Much progress; much more to do

Robert Markel,
Charlestown, MA.

Raised in a very white town in Chester County Pennsylvania, I had little consciousness of race issues until high school. We had one black student in my class, and he was the Salutatorian. At the end of our senior year at Archmere Academy, several members of the class went to lunch together at the Charcoal Pit in Wilmington, Delaware. Shortly after we sat down, the manager, whom I knew very well, came up and asked me to step away for a talk. He informed me that the restaurant which I had patronized dozens of times did not serve “Negroes.” We were shocked. As it happened, V.P. Joe Biden who was one of our classmates was with us at the restaurant. I relayed the message to the group; we sat there embarrassed looking at each other; and Joe said, “let’s get out of here.” We left. I did not return for many years.

In the summer of 1963, I had a summer job at the DuPont Company’s Chestnut Run plant outside Wilmington. I worked as a laborer in shipping and receiving brooming floors and breaking down packages. The Black man who worked with me had two years of college and was a minister in Wilmington. I wondered why he was working as a laborer when he seemed educated and qualified for a better job. One day he told me that DuPont had a policy of not allowing Blacks to take the exam for a white collar “desk job.” I was astonished.

That summer, DuPont changed its policies and liberalized employment practices. My friend was allowed to take the test, and he moved up to a better job in the main offices. In August, DuPont excused any employee who wanted to attend the March on Washington. I called my friend Pete McLaughlin, and we decided to go.

We made our way to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and sat there to hear Dr. King and other speakers. There is a film that I saw at the Kennedy Library in Boston that shows a sea of Black people on the steps and two white boys sitting on the steps. Pete and I did not pay much attention to most of the speakers, but when Dr. King began to speak, we were transfixed by his words and his magnificent speaking style.

Unforgettable experience.


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