We were one of the few Jewish families in the northern New York village of Tupper Lake. This had nothing to do with why we were taking a car trip into the deep South, although it did play a part in how our stay ended.
My father and mother thought it would be a great adventure to take a break from the Adirondack winter, pile suitcases into our Ford station wagon, settle my two younger sisters and me in the back two rows, and head down Route 30. It was 1950. I was a high school senior.
My parents hadn’t made reservations in advance; they didn’t even know where we were going to stay when we reached our destination, which would be somewhere in the State of Florida. Maybe that’s how people traveled in those days. What are now motels were then called motor courts – a strip of rooms with parking in front. Many travelers, including us, stayed in tourist homes, private houses that rented out rooms.
Something I was reading, I don’t remember just what, started me thinking about that trip. I pulled my high school scrapbook off a closet shelf, a scrapbook I’ve been carrying from place to place over all these years. Among the old letters, school essays, ticket stubs, and dried corsages, I unearthed a collection of souvenirs from our southern journey.
I found a brochure for the Montrose Inn, in small town Pennsylvania, which must have been where we stayed our first night. It’s described as providing “all the comforts of a modern hotel,” including a spacious lobby, a parlor with a massive fireplace, and an airy dining room. I have no memory of any of that.
The next day we reached our first tourist home, The Maple Lodge, in Staunton, Virginia. It was owned by Mrs. E. F. M. Dahl. Its postcard proclaims MODERN DISTINCTIVE EVERY COMFORT. I don’t think this was the one where we had to flee in the night. And it couldn’t have been the Manors Motor Court in Society Hill, South Carolina, where the owner-manager was Lt. Col. W. P. Corrington. I assume he would have kept the bad guys away.
I believe the nighttime drama happened in Brunswick, Georgia, at the Palmerin Tourist Home, Mrs. W. A. Jeter, hostess, which advertised hot water, heated rooms, and Beautyrest mattresses. That evening, my sisters and I got ready for bed in our room next to our parents. At some point, we were awakened by loud voices outside our door. We cracked it open and peered out.
I remember seeing my father, one hand holding up his pajama pants, facing a large, belligerent white man. He had to be white; in those days black travelers were barred from many motels and tourist homes, including the ones we stayed in. Along with the angry man, I picture a lingerie-clad woman, maybe other men. My father was asking the noisy group to quiet down.
After peeking outside, my sisters and I slipped back into our room and sat on our beds, waiting to see what would happen next. Soon we heard a tapping at our door. It was our mother, fully dressed and carrying her pocketbook. “Girls, put your clothes on and get your things together,” she whispered. “We’re leaving.”
I don’t recall the details of our escape, or if we saw Mrs. W. A. Jeter on our way out; but we were on the road again, heading deeper into the segregated South. I’d already seen water fountains marked White and Colored, and passed groups of black children waiting for ancient- looking buses to take them to their rundown schoolhouses, sights that stayed with me long after our return.
We finally ended up in Indian Rocks Beach, Florida, a small town on the Gulf. I have no idea why my parents picked this particular spot. In my scrapbook I found two business cards of Indian Rocks real estate agents. It must have been one of them who found us the place we rented during our stay, a spacious log house surrounded by tall trees. How fitting yet odd that our Florida vacation home was built of logs, so similar to those in the Adirondacks.
We spent most of our time on the beach, where I connected with two boys who were on their college vacation. They were both friendly and welcoming, and I picked Max, the better looking one, to be my short-term boyfriend. I have photos of the three of us, lounging on beach chairs in the sand. I also have a photograph of the log house with our station wagon parked in front next to a garage with its door closed.
When our vacation was over and we were packing up, my father needed a rope to hold a suitcase together. For the first time during our stay, he opened the garage door to see what he could find. There was no coil of rope, but leaning against a wall was a wooden sign that had been stuck into the ground: “Gentiles Only.”
I don’t remember our family being upset about the sign. I believe we thought it was kind of funny that we’d spent a week living in a very nice house that we weren’t supposed to have entered.
Back in Tupper Lake, I settled into my normal life. Except for the elementary school classmate who told me I killed Christ, and whoever it was that scrawled “Dirty Jew” on the synagogue door, I didn’t experience antisemitism in my hometown. No signs there keeping me out.
Joan Potter’s writing has appeared in anthologies and literary journals, including the June 2021 issue of TheRavensPerch, The Bluebird Word, Persimmon Tree, New Croton Review, and many others. She the author or coauthor of several nonfiction books. The most recent is the collaborative memoir “Still Here Thinking of You.”