steven ivory

Steven Ivory

*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 seen today  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  barbeque 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 the only folk fool 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.

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]