MILLIE

A story by: Bob Grady | Added: 2013
Waterbury, CT
1950s

I must have been nine or ten at the time of this incident but it has remained a vivid picture in my mind ever since. We were driving to my grandmother's house on Pearl Street in Waterbury, and were on the street between Pearl and Bishop Street when my father pulled over and got out of the car and embraced a black man walking down that street. They talked for a while and then my father shook his hand and came back to the car. I don't remember the exact words but he explained that the black man was an old friend he had not seen in a long time. I didn't think the incident impressed me much at the time, so why has it remained so vivid? The time was the early forties-before WWII - and we lived in the Mill Plain section of Waterbury which was out in the country back then. I never knew any black people at that time. I was attending Chase Grammar School and there were no blacks in that school. My family was Irish-American and as a child I had no dealings with blacks (which, by the way, I am sorry to say, was not what we called blacks back then). The N-word was not pejorative then but in our society was common speech - just as Mick or Guinea was. When I went to Sacred Heart High School, it, too, was white so again there was no or little contact with blacks. It was not until joining the Navy in 1952 that I encountered real prejudice for the first time. One of the fellows who joined with us from Waterbury was black. When we completed boot camp and were stationed in school in Jacksonville, Florida, I asked him once to go on liberty with me and he said he couldn't. When asked why, he just said we were in the South now. I accepted that and eventually moved on to new friends. I guess I knew that blacks were treated differently down there, but it did not really concern me. 
The Civil Rights movement began to have some effect on me later but again not much. It was when I started substitute teaching in Waterbury that I came into realization that blacks were real people and but for circumstance of birth, there was not much difference between us. I have tried to act accordingly since. There is a parallel to this. My aunts, with whom we lived after my mother died, were always suspicious or frightened of blacks. When they got too old to be alone in the house, I got them a woman to take care of their needs. They grew to love her and she became more than a friend. She was family. Her name was Millie. And she was black.