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Sharing life stories to break down barriers

[Editor’s note: Charlene Leavell grew up in Taft, California, a very small oil town 40 miles south of Bakersfield. At 18, she left to attend college in Fullerton, where she earned a bachelor’s in social sciences in 1977, followed by a career as an elementary school teacher in Upland. She and her husband Ed have lived in Claremont nearly 40 years and are graced with two beautiful daughters and three grandchildren. This is the first in a series of interviews Ms. Leavell will share to help break down stereotypes with the hope of becoming a more caring society.]

by Charlene Leavell

This morning I had the privilege of listening to a gentleman by the name of Junior share his experience of growing up black in middle America. The first thing that came to mind was when he was six years old.

His mother was putting him on the bus to school and the first words out of the bus driver’s mouth were, “Get your black tail to the back of the bus!”  Junior said his eyes were so mean and evil. The other riders said, “He’s just a little boy. He’s not going to harm anybody.”

Then Junior’s mother pleaded, “He’s just on his way to school, sir.”

“I don’t care! Go to the back of the bus!”

Junior said his mother always taught him to stay out of trouble. “It’s an evil world and you need to be mighty careful,” he recalled her saying.

He remembers times when he didn’t quite follow her instructions. One day, he and his cousin went into a small store owned by his neighbor when Junior took a Hostess Twinkie and stuffed it in his coat. Miss Walker, the owner, knew he took it, so she called his mother. 

When Junior’s mother arrived to the store she told him, “Okay, you take her punishment, then come home for my punishment.” Miss Walker had a big wooden paddle with holes in it. She said, “Bend down Junior and touch your toes.” He received a whippin’ from her and when he got home he received another one from his daddy. It was a hard lesson, but he learned at an early age that you don’t take something that doesn’t belong to you.

Junior remembers his childhood neighborhood in Kansas City being made up of Jews, Hispanics, blacks and other immigrants. They all got along. Everybody belonged. After a few years the family moved out to a ranch outside of town.

One day, walking down the dirt road, a man approached Junior. (I assume it was a rancher from a neighboring ranch.) In a gruff voice he asked, “What are you doing, boy?” Junior explained he was walking to school. “Alright then you get!”

At night the family would go out and sit on the screened in front porch. One night, several trucks drove by when the family saw men were standing in the back wearing hoods. Junior asked his mother who they were.

“Those are the Ku Klux Klan, son. You want to steer clear of them.” The KKK never bothered Junior’s family, because his daddy had a cornfield and he supplied them with corn liquor. Junior once went into the large shed where the liquor was stored. He didn’t quite know what he was drinking, but it tasted sweet so he just kept drinking. The next day he had quite a hangover.

When he was 12 years old, Junior’s father died, and he was sent to Michigan to live with his Uncle Rick. You might say life was better, depending on how you looked at it. Rick wasn’t his biological uncle, but he and Junior’s father had been business partners back in Kansas City.

Uncle Rick was the sheriff in a very small town called Oxford. One very hot day, Junior and some friends were walking into town to the Dairy Queen for ice cream when the sheriff from the next town over stopped them. 

“Where do you think you’re going? You don’t belong on this side of the street! You better get back over on your side and I don’t want to see you over here ever again.” The boys had to walk eight miles back to Oxford—no ice cream.

Uncle Rick had always been protective when trouble came along, so he paid a visit to the high school principal. “This is my son,” he said. “If you have any trouble you call me.” Junior admits he ended up in the principal’s office more than one time. He remembers some boys calling him names in the hallway, so he shouted back, “You white coons!” Then fists started swinging. That was one visit to the principal.

Being able to listen to Junior while he shared his life—his stories—taught me things I would otherwise never have known. I highly recommend it. Just ask someone in passing or someone you may even already know. “Would you be willing to share with me your life’s story?”

We will never destroy the power of racism if we don’t start today.

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