A Different World: Wichita Falls, TX 1954

Note: This is another essay by my mother, Feige Brody. Here she looks back on her time accompanying my father to Wichita Falls, Texas, where he served in the U.S. Air Force. Mom was newly married and just 21 years old.

I walked into Idlewild airport (now JFK) in New York in 1954. I was taking a flight to join my husband who was stationed at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas. Hours later I landed in Dallas, a whole different world. Signs jumped out at me, ‘No Colored Allowed’ above water fountains, bathroom entrances and restaurants. ‘Whites Only’ plastered along the brightly lit walls. It shocked me like a slap in the face. I felt revolted, but why was I so appalled? I read books, I saw movies, read newspaper articles, I knew segregation existed. So why was I so upset?

I lived in a different world. My neighborhood in Brooklyn was integrated. I went to elementary, junior high, high school and Brooklyn College with Negroes, as African-Americans were called at that time. We had one Chinese student whose father owned the laundry around the corner, and I knew Hispanic kids, too; my classmates were all colors from different countries around the world. It seemed to me that they joined school clubs and played team sports, in fact some went on to play on professional teams. We took pride in that. This was a time when Jackie Robinson was a beloved member of the Brooklyn Dodgers. The ballparks and arenas that I went to weren’t segregated – watching games at Ebbetts Field, Madison Square Garden, and the Polo Grounds we all sat together. On the surface, at least, it seemed to be an integrated society.

When we went to the movies, we saw famous white actors in black-face, where Fred Astaire imitated Bojangles, and we didn’t think anything of it.  I was oblivious to the racism implicit in those movies or the wider culture. I didn’t see the subtler signs of racism in Brooklyn. When I arrived at the airport in Dallas, it was blindingly obvious.

Barry picked me up in a beat-up blue Pontiac with 150,000 miles on the odometer. It had dings, scars and scratches from battles won and lost. Riding to the air force base we struggled with the balky car fan which provided little relief from the oppressive heat and the erratic radio reception.

The ride was even more nerve wracking because Barry did not have his driver’s license yet. He had just learned to drive, my father taught him in Brooklyn before he left, and this was the very first car he ever bought; no one in his family had one before. Barry was waiting for his license to come in the mail. I kept my fingers crossed that we didn’t get pulled over by the police.

We started our slow drive to Wichita Falls through a landscape totally new to me. I expected to see oil derricks, but they weren’t anywhere to be found. Instead I saw houses with what looked like water pumps in their yards but were in fact oil pumps. I later learned that the derricks wasted too much oil and were replaced by numerous, smaller pumps.

Our trip took us past small towns – some had signs “No Colored Allowed.” Another shock to my system.

As we got closer to the air force base the air quality changed. An odor of rotten eggs and something metallic overwhelmed us. I learned that Texans say they blow the odor to Oklahoma overnight and they return the stench to Texas in the morning. I didn’t realize until then that Oklahoma was just a stone’s throw away from Wichita Falls.

We arrived at our rented apartment in town as they had no room for us on the base. Unable to open the door with the key we had been provided, a neighbor came over saying, “You have to poosh and pool.” Barry translated, he pushed and pulled and got the door open.

That first day, Barry drove me to do some basic shopping. I had to learn the lingo: I got a sack, not a bag, and pop, not soda. I was coming out of the store as a young Black woman walked toward me and she stepped off the wide, shady sidewalk into the sunny, dirty gutter. She never looked up and I couldn’t catch her eye. I was confused. That’s when I noticed the “Whites only” sign on the supermarket. The woman went through an alley to place her order at a side window. She wasn’t permitted in the store. I rarely went into town again. I lived in an all-white neighborhood and went to a small store on the corner. I didn’t see a Black person unless I went to the base.

On Wednesday, April 20, 1955 I went into labor and had my first child, Steven, at the air force base hospital. I went in at noon and delivered at 3:00 p.m. and I came home on Friday. I was prepared to give birth without family or friends present, but I was not prepared for natural childbirth! It was without any drugs for pain because the hospital staff were on their lunch break and when they returned at 1:00 it was too late; it would have been dangerous to the baby.

I called my parents on Sunday I told them we had the bris. Mom corrected me, telling me it was a circumcision (since it wasn’t officiated by a rabbi or performed by a mohel).

Barry and I survived being new parents with Dr. Spock, Mother’s telephone advice and a caring pediatrician. The pediatrician advised bringing Steven out in the fresh air. On a sunny, mild day I took Steve out with a blanket and put him on the grass. A neighbor came running out, shouting, “No, no! Chiggers!” She explained that chiggers were tiny bugs living in the grass and similar to mosquitoes, but they bit you and stayed under your skin. You have to light match at the site of the bite and watch it crawl out. It was the last time we walked on the grass. I never heard of that in Brooklyn.

My parents flew to visit us one long weekend. Barry went to the base with a friend and gave Dad that beat up blue Pontiac. Dad couldn’t get over the way he was treated when he went to the base or the PX. He was waved through security without needing to stop. After my parents left, the airmen were in formation as the general passed. Barry had to smile because the general was the spitting image of my father. Calling home, my father said, “No way, they were just being polite.” The thought on base was that the general came to do his inspection early, in disguise. The beat-up blue Pontiac was a ruse.

There were good things about our time in Wichita Falls, besides the birth of Steven. We made a life-long friend in Oliver Hailey (who went on to become a playwright with a show on Broadway). And our neighbors did help, especially the one who took a huge scorpion out of my bathtub. We were glad to leave and looked forward to our next assignment at Westover Air Force Base in Chicoppee Falls, Massachussetts.

We packed up the car. They didn’t make car seats for babies yet, so we put a small mattress across the back seat and tucked Steven in. Leaving at midnight, we drove until 3:00 a.m. and were somewhere in Arkansas when we realized we were hungry. We pulled into a small shack that said ‘Eats’ in big letters.

Stopping, leaving Steven sleeping the in the back seat, we walked into an all-Black restaurant. We saw no outward sign; we had no idea. They served us politely and one of the patrons kept an eye on Steven, looking out the door and telling us that all was well. As we left, I knew if the opposite had occurred, a Black family stopped at a white restaurant, it would not have gone the same way.

We arrived in Brooklyn for a brief stay between assignments. It was good to be back. Home is where the heart is.

6 thoughts on “A Different World: Wichita Falls, TX 1954

  1. Feige, what a delightful story, as usual. Your comments on racism at that time struck me as true, unfortunately. I grew up in Maryland and there were never any black children in any of my schools. The only black people I was acquainted with worked in peoples’ homes. You never saw “negroes” in any department stores and I learned later that they made their clothes,or wore what was given to them by their employers or ordered from catalogues. I really lived in a white bread environment, so I could understand your consternation when you where confronted with an entirely different atmosphere. Do keep writing your stories as they bring back the good and the not so good memories to all of us of a certain age, ha ha! Lots of love, Joanne

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  2. I am so relieved to now understand that someone inside the restaurant was keeping an eye on me. Here I thought after all these years you and Dad left me in the car unwatched. Considering this was the 1950’s your sensibilities and your fairness in treating people regardless of their color, ethnic, or religious persuasions with respect whether you were in the South or North were five to ten years ahead of the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960’s. Both you and Dad were ahead of your times.

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  3. I second everything Steve said…. you and dad went on to teach us the values revealed in your essay. To our great benefit.

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  4. Thank you for the vivid description of that place and time. It is so clear that the racism you encountered had a profound impact on you. It is surely a credit to you that you have such a sense of justice and fairness.
    At the same time, I am left with sadness over not only the horrific racism but also how far we have not come since then. Shouldn’t we expect all people to have that same goodness that you exhibit?
    Thank you for the excellent essay.

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