|The Whole World Was Watching
an oral history of 1968
We Marched for our Rights
My family always attended church, and it was a mixed church. I always taught Sunday school. I loved all the children, they were always so kind and dear and I was the same to them. I also started a Brownies group. I did this because of my daughter. We did activities for the public: parades, plays, all sorts of things. I was also involved with the school PTA and we petitioned to get a bus to go down where the immigrants and lower class kids lived instead of just going up the hill to pick up all the rich kids. So we wrote a petition together and got the bus to pick them up. I was involved with all sorts of things through out the community. I also worked a job for the state, while my husband was a police officer. During all of this, my mother-in-law took care of the children. I guess you could say, I was very involved with the community.
My son was very out going and involved with a lot of sports and activities. My daughter, on the other hand, was bright quiet girl who didn't have many friends. She loved reading books. There was a three-year difference between the two, but my daughter graduated the same year as her older brother for she was always studying. Then there was the problem of finding a college. Let me tell you what a search we had. Both of my children wanted to go to school in the South. We didn't know much about the South at that time. All that I knew was that there was unrest in the South, but we were all pretty naive. There were a lot of changes going on down there with blacks trying to get equal rights. During that time, Blacks weren't allowed to sit at counters in restaurants with Whites, and some Blacks weren't allowed to stay at certain hotels, or use public bathrooms, or drink from the same water fountains as Whites. There were definitely some big changes going on down there and plenty more I wasn't aware of. I was slightly nervous with my daughter being down there, her being so young and all.
My daughter attended a little college in North Carolina named Bennett College. It was a lovely little school with about 500 students all girls. When I went down there for orientation with her, I just loved it! I had never been around so many Blacks before; I thought it was wonderful. I felt they were all so pretty, all different colors. Some were very, very fair, some were very dark, but there was such a mixture of colors and they were all dressed so prettily. So this was where my daughter attended college, and oh she hated it at first. She was calling me all the time asking me to let her come home. Finally, she took a liking to it.
Then there was my son. He attended Virginia University. He fit in right well there. The first year in college, he came back and wanted to be all black, so he had the big Afro. Now my husband and I didn't know what to think about that. He said he'd done it, because well we didn't know anything about the homeland. I said "What home land?" He said "Africa". I said, "We've been here all our lives, so I guess this is our homeland, right here." But, well he wanted to study Africa. I wasn't so worried about him as I was my daughter; I knew he'd do just fine.
My children did just fine for themselves. They could have come back up here for work, but there were many more job openings in the South, so they stayed there. They both have very good jobs in good positions. My daughter has been with IBM since it started, and my son has his own business. I'm very proud of the both of them.
The North was much different than the South. Although things were not equal between Blacks and Whites, the conditions were far better in the North. I'm not saying we didn't have our share of problems, for we certainly did. I remember the great amount of difficulty we had in finding a home. What a problem that was.
I would call up the real estate agent if I saw a house for sale, and he or she would say "Oh, yes, yes, would you like to see it?" So my husband and I would go to see it, and when the real estate agent saw that we were black, he would say something like, "Oh, I'm not sure whether or not they want to sell the house." You wouldn't believe how many times that happened to us. Over the telephone, he wouldn't know who I was, and then people were not as open as we are now, because we have laws now that people cannot discriminate, but then, there were no laws. So it was very difficult for us to find a house. We looked and looked, and then we finally did find a place. Once that happened, we had to go to the bank to get a mortgage. My husband was just home from the war (WWII), and they said, oh no, we were risks. So the man from who we bought the house held the mortgage, so we could buy the house. Had we been white, we could have walked right in. But we, native Rhode Islanders, couldn't find a place.
Another problem that Blacks had a hard time getting was jobs. Jobs were very hard to find. I finally got a job from the state, but my experiences after high school trying to find a job were terrible. I was so naive; I thought all I had to be was smart and ready, and I was.
My first job I went to right out of high school was a place where they were hiring young people. The lady there said to me, "My dear, do you know there is a depression on? And white girls are not finding jobs. What makes you think you can find one?" And here I was dressed lovely, thinking that was the first step. And here was some dowdy, ugly woman telling me I couldn't have a job. And she was right. There were so few jobs available, and black girls didn't get jobs. It would be so nice if your ability put you into a position, not your skin color. So many people have gotten in because of what they looked like. But, who said it was going to be fair. So you do the best you can.
There were many problems in the Sixties. Take the draft, for instance. When my son graduated from high school he was getting draft notices all the time. And if he didn't go to college, he would have to go to war. Young men eighteen years old, if not in college, were drafted. So the war was not fair. Because if you had money to go to college, you weren't drafted. His friends didn't have the money, so they all had to go to war. As a mother, you feel awful when you can't afford to send your son to college, and they have to go to war. I think of how horrible WWII was for my husband and all the black men involved. It was a completely segregated army which was wrong.
I never approved of the war in Vietnam. I didn't think the war had anything to do with us, and I didn't think we needed to be over there. We never really needed that war. Martin Luther King said from the beginning that it was mostly a racial war. We've got more Black people killed in the Vietnam War than any other. We were looking to win that war. It was time to look and see that they were always putting in the poor people because if you could pay your way out, you didn't go. You went off to school and you didn't have to go. I t was an unjust, unfair war.
I also think we never treated the Vietnam vets in the way we should have. It's just been lately that people began to realize the war wasn't right. It wasn't right, but the Vets have never gotten the appreciation that was due to them, and I have never seen a parade or any kind of celebration or recognition of them.
Although I never agreed with the Vietnam War, I never protested it either. The reason I didn't do that was because I felt so bad for those who went in. I felt I would make them think that I didn't care about them because they had no way of protesting. How could I protest it, when he was already in there and his mother was heartbroken. I couldn't protest. One woman protesting, making a mother feel her son was over there in vain. No, I didn't feel that would be the way to do it.
I protested for other reasons during that time period. I remember the March on Washington 1963. It was August 28th. We marched for our rights: People were trying to get better jobs and people didn't want them to have them. I didn't know much about Martin Luther King at the time. He wasn't as well known in the North as he was in the South. I took my daughter, she was a little girl about twelve, and my husband said "You can't go, there might be trouble. You'll be in Washington with no way of getting out. I don't think you should go." I said, "Look, this is history. We need to be in this." And we went, and I was scared. We didn't know what would happen to us.
When we got to Washington the place was filled with black and white people. There are so many wonderful White people in the world, and we all, just great big lines of people, marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. Over the loud speaker I could hear, "I Have a Dream." I was so thrilled. It was wonderful, not so much what we did, but that we showed that we cared about what was happening to this country. We were right to be here. We have the right to live where we want. We have the right to a job. It's guaranteed liberty and freedom for all. It was just so euphoric.
Then, there was the devastating news that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. I always wondered how long he could go without violence. He was never violent. I never realized the terrible feelings that Whites had for Blacks. I felt terrible when he died; he was a man for peace. All he wanted was for his children to have that opportunity that other people had. How would you like it if you had a park here right next-door and all the white children could go play in it, but your child couldn't go? How could you explain it to them? How could you tell your child he couldn't go because he was black? He couldn't go in that park because of the color of his skin; the color God had given him.
When Martin Luther King died I felt as though the light had gone out of the world. It felt as though darkness was creeping in. Here was a man who stood for beauty. He stood for everybody. He didn't just fight for Blacks, he fought for anyone who needed rights. He never wanted the Vietnam War. He said we should never touch it. Yet people said he was terrible to do that, taking away the pride of America. Here was a man who wanted everybody to love each other. And they shot him. I couldn't think how God could allow that, and how anybody could do that.
The reaction was awful. The fights in Rhode Island. Black people were running through the streets, just tearing up everything; they were so mad with everybody. It was just an awful reaction. I felt awful about that. I still have a piece that is missing in my life because I never got to really know him like I would have wanted to.