Marilyn White’s fondest memory of growing up in Los Angeles was going to the market with her father.
“When we would get in there, he would buy me a hot dog and I would eat that hot dog all the way home,” White recalled.
It was an innocuous activity but one that defined the texture of White’s life growing up in 1950s L.A.: simple.
“I had an amazingly happy childhood,” said White, 71.
She was the eldest of four children to L.A. Nelson White, a school custodian, and Mary Lorenza Susan Johnson White, who worked as a letter-sorting clerk for the U.S. Postal Service.
Shielded by her parents from much of the racism that was consuming America, White said she was able to appreciate the ethnic diversity around her.
“There was absolutely a togetherness in the community,” White recalled. “We had a little bit of everybody on our block,” although most families were African American. The kids all associated with each other; the parents, not so much, she said.
White said she never dwelled on being African American or let that stand in the way of her success.
“I was just one of the kids there, and that’s how I was treated,” White said. “I knew black history was important to my grandmother and to my father, and they taught me about black history, but it wasn’t to isolate other ethnicities. It was just because when you look in the mirror, that’s who you are.”
She attended Holy Cross elementary school, where she mixed with students from various ethnicities and heard a variety of languages spoken, including Spanish, Hungarian and Mandarin.
But the highlight of White’s career came in 1964 when she won a silver medal in the 4 x 100 meters relay at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, together with teammates Willye White, Wyomia Tyus and Edith McGuire.
Marilyn White ultimately became an elementary school teacher, instructing physical education and then kindergarten, first and second grade. She got her bilingual credential and then taught Spanish.
Today, she lives in a bungalow-style home in Inglewood, where she hordes hundreds of old photos, family mementoes and other keepsakes, such as her Olympic silver medal.
She acknowledges that Los Angeles has its problems, including often biting racial tensions, but she says she wouldn’t trade her hometown for any other.
“I still love this city,” White said. “My roots are here. My joy was born here.”
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