Desegregation began in Staunton at Wright’s Dairy-Rite
STAUNTON, Va. (AP) — “Desegregation happened here in March of 1952. Didn’t happen to the rest of Staunton, but it happened here.”
That’s how Forester Wright, Jr., who goes by Junior, remembers it.
From the day Wright’s Dairy-Rite opened, everybody came to the same place and got their food. This is simply the way the family was, he says.
“My mother was a very unusual person. She said that all people are God’s children and all of God’s children need to be treated with respect. That was it. She lived her life like that. She felt that everybody needed to be treated the same. Every black person who went to a white restaurant, they went through the back door, and they could maybe get some food to go. When we opened the doors, we had no back door. Everybody came to the front. They’d get in line, we’d ask them what they want, and they ate their ice cream with everybody else.”
Opened by Forester and Alka Wright as a frozen custard shop, the family expanded the menu and transformed the restaurant into a “Happy Days” style drive-in popular in the 1950s, with call boxes and curb service. Females coined “curb girls” wore uniforms and waited on customers outside in their cars. Sometimes the curb girls wore skirts and roller skates. In the late ’50s, the long, slim look had returned and the curb girls at Dairy-Rite wore white collared sleeveless shirts and cropped pleated black pants.
Now 83 years old, Junior is sitting in one of the restaurant booths beside a woman named Barbara Lee. It is the first time they’ve seen each other in 53 years. Junior was 29 and Barbara 16 when she walked into Dairy-Rite on a summer day and asked him for a job.
“I was the only black that ever worked at the curb service,” says Lee.
It was 1964 during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, but the movement hadn’t made its way to Staunton yet. The white kids went to Robert E. Lee High School, and the black kids went to Booker T. Washington. Integration wouldn’t happen for another two years.
“I don’t know how many people in my life experience who would have that guts to do what you did,” says Wright to Lee.
“I just wanted a job,” she says to him.
When she first came to ask for the job, Wright hesitated. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to hire her. He was concerned about how she would be treated.
“There were too many issues that were beyond our immediate control that I just didn’t think she deserved to be subject to.”
Lee would be outside with only a call box that stood between her and customers. A call box that Wright used to listen in on in order to protect her.
“You would go out and you would do your job and you would smile,” says Lee. “That was easy to do for me because I’m a people person. But it had gotten to the point where people were getting.”
She grows silent and says quietly, “I didn’t work there very long.
“To go out there and to have them slam things at you and say things to you and call you names, it was to the point I was feeling uncomfortable.”
Then one night she got scared. A car filled with six whites pulled up and the driver threw a tray at her.
“That was the night I walked off the job. I was scared after that.”
She left that night and walked two miles to her home on Sunnyside Street.
Hearing this, Wright shakes his head and looks down.
“Most of the time when people had to walk, I always took them home.”
He is saddened to hear that this happened to her. That he wasn’t there in that moment listening in. That he wasn’t there to take her home.
Wright was a lot like his mother who would dismiss anyone who called to complain about black people enjoying food alongside white people. He had no problem walking outside and asking customers to leave.
“I told them that they either learn how to behave themselves and treat people with respect or get off the curb and don’t come back.”
He tried to warn Lee that she was going to face this, but she wanted the job. She was at that age, she says. She wanted things. Her mother was a single mother and she was struggling to raise them, and Lee wanted her own money. She said she was willing to take the risk until that night.
“To be completely honest, the white girls also had problems,” says Wright who talks about young kids and hormones and how the boys would make comments at the girls in a joking way.
“They were subject to verbal abuse as well. It wasn’t just her that got it, but in her case, it was a lot worse. There’s no question about that.”
As long as it wasn’t physical, says Lee, she just did her job and tried to ignore them. But when they started throwing things at her, “that’s when the fear in me said, I can’t do this. Other than that, I liked what I was doing. It was just when I was on the curb, you got all the feedback. All the negative energy.”
“If the roles had been reversed, I wouldn’t have taken the job,” Wright says to her.
“That was a huge step beyond anything you can comprehend today for her to do what she did,” says Wright. “And I always admired her for it. Even in my own ignorance, I understood the gravity of what she was doing.”
Lee and Wright get up from the booth and hug one another. Wright is overwhelmed with emotion and his eyes begin to well up with tears.
“I hope that I treated her like I did everybody else.”
Lee looks at him smiling.
“There was an angel looking out for me, and I did not know it. And he was my angel.”
“I have looked forward to this,” he says. “It was a milestone for us, too. Just to see you again and to hear you talk and to see what you thought about that period of time.”
“Even though I went through that, I still came back to this Dairy-Rite,” says Lee. “I used that curb.”
The year before Lee got her first job, she marched in Washington, D.C. with Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Anything that happened to me years ago, I let it go. I’ve never carried a burden of hate towards anybody. We said, we will overcome this because life goes on.”
In 1957, a family with New York license plates drove into Wright’s Dairy-Rite and stopped their car a few feet away from one of the call boxes. Out of earshot, Wright walked outside and approached them. The father in the driver’s seat asked for directions to the nearest colored restaurant.
“I said, yeah, I can do that,” says Wright. “But unless you have an objection, you can eat here.”
They sat in the car and looked at him silently for a few seconds. Then the mother leaned over and told him that their children needed to go to the bathroom.
“I said, well, unless you have an objection, we have a bathroom inside and you can use that.”
In 1978, Wright sold the family business to his sister Shirley and brother-in-law James Cash.
But before he left, this family would come back to Wright’s Dairy-Rite one more time. This time with their grandchildren. They wanted to show them the place where they were able to use the bathroom and share in a meal.
Information from: The News Leader, http://www.newsleader.com