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Muriel Snowden Oral History Interview

Biography: Muriel Sutherland Snowden was cofounder and codirector of Freedom House, a nationally-known social service agency developed to promote interracial understanding and cooperation and effective citizen participation in urban renewal. The daughter of Reiter Thomas and William Henry Sutherland, a dentist, she was born and educated in New Jersey. Following her graduation from Radcliffe College in 1938, she worked with the Essex County (N.J.) Welfare Board as a social work investigator for old age assistance. For the first time in her life she was exposed to the kind of desperate conditions in which the poor Black citizens of Newark, N.J., lived. After five years, she felt that systematic change could be accomplished more readily by community organization than through individual casework. She entered the New York School of Social Work on an Urban League fellowship to study community organization and race relations. Following her marriage to Otto Snowden and the birth of a daughter, in 1945 she returned to Boston. She and her husband were determined to make changes in the community where they lived, and in 1949 began to lay the groundwork for what was to become Freedom House. Mrs. Snowden was executive director of the Cambridge (Mass.) Civic Unity Committee until 1950, then she left to devote full-time efforts to Freedom House. Beginning in 1958, she taught community organization for twelve years at the Simmons College School of Social Work. She served on the boards of many organizations, including the University of Massachusetts, the Associated Harvard Alumni, the Radcliffe College Alumnae Association, Babson College, the Shawmut Bank, the Board of Overseers of Harvard College, and the Racial Imbalance Committee of the Massachusetts Department of Education. She received the Radcliffe College Alumna Award in 1964 and an honorary doctorate from the University of Massachusetts in 1968. She retired from Freedom House in 1984. Description: The Black Women Oral History Project interviewed 72 African American women between 1976 and 1981. With support from the Schlesinger Library, the project recorded a cross section of women who had made significant contributions to American society during the first half of the 20th century. Photograph taken by Judith Sedwick Repository: Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. Collection: Black Women Oral History Project Research Guide: guides.library.harvard.edu/schlesinger_bwohp

Muriel Sutherland Snowden (1916–1988) was founder and codirector of Freedom House, Boston, a social service agency established to develop effective citizen participation and to promote interracial understanding and cooperation.

She graduated from Radcliffe College in 1938 and studied at the New York School of Social Work. Snowden was executive director of the Cambridge Civic Unity Committee and was an adjunct lecturer at the Simmons College School of Social Work. She served on many organizational boards in the Boston area, including Shawmut Bank, Radcliffe College Alumnae Association, Associated Harvard Alumni, and the board of overseers at both Harvard College and the University of Massachusetts. In this clip, Snowden discusses growing up in the all-white neighborhood of Glen Ridge, New Jersey, and the discrimination she experienced.

Listen to track #3 of the Muriel Snowden Oral History Interview.

For research tips and additional resources, view the Hear Black Women's Voices research guide.

[start of track on reel 3, October 30, 1977]

Cheryl Gilkes [CG]:

Name?

Muriel Snowden [MS]:

Muriel Sophronia Sutherland Snowden, all right? I was born July 14, 1916, which makes me sixty-one, almost sixty-one and a half, all right? And I was born in Orange, New Jersey. My parents were William H. and Reiter Sutherland. My father was a dentist, graduated from Howard Dental School in 1905; he and my mother were married in 1906 and there were four children, one of whom died almost immediately after birth. My sister is the oldest and interestingly enough, her name is Reiter Lucinda Thomas, which was my mother's maiden name, that's her married name. Then there was a boy who lived only five days. He died of convulsions. My mother's mother died just before she was about to deliver—this is what I hear—and the shock was so great to her that apparently it had some kind of a negative impact. It was very traumatic and this boy didn't live. So there's a nine-year gap between my sister and me, I'm the next child. And then my brother was born. Reiter's birthday is 1908, January 23, 1908, so that makes her almost seventy, doesn't it? And my brother was the baby, born on December 24, what, he'll be fifty-eight, fifty-nine. He'll be fifty-nine in December, how's your arithmetic, whatever, he's two and a half years younger than I am, that's the family. I think I may have told you sometime before that my mother's father came to live with us.

CG:

Now what was your mother's maiden name?

MS:

My mother's maiden name was Thomas. Her father's name was John Ira Thomas, and we know a little bit about him because he lived with us, and he died when he was ninety-five. He died the day before my Gail was born. He tried to wait for her, I think I told you this, and one Sunday he said to me, "I don't think I'm going to make it," he said, "I'm trying to wait for that baby of yours, but I'm not going to make it." So that we had a sense of continuity. He used to tell us stories about being in the Indian wars and being at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, and about his own background of being born of a slave mother on a plantation in Virginia. He came to live with my family because his wife had died, and my mother was after him to come because he was still living in Washington, and he said, "Reiter, I will come only when you have a son." Shows something about his chauvinistic attitude—she had two daughters. But when my brother was born, he came to live with us in Orange, New Jersey, and he lived with us from then until the time he died. When my brother was born and was to be christened, his name officially was to be William Henry Sutherland, Jr., after my father. My grandfather said, "No, he's going to have to be named after me." So Bill's full name of record is William Henry John Sutherland, Jr., and as long as my grandfather lived, he never called Bill anything but John.

CG:

A strong sense of family.

MS:

Right. Well, I think that the thing was that my grandfather had only two children, my mother and a son. When his son was about ten or eleven years old—they lived in Ivy City in Washington—he was hopping on the back of a wagon or something and he fell and was killed. So that for my grandfather, this grandson was so important to take the place of a son who never grew up. At my grandfather's knee, my brother learned all the kinds of things that I think have been so important to him and his life. He was strongly religious, my grandfather was strongly religious, read the Bible every day. He was very, very alert, very much like Otto's father. He never lost any of his senses even though he was ninety-five, and he had rheumatism and he had asthma, but he was as straight as a ramrod. I have pictures of him, handsome gentleman and very, very warm and understanding, always reached out to the children— that's my sister and my brother-in-law. My grandfather was easier to talk with about problems than our parents. Of course it's always the business of the generations. Grandpa didn't have to discipline us, but he was there and flexible, you know, like he voted for Roosevelt. A lifelong Republican, and he decided that when Mr. Roosevelt came in, that he meant something good for black people, and whatever age it was, this was a great change for him, he voted for Roosevelt. My sister has three sons, three grandsons, and I have one granddaughter, and my one daughter, Gail. Gail was born on July 5, 1945, and Leigh is now four, she was born October 11, what is that, 1973. Well, that's the family, the immediate family.

CG:

Do you ever have family reunions?

MS:

Well, there are family reunions, but we're just getting into family reunions that we're going to be part of, because of the whole thing that Era Bell Thompson did on the family, the Nigerian family. Didn't I tell you about this? Era Bell Thompson, international editor of Ebony, did that story in February of 1975 on a "Tale of Two Continents." And it was a story of two families, the American family and the African family that had been in touch with each other over a hundred-year span. All right? It's the Scipio Vaughan family, Carter, and we're on the American side of that family. I'm still trying to find out exactly what the relationship is. Era Bell never could get it straight.

CG:

You're also related to Jewel LaFontant.

MS:

Yes, Jewel is my cousin. I just saw her when I was in Washington at the National Urban League Conference, and when I was in Chicago the end of September, I meant to call her. Jewel and Ayo-Vaughan Richards are counterparts—she's the Nigerian who's the head of nursing, I'm not sure what her title is, in Lagos. And Jewel has been there to visit her, so there's been this kind of cross relationship that's still continuing after a hundred years. There have been gatherings of the Vaughan Carter clan and Bill, my brother, has taken part in some of them, but he is very anxious for us to get related to that total family group again. The thing that was so exciting to me was that when Era Bell was doing her research, she kept naming all of these people, and I said, "Those are people that I have called "cousin" all of my life," my father's family, and the thing that I think I'm trying... You see, my mother tended to be.. She was from Washington, D.C., and she belonged to that way of thinking about color and class, which said that you don't want to be tied in with black people in that way. So that when my father talked about his cousin from Africa, she would say that we don't want to talk about it, so we never really did. We did meet one of them, Ada Carter, and she was a Nigerian relative who came to visit the Carters in New York, with whom we were in constant touch. There is this whole business of finding out what the cousin thing is, and I've still not found out exactly. I went to Washington to the Urban League meeting, and while I was there I went to visit my eighth-year-old cousin, whose mother and father were the people that I felt must have raised my father, 'cause he seemed to be very close to them. Even from him, I cannot get out what was my father's exact relationship to Sallie Lee and Gene Dibble, his mother and father. Incidentally, Era Bell indicated that Sallie Lee is a direct descendant of Scipio Vaughan. Eugene Dibble whom she married, there's some question whether or not they were cousins, so the family gets into this overlap thing, and then there were all kinds of things going on. There were six children of the Sallie Lee-Gene Dibble union, and when my father comes into this, I don't know. But he used to take us to Camden when we were little, South Carolina, to visit with the Dibbles summer after summer after summer. And I knew Cousin Sallie and Cousin Gene, but my father never really talked about his parents. Now I was named for his mother, Sophronia. I have cussed him out many times for that name [laughter], which I have dropped, and you'll never see Sophronia in anything that I have, you know it'll be Muriel Sutherland Snowden, to hang on to the family name. But that Sophronia always bothered me, and then he told me that I was named for his mother, but I don't really know anything about it. My grandfather on my mother's side, John I. Thomas, his mother was a slave. His grandmother, as far as we're able to tell and he used to say, she was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian. So we're part of that strange mixture of white, Indian, and black which is found all over the Caribbean. When I went to Puerto Rico, I had people following me around, speaking Spanish, and my saying, you know, I don't really understand Spanish, and they looked at me askance because obviously I looked like a Puerto Rican.

CG:

You should.

MS:

But that's the immediate family.

CG:

It's a rich, rich heritage.

MS:

Well, roots, roots. I just did a little monograph. Every now and then, I sit down when something strikes me and I write it up. But I wrote this piece up after I had seen "Roots" on television and there was so much talk about it. And the thing that I said was—it didn't have anything to do with my family roots as such—but I said that I felt that when I was the only black kid in the class in high school, well, there were no black children in Glen Ridge where I grew up. We were the only black family for a long time. There was another one that lived on the edge of Glen Ridge and Montclair. Incidentally, we moved from Orange, New Jersey. My father was practicing in Orange, and my mother was very unhappy because Orange was beginning to show all the symptoms of a ghetto community, and she wanted to get herself and her kids out of there. So they looked and looked and looked for a house, and she finally found one she liked in Glen Ridge. A thirteen-room house sitting smack in the middle of three-quarters of an acre of land, with an orchard and all kinds of flowers and trees. It was a very beautiful house. And my father, who loved her dearly, said, "If that's what you want, dear, that's what we'll get." And so he bought the house. And the first memory I have, conscious memory of anything, I would have been two and a half...

CG:

That would have been around World War I.

MS:

The first conscious memory I have of that, of anything really, was going to look at that house and going through it at night with my family and remembering the stairs. There were two steps on the second floor that led down to the bathroom, and there was a little closet there, and I was intrigued by this kind of an arrangement. I can remember that, I can almost see us running through that house and up the stairs. It was a very elegant house. But Glen Ridge had never had any black people living in that community and they were very resistant. We bought through a "straw" and moved in at night. I didn't know that at age two and a half, not till later. But then we found out that there had been all kinds of town meetings, what were they going to do about the black family that moved in? They were very genteel about it, this was before, they didn't burn any crosses or anything on the front lawn, but they were very distressed and didn't really know what to do about the family. And then when we moved into, my father moved his practice from Orange, but for a while he ran two offices, one in Orange and one in Bloomfield, which was the next town. But they saw that there was a family, and my father immediately started fixing up and renovating, and people were kind of hard put to keep up with the improvements that he was making on his property, which is the old story about black people always overcompensating, moving in and not providing any kind of problem. But I started to say something else and went into that, this memory. What was I saying?

CG:

You were talking about being the only one in school and relating back to roots. . .

MS:

So living in this kind of town where there were no black people, naturally my family, the children in my family, were the only black children in the schools, and they were very good schools. The high school was the seventh best high school in the United States. A very small community, Glen Ridge is a quarter of a mile wide and something like three miles long, a little bedroom community, very wealthy people living there, working in New York. The public schools were extraordinary, really good, so that when we were in high school and I had a history teacher, and I think it was probably in high school because we were studying American history, that when we came to the period of slavery, there was so much obvious discomfort in the classroom. There was a kind of a tension, the teacher felt it; the students felt it; I felt it. And there was a kind of looking, you know, sort of looking at me to see how I was taking it. I said that what I felt Roots was all about, is that if I had had Roots in my background, instead of them looking at me, I'd have been looking at them to see how they were handling the guilt that they should have felt about the way the white people had treated black people during the slavery and Reconstruction period. There's a little monograph that I wrote on this, because I felt so strongly about it, and why I feel that somehow the whole content of Roots needs to be adapted for inclusion in public school curriculum straight throughout the country. But I'm also very concerned that it not be done the way the television program was done, but that some black people, knowledgeable black people, good educators, can take the essence of Roots and put it into a form that'll be used for both black kids and white kids, without providing the sops to whites that the television program seemed to have to do...

CG:

Because I was glad I had read the book first before...

MS:

Oh, there were so many things in it that just drove me crazy. I spoke to Alex about it because he did do the editing and he was the consultant on it, but he was very vague, and I guess everybody recognizes that in order to do certain kinds of things, you have to make deals. He did say that he had written in the original the captain of the ship, the slave ship, but that he had taken that character out, because he was writing from the standpoint of Kunta Kinte and how did he know that this man was going through all this emotional turmoil, you know, so he took the character out, so that he said it wasn't that far afield.

CG:

I did not watch all of it on television.

MS:

I missed one segment, that was the night that Muhammad Ali did the benefit for Elma Lewis, so I was there. What else do we need from the early background?

CG:

You discussed how you happened to go to Radcliffe. I'm trying to think-.-we discussed your situation in terms of the movie theaters and going for ice cream. You mentioned that briefly in your other interview with me, do you want to expand a little on it, what your parents did to protect you...

MS:

I think we talked about that in terms of...

CG:

Your parents tried to provide opportunities for you...

MS:

The strength to cope... Well, moving was one kind of thing. Trying to move into a community where the schools were good, where the neighborhood environment was healthy, all of this, you know, just normal kinds of things. Plus I think there was an element of snobbery in it for my mother. She just was anxious to get out of Orange, it was too much for her to deal with, and she was concerned about what kinds of people her children would be associating with. I think it was just very normal for parents in that generation, that it was a kind of upward mobility and that they constantly looked towards how do we make life better for their children, and they were very much into the, you know, "white is right" kind of syndrome, and getting us far away from black people.

CG:

How did you react to those statements, did your mother ever make any direct statements to you as a child or...

MS:

 About?

CG:

About class, color...

MS:

Well, she always tended to talk about black people, black in color, in derogatory terms. I don't think I have any specific kind of things, I know that I was aware of it. The interesting thing to me is how we made the overleap to get away from it, and I'm not sure. I can remember, and this was part of the society in which we traveled, having, I think I told you this, this tremendous argument among my mother's friends about Paul Robeson. Paul Robeson had been to our house. I guess we had been to see him in summer theater; he was doing Othello in Maplewood, which is another town close by. They had good summer theater. We went to see him, my mother knew him, and I can remember this man coming out of his dressing room because he was so big and the dressing room was so small that there was no room in it for him and for us. He stepped outside and I don't know how old I was, I have no way of remembering that, but I was just overwhelmed by this giant of a man with his magnificent voice. And when later we were talking about the play, and there was some other woman there, and I said, "I thought that Paul Robeson was just about the handsomest man I had ever seen," and they jumped all over me with both feet. How could anybody that black be handsome, how can you think of him in terms of good looks? So I must have been into an area of consciousness then about not accepting white Anglo-Saxon skin as beauty. So I probably was in high school, because this was where I think you would begin to get this sense. But in the early days, you asked about how we would cope. When we moved to Glen Ridge and we started going to school, that's when we had the first immediate exposure to prejudice and for me it was pretty much, oh, I told you this stuff, the kid that went to kindergarten with me every day... she was from Tennessee and couldn't walk to school with me anymore after the first or second grade because "she was from Tennessee." Then when my brother started school and he was two years behind me, he had a first-grade teacher who was from Virginia. That's the first-grade teacher who didn't want him to wear the tonic on his hair. The third grade for me is another kind of thing that sticks out in my mind. I was going to be in a play, and that's when after going through all the rehearsals and everything, and I was all excited about being in it, at the last minute the teacher told me I wasn't going to be in it. And that's when my mother came around to the school and blasted everybody in the school out of the place. My mother had a very fiery temper, a very short fuse and she was really the original mother hen, you know, don't touch her chicks. And if you came near, she would fly into a temper like you've never seen before, she had a wicked temper. But she scared those people around there, I don't think she even took off her apron. We didn't live far from school and she walked, flying around to the school with her apron strings in the wind to get this teacher told. "You never do this to my child." And I think I told you the questions, when I asked her what was a nigger—this little girl was talking about niggers and she lived in Tennessee. She simply said that they are very ignorant people and you need to feel sorry for people who use words like this. All right, I think that this was probably one of the classic, the standard ways for black parents to help their kids with their own identity and not to get overwhelmed with the inferiority piece. But going to school from then on in, we got special attention, the Sutherland kids were special, they were "exceptions." Their father was a professional man, we were obviously well off, we had two cars, all the children were extraordinarily well dressed. We had books in my household, we had good music in my household. Therefore, from the standpoint of the people in the community, it wasn't really that difficult to become accepting, at least superficially. Plus the fact that I was fairly quick and could learn fast and so there was a big push. My brother kept saying he felt, he said, "I used to feel sorry for you because I thought you were being pushed," and I said to him—this was just recently—I said, "I don't remember being pushed. I really enjoyed school." I enjoyed the competition, and I enjoyed being number one. I stayed number one all the way through until I graduated from high school as valedictorian. The blow came when the boy who was salutatorian met a friend of mine who was very fair, at college. And not knowing that this boy was black, they got into a conversation about where the salutatorian had come from. He said he came from Glen Ridge, and this boy said to him, "Oh, you must know Muriel Sutherland," and he said, "Yes, I knew her." "Well, what was she like?" And he said, "Just another nigger wench." And I think about that boy, I boil now because all through school, we were in the same classroom from kindergarten through graduation from high school. We had studied together, on the phone together and I always felt involved with him. I really wasn't thinking race, I was thinking a friend. We were in competition, and maybe it was because he lost out on the valedictorian, that his attitude was such that he had to downgrade me in some way when he was talking about it later. But I still remember that, that really got under my skin. But I did enjoy that competition and my father and mother were both, as I say, very protective. Whether it was around that whole business of not being able to sit where you wanted to, the theater in Bloomfield, being shunted over to the side where they sent all black people. Well, when we, came in, we were never shunted aside after my father went in there and blew up. Getting the ice cream, we just didn't go back to that place even though...we blasted them again because, as I told you, when we were all dressed up on Sunday, we'd go to this little place, Delcrest or whatever it was called, to get ice cream and to be told you can't eat it here. These little snips who looked at you and told you you couldn't eat the ice cream, so we went back home and told our parents and they were always there. Particularly my mother. Mama had a lot more fire than my father. My father was very easygoing, very warm. I did the eulogy for him and my brother did it for my mother. My mother died in 1950 and my father died in 1951. Although people today tend to do this kind of thing, it was kind of unheard of then. But the Sutherlands are a very strong-minded people, as my husband will tell you, and we decided that we didn't want people talking about our parents, who didn't know them.

CG:

Right.

MS:

So that when Bill did it for Mama, he talked about Mama in terms of being fire and thunder and lightning and how her temper flared, but also what she meant to us. And then when I did it for my father, I talked about my father as a community person who had led a drive for the YMCA building, and he went to meetings all the time on Sundays and sometimes he took us back to Orange. By the way, he was the one that kept the bridge going between the old community and the new. I don't think he felt as comfortable in Glen Ridge as my mother did. My mother made this leap from Glen Ridge then to New York and Brooklyn, to the immigrants from Washington as the contact for her children. You talk about how you establish a... she knew that we could not make it in a white world that had these social barriers. She wasn't really concerned so much about that; she was concerned about our going to school, getting a good education. She graduated from high school and went to Hampton and took millinery. My father, of course, had gone to professional school, but you didn't go to college then, remember, you went straight into dental school. So that this whole business of a drive for a good educational background and college was of tremendous concern to her. So that's what she wanted out of Glen Ridge, and a beautiful home which she could show off to her friends. But then, for social life she began calling her friends in Brooklyn and New York and those that had children our age, these were the people with whom I first began, when I got to dating age and stuff. This is where I began to make my contacts. Like I told you. Well, I had a friend in Orange, a girl in Orange that was a friend of mine when I was thirteen, fourteen, but in terms of getting involved in that social group, the first contact that I had in that direction was in my home. Lena's grandmother and my mother were very good friends, so Mama kept talking about, "Well, you know, Muriel doesn't know very many girls," and Mrs. Home said, "Well, you know, Lena is a part of the Junior Debs of Brooklyn." So Lena came over and visited and I can see her now, lying across my bed, giving me a run-down on all the members of the Junior Debs. Her descriptions were very accurate. She was wonderful; she proposed my name, and I became a member of this social group. If whatever there is in black society that's the 400s, this is it and this is where I started out.

CG:

Who else do you remember as being in that group?

MS:

Well, there was Theresa Birnie, Dr. Birnie's daughter in Brooklyn; Catherine Chestnut, Catherine and Laurie Chestnut, they were from Washington. I think most of these people came from Washington, I don't know about the Birnies. They tended to be fair, if you noticed, the coloring of the Junior Debs was generally pretty fair. I would guess that maybe Lena and I were the darkest ones in the room. Oh no, there were a couple of girls who were brown, but they were all professional people's children, primarily lawyers, doctors. They had status and they were economically comfortable, so it was an interesting group of people. But my friend, Ellen Craft, was not in that group, 'cause she lived in New York. But there was a kind of relationship between the New York society and the Brooklyn society and once in a while they would cross. I don't know if I told you, I met Ellen because some of the Brooklyn kids decided they'd go to Ellen's house. They heard there was a party going on, and they crashed the party, and that's when I met her, at her house. And somehow or other, I really don't know what the progression was, but we gravitated towards one another and we've been friends over all these years.

CG:

Chestnut is a name that stands out in my mind.

[End of track on reel 3, October 30, 1977]

This audio recording is part of The Black Women Oral History Project, interviews of 72 African American women recorded between 1976 and 1981. With support from the Schlesinger Library, the project recorded a cross section of women who had made significant contributions to American society during the first half of the 20th century. The interviews discuss family background, marriages, childhood, education, and training; significant influences affecting narrators’ choice of primary career or activity; professional and voluntary accomplishments; union activities; and the ways in which being Black and a woman affected narrators’ options and the choices made. Interview transcripts and audio files are fully digitized.

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