Obama and Me: Integration Babies

Like the president, who turns 50 on Aug. 4, I belong to a generation that expected a racial utopia.

Posted:
 
vilarosa400
Linda Villarosa, then and now. (Courtesy of Linda Villarosa)

Barack Obama turns 50 on Thursday. Been there, done that, had the big birthday party. He was born in 1961, and like the president, I was also born in the slice of years between the very late 1950s and mid-1960s. We fall between the cracks of the baby boom generation and Gen X. We missed the thick of the civil rights movement, black power, women's liberation, Stonewall and Woodstock but are too old to be Gen Xers.

I don't remember where I was when JFK, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. or Bobby Kennedy was shot. I didn't hear the "I Have a Dream" speech or see the March on Washington. I was no bigger than a hiccup when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. What I know about the movement, I heard from my parents or learned in school.

But I took advantage of those struggles and victories. My generation was the first to study next to white kids in the newly desegregated classrooms of the late 1960s and early '70s -- and many of us traveled to school by way of court-ordered buses. We were the Integration Babies: When the doors opened, we stepped into an integrated world.

But not always comfortably.

From the South Side to Suburbia

My family was part of an early "black flight" movement to the suburbs in the late '60s. Swept away by the promise of the new American dream, my parents moved us from the South Side of Chicago to suburban Denver in 1969.

As we drove up to our new ranch house just west of Denver -- so much larger than the apartment where we had lived with my grandparents in Chicago -- I asked, "Daddy, do we have to share it with another family?"

My little sister was even more amazed: "Are we rich?"

Then we saw it. Somebody had written "Niggers Get Out" on the garage door and on the pavement on the driveway. Some of the neighbors -- all white -- were trying to scrub off the words before we arrived. But it was too late. My father wanted to get right back in the car and drive home to Chicago, but my mother -- and the neighbors -- convinced us to stay.

A few days later, when I started third grade, no one spoke to me at all for two weeks. I later found out that the principal had called a schoolwide assembly the Friday before I arrived to explain to my classmates that the school was getting its first black student. The other children were so afraid of saying the wrong thing that they said nothing at all. Finally a little girl with large brown eyes, freckles and pigtails asked if she could walk home from school with me. I exhaled, and she became my first friend, a friendship that has endured for more than 40 years.