Racism remembered

Discovering that even the small wounds of prejudice can linger decades later

January 16, 2011|By Stephen H. Sachs

As we prepare to celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, it is right to take pride in our determined, if unsteady, march toward racial understanding. But it is also right to recall the pain that our acts of bigotry — large and small — have inflicted along the way and that remain, indelibly, in memory.

I can give such testimony.

I witnessed and began to understand for the first time the personal humiliation of racial discrimination during my senior year at Haverford College. It happened in a makeshift barbershop in the basement of Founders Hall in the fall of 1953.

The barber chair was empty as I entered. The barber, an employee of a shop in neighboring Ardmore, Pa., who made weekly visits to the campus, busied himself with his tray of assorted scissors, clippers and tonics. He ignored the skinny black kid who was sitting quietly, waiting patiently. That kid was Norman Hill, a sophomore, one of the tiny number of African-Americans in Haverford's student body then.

Norman's presence startled me. I was a child of rigidly segregated Baltimore. I had never been in a biracial barber shop. Shameful as it is to admit today, I'm sure I wondered whether sharing combs and brushes with Norman would contaminate me somehow. Notwithstanding my own casual personal hygiene back then, I probably worried whether Norman's kinky hair was clean. But when the barber motioned me to the chair, I said — haltingly, I'm sure — that I would wait because Norman had been there first.

It's hard to pinpoint why I deferred. Perhaps the teachings of our Quaker college called up the instincts of fair play. Perhaps my progressive, liberal, upbringing (albeit lily-white) was at work. Perhaps it was merely the pedestrian call of politics — my responsibilities as the elected president of the Student Association to a constituent in distress.

At root, though, I know it came to this: I saw the hurt on the face of the forlorn Norman Hill. I had witnessed, and somehow shared, the pain of Norman's debasement. I simply couldn't bear to be a part of it.

As I recall, the barber's explanation for not serving Norman — accompanied by apologetic shrugs and pleas for us to understand his position — was that his boss at the off-campus shop didn't permit him to cut "their" hair. Besides, he added lamely, he didn't have the special talent he needed to cut "black hair."

Although Norman and I scarcely knew each other — it is likely that we had never spoken — Norman and I left the shop together and took a long walk around the campus. I can no longer remember the details of our talk. But I'm sure I tried to be comforting, supportive. I almost certainly made an awkward attempt at empathy by saying that, as a Jew, I understood and had experienced prejudice. I hope I had the good sense not to equate my relatively benign brushes with anti-Semitism with the direct, personal hurt he had just experienced. I told Norman that I would report the episode to Haverford's president, Gilbert White.

That's what I did. And Gilbert White, a man of high principle, did what I knew he would. He phoned the barbershop's owner and informed him that unless its barbers served every Haverford student, regardless of race, they were no longer welcome on the Haverford campus.

I don't recall this episode with satisfaction. Although it was a milestone in my comprehension of racial injustice, I am shamed even now at my prejudiced reluctance, as a 19-year old, to share a barber's chair with a fellow student who was black.

* * *

Our careers took very different paths. I became a lawyer, practiced law privately, served in the U.S. Attorney's Office and, later, as Maryland's attorney general. Like all Americans my age, I was witness to the advance of African-Americans toward full membership in the American family. Except for some distinctly un-heroic gestures at the margins, however, I certainly cannot claim to have been a full participant in that civil rights revolution. I didn't do sit-ins or Freedom Rides; I didn't picket, or march at Selma. I watched Bull Connor and his dogs and fire hoses on television. I listened to Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech on the car radio on my way home from interviewing a federal prisoner at Lewisburg Penitentiary. So, for the most part, I was an onlooker at the most profound change in our country during my lifetime. I watched with sympathy — but without risk.

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