Atlanta in the Mid 50s




In the mid 50's I lived in Atlanta, GA for 2 years which changed my life in a way that I really did not notice until about 25 years later. (11 - 13 years old)

At that time Atlanta was segregated. I call it apartheid. Water fountains were brown and white as were the bathroom doors. I had to ride in the front of the bus. The blacks I saw were maids, dishwashers, elevator operators, bus boys, porters, laborers and other low paying jobs or on a chain gang. 

Blacks could not eat in white restaurants unless it was in the kitchen. Even churches were segregated. 

My father's office was at a truck yard and warehouse for a big nationwide trucking company. He ran their truck leasing operation. On Saturdays I would go with him to work. I found myself talking to the guys that would load and unload the trucks. They were all black.

The restrooms had brown and white doors. The brown doors were for blacks and white doors were for whites. I had to go so I headed for the restroom. The closest men's room had a brown door. 

A black man said, "Mister Lee, go to the white restroom. The white man may kick your ass if he catches you." 

I said, "That's too far. I've got to go now." Luckily the man did not see me.

I was on a bus. The bus was full and I was on the line between black and white. An old black lady got on and was standing by me. Since my seat was on the border I figured I would give it to her. 

She said, "No sir, please stay seated."

The old redneck next to me said, "If you get up, I will kick your ass."

What really made me mad was that I preferred the back of the bus. 

I lived just outside of the city limits. One day some white men with shot guns and black men in stripes and shackles were walking down the street picking up trash, patching holes and cutting the weeds on the city property. It's funny that all of the white guys looked alike. Fat red necks chewing tobacco and spitting on the street. Brown uniforms and shot guns.
I walked up to the closest guy with a shot gun and asked, "What did these guys do to get on a chain gang."
He answered, "A lot of crimes including armed robbery and murder."

I went back to my yard.

My best friend lived with his family at the stables behind my house. They were the caretakers for the Judge who owned the stables. They were black and lived in a one room stone house with dirt floors, no electricity or running water. A pot belly stove in the middle of the room for heat and cooking. An Ice Box for refrigeration. Some crops, chickens, cows and pigs for food. He was a couple of years older than me. (About 15) He did not go to school. 

I asked his mother, "Can Billy come to my house and play."

She said, "No mister Lee. He can't go to your house."

I said, "My parents said it is OK with them."

"Mister Lee, the white folks around you would turn against you and your family. Best not let any of them know that you even come here. The judge asked about you and I thought I was going to have to send you home but the judge said it was alright and not to worry."

He had a bull calf. One day Billy said, "You want to ride the little bull?"
"Sounds like fun to me, Billy. Let's do it."

We put the 2 by 4 board across both openings to the barn and took the calf into the middle. I got on and it took off for the one end. We figured it would turn around at the end but it went through the bottom boards and I got stopped by the top board hitting my gut.

Billy called out to me, "You OK Lee. Just lay there a minute and we'll see how you are."

I was out of breath and had no choice but to lay there for a while. I was OK.
I looked at Billy and said, "Your turn Billy."

The calf didn't go far and we brought him back. This time we went to the corral that had more room and we rode him there. There were no more injuries except a few bruises.

We did have fun though. We not only rode the bull calf, (My mother wasn't happy about all of the bumps and bruises.) But we rode horses and pigs too. I was always bringing home rabbits, birds, snakes, lizards and turtles.

One day I was watching TV playing with a 3 foot green snake that I had. The kid next door came by and asked me to come out and play. I forgot about the snake that was in a large planter on the table and went out. 

My mother came in the room and saw the snake on the table. She picked it up and took it into my room and put it in its cage. After coming out of my room she realized what she did and screamed.

Atlanta was a beautiful city but the bigotry made it ugly. 

Where I lived we had woods and ponds. We built forts, rafts and dams. We would swim in the ponds and there was a pool walking distance from the house. I had a Soap Box derby racer and I could go miles with out because of all of the hills. A cop pulled me over one time for speeding.

I had a lot of fun but I saw how my race can be so stupid as to think they are the human race and the blacks were inferior animals.

When I left Atlanta we went back to St. Louis where I spent most of my childhood. I went into high school and found that I preferred being with blacks. High school was 1/3 black. I did not date much because I was attracted to the Black Girls and I could not date them. The Black Guys became my friends in school but we could not mix outside of school. I had some white friends that lived near me. 

© Copyright 2001 Lee W. Gaylord 

Atlanta"s Tumultuous Fifties

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