Anita and Ben Wedding Photo

Wedding photo

I Married a Black Man

As a white college student in the 1960s, I married my anthropology professor who was a hereditary Mende chief from Liberia, West Africa. In Slaves to Racism: An Unbroken Chain from America to Liberia, which we wrote together and was published in 2009, he shared his experiences in the black community during the 1950s where “Stayin’ in Their Place” was common. In his words:

     Fear in a White Restaurant

In St. Louis, I took my black wife, Ruth, and her mother, Penny, to a restaurant. Penny got nervous and hesitated at the door when she saw the restaurant was full of white people. After we sat down and ordered our food, she said to me, “Do you know any of these people? They’re all white.”

“No.”                                                                                                                                                                                                            1950's Black Church - Praise & Worship

“And you comin’ here to eat, just you and Ruth and me?  We better get outta here.  Aren’t you scared, boy?  I ain’t hungry. Let’s go.”

“Penny, we’ve already ordered. When your dinner comes, please eat. Just look at your plate. Don’t look at the white people. Are they looking at you?”

“No, but I’m on my guard.  I’m watchin’ ‘em like a hawk.”

“They’re just human beings.”

“Yeah, but they’re different human beings. They ain’t like us.”

Ruth said, “Ma, it’s O.K.  Ben wouldn’t put you in any danger.”

He Don’t Know Nothin’

“He come from Africa. He don’t know nothin’’!”

I said, “Penny, I know a whole lot.”

“I’m not talkin’ ‘bout books, I’m talkin’ ‘bout white people!  What do you do when you see ‘em?”

“When I lived in Germany, we talked with the Germans and ate with them. My governess was white. So was the cook, the laundry woman, and the chauffer at the consulate.”

“Ben, you done done everything! Lord have mercy. I can’t believe it. And you lived through it.”

As I paid the bill, the white waitress said, “Thank you. Come back again.”

As we walked to the car, Penny said, “I ain’t goin’ back there. The good Lord was with us. Lord, have mercy. I’m not gonna yield to temptation.”

Stayin’ in Their Place: Getting  Off the Sidewalk

Ruth and I were shopping one Christmas in St. Louis. As we walked by a store, a white couple came out of the front door. Ruth instantly elbowed me into a snow bank in the street. I slipped and almost fell.

She could see I was angry so she said, “You wanna get us in trouble? Don’t you know when you see white people comin’, you gotta get off the sidewalk? You may be a king in Africa but it’s the custom in this country. Here we’re all just niggers.”

“They didn’t say anything to us.”

“White people don’t talk to niggers.”

“Ruth, I’ve never gotten off the sidewalk for anyone, whether he’s pink or blue. The sidewalk’s wide. We could have easily passed by each other. From now on, you walk on the street side. Let me walk on the inside. If anyone touches me, I’ll kick him. He’ll never forget it.”

“You gotta whole lot to learn. This ain’t Africa. This is white folks’ country. White people are mean. They’ll hurt you just for not gettin’ off the sidewalk. I’m gonna call my sister and tell her how bullheaded you are. You’re gonna get us both killed.”

Ruth told her mother, Penny, “Times’ve changed. Benjamin’d be dead a long time ago. When we see white people comin’, he refuses to get off the sidewalk.”

Penny told me, “Ben, you gotta be careful ‘specially if it’s a white woman.”                                                                                                           

“If she doesn’t want to come close to me, she can get off the sidewalk. Why do I have to do it?”

“Lord, God!  He don’t know nothin’ ‘bout this country! Lord, have mercy on him!” And she went into a big prayer.

“Nobody said anything to me.”

“That ain’t mean nothin’. They’ll get you next time. You have to follow the rules here.”

Stayin’ in Their Place: Don’t Look People in the Eye

When I talked to white people and looked them in the eye, Ruth told me, “You let white people talk to you first and you look down. Everybody knows that. You don’t have any common sense.”

“But how will you know if they understand you if you don’t look at them?”

Ruth told her sister Georgia May, “Benjamin just talks to all kinds o’ people. He doesn’t care. I keep tellin’ him, ‘You don’t talk to white people unless you know ‘em really well.’”

Our Love Story

After my husband’s death in 2009, I coped with my grief by writing our love story, Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl and the African Chief.  

Beyond Myself Book Cover by Author Anita Katherine Dennis