Stories from Jim Crow America

May 19th, 2016

Last week, uber-celebrity Steve Harvey told a story on his syndicated radio show that wasn’t very funny. But it may be one of the most important stories he will ever tell. 

Harvey’s family was forced to move from West Virginia to Ohio when he was a child because he had used a whites-only water fountain. Harvey didn’t tell us what year this happened, but it likely occurred in the mid-to-late 1960s since the state was segregated until close to the end of the decade.

The comedian said that a white woman chastised him for using the wrong water fountain, which led to a confrontation between her and his mother. The sheriff then confronted Harvey’s mom, leading his father to confront the sheriff. 

Harvey didn’t say if these confrontations were merely verbal or violent, but it’s clear that his parents didn’t conform to the Jim Crow expectations whites had of blacks. And even verbal defiance could have gotten them killed. So they packed up and moved.

Harvey’s story reminded me of my Uncle Mop, whose given name was Clifton Stephens. My sole, dim memory of him was etched in my mind permanently more than 45 years ago. In it, I see him waving good-bye to us, looking back under a street light before walking away into the night.

My mom and I were in Florida for one of our annual summer visits the last time I saw him. She and her siblings grew up on my grandparents’ farm in Poplar Springs, a rural community with sandy roads and palm trees on the outskirts of Marianna. 

One version of the story is that Uncle Mop had a dispute with an unnamed white police officer. A woman was involved. My uncle was given two choices: Leave town or be killed.

During Jim Crow, any white man’s word had the power of law when it came to blacks. No badge or elected position was necessary. Being white and male was enough.

I shared these two stories on my Facebook page, then posed this question: How many black people were forced unlawfully to leave their hometowns in the Jim Crow era because they made some bigot mad?

Here are three of the many responses I got: 

  • “My father never met his biological father. A white man told him to leave Oklahoma or he would kill him. Well, he didn't leave and the white man killed my grandfather before my dad was born.”
  • “My grandfather was beaten within an inch of his life because two white women moved next (door) to him and wanted him to move.”
  • “My late father-in-law had to leave a city in Tennessee during the Jim Crow era. He was accused of whistling at a white woman and was told to leave or be killed. I have a great-uncle who witnessed his father lynched because he was also accused of whistling at a white woman back in the early 1900s.”

The Equal Justice Initiative documented 4,075 lynchings of blacks across the South between 1877 and 1950. But there is no count, as far as I know, of the many families and individuals who were forced to run for their lives to avoid being harmed or killed. We may never know how many men like my grandfather survived two attacks by a white posse — all because he didn’t move his buggy completely off a Poplar Springs road to let some whites pass.

These stories need to be told. They are an important part of our American truth. And all of us, no matter our race or ancestry, need to know these disturbing truths so that we can prevent them from ever happening again.

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