Banned From Reading the Declaration of Independence
There were limits on what Black children could be taught in school because white school leaders did not want Black children to be exposed to ideas like equality and freedom. Carter G. Woodson wrote that some Black children in Southern schools were not allowed to use books that included the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution.
The Hole in Vertus Hardiman’s Head
In Lyles Station, Indiana, in the year 1927, the parents of 10 children at the local elementary school were approached by county hospital officials. The parents were told that there was a new experimental treatment for dermatophytosis, a fungal infection commonly known as “ringworm.” What the parents didn’t know was that the children were actually part of a human experiment on extreme radiation, likely chosen because they lived in such an isolated location, and probably because they were all Black. The children were exposed to high levels and many were left with disfiguring scalp scars and head trauma. The effects of the experiments were mostly hidden from the townspeople of Lyles Station, according to a report on HoleInTheHead.com, a website created to tell the story of Vertus Hardiman, one of the children, who was 5 years old at the time and was physically affected the worst by the radiation. As a result, he experienced a slow dissolving of the bone matter of his skull for the rest of his life. The ensuing deformed head and gaping hole at its top were disguised by a succession of hats, toupees and wigs. Every day of his life he spent an hour changing bandages and dressing the wound.
The Ever-Present Fear of Violence
The most traumatizing experiences for young people growing up in Jim Crow societies were their initial encounters with violence inflicted by whites upon Blacks, according to the history site shmoop.com. Rumors of beatings, torture and lynching, or “white death” as author Richard Wright referred to it, were enough to haunt children and instill terror within them. “Nothing challenged the totality of my personality,” Wright reflected in his adulthood, “so much as this pressure of hate and threat that stemmed from the invisible whites. I would stand for hours on the doorsteps of neighbors’ houses listening to their talk, learning how a white woman had slapped a black woman, how a white man had killed a black man. It filled me with awe, wonder, and fear.” At the age of 5, future Morehouse College president Benjamin Mays watched as a group of white men on horseback forced his father at gunpoint to remove his hat and bow to them, while young Martin Luther King Sr. (father of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.) witnessed several whites beat a Black man to death for demanding his paycheck.
Black Children Knew They Couldn’t Eat Vanilla Ice Cream
By custom rather than by law, whites in the Jim Crow South forbade Black folks from eating vanilla ice cream in public — except on the Fourth of July. The terror and shame of living in the purgatory between the Civil War and civil rights movement was often communicated in ways that reinforced to children what the rules of that life were, and what was in store for them if they broke them, Michael Twitty wrote for The Guardian. He says this denial revealed the deeper psychological consequences of legalized racism in American life. The racism of the time period was not just about dignity and self-esteem — it was embodied and mythologized in physical terms, a denial that was thrust in the face of every Black child.
Children of Birmingham Face Attack Dogs and Fire Hoses
On May 2, 1963, thousands of young people left their classrooms and gathered at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where they spilled out in groups of 50 to march downtown. The next day, the police, led by the infamous Bull Connor, brought out fire hoses and attack dogs and turned them on the children, according to an account on The Daily Beast. It was a scene that caused headlines across the nation and around the world — and which many historians believe turned the national tide of public opinion in support of the civil rights movement.
Four Little Girls — and Two Little Boys
In the early morning of Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963, Bobby Frank Cherry, Thomas Blanton, Herman Frank Cash and Robert Chambliss, members of United Klans of America, a Ku Klux Klan group, planted at least 15 sticks of dynamite with a time delay under the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church, close to the basement. Four girls — Addie Mae Collins (age 14), Carol Denise McNair (age 11), Carole Robertson (age 14) and Cynthia Wesley (age 14) — were killed in the bombing, and more than 20 additional people were injured. About seven hours later, two Black boys were shot to death — 16-year-old Johnny Robinson was shot by police, reportedly after they caught him throwing rocks at cars driven by white people; 13-year-old Virgil Ware was shot twice with a revolver as he sat upon the handlebars of a bicycle ridden by his brother in a residential suburb, 15 miles north of the city.
Children of Black Sharecroppers Denied Schooling
The children of Black sharecroppers often were prevented from attending school by the white owner of the farm, who might pull Black children out if he decided they were needed for work. Or he might simply believe that African-American children did not deserve an education, according to the American Black Holocaust Museum. If a town did not have enough money for two separate schools, they built only one school — for white children.
Black Children in Filthy Schools
Many school buildings for African-Americans had leaking roofs, sagging floors and windows without glass. They ranged from untidy to positively filthy, according to a study issued in 1917. If Black children had any books at all, they were hand-me-downs from white schools, according to the American Black Holocaust Museum.