A Rebel remembers the opening of mind and heart

March 06, 1997|By Ruby Bellinger

BY BLOOD AND BIRTH, I am Yankee, born of Michigan ancestry at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Like Yankee Doodle I have worn many a feather in my cap. But having been raised amid the beauty and quiet, slow pace of Georgia, I am Rebel by spirit, perhaps more of a rebel than was fitting at some times and less at others.

I was born to parents who were not bigots, who did not raise their children to be bigots, and who did not associate with bigots, except in church. And there the bigots were mostly anonymous until the civil rights movement came into full swing in the 1960s and the priest of the parish we attended opened the doors to blacks.

That's when the church started to empty. I recall with clear vision the pride I saw in those who stayed and welcomed these dark-skinned people, and the sorrow, disappointment and amazement I felt when I realized those who left were not the loving people I thought they were.

About the same time, my mother and the priest spoke with me about attending Paine College in Augusta. I was 17 then. It didn't matter that I had never heard of Paine College; foremost in my mind was escaping the strict rule and hard work of my mother's house and being with other kids my age. And yes, having fun.

I should have known that something was afoot; after all, my mother allowed me very little fun or privileges. What I had of either, I took for myself and hoped she wouldn't find out. I do recall being ever so amazed that she would allow me this retreat from her and the drudgery of her house, and wondered who was going to tend to all my young siblings and the housework, both of which had been thrust into my care and doing.

I didn't allow those thoughts to linger long. "Yes!" I said. Yes, yes, yes! Give me some freedom and life of my own.

The day came and my mother drove me into town, dropped me off in front of the school and drove away. I struggled with my suitcases and whatnots and got myself enrolled.

All too soon I realized mine was the only white face among many hundreds of black faces. I didn't know what to make of it; I thought there had been some mistake.

'They're all black'

I had come into contact with only a handful of blacks up to that time, and, although I had formed no opinion about them one way or the other, I was nervous about being one among so many.

My mother knew of my inexperience. I'm sure the priest must have known too, and I couldn't imagine they didn't know they were sending me away to an all-black school, or that they would neglect telling me that fact.

Very soon after enrollment I tried to call my mother; she was not home yet. I then tried and found her priest.

When I asked him to come and get me -- because I was afraid -- he asked me why. Seeing all those black people in one place and my being the only white, I could only think of the lynchings I'd recently heard about in Mississippi and Alabama, and thought surely these people wouldn't, couldn't take kindly to my invading their space.

"They're all black," I responded. "They may hang me." The priest assured me I would not be hanged and that everything would be okay. I set forth believing him and concentrated on making the best of my situation, as it appeared I would not be going home any time soon.

I did not get hanged, and I made many good, long friendships which, unfortunately, I allowed to go by the wayside in my search for self over the 30 years since that inaugural day at Paine College. For the first time in my life I was laughing with regularity; these people knew how to have fun, and I enjoyed them.

I learned later that the priest was greatly instrumental in the desegregation of Augusta and that my mother was right there to assist him in any way she could. All that is well and good, though I don't know that I have ever completely forgiven them for their lack of honesty and for their having used me.

Finding enlightenment

Yet, in the end, I do not regret having had that experience. After the first few hours of nervousness, I met some of my classmates and began to have fun. I quickly came to learn these people were not to be feared. My mother, enjoying her crusadership, lightened up on me and welcomed some of my classmates to our house in the country outside Augusta, where it was relatively safe during the devastating riots of 1968.

This experience taught me that things may not always be as they seem. With open minds, we may find enlightenment. We may accept, even appreciate our neighbor for his differences, and become thankful that, because of our differences, the world is a less boring place than it surely would be if we were all alike.

Ruby Bellinger writes from Vienna, Md.

Pub Date: 3/06/97

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