by Ron Van Sweringen
The summer of 1952 was sweltering in Washington, D.C. I was sixteen years old at the time and was living with my mother. We shared the third floor of a run-down Victorian row house located almost in the shadow of the United States Capitol. At night, I sometimes put my mattress on the roof of the house adjoining ours to escape the suffocating heat. I would fall asleep in the humid air, gazing at the white, birthday-cake dome of the Capitol and the Indian maiden at its pinnacle, whom I imagined to be Pocahontas.
My mother worked as a saleswoman in the yard goods section of Lansburgh’s, a department store on 7th Street, NW. Her take-home pay was thirty-five dollars a week.
My mother and father had separated when I was nine. I remember it because of the two-day Greyhound bus trip that brought my mother and me from Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, D.C. My father disappeared from my life at that point and only on rare occasions sent the child support of one hundred dollars a month decreed by the divorce court. Money was something I knew little about, other than we never had enough of it.
Segregation was in the air that year. The students at Stuart Junior High School were asked to gather signatures to keep our school from becoming integrated. The prospect was frightening and Negroes might as well have been from outer space. In one week, neighborhood students went door to door and gathered eight hundred signatures.
I never liked school or did well in it. In fact, the day after my sixteenth birthday, I dropped out and applied for a work permit and a Social Security card. My mother agreed; we needed money. She herself had only gone as far as the fifth grade.
I got a part-time job working the lunch counter three days a week at Peoples Drug Store. My salary was five dollars a day plus tips, which averaged about three dollars and fifty cents a day. It was the first money I had ever earned. Making twenty-five dollars and fifty cents a week made me feel rich and proud. In just one week, I could make enough money to pay most of our rent, which came to thirty-five dollars a month.
I took the bus to work one August morning, traveling downtown through the oak-shaded streets from northeast Washington, D.C. to Dupont Circle. A Peoples Drug Store stood on the corner of Connecticut Avenue. Through its plate glass doors, the building had a commanding view of both the park and its fountain.
I arrived at 9:05 a.m. and was stopped by the store manager on my way to the dressing room in the basement. His striped dress shirt and black bow tie intimidated me, but it was his attitude and tone of voice that made me dislike him.
“You’re working alone this shift, so get a move on,” he commanded. I had only been employed for two weeks and had never worked the counter alone. He offered me no opportunity to object, though; he walked away, ignoring me. As I changed into my white shirt, cap, and apron, I decided to look on the bright side: at least by working alone, I would make all the tips.
Breakfast went smoothly and lunchtime finally arrived at 11:30. That was when I saw them coming through the door: three women, all probably in their fifties. I noticed them because they headed straight for the lunch counter. One of them was black.
Negroes were allowed only to receive stand-up, carry-out service at Peoples Drug Store. When I was hired, I was informed never to serve a black person seated at the counter. So far none had attempted to receive sit-down service at our store, but I could see that was about to change.
My heart pounded at the thought of the confrontation I knew was coming. The women took their seats at the counter. The black woman sat in the center and the white women sat on either side of her. Both white women were expensively dressed — much more so than the black woman, who kept her head lowered. She was wearing plain, dark clothes and a small, black straw hat.
It took me a while to get up enough nerve to face them, considering what I had been instructed to do. I must have been a sight: a slight boy with sandy hair and green eyes, wearing an oversized shirt and apron, tapping his fingers nervously on the counter.
“We’ll all have coffee please,” said the white woman nearest to me. She smiled, her eyes showing how intent she was on getting a response. In the moment of silence that followed, the black woman lifted her head to look at me. She wore no makeup and her age was obvious. It was the desperate pleading in her eyes that haunted me.
The white woman who had ordered put her hand on the black woman’s arm and squeezed. They were waiting for my reaction. At that moment my view of my young world changed. I suddenly realized what it really meant to be white.
“Excuse me for a minute, Ma’am,” I replied to the black woman, suddenly realizing from the silence in the store that everyone’s attention was now focused on us. What happened next is difficult if not impossible for me to explain.
“Tell that nigger you won’t serve her,” the manager hissed at me a moment later at his office door.
“I can’t do that,” I replied, my hands shaking.
“Get your ass over there and tell her,” he shouted, his face blood-red, “or you’re fired!”
“I quit,” I said, without reasoning the consequences.
“You can’t quit, you little twerp!” he screamed at me.
“Oh yes I can!” I shouted back, balling up my apron and throwing it at him. “You tell her.”
I have relived that incident many times over the years and two things always come back to me: the look in that black woman’s eyes and the satisfaction of knowing that I made the right decision.
Copyright © 2011 by Ron Van Sweringen