John Hope Franklin’s

The Train from Hate

My pilgrimage from racial apprehension—read just plain confusion—to racial tolerance was early and brief. I was 7 years old, and we lived in the all-black town of Rentiesville, Oklahoma. My father had moved to Tulsa where he hoped to have a law practice that would make it possible for him to support his family. Meanwhile, my mother, sister, and I would occasionally make the journey to Checotah, six miles away, to shop for supplies.

One day we went down, as usual, by railroad. My mother flagged the train and we boarded. It so happened that when the train stopped, the only place we could enter was the coach reserved for white people. We did not take notice of this, and as the train picked up speed, the conductor entered and told us that we would have to move to the “colored” coach. My mother explained that we were not responsible for where the coach stopped and we had no other alternative to climbing aboard and finding seats as soon as possible. She told him that she could not risk the possible injury of her and her children by going to the “colored” coach while the train was moving. The conductor seemed to agree and said that he would signal to the engineer to stop the train. When the train came to a halt, the conductor did not guide us to the coach for African Americans. Instead, he commanded us to leave the train. We had no alternative to stepping off the train into the woods and beginning the trek back to Rentiesville.

As we trudged along, I began to cry. Taking notice of my sadness, my mother sought to comfort me by saying that it was not all that far to Rentiesville. I assured her that I did not mind the walk, but that man, the conductor, was so mean. Why would he not permit us to ride the train to Checotah?

My mother then gave me my first lesson in race relations. She told me that the laws required racial separation, but that they did not, could not, make us inferior in any way. She assured me that the conductor was not superior because he was white, and I was not inferior because I was black. I must always remember that simple fact, she said. Then she made a statement that is as vivid and clear to me today as the day she uttered it. Under no circumstances, she said, should I be upset or distressed because someone sought to demean me. It took too much energy to hate or even to fight intolerance with one’s emotions. She smiled and added that in going home, we did not have far to walk.

It would be too much to claim that my mother’s calm talk removed a burden from my shoulders. But it is not too much to say that her observations provided a sound basis for my attitudes and conduct from that day to this. At that early age, I had made an important journey. In the future, I remembered that I should not

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waste my time or energy lamenting the inability of some members of society to take me as I was. Instead, I would use my energies to make me a better person and to distance myself from the perpetrators and purveyors of hate and misunderstanding. I shall always be happy that my mother taught me that the journey to understanding and tolerance was more important than the journey to Checotah.

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REPRINTED FROM READING LITERATURE AND WRITING ARGUMENT . EDS. MISSY JAMES AND ALAN P. MERICKEL. PRINTED BY PRENTIS HALL IN UPPER SADDLE RIVER, NJ. (2002)