During the summer of 1965 in Mississippi, while I spent my days talking to Black parents about enrolling their six and seven year old children in the local white school pursuant to a court ordered freedom of school choice plan, my (former) wife Judy conducted a “freedom school” in the back yard of Clarence and Millie Hall’s home. The Halls, a Black family deeply involved in the civil rights movement in the Delta of Mississippi, had taken us in for the summer. Judy’s school was not connected to the formal Freedom Schools that opened all over Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964, but rather an informal gathering of young Black children designed to help prepare them for enrollment in the formerly all-white school.
Early one morning before her school was to start, Judy desperately wanted a bath. The hot, muggy days at the Halls, just a few hundred yards from the Mississippi River, had taken their toll on her. She fantasied about taking a long, cool shower. There was no bathtub, no shower, no running water whatsoever at the Halls. But Millie had a washtub. Judy and Millie bailed buckets of water from the Hall’s 50-gallon storage drum and filled the washtub. The water had cooled overnight and promised to be refreshing. Judy donned her bathing suit and stepped in. She luxuriated in the cool water as she sponged it over her head and it ran down over her body.
The kids began to arrive. Perhaps they were early. Then again, perhaps Judy had lingered too long in her washtub bath. The children approached, but held back, reluctant to come too close. They stood and stared and stared and stared.
Two of the little girls held hands, gathering courage from each other. Finally, one of them, wide eyed, her voice full of wonder and astonishment, spoke.
“Why Mrs. Gough, you’re white all over.”
Up to that moment, for all that the little girl knew, Judy was black under her regular clothing. She had accepted Judy as one of her own, white face notwithstanding.
It is unlikely that the little girl could define superficial, but she knew it when she saw it.
(Adapted from Dear Jeff, the author’s memoir about cross racial adoption and fighting discrimination from Monterey to Mississippi.)