Black Life, 1950

Legendary Ethel Waters

DATELINE: Guest Writer Today

Back in 1950, the first time I saw a black person I was two-years old. I had never seen any such people of color.

My mother took me one day to Woolworth’s Five and Dime. It was always pleasant because they had a soda fountain, and often we stopped for ice cream.

One day we did not.

As was my habit, I wandered away from mother who was preoccupied at some bin of clothing. As I turned the corner and looked up, there standing at another bin doing her shopping was an elderly black woman, immaculately dressed and even with a hat squarely on her head.

In those days, you dressed up even to go out for a walk.

Of course, she did not notice me, but I screamed in horror and pointed at her with alarm.  I was traumatized and shocked.

Never in my life had I seen such a thing: a human of such color!. My mother ran over and apologized profusely, and the old lady was without reaction. Later I would imagine she had experienced far worse in her long life.

My mother dragged me out of the store, explaining repeatedly that there was nothing wrong with her: the old lady was not ill, nor disfigured. Her skin was a dark color, that’s all. She was born that way. Some people in the world were of different skin color. I am not sure that mollified me.

Later in the week, she sat me before our tiny round-screen TV set (a tiny Zenith model, first on the block) and put on a show called Beulah,which starred the marvelous and legendary singer and actress Ethel Waters .

It was a rarity: TV with black people back then. Beulah was the benevolent and wise housemaid to a family of rich white people. She solved their problems with grace and respect on each episode. It was some kind of fantasy world.

But that was life in 1950. When I thought about today’s human rights movement, Black Lives Matter, the little silly incident came back to my memory.