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Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

A Sign At An NC Water Fountain Conjures Memories Of The South's Past — Or At Least It Should

 A sign left atop a water fountain at Piedmont High School.
Piedmont High School
A sign left atop a water fountain at Piedmont High School.

The photo was from last week, but it could’ve been from 60 years ago. A water fountain with a big sign on top of it that said WHITE.

It’s one of the signature images of the Jim Crow South — the "separate-but-equal" South when water fountains and restrooms and restaurants and buses and schools were divided into the ones white people got to use and the lesser ones Black people were forced to use. Although back then, Black people were called “colored.” Or worse.

So here we are, in 2021, with the WHITE sign placed on top of a water fountain at Piedmont High School in Union County.

The school’s principal, Dylan Stamey, put out a statement saying the school had looked into it and found it was not intentional. It was a sign belonging to the school’s cheerleading squad. Somebody left it on the floor, and somebody picked it up and put it on the water fountain. Stamey didn’t say who it was or if he even knows.

That’s certainly a possible explanation, although it does seem strange that of all the places to put that sign, somebody randomly chose to put it there.

But I’m not sure what’s more troubling — that someone would put it there out of malice or that someone would put it there out of ignorance.

Signs like that were the law of the South not that long ago. Some of you listening to or reading this lived through those days. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed segregated public facilities. But not everybody changed their rules right away. And some people never changed their minds.

Two or three times over the years, at some small-town gas station, I’ve gone around the side to the restrooms and seen the word COLORED over the door, faded but still visible under a layer of paint.

Many white Southerners still refuse to atone for our region’s sins. Instead, they cover them up like that bathroom sign, under a thin layer of whitewash. Part of the consequence of that is that our children might not learn why we came to be this way and why we’ve found it so hard to change.

This is the core of the phony debate over critical race theory in schools. Critical race theory is something college students might study in grad school. But it’s become a foot in the door for local school boards to erase any serious discussion about our nation’s racial history from textbooks and classrooms.

The sign at the water fountain at Piedmont High feels like the very definition of a teachable moment. And it starts with helping students — and adults — understand what that image means and why it matters.

Otherwise, it’s just another one in the long string of things some folks would rather we forget.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column runs Mondays on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.

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Tommy Tomlinson has hosted the podcast SouthBound for WFAE since 2017. He also does a commentary, On My Mind, which airs every Monday.