When Stephen McKinney and his little sister enrolled at the Knotty Oak grammar school the year I started 7th grade, in fall 1960, John F. Kennedy was a few months away from becoming President of the United States. Change was in the air.
Coincidentally, 1960 was also the year Harper Lee published her best-selling novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. My mother belonged to “The Book of the Month Club.” Mockingbird had just arrived the other day in the mail. I found her reading it one afternoon in the kitchen. The movie starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch came to the big screen in 1962.
But until Stephen McKinney and his sister showed up at Knotty Oak, I didn’t think about race much. I didn’t think about people much, except Indians and buffalo, and polar bears. I was still watching “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie” on black-and-white television. Until that very day, in my mind, Black people were Civil War survivors still escaping from the South, or friends of Huckleberry Finn, or storybook characters in the Golden book, Little Black Sambo, where tigers turned to butter under a palm tree. Rhode Island was mostly white–that’s the way it was.
A few times, at the dinner table,we did talk about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Civil Rights and the Constitution’s All men are created equal. My Uncle Rollo said that he had “a great deal of respect” for the hard-working black sailors he captained in the Navy during WWII. “Honorable men, every last one of them,” he said as he puffed on his pipe and sipped his brandy and coffee after dinner.
One of the bookcases in the living room included many volumes on the life of Abraham Lincoln, and even more on Winston Churchill, Normandy, and how we won every war so far.
What’s This Got to Do With Race?
From the time I was four until I turned ten, my mom and I rode the bus twelve miles to Providence for doctor appointments. Along the way, we saw Black people walking around here and there or standing at bus stops with shopping bags or eating in restaurants, but for the most part, neither she nor I paid much attention. First of all, the bus exhaust made me feel nauseated. So I stayed low. We had no Black friends. Where would we find them? Again, I was very aware of the Civil War, and that in the South, Black people had suffered as slaves, but New England and the Union Army had freed them all. We were the good guys. Like the Lone Ranger and Florence Nightingale.
In other words, what did I know about what race really meant or if it meant anything at all. What could be as simple as different skin tones?
Many years later, when my own daughter was in Montessori school in Washington, DC, I asked her how many Black kids she had in her class. She thought a minute, then said, “two Black kids, four brown kids, and three tan kids.” The perfect answer. She grew up to become an Art Teacher in a public high school in Prince George’s County, Maryland.
First in the Hearts of His Classmates
The McKinneys were the first-ever black children to attend the Knotty Oak school, and the first ever black family in our town. Stephen’s sister and my little sister shared the same 3rd grade classroom. I remember Stephen, a 6th grader (I think), as tall for his age. Kept to himself. Always reading on one of the benches at recess. But his achievements came to us over the principal’s intercom as we learned he received a special recognition for his science fair project or first prize in an essay contest chosen by the Governor himself. We all warmed to him and his quiet demeanor because he was a helping hand with his sister’s (and my sister’s) reading class.
At some point in the beginning of this learning curve, I mentioned this new family to my mother who always seemed to know what was going on in town. “Dr. McKinney and his family settled in over the summer near Lake Tiogue on Route 3,” she said. “Your Grandpa Hudson knows him. He’s an osteopath.”
Then One Day . . .
Then one day, as Stephen walked along Routh 3 on his way home, a drunk driver swerved his truck and hit Stephen head on. He died soon after. The Knotty Oak school held an assembly, and we all stood outside as the principal helped plant a tree in front of the school, with a shiny brass plaque “in memory of Stephen McKinney.” That tree grew there for many years until the entire school and the grounds were demolished.
Although improbable, in my imagination, Stephen and I shared an English class with weird Mr. Richards, a big man with a dime-sized birth mark on his left temple, who carried his lunch to school in a tiny paper bag he held close to his chest as he walked up the three flights of wide steel stairs to the top floor where the 7th and 8th grades had all their classes. Mr. Richards read to us as we rested our heads on our desks. He read about medical experiments in the 15th Century when doctors would pump bellows full of air into a patients rectum to remove the “bad humours” or operate without anesthesia to grim outcomes worthy of a tale from Edgar Alan Poe.
From 1960 to Now
I wish I could say the world has changed since Stephen McKinney died at the age of 12 in 1961. I have searched for newspaper archives that tell more of the story. So far, I haven’t found anything about Stephen or the fate of his killer.
We all know terrible things continue to happen. Whether we want to divide up the atrocities by the color wheel is up to you. On this anniversary of the birth our Nation, we remember Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That’s the promise of our Constitution for every citizen or citizen in waiting . . . Let’s keep that promise to each other and remember Stephen McKinney, a young man walking along a road on the way somewhere special or nowhere in particular. It was his right to do that . . . and it is yours.