Cedar Street Times guest column
by Alana Myles
This week’s Keepers of Our Culture is written by Alana Myles, a member of the board of trustees of the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District. She is a retired elementary school teacher and the author of The Way It Was, available on Amazon. In this essay, Ms. Myles reminds us of the importance of preserving memories so that future generations may connect in a personal way with the struggles of the civil rights movement.
The sun filtered through the window, flooding the room with what should have been a soft, calming light, but I remained more than a little excited. I sat in Park Place Publications with owner Patricia Hamilton, discussing the printing and marketing of my middle grade book, Monterey Bay Mystery and Mischief. Concluding our business, Patricia asked what inspired me to pen my children’s mystery. I responded that I write for the children in my family and this mystery was written for my grandchildren, my niece and nephews. I want them to have “a fun read” and I want them to get psyched about this amazing place we call the Peninsula and all there is to do here.
Our discussion segued into a conversation about preserving family history, traditions, and cultures, and using the printed word to bring people together: breaking down racial barriers, correcting misconceptions, celebrating our differences and honoring and recognizing our sameness.
I mentioned I had published a memoir, The Way It Was, a brief autobiographical sketch, the retelling of my family experience on a trip to the East Coast, to Columbia, South Carolina. Patricia wanted to know more. I told her I had taught a third grade English as a Second Language class in Salinas and how, one February, the class was engaged in various activities in recognition of Black History Month. We watched a short video about young Martin Luther King, Jr. and another video about Rosa Parks, the African-American woman who refused to give up her seat on the public bus to a white man and consequently was arrested and jailed for her defiance.
Helping Her Students Connect with the Past
Despite the class discussions and activities, I was not satisfied and I struggled with the feeling that I had not succeeded in getting the students to connect in a personal way with the struggle for civil rights. I wanted them to understand how racism demeans us all and keeps our country from becoming the great nation it could be. When sharing my frustration with my mother, it occurred to me that there was a way I might expand my students’ understanding. What would it be like to suddenly find oneself living under an openly repressive racist system? I had lived through such an experience as a child and it was that experience I would write about.
In the summer of 1957, my parents, Lawrence and Elizabeth Hagood, received word from “back home” that my mother’s mother was critically ill. They immediately set about making arrangements to head cross country to Columbia, South Carolina. The Packard was loaded with all we would need to make the trip. It was as though we would be going on an extended camping trip. We had sleeping bags, cooking utensils, clothing for all types of weather, and some food items.
So off we went, Dad, Mom, four brothers ranging from ages two to eight, and me, the oldest, age nine. Shortly after we left the comfort of the more liberal West Coast, (racism on the Monterey Peninsula, then and now, is of a subtle, hidden nature) we encountered the type of discrimination most think only existed in the Deep South. But, in fact, it was in Barstow, California, that my family (we are African-American) was refused service at a restaurant and directed to go to a different part of town.
The Reality of Life in the Deep South
Days later, once we passed the Mason Dixon Line, I learned firsthand what I had only heard my parents and relatives talk about when they referred to the plight of “colored folk” living in the South. I saw the signs posted above doors and drinking fountains that read either “whites only” or “colored.” The family had to use side entrances to buildings or had to wait until all the white customers’ needs had been met. I recall how disappointed my brothers and I were when we were turned away from a movie theater where a new John Wayne cowboy movie was playing. The theater did not have a “colored” section.
We slept in parks along the way where we could lay out our sleeping bags and set up a propane gas stove or cook our meals on an outdoor grill. It wasn’t a matter of my father not having the money to stay in a hotel, but rather, we were not welcome or allowed to stay in nice travelodges. They were reserved for whites only. On occasion, if we found a fair-size town, my father would stop and ask a black person where we could find decent, safe lodging for an evening. Most often we would be directed to a home that had been set up as a boarding house in the colored area.
Not all whites were demeaning, indifferent or unhelpful. Many were cordial and friendly. One white man went out of his way to assist my father in finding help when our car broke down. And, yes, I do have many fond memories of that trip. Ones that speak to the hospitality of family members, the feeling of mutual respect, unity, and looking out for one’s brethren. I remember bountiful meals featuring good, down-home cooking and evenings listening to family history, tall tales included. I remember falling in love with fried okra and Texas-style chili con carne. And I remember warm evenings sitting on a screened porch listening to the songs of insects and the wondrous display of the flashing lights of fireflies in the night sky.
Raising the Consciousness of Our Community
The writing of The Way It Was provided a means to educate others about a deplorable state of affairs that is an unfortunate part of our nation’s history. It is meant to present a balanced picture of my personal experience. It is meant to inform, not to inflame. It is an effort to help raise the conscience of our community. And it is meant to help spur action for continued amicable advancement in our dealings with one another in the fight for civil rights and the elimination of racism in all its forms.
I see my involvement in education and community service as a way to help make a difference in bringing about a better world. I encourage others to find their personal connections and join in the movement for equality and social justice. We have come a long way in the struggle, but so much more work must be done before we all are truly free.
Everyone has a story to tell, an experience to share with future generations—don’t let your legacy disappear! Patricia Hamilton and Joyce Krieg will be offering new sessions of Guided Autobiography this fall. Guided Autobiography offers a structured, easy method for getting your memories down on paper. Deadline for registration and payment is September 8. For details, go to keepersofourculture.com or call 831/649-6640.