The Signs: Part 3

Bass Mitchell | Columnist

As you entered the building, you came into a small corridor that opened into a larger hallway.

That hallway ran the width of the front of the building and even around the building itself. If you turned left when entering and looked against the inner right wall, there was a water fountain. Further down from it were the restrooms for women and men. The bathroom doors, at least the top portions, had that thick frosty glass through which you could not see. Nothing special about all of this, right? Well, be patient. There’s more.

Just above the water fountain was a sign. It read in large painted black letters: WHITES ONLY. Painted also on the glass bathroom doors was the same message, except in even larger letters.

Dad and I just stood there for a moment staring at those signs. He had a scowl on his face. “I don’t get it,” I said to him. Well, I kind-of thought I did but wasn’t sure. I seemed to recall something about this from Mr. Plaster’s American history class.

I could see Dad’s jaw tightening. I had seen that before and it was seldom a good thing, like when I brought back the wrong tool. He finally said, “It means that white people only can drink from it or use these restrooms.”

That’s what I thought. But I still didn’t understand it. I looked around and never did find a water fountain or restrooms that said: BLACKS ONLY. The whole thing didn’t make any sense and was troubling even to a twelve-year-old mind.

Over the weeks that followed, the topic came back up several times. Dad told me how black persons had often been mistreated in our country. He never could fully understand the reasons for it either. Some of his best friends growing up were from a black family that lived not too far from him. “But why?” I asked.

He thought about it for a moment. “Human beings can be pretty mean to one another,” he finally said. “It seems that we always have to have someone to look down on and blame for things. It ain’t right, of course. And that’s not how we ever treat people in this family. Understand?” “Yes, sir,” I replied.

Then he said, “I have a job for you.” That job turned out to be removing those signs. The one above the water fountain was fairly easy to do because it was a stone tablet. I just took it down with a crowbar. I took it outside and threw it down. It cracked into pieces.

Now the signs on the bathroom doors were not so easily removed. They had been painted directly onto the glass. Looked like several coats, too, over a long time. I had to be careful not to damage the glass. But with a lot of elbow grease, I finally did remove them, with some satisfaction I might add.

I never heard my father say a single racist thing about anyone. He lived by what he said to me. That became even more evident not long after this.

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