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Hotdogs, Hamburgers, and Racism in 1963
June 12, 2019
by William P. Meyers

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Segregation training in days of yore

It might have been 1963, so I might have been 8 years old. It might have been a bit earlier or later.

I did not think much about black people. I was a white kid in a southern state. I went to a white school connected to a white church. I lived in an all-white suburban development, unless you counted the Japanese-American wife of one of the veterans who lived there.

My mother was not working, as she had me, my older brother, and my younger sister to take care of. She would resume working after my sister started school. My father was in college on the GI bill, but was also working nights and weekends, so we seldom saw him. He was an older parent, in his late forties, who has already served 20 years in the Marines.

We lived in Jacksonville, Florida. I did not know it at the time, but this was where my father could go to college and also work for Sealand, which was a shipping company that also acted as a spy agency for Naval Intelligence in return for juicy government contracts.

My mother often took us shopping with her. Under military discipline. Sometimes we were left in the car, but usually we dutifully trailed her, not talking and not touching anything. In certain stores we were allowed to spend time in the toy department while she got her shopping done.

Most grocery shopping was done near to home, particularly at the A&P that was attached to our subdivision. Occasionally we went to one of the suburban shopping centers, the predecessors of malls, to shop at a Sears or J.C. Penney.

The rarest trips were to downtown Jacksonville. This involved driving on a bridge across the St. Johns River. It involved seeing black people, sometimes. It often involved shopping at Woolworth, which was sort of like a department store in miniature.

In 1963 Jacksonville was still a segregated city. The public schools were segregated despite the 1954 Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education. But Jacksonville had certainly had its protests against segregation and in later years would have race riots.

Occasionally my mother had business in places where she could not show up kids-in-tow. This must have been one of those occasions. For some reason she did not lock us in the car. Perhaps it was too hot, even for Jacksonville. And she must have been feeling flush, because she gave us money, something so rare it impressed me. [In all fairness my mother grew up on a tenant farm and never had cash money to spend until she left to work at a factory.]

I am guessing my brother complained he was hungry. But maybe it was mother's idea. In any case my brother was given money and told to go to the lunch coutner at Woolworth and buy us each a hamburger and a soda. Bring back change from the dollar bill. Simple enough. My mother kept my sister with her.

We had been to Woolworth before. It had many things to fascinate kids, including a toy section and a pet section. My mother had bought us clothing items there.

In that year, in that Woolworth, there were two dining counters. They were at diametrically opposed sides of the store. Probably not more than 100 feet apart. I don't know if that was true before or after, or at other stores in the South or the rest of America.

My brother led the way. We chose two empty stools at the lunch counter. A lady, perhaps suspicious of children unaccompanied by an adult, asked us what we wanted.

"Hotdogs and Doctor Peppers, please" my brother said.

"We don't have hotdogs" the counter lady said.

"Mother said hamburgers" I said.

"We have hamburgers" the lady said.

"I want hotdogs. I've seen hotdogs here" my brother said.

"They have hotdogs at the other counter. The other side of the store. I can get you hamburgers here if you want."

"We're going to get hotdogs."

"That's fine, child. If you change your mind come back here."

We headed to the other side of the store. "Mother said hamburgers. You know how mad she gets when we don't follow orders" I said.

"It wasn't an order. She gave us money for lunch. I want a hotdog for lunch. You like hotdogs better too, don't you?" And that settled it.

Except that the lunch counter on the other side of the store had a different set of clients sitting at it. Black clients. But there were stools open, and my brother went ahead and sat down. So I sat down too.

The lady behind the counter came up and eyed us. Just to be clear, whereas the lady at the other counter had been white, this lady was black.

"Hotdogs and Dr. Peppers, please" my brother said, undeterred in his quest.

The lady was careful. Like the other lady, she was tired and trying to be pleasant, but she was being way more careful. "I think you'll get better service at the counter across the way."

"But they don't have hotdogs. Don't you have hotdogs?"

I noticed a man sitting near us, looking at us, curious how this would play out. Me, I was for leaving. Adults scared me, and I had already had many bad experiences with my brother getting us both in trouble.

An eternity passed. The oracle spoke. "We do have hotdogs. And the other counter does not have hotdogs. Do you have money to pay?"

My brother put the dollar on the counter.

"Well then, two hotdogs and two Dr. Peppers coming up."

The man who had been staring at us put some change on the counter and departed.

The funny thing is I cannot remember eating my hotdog. Much less drinking the Dr. Pepper, which was a rarer treat than a hotdog. We probably ate the meal in less than a minute. Then we went to look at toys, then to find Mother.

Now my brother was already quite good at lying. Over time I would discover we were a family of liars, while at the same time my parents officially upheld the ideal of always being honest and certainly never lying to a parent. I figured this was a good time to lie and say the Woolworth hamburgers were good and thank you so much Mother for letting us eat there like big boys who did not need adult supervision.

Then my brother handed her the change.

She looked at the change. If there had been too little, it might not have been so bad. Candy bars back then were a nickel, five cents. Or perhaps we had some fries with our hamburgers and sodas.

But no, there was too much change. And Mother did not think that we would pass by a fountain drink for a glass of water.

"We each had a hotdog and a Dr. Pepper" my brother said.

"They don't have hotdogs at the counter. I told you to get hamburgers."

"They had hotdogs at the other counter" brother said.

My mother was ashamed to her very segregationist bones. Even I could see it in her face. Normally she would get angry if we disobeyed her, and she would hit us, and that would be that. But this was different. She just stood there mortified for another eternity.

I did not know why she did not just hit us, and I did not ask. I was happy to not get a beating.

As the sixties rolled on I would learn more about racism and segregation. From television, mostly. I would not meet a black person again until the summer before I left Jacksonville for good.

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