Phyllis Britt

Phyllis Britt

I grew up in the ‘60s in the South.

I was born in eastern North Carolina but moved with my parents (of course) to Virginia when I was almost 4.

Here I must admit that my husband, who was born in Norfolk, Va., will argue that the Tidewater area of Virginia (Norfolk, Portsmouth, Chesapeake, Virginia Beach, Hampton Roads) is not really the South. His position is based on the post-World War II influx of military from all over the country – actually all over the world. This addition of folks from all parts of our nation, according to Tom, has diluted the “traditional” (whatever that may be) values and attitudes of a typical Southern upbringing.

However, anyone visiting Portsmouth, where my family eventually came to rest, or Norfolk, where Tom grew up, cannot deny the rich history that dates to the early colonization of this country. Portsmouth was deemed a suitable shipbuilding location in 1620, and indeed is still home of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, the largest such facility in the world. The town was incorporated in 1752, founded by Colonel William Crawford, who owned a huge plantation in the area.

(As an aside, I have mentioned before that my cousin Ricky Price “became” Col. Crawford about 20 years ago as part of the city’s 250th anniversary celebration. He played the part, even after the official celebration ended, offering historic tours and local color to all sorts of events until his untimely death two years ago. In fact, when Portsmouth officials commissioned a sculpture of the city’s founder, they could find no likenesses of the real person, so they’ve used my cousin as a model for Col. Crawford – a fitting tribute to both men, in my estimation.)

But the point of this is my experience as a white woman growing up in the South.

Let me preface this by saying my experience may not be “normal,” but it’s the only experience I have. You can draw whatever conclusions that strike you, for I am not an expert. I, like all of you, simply have an opinion.

I grew up during the budding and growth of the Civil Rights movement, which focused largely on the South. When we still lived in North Carolina, my daddy was a tenant farmer. He returned from World War II with few skills and no family legacy to fall back on. He traded a percentage of his profits from tobacco sales in exchange for the rights to farm acreage belonging to someone else. Tenant farmers were a tight group, for they couldn’t afford to hire field workers and had to help each other. And it didn’t matter if you were black or white. As a result, the children of those farms would gather in one place – in an early daycare of sorts. We’d play together every day, and there was no hierarchy, despite the times. We were all the same. In fact, my mother used to laugh that by the end of the day, only my very blonde hair distinguished me from everyone else – we were all that covered in dirt. It was a long time before I realized this might not be a “normal” experience for a little girl growing in the South post-WWII.

After we moved to Virginia, I recall visits to family in the Princeton area of North Carolina. That took us down Highway 301 – before I-95 (or any interstate, for that matter) existed. Along that road there were not many places to eat or to get gas, so we’d always stop in the same place, either for a hot dog or for an RC Cola and a bag of peanuts (to go in the RC, of course). But the only thing that is indelibly imprinted on my mind was a sign at the roadside diner. It read “Colored People Only.” Yes, the other doorway had a sign that read “White People Only.” What I remember is that I did not understand, and I was envious, wanting to use the “Colored People Only” door. The ramifications of that sign only became clear to me as I grew up.

In Virginia my mother worked for a department store with a lunch counter. Yes, I realized at some point that when we first moved there, the lunch counter was off limits to people of color. But soon sit-ins began, and the manager of the store opined that everyone’s money was green, so he didn’t really care what color their skin was. And that was the end of any potential conflict – before it even began.

Even my doctor’s office was integrated from the time I can remember. The doctor was a Hungarian refugee who fled from Communist control, so maybe he had already seen enough discrimination in his life – and as a young white girl, I simply didn’t know any better.

I was in high school when integration was finally enforced in our schools. I was an adult and duly horrified before I realized that Norfolk’s response was to shut down the schools. In Portsmouth officials worked hand-in-hand with the NAACP to make a smooth transition. I went to a school made up of children of blue collar workers – I don’t know if that’s important, but for whatever reason, integration was a non-issue. Our schools slowly blended together, and I saw very little difference before or after our classes included teens of all colors.

This brings me to where I am today. We each have baggage of various kinds due to our experiences. But I am horrified at what has happened and continues to happen. The murder of George Floyd in Minnesota comes after a long line of victims who are proof that all too often (and once is too often) just being black can be a death sentence. I have questioned time and again why a situation that began with a non-violent crime (or no crime at all) would end in a death – why any police officer (and I realize such officers are in the extreme minority) would react this way. In Charleston, a man was shot in the back 17 times after fleeing a traffic stop. Why? You have his name and his car; just go get him later. A man is jogging in a neighborhood – if you think he’s up to no good, call the police; don’t track him down bearing shotguns and pistols to make a “citizens’ arrest” (which, for me, translates into a license to kill). And now there’s George Floyd. Again, it was a non-violent crime. How does that compute to a death sentence?

I really don’t understand. And I am heartbroken that in 2020 we have not come very far from slavery, lynchings of the 1920s and 1930s or murders in Selma, Alabama. Why?

Why can’t we see people as people? Why can’t we treat everyone with respect, no matter the color of their skin – and only deem something or someone evil when we have proof of such?

I admit that I don’t really understand how looting Target moves the desire for true equality forward. But then I am a white woman who has the privilege of never experiencing irrational discrimination. I am not a member of a group that has suffered 350 years of frustration over such injustice.

Martin Luther King said, “...a riot is the language of the unheard.” It is a last resort for folks who have nowhere else, no other way to make their voices heard.

It’s time we heard and heeded the call. Jesus said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” He didn’t say “Do unto only your kind (read that color, religion, political affiliation, sexual orientation, you name it)...”

The killing must stop. The discrimination must stop. It’s time we truly had justice for all.