After 60 Years, Girl's Experience At Whites-Only Gas Station Still Hurts
Editor's Note: This story contains a quote where a racial slur is used.
Francine Anderson grew up in a small town in Virginia in the 1950s. As a young black girl, she knew all too well about racism in the Jim Crow South — but it wasn't until one night, driving back home from her grandmother's house, that she truly understood the danger she faced because of the color of her skin.
"There's a road that was long and dark, and my father did what no black man at the time was supposed to do — allowed his car to run out of gas," Anderson, now 65, says. "He ended up pushing the car, and the only place he could get to was a white truck stop with the 'White Only' signs up."
When they got to the truck stop, Anderson says that despite the signs, her father went up and knocked on the door.
"A guy came up, he said, 'What are you doing, nigger? Get away from here — can't you read?' And my dad, he took his hat and held it in his hand trying to make himself small, 'cause he was kind of a tall man," Anderson says. "He said to the guy, umm, 'I see your sign, sir. I'm sorry, I'm not trying to disturb you or your business. I just got my young kids in the car. Could I just buy a couple of gallons of gas?' "
Anderson says the guy responded, " 'I don't deal with your kind,' and he stepped back and he slammed the door."
Her father then turned and walked back to the car — and Anderson says that, in that moment, she knew he was afraid.
"He got in the car and I can remember asking him questions: 'Why can't we go? Why won't he give us any gas?' And he wasn't answering," she says. "It occurred to me as a little kid, 'we're in real trouble.' "
But then the door to the gas station opened and another man came out. Immediately, her father stiffened up.
Anderson says, "This guy got to the passenger window and said, 'I don't know what's wrong with that guy. I'm going to go get you some gas, OK?' " Anderson says. "I remember my dad was real grateful and saying, 'Let me give you these few dollars,' and the guy would say, 'No, no, it's OK.' "
In that moment, Anderson says she felt ashamed for her dad.
"Not because he'd done anything wrong, but because I felt like he had been made smaller in my eyes as a child," she says.
Whenever she talks to people about this story today, Anderson says she get mixed responses.
"If I talk to whites about that story, they focus on the man and how kind he was," Anderson says. "And he was kind, but at the same time when I talk to blacks about that story they're more focused on the fact that it wasn't illegal for him to deny us gas."
She says that was the law of the land at the time.
"Had my dad been defiant, that's a risk ... you could be killed speaking up for yourself," Anderson says. "It's the first time that I realized that there was real danger there. I was 5 years old."
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Kerrie Hillman.
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