Acculturation is the cultural modification of people by adapting to another culture. Growing up in Rockford, Illinois during the 50s, ’60s, and ’70s, black people were expected to change to housing, education, and employment settings designed for whites only. In the September 1949 issue of Life magazine, postwar Rockford was described as “nearly typical of the U.S. as any city can be.” Although an influx of other nationalities replaced the previously dominant Irish and Swedes, restrictive covenants determined where we lived, were educated, or worked. During 1929, racism and economic class were codified in Rockford’s property deeds: “high-class, restricted residential district, free from objectionable or value-destroying features.” No blacks or Jews.
The railroad tracks separated the upper- or middle-class neighborhoods from those of the lower class. Race- and ethnicity-based real estate covenants were ruled unenforceable in 1948 by the U.S. Supreme Court. However, they had been in use for a half-century by industry and government that condoned them.
My parents left rural Arkansas for better employment, housing, and educational opportunities for their children. However, they were merely moving “up south.” My sisters and I grew up straddling two cultures. While we lived “across the tracks,” we didn’t know about class issues. It was where our aunts and uncles, cousins, and other black people from southern states lived. Boys were encouraged to play sports. Girls took piano lessons. We were taken to church. Sunday dinners carried on southern traditions.
We often encountered stopped trains on the tracks on our walk to Rock River Elementary School. We were supposed to walk along the side of the idle train until we got to the section allowing us to walk across the track and down the hill to school. However, we were more ingenious than that. We slid under the couplings and down the incline in the well-worn path hollowed out by the countless students who’d preceded us. One of the older boys stood guard to ensure our safe passage. As an adult, I realize how dangerous our shortcut was.
The school day began with the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, unaware the “flag” and the “republic” considered us inferior persons whose ancestors were kidnapped and brought to this country to develop it, but not to partake in its bountiful blessings. When The Brown versus Board of Education ruling came in 1954, Rockford had too few Negro children to have separate but equal schools. But they did have a disparate impact. The schools’ response to racially diverse children was tracking: a means of sorting children viewed as having limited preparation or capacity for schooling which quickly took on the appearance of segregation.
My second-grade teacher “decided” I was smart, and my academic journey took a dramatic turn from my three sisters and most of the Negro students. I call it “decided” because my three sisters had similar gifts and abilities even if their approach to learning was different from mine. I was a studious child whose mother said “follow the teacher’s directions. Even when the teacher is wrong, the teacher is right. She has her education; you’re trying to get yours”. If there were a problem, my mother would handle it. Although I didn’t understand, I did know what happened to disobedient little girls… I was the child who hated to be spanked.
The experience was wondrous days filled with reading, writing, spelling, and math. The teachers asked questions; I raised my hand. I was not popular among my peers, but the teachers loved me. They were molding me to become the perfect maid or household help. I was dreaming big dreams. Attending college. Becoming as well-educated as they were. My elementary teachers were all white women except the two sixth grade teachers were male—one black and one white. I was assigned to the class with the white male teacher.
Junior high and high school were replays of elementary school. There were black teachers assigned to teach students in the second and third tracks. My sisters complained I was getting a better education which included cultural experiences such as school-sponsored field trips to Chicago to have dinner at the Palmer House, followed by the original stage versions of Fiddler on the Roof and Hello Dolly.
My sister, Chip, became a teacher in the Rockford School District. She was one of the vocal voices in support of desegregation. She wrote her doctoral dissertation based on her experiences as an elementary principal during the turbulence of the consent decree to remediate more than a century of systematic discrimination against black children.
One of our cousins, Charles Box, became Rockford’s first and only black mayor. We benefited from the systems designed to marginalize us. We gained an education allowing us to expand our horizons even as we upheld my cultural identity. I’m still that little girl sliding under the railroad tracks to run down the hill to Rock River Elementary School.
Image: By Anthony Joseph Tartaglia – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43544095
-Joyce A. Brown
Joyce Brown is a motivational speaker and author who uses her creative energy to give voice and meaning to the challenges women face in all walks of life. She grew up in Rockford, Illinois in a household of strong women. She graduated from Bradley University with a B.S. and M.A. Her professional career expanded her reach into Peoria, Illinois; and Battle Creek, Michigan. Joyce obtained a PhD from Western Michigan University.
She is a proud member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. and has served as a direct services worker, executive director, program director for a major foundation, and an entrepreneur. Joyce has experienced many uplifting moments as a professional and as a dedicated parent and strives to bring those events and lessons to life through her characters in the contemporary fiction novels she pens.