I first learned about racial discrimination in 1955, when I was about 6 years old and living in my hometown of Childress, Texas. One of my older brothers’ wives worked as a waitress at the bus station soda fountain. My father took me there to get a coke one Saturday morning, and I saw signs in the back of the room designating white and colored restrooms.
It piqued my interest.
My father, who was born in 1896, explained to me that white people kept their distance from colored people. I struggled to understand the term “colored,” because it reminded me of my crayons. Were colored people red, green, blue or just what?
It disappointed me later to see dark brown skin rather than something more brilliant, like orange.
I didn’t see any colored people that morning in the bus station, and it would be a while before I actually did encounter any, because Childress’ tiny African-American community lived in a hidden, run-down corner of the town. They didn’t go to cafes, grocery stores, churches, the movie theater or the city park where white people congregated.
Instead, I began finding them working in the kitchens of those cafes, in homes, at the laundry and on farms — anywhere that white people wanted cheap labor.
Childress, a town of about 5,000, had a predominantly white population. African-American children went to a separate school, situated over in their corner of the town. A handful of Hispanic children attended the white schools, but I never knew where they lived.
I don’t recall any hatred expressed in our house, but I understood there wouldn’t be any people of varied colors coming to visit — except for Bible, the older man my father hired to till the garden in the spring. Any help inside the house would be white, according to my mother’s wishes.
Everyone seemed content enough on the surface — but it was a calm that I now believe hid fear, resentment and distrust. We visited relatives in Wichita Falls, Dallas and Fort Worth, but except for being much larger than Childress, those communities seemed just as segregated to me back then.
Looking back on this time in the mid-to-late 1950s, I realize my incredible naivete. This was after all the eve of a revolution. The changes that would occur in just a few years would be astonishing. The LGBT rights movement would unfold as well.
In 1960, when I was about 11, my father, mother and I moved to Wichita Falls so my father could help with one of the family businesses. I quickly experienced culture shock, because I went to school at Sheppard Air Force Base Elementary School since our new house was on the outskirts of town, near the military base.
Suddenly, I had classmates of every description, because segregation ended in the U.S. Armed Forces long before it did in the nation at large, especially in the South. The businesses and neighborhoods around the military base reflected the military’s diversity. I embraced what I learned from my teachers and classmates.
I’m sure my growing awareness that I was “different” from most boys my age made me more accepting of other students who looked and acted differently from me. I hadn’t yet discovered the term “homosexual” in the dictionary, but I knew I had more in common with ethnic and religious minorities than I did the average white student. A Jewish boy became my best friend in the sixth grade. (I ran into him and his wife many years later when I was a college student, and he was an airman in Wichita Falls where his father had served.)
By the time I entered high school, integration had occurred. Businesses had adopted equal opportunity policies. The Civil Rights Movement, which would grow to include the LGBT Rights Movement, was in full swing and nothing would ever be the same again.
Even Childress, along with every other small town in Texas and the rest of the South, underwent enormous demographic change: African-Americans and other minorities lived in all areas of the town. Today, there are even LGBT people living openly in the small town at the base of the Panhandle.
American society has come a long way in the past half-century. Progress is still too slow in the minds of some, but considering where we were and where we are now, there is lot to be appreciated.
In the LGBT community, as progressive as we think we are, we need to bridge divides. People of color and whites often do not embrace each other as fully as they should.
I’m not sure if I had remained in my hometown through my school years if I would hold different views than I do now, but I hope not. I still find myself struggling with some issues, such as my Southern heritage. But I know unity and acceptance are critical to our healing the divisiveness plaguing our nation still.
Let’s unite. Skin color is just skin deep. We are all the same inside.
David Webb is a veteran journalist with more than four decades of experience, including a stint as a staff reporter for Dallas Voice. In 2016, he received the Press Club of Dallas’ Legends Award, bestowed in large part for his work with Dallas Voice. He now lives on Cedar Creek Lake and writes for publications nationwide.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 29, 2017.