Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, back in the mid-20th century, when a giant picture of the 82nd Airborne Division graced the wall of Sears on Hay Street. The huge mural was on the stairway above the shoe department in Sears. Climb into Mr. Peabody’s Way Back machine and wander through midcentury Fayetteville.
The picture was taken at Fort Bragg of paratroopers falling from the sky above a color guard. The soldier in the middle of the picture wearing the parachute is Colonel Stephen J. Meade. Note the flag with 48 stars. Bill Belche took the picture. Belche owned WIDU radio station and was famous for his catch phrase, “Hey, Lordy Mamma!”
If you are from Fayetteville and calendar-enriched, you will recall this picture, which dominated downtown for decades. The Sears building ultimately morphed into the Department of Social Services and then AIT. The fate of the original mural is lost in time.
To quote our old pal Charles Dickens about Fayetteville in the 1960’s, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The Donald’s recent “s***hole” comment got me thinking about earlier times. Like the Overlook Hotel in “The Shining,” a lot of things happened in the South, and not all of them were good.
Begin in Sears shoe department’s mechanical rocket ship ride, which for a dime could buy a couple of minutes of child entertainment. Next to the rocket was the foot X-ray machine, where people could Xray their feet for free as many times as they desired. The fun of the machine was to put your feet into a new pair of shoes and wiggle your toes to see if the new shoes fit. Al Bundy would have loved this medical shoe-selling technique.
I X-rayed my feet whenever we were downtown. It is no small wonder that I still have feet. The machine was cool. You stood up and put your feet under the X-ray device and looked into a viewer at the top of the machine. The X-ray image you saw of your bones was purple, as I recall. After 60 years, memory can fade. Fortunately for Sears, the statute of limitations has long since passed. If your feet have rotted away due to amateur radiology, you are on your own.
Santa Claus held forth on the landing above the shoe department each year. The toy department at the back of Sears had an electric train layout that rivaled the real thing. A kid could stand there watching the trains go around while surrounded by a sea of wonderful Christmas toys. Climb to Sears’ second floor on Saturdays, and the appliance department had a ham cooking over a rotisserie grill. The smell was wonderful. Sears’ record department on the second floor had racks of the latest platters, bringing music to the huddled masses yearning to buy Elvis Presley’s latest tunes.
Not all nostalgia is sepia-toned. Next to the X-ray machine stood the water fountains marked “White” and “Colored.” I recall the “White” water fountain was a standard refrigerated model and the “Colored” water fountain was a much simpler non-refrigerated model.
The bathrooms were also segregated by race. Growing up in the South, this seemed quite normal. From the perspective of 2018, it seems quite bizarre. Segregation was not limited to water fountains. The theaters downtown – the Miracle, Colony, Carolina, and Broadway – were segregated. The black people had their own separate entrance that led up to the balcony where they had to sit. The white people went in to the main floor. You learned not to sit under the very edge of the balcony as you might find yourself enjoying a shower of coke or popcorn from on high. Considering the indignity of having to sit upstairs due to your race, the white people down below were lucky heavier objects did not rain down upon us from above.
Cape Fear Valley Hospital was not immune to Jim Crow, either. The hospital had separate but unequal waiting rooms for “White” and “Colored” people. In retrospect, it seems odd that a hospital would sort out its patients by race, but that is what happened.
The school systems were segregated. My high school, 71st, was not integrated until my junior year in 1967. About 10 black students got dropped into an all-white school. It was not an easy transition for them. I remember Fletcher Williams was one of the first black students. Fletcher was a natural athlete, outgoing and cheerful. He played on the football team and ran on the track team and was accepted. The other black students had a much harder time.
So when pondering The Donald’s preference for Norwegians over black and brown people from “s***hole countries,” consider where we were 60 years ago. Back then, where you could drink, eat, see movies, go to school and get medical attention was determined by the color of your skin. Those were not the good old days for everyone.
Best we keep those days from returning. They did not make America great.