I Married an African
As a white college student in the 1960s, I married my anthropology professor who was a hereditary Mende chief from Liberia, West Africa. He came to America in 1950 and during the 50s and 60s, he hosted and befriended numerous African students on college scholarships. I enjoyed recording his many stories of his experiences including African Students on a Summer Tour. In his words:
African Students on a Summer Tour
When I was a graduate student teaching at Washington University in 1956, I took three Africans on a summer tour of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Illinois. Along with Harmon, the other Liberian, there were two Nigerians – Kojo and Adidiray. During the trip, we all wore casual African shirts.
Trying to Eat in a Restaurant
In Illinois, we stopped at a restaurant to get something to eat. When a young white waitress brought our food to the table, she said, “You’ll have to take this outside to eat.” Adidiray started talking to Kojo in Yoruba. Harmon whispered to me, “Where will we eat Professor?”
I told the waitress, “Let me talk to the manager.”
A few minutes later, the waitress returned and said, “Didn’t you hear me? You people have to go out.” She seemed startled to hear Adidiray and Kojo speaking Yoruba, while Harmon and I spoke gibberish to each other pretending it was another African language. We figured that if we scared her, she might let us alone.
It was a small restaurant. Everyone got quiet and stared at us. Some of the customers gathered at the far end of the restaurant and stood watching us. As we started eating our dinners, someone called out, “Call the manager!”
I told Harmon, “Let’s just sit tight.”
A short, bald-headed middle-aged white man walked up briskly and said, “Don’t you boys hear? You can’t eat in here. You gotta take this food out.” As if on cue, Kojo and Adidiray started speaking Yoruba and Harmon and I spoke gibberish.
Someone said, “Call the Sheriff. He’s got a deputy who was a veteran in World War II. Maybe he can figure out what language they’re talking.”
The deputy listened to us and told the manager and the sheriff, “You better be careful with these people. I can’t figure out what language they’re speaking. And frankly, I don’t think you’ll find anyone in Illinois who can understand them. You know we always hear about people from outer space. Who knows? These guys just might be.”
The sheriff told the manager, “Let them eat and get outta here. Don’t bother them.”
We ate in peace. When we went to pay the bill, the manager waved us away with his hand, saying, “Go, go.”
Being Stopped by Law Enforcement
As we left, Adidiray took a turn driving. Several hours later, we saw a patrolman following us. We told Adidiray to repeat whatever the patrolman said when he stopped us. The tall and skinny patrolman leaned over the window and said, “Good Afternoon, Sir.” Adidiray, his eyes red and his face threatening, looked the patrolman up and down.
The patrolman said, “May I see your driver’s license?”
The patrolman said, “Let me see your driver’s license, Sir.”
Adidiray said in his deep voice, slowly and deliberately, “Let me see your driver license, Sir.”
The patrolman said, “Do you speak English?”
Adidiray said, “Do you speak English?”
The patrolman walked back to his patrol car and called for help. A second patrol car pulled up and the two officers talked for a while. As they walked to our car, we heard one of them say to the other, “We’ve gotten a report about some strange people in this area, something about outer space.”
They waved us on and said, “Go!”
Drinking from a “White” Water Fountain
From Humbo, we drove on to Jackson, Tennessee, the biggest town in the area. It was hot. As we walked down Main Street, we saw some drinking fountains at the courthouse and went over to get a drink. One fountain said, “Colored.” The other said, “Whites Only.” We noticed that the whites sitting in the square were watching us intently.
Harmon asked me, “Is the water different?”
I said, “No. It’s the same.”
He walked over and took a drink from the “colored” fountain. Then he went over and took a drink from the “white” fountain and said, “You’re right! It’s the same water.”
A white man walked over to us and said, “Don’t you boys know you can’t drink outta this fountain?”
We ignored him. When Adidiray and Kojo took a drink out of the “white” fountain, Kojo said loudly, “White people are stupid! We’re not drinking water from a cup. We’re just putting our mouth on a stream of water. What difference does it make?”
Adidiray said, “If whites want to keep Negroes from drinking at their fountain, they should invent a faucet that opens only for whites. That would solve the problem!”
Going into a “White” Restroom
We went to the basement of the courthouse to go to the bathroom and saw three bathrooms. One was marked, “Whites only, Women;” one was marked “Whites only, Men;” and the last was marked, “Colored.”
Adidiray said, “I’m going into one of the ‘white’ bathrooms and take a look.”
I said, “Go into the men’s. Don’t go into the women’s because if there’s a woman in there, she might yell ‘Rape!’ And we would all be in big trouble.”
Adidiray said, “Don’t worry. I won’t talk to her and I won’t have my pants loose.”
After he walked into the women’s restroom, Kojo followed. They looked around quickly and came out.
Then Adidiray went into the restroom for white men. A middle-aged white man at the urinal yelled, “What are you doing in here, Boy?”
Adidiray said in his bass voice, “I’ve come to pee, just like you!”
When Kojo and Harmon followed Adidiray in, the white man ran out yelling, “There’s a bunch of niggers in there and one of them is a giant with red eyes!”
Being Observed in the Town Square
After we went back to the town square, whites continued staring at us. Negroes watched as well. When a white man said, “Look how they’re dressed!” another white man called him aside. They talked quietly in a huddle with some other whites. As they dispersed, we overheard one of the white men say to the others, “Leave them alone. There’s been some reports about people from outer space. We don’t want no trouble in Jackson.”
Back in St. Louis, we reported our adventures to our African Association. Dr. Ohim from Togo said, “Since we don’t all have the time to do this, Ben, we’d like you to make another trip next summer, only this time go to Mississippi and wear your African gowns. We’ll be eager to hear about what happens.”
A Second Trip in our African Gowns
The following summer I took three other Africans and we wore our African gowns throughout the trip. Since these were the days of African independence, we had no trouble staying in any hotel in Mississippi or Louisiana. Everywhere we went, whites deferred to us, even cab drivers. In Jackson, Mississippi, we asked for the best hotel in town and a white man pointed to a “Whites only” hotel. We had no trouble checking into adjacent rooms. The hotel clerks even referred to us as African dignitaries. One white woman even said we looked like the Wise Men because of the gold embroidery on our gowns. In a hotel in Louisiana, we overheard one Negro cleaning woman say to another, “Girl, you know that’s what we’d be if we weren’t born in this country.”
An older man who was there said, “You’re sure right about that, Sister. Those of us born here will always be niggers. We’re just unlucky to be in this place.”
The other cleaning woman said, “You think if we went back to Africa, we’d change and be different?”
The man laughed and said, “Girl, let me tell you this. I was born here and I was in the army. I tell you the truth. Once born a nigger, a nigger you will remain. Ain’t nothin’ gonna change that!”
Back in St. Louis, we again reported what happened. Dr. Ohim said, “Ben, you were brave to make these two trips which have allowed all of us to get a glimpse of the South. Let’s have a round of applause for Ben!”
One of the Africans in our association said, “Since whites have lost their work force, they hate Negroes because Negroes no longer work for them. If we weren’t Africans, they would treat us the same way. One day our nations will all be independent and Africa will be the focus of the world. But even then, we’ll never get back from the colonialists what they’ve taken from us. It was Africa’s human and natural resources that built Europe and America. Where would Europe and America be without Africa?”
The next day Dr. Ohim flew to New York City to discuss Togo’s independence. It was a hopeful and exciting time for Africans. Everything seemed full of promise.
I Wrote our Love Story
After my husband died in 2009, I coped with my grief by writing our love story, Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl and the African Chief. It tells a lot more of the story.