St. Paul wrote: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
When I was a child I wore a Confederate Gray battle cap and hung a Confederate Battle Flag on my bedroom wall. I was fond of saying to anyone who would listen that “the South shall rise again!” I remember seeing a movie in which the Southern Cause was glorified and Confederate Soldiers were portrayed as heroes. I believed that the South was David against the North’s Goliath, only the outcome was different. I was eleven years old.
I used to ride a city bus every Saturday morning from home to an art class on the other side of town. After a few weeks I recognized I had the same driver and we chatted. He said his name was “Rosy Flowers” and I believed him. It was several weeks later that I made the connection between his name and the placard above the windshield saying our driver’s name was “Rosen Flores.” One day I wore my Confederate cap and Rosy asked me what it stood for and did I really believe what I told him. He smiled, turned back to his driving, and said, almost too quietly to hear, “I’ll bet you’ll change your mind.”
I lived in Kansas (known as “Bloody Kansas” during the Civil War), but I was born in Oklahoma and spent many holidays and hot summer vacations with my maternal grandparents in Oklahoma City.
Oklahoma was still segregated when I was growing up. The bus station had two waiting rooms. There were separate water fountains for “whites” and “colored.” When my sister and I rode the Trailways bus from Wichita to Oklahoma City we always sat in the back seat, because it was the bounciest and, therefore, most fun for kids. The driver always stopped the bus at the Oklahoma State Line and insisted that we move to the front, so that any Blacks (that’s not what he called them) on board could move to the back of the bus.
When I was a child, my grandfather operated a small grocery store and gas station situated on US 66, which cut through the Northwest corner of Oklahoma City. He had four public restrooms: two for “white” and two for “colored.” He and my grandmother cleaned the “white” restrooms, but not the “colored” ones. To his mind, the conditions of those bathrooms just confirmed his belief that “the coloreds” were dirty and wouldn’t notice or care if the restrooms were clean. But, finally and reluctantly, the old segregation dissolved. My grandfather closed the gas station but kept the store. The public restrooms disappeared in the remodel.
When I was a child, I was ignorant of other people’s feelings. I had very little contact with people of other races or cultures. Wichita schools were segregated (this was well before 1954), but my father (a country preacher of the Baptist persuasion) occasionally took us to Sunday night services at a black church and once I was the only White boy at a Black Church picnic. We went to a Mexican church a couple of times, and once to a Chinese church. While the words sounded different, the melodies were familiar, and, since my father was asked to deliver the sermons, we had heard them before, too.
But it wasn’t until my grandfather hired a young Cherokee woman to work in his store that I got a real sense of how prejudice worked. Beverly was all of 18 and I was 13. I spent a lot of time in the store, stocking shelves, sweeping floors, and watching my grandfather butcher sides of beef. Beverly and I became friends. While I had heard my grandparents say things about people of other races that I didn’t really agree with, I had no experience with which to refute them — until they started in on “the Indians” and how dishonest they were. But I actually knew an “Indian.” And I liked her. And I never heard her lie about anything or saw here steal anything, not even a cold soda on a hot day. And I knew I had begun to put away childish things.