muriel smith 120You kind of sense that you feel something, but you’re not exactly sure what. It’s subtle, understated, a bit gentle. But it’s there.  

Spending five days in Holly Springs, Mississippi, not far from the Tennessee border and a city steeped in history that few people know or seem to care about, was a lesson in history and so much more.

It began when someone said, “oh you wouldn’t find it there, that’s the white newspaper.’  Then you ask about the glass wall inside the local liquor store on the City Square and learn that if a black person not well known or ‘connected’ with the city wants to make a purchase, that’s where he stops. He gives his order to the salesperson that comes to the window in the door, gets his purchase, pays his money and leaves. But a white person walks right on through that glass door and buys whatever he wants. Or at the local hardware store, where the help is charming, friendly, and chatty even to a stranger, until a couple of black young men walk through that same door; the shop keeper’s conversation changes as his eyes never leave the two local men as they walk to some of the bins of screws and nails in the back of the store.

You see it in the charming little restaurant with a sensational low cost all- you- can- eat buffet. Everyone in there is friendly, everyone wants to help, and the staff is constantly making everyone feel comfortable, they all do.  But you also notice that of the six tables filled with diners, there is only one couple who is black……and they’re sitting at the table furthest away from everyone else, the one closest to the door.  It is so subtle that it wouldn’t have been noticed had it not been for the other subtleties observed earlier.

There was a huge and very popular Halloween tour that included everything from Linden Hill, a house inhabited by a very friendly ghost, to a former Catholic church where six Catholic nuns and a priest all died caring for Yellow Fever residents in the 1878 epidemic;  and you hear someone who wasn’t involved in the tour say, “I knew there had to be something going on; you’d never see this many white folks out on the street walking around after dark.”   Holly Springs isn’t a crime ridden city but that was the statement.

You go to the local museum, a popular attraction that charges a fee to visit three floors of exhibits, memorabilia, photographs, paintings and history. There’s a room filled with the class photographs of graduates of the local high school. In the foyer, near the elevator, there’s a small exhibit to the graduates of Rust College, the local college established in 1866, a historically black college, and the second oldest private college in the state. It’s one of ten historically black colleges founded after the Civil War that is still operating...  but you won’t learn anything about that at the museum dedicated to the history of Holly Springs.

And nowhere, nowhere in the town, in the stores, in the museums, nowhere do you see any reference to slavery.  You do see…many times over…..that General Grant, who headquartered in Holly Springs during part of the War, let his horses be stabled in the local Episcopalian and Baptist churches.   

Even with all the subtlety and gentleness, however, nothing prepared me for my first confrontation with an up close, very personal experience with racism at the local level.

I was with my son, and we stopped in the local Huddle House on a Sunday morning, a small but very busy eating place on the highway just outside of town where apparently it is the custom to go to church Sundays, then go out with the family for breakfast. Almost every table was filled, so we stopped by the counter and ordered a couple of coffees to go. I didn’t notice it at the time, but there were only two tables with white customers, the rest, including a local police officer eating with his family, were black. The waitress who took our order was attractive, young, soft-spoken and eager to please. And black.

A very attractive blonde waitress delivered a meal to a table with two 30-something couples and two young children.  As she placed the meal on the table, one of the white men said his order wasn’t right;  the blonde waitress turned to the soft-spoken girl and verified the order number.  That waitress, the one at the cash register who had been taking our order, went over to the table to check.  The complaining man immediately, loudly and rudely, berated her, said he wanted his meal, he wanted it right, and he wanted it right then. He said he was tired of not getting things the way he wanted them and hurry up about it. The blonde had left, to take care of another customer. The soft-spoken girl rushed to take the order away and re-check it; she apologized to us for the delay and explained she had only been on the job three days.

As I stood open-mouthed and shocked at the man’s display of rudeness, especially in front of his own children, he mistook the reason for my shock and said, “Isn’t this terrible treatment?”  I agreed, and then offered, “I’ve never seen anyone so rude as you in all my life.”  Stunned I thought he was the rude one, and not the working girl, he remarked, “Me, I’m rude? I’m entitled to get what I want and they’re supposed to get it for me. Most people mind their own business.”

My son, who on his best day doesn’t look like a man to be argued with, started to go over to the table to admonish the man on how to speak to a lady.  Three girls from another table, all of whom were black, rushed to my son, put their hands on his shoulder and said, “leave him be. That’s ok; we’re used to this.” The waitress was still at her job, but now her hands were trembling so much she couldn’t operate the register.

That “brave” man, most likely the father of some of those children, and the others at his table, never said another word. The children just looked questionably and didn’t seem to understand what had just happened.

The police officer, possibly out of hearing of most of the confrontation, did not get up and come over.  Maybe it happens so often even the police don’t do anything about loudly berating black help in a Huddle House after Sunday church. The girls who had told my son they’re used to this treatment, went to the officer and explained what happened.  He later thanked us for our concerns.

We got our coffee, thanked the waitress, stopped to talk to some of the other customers who were also thanking us but saying it happens all the time, and left. The offensive man and his family were still sitting there, silent.

And it made me think. Maybe, just maybe, the reason we have such terrible racial problems in the North is because in the South, in spite of all their history, in spite of how it changed their lives, in spite of how terrible the Civil War was, they don’t think it is as important a part of history as the fact Grant allowed horses to be stabled in a church.

It made me think those little children hearing their father talk to a young, soft-spoken black girl in that tone think that is the way it should be and will then grow up to do the same thing... and the racism goes on for another generation.