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Out Here: 'It was so different for me'

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2013 11:52 a.m. CDT

On Thanksgiving, I met the Harts family. I was asked to write a story on how the family's matriarch, Bobbie Mae Harts, 75, who had been suffering health problems, was making a rare trip outside her house.

Before Thanksgiving, she had left home only twice in the past year, both times for doctor's appointments.

Her husband, Frank Harts, 77, drove her to the family's Thanksgiving at the Sterling Township's Center for Youth. She was all smiles.

Beforehand, one of their sons, Ted Harts, who works at Sterling Township, gave me a self-published book that he wrote based on his interviews with his parents.

The elder Hartses, who are black, grew up in Shelby, Miss., during the Jim Crow era. They experienced much prejudice.

But they left that life behind.

In his high school years in the 1950s, Frank worked at a movie theater in Shelby – segregated by race, as they all were in Mississippi in those days. 

"A white boy, about a year younger than I, came over and said, 'Frank, get up and start working. You're not doing anything but sitting here laughing and talking with your friends.'"

Frank wouldn't have it.

"Get out of my face," he told the boy. 

The boy responded with a racial slur, grabbing Frank and again telling him to work. 

"When he grabbed me, I shook him loose from me, and I picked him up and dropped him over the bannister of the stairs, and he fell to the next flight of stairs," Frank told his son. "He rolled the rest of the way down, and he got banged up pretty good.

Later that night, one of Frank's co-workers warned him, "Frank, I think it's time for you to get out of town because a gang of white people and Italians were huddled up down by the bottom of the theater, and they were talking about what they were going to do to you tomorrow."

Frank followed that advice and fled to Sterling, where his mother and stepfather lived.

When he enrolled in Sterling High School, only two of the 1,200 students were black.  

"My experience in the school was unsure at first because I didn't know how to adjust to white people being friendly and so nice, and teachers and students were overly friendly. They treated us as equals, which I wasn't used to," he told Ted. "It was so different for me, but a very good experience to know that white people and black people could actually get along together."

Frank graduated in 1957, married Bobbie Mae and went on to a career of supervisory positions in meatpacking plants in the region.

That one little confrontation changed Frank's life for the better.

David Giuliani is a news editor for Sauk Valley Media. You can reach him at dgiuliani@saukvalley.com or 800-798-4085, ext. 525. Follow him on twitter: @DGiuliani_SVM.

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