We came to Atlanta in the mid-1960s, with racial strife churning there and in Los Angeles, Detroit, Newark and dozens of other cities.
We came as the Vietnam War escalated, demanding the conscription of young men. We came as conscientious objectors to war.
We came to be a presence, to learn more of the struggle for civil rights, to engage with neighbors.
We came from colleges and communities in the United States and Canada.
We came as Voluntary Service workers to live in Mennonite Central Committee’s Mennonite House and Villa, the brainchild of Vincent and Rosemarie Harding, at 540 Houston St.
Arriving by train in downtown Atlanta, Dave Shields hailed a taxi, asking to be taken to 540 Houston St. “Nah, that’s in n-town. You don’t want to go there.” When Dave insisted, the driver gave him a suspicious look and grudgingly delivered him to the Mennonite House address.
We came to be garbage collectors, ambulance attendants, teachers, daycare workers, teacher aides, Girl Scout employees, community workers and hostesses.
We were white and had given little, if any, thought to our whiteness before moving to Atlanta. Our awareness of what it was like to be Black was extraordinarily uninformed.
Our neighbors — poor, underemployed if not unemployed, tenants with merciless or absentee landlords, all too familiar with racist and systemic roadblocks — were welcoming and generous.
A girl with an orange in Joyce Good’s Girls Club shared the orange so that each girl had a slice.
They suffered indignities yet lived in perseverance and hope.
A usually tidy house was in shambles: clothes strewn over the floor, drawers and closets rummaged through. A social service agency representative created the havoc while looking for evidence that a man lived there. If the father lived there or was even caught at the house, the woman’s welfare would have been cut. Finding no evidence, he left abruptly and without apology.
We came assuming to assist our neighbors. Yet we were shocked to witness routine inequities and injustices.
The police had preceded the ambulance to a crime scene. An officer called out to Tim Yoder as he approached from the ambulance, “No need to hurry.” Inside they found a young man, unconscious, with severe head trauma. His mother, seething, cried out defiantly to the police officer, “Why didn’t you just go on and kill him!”
Tim wrote in the log sheet, “Injuries resulted from beating by police.” His supervisor demanded he change the log entry. Tim adjusted it to read “head injury.” The supervisor blackened Tim’s original entry.
Thereafter, the supervisor barely tolerated Tim, laughing as he told others, “That’s Tim Yoder, he thinks n–s are human beings.” A young Black nurse warned Mary, “Tim needs to be careful. They’re gonna kill him.”
On occasion we were threatened.
Don Bender, Mary Yoder and Bob Souder rewarded the neighborhood boys for school attendance and completed homework with a trip to Lake Lanier. On the lake, a speedboat pushed their rowboat farther and farther from the shore, then disappeared. Ashore, a man yelled, “All n–s got 15 minutes to get out or get dragged out feet-first.”
A call to the sheriff promised no help. They struck camp rapidly as pickup trucks circled the campsite. A driver yelled, “Get your black asses out of the county before dark.”
When their cars — a minibus and a Rambler — were packed and ready to go, the Rambler wouldn’t start. The VSers and the boys pushed the car to a country store. As Mary attempted to call AAA, a man in one of the harassing vehicles jumped from his car, cut the phone cable and snarled, “Woman, are you ready to die?” Mary responded, “Yes, I am. Are you?”
Everybody scrambled into the minibus; the boys arrived safely at home in Atlanta. Returning to the store, the VSers discovered the Rambler was gone. A police officer, after threatening arrest for daring to ask him, suggested the car was probably at the bottom of Lake Lanier.
Eventually, the Rambler was retrieved from an impounding yard. Someone had scratched a sign on it that meant “this car supports integration.”
Sometime later, Mary ran the Rambler out of gas near downtown. Several Black fellows spotted her and offered a ride home. She asked, “How do you know where I live?” Grinning, they answered, “Everybody knows this car!”
We were taught by our Houston Street neighbors.
Three doors from Mennonite House was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee house, headed by Stokely Carmichael. SNCC and others questioned the role of white people in the Black community. SNCC viewed Mennonite House and the VSers as imposers of unwanted white, middle-class standards. Don, engaging in front-step conversations with SNCC members, helped us understand the real need for change was in the attitudes and actions of the white community.
Joyce Good developed a special relationship with a member of SNCC. They met at Mennonite House in the evenings when both were free of other responsibilities. He challenged her to think outside her white box and to see life through the eyes of a Black man.
In the years after our service in Atlanta, we listened to the lived experience of our Black friends.
When Roslyn Whatley Lumpkin was 5 years old, her aunt sent her into a café to pick up hot dogs. Several white men confronted her: “We don’t serve N-s in here. Git to the back door.”
Joann Brown Holland, 10 years old, was driving with her family and needed to use the restroom. They stopped at a gas station, and her father began pumping gas while her mother asked for the restroom. The cashier said there was no restroom for Joanne and her two sisters. The cashier told them to get back in the car and ordered her father to stop pumping gas. Her mother told the cashier, “If my kids can’t use the restroom, then my money is no good in a place like this.” Off they drove.
While a student at Goshen College in the 1970s, Joann was very familiar with white students scattering in the cafeteria whenever a Black student sat at their table. She said, “We never had trouble finding a suddenly empty table.”
In the mid-1980s, Joann and her husband moved to a new neighborhood in Florida. She was sweeping the driveway when solicitors stopped by. Assuming Joann was the maid, they said, “We’d like to speak to the lady of the house.”
We VSers met again last summer, 54 years after our Atlanta experience, and discovered how living together and working in the community of Mennonite House and Houston Street in the 1960s changed and shaped our lives.
We have aspired to make life choices informed by our VS experiences: living in predominantly Black communities, raising our children in a community where their friends are Black, befriending Black people and families outside the workplace and educating our children in public schools.
We’ve aspired to live our values through our occupations: Mary working on behalf of people with developmental disabilities, Don in community organizing and coalition building, Tim listening and relating to homeless people, Joyce in nursing, Bob in elementary teaching, Dave developing software for Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter’s Atlanta Project, Brenda promoting Black quilters, Brice working with marginalized people, Hal teaching in a predominantly Black public school, Christine offering preventive and therapeutic mental health services to people with low incomes or who had experienced abuse.
We came as white volunteers, seeking to be of service to a Black community. We can never truly understand what it means to be Black in America. We value the opportunity to bear witness to our country’s racial legacy and to discover what our own work should be in the decades that followed.
Hal Hess has had a career as a conductor, performer and middle school music teacher. He is a docent at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.