Ellis McClure Recalls a Visit to Birmingham, Alabama with His Dad and Howard Echols in 1956
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The article Documented Columbus McClure's Probate Record in Alabama, Wills and Probate Records, 1753-1999 brought back some memories we wanted to share with you.
Ellis McClure recalls a summer vacation in Birmingham, Alabama with his dad, Archie McClure, his brother, Marvin McClure, and his dad's friend Howard Echols in 1956. One day they Howard and Ellis went into town as suggested by Ellis' grandmother, Coreain McClure. Ellis told this experience to me years later in 1997. He had described it to me so clearly. I let him know that what he had experienced was racism.
We are documenting family history. Racism was and is part of our history.
Robin: Okay. This is Ellis McClure, and he is telling a story about when his father, Archie McClure, took he and his brother, Marvin, down from Chicago, Illinois, to Birmingham, Alabama for the summer.
Ellis: My name is Ellis McClure. In 1956, I can recall that time. I was a young boy during that time, every summer not every summer but for school vacation my father would take me down to Birmingham, Alabama. He name was Archie McClure.
And he had a friend of his that lived next door to us, next door near us. And his name was Howard Echols, Sr. His son and I were buddies...Howard Jr. We played a lot in the neighborhood. But the thing that I remember the most, and it did not dawn on me later in the years when I discussed this with my wife. When I discussed this with my wife several years ago, about 1997 or 1998. We would sit down and we would talk about it.
I remember going down South and my grandmother had a very large farm. She used to try to teach me to milk the cows, and I would take the cows down to the brook. Late in the evening, I would take the cows down to the brook. And she had a lead cow named Betsy. Betsy had a cow bell they called it...around her neck. As I would take her down to the brook, the other cows would follow her because of the sound of the bell. So they would follow her down to the brook. They would drink the water from the brook, and then when I felt they were full enough, I would bring them back up to the pasture or either put them in the barns.
But I remember one time we went to Birmingham, Alabama, I don't remember where my father was. I guess he was visiting some of his relatives while we were there, but his friend, Howard Echols Sr., was with us. We were sitting on the front porch. My grandmother said why don't you guys just go into town and get a treat. She gave us the money. She did not have to give it to Howard, but she gave it to me. So we jumped in the car.
We drove to town. It was called uptown. Not like Chicago. We call it downtown, but it was called uptown down South. I remember we parked like a in little circle area, and I remember a lot of trees. I can picture a lot of trees. It was a nice day. I'll never forget that. It was a nice sunny day, and we walked to the store.
They had a variety of things in the store. They had a candy shop, where they sold produce or whatever you want to call it. Then they had a restaurant near the entrance of the store. Howard and I walked into the restaurant section of the store.
Howard and I walked to the restaurant section of the store. Howard asked me, "What did you want?" I wanted a hamburger, and some potato chips, and I wanted a root beer float. Howard said, "Okay." So then the guy came over an said, "What do you boys want?" So I gave my order and Howard gave his order. He ordered a hamburger also, and I remember his because he had pickles with his. A large pickles with his on the side, and he had two bag of potato chips instead of one. I remember that clearly.
And so we were sitting there waiting for our food. So when the chef finished cooking the food, the waiter brought the food out from the kitchen. He put my plate in front of me, and he took Howard's plate, and I could not understand, he slid it all the way down to the end of the counter. There were no chairs there. You had to stand, and it was kind of dark and dingy at the end of the counter. I said, "Wow. That seems funny. Why did he do that?" I never realized what was going on. I guess I was just sheltered from prejudice and racism. I did not know anything about racism then. I had no idea.
So I went down and ate my hamburger with Howard while he was eating his. So then we paid for it and we were leaving the restaurant walking down the sidewalk. I will never forget it, and I did not know what the meaning was or what was going on really. I did not know why. We were walking down the sidewalk and approaching us we were walking toward the car and approaching us, like I was telling my wife, was this white woman. She had a big round hat on her head. I guess it was a sun hat whatever it may be. I remember that. She was dressed real nice. She was walking toward us on the sidewalk, and Howard and I was on the sidewalk. Howard jumped off the sidewalk into the street. I said, "What's wrong with this guy? I mean I am a child. I don't know what he doing. He jumped into the street, and I am still on the sidewalk. So I am still on the sidewalk and I approach the lady and she passed me.
So when she passed me, we get to the circle where we parked the car, and here is the sheriff police sitting there all the time. He drove up to us, and he says, "What are you boys doing?" Howard said, "We are getting ready to go home. We are out of town. We're visiting." The sheriff says, "Yeah I can see that boy. You are out of town by your license plates. What you boys doing here?" So Howard explained that we were visiting. He brought me down to stay with my grandmother while school was out. So he asked me what was my name. I said my name was Ellis McClure. So he said, "Oh you're Archie's boy huh?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "Oh, okay. Well you guys go on. He told Howard, "You know the law down here, Howard. You know the law, boy. You know the law down here, boy. Just keep it straight."
So I had no idea what was going on...no idea for years and this was 1955 (or 1956). My wife explained to me because she does research on Black history what was going on... what happened to us during that time in 1997 or 1998. I don't remember the exact year. I know it was in the 1990's that I'm talking with my wife sitting on the couch talking about this here.
She explained it to me. I had no idea racism was in the South. My parents never talked about racism. Because the reason I did not know...I also recall drinking out of a fountain on the corner. A water fountain. I bent over and drank some water out of a fountain and no one said anything to me at all.
And I had no idea that you could not go to certain areas. There was a Black area. We were not of the world, my family. We did not hear a lot of news. We did not listen to the radio. We did have a small TV, but it did not play much. My father bought a television for us. We did not watch TV a lot. So as far as me knowing about racism in this world or in the country, I had no idea what racism was.
It was shocking to me that racism exists, and I did not realize it. It honestly did not hit me until my wife, Robin, and I...she gave a presentation in Florence (SC), and there was a speaker, he was a Black history expert and he was talking about...his subject was on racism in the South. And I had tears in my eyes because I know what he was saying is true. And I was really dumbfounded about racism. Tears came to my eyes, and I explained to him that know I knew the reason why mother had us to leave at night because...and I had to lay down in the back of the car. And my father would tell me we would leave at night so you can lay down in the back of the car. You can sleep. Just look at the stars. Just enjoy yourself while you are riding.
We did not travel in the day time. We traveled most of the time going down South at night. I thought it was kind of strange. And I realize I favor my grandfather on my mother's side. He was white from France, and I had a very very light complexion with reddish brown hair with a little bit of blonde on my forehead and on the side of my hair. I was very very light with curly hair. I remember that, but when the gentleman explained to us, I realized with tears in my eyes that they had to hide me. They couldn't be seen in the car with me a little boy that did not look truly Black, but I am Black but did not look truly Black. And two dark fellows driving in the car with this light person in the car. So, I had no idea about none of this stuff.
Cuz my grandfather on my mother's side was white and my grandmother was creole. So she a dark completion. That is how I grew up. I grew up with them. They never talked about racism at all. Never. Never in my home. I discovered it several years ago. That's part of my life history as a child.
You know, I am out in the community to bring healing and to serve. Assistance always seems to come to my family the most. I always want to give thanks when I notice that happening. I did not realize the affect of this presentation on Ellis. I would just like to acknowledge Frederick DeShon Murphy who we went to see in Florence, South Carolina hosted by Terry James. The American South as We Know It gave Ellis the opportunity to make some sense of his experiences during Jim Crow. When he said, "Tears came to my eyes..." I knew the experience in Florence, South Carolina brought some healing:
The American South as We Know It, by Frederick DeShon Murphy, in Florence, South Carolina hosted by Terry James.