During their first meeting after the birth of Essie Mae's son she recollected,
"...he kept it cool and formal. The most he would do was urge me to go back to school. 'You need that education, Essie Mae, as much as your husband needs his." But that was as close as he would get, like a guidance counselor or the teacher that he was. As much as I wanted to 'belong' to him, I never felt like a daughter, only an accident....Something, some strong feeling, was definitely there. That was what was drawing him to me, and me to him. But that feeling was all bottled up. We both felt it, from opposite sides of an invisible wall. It was segregated love." [p.155]
She and her husband, Julius, lived in Savannah where he tried to start a law practice. She observed,
"Sometimes the utter complacency of black Savannah would provoke me into action. I was usually very self-effacing. First, I was a woman, who wanted to be a lady, and ladies weren't loud, pushy, or that hated word used by whites, 'uppity.' Second, I was black, or at least assigned to that category, so I felt second class and hence not entitled to speak my piece. Third, I was illegitimate and harbored a shame over my birth that stifled me, despite the fact I knew it wasn't my fault. Finally, I had a big secret to keep, and as the illegitimate daughter of a famous white supremacist, I was under a lifetime gag order." [p.160]
Nevertheless, one day when she was pregnant and coming home from work, she sat in the empty "whites only" section of the city bus. Attempts by the bus driver to make her move were unsuccessful and was pleased with her little victory.
By 1953, it was obvious that Julius' law practice wasn't prospering. When his sister wrote and told them glowing reports of California, the family decided to move west. After receiving a farewell gift of money from her father she wrote,
"All the money in the world couldn't have bought Julius and our two sons decent accommodations on our trip across the country. We drove across the green and lush Deep South and then Texas, which for all its barren plains, was just like the Deep South as far as blacks were concerned. There were motels all along the highways, but blacks were barred form most of them, nor could we use rest rooms at many of the gas stations, for fear of being victimized by Klan types. There was an informal 'network' of black travelers who had told Julius what rest stops and service areas were 'safe' for us, which often meant a nail-biting long ride in which we often came close to running out of gas before we arrived at a safe harbor.
"...In big cities like New Orleans and Dallas there were 'colored only' motor courts where we could catch up on sleep and bathing, but it was more the Mary and Joseph experience of no room at the inn until we reached New Mexico. There were very few blacks there, and people seemed happy to receive us, to take our money. There were lots of Mexicans, and maybe they thought Julius was one of them. It was smooth sailing all the way across the endless southwestern desert to Los Angeles. The whole trip lasted about a week, but the trials and tribulations of being black voyagers in a white world made it seem like a month." [p. 163-4]
I was fortunate. I had air-conditioning, a water bottle, and a cell phone. Luxuries not known to the Williams family.
For previous posts in this series please see:
Next up, we'll hear more of Essie Mae's political observations.