Proud To Be Brown: 1954

Zipporah Mills, guest writer

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June 1954

I clinched my fists as tears trickled down my cheeks and peered down at the wooden casket to discover the lifeless resemblance of my mother. My eyes scanned the crowd. There were plenty of familiar faces and even more unfamiliar faces. Fortunately, it was less painful to look at the unrecognizable faces. It was quite comforting to see the huge turnout for Mama.

I glanced at Grandma Brown. Her swollen, puffy eyes were almost beet red, telling me she had been crying all night. She tried to put on a brave face, but I could see in her eyes the pain overwhelmed her. After all, I could barely stand. I fell to my knees to tug my mother’s hands one last time. Beside me, Grandma hunched over and held me tight.

The casket slowly disappeared into the unknown depths of earth; that’s when I knew I had to say goodbye.

Momma was all I had. All I knew.

*                      *                    *

A few weeks after the funeral, once the pain had momentarily subsided, Grandma came

into the living room and sat me down.

“Ella Mae Johnson, Baby, you know I won’t be staying here in Illinois too much longer.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Well… I think it would be in your best interest if you came and lived with me.”

“In Kansas? It’s blazing there!”

“Yes, Child we’re gonna beat our feet bright and early. Although, I must warn you, Kansas is quite different from Illinois.”

I had no words. No negotiations. No time to think. All I could mutter in the sudden moment was: “Yes, Ma’am.”

I packed my bags and hit the road, unaware of the world I was leaving behind. “Maybe change would be good for me,” I reassured my myself.

*               *            *

One particular sunny day down in Kansas, I found myself  venturing to Pop’s Diner, the hottest hangout spot around. Since my desire to swim had been denied due to law restrictions, I thought surely I could get a decent burger in this plain-vanilla town.

My head bobbed to the catchy rhythms of Elvis Presley’s “Sun 209” while I waited for what seemed like eons for my the waitress to take my order. She glared at me, then reluctantly entertained my request.

“I’d like a juicy jalapeño burger and an iced coke, please. ”

“Read the sign you stupid Nigger. We don’t serve COLOREDS here!”

“Can I at least get a cup of water. It’s hot as Hades out!”

“I ain’t gonna repeat myself, Dummy.” The waiter scolded, splashing icy cola in my eyes.

 

 

 

 

 

August 1954

Pale faces filled the hallways as my shade emerged like a cloud of darkness. I strode with dignity and courage trying to fade out the insults hurled at me like knives, “Go back to Africa you NIGGA!” “You don’t belong here!” someone yelled. Hatred permeated the ambiance.

I searched high and low for a smiling face in the crowd. To my surprise, one girl pleasantly grinned, but when I looked again, she spat on me. I slowly swiped my hand across my face and returned her spit with a look of disgust. The voices from Pop’s Diner screamed in my head: We don’t serve coloreds here!

As my knees began to quiver and my heart beat out of my chest, I painfully proceeded down the halls of Monroe High. I raised my head to push my round spectacles further up my sweaty face to read the alarming sign plastered above the drinking fountains:

WHITES ONLY on the left

and COLORED to my right (Henningfield).

I stood frozen in shock as words of such division numbed me. With a blank stare glued to my face I found myself lost in the memories of my time in Illinois. You see, back home we didn’t see COLOR. In fact my neighbors, Mr. and Mrs Robinson, were white but their children Don and Amy never denied my friendship due to my tanned skin. We went to grade school together, played jump rope together, and even dipped in the same pool water. Amy even took pleasure in tackling my misbehaving mane every so often. I’ve lost count of how many of her Stashin Penny doll combs I must have broken with my thick coils.

Before I could submerge any deeper in my reminiscing I was somehow snapped back to reality.

“Hey new kid,” the friendly voice shouted over the noise.

“What the heck are you doing?”

“I was— just getting a— sip of water,” I stammered.

“You should stay on the colored side of the fountains if you don’t want any trouble,”He extended his hand for a warm handshake, “I’m Wiley Andrews.”

“I’m Ella Mae Johnson. I’m not exactly familiar with these Jim Crow Laws.” (Henningfield).

“Gee, that sure is a big tickle!” He smiled and chuckled in disbelief.

Wiley Andrews was the most dashing gentleman I had ever laid eyes upon. His ash-blond hair ever so perfectly swept over his left eye. Not to mention, his ice blue eyes sparkled like the deep, blue sea. Andrews embodied a total hot-rod. But I couldn’t dare let myself fall for him. After all, I was almost certain if “whites” and “coloreds” couldn’t drink the same water, surely, they were forbidden to socialize.

Wiley refused to align with bigotry; everyday since that incident, he would carry my books for me, or sit at lunch with me, when I was shunned by the white community. He remained selfless at all times which is why he deserved a medal, if anyone asked me. Unfortunately, Wiley remained unable to shield me from the hatred that burned in the hearts of those who believed I had no business being alive, God forbid I rub shoulders with them at school.

 

 

 

September 1954

My morning treks to Monroe were pure hell! Three girls my age: Anne Marie, Millie, and Catherine dedicated their entire morning to making my life miserable. They would faithfully walk on the left side of the sidewalk all the while shouting, “We hate negroes!!” One horrifying day in particular, Anne Marie, the plumpest and ugliest of them all, grabbed the largest stone from the ground and lunged it at my forehead. I toppled to the ground as blood streamed down my face and my head began to spin. One girl yelled to the top her lungs as hate spewed from her mouth, “That’s what you get, Nigger” she chuckled and pointed as if she were viewing an, episode of “I Love Lucy”.

Laying limp and powerless I heard footsteps beat against the concrete. With the little ounce of strength I had left, I reached for my broken spectacles to make out the silhouette before me. The shadow charged down the hill at 100 miles per hour and its hair blew effortlessly in the wind. As the figure inched closer and closer I realized my savior was Wiley Andrews. Sweat beads dripped down his perfectly framed face as he gently scooped me into his arms.

“Are you ok? Who did this to you?”

“No—one,” I muttered between sobs. “Please, just take me home.”

“Ella Mae, you can’t go off getting yourself into trouble like that, you hear?”

“I know” I whispered faintly and rested my head upon his shoulders.

Wiley carried me all the way to Grandma B’s House who was relaxing in her rocking chair on the porch. She sprung from her seat,

“Baby, are you alright? What on earth happened?”

“I’m fine.”

“You certainly don’t look fine.”

“I know one thing,” she protested, “These nasty white kids ain’t —“

“Grandma please, I just want to be left alone.”

My body ached all over but I refused to inform Grandma.

I swiftly sped upstairs to my room—for fear of revealing weakness—I simply pretended I was perfect. The door slammed behind me as I fell to my knees and prayed earnestly,

“Lord, give me a sign, please?”

My eyes spotted a newspaper crumpled up in the corner of my room with my favorite classic comics “Peanuts.” I surfed the laughs in search of a touch of happiness until I came across a captivating article entitled: “Brown In Town.” The article uncovered the Supreme Court ruling to desegregate public schools in the South recently, Monroe High included (Finkelman). My eyes scanned the black and white pages; they just so happen to fall upon the name Oliver Brown, the man who jump started the famous court case Brown V. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. What a coincidence. Brown, don’t I know that name,I thought to myself. Wait a hot minute, isn’t Grandma’s name Cora Brown? If schools were integrated just a few months ago, then why did I still have to endure torment every single day?

“Grandma how could you—“ I ranted entering the living room where Grandma B stood calmly.

“Hi, Honey, there’s someone I would like you to meet”

“Meet who? Grandma B, who the heck is Oliver Brown?”

“I’d like you to meet my little brother, Oliver Brown,” she replied with her arm wrapped around his broad shoulders. I examined their round faces coated with smooth chocolate skin, and protruding bottom lips; each an individual, yet almost identical.

The tall gentleman appeared before me grinning ear to ear. My legs became stiff unknowing of whether I should embrace him or extend a formal handshake.

“Hello.You can call me Uncle Ollie, if you want.”

My legs exercised movement again inching closer,

“Good day, I’m Ella Mae Johnson.”

The time it took Uncle Ollie and I to catch up seemed endless. He explained it was his duty to spark change in Topeka, Kansas, even if it meant questioning the justice of the entire school board (Douglas). I’ll never forget his advice,“Keep on striding Ella Mae.” I failed to waste time inquiring about Uncle Ollie’s whereabouts for the past seventeen years or why Grandma Brown never told me about him, but I was certain he was intentionally placed in my life at that crucial moment.

*                     *                     *

November 1954

My seventeenth birthday had finally arrived. “The day a queen was born,” Momma would constantly say. Lately though, I felt like anything but a queen. Despite those doubtful inhibitions, I entered the doors of Monroe High with a certain unshakeable confidence. I was tripped, spat on, barraged—all the usual consequences for simply being black—but that day I felt proud to be Brown.

Works Cited

 

history.com Staff. “Brown v. Board of Education.” 2009. history.com. Web.18 January 2018.

Us courts Staff.  “Brown v. Board of Education Re-enactment.” 2005. uscourts.gov.

Web. 18 January 2018.

Finkelman, Paul. “1896 to the Present,” Encyclopedia of African American History. 2009. Web.

18 January 2018.

“On This Day – History, Film, Music and Sport.” OnThisDay.com, www.onthisday.com. Web.

 

18 January 2018.

 

 

Bibliography

 

Henningfield, Diane. Perspectives on Modern World History: Little Rock Nine.

San Francisco: Greenhaven Press, 2014. Print.

Douglas O. Linder. “Meet the Browns: Esther Brown and Oliver Brown Family.” Famous Trials.

  1. Web. 12 February 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

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3 Comments

3 Responses to “Proud To Be Brown: 1954”

  1. Alonzo Horton on March 1st, 2018 10:40 am

    This story is very soulful to me. Being black that is because I am taught about these times. This story is compelling and interesting.

  2. Zipporah Mills on March 2nd, 2018 9:08 am

    Being black that is😂

  3. Brian on March 15th, 2018 7:46 am

    Great story Zipporah!!! You wrote an amazing and beautiful story about the dark times our nation went through. You wrote about how it took courage and bravery of a few people to change the whole world for others. I love how you wrote about those few people who didn’t see skin color but they saw a brother and a sister. I’m not an African American but as a person of color I understand how there are many people who try to bring us down, but we should always be proud of who we are.

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Proud To Be Brown: 1954