In 1953 I was a first-year college student, rooming with seven girls in the attic of an old Victorian house. One day, while lying on my upper bunk bed, I heard the housemother speak to two girls inquiring about the remaining two spots. “It’s a nice group of girls even though there are two kikes and two n.....s in the group.
That night, I told the other girls about the housemother’s comment and that I needed to find another place to live. When I asked if anyone wanted to come with me, one of the Black girls said she would. I was relieved, yet I wasn’t naïve enough to believe landlords weren’t prejudiced.
We looked at what was available and finally found one with a reasonable rent and kitchen privileges. There were four sophomores living there. Two others had left precipitously and the landlady was anxious to rent the room. We moved in, watched on the porch by the four students already living there. When they saw my roommate, they left the house. I hoped it was to go to class but I felt their hostility. What had I gotten us into?
The next morning, en route to the bathroom, I overheard two of them talking. “If I’d known the landlady would rent to a n....r, I’d have found another place like the other two. I’m taking my dishes and silverware and keeping them in the room,” said the first voice.
“What about the bathroom?” asked the second voice.
“Wipe the seat good before you use it. I’ll check with my boyfriend. Maybe he knows another place we can rent,” said the first voice.
“But what about the lease?” asked the second voice.
“Shit,” said the first voice. “Why the fuck did they have to come here?” They stopped talking when I made my presence known, glaring at me as they left.
I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to tell my roommate; she left where we’d been living because of me. I couldn’t talk to the landlady. What could she do? I kept thinking about what I’d heard when my roommate and I went down to the kitchen to make breakfast. Much to my relief no one was there. Our class schedules were pretty similar so after eating we headed to campus. While I was debating whether to say something, she stopped walking and looked at me. “They don’t want me here, do they?”
I felt awful. Angry at the stupidity of people hating someone because her skin was a little darker than theirs. Angry they disliked me because I was rooming with her. I couldn’t lie. “No, they don’t, but we have a lease. We paid, same as them. She can’t kick us out.”
She sighed. “I thought it might be different here. Being in a state college . . . How come you’re not like them?”
I shrugged, not knowing what to say. “I’m not. That’s just the way it is.” I looked at my watch. “We better hurry or we’ll be late for class. Meet you at the Scrounge for lunch at twelve, okay?”
The conversation wasn’t finished. There was no way we could finish it, but the two of us became friends as well as roommates. We devised a strategy to deal with the four sophomores—we were polite, sometimes offering to share food we had they didn’t—like eggs and milk. In time a civility developed and the tension eased a little. The wordwounds never stopped hurting.
Have you encountered prejudice? What was that like? How did you feel? How did you respond?
Life tales from a woman different living in The City Different.