For Wilbur “Spanky” Wright and each granddaughter that has him wrapped around her finger
“Sit by me, Grandpa!” Burton Samuelson’s five-year-old granddaughter patted the stool next to her as she perched at the lunch counter, eagerly awaiting the coming treat.
Burton quickly dabbed his eyes with his handkerchief before returning his attention to the child and taking his seat. “Of course, baby doll. I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to sit next to such a beautiful young lady.”
The little girl giggled, then noticed the tears forming in her grandfather’s eyes. “What’s wrong, Grandpa. Are you sad?”
“A little.” Burton wondered how to explain his conflicting emotions to such a young child. “You know, I met your grandma here. I was about to order lunch when she walked in wearing the prettiest yellow dress I’d ever seen.”
“I thought you met at the fountain.” Confusion clouded the child’s eyes.
“That’s right—the soda fountain. That’s what we used to call places like this because they serve the most delicious ice cream sodas in the world.”
Burton’s eyes sparkled as he used hyperbole to amuse his granddaughter. “Ice cream sodas?” The girl’s eyes grew wide with excitement.
“That’s right. In all kinds of flavors—strawberry, pineapple, even chocolate. We can share one today.”
“Did you buy Grandma an ice cream soda when you met her?”
“I sure tried. She wouldn’t give me the time of day, so I just kept coming back, every afternoon. One day, she finally let me buy her a root beer float, and the rest, as they say, is history.” Burton playfully tweaked one of his granddaughter’s pigtails.
The girl thought for a moment. “Did you and grandma sit next to each other here—at the soda fountain?” She pronounced the new phrase carefully, trying it out.
“No. Black people couldn’t sit at the counter back then.”
“Oh.” The girl paused. “Did you make wishes like we make at our fountain?”
“Oh, we made wishes for sure. Wishes that someday we could come and sit and drink sodas at the fountain with you.”
“Really? Then your wish came true!”
Burton nodded. As the waitress came to take their order, he prayed that his granddaughter wouldn’t understand the rude comments from across the room, aimed at the black man sitting at the counter with a biracial child. Even wishes that come true can’t fix everything.
The following are photos of the family who inspired my story. Wilbur “Spanky” Wright, who as a child attended the “colored” school in Topeka, KS, made famous by the Brown v. Board of Education decision, is the proud grandfather of so many grandchildren that I’ve lost count, although I’m sure he hasn’t. Four of them are my biracial nieces. The following photos were taken by Joy Wright, Spanky’s daughter-in-law and my sister. She retains all rights.