I was raised to believe that everyone is created equal. When I was a teenager, my parents encouraged me to work at a local summer camp, Camp Meehan, as a counselor. The kids were bused to our town each day and we were there to give them the opportunity to leave the inner city behind and enjoy the clean suburban outdoors. I enjoyed my job as a camp counselor.
In 1964 I was offered another summer camp opportunity. The Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island opened a summer camp in the city of Providence. Staff members were mostly college students. I had just completed my freshman year at Keuka College. As staff members, we were required to live in residential housing. The intent was to create a community from which we would set out each day into the inner-city ministry. This was the civil rights era. White communities and church communities were trying to learn how to relate to the poor inner-city black populations.
Each day we would arrive in South Providence by van. The camp was located at Christ Episcopal Church. Our day was filled with games, art projects and most importantly, we had a feeding program for the kids. Part of the goal of the program was for the inner-city families to relate to us and we to them. Several nights a week, we would go to our kids homes for dinner. The intent was for all of us to share conversations and begin to understand each other. This was an interesting concept. Because we were all nervous about each other’s expectations, I am not sure that this part of the program worked.
At the end of the summer the staff discussed having a fun day and picnic. I asked my parents if we could have this activity at our house in Barrington, a nearby suburb. They were pleased to offer our house. We had a pool and a place to barbeque. All was set. That sunny Saturday we arrived in Barrington in two vans. It was great to have a day all together to relax. Black and white faces greeted my parents at the front door.
My parents were usually very friendly and outgoing. This time they seemed to vanish and left me to carry on with the party. I didn’t notice this at first because I was busy being a hostess to my new found friends. As the day moved on, I did begin to wonder where are mom and dad?
The party was a huge success. Many of the staff had never been to a suburb like Barrington. They were thrilled to have spent the day swimming, eating and relaxing by the pool. Late in the afternoon, as we got ready to board the vans and return to Providence, Dad appeared and said, “Good By.”
A few days later, I called home to tell my parents that our party was a great success and to thank them for their hospitality. Dad said, “Mary Perrin, why did you not tell us that your staff included black people? You should not have brought them here!” To say I was shocked would be an understatement. I had been taught that we are all valued equally.
It took me a while to come to grips with the mixed message that I had received from my parents. I appreciate that they planted deep seeds of inclusiveness in me. The surprise to them was that I acted on their teaching. They were a product of their generation. I was a product of a new generation of social activists. This was the sixties, the civil rights era.
In order to patch up the shock I had caused in the family, I reminded my parents that they always said, “Everyone is equal.” They raised me to believe it and then I acted on it. This meant that they needed to look at what they had taught. Parents do not ordinarily like to be brought face to face with a false truth by their child, but in this case, real time circumstance brought the false truth into the light. We ended what had been a dispute with a discussion on racism. Some doors opened for all of us that day about our attitudes concerning people of color. A good ending to a difficult day.