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Recalling The Old Days: Iowa Residents Recall Segregation And The Civil Rights Movement

This story was written by Mary Harrington, The Daily Iowan

When Portia Byrd was a child, she could only sip water from drinking fountains labeled "colored."Growing up in rural central Florida in the late 1930s, the Coralville resident vividly remembers Saturday trips into town. She watched her mother shop for a hat, careful to only look, and not handle. If the hat grazed her head once, the clerk would force her to purchase it.

When she waited in grocery store lines, she stepped aside and allowed the white shoppers to pass her, calling it nothing unusual.On Nov. 4, Byrd watched through tear-glistening eyes as Americans elected Barack Obama as the first black man as president of the once-segregated United States."To come this far, I am still amazed," she said. "I believed that one day this would happen, but I never once dreamed it would happen in my lifetime."Byrd attended an all-black school as a child, learning only from secondhand, torn-up textbooks. Every morning before classes, she would say a prayer and recite the Pledge of Allegiance."I used to say the pledge every day, though I knew it wasn't for me. But I always believed in those words and their potential."Byrd fought against segregation and prejudice her whole life, rallying in Raleigh, N.C., and marching in Washington, D.C., in 1963 - always devoting her life to volunteer work."A lot of our history is not in the history books," Byrd said. "But this election will change it all."

At the beginning of the 1950s, McCray, fresh out of college, took a social-work job in Texas, moving south from Chicago with her first husband. Her first year on the job, she attended a United Way meeting with her coworkers, but only the white employees filed into the room alongside her. The black employees were corralled into a separate room for the same meeting.The next year, a United Way meeting came again, with the blacks joining in one meeting room, though forced to sit in the back row.That was the last year it was like that, she said."The change was coming."For another, fights used to erupt over dinnerEven in Iowa, a state that helped launch Barack Obama to the presidency after he won the caucuses, some vestiges of bigotry remain.Step inside the home of 88-year-old Helen Clark.She was pleased with the election's outcome - but her husband, who died in 1976, would have been furious.Her husband was "anti-black," as she described, and although her views differed broadly from his, ethnicity was always a taboo topic."There was never a happy medium with us, talking politics," Clark said.But the issue stared her straight in the eyes when her son returned from college with his black roommate. She, her husband, son, and his roommate gathered for dinner. It was tense, with heated arguments erupting at the table."I finally got up and left. I just couldn't handle it," Clark said. "If my husband were still alive and had seen this election outcome, I would not have been able to stand living in my own home."103-year-old recalls segregated EnglertGrowing up, Neita Lochran was never once late to a 10-cent film at Iowa City's Englert Theatre.She remembers rushing there, often to films she had already watched, even twice before, to compete for the coveted front row seats. But what she never understood was why the black children who arrived just as early always sat in the balcony, always in the back.

Sometimes, Lochran would sit alone at the theater. Her sisters didn't want to watch where the black children watched. They were too proud, too stubborn, she said."These were people I knew, I loved - but they talked differently of the world than what I truly believed," said Lochran, now 103 years old. "What a nice thing it is now that anyone of any color sits in the front row at any theater, runs for any office, and nobody thinks a thing about it."Election morning, Lochran was wheeled to her polling location to cast, for the 22nd time, her presidetial vote."If you grew up in the years I did, lived through what I did, you just managed to survive. Other people had their opinions, and it didn't always make sense," she said. "I just never had any time for that nonsense - I was too busy reading stories. But when I did stop to think about it, I never could understand [racism]. We all were born in here, in the U.S. I couldn't see the differences that others did."This election, this year, this was progress."

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