THE DAY I WAS ALMOST FIRED FROM MY JOB...
Not long ago it was all over the news that Woolworth's Stores were all closing down here in the states. As I saw that announcement, all kinds of memories flashed in front of my eyes. My first job had been at the lunch counter at two different Woolworth's Stores. First at the downtown store in Knoxville, Tennessee, then at the brand new one that was built in a shopping center near my home.
I really liked my job and was shocked when my Supervisor gave me the position of 'Night Manager' after a short while at the new store. This was perfect for me. I attended high school a mere block away from the new shopping center and went to work immediately after school. In fact, I went down the roadway in front of the school, crossed the street, and I was at the shopping center. Later, when I was dating the man I ended up marrying, he would be there waiting when my school day ended and would drive me down the hill to my job and was there to pick me up and take me home when my shift ended at nine o'clock at night. He worked near there and during his dinner break he took me to work.
My duties were simple, or so it seemed to me. My highest priority was to give good customer service and that comes naturally for me. The other duties included making certain all pots, pans, dishes and glasses were clean and spotless after running through the commercial dish washer in the kitchen. We simply took them to the kitchen where a man loaded the machine. I also made sure everything was clean out front, and all switches were turned off for the night on things like the steam table, coffee maker and bun warmer drawer. I counted the money in the cash register and took it with my receipts to the Store Manager.
The Store Manager was a pleasant man to work for. He was always smiling and occasionally he would come into the kitchen door and ask for a piece of pie or cake and sit at the counter to eat it while making small talk. He had a daughter who, if I remember correctly, was about eleven years old. I had met her. She was always smiling and happy, but she was a Down Syndrome little girl.
That's why it was no surprise when I looked back toward the kitchen one particular evening and saw the store manager there, motioning for me to come to the kitchen. I noticed as I walked back there that he was not wearing his usual smile. Instead he had a most serious look on his face. Somethings wrong, I thought to myself. I hoped nothing had happened to his little daughter. But I put on a smile and said, "Pie or cake this evening?"
He stood silent for a long moment and stared at me before speaking. It was an uneasy moment for me. Finally, he asked, "Who waited on that lady sitting there with the two children?"
"I did, Mr. Hampton. Has she complained about something?"
"No, she hasn't said a word. But if you EVER serve colored people in here again, I will have to fire you." 'Colored people' was how black folks were referred to in those days.
"I...I didn't know that I wasn't supposed to serve her here, Sir," I stuttered.
"Well, you know now," he said. "You go and give her take-out plates and send her away like you should have done to begin with. And remember, if this ever happens again, you won't have a job." With that said, he turned and walked out of the kitchen door, slamming it behind him.
I was absolutely speechless. I took a deep, deep breath and exhaled with a whew. Regaining my composure, I walked back out to where the lady was sitting, eating, with her little boy and her little girl. I told her, "Ma'am, I am real sorry, but I've just been told I must put your food in take out plates for you to take with you."
She replied, "I understand. That's fine. We just got so hungry, I didn't think these kids would wait till I got them home to feed them. They'd be screaming on the bus." So I scraped their food into three take-out divided plates, bagged them and handed them to her. She took the large bag and started to walk away, but then turned and faced me, saying, "Thank you and God bless."
My mind was in a whirlwind and my head felt like a tornado had just touched down.
I honestly had not known we were not allowed to serve black people there! I had not even really noticed her skin color, until the store manager pointed it out to me.
I had noticed that there were always two water fountains in the stores, one had a sign over it that said WHITE. The other had a sign that said COLORED. It was the same for rest rooms. And when I rode the city bus to downtown Knoxville, I knew there were big signs spaced between the windows that said, COLORED FOLKS GO TO BACK OF THE BUS. And indeed, all the 'colored' people went to the back seats on the bus. But in reality, my family had never discussed other races. I only knew that we lived in one part of town and they lived in another part of town. But my goodness, my own grandmother lived in yet another area of town. I assumed that everyone just lived in different parts of town. I thought everyone lived where they wanted to live. Just as we did.
No 'colored' people went to my school, but I had assumed they went to the school near where they lived, just as I did. After all, in school I had been taught about the freedom we have here in the USA. And I knew from my studies that there were no longer any slaves.
But I learned a lesson worth much more that evening at work when I almost got fired for serving a black lady at that Woolworth's lunch counter. I learned that evening that something was wrong with my beloved country and that it needed fixing. I am happy that some things have changed for the better in America since that day.
But I have pondered ever since and wondered...was my family right or wrong in never telling us children that there was a sharp dividing line between blacks and whites? I had to learn the hard way that there was a race problem. But then, perhaps my parents just never had an opinion, one way or the other. So, I suppose they could not tell their opinion if they had no opinion to begin with.
I came very near to losing my job that day, but from then on, I prayed for the day when I could serve black people without feeling guilty. But I left that job before that day ever came to be a reality.
I've often thought of that Store Manager. He seemed to see nothing wrong with taking that lady's money and sending her away, when that lady could not help her skin color any more than his little girl could help having Downs Syndrome....
But I've never forgotten the day when I almost lost my job for serving a lady a plate lunch. Because I had paid no attention to the color of her skin.