June Dobbs Butts
Born 1928, Sweet Auburn
One advantage of growing older is the ability to recall your childhood more vividly. Growing up in Atlanta, for me, now at age eighty-three, was a series of studies in the complexities of segregation. It was legal, it was all-pervasive, and it was indelibly stamped on the memory of young black children.
Photograph by Rebecca Burns
When I was around five, I remember talking with the only grandparent I ever knew about her childhood. Nanny’s biological father was the owner of a plantation in North Georgia. Her mother, a slave, was the chief cook in the “Big House,” but she was also married to a field slave and had other children. Nanny was nearly three years old “when freedom came” at the end of the Civil War. Her “father” bought her a beautiful pink flannel cape with a hood and had his driver take her and her mother wherever they wanted. When Nanny told me this story, I said, “Why didn’t you just tell that driver, ‘Go to New York!’” I couldn’t believe they didn’t make a run for it. She gave me the most withering look and said, “What would we have done in New York?” It took me years to understand.
I remember another time when I was a teenager, and my four-year-old nephew Ben Allan came to visit from Mississippi. This was back in 1944, and there was a big new fountain in Hurt Park, where the water jets would spring up and change shapes like constellations. When my father drove us to see it, Ben Allan pleaded, “Please, Grandpa, lemme get out so I can see it better! I promise I won’t get in the water.” Daddy kept the motor running and gradually pulled away. He never explained that Hurt Park was for “whites only.” How do you explain that? I used to wonder, why did Daddy even show the fountain to the child? But Daddy was so proud of Atlanta.
When I was little, we would go around the corner from our house and smell the Highland Bakery. It seemed like the most delicious, intoxicating smell! Some black people would go to a side window, but they couldn’t go inside. My mother said, “Those people don’t want Negroes to go in, so there’s no way I’d ever stand outside at a window and pay my good money to be insulted!” She was very scathing. I used to feel guilty every time I smelled it.
My parents didn’t want us to go places that had areas for blacks. We couldn’t go to movies Downtown. The Fox was particularly offensive because black people had to enter by climbing up some enormous outdoor steps. The boyfriend of one of my sisters took me and Mattiwilda once when I was a very little girl. I can recall coming down those steps and thinking I was going to fall!
—As told to Betsy Riley
Dr. June Dobbs Butts is the youngest daughter of John Wesley Dobbs, legendary “Mayor of Sweet Auburn” and grandfather of Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson. Butts and her five sisters graduated from Spelman College; her sister Mattiwilda became the first black woman with a long-term contract with the Metropolitan Opera Company, yet she refused to perform at the Fox Theatre because it was segregated. Dr. Butts is a therapist, counselor, author, and one of the first African American sexologists. She resides in Atlanta and is writing her autobiography. She notes that Highland Bakery now has new owners and a diverse clientele.