Black residents look back on life before and after Civil Rights Act [Aiken Standard, S.C. :: ]
(Aiken Standard (SC) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) July 02--James Gallman, Shirley Abney and Richard Johnson Jr. are Aiken area residents who are black. They also were living here 50 years ago when the Civil Rights Act became law.
Recently, the three discussed their experiences locally before the passage of landmark legislation and during the transition period that followed.
"It's sad to say, but most of us knew our place, I guess," Gallman said. "There were certain things we knew we could and could not do."
Gallman, 71, is a member of the NAACP's national board of directors and the assistant treasurer for the Aiken County Branch of the NAACP. He formerly served as the local NAACP president and held the same post in the organization at the state level. He was also the assistant superintendent of administration for the Aiken County Public School District and the director of the Aiken-Barnwell Regional Head Start program.
"I remember during my teenage years when the white swimming pool was in front of where Warneke Cleaners is (on Newberry Street)," Gallman said.
"We just sort of stayed away from it to avoid being considered brash for watching those white children, particularly the girls. When we went to the movies, we had to go up in what we called the buzzards' roost (the balcony); we certainly couldn't sit downstairs."
Abney, 62, moved to Aiken with her family as a child, and she worked for the Aiken County Department of Social Services for more than 30 years. She is also a former NAACP first vice president, locally.
Abney remembers being among the first blacks to attend Aiken Junior High and Aiken Senior High after the integration process in the public schools began here.
"It was like we (black students) were in our own little huddle," she said. "We were treated as if we were different. There were some kids who were fairly nice to us, but there were others that were like, 'We don't want to be bothered with you; we're going to ignore you.'"
One white schoolmate, a boy, put a tack in Abney's chair.
"He thought it was funny, and he might have done it to anybody, but today, we are the best of friends," she said.
Abney once heard another white student, a girl, say, "Oh yeah, well, she's just black." Abney couldn't recall the circumstances that led to the comment, but said she wanted to fight the girl. They both ended up in the principal's office.
Integration "was a learning experience (for blacks), but we adjusted because we had to adjust," Abney said.
When Abney's family went to local restaurants, they sometimes received poor service or were made to feel unwelcome in other ways.
"There was a kind of a high-end store in town where they would follow us from the time we went in until the time we left," Abney said. "They never asked if they could help us or anything like that."
Abney described the prevailing attitude for much of the 1960s locally as "separate, but almost equal." The situation was better, she added, than it would have been in "a real, real small town, where it was separate and it ain't going to be equal."
Richard Johnson Jr., a Korean War veteran, said the turmoil that followed the Civil Rights Act's enactment wasn't seen in Aiken for the most part.
"We didn't experience the type of unrest that a lot of cities and towns did," he said. "There were no riots or real hostile situations simply because of the leadership that we had. The people in the business community, the ministers in the faith community and Mayor H. Odell Weeks all had vision. They provided excellent leadership that allowed for a transition from a segregated system to a more integrated system without a lot of unrest."
Dede Biles is a general assignment reporter for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since January 2013. A native of Concord, N.C., she graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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