My dad’s struggle to do the right thing in racially charged Birmingham

Morris Sher, 1915-1970
Morris Sher, 1915-1970

I grew up in the South in the 1950’s.

‘Negroes’ drank from water fountains labeled ‘Colored’; used separate restrooms from whites; and were relegated to sit in the back of buses.

My father owned a small retail store in downtown Birmingham.

We lived on the Southside of Birmingham and I often took the Highland Avenue bus downtown to meet my parents or friends.

My parents taught me and my brother and sister to be respectful, so one day I remember asking my father if it was okay to give up  my bus seat to an elderly black woman. He sternly warned that I would risk being hurt by some hateful people.

My dad was kind and respectful to his employees, but at that time there were laws against ‘colored’ office workers and salespeople.

When it became clear that the Civil Rights law was going to pass and rules prohibiting ‘colored’ employment were about to change, my dad took the opportunity to hire a black office worker—likely among the first in a white owned retail store in Birmingham.

My mother worked the cash register and she noticed that there was a very nice, bright, young black man who came in every week to make his payments. She recommended that my dad hire him.

Some of my dad’s white employees were not happy. His most senior employee was an older woman who told my dad that she knew it was wrong, but she would not agree to work in the same office with a ‘colored’ man.

So my father set up a desk for her in the shoe department at the back of the store .

That seemed to pacify her and within a few months he hired several more African-American employees in the office and on the sales floor.

On occasion I’ve had the opportunity to hear Civil Rights leaders speak. Some have been critical of Southern merchants—many of whom were Jewish—as not being as proactive as they would have liked to embrace integration.

But it’s important to understand and to have a perspective on the lives of  Jewish businessmen and their families in the 1950’s.

This was just a few years after the Holocaust where six million Jews including 1 ½ million children were slaughtered by Hitler. The KKK and segregationists in the South hated the Jews as much or more than the blacks.

Between November 1957 and October 1958, there were bombings and attempted bombings in seven Jewish communities in the South.

On April 28, 1958, 54 sticks of dynamite were planted at Temple Beth-El, located on the Southside of Birmingham within two blocks of our house.

Maybe my father could have done more, but he certainly would have risked the wrath of segregationists on him and my family.

He did the best he could.

By the way, the young man my father hired was Bunny Stokes.

Bunny, after a number of years working and being mentored by my dad, was hired by A.G. Gaston, a legendary Birmingham black business man, and he soon became the Chairman and CEO of Birmingham’s Citizens Federal Savings Bank.

Bunny is an exceptional man and became a role model for others.

My dad took a great deal of pride in Bunny—and felt he had helped create opportunities for Bunny and many other African-Americans.

My father died much too young at 54–nearly 50 years ago.

He lived through difficult times, but he did it respectfully and with a desire to make things better.

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David Sher is Co-Founder of AmSher Compassionate Collections.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

Invite David to speak to your group about a better Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com.

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12 thoughts on “My dad’s struggle to do the right thing in racially charged Birmingham”

  1. Great story! I think I remember MARTIN telling us that yalls housekeeper took him on the bus to yalls store and he had sit in the front and she in the back – at the age of 4.
    My dad, Cotton’s in Ensley, too, helped hire “colored” sales people. One day he had our “porter” help some customers in our shoe department. Well the next day, several “BIG WIGS” came into the store. Daddy thought WOW they’ve come to tell us what a great store we have. Well, that’s not what they said. They had heard that our porter had waited on some customers and that daddy wasn’t allowed to do that anymore. No one told my daddy what to do. He “in not so kind of language” told them to please leave HIS store and he could run it anyway he wanted. We did hire our first African American sales woman and she worked for us from that day until the day we closed- over 45 years!!!

  2. There is a silent majority which slowly pushes the arc of the moral universe in a just direction. It seems defeated when a nationalist knee jerk wind blows back, but only because the silent persistence beneath it is outshouted for a dim moment. There’s that, and also this: Roll Tide.

  3. David, I didn’t grow up in the South but my mother taught us about discrimination in Toledo, Ohio. She wished to hire a Japanese woman, after WWII, as a nanny for her three children. The local Presbyterian minister told her he would excommunicate our family if she did so. I, and my four siblings, grew up Episcopalians. I am proud of my mother’s stance and now that I know it, of your father’s conviction during a difficult time. Thank you for your story.

  4. I can understand how Jewish people were intimidated and frightened by the KKK. I recall many white people being afraid of them. They were bullies who would retaliate against anyone even for minor infractions of their “rules”. Thanks for sharing your story.

  5. Thanks for the memories David. Your dad was a great guy! You may remember that there was a Jewish owned shoe store on 5th ave N (more than one actually). The owner, who shall remain nameless, used to tell us that in the days when the Klan wore hoods to cover who they were, he knew them all by the shoes they were wearing which they had gotten from him!

  6. Many Americans supported Jim Crow laws back then which oppressed minorities. Many Americans are promoting Sharia laws today which oppress women, homosexuals, and infidels, including Jews . Progress?

  7. Then and now, many whites judge blacks by the color of their skin. (Then?) and now, many blacks judge whites by the color of their skin. Dr. King had a far better idea, but it is just someone else’s dream to too many.

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