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The Uncle Bill Story                     by John B. Isom

(John remembers his first encounter with racism in this excerpt from his autobiography, "As I Remember Me")

One Easter I went with Mr. Buckner to visit his parents, who lived in Prattville, a small town a few miles north of Montgomery.  His parents lived in a big rambling house amid a scope of woods at the edge of town.  It was chilly when we arrived.  We found the family in a very large room that served as the kitchen and dining room.  They were sitting around a very large wood-burning cook stove that sat some three feet from one of the walls.  I was introduced to Mr. Buckner's parents and to his younger brother, who was out of college and was pursuing his profession in Prattville.   I was then introduced to Uncle Bill who was sitting against the wall, half way behind one end of the stove.

As the members of the family were talking about family stuff, Uncle Bill and I got into a discussion of our own.  Unconsciously I was saying, "Yes sir", and "No sir" in response to his questions, just as I had been taught to do when talking with an old person.  Presently Mr. Buckner's brother got my attention and motioned for me to follow him.  He led the way to another room.  "You don't," he said, with a mixture of anger and disgust in his voice, "say 'yes sir', 'no sir' to a nigger."  Whatever else he said did not register.  At that point the "something else"* - the best part of me - silently began protesting, saying that such an attitude is inconsistent with the best the human heart knows and feels.

As I remember it, I listened to him in dead silence, thinking this college educated man must know a lot more than I did.  Yet, I left that room knowing, in my guts, that he should be, and must be, somewhere in his heart and mind, ashamed of himself for saying what he was saying to me.  I felt no guilt or shame for having spoken to Uncle Bill in a manner consistent with the love and equality principles as taught in the Bible.  I knew I had talked with Uncle Bill the same way I would have wanted Uncle Bill's son to talk to my father.

Uncle Bill was the first Black person I ever met and had the opportunity to talk with.  In Mr. Buckner's brother I had my first encounter with the sickening race prejudice, which I was to learn later, infected many people in the South and the North.  A sickness of the mind and heart that I have resisted and fought, if sometimes cowardly, and never too successfully, to this day. 

In the parts of Alabama, where I was born and lived my first twenty-two years, there were no Blacks for the poor whites to exploit or with whom to compete for bread and status.  There were no plantations sites to be found where slaves once did the work of there masters.   No slaves at whom  poor whites could look down there noses and feel superior. 

In the hills and hollows where I was reared, I doubt, except on hunting trips, Indians had ever spent the night.   The people there, from the beginning, had only equals by whom to measure themselves.  All had been poor whites and their descendants.  It was, perhaps, for this reason that I learned first to think of, and look upon, every other person as an equal, before taking note of such differences as color of skin or speech.  I never told Mr. Buckner about the lecture his brother gave me on how to talk to "niggers".  If he told them they never broached the subject with me.  I believe they would have had he told them.

(* A reference to that "something else" Carl Sandburg identifies in his poem "Wilderness".)

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