Recently I visited a local historic site for the first time. The structure was built in the 1880s, and for the next 70 years, it served as a center of education for African-American students, first from the town, and later, the entire county and regions beyond.
It’s a history we’ve all heard, of “separate but equal”: a school exclusively for African-American students because they were not allowed to sit in the same classrooms or use the same buildings as white students. It’s the story of a community built around this school, a community within a community, where there were also churches and nightclubs and restaurants and barber shops run out of basements. It’s the story of kids sitting on buses, or riding in the back of mail trucks, passing by who knows how many other schools, so they could get to the school they were allowed to attend.
And even though I’ve heard this story dozens of times in myriad different ways, I wasn’t quite prepared for the emotions I would feel. They were overwhelming.
I grew up in Michigan and then spent thirteen years in Ohio. Even though discrimination and racism had their own ugly forms in those northern places, I’ll be honest. It was easy to think of legal segregation as just that: a story. Something that happened in faraway places to people long ago. But standing in a school building where hundreds of children and young adults lived that story…it suddenly became very real. I now live in a place where “separate but equal” and Jim Crow were real parts of everyday life for many, many people.
Often it takes “being there,” as it did for me, to truly begin to understand. Reading something in a textbook, or listening to a lecture, or even watching a movie or reading a novel about it, doesn’t make the same emotional impact as standing in the place where something actually happened. If I’m quiet and still, I don’t necessarily hear voices, but I can start to feel the feelings and get wrapped up imagining the experiences of others. It’s how a lot of inspiration for my fiction visits me.
Even though segregation is a complicated and painful part of our history, and we are still living out many of its repercussions today, I am thankful that I now live in a place where I can have a fuller understanding of it. I am even more thankful to live in a place where many of these old wounds have healed and where the African-American and white communities live and work in harmony. I hope that I can honor the story of the past by sharing it with our own children, making its memory a very real part of their lives, as well.