When the principal told us that the president had been shot, we broke into applause, and I joined in.
It's a shameful memory. I've spent a fair amount of time over the last 50 years trying to figure out what the heck it was all about.
I was in the third grade at Indian Springs Elementary School, in Columbus, Ohio. It was tucked away in a leafy green, very Waspy, upper-middle-class neighborhood far north of downtown. My family -- middle-class and African-American -- lived several miles away at Fort Hayes, which was then an active United States Army base. My father was a major, part of the army's first significant cohort of black officers. Having entered the service during World War II, he was nearing retirement.
Ralph Crane/Life: Male African-American outside U.S. Embassy, after assassination of John F. Kennedy. Paris, France. 1963.
Fort Hayes was too small to have schools of its own. Instead, the army sent us to Columbus' public schools, but those nearby wouldn't do. The fort was in the inner city, close to downtown. My guess is that the powers that be thought neighborhood schools too poor and too black to be any good. So every school day, we piled into buses and made the trek out to the suburbs.
I'm not complaining. I liked everything about Indian Springs -- my teachers, my classes, and my friends. Despite being the only Negro (as we were then) kid in my grade, nobody singled me out because of my race. In fact, at that point in my life, I hardly knew that I was black.
Life had not yet called on me to think about race. The army was like this -- officers' kids played with other officers' kids and rarely mixed with the children of enlisted personnel. Because my father was invariably the only black officer anywhere that he was stationed, all of my playmates, all of my life, had been white. I vaguely understood that I was a Negro -- mainly because I couldn't grow my hair straight like the other boys -- but it hadn't mattered in any practical way. The army, as an institution, and the army families we knew, were all trying as hard as they could to be color-blind.
But, in retrospect, here's the weird thing -- my classmates at Indian Springs seemed pretty color-blind, too, and so did their parents. I regularly visited the homes of two of my friends -- Don F. and Scott McC. -- and even slept over once or twice if I remember correctly. I have no idea what their parents -- their Waspy, upper-middle-class parents -- said to each other privately, but they made me feel at home.
Yet there we were, a classroom full of color-blind nine-year-olds, breaking into applause when the principal announced over the intercom system that President John F. Kennedy had been shot.
To be fair, only about a third of the class clapped -- mostly boys. It doesn't make me feel much better to say that I only joined in after other people started.
I can explain my own actions better than theirs, of course. First, I was too young to understand the magnitude of what the principal had just said. Second, I wanted to fit in.
Third, the teacher (whose name has been escaping me all week) didn't immediately give us a clue about how to respond. The second that we started clapping, she shushed us with a horrified look on her face and turned on the TV in the corner of the classroom. NBC. Huntley and Brinkley. I remember that because I was seeing them for the first time. We were a CBS family. Walter Cronkite was like an uncle.
From that moment on, I don't remember much about the next several days, except being in front of the TV. Columbus closed the schools early, summoning the buses to take us home. By the time my bus pulled away from the school, my mood matched the moment. The seriousness and the sorrow of the day's events had sunk in. I could see it on every adult's face, including the gray men on TV. I told the kid who was sitting next to me on the bus that "I'll never play again."
In fact, I didn't play that weekend. We spent Saturday indoors, mostly following the news on TV. My family went to church on Sunday morning, and emerged to learn that Lee Harvey Oswald had been shot. None of the children who lived at Fort Hayes -- and there was a pack of us that generally had the run of the place -- ventured outdoors to play. It was as if the base had shut down. We mourned.
But why had we clapped? I honestly don't know. I used to tell myself that my classmates were the children of wealthy Protestant Republicans, who had filled their heads full of anti-Catholic venom. They had heard their parents scorn the president around the dinner table, and they naturally thought it was a good thing that someone had shot him. That no longer feels right to me, in large part, I suppose, because no venom, no hatred, no disdain was directed at me.
The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that our clapping didn't mean anything at all. We were too young to know what to do. We understood that something momentous had happened -- our principal wasn't given to interrupting classes with husky-voiced announcements over the intercom -- but we had no experience that would tell us how to respond. Perhaps all it took was for one kid to start clapping for the rest of us to assume that's what we were supposed to do.
Five years later, when an assassin killed Martin Luther King, it was very different for me, for my family, and for my country.