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A Mason-Dixon Memory

Dondre Green glanced uneasily at the civic leaders and sports figures filling the hotel ballroom in Cleveland. They had come from across the nation to attend a fund-raiser for the National Minority College Golf Scholarship Foundation. I was the banquetís featured entertainer. Dondre, an 18-year-old high school senior from Monroe, Louisiana, was the eveningís honored guest.

"Nervous?" I asked the handsome young man in his starched white shirt and rented tuxedo.

"A little," he whispered, grinning.

One month earlier, Dondre had been just one more black student attending a predominately white school. Although most of his friends and classmates were white, Dondreís race was never an issue. Then, on April 17, l991, Dondreís black skin provoked an incident that made nationwide news.

"Ladies and gentlemen," the emcee said, "our special guest, Dondre Green."

As the audience stood applauding, Dondre walked to the microphone and began his story. "I love golf," he said quietly. "For the past two years, Iíve been a member of the St. Frederick High School golf team. And though I was the only black member, Iíve always felt at home playing at mostly white country clubs across Louisiana."

The audience leaned forward; even the waiters and busboys stopped to listen. As I listened, a memory buried in my heart since childhood fought its way to life.

"Our team had driven from Monroe," Dondre continued. "When we arrived at the Caldwell Parish Country Club in Columbia, we walked to the putting green."

Dondre and his teammates were too absorbed to notice the conversation between a man and St. Frederick athletic director James Murphy. After disappearing into the clubhouse, Murphy returned to his players.

"I want to see the seniors," he said. "On the double!" His face seemed strained as he gathered the four students, including Dondre.

"I donít know how to tell you this," he said, "but the Caldwell Parish Country Club is reserved for whites only." Murphy paused and looked at Dondre. His teammates glanced at each other in disbelief.

"I want you seniors to decide what our response should be," Murphy continued. "If we leave, we forfeit this tournament. If we stay, Dondre canít play."

As I listened, my own childhood memory from 32 years ago broke free.

In 1959, I was 13 years old, a poor black kid living with my mother and stepfather in a small black ghetto on Long Island, New York. My mother worked nights in a hospital, and my stepfather drove a coal truck. Needless to say, our standard of living was somewhat short of the American dream.

Nevertheless, when my eighth-grade teacher announced a graduation trip to Washington, D.C., it never crossed my mind that I would be left behind. Besides a complete tour of the nationís capital, we would visit Glen Echo Amusement Park in Maryland. In my imagination, Glen Echo was Disneyland, Knottís Berry Farm and Magic Mountain rolled into one.

My heart beating wildly, I raced home to deliver the mimeographed letter describing the journey. But when my mother saw how much the trip cost, she just shook her head. We couldnít afford it.

After feeling sad for 10 seconds, I decided to try to fund the trip myself. For the next eight weeks, I sold candy bars door-to-door, delivered newspapers and mowed lawns, Three days before the deadline, Iíd made just barely enough. I was going!

The day of the trip, trembling with excitement, I climbed onto the train. I was the only nonwhite in our section.

Our hotel was not far from the White House. My roommate was Frank Miller, the son of a businessman. Leaning together out of our window and dropping water balloons on tourists quickly cemented our new friendship.

Every morning, almost a hundred of us loaded noisily onto our bus for another adventure. We sang our school fight song dozens of times, en route to Arlington National Cemetery and even on an afternoon cruise down the Potomac River.

We visited the Lincoln Memorial twice, once in daylight, the second time at dusk. My classmates and I fell silent as we walked in the shadows of those 36 marble columns, one for every state in the Union that Lincoln labored to preserve. I stood next to Frank at the base of the 19-foot seated statue. Spotlights made the white Georgian marble glow. Together, we read those famous words from Lincolnís speech at Gettysburg remembering the most bloody battle in the War between the States: "...we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain - that this nation, under God shall have a new birth of freedom..."

As Frank motioned me into place to take my picture, I took one last look at Lincolnís face. He seemed alive and so terribly sad.

The next morning, I understood a little better why he wasnít smiling. "Clifton," a chaperone said, "could I see you for a moment?"

The other guys at my table, especially Frank, turned pale. We had been joking about the previous nightís direct water-balloon hit on a fat lady and her poodle. It was a stupid, dangerous act, but luckily nobody got hurt. We were celebrating our escape from punishment when the chaperone asked to see me.

"Clifton," she began, "do you know about the Mason-Dixon line?"

"No," I said, wondering what this had to do with drenching fat ladies.

"Before the Civil War," she explained, "the Mason-Dixon line was originally the boundary between Maryland and Pennsylvania - the dividing line between the slave and free states." Having escaped one disaster, I could feel another brewing. I noticed that her eyes were damp and her hands were shaking.

"Today," she continued, "the Mason-Dixon line is a kind of invisible border between the North and the South. When you cross that invisible line out of Washington, D.C., into Maryland, things change."

There was an ominous drift to this conversation, but I wasnít following it. Why did she look and sound so nervous?

"Glen Echo Amusement Park is in Maryland," she said at last, "and the management doesnít allow Negroes inside." She stared at me in silence.

I was still grinning and nodding when the meaning finally sank in.

"You mean I canít go to the park," I stuttered, "because Iím a Negro?"

She nodded slowly. "Iím sorry, Clifton," she said, taking my hand.

"Youíll have to stay in the hotel tonight. Why donít you and I watch a movie on television?"

I walked to the elevators feeling confusion, disbelief, anger and a deep sadness. "What happened, Clifton?" Frank said when I got back to the room. "Did the fat lady tell on us?"

Without saying a word, I walked over to my bed, lay down and cried. Frank was stunned into silence. Junior-high boys didnít cry, at least not in front of each other.

It wasnít just missing the class adventure that made me feel so sad.

For the first time in my life, I learned what it felt like to be a "nigger."

Of course there was discrimination in the North, but the color of my skin had never officially kept me out of a coffee shop, a church - or an amusement park.

"Clifton," Frank whispered, "what is the matter?"

"They wonít let me to go Glen Echo Park tonight," I sobbed.

"Because of the water balloon?" he asked.

"No, I answered, "because Iím a Negro."

"Well, thatís a relief!" Frank said, and then he laughed, obviously relieved to have escaped punishment for our caper with the balloons. "I thought it was serious."

Wiping away the tears with my sleeve, I stared at him. "It is serious. They donít let Negroes into the park. I canít go with you!" I shouted. "Thatís pretty damn serious to me."

I was about to wipe the silly grin off Frankís face with a blow to his jaw when I heard him say, "Then I wonít go either."

For an instant we just froze. Then Frank grinned. I will never forget that moment. Frank was just a kid. He wanted to go to that amusement park as much as I did, but there was something even more important than the class night out. Still, he didnít explain or expand.

The next thing I knew, the room was filled with kids listening to Frank. "They donít allow Negroes in the park," he said, "so Iím staying with Clifton."

"Me, too," a second boy said.

"Those jerks," a third muttered. "Iím with you, Clifton." My heart raced. Suddenly, I was not alone. A pint-sized revolution had been born. The "water-balloon brigade," 11 white boys from Long Island, had made its decision: "We wonít go." And as I sat on my bed in the center of it all, I felt grateful. But, above all, I was filled with pride.

Dondre Greenís story brought that childhood memory back to life. His golfing teammates, like my childhood friends, faced an important decision. If they stood by their friend it would cost them dearly. But when it came time to decide, no one hesitated.

"Letís get out of here," one of them whispered.

"They just turned and walked toward the van," Dondre told us. "They didnít debate it. And the younger players joined us without looking back."

Dondre was astounded by the response of his friends - and the people of Louisiana. The whole state was outraged and tried to make it right. The Louisiana House of Representatives proclaimed a Dondre Green Day and passed legislation permitting lawsuits for damages, attorneysí fees and court costs against any private facility that invites a team, then bars any member because of race.

As Dondre concluded, his eyes glistened with tears. "I love my coach and my teammates for sticking by me," he said. "It goes to show that there always good people who will not give in to bigotry. The kind of love they showed me that day will conquer hatred every time."

My friends, too, had shown that kind of love. As we sat in the hotel, a chaperone came in waving an envelope. "Boys!" he shouted. "Iíve just bought 13 tickets to the Senators-Tigers game. Anybody want to go?"

The room erupted in cheers. Not one of us had ever been to a professional baseball game in a real baseball park.

On the way to the stadium, we grew silent as our driver paused before the Lincoln Memorial. For one long moment, I stared through the marble pillars at Mr. Lincoln, bathed in that warm, yellow light. There was still no smile and no sign of hope in his sad and tired eyes.

"...We here highly resolve...that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom..."

In his words and in his life, Lincoln made it clear, that freedom is not free. Every time the color of a personís skin keeps him out of an amusement park or off a country-club fairway, the war for freedom begins again. Sometimes the battle is fought with fists and guns, but more often the most effective weapon is a simple act of love and courage.

Whenever I hear those words from Lincolnís speech at Gettysburg, I remember my 11 white friends, and I feel hope once again. I like to imagine that when we paused that night at the foot of his great monument, Mr. Lincoln smiled at last.

By Clifton Davis from A 4th Course of Chicken Soup for the Soul


Copyright © 2000 Damien Ryan. Last updated February 28th, 2000