As Bloody Sunday remembrances unfold and 50 year anniversaries are reflected upon, I am reminded of not only Dr. King’s march and the events of those months but of my own experiences in those tumultuous years. I am not African American but I belonged to one of Virginia’s first integrated young people’s groups and we witnessed and felt segregation firsthand.

094 awhite & black kid in carriage

In 1965, a group from Weatherford Baptist Church was inspired to bring young people together regardless of race. The result was Sing Out South, a singing cast sharing songs like “What Color is God’s Skin” and “Up with People.” Seven white kids and seven black kids performed the first show but Sing Out grew and in 1967 I joined them on stage and on the streets of Richmond and beyond.

017  black family

First Union Church, Elizabeth & Moore Streets (by Maggie Walker Governor’s School)

For a long time, African-American churches were the only venue open to us which is why I’m familiar with so many Jackson Ward and Carver churches. There were times when we were refused service in restaurants because we had black cast members. Nothing stopped our leader, Inez Thurston. Not even the crosses burned in her front yard. Once we performed, singing “What Color is God’s Skin” upstairs in a school while the KKK met downstairs. For a teenager, for anyone, that’s scary. It’s hard for my kids’ generation to comprehend these injustices and I hope their children will only read about prejudice in history books. I credit my parents with raising my siblings and me to see our likeness in other people instead of our differences but I have evidence that my heritage reflected radical thinking even back in 1907.

That year, my great-grandfather, Harris Stilson, was invited to return to his hometown in Michigan to speak to the Ladies’ Literary Club. That hand-written speech, entitled “Our Tinted Population”, survived. My first thought was “it’s a wonder they didn’t string him up.” I don’t know if the term integration was even in existence then but that is what Harry Stilson advocated in 1907. Here’s an excerpt exactly as written:

091 Tinted Population

“We are black, brown, red, yellow and white. We are Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, Jew, spiritualist, atheist, or whatnot. If they be of different types, at variance in color, religion or nationality, or all three, I am constrained to believe, being optimistic, it is so much better for the world. I believe that the true test is one of character or moral worth, and that the best education is the one that develops that character without regard to color of skin or condition of society. I also think that the best way to remove that “pride of tint” is by honorable familiarity with the adverse color, religion or nationality.”

079 Bessie Watson

“Bessie Watson’s daughter” hand-tinted portrait

“In no place can this honorable familiarity be better brought about than in our common schools and public churches. I would abolish all private schools…(so) that they should become more familiar with and less suspicious of those of different tint, and thus become better citizens of this great nation, having more respect for each other.” 090 icemen

Harry Stilson moved freely between his white middle-class world and the African-American and Jewish neighborhoods of Jackson Ward, Carver, and Newtowne. His friends included Sam Sparrow, a black railroad porter, and an Indian streetcar conductor described in a post card as having “lived two doors down.” Harry wrote that his daughter had gone to visit the man’s wife and commented that they were “good neighbors. Wish I could say the same of all whites.” Inflamatory words, especially on a post card sent through the U.S. Mail from Richmond, Virginia in 1907.

078 Sam Sparrow“Sam Sparrow, wife, & Mary Taylor”

Today we take for granted the right to live in any neighborhood, schools aren’t black or white, and restaurants no longer have “White” and “Colored” entrances as in this Japanese Restaurant on 17th Street. A school teacher told me she used this photo to teach Jim Crow law to her students. We’ve come a long way since Harris Stilson’s 1907 speech, a long way from Selma, but we’re not done yet. Perhaps one day, Harry Stilson’s hope for “less suspicion” and “more respect” between all people will be reality.

140 Japanese rest