British students' first encounter with segregation in 1963

British students of today will no doubt be appalled to know that, by the end of our first year at university, my girlfriend and I had saved enough money from our grants to book tickets on a London to New York charter flight - for £50 return.

As it was a last minute decision to go, we hadn't much of a plan about what to do when we got there, other than to visit relations who had emigrated to North America in the early 1900s. We'd also been too late (and too short of cash) to buy the then amazing Greyhound Bus deal of unlimited travel for 99 days for  $99 - so we had little choice but to hitch-hike

An early stop was in Portsmouth, Virginia, to stay with my girlfriend's great uncle Willie. Then in his 80s, he had emigrated to the USA as a young man and had developed into a typical white Southerner, a first hint of which were the numerous Confederate flags arrayed both inside and outside his house.

We'd heard about racial segregation in the Southern states of America, but had no idea that it was practised so widely or to such an extreme extent. Three examples stood out from the many:

1. To get to a local swimming pool, much needed to survive in levels of humidity we'd never before experienced, we had to walk through an area populated by black Americans. Everyone at the pool was white, which Uncle Willie explained by telling us "they have their own pool else where."

2. One Sunday, we were taken to the local Baptist church, where every face was also white. "They have their own church elsewhere", explained Uncle Willie.

3. On another day, we went to Virginia Beach armed with details supplied by Uncle Willie of bus times for getting there and back. At Virginia Beach, the only people on the beach were white, also predictably explained by Uncle Willie: "They have their own beach further along the shore."

On the way back, we realised that there was actually an earlier bus home than the one that Uncle Willie had suggested. All the other passengers in it were black, and seemed vaguely surprised when we got in - and even more surprised when we headed for and sat in the back seat.

When we told Uncle Willie about our day out, he was furious, telling us that we'd taken the wrong bus. That one was for blacks only and we should have waited for the later one for whites. What's more, as whites, we should certainly not have sat anywhere near the back seat.

A lesson we quickly learnt was that it was quite impossible to argue rationally with Uncle Willie (or any other white Southerner we met). After all, everyone knew and accepted that  black people liked having their own swimming pools, churches, beaches and buses, and that the arrangements suited both blacks and whites.

Any comparison with South Africa was dismissed out of hand - not least because they didn't seem to know where it was, let alone about the kind of society the apartheid regime was running in those days (when many of us in the UK were already boycotting South African fruit and wine).

I now realise that it was only a matter of weeks before there would be a march on Washington where a black Baptist minister would be making a speech with a few relevant points about what we had just seen. Planning for the march must have been in full swing, but we never heard anyone make any mention of it.

Uncle Willie and his friends obviously had no plans for making the short journey to Washington in August, 1963 - and were no doubt greatly underwhelmed when Martin Luther King went banging on about having a dream.

(For next open course details, see HERE 

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