Journey With Mother

Sara Etgen-Baker

© Copyright 2020 by Sara Etgen-Baker

Photo of Downtown Greenville, Texas. in 1950's..

This story is a true account detailing a 1950s train trip I took with my Mother—a trip that shattered my world, exposing me to the ugly truth of segregation, racism, and prejudice.

I stood in front of Union Station for the first time in 1959 hypnotized by her 1916 Beaux-Arts style architecture—elegant cartouches, balustrades, pilasters, arched windows, and pedimented doors. She was a dignified, elegant lady who’d withstood the ravages of time and was a venerable, steadfast, and familiar fixture of the downtown landscape juxtaposed against a burgeoning, streamlined Dallas skyline. But the future was quietly encroaching on her aristocratic, almost sacred ground, and she appeared Janus-faced on that warm July morning.

I entered the building, stepped into her upper level concourse, and gasped for breath, her 48-foot vaulted ceilings engulfing me. I closed my eyes; breathed in the musty, old building smell; and gently touched the worn surfaces of her unassuming, antiquated chairs. I plopped down on one of the wooden benches next to Mother, dangling my feet in front of me. Beneath my feet was a colorful, tile mosaic with words I couldn’t read.

“What do those words say, Mama?” I asked, tapping her on the shoulder.

She folded her newspaper across her lap and read the inscription. “All your strength is in your union. All your danger is in discord; therefore, be at peace henceforward, and as brothers live together.”

“Those are big words, Mama. What do they mean?”

“You know how I tell you to be strong and get along with your brother, even when it’s hard?”


“Well, the man who wrote those words wants us to be strong and get along with others even when it’s hard. When we do, we’ll live in peace and harmony. You understand?”

“Yes, ma’am. I think so.”

Mother returned to reading her paper, and I turned my attention to the men, women, and children rushing through the lobby. The pristinely groomed men donned felt hats and wore look-alike gray flannel suits with ties, identical to the outfits Ward Cleaver wore on the Leave it to Beaver show. Although not as slender, Mother was much like his wife, June Cleaver—the iconic good American wife and mother. Mother’s hair was curled in a similar fashion; her dress and accessories looked as if they came directly from June Cleaver’s closet—a fitted-bodice dress with a circle skirt, stockings, and pearls. Mother’s face even bore the same gentle almost effervescent smile as June Cleaver, and her face itself reflected the 1950’s enthusiasm and optimism.

However, this illusory euphoria—shielded in conformity and convention—was as fragile as thin ice on an early springtime pond. Below the surface of this frail, fallacious, cultural climate, mounting fears and circumspection about desegregation, the Cold War, nuclear war, Communism, and McCarthyism slowly melted away the euphoric, innocent-like atmosphere that Mother and so many Americans cherished.
Suddenly a bigger-than-life announcement roared through the loudspeakers: “Train 16 bound for Greenville, Durant, Atoka, Muskogee, Joplin, and Springfield arriving at Gate 20 in the platform area below. Passengers proceed to the boarding area with your tickets.”

Mother sprang into action, corralling my brother and me close to her and ushering us toward the massive staircase that led to the passenger platforms. I lingered at the top of the staircase, entranced by its scuffed bronze handrails, iron swirled balusters, and patches of polished wood that glistened magically in the soft light. I imagined the stairs led to a gigantic, enchanted portal that would propel me to the different people and faraway places I’d read about in school. Mother tugged on my arm. “Come on! Let’s go!”

With each step I took, my excitement grew and was more than my small bladder could handle. “Mama, wait! I need to tinkle!” I headed toward the first restroom I saw.

Stop! You can’t go in that restroom. Read the sign.”

Glancing up, I saw the sign read Coloreds Only.

Mother pointed me across the hall. “Our restroom is here. Here’s a dime to unlock the door. Hurry now. We don’t want to miss our train!”

The sign on this restroom door read Whites Only. I entered, placed the dime in the slot freeing the lock mechanism, completed my task, and returned to Mother’s side.

Mama, why are there…?”

Not now!” She interrupted me; grabbed my hand; and we clamored to the bottom of the staircase where the train sat idling, the engine’s elusive steam magically floating across the huge steel wheels located at my eye level.

All aboard!” shouted the conductor.
We boarded the train and found our seats. The train’s whistle blew with the urgency of Mother’s tea kettle, and the majestic Iron Horse jolted the train forward pulling my stomach up to my throat filling me with queasy eagerness.
I settled into my seat, quietly watching the ever-changing landscape click by my window. I opened my favorite book and began reading Fun with Dick and Jane escaping into its water-colored world imagining myself as Jane taking a train trip to faraway places, making new friends, and having harmless adventures with Dick, Sally, and Tim. Our train clickety-clacked through the fertile cotton and corn fields of North Texas and later ground to a halt at the Katy Railroad Station in Greenville, Texas. As the train idled for passengers to board, I glanced out the window, followed the engine’s steam clouds as they drifted upward, and noticed a large sign hanging between the train and bus station that read: Greenville, Texas—The Blackest Land; The Whitest People.

What does that sign mean, Mama?”
Well….because people here grow the food we eat, they’re proud of their rich black soil.”
So, what does Whitest People mean?”
Uh....,” her voice trailing, “…the White folks here prefer only White people live in their town.”

You mean they don’t like Coloreds? Why, Mama, why?”
Mother tightened her lips. “Not now, darlin’. Not now!”

But…but,” I sniffed choking back tears. “I don’t understand. Are you mad at me?”
No, I’m not angry with you, but I need you to stop crying. We’ll talk about all of this later.”

I quit crying because I understood the need to be quiet, but I simply couldn’t grasp why all the unfamiliar sights, thoughts, and feelings seemed like arrows striking my heart. Minutes later, the train left Greenville continuing on its journey. Hoping to distract me, Mother slipped me Dick and Jane. I returned to my sanctuary, but the day’s incidents weighed heavily on my mind.

I closed my book and thought about Cora, our Colored housekeeper. I adored Cora and sought her comfort whenever I hurt myself falling, became sick, or needed a baby tooth pulled. Most mornings, Mother and Cora shared coffee together at our kitchen table while my brother and I played or napped with Cora’s children. Although I knew Cora and her children’s skin color was different than mine, they used the bathroom at our house. I couldn’t understand why they weren’t allowed to use the same restrooms as Whites in public places. The contradiction between what I was experiencing and my personal reality confused and troubled me.
I returned to my book seeking some childlike solace in it. I turned the pages but quickly discovered they contained no Colored children. Without thinking, I turned to Mother and screeched, “Why are there no Colored children in my book!”

The bitter tears began again, this time streaming down my face. “And…and why are there separate restrooms? Why? Do Whites not like Coloreds? Why?”
It was a watershed moment for us both. My innocent, water-colored world lay shattered in pieces before Mother, and I desperately needed her to put it back together for me.

I hadn’t noticed. Let’s see.”

I watched her slowly and methodically turn the pages in my book and waited, trusting she’d erase the day’s incidents, my confusion and my fears, and somehow right my world again. But I was too young to comprehend the difficulty she faced in answering me. How was she to guide and support me while lifting the veil of childhood innocence? How was she to respond to my public questions in light of the cultural climate of the late 50s? How was she to explain the human condition, life’s contradictions, and prejudicial human nature without creating prejudice in me?
She closed the book, took my hand, and tenderly looked into my eyes. Her carefully orchestrated response was, “You’re troubled, and I understand. You’re right. There are no Colored children in your book, and there should be. I’m grateful you’re so sensitive.”

Almost pleading I again asked, “Why aren’t Colored children in my book?”

I suppose the author of the book just didn’t write the book that way.”

But…but I thought you told me books are valuable. How could a book be valuable if Coloreds aren’t in it?”

You’ve asked some adult-like questions and deserve answers to all of them. I’ll answer your questions. Remember, though, you’ll be more grown up afterwards; you’ll understand more, but your world will never be the same. Are you ready to be more grown up?”

I looked into her trusting, doe-like eyes and recognized the look on her face—it was the same one I saw when she told me the truth about Santa Claus gently nudging me out of childhood fantasy into adult reality. The serious tone in her voice was identical to the one she used when she explained why she moved me from kindergarten into first grade halfway through the school year.

I instinctively understood the direction of my life would change forever. “Yes, Mama, I’m ready.”

You’ve learned that sometimes people are imperfect and unkind. Imperfection is part of being human—like forgetting to hang up your clothes. The author of your book was imperfect in forgetting to include Colored children in the story. Being unkind, though, is quite different. You saw unkindness today not only in the restrooms in Union Station but also on the sign in Greenville, Texas.”

What makes people unkind, Mama?”

People are unkind for lots of reasons. Mostly, though, they are unkind because they are afraid.”

So, Whites are unkind to Coloreds because they are afraid of Coloreds?”

Yes. Some Whites are fearful; but like you, many are not.”

So exactly why do Whites fear Coloreds?”

Sometimes people fear others who are different—regardless of the difference. The difference might be skin color, hair color, eye color, place of birth, or even religion. That fear keeps people from looking favorably at one another, seeing beyond differences, and understanding similarities. People sometimes fear what they don’t understand.”

Do Coloreds fear Whites too?”

Yes, Sweetie, fear—like kindness—is a choice people in either race can make. The fear you’ve seen today is called prejudice; it blinds people—regardless of race—to their own anger and discontent; then they often choose to react unkindly. Being unkind is dangerous and hurtful. Remember, though, you don’t have to act that way.”

Mother planted a tender kiss on my forehead. “Your world is upside down right now, but you’ll be alright. I promise,” she said, hugging me tenderly. I snuggled into her arms feeling safe and reassured, my worries loosening their sting. My world, although not righted, was a little less disturbing. I stared out the window allowing the day’s events and Mother’s words to wash over me. Eventually, the train’s rhythmic clicking lulled me to sleep. When I awoke, we’d arrived at our destination, our journey complete.

A lifetime has passed since my journey with Mother, but I often reflect upon the racially discriminatory signs I observed that day and the profundity of Mother’s actions and her responses to me. She could’ve easily brushed me aside, squelched my sensitivity, and devalued my experiences. Instead, she courageously seized moment after moment. She explained Emerson’s immortal words about peace and harmonious co-existence in terms I understood. She calmly acknowledged the pain and contradiction I felt in processing the segregationist signs I encountered. She recognized my burgeoning awareness of societal injustices and prejudice encouraging me to look them squarely in the face for what they are. She nurtured me with kindness and patience and helped me recognize our shared humanness and not our otherness. That understanding was a priceless gift and invaluable attribute—one I’d need as a teenager and young adult in the tumultuous 60’s.
Despite her physical appearance, Mother wasn’t the conforming June Cleaver she appeared to be. She lived beyond the frail, fallacious, cultural climate of the time uniquely in tune to human nature and the significance of what those racist signs and our accepted customs said about our country and its soul. It would be difficult to make the argument that Americans live in a racial paradise today. Yes, the signs are long gone, but it may have taken far too much time before our country figured out how wrong the signs, and what they signified, were. But the figuring out got done in large part by people like Mother—people who recognized accepted customs, practices, and attitudes are harmful to the nation and what it stands for.

The journey on the American road is a long, painful one; and we’re still on it. Sometimes, it’s a good idea to look at the signs by the side of the road, particularly the ones that are no longer there.
Photo of Sara' at 11 years old.
             Mother Winifred Christine Stainbrook-Etgen 1944

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