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.”