Racism penetrates idyllic childhood
In this excerpt, Peerman remembers the pride generated by African American economic independence. She recalls an idyllic childhood replete with board games, sleepovers, and popcorn. But she describes a less pleasant side, too—black children hired by the University of North Carolina to march in a parade as "Duke spooks." This incident was Peerman's first experience with racism and she realized that she was "part of the North Carolina myth," living a façade of normalcy in a segregated society.
Citing this Excerpt
Oral History Interview with Joanne Peerman, February 24, 2001. Interview K-0557. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Full Text of the Excerpt
BG: Joanne, you mentioned the term “black elite.” I wonder if you can speak to that, what you meant by that.
JP: Well, reflecting, I think it was just a slip of the tongue. What I really felt was that the middle class folks, the folks that had worked hard enough to be able to actually buy land and build a home. Of course, there are those who are renters all of their lives, or those who, when they do purchase, have to settle for something already constructed.
But as a child, thinking back on it, we were just very proud to be able to build our own home and own land. It just showed that we were not trapped in some system. It showed us as children that this is what you do when you grow up and raise a family. This is something to aspire to.
We were also proud that our home was built by a black contractor at that time, George Tate. He built most of the homes out here. He and his family still live down the street. I went to school with his son Travis. It was a very close-knit community; everybody knew everybody. It was just rewarding.
We were very proud when we moved here. We were a family of five, a mother, a father, and three daughters. We moved from a two-bedroom home to this three-bedroom home, which of course gave us a little more space and room to run and play. It was a great place to grow up. We had horseback riding down here. Some kids down the road had horses and they’d come up on Saturday mornings and we’d ride bareback. We’d make mudpies.
The old couple across the street would keep us when we were sick. Both of our parents were educators so they had to go to work. But there was a very old couple across the street, the Pardins, who owned acres and acres of land out here and sold it. The whole Timberlake area was owned by them. We used to go up there—that was the far fields—we’d ride with him in his horse and buggy and go pick corn and come back. It was country. It was very rural.
BG: So this was farmland up here, and owned by black people?
JP: Yes. Yes. I have fond memories. It was great. There was a plum tree across the street. We used to pick plums and put them in a tub and squash them with our feet, making wine. By the end of the day, we were drinking our wine out of Coke bottles and it was nothing but plum juice. You know, it was something we saw on I Love Lucy. It was great. We’d make baloney sandwiches and go hiking all day. Just whatever we saw off the TV, we’d try it as long as it was within reason.
BG: So you had an African-American community here with other children to play with. You didn’t have to import them from Potter’s Field or Windy Hill or places like that?
JP: No. We had our own little community of people out here. There were maybe six or eight neighborhood kids. We visited each other’s homes, played board games, Monopoly or whatever. You know, sleepovers, pop popcorn. Monopoly was a big thing back then, because that game would take hours. The mothers would love it because it would entertain us. They would feed us bowls of M&M’s and Kool-Aid and we’d just sit over here or across the street—they had a nice basement-type reckroom that kids would frequent over there.
It was just a normal growing up childhood. The only time we saw anything out of the ordinary—my youngest childhood memory of racism was going to a parade up town. I remember some friends at school had said, “We’re going to be in the parade, we’re going to be in the parade.” And I was telling Momma that I wanted to be in the parade and they said that they were going to get paid five dollars for being in the parade. She wouldn’t let me participate. We just parked at the other church where we always watched our parades from. When I saw my friends walking down the street with these placards on—apparently they were hired by UNC because the placards front and back said something like “spooky Duke”—it was a Duke-Carolina game, and there were black kids, and I guess they were the “spooks,” and it said “spooky Duke.” And that was racism. I didn’t know either until my mother said, “You see, you wanted to be in the parade, you wanted five dollars. I’m glad I didn’t let you go.” Because I almost cried begging her. I almost begged her, could I be in it. She said no. Something told her not to let me participate in that. When I saw my friends I said, “There they are.” And I read it and it said, “spooky Duke.” I was still waving, I didn’t know. When we got home my mother explained to me what that meant. She said, “That’s the name they call us.” I was just crying. And she was fussing, crying almost. It was just very traumatic. I learned about mothers’ intuition at that time. I learned that maybe I should listen to my mom.
That showed that we were part of the North Carolina myth. We were in the thick of it and we didn’t even know it. There was like ten or twelve kids walking behind a float or a banner. I don’t know what kind of parades. There used to be parades all the time. Not just the Christmas parade. That’s all they have nowadays, just one or two parades a year. But back then, they used to have parades if there was a big game between Carolina and somebody. The high schools would have parades if it was Homecoming. This was entertainment for the community at large because this community was much more rural back then, too. This was the early ‘60s.
But all in all, growing up out here was very healthy, it felt very normal. You know, church on Sunday, occasional visits out of town. Most of our relatives lived out of town, either in Virginia or in Weldon, North Carolina, near the east coast. It was a normal life.