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To buy the world a Coke

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At the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, there's a two-sided Coke machine. On the "white" side, drinks cost a nickel; on the "colored" side, they cost a dime.

The museum is rich with sounds, images and relics of the Jim Crow era—most notably the original Woolworth's lunch counter where four courageous students from North Carolina A&T helped spawn the sit-in movement that galvanized the nation. But when our tour guide described the Coke machine, I finally saw my 10-year-old daughter's jaw drop.

My family and I visited the museum in January with some friends. The six of us gathered at the Durham train station on a clear day, just cold enough to qualify as winter. After the train ambles through Durham, it really picks up speed, hurling through the fields and factories of Hillsborough, Mebane and Burlington. They disappear from view almost as soon as you catch sight of them. Amtrak got us to downtown Greensboro in 55 minutes.

I'd wanted to visit the museum for months but was finally spurred by the fourth-grade curriculum. If you're in fourth grade in North Carolina, you're studying state history. Our fourth-grader has been diligently plowing through research on topics—Bennett Place, Harriet Jacobs, the Venus Fly Trap and, of course, "Esse Quam Videri." Her class has traveled to the History and Natural History Museums, the Capitol and the Legislature. She brings a small digital camera on these trips, and I love looking at what she photographs, as it's a snapshot of state history through her eyes. A dugout canoe, a whale skeleton, the gold doors of the Legislature: Those photos capture the objects she subsequently describes with accuracy and enthusiasm.

The dual-sided drink machine, though, made history incredibly real, presenting the stark horror of institutionalized racism in a single glance. I'm not sure what I expected when I planned our trip to Greensboro, though I felt sure we'd get questions from the girls about what they saw. We did our best to answer them, working hard not to turn away from any painful truths.

How could we hide the truth? The Coke machine is a relic, sure, but it's not an ancient one, not even one generation removed from me. Our friend, a North Carolinian by way of India, pointed out that if he and his wife had visited the Jim Crow South, their Coke probably would have cost a dime.

Photography wasn't permitted in the exhibits at the Civil Rights Museum, so our daughter's not going to include any pictures from the museum in her research binder. Even without a printed image, though, it will be a long time before that drink machine fades from view.

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