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Water Fountains: Memories From the Jim Crow South Remain Vivid In a Cartoonist’s Mind

Read: Samuel Alito Is The Insurrectionist Threat To Democracy On The Supreme Court


The following is a guest post from cartoonist Bill Day, a two-time winner of the RFK Journalism Award in Cartooning. His cartoons are syndicated internationally by Cagle Cartoons, where this post was first published.

Those of us who were destined to become cartoonists started remembering visual images at a very early age. It started unconsciously at first, but later I came to realize that this was something not everyone could do. I may be generalizing, but every artist I’ve met agrees with this observation. I discovered that I was visualizing and memorizing images and scenes of events in vivid detail and, in my case, associated the sense of smell with most of those images. Even today, the aroma of certain flowers brings back the exact visual location where I first experienced its fragrance. Growing up in the deep south, I remember so many beautiful, and many not so beautiful images, that I carry with me to this day. Those images are often the source of certain cartoons.

On one extremely humid and scorching summer day, my mother decided to give her four young children a treat. Our car didn’t have air conditioning and we were hot, sweaty, and miserable. She pulled into the local Dairy Queen for some snow cones, ice cream cones, or any cool drink our little hearts desired. Being eight years old, the oldest, and the occupant of the front passenger seat, I had spotted some water fountains on the side as we approached the small white building. I bolted for the water fountains as soon as the car came to a complete stop. I rounded the corner on my left and grabbed the first water fountain I saw.

That flow of water was sheer bliss as I started to drink and quench my thirst. My 6-year-old sister was right behind me and grabbed the second water fountain. We were happily drinking away when our mother finally caught up with us and we heard her let out a blood-curdling scream. Looking up to see what had happened, she demanded that my sister immediately stop drinking from that fountain. She ordered us to read what it said over each water fountain. Mine said: “Whites Only” and my sister’s said: “Coloreds Only”. It was poorly lettered in black paint on the white wall. We still didn’t understand and began drinking again. Mom then threatened to spank us unless my sister stood behind me and waited.

This was an awakening moment in my childhood and would always be a reminder of the culture in which I was being raised. It’s not that I was being a smart aleck, but it just didn’t make any sense to me. My sister was as thirsty as I was and I pointed out to my mother that the water that was coming up from the ground was the same water. It only branched off to the right about half way up the water pipe before it went to the second fountain. It was the same water! She was adamant and told me to stop arguing. However, I could not stop reasoning with her. Could she not see it was the same water? “Just do as you are told,” she said. “Why” I asked? “Because I said so,” she answered! At that point she grabbed us both by the arms and physically returned us to the front of the Dairy Queen. We placed our order and had our ice cream, but I was left with no resolution to the problem. What was that all about, I wondered? I was forced to live with it. It didn’t make any sense, but children learn to behave and do as their parents demand.

The winds of change were coming. It would be another five years before the Civil Rights movement would sweep the South and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would give me a real and satisfactory explanation. That image of the two water fountains connected by the same water pipes with the lettering above them still remains imprinted in my visual memory.

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