swim at a much lower rate and suffer a higher incidence of drowning. My niece’ swim club hit me up all through her high school years for donations to pay for minority children’s swimming lessons.
And it wasn’t just swimming pools that were off limits. It was the whole ocean. I stared hard at the beautiful white sand beaches on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast on a vacation with my family in the late sixties. It wasn’t just the sand that was all white. When Brown v Topeka Board of Education finally kicked in it meant that southern states set up state-supported all white “private” schools. Many still exist, with the occasional black student, and will soon be in line for more Federal money if President Trump’s Education nominee Betsy DeVos has her way with Federal Education dollars.
My Uncle Frank told me a little about black/white politics in the Topeka High of 1946 when he was the editor of the Sunflower, the school annual. One day several young black men stepped in the classroom to make demands of Miss Hunt the yearbook adviser. Frank’s chivalrous side took offense at the young men coming in force to confront the lone white female teacher. He didn’t see them as I imagine them, few in number (about 11 percent of the school population), and loathe to cause too much trouble lest their parents lose jobs. Whatever their demands black students had one card to play – Topeka High’s swimming pool. The white Topeka High kids wanted one.
When the school was being built years earlier a hole was dug in the basement for a swimming pool. At its excavation no one in Topeka imagined that black children would be sent to Topeka High the Capital City’s soon-to-be premier school. But Kansas passed a somewhat enlightened integration law. Elementary Schools would remain segregated but not the high schools. That put a stop to the pool and it remained a hole in the basement. For enlightened Topeka black and white kids sharing the same pool was a bridge too far.
While Frank’s friends were busy lobbying to finish the pool Topeka High’s black students enjoyed a sort of veto power. They would have to live with whatever rules were put into place to run the pool after its completion. As it was there were separate clubs, dances and even sports for black and white students. The embassy to Miss Hunt was some sort of negotiation to improve the conditions of the black students. Give us what we want and will let you have your “separate but equal” pool.
The plan for using the new swimming pool went something like this: On Mondays and Tuesdays and Wednesdays white kids could use it. On Friday black kids could use it. In between, on Thursdays and weekends, the pool would be drained and refilled to make sure the black cooties didn’t contaminate the pool for the white kids and presumably vice versa.
You could get those cooties in every close contact. The Hay’s, Kansas, newspaper reported in 1964 that a barber refused to cut the hair of a black professor. Next to it was a story about George Wallace who was testing the waters in the North for his 1964 Presidential run. Reporting from Ohio the story said, “Alabama’s Gov. George C. Wallace bragged that he had found many persons ‘of Southern attitude’ in his trips around the nation. He said in Columbus, Ohio, that his reception there was ‘…more warm and courteous than we expected.’”
I’m not surprised. Midwesterners are unfailingly open. The American Nazi Party’s head, George Lincoln Rockwell, made a speech at my Dad’s college, Mankato State, in 1967, a few months before a disgruntled fellow Nazi assassinated him. My Dad came home with a sour attitude afterward because a student told him he was impressed. You see, Rockwell had told the students to go to their kitchen cabinets and look for items labeled “Kosher.” He assured them they were a sure sign of the imminent take over of the world by the Jews. The student told my Dad that he had done just as instructed and, by golly, Rockwell was right!
Changing the water in a swimming pool because black people swam there? For crying out loud! At Mankato High the only time they drained the pool was when a classmate of mine thought it would be funny to take a dump in the pool. He was a white kid!