Sara Criss’ Civil Rights Memoir #84: Unnecessary Cruelty

“In 1967, eight [black students] showed up at the Junior High School. I went into the principal’s office that day, and they were sitting there looking scared to death. I could not help but feel sorry for them, knowing that this was their parents’ choice and not theirs.

“Mary Carol came home one day upset because of an incident in the school cafeteria. No one would sit by the Negro students, and they usually sat to themselves. That day, however, one of them could not find a seat and sat down where Mary Carol and her friends were eating. Everyone but Mary Carol and Susan Clements left the table even though they were not through eating. Mary Carol said she did not want to hurt the girl’s feelings and, besides, that she wanted the rest of her hamburger. That afternoon another girl came up to her and called her ‘Blackie.’ I called Bobby Barrett, the principal and a friend of mine, that night and told him what had happened and asked him what I should tell Mary Carol to do in a situation such as this, since I felt she had done the right thing. He agreed and said some of the children had heard so much at home that they didn’t know how to act.”

Ed. note: Obviously, this is getting very personal, and as this story involves me, I will abandon objectivity and comment. My memories of those Greenwood Junior High years and desegregation are jumbled, some very vivid and others dim. I do recall that we had two blacks in our grade, one boy and one girl, and they kept to themselves and tried their best to be invisible. There was no physical violence that I was ever aware of, but the hurtful things said and the little “digs” by adolescents who thought they were “cute” and “cool” were just unforgivable. On the day that Sara describes, we were all in the basement cafeteria of the old Davis School building because it was pouring rain. Most days, those of us who were in the “right crowd” walked to town and ate in the back room of the Post Office Cafe rather than demean ourselves by eating in the cafeteria. Anyhow, it was raining so hard that day that everyone crowded into the cafeteria, and I was unhappily sitting at a long table with several of the snobbier North Greenwood girls. When the black girl came and sat down across from me, the white group made a huge commotion of picking up their trays and saying a few nasty things and rushing off, laughing and taunting her. I was hungry, just as Sara said, but I was also painfully aware that this black girl was staring at her tray and crying. Not eating, just crying, shaking all over. I have never in my entire life, before or since, felt as small and ashamed and helpless as I did at that moment. I picked at my food for a few minutes, mumbled something about how sorry I was about what had happened  and left. When I got back to the main building, one of my “friends” made that crack to me about “Blackie,” at which point she got a verbal response from me which would have stunned my mother. I’m fairly sure I left that little tidbit out when I passed my story along to Sara. I never knew that she called the principal, but I did know I had the full support of both of my parents, neither one of whom ever intentionally hurt or mistreated anyone because of their skin color.

And the black girl who was so mistreated that day? She still lives in Greenwood and is a successful professional. When I moved back here, I saw her one day in her business and introduced myself. She said, very quietly, “Oh, I remember you.” I just hope she remembered me as the one who stuck it out with her that day, but I didn’t have the courage to ask.

About sec040121

Hello....I'm in possession of a priceless collection of memoirs and memorabilia left by my mother, Sara Evans Criss. She was a native and lifelong (88 years!) devotee of our small town, who covered this peculiar and volatile corner of the world for 30 years as the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Greenwood bureau chief, a job that started out with debutantes and high school football and wound up spang in the midst of one of the twentieth century's most enduring social upheavals. This blog is dedicated to her memory and the legacy she left behind, both for her family and her community.
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