Why Eugene Hated Racists

Why Eugene Hated Racists

By Margaret Ann Porter


Martin Luther KingIn the weeks that followed his assassination on April 4, 1968, the congregation of the Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Carlsbad, New Mexico, held a march to remember the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Mt. Olive was the black church in town.

Other than ordering ribs from Mr. Dewey, proprietor of Carlsbad’s best barbecue joint, my family didn’t socialize with black people, even as we were aware and supportive of their struggles for Civil Rights via the nightly news.

Yet, there I was, age 10, marching alongside them because my father – Eugene the Liberal – had decided to accept Mount Olive’s invitation that white churches join them in the march. Two dozen of us showed up and we all clumped together, the gliding black grief all around us, with lamentations in gospel music that made your heart tremble.

My father wept on the drive home and claimed that he hated “… those goddamned racists!” His cursing did not alarm me, as he regularly employed it, but the force of his tears did, and so the word “racism” became imbedded in me as a great, moral wrong.

Later in life I realized that Eugene’s attitude was unusual, because on all branches of his family tree were perched dispossessed Southern landowners who had, before the Civil War, enjoyed an enviable standard of living through the toil of slaves. A copy of the 1860 U.S. census shows that my great-great-grandfather was then worth $18,625, a tidy sum at the time; a copy of the post-war 1870 census that shows his fortunes had fallen to $208. An evaluation by a Civil War scholar indicated that he most certainly had lost his land, but that his slaves probably had comprised the larger share of the balance sheet. Hence the reason the various branches headed west to start anew.

My grandparents ranched in western New Mexico and I regularly visited as a child. Angry remembrances of the aforementioned ancestral plight would often pop up after dinner. Before Eugene could yank me out of earshot, my grandfather would growl something about “… the goddamned Yankees, stealing all of Papa’s wealth!” Various uncles joined the stale complaint of a defeated South, the results of which had caused them not one moment’s worry – over time, the descendents of all the post-war Southwestern settlers had handsomely prospered.

To be fair, though, the original lot had it rough. By the time my bedraggled kin settled in New Mexico territory in the years spanning 1878-1890, they had seven members of their clan scalped by Comanches; one young father had his neck broken by a bucking horse; two husbands went for provisions and disappeared; and collectively they lost 10 children to the deprivations of the journey. When they homesteaded among the Mexicans who had been in residence there for centuries, things got better.

My grandmother was a gentlewoman who was educated as a schoolteacher in Silver City, New Mexico, at the turn of the century. Over the protestations of some, she welcomed children of all skin colors into her classroom.  She would later recall, “I had to remind these children of whipped Southerners that the Mexicans had saved our families. They taught us how to live in the wild—about the natural medicines and how to make red chile. So they were thrice our angels!”

For some of my ancestors, a transformation had begun to take place about the equality of all human beings, regardless of skin color. Later, during the Depression, California-bound families of all colors and nationalities passed by the ranches that dotted western New Mexico, desperate and hungry, and my grandmother fed them and gave them what temporary work she could. By these examples, Eugene learned that all people were the same in need and want, especially in terms of dignity and meaning; he taught his three daughters the same.

And yet, even he struggled with it on occasion. My older sister Mary was a willowy, golden-haired girl who had a wide circle of friends. One of them was an affable, bright-eyed black teen named James who, like her, had won a full-ride college scholarship in 1972.  At the start of the semester, Mary informed our father that he didn’t need to drive her the four hours to the university, as her friend James had a car and he’d offered. She had accepted.

The day that James stopped by to retrieve Mary – his handsome, burnished blackness such a contrast to my sister’s glowing whiteness, the two of them joking and laughing like old friends – my father silently stood at the window, his hand stuck in the up-motion of a wave.

When they drove out of sight, Eugene turned to us and said, “Well, now. I have thus been faced with the reality of my convictions, and I have conquered!”



For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com

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