Friday, June 18, 2010

For some," It was the Good Old Days"


About five years after America’s Civil War ended, 1870, the majority of American Protestants were of the strong opinion that America was a Christian nation. Skeptics and non-Christians had another view, but there was in the nineteenth century indications that the Protestant majority carried the day. They took the lead in evangelizing the expanding frontier.

Out of these spiritual awakenings came the evangelicals’ courage to declare that America was God’s special gift to the world. From the black slaves came the sense of this being the Promised Land. They related deeply with Moses as he lead the Hebrew slaves out of bondage. This grew out of the African-Americans knowing personally the horror of slavery.

The Civil War violently exposed the 200 years of slavery as inhumane and not in the long-term interest of the nation, with the desire to be a Christian nation. England had outlawed the slave trade nearly a half-century earlier. Suffering of the war was seen, by some, as a result of having strayed from the path God planned for “His” country.

Isaiah, the Old Testament prophet, had stressed that a Holy God demanded a Holy people. (Slave owners like to point out the Hebrews, “God’s People,” had slaves.) Our nation was far from pure and treatment of foreigners or Roman Catholics and Jews has never been good. I am curious that such mistreatment in the midst of Protestant revivals was common. The Old Testament is filled with examples of what happened to the nation that forgets God and neglects the “Samaritan.”

My own experience growing up in the 1930s was typical of most small town Texans. I knew my barber dad’s shoe shine “boy,” the caretaker at the church and the janitor at the Lyric Theater. Whites, as a rule, never called a black person “Mr.” or “Mrs.” Use only their first name and too often with the demeaning term “boy.”

They lived in their own part of town that the whites, without any shame, referred to as “the flat.” I attended one black church service as a teenager with little insight into anything. They were gracious, I was uneasy. You see, they knew a lot more about our segregated, and generally better situations than we imagined. As late as 1970 the Department of Justice sued Texas for not following laws concerning desegregation of public schools.

The word "negro" means "black" in Spanish and Portuguese, from the Latin niger ("black") and Greek Négros ("black"). The usage was accepted as normal, even by people classified as Negroes, until the Civil Rights movement. It was the only respectful name we knew in those days, as in baseball’s Negro Leagues.

All-white public schools used McGuffey’s Reader which warned against hard drink, stressed rewards of attending Sunday school, hard work; virtue would always be rewarded. Most black schools appear to have old textbooks the white schools gave or sold to them.

Those were we the “good old days” (for some of us) as the 20th century got rolling. It rolled over the poor, the black and the Mexicans. At least that was the way it is stored in my memory. From stories of those times it is evident few gave “them coloreds” the time of day. Many a family had an uncle or two who never gave African-Americans much thought, and some actually said they had no souls.

Our society has come a long way, but to become what we could be is stymied until we learn to respect all peoples, weather we like them or not.