It was the second week of school when the new girl arrived. Our class had just taken out the new social studies books when we heard people coming up the stairs. We went into slow motion, lifting up our desks in unison and choosing the second book from the top in the stack on the right side, and lowering the top ever so slowly so the sounds would not interfere with our eavesdropping.
There was a lady talking and then a girl said something and we could only make out a word here and there. Then Mrs. Cox, the principal said something and the lady laughed, a polite laugh that meant it wasn’t that funny. Then the three of them were in the open hallway and moving closer to our classroom, and a bird began to sing, and then they were right inside the door.
“Your class has a new student, Mrs. Tucker,” announced Mrs. Cox as she surveyed the classroom. Her eyes peeked out above the top rim of her glasses, not fixating on any particular student.
The class looked back and forth between Mrs. Tucker, standing behind her desk and the principal and the visitors, frozen in place just inside the classroom door. There was an awkward silence until our teacher moved out from behind her desk and closer to the others. She stopped in front of the girl, tall and skinny and wearing a brightly colored dress with huge flowers in the design. Her shoes looked new, not so shiny black patent leather without any scuff marks.
“Welcome to Morningside Elementary and Room 222. I’m Mrs. Tucker, your new teacher and these are your new classmates.” She waved her arm at all of us and we stared at the new girl until she dropped her eyes. Her mother gave her a little nudge and she took one step forward.
“My name is Nathania Singletary. Me and my mom moved here from Natchitoches but we’re really from Picayune. We came here to…”
The words were unfamiliar and the accent difficult to understand and with this the class broke out in laughter. It started with two boys near the back of the room and finally almost everyone was doubled over with laughter. I looked up at Nathania. Her eyes were closed and she was inching backwards to get closer to her mother.
“Class! That’s quite enough. Hush up now. I’m sure everyone will have the chance to get to know your new classmate and find out more about where she lived before coming here. Perhaps Mrs. Tucker will add this to your social studies homework assignment this week.”
There were groans from the class and this time I joined in. It wasn’t even two weeks into the new school year and already our homework was increasing.
Mrs. Tucker pointed at an empty desk in the very last row next to the window and Nathania moved quickly and sat down right behind me. I turned halfway in my seat to whisper to her,
“I’m Connie. Hi. We have recess in fifteen minutes and I’ll show you around.”
Nathania nodded. Then I passed her my social studies book, opened to the page to the chapter on “Civics for Today’s Youth.” I took out my homework so I could follow along.
A few of the other kids said hello to Nathania on the way to recess but then scattered into small groups. Most of the boys ran ahead and avoided an introduction. When we were dismissed to the playground Nathania and I finally had some time to get to know each other.
She was shy around new people and grownups, she told me. But I soon discovered that with kids her age Nathania was a regular Chatty Cathy. She told me she was from Picayune, Mississippi and they moved to Nathchitoches, Louisiana last year after her father died. Her mom said they would make a new life here. She didn’t have any brothers or sisters. She didn’t know her new address, Yes, she liked to play handball and so we got up from the bench where we had been sitting and walked over to the ball box to get a handball. I took her hand as we walked and it felt good to have a new friend. At one point I turned to ask her,
“Nathania, do you want to be my friend?” and she nodded.
The next morning I looked for her on the playground before the bell rang. When I finally found her I ran up to greet her.
“I was looking for you everywhere, Nathania.”
She kept looking down at her shoes. The not so shiny black shoes. They appeared to be a little too tight as the tops of her feet were spilling out on the sides. This close I could see a few tiny scuff marks now.
“My Mama says I can’t be your friend, Connie.”
I just stood there, not knowing what to say. I thought and thought and finally accepted what I knew to be the reason for this. Then, I walked away slowly and joined some of the other girls on the other side of the yard, including my best friend Phyllis. I looked back a couple of times and she was still sitting on the bench, looking down at her shoes.
Nathania was black. She was the first black student at my elementary school. Had I even mentioned that to my mother when I told her we had a new girl in our class and she was going to be my friend? I don’t think so.
Before Thanksgiving Nathania moved away. She came to say goodbye to me at lunch when her mother arrived to pick her up that last day. I asked her where she was moving to but she said she didn’t know the address. The not so shiny black shoes had become smaller and smaller as she and her mother walked down the street towards the bus stop. I waited until Nathania and her mother had disappeared from sight before returning to the lunch area.
Other than my best friend Phyllis Gilden, the only Jewish girl at the school, no one else ever took the time to get to know Nathania. During her seven weeks there she made little impact on anyone, or at least that’s what I thought until I got older. I had never seen her smile but I think she did want to be friends.
I say her name out loud, softly and clearly – Nathania Singletary.
In the summer of 1965 I was an 10-year-old visiting south Florida with my mother. We had rented a cottage at a place called the Saxon Park Apartments in the Lemon City section of Miami. There were quite a few kids around my age and a swimming pool. My mom was gregarious in nature and made friends easily. One of them was a woman named Bertha Washington.
One day there was a knock at the door and when I answered it was Bertha. I don’t know what came over me but I told her my mother was in the bathroom and shut the door in her face. When I turned around my mother was standing there and let me have it.
“You don’t ever do anything like that again, do you hear me?” She waited. “Do you understand me?” I nodded and looked down and knew there would be a conversation later on.
Bertha stayed for a short time and I occupied myself with the latest in the Bobbsey Twins book series, The Search for the Green Rooster. I had nearly forgotten what I had done until Bertha startled me by saying goodbye and I looked up.
It wasn’t so much of a conversation as it was a stern lecture. My mother sat me down on the end of the bed and stood over me to emphasize each sentence.
She told me that Bertha had grown up on a cotton plantation. Her father was a sharecropper and worked hard so Bertha and her brothers could attend the local school. When it was time for graduation her father spent everything he had saved to buy her a new pair of shoes for the occasion.
The owner of the plantation had a daughter the same age and he asked Bertha’s father if his daughter could wear the new shoes first because her graduation was earlier in the day. He felt obligated to say yes and told Bertha to get them back from the other girl when she was done with them. The time came and the girl refused to give them back. There was nothing Bertha could do but wear her old, beat up shoes with her socks poking out through the holes in the side and the soles during her graduation ceremony. And nothing was ever mentioned to the plantation owner for fear of her father being asked to go elsewhere for work.
“Do you understand what I’m telling you, Connie? Bertha has been through more than you and I could ever imagine. You are never to treat anyone like you treated her, no matter who they are and what you might be thinking. Do you understand?”
By this time she was shouting and I was sobbing. I thought she would sit down on the bed and hold me until I felt better. Instead, she continued to tell me stories, not only about what Bertha had endured during her lifetime but also ones about her and her family growing up, and also ones from when I was little that I had no memory of experiencing.
A few days later Bertha returned and this time when I opened the door I apologized on my own and gave her a quick hug. That’s when I saw the girl standing behind her. She was about fourteen and chubby and smiled down at me. They both came inside and my mother asked me to help her in the kitchen so our guests could get settled in. Our cottage was very small, yet we made room for everyone.
Very late that night Bertha and the girl went out and when they returned several hours later there was some commotion. I was sleeping on a sheet under the table in the kitchen and when I peeked through the doorway my mother gently waved me away and pulled back the curtain that separated the rooms. By dawn they had gone on their way and we would never see them again. I didn’t ask any questions and my mother didn’t offer an explanation, but years later it struck me like a bolt of lightning what may have transpired during that thirty-six hour period.
I say her name in a distinct and respectful whisper – Bertha Washington.
“Daddy changed the world!”
It’s six-year-old Gianna Floyd talking. She’s called Gigi for short – just like Kobe Bryant’s daughter Gianna was called. She wears a big smile as she sits atop NBA player Stephen Jackson’s shoulders and watches a peaceful demonstration taking place not far from where she lives with her mother.
One day Gigi will wear the black patent leather shoes for her own special occasion. No one will have told her what the shoes mean or why she is the one to pass on the tradition to others. She may even take them for granted and assume that every little girl gets to wear the very shiny shoes with a special dress to celebrate a happy event in her life.
I am reminded of a poem by Langston Hughes, published in 1926 and titled I, Too…
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed-
I, too, am America.
I say his name over and over again so that everyone will remember what happened – George Floyd.
I’m Connie Ragen Green and I stand with those who have been wronged and mistreated and abused and killed, many times at the hands of those who took an oath to protect and serve. I stand for justice and equality and for treating people fairly at all times. I stand for peace on Earth, goodwill towards mankind. And I do not stand alone.