Lunch with Harriet

Harriet and I would meet in the lunchroom of Pastorious Elementary each noontime to share what each of us brought. Her favorite was my baloney and cheese sandwich and I always wanted half of her egg salad.

If either of us had a donut we’d split it, then talk about our homework and try to guess just which dress our teacher, Miss Fletcher, would be wearing the next day. She had an unusual wardrobe of long sleeved wool apparel for cold days, and I loved the soft silk ones she used during those terrible hot humid summers for which Philly is famous.

Looking back, I just can’t comprehend why my parents were so narrow-minded about “color” since my friend Harriet had dark skin. I simply didn’t agree with my parents. When my sister Jeanne and went to school, we had friends of different races. Color didn’t matter. Sadly, our parents would have nothing to do with anyone who wasn’t white. I was thinking about Harriet one day in 1944 when getting on a bus in Montgomery, Ala.

Seven months pregnant, I couldn’t find a seat in the front section. My back was just killing me. I just stood there, hanging onto a pole. In despair, I finally said something out loud about the stupid race separation nonsense. My northern accent hung in the air like a cloud as I walked to the back of the bus. As I sat down beside a black woman, she began to shake uncontrollably.

It probably wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve ever done, but I hurt. Right then I didn’t care. People were mumbling. My stop soon came, and I got off and headed to my room.

Its’ taken too many years for things to change, but those of my generation remember the terrible things that happened to people in Montgomery and other southern spots as black people fought for equality.

Attack dogs were used; people were hosed down. Others were pulled from stools when they merely tried to be served food at a Woolworth’s counter. Hundreds died. Then came Martin Luther King Jr. and some rightful changes took place. But the price had been very, very high. Now we come to the shooting death of a black teenager in Missouri. Any caring person feels terrible that this young man is now dead.

We don’t know all the facts. However we do know — having seen the video — that he pushed a store owner aside and waltzed out of that store taking stolen goods. This nobody can deny. Then they had his funeral. I’ve never seen anything else more harmful to race relations. I believe it’s set us back 50 years or more. Nobody there knew all the facts. Many black leaders, though, stated that deceased young man was a saint.

They repeated that in broad daylight, that policeman decided before many witnesses, that a black teenager who wouldn’t get out of the middle of the street just had to be shot six times. That was the theme at the funeral. And what did our esteemed leader do? He sent three, not one, not two, but three representatives. When Margaret Thatcher died he sent — you guessed it — zero representatives from the United States.

We know there’s been a tremendous amount of discussion about the problems blacks face. People like Bill Cosby talk about the inordinate amount of single-parent families and lack of discipline as the reason for the negative statistics. Each year, blacks kill blacks in Chicago by the hundreds. Nothing changes. Where’s the outcry?

As I remember my dear friend Harriet from the 1930s, I marvel at what so many blacks have done since to right the terrible wrongs I saw first hand in Montgomery like the “no negro” or “whites only” signs. It was about 1947 that I last saw Harriet. She was about to get on the No. 26 trolley at an intersection in Germantown, Pa., as I was heading for the store pushing a carriage with my two babies.

She looked wonderful dressed up in a camel hair coat and high heels. We hugged as she told me she was heading down town to Strawbridge & Clothier to buy her wedding dress. I watched that trolley head down the track and away. I wish I could hug her once more. We never saw each other again. Prejudice is insidious and wrong. As MLK stated, we need to judge by the content of one’s character and not the color of the skin.

Edna Van Leuven is a Churchill County writer and columnist. She may be reached at


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