Women remember struggles of growing up in a different world

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 28, 2005

On the wall just inside the entrance to Burlington Elementary is a circle of small hands of different colors, surrounding one larger hand.

The hands are symbolic of all the peoples of the world, and the circle they form is symbolic of how we have more similarities than differences.

"A circle has no beginning and it has no end," explained Burlington librarian Harriette Ramsey. "We all need each other."

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The display is one of the activities students are taking part in as they observe Black History Month.

Begun in 1926 by Huntington, W.Va., educator Carter G. Woodson, Black History Month is meant to educate people on the contributions African-Americans have made throughout American history.

While Black History Month is observed in many schools and churches, some adults today say young people do not truly understand the importance of the month and why they should embrace this history.

A painful past

In 1956, Greenup County Schools were desegregated, ending years of racial inequality and injustice.

Wilma Fox did not live in Greenup County, but for the Ironton area resident, the event across the Ohio River was still a milestone. It was step toward equality.

"That was also the year my son (Tony Fox) was born and you know, it wasn't that long ago, if you stop and think about it, and about how far we've come. I don't want kids today to take it for granted."

Although Ironton Schools were integrated, Fox remembered that the friendships forged in elementary school years often weakened after high school.

"After you graduated from high school you went your way and the white kids went their way," she said.

It is this history that Fox wants young people today to understand. After all, to know where you are going, it is important to remember where you have been.

"I don't think they talk about it enough. Some of us do reach out to the young people and tell them what it was like," Fox said. "They didn't go through what we went through then. From time to time, we have to tell them."

Fox said adults at Quinn Chapel AME Church have had special events to raise awareness of black history among young people.

Ramsey can identify with Fox's desire to teach young people the difference between then and now and how blacks struggled for equality and made contributions to a country that often did not accept them for who they were and what they could do.

For her, memories of growing up in Ashland, Ky., bring back mixed emotions.

She remembers living in a segregated world.

"We used to go to Richmond, Ky., on the C&O railroad and the train station had 'colored' and 'white' waiting rooms," she recalled. "And you couldn't sit any place you wanted on the train. There were sections for us to sit in. You couldn't go to the movies, eat in restaurants."

At the same time, she also remembered a closely knit black community with churches and schools close to the community's heart.

"I went to Booker T. Washington to school," Ramsey said. "I learned there my love for English. It was a small school but some things about small schools are very good.

"We only had eight or nine people in a class and teachers not only knew you they knew your parents," she said.

Ramsey recalled that teachers were demanding, the curriculum was challenging and parents supported the teachers because they valued education.

"Teachers were held in high esteem," she said. "And talk back to a teacher? Never!"

One of those teachers became a favorite of Ramsey's and to this day, that teacher has a special

place in Ramsey's heart.

Her name is Dr. Thelma Johnson. Johnson taught English and Music at Booker T. Washington School. When it closed, she went on to teacher in the Ashland Independent Schools and today, though Ramsey said Johnson is

probably in her 90s, she is director of music at New Hope Baptist Church in Ashland, where Ramsey still attends.

"She had a flair about her, a way about her," Ramsey said. "She was really my mentor."

Ramsey recalled that institutions were not the only things closed to blacks. The minds of many of their white neighbors were closed, too. She remembered when she and her husband, Raymond Ramsey, first tried to buy a house in Burlington, they were met with bigotry once people saw their black faces.

"This was in 1959 and I remember we walked up to one door and knocked and a child came to the door and saw us and turned and yelled 'Mommy, here's some n*****.' Raymond and I just looked at each other and the price (of the house)

went up about $20,000."

The Ramseys ultimately had a man build them a house instead of buying an existing one.

Fox said she wants young people today to understand that people such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., fought to change the future for blacks and for all people, in fact.

Fox said she wants young people to learn that sacrifices have been made throughout history so that today, such things as segregated schools are only a memory and a chapter of history, something they only read about but do not experience.

"He gave his life for the cause," Fox said. "He was a young man, in the prime of his life and all he wanted was freedom for black people and for all people. I don't know how much more a man can do besides gives his life for what he believes in. He was a peaceful man. He accomplished a lot."

Present and future

Both Fox and Ramsey said that while institutions are not segregated today, prejudice still exists in the minds of those who see people not for what they contribute to society but for the way they look. The struggle for equality continues, and the emphasis is on changing the future, one mind at a time.

"I want them to look beyond the color of my skin," Ramsey said. "I don't want them to forget I am a black woman but I want them to look beyond my color and see that I am a person just like you. I hurt like you, I have feelings like you. I want people to accept me for who I am.

"I think we've made progress," Ramsey said. "We've come a long way but the struggle won't end until the Lord calls us home."