Where Are You From?
by Julie M. Stephenson
“Where are you from?” It was a normal question, but a question I dreaded nevertheless. I didn’t like to lie. “Sumter,” I answered. My new fourth grade classmate smiled, “Oh, yeah, I’ve been there. You can sit by me at lunch today.” Technically, I hadn’t lied. I was born in Sumter. I lived there until Daddy took Mamma and me home from the hospital. After that, I lived in Lamar, and I certainly couldn’t tell anyone that.
Lamar, a tiny town in Darlington County, South Carolina, surrounded by cotton and tobacco fields, had been the greatest place on earth. One of my favorite places was school. Red-bricked Lamar Elementary for grades 1-6 was connected to a matching Lamar High School by a cement breezeway. I had been walking those gray-green halls for as long as I could remember. Mamma was the kindergarten teacher, so I went to kindergarten when I was three, four, and five. Daddy was the high school principal, so after school I could walk over and see him. His sturdy rectangle of a desk was where, to my later dismay, I carefully printed, “Form, Julie” on twenty-eight of thirty cartooned Valentines. On the way to the office, I would stop by the library and say hey to my grandmother, the school librarian. The smell of library paste, the hum of a fan, and the crackle of a plastic dust jacket meant Nannie as well as books to me.
What I didn’t realize at the time, however, was that my school was all white. Every single child as well as every single adult in it was white. The only black person I knew was Brenda Mae, the lady who helped Mamma take care of the house and me. I knew nothing of her life outside our home.
My grandfather, Daddy Dalt, was the district superintendent. His office was close by, and sometimes Nannie would take me over there. She would ask his secretary Mrs. Flowers if he were busy. “Mr. Bennington always has time for you two,” she would say. Daddy Dalt usually was busy and often looked tired and worried, but I understood. He had an important job. The stage next to Daddy Dalt’s office was where my dance recitals were every spring. The year my class wore red tutus I had to run to the bathroom in Daddy Dalt’s office to be sick right before it was my turn to dance. Only a little bit of the throw-up got stuck in the red tulle, but nobody noticed.
The summer after I finished kindergarten for the third time, Mamma had a baby. Because Billy had to sleep a lot, I had to be quiet inside. I didn’t mind because I usually played in the back yard anyway. The yard was where I tested my first pair of PF Flyers and played with our cat Bubbie until all the Dimetapp in the world couldn’t stop the sneezing and the hives. Best of all, our yard backed up to Donna-and-Kathy’s yard. Donna-and-Kathy were blond haired, blue-eyed sisters just a year apart who were my very best friends. One of our favorite activities was playing house in my playhouse. When I was very little, Daddy had built me a wooden sandbox, but once I got bigger he converted it into a snug little white and green structure with two windows, a door, and an actual front porch. I couldn’t believe it was mine!
When I finally made it to first grade, I was thrilled. Soft, round Miss Olson taught me to read actual books. “Real” school turned out to be everything I’d hoped. I was a little concerned about second grade, though. There were two sections of each grade, and one of the second grade teachers was mean. Often during quiet time in our room we could hear Miss Neil yelling, berating her students for some infraction of the rules or for less than acceptable academic progress. The big kids said she spanked her students, and I was sure that was true. I tried to ask Daddy about her once, but he told me all Lamar teachers were good teachers. School ended and I tried not to worry about second grade.
About midway through summer, my parents said they had some news. Fearing they were going to say I had to be in Miss Neil’s class, I promised myself I would behave and do all my work. As my mother began talking, though, I almost wished that Miss Neil had been her news. Instead, Mamma was saying something else. We were moving. Away from Lamar. Away from my school. Away from Donna-and-Kathy.
“No!” I said.
“Yes,” Mamma said. “Your daddy has a wonderful new job. He will be the Dean of Students at a technical school in Charleston. We are going to live in a very nice town called Summerville.”
“No,” I said. “I’m not going.”
“We will even take the playhouse,” Daddy said.
“I don’t even like the playhouse,” I said in my meanest voice, meaner even than Miss Neil’s voice.
The next day I woke up hugging my Chatty Cathy doll, happy for a brief moment. Then the feeling of dread returned. I thought and thought. I would remind my parents about Nannie and Daddy Dalt. We couldn’t leave them! They would miss us too much. Nannie hadn’t finished telling me the Peter Rabbit stories, and she had promised to make me a ballerina birthday cake.
Unbelievably, my parents told me my grandparents were moving away too. Daddy Dalt was going to be a superintendent somewhere called Mount Pleasant. Instead of living five minutes from us, they would be living forty-five minutes away. I cried again.
How had all of these things happened without my knowing? My parents and grandparents had been having a lot of hushed conversations recently. I thought they were being quiet because of Billy. Now I knew they were keeping secrets from me. I had heard strange words like “consolidated schools,” “integration,” “private schools,” and “desegregation.”
I was very confused. And sad.
We moved into our new house, only it wasn’t really new. Some other family had lived there. Just like some other family was now in our real house. My playhouse was in the back yard, but Donna-and-Kathy weren’t. I started second grade at Summerville Elementary, and Mamma taught first grade down the hall from my class. The teacher, who wasn’t at all soft and round, was okay. She didn’t yell or spank anyone.
Every once in a while I would ask if we could visit Lamar. Mamma and Daddy always said maybe. I knew what that meant. One day after I’d asked again why we had to move, my mother had a different answer. She said we left because lots of people were angry. She said the government said the boys and girls from the black school in Lamar could go to school with the white students. I paused. There was another school in Lamar? Mamma said it was old, and the desks and books were falling apart. She said some students didn’t even have books. I couldn’t imagine not having books! What was the problem? My school—my old school—had lots of room and lots of books. Mamma said some of the white people didn’t want the black children to come and might cause trouble. Mamma must be mixed up. Everybody—with one notable exception—in Lamar was nice.
Second grade ended. I played with blond haired, green–eyed Paula, whose back yard touched ours. We didn’t play with her sister, though. Janet wore makeup and had a boyfriend and told Paula and me not to touch her stuff. Ever.
When third grade came around, I realized I liked Summerville. My teacher was the best. We had a new girl in our class named Sarah. When her mother asked our teacher to choose a friend for Sarah, Miss Borden chose me! Sarah wasn’t very happy at first, but I told her Summerville was a nice place.
One day after school Mamma asked me if I still missed Lamar. Yes, I decided, but not as much. “I still don’t understand why we had to leave,” I added, as I always did. Mamma sighed and told me to sit down. She handed me the front page of the newspaper. I looked down at the March 4, 1970, edition of The State. Above the fold was a large picture of a handcuffed man being taken away by two uniformed men. He head was down and he looked angry. Behind them were some school buses. My heart stopped. I recognized the Vitalis swept hair and the sloping shoulders. The man was Donna-and-Kathy’s daddy. “Read,” said Mamma. The day before 150 white parents had attacked three buses of black children. They used chains, bricks, ax handles, and baseball bats. They turned over two of the buses. In Lamar. At my school.
Mamma held me as I cried.
Julie Stephenson is a teacher and writer in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. She has published essays on life as a Southern woman in Charleston Magazine and the Charleston Post and Courier. About her above essay, she says, “I realize my beloved Palmetto State is a national punchline. There can be no jokes, however, about South Carolina’s role in the turbulent days of court-ordered integration and desegregation. Long hidden, it’s time for the stories of the 1960s to be told. I have written a 1,500-word piece about an 8-year-old white girl’s discovery that beneath the veneer, her safe, happy world is indeed an ugly place. Sadly, and yet importantly, my experiences will resonate with many readers of Deep South.”