The First Black Man I Ever Met


America was different in the summer of 1963, when Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his celebrated “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

The First Black Man I Ever Met

Nilswey / 123RF Photo

My Aunt Dorothy never married even though she was born in the early 1900s, when staying single was beyond odd. She chose an unconventional path, getting a master’s degree in sociology and becoming a high school teacher in East Moline, Illinois, where she taught history. Her passion was the Civil War and her favorite president was Abraham Lincoln.

It was while I was visiting Aunt Dorothy, at the age of five, that I met a black man for the first time. It happened while we were grocery shopping at a Piggly Wiggly. He had skin the color of my mother’s mahogany dining table, eyes that matched and the oddest hair I’d ever seen. He was stocking shelves and was impossibly tall from my perspective, which put his hands at my eye level. I couldn’t help but notice how the deep color of his skin turned to ivory on his palms. From my child’s point of view, it looked as if he’d lowered himself into a giant cup of coffee and only the inside of his hands, where he’d held on to the edge of the cup, remained the color of my own. I knew it was impolite to stare, but it was hard not to and I noticed how he called my aunt, “Miss Calvert.”

Dorothy took me to the Moline public library every Monday and while she was off looking for books, I noticed an Ebony magazine in the periodicals section. It looked similar to the Life magazines that came to my parents’ house — it had the same advertisements and the same style of articles — but everyone had brown skin, black hair and dark eyes. Was this a parallel world? It felt like something forbidden to even look in that magazine, like if you got caught doing it, you would be sent to your room without your supper.

That’s because back in those days, there were no African Americans in the Denver neighborhood where I grew up, none in the small towns in Nebraska where my grandparents lived, none in my school, none on TV or in the movies and none in mainstream magazines. When you saw a black person it was quite the phenomenon because it was understood that you stayed in your world and they stayed in theirs.

That same summer, my Aunt Dorothy took me on a road trip to Florida, stopping to see every Civil War battlefield and museum along the way. Our itinerary included a drive through the Deep South, where I saw a faded sign on a restaurant door in Alabama that said “Whites Only.” We had stopped for lunch, but when Dorothy saw the sign, she told me to get back in the car: it wasn’t a good place to eat, she said.

As we drove through the town looking for another restaurant, I spotted a black girl about my age standing on the corner. I missed my friends back home and, feeling as if I was now “familiar” with Negroes — as they were called in those days — I smiled and waved. The little girl saw me and spun around. With hate burning in her eyes, she flipped me the bird. I wasn’t sure at that age what her gesture meant, but there was no mistaking the contempt in her eyes.

Much later, I realized that the trip with my Aunt Dorothy was the very same summer that Martin Luther King, Jr., led his march on Washington D.C., where he delivered his magnificent “I Have a Dream” speech and earned a permanent place on the FBI’s covert operation list as a dangerous radical. His life ended a few years later when he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. I remember seeing the story in the The Rocky Mountain News and asking my mother how it was possible that important men like President Kennedy and now Martin Luther King could be murdered in the United States of America. She didn’t have an answer.

I’m not that old, so it hasn’t been all that long since America lived a very segregated existence. A lot has changed since then. And although it’s far from ideal, the fact that we have a second term president who is black, with a black wife and black children — all living in an ironically named White House — is something my Aunt Dorothy would have never believed possible. Not because she didn’t believe in equal rights, but because the America she knew would have never allowed it.

It takes visionaries like Martin Luther King, Jr., to change old ideas that are ingrained into our belief system and accepted as truth when they’re not — visionaries who have a dream and the courage to announce to the world:

“I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character … I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ’We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal…’” 

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” Speech.

Kim CalvertKim Calvert is the editor of Singular magazine and the founder of the SingularCity social networking community. An outspoken champion of people who are living their lives as a “me” instead of a “we,” Kim oversees the creative direction and editorial content of the magazine and online social networking community. She secures contributors and is responsible for maintaining the fun, upbeat, inspirational and often-humorous tone of Singular, a lifestyle guide for successful single living.


Leave a Comment on Facebook



8 thoughts on “The First Black Man I Ever Met

  1. Kim: Of all the stories I’ve read by you so far as a member of Singular City, I say this is your finest hour. I grew up in a suburb of one of a community that had its share of unrest and has had up and down moments of economic crises. The Flint, Michigan, area is still divided, and I think it’s a shame. I have met so many wonderful people of color and continue to this day to meet wonderful people of all races. And my college experiences have helped me a lot.

    Some of the people I admire include:
    1. Denzel Washington
    2. The entire Motown music scene. I grew up only about 80 miles north-northwest of Detroit, and the Motown music permeated everything around me. And I’m not the only one – the legendary British female singer Dusty Springfield adored them, and helped them gain worldwide fame with her seminal British TV show “Ready, Steady, Go!”
    3. Sugar Ray Leonard
    5. PK Subban – Montreal Canadiens defenseman
    6. Samuel L. Jackson
    7. Bill Cosby
    8. Dionne Warwick

    All people of color. All people who have made a difference and inspire in some way.

  2. Just goes to show how race is perceived through an innocent child’s eyes, before they’ve been told what or how to think about someone who looks different from them. They don’t see it with judgment about who / what that person is – just with wonderment and curiosity.

    That all changes once the adults have a chance to fill their heads with all kinds of BS – be it about race, religion, gender or whatever!

  3. A truly wonderful piece, Kim. It reminded me of the delight with which my parents embraced all sorts of people and how that quietly, yet profoundly shaped my view of the world. We are all powerful people in that way. In the early 70’s my mother had a friend, Joslyn, who was as we would understand her “singular”. Through the eyes of a child she was magical. She would sit down and have a one on one conversation with me sharing some beautiful thing she had seen or teaching me a word in French. Decades later I asked my mother about her, was she widowed, divorced, what? My mother just shrugged it off and said, “I think she was a perfectly contented person who loved the way she had sculpted her life alone.” Go mom!

  4. Interesting…..the memories we have from our childhood in regard to color…..and to being judged by content of our character.

    My Aunt had a housekeeper that was wonderfully loving and kind, and who was treated as a member of them family all the while working for her wages….I looked at her as a person I wanted to be around…to be like….as a friend even tho she was many years my senior.

    In her senior years, she still had a bedroom in their home to lay her head and was taken good care of until the day she passed.

    When I was in grade school there were blacks, in fact the little girl in my class room was not only nice, she took ballet, tap, and other such dance lessons that required beautiful shoes….things that I only dreamed about…..and was not shuned at all that I knew of.

    Their families lived in a nice little pocket neighborhood on the edge of our district, and were, as I understood it from my Grandparents, very highly respected working people…..people of good character.

    My grandmother was heavily involved with the WCTU at the county level so we visited the homes of many WCTU members and leaders, both black and white.

    In high school we had many black, whites, Mexican’s and other ethnic backgrounds represented, some of good character….some not, but we all seemed to get along together ….. until one day someone told us we couldn’t choose the lunch room we wanted to eat in any more, that we had to integrate (which puzzled me as there were people of all ethnic back grounds that ate in both lunch rooms…..a lot of us switching back and forth at will, but I guess the powers that be either didn’t notice it, or didn’t figure it counted)……and that is when the fighting and the unrest began. Until then it didn’t occur to us…. or at least to me that there was a big problem.

    I am 69, I grew up in the mid-west…..and yes, I did grow up in an all upper middle class white neighborhood, save the little pocket of blacks several blocks away…..and on our street alone, we had English, Irish, Dutch, German, Jewish, Italian, American Indian decent, and heaven only knows how many other…..and again, just a few blocks away….Russian, Lithuanian, Serbian, Syrian, Mexican.

    We didn’t know it at the time…..we were all just whites. Not until many years later did we think about where people’s folks came from and learn all the interesting things about their family’s nationality……we were too busy enjoying each other and being friends.

    We are all “ethnics”……most of us mixed breeds, and if you line us all up, we all have a little different skin coloring from one degree to another…..and certainly different eye and hair color. ….and if we study any history at all, we know that all people of all color have been put upon and unaccepted at one time or another……as have they all been blessed by their circumstances at times as well.

    I remember the principal of an all black high school make the comment back in the early 60’s that he wished they would leave them alone…..they did not want to intergrate because they had the best equipment, best supplies, best teachers (most with masters degrees as I recall) best athlectic coaches and programs, and the greatest opportunities for their students of any school in the area. Interesting? I thought so.

    Granted, back then… was a rare thing that a black or white, or even a red and white married, but then….by the same token… was also rare that you married outside your religion….in some cases your ethnic heritage and to some degree, outside your financial status especially if you came from financially prominent families…and that applied to rich in both the black and the white communities.

    It never occurred to me that color made a difference in regard to character…..and still doesn’t for that matter.

    I’m glad I didn’t know there was a problem in that regard…..I feel a much richer person for my experiences with people of color, no matter what color…..white, yellow, red, black, brown…… doesn’t matter.

    I am so glad I was raised in the neighborhood, the time and the mindset that I was.

    Our soul, that which remains perfect….knows no color, and that is as it should be… least in my book.

  5. This brought back so many memories. I too grew up in an all white area. The first African Americans I ever saw were those that worked on the passenger trains. I was just a youngster too and for years, thought that was the ONLY job that black people did and the ONLY place where you would see them — as porters on the Union Pacific. We have come a long way indeed! Our attitudes about race is light years away from just decades ago when there was such segregation and discrimination!

  6. Beautiful. As much as our country keeps screwing up, looking back at the progress we’ve made in some areas, there’s a real sense of accomplishment and improvement. Hey, maybe even we who are single will one day have equal protection/benefits and regard as those who are married. We might even see the day when “marital status” is added to the items that cannot be used as basis for discrimination.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.