Anita and Ben Wedding Photo

Wedding photo

Racism Continues to Rear Its Ugly Head

As racism continues to rear its ugly head, it’s good to reflect on how far things have come in America.  As a white college student, I married my anthropology professor who was a hereditary Mende chief from Liberia, West Africa. During our 40 years of marriage, we faced issues of racism in 1950’s America and beyond. We wrote about how racism is compulsively replicated in our book, Slaves to Racism: An Unbroken Chain from America to Liberia. Below is an excerpt in my husband’s words.

Racism in 1950’s America

Negroes Lived in Fear

Negroes were perpetually insecure, in many ways, as helpless in freedom as they had been in slavery. One Sunday a mulatto girl at Fisk took me with her to church. When Helen and I boarded the bus near campus, the back was already full. There were only four whites sitting in front. Helen led me to a seat one row back from the bus driver.

We were busy talking when I heard, “Nigger, get back!” I ignored it. A minute later, I heard, “I said Nigger move back!” I looked up to see the white middle-aged bus driver get up out of his seat, take off his uniform cap, and walk back to us.

Slaves to Racism Book CoverHe grabbed me by my shirt collar and lifted me up into the air. I struggled to breathe. I was furious. He was messing up my good clothes and humiliating me before Helen. Inches from my face, he yelled, “Nigger, I’m gonna get you out!”

I clenched my teeth and butted him in the face with my forehead the way I hit soccer balls. Blood gushed from his mouth and nose. He stumbled backwards and fell down the bus steps out onto the sidewalk. There he lay on his back out cold.

After a moment of dead silence, all of the Negroes on the bus sprang to life and scattered out onto the sidewalk. Only one remained – an elderly, heavy set woman who rocked in her seat saying, “Lord help us. He done done it. Lord help him. He done done it.”

Helen and I stood by the bus driver. The few whites on the bus waited on the sidewalk. Negroes walking by stopped to watch from a distance. A police car pulled up. Four white officers came over and asked the whites standing there what happened. They couldn’t say.

Helen gripped my hand and whispered, “Ben I’m so sorry I put you in this.”

“Where’s your weapon?”

A policeman frisked me and said, “Are you the one?  What did ya hit ‘im with? Where’s your weapon?”

“I hit him with my head.”

“You’re lyin’, Nigger. You must have a secret weapon. Take off your coat.”  He checked my jacket pockets and said, “Take off your pants.”ben_photo_pg_001

“I’m not going to take my pants off in the street! I told you I used my head. I can demonstrate it on you.”

He backed up, raising his hands, and said, “Oh, no.”

As the elderly woman got off the bus, he said to her, “What’d this nigger do to the bus driver?”

“I saw the bus driver collar ‘im and all I know the bus driver was down on his back.”

By this time, the other police officers had gotten the bus driver up. His front teeth were knocked out. He struggled to tell them, “I don’t know. It happened all of a sudden.”

The policeman turned back to me, “Where do you live, boy? 

Racism in 1950's America - Negro College CampusHelen stood there crying. I struggled to control my anger. I told him, “I’m a graduate student at Fisk.”

Another police car came. An officer got out and said, “Let’s take him to jail. We’ll finish questioning him there.”

When I heard this, I told a Negro friend in the crowd that had gathered, “Go and tell President Johnson they want to arrest me and take me to jail.” I was hoping Johnson hadn’t left for church. When Johnson arrived, I told the police officer, “This is President Johnson. He can vouch for me.”

The policeman said to Johnson, “Boy, is this one o’ your boys?”

I whispered to Johnson, “I apologize for having to call you here.”

“Never mind about that, Ben. We’ll work this out.”

I told the policeman, “According to the law, I have the right to make one telephone call.”

He said, “Use that payphone on the sidewalk.”

I called David Thomas, the attaché to the Liberian ambassador in Washington, and told him to contact my sister Angie Brooks at the United Nations and tell her what happened. I said, “You’ve got to do something quick. They want to take me to jail and they just might kill me.”

Thomas said, “Give me the phone numbers of the governor and President Johnson.”  My Negro friend in the crowd worked at the state capitol so he gave me the governor’s number.”

Thomas said, “We’ll call right back.”

“Let that nigger go.”

Twenty minutes later, another police car pulled up. An officer got out and said, “We gotta a big problem on our hands. Let that nigger go. He’s a Liberian national. People from the UN and the Liberian embassy are sending representatives to look into this case.”

As I waited for Helen, the policeman turned to her and said, “What’re you doin’ with this nigger?”

“I’m Negro myself.”

“You got proof o’ this?”

She showed him her birth certificate that mulattos always carried. It said, “Born in Atlanta, a Negro.”Dr. Ben Dennis - Ignorance about Africa

As Helen and I walked back to the dorm, she said, “I thank the Lord that neither of us went to jail and no harm came to us.”

Back at Fisk, the Negro students said, “Those Africans behave like real men! If you attack ‘em, they retaliate right then and there. He stayed and admitted he did it. We’ve lost everything. A nigger would never do that. If he did something, he’d run away. And the rest of us would suffer for it.” Whites in Nashville branded me “that African at Fisk University.” The students warned me, “Don’t go anywhere alone. Those people will be lookin’ for you. White people in the South are ruthless. Be careful.”

The following Sunday, Helen and I took the same bus route to her church. As we boarded the bus, I said, “Helen, let’s sit in the back.”

“It’s too crowded. We’ll just sit mid-way.”

The Reaction of the Congregation

At Helen’s church, the pastor spent half of his sermon on me. He said, “That’s what you call a real Christian. Benjamin’s just like the Apostle Paul. Paul got beaten up in Thesselonica. And yet, the next morning he got up and went on to Berea to preach the Gospel. Last Sunday, Brother Benjamin was coming to church here when he was attacked by the policemen of our city. This morning, the very next Sunday, he took that same bus route here. He’s here with our sister, Helen.”

After Ben died in 2009, I wrote our love story, Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl and the African Chief,  to honor his memory and tell how God worked in our lives.Beyond Myself Book Cover by Author Anita Katherine Dennis