Here’s my mom, Trudy, on the left, with a couple of other women from her church some years before she passed. She was always black and proud and often offended when people thought otherwise. More than one person asked if she had ever tried to pass as white; she was appalled.
Being light-skinned, though, provided her some insights. She once tried to get an apartment with my dad when they were first married in Binghamton in the early 1950s. But when the landlord saw Les Green, he decided he could not rent to a “mixed-race couple.” I noted a story set in San Francisco in the late 1960s. My sister Marcia shared more tales from her time living in Charlotte, NC, starting in 1974.
A black mayor
My mother was a teller for a bank for much of her time in North Carolina. Charlotte elected Harvey Gantt in 1983, the first black mayor of the city’s history. In the 1990s, he ran twice for the United States Senate against segregationist Jesse Helms, losing both times. Some white people felt free to say to my mother racially disparaging remarks about Gantt, figuring that Trudy was one of “them.”
This continued when she worked in a free-standing drive-through bank branch. A customer would complain about getting a moving violation or ticketed for failure to register their vehicle in a timely manner. Occasionally, the white person would say to my mother, “Why are the police going after me? They should be going after those [N-word, plural] instead.” Trudy would go home, crying.
Apparently, one’s race is, or at least was, a descriptor on the voter registration rolls in North Carolina. She was listed as black, yet she’d be indicated by the registrar as white. Or she’d be marked as white when she’d cash a check, as she could see when the canceled check was mailed to her each month.
My mother seldom showed her anger openly about this, even at home, but this misidentification clearly wore on her. When one of my nieces was a child, she was asked why her grandma was white. Being a light-skinned black person in America had its downside.
Mom would have been 92 today.