LANCASTER – Speaking before a crowd of more than 100 Saturday during MLK’s Day of Service, Mayor Emeritus Henry Hearns shared his experience growing up in the segregated South.
“It’s one thing to read about it, but it’s another thing to have lived it,” Hearns said.
Hearns shared that he was born in April of 1933 in Byhalia, Mississippi, a little town just Southeast of Memphis. Hearns described his childhood home as a “shotgun house,” with no insulation, “just a tin roof put up on some rafters.”
Hearns says he was one of five kids in the house – two girls and three boys – who all slept on the same bed at night.
“The boys slept at the foot and the girls slept at the head,” said Hearns. “Before we learned how to go to the bathroom [during the night], a few things may have happened.”
Hearns said there was one school in the area for Blacks. The schoolhouse was a little shack below a hill where there was one teacher for about a hundred children. Blacks were only allowed to go to school up to the eighth grade, he said.
Hearns said he trekked five miles to school each day, and sometimes a big yellow bus filled with white students would pass by him as he walked along the gravel road.
“When we saw the yellow school bus, we headed for the bushes,” Hearns said. “Because the kids that were on the bus would throw cups of urine out of the window and say ‘take this ni**er, take this!’”
“It was that kind of an environment that set my little heart to say whites are no good,” Hearns added.
Hearns described other experiences in the segregated south that contributed to his disdain for whites early on.
“You would drive up to get some gas in your car and a white person would come up behind you and you would have to pull away and get back in line again… you just kept doing that until you could get your gas,” Hearns said. “You didn’t have any opportunity to say this is not right, you just paid whatever they told you and went on about your way and smiled… smiled when you didn’t even want to smile.”
He said his mother worked as a cook for a compassionate white lady who grew fond of his mother and her children. Among other things, the kind-hearted lady allowed Hearns and his siblings to walk through her front door, eat at her table and ride in her car.
“These are the kinds of experiences that bring us to either be confused or to get it straightened out,” Hearns said. “I got it right, and I am so thankful that God gave me that opportunity.”
Hearns said thanks to the generosity of his mother’s employer and other kind-hearted whites, he was able to pursue his education well beyond the eight grade. He eventually obtained a Masters’ Degree and became an engineer.
When Martin Luther King Jr., who was four years his senior, presented a message of love, equality and unity to the world, Hearns says he was in the mindset to receive it.
“He (MLK) woke America up and caused America to realize that all of us are Americans…we are all equal,” Hearns said. “Dr. Martin Luther King and the Bible, tied together with what Momma taught me, tied together with what the word of God said, tied together with the spirit of God in me, made me whatever it is I am today.”