Rose Post, from 2005: Recalling holidays long past

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 22, 2011

When Thanksgiving comes, Charles Sherrill is always thankful for all the things everybody is thankful for — family, good health, good friends, a fine Thanksgiving dinner.
But it always brings memories of that other Thanksgiving, too, that Thanksgiving of 1943, when he was coming home from Palmer Memorial Institute for the holiday.
Palmer was a finishing school for young blacks at Sedalia 10 miles east of Greensboro.
“My folks had enrolled me in the fall of ’43.”
His dad, Richard, was managing editor of the AME Zion Publishing House in Charlotte, and his mother, Josephine Sherrill, the youngest daughter of Charles Joseph Price, the founder of Livingstone College, was Livingstone’s head librarian for 50 years.
And they wanted the best education they could find for their son.
So he went to Palmer.
“And they’d sent me some pocket change to get the bus from Greensboro to Salisbury for the holiday.
“I was in the back of the bus over the motor,” he remembers, and something went wrong with that motor, “and when we arrived in High Point, the bus caught on fire.
“I was the only black on the bus. There were whites nearer the front. I was only 12 or 14, and I was ordered by the bus driver to stay in my seat until, in his words, ‘all these white folks get off the bus.’
“And basically that’s the crux of it, but it was an experience I can’t forget. Being that young, it was traumatic. I was hurt more than I was angered. Segregation was in place when I was born. I didn’t have much anger, but I was hurt.”
He still remembers the bus driver’s words.
“Nigger,” he said, “stay there until these white folks get off.”
But that’s the way it was then, “and it didn’t alter my feelings.”
And he remembers another incident when he was in the military.
“I had spent 10 months in Korea, and I was going from Chicago to Washington, and I decided to go to the club car and relax with a beer.”
But when he walked into the club car, he passed a young white couple.
“And as I passed them, the man said to the woman, ‘I didn’t know they had niggers in the Air Force.’ I was ready to blow up, but the bartender was also black, and he’d been in WWII, and he pulled me aside. He knew I was ready to blow up, and he gave me some strong advice.
“To begin with, he told me, ‘You don’t want to take this any further, and two detectives and two military police are on this train. I know how you feel because I experienced similar experiences when I was in the military in WWII.’
“Then he said, ‘Sit down and cool off, because if an incident occurs, I don’t know when you’ll get home. I’m going to give you a shot of bourbon and a beer, and you go back to your seat and go to sleep.’
“I took his advice.”
And he’s glad he did, but he’s never forgotten the way it made him feel.
“I had spent 10 months in Korea and all the mess there, and to come home and face this mess was more than I could take. That’s why I was ready to go off on this sucker.”
Of course, one memory always leads to another, and Thanksgiving always triggers his memories of segregation.
He finished high school at Palmer Memorial Institute and received a basketball scholarship for what’s now N.C. Central University but was N.C. College for Negroes then. But he transferred after his freshman year to Livingstone where he got his degree — and played basketball.
From beginning to end, he says, “I grew up in a world that separated white and black. That was the environment I grew up in, and sometimes I wish kids this day and time had the same experience.”
His working life was spent with the New York State Department of Mental Health, working with patients with psychiatric problems, “and Blanche and I came down home for Christmas of 1984 — my parents were still living — but she noticed they were getting more feeble, and she said, ‘You need to go home.’ ”
So he came.
Not that he had much time with them. They both died in 1985.
But he remembers so much when Thanksgiving comes.
And this year the memories came sooner because Rosa Parks died.
She had taken her position when she refused to move to the back of the bus, and Charles Sherrill remembered how young he was when a bus driver told him he had to stay in the back of a burning bus until all the white folks got out.
Every year, when Thanksgiving comes, he remembers that bus driver and the bartender on a train who told him to go back to his seat, “and, as the kids say today, to ‘chill out and try to put this behind you.’ “
And he gives thanks that today is better than it was.
“Those were some dark days, and the world is not perfect yet,” he says, “but it’s better than it used to be even if we still have a long way to go.”