White child casts off black friend
Robinson remembers her first significant experience with racial prejudice in this excerpt. Like many African American children, Robinson learned about racism by losing a white friend whose parents had warned her against friendships with African Americans. The incident hurt Robinson, but her grandmother helped put it in perspective by telling her about protecting her grandfather from the Ku Klux Klan.
Citing this Excerpt
Oral History Interview with Willa V. Robinson, January 14, 2004. Interview U-0014. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Full Text of the Excerpt
MM: So talk about high school then when you first realized that you were black and poor. What was it that—?
WR: Well, at one time I had a pretty good voice, at least they said I did. I always sang alto, and we had a glee club. I know you’ve heard of glee clubs.
MM: I used to sing in one.
WR: We had a glee club, and we was very excited about it. This white girl—backing up on the story a bit. This white girl that had played with me all my life in my neighborhood, her daddy had a store in my neighborhood. Played with me, even spent nights at my house. I spent nights at her house when we were growing up. She’s the one that made me realize that I was different.
What happened was, we were invited over to the white school to sing a program. Well, we got there maybe thirty minutes before time, and we all was in the back, in the auditorium behind the curtains. She was standing there talking to a friend of hers, a white friend. I walked up to her and tapped her like that, “Hey Sarah Lib,” because her name was Sarah Elizabeth, but we called her Sarah Lib. She didn’t say anything. So I tapped her. I said, “What’s wrong, you don’t know nobody anymore?” I said, “This is Willa.” I said, “Hey Sarah Lib.” She said, “Come here a minute.”
She excused herself from this other girl, and she called me over in the corner. I was thinking there was some juicy gossip that she wants to tell me, because you know, when you’re thirteen, fourteen that’s all you know is gossip. I said, “What’s the matter?” She said, “I’ve got something to tell you.” I said, “What is it?” She said, “My daddy say I can’t play with you no more, and I can’t go to your house no more. I cannot associate with you no more because you’re black, and he don’t want me to associate with no black people.” I says, “Oh, really? I done changed colors.” I said, “I was this color all the time.” She said, “I know.” She said, “It ain’t my fault.” She said, “I don’t want you to be angry with me, but I have to do what my father says.” I says, “Fine with me,” but it broke my heart. But I said to her, I said, “Fine with me.” So that’s when I realized that I was black, and she was white, and we could not be friends any longer because her parent’s wouldn’t allow it.
MM: How did that affect you after that?
WR: It put a stigma on me, really, it did. But I guess my grandmother carried me though at lot of the bad things that was said and done to you as I was growing up because my grandmother was white. She carried me through a lot of things. She always told me, “Don’t ever let anybody make you feel inferior,” she said, “because they can’t do it without your consent.” I’ve never forgotten that. She says, “You’ve got to consent to it.” She said, “So, her daddy don’t want her to deal with you any longer. That doesn’t make you any different. That doesn’t make you be any less, and it doesn’t make her be any more, but it’s just one of the lessons that you have to learn as you’re going on, that there are always going to be prejudice people.”
Then she started telling me stories about how she used to have to sit on the porch at night with the gun to protect my grandfather from the Ku Klux Klan because he was black. They wouldn’t bother her, but they wanted him. And they’d tell her, “Why are you always sitting on the porch? We came after Emanuel. We don’t want you.” She’d tell them, “Well, you have to come by me first.” Then one got smart and says, “You can’t kill us all.” She said, “No, but I got two shells in this double barrel shotgun, and at least two of them will be down when it’s over.” They never bothered her, but he had to work on the farm during the day so he couldn’t sit up all night dealing with Ku Klux Klan coming over.