I grew up in a small, rural, southern Illinois town that was lily white. Except for one man. A barber who lived alone on the south side of town. A negro, we would have called him then.
Although I knew he was there, I don't really remember him, and I don't know why he would have chosen to live there. I don't remember ever actually seeing him. I wish I remembered his name.
"Squab, I think," my sister says when I ask. She remembers him, but doesn't remember seeing him either.
I used to go to the barber with my dad. I like to think that he was the barber my dad went to and that I was there and didn't even notice. But I doubt that that's true.
I remember the black elevator operator in the Schultz department store in Terre Haute, Indiana, where we went to buy first day of school clothes and Easter dresses.
My sister emails a group of her high school friends that get together every year. They remember him too.
"Squab Wilson," they say. "He had a barber shop downtown, right next to Tom's. He ate in the back." There is disagreement as to whether it was a back booth or in the kitchen, behind swinging doors.
One friend remembers her dad going to his barber shop. One thinks she saw him. No one can describe him. One says his funeral was huge.
I hope that's true.
As best I remember, he was accepted in the town. Part of its fabric. One of the 3,000 of us. Even though I don't remember seeing him.
I think he was the reason that people were able to claim that they weren't racist, that they had no prejudice.
But it wasn't true. I remember the eenie, meenie, miney, moe chant that my mom wouldn't let me say, but that was heard in playgrounds and back yards. I remember the Little Black Sambo book that was read at school and that sat on the shelves in the town library.
We had a Halloween contest on the court house square every year. I remember that well. The categories for costumes varied a little from year to year. But for every year that I remember, right up to the late 1960's, negro mammy or picaninny was one of the categories.
I never entered the category, but I never thought much about it either.
I remember writing a letter to the city council the year I went away to college complaining about the category. But in all honesty I'm not sure if I actually did it or just wish I had. I didn't have the courage to say anything in high school when a friend dressed up in black face and walked around the court house square. Maybe from the distance of college I did.
There is a Facebook page set up for my little town where people bring up memories. There is talk of Tom's restaurant, which still stands as a sort of downtown landmark, although it has had several different owners and name changes. There is a thread about the gypsy queen who put a good curse on the town to protect us from tornadoes. People talk of the meat locker, and parades, and downtown Christmas decorations, and the blind man who fixed bicycles. Someone posted pictures of the annual Halloween contest which still goes on. The offensive category was dropped my first year of college.
No one has mentioned Squab Wilson.