A Review of:
Melton A. McLaurin, Separate Pasts: Growing Up White in the Segregated South (2nd ed.) Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press, 1998.
[Regular readers of this blog will remember that near the end of my career as a History teacher at an Atlanta prep school (referred to here by its nom de blog, Atlanta’s Finest Prep School, or AFPS), I inherited a one-semester, junior-senior course, the History of the Modern Civil Rights Movement. In revising the course, I decided that it must begin with a substantial unit on “The Age of Jim Crow.” I believed this background was essential if my students were to understand the magnitude of what the modern civil rights movement had accomplished.
One of the supplementary texts I selected was by Melton McLaurin, Separate Pasts: Growing Up White in the Segregated South. Although I’ve read other accounts of growing up White in the Jim Crow era over the past decades I haven’t found a more engaging account than this one, or one more suitable for classroom use.]
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In September 1953, in the small town of Wade, North Carolina, seventh-grader Melton McLaurin began working at his grandfather Lonnie Mack’s store, located on the boundary between the White and Black communities. In retrospect, McLaurin describes Wade as “an almost perfect microcosm of the rural and small-town segregated South.” (3) McLaurin’s generation of White children would be the last to come of age in the segregated South, yet even after the U.S. Supreme Court’s epochal 1954 decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, residents of Wade “remained convinced that the South would find an acceptable method of circumventing it.” (4)
Wade was a mill town surrounded by small farms owned mostly by Whites but worked by Black and White tenants and field hands. There were few college-educated Whites in Wade; White high school graduates usually found jobs with the local railroad. Although residential segregation in Wade was not rigidly enforced, everyone knew the rules of Jim Crow and followed them—or else. Melton McLaurin’s father, Merrill, was a member of the town’s small middle class, having begun as a barber and then become an insurance salesman; but for young Melton, his grandfather’s store was the center of the world: he worked there every summer and most school holidays between seventh and twelfth grades.
McLaurin described his grandfather as an “indomitable little man, taught by experience to stifle any expression of feeling, to be emotionally tough and to cloak his caring with blunt speech and a hard, cold demeanor calculated to keep everyone at a safe distance.” (18) Lonnie Mack was a hard taskmaster, both to his grandson and to his customers, because he took seriously his self-appointed role as the town’s “fixer,” for some Whites of course, but especially for his store’s many Black customers.
And it was these people, especially the African Americans, that Melton McLaurin served in the store during a formative period in his life. He believed that the “association with blacks [sic] had also forced me to make some difficult moral judgments about racism and segregation” that most Whites in Wade did not make, which would “further alienate me from the society in which I came of age.” (26)
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To explain how this happened, McLaurin presents a series of sketches of the most memorable Black residents of Wade whom he encountered at his grandfather’s store. Each of them managed to call into question, in various ways, the values and beliefs of the White society in which McLaurin had grown up, and these encounters helped determine the man he became. The stories McLaurin tells are arranged in roughly chronological order, and the people featured in each chapter also helped frame McLaurin’s assessment of how Jim Crow shaped Southern society at ground level.
Bobo, a young Black man McLaurin’s age, from a poor family, lived in a constricted world where rules were spelled out by Jim Crow and enforced using the power of White paternalism, or, if necessary, violence. For Bobo’s parents, this meant leaning on the generosity of “Mister Lonnie” when they needed money or credit and being sufficiently grateful if their request was granted, as it usually was. Young Melton’s reckoning with this elaborate system of white noblesse oblige came one afternoon during a pick-up basketball game near his grandfather’s store, when he suddenly realized that the needle he needed to re-inflate the communal basketball had previously been in Bobo’s mouth. To regain his place as a member of the “superior race,” McLaurin was reduced to a mild act of violence, which “for the first time raised questions in my mind about the institution [of segregation], serious questions that adults didn’t want asked and, as I would later discover, that they never answered.” (41)
Street, an older Black man who lived in a cave near Wade filled with books, magazines, and religious pamphlets, struck Melton as one of the most intelligent people in the village, as well as the best read, and both these qualities ran counter to the doctrine of white supremacy. Young McLaurin saw Street as “the freest man in Wade,” as well as, in a sense, his mentor.
Betty Jo, a Black teenager McLaurin met while waiting on her at his grandfather’s store, reminded him how “interracial sex,” or even the thought of it, “became the ultimate temptation and the ultimate taboo, a symbol of both the reality and the futility of segregation.” (65) Although white supremacy kept young Melton from going beyond the minimum contact he had with Betty Jo in the store, he came to believe that “she was really no different from the white girls [he] dated.” (85)
The figure of Sam, a mentally challenged young man of McLaurin’s acquaintance, comes across as a Black version of Harper Lee’s character Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird. In retrospect, Sam came to personify for Melton the White stereotype of African Americans. It was fine to taunt Black people for whatever reason, McLaurin had assumed, but, when he joined several White friends in making fun of Sam one memorable summer night, he was unable to forget the incident. This encounter only deepened his feelings of guilt about the power of segregation.
In the story of Granddaddy and Viny Love, McLaurin’s grandfather Lonnie Mack takes center stage, when his role as “the Man” in the village seems (to him) to have been called into question by a bureaucrat in the local welfare office. Viny Love, a hard-working Black single mother whose only child suffered from cerebral palsy, came to Granddaddy asking him to intervene with the welfare department so that she could receive financial benefits to which she was entitled, to help her son. Lonnie Mack agreed to help her, and, when he learned that his aid had been of no avail, he blew a gasket. He was a racist, as were most of the Whites in Wade, but his “help” was intended to keep Wade’s African American population loyal to the system. When his effort to help Viny Love was challenged by the local welfare official, Granddaddy took action in an unforgettable fashion that won plaudits from local Blacks and from his own family, especially from his grandson.
In his reminiscence of Jerry and Miss Carrie McLean, Melton McLaurin once more was brought face-to-face with the differences between White stereotypes of Black people and how Whites interacted with them on a personal level. Miss Carrie was a retired schoolteacher, the only Black woman he knew who was addressed by Whites as “Miss.” Her husband Jerry was a man of mixed race who made a living doing odd jobs for Whites and had built with his own hands the home where he and Miss Carrie lived. When he was seventeen, McLaurin was invited by Miss Carrie to join her and Jerry to eat pie in her kitchen. Knowing how well thought of the couple were in Wade, Melton went to their home expecting to find a house up to White middle-class standards, but he was shocked to see that the McLeans had so little. In retrospect, McLaurin believed this episode “made inevitable my final rejection of the segregated South.” (154)
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Melton McLaurin grew up to become a historian of the South, spending most of his career at the University of North Carolina branch in Wilmington. Not only is he an engaging writer, but his historical training has also enabled him to place his personal story of growing up in the Jim Crow South in the proverbial “larger context.”
In the book’s Epilogue, McLaurin recounts a visit home for Christmas in 1984, when he accompanied his father to the home of Dora Lee to drop off some lard as a gift, a visit that enabled him to see his father at his paternalistic best: “He remained, spiritually, emotionally, a resident of the Wade I had left and to which I could never return. . . . And so, aware of and linked by our separate pasts, we rode toward home and the celebration of a family Christmas.” (164)
In an Afterword added to the second edition of the book, McLaurin focuses on events in Wilmington, North Carolina, where he had spent most of his teaching career. He reviews the “revolt” of Wilmington’s Whites in 1898, during which they ousted the leaders of the local Populist/Republican ruling clique, in a “stridently racist campaign portraying blacks as the rapacious destroyers of white civilization, as an insidious evil against which the whites [sic] of North Carolina could be protected only by Democratic leadership.” (167) Building on this success, Democrats recaptured control of the state government in 1900, disfranchised Black voters, and imposed legal segregation. A century later, Professor Melton McLaurin worked to create a commemoration of that 1898 racial violence campaign in Wilmington that would enable both races to understand the consequences of that event and work for the common good of the city’s residents.
In December 1997, McLaurin again returned home for Christmas. He used that opportunity to talk with Allen Smith, whose father had received some attention in this book, about the importance of race in modern Wade. According to Mr. Smith, despite undeniable progress in race relations over the previous four decades, “[Racism] is in you, and it’s in me, and that’s the truth, down there inside us. That’s just the way it is.” (176) This conversation filled McLaurin with “a deep, sorrowful anger,” and he drove home “to continue to struggle with the difficult necessity of confronting our separate pasts.” (176)
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Melton McLaurin’s Separate Pasts: Growing Up White in the Segregated South is a great book. It is a subtle, but deep and powerful treatment of his coming of age in a small southern town in the 1950s, engagingly written and accessible. Drawing on his memories, McLaurin paints an unforgettable picture of life in Wade, and he situates his memories firmly in the historical context. Available at amazon.com in both paperback and Kindle editions, Separate Pasts belongs on the e-readers and bookshelves of anyone interested in the history of the South.
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: