Racial Prejudice

Participants in the Getting Word project recalled varied experiences with racial prejudice.  For some, experiences with discrimination only motivated them to work harder to achieve their goals.  For others, the Jim Crow system thwarted their efforts to receive a quality education and pursue their chosen career.  Types of discrimination experienced ranged from segregated movie theaters and hostility from whites to relatives privileging lighter skinned children over those with dark complexions. 

While growing up in Courtland, AL, Eliga Diggs was close with the white children who lived near him—“we were just like brothers”—but he recalls being segregated from them when they went into town together.  When going to a movie, “They went downstairs. We went upstairs.” As a child, Diggs remembers not dwelling on discrimination, but realizing the injustice of the Jim Crow system as he got older.  Once he began his own family, he was relieved that segregation had abated: “I’m glad my children did not have to grow up in that kind of atmosphere”

In his interview, Woodson descendant James Wiley recalled how prejudice stymied his father’s career as an engineer.  “It was the American dream gone sour,” he remembered. James Wiley graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1940 with a degree in physics, hopeful that he could get a job as an engineer.  He soon realized that, as with his father, racial discrimination precluded him from following this career path and turned instead another of his interests—aviation. 

While logging flight training hours in Tallahassee, FL, Wiley experienced airplanes flown by African Americans “having all kinds of problems. Fuel leaks and things were coming apart on the airplanes.  They were being sabotaged.” During a flight, Wiley saw fuel streaming out of his plane and ejected before the plane crashed.  This terrifying experience left him more aware than ever that “there was a lot of Ku Klux Klan people around at that time.”

Aside from overt and even violent racism from whites, Getting Word participants recalled color discrimination in their own communities, and even families.  Lucille Balthazar remembered her grandmother giving preferential treatment to her blond, blue-eyed brother, Billy. “When we came to visit her she always asked ‘Billy, now what would you like Grandmother to cook for you?’  And she made the best fried apple pies that she would make for him or doughnuts or whatever he asked her to make she would make it.”

When Ann Medley was in elementary school, she experienced racial discrimination from both white and black children because of her light skin. “You’d get if from both ways,” she remembered.  Medley’s daughter Patti Jo Harding experienced a similar type of discrimination: “The blacks don’t like it because you’re light skinned and the whites know you’re black so you’re just like stuck there.”

James Wiley, 1944
Ann Medley

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“We Should Be Treated As Americans”

After a while he became interested in politics.  He ran for the Board of Education once and didn’t win.  In…
“We Should Be Treated As Americans”

Pearl Roberts speaks of her husband’s political views and career.

After a while he became interested in politics.  He ran for the Board of Education once and didn’t win.  In 1918, he ran for Assemblyman and people thought he was crazy, but he was elected.  He was there for 16 years, four terms.  He was the first black elected to an official position in the state of California.  He was the first black elected to a state office west of the Mississippi…. 

He didn’t like the word “Negro.”  He used the term “Americans of African descent.”  He wanted to stress the fact that we were Americans and should be treated as Americans.  Whereas most newspapers would say, “another Negro lynched,” his newspaper would say, “another American lynched.”  (Pearl Roberts typescript autobiography, Roberts Collection, African American Museum and Library at Oakland)

“The American Idea Of Fair Play”

In the south, the policy of white toward Negro is one of suppression and antagonism.  Once the issue of social…
“The American Idea Of Fair Play”

In 1922, Frederick Roberts warns of the growing threat to the ideals of the Founders.

In the south, the policy of white toward Negro is one of suppression and antagonism.  Once the issue of social equality is raised, the whole American idea of fair play is laid aside in favor of mob force and lynching bees.  The result is that our national tranquility is shaken to the roots, and the very life of American ideals is threatened.

In the west, on the other hand, the athletic ideal governs the relation between the races.  Here the American idea of fair play prevails.  The race issue is never present in politics, but rather Negro and Caucasian vote on all questions from a moral and purely objective viewpoint.

The problem of racial disorder in the south is not a Negro problem, but a purely American one.  If in one corner of the land law and order may be set aside to favor the passions of a group, why is it not feasible to do the same thing in other parts of the country?  Thus the very existence of the principles, upon which our nation was founded are at stake.   (San Jose Evening News, 2 Sep. 1922)