EDITORIAL NOTE: This February, the Geary County Historical Society will celebrate Black History Month by taking a look at 4 different accounts of African-Americans who have lived in this community. These stories will look at different aspects of their life in Junction City, and how race played a part in their everyday life. This is the first part of a four part series that will run through February.
That Look Like Me
When I reflect on my childhood in Junction City it is inevitable to question the significance of my skin color. Born with deep dark skin shortly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I came into the world and Junction City when things were changing for everybody. I, not unlike JC, progressed and grew through the 70s and 80s. From my early childhood I can remember feeling different. Sometimes it was different good and sometimes it was not so good.
I have fond and fun memories of attending Nursery School at the Methodist Church on Jefferson in the early 70s. The building housed spacious classrooms and a basement big enough to race around on the coveted Big Wheel. My classroom was delightfully scattered with books, toys, and arts and crafts supplies. The latter included magazines used to cut out people in our likeness and paste them on construction paper to recreate our family. I immediately realized I had quite a dilemma. I could not use these magazines. As a matter a fact, my Mother had to supply some because nobody in any of their books looked like me.
Later in early elementary school my skin color would come into play again. During an activity we were asked to hold up our pinky. After spending a few seconds looking at my little finger I readily complied after informing the teacher that I indeed, had a brownie.
As I progressed through Franklin Elementary and enjoyed Play Days and Fun Night, I began to understand the impact of the color of my skin. During an activity in the fourth grade, the teacher needed to select an “IT”. She proceeded with the classic “Eenie, meenie, miney mo however in her version, the object to be caught was not a tiger but a “nigger”. Though I did not perceive hostility, I was shocked at encountering a real life person that used that word. I also realized that not all people followed the golden rule when it came to people that looked like me. I wrote a poem in fifth grade that scored an A+. The teacher praised its greatness and I excitedly waited to hear her announce that it would soon hang on the Principal’s Board. When this never happen I asked why and was informed that my cursive x was incorrectly crossed. Several changes later I realized it would never be good enough. Eventually, I discovered the same teacher taught my sister and was not very fair to her either. In sixth grade, I called a white male classmate to get a reading assignment. His mother haughtily assumed I was calling with a romantic interest and was not pleased. She was nice enough to me in person however she did not want this dark skinned girl dating her son. My Golden Rule lesson was reiterated not only by my own personal experiences but by external factors as well. Roots aired on television and sometime around then I saw Gone with the Wind. The Colonial Theater showed the movie “Tough”, the story of a young black male. We studied Black History in school but stayed on the safe subjects like Dr. King, or Fredrick Douglass. Junction City is just two miles from Fort Riley, however the Historical Buffalo Soldiers were rarely discussed in school. The Freedom Train came to Topeka in 1976. It was Kansas cold and the line was long but the reward was priceless. The sight of President Lincoln’s Coat and Dr. Mr. Luther King’s Robes brought the reality of racism home.
Growing up I never let my skin color prevent me from enjoying the community. I participated in Girl Scouts and a multitude of activities at the First Presbyterian church where a lot of the time the only other people that look like me were my Sister and Mother. I joined softball leagues and participated in the Drama community at the Little Theater. Though most of the plays were Caucasian based, I was filled with pride and ambition when a stage full of actors that looked like me presented the play “9th Street”. Written by a black local author, “9th Street” was based on Junction City’s famous East 9th street. The Fourth of July’s Sundown Salute was going strong at Milford and Piñata was the meeting place for everybody of all races. We had two Dairy Queens, an arcade, a new movie theater with multiple screens and a skating rink. All enjoyed pretty peacefully by people of all races. The city was growing and so was I.
It wasn’t until I was commuting to and from Topeka that I encountered racism again. When my card failed to work at a gas station on the west side of South Washington the clerk demanded to see my ID. She then contemptuously informed me I did not have enough money, however the white customers before and after me were advised of a “system issue”. During same time I made an appointment to speak with a broker two blocks up the street to get information on investing. The enthusiasm he depicted over the phone to share his knowledge changed to more than subtle disdain and a “you’re wasting my time” demeanor when he saw my dark skin.
On my most recent visit it was good to see businesses that depict Junction City’s growth in diversity as well as the community’s stability. I drove by Mark’s Beauty Salon and Foster Cuts, both owned and operated by people that look like me. I visited the Groove where a warm Junction City welcome awaits patrons of all races. Central National Bank, where I opened my first account is going strong and the ever loved Daily Union is still the paper of choice. All places where people that don’t look like me and people that do are joined together by the love for Junction City.
By : Karren Kilpatrick
By : Karren Kilpatrick