"Hear Black Women’s Voices" presents curated content from the Schlesinger Library to provide a toolkit for students, researchers, and activists seeking to study and learn from African American women leaders. 

IN THIS SERIES:

 

Pauli Murray Reads "Dark Testament”

Pauli Murray reading from Dark Testament and Other Poems, January 1977. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryPauli Murray reading from Dark Testament and Other Poems, January 1977. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryPauli Murray—an Episcopal priest, attorney, and civil rights activist—became an enduring voice for freedom and equal opportunity during her lifetime (1910–1985). She was a founding member of the Congress of Racial Equality and the National Organization for Women, as well as a pioneer of African American genealogy.

“Dark Testament” was published in Murray’s only book of poetry, Dark Testament and Other Poems (1970), a compilation of poems written between 1933 and 1941. Speaking of her poetry, Murray said, “I think the same thing that made me write poetry, Dark Testament, the same kind of . . . I don't know whether to call it fire, the same kind of unrest, the same kind of response to situations, made me participate in activities.”

Listen to audio of Pauli Murray reading “Dark Testament”

Transcript of audio recording

[Start of first track]

[Pauli Murray speaking]

Dark Testament.

In memory of Stephen Vincent Benét.

[Pause]

Freedom is a dream
Haunting as amber wine
Or worlds remembered out of time.
Not Eden's gate, but freedom
Lures us down a trail of skulls
Where men forever crush the dreamers—
Never the dream.

I was an Israelite walking a sea bottom,
I was a Negro slave following the North Star,
I was an immigrant huddled in ship's belly,
I was a Mormon searching for a temple,
I was a refugee clogging roads to nowhere—
Always the dream was the same—
Always the dream was freedom.

[Pause]

America was a new dream and a new world for dreaming.
America was the vast sleeping Gulliver of the globe.
America was the dream of freedom,
But the dream was lost when campfires grew,
The Bible twisted as white men threw
The Redskins back to mountain pass,
The senses dulled with whiskey flask,
The arrow broken by searing lead.
"Better to die," the Red Man said.

The white slave ran away too soon,
Followed the path of dying moon—
 A face forgotten in frontier shack
Where none asked questions, few turned back,
Here was a place where a man could stand
Holding free earth in scrawny hand.
Here was a world where freedom was won
By the hand on an axe, the hand on a gun.

[End of first track]

[Start of second track]

[Pauli Murray speaking]

[Pause]

Free earth hungered for free men but
Free men soon hungered for gold.
Planters bargained with traders, traders bargained with slavers,
Slavers turned toward Africa.
The dream was lost in the quest for gold.

The men of Africa were stalwart men,
Tough as hickory deep in their primal forests,
Their skins the color of tree-bark—
Ebony, bamboo, cocoanut, mango—
Their hair was thick with jungle,
Their eyes were dark as star-fed night.
They were sly and cunning, fearless and cool,
They knew the cry of every forest bird and beast.

Smelters of iron, carvers of wood and ivory,
Weavers and potters of intricate design,
Followers of the honeybird to the honeytree,
Hunters of antelope, lion and elephant,
Some were gentle tribes and some were fiercely brave,
Warriors of the poisoned spear
Testing their strength in battle man for man.
And when they killed the foe, they ate his heart
To make themselves invincible.

Story-tellers all, refusing to be hurried,
Who nightly by the village fires
Recalled their tribal history,
Evoked ancestral heroes,
Imbued their young with pride.
And every task no matter what its import
Signalled a joyous song and tribal dance.

[Pause]

O black warrior,
Hurl a dark spear of song
Borne on a night-wind
Piercing the sorrow-haunted darkness—
Perpetual cycle of grief,
Cruel legacy of endless betrayal,
Frenzied anger beating against
Impenetrable walls of silence!

Ours is no bedtime story children beg to hear,
No heroes rode down the night to warn our sleeping villages.
Ours is a tale of blood streaking the Atlantic—

From Africa to Barbados
From Haiti to Massachusetts,
From Rhode Island to Virginia,
From the red clay of Georgia
To requiem in Memphis,
From swampy graves in Mississippi
To the morgues of Detroit.

Ours is a tale of charred and blackened fruit,
Aborted harvest dropped from blazing bough,
A tale of eagles exiled from the nest,
Brooding and hovering on the edge of sky—
A somber shadow on this native earth,
Yet no faint tremor of her breast
Eludes the circle of our hungered eye.

[Pause]

Black men were safe when tom-toms slumbered
'Til traders came with beads and rum,
Bartered and bribed on their slaver's quest,
Killed the watcher, silenced the drum.

Villages screamed in headless horror,
Villages blazed with fiery eye,
Trapped lions roared no greater terror
Than man pinned back on burning sky.
With one great throat the forests thundered,
With one vast body their creatures fled
But man the hunter was now the hunted
Bleeding fresh trails of dying and dead.

Tethered beneath a slave-ship's girth,
The hours throbbed with dying and birth,
Foaming and champing in slime and dung,
Rumbling curses in a jungle tongue,
Torturous writhing of limbs that burst,
Whimpering children choked with thirst,
Vomiting milk from curdled breast,
Rat's teeth sinking in suckling's chest,
Slave ships plunging through westing waves,
Grinding proud men to cringing slaves.

"Oh, runnin’ slaves is a risky trade
When you cross the path of Gov'ment sail,
They'll smell you five miles down the wind
For a slaver stinks like a rotting whale.
And when they spy you, dump your cargo,
Shove the first black over the rail . . ."

He twists, he spins, he claws at the sun,
He plummets down, dark dagger in the flood,
He sucks in the others one by one
And the foam track crimsons with their blood
As glistening shark fins flash among
The black heads bobbing on the wave,
The slave ship flees and freedom is won
In churning torrent, in fathomless grave.

[Pause]

We have not forgotten the market square—
Malignant commerce in our flesh—
Huddled like desolate sheep—
Tumult of boisterous haggling—
We waited the dreadful moment of dispersal.
One by one we climbed the auction block—
Naked in an alien land—

Driven by whip's relentless tongue
To dance and caper in the sun,
Ripple the muscles from shoulders to hips,
To show the teeth and bulge the biceps,
To feel the shame of a girl whose breasts
Are bared to squeeze of a breeder's fists.

Sold! Resold with the same coin
Our unrewarded sweat had borne.
Endless tearing—man wrested from woman
Warm and brown as sunflower heart,
Plucked up, thrust down in untamed earth,
Uprooted, dispersed again—she was too brief a wife.
She sits in frozen grief
And stares with mindless eyes
At fatherless children crying in the night.

[Pause]

Trade a king's freedom for a barrel of molasses,
Trade a queen's freedom for a red bandanna,
Or Cherokee-mulattoes in North Carolina,
Or a Creole mistress in Louisiana.
Sell a man's brain for a handful of greenbacks,
Mark him up in Congress—he's three-fifths human,
Mark him down in the record with mules and mortgage,
Sell him long! Sell him short! Cotton's a-boomin'.
Take a black's manhood, give a white God,
Send him 'way down in the dismal woods
Where a black man's tears will not embarrass
A white man's juleps and lofty moods.

A black man down on his knees in the swamp-grass
Sent his prayer straight to the white God's throne,
Built him a faith, built a bridge to this God
And God gave him hope and the power of song.

[Pause]

Hope is a crushed stalk
Between clenched fingers.
Hope is a bird's wing
Broken by a stone.
Hope is a word in a tuneless ditty—
A word whispered with the wind,
A dream of forty acres and a mule,
A cabin of one's own and a moment to rest,
A name and place for one's children
And children's children at last.
Hope is a song in a weary throat.

Give me a song of hope
And a world where I can sing it.
Give me a song of faith
And a people to believe in it.
Give me a song of kindliness
And a country where I can live it.
Give me a song of hope and love
And a brown girl's heart to hear it.

[Pause]

Pity the poor who hate—
Wild brood of earth's lean seasons—
Pity the poor, the land-robbed whites,
Driven by planters to marshy backlands,
Driven by fevers, pellagra and hookworm,
Driven to hate niggers warm in their cabins,
The nigger fed on scraps from the Big House,
The nigger's hands on a fine tall coach-whip,
The half-white nigger in a rich man's kitchen.

Give 'em a chance they'd burn that nigger,
Burn 'im on a tree in the swamp lands,
Teach 'im not to eat while white men hungered,
Teach 'im even God is white
And had no time for niggers' praying,
Teach 'im that the devil is black
And niggers were the sons of evil.

Pity slave and serf in their misery,
Bound by common fate to common destiny.

[Pause]

The drivers are dead now
But the drivers have sons.
The slaves are dead too
But the slaves have sons,
And when sons of drivers meet sons of slaves
The hate, the old hate, keeps grinding on.
Traders still trade in double-talk
Though they've swapped the selling block
For ghetto and gun!

This is our portion, this is our testament,
This is America, dual-brained creature,
One hand thrusting us out to the stars,
One hand shoving us down in the gutter.

Pile up the records, sing of pioneers,
Point to images chipped from mountain heart,
Swagger through history with glib-tongued traditions,
Say of your grass roots, "We are a hard-ribbed people,
One nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all."

Put it all down in a time capsule,
Bury it deep in the soil of Virginia,
Bury slave-song with the Constitution,
Bury it in that vineyard of planters
And poll-taxers, sharecroppers and Presidents.
In coffin and outhouse all men are equal,
And the same red earth is fed
By the white bones of Tom Jefferson
And the white bones of Nat Turner.

[Pause]

Tear it out of the history books!
Bury it in conspiracies of silence!
Fight many wars to suppress it!
But it is written in our faces
Twenty million times over!

It sings in our blood,
It cries from the housetops,
It mourns with the wind in the forests,
When dogs howl and will not be comforted,
When newborn lambs bleat in the snowdrifts,
And dead leaves rattle in the graveyards.
And we'll shout it from the mountains,
We'll tell it in the valleys,
We'll talk it in miner's shack,
We'll sing it at the work bench,
We'll whisper it over back fences,
We'll speak it in the kitchen,
We'll state it at the White House,
We'll tell it everywhere to all who will listen—

We will lay siege, let thunder serve our claim,
For it must be told, endlessly told, and you must hear it.
Listen, white brothers, hear the dirge of history,
And hold out your hand—hold out your hand.

[Pause]

Of us who darkly stand
Bared to the spittle of every curse,
Nor left the dignity of beasts,
Let none say, "Those were not men
But cowards all, with eyes dull-lidded as a frog's.
They labored long but not from love,
They strove from blind perpetual fear."

Better our seed rot on the ground
And our hearts burn to ash
Than the years be empty of our imprint.
We have no other dream, no land but this;
With slow deliberate hands these years
Have set her image on our brows.
We are her seed, have borne a fruit
Native and pure as unblemished cotton.

Then let the dream linger on.
Let it be the test of nations,
Let it be the quest of all our days,
The fevered pounding of our blood,
The measure of our souls—
That none shall rest in any land
And none return to dreamless sleep,
No heart be quieted, no tongue be stilled
Until the final man may stand in any place
And thrust his shoulders to the sky,
Friend and brother to every other man.

[End of second track]

[Start of third track]

[Margaret Hayes singing]

Unintelligible.

[Pauli Murray speaking]

We are presenting Dark Testament with words by Pauli Murray and music by Margaret Hayes.

[Pause]

[Margaret Hayes singing]

[soft guitar music]

Freedom is a dream
Haunting as amber wine
Or worlds remembered out of time.
Not Eden's gate, but freedom
Lures us down a trail of skulls
Where men forever crush the dreamers—
Never the dream.

I was an Israelite walking a sea bottom,
I was a Negro slave following the North Star,
I was an immigrant huddled in ship's belly,
I was a Mormon searching for a temple,
I was a refugee clogging roads to nowhere—
Always the dream was the same—
Always the dream was freedom.

Always the dream was freedom.

[Pause]

America was a new dream and a new world for dreaming.
America was the vast sleeping Gulliver of the globe.
America was the dream of freedom,
But the dream was lost when campfires grew,
The Bible twisted as white men threw
The Redskins back to mountain pass,
The senses dulled with whiskey flask,
The arrow broken by searing lead.
"Better to die," the Red Man said.

The white slave ran away too soon,
Followed the path of dying moon—
 A face forgotten in frontier shack
Where none asked questions, few turned back,
Here was a place where a man could stand
Holding free earth in scrawny hand.
Here was a world where freedom was won
By the hand on an axe, the hand on a gun.

[Pause]

Free earth hungered for free men but
Free men hungered soon for gold.
Planters bargained with traders, traders bargained with slavers,
Slavers turned toward Africa.
The dream was lost in the quest for gold.

The men of Africa were stalwart men,
Tough as hickory deep in their primal forests,
Their skins the color of tree-bark,
Ebony, bamboo, cocoanut, mango.
Their hair was thick with jungle,
Their eyes were dark as star-fed night.
They were sly and cunning, fearless and cool,
They knew the cry of every forest bird and beast.

Smelters of iron, carvers of wood and ivory,
Weavers and potters of intricate design,
Followers of the honeybird to the honey tree,
Hunters of antelope, lion and elephant,
Some were gentle tribes and some were fiercely brave
Warriors of the poisoned spear
Testing their strength in battle man for man.
And when they killed the foe, they ate his heart
To make themselves invincible.

Story-tellers all, refusing to be hurried,
Who nightly by the village fires
Recalled their tribal history,
Evoked ancestral heroes,
Imbued their young with pride.
And no task no matter what its import
Signalled a joyous song and tribal dance.

Ours is no bedtime story children beg to hear,
No heroes rode down the night to warn our sleeping villages.
Ours is a tale of blood streaking the Atlantic—

From Africa to Barbados
From Haiti to Massachusetts,
From Rhode Island to Virginia,
From the red clay of Georgia
To requiem in Memphis,
From swampy graves in Mississippi
To the morgues of Detroit.

Ours is a tale of charred and blackened fruit,
Aborted harvest dropped from blazing bough,
A tale of eagles exiled from the nest,
Brooding and hovering on the edge of sky—
A somber shadow on this native earth,
Yet no faint tremor of her breast
Eludes the circle of our hungered eye.

[Pause]

Black men were safe when tom-toms slumbered
'Til traders came with beads and rum,
Bartered and bribed on their slaver's quest,
Killed the watcher, silenced the drum.

Villages screamed in headless horror,
Villages blazed with fiery eye,
Trapped lions roared no greater terror
Than man pinned back on burning sky.
With one great throat the forests thundered,
With one vast body their creatures fled
But man the hunter was now the hunted
Bleeding fresh trails of dying and dead.

Tethered beneath a slave-ship's girth,
The hours throbbed with dying and birth,
Foaming and champing in slime and dung,
Rumbling curses in a jungle tongue,
Torturous writhings of limbs that burst,
Whimpering children choked with thirst,
Vomiting milk from curdled breast,
Rat's teeth sinking in suckling's chest,
Slave ships plunging through westing waves,
Grinding proud men to cringing slaves.

"Oh, running slaves is a risky trade
When you cross the path of Gov'ment sail,
They'll smell you five miles down the wind
For a slaver stinks like a rotting whale.
And when they spy you, dump your cargo,
Shove the first black over the rail . . ."

He twists, he spins, he claws at the sun,
He plummets down, dark dagger in the flood,
He sucks in the others one by one
And the foam track crimson with their blood
As glistening shark fins flash among
The black heads bobbing on the wave,
The slave ship flees and freedom is won
In churning torrent, in fathomless grave.

[Pause]

We have not forgotten the market square
Malignant commerce in our flesh
Huddled like desolate sheep
Tumult of boisterous haggling
We waited the dreadful moment of dispersal.
One by one we climbed the auction block,
Naked in an alien land.

Driven by whip's relentless tongue
To dance and caper in the sun,
Ripple the muscles from shoulders to hips,
To show the teeth and bulge the biceps,
To feel the shame of a girl whose breasts
Are bared to squeeze of a breeder's fists.

Sold! Resold with the same coin
Our unrewarded sweat had borne.
Endless tearing—man wrested from woman
Warm and brown as a sunflower heart,
Plucked up, thrust down in untamed earth,
Uprooted, dispersed again—she was too brief a wife.
She sits in frozen grief
And stares with mindless eyes
At fatherless children crying in the night.

[Pause]

Trade a king's freedom for a barrel of molasses,
Trade a queen's freedom for a red bandanna,
Or Cherokee-mulattoes in North Carolina,
Or a Creole mistress in Louisiana.
Sell a man's brain for a handful of greenbacks,
Mark him up in Congress—he's three-fifths human,
Mark him down in the record with mules and mortgage,
Sell him long! Sell him short! Cotton's a-booming.
Take a black's manhood, give a white God,
Send him ‘way down in the dismal woods
Where a black man's tears will not embarrass
A white man's juleps and lofty moods.

A black man down on his knees in the swamp grass
Sent his prayer straight to the white God's throne,
Built him a faith, built a bridge to this God
And God gave him hope and the power of song.

[Pause]

Hope is a crushed stalk
Between clenched fingers.
Hope is a bird's wing
Broken by stone.
Hope is a word in a tuneless ditty
A word whispered with the wind,
A dream of forty acres and a mule,
A cabin of one's own and a moment to rest,
A name and a place for one's children
And children's children at last.
Hope is a song in a weary throat.

Give me a song of hope
And a world where I can sing it.
Give me a song of faith
And a people to believe in it.
Give me a song of kindliness
And a country where I can live it.
Give me a song of hope and love
And a brown girl's heart to hear it.

[Pause]

Pity the poor who hate
Wild brood of earth's lean seasons
Pity the poor, the land-robbed whites,
Driven by planters to marshy backlands,
Driven by fevers, pellagra and hookworm,
Driven to hate niggers warm in their cabins,
The nigger fed on scraps from the Big House,
The nigger's hands on a fine tall coach-whip,
The half-white nigger in a rich man's kitchen.

Give 'em a chance they'd burn that nigger,
Burn 'im on a tree in the swamp lands,
Teach 'im not to eat while white men hungered,
Teach 'im that even God is white
And had no time for niggers' praying,
Teach 'im that the devil is black
And niggers were the sons of evil.

Pity slave and serf in their misery,
Bound by common fate to common destiny.

[Pause]

The drivers are dead now
But the drivers have sons.
The slaves are dead too
But the slaves have sons,
And when sons of drivers meet sons of slaves
The hate, the old hate, keeps grinding on.
Traders still trade in double-talk
Though they've swapped the selling block
For ghetto and gun!

This is our portion, this is our testament,
This is America, dual-brained creature,
One hand thrusting us out to the stars,
One hand shoving us down to the gutter.

Pile up the records, sing of pioneers,
Point to images chipped from mountain heart,
Swagger through history with glib-tongued traditions,
Say of your grass roots, "We are a hard-ribbed people,
One nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all."

Put it all down in a time capsule,
Bury it deep in the soil of Virginia,
Bury slave song with the Constitution,
Bury it in that vineyard of planters
And poll-taxers, sharecroppers and Presidents.
In coffin and outhouse all men are equal,
And the same red earth is fed
By the white bones of Tom Jefferson
And the white bones of Nat Turner.

[Pause]

Tear it out of the history books!
Bury it in conspiracies of silence!
Fight many wars to suppress it!
But it is written in our faces
Twenty million times over!

It sings in our blood,
It cries from the housetops,
It mourns with the wind in the forests,
When dogs howl and will not be comforted,
When newborn lambs bleat in the snowdrifts,
And dead leaves rattle in the graveyards.
And we'll shout it from the mountains,
We'll tell it in the valleys,
We'll talk it in miner's shack,
We'll sing it at the work bench,
We'll whisper it over back fences,
We'll speak it in the kitchen,
We'll state it in the White House,
We'll tell it everywhere to all who will listen—

We will lay siege, let thunder serve our claim,
For it must be told, endlessly told, and you must hear it.
Listen, white brothers, hear the dirge of history,
And hold out your hand—hold out your hand.

[Pause]

Of us who darkly stand
Bared to the spittle of every curse,
Nor left the dignity of beasts,
Let no one say, "Those were not men
But cowards all, with eyes dull-lidded as a frog.
They labored long but not from love,
They strove from blind perpetual fear."

Better our seed rot on the ground
And our hearts burn to ash
Than the years be empty of our imprint.
We have no other dream, no land but this;
With slow deliberate hands these years
Have set her image on our brows.
We are her seed, have borne a fruit
Native and pure as unblemished cotton.

Then let the dream linger on.
Let it be test of the nations,
Let it be the quest of all our days,
The fevered pounding of our blood,
The measure of our souls
That none shall rest in any land
And none return to dreamless sleep,
No heart be quieted, no tongue be stilled
Until the final man may stand in any place
And thrust his shoulders to the sky,
Friend and brother to every other man.

[end of third track]

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Angela Davis Speaks at Critical Resistance Meeting about the Prison Industrial Complex

Angela Davis, 1975. Photo credit Israel Sun Ltd. Courtesy of Harvard LibraryAngela Davis, 1975. Photo credit Israel Sun Ltd. Courtesy of Harvard LibraryAngela Davis—scholar, author, and black feminist philosopher—is one of the most recognized political activists in the United States. She writes and lectures on social injustice, social movements, the intersections of race, gender, and class, the prison-industrial complex, and prison abolition. She has published many books, including Angela Davis: An Autobiography (1974); Women, Race, and Class (1983); Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday (1999); and Abolition Democracy: Beyond Prisons, Torture, and Empire (2005).

In 1970, Davis was charged as an accomplice to conspiracy, kidnapping, and murder. Her arrest sparked an international campaign to gain her release. In 1972, after a high-profile trial, she was acquitted of all charges. Davis is an advocate for prisoners' rights and a founding member of Critical Resistance, a national organization dedicated to abolishing the prison industrial complex.

View video of Angela Davis speaking at a Critical Resistance meeting about the "prison industrial complex" (ca. 1998) 

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June Jordan Reads "Poem about Police Violence"

June Jordan, ca. 1970-1975. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryJune Jordan, ca. 1970-1975. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryPoet and activist June Jordan (1936–2002) wrote powerfully about liberation from race and gender discrimination. Jordan’s poems often addressed violence and injustice faced by women and black people in the United States.

Jordan wrote “Poem About Police Violence” in 1978 after the murder of Arthur Miller in Brooklyn, New York. New York City police choked Miller to death on June 14, 1978. The poem was published in Jordan’s book Passion (Beacon Press, 1980).

Listen to Jordan read the poem, which in this recording she calls "Poem On Police Violence”

Transcript of audio recording

[June Jordan speaking]

Poem on Police Violence

Tell me something
what you think would happen if
every time they kill a black boy
then we kill a cop
every time they kill a black man
then we kill a cop

you think the accident rate would lower
subsequently?

sometimes the feeling like amaze me baby
comes back to my mouth and I am quiet
like Olympian pools from the running the
mountainous snows under the sun

sometimes thinking about the 12th House of the Cosmos
or the way your ear ensnares the tip
of my tongue or signs that I have never seen
like DANGER WOMEN WORKING

I lose consciousness of ugly bestial rabid
and repetitive affront as when they tell me
18 cops in order to subdue one man
18 strangled him to death in the ensuing scuffle (don’t
you idolize the diction of the powerful: subdue and
scuffle my oh my) and that the murder
that the killing of Arthur Miller on a Brooklyn
street was just a “justifiable accident” again
again

People been having accidents all over the globe
so long like that I reckon that the only
suitable insurance is a gun
I’m saying war is not to understand or rerun
war is to be fought and won

sometimes the feeling like amaze me baby
blots it out/the bestial but
not too often

tell me something
what you think would happen if
every time they kill a black boy
then we kill a cop
every time they kill a black man
then we kill a cop

you think the accident rate would lower
subsequently?

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Rosa Parks Oral History Interview

Group portrait of Rosa Parks surrounded by her granddaughters, ca. 1982. Photo by Judith Sedwick. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryGroup portrait of Rosa Parks surrounded by her granddaughters, ca. 1982. Photo by Judith Sedwick. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

Rosa Parks (1913–2005) recalls the evening she refused to leave her seat for a white man on her bus ride home from work on December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama. Her courageous act of civil disobedience set in motion the Montgomery Bus Boycott and, a year later, the Supreme Court decision in Browder v. Gayle (1956) that ruled that Montgomery's bus segregation laws were unconstitutional. At the time of her arrest, Parks worked as a seamstress in a department store and served as secretary for the local chapter of the NAACP. Fired from her job, she stayed in Montgomery until the boycott forced an end to all dIscriminatory practices on the bus lines. In 1957 she and her husband moved to Detroit, Michigan, where in 1965 she took a part-time job as receptionist and administrative aide in the office of Congressman John Conyers. She was the first woman in 1980 to receive the Martin Luther King, Jr., Nonviolent Peace Prize.

This audio recording is part of The Black Women Oral History Project, including 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.

Listen to Rosa Parks Oral History Interview, Detroit, Michigan, The Black Women's Oral History Project. Marcia McAdoo Greenlee (interviewer), August 22 and 23, 1978

Transcript of interview recording

[start of track]

Marcia M. Greenlee [MMG]:  

On the first of December, 1955, you refused to give up your seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery bus. Your action and the subsequent developments from that action resulted in a Montgomery bus boycott, which in turn launched a new phase in the civil rights struggle. Other black passengers could have refused to give up their seats. The person next to you on the bus could have remained seated beside you. But everyone else dutifully acquiesced to the white bus driver's demand that they move. Only you stayed in your seat. Why? 

Rosa Parks [RP]: 

I think it was because I was so involved with the attempt to bring about freedom from this kind of thing. I had seen so much within reach on the basis of the Whitney Young experience under the same situation that I felt that there was nothing else I could do to show that I was not pleased with.... People have said that I was a great democrat, people say things like that, but I was not conscious of being...I felt just resigned to give what I could to protest against the way I was being treated, and I felt that all of our meetings, trying to negotiate, bring about petitions before the authorities, that is the city officials, really hadn't done any good at all. And as long as we continued to give them our patronage... I recall Mr. Eddie Mitchell saving that he had a committee that had gone before the bus company  for the extension of the bus line to the same area and the community where most of our people lived, instead of them having to walk an hour, or whatever length of time it was...And then came the [time] to propose it, and they were told that as long as they thought...was there any need of them extending the line? This wasn't conscious in my mind at that moment, but so many incidences where I think that always make it appear that if a few of us form a committee, which [try to ] have this thing remedied...make it appear that that was what we wanted. And they were pleased that they didn't have to extend it, as long as we accepted it to be that way. At this point I felt that, if I did stand up, it meant that I approved of the way I was being treated, and I did not approve. 

MMG: 

Had you ever broken any segregation laws or practices previously? 

RP: 

I had not, to a great extent, but I hadn't...I started to think about some of the times...I, this to me...First of all, I wanted to say that at this point on the bus ride, I didn't consider myself breaking any segregation laws that I wanted...because he was extending what we considered our section in the bus. I had refused on any number of occasions to give my fare at the front of the bus, and then go around to the back to get in. That was another thing that some of the bus drivers would do. See, all of the bus drivers did not practice the same...it was not uniform. There were just certain bus drivers that would insist on you going to the back after you give him the fare. You would step up in the bus, get in the bus, and then step back off the bus and go around to the rear to enter. And neither did all of them ask you to stand up if there was white people standing. So it seemed like each driver was at his own discretion. 

MMG:  

And this was a zealous one that you encountered that night. 

RP:  

It seemed to be. 

MMG:  

What was the reaction of the other black people on the bus when this happened? 

RP:  

They didn't any of them say anything to me. Some few did get off the bus, and I know some of them asked for a transfer, and then some just got off by main door. But during the time when I was there, all remained the same exactly where they were. 

MMG:  

Nobody tried to interfere with what was going on between you and the white driver? 

RP:  

No. 

MMG:  

Did you resent that in any way? 

RP:  

No. 

MMG:  

Did you expect some support? 

RP:  

No, I didn't. It didn't even enter my mind. Because I knew the attitude of people. It was pretty rough to go against the system to the extent that you might not...There was one man who was on the bus, he lived next door to where we lived, and he could have if he'd wanted to, gotten off the bus to let my husband know that I was arrested. My husband thinks kind of hard of him for not at least telling him what had happened on the bus. Because he knew him very well. And then there was another man who got on the bus, and he got on just after me, 'cause I spoke to him as he was stepping on the bus. He asked me a few days later if I had needed him as a witness, and I said I didn't even remember... 

MMG:  

Did you ever find out the name of that bus driver? Was there ever any direct reference to him in the legal matters that developed later? 

RP:  

Oh, yes. I remember his name very shortly. His last name was Blake. I can't remember his initial. 

MMG:  

What does he think about the incident in retrospect? Do you remember what he said? 

RP:  

I can't remember exactly what he said. As far as he was concerned, it was all in his duty. 

MMG:  

What was your family's reaction? Your mother and brother and husband? 

RP:  

Well, my mother was pretty upset when I called her. She answered the telephone, and I told her I was in jail. And I don't remember exactly what my brother said to me, he was here, in Detroit, not Montgomery. I'll have to find out, better than I, if she can remember anything special. I know he was...I don't know if he was so surprised or not, but he was pretty upset, too, I'm sure. He didn't want us to... 

MMG:  

During any of this time, just after the incident occurred, and you were taken off and arrested, and broken arrest, yet did you ever feel fearful? 

RP:  

Well, it was a strange feeling because you always feel that something could...even before the incident of my arrest, I could leave home feeling that anything could happen at any time...harassment. I think the hardest days I had were when I was still working in the department store. I would see some of the people who worked in the store, and I don't know whether there was anything personal to it, I could see their attitude, the attitude they had. Some of them were very...well, they didn't say anything to me, but they were just, they'd ignore me as though I wasn't there. 

MMG:  

Were you ever involved with the Montgomery Improvement Association, or the boycott that followed, in a policy making capacity? 

RP:  

I was on the board—I'm trying to think, board of directors—and I sat in on some meetings, but I didn't have too much time to be in the actual planning. But I did for a short while. But at that time, while so much of this was being fought, and so many plans were being made, I was being invited away from Montgomery quite a bit. I don't remember—it's hard to remember now, except that I did as many as I could, if I could, and if they called on me, if they had any marching or anything, if I could.  

MMG:  

How did you come to Detroit? 

RP:  

You mean, how did I travel? 

MMG:  

Well, no, not that so much as what made you decide to go ahead and come. 

RP:  

Because my brother was living here. 

MMG:  

And you and your husband felt that conditions just weren't going to get better immediately where they were? 

RP:  

Well, they were not any too good. Of course, it was quiet before there was any disturbance or any harassment at that time. And my mother wanted to spend as much time as she could with the two of us and she couldn't spend time with him if she remained with me there. And if she left me there, then she felt uneasy, I think. Part of our..., she and my brother got together more so than I did, and found a place for us to move, for us to live, and we came.  

MMG:  

What was life like for you and your husband after you moved to Detroit? 

RP:  

Well, it was not any too easy. Well, shortly after I moved to Detroit, I was offered a job and accepted one in Hampton, Virginia, at Hampton Institute. I earned a little money, and he was working in a barber school. He didn't have a Michigan license or anything, so he had to pass the examination, be officially [licensed]. He was working in a barber school for a man of our [race], teaching some apprentice barbers the work and training them. [unintelligible] 

[end of track] 

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Audre Lorde Reads "Afterimages"

Audre Lorde (right) with Pat Parker in 1981. Photo credit Susan D. Fleischmann. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryAudre Lorde (right) with Pat Parker in 1981. Photo credit Susan D. Fleischmann. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryThe poetry of Audre Lorde (1934–1992) often explores the tensions and joys of her overlapping identities as a black woman, a feminist, and a lesbian. In the introduction to this 1981 reading Lorde addresses these issues of intersectionality, saying to the women in the crowd, "I am also very, very conscious of those things which separate us, of the causes, of anger, and of the reasons why we do not hear each other when we do not hear each other."

"Afterimages" comes from a set of poems called "Women in Rage," and it centers on the story of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy who was brutally murdered in Mississippi in the summer of 1955.

Listen to audio of Audre Lorde reading “Afterimages”

Transcript of audio recording

[start of track]

[Audre Lorde speaking]

This poem is dedicated to each of you and to Emmett Till, who I hope is a name that is familiar to at least some of you in this room of over five hundred women.

Afterimages

[pause]

However the image enters
its force remains
my eyes are
rockstrewn caves where dragonfish evolve
wild for life, relentless and acquisitive
learning to survive
where there is no food
my eyes are always hungry
and remembering
however the image enters
its force remains.
A white woman stands bereft and empty
a black boy hacked into a murderous lesson
recalled in me forever
like a lurch of earth on the edge of sleep
etched into my visions
food for dragonfish that learn
to live upon whatever they must eat
the fused images beneath my pain.

[pause]

The Pearl River floods through the streets of Jackson
A Mississippi summer televised.
Trapped houses kneel like sinners in the rain
a white woman climbs from her roof to a passing boat
her fingers tarry for a moment on her chimney
now awash
tearless, no longer young, she holds
a tattered baby's blanket in her arms.
In the flickering afterimage of this nightmare rain
a microphone
thrust up against her flat bewildered words
“we jest come from the bank yestiddy
borrowing money to pay the income tax
now everything's gone. I never knew
it could be so hard.”
Despair weighs down her voice like Pearl River mud
caked around the edges
her pale eyes scan the camera for help or explanation
and then unanswered
she shifts her search across the watered street, dry-eyed
“hard,” she says, “but not this hard.”
And two tow-headed children hurl themselves against her
hanging upon her coat like mirrors
until a man with ham-like hands pulls her aside with a snarl
“She ain't got nothing more to say!”
and that lie hangs in his mouth
like a shred of rotting meat.

Part 3

I inherited Jackson, Mississippi.
For my majority it gave me Emmett Till
his 15 years puffed out like bruises
on plump boy-cheeks
his only Mississippi summer
whistling a 21 gun salute to Dixie
while a white girl passed him in the street
and he was baptized my son forever
in the midnight waters of the Pearl.

His broken body is the afterimage of my 21st year
when I walked through a northern summer
my eyes averted
from each corner's photographies
newspapers protest posters magazines
Confidential, Police Story, True
the avid insistence of detail
pretending insight or information
the length of gash across the dead boy's loins
his grieving mother's lamentations
the severed lips, how many burns
his gouged out eyes
sewed shut upon the covers
louder than life
all over
the veiled warning, the secret relish
of a black child's mutilated body
fingered by street-corner eyes
bruise upon livid bruise
and wherever I looked that summer
I learned to be at home with children's blood
with savored violence
with pictures of black broken flesh
used, crumpled, discarded
lying amid the sidewalk refuse
like a raped woman's face.

A black boy from Chicago
whistled on the streets of Jackson,
tested what he'd been taught was a manly thing to do
his teachers
ripped out his eyes his sex his tongue
and flung him to the Pearl weighted with stone
in the name of white womanhood
they took their aroused honor
back to Jackson
and celebrated in a whorehouse
the double ritual of white manhood
confirmed.

[pause]

Part 4

“If earth and air and water do not judge them who am I
to refuse a crust of bread?”

Emmett Till rides the crest of the Pearl, whistling
24 years his ghost lay like the shade of a raped woman
and a white girl has grown older in costly honor
(what did she pay to never know the price?)
now the Pearl River speaks its muddy judgment
and I can withhold my pity and my bread.

"Hard,” she says, “but not this hard.”
Her face is flat with resignation and despair
with ancient and familiar sorrows
a woman surveying her crumpled future
as the white girl besmirched by Emmett's whistle
never allowed her own tongue
without power or conclusion
unvoiced
she stands amid the...she stands adrift in the ruins of her honor
and a man with a face of an executioner
pulls her away.

“Hard, but not this hard.”
Within my eyes
the flickering afterimage of a nightmare rain
a woman wrings her hands
beneath the weight of agonies remembered
I wade through other summer ghosts
betrayed by visions
hers and my own
becoming dragonfish to survive
the horrors we are living
with tortured lungs
adapting to breathe blood.

A woman measures her life's damage
my eyes are caves, chunks of etched rock
tied to the ghost of a black boy
whistling
crying and frightened
her tow-headed children cluster
like little mirrors of despair
their father's hands upon them
and soundlessly
a woman begins to weep.

[applause]

[end of track]

Back to top

Pat Parker Reads “Jonestown and Other Madness”

Pat Parker on stage reading, November 6, 1978. Photo by Leigh Mosley. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryPat Parker on stage reading, November 6, 1978. Photo by Leigh Mosley. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryAfrican American feminist lesbian poet Pat Parker (1944–1989) published her first book of poetry, Child of Myself, in 1972. In 1978 Parker became director of Oakland's Feminist Women's Health Center and in 1980 she founded the Black Women's Revolutionary Council, a group of revolutionary feminists intended to educate people about the effects of racism, classism, and sexism. Her other works included Womanslaughter (1978), Movement in Black: The Collected Poetry of Pat Parker, 19611978 (1978), and Jonestown and Other Madness (1985).

In this recording, Parker reads the title poem from Jonestown and Other Madness, which alludes to the mass murder-suicide that took place at the People Temple Agricultural Project in Guyana in 1978 at the behest of charismatic cult leader Jim Jones. About 70 percent of the number of victims in Jonestown were Black. 

Listen to audio of Pat Parker reading “Jonestown and Other Madness” 

Transcript of audio recording

[start of track]

[Pat Parker speaking]

This next poem is a title poem for my next book, which will be called Jonestown and Other Madness.

[noise from audience]

This poem is the title poem from my next book which will be called Jonestown and Other Madness.

And depending upon

[pause]

what I feel about a contract that's in my briefcase, and what they feel about the rest of the poems that are included in the book, it will probably be published by a local women's press that has the same initials as I do.

[laughter, applause]

Now did y'all figure that out?

[laughter]

As a child in Texas
race education 
was simple
was subtle
was sharp

The great lone star 
state sharply 
placed me 
in colored schools 
with colored teachers 
and colored books 
and colored knowledge 

I shopped in white stores
and bought colored clothes
‘Keep the colors loud and bright 
so they dazzle in the night
No matter where a nigger’s bred 
they love yellow, orange and red’ 

I used colored toilets 
and road colored buses home
I went to colored churches 
with colored preachers 
and prayed to a white God 
begged forgiveness for Cain 
and his sin 
and his descendants 
us lowly colored sinners
and the message 
was simple 
and sharp 
there is a place for niggers 
but not among good white folk 

At home
race education 
was simple
was subtle 
facts gleaned 
by differences

The white man 
who jumped 
free-fell 
in the sky 
was quietly dismissed
‘white folks are crazy’ 
the white man 
who turned 
somersaults 
on Sports Spectacular skis 
was quietly dismissed 
‘white folks will do anything 
for money’

[laughter from crowd]

the white man who 
shot and killed his wife 
and children 
and then himself 
received a headshake 
and a sigh 
and the simple statement
‘white folks are crazy’ 

And the messages 
fell in place 
white folks went crazy 
and went to nut houses 
Black folks got mad 
and went to jail 
white folks started wars 
Black folks died in them
white folks owned America
Black folks built it

As I grew into adulthood
many messages were discarded
many were forgotten
but one returns to haunt me

Black folks do not commit suicide
Black folks do not
Black folks do not
Black folks do not commit suicide

November 18, 1978
more than 900 people
most of them Black
died in a man-made town 
called Jonestown

Newscasters’ words 
slap me in my face
people's tears and grief 
emanating from my set
and I remember the lessons
reheard a childhood message

Black folks do not commit suicide

I thought of my uncle Dave
he died in prison
suicide
 the authorities said
"Boy just up and hung himself" 
and I remembered my mother
her disbelief, her grief
‘Them white folks killed my brother 
Dave didn't commit no suicide’ 
and the funeral
a bitter quiet funeral
his coffin sealed from sighters 
and we knew 
Dave died not by his hands 
some guard decided 
that nigger should die

And I stare at the newscaster
he struggles to contain himself
it's a BIG BIG story
and he must not 
seem too excited

‘American troops made a 
grizzly discovery today 
in Jonestown, Guyana’ 
my innards scream as 
the facts unfold
‘a communist preacher’ 
and I see old Black women
my grandmothers 
communist        NO 
little old Black ladies 
do not believe in communists

[laughter from crowd]

they believe in God 
and Jesus   yet,
the newscasters’ words 
a commune
a media storm of 
words and pictures
interviews with ex-members
survivors, city officials

the San Francisco Chronicle 
had a problem with its presses
erratic delivery 
of the morning paper
and in two days the Chronicle 
publishes a book 
Eyewitness Account 
of a staff reporter 
who survived 
the airport attack 
and the story grows bigger
STEP RIGHT UP
STEP RIGHT UP
Ladies and Gentlemen
have I got a tale 
for you
we got these men
two men
a congressman & a preacher 
& a supporting cast of hundreds 
the congressman went 
to investigate the preacher 
and wound up dead 
the preacher wound up dead
the supporting cast 
wound up dead 
and all the dead 
are singing to me 

Black folks do not 
Black folks do not 
Black folks do not commit suicide

My phone rings 
the newscaster mistakenly says 
Patricia Parker
not Parks 
died on the airstrip 
a friend 
wants to know 
are you alive?

Yes 
I am here 
not there 
festering 
in a jungle 
with bloated belly
not a victim 
in a dream deferred 
not a piece 
in a media puzzle
not a member 
in the supporting cast. 

Yet 
I am there 
walking with the souls 
of Black folks 
crying 
and screaming
WHY

WHY

Black folks
why are you here 
and dead?
tell me how you 
willingly died 
did the minister 
sing to you
‘Kool-aid Kool-aid 
tastes great
I like Kool-aid 
can't wait’

I see Black people
beautiful Black people 
in lines in front of a tub 
of twentieth-century hemlock
The guards with guns 
guns
why guns?
 
and the pictures 
continue to flow 
images of a man 
a church man 
he cures disease
NO 
he's a fake
hired people 
in treated liver
he loves God
NO 
he's a communist
he talks many messages 
revolution to the young 
God to the old
he believes in the family
NO 
he destroys the family
fucks the women 
fucks the men
and the media continues 
to tell the tale 

An interview with a live one. 
Newscaster. ‘You were a member of People's Temple?’ 
Man, ‘Yes, I was.’  
‘Why did you join?’ 
‘Well, I went there a few times
and then I stopped going, but 
Reverend Jones came by my house 
and asked me why I quit coming. 
I was really surprised. 
No one had ever cared 
that much about me before.’ 

No one had ever cared 
that much about me before 
and it came home
the messages of my youth 
came clear
the Black people 
in Jonestown 
did not commit suicide
they were murdered 
they were murdered in 
small southern towns 
they were murdered in 
large northern cities

they were murdered 
as school children 
by teachers 
who didn't care
they were murdered 
by policemen 
who didn't care
they were murdered 
by welfare workers 
who didn't care
they were murdered 
by shopkeepers 
who didn't care
they were murdered 
by politicians 
who didn't care
they didn't die at Jonestown
they went to Jonestown dead 
convinced that America 
and Americans 
didn't care

they died 
in the schoolrooms
they died 
in the streets
they died 
in the bars 
they died 
in the jails
they died 
in the churches
they died 
in the welfare lines

Jim Jones was not the cause 
he was the result 
of 400 years 
of not caring

Black folks do not 
Black folks do not 
Black folks do not commit suicide 

Thank you.

[loud applause and cheering from audience]

[end of track]

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Boston Women’s Community Radio: "Reading for Twelve Black Women Killed in Roxbury"

Drawing of two Black women on the cover of the pamphlet "11 Black Women. Why Did They Die?" published in 1979, copyright Combahee River Collective. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryDrawing of two Black women on the cover of the pamphlet "11 Black Women. Why Did They Die?" published in 1979, copyright Combahee River Collective. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

Starting in January and extending into late spring of 1979, twelve Black women and one white woman were murdered in Roxbury, Massachusetts. News coverage was lacking, but the community responded with vigorous action. They marched: nearly 500 people protested at Governor Kevin White’s residence in April, and 5,000 women marched at the August “Take Back the Night” event. They organized: the Combahee River Collective held events and published a series of pamphlets (including the one depicted here); the Coalition for Women’s Safety was created by women in the Greater Boston area. And they shared their voices: holding poetry readings, communicating to the governor, the mayor, the police, and their community. The murders and investigations were underreported, but the women are not forgotten by family, friends, or allies.

From the records of the Boston Women’s Community Radio collection:

Listen to audio of three poems read at the poetry reading, “Reading for Twelve Black Women Killed in Roxbury”:

Poem 1

Poem 2 

Poem 3

Transcript of audio recordings

[Start of first track]

[Anonymous speaker]

All right I’ll read a couple more…

[Audience laughs]

[Pause]

Ruby laughs too loud, drinks too much, pounds you on the back, and can throw a softball better than anybody. The mothers suck their teeth, shake their heads and say “That Robinson girl walks like a man.” We know there must be some sin in this, but we can't quite figure out what it is.

[Audience laughs]

[Pause]

When Ruby talks to you, she rubs her jaw. She wraps her arms tight around herself.

[Pause]

The old woman with the ramrod back, looks me up and down. “Hmm? Whose child did you say you was? Look like one of them Williamses.” She stands sideways to me on the street corner with her hands behind her back, rocking on her toes. “You know, I've worked for the Wilkinsons for 16 years girl. I'm 89 years old and I still work. When I was sick, they brought me my dinner every day for two weeks, and I got paid for it. Now what more could I ask for? What more?” She stops rocking and looks at me again. Now whose child did you say you was? Well, now, ain't you Lizzie's girl?”

Thank you.

[Audience applause]

[End of first track]


[Start of second track]

[Anonymous speaker; possibly Donna Kate Rushin reading her poem “A Bridge Across My Back”]

I've had enough
I’m sick of this shit
I'm sick of seeing and touching
Both sides of things
Sick of being the damn bridge for everybody 

Nobody
Can talk to anybody
Without me Right?

I explain my mother to my father, my father to my little sister
My little sister to my brother, my brother to the white feminists
The white feminists to the Black church folks, the Black church folks
To the Ex-hippies, the ex-hippies to the Black separatists, the
Black separatists to the artists, the artists to my friends' parents...

Then
I've got to explain myself
To everybody

I do more translating
Than the Goddamn U.N.

Forget it
I'm sick of it 

I stretch to span your weaknesses
Then I’m the one who’s wishy-washy 

I'm sick of filling in your gaps
Sick of being your insurance against
The isolation of your self-imposed limitations
Sick of being the crazy at your holiday dinners
Sick of being the odd one at your Sunday Brunches
Sick of being the sole Black friend to 34 individual White people

Find another connection to the rest of the world
Find something else to make you legitimate
Find some other way to be political and hip

I will not be the bridge to your womanhood
Your manhood
Your human-ness

I am sick of reminding you not to
Close off too tight for too long 

I'm sick of mediating with your worst self
On behalf you your better selves 

I am sick
Of having to remind you
To breathe
Before you suffocate
Your own fool self 

Forget it
Stretch or drown
Evolve or die 

The bridge I must be
Is the bridge to my own power
I must translate
My own fears
Mediate
My own weaknesses

I must be the bridge to nowhere
But my true self
And then
I will be useful

[Audience applause]

[2:40 to 3:11: Silence]

[End of second track]


[Start of third track]

[Anonymous speaker]

Can't Have Nothin’

[Pause]

Seems to be cool to be white and act like me

to dress and dance like me.

It is fly to be tan and bra free.

I'm in style, My man, my Afro, my “right on” and “be free”

As long as you're white, it seems to be cool to be black like me.

[Laughs]

[Audience applause]

[End of third track]

Back to top

Melnea A. Cass Oral History Interview

Melnea A. Cass, circa 1970s. Part of The Black Women Oral History Project Records. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryMelnea A. Cass, circa 1970s. Part of The Black Women Oral History Project Records. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryMelnea A. Cass (1896–1978), called "Roxbury's First Lady" and "Roxbury's Elder Stateswoman," recalls the Boston Branch of the NAACP staging sit-ins to protest the Boston School Committee's segregation policies within the Boston Public School system. Cass was active in the NAACP (president, Boston branch 1962–1964); the Board of Overseers of Public Welfare (Boston). "Melnea Cass Day" was proclaimed by the mayor of Boston on May 22, 1966; and she was named Massachusetts State Mother of the Year in 1974. Melnea Cass Boulevard, which runs between Massachusetts Avenue and Tremont Street, opened in 1981.

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.

Listen to Melnea A. Cass Oral History Interview, The Black Women's Oral History Project. Tahi L. Mottl (interviewer), February 1, 1977

Transcript of interview recording

[Start of track on reel 3, side 1]

Melnea Agnes Cass [MAC]:

"Balance" was how we started out here in Massachusetts, getting that before our legislature as a supplement to the national idea of investigating the public schools. So we would get our group together, and call it out at a board meeting that we'd want to have a sit-in, and we're going to organize a sit-in. Well, we'd organize a sit-in, you already had that, and we'd get volunteers to do that. And we'd go down there then to the Boston School Committee, and just go right in and talk with them, probably on a little something that we'd want to bring before them. And they never paid any attention to you anyway, so then when they'd get through with the meeting, we'd stay there. That's how you organize it, you stay there. And they want to put you out, and call the police, or they'd do anything they want to. If they want to, but we'd sit there, and um...

Tahi L. Mottl [TLM]:

Did you actually participate in that?

MAC:

Yes, I have a picture. You can look at it in the hall there. They took a picture of me at the sit-in.

TLM:

Had you participated in any sit-ins before that, or were those your first sit-ins?

MAC:

No, I'd been to one before.

TLM:

What other sit-ins?

MAC:

The same thing, for the School Committee. We had two, three, five and ten because Vernon Carter was walking up and down the streets, you know, in protest against the whole thing. Every once in a while, we had a sit-in. Just a demonstration, that's all. We'd march up and down. I'd done that too, in front of the place, with the group, march a certain length of time. Oh yes, and carried a banner and everything. That's just a part of it.

TLM:

These demonstrations came about mainly because of the School Committee?

MAC:

Well, these were. These types were, but there were other kinds of protests beside that, but this one happened to be about the School Committee, and trying to get them to see the point, in trying to listen to what you had to say, and trying to act on some of the recommendations that came in from the NAACP.

TLM:

So did you—You actually went down and carried a sign?

MAC:

Well, I carried a sign a couple of times. That wasn't anything. Because you went shopping, you'd go by... They had the picket line out there going; you'd just take a sign and walk around a little while, and then give it to someone else. That's the way they keep them going. If you could go down a certain length of time, in the day when nobody else could, you'd go. You would sign your name up to go and you'd go from eleven to two, or from twelve to three, or whatever you wanted to do, just to say you participated and tried to help. But of course for the sit-in, that was... One sit-in that I was in, a mostly definite sit-in, was very crucial because we had... a group there, and I thought I wouldn't sit in that day, because I had been to others, you know, and it was tiresome and everything, but theysaid that they were going to arrest them, because they had trespassed and were doing...whatever they were. They said they were against the law, so they called me up, and asked me would I come down and sit-in there, because he said if I did, they don't think they would arrest them, you know. So I went.

TLM:

Who called you up?

MAC:

One of the young men there. So I went down, and I sat in with them at the demonstration. So, uh...

TLM:

Do you remember who was there at the demonstration, who participated? Do you remember any other participants?

MAC:

 Yes, the picture's right there. Get the picture. Get the picture, I can tell you the names. Ruth Batson and Kenneth Guscott. Right on the table.

TLM:

Okay, this is the sit-in, "Boston School Committee, 1963."

MAC:

Yes, that's Ruth Batson, Rheable Edwards, Jo Holley, Kenneth Guscott, Hansford Brown. Let me see some of the names. I can't remember. Ruth Batson's daughter, I can't remember her name. And that's Jo Holly, Josephine Holley. [Telephone begins ringing.] That's George Guscott. And that's Ruby—I can't think of her last name. She's a great worker with the NAACP. Some of those I can't remember.

[MAC answers telephone.] Hello. Yes. Yes. Well, I'll do the best I can to get there as I said. I'll be at the city hall. I'll take a cab and come out there. I'll get there before they get through anyway. All right. Bye. [MAC hangs up telephone.]

Most of those were people who were very interested in...

TLM:

Anyone else you recognize?

MAC:

I can recognize all of them but I can't call their names; too bad, but that's the way my memory is. But most of them I called there.

TLM:

So most of the audience here are members of the NAACP.

MAC:

Yes, they're all practically, were all friends of it, or interested in the bill that was up before the legislature, trying to get the School Committee...

TLM:

Where... Oh, this is at the School Committee.

MAC:

That's on Beacon Street.

TLM:

You weren't the president of the NAACP at that time?

MAC: 

No, not then, no. I had finished my term, I guess. Kenneth was the president. He was the president under that. But we had them in my time too. Just about the same thing.

TLM:

Was that the demonstration you went to where they were going to arrest you?

MAC:

Yes, and he said if I would come... He said, "I think if you came down here, they wouldn't arrest us, because they wouldn't dare to do it." So I said, "Well, I'll come." So they sent for me and I came down. So when I came down the policeman said, "What do you want?" They knew me too. I said, "I'm going in to the sit-in, to the demonstration." "Oh," he said, "you are?" I said yes. So he opened the door and let me in. They were locked in there. So he said, ooh he said... Well anyway, when I got upstairs, I went and I sat down with them a long time, so the police officer said, "Well the time is nearly up, you have to leave."

TLM:

Were you in there for several hours?

MAC:

Oh, about an hour or two, maybe. A couple of hours. And so finally, he...they must have called up the station house, or the precinct over that way and told them I was there. So the captain said, "Well, then you can't arrest anybody." He said, "If Mrs. Cass is there, don't start any arrests." So we stayed another hour. We got the message from somebody, that said they weren't going to arrest anybody. So that was what they felt, that I saved the day that day by being there. So that was quite an affair that night. The streets were full of people, they were all out there demonstrating. You see, there was a demonstration going on.

TLM:

When this picture was taken?

MAC:

Yes, we were inside demonstrating and they were outside demonstrating. A couple hundred people in the street, I guess. They were getting so tired of it, you know, trying to get something done, and they couldn't do it, so they were just going to sit there. They were going to sit all night if necessary. So they did it. They went out, oh, about one o'clock at night, I guess, we marched out.

TLM:

And then you came home?

MAC:

Oh yes, we all came home. Everybody came home. They brought you home. They had cars and everything else. So we came home.

TLM:

What was it like? Was that an exciting time, or exhausting? Or was it sad?

MAC:

Well, it was... No, it wasn't exactly exciting, but it was sad to think that you had to do all that, just to get your point over, you know. It just really made you feel very depressed, to think you have to keep on doing that. You can't make a headway at all, make a little dent in the thing, you know, you'd like to just feel like you were progressing, but we weren't, you see.

TLM:

But was it also exciting or no?

MAC:

Yes, it's exciting in a way and in a way it wasn't. We didn't take it as any kind of excitement or anything; we took it as a very serious thing, and a calamity happening to us as Black people, trying to get something done, and couldn't impress anybody. That was the whole thing. People were... You could see from faces of the picture I showed you, they're all very serious and depressed and very worried.

TLM:

How was this different from the meetings that you described that were organized by William Monroe Trotter?

[sound of airplane passing overhead in background]

MAC:

Well, there's quite a difference, because it's a different issue. This issue here is right at your hand, and with the children of today being shortchanged in their education and all. His was getting jobs for people, and protesting against lynching, and all that kind of thing, but this was right here in our own city, and our own kids, grandchildren and kids who were real being cheated out of an education. You're trying to get the door open for them somehow or other. This girl, Ruth Batson, was one of the leaders in this movement, in this whole education movement. She was a very faithful worker in the NAACP, one of the staunch supporters of the NAACP. She and Jo Holley there, Josephine Holley, and Rheable Edwards and her husband Ray, all those people were really people who sacrificed a lot for the NAACP, who worked faithfully, and in fact all those people there, that's just a segment. There's many more.

TLM:

How about comparing this, the demonstrations and meetings during the School Committee events with the meetings that A. Philip Randolph organized.

MAC:

Oh, those were entirely different. They were just as enthusiastic meetings, the people just as serious about it; everybody is serious about the issue as it comes along. That was a vital issue, because it's bread and butter, and jobs for men. The homemakers, the home people, they wanted to make a living. All of them are just about as exciting as one another, but they're all separate subjects, that's all. But the motives are all the same; it's to open the door of employment and equal opportunity for Black people, whether it's the school, a job, or what it is. That's all it is, just asking for fair treatment. And that's what Black people have had to do ever since they were freed in this country. They've been trying to work to get their equal rights with everybody else. It's very frustrating; every time you turn around, you got to have a demonstration, you got to have a law, you got to have something to give you, that tells you that you're free and that you're equal to everybody else, but when you go to test it out, it's not true. So when you go to test it out, and it's not true, you wonder what is wrong. Why have you got to do all these things, to make people understand that you're entitled to these things? It’s just that simple. So every time you pick up an issue, it's an issue related to something, but it's just as important as any other one. All are a piece of the whole thing.

TLM:

Well, tell me about, going back to the school issue. The School Committee didn't respond to the demonstration.

MAC:

No, no, of course they didn't respond to the demonstrations. If they did, you wouldn't have what you have here now, if they had corrected these things years ago, when we asked them to do it. And we saw the racial imbalance going on in the school, and the inequality in the curriculum and everything else, and tried to tell them to correct it; they could have done that. You wouldn't have any need for the Supreme Court to tell them, "Go ahead and desegregate those schools. We don't care how you do it. And you only got so much time to do it." You wouldn't have that. But this is the result of not paying attention to what you should have corrected a long time ago and prevented this. You can see that. You know?

TLM:

Did you remain active in the NAACP up through the time of the court suit?

MAC:

I'm still active, dear, in the NAACP. I have never stopped being active in the NAACP, since I joined it as a young woman. I have been active in it up until today. I just went to the installation Sunday and was sworn in again on the board.

TLM:

Oh, so you're a member of the board?

MAC:

Oh, I am a member of the board, elected to the board every year.

TLM:

Tell me about the period when the NAACP was suing the School Committee to desegregate the schools. Do you remember?

MAC:

They weren't suing them. They never have sued this School Committee. You couldn't sue the School Committee, dear.

TLM:

Oh. Well, then, the Garrity decision is what I'm talking about.

MAC:

Oh well, the Garrity decision is what's going on now, that we're all interested in, that everybody's interested in, and the NAACP is the one that brought the suit. They brought the suit in the beginning.

TLM:

How did that come about?

MAC:

Because we couldn't get the desegregation any other way. So they carried a suit, to show the mothers who said their children were being shortchanged, let them tell the court themselves, and ask, "Would you please do something for my children, and all the rest like them." That was all. It was just a suit, brought to open it up and let the court know that we still want it done, see? That's all. It wasn't anything really that we could do about it. All we did, the lawyers that took the cases were well-qualified lawyers here in Boston, some of them did it for nothing. No money at all. They just wanted to do it as a civic duty. Because they know it's wrong and they want to help it. All of them. So they got these mothers whose children go to these various schools where all these inequities are going on, so they could come up and say, "Here it is. I know, because here is my child to do it." All we did was back it up and try to support them in it, that's all. We couldn't do any more. And of course, when it went to the Supreme Court in Washington, the national NAACP took the whole issue to the Supreme Court. That's when they said, "You got to desegregate the schools of America. All of you got to do it. Where it's found that there is a need, you've got it to do." So when they told Boston they had to do theirs, they ignored it. Didn't even pay any attention to it, tried to get away with it, like they were doing when we asked them, but they couldn't do it. Because you see, that's a different kind of agency telling them now. We were nothing as far as they were concerned. They had just listened to us, and let it go ahead. But when the Supreme Court said it, they knew they'd have to do something. Because they had a chance, when we brought the racial imbalance bill, to get a plan ready. We asked them to get a plan ready, to desegregate the schools. But they didn't bother getting any plan ready. So you see, that's why they resulted in the Supreme Court coming into the case, because there was nothing being done. They had to be made to do it.

TLM:

By the Supreme Court, you mean Judge Garrity making his decision?

MAC:

Well, of course Garrity was assigned. He's nothing in it so much. He isn't the main thing. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People brought the suit to the United States Supreme Court through their legal department, to get the thing regulated all over this country, and stop talking about it. So it passed in the Supreme Court, that this had to be done in all the cities. Garrity is just one of the Supreme Court judges assigned to Boston. There are others assigned to other cities where this existed. But he is the one that had to carry this order out, because he's Supreme Court...he’s on the bench, he's assigned to this job. And they want him to do it; so he's doing the job for the Supreme Court; he isn't doing it for the NAACP. No, he's doing it because he was assigned by the United States Supreme Court. But we're involved in it, but they're not doing it for us.

TLM:

Okay tell me about the Women's Service Club. It says on your biography that you were the president, or have been the president of the Women's Service Club for fifteen years. Now, that's past tense—when, what fifteen years were you...?

MAC:

Up till now. Fifteen before this. Right now I'm president of it. Right this day, I'm still the president, so fifteen years have passed since I've been president, and I still am the president.

TLM:

What's the address of the Women’s Club?

MAC:

464 Massachusetts Avenue. And it was founded by a group of women who I told you some time ago worked together during World War I for the veterans, and when it was over, they decided to continue community service, and bought this house on Mass. Avenue, and decided that they would try to do community service in the neighborhood, whatever it would be to help the people. So they bought the house, and their first project was—besides community service programs, educational programs, and all kinds of things for young people and old people—was to open up the doors for girls who came here to go to college, who couldn't get places in the dorms, to live here, and they lived there, quite a number of young women lived there for a number of years. They had a housemother; they furnished the rooms upstairs, and beautiful bedrooms for two in a room, three in a room, and made the rents very reasonable. Average was $10 a week, some of them, and some less, if they couldn't pay it. And they had a home there. And a good many fine young women, who have gone out from Massachusetts, lived there while they were going to college. Then when the [dormitory] bars were lifted on account of the desegregation change, and they were eligible to live there, that's the time, soon after that, that I came along, and we began to work with the girls from the South, who came here looking for jobs. And we called our program the In-migrant Program, and that's how we established that. About ten years ago, maybe ten or twelve years ago. So we were funded for that program by ABCD [Action for Boston Community Development] and as a part of their social service programs in the city of Boston.

TLM:

Was this for girls mainly from the South?

MAC:

Yes, mainly from the South, West Indies islands, the Caribbean, and Haiti, and all the Black girls particularly—and if there were any poor white ones, all right, but we didn't have any white ones—who came here looking for work, disillusioned and disappointed when they got in the work, and found they couldn't do it. Came out of the urban centers of the South, where they really didn't know about doing this kind of modern work that you had with vacuums and electrical appliances, et cetera. So they would go to work and get very disappointed. So Traveler's Aid sometimes would send them to our house. They'd be sitting in the station, bus stations, waiting for these people [employers] to come get them, and they never showed up. So we'd bring them to our house, and we'd train them and tell them how to work, and try to find them a job if we could.

TLM:

What sorts of work?

MAC:

They were doing domestic work, you know, that's what they came here for. They didn't know anything else. They were picking cotton, you know, out in the fields, and all that kind of thing, and they heard, read it in the paper, that there's an agency down South would pay your fare to Boston to another agency, and give you a room in somebody's house, and you could work and make thirty-five, forty dollars a week, and all those things, your own TV, and your own this and your own that. Well, some of it turned out to be pretty good. Some of it didn't. So we were there, and we naturally could help some of them that we could get a hold of and show them, you know, the way to live in Boston, where to go and this and that. So that's a program we had for quite a number of years. And we still got the program going.

TLM:

How about the Homemaker Training Program?

MAC:

Well now, that was a different thing. That's an offshoot of the In-migrant. And that was the program that we found we needed to get something to teach these girls how to work, what to do, training in this work. So we just got together, and tried to do it, and at first, the ABCD did stretch it, the money, to help us to do it. But we didn't have the facilities there, you know, to do it the proper way. And we were going to try to raise money and see what we could do. So finally, I don't know how they heard about us, but the Department of Labor heard about the program that we were doing. And they asked us if we'd like to be a pilot program in the country. They were going to try to Improve domestic work for people. And they heard we were doing it, so they wrote us a letter, and we answered and sent them a proposal, and told them what we were doing really, and so with the Department of Labor and the Department of H.E.W. [Health, Education and Welfare], we got a grant to do the training of these girls in Boston.

TLM:

What year did you get the grant?

MAC:

About eight years ago now. And they took the initiative, and really remodeled our cellar and made it into a kitchen, beautiful facility, where they received their training. Right down in our cellar; they remodeled it and paid for everything in it. We didn't have to pay any money. And they gave us a proposal, well, they gave us a budget, in which we were able to hire a director, a home economics teacher, a job developer and a secretary and a social worker at the beginning. And we advertised, and we told about what kind of program we were going to have, and we were able to set it up right there, and train these girls, and the Manpower Development Labor department helped us with it, beside the government giving us the budget. I forget what our first budget was, but anyway, it was enough to cover all this administration. And also we got donations from the gas and electric company. We got a Frigidaire which the electric company donated, a stove from the gas company, and we got a lot of things donated, after they found out what we were doing. The budget called for one Frigidaire, or one this and that, so we had two things there now of each thing almost, so that they can learn on both, gas and electric.

TLM:

I see. About how many women go through the program each year?

[sound of airplane flying overhead in background]

MAC:

Well, we can have seventeen in a class, and a class is for twelve weeks, and at the end of the twelve weeks, there is a graduation. We begin all over again with another group.

TLM:

Are the women who go through still pretty much women who come from outside of Boston?

MAC:

No, not now. In the first beginning, it was mostly women who were from the South, and who were wandering around, but it is for all disadvantaged women, any of them, in the city of Boston now. So we don't have any trouble training them, and some of them go in nursing homes, some of them go out to families, some of them go in hospitals, they go in all sort of related fields.

TLM:

And about how old are the women?

MAC:

Well, most of them... We've had them up to sixty. Yes, they can come up to sixty years old. Their ages vary; some are very young, nineteen, twenty.

TLM:

So who else worked with you on the development of those two programs?

MAC:

Well of course the women from the Women's Service Club, the members were very active with it, but we had community people who knew what it was all about, who really drew up the proposals for us. We had two or three young people. One is Dorothy Parrish, who is now president of our auxiliary, and she and Rheable Edwards, and two or three young men in the South End—I can't remember their names this minute—who really worked with us and got the proposals ready, because they wanted us to understand what it was all about and how to do it. We didn't know anything about it. Of course at ABCD we got invaluable help because I was a founder of ABCD, one of them. We had plenty of help from there. Those are people who knew the problem.

TLM:

When did you help found ABCD?

MAC:

When it was organized. I forget how many years ago, but that was during the urban renewal period.

TLM:

The forties, the fifties, the sixties?

MAC:

'Round in the fifties.

TLM:

Who else was involved in the formation of ABCD, just as an aside?

MAC:

Oh, ABCD was formed by the director, really it was the idea of Ed Logue, who was the director of urban renewal [Boston Redevelopment Authority]. He told the mayor, who then was John Collins, that they needed a social service agency or humanitarian something for these people whose houses they're tearing down and taking away, and he said there had to be something else besides just walking in and telling them you're going to take their house and you know. So the mayor thought about it, and he said he guessed that was right, and he called together some people, community-minded people, to talk about it, and we went down to city hall and talked to him, and thought we better get it going in some way or other. That was Freedom House, with Muriel Snowden and Otto Snowden, and all of us out here in this area. So we finally—he applied to Ford Foundation, who gave the first million dollars to get this whole thing started.

TLM:

And you were on the board in the beginning there?

MAC:

Yes. So they decided we would have the money, and go ahead and form what we called Community Action Program, and that’s all we had at the beginning, talked about community action. It had to be incorporated, so there were quite a number of men called to incorporate, and I was the only woman, so I'm the only woman incorporator for the city, for ABCD. Because I've been on the board all the years of its existence, and I am now an honorary board member.

TLM:

Oh, that's something.

MAC:

I feel very proud of that, and when they brought the people together to incorporate that day, I was looking around, and I said to the mayor, "This is kind of discriminatory, just one woman." He said, "Well, you represent the whole community, and you can do that very nicely." [laughs] So I was the only community person on it; the others were business people, and people who were going to put money in and try to promote it. It's quite an experience, that ABCD, because it turned into... after the urban renewal became a permanent fixture you see in the city of Boston for community action amongst the poor, and they have all sections all over the city of Boston really working hard with community activities.

TLM:

Well, tell me something. To put you on the spot about the ABCD board, if you were the only community person and the only woman on the board, do you feel that in some ways you were a token member of the board?

MAC:

No, I don't feel so, because I was with the urban renewal when they first started it, and I worked right along with it, all the years that we were out here, and I was still working with it, and trying to do my part in it, you know; so I don't think they were trying to make a token, I think they were just trying to have different segments represented and as you read the names, you could see what they represented. All the different agencies, all the different other things. This was urban renewal for this section of Boston, this was just up here. It started up here by Washington Park, so they didn't have two or three people, they just had one. That was in the incorporation papers, but when the thing started, oh, my goodness, there was loads of people from all sections of this area put on it, to represent this section.

TLM:

Thank you. I see from your biography that you're a member of Board of Overseers of Public Welfare?

MAC:

I was, but that's no more.

TLM:

What was that?

MAC:

Overseers of Boston Public Welfare were the group, board people, who were set up to help the Welfare Department to administer the services and the money that's necessary to go into welfare.

TLM:

Oh, when was that? How long ago?

MAC:

Well, I guess I was on it about ten years, I guess. And before me, there was another Black woman, Mrs. Beulah Hester was on it, and then I replaced her. And when I went on, there was only just one Black, and that's when I really felt that was a token, but of course you can only have so many members. Because they were to administer and advise the mayor and so forth, and the Department of Public Welfare.

TLM:

What mayor was that?

MAC:

Collins. He was the mayor. And this was the board to advise him and others on what was necessary to be done for the welfare, to make the thing move along better. That's all that was for. They called it overseers.

TLM:

But you were on that for quite a while?

MAC:

Yes, I was on for ten years. And now, since the state is really the administrator of welfare, it moved from the city to the state. Some of us were retained, and I was retained amongst the others to oversee, not so much the welfare, but the trust funds that were left to the city of Boston for the poor of Boston, and there’s millions of dollars in these trust funds. Charitable trust funds.

TLM:

Oh? I don't understand.

MAC:

People left as far back as 1700s and 1800s, and they left small amounts of money that’s grown into great big sums, and now we administer that, and see that it is given out in the right directions, according to the fund that is named, what they want done with it.

TLM:

Is that a board?

MAC:

Yes, a board.

TLM:

And you're still on it?

MAC:

I'm still on it, and more people have been added to it, but I'm one of the old leftovers from the Overseers of Public Welfare. I’m still on it.

TLM:

And how often does it meet?

MAC:

Once a month. They just called a meeting. It meets about once a month.

TLM:

Oh, this was one of your phone calls?

MAC:

Yes, one that is going to call me back. But once a month we meet. Supposed to. And see what fund is eligible to be given out, where it's going. People can apply, groups of people, for projects or whatever, if it can be done, it can. There's a good bit of it given to scholarship to help children on AFDC [Aid to Families with Dependent Children], with their college because they need it, $300, $400, according to need.

TLM:

Does the mayor sit on the board?

MAC:

No, the mayor doesn't have anything to do with it. He appoints the people, and they're all people of the city of Boston, residents who are interested.

TLM:

Who heads that board now?

MAC:

Well, at the present time, [Clarence W.] "Jeep" Jones is heading it, the deputy mayor, he's heading it right now. He is acting chairman, he’s not the real chairman, but he is holding it together.

TLM:

You have been a member of the board of directors of the United South End Settlements, where you served as secretary for over ten years.

MAC:

That's right. That's the one that I came on the board because I was president, vice-president, at the time, of the Harriet Tubman House, which is a part of the United South End Settlements. That's how I happened to get involved with it. And I'm still a member of the Board of the United South End Settlements.

TLM:

I see. When did you first get on the board of directors?

MAC:

Well, I guess I must have been on it now about fifteen years, maybe twenty.

[sound of car honking in background]

TLM:

And it was about fifteen, twenty years ago that you were vice-president of the Harriet Tubman House. Was that the same as the Harriet Tubman Mothers, was that before that?

MAC:

That's a part of it. That's a part of that. That's a part of that whole United South End Settlements. Harriet Tubman was one of the buildings, one of the houses, in the United South End Settlements when it was formed. And we had several other houses around there, the one on Union Park, one on Rutland Square, and one on Harrison Avenue, four or five little houses. So they all come together now under one heading in the big new building, Harriet Tubman House.

TLM:

How often do you meet on that board?

MAC:

Well, it's supposed to meet once a month, if I can get there. But they don't insist on me getting there. If I can't, they say I have a place there and just stay there, come when I can.

TLM:

I'm reading from your biography. You've already discussed being the vice-president of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, and the past president of the Northeast Region. So we’ve discussed that. We also...co-organizer of Women in Community Service.

MAC:

That's the Job Corps for Girls, and that was a federal program which was launched here in Boston by five organizations and the one, the Black part of it—the Jewish women, the Catholic women, and the Black women, was the National Council of Negro Women. They didn't have any branch here in Boston, so they asked us if we would assume it, the Women's Service Club, and represent that angle of it. That is how we got involved in that. So we're still active with the Women in Community Service, which sponsors the Job Corps for Girls.

[sound of airplane flying overhead in background]

TLM:

I see. When did the Women in Community Service group come together?

MAC:

Oh, they've been together about...let’s see, during the war, World War II.

TLM:

So for quite a while. And is there a place where that group, that sort of coalition meets?

MAC:

Yes, they now have a headquarters. They had one first in the Department of Labor, out on Huntington Avenue. Now, they're in the building that's owned by the Christian Science Church on Huntington Avenue. They have a suite of rooms... Well they have two or three rooms there, that’s the headquarters for this part. But the formal headquarters is down in the Kennedy building, under the Department of Labor. This is a subsidiary out here. Takes care of the girls. In town they take care of the boys, at the headquarters, but that is where the business emanates from to this section of Roxbury, of Boston.

TLM:

Well, the taking care of the girls, what kind of—was there a training program?

MAC:

Yes, there was a training program set up for the girls who would go off, if they wished, after these. These girls were very disadvantaged, were dropouts, maybe, from school, who were disillusioned, didn't know what they'd want to do. They would be interviewed by certain people who knew how to interview them, trained to do it, and find out if they'd like to go away to one of these training centers for Job Corps. There were several at that time, but they've closed most of them down now. There was one in New Jersey, one up in Maine. There was one out west some place, I forget the name. But they could go to whichever one they wanted to, if they filled the application with their parents' consent, because they're all girls under eighteen.

TLM:

And what sorts of jobs? Oh, they were young.

MAC:

They were trained, they were trained there for all kinds of jobs—typing, secretarial work, even machines, all kinds of things that they were trained in. They were trained in photography, in beauty culture. They had a regular training school where they'd get a little bit of something, enough to come out and perhaps go on further.

TLM:

But there was no connection between this group and the In-migrant Service Program? Or the Homemakers Training?

MAC:

Oh no, no, this was a government program. We were just asked to help with it as a club. And we lended our help, and our members joined in, and they still are working with it. Still working with it.

TLM:

Tell me also about the "William E. Carter Auxiliary Number 16."

MAC:

The American Legion, that is. I joined that organization with my husband when he joined it. Well, I didn't join it right away, but after World War I. He joined it when they formed it, and he was in it until he died. And I'm still in it.

TLM:

So you joined, what, in the, maybe in the 1920s?

MAC:

Oh yes, well way back, twenty-something. I've been in it thirty years, or more than that, I guess. I've been in it ever since I've been out here, forty-seven years, I guess. More than that, fifty. Yes. I worked in it as treasurer and as president and as everything. I just attend when I feel like it. I don't make it a special thing, a dutybound thing to go now. I go when I want to. Pay my dues.

TLM:

How many times a year?

MAC:

About two or three times. I pay my dues.

TLM:

And how large a group is the auxiliary?

MAC:

Well, I guess they've got about fifty members. A small auxiliary.

TLM:

Of various ages, or your generation?

MAC:

Well, of course, they all had to have husbands who were in Vietnam or World War II now, because the World War I are all practically dead, like my husband. They're gone. So it's World War II, like my son, and Vietnam, who are the members now. The women in that age bracket, like I was when I joined. I'm an older one now, more retired one. And they don't expect active participation from me.

TLM:

Is Auxiliary Number 16 membership mostly Black women?

MAC:

All Black women. They might have one or two whites, but all Black.

TLM:

Okay. I see. This is the American Legion, and also it [written biography] says that you served for twenty years as treasurer.

MAC:

Yes, I did.

TLM:

You are a member of Saint Mark Congregational Church.

MAC:

I told you about that. I think you already have that, the Social Action Committee and the Pastor's Club, the Missionary Guild.

TLM:

Okay. Other affiliations: the YWCA.

MAC:

I was a member of the YWCA for many years, and served there with their public relations and so forth, and I came out of their organization, because they were so prejudiced and discriminatory in their practices there, I didn't like it, so I resigned from it. Some years ago.

TLM:

Tell me about that.

MAC:

Well, they had a policy, they didn't care too much about the colored children coming down there getting in the pool.

TLM:

This is the main Y?

MAC:

It was terrible, about thirty years ago.

TLM:

On Arlington Street?

MAC:

So that was all over the country, because they had segregation, and they used it wherever they wanted to use it, those who were on the board. They weren't too open hearted to the Black people, but after some years they have changed.

TLM:

Were you ever on a board there?

MAC:

Yes, I was on it. I resigned from it because of that. I just told you. I resigned from their board, because I didn't want to be implicated. I couldn't make any progress with it, and the one or two other Blacks on there, they didn't see eye to eye, so I got off. And I stayed off until now that they've changed their policy and opened the doors to everybody, and all like that. They asked me to...

TLM:

How long ago was it, how many years ago was it that you got off it?

MAC:

It's about thirty years, maybe more than that. It’s been thirty anyway.

TLM:

And you just left. It was thirty years ago.

MAC:

Yes, I just left and stayed away from it. I didn't bother with it at all. Until lately; they asked me to come now. Of course they've named the Y for me, so naturally I have to be with them now. But I didn’t...and I worked with them...

TLM:

That’s right –now the Y is named...

MAC:

Boston branch.

TLM:

Boston branch is? Which Y is named after you?

MAC:

Clarendon Street, the Y, the Boston branch. The in-town branch. They did that last year, you know. They named it last year you know for me. Changed the name to the Cass Branch. It's now called the Cass Branch.

TLM:

So, and how, was there a big celebration, ceremony?

MAC:

Oh yes, we had a big celebration. I gave you the book they had to read [inaudible]. They had a beautiful celebration there at that time for me. I didn't know it was for me, though, because I worked with them, on their Women '76 program last year, and I helped them as much as I could and got people, gave them ideas on how to do it, and went on the radio with them and worked with them. They were a delightful group of young women. And I never had an inkling that they were working to honor me at the affair which we were giving, this recognition to all these women, my gracious! So I was tickled to death that they were doing it. All the different women, about twenty-five of them or more. When I got there that night of the thing, I said to Topper Carew... He had sent for all those pictures of my family; he said he was going to have an exhibit, and he wanted to put some old-fashioned pictures in it. So when I got there, I said, "Where's the old-fashioned pictures exhibit? I'd like to go look at them." He said, "we’re going to have those after the affair is over." I said, "Oh my goodness, I'll be so tired, I won't even want to look at them." He said, "Oh yes, you will. Yes, you will." So this little girl that's on this, Barbara Dwyer, said, "Oh yes, you will, Mrs. Cass, you'll be very glad you will see them." Barbara Dwyer. One of them. Two or three of them worked with me. So anyway, I went along with them and sat there with the guests, all the different guests. I knew some of them who were being honored. I had a wonderful time. We went into the room for the banquet, and the program went on and everything; so finally when they got down to the real program...when they were presenting all the different citations, the little gifts we had for the people. When they got to my turn, the director, the president of the board said she wanted to make a presentation to me. So she announced that they were going to name their branch Y for me. I couldn't believe it.

TLM:

Oh, what a surprise!

MAC:

Oh, I was spellbound; I couldn’t even—I didn't know what to say; I didn't know what to do; and I began...tears began to go down my eyes, and I was never so... I didn't know what to say happened to me. I was so surprised, shocked almost, because I didn't have any idea that they were doing that, you know, and it was really something great. I worked right along with them every day, and I didn't know what to say to them. But anyway, I managed to say something, thank them. And I couldn't get over it. So then, when they got through with all of that, the next thing I knew was that they put on the screen this whole film about my life, on that screen. Starting with that baby picture, and coming right on up with all my family, everybody, everything, and all those pictures I gave Topper Carew. I wanted to give him a licking, but I couldn't get nowhere near him; I didn't know where he was. So, but anyway, I couldn't get over that. Well sir, I was spellbound with those pictures. And I said, "That's what he wanted with those pictures. Now I know exactly what it is." Well. When the thing was over, I got him and I said, "No wonder you... All of you little sneaks, every one of you, little sneaks." Barbara and, what’s the girl, the girl’s name, Fossberg, and Mary and all of them. I said, "What are you all thinking about?" "Well, we couldn't tell you what we were going to do, you know. If we ever told you, it'd be terrible. You probably wouldn't even come." I said, "Probably I wouldn't. I'd have stayed home." [Laughing] But it was beautiful, that's the nicest thing, oh my goodness I couldn’t believe it. So, after that...”

[End of track, reel 3 side 1]

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“Are You Listening: Black High School Girls,” Produced by Martha Stuart

Still image from "Are You Listening: Black High School Girls." Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryStill image from "Are You Listening: Black High School Girls." Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryMartha Stuart was a producer, reporter, writer, photographer, and founder of Martha Stuart Communications, an independent production company. After moving to New York in 1963, Stuart began to produce a show titled “Are You Listening,” which featured, in her words, "people who are endlessly talked about and rarely listened to." With “Are You Listening,” Stuart brought together groups of people who had a particular experience in common, and encouraged them to speak openly and candidly with each other in order to exchange their perspectives and experiences. 

In this 1968 episode of "Are You Listening: Black High School Girls," young women from South Bend, Indiana—who participated in an Upward Bound program at Saint Mary's College—talk about school, violence, parents, race, and role models.

Please note: The video opens with a loud test tone. The content begins at 1:35.

View video of "Are You Listening: Black High School Girls” (1968)

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Flo Kennedy: "The Feminist Party Street Walks"

Flo Kennedy at "Outreach Women" TV program, 1976. Photo by Bettye Lane. Courtesy of Schlesinger libraryFlo Kennedy at "Outreach Women" TV program, 1976. Photo by Bettye Lane. Courtesy of Schlesinger libraryLawyer and radical activist Florynce "Flo" Kennedy (1916–2000) fought discrimination in the courtroom and on the streets. Kennedy represented Black musicians fighting for control of their music, the Black Panthers, and radical feminist Valerie Solanas, and was involved with several cases against New York’s restrictive abortion laws. Outside of the courtroom, Kennedy used her flamboyant personal style and theatrical flair to stage public actions protesting racism and sexism. Dissatisfied with the more liberal politics of mainstream women's organizations such as NOW, Kennedy founded the Feminist Party in 1971 and cofounded the National Black Feminist Organization in 1973.

"The Feminist Party Street Walks" shows several Feminist Party actions, or "street walks," in New York City—beginning with one outside the New York Times office, protesting a lack of coverage of Shirley Chisholm's 1972 presidential campaign. Another clip shows Feminist Party members in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral. Kennedy and the Feminist Party were opposed to the Catholic Church’s involvement in abortion politics. Activists in the street walks sing popular songs with rewritten, humorous lyrics, and many include profanities.

Special note: This video contains language some viewers may consider offensive (several instances of f*ck and s*it).

View video: "The Feminist Party Street Walks"

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Shirley Chisholm addresses the National Women's Political Caucus

New York Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm at Democratic Convention in Miami. Photo by Bettye Lane, July 1972. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryNew York Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm at Democratic Convention in Miami. Photo by Bettye Lane, July 1972. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryShirley Chisholm (1924–2005) was the first Black woman elected to Congress and served in the US House of Representatives for the 12th District of New York from 1969 to 1983.

In 1972, Chisholm ran for president. She announced her candidacy on January 25 of that year, in Brooklyn, New York, saying, “I am not the candidate of Black America, although I am Black and proud. I am not the candidate of the woman’s movement of this country, although I am a woman and equally proud of that. I am the candidate of the people and my presence before you symbolizes a new era in American political history.”

 

 

 

View video: "Shirley Chisholm addresses the National Women's Political Caucus. Washington, DC, July 11, 1991"

Transcript of video recording

[start of track]

[Sharon Rodine introduces Chisholm]

Shirley Chisholm

[applause]

[Shirley Chisholm speaking]

Thank you.

It is certainly a wonderful site to behold here this evening. But a few of us dared to have the audacity, and the nerve, and the determination, some 20 years ago, to come together and try to establish an organization in which women would take their own destinies in their own hands, because we were just plain sick and tired of waiting on the gentleman.

[applause]

And we believed in that beautiful old adage, that God helps those who help themselves.

[applause]

But you can imagine what happened to me. I suffered intensely, because not only am I a woman, but I was also Black. A bearer of a double jeopardy, if you will. And at times not recognizing or realizing whether you were being discriminated against because of the amount of pigmentation in your skin, or because of your gender. But nevertheless, I was determined that I wanted to be a part of this change that was just arriving on the American scene. Because there are individuals in our society who just watch what happens all the time, those who make things happen, and those who just wonder what happened.

[audience laughter]

And so I became involved. But I want to tell you a story that happened when I went to the Congress, that I've only told on two occasions publicly, and this is the third time I am going to tell this story. Because for the beautiful young women who are carrying on the legacy from those of us who emerged in the late ’60s and ’70s, you will understand when the time in which we were living, when I first entered the Congress, recognizing that it was the first time that a Black female had been elected to the United States House of Representatives, it was quite difficult. But of course, within a rather short space of time, the gentleman realized that I was not a woman to be tampered with.

[audience laughter]

[applause]

But one day, about two weeks after I entered the Congress, I went downstairs to the member's dining room in order to have lunch. The members have a private dining room, and when we have a very long session. We don't have to go outside of the House itself. They have provided us with a dining room. So I went downstairs to the dining room, and there were no reserved signs on the tables there. Bella, you remember that? You'll go down and you'll sit anyplace where there was a seat. So I went downstairs, and the gentlemen were constantly looking at me and they were pulling back from me a bit, because I think in a sense my reputation had preceded me before I entered the sacrosanct halls of the United States House of Representatives.

And I had on the table, soup, main meal, dessert, what have you. And I took my Times, because I saw so many people pulling back and pulling away from me, that in order to make myself feel comfortable, I would always read my Times. And here I was reading my Times while I was eating. And I felt something hovering over me. You know, like sometimes you're deep into something, and you realize something's hovering over. And I looked up, and there was this congressman from Georgia.

And this congressman from Georgia said to me, you sitting at [unintelligible mumble] delegation table.

And I said, I don't understand what you're saying.

[audience laughter]

[cheering and applause]

He said again, you're sitting at the [unintelligible mumble] delegation table. I said, oh, I'm seated at the Georgian delegation table. Is that what you're saying? He said, yes. I said, well, I just got here a couple of weeks ago. And I don't know where the New Yorkers sit when they do come down to the dining room. But if you want to make it easy for everyone, why in heaven's name don't you put signs on the table as to where the delegations sit. He says—I couldn't believe this—he said, I want my lunch.

[laughter]

His problem was—to show you the era in which we were living—his problem was there was six seats at the table. But he could not bring himself to sit at a table where a black woman—a black person who had just entered the Congress was seated.

And he was determined to sit there, and I was determined not to move.

[cheering and applause]

And so, he said repeating that phrase over and over again. And then I said, you now, Shirley use your own homemade psychology on him. I looked up again, and he says, I told ya, you're at the Georgian delegation table. And I said to him, I'm telling you I know that I am at the Georgian delegation table. I'll find out where New York is seated, and I will not be here anymore. And then I've quieted down a little bit and I said, I know, you're hungry aren't you?

[laughter]

And just like a baby, he really began to respond [laughter] to my gentleness. And I said, well, you know, your problem is that you can't bring yourself to sit at this table with me, although there are six seats at the table. But you know what I'm going to do?  You see that table over there—There's a table diagonally across from this table where I was seated, and I didn't know to whom it belonged.  But I said, to him, you know what you do? You go over—and he was so nice.  He'd become so meek. I said, you go over to that table, and you sit down, have your lunch, and if anybody bothers you, you tell them to see Shirley Chisholm.

[audience laughter]

[cheering and applause]

[Shirley Chisholm laughs with the audience]

[end of track]

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Bernice Johnson Reagon Sings "Getting Down to Get Over" and Recites "Poem about My Rights"

Portrait of Bernice Johnson Reagon. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryPortrait of Bernice Johnson Reagon. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryBernice Johnson Reagon (b. 1942) is a scholar of American history, social activist, composer, and performing artist. She was an original member of the Freedom Singers, a group that used a cappella protest song, chants, and communal singing as tools of civil rights activism alongside the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s. In 1973 while working on her doctorate in history at Howard University, Reagon formed the Grammy-nominated African American women's a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, which she led until her retirement in 2004.

In this recording, Reagon sings a song with lyrics taken from June Jordan's poem "Getting Down to Get Over," which was published in the 1974 book New Days: Poems of Exile and Return. Reagon also recites Jordan's "Poem about My Rights" from the 1980 collection Passion.

Listen to audio of Bernice Johnson Reagon

Transcript of audio recording

[start of track]

[Bernice Johnson Reagon singing]

Consider the Queen

hand on her hip
sweat restin from
the corn/bean/greens’ field
steamy under the pale/sly
suffocatin sun

Consider the Queen

she fix the cufflinks
on his Sunday shirt
and fry some chicken
bake some cake
and tell the family
“Never mind about the bossman
don’ know how a human
bein spozed to act. Jus’
never mind about him.
Wash your face.
Sit down. And let
the good Lord bless this table.”

Consider the Queen

she works when she work
in the laundry in jail
in the school house in jail
in the office in jail
on the soap box in jail
on the desk
on the floor
on the street
on the line
at the door
lookin fine
at the head of the line
steppin sharp from behind
in the light
with a song
wearing boots
or a belt
and a gun
drinkin wine when it’s time
when the long week is done
but she works when she works
in the laundry in jail
she works when she works

Consider the Queen

[singing ends]

Now that’s June Jordan.

[Reagon begins to recite Jordan’s “Poem about My Rights”]

Even tonight and I need to take a walk and clear
my head about this poem about why I can’t
go out without changing my clothes my shoes
my body posture my gender identity my age
my status as a woman alone in the evening/
alone on the streets/alone not being the point/
the point being that I can’t do what I want
to do with my own body because I am the wrong
sex the wrong age the wrong skin and
suppose it was not here in the city but down on the beach/
or far into the woods and I wanted to go
there by myself thinking about God/or thinking
about children or thinking about the world/all of it
disclosed by the stars and the silence:
I could not go and I could not think and I could not
stay there
alone
as I need to be
alone because I can’t do what I want to do with my own
body and
who in the hell set things up
like this
and in France they say if the guy penetrates
but does not ejaculate then he did not rape me
and if after stabbing him if after screams if
after begging the bastard and if even after smashing
a hammer to his head if even after that if he
and his buddies fuck me after that
then I consented and there was
no rape because finally you understand finally
they fucked me over because I was wrong I was
wrong again to be me being me where I was/wrong
to be who I am
which is exactly like South Africa
penetrating into Namibia penetrating into
Angola and does that mean I mean how do you know if
Pretoria ejaculates what will the evidence look like the
proof of the monster jackboot ejaculation on Blackland
and if
after Namibia and if after Angola and if after Zimbabwe
and if after all of my kinsmen and women resist even to
self-immolation of the villages and if after that
we lose nevertheless what will the big boys say will they
claim my consent:
Do You Follow Me: We are the wrong people of
the wrong skin on the wrong continent and what
in the hell is everybody being reasonable about
and according to the Times this week
back in 1966 the C.I.A. decided that they had this problem
and the problem was a man named Nkrumah so they
killed him and before that it was Patrice Lumumba
and before that it was my father on the campus
of my Ivy League school and my father afraid
to walk into the cafeteria because he said he
was wrong the wrong age the wrong skin the wrong
gender identity and he was paying my tuition and
before that
it was my father saying I was wrong saying that
I should have been a boy because he wanted one/a
boy and that I should have been lighter skinned and
that I should have had straighter hair and that
I should not be so boy crazy but instead I should
just be one/a boy and before that        
it was my mother pleading plastic surgery for
my nose and braces for my teeth and telling me
to let the books loose to let them loose in other
words
I am very familiar with the problems of the C.I.A.
and the problems of South Africa and the problems
of Exxon Corporation and the problems of white
America in general and the problems of the teachers
and the preachers and the F.B.I. and the social
workers and my particular Mom and Dad/I am very
familiar with the problems because the problems
turn out to be
me
I am the history of rape
I am the history of the rejection of who I am
I am the history of the terrorized incarceration of
myself
I am the history of battery assault and limitless
armies against whatever I want to do with my mind
and my body and my soul and
whether it’s about walking out at night
or whether it’s about the love that I feel or
whether it’s about the sanctity of my vagina or
the sanctity of my national boundaries
or the sanctity of my leaders or the sanctity
of each and every desire
that I know from my personal and idiosyncratic
and indisputably single and singular heart
I have been raped
be-
cause I have been wrong the wrong sex the wrong age
the wrong skin the wrong nose the wrong hair the
wrong need the wrong dream the wrong geographic
the wrong sartorial I
I have been the meaning of rape
I have been the problem everyone seeks to
eliminate by forced
penetration with or without the evidence of slime and/
but let this be unmistakable this poem
is not consent I do not consent
to my mother to my father to the teachers to
the F.B.I. to South Africa to Bedford-Stuy
to Park Avenue to American Airlines to the hardon
idlers on the corners to the sneaky creeps in
cars
I am not wrong: Wrong is not my name
My name is my own my own my own
and I can’t tell you who the hell set things up like this
but I can tell you that from now on my resistance
my simple and daily and nightly self-determination
may very well cost you your life

[recitation ends]

That is June Jordan, and that, that is also my sense of why I have remained sane, because June has put forth my name, my passion, my energy, my history, my breath. And I like keeping company with her. It is very, very special that as I’ve moved through my life, she has been there also. This is Bernice Johnson Reagon.

[end of track]

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Muriel Snowden Oral History Interview

Photo by Judith Sedwick for Women of Courage: An Exhibition of Photographs Based on the Black Women Oral History Project. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryPhoto by Judith Sedwick for Women of Courage: An Exhibition of Photographs Based on the Black Women Oral History Project. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryMuriel 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.

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.

Listen to Muriel Snowden Oral History Interview, The Black Women's Oral History Project. Cheryl Gilkes (interviewer), October 30, 1977

Transcript of interview recording

[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]

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Mary Gibson Hundley Talks about Housing Discrimination in 1947 Radio Program

Portrait of Mary Gibson Hundley, circa 1952. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryPortrait of Mary Gibson Hundley, circa 1952. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryImagine being evicted from the home you bought and paid for, owing to the color of your skin. This happened to Mary Gibson Hundley in the 1940s, and she and her husband fought back. Hundley (1897–1986) was an educator and civil rights activist who graduated cum laude from Radcliffe College in 1918. Radcliffe College honored her in 1978 with the Alumnae Recognition Award for her service as an educator and "courageous citizen." One aspect of that service, her life-long involvement with Dunbar High School—founded in 1870 as the first college preparatory school for Blacks in the nation—is detailed in her book, The Dunbar Story, 1870–1955 (1965). As a result of this work, Hundley was credited with inspiring generations of Black students to pursue higher education and enroll in Ivy League colleges.

In January 1941 Hundley and her husband Frederick purchased and moved into a house in a neighborhood with a restrictive covenant. A restrictive covenant is an agreement limiting the free use or occupancy of property, usually based on race or religion. By the end of 1941, their white neighbors brought and won a lawsuit against the Hundleys, resulting in their eviction from their home in July 1942. That judgment was successfully reversed on appeal in December 1942 (Hundley et ux. v. Gorewitz et al. No. 8154 US Court of Appeals for DC, 1942). The case was later cited in Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 US1-23 (1947), which established that covenants restricting use and ownership of property to whites violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Hundley related the experience in this 1947 radio broadcast of the program "Americans All."

Listen to “Americans All,” a 1947 Washington, DC, radio program with Mary Gibson Hundley, Leon A. Ransom, et. al.

Transcript of audio recording

[Start of track]

[Speaking: Unnamed Announcer]

Eastern standard time, 11:15.  We present “Americans All.”

[Music]

[Speaking: Unnamed Announcer]

This is "Americans All," a program presented in the public interest by station WWDC and designed to aid in the promotion of harmony and understanding among all races, colors and creeds in America. Tonight marks the final program in this current series of presentations. We call your attention to the fact that beginning next Sunday night October 5th at the same time, we will bring you the first in a new series of outstanding programs entitled “Within Our Gates.” These during dramatizations are devoted to encouraging and fostering better racial and religious understanding. The first program will tell the story and dramatize incidents in the life of Booker T. Washington. We also call attention to a new time for the “Americans All” program, which will be heard each Sunday afternoon at 2:30 over another Washington station. Consult your newspaper radio listings for further details on our “Americans All” program for tonight, we will hear a discussion on restrictive covenants by Mary Gibson Hundley, Leon A. Ransom and Kate album. Six years ago, a man and his wife bought a home in Washington, DC. Two months later, they were plunged into a series of legal and financial battles that lasted more than two years, cost them more than $2,000 and subjected them to a mental strain and a persistent and deliberate persecution, which to them was unthinkable in our American democracy. Tonight, “Americans All” presents that woman and her story.

[Speaking: Mary Gibson Hundley]

My name is Mary Gibson Hundley. My husband and I are high school teachers in the nation's capitol. On January 17 1941, we bought our home on 13th Street. We moved in the following day, and proceeded to remodel the property, installing more than $2,000 worth of improvements. Some weeks later we were sued by two of our neighbors. Why? Because they objected to our presence in the neighborhood. They had watched us coming and going. They had seen us improving the property. They had even grown fond of our dog. But they did not like us. We had not disturbed them in any way. We were not objectionable neighbors. We minded our own business, yet they met frequently in the house next door to decide how to get rid of us. One of them had run out to the moving van on the day we arrived and had asked the driver a most important question. “Are these people colored?” And he had answered “Yes.” But there was one other colored family nearby. They had lived in the block six months before we came, we thought surely there would be no troubles since they had survived that long. The presence of two colored families, however, provoked the suit against each one. The other family was annoyed only a short time and they won in the district court. We however, had to wait and worry until December 1st, 1941, shortly before Pearl Harbor, when the court decreed that we must move in 120 days and our purchase payment would be refunded. Meanwhile, press notices and legal delays made it impossible for us to rent a portion of the home according to our original plan. Because of hostility in the neighborhood, we dared not leave the home for a vacation trip.

[Pause]

[Speaking: Mary Gibson Hundley]

Our attorney filed an appeal to the higher court and requested an extension of time pending the hearing of our case. But the big powers and neighbors insisted that we must go. On July 1st, 1942 we were evicted. We had to stay with friends two weeks until my former home was vacated and renovated. The tenant had to be evicted. The Marshal had taken the keys and we had left our home on 13th street with no more than suitcases. From day to day we had expected to find our furniture out on the sidewalk. But we finally learned that the furniture could stay in the house since it was not colored, but that we could not enter it again until we returned to remove our household goods. When we left, our neighbor was enjoying the eviction without unconcealed laughter. In December 1942, the Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the lower court, ruling that we could return to live in our home. We had rented it to whitewall workers whom we soon asked to move. At once the same neighbors who had sued us proceeded to conspire to keep the tenants in our house. Various subterfuges delayed our return. Finally, after more than a year, the tenants moved out and we planned to move in the next day.

That evening when we went to inspect the property, we were surprised to find lights burning in every room, the shades pull down, and the door locked against us. With the aid of the police, we entered the basement door and found that the most amazing trick had been played. To prevent us from regaining possession of the house. Someone had bought two beds from the tenants before they left and had failed to remove the beds in order to pretend the house was still occupied. The man arrived soon after we had entered and claimed that he lived there. Although we've refused to be intimidated, we were falsely arrested a week later, and charged with housebreaking. We paid nearly $100 more for a bondsman and legal fees to have the case dismissed. Have you ever been arrested for moving into your own house? My husband and I are law abiding citizens. Our people have lived in this country for several generations. Our legal battle was fought at the same time as the Second World War. When the newspapers were full of the Four Freedoms for which we were all supposed to be giving our best effort, so that the whole civilized world might understand the American way of life and respect American ideals.

[Pause]

[Speaking: Unnamed Announcer]

Thank you Mrs. Hundley for telling us about this personal experience, which gives us a better understanding of the problems we are discussing today.

[Pause]

[Speaking: Unnamed Announcer]

We have Miss Kate Alperin[?], Executive Secretary of the Washington chapter of Americans for Democratic Action. Miss Alperin[?] is going to interview Dr. Leon Ransom, Washington attorney, on the legal aspects of the problem Mrs. Hundley faced and which others have faced. Dr. Ransom is well qualified to speak on the subject. He is chairman of the Legal Committee of the DC branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and chairman of the Committee for Racial Democracy in the nation's capital. Miss Alperin[?]...

[Speaking: Kate Aplerin[?]]

First, I want to say to Mrs. Hundley that I couldn't help being shocked to hear of her experience. It's disgraceful that experiences such as hers should occur here in the capital of our democracy. And I'd like to ask Dr. Ransom a question about the legal aspects of this case. Dr. Ransom, what right did Mrs. Henry's neighbors have to oust her from her home in the first place? Don't our laws give protection against such undemocratic acts as those of Mrs. Hundley's neighbors?

[Speaking: Dr. Leon Ransom]

Mrs. Hundley’s neighbors were about to force her out of her own home by means of what is known as restrictive covenants. That is a device by means of which people living in a particular neighborhood joined together in agreement in writing that they will not rent or sell their property to certain groups of people, such as Jews, Catholics, Negros or any other minority whom they considered to be undesirable persons for that particular neighborhood. Such covenants are usually phrased to the effect that no party may own or occupy the premises if they belong to the proscribed group. This being a contract between individuals, it has been unfortunately held in a large number of cases, that it is enforceable at law, with the result that any property owner in the neighborhood who does violate the terms of the agreement and sells his property to a member of the class named in the agreement may himself be sued for violation of it, and the purchaser will be compelled to give up the use or ownership of property for which he has paid his money. Fortunately, in Mrs. Hundley’s case, the courts in the district held that the covenant could not be enforced because the neighborhood in which the property was located had changed in character from an all-white residential area to one that was substantially for Negros and therefore the covenant had lost its effectiveness. The courts often hold that, where the neighborhood has changed in character residency. Because it's felt that such covenants are basically bad and should be enforced only when there is no other alternative. I am sorry to say that there are not many people in the District of Columbia who have been as fortunate as Mrs. Hundley in the outcome of such litigation. An example with which I am personally familiar, because I was counsel in the case, is that of a Mrs. Mays, who purchased a home in the northwest section of the city for herself, her sister and their children. And she was forced by the residents of the neighborhood to give up her home by means of these same covenants and go back to the rented rooms from which she had attempted to escape. The case was carried through the courts and finally to the Court of Appeals, and by a majority decision, the validity of the covenant was upheld. I am happy to say that one of the justices, however, wrote a very vigorous dissent, in which he pointed out that these agreements were undemocratic and constitute the serious threat to our social moral and economic welfare.

[Speaking: Kate Aplerin[?]]

But do our laws allow such an obviously discriminatory practice as the restrictive covenant?

[Speaking: Dr. Leon Ransom]

It is a fundamental right under both the English and American law that every person has the power of determining to whom he will sell his property. That of course, is as it should be. The viciousness of the covenant lies in the fact that a group of people bind themselves together for the purpose of determining that no one shall sell the property in that neighborhood to another certain class of people, or to allow it to be used for certain purposes. Originally, these agreements were based upon what we all must admit is a sound purpose. That is, of preventing the use of property for businesses that might be considered detrimental to the health and safety of the neighborhood, such as establishing slaughterhouses therein, factories, particularly those that might be manufacturing dangerous substances such as explosives. Or to prevent the establishment of saloons or other undesirable businesses in what should be a purely residential section. When this type of covenant was found to be upheld by law for such salutary purposes, it was seized upon by narrow minded individuals who wanted to force their own ideas of superiority upon their communities. And they began write the type of agreement which we are now discussing. The distortion of this original purpose of the covenant amounts really to conspiracy to deny the people who are the objects of personal prejudices the right to buy and live where they may choose. The wrong consists in the fact that such agreements are made to apply to classes or races and not merely to individuals who might be objectionable. These mutual agreements not to sell or rent property to persons of particular races or nationalities make it impossible for anyone who falls within the description to live in any particular neighborhood. In a case some years ago, the United States Supreme Court ruled that no state or any agency of a state could make a law which restricted persons from living in any particular place where such law was based on the race or color of the individual. Unfortunately, our courts have not yet in the main seen fit to deny the individuals the use of the courts to enforce these restrictive covenants, which do by private agreement, but the state is forbidden to do by law.

[Speaking: Kate Aplerin[?]]

Are any steps being taken to make the restrictive covenants unlawful?

[Speaking: Dr. Leon Ransom]

Yes. For years, whenever an effort has been made to enforce one of these agreements in court, we have sought to have the courts declare that they are unenforceable by reason of the fact that they interfere with the individual owners right to sell his land to whomsoever he chooses, and denies the right to the individual purchaser to acquire and use property wherever he desires. Some states have held that these agreements are illegal for that reason, and a few have held that they're unconstitutional because they differentiate between people on account of their race, religion or nationality. However, other states have held that these covenants being private agreements may be enforced by the courts. Some of these limit the enforcement merely to the user occupancy of property, saying that the prohibition against ownership cannot stand. This, of course, is ridiculous, because it says effect that a man may own the property, but he cannot live in. Still others say that the prohibition against both ownership and occupancy can be enforced. The base of the enforcement of these by the courts lies in the fact that the state through its judicial branch is doing what as I said before, it cannot do through its legislative branch. Unfortunately, we have not been able to get any definitive decision on the matter by the Supreme Court of the United States, only once was a matter of before it in a case arising right here in the District of Columbia. And in that case, in our opinion, the real question in the issue, that is whether such agreements are constitutional or not, was bypassed and the case was decided on a legal technicality involving the procedure by which the matter had come before the court. However, because of the language used in the case, it has been assumed that the Supreme Court has given its blessing to such agreements. I am happy to say that this year we will have a chance to have the Supreme Court review this problem. And we are hopeful that they will declare in unmistakable language that such agreements are unconstitutional. And when they are made, the signers cannot appeal to our courts to carry out their undemocratic ideas. The Supreme Court has already agreed to review two cases at the coming terminal Court, which opens next Wednesday. One of these cases are rules Missouri and another in Michigan. In addition, the court has been asked to consider the review of three similar cases, one arising in Ohio, one from the District of Columbia and one from California. The very fact that so many cases are pending before the court indicates the widespread interest in the problem throughout the nation and leads us to believe that the court will uphold true American ideals and invalidate these practices.

[Speaking: Kate Aplerin[?]]

Mrs. Hundley’s case, Dr. Ransom, has pointed out the undemocratic nature of the restrictive covenant. But it occurs to me there are other aspects of the case of equal importance Has the policy of preventing various groups from living in certain areas had any effect on the housing picture or on crime or on delinquency?

[Speaking: Dr. Leon Ransom]

It very certainly does affect all of the problems you mentioned and affects them adversely. Because of these restriction agreements, minority groups are denied the opportunity to acquire homes or to live in the more desirable portions of community, with the result that such groups are forced into ghettos and slum areas in our cities. This necessarily results in overcrowding with all of its consequent evils. Health conditions become bad because both the overcrowding and the lack of sanitary facilities. Crime and juvenile delinquency rates rise in such areas because the unhealthful and squalid conditions under which people must live. And finally, such covenants lead to increase racial tension, which often results in riots and disorders. It must be clear to everyone that if you try to compress any racial or religious minority into a given area by virtue of prohibitions against their living elsewhere, natural increase in population itself will tend to cause this group to constantly expand and attempt to overflow the area where artificial hatreds and prejudices have been given the semblance of authority, by virtue of enforcement of the type of agreements that we are discussing. This attempt at expansion into the prohibited areas must resolve as it did in Detroit and as it has elsewhere, in actual physical friction between those who seek relief and those who attempt to deny it.

[Speaking: Kate Aplerin[?]]

Dr. Ransom. You mentioned specific cases in which the restrictive covenant was used against Negros and Jews, are they the only two groups against which the restrictive covenant has been used?

[Speaking: Dr. Leon Ransom]

Every race, nationality or creed is potentially subject to being made object of such covenants. They depend only upon the particular prejudices of the majority group in any given neighborhood. They have been used against, in addition to the Negros and Jews, whom you have mentioned, Chinese, Japanese and other oriental peoples, against Italians, Pols, and even against our own American Indians. In fact, one of the outstanding cases which is now pending before the California courts, involves a situation in which the defendant, an American Indian who is married to a Caucasian woman, is being attempted to be forced out of his property and to leave his wife because of the covenants. That case is just as ridiculous as the one filed here in the district recently, in which certain signers of the covenant sought to separate a Jewish husband from his Gentile wife because the covenant was aimed at Negros, Jews and Persians. Fortunately, this case was withdrawn because of the widespread publicity it received and the indignation it evoked. It is a sad commentary, however, that similar indignation does not follow when such covenants are daily used because of the race or color of the purchaser. You asked about the limitations. There is no limit as to how these may be used. As long as the minds of groups of people can be poisoned by any form of prejudice against other peoples, they can write that poison into such agreements. They can be used against Catholics, against Protestants or any other religious denomination as well as against races or color.

[Speaking: Kate Aplerin[?]]

When we stopped to think of it, it just doesn't make sense that we require a person to whom we sell or rent a house to be of a certain color or religion or nationality. My organization, Americans for Democratic Action, and many other organizations and individuals strongly condemn the un-American practice of restrictive covenants. I'd like to hear from you Dr. Ransom, what we can do in this community to abolish the restrictive covenant.

[Speaking: Dr. Leon Ransom]

Although the final blow to restrictive covenants will come when the United States Court Supreme Court declares that they are unconstitutional, there are many things that individuals and organizations can do now. There is a big job of education to be done to show every citizen how the restrictive covenant against one group strikes a blow at the freedom of all groups. And then you should persuade everyone you can that they should not sign a restrictive covenant, denying access to his property or neighborhood to anyone merely because of his color or religion or nationality. As for those already in existence, you should get those persons who signed these agreements to join with their neighbors and withdraw from the covenant. The same people who signed the covenant and brought it into existence can by a similar agreement, withdraw their consent and thus destroy the effectiveness. Also, you can persuade the people who are in neighborhoods where these covenants have been put on by former owners not to make any attempt to enforce them by legal action when Negros or Jews or other persons prescribed move into their neighborhood. The covenants have no effect of themselves and become problems only when someone attempts to enforce them. Left alone they are mere words on a sheet of paper. Finally, you can urge all of your friends and acquaintances who belong to any citizens association, or civic group to work within that group and attempt to persuade their members not to enforce restrictive covenants in any portion of the neighborhood.

[Speaking: Unnamed Announcer]

Now, here is Tomlinson D. Todd, president of the Institute on Race Relations.

[Speaking: Tomlinson D. Todd]

Ladies and gentlemen, our program tonight is the last “Americans All” broadcast on this station. This presentation marks the completion of one and a half years of continuous broadcasting. I think it fitting at this time to express on behalf of the Institute on Race Relations, deep appreciation to station WWDC, the various participants and others for their assistance. Such support has enabled me, as president of the Institute, to keep these programs on the air without interruption for the past 18 months. In doing this, it has meant a lot of hard work and many sacrifices, but the job has been and is still an important one. And now I wish to repeat the following announcement. “Americans All” will not go off the air but will be carried by another radio station, and at a much earlier hour on Sundays. Beginning next Sunday “Americans All” will be broadcast from 2:30pm to 3pm. You may secure the name of this radio station from the newspapers. Tonight you heard Mary Gibson Hundley tell the story of how the vicious practice of restrictive covenants for more than two years made life miserable for her and her husband. What she failed to tell you, what she was too modest to mention is this. Mrs Hundley is a teacher French at Dunbar High School. She is a graduate of Radcliffe College. She has a master's degree from Middlebury College. She has traveled and studied abroad. Her husband, Frederick F. Hundley is a teacher of art in the Brown Junior High School, and a graduate of the College of Fine Arts at Syracuse University. We all know that Mrs. Hundley’s experience is not unique. All over the country, there are American citizens who are deprived of certain rights and privileges guaranteed to them as citizens simply because someone doesn't like the color of their skin, the shape of their nose, or the sound of their speech. If there is one thing about racial and religious prejudice, which ought to be hammered into the consciousness of every American today, it is this. Never before in the history of mankind, as the world looks so much to America for leadership. Daily, we see evidence of this fact. Yes, the world looks to us for leadership. To the suffering millions of Europe and Asia, we have sent and are planning to send great quantities of food and money. Along with these physical necessities of life, we also send ideas. To some of these countries we have already said, “Be more democratic, clean up your elections, stop mistreating your minorities, set your political opponents free. Give the rights of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly. Give these rights to all of your people. And not just to those who happen to agree with you.” We say these things to our neighbors and somehow like little children, we expect these neighbors to take us seriously simply because we say them. We seem not to worry about the fact that we don't always practice what we preach. We seem to think that our food, our dollars and our high sounding words are enough to hold the friendship of friendly nations and that our guns, our ships, atomic bombs are enough to hold off the unfriendly nations. As one man put it, we knock ourselves out doing it the hard way. Yes we can buy the peace of the world, but not with money, not with food, not with words. We can buy it only with deeds. If we can put our own house in order. If we can simply be the kind of nation we want our neighbors to be, the world will not only look to America for leadership, the world will follow her.

[Music]

[Speaking: Unnamed Announcer]

You have been listening to “Americans All.” Taking part in tonight's program were Mary Gibson Hundley, Leon A. Ransom and Kate Alperin[?]. Tonight marks the final program in this series and beginning next Sunday night, at the same time, we will inaugurate a new series of presentations, which are likewise designed to promote better racial and religious understanding among all peoples. This program will be known as “Within Our Gates,” a dramatic show that has already won national honors for what it has done to promote harmony and better understanding. The initial program over this station next Sunday night will highlight the life of Booker T. Washington. At this time station WWDC would like to express its thanks and appreciation to Mr. Tomlinson D. Todd, the president of the Institute on Race Relations, for his splendid assistance and cooperation in planning for these broadcasts of “Americans All” and to call your attention to the fact that the “Americans All” program will be heard hereafter on Sunday afternoons at 2:30 over another Washington station. Consult the radio listings in your newspaper for full details.

[Music]

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