Lane mini chests and the issue of race
Some time ago, I wrote a blog post about the Lane mini chests that furniture stores handed out to high school graduates. Lane started making them available in the 1930s with the hopes that these young women would be compelled to buy the larger chests for their trousseaus.
I wondered if any were every given to black high schoolers since the chests were given out at a time when black folks were treated as second-class citizens and many folks figured we didn’t have anything of value for a trousseau.
Some African American readers wrote to tell me that they received the boxes in the 1960s, which I was happy to hear.
Recently, I got an email from a reader who admonished me for making race an issue in who got the chest and who didn’t. Here’s what she had to say:
“I got it when I graduated in the deep south (South Carolina). Every girl in the graduating class got a cedar chest regardless of the color of skin or what country they came from, who their grandparents were, where they lived. They even got one if their parents lived on the wrong side of the town, were married or not. Oh my, it was the 70’s some were even biracial.
Not everything is about race. I realize that many injustices were done. I thankfully never saw what evidently was going on all around me. My mother’s family is from Orangeburg, SC and my father’s from north Georgia. My parents decided not to have us bused to an all white school when given the choice. All families were welcomed in the neighborhood, all kids played together. We even attended the small Southern Baptist Church together.
Some of us still do. Things like love, family togetherness is what was and still is important. Not the color of our skin. We didn’t notice.”
This reader seemed to have come from a tolerant family, and I was delighted to hear that her neighborhood was an inclusive place to live. But that was not the South of American history, and probably not the whole picture of her town.
I was curious about the distribution of the chest during the period before she got hers in the 1970s. By then, the country had certainly changed – even the “deep South” of both of our births (I’m from Georgia), although begrudgingly. It was the decade after the March on Washington, the civil rights movement and the “I’m Black and I’m Proud” mantra of black people who wouldn’t take the abuse any longer.
I could’ve responded to the reader’s lecture by offering my own, but I decided to take a look back to the time before and after this tradition began. Since she mentioned Orangeburg and the state of South Carolina, I decided to look there to see what life was like for people of a darker hue.
Here are some of the things I found:
Orangeburg was a slave and plantation town in the 19th century. Right after the Civil War, the state was one of the first to institute Black Codes, which developed into what became known as Jim Crow laws. In 1868, voters elected Benjamin F. Randolph as their first black senator from Orangeburg County. Randolph, an advocate for equal rights for African Americans, was assassinated in October of that year by a mob of white men outside a train station in South Carolina.
During the early part of the 20th century, blacks lived a restrictive life in the state. Here are some accounts given by several blacks to interviewers for the John Hope Franklin Research Center at Duke University Libraries in 1994:
Blacks couldn’t get into the military to fight for their country at the start of World War II, “because of our color,” Ernest Henderson of Columbia, SC, said that he and others were told when they tried to sign up. After obtaining a private pilot’s license, he became a Tuskegee Airman, training cadets to fly planes that had been used by white trainees at another base.
A black couple told of blacks in Gadsen, SC, working farms for whites until they could buy their own land, forming a small community of property owners. They also remembered “black water and white water” fountains, and having to use restrooms in the federal courthouse because they were barred from using those in white establishments.
Another woman told of her family of educated people who moved to Orangeburg in 1945 and of her graduating from college in 1955. She remembered going to the back of white movie theaters to get to the segregated balcony when she was growing up in Union, SC. There were also segregated lunch counters (she recalled her and her mother being ignored even when sitting at counters reserved for African Americans), water fountains and hospitals.
She also recalled the black doctors, churches, pharmacy and schools in her neighborhood. White children, she said, came from their nearby streets to play with them.
Even with the Jim Crow laws, some African Americans were living quite well in a town with two black colleges, Claflin and South Carolina State. Orangeburg had an elite African American community where some families had domestic servants and emulated the lives of whites, according to the 2000 book “Negotiating Boundaries of Southern Womanhood.” The black women could not try on clothes in stores and had to wait for white customers to be taken care of first. But they were waited on before the working-class black women, whom some of them snubbed.
Lynchings apparently were not so commonplace in Orangeburg County. One article published last year noted that no one had been lynched since 1914. Another website mentioned that the state ranked No. 10 nationwide in lynchings from 1882 to 1968. I was at an auction two years ago where a postcard of a lynched man in Georgia was on sale. On the back was the notation: “This picture shows how people are hung in the South.”
By the 1950s, blacks were a majority in Orangeburg, as they’d been for decades, and like most of the country they were restive. The Brown v. Board of Education decision prompted a call for desegregation of schools, and a white citizens council was organized to oppose it.
The 1960s saw the rise of even more activism, with sit-ins at the Kress Department Store in 1960, protests of swimming pools in 1964, and school boycotts in 1963 and 1964. Protests of the segregated All Star Bowling Lanes in 1968 culminated in the “Orangeburg Massacre.” Police fired on a protest by students on the campus of South Carolina State, killing three and wounding 27. They were shot in the backs and on the soles of their feet. The white officers were acquitted.
With this backdrop of history, I was surely right in my questioning of whether black girls were given the mini chests. As the reader said, everything is not about race, but a lot of our country’s history was and still is. And we can’t act like it wasn’t and isn’t.