Segregation Southern Style: A Recollection from the 1950s


Hosea Williams, the son of blind and poor African American parents, was born in 1926 in Georgia. After service in World War II, the GI bill allowed him to study chemistry and gain employment with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Yet, even as a professional, he faced segregation in 1950s Savannah, Georgia, as he describes here in an interview done in the 1970s. By that time, Williams had left chemistry for the Civil Rights movement. He became a director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference field staff.

I educated myself and became a professional person. I thought you could escape black America by being educated and professional and being rich, and you just cain't do it. . . .

I remember one time after I bought this new home and new car. . . . You know, I was a social climbin', middle-class Negro. I guess I was the first black person in Savannah to have a zoysia lawn. I remember buying this grass from Sears and Roebuck, and had sodded my lawn, and I was out there one day tryin' to water it, and my hose would not stretch to sprinkle across the whole lawn. I had a big lot there. And I went back up to this new drugstore . . . gonna buy some hose connectors, an extension to a hose. . . . And I carried my two sons with me. They wasn't but about six and seven, six and eight years old then, and as we walked into this drugstore, it had a long lunch counter and these white kids were sittin' on these stools, spinnin' around, eatin' hot dogs and drinkin' Co-cola.

And my boys started askin' me, "Daddy, let's get a sandwich and a Coke." But I always will believe what they wanted to do was play on those stools, and I said, "Naw, you cain't have a Coke and sandwich." And one of 'em started cryin'. And I said, "Well, you know, I'm gonna take you back home and Momma'll fix you a hot dog and give you a Coke," and then both of 'em started crying'. And both of them just fell out in the floor, which was very unusual for my kids to do me like that. And I remember stoopin' down and I started cryin', because I realized I couldn't tell 'em the truth. The truth was they was black and they didn't 'low black people to use them lunch counters. So I picked the two kids up and went back to the car and I guess I made 'em a promise that I'd bring 'em back someday. So that really got me involved.

[Following his efforts for integration at hotels and restaurants, Williams returned to the lunch counter with his sons.]

Did you make a point of going back to that ...lunch counter you took your boys to?

Yeeah . . . That drugstore musta had a lunch counter, I guess it musta been ten or twelve stools. And yeah, man, I carried those boys back there. That was one of the happiest days of my life.

Ah. [Laughs] I remember the first night after I got outa jail, we integrated the DeSoto Hotel. This Committee of 100 arranged all this. We stayed at the hotel. But you know, it's a funny thing about black people. I never will forget how proud those waiters were that night. Can you imagine? Well, like me, I tell people all my life I walked by them lunch counters, and I never thought about sittin' down there. I just know that wasn't for me. It was always a subconscious thing to me, see. . .

I carried my boys out to that lunch counter, and we sat there and drank Co-colas and ate hot dogs and spin around them stools. [Laughs] Them white folks was so mad, I tell you [still laughing], they were so mad, man. We sat there. The man finally closed the lunch counter down. We still sat there, spinning on them stools. I said, "It's been long time comin', boys, so let's enjoy it." [Pauses] Yeah, I went back to that drugstore. Old man and I used to laugh about it a lot, old manager.


Howell Rained, ed. "Hosea Williams," My Soul Is Rested: Movement Days in the Deep South Remembered (New York: Putnam, 1977), 437, 444.