I was at a New Jersey beach in the 1950's, and a new family walked along the boardwalk toward the manager’s bungalow. The man wore a suit, and his shoes gleamed in the morning sun. The woman had on a summer dress, the kind that looked like a bed of flowers. A boy and girl followed close behind them. The boy seemed to be about my age, maybe a year younger. The girl might have been 7 or 8.
The adults smiled, and the kids waved at me. I smiled and waved back. Because of their dressy appearance, I thought that they must have been from Manhattan. The boy wore a sports coat, and his sister had little bows tied at the end of her pigtails.
Moments later, the family that had passed our bungalow several minutes ago was now heading the other way.
Again, I smiled and waved. However, the adults had grim expressions on their faces, and the kids just looked at their parents’ heels.
After they’d passed, I told my mother, who had just joined me in the porch, about my previous encounter with them and the change in their demeanor.
“This is a restricted beach, Honey. They don’t allow colored people here.”
“What? How can they do that?”
“Well, this is private property. Nobody is allowed to use the beach unless they rent one of the bungalows, and the Petersons don’t rent to colored people.”
I’d known the managers for a number of years. They seemed to be honest, upstanding people. I didn’t understand why they’d turn away such a nice-looking family. And, I voiced these thoughts to my mom.
She told me that a lot of people didn’t want to swim in the same water as colored people because you never know if they have some kind of disease. Besides, she said, it sets a bad example to have them on our beach.
Mom said something about state laws and a lot of other stuff that I didn’t understand. I mean, the next beach, the one between us and the shopping district, was a public beach. If that family went for a swim there, it would be the same water. The Raritan Bay is the Raritan Bay.
The above text is adapted from a coming-of-age book (unpublished) that I wrote in 2018. It is not autobiographical, but is based on some experiences from my pre-teen years. The novel is set in 1952, two years before the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education put an end to school segregation.
Once this issue was settled, other barriers to equal participation in our republic began to tumble. A dozen years went by before the comprehensive Civil Rights Act was passed. But, still today, the long-term effects of past discriminations are felt by many U.S. residents.
My fear is that if the current attempt to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision is successful, some legislators and their constituents will set their sights on challenging Brown v. Board of Education. And then, it will be open season on other constitutional protections. That just doesn’t seem right.
Jim Glynn is a retired professor of sociology. He is the author of several textbooks in his field, and he wrote a weekly opinion column, “Pulse of the Heartland” for the Madera Tribune for 20 years before moving to Modesto a week ago.