I recently read Blood Done Sign My Name by Timothy Tyson. It helped me to make sense of an incident that happened at Geneva in the 70s – one that has haunted me since.

A man that worked on Wallace Cottage sometimes made bad decisions. I’m going to call him Mr Jay. He played a saxophone. Jerome, one of the guys on Wallace, also played a saxophone. On a Sunday afternoon, Mr Jay locked all the other inmates in their rooms and took Jerome to the chapel for a couple hours of jamming. This was wrong in so many ways: kids were being isolated from other activities unfairly (punished), if there was a fire, people couldn’t escape from their rooms, it was unfair to the other inmates and pitted Jerome as a ‘favorite’, putting him in a compromising position with the others.

It wasn’t the first time Mr Jay had made irresponsible decisions. When I found out what happened, I called him into my office. I made sure I had the facts right so we talked about what actually happened on the day then the issues I had with his decision. I explained that it was serious and a potentially dangerous misjudgment. At the end, I told him I was going to document our conversation for the record. Mr Jay didn’t seem to care.

A week later I gave him a carbon copy of the note I’d made. At the bottom was typed, “cc: Personnel file”. When he realized a copy was going to his personnel file, he was livid. He stormed into my office, locked the door and pounded on my desk. I was scared. I stood up to meet him eye to eye but my knees were shaking. His fury filled the room as he yelled that I was responsible for the hanging of his cousin in Mississippi. His voice and anger screamed beyond the walls of my office. A couple inmates knocked on my door asking if I was alright. Outwardly, I tried to appear confident and in control but I was trembling inside. I tried to find words to calm him down. Finally I said, “Mr Jay, your actions are inappropriate. I will be documenting this incident.” Knowing another note would be put on his personnel file, he left my office slamming the door.

I felt justified in my actions but was stunned and never fully understood where this anger came from. I knew there was prejudice in our country. I knew people had been killed and hung because of their color and without justice but to my twenty-something, middle-class protected awareness, this was ancient history. I was a nice person; I was fair and just; I was loving and loved all people. I was idealistic and I was ignorant.

The true story Tyson tells in his book happened in 1970 – just three short years before my encounter with Mr Jay. The first line in the book quotes a ten year old boy, “Daddy and ’em shot ’em a nigger.” It powerfully introduces us to the prejudices and injustices of the time. Those words, prejudice and injustice, hardly seem adequate for what African Americans were experiencing in our country. An innocent man, Henry Marrow was chased, beaten and killed in public by a dad and his two sons. The KKK was active and they almost got away with it.

Now in my 60s (and as much as a white person is able to) I finally understand where Mr Jay’s anger came from. He wasn’t yelling at me in metaphors, he was speaking history. My world was so different, I didn’t understand – how could I understand? And to add further insult and pain to his being, here was a white woman, younger than him, naive to the realities of life, holding some control over his job and his life. Mr Jay, I have some inkling of understanding now and I am sorry.

Mr Tyson’s book was an important book for me. If you want a glimpse at the reality of our brutal racist history and begin to understand, highly recommend Blood done Sign My Name to you.