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Passing for White

Updated on November 18, 2014

An unnecessary death

My best friend died just after her 16th birthday as the result of a fire. It was totally unnecessary and almost 50 years later, I am still mad. I am white and do not pretend to understand what it is like to be discriminated against but that's not what this is about. This is my very personal account about the reasons that compelled her family to move from the white community and closer to the black community where they felt (I am guessing) safer. The new house had a fireplace and while petting the dog, she got too close to the fireplace and her clothes caught on fire. As a result of her injuries, she left us for a better place.

Passing as white has disappeared into history and doesn't seem to matter anymore. It has just become an inconsequential part of those times.

It still matters to me.

My memoir of Ruthie's last day - 3 Feb 1949 - 24 Apr 1965

This is my story of Ruthie's last day. Sometimes the anger spills over and writing it down makes me feel better.

1949 to 1962

Growing up white

We were both born in 1949 and moved to the neighborhood in 1953. Our housing tract was made up of two story houses, all the same. It was four blocks of long streets and surrounded by orange groves and hills. It was the only neighborhood in the area and we knew everyone. The neighborhood was filled with children and most of us were the same age. Until the late 1950s none of us cared about the events swirling around us. We went to school, played on the streets or slid down "Cardboard Hill". No one was too concerned about out safety and we had more freedom than the kids of today.

We had one Mexican family in our neighborhood. It was OK and they were accepted because while she was Mexican, the father was from England.(not my thoughts, remembered gossip from some of the other moms). They were the only family who did not attend our church and went out of the neighborhood to the next town where there was a Catholic Church. None of us cared about that either, they were just part of the tribe of children who roamed the neighborhood. We could walk into anyone's house at any time and no one gave it a thought. However, do something wrong and your parents instantly knew about it.

We really didn't care about race because it was not part of our lives. TV was new and featured very little about other races. We knew that there were children starving in China (eat that, don't you know that children are starving in China!) and that the people that the missionaries visited in Africa needed our help. We sent them money to help save them but only saw pictures. We watched Amos and Andy and read "Little Black Sambo". Both are politically incorrect these days but that was our only exposure and had little relation to our lives, We were outdoor kids.

The first time I saw a black in person was when I was in high school. There was no reason to leave the neighborhood and although our parents worked miles away in Los Angeles, the only big city, it was a rare trip for us. Segregation in the south was a big deal but none of us realized that we also lived in a segregated world.

New houses in 1953

The Help - A book that everyone should read

This book, more than anything else, sent me back to the past. We were middle class and no one had servants but the book explained an incident that left me confused and hurt. At Ruthie's funeral, I hugged the nurse that had spent so much time with her and thanked her for taking such good care of my friend. She stepped away from me with a very hard look. It wasn't until I read the book that I understood that physical contact between black and white people was considered improper.

Ruth Linda Wadley, Ann Eliese Rhea, Marlin William Rhea
Ruth Linda Wadley, Ann Eliese Rhea, Marlin William Rhea

Me and Her

She was dark. I was light. She had brown, unruly curly hair, mine was blonde and board-straight. She had dark brown eyes while mine were green. She had two younger brothers and I had one. She had an older sister who drove us to the theater and a younger sister the same age as my brother.

At three, we were only allowed to play on our street but we were always together. We took turns spending the nights at each others house. When we were older, we rode our bikes with the other kids. We roller-skated, ran the streets and roamed the hills. All the kids, regardless of age played together.

Her younger sister had strange hair and was always kidded about it. Her hair was extremely curly and her mom kept it really short. It was also blonde. She was much lighter than the rest of the family without the dark, olive-toned skin. But it was the hair that set her apart. I loved to play with it, it was so different than mine.

Ruthie had a great smile and was always laughing at something, Not always great in the classroom but infectious so that many times, we were in trouble. The wide gap between her front teeth did not strike me as unusual until much later when I realized that the family had been passing for white.

1963

We couldn't wait to get to high school and being able to drive. We spent hours planning trips to the beach, the movies and all the other places high school kids could go. She was several months older and bragged that she would get her license first.

Just before the start of school, she knocked at the door crying. They were moving. The thought was monstrous. "Moving where?" I asked. "Closer to my dad's work", she replied.

I didn't understand. There had been no talk about moving. My parents didn't know, no one did. It was like someone had flipped a switch and turned the world upside down. Not only were they moving, they were moving that same week. Secretly, they had sold the house, bought another one and did not share the information with anyone. Now she would be an hour away and it wouldn't be the same.

I started high school without her. I felt lost and alone. We wrote letters (no email) and our parents made sure that we visited at least once a month. Her new neighborhood was more diverse with many more black families. By that time, more homes had television and nearly every night that there was some broadcast where some civil rights activity was happening.

This was only a year or so after the first Freedom Ride that left Washington, D.C., on May 4, 1961. The battle which had simmered for a long time was heating up. 1963 was also the year that many of us younger teens were slapped into the real world with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Ruthie and I shared a long drawn-out conversation about the event. We were both appalled that the civil rights were even necessary. From our very young viewpoint, everyone should be treated equally. We had lost our very popular president and what he stood for. We were not to know that it would get worse and when that happened, she would not be there to share it with me. We talked about her new neighborhood and school and the the mix of cultures but for us, nothing changed. We were still best friends.

1965

This is not about race or discrimination. This is about the unfairness of losing a friend to something that shouldn't have mattered. This is about the anger that still fills me when I think about the family moving. This is about my anger that they felt the need to go somewhere else in case they were discovered. This is about their feelings and fears that I will never be able to comprehend. This is about my very best friend who died on April 24, 1965 in a stupid accident that would never have happened had they felt safe in their own community.

When you are young and tragic events occur in your life, it changes your perspective forever. It took years, decades even, to understand the sudden move. Moving closer to ones job is normal, moving suddenly without warning is not. Several years ago, I tried to find her two sisters because they were also very much a part of my childhood. In doing so, I discovered what should have been obvious had it been important to me.

He father was listed on the census report as mulatto. .Part of the ugly secret of that time was people who passed for white. I was shocked, not because they were passing for white but that they didn't trust any of us enough to stay. Would the extremely curly hair or the gap in the front teeth eventually give them away? Maybe. The reason they moved was finally clear and with it the anger I felt when I realized I'd lost one of the most important person in my life because of race.

What a shame. What would have happened if people found out their secret? Would it have mattered to any of us? In any small community, I am sure we had our share of bigots although as kids, we were oblivious to it. It wouldn't have mattered to me. Children have to be taught to hate, our parents taught us to love. Love triumphs hate. That is not an editorial comment, it's just the truth. Today, I am sad that Ruthie is not here to share our golden years. We had those planned too.

What if?

This may seem like an over-simplification of the times and the issue. I have no other frame of reference. We were still children when she died and my perspective is from that angle. Time has moved on and with it came the wisdom it might not have been easy for them to stay. We will never know.

Comments are welcomed

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    • William Hargadon profile image

      William Hargadon 2 years ago

      Eventually all of us will be the same (human) race. We need to (as a nation) strive for acceptance and not just tolerance. I am in a mixed marriage 25 years now. She is from Thailand. We now have 4 children and have continued to love each other as we choose. The process of Evolution has not stopped just because we want it to. Evolution is dynamic not static. Let's get it right this time because our children will be the leaders of this country/world so we need to give them what is right not what we did or else history will definitely repeat its self and we have not really changed anything. Just disguised it differently. Let's Do This!

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Ann, you've seen firsthand some of the anguish racial prejudice causes. That your friend's family felt so insecure and even threatened that they had to move away shows something of the stress they probably lived under during all the time they lived among neighbors who thought they were white. Your story illustrates the truth that it is only because of what they are taught by adults that children even perceive race, let alone think that it should be an issue between people. Thanks for sharing your story, and Ruth's.

    • javr profile image

      javr 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I see that you lost a true friend. My condolences, even after all of these years.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Thank you for sharing this very personal story with us. I really appreciate it.

    • hntrssthmpsn profile image

      hntrssthmpsn 4 years ago

      Your story on Helium and the background you give it here make my heart want to hug you, Ann. Such a sad story, and I'm so glad you shared it. Growing up in Santa Cruz, racism was an abstract historical concept to me through most of my childhood. Lately, there's been an ugly upsurge in "socially acceptable" racism here, and I hear from friends that they've noticed it elsewhere, too... this time, it's "the Mexicans" instead of "the Blacks," ... still just as ugly and saddening to hear hate-filled rhetoric and jokes shared as a matter of course.

    • sheriangell profile image

      sheriangell 5 years ago

      stopping by again to bestow a well deserved Angel blessing.

    • piarejuden profile image

      piarejuden 5 years ago

      Deeply touched and inspired. God bless.. :)

    • profile image

      cmadden 6 years ago

      Well done lens. I'm glad you had the earlier, innocent time with Ruthie. The ones with the ugly minds and hearts can't touch that.

    • Sylvestermouse profile image

      Cynthia Sylvestermouse 6 years ago from United States

      A very thought provoking article and I appreciate your honesty. We should all be as innocent as little children.

    • profile image

      RinchenChodron 6 years ago

      I loved the movie The Help. I must be very close to your age and remember the 50s and 60s. I'm so sorry for your loss. A very well written lens.

    • BestRatedStuff profile image

      BestRatedStuff 6 years ago

      A beautiful lens, that shows how incrimination of any sort affect all sorts of people, even those not thinking about it. You lost a friend because of the fear her parents had for their family. Others have lost jobs, self-confidence or actualizing their potential. But the fear can be real, and most parents would rather be safe than sorry.

      You have written this with the simplicity and innocence of a child, I really liked it.

    • profile image

      DoreenMartel 6 years ago

      Ann as usual a beautiful and moving piece. I do not think it's over-simplified at all.

    • cocomoonbeams profile image

      cocomoonbeams 6 years ago

      A moving lens. Thanks for sharing.

    • chezchazz profile image

      Chazz 6 years ago from New York

      A very moving story and memorial to Ruthie.

    • profile image

      GrowWear 6 years ago

      Very well-written remembrance of Ruthie and the senselessness of her loss.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Ann thank you so much for sharing this story. Isn't it sad that we cannot remain color-blind children forever? The world would be a much better place if we could. I love how you wrote that parents teach us how to love and how to hate. How true that is and how sad that anyone learns how to judge others by skin color.I sure hope that you were able to heal some of your anger through writing this. You also remind people that the color of one's skin does not define who they are. It is a lesson.

    • Joyce Mann profile image

      Joyce T. Mann 6 years ago from Bucks County, Pennsylvania USA

      Ann, we are of the same generation. I can relate to this sad tale. Thank you for sharing.

    • ajtyne profile image

      AJ 6 years ago from North Carolina

      Ann, I hope that you are able to find some peace about this through your writing. I feel so sad that this happened, and that it has been hurting you for so very many years.

    • ajtyne profile image

      AJ 6 years ago from North Carolina

      I didn't know that racism/segregation existed to this extent in California. I always thought that Californians had been sort of sheltered from all that, so this is very informative. Also, didn't know that about no physical contact. I was raised in the South, and 8 years behind you, but hugging between black and white people was very common for us; however, not between those of opposite sex. It's very interesting learning the different ways that racism rears its head in different part of the country. Many of us from the South (both black & white) are shocked when we go to the North, feeling we never knew racism until seeing the North -- and yet, we all know about the South's racism, too. Anyway, you are so very right about children having to be taught hatred. There are many stories of slave owners' children playing side by side with slaves' children, never minding any differences until the day they were forcibly taken away from the other and made to toe the line. I was sheltered from so much of this, even tho I was born in the late 50s, because of being so young, and because of our parents. My mother taught us there is no difference; God made us all. My father brought home Navy friends of all colors. My own daughter is biracial, and has never, ever shown any notice at all of differences. One day, when learning her colors, she announced very matter of factly that Mommy is white, and so, curious as to whether she had heard something she shouldn't have, I asked about her, and tho her skin is darker it is still very light and she said "white." Then I asked about Daddy, and she said "brown." And I knew that she had not overheard anything vile, but was just commenting on life using the new colors she had learned. To her, the differences among people are no more than the differences among animals; some are grey, some black, some white, some spotted, but all cats, dogs or birds. I didn't mean to write an article on your lens! Sorry. But I guess you struck a chord and got me thinking of back when I was a kid, too.

    • LisaDH profile image

      LisaDH 6 years ago

      I was touched by your Helium article about Ruthie and saddened to read this page about the reason for her family's sudden departure. No one should ever need to flee or be fearful because of the color of their skin or the genes they've inherited.

    • Joan Haines profile image

      Joan Haines 6 years ago

      Writing things that are true and from the heart elevates us. Thank you.

    • jptanabe profile image

      Jennifer P Tanabe 6 years ago from Red Hook, NY

      Thank you for sharing this tragic loss that touched your life so deeply. It's certainly time to go beyond the barriers that divide the human family.

    • MelissaRodgz profile image

      MelissaRodgz 6 years ago

      Thank you for sharing this wonderful story. It is very touching.

    • Nancy Hardin profile image

      Nancy Carol Brown Hardin 6 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      A moving, heartfelt story. I remember those days too, and the injustice visited on those folks who were "different" in color. Many light-skinned blacks passed for white whenever they could, and were terrified if they were found out. Such a sad time in our history. Thanks for sharing the story of your love for your friend, and your anger at her loss. Hope this helps you put this to rest in your heart.

    • Scarlettohairy profile image

      Peggy Hazelwood 6 years ago from Desert Southwest, U.S.A.

      Lovely heartfelt story. Thanks, Ann.

    • sheriangell profile image

      sheriangell 6 years ago

      Some how I just know Ruthie is smiling right now, touched by your loyalty and love and so happy to have you as her friend.

      While it is a tragic and sad story, I'm happy you shared it to make the reality of these years so real. Very well written and Angel blessed today.

    • profile image

      jseven lm 6 years ago

      You shared something hugely sad and important to all of society. This story moved me because I have mixed grandchildren and abhor the thought of any of them being treated differently because of their skin color. I also feel your pain about her death, as I have lost a few good friends. As far as I'm concerned there is only one race.."the human race."

    • Heather426 profile image

      Heather Burns 6 years ago from Wexford, Ireland

      Amazing lens and story. I am so sad for you that this happened. Kids really don't know about race until the world tells them. I had a black boyfriend when I was 6 and was oblivious to any stares. Many years later my mother told me she heard about it from school but never told me because she was not prejudiced and didn't want to put thoughts in my head. Beautifully told.

    • Showpup LM profile image

      Showpup LM 6 years ago

      Thank you for sharing your story. It broke my heart. I'm so happy that you were raised to love and that you girls had one another. I'm sorry Ruthie is not here for you physically but it sounds to me as if she will never leave your heart. Treasure that. During the times of the Chicago riots, my Dad's good friend (a black man) saved his life when they were raided and many white people killed where they worked by putting my Dad's own gun to my Dad's head and pretending he wanted to shoot him himself and got him to his car. Ugly times and senseless hurts.

    • VBright profile image

      VBright 6 years ago

      Very nice tribute

    • Virginia Allain profile image

      Virginia Allain 6 years ago from Central Florida

      It's hard to bring up old pain and re-examine it. I find Squidoo works well for such tributes and soul-searching. This is very well done.

    • gottaloveit2 profile image

      gottaloveit2 6 years ago

      You brought me to tears with this story that you weave so masterfully. Ruthie would be pleased that you've keep her alive all these years. And, yes, life is not fair. She shouldn't have had to move or die. i'm so sorry for you.

    • gottaloveit2 profile image

      gottaloveit2 6 years ago

      You brought me to tears with this story that you weave so masterfully. Ruthie would be pleased that you've keep her alive all these years. And, yes, life is not fair. She shouldn't have had to move or die. i'm so sorry for you.