Sunday, May 10, 2015

What is Race? Part Three: My Mother - On Jim Crow's Children

Jim Crow had many children.


"We're all Jim Crow's children," my mother said to me when I was a little girl. "I mean the black ones, the brown ones, the white ones and all those in between."

"Jim Crow is not my daddy," I said.

"Jim Crow may not be your daddy," she said. "But you're still Jim Crow's child."

Mason-Dixon Line and the perpetuation of slavery in the United States
Mason-Dixon Line

Many people think the only children affected by Jim Crow laws were black children. This is simply a myth. Jim Crow's children include everyone who went through America's public education system, past and present, North and South, urban, suburban and rural. Most people are not aware of the impact of Jim Crow laws on their own lives, and the lives of their ancestors--ancestors who may have been responsible for creating and enacting Jim Crow laws without realizing the lasting effects inside their own homes.


Deep-seated feelings of superiority and inferiority are the reasons we still need to have conversations about race relations in America.



Sophia Gordon Runaway Slave
Sophia Gordon Runaway Slave
Washington, D.C.
Some people don't know there was also slavery in northern states above the Mason-Dixon Line. Don't know what that line is? It is the cultural line separating the North and the South, established by a 1763 and 1767 survey to settle a border dispute between states, and had everything to do with racial classification in the United States and the perpetuation of slaver, the lifeblood of the nation, North and South. Because Washington D.C. is below the Mason-Dixon Line, there was slavery conducted withing the nation's capitol. 

Even though Jim Crow laws were erased from the books, the influence of this legal system on all of us is still present. This includes people who are products of the old segregated system in both the North and the South, many of their children, their children's children and so on and so on. 

When I was a little girl, my mother always told me, "Try to understand what the next guy is going through."

"Why do I care what the next guy is going through?" I asked her.

"Self preservation," she said.

"Self preservation?" I asked.

"If you understand what the next guy is going through," she said. "You may be able to guess his next move. If you can guess his next move, maybe you'll have time to get out of his way."

To define race, cast a wide net. 


Racial classification was so blatant in the United States during the early 20th Century that southern Italians were classified as a different nationality from northern Italians, who thought themselves to be more “white” and more closely related to the French and Germans. This classification seems to have been based on shades of complexion—fair-skinned northern Italians as opposed to dark-skinned southern Italians. 

Home of an Italian Rag Picker via Preus Museum
Home of an Italian Rag Picker via Preus Museum

In some cases of Italian racial classification, there seemed to have been a reliance on shades of complexion—fair-skinned northern Italians as opposed to dark-skinned southern Italians with latter receiving lower wages and harsher treatment economically and legally. Based on these criteria, segregation was imposed, which affected education and social services.

Racial categorizing led to the largest mass lynching of any group in the history of the United States in 1891. Although African Americans were customary targets, Southern Italian immigrants were targeted as well and many scholars believe the color of their skin played a significant part in the outcome of the injustice they sustained. Eleven southern Italian merchants were hanged in New Orleans and their corpses placed on public display. In fact, in the 1890s, 22 Southern Italians were lynched in parishes around Louisiana. 

Gerald R. Gems Sport and the Shaping of Italian American Identity
Gerald R. Gems
Sport and the Shaping
of Italian American Identity
 (Sports and Entertainment)
Southern Italian immigrants were called guineas, one of the most offensive racial slurs be to coined against Italian Americans, referring to the Guinea Coast of Africa as they entered plantation life in Louisiana and other rural agricultural regions. 

Gerald R. Gems said in his book on page 62, Sport and the Shaping of Italian American Identity, "Many Sicilians disembarked at New Orleans, and took up work on the sugar plantations of Louisiana, where hard physical labor became known as nigger work or dago work. At the 1889 state constitutional convention, representatives asserted, "according to the spirit of our meaning when we speak of a white man's government [the Italians] are as black as the blackest Negro in existence."

Italians, like African Americans in Louisiana and other parts of the Deep South, could not hold public office or vote and were restricted to segregated housing, employment and schools. 


A tactic of racial classification was to pit one group against another as a practical power strategy to control human behavior and resources,  and control the region's politics.  On the other hand, however, over time, some members of manipulated white, black and other groups have developed deep psychological mistrust, resentment and feelings of superiority or inferiority toward each other that have lasted throughout history. 

White Sharecroppers
White Sharecroppers

After Emancipation, the elite class, who had everything to lose by the commingling of different races of poor people, encouraged poor whites to think of and treat former slaves as beneath them to make themselves feel closer to the ruling class even though these poor whites did not own land, had no lines of credit, had no employment, were illiterate and could not vote--no better off than sharecropping former slaves, but deceived into thinking they had a God-given right to expect more and to do better than their black counterparts. And when white poor saw black poor doing better than them, it caused hostility, jealously and violent retaliation, as in Ku Klux Klan  rapes, cross burning and lynching, actions they felt justified in taking to protect the competitive edge of their favored group. 

Being classified as better than former slaves and closer to the ruling class was a mere deception. It would take many generations for poor whites to assimilate. Seldom did the wealthy ruling class have more social or marital relationships with poor whites than they did with blacks. Neither group was equal to the wealthy class and would never be. Neither group could, at that time or this, reasonably hope to amass the fortunes that drifted down through the generations, except today through great sports ability, entertainment talent, technology, social media, luck of the lottery, crime or a good education. Then watch what happens as the nouveau riche immediately join the old rich in political maneuvering. Nothing personal, though, because the rich are not required or expected to deal with the poor of any color. It is more of a class issue than a color issue and always has been.

The dominant class considered some immigrants as undesirable for assimilation as African Americans because of immigrants' dark complexion, foreignness of their customs and former cotton-picker status, regardless of the white racial classification these immigrants may have claimed.


They are all children of Jim Crow.



Child Labor Laws and Discrimination
Lewis Hine 1900 Photo
Pennsylvania Child Coal Miners
Further, in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the poor white class would be utilized by the wealthy to control and indoctrinate all other ethnic groups that came to these shores or were brought to this land or were indigenous to it, including reservation-restricted Native Americans and fresh-of-the-plantation former slaves. 

Children of poor white immigrants were enslaved in factories and mines for little more than a meal and a few pennies a day to help take care of desperately impoverished families.

Also included in the farm working class were Eastern European, Asian, Pacific Islander, Mexican and Middle Eastern immigrants, who were denied full citizenship rights before they were assimilated, if they were allowed to assimilate when these families came to America to work on plantations after the Civil War. These immigrants' children were customarily denied schooling and forced to work in unsafe conditions not much better than slaves or former slaves. However, like other white persons, they were indoctrinated by the Jim Crow tradition and some became active in the promotion of the Jim Crow laws separating them from African Americans and other groups that could be readily identified by physical features. 

Chinese Immigrant Farm Laborers
Chinese Immigrant Farm Family

Indentured Chinese were imported to build California railroads and levees. Afterwards, they were burned out or driven away. Mississippi Delta plantation owners imported them to Delta farms to replace slaves after Emancipation. Through labor agents, the same tactic was used to import Italian, Lebanese and Syrian indentured servants to Delta plantations to pick cotton alongside black workers who had stayed on farms after being freed.

When the Great Depression hit in 1929, immigrant families, who were already entangled in tenant farm agreements, were further victimized by a crashed economy. Unable to pay their sharecropping farm store debts, desperate indentured immigrants could not leave the sharecropping plantation system. Many ran away, leaving in the dead of night, and tried to find work in other locations. However, at that time, hungry people filled cities looking for free food, public relief and charity handouts. 

Jobs had become scarce for all workers and especially for immigrants, who were customarily subjected to increased Jim Crow discrimination and bigotry in times of economic distress. So, like former slaves, some unfortunate immigrant farm workers stayed on plantations where they could get a meal, even though, the meal cost them their freedom and held them in virtual slavery by dishonest bookkeeping of plantation owners who operated in the same fashion as before the Civil War. The difference was the workers were not exactly slaves; they were in debt to the farm store, a predicament also shared by a large number of poor white families who owned no land. Assault on the citizenship and political participation of former slaves and others through Jim Crow laws, a legal system designed to maintain separation and justify discrimination against nearly freed and newly freed U.S. citizens, continued until adequate education was provided for former slaves and immigrants.

Jim Crow laws continued into the 1960s in public education, employment, housing, justice, voting and all other aspects of American society. In the past, using skin color, race, ethnicity, gender, culture, language or other physical difference to determine how a person was treated made discrimination rather easy. Although separation, discrimination and treatment can still be seen along the lines of skin color, race, culture, ethnicity or language, these factors are not so easily identified in today's world with bi- and multiracial, biological, step, in-law, and extended families. It is not uncommon to find mix-raced families, exhibiting a variety of physical features and interracial relationships. In fact, not long ago, an elderly white man was stopped and questioned by police when they saw him walking his young black granddaughter home from school.

The United States, no longer comprised of homogeneous groups that keep their distance from each other, is the home of mixed groups of Jim Crow's children struggling to find identity in a nation that still struggles with questions of difference. This is not to say that there were no mixed-race people in the past. There were. The difference today is that the members of these families accept and acknowledge each other in a way they never could in the days of old Jim Crow. In fact, many ethnic people passed as white when their physical features allowed them to do so, hiding their true identities from new families, offspring, friends and the government.

"Who was Jim Crow, anyway?" I asked my mother.

"That's a conversation for another day," she said.


Be sure to read other conversations with my mother:





Sunday, May 3, 2015

Award-winning Historians Commemorate African Americans of the Old West

Ned and Elizabeth Roe Peterson headed west on horseback across the southeastern United States after the Civil War. When they finally reached Southern Brazos County about 100 miles Northwest of Houston near the Brazos River at the Brazos-Grimes County border in Central Texas, they bought land and established a homestead and farm site. 


African American Lifeways
In 1993, the State of Texas commissioned an excavation and investigative study of the Ned and Elizabeth Peterson farm site and homestead, conducted by the Texas A&M University Center for Environmental Archaeology. The final report, edited by Shawn Carlson with contributions from Sue Winton Moss and Sunny Nash facilitated the nomination of the 19th Century Peterson farmstead in southern Brazos County to the National Register of Historic Places in Washington D.C. 

The Briscoe Center at the University of Texas is the repository for much of the original historic material published in the report. As part of the team, Nash conducted oral history interviews, restored and reproduced historic family pictures and papers, and collected genealogical data and ancestral memorabilia, such as obituaries, military records, deeds, marriage licenses and letters, some of which are part of The Peterson Legacy, housed at the Carnegie History Center in Bryan, Texas.  

Left to Right: Star of the Republic Director Dr. Houston McGaugh, 
Texas Historical Commission History Programs Division 
Director Bratten Thomason, Shawn Bonoth Carlson 
and Blinn College President Harold Nolte
Photo: Courtesy of Blinn College
Shawn Bonath Carlson is the collections and exhibits curator at Star of the Republic Museum at Washington on the Brazos. She won the 2012 John L. Nau III Award of Excellence recognizing her efforts to identify the descendants of the signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence

Sue Winton Moss is an Austin-based historian, who won the 2008 Abner Cook Award for Interpretive Planning from the Neil-Cochran House Museum in Austin. Sunny Nash received the 2014-15 Ottis Lock Endowment Award and Research Grant to complete her photographic and oral history study, The Peterson Legacy, an exhibition of photographs and artifacts, resulting from the study. 


African Americans have been on the Western Frontier since there was a Western Frontier, according to The African-American West: A Century of Short Stories co-edited by Bruce A. Glasrud, award-winning writer-editor and Professor Emeritus of History, California State University, East Bay, with Laurie Champion. The book includes Sunny Nash's story, Amenabout a religious healing meeting, typical of those held in frontier communities. The African American West had black cowboys as notorious as any that herded cattle to market, sang country-western songs on the Chisholm Trail and helped to shape the frontier landscape.

By 1864, Ned Peterson had mounted his horse and left Virginia, which could mean self-purchased freedom, voluntary surrender by his owner, forgery or running away. Many slaves, hearing rumors of coming freedom, left without confirmation. Like other Texas pioneers, Ned probably traveled by horseback, wagon and foot down the Atlantic Coast and around the Gulf states. Longer than the direct route, the coast’s milder climate and big cities provided temporary work. When Ned reached Alabama, he met Elizabeth Roe, who would become his wife. Ned and Elizabeth’s great-granddaughter, Billie Stewart Smedley, said she heard family stories that her great-grandmother, Elizabeth, may have been an American Indian or a descendant of African and Native American ancestors. Either way, Elizabeth was probably raised as a slave in Alabama. 


The story of the Petersons, From Excavation to Oral History by Sunny Nash, appeared  in the November/December 2002 issue of Ancestry.com (Magazine).




Ned Peterson II & Sisters
From
The Peterson Legacy
By Sunny Nash
Texas A&M University in College Station purchased a portion of the Peterson land in 1940, held the land for about 50 years and, in the early 1990s, planned construction. Because of historic classification, the Peterson property required a thorough examination and a published report before construction could begin. My contribution to the examination was to conduct oral history interviews, photograph artifacts and and reproduce family photographs and documents.


In the past, mishandled data regarding African Americans complicated record gathering.


Ned Peterson I, WWI, 1917
From The Peterson Legacy

By Sunny Nash

There were incomplete birth, death and marriage records, careless spelling of names, multiple first names and disregard for last names during slavery. 


For example, various Texas records named Ned Peterson, Edward with no last name, and called him, Ned No. 3, to distinguish him from other African Americans with the same first name. In spite of past omissions, archaeologists exhumed, labeled and stored bits of China dishes, pottery, colored glass and jewelry, and uncovered stone steps, window glass and part of a kitchen while artists rendered representations of farm buildings. Historians searched county and state records for marriage, childbirth, landownership, voting, purchase, livestock and crop production, credit and death records.



The Peterson Legacy: AnAfrican American Experience, 1868 – Present, reproduced by author and photographer, Sunny Nash was on display at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas, on October 23, 2013-January 4, 2014.


Also read: Tracing Ancestry Through Family Photographs
By Sunny Nash - Published 05/22/2009 
Ancestry.com (Magazine)

The apparel of this young family helps to date this photograph to the late nineteenth century; reproduced by Sunny Nash.


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

What Is Race? Part Two: My Mother, Race Relations Advisor


Littie Nash
Littie Nash

My mother was my most effective race relations adviser. 


"Do your best at what you do you," my mother said. "You are responsible for that. If you don't do your best, you can only blame yourself. Doing your best may not change the way some people treat you, but doing your best goes a long way toward the way you feel about yourself. And you are the only person you really need to impress."

My mother did not lavish me with compliments and I do not fault her for that. She  believed compliments and accolades should be reserved for special achievements. She reserved celebrations for real accomplishments and occasional birthday parties. My mother loved me even if she didn't compliment my every move. As an adult, I understand that she was teaching me independence and confidence in my own abilities. 

"You know what you have done," she always said. "Let that knowledge--be it good or bad--serve you. Good and you can repeat whatever it was. Bad and you can cease with it."

I admit, when I was a little girl listening to all her wisdom, I was mostly confused. But I realized early in my life that compliments were not to be thrown around because I dragged myself out of bed before noon on Saturday or because I made straight-A report cards. 

"Some things, like making good grades, you have to do," she said. "And those things pass, not without notice, but without an all-day hullabaloo. I notice," she said."Do you?"

Not that I really wanted to do all the things Littie insisted I do, my mother sponsored my piano, ballet, tennis and swimming lessons, dance performances, recitals, literary and classical music club memberships, summer camps, school trips and science fair exhibits, still managing to squeeze out of our tight budget money for the dentist to install braces on my teeth. She did her best with little to start with; I was not a prize! 

Rosa Parks Arrest Montgomery Bus Boycott 1955
Rosa Parks Arrest
Montgomery Bus Boycott 1955

It took courage and imagination during the Jim Crow era for my mother to give me what I needed. 


My mother schooled me about life in the American South and made me read about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. I could tell by looking around the neighborhood that jobs for African Americans were scarce and good jobs were mostly nonexistent for them. Black men were economically and politically marginalized.

Black women were publicly disrespected on a routine basis. I'm not at all sure how they got along back then. I was there and I have little memory of a day-to-day routine that was executed with grace and dignity. 

"Look what Rosa Parks is doing for you," my mother told me when I was six years old and in first grade. "What are you going to do for her?" 

I had no idea what the right answer to that question was, but I didn't have to wait for very long to find out. 

"You are going to go to school and do the best you can. And I don't mean kind of your best or just good enough! I mean your best! You are a little colored girl and you are going to have to do everything better than just good enough, better than good! You are going to have to do very good! Better than very good! The best you have in you!"

Montgomery Bus Boycott 1955-56 - Woman Hitchhiking
Woman Hitchhiking
Montgomery Bus Boycott 1955-56
I wonder sometimes how I would have dealt with racial humiliation indefinitely or if I would have learned to fight the system like Rosa Parks and other women of her time. My mother had her own way of fighting the Jim Crow system. She was fighting it with me as her primary weapon. 

By the time I graduated from high school, it was against the law to do to me what was customary treatment for black women only a couple of years earlier when I was a child and people stared at my mother and me in department stores and shook their heads when we asked to try on a garment. In the cheap stores, we were not allowed to try on apparel and discouraged from touching it. I couldn't understand why those shabby dresses were considered so precious that we couldn't try them on or even touch them without sneers from the sales ladies. 

"The policy does not state you can't try on the dress," my mother explained, pulling me out of a store on day. "The policy is that you can't use their fitting room."

"If we can't use their fitting room," I asked. "Where are we supposed to try the clothes on?"


"One old sales biddy suggested I strip down in the store and try on the bad-cut suit because she knew no self-respecting lady would do that," my mother said. 


"What?" I was shocked.


"And if you buy their sheeny mammy-made outfits," my mother said. "You can't bring them back!"
Former Edges on the Corner, Bryan, Texas
Former Location of one of the Better Stores

My mother shopped a lot through mail-order catalogs. Our postman, Mr. Walton--the first black U.S. Postman in our town--was not fond of our shopping habits, having to carry all those packages in all kinds of weather, but he was always nice, not because his wife and my mother were good friends or because his wife was my first-grade teacher or because I was best friends with his son, Charles, but because Mr. Walton had a job to do. 

Mr. Walton knew, being our town's first black postman, he had to do that job better than anyone else would have. Being the first meant that his superior performance could open doors for the next black postman. 


When the money situation in our household improved, my mother was able to shop at the more expensive stores, where there was no fitting-room policy. In the better stores, we could try on clothes like other human beings, although we couldn't buy as many items as we could have at the cheap stores. My mother said, the better stores didn't have a fitting room or no-return policy because they didn't expect to have a black clientele. 

"The good stores don't mind taking our money," she said. "As long as we conduct ourselves properly and do not come in hooping and hollering, pulling all the garments off racks, dragging them floor, stepping on them, destroying the displays, leaving the store wrecked and acting like...well, you get the idea. Let's go shopping!"

Our shopping habits changed when my mother started her little food business in our kitchen providing meals for some ill older patients she cared for as a practical nurse. She made healthy ingredient substitutions so the dish tasted like the dish to which the patient was was accustomed. Eating well, they thrived. Doctors saw improvements in their health and began requesting that my mother make special foods for their other patients. My mother took an idea and her talent with food and changed our lives. 

"Good enough is not good enough for me," my mother said. "And if never learn anything else from me, learn that!"



My mother taught me what race was and what race was not.  

Be sure to read other conversations with my mother:



Wednesday, April 1, 2015

What Is Race? Part One: Conversations With My Mother


Is it ethnicity? 

Is it skin color?

Is it bloodline? 

Is it national origin

Is it family heritage? 

Is it a choice?



Italian Immigrants
Italian Immigrants

Race and racial classification became so blatant in the United States during the early 20th Century that dark-skinned Italians were classified as a different race from light-skinned Italians. 


Italian Immigrant Farmers, North Carolina
Italian immigrants with light skin were generally from northern Italy and were thought by American society to be and also thought themselves to be more closely associated racially to the French and Germans than to their dark-skinned southern Italian brethren. And there was a class difference between southern and northern Italians. 

"Are they white?" I asked my mother about the people who operated the corner store a little ways from where we lived when I was a little girl.


"They think they are," she said. "And they are trying to convince the rest of us that they are so the real white people won't treat them so bad."


"The real white people? Who are they?"

"The ones who have been here long enough to convince everybody that they are white."


"What? That's not true! My friends aren't trying to convince me they're white! They're my friends!"

"Do they go to school with you?"

Italian Immigrant Farmers, 1910
"No."

"Have you every been inside their house, other than to use the telephone?"

"No."

"Well, then," she said. "They are not your friends! And they do not treat you like a friend! They treat you the same way rich people where they come from treated them before they left that place!"

The difference in the way people were treated back then and still today was based not only on the to tone of their complexion, but on economic class and high rates of poverty among some Southern Italians, hence, their reason for wholesale immigration to America in the first place.

"Once those people are here, they clamber for their children to reach the upper class," she said. "And they are not going to let your little black tail get in their way!"


Browns Mills, New Jersey, U.S.A. September 1910

Notes: "Victoria Borsa, 1223 Catherine St., Philadelphia. 

4 year old berry picker. Brother 7 years old. While I was 

photographing them, the mother was 

impatiently urging them to "pick, pick." 

Photo: Lewis Wickes Hine. Digital ID: 00062.Contributed by: 
Courtesy of the Library of Congress
The southerners came to American as a poor class looking for opportunity. Northern Italians were generally coming with money. So, the class difference that began with color was punctuated with a dollar bill. In order to earn passage to America, many Southern Italians who came with few financial resources were forced to indenture themselves and their families directly from Italy to work on plantations, landing them in the Mississippi Delta and other parts of the Deep South, arriving in the after slaves had been emancipated. 

This was a time when farm laborers were scarce with African Americans abandoning plantations for freedom in the cities. Many people have no knowledge of the history of Italians in Mississippi



Rochester Eldridge Bog, Massachusetts

September 1911

Notes: "Abbe, said 10 yeas old who picks 

10 pails a day. Also two young Italian illiterates." 

Photo & Notes: Lewis Wickes Hine No. 00135.
Contributed by: Courtesy of the Library of Congress/ PPOC
Although many Italian immigrants came through New York's Ellis Island, many were indentured from that location into the American Deep South where farm workers were needed or they were recruited into slave-like conditions on large farms with overseers in the nearby Garden State of New Jersey or the large berry farms of Delaware and Massachusetts, many farms running very similarly as the southern plantation had before emancipation. 

Unlike white-skin northern Italian immigrants, allowed opportunities to create wealth once they arrived in America, dark-skinned southern Italians were treated as second-class alongside the Negro, the Mexican, the Indian and any other dark-skinned person and forced to work at hard physical labor until they could moved out of farm work.

In some cases dark-skinned people were legally classified as "colored" to make it more difficult for them to assimilate into mainstream communities. Therefore, for several generations, they remained in separate communities, churches, schools and families. This was particularly true in the Jim Crow south where the white ruling class used dark skin as a mark of inferiority and a convenient excuse to perpetuate discrimination and segregation onto another group.

"How do you know all this stuff?" I asked my mother. "Are you making it up?"


"I don't have to make up the truth," she said. "These are well-known facts."


She was right, of course. And when I grew up and understood the world better, I learned the truth for myself. People are not always the way they seem and it is not their fault sometimes. We are a product of our environment and our history. It takes great effort, investigation, study and experience to get past that.

"You watch what happens when you get about 12 years old," she said. 

"What will happen?"

"I don't want you mixing with them any more than their folks want them mixing with you."

"How do you know they want to mix with me?"

"Believe me, they're having the same conversations as ours," she said. "Although there's been a lot of  mixing going on for a very long time now."

Encyclopedia of African American Society, Gerald D. Jaynes
Gerald D. Jaynes
Encyclopedia
of African American Society
In the Encyclopedia of African American Society, Gerald D. Jaynes, editor of the two-volume reference and professor economics and African American Studies at Yale University, wrote on page 455, "In the rural South dark-skinned immigrants from Sicily often worked as sharecroppers or laborers on plantations alongside African Americans and they were treated similarly by employers." 

In Colored White: Transcending the Racial Past by David R. Roediger, one Italian immigrant interviewed by a Louisiana scholar remembered the early twentieth century as a time when "he and his family had been badly mistreated by a French plantation owner near New Roads, Louisiana, where he and his family were made to live among the Negroes and were treated in the same manner."

Colored White: Transcending the Racial Past by David R. Roediger
David R. Roediger 
Colored White:
Transcending the Racial Past
In fact, when I was growing in Texas in the 1950s and 1960s, there were many second and third generation Italians whose families had managed to escape the farms, save money and open stores in black neighborhoods. By this time, although many of the parents had darker complexions than mine, they had begun the process of gene bleaching their offspring.

By pairing with fair-skinned Italians, and marrying into white families, their children were lighter-skinned than them, a practice long practiced in some African American and other ethnic groups with dark skin going all the way back to the plantation and early America. Because lighter skin had a better chance for better treatment and success in the United States, it was a common practice. Everybody knew that! 

Chicago Soup Kitchen Opened by Al Capone 1931
Wikipedia, Creative Commons License
During the Great Depression, Native-born, former slave and immigrant families who were already entangled in tenant farm agreements were further victimized by the crashed economy and unable to pay their farm debts so they could leave the sharecropping system. Many ran away, leaving in the dead of night with their few belongings. Finding work in other locations, however, was impossible at that time with hungry people filing into cities looking for free food, public relief and charity handouts. 

Jobs had become scarce for all workers and especially for Italians and other recent immigrants, who were customarily subjected to increased discrimination and bigotry in times of economic distress. So, like former slaves, some unfortunate farm workers, including Italian and white sharecroppers, stayed on plantations where they could get a meal, even though, the meal cost them their freedom and held them in virtual slavery by the dishonest bookkeeping of farm owners who operated in the same fashion as before the Civil War. The difference was the workers were not exactly slaves; they were in debt to the farm store, a predicament also shared by a large number of poor white families who owned no land. 

Immigrants, who earned their way off of plantations, got jobs or opened businesses in Vicksburg, and sent their children to Catholic school where they could learn English and get an education. Most of these immigrants, unwelcome to reside in white neighborhoods and send their children to white public schools, lived among middle-class African Americans and sent their children to Catholic schools that also enrolled black students. The Delta's dominant class considered immigrants undesirable for assimilation because of immigrants' dark complexion, foreignness of their customs and former cotton-picker status, regardless of the white racial classification these immigrants may have claimed. 

My Italian friends and I, and they were and still are my dear friends, took a respite from each other around the time of puberty, encouraged by parents on both sides. We did not resume our friendship until we were all adults with spouses and children when the danger of mixing had passed. My mother was right, after all.

Be sure to read other conversations with my mother:



    Bigmama Didn’t Shop  At Woolworth’s  Sunny Nash

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Sunny Nash author of bigmama didn't shop at woolworth's
Sunny Nash
Sunny Nash is an author, producer, photographer and leading writer on U.S. race relations. She writes books, blogs, articles and reviews, and produces media and images on U.S. history and contemporary American topics, ranging from Jim Crow laws to social media networking. Sunny Nash is the author of Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's (Texas A&M University Press), about life with her part-Comanche grandmother during the Civil Rights Movement.

Sunny Nash’s book is recognized by the Association of American University Presses as essential for understanding U.S. race relations. Nash's book is also listed in the Bibliographic Guide for black studies at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York; and recommended for Native American collections by the Miami-Dade Public Library System in Florida. Nash uses her book to write articles and blogs on race relations in America through topics relating to her life--from music, film, early radio and television, entertainment, social media, Internet technology, publishing, journalism, sports, education, employment, the military, fashion, performing arts, literature, women's issues, adolescence and childhood, equal rights, social and political movements--past and present—to today's post-racism.

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~Thank You~


Sunny Nash – Race Relations in America