Black History: Is This Really 2024?

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I am a mother of three sons and a grandmother of 83 years of age. This incident happened on Wednesday, January 31, in the middle of the afternoon. I was going to visit a friend and on the way, I got the urge to pee. I didn’t think I would make it to her house, so I stopped at a gas station. Inside, I asked the male employee if I could use the restroom. He looked back there and told me the women’s room was out of order. I asked him if I could use the men’s because I had to pee really badly. He said no.

I stood there pleading and begging, but he still refused to let me use the restroom. With a rude, mean-spirited, and arrogant attitude of self-importance, he told me “No. The men’s restroom doesn’t have a lock and you can’t go in there because someone could walk in on you there.”

I touched his hand and said, “Please, please, I am an 83-year-old woman and I have to go real bad.” I asked him what if I peed on the floor right here? But he said, “Oh, you would go to that extreme? You still can’t go in there.”

I was forcing myself to not go. I am an older person and I have some dignity and I can’t see myself just standing there peeing on the floor in front of this man. I felt belittled and embarrassed enough already. Did you ever feel like this? The urge so great it hurt?

I was not dressed inappropriately, I was not disruptive, dangerous, belligerent, intoxicated, or there after hours, the reasons for which a person could be denied service.

At this point a young lady came in and heard the conversation and she said to him, “I will watch the door for her.” But he replied,” No, she is not going in there.” She said, “You have got to be kidding me.”

I didn’t know how much longer I could hold it. I was leaving and I asked if I could have a cup to go pee in my car. He gave me a cup, but he had no empathy, no concern, no compassion or care for what I was going through. He just knew he was not going to let me use the restroom under any circumstance.

The young lady said, “You don’t have to go in your car. Come home with me.” It took all that was in me not to pee in that gas station and then wait the three or four minutes to get to her house. I thank God I was able to wait.

This incident happened several weeks ago, but the pain of this encounter is still with me. It is like a weight on me that is making me tired. Why? I was so disappointed in him. He was Black like me, and yet he treated me as if I was less of a human than he was. Did it never occur to him that he as well was thought of as only three-fifths of a human in our history? In the current climate I might have expected this treatment from a white, but it was more devastating because he should have understood what the Black race has lived through.

This denial of service reminds me how it was when I was a child living in the South. How we were not allowed to use the restrooms. It was just the way it was. I didn’t understand then, but now I am faced with that truth of how it feels to be denied using a restroom in America. As if we still don’t have any rights.

The pain of this encounter is not just about being treated disrespectfully by one young man, but because it put me in touch with the pain of my ancestors. I was humiliated, sick to my stomach, desperate, degraded. I am 83 years old and was reduced to begging a young man to let me use a public restroom.

My soul goes out to my ancestors with what they endured for years of being denied: denied good dwellings, appropriate food, good wages—altogether denied the right to be human.

I am not comparing what happened to me in January to what they went through for a lifetime, but I was humiliated. This man was no more than 30 or 40, and here I was, an 83-year-old woman, begging and pleading to use a public restroom.

After this incident I contacted the corporate office for the gas station. My son, Michael L. Shields, emailed them a letter and tried to talk with the office (which hung up on him); there has been no response yet as I write. My other son, Mark Cleveland, spoke with a manager, and I also spoke with the manager at the location, but there has been no apology. I called WCIA, but they did not find it a newsworthy story. I contacted the Urbana police, who did not consider it a racially motivated denial of service. I informed Representative Ammons’s office as well of the incident. WRFU’s DJBJ supported me by also talking to the manager at the site.

This is about more than one day’s denial of service. It brought back the reality of the day-to-day humiliations suffered by Black Americans in this land.

My soul goes out to my ancestors and their endless torment. This denial of their humanity lasted through generations and the pain of denial hurt like no other. It was so bad you couldn’t bear to feel it anymore. And tears didn’t help. You just had to stand and bear the weight of denial.

I feel that pain ever since my experience in January. I do not think this particular act was racially motivated, but it pained me because of the lack of compassion and the lack of knowledge of the history in this country.

This is 2024 and the demons are still lurking in the hearts of men in the corridors of time.

Mrs. Cleveland is an artist, writer, and playwright who is inspired by her admiration for the experience and endurance of African Americans through the centuries. She was born in Louisiana but has resided in Urbana for many years.

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