By Mrs. Virginia Cowan
I left Denver in 1952. My husband had been transferred to Enid A.F.B. in Enid, Oklahoma. I was to wait for him in Barnsdall, OK with his mother. I rode the Greyhound bus. During the trip I met a pleasant lady and we talked and laughed until we got to the Oklahoma border. The bus driver stopped the bus and the driver said, “We are entering Oklahoma, all colored to the back of the bus.” My friend got up to move back and I told her I’d go with her. She said, “No, honey you will just make trouble for me, stay right where you are.” I didn’t understand — it was as if I had entered a foreign country.
We finally approached Barnsdall, Oklahoma, and on the outskirts of town, I saw a big white sign with black letters that said, “N***, don’t let the sun set on your black ass in this town.” I couldn’t believe it. It was as if I had come to a strange planet, where everything I had ever known was upside down. I asked Mom if this was the way it was down here and she told me yes, and not to ask questions about it.
I stayed in Barnsdall three months. I never saw a black, ever. When they were talked about, it was always “those n***” or “those uppity n***.” I cringed every time I heard that word. If someone I knew used it, I just walked away. Mom had asked me please not to make waves. She had to live there, after I left. So, I kept my mouth shut.
Jim finally found us a place to live in Enid; so I kissed Mom goodbye and went to what I thought would be civilization. When I got off the bus the first thing I wanted was a restroom. There they were — “White women” — “White men” — and “Colored” — even the drinking fountains were “White” and “Colored.”
I had to watch where I walked, because if I wasn’t careful some colored person would have to get off of the sidewalk, so he wouldn’t be in my way.
Jim said I’d get used to it. I never did. Jim became more and more bigoted as we stayed in Oklahoma. His tenet seemed to be the old “barefoot and pregnant” nonsense. It didn’t work, and one day he hit me. When he picked himself up from the garage floor, I was packing and on my way home to Denver.
I was so glad to be back where people were people. I will admit the Mexicans had to re-fight the Alamo in Denver. I had gotten rid of that bigotry in High School. Thank God!
I don’t remember how I ended up back in Oklahoma. A friend must have called for help, I think. After she no longer needed me, I had to find a job. I worked at a restaurant/motel/gift-shop/gas station/bus depot at a wide spot in the road. It was called Hinton Junction, surrounded by wheat and cotton fields. It was a good job. I got room and board, plus a pretty good salary, because it was so isolated. I was saving my money so I could get out of there with a little nest egg.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to stick it out too long. I had dropped into a nest of rednecks that you had to see to believe. It all came to a head one afternoon, when I was on shift alone, except for the cook.
A brand new Cadillac pulled up in front of the restaurant. A black couple with a baby came in. I served them water and gave them setups and menus. The baby was about nine months old and cute as a button. I heard the cook calling me. I went to the service window and he said, “Get those n*** out of here, I won’t cook for those uppity S.O.B.’s.” I told him I was buying the meals and ordered two burger baskets and a side of mashed potatoes and gravy to go. He said, “I told you to get those n*** out of here, or I’ll do it for you.”
I went back to the couple. They had heard it all. The woman asked if they couldn’t at least get something for the baby. Tears were running down my face; I cry when I get angry. I told them I would do the best I could. While the cook was yelling and swearing at me, I put four containers of milk in a big paper bag, along with four cans of soda pop, crackers, a whole apple pie, and then I went into the kitchen and filled a carry-out container with hot soup. The cook was yelling that I couldn’t do that, but the cleaver was closer to me than him. By that time I was so angry, I must have scared him. I added napkins, knives, forks, and spoons, and handed it to the man. He tried to pay me, but all I could do was say, “No, no, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
The family left and the cook really started in on me, swearing, yelling, and threatening me. I picked up a bowl of salad dressing and let him have it right in the face. I ran out the back and ran as far as I could. I ended up at a barbed wire fence. I don’t really remember this part. My friends heard me screaming and swearing at the top of my lungs. My hands were cut and bruised from pounding on the fence. When I came to my senses, I paid for the food, picked up my check, and got the hell out of there.
Even now, 36 years later, I cringe when I hear a Southern drawl. I don’t mean to, I just can’t help it.
Copyright 1988 Virginia Cowan