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Brian Charles: Second-class citizenship, separate and unequal

Washington Journal: the Inauguration

Posted: January 9, 2009 5:46 p.m.
Updated: January 10, 2009 4:55 a.m.

B.C. goes to D.C.: Signal Staff Writer Brian Charles' Washington Journal continues in The Signal and on through Jan. 23. Join him on his journey to our nation's capital for the historic inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama.

Editor's note: Second in an exclusive series as Signal Staff Writer Brian Charles prepares to travel to Washington, D.C., to cover the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama.

Barack Obama accepted the Democratic Party nomination for President of the United States on Aug. 28.

That same day my mother, a 55-year-old woman, felt like a first-class citizen for the first time in her life.

My mother, Yvonne Charles, is librarian in White Plains, N.Y. where she is active in her church and a homeowner. She has all the accoutrements of wealth. She is also the child of Jim Crow segregation.

My mother literally grew up in two worlds. As a fair-skinned black woman who could pass for white, she never felt the sting of acute racism. However, she was exposed to segregation's daily dose of psychological warfare during her childhood.

The night Barack Obama was named the democratic nominee, my mother called and told me the story of the Williamston bus station.

She traveled between her maternal grandparents' home in Williamston, N.C. and White Plains, N.Y. each summer.

The Williamston bus station was laid out in a big square with a ticket counter in the middle. Running down the middle was a rope, which separated blacks and whites in line. The buses arrived on the white side to allow white passengers to board; then drove around the bus station to allow blacks to board.

"This wasn't in the 1950s, this was in the 1960s after Jim Crow was officially over," my mother told me.
My mother complied as a child. But that would change in college.

During her college days my mother traveled to Williamston, through the same bus station. The rope was gone, but segregation's yoke still hung on the necks of the people in the bus station. Whites and black were still segregated, but this time by choice. My mother in an act of defiance sat on the white side. Even with mother's fair-skinned appearance, people in the town knew her family and knew she belonged on the other side of the rope.

I grew up in White Plains far away from the world of Jim Crow with its dogs and firehoses. But I wasn't safe from racism or self-imposed segregation.

Down the street from my home was a small lake. Silver Lake was green algae-laden pond where blue gills, sun fish and some untamed woods provided just enough fun for a 10-year-old city boy to get lost for an afternoon.

The lake bordered White Plains and West Harrison. I spent my Saturdays fishing and my mother spent those same days praying for my safety. West Harrison was a small enclave of working class whites; mostly the sons and grandsons of Italian immigrants brought in for the expertise as stonemasons to work on FDR's New Deal. But my mother was frightened by the other things the community could do.

My mother was a working single mother. That meant I spent plenty of time with a baby sitter, Mrs. Brown.

She was a Scottish immigrant with a thick accent. I lived with the family and actually started to pick up an accent as a small child. I did everything with the Browns except go the community pool. Mrs. Brown was told I couldn't swim with the other children at the pool because I was not a resident.

Mrs. Brown calmly pointed out the other baby sitters who brought children who also weren't residents. She also pointed out the only difference was my race. They still didn't allow me in the pool.

The hostility within West Harrison ran deeper than pool privileges, and my mother knew it. West Harrison wasn't technically in White Plains, but until 1975 the kids in the town went to White Plains schools. Tension between the West Harrision kids and the black kids from White Plains erupted in a race riot in 1968.

Three days of racial brawls on campus culminated with the West Harrison kids tearing down the letters P-L-A-I-N-S from the side of the school gymnasium so that the sign read "White High School."

West Harrison seceded from the school district and joined the Harrison School District.

By the time I arrived at White Plains High School in 1990, I watched the West Harrison kids get bused past my school each day to another school that was almost all-white.

I inherited my mother's sense of second-class citizenship. This is uncomfortable for some, but Aug. 28 was the first time I felt proud of my country.

I am proud my country can look past race and elect the qualified candidate. I am proud my country has an example of success for young kids of all complexions besides athletes or rappers. I am proud today that my mother finally feels like a complete person.


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