Ever since I could remember, Momma and I lived alone. Just us two. She never mentioned my Poppa or any aunts or uncles or cousins, so neither did I. We were happy enough how we were.
It was 1953, and we lived on the very edge of the Black District of the town. Some thought we were much too close to the White District, because only a tall, wooden fence separated us from their houses. The Fence stretched as far as I had ever ventured, and no one could come or go through it. But that didn’t make any difference; we went our own way, they went theirs.
Momma ran a business doing laundry for the neighbors. I would help her wash the clothes in big metal tubs, then hang them all to dry on the long clothesline stretched across the yard. Some days, she would send me to buy more lye soap for her washing. Other days, I would deliver the clean laundry to her customers’ houses.
One day, I sat on the steps of our house braiding the long, stringy grass and wishing there was shade somewhere nearby. The hot August sun was merciless. And since Momma had a group of talkative friends over, she had strictly instructed me not to go into the house unless of an emergency. So I was stuck outside.
After a few more minutes of this, I made up my mind. I would go exploring. Past the huge hedges behind the house was the Fence between us and the White people. I wasn’t to go near the Fence under any circumstances, Momma’s orders, but I was much too bored to heed that rule. She said that she didn’t want me to get scratched by the prickly hedges, but I knew perfectly well that that was just an excuse. She didn’t want me to see the White people on the other side.
After checking that Momma was still safely preoccupied inside with her friends, I climbed into the bushes. So much for getting scratched up, I thought. They’re not even prickly! Just a few feet in, my hands found the rough wood of the Fence. I wriggled my entire body through until I was right up against it. Then I pressed my eye against a conveniently located knothole and peered through. All I could see were the leafy branches of identical hedges on the other side. Leaning forward a little too hard, the board gave way and I tumbled through, right onto the other side. Gasping with surprise, I began to sit up, rubbing dirt from my eyes. Until I heard a voice.
“Who’s there?” it demanded.
I held my breath, trembling with fright. I didn’t dare go back through. Surely whoever was speaking would notice me shaking the bushes. But if Momma found out I’d been over…
I took a quick look, not daring to even breathe. A little White girl was kneeling in front of me. She was so close that I could have reached out and touched her shining golden hair. She peered right into the branches.
I made myself as small as I could, but too late.
“I can see you in there. What are you spying on me for?”
I couldn’t do anything now but answer her nice and polite, just how Momma taught me.
“I wasn’t exactly spying on you,” I replied. “I didn’t even notice you was there at first.”
“What’s your name?” she asked me. She had lost her commanding voice now.
“Ruth,” I replied shyly.
“I’m Donna Schultz. Nice to meet you.”
“Yes,” I agreed.
“Would you like to come out? We can play together, and I will show you my dolls.”
I glanced back over my shoulder through the bare hole where the board had collapsed. What on earth would Momma say to see me on the other side of the Fence playing with a White girl? Never mind, I told myself, She’ll never find out if you don’t tell her.
“Here I come,” I told the girl, tripping my way out.
Donna laughed. It was a nice sort of laugh, not mocking, but sweet and twinkly, just like her. I gave her a smile and brushed the dirt off my knees.
“So, how old are you?” she asked conversationally as she led me across the yard.
“Eight-years-old,” I told her proudly.
“I’m eight and three-quarters,” she responded. I had no idea what three-quarters was supposed to mean, so I kept quiet.
“This is my house. Mother and Father aren’t at home, only Jonathan. But he won’t play with me unless it’s baseball, and Mother says baseball is unladylike, so I can’t. I don’t like it much anyway.”
I was relieved to hear that this girl’s parents weren’t home because they probably wouldn’t have been very happy with a Black girl like me on their side, the White side, either. Even then I didn’t realize how big of a risk I was taking.
But at the time my thoughts were completely focused on Donna’s beautiful dolls and playthings. I was happy just to listen to her talk, lying comfortably in the dappled shade of her yard.
Once the sun began to set, however, I told her I’d better get home. She told me that she hoped she could talk to me again soon.
“Bye!” I called to her as I scrambled back through the poky branches a little more gracefully than before.
“Goodbye, Ruth!” she responded, waving at me.
And that was the beginning of our secret friendship.
* * *
A few weeks later, as Momma and I were completing the noontime deliveries, I asked her an innocent question.
“Momma, why do we have to live apart from the White people?”
She looked at me funny and said, “Why you asking, girl?”
“It’s just that there’s other girls out there just like me ‘cept they have white skin. Why ain’t we allowed to be friends just because of our skin?”
Momma sighed. “Many years ago, all the way back to your great-granddaddy and before him, us Blacks was slaves. The white people owned us, like property. But the government changed that so we can’t be owned or bought or sold anymore, only we’re not equal to them neither. It’s just how it goes,” she explained.
I pondered this till we reached home. It still didn’t make sense. I decided to ask Donna. She was a White person. Maybe she could explain it to me.
Momma sent me off to play right away. “You’ve been helping me all day, go do something else. I’m going over to your Auntie Eveline’s.”
That was just fine with me. As soon as she left, I scrambled through the bushes. I tapped one, two, three times on the Fence for May I come over now?
I barely had to wait for her reply. Tap. Yes. I crawled through the hole.
“Ruth!” she exclaimed. “I’ve missed you so much!”
“It’s only been one day!” I teased. But she didn’t know how much those words meant to me.
We talked a while, her telling me all about her day at school and me just listening, as usual. The question I had meant to ask her completely slipped my mind until I had to go. But I remembered it just as I began to leave.
“Donna,” I said, “I meant to ask you something.”
“Do you know, exactly, why Whites and Blacks’ve got to live apart?”
She looked at me funny just like Momma had, the smile leaving her face. She answered, “Why should it matter?” She turned away.
“It doesn’t really,” I said. “Because I got you and I can’t ask for nothing better than that.”
She smiled. “You mean, we have each other.” A pause.
“Bye, Donna,” I said, breaking the silence.
She turned and this time and looked me in the eye. It looked like she was crying a little.
“We wouldn’t have to hide our friendship if it weren’t for that horrid rule. And I don’t care, because you are the best friend I’ve ever had.”
“You are mine, too.” With that, I left.
* * *
Tap, tap, tap. Can I come over? waited for her to respond.
Then I heard voices, two of them, coming close.
Faintly I heard Donna saying, “You wait there, I just need to check on something.”
Her head appeared in the whole through the Fence. I hoped he hedge’s canopy muffled our voices.
“Ruth! Mother made a girl from school come to play today and I really don’t want to, but I have to, so can we play later?” she whispered all in one breath.
“Oh,” I said. “Maybe tomorrow, then?”
“Listen for my—” But she was cut off mid-sentence. Another head was emerging from the hole in the Fence.
The girl froze in her tracks when she spotted me. She gazed open-mouthed, from Donna to me to Donna again.
“Donna!” the girl exclaimed, a little too loudly. “What do you think you’re—” but Donna had slapped a hand over her mouth. Her eyes were huge with terror.
“Ruth, if anyone finds out…”
This could be the end of our friendship forever.
“They won’t. They can’t,” I whispered. “Get her away, and quick!” I slipped away as Donna yanked her friend back through the hole.
And all I could do was wait.
The next day, since I hadn’t heard from Donna all night and all morning, I peeked through the hole, not daring to give myself away by tapping. The yard was deserted. Nestling myself into the branches, I was invisible to the outside, but could see everything around me.
Soon, a tall, angry-looking man marched Donna by the arm outside. He must have been her father. And they were heading in my direction. I swiftly darted back through the hole and safe to the other side.
As I stood, listening intently, the sound of hammer blows rang through the air. Bang, bang, bang. Then came faint shouts which I couldn’t quite make out. They subsided eventually and I crept over. The worst had finally come.
The hole, which was completely surrounded on all sides by the hedges, was now covered by two fresh planks of wood, strong and firm. I pounded my fist against it, hoping that it would fall off just as easily as before. But it was no use. It wouldn’t budge.
“Donna!” I shouted, ignoring all common sense. “Donna, Donna!”
I heard the bushes rustle on the other side. “Ruth, is that you?”
“Yes!” I cried. I could say no more before I broke into tears.
I could hear her sobs, too. We cried for a long time, leaning against the Fence that separated us from each other.
“That girl ran and told Mother about you and the hole in the Fence and us talking to each other. Once Father found out about it, he forced me to show him where the hole was. And they told me to tell you that… that I’m never allowed to speak to you again.”
I was devastated. And I knew I couldn’t let her disobey them.
As if reading my thoughts, she said, “Ruth, promise you’ll always come back. Please. I don’t care what they say!”
Knowing that I would be endangering myself and Donna, I still replied, “No matter how many barriers they put between us, I will always come back.”
* * *
The months passed. I didn’t hear anything from Donna, which meant that her parents were making sure that contact with me didn’t continue. I had no idea what was going on on her side. Even if I did, I couldn’t do anything about it.
Momma sent me to buy her some soap early one morning. The little market was packed full of people.
I grabbed the soap and handed my money to the kind old man who ran the shop.
“How are you this fine spring day?” he asked with a smile.
“Good,” I replied.
“Have you heard the news? Just yesterday it was, May seventeenth. Everyone’s talking ‘bout it!”
“I haven’t.” It was best to be polite even though I wasn’t really interested.
“Segregation’s been overruled! Whites and Blacks are equals now!”
My mouth fell open.
The man laughed. “None of us’ve been expecting it, neither!”
I certainly was stunned. Wordlessly I collected my change and bar of soap.
He sensed my amazement. “Here, take a paper.”
I pulled out more coins. “No, no. Free of charge, I insist,” he said. I took it and walked from the shop.
I hightailed it home, where Momma was doing laundry as usual.
“Momma, you won’t believe what’s happened!” I cried, thrusting the newspaper at her.
Her eyes almost popped out of her head when she read the headline: “Equality Redefined: The Supreme Court’s history-making decision against racial segregation proves more than anything else that the Constitution is still a live and growing document…”
Her eyes scanned the paper hungrily. But I was too impatient.
“Momma, I need a hammer.”
“Why on earth-”
“I just do!” I exclaimed.
She clearly sensed my urgency. A few minutes later, she returned, hammer in hand.
I snatched it and ran into the hedge. In only three swings I had blasted the boards right off. I dashed through the hole and was out in the middle of Donna’s yard.
“Donna!” I cried loudly.
She was out the door in a moment, flinging her arms around me.
“Ruth, Ruth!” was all she could say.
We hugged for a good long time, both so overflowing with happiness we could barely speak.
“Come inside, Ruth!” she insisted, pulling me by the hand toward the door.
I froze suddenly. I had noticed what she hadn’t. Donna’s father was standing just inside the doorway, glaring at me.
She caught sight of him and, keeping cool as a cucumber, marched me up to the door.
“This is my friend Ruth from over the Fence, Father,” she said.
He looked at Donna, scandalized. “Just what do you—”
But he was interrupted by Donna’s mother behind him. “Michael, please.” She pushed past him.
“We are pleased to meet you, Ruth. Donna speaks very highly of you,” her mother said. She looked just like Donna, the same bright golden hair, the same faded gray-colored eyes, the same soft smile.
“Thank you, ma’am,” I replied.
“May Ruth stay for breakfast, Mother and Father?” Donna asked hopefully.
“Of course,” Mrs. Schultz said. “Just follow me.”
As I passed Donna’s father, he put an arm on my shoulder. “I’d like to apologize for everything,” he said, bowing his head.
I didn’t know how to respond; I was too surprised to even speak.
He paused, then added, “Welcome into our home.”