A segregated education in 1950’s Memphis

Adapted from Woodson J. Savage III’s Savage Family Tree, a true story of growing up in a segregated West Tennessee town

By Woody J. Savage III

Rose Randolph was a very dear friend to me. Rose was the “colored” lady that lived just up the street from me on Market Street. And Rose, she was the lady that helped bring me into this world. 

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended all state and local laws allowing segregation. I graduated from Central High School in Bolivar, Tennessee in 1962 and graduated from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville with a degree in Engineering Physics in 1966. Essentially, growing up in the 1950s, my entire schooling was in a segregated environment. As a child I did not really know or understand what integration was all about. And colored – well, that’s just what we all said in 1950s West Tennessee. 

Rose lived in the little white clapboard house at 436 Market Street, at the foot of Oak Street directly across from what used to be Emerson’s Grocery and Gas Station. As a young kid I would often go up there and visit Rose and play with the kids next door – Black and white together. Her daughter Seretha worked at the Baptist Hospital in Memphis (Seretha was my lifeline to the eats in the hospital kitchen when I was in the hospital). Seretha had a daughter, Evie Lee, often called Della Lee. As a small boy, I did not understand their relationships to each other – grandmother to mother to granddaughter – I just knew them as my friends.

I cannot recall if Rose had indoor plumbing at the time. I do recall that the Bolivar Beare, Ice and Coal Company would deliver a block of ice to her side porch where she had an old wood refrigerator; you used to post a card in your window or door to let the ice company know when you needed more ice.

One day I was sitting at her kitchen table eating some hot biscuits with butter and molasses. Out of nowhere, I popped up with a question. “Rose, how come when you come to my house you always use the side door or the back door but never come in the front door?” 

 “That is just how it is,” she politely replied.  

“But when I am at your house,” I exclaimed, “I come in the front door, the side door and the back door. And when you eat at our house, you eat at the kitchen table instead of in the dining room with us.” 

Rose did not have a dining room table. And I was eating with her at her kitchen table. Later at home, I asked my mom, “Why is it when Rose comes to our house for a visit that she never uses the front door?” My mom sort of hemmed and hawed searching for a meaningful response but an answer was not forthcoming. 

That night, I posed the same question to my father, the lawyer, but I did not get a very good explanation there either. Of course, I soon forgot about this discussion and moved on with my life.  

One day, Rose and I were rocking in her swing on her front porch and Della Lee came running up to the house and said she had to go to the bathroom. Della Lee worked at Clinton Cleaners over a mile away from her home where she walked to and from her job every day. I asked her why she came all the way home to go to the bathroom. She said that the bathroom at the Dry Cleaners was for Whites Only. Being the know-it-all kid I could be, I said “Why didn’t you use the Colored Restroom in the Courthouse two blocks away from the Dry Cleaners?” 

Della Lee replied that it was filthy and unfit to use. I reckoned that she was right, because the White Men’s Restroom was not very well-maintained either. In any case, Della Lee essentially had to take off an entire hour from work with no pay so she could use a suitable restroom. This is what we called “separate but equal” in the day. 

Hardeman County Courthouse in Bolivar, Tennessee, 1950s. (multiple sources)

The Bolivar Courthouse had separate water fountains for White Only and Colored Only in those days. One day I happened to be in the courthouse hallway, and with no one was around I walked over to the Colored Only porcelain fountain and took a drink. Much to my surprise it had the same warm, putrid water coming out of it as the White Only faucet. I reckoned “Separate but Equal” was really true in this case.

When I was about 8 years old, Della Lee was getting married. Rose (her grandmother) and the rest of the family were of course excited in preparation for the ceremony. I had never been to a wedding before, and Rose knew I wanted to go. So, she invited me, I got permission from my parents to go with Rose and her family, and what a treat it was. I got to ride to the wedding with the bride’s family and sit up front in the family pew and everything. 

When I got home from the wedding, naturally my parents inquired about my adventure. I said it was great but that I was the only white person there “except for one other guy who just had one arm!” 

My parents broke out laughing at me because the one-armed man was none other than Lorenzo Miller, the principal of the Bolivar Industrial School. Lorenzo was mulatto. In those days we referred to light-skinned Blacks as mulatto. Remarkably, many years later my brother Ken and my father attended a celebration for Lorenzo Miller honoring his 100th birthday at the Bolivar Central High School where I had graduated.

Della Lee married this young lawyer named Odell Horton. My father told me that Odell had gone around to several of the lawyers in Bolivar asking them where he should begin his law practice. They all advised him to go to Memphis where he could hopefully get a better start with his career. 

And that he did. Odell Horton would go on to become the first Black federal judge and assistant U.S. attorney in Tennessee since Reconstruction. He was appointed to that post by President Jimmy Carter. On May 2, 2007, the Clifford Davis Federal Building in Memphis, Tennessee was designated the Clifford Davis and Odell Horton Federal Building in honor of Judge Odell Horton, Sr. And while I never really followed Odell Horton’s career closely, I do know one thing: the best decision he ever made in his lifetime was marrying Della Lee!

Evie “Della” Lee Randolph Horton of Memphis, Tennessee died on September 12, 2013. She was 82. Her husband Judge Odell Horton preceded her in death. She is buried at Elmwood Cemetery.

About a year or so before she died, out of the blue I decided to look her up and call her. We must have talked for a half an hour. I had not seen her since the 1960’s, but hearing her, it felt like yesterday. She had spent an illustrious career teaching in the Memphis School system and she was married to Odell Horton for 52 years before his death in 2006. She said she lived in Chickasaw Gardens, and I was so happy for her – she came a long way from 436 Market Street in Bolivar, Tennessee, and I know of no one who was more deserving.

My first stop when I came home to Bolivar for the Christmas holidays in 1972 was to take my new bride, Janet, to meet Rose. Whenever I think of the word humility I picture Rose, Seretha and Della Lee. Despite all the inequities in the world around us, we enjoyed a caring and yes, colorless relationship throughout our lives.

This story was adapted from Woodson J. Savage III’s Savage Family Tree and his “It’s Not About Me” narrative. For more, visit Woody’s work-in-progress Savage Family Tree.

Woody Savage is the author of Streetcar Advertising in America, and lives in Cordova, Tennessee.

One Reply to “A segregated education in 1950’s Memphis”

  1. Thanks, Woody
    Growing up in Silerton, I knew only one or two black families. Really did not get to know any of them until high school days when we would come to Bolivar and pick up families to help us pick cotton.
    Bill Mayfield

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