My First Experience in The United States
My name is Michele Haines and I come from France. I had always been fascinated by the United States. I went to interpreter school in Paris and was delighted to be accepted to be an interpreter at the UN in 1963. I ended up not liking my job because I did not realize that I had to be cooped up and be a robot with no physical contact with the other person I was interpreting for; therefore, I left within five days.
Through a friend of mine at Georgetown University, I got a position at Florida State University in Tallahassee. I was replacing a young lady who could not make it at the last minute as a teacher in a National Defense Program which is a federal program. It is very important to know that because in 1963, Florida State University was segregated, but we were in the federal program and had black and white teachers so we lived, slept, ate, worked, and played together.
Before I knew it, I was off to Tallahassee at nineteen years old. Dr. Charron, head of the Foreign Language program at FSU, had sent me a free ticket from Newark Airport to Atlanta and then Atlanta to Tallahassee. I would love to tell you a funny story about that. I didn’t know that Newark Airport was not the same as Idlewild Airport, now known as JFK. So I took a cab from 72nd and Madison where I lived to Newark Airport. I showed the taxi driver my ticket and I thought it was strange that it took so long to get to the airport. At the time, I was thinking of movies with Al Capone because as a nineteen-year-old, I thought I could have been taken captive by the driver. The ride was long and unfamiliar the ride but luckily, we arrived at Newark Airport in one piece. The price for the cab was higher than the cash that I had on me, so I asked the driver what I could do. He said that he was in France during World War II and he was so well treated by the farmers in Normandy that he said the ride was on him, free of charge! I took off with no incidents and landed in Tallahassee safely.
At my arrival, I was surprised to have Florida University’s brass band waiting for me. Afterwards, they took me to a big barbecue party, where I ate chicken with my hands for the first time.
At the University, I improved high school French teachers’ knowledge of French. I had about thirty teachers from different states across the country. I have another funny story about teachers from Mississippi. There was an elegant, southern belle who tried to bribe me with free driving lessons since I did not know how to drive (I could fly a plane, however), and would give me her Lincoln Continental in exchange for good grades. I refused, she cried and then flunked the class.
On a lighter note, we finally found a pond where we could go swimming altogether without segregation. I happily dived into the water, but suddenly I heard the whistle of the lifeguard. I went up to his stand which was located in the middle of the pond and asked him what the problem was. He gave me his binoculars as he said that half the pond was for us and the other half was for the alligators, as you can see through the lens; he was not joking. I swam to my friends and explained to them the situation. They were not as brave as I was and we all left.
Off and on, I would go to a coffee shop outside of the campus and I met a black student from another university and I sat with him. The barista told me that he could not sit with me and I told him that in France, I sat with whomever I wanted. He replied that here, that’s not the case. I did not move and my friend did not move, so the barista grabbed me. I defended myself by taking a red stool and threw it at the barista. He called the police and I was arrested. It was the first time, but it would not be the last. I left Tallahassee in one of the teacher’s cars, and she lived in Maine, so she dropped me off in Providence, RI where I went to study at Brown University. On my way, I changed my plans and I stayed in Montgomery, Alabama to join Martin Luther King. While there, I joined a group who tried to allow black people into a white-only clothing store. We did not move and the police came with their dogs. The dog bit me, but I still didn’t move. So, the policeman hit my head with a club and I ended up in jail again. I called my mother in France to send me bail money. I also sent articles about what was going on in Montgomery to the newspaper where my mother worked.
While at Brown, I continued to be very involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Over the years, there was a significant evolution in racial relations and it continues to go on. Jump all the way to 2008, when I got a call from my mother in France after President Obama was elected. I was speechless to hear from her. She said how much she admired the American people. Coming from my mother, who is French, conservative, and not always broad-minded, I was overwhelmed by the realization of how impactful an event his presidency was.