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Living through Jim Crow

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Neighboring historical society hosts talk for Black History Month

THE STEPHENTOWN HISTORICAL SOCIETY SPONSORED “FREEDOM RIDERS,” as a Black History Month tribute, at the Heritage Center, on Sunday, February 5. Gerry Robinson, a Stephentown council member and Buffalo Soldier descendant, spoke to a standing room only crowd of up to 70 people. (Black cavalrymen who served in the Indian Wars were dubbed “buffalo” soldiers by their nemesis due to the texture of their hair.)

The program, also, included the airing of an interview with Albert Gordon, Robinson’s neighbor and friend, who was a Freedom Rider to Mississippi in 1960.

Robinson started by recalling his experiences growing up in Hutchinson, Kansas, under Jim Crow Public Accommodations laws in the ‘40s and ’50s. Jim Crow laws restricted African Americans’ access to public facilities for education, recreation and entertainment, and thrived due to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Plessey vs Ferguson, which indoctrinated “separate but equal.”

Robinson said that Blacks were required to sit in the balcony at the movie theaters that had them. Also, Blacks’ use of the swimming pool at the local recreation center was limited to Tuesdays.

Over time such restrictions “just rolled over and gave way” in Hutchinson, in part, because segregation wasn’t feasible to enforce against a small African American population. “A separate school for black children was not going to be built because there were so few of us.” Robinson was one of six African-American high school graduates in the class of 1956.

Nevertheless Robinson witnessed horrors –the public burning of a pregnant Black woman, whose fetus dropped out of her body into the fire, as well as injustices when Blacks tried to vote.

Robinson recounted that African American would-be-voters were asked to spell polysyllabic words “like Mesopotamia” whereas “a white fella was asked to spell cat – ‘k-a-t’ and was told ‘close enough’ and allowed to vote.” Another tactic to block Black voters was “to have them guess the number of jelly beans in a jar.”

Robinson admitted that he was “very afraid” to go to the South and purposefully chose to enlist in the navy because it was the only military branch that did not have training camps in southern states. For the first few months of training in San Diego, Robinson had a cubicle, designed for two, to himself. Then one day he as he walked toward his cubicle he heard a deep southern accent. He now had a bunkmate, James Parker from South Carolina.

Robinson rebuffed Parker’s overtures of friendship until “my own epiphany” after transferring to Maryland. A mixed group of seamen, including Robinson and Parker, went to a tavern in Bethesda. The African Americans were declined service and they decided to go to DC.

Parker asked why and the situation was explained to him. Parker’s response was, “I guess we’re going to DC!” The lesson learned, said Robinson, was “try not to judge people by characteristics.”

Robinson met his neighbor, Albert Gordon, 18 years ago when Robinson retired from Massachusetts state government and settled into a home on Round Mountain Road in Stephentown. Gordon gifted his new neighbor with a welcome letter and a jar of jelly, a confection that Gordon made.

Robinson, who was an organizer for the NAACP and the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus in Kansas, said that Gordon never told him about his Civil Rights activism. “That’s how modest he was.” Robinson learned about Gordon’s activism by Googling him after his death.

At that point in the program, Robinson introduced the video, “40th Anniversary Reunion of Freedom Riders,” a 2001 oral history project that is archived at Columbia University, where Gordon received an MA. He was 67 when interviewed.

Albert Forest Gordon was born in Belgium. When he was 7, Gordon’s family fled the Nazis and emigrated to the U.S. Gordon taught history in New York City public schools and was influential in founding the United Federation of Teachers union.

Gordon credited his family’s experiences with antisemitism for his activism in Civil Rights. “I just felt like I had to do something.” He joined CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and at age 27 went to Jackson, MS with four others as freedom riders for the purpose of integrating bus stations there.

He recalled “increased paranoia” the further south they traveled. After arriving in Jackson, they settled into the homes of hosting Black families. A plan to integrate the Jackson Trailways bus station, by “sitting in” was formed and implemented.

White members sat in the Black section of the station and African Americans sat in the white section. When they refused local police orders to leave, protesters were arrested. (Gordon served 39 days in Mississippi’s notorious Parchman prison.) He described the sit-ins as forming a “strong bond that I have not felt again.”

Gordon, also, participated in the March on Selma in Alabama and voter registration efforts in Mississippi. He recalled that, in1965, one of his neighbors in Jackson was Fannie Lou Hamer. “[Hers was] a sharecropper family living without electricity. I think maybe there was one light bulb.”

Gordon joked that he wanted to employ all his secretarial skills if Hamer would dictate her memoir to him; but that she “was too humble.” (Hamer became a Civil Rights icon, who chaired the Freedom Democratic Party, and successfully challenged the seating of an all-white delegation at the National Democratic Party Convention in 1964.)

Gordon never told his family, except his sister, about his activities, explaining that he was “disappointed that some family members assimilated to American racism.”

At the end of the video, Robinson called Gordon “my hero.” Both men share optimism about “better angels” prevailing. Said Robinson, “It will always be a struggle. At the end of the day people with humanistic values will dominate. Haters didn’t win the Civil War.”

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