When #BlackLivesMatter is countered with hateful slogans or the faux-egalitarian #AllLivesMatter, I recall sadly how for many years of my life, Black Lives really didn’t matter. Wichita Falls, Texas, didn’t hate black people. Many of us even kind of liked black people. We loved Sammy Davis, Jr., Mahalia Jackson, Dinah Washington, and Louis Armstrong. We expressed our racial bias in a manner even more insidious than hate or aggression. We simply didn’t see black people. The evidence of this can be found in vintage issues of my hometown newspaper, which lack evidence of any black population at all.
I love newspapers. One of the most joyful sounds of my late childhood was the thump of The Wichita Falls Times, artfully folded into a kind of double boomerang that eased its flight from the hand of the boy on the bicycle to our front porch. (That sound was second for anticipated joy only to the postman’s footsteps on that porch, followed by the shuffling of papers, and the dull tinny ding of the letter box closing.) I would retrieve the folded newspaper, unfold it, and plop myself down on the living room floor to peruse the headlines, read Dear Abby, Dr. Crane, letters to the editor, a few comic strips and cartoons, and, on Thursdays, the high school news roundup, “Teen Times.”
My family was too busy for the morning newspaper, The Wichita Falls Record News, but on Sundays, the two newspapers were combined into an extravaganza for all subscribers to either or both papers: The Sunday Times-Record News. It was rolled, not folded, because it was so thick, and it hit the porch with a thud rather than a thump. On rainy Sundays, it came encased in plastic.
After church on Sunday mornings, my family members would divide the paper into sections and then exchange them as we finished. I always wanted first shot at the full-color comics or the society pages. I was enthralled by the photographs of beautiful brides in full wedding dress and the artfully retouched portraits of brides-to-be with their engagement announcements. I would watch for news and photographs of the Junior Forum Debutante Ball in May and the more elite Cotillion Debutante White Tie Ball in December.
Before 1964, black people were required by law to live in designated sections of town. In Wichita Falls, that area was east of the railroad tracks, Flood Street and beyond. Mexicans lived there too, by custom rather than law, clustered on the side closer to the tracks. A few of them lived in the “white” part of town, like Dr. Martinez from Mexico City and his pale and elegant wife and daughters, whom the town people called “Spanish” to distinguish them from darker and less prestigious “Mexicans.”
There were two high schools in Wichita Falls then, but if you ask any white citizen over 65 how many there were, he or she will invariably answer, “One.” Wichita Falls High School was not the white high school. It was the high school. Booker T. Washington High School had excellent facilities, although even now I can’t say where they are located–somewhere, I assume, way beyond Flood Street. I have never seen them. Booker T had a championship football team, an outstanding marching band, and a choir that was recognized statewide and occasionally came to sing in the elegant churches of the white people.
This is where my love of The Wichita Falls Times connects with the myth of one high school in Wichita Falls. You see, the newspaper was, for me, a mirror of my world. I knew that there was Flood Street and beyond. I knew that kids who lived there went to Booker T. Washington High School. I even ventured a few times to their home football games to watch the jazzy marching band. There were black people in town working in the few jobs open to them. I went on mission expeditions to teach Vacation Bible School in the Projects. Some white people even trekked across muddy Flood Street to benefit from the excellent work and lower prices of the “colored” dentist at his elegant home with a built-on clinic.
I didn’t hate black people. I thought racism was evil and spoke against it on occasion. I didn’t hate or dislike black people, but I didn’t see black people. The mirror of my world, The Wichita Falls Times, didn’t report Booker T.’s sports news. Their many band and choir awards got no recognition or photographs in “Teen Times.” There were no photographs of black students doing anything at all. Black brides and debutantes were never featured on the society pages. Black churches were not included in Saturday’s “guide to worship services.” Even black crimes were usually reported only in the police notes at the back of the news. Black people were not allowed to patronize the same local restaurants where I ate or the stores where I shopped. When I traveled by bus, they had their sections in the station and on the bus, and they used the toilets and drinking fountains marked “colored.”
No, Wichita Falls, Texas, had no problem with black people. We simply ignored them to the point of near non-existence. There were no black faces reflected in our mirror on the world.