I grew up in the house my grandparents built in 1923. It sat on 31st Street and 12th Avenue South in the D7 section of the town of St. Petersburg, Florida, also known as “the Gas Plant,” according to the city’s redline map. I was four months old when they found Emmett Till’s body in Mississippi. A Jet magazine, with the photos of his mangled, tortured body, was always on the living-room coffee table. Some families had an open Bible on display; we had Ebony and Jet.

On the corner of 31st Street and 15th Avenue lived Dr. and Mrs. Wimbish, who often provided lodging for traveling “colored” people. Specifically, they opened their home to Black athletes and entertainers who were barred from the “whites-only” hotels in town. The many prominent folks who stayed at their house included Jesse Owens, Dizzy Gillespie, Jackie Robinson, and Cab Calloway. When student activists came south to fight the segregated interstate bus services, the Freedom Riders would come to the Wimbish house for lodging, rest, and recreation.

Some whites were not happy with the support Black celebrities and Freedom Riders received in our neighborhood, so one night in 1961 the KKK sent a message. A burning cross lit up the night in the Wimbishes’s front yard. Mrs. Wimbish went on to become the first African American on the St. Petersburg city council.

This was my world. My mom did not hide the cruelty of it from me. But it got personal the day she and I were in the McCrory’s five and dime store, at Central Plaza. A popular marketing ploy of the 1960s was to hang a row of balloons above the lunch counter. Inside each balloon was a slip of paper with a number from one to ninety-nine. You would select a balloon and the number inside was the price you would pay for a banana split. I’d seen other children order, and I knew how the system worked, so I crawled onto a stool and announced to the woman there, with a pointing finger, that I wanted the big red balloon above me.

She looked at me practically in horror and told me to get down, saying, “We don’t serve niggers here!”

In a flash, I spun around on the barstool and shouted out to my mother, who was now halfway across the store: “Mommy, what’s a nigger?” Without looking up from the table of colorful headscarves she was admiring, she shouted back, “Oh, baby, that’s just a word dumb white folks call colored people.”

I dismounted the stool, joined Mom, and we went on with our Saturday shopping. I was not saddened, fearful, or insulted by the use of the n-word. If anything, I felt bad for the woman behind the counter. She just did not know how special we were. Mother always modeled for me the lesson that the opinions of others should never contribute to my sense of self-worth. There was no talk of being a victim with Mom. She taught me to not be afraid of the bullies who would tell me that I was not worthy of love and respect.

Mom helped me understand that just because some thought Black lives do not matter, this did not make it true. Up until this moment I think I just accepted whatever an adult said. This episode put my young self in the position of being a judge of my own truth. I was no longer a bystander; adults were flawed, and I could judge the judges. I learned that I have power and that hatred only has power if I let it.

This was the day I was confronted with racism and realized what it would take to fight it. And this was the day I learned what true courage was.

By sharing her lynched son Emmett’s mangled body on the pages of Jet magazine, Mamie Till showed me courage on a worldwide scale. My neighbors showed me what courage can do in my immediate community. But that day in McCrory’s, my mom taught me what courage looked like up close.

Felder is an IT analyst for Trinity College of Arts & Sciences Office of Technology Services.

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