My grandmother India always said God had pointed a finger at our family,
asking for just a bit more discipline, more praying, and more hard work
because he had blessed us with good health and good brains. My mother
was one of the first few blacks to integrate the University of Arkansas,
graduating in 1954. Three years later, when Grandma discovered I would
be one of the first blacks to attend Central High School, she said the
nightmare that had surrounded my birth was proof positive that destiny
had assigned me a special task.
First off, I was born on Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 1941. Mother says
while she was giving birth to me, there was a big uproar, with the
announcement that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. She remembers
how astonished she was, and yet her focus was necessarily on the task at
hand. There was trouble with my delivery because Mom was tiny and I was
nine pounds. The doctor used forceps to deliver me and injured my scalp.
A few days later, I fell ill with a massive infection. Mother took me to
the white hospital, which reluctantly treated the families of black men
who worked on the railroad. A doctor operated to save my life by
inserting a drainage system beneath my scalp.
Twenty-four hours later I wasn't getting better. Whenever Mother sought
help, neither nurses nor doctors would take her seriously enough to
examine me. Instead, they said, "Just give it time."
Two days after my operation, my temperature soared to 106 and I started
convulsing. Mother sent for the minister to give me the last rites, and
relatives were gathering to say farewell.
That evening, while Grandmother sat in my hospital room, rocking me back
and forth as she hummed her favorite hymn, "On the Battlefield for My
Lord," Mother paced the floor weeping aloud in her despair. A black
janitor who was sweeping the hallway asked why she was crying. She
explained that I was dying because the infection in my head had grown
The man extended his sympathy. As he turned to walk away, dragging his
broom behind him, he mumbled that he guessed the Epsom salts hadn't
worked after all. Mother ran after him asking what he meant. He
explained that a couple of days before, he had been cleaning the
operating room as they finished up with my surgery. He had heard the
doctor tell the white nurse to irrigate my head with Epsom salts and
warm water every two or three hours or I wouldn't make it.
Mother shouted the words "Epsom salts and water" as she raced down the
hall, desperately searching for a nurse. The woman was indignant,
saying, yes, come to think of it, the doctor had said something about
Epsom salts. "But we don't coddle niggers," she growled.
Mother didn't talk back to the nurse. She knew Daddy's job was at stake.
Instead, she sent for Epsom salts and began the treatment right away.
Within two days, I was remarkably better. The minister went home, and
the sisters from the church abandoned their death watch, declaring they
had witnessed a miracle.
So fifteen years later, when I was selected to integrate Central High,
Grandmother said, "Now you see, that's the reason God spared your life.
You're supposed to carry this banner for our people."
Black folks aren't born expecting segregation, prepared from day one to
follow its confining rules. Nobody presents you with a handbook when
you're teething and says, "Here's how you must behave as a second-class
citizen." Instead, the humiliating expectations and traditions of
segregation creep over you, slowly stealing a teaspoonful of your
self-esteem each day.
By the time I was four years old, I was asking questions neither my
mother nor grandmother cared to answer. "Why do the white people write
Colored on all the ugly drinking fountains, the dingy restrooms,
and the back of the buses? When will we get our turn to be in charge?"
Grandma India would only say, "In God's time. Be patient, child, and
tell God all about it."
I remember sitting on the dining room floor, writing letters to God in
my Indian Head tablet. I painstakingly formed the alphabet just as
Grandma had taught me to do in order to distract me from my asthma
cough. I could do the multiplication table through ten and read and
write simple sentences by the age of four as a result of all those long
nights working with her.
When I was five, I had my first true bout with testing the harsh
realities of segregation. My family -- Grandmother, Mother, Daddy, and
my brother, Conrad, plus most of my aunts and uncles -- had gathered at
Fair Park for a Fourth of July picnic. As usual we were separated from
the white people, set apart in a wooded section away from the pool and
the merry-go-round. While the grownups busied themselves setting up the
meal, I made my escape, sneaking away to ride the merry-go-round. I had
had my eye on one horse in particular, Prancer, the one I had dreamed
about during all those months as I saved up the five pennies I needed to
I reached up to give the concessionaire my money. "There's no space for
you here," the man said. But I pointed to Prancer's empty saddle. That's
when he shouted at me and banged hard on the counter, spilling my coins
on the ground. "You don't belong here, picaninny." I didn't know what
that word meant. But his growling voice hurt my ears and made my knees
shake. Angry faces glared at me as though I'd done something terribly
wrong. Scurrying past the people waiting in line, I was so terrified
that I didn't even take the time to pick up my precious pennies. At five
I learned that there was to be no space for me on that merry-go-round no
matter how many saddles stood empty.
As a young child, my life was centered around the big, old, white
wood-frame house at 1121 Cross Street that was my home. I lived there
with my mother, Lois; her mother, my grandmother India; my father,
Howell; and my brother, Conrad. Seven red cement stairs led up to the
front door. A giant rubber plant stood just inside the front hallway
next to tall mahogany bookcases that held the cherished volumes of
Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Emily Dickinson, and of James Welden Johnson
and Langston Hughes that Grandma and Mother loved so much. Some of the
shelves held the textbooks Mother used for teaching seventh-grade
English and for the night classes she took to get her master's degree.
Next came the living room with its tattered, overstuffed green velvet
chair and matching couch. The half-moonshaped radio with brass knobs sat
on a round mahogany table. Wine-colored leather chairs stood on either
side. Great-grandma Ripley's clock and a copper horse that had belonged
to Great-grandpa rested on the mantel over the fireplace.
The kitchen had a huge old-fashioned stove, a red chrome-trimmed
breakfast table and chairs, bright yellow walls, and a linoleum floor
with visible marks of wear and tear. Grandma could usually be found
scrubbing it sparkling clean or baking cornbread, simmering collard
greens, or preparing her special gourmet salmon soufflé. She had
learned to cook some of her fancy dishes when she worked as a maid in
white ladies' kitchens on Park Hill.
For as long as I can remember, I spent late afternoons with Grandma
India in her garden, tending her four o'clock plants. I would stand
beside her holding on to her skirt as she pulled the weeds or held the
water hose. That's when we had our private talks. Once when I was six or
so, I explained to her that I believed each human being was really only
a spirit -- made by God, and that our bodies were like clothes hanging
in the closet. I said I thought that one day I would be able to exchange
my body for a white body, and then I could be in charge.
"Some of your thinking is right, child. We are not these bodies, we are
spirits, God's ideas. But you must strive to be the best of what God
made you. You don't want to be white, what you really want is to be
free, and freedom is a state of mind."
"Yes, ma'am, but..."
"I hope you haven't told anyone else about spirits and bodies." She
squeezed my hand. "Well, have you?"
"Good. It's time you started keeping a diary so's you can write down
these thoughts and share them with me sometimes, but mostly keep them to
yourself and tell God."
The next time she went to town she brought me a pink diary that I could
lock with a little key. Most evenings before sleeping, I looked forward
to going to my bedroom to write to God.
My room was a place for my stuffed animals to live and a home for my
huge brown Raggedy Ann doll, the one Grandma India made for me. It was a
magical place where I daydreamed for hours as I listened to music or
radio shows. There I could be whoever I wanted; I could be white -- I
could be free.
My brother, Conrad's, bedroom was filled with strange trucks, glass jars
of crawly bugs, and a wooden train Daddy made for him. Conrad spent lots
of time counting marbles, putting puzzles together, and playing
Monopoly. His room always seemed to be cluttered with pieces and parts
of things, and Daddy would often march into Conrad's room and demand
that he put all his toys and trucks back into the red wooden box they
had built together.
Daddy worked for the Missouri Pacific Railroad as a hostler's helper. He
would arrive home, his huge muscular body obviously tired from the
physical labor of his job. Mother constantly reminded him that if he'd
finish just one more course, he could graduate from college and have a
professional job that paid more. But he resisted, saying he preferred to
work outside in the fresh air, where he was free. He loved hunting and
fishing and getting away to the wilds where nobody could bother him. It
made Mother very angry that he wouldn't follow her advice. I worried
they might do what my friend Carolyn's parents did -- get a divorce.
The dining room with its big oval table was the place we gathered each
night for dinner and evening games. Daddy sat in the brown leather
chair, reading his newspaper and working his crossword puzzles. Grandma
entertained us with reading or checkers and chess so we wouldn't bother
Mother as she studied for her night-school exams. She was determined to
complete her master's degree.
With the passage of time, I became increasingly aware of how all of the
adults around me were living with constant fear and apprehension. It
felt as though we always had a white foot pressed against the back of
our necks. I was feeling more and more vulnerable as I watched them
continually struggle to solve the mystery of what white folks expected
of them. They behaved as though it were an awful sin to overlook even
one of those unspoken rules and step out of "their place," to cross some
invisible line. And yet lots of discussions in my household were about
how to cross that line, when to cross that line, and who could cross
that invisible line without getting hurt.
There were so many times when I felt shame, and all the hope drained
from my soul as I watched the adults in my family kowtow to white
people. Whenever we shopped at the grocery store, they behaved as though
they were worried about something.
The grocer, tall, skinny Mr. Waylan, with his Adam's apple sticking out
above his collar, his fish-belly blue-white skin and oversized
fingernails, was the white man I saw most often. At least twice a week,
I would accompany one or more of the adults in my family to his store.
Mr. Waylan's store was one of my favorite places because going there was
sometimes like going to a neighborhood party. Mostly our people shopped
there, although a few whites from a nearby neighborhood came there, too.
There was sawdust on the floor, and the air was filled with the aroma of
spices, fruits, onions, nuts, and potatoes. Maybe it was the festive
colors and sounds that reminded me of a party.
Early one Friday evening, when the store was crowded, our entire family
went in for a shopping spree. We had Mama's teaching check, Daddy's
railroad check, and the money Grandma India had earned from her work as
a maid. It was one of those times when we all felt joy and peace and
lots of hope. I looked forward to the bill paying because the grocer
sometimes rewarded Conrad and me with Sugar Daddy suckers after the
grown-ups handed over the money.
Grandma was the first to look over Mr. Waylan's bill. Her forehead
wrinkled; she mumbled and handed it to Daddy. He looked it over. By the
time Mother examined the bill, all their faces were grim. They quickly
moved Conrad and me with them to a corner of the store.
They were certain the bill overcharged them by twenty-two dollars. That
was more than a day's pay, Daddy said. Still, they seemed frightened to
speak up. After lots of whispered angry words, they decided to complain.
Although Grandma approached the grocer in a calm, respectful way, he
shouted back at her in an angry voice -- loud enough for everyone within
a block to hear. He said he gave us credit when we didn't have eating
money, so he expected us to pay without complaining.
Seeing Daddy's jaw tighten and his eyes narrow, Grandma touched his hand
to stay him. There was an ominous silence in the store. Everybody was
staring at us. Other people in the store, some of them our friends,
stood absolutely still, fear in their eyes.
At first Mother, Grandma, and Daddy stood paralyzed. Then Mother took a
deep breath, stepped forward, and said in a commanding voice, "Even when
we're being overcharged?"
"You just watch your mouth or you'all will be eating beans next month."
The grocer was shaking his fist at Mother Lois. There was fire in
Daddy's eyes, but once again Grandma looked at him and he backed down;
the three of them cowered like children before a chastising parent.
There was a long moment of complete silence. All at once Grandma started
to pull dollars out of her purse and Daddy did the same. Together, they
paid the full amount.
Mama quickly shoved Conrad and me out the door. We'd make do with what
was in our cupboards for the next few days, Daddy said. We wouldn't be
going to that store anymore.
On the way home Grandma fussed and fumed, saying she was fed up with
buying day-old bread and slightly rotting meat for one and a half times
the price fresh food was sold to white folks. I couldn't stop wondering
why Mama, Grandma, and Daddy couldn't talk back to that white man.
Daddy was a tall man, over six feet four, with broad shoulders and big
muscles in his arms. He could toss me in the air and catch me or hoist
me over the fence with ease. Until that moment, I had thought he could
take on the world, if he had to protect me. But watching him kowtow to
the grocer made me know it wasn't so. It frightened me and made me think
a lot about how, if I got into trouble with white people, the folks I
counted on most in my life for protection couldn't help me at all. I was
beginning to resign myself to the fact that white people were definitely
in charge, and there was nothing we could do about it.
The next day Grandma called all her friends and tried to get them to
agree to form a group to shop across town. All but one person warned her
not to cause trouble. After she had dialed at least ten numbers, she
sank down into her chair and sat silent for a long while. Then she
picked up her Bible and read aloud the verse that cleared away the tears
in her eyes: "And Ethiopia shall stretch forth her wings." With a smile
on her face and fire in her eyes she said, "Be patient, our people's
turn will come, You'll see. Your lifetime will be different from mine. I
might not live to see the changes, but you will....Oh, yes, my child,
But as time passed without significant changes in my life, I was
becoming increasingly anxious waiting for Ethiopia to stretch forth her
wings. In my diary I wrote:
What if Grandma is wrong? -- what if God can't fix
things. What if the white people are always gonna be in charge. God,
now, please give me some sign you are there and you are gonna do
something to change my life. Please hurry! -- Melba Pattillo, age
eight, a Sunday school student
Excerpted from "Warriors Don't Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock's Central High" by Melba Pattillo Beals. Copyright © 1995 by Melba Pattillo Beals. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.