The Glorianne Experiment: Learning Diversity in the 60s
In Indianapolis, Indiana, I attended St. Agnes Academy during the youth of the civil rights movement. Mrs. Stone, my homeroom teacher and member of the Indianapolis Inter-racial Council, presided over the sophomore homeroom of 18 middle-class girls. One was a shy African-American girl— "colored" she was called then—about five feet tall, café au lait skin, large eyes with long lashes, hair straightened into a pageboy that grazed her navy-uniform-blazered shoulders.
In St Agnes' red-brick, five-story building, our second-floor classroom held 20 desks that faced the blackboard and Mrs. Stone?s large oak desk. The obligatory crucifix hung above it. Mrs. Stone led a discussion from the front of the room.
We Catholic girls were horrified by racial prejudice in the abstract but couldn't see how it infected our lives. The teacher proposed a test. "Go home tonight and ask your parents if you may invite Glorianne to your house to sleep over. On Monday, we'll discuss what you learn."
An object lesson in racism or "Guess who's coming to dinner" for Catholic families in 1960. It was a long weekend in at least eighteen Indianapolis homes.
I was ready to "teach my parents a lesson." What fifteen-year-old could resist? Mom was preparing dinner when I dropped the question bomb. "We'll talk about it with Dad." Matters of import were routinely discussed at dinner with a united parental front.
* * *
Dad was 21 years older than I and grew up in Chickasha, Oklahoma. At 15, he met Lucy, an Illinois girl visiting his neighbor. Two years later, he joined the Marines; L.D. desperately wanted to be a pilot. And so he was. He earned his wings; she went to college in Chicago. They married in August 1944 and I came in October 1945. The GI Bill allowed this burly, six-foot, 220-pound former Marine to attend Texas Tech. Volatile, with a temper as big as he was, L.D. got that degree and his growing family started giving him patience lessons. Flying Corsairs had been easier.
By 1960, good arguments "loud, determined, and pig-headed" were regular features of Dad's and my relationship. Dad wanted "you kids to think for yourselves." To that end, he truly listened to "and debated" our opinions. He would, on occasion, admit error. However, winning that admission took a strong case, much evidence and iron-clad answers to objections.
On race, L.D. had explained, "Your Grandpa worked with Negroes in Chickasha's bus depot. Cheryl, some Southerners lived closer to and got along better with colored people than these Northerners. People here say they're not prejudiced, but they act it."
Dad admitted using the N-word in the past, but now said it was wrong. He explained that acceptable language and terms change. "Colored" was acceptable in 1960; "Negro" was better. "Black?" or "African American" would have been disrespectful then.
L.D. explained, "Colored people are just like you and me. They love their families and their kids should get just as good an education as any white kid." He believed then that "separate but equal" was possible. Dad admitted he was uncomfortable with Negros in some situations. Interracial dating and marriages were not good. Of course, he also thought "mixed marriages," meaning couples of differing religious faiths, were just as undesirable.
* * *
At dinner, I asked the question. prepared to blast my parents with truth, goodness and righteousness. I was not prepared for Dad.
"Let me ask you, Cheryl. Why are you doing this? Is it because you want to make a point or is it because you want to have a friend over to dinner and to stay overnight? "
"Well, Mrs. Stone told us to ask and see what you'd say," I blurted out.
"It might be good to make a point about racism, but was Glorianne in the room for all this?"
"I'm surprised and disappointed. How must Glorianne have felt, to be made the a class lesson? You're all trooping home to use her as the club to beat intolerance out of your parents. What about Glorianne? Put yourself in her place. Wouldn't it hurt your feelings to be invited just to make a point, to be invited because you were colored and not because you were a friend?"
Then Solomon in a Stetson ruled: "You may invite Glorianne here as your friend, but ONLY after you've invited her as a part of a group of your friend—maybe to a slumber party. Then she'll know that you're interested in her for herself."
That weekend I worried about my report. I didn't want to hurt Glorianne even more. Yet my parents had impressed me—they saw her as a person with feelings, not as "a colored girl."
Dad admitted, "I can't help my feelings. I am prejudiced Even though I can decide to act fairly, I can't stop the prejudiced feelings from welling up before I can think. I don't think I can completely change, but I don't want you kids to have those feelings, to be prejudiced. I want you to be better than I am."
Glorianne wasn't in class that Monday. We started reporting our parents' reaction to The Question. No one had gotten a green light without discussion; some received grudging permission from parents; some recounted a litany of objections of the "What will the neighbors think?" variety. Other parents issued categorical denials.
My tension rose. In the last row; I was ready. Proud of my parents I told the class exactly what my father had said.
I'm not proud that I enjoyed teaching my teacher a lesson with the same immature pleasure that I'd hoped to teach my parents a lesson. Her eyebrows raised, her cheeks colored and I don?t believe we finished hearing the rest of the replies. Mrs Stone closed the lesson with some platitudes on prejudice and racism, but my teacher had lost her luster. No one had seen Glorianne as a person. Mrs. Stone never admitted to the class the cruelty of the experiment. I hope she apologized to Glorianne.
I'm ashamed to say that I never apologized to Glorianne. Nor did I invite her over. I both wanted desperately to do that and was afraid that she would tell me exactly how much this lesson in racism had hurt.
How does Glorianne feel now? To this day I'd like to ask her. I'd like to apologize. to explain to her how often I've thought of the lesson in humanity my Southern father taught and she paid for that weekend.
And L.D.? I think he grew in this exchange too. Thirty years later when his first grandchild, was dating a young black man, I told him, "You know Bernie's black?" I watched thoughts—maybe those "feelings"—flicker in his pale blue eyes and then he smiled. "Thought you had to warn the old man, didn't you?"
Cheryl Grady Mercier studies in Rowan University's Graduate Creative Writing program and is finishing a memoir/biography of an 89-year-old woman. Mercier has won recognition for non-fiction and poetry from the National Writers Association and the Atlanta Review. Drexel Online Journal published her fiction and The Philadelphia Inquirer has published her essays.