By MOLLIE FINCH BELT
The Dallas Examiner
I was born on Aug. 7, 1943 at Pinkston Clinic in Dallas. Dr. L.G. Pinkston, a Negro physician, owned the clinic. My parents were Fred J. Finch Jr. and Mildred Newton Finch.
Shortly after I was born, my mother and I joined my father in Tuskegee, Alabama where he was stationed in the Air Force.
My father joined the Air Force during World War II after graduating from Wiley College. Military Service was segregated then. He did very well on his entrance exam for the Air Force and they sent him to officer’s training school in Miami, Florida.
My father never talked about his experiences in military training, but after he died I found a large photo of his officer training graduating class rolled up in the attic of his office building. The photo was taken in 1943 in Miami, Florida. He was the only Negro with approximately 100 White men on the photo.
I can only imagine that his experiences in Miami with 100 White men was not good in 1943, so he did not share them with me.
He had grown up in segregated Dallas, graduated from Booker T. Washington High School, the only high school for Negroes, and went to Wiley College, a private Methodist college for Negroes in Marshall, Texas.
After officer military training he was sent to Tuskegee Air Field a base for Negro soldiers.
As I look back over my life, I realize my father tried to shield me from things that were unpleasant and the segregated society we lived in was very ugly.
A lot of what I remember as a young child in Tuskegee is because my mother told me everything. I was an only child and she always talked to me like I was an adult.
I lived in Tuskegee during my early childhood. Tuskegee was a very segregated city. My father accepted a position as personnel director of the Veterans Hospital in Tuskegee after serving in the Air Force in Tuskegee when the war ended. The hospital was for Negro veterans.
My mother was a mathematics professor at Tuskegee Institute, a college founded by Booker T. Washington and home of the great Negro scientist George Washington Carver.
In Tuskegee I never saw White people except for the nuns at the Catholic school I attended.
We didn’t shop for clothes or groceries in Tuskegee.
Once a month on a Saturday, I would go with my father and his best friend and his son to Columbus, Georgia, to shop for groceries.
We went to Atlanta, Georgia, to buy our clothes.
I do not remember going downtown in Tuskegee or to a store in Tuskegee.
My mother told me later that when the voter registration office that was located downtown Tuskegee saw Negroes coming to register to vote they would hang a “closed” sign. They often went several times before successfully being able to pay poll tax so they could vote. When they found the office open, they would call their friends and tell them the office was open and they could come pay poll tax so they could vote. My parents held their poll tax receipts close to them – carrying them always in their wallets.
We drove to Texas during holidays to visit my grandparents. We would drive through Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. We could not stop at just any place to use the restroom. My father would go in the service station and ask if his wife and daughter could use the restroom. If we could not, he would not buy gas at that station but would drive until he found one that would let us use the restroom.
I remember my father carrying his pistol in a green shoe bag under his seat. At that time I did not realize how dangerous it was to be driving through Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. We only stopped for gas and to use the restroom when we could.
Sometimes, Negros had to travel to receive medical and dental services that they could not receive in their own city. I remember the story my mother later told me of why we had to go to New York for her to have oral surgery.
In 1951, my mother needed to have oral surgery while we were living in Tuskegee. There were no oral surgeons in Tuskegee at the time. My father took her to Montgomery, Alabama, to a specialist. The specialist told my father that he did not treat Negroes. My father told the specialist, “I am not asking you to treat my wife, only want you to take x-rays.” My father had the x-rays sent to a specialist in New York City.
I remember going to New York and staying at this large hotel, Hotel Teresa for a week. Hotel Teresa was a popular hotel for Negroes in Harlem at that time.
My mother had oral surgery at a large hospital in New York. I was worried about my mother. I remember sitting for long periods of time in the hospital lobby crying. My father would come to the lobby to comfort me, then go back to my mother’s hospital room to check on her.
I had a lot of hair and wore it natural, but my father could not comb my hair, so he got the hotel maid to comb my hair every morning while my mother was in the hospital.
We were fortunate that my father had money to take my mother to New York for surgery. There were many Negroes who did not have money to travel north did not have access to certain medical specialists in Alabama.
Though racial barriers don’t exist as they did 70 years ago, there are still many systemic barriers that prevent African Americans from receiving the medical and dental care that they need.
Note: I have lived in a segregated society, lived during the civil rights movement, and am living in a post-civil rights era when we’re still having to fight for social justice. I decided to share my experiences with our readers. They may help the younger generation understand what Blacks have experienced and why many of us feel the way we do. We have been through a lot. It comes a time when enough is enough.
My columns will run consecutively in this space every week.
Mollie Finch Belt is the publisher of The Dallas Examiner and the daughter of the newspaper’s founder.