Growing Up in the Segregated South From the perspective of a little white girl

By Mary Rabe | Social Justice

Jan 05
Mary Sue Rabe as Child

In the world of healing, what needs to be healed in me is my conflict about race, which began at a young age.

A few years ago, as I was applying for a passport, I finally really examined my birth certificate and noticed my father’s occupation listed as “plantationer”, which I do not think is even a word!   I felt embarrassed and ashamed as this word brought to mind flashes from “Gone with the Wind” of mean white men as slave owners. I was born in 1950.  When I reflect about “the Bottom” as we called our farm as it was located in the Brazos River Bottom, I realize that it was operating like a plantation, but the workers were not “owned”.  There had been many small houses along the road leading up to the main house where the people who worked for my dad lived.  There was also a commissary, where these employees got their groceries on Saturday so they never had to leave the farm.  I shared my distress over my father’s occupation with one of my daughters, who suggested that having that as a profession clarified that he was the owner of a large farming business where as if it said “farmer” he would be the one driving the tractor, which my dad was not, he was managing the workers.

My parents purchased a large, two story colonial house a couple of years before I was born in a small town in Texas.  The house was built in 1900 and did not have indoor plumbing, therefore there was an outhouse.  My parents added bathrooms to the house but kept to outhouse, which was used by the HELP who cooked, cleaned. cared for the children and did the yard work.  A loving black woman named Bea would come and spend weekends at our house when I was growing up. She was born out on what I heard our farm called as “the place” and had no birth certificate. She had pushed my dad around in the baby carriage when he was a baby. Bea had a grandson who came to visit one time because he lived in California and was in town visiting relatives, since she was working at our house he came over to see her.  The grandson used the restroom in the house which I knew was wrong so I went upstairs and told my dad who came down and told the grandson to leave, that he knew better. Even though I was only seven or eight years old, I still regret tattling.  After Johnny was told to leave, I felt bad that Johnny and Bea could not visit because of my tattling. 

BeaI loved Bea.  She would sit with me and tell me stories until I fell asleep on Saturday nights.  She told me about Briar Rabbit and Red Riding Hood. She quoted the Beatitudes and she rubbed my “feets” with Ben Gay when I had a cold.  She would make me greasy French fries. She cracked pecans, dipped snuff and ironed.  When I would go out and play and she couldn’t find me, she would get upset.  She would say she was going to get a switch and come find me.  I realize now that she probably was genuinely worried about my whereabouts.  She wore a scarf around her head, a dime and a fishing weight around her neck on a string.  The dime because it was unusual and the weight to keep her nose from bleeding.  Her bed for the weekend was in the hall, it was a BIG hall and the bed she slept in, to this day we call “Bea’s bed”.  I have the blanket that was on her bed and a quilt that she made for me.  I still miss her. 

I was a junior in college when I awoke one Fall night and told my roommate that something bad had just happened.  My dad called the nest morning to say that Bea had passed away at the time that I had awakened.  We ARE all connected!  When I drive by the place where she lived with her daughter, I think of her and have fond memories of picking up and bringing Bea home.  I lost her shortly after my mother died and my dad employed a permanent housekeeper to live with us.  Bea was no longer needed on weekends.  I still needed her, but I was growing up and starting to hang out with friends on weekends.  Our relationship just faded, but not really.  Her memory is deep in my heart.

Bea's Quilt

Bea's Quilt

This is the quilt that Bea made for me to use when I played with my dolls, especially Tiny Tears. It is very small pieces and small stitches which I am sure was difficult for her arthritic hands. I cherish that she made it and I I am so glad that I still have it after all of my moves through the years!

Bea's Quilt
Bea's Quilt

About the Author

Mary Rabe is the Founder and Director of Women Healing the World -- a creative community of women who want to make a difference for other women in our communities.

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