*In 1965, when I was nine, my family made our semi-annual summer pilgrimage from Oklahoma City to tiny Winnfield, Louisiana to visit Daddy’s side of the family.
Little more than three miles long, Winnfield made Oklahoma City feel like Manhattan. It was in Winnfield that I first saw on the doors of various businesses and services, “White Only“ signs like those in old black and white civil rights photos. These were proprietors apparently so full of hate that they wouldn’t even take money from the hand of a black man.
Places that didn’t ban blacks altogether put demeaning conditions on doing business. The sign on a barbecue joint directed black customers to a drive-through window. In nearby Shreveport, the movie theater allowed blacks to sit only in the balcony. Other establishments called for blacks to enter and exit through back doors.
I found the signs fascinating, and kind of spooky. As we drove through town in our powder blue 1951 Chevy Bel-Air, I leaned in from the back seat up to mama: What would happen to a Negro who didn’t do what the sign said? “We stay away from signs like that, Stevie.” It was the casual yet unyielding nature of her indirect response that frightened me.
Two days into our visit, on a sweltering afternoon, Daddy drove me, Mama and my two younger brothers to a rickety little wooden corner store sitting on a dirt road with a rusty “Enjoy Coca-Cola” placard on its front.
There were no customers. Said the friendly skinny white man perched on the stool behind the counter, “Y’all are the only folk foolish enough to go anywhere in this midday heat.”
While everyone else was inside getting stuff, I pushed open the store’s crooked screen door and, nursing the ice cold bottle of strawberry Squeeze pop Mama had just bought me, wandered out into the still, humid day. Not a soul except for me, some hard working ants marching in and out of their ant bed, and to the left, about ten feet from the store’s entrance, a small, lonely water fountain wearing the wooden sign, “White only.” I thought about what Mama said about these signs.
During the ride back to Daddy’s mother’s house, I remember being nervous. However, eclipsing my anxiety was the intoxicating, swelter-resistant excitement I felt as I gazed out at the giant Louisiana oak trees going pass my open window, while reveling at being the only person in this car who knows what white water tastes like.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via[email protected]