Author offers insight on pre-civil rights South

<p>Not all Southerners in the pre-civil rights era were bigoted crackers. Some were simply unable or unwilling to challenge the predominant white social norms of that time.</p><p>But others, like Johnson County resident Lou Ellen Watts, were bothered by the obvious inequality between the races but were unsure how to proceed.</p><p>Watts recounts her conflicted childhood in a new book, “Sleeping in Dixie’s Feather Bed: Growing Up White in the Segregated South” (150 pages, $20, Hawthorne Publishing). It is a charming story about growing up in the 1940s and ‘50s, but the endemic, societal racism that pervaded the Southern culture shaped Watts’ thinking even as she slowly began to confront injustice.</p><p>The book’s title is a metaphor for how easy it could be for white Southerners to look past the Jim Crow laws and social conventions that governed white-black interactions. A feather bed is deep and wraps a person in its comfortable warmth. It is also a bit difficult to escape from when morning comes. It takes a bit of effort to get out of bed.</p><p>So it was with race relations. It was easier to just live with the system rather than attempt to escape or challenge it.</p><p>Watts’ family was not poor, nor was it wealthy. They were just ordinary folks. Her father worked in a paper mill. They made do.</p><p>She writes: “We were just a typical middle-class country family in the late forties and early fifties. My mother cooked, cleaned, and sewed while my father worked various shifts at the paper mill.”</p><p>The author writes about trips from their Georgetown, South Carolina, home to the seaside, of playing outside year-round, of Saturday-night life in town. But she also writes about her memories of encounters with the community’s black residents.</p><p>The first she remembers occurred when she was 3 years old. Her parents hired a young black girl to do some cleaning. Watts writes: “It didn’t matter that her skin was a different color than mine. In fact, I probably didn’t notice that hers was dark and mine was light. She was just a girl in a short, faded flour-sack cotton dress who stopped her work polishing the furniture for a moment to give me a smile.”</p><p>The author recounts her experiences during World War II, in particular rationing and recycling scrap for the war effort. She also writes about what wartime life was like on the East Coast, with its enforced blackouts due to Nazi submarine patrols, something most Midwesterners didn’t have to worry about. But from her 21st-century perspective she writes:</p><p>“Both races sent soldiers to Europe and the Pacific theaters of war. Families of white men as well as colored men were wrapped up in thoughts of their sons and brothers far from home. We experienced the war, but just as we did everything else in those times, we must have experienced the situation around us differently.”</p><p>This passage also shows an interesting linguistic aspect of Watts’ narrative — how she describes people of color. In her youth, blacks were generally referred to as colored, although there were far more hateful terms hurled at them, and Watts recounts some of these words and incidents. But in her youth, she and other whites generally used “colored,” and that’s the term that remains etched in her memory. But as she grew older and her consciousness was raised, she used other terms; and her writing includes the descriptions, such as black and African-American, which were more commonly used in those later eras.</p><p>The next significant race-related incident that Watts writes about involves a man hired to do some yardwork. The year was 1948, so the author is now a youngster with a growing sense of the world. As was common, day laborers were offered a midday meal. But being black, the hired man was served his meal of chicken and rice on a sheet of newspaper, rather than the family’s china, and with no utensils.</p><p>Watts writes: “Would (my mother) have provided a plate and spoon if this had been a white person doing the yard work? I’ll never know because it wasn’t discussed.</p><p>“That night I snuggled under my bed cover and thought about that man eating off a piece of newspaper. I thought to myself, ‘That’s the way we feed our dog and cat! My family’s dinner plates aren’t fancy and our spoons aren’t silver, but they’re better than eating off newspaper like that poor colored man did.’</p><p>“The last thing I remember before closing my eyes that night was hoping he had a good meal when he got home to his own house and was able to eat it on a plate with a spoon.”</p><p>The next few chapters focus on growing up, moving and heading for college. She includes a few racially tinged incidents, including a Ku Klux Klan cross burning and standing up for a poor black girl who was being bullied.</p><p>The incident Watts considers most transformative, an epiphany, if you prefer, occurred in 1960 when she was a counselor at Interlochen Music Camp in Michigan, a far distance geographically and socially from the segregated South of her youth.</p><p>When asked how she would deal with counselors or students who are of a different skin color, Watts recalls saying, “I guess I will treat them like everybody else.”</p><p>And that marked a major turning point in her life. From then on, other people were simply people, judged one at a time based on their individual merit. She writes of a particular incident involving a young camper at an evening campfire program. She considers it a life-changing moment, but the basis for that change clearly was built throughout her life.</p><p>To recount the story here would rob potential readers of her book of one of Watts’ marvelous stories. But in retrospect, she writes: “I felt so small. There was that huge miracle making itself clear to me, and I was powerless to do anything about it. I couldn’t turn my eyes away from the truth.”</p><p>The book could end there, but Watts goes on to recount several incidents from her teaching career in Arizona. She doesn’t go into the detail that she does with incidents from her youth, but those would best fit in another book. After all, by this point, she had exited that Southern feather bed.</p><p>In her preface, Watts offers a one-paragraph summary of her transformation.</p><p>“I had lived, grown up really, in the South for twenty-two years and considered it my home. It was only when I escaped that I came to realize the plight of African Americans still striving to be recognized as people. Rising up from the distorted views in Dixie to face the real world had not been easy, but I had done it. This is that story.”</p>