James J. Kilpatrick

The Supreme Court heard argument on Monday in two important cases. Ordinarily I would have been there to hear them. On Monday I stayed home.

Please forgive the first-person singular. When I write about the school cases from Louisville and Seattle, I write from a particular perspective. I am 86 years old. My ancestral roots lie deep in the soil of 19th-century New Orleans. My grandfather served as a captain in the Confederate cavalry. He owned slaves.

In the early 1900s, my father packed up all his inherited prejudices and took them with him to Oklahoma City. He married a girl from Kansas, sired three children, and went into business selling bridge flooring, fence posts and railway ties. We had two black servants: Lizzie, who "lived on" in an apartment over the two-car garage, and Nash, who came on Mondays to do the laundry and stay overnight with Lizzie. We children loved them. And they loved us. I will get to Monday's oral argument in a moment.

I inherited my father's inheritance. With it I inherited all the racial baggage of a thousand years. It's not easy to explain how people can be so intimate and yet so far apart. It was an established way of life, as immutable as the seasons and the tides. Black people (generally identified as "colored" and more formally as "Negroes") had their jobs, their churches, their foods and amusements. We had ours. I went through Hawthorne Elementary, Taft Junior High and Classen High School, and Lizzie and Nash were the only black persons in my life.

I did not mean to get so autobiographical when I started this column. If you want to read something else, go to it. In 1941 I was graduated from the lily-white University of Missouri. It's almost forgotten now, but the university once fought fiercely to maintain its segregated law school. Missouri's famed Journalism School was then as white as the snows of Antarctica. From the J-School I went to the old Richmond (Va.) News Leader as a reporter.

This is all to explain why I stayed home on Monday.

As a cub reporter in Richmond 65 years ago, I adjusted instantly to the local mores. When a black person figured unavoidably in the local news, we acknowledged the fact in genteel parentheses: "John Rogers (c) was named principal ..." After a while I became editor of the editorial page of the News Leader, "the youngest editor of a major newspaper in the South."

James J. Kilpatrick

James J. Kilpatrick has been reporter, editor, columnist, commentator, and briefly an adjunct professor of journalism.

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