It seems strange that I would learn such a lesson at such a late age, given that I was raised in highly segregated Memphis, Tennessee, but I had not been around people whom I knew were racist and I was not familiar with the concept. It was not something people talked about.
Memphis Central was the oldest high school in town and was recognized as the college prep school. When someone “lettered” from Central, the letter they were given was an “H” for High School. Nearby Memphis Tech was the technical school. Both were all White. It didn’t occur to me that things could have been organized differently until the next year, in 1957, when our sister school, Little Rock Central in Little Rock, Arkansas, was desegregated by nine courageous students with a court order and a bevy of U.S Marshals.
The high schools in Memphis were three year schools (Grades 10-12) at the time. In 1956 I entered Central as a Sophomore. I was added to the ROTC and joined it’s drill team. As I remember it, the Reserve Officers Training Corps was mandatory for Sophomore boys, and was voluntary for Juniors and Seniors. The Drill Team was voluntary for all grades. Girls were not under consideration for ROTC. I am not sure what they did instead.
There was this one guy in ROTC who had it all together. Thankfully, I don’t remember his name, but he was really cool. Everyone looked up to him, including me. He was the person we all wanted to grow up to be like. We weren't friends, but somehow on the day in question I ended up behind him in the cafeteria line. As I remember it, we had to have a nickel at the end of the line. Something to do with milk, I think. I was juggling my tray, a couple of school books and my nickel, so without thinking I put the nickel between my teeth. I didn’t think anything about it.
So, this hero guy turned around, saw my nickel in my mouth and got the most horrible look on his face. I don't believe I would remember the look, though, if we're not for what he said – “Eww! Take that out of your mouth! Some N***** may have had that is his mouth!” My view of the world came apart. I lost a hero. He had instantly become a jerk instead. And I began to understand that some White people did not see all people as equal, in spite of what Lincoln had said in the Gettysburg address. In a sense, I lost my innocence that day. I am sure it was to my betterment in the long run to recognize what was really going on around me, but it was really painful.