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Interview with: Diana Fallis Page
Interviewed by: Louis Marchiafava
Date: October 16, 1989
Archive Number: OH 380.1
LM: This is Louis Marchiafava interviewing Mrs. Diana Fallis Page for the Houston Metropolitan Research Center oral history project. Today’s date is October 16, 1989. We are conducting the interview at the Houston public library’s HMRC office. I would like to begin the interview by getting some background information on you as to where you were born and to talk some about your parents and your early education, so why don’t we begin at that point.
DP: I was born in Harlem Hospital in New York City which, of course, is in Harlem. I lived on 116th Street between—this can difficult. I don’t know if I remember all this stuff.
LM: Just remember the best you can.
DP: One hundred sixteenth Street between—I’m sorry, let me get that straight. Fifth Avenue, between 116th and 117th Street is where I grew up. My grandmother reared me along with two other sisters, Joyce and Linda. We grew up in a five-story tenement building where people—you know what—do me a favor.
LM: Yeah. It allows me time to think.
DP: We grew up an area that was really pleasant to be in, even though people see it from other parts of the country, whether it was friends who I knew in Pittsburg, or Virginia, or grew up in other places that we visited as young people, thought that Harlem was a bad place to grow up. It was really not. It was a very close-knit community at that time. People looked out for each other’s kids. We went to neighbors houses, in and out of houses. Doors were kept open without any fear of anything happening to you.
My grandmother would sit in the dark—I remember—would sit in the dark on the third floor in a tenement building, in Harlem which had a bad reputation, and she’d sit with the door open, with no fear at all that anyone would come in and bother her. Then we kids—you know—kids run in and out—were I guess somewhere around 5, 6, elementary school age, the door would be open, so she wouldn’t want to get up and open the door and go back and forth, so she would leave the door open for that reason. Then neighbors could go in.
It was a good community to grow up in. I have very good feelings when I think about it, off the top of my head. There were some things that weren’t so good about it too. An immediate reaction is that it really was a pretty good growing up there. Now, the physical environment, that part of it wasn’t so good. The landlords at that time didn’t keep up their property very well, and so we grew up under conditions where there were heating problems in terms of coming home and keeping your coat on rather than taking it off.
Neighbors had rodents and roaches, but my grandmother was very, very good at keeping them away. One thing, we always had a bunch—not a bunch—but we always had a cat or two. We always kept cats. She always kept cats. She liked animals. The cats also served another purpose as well. Is that kind of rambling?
LM: Let me ask you, most people when they—you used the term tenement. Most people, when they read the transcription or listen to the tape, will automatically assume we’re talking about a slum area. Are we indeed talking about that kind of environment?
DP: You see, it depends on who’s defining your environment. I wouldn’t define it as a slum area. They cleaned the streets every day. People didn’t—we had a backyard where people threw things out of the window, but out front they didn’t throw things out of the window. I never felt I lived in a slum. I resented it when I read the term slum and supposedly and ghetto, and what that meant, when I was in school. I resented that. I didn’t feel that I grew up in a slum or a ghetto. I don’t know if I’m saying that now looking back on it. Maybe as a kid I didn’t always feel great about the neighborhood, I don’t know. I did always want to get out, by the way. I did always want to get out.
Maybe in talking today, and I’m looking back on it, I’m not remembering right now the negative and the bad parts, but they were there, because I remember that there was a very painful period that I went through. Right now—I think—in talking about it, I’m associating it with my grandmother, and I’ll always have very good positive thoughts about my grandmother, and I’m associating it. I see some of the old people who were around in the neighborhood and were on the stoops. We called them stoops. I get very warm feelings when I think about that aspect of Harlem.
I can see sunny streets, even though they were tall buildings, and you didn’t have half the sun you have here in Houston. It’s one of the things I like about Houston. I like all the sunshine and the light. There were some good and some pleasant times. As kids, my grandmother saw to it that, as much as she could, because we did grow up poor, and money is what I’m talking about. I think that we grew up rich in a lot of other ways. She saw to it that we were exposed to as much as she was capable of exposing us to with limited funds. She saw to it that we went to the parks and the beaches, not the museums and things of that sort, but parks and beaches.
Every summer she would try to make sure we got out of the city to go visit relatives in Petersburg, Virginia, her aunt who lived there, to go visit relatives in—what is it—I’m trying to think of a small town outside of Pittsburg—Clairton, called Clairton, Pennsylvania. We’d go to Clairton, Pennsylvania all the time. Then my dad eventually bought a house out in Long Island, and we would go out there a lot in the summer times. She would try to get us into a different environment as much as possible. That probably sounds like a contradiction that would raise the question, “Well, why would she be trying to get you into a different environment, if everything was so great and rosy?”
I said originally that thinking about it spontaneously, I would think about my grandmother and the good things, but at the same time the—I know what it is. Let me clarify this. I thought about the real early days in Harlem, okay. I did see it deteriorate after awhile. What deteriorated Harlem, in my mind, really was drugs. I’m talking about many years ago. They talk about the drug problem now, but it has existed for quite some time, and I saw it destroy my neighborhood. Because you’re poor, doesn’t mean it’s a slum or it’s a bad neighborhood. I think what makes a bad neighborhood is the people and what they do there, and how they treat each other.
When you have people preying on others to support drug habits or other types of habits we might disagree with, then I think you have a bad neighborhood. I think—up to that point in time, there was a lot of enjoyment to get out of living there and being around the people there, but after awhile it really deteriorated. Chains went on doors. There was fear of coming and going. I remember, as a college student, when I went to school at night, I would call from downstairs so that my grandmother would come out into the hallway and wait for me to come up the three flights of stairs, because you simply never knew what you were going to encounter.
Drug addicts eventually hung out in the hallways, because of—what happens is you get one bad element. Sometimes it brings others. It was family who had moved into our building on the fifth floor. The daughter was involved with—she was the girlfriend of a drug addict. He brought others, and before you knew it the whole building had addicts going back and forth. That was one of the bad things that happened that I remember. I remember something else good about the neighborhood, though, was that people pulled together in crises and there were lots of those in terms of—we had many fires in my building.
There was one big one. I think I was probably maybe about 4 or 5 years old. I remember it, because my sister and I discovered it, actually. We were playing at one of the windows. We did have a lot of windows, by the way. We were playing at one of the windows, and she smelled smoke. She asked did I smell smoke? Her nickname for me was “Cootie,” by the way, C-o-o-t-i-e. I hated it at the time. Now it doesn’t bother me. She said, “You smell smoke, Cootie?” I did, and we said we better tell ma. We called my grandmother, ma. Then she smelled it, and she says she thinks there’s a fire.
She went out into the hall, and the smoke was coming up the whole thing. My grandmother took care of a lot of children besides us. She reared me and my older sister Joyce, my younger sister Linda, my two cousins, Julie and Delores. There were five kids in the house with her at that time. The fire had spread so fast. It was actually on the second. We were on the third floor. It was on the second floor. With a family on a second floor is where it started. It spread so fast, it was coming out. It was in the halls and everywhere, because she figured she could get us all down stairs, outside safely on the streets.
I remember she opened the door, and it was impossible. The smoke was all coming up the stairs. She closed the door very quickly. She went to the fire escape, and she thought about taking us all down the fire escape. My little sister was a baby, actually, at that time. The fireman told her to go back, to go back, go back, not to try to come down the stairway, the fire escape—New York has fire escapes—not to come down this fire escape with all the kids. She had us all lie down on the bed and covered us over, and we were scared to death.
My grandmother was a really strong person in any situation, but anyways, the firemen eventually came up, and they knocked the windows out, and subdued the fire, the whole thing. I don’t know where I am.
LM: Okay, bring me back. How long did you live in that apartment? How old were you when you finally left?
DP: Let me think a minute. I think I was about 20 years old, let’s say, maybe 21.
LM: Let me go back before we move beyond that point and talk about a few other things. You mentioned your father had you visit with him.
DP: If you notice, I haven’t talked very much about my parents. (laughing)
LM: I was going to ease my way into that.
DP: I noticed it. Yeah.
LM: Can we talk about him some?
DP: Sure. We can. I don’t know how much we’ll get, but you’re going to probably have to ask me questions.
LM: I will. What do you remember about him?
DP: I guess really when you say what do you remember about him, I think about him physically first. He was a small man, probably about 5’ 7”, or 5’ 8”, only about 140 pounds or so, because I remember when he told me weighed about 140, I couldn’t believe that he was a man and that small. I thought men were supposed to be bigger and weigh more—you know—that type of thing. He sort of—I guess—he was kind of a guy who did his own thing. We didn’t live with him, but we visited him. He would come by. He would get us. I remember we were happy that he would come by.
It was a big deal for daddy to come and get us in his car and his motorcycle. He was motorcycle, black jacket, cap, the whole thing. In fact, he belonged to a motorcycle group with my uncle, uncle Bubba. Everyone has an uncle Bubba. Daddy and uncle Bubba and my—I guess—I would call her my stepmother. She and my dad weren’t married—Helen. They would get together and go out of town. On the weekend, they would go wherever they went on the motorcycles. They weren’t a motorcycle gang, no. They were working people, and this was their entertainment.
We really liked the idea of daddy coming into the neighborhood on his motorcycle, because this was a big deal. In my neighborhood, it was a big deal, and take us for rides and stuff. He wouldn’t take the other kids for rides. He would just take us for a ride, and we’d get on the back, and as little kids—I don’t know—5, 6 years old, 7 years old, whatever, and have to hold him around the waist, and he’d take us for a spin. That was the highlight of the day, really.
He was a working man, I remember. One thing I think I got from daddy was that he read a lot. He read a great deal. In fact, sometimes like I still like to read, but I don’t quite get as much enjoyment out of it because I have to read so much for the newspaper. That’s when I noticed that it started going. Before that, I loved reading. I mean—give me a book, give me a nice corner to curl up in, and the world could go by. I couldn’t care less. Once in awhile I’ve wondered where I got that from because it from as far back as I can remember.
My grandmother would take us to someone’s house—I don’t want to get off the point about daddy—but would take us to a relative’s house. If they had a bookcase, I would not indulge in conversation, or be a part of a group, even if there were other kids. I would go straight to the bookcase and look at the books, just the titles, and feel them, and look at them. I have no idea where I got that from. I think it was maybe before even daddy coming around. It had to come from somewhere, but he read a great deal.
He read some of any and everything. He read the trash, but then My Camp. I picked that up one day, because he read it and he talked about his lure and all of that sort of thing. That book in particular I remember, because it was so big. I guess I was impressed that daddy had read the book. I tried to get through it and never did. I picked up a lot of his magazines, including some of the trash and stuff, but he liked to read.
He liked photography. He loved photography. In fact, it was his hobby, and he went to school for it, taking pictures. He had lots and lots of pictures. Oh, I never saw so many pictures. I remember him trying to talk to me one time about his hobby, about trying to share his interests in photography. I didn’t quite understand it then, kind of would admit to take pictures or something. I don’t remember the exact conversation, but he was really enthusiastic about it. I do remember that he was very enthusiastic about it.
He spent time with us. I always had a resentment of him of some kind, though. I don’t know what, why. Even now I can feel some of it. He didn’t beat us. My dad hit me once, and with a good reason, once because I was crying.
LM: Maybe you didn’t spend enough time with him, and you resent the time you didn’t spend?
DP: No, he did spend time when we went out to him. My dad lived in Long Island. He lived in Amityville, Long Island. He bought a house out there, he, and uncle, and my stepmother Helen. They’re common law married, if you can be common law married without a divorce. I don’t know—New York’s not a common law state. You figure it out. I don’t know, but anyway, when we went out there—daddy worked every day. Helen worked every day. My oldest sister more or less was there to—well, at some point she was supposed to be making sure we did what we were supposed to do.
We were left instructions and all of that sort of thing, but when he came home—I mean—we looked at television with him. We ate dinner at the table every night out there. In fact, we loved to go out there, because Helen was a great cook. He talked to us. I guess the real truth of it is, for history’s sake, is that I saw her abuse her some, and I didn’t like that. Maybe that’s what I still resent. He didn’t abuse us, but I did see him abuse her, not all the time, but sometimes, either verbally or—I saw some physical abuse. I think maybe I never forgave him for that. There was one big incident. I mean—she hurt him too, but I think I never really forgave him for that.
As far as overall treatment, maybe it has something to do with maybe not enough time. I don’t know, but there was time. When he came and he got us, we did eat every night at the table. We saw him every day when he came home in the summer. I don’t know the length of time. It might’ve been a month, or something, as much as month. We spent a lot of time in the car, because we had to drive back and forth. Maybe it’s like a lot of kids. Maybe you were in the presence of your parents, but you’re not really with them. With my grandmother, it wasn’t just in her presence, it was being really with her. Maybe that’s the difference.
LM: Is your father still living?
DP: No. My father is dead. My mother is dead. Both of my grandmothers are dead, so most of my family. I guess that’s why this whole thing is kind of important.
LM: Well, it is, actually.
DP: With no kids and a lot of my family dead.
LM: What do you remember about your mother?
LM: Your mother was happy-go-lucky?
DP: Oh, yeah, fantastic, wonderful person, a tragic death. My dad died tragically also, as a matter of fact. He worked for the railroad. He worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad. That’s how we got to go out of town. I have a real fondness for trains still. That’s how we got to go to Pittsburg and to Petersburg, Virginia and all of that, because dad worked for the railroad, and we got passes to go, you see. We packed the baskets and take on the train, and that sort of thing.
Well, daddy was a worker, and he went to work every day at the Pennsylvania Railroad. He got promoted and everything to shop steward and whatever. Then he got too big for his britches, and he got busted back down to whatever. His accident, he got run over by one of the trains in the yard. My mother got pushed or thrown out of a window. We don’t know to this day how that happened, but in any case, there was some little half-ass investigation, but the detectives never found out. I think that’s a part of being when you’re in a low income group, who cares, that type of thing.
Everybody liked her. She liked to dance, fun loving type person, liked to be around a lot of people, tell a lot of jokes, would never say anything evil about anybody, mean, nothing like that, was not a gossiper, didn’t want to hear it, wouldn’t talk gossip. She was the type of person—my grandmother saw her as irresponsible, okay. You’re not going to get her to settle down and do a thing, just fun and a good time. Now, mind you, these people died very young. My dad was 41, she was 40, when they died. Eventually, maybe she would’ve settled down, but we’re talking about young people.
LM: You were still fairly young when she died then?
DP: Not too young. No, I was about half her age, but I didn’t grow up around her. She was always off somewhere wherever she was. That’s why she and my dad weren’t together. From the time I was a baby, I was with my grandmother. I never knew them as a youngster.
LM: Let’s get your grandmother’s name. We’ve been talking so much about her.
DP: Hester Wilson, H-e-s-t-e-r Wilson. She was from Manning, South Carolina and went to New York—I think—at the age of 17. She was married, and lived there ever since.
LM: Was her husband from North Carolina?
DP: I got a chance to go back to Manning with her? Yes, they were both from South Carolina. They were both from South Carolina. He married her down there. He was a lot older than her, she said. How many years older? She was 17. He was in his 20s or something, something like that. My mother, I liked her. I guess I’m still not sure if—I guess—I liked daddy, but I’m not sure of my feelings toward him. I liked my mother. I loved my grandmother. I liked my mother. We called my mother Naomi, my grandmother, ma, because she was more like a mother to us.
My mother was more like a sister. She was really fun to be around. She was fun to talk to. You could talk with her about almost anything. You weren’t afraid to talk with her, but believe, it or not, even though she was happy-go-lucky, we respected her. Like my sister, Joyce, was the hard head. I was the good kid, and she was the hard head. My sister Joyce, she might not obey my grandmother, but I’ll be darn, my mother could tell her to do something, and she’d do it. My mother wouldn’t take anything off of her, really. We did respect her when she was around. We liked having her around. She was a lot of fun.
LM: She stayed there with you?
DP: No, she would come in every so often. At one point, she stayed. She slept on the couch for a long time. She stayed for awhile. Maybe it was as much as—I don’t know—a year, six months to a year. I don’t remember. I remember her being there for an extended period of time. Then she did work for awhile. She worked for awhile. My grandmother would sit on her about getting a job, and she eventually got a job cleaning. My parents weren’t educated, neither one of them were. Both of them dropped out of high school.
As a matter of fact, my mother had her first baby when she was 14. Yeah, the first one, I have a sister who died. Her name was Sandra, and Sandra she died. I believe she was 15—I’m sorry—she was 15. Correct that. She was 15 years old. Daddy was only a year older, so he was 16. They didn’t get much schooling, but he was kind of self schooled. He read a great deal. My grandmother read a great—she didn’t read books or anything. She read the newspaper every day. She was real heavy into reading the newspaper. She read the newspaper out loud. I remember some things from her reading out loud, like some incidences. Anyway, I forgot where I was.
[END OF 380.1_01] [BEGINNING OF 380.1_02]
LM: Let me turn my attention now to your memories of your school life.
DP: I loved school. I really liked school. Actually, when you say school, I think of a cousin of mine named Bernice. Her last name was Hatfield. I had mentioned going to Clairton, Pennsylvania, well, Bernice lived in Clairton, Pennsylvania. Bernice was the—she’s dead—and I’ll talk in past tense about a lot of my relatives are dead. Bernice lived with her mother who was my grandmother’s sister. How she got to Clairton, Pennsylvania was she married a guy from Clairton. I don’t remember how they met or anything like that, but she married a guy from Clairton. Bernice though lived in New York for a time.
I think I kind of threw off there, because she lived in New York for awhile, even though her parents were from Clairton. I think it was after her dad died. That’s what it was, after her dad died, she came to New York to live. She lived with my grandmother for a little while. Now, this was when I was probably about 4 or 5. She took to teaching me stuff. In fact, I really credit her with my interest in school and studying hard, because she was the first person who told me I was smart. (laughing) She did, and that counts so much with little kids. It really makes a difference when they say, “You’re smart.”
LM: Yeah, I know it does.
DP: I don’t remember every incident. I only remember one. We either doing numbers or going through the ABCs, and writing my name. She was teaching me this stuff before school. This was—I really haven’t dealt with times, but this was way before people were emphasizing Head Start and all of that sort of thing. She said, “Oh, great,” and she’d pat me on the back, and “You’re smart.” “Oh, look at what you did,” and that whole thing. I’m trying to write and carry on. By the time I got to school, I knew all the ABCs. Today they know a lot more than that, but it was a big deal. A lot of kids in class didn’t know the stuff. I went to Catholic school.
I did know the ABCs and some other things. I was familiar with pencil that sort of thing. I went thinking maybe I was smart. I went to Catholic school. I went to St. Paul’s. St. Paul’s was about—oh, city blocks—I can’t remember exactly how many blocks, maybe four or five blocks away from the house. We’d walk to school. Nuns, sisters of charity, known to be mean. I was a good kid, though, didn’t get hit very much. We did have one mean teacher in the second grade who hit any and everybody. I got hit by her once. No, I got hit by a fifth grade lay teacher.
We had very few lay teachers. We had probably one, our principal Sister Nolene. I went to school at 5 going on 6. Again, back to my grandmother, she begged and pleaded. They didn’t want to let me in, but she said, “She’s going to turn 6 in October.” One of the things mentioned is that sometime black folk don’t have all the papers and all that. She’s running around, and she doesn’t have the birth certificate. I remember we went to the parish where the priest stays. I forgot what you call it, where the priest stays.
LM: The rectory.
DP: The rectory, went to the rectory, and as a little kid, all of this stuff seems sort of strange. These people with these robes and stuff on, and it’s real quiet in the rectory. You’re coming from Harlem and here you are, and everybody was white (laughing) that type of thing—you know. This was really the first time of kind of entering a strange and different world, because in Harlem it was Hispanic and black, okay. Now, the school is crossing over and going into the Italian/Irish community, okay, where the majority of the kids are white, they’re Anglo, some Hispanic, and some black.
There’s a mixture, a mixture of groups, but all of the school personnel, the nuns, the fathers, everybody is white. Now that I’m thinking about it, I guess maybe that was some of what I felt in going to the rectory, and it’s quiet, and all of a sudden these white folks are on the scene. It’s so funny when you’re a kid, and people don’t understand how when you’re entering into a whole new world, you’re not shaking afraid, but there’s this funny little feeling of apprehension, and you’re so little, and you’re tagging along behind your parent, and so on and so forth. Anyway, I’m rambling again.
Anyway, she got the certificate, got to school, and got in there, very shy, extremely shy kid, wouldn’t say a word. In fact, at some point later on, one of the nuns noticed it. This was much later on, probably about the fifth grade or something. She said I was so quiet, she was afraid for me, that she never knew what was going on or something. There was some apprehension about it. I don’t remember her exact words or anything. I more or less was unnoticed in school until the grades came back. That was when I think that I would get attention. I think I noticed that I would get attention by getting good grades, through paperwork, basically.
Catholic school, I appreciate the opportunity to have gone—my grandmother was a convert—because of the reading, writing, and arithmetic, the three R’s. I didn’t appreciate some other aspects of it, and that is that they keep you too apart from the rest of the world, too contained, too isolated from the rest of the world, so that at some point—I didn’t feel that they really taught me how to deal with the rest of the world and people. We were just a school full of little girls with blue uniforms, and little beanie caps, and bowties, and we associated with each other.
We were actually told we were better than kids who went to public school. Actually, I had one girlfriend who went to public school. Anybody else—I didn’t have a lot of friends. The few people I associated with were all kids from Catholic school. I felt fearful when I was around kids from public school, because I felt they act different. They were more of—I guess—loose or something, and we were more kind of straight and contained.
LM: What was the reason that your grandmother sent you to Catholic school to begin with?
DP: Well, she was a convert, number one. Number two, she felt that we would get a better education, and quite frankly, the public schools in our area were awful, terrible. I felt sorry for my good friend who lived across the hall, 116th Street, she lived next door. Her name was Barrel. Barrel and I were two peas in a pod, and poor Barrel wanted to learn. She couldn’t. She would come home every day and tell me horror stories. She was in elementary school. Was it elementary? Yeah, horror stories about kids, and she was afraid every day of being beat up.
I would say, “Thank God, I didn’t have to go to public school.” The teachers couldn’t teach. There were discipline problems. All of this was going on. I was so far ahead of her in terms of the fundamentals in terms of English, I actually felt sorry for her as a kid, because she really wanted to learn and she couldn’t. She had come up from the West Indies.
We lived in a neighborhood, by the way—I had mentioned Hispanics and blacks, but with the blacks you had a lot of people from the islands. I grew up around West Indians as well, so around Puerto Ricans and West Indians. I forgot where I was.
LM: No, you finished. I think you covered that area. I had asked you why she sent you to Catholic school.
DP: Yeah, she thought—but, by the way, it’s so funny about families. I wasn’t the only one who went. I went. She sent my sisters, both Linda and Joyce. Linda and Joyce wouldn’t go.
LM: They wouldn’t go?
DP: No. I have a cousin who—some people are just funny about opportunities. I have two cousins, Delores and Junior, who I said my grandmother had two other kids in the house with the five, and I mentioned Delores and Junior during the time of the fire. They had the opportunity to go, and they didn’t go. I went to Cathedral High School. Cathedral High had a branch that was between 134th and 135th, on—I believe it was—Madison Avenue, because I used to walk when I would miss the bus. I took the bus to school.
Cathedral High was the ninth and the tenth, was at that particular one, and then eleventh and twelfth grade you went downtown on 51st Street, right across from the Waldorf Astoria, as a matter of fact. We got a chance to see King Hussein and some of those folks who stayed at the Waldorf. Khrushchev, as a matter of fact, when I was at Cathedral down there, they said Khrushchev is—we were in a classroom. It was, as a matter of fact, a biology class—I think—and the nun got excited. Of course, we’re glad we don’t have to have class. They took us up to the rooftop so we could look down and see Khrushchev.
This was a time when he had gone and he had banged on the table at the UN, that sort of thing. Then I think we couldn’t see, and then she had us hurry up and go downstairs or something. He passed by in the motorcade. I don’t remember, but that was the exciting part about being at a school on 51st Street across from the Waldorf.
Yes, I have other relatives who—all of them, as a matter of fact—Joyce, my sister Joyce stopped at St. Paul’s. She went to public school out of St. Paul’s. She didn’t finish St. Paul’s. I think she dropped after sixth grade of Catholic school. My sister Linda, the younger one—Joyce is the older one—Linda, she went until the ninth grade. She got pregnant, and she dropped out, not that she was doing anything at school. She didn’t like school. They didn’t like school. My cousin, Junior, he got into pretty school called Rice.
Interestingly enough, Rice—pretty good school. It’s located in Harlem. I guess it was going a transition or something. It was mainly white, very few blacks, but it was in Harlem, interesting. He said he couldn’t stand the fathers, and he didn’t like the discipline. I have a cousin Butch, who got into—and when I say get into, you didn’t just go to Catholic school. You had to get into Catholic school.
LM: I know.
DP: Butch got into another good—Cardinal Hayes. His mother did everything to try to keep him in Cardinal Hayes. He would not go. Delores, Cathedral, ninth grade, dropped out. They just wouldn’t go. I was the only one who, first of all—and this is not patting myself on the back. I wonder why. We came up in the same environment. I was the only one who—I was the first one to finish high school. In fact, I don’t know if some of the rest of them finished high school. My two sisters didn’t. One got a GED. The other never bothered. Junior went into the service. I don’t think he bothered. In fact, I don’t who else has gotten through high school. Oh yes, my nieces, I have a couple of nieces. Basically, nobody was interested in school. Isn’t that interesting?
LM: You’re the exception.
DP: Bernice finished high school. I was the second one in the family to finish high school. Bernice was first. I was second. I still might be—well, it’s not the same today. I have two nieces who graduated from high school, and there may be some others. I don’t get back to New York very often. I haven’t seen them. I’m not sure what’s going on.
LM: Particularly in your younger years in school, did you notice any discrimination because of your race, or unpleasant memories from the white children who were there?
DP: General, let me think a minute on this one. It involved another kid. I really can’t say that they treated us all the same, but I guess if I can’t think of anything, I’ll have to feel that way. There was one incident. I believe it was in the second grade history class, during the history period, because—you know—you stayed in class with the nuns through the whole period. They just changed books.
There was a little girl called Kathleen who was a good friend of mine. Kathleen was black, and she sat up front. We had to do lots of recitations for history. We had to memorize a lot. That’s why I think my memory is bad today. I won’t memorize anything. I won’t memorize a phone number or nothing, and I trace it back to that history class. Did I say second grade? It wasn’t second grade. It was high school. I’m sorry, let’s correct that. It was high school. It was second year in high school.
We would have to stand up, close the book, and repeat everything that was in the book—I mean—verbatim. When I look back on it, and it’s just crazy. We had to. I’d be in tears at night trying to memorize all this material. Anyway, she said, the nun said—and I don’t remember her name—that we weren’t doing it fast enough, good enough, whatever. She was not pleased with it. I mean, she was a real strict disciplinarian type there. She would have her ruler, and she’d point to stuff and bang on the desk. She would call us ladies. “Ladies,” she said, “You’re not—” whatever, ladies, all the time.
She decided to make an example of one of the kids. Kathleen, like I told you, most of them were white. Kathleen was there, and she hit her. She hit her, and I don’t remember what she said. Oh, she said, “Faster,” or “You don’t know it.” or “You’re not doing it,” but she hit her for all of us. It wasn’t she hit Kathleen, and Kathleen was the bad guy. She let us know that “That’s for all of you.” Kathleen was black, and that—I think—when I look back on that, I always look back on that as a racial incident, because she could’ve picked anyone of the white kids who were on the front row.
It wasn’t until—and I remember, I think—around, later on, I began to get feelings of it, not in the early grades. I think maybe when it was about time to get out of there at the school on 51st Street, Cathedral, the main building, that I began to get funny vibes from the nuns, nothing that I can put my finger on. I also have to tie it with the fact that I had become very disillusioned with the church, with the Catholic church, I should say. In my last year, I stopped going to church, and actually got to be anti-Catholic for a long period of time.
LM: What was the reason for that? Well, you knew I was going to ask you that.
DP: At the time I used to know off the top of my head. I resented—I can’t think of it. I used to know 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, why I turned against it. I didn’t think—okay, part it was a race thing. I didn’t think they practiced what they preached after awhile. I shouldn’t say race. No. I began to see—I guess—the human nature that they didn’t practice what they preached, I felt. I think that there began to be more—no, I can’t say began to be. I can’t remember some things right now, but you asked about race, and I’m not thinking of it right now. It’s not that it’s not there, because now I remember there was a racial consciousness, again from my grandmother.
As I kid I knew about slavery. I knew the history of black people. I’m tracking everything back to 4 and five—I know—but that’s the age I remember—6, 7 years old, somewhere around there. My grandmother and a cousin of mine would sit down, and they would discuss black history. My grandmother would always talk about our forefathers, our fore parents. They brought our fore parents over and what happened and what was done. I remember at one time when she was talking, there was an issue of Life magazine, and it had all the slaves in the bow, the bottom of the ship and stuff.
I could relate to what they were talking about as a kid, because I saw pictures of it around the same time or at the same time. She did talk race. I remember my younger sister saying one time to me—she came home, and it bothered me as an older sister—but three years older than her—I think. She said, “Why don’t people like us?” She was just a little kid. She said, “Is it that?” and—I mean—it was just the expression and everything—“Is it that we, did we stink?” She was trying to figure it out. She couldn’t figure it out. She said, “Why don’t they like us?” I didn’t have an answer for her.
I never found out or ask her where did the question come from. Why did she even ask the question? I just told her, “I don’t know.” I always remember it, because it was like a look of bewilderment with this kid. “Why don’t they like us?” There was a racial consciousness. I’m not recalling a lot of it at the moment. There was probably even pain with it. It’s so far removed and so long ago that I’m just not remembering. I’m sure I will if I think on it some, because we were very aware of black and white, because of the fact that I’d gone to a school that was black and white, okay, so there has to be a certain amount of awareness.
My grandmother talked about slavery. In fact, she talked about her mother, and she talked about the cotton fields. She talked about the day that they said that we were free as slaves, and how her mother had her mother, which makes her what—her grandmother? My grandmother’s mother’s mother was out in the field, and she was tugging at her skirt or something like that. Apparently, her mother must’ve told her the story when they said she was a little tike, a little kid, that they were free. She told that little story. In fact, she knew a lot of stories. She told a lot of stories that I—you know—they’re gone, yeah. She died at 80.
LM: The church itself, you can’t pinpoint what made you feel that way? It had to be significant to you to pull away after you had been—
DP: First of all, it wasn’t even one particular reason or incident. I think that I haven’t given much thought to it. I haven’t thought about it at all recently. One was they didn’t practice what they preached. I think I began to see some differences, I just can’t recall it now. Some differences—some had to do with black and white and a consciousness. Not a consciousness of knowing some of the history of black folks, but putting it together and being able to see through things as I got older, being able to look at a situation and see—I guess—more prejudice or racial things that might be going on.
I didn’t like that they didn’t’ prepare us for the real world, dealing with the opposite sex, things of that sort, completely no skills at all, because that was a part of it that was so shut out that they just didn’t discuss. It was a part of life and a part of growing up. I don’t think you send kids out into the world with no skills, with no social skills. I don’t think that you put them all together, same sex. Do you know that when I got ready to go to college, I was scared to death to go because it was co-ed? I was scared to death, because we were going to have to sit next to boys. I first went to Hunter College. I mean—I had a lot of fear. What is it like to sit next to a boy in a class? Really, and no uniform—we’re talking about college.
LM: The structure was taken away from you.
DP: I really hated the structure after awhile. If I did not graduate when I graduated from high school, I might not have graduated. I couldn’t take it anymore. I disliked the nuns. I disliked the—oh, I think there were stories that other people told about Catholics, and some of the things that were going on. I had an aunt that worked at a place called The Founding Home, and she talked about the nuns. It was my aunt Viola. She and I were real tight, as a matter of fact. I was closer to her—my sisters and I were closer to my aunt Viola than we were to my mother.
In fact, there was one small period of time in our lives when we wished that Viola was our mother, that type of thing. She and I were the tightest out of all of us. Viola would come over and tell horror stories about the nuns, and the things that they did, and the prejudice and the racism. There were other stories that people would tell. I think that was where a part of it began. While I can’t put my finger on any particular incidences in school, I think I brought that into the classroom with me and began maybe to notice things, and pulling it all together.
Racism, or discrimination, or any of that—that was not all of it. That was only a part of it. The rest of it was that I felt that they did not prepare you adequately to maneuver and deal in the real world. For a long time I had said that if I had had kids, I would not send them to Catholic school. Now, I don’t feel quite that way about it. I feel that parents can have some input and counter some of that. I feel that basically, I got a fairly good education, one that I would not have gotten, had I not been able to go to Catholic school, because the public schools were so bad in the area.
I don’t think I would’ve survived public school, quite frankly, as a mousey kid, quite a mousey kid, no fight. Well, I can’t say no fight. If you got on the bad side of me, I’d fight. I did. I had fights as a kid. In fact, I didn’t fight my own battles. I fought other people’s battles. I beat up a little boy. This was outside of St. Paul’s, as a matter of fact. We were friends with some Indians and Indian people. They were East Indians, and they went to school with us. There was a whole family of them, one boy, and all the rest were girls. The little boy—and it was a white kid, by the way—jumped on the little black kid and was beating him up.
It just didn’t look fair or something the way it was happening, because this little Indian boy was a mild-mannered kid. He wasn’t a bully or anything like that. The other guy was a bully. I remember the other kid was a bully and jumped on him. I jumped in, and I just put up my fists, and I remember that, and boxed him a couple of times upside the head or the ear, or wherever I boxed him. He cried, and I walked off. (laughing) I wasn’t a real fighter, and I stayed to myself so much and didn’t bother anyone that—I guess—I didn’t get into a lot of confrontations with people, little kids or older people. I always shied away from that sort of thing. I always kind of ran away from that, not a real social animal at all, still not.
LM: Well, let’s pick up at the point where you’ve graduated from high school, and now you’re faced with what to do. Was it—?
DP: Terrifying, it was absolutely terrifying. I did pretty good in high school, pretty much a B+ student. My biggest downfall was math, as it is with and has been with black folks a long time, but all the other subjects I would get good enough grades in, and I’d pass the math. Everything else was like 80s and 90s and all of that sort of thing, where my math would sometimes be a C, that type of thing. One time it was a D—I mean—unheard of. That was very hard exams. As a matter of fact, I was happy when I saw a write-up in the paper, The Regents—I don’t know if you know many of the Regents exams? They are New York state exams that kids have to take. You don’t have to take the Regents.
Catholic school encouraged you to take the Regents. You don’t have to take the Regents. Catholic school was funny. They set it up so—at that time anyway—so you didn’t want to be a dummy, so you always reached for the highest thing that you could go for. When I graduated from the eighth grade, I got a regular high school diploma, the Regents diploma. These were like—I think—it’s state-wide exams that they administered in subjects that you took, whether it was chemistry. I didn’t do chemistry. In my last year, I fell down. I started playing more. I started having a good time more, but I was already accepted into a college.
My grades fell for the first time in the whole time I was in school, to C’s. In the—when was it—the very last semester in high school, the twelfth grade, the final semester, I got back a bunch of C’s. It was amazing. I couldn’t believe it. A C, a 75 in Spanish, a 72 in—I think—algebra, or something. That was good for me in the algebra, maybe. Was it the algebra? I had a bunch of C’s. I think I had one 80. It was unbelievable. It was unheard of. Anyway, I had a good time. I was having fun with my girlfriend, discovered—oh, we would go to the frat house. We discovered boys, and we went to the frat house.
The Catholic school was all girls, so you would have to go someplace else for the parties and stuff. The Omega Si Phi and the fraternity groups—I never pledged or anything. Anyway, I think it was the Alphas, whatever groups they were. We would go to the house and dance and party. I would stand around. She would dance. If it wasn’t for her, Linda—her name was Linda. She went to Cathedral with me. If it wasn’t for Linda, I wouldn’t have had a social life at all, none. She was real social and would talk with people. Boys would approach her. She was very approachable and everything. I would go out with her, and that was why I had a social life. I always had just one—
[END OF 380.1_02] [BEGINNING OF 380.1_03]
DP: It was funny when you looked back on it and you think about it. Oh, I guess I mentioned Barrel and Linda.
LM: You had said you had only one friend, and that’s where the tape ended.
DP: Yeah, I know.
LM: How did you choose Hunter College?
DP: I didn’t choose Hunter College. I didn’t. I didn’t. Let me put it this way. I couldn’t afford to go anywhere else. I wanted like anything in the world to go outside of—I wanted to go away to school. I sent away for brochures to all kinds of colleges, which was kind of silly. My grandmother finally said to me when she saw me doing this, she said, “Now you know you can’t afford to go anywhere.” She said, “You’re just going to have to go to Hunter.” I was afraid not getting into Hunter. Hunter College, at that time, was difficult to get into. In fact, most of the girls at Cathedral High didn’t get into Hunter.
It wasn’t based on SATs. It was heavily achievement oriented. If it was SATs, I would’ve not have gotten in at all. My SAT scores were low. In fact, I was advised not even to go to college by the counselor at Cathedral High. I’ll never forgive her for that. I don’t even remember her name, but anyway. I went to Hunter because I got into Hunter. Hunter College was a city school. I think the tuition was $24 a semester or so. I mean—you can’t beat it. You basically got a free education. It wasn’t that I wanted to go there. I couldn’t go anywhere else.
I don’t remember other schools that I had wanted to apply to. I never did get to apply to them. I didn’t do well at Hunter, as a matter of fact. I had mentioned the nuns before and not preparing you for the real world. Well, they spoon fed us everything in Catholic school. When you got to college, it was time to start thinking. It was time to be more social, and involved, and raise your hands, answer questions, influence the teacher—you know—apple polish, brown nose, all of those things which I had not been exposed to. Plus, I had—I think—an inferiority complex in college.
I didn’t feel very smart. It’s because people were verbal in college. They were a lot more verbal, whereas, the Catholic school background that I had come up in, the nun did all the talking. We didn’t talk. We wrote papers and took tests, and we listening. It was all a lecture type of situation. You didn’t ask questions. If the nun asked questions, they were questions from a book to see if you did your book learning. They weren’t life questions. When you got to college, it was more free wheeling. It scared me. It intimidated me, so here I am, there are boys.
Plus, you have a bigger situation of more people, lots of people. I didn’t understand what it was about, because what you have to remember is that no one in the family had finished high school. You couple that no one finished high. I’ve got to go to school with boys. I’m coming out of a cocoon with a bunch of other girls with bennies on their heads. I’m here at Hunter College, a city school, located 68th Street, in Lexington Avenue—I think it was—in New York—or is—it still exists. My high school is out of existence. That finally became a business college, and I don’t know if it’s still there, but Hunter is still there.
It was rough, shy, no friends, no money. (laughing) I went to school every day with—was it bus fare or did we have a bus pass? No, bus pass was high school—with bus fare and a sandwich and—I think—a dime for some lemonade, and that was it. Homemade clothes because finally you’re out of the uniform, and you need clothes. My grandmother sewed, so she had some stuff that she’d sewed together, and there, that was your clothes. College, you kind of need to be prepared for college in a lot of different ways. I felt I was totally unprepared. There wasn’t anyone at home who could tell me anything.
I felt lost, didn’t know how to study their way of studying. The nun would tell you exactly what to study, here you are. Now you’ve got to do lectures and notes, and listen, and think. You know what I’m saying? Raise your hand so the teacher knows you’re in class, that type of thing? None of that, and so here’s this mouse sitting up there, watching the world go on around her, completely intimidated. Not only that, I don’t know if I felt it more then, or was it Cathedral. When you go out of Harlem and you go downtown, you begin to see the differences in the worlds.
I had mentioned that growing up 116th Street was okay, but then it became not okay. Where you caught the bus, college or Cathedral, they were both downtown. We’re talking about a difference of 51st Street and 68th Street, right? On the corner is a fancy restaurant. All the white folks are inside having lunch and dinner and whatever, all dressed up. It began to be quite a contrast, but not only is it a contrast you begin to realize with white folks—you see, you don’t notice all this in Catholic school, because everyone’s the same. Everyone has a uniform on.
Okay, you don’t notice who has any money, who doesn’t have it. You saw everybody was from about the same background. The nuns, you don’t sit down and say, “Well, my dad’s a doctor.” I don’t know what anybody’s parents did. They might have been rich, some of them. I don’t have no idea. Then you notice there’s a difference. There are black people and there are black people. You begin to see the whole thing with the middle class blacks. You’re not middle class black, and you’re not white, those differences. A lot of things began to bother me.
My background bothered me for a long time. The fact that my parents weren’t educated bothered me. The fact that I did not come from a background with the mother and father at home, and that my grandmother had reared me bothered me. I can look back on it and see all the positives, but at that time when you’re a kid, you notice the differences between you and the rest of the world, and something else was television, just coming around, just coming into being at that time, but nonetheless there. We were one of the first people on the block to have a TV set, and so then you see those differences with the type of life that they’re portraying on TV. A lot of things bothered me a great deal.
I didn’t feel good about school anymore, myself, the classes, the math, didn’t know how to handle it, flunked math just really by not going, just decided hey, I’m not doing it, can’t catch up, don’t know what they’re doing. This was the first college algebra class—I guess it is—whatever they give you your first year—and just left the class, not realizing you get an F if you leave a class. (laughing) You supposed to go and check out. I just left, and I said, “Oh, I’ll just A’s in everything else,” which wasn’t true. I got bad grades. The first semester I got all C’s and an F. You can’t survive with that.
The second semester I got—how many semesters did I go to Hunter? Three, I believe, no, two. Anyway, the second semester I had a 1.9, less than 2 point. You had to have a 2 point at Hunter, and I flunked out actually. Now, talking about feeling very badly, here was a kid who had come along. My whole life was school. My whole existence was school. My self worth was school, and here you are, you flunked out of Hunter College.
I went to work at a publishing house—couldn’t type worth a lick—at McMillan Book Publishing as a clerk typist for awhile, really almost had a breakdown, felt very uncomfortable with myself. I felt very alienated because here the—oh, I know part of it. My girlfriend Linda, she started dating, and she was engaged and getting married. My attachment was gone. My aunt Viola, the other—I think I had grown away from her. There were few people that were very close. I felt kind of like floating at that time. I don’t know what my sisters were doing. I was never close to my older sister. My younger sister was close to me, but I wasn’t really close to her.
It was really the older people like my aunt Viola and Linda. Linda got married, and I don’t know what I was doing around that time, but it wasn’t a very good period. I worked at McMillan. I had a succession of jobs. I did go back to school. I went back at night. I went to Bronx Community College, took secretarial courses. I think I went to Hunter—I can’t remember how many years I went there. I guess it was one or two. I don’t remember. Isn’t that something?
DP: After I flunked out there, I decided I was going to go to Bronx Community College.
DP: Bronx Community College in Bronx, New York, and get secretarial degree. I started working at McMillan as a clerk typist, so I’m still wanting—but I didn’t like being a clerk typist. I liked what the secretary was doing. I didn’t like being at the bottom at the ladder, so I had to move up. I figured, okay, I’ll become a secretary. My big goal in life then—oh, my original goal when I went to Hunter was to be a social worker. I wanted to help people, that type of thing. The secretarial thing came about.
There was a lady at McMillan Book Publishing Company named Ruth. I liked the way Ruth handled the office, and she knew everything. She ran the whole thing. We were in the college division, college publishing division, as a matter of fact. That’s why I’m familiar with the names of a lot of schools all over the country, because I had to do all of the filing for all of the—the sales guys would go out and sale the textbooks. Then the paperwork would come back, and you had to file each in all of the different schools. I was familiar with the names of a lot of really remote universities and colleges.
I went back. I went to Bronx Community and decided I was going to do the secretarial, take the shorthand, and was I was fascinated by the shorthand, again languages, fascinated by the shorthand, great shorthand. Got to be very good in it, as a matter of fact, and even used it in my reporting later on. The secretarial skills in terms of the typing, wouldn’t give it up for anything. They’ve been invaluable. It’s really been invaluable for the newspaper. I could have never done the newspaper with that amount of typing that I did those first two volumes. I did all of it, single handed, individual, no help, zero, me, but it’s because of taking those typing skills and having jobs as secretary and so on and so forth.
At Bronx Community I studied the secretarial stuff. Then what happened, to make a long story short, is I graduated. I took all the liberal arts courses that I hadn’t taken. I didn’t tell the truth though, when I went to Bronx Community. See, you’re not supposed to go from one city school to the other. Remember, it’s taxpayers’ money. They said—and I put on paper that I had never gone to another institution, because they’re going to see my record and I’m never going to be able to go to college. They caught me.
I was working. At that time I had gone from—let me just tell you about the job, see. I’d gone from McMillan Book Publishing Company to Abbey Lance, crazy little old man who screamed and hollered all the time. At Abbey Lance—you know—trying to move up in the world, and I went to Abbey Lance because that was clerk typist. At Abbey Lance he called me a girl Friday, which meant that he called me in and scribble a few words on the paper. I could practice some of the shorthand I was taking at night at Bronx Community College. He would want to use the shorthand to do letters. That was a move up, that type of thing.
I even saw Abbey Lance years later. I don’t know if they have an Abbey Lance anymore, real fancy type of layout, the better stores, that type of thing. I don’t know if it’s like a Stiffle (sp), but anyway. I don’t know where we ought to go from Abbey Lance. I don’t remember. I had a few jobs. Oh, maybe from Abbey Lance—when did I go to Europe? I went to Europe for a whole summer, because when I came back I went to—I’m trying to remember how was the succession of things.
LM: This was all before you went to the Bronx Community College?
DP: I think Europe was before. See, Bronx Community was at night. How I got to go to Europe, by the way, my dad died. It was an accident. We got cheated something fierce with the real world lawyers. Again, being in Harlem and not knowing how to deal with things. In fact, we weren’t in Harlem. At that time we had moved to the Bronx when my dad died. We lived on Clay Avenue in the Bronx.
You had asked me the question before, you said, well, how long had you lived there, and I said it was maybe about 20 or so, 21 or whatever. Well, we finally did get to move into a better section, physically nice area. It was a transitional area, but very nice area, very large spacious apartment on the top floor with the wall paper, and a long hallway, and big rooms, and parquet floors, and wood floors, and all of that. What did I say? I forgot what I said.
LM: You were trying to put it into sequence. You were talking about how you went to Europe, and you said it was because your father died, but you didn’t say what connection there was between his death and your going to Europe.
DP: Okay, I went to Europe before Bronx Community, as a matter of fact. Oh, no, I’m saying that he died and we got some money, and that’s what I choose to do with my money. I wanted something that—I didn’t want to spend my money—it wasn’t that much. It was just a few thousand dollars, as a matter of fact, and it had to be split among me, and my two sisters, and I think another sister.
I had another sister, by the way, a fourth sister, who is my dad’s daughter, not my mother’s daughter. Her name is Shirley, looks just like—it’s so funny. She’s my dad’s daughter, not my mother’s daughter, but she looks just like the Hoffman side of the family and looks like my dad. We felt a kinship to her because of that, but we never did really feel like 100 percent she is our sister because she was reared with her mother and her stepfather.
LM: I see.
DP: We didn’t see her until she was maybe about 14 or something, a teenager. You know how life is? You want to hear something interesting? We had not seen Shirley, right. We did not grow up with Shirley. The building that we moved into, guess who lived in the building? Shirley, on the bottom floor, so we finally got to live in the same building with my sister, my older sister, my dad’s daughter who was married and had three kids later on. Yeah.
Anyway, yes, that’s how I got to go to Europe. The funny thing is, my sisters, they couldn’t tell you what happened to their money today. I guess I keep drawing parallels because my life has been so entirely different from theirs. They blew theirs. I feel I didn’t blow mine, because I wanted something that I could keep forever, and the experience of going to Europe I keep until I die.
LM: What year did you go over there?
DP: Oh, it was a long time ago, a very long time ago, 19—I’ll get you dates, but it was 19—I was 20, 21, no 22, early twenties, I don’t remember, but I can find out from old papers and stuff, when I gather the old papers. I spent a month there, but I forgot what I wanted to say in relation, when I off, that I’d say about Europe. I don’t remember.
LM: Well, prior to this topic, you had mentioned before that you had an experience in Europe that you wanted to relate to me. We had been talking on the subject of—
DP: Oh, just to jump to that?
DP: Well, yeah, I was in Paris, France by myself. I was in Europe alone. I did not go to Europe by myself. I met Linda and her husband over there. How that happened, I’d like to tell you this. How that happened was that—I wasn’t supposed to meet them over there. What happened was Linda and her husband went to Europe one year. She came back and told me how wonderful it was and everything, and then said she was going to go back. Her husband gave her a choice. You can go to Europe or you can have furniture. She said, “I want to travel.” She couldn’t care less about the furniture, right. She was in her 20s or so.
I got this money from daddy, and from daddy’s death, I should say. Plus, he left us a little insurance money, not very much, but some little insurance money. You’re a kid, and you say what am I going to do with this now, that type of thing. I had always wanted to go to Europe. Not only did I want to go, but I wanted to live there at one time. I had these fantasies about living in Europe. Here, Linda was going to Europe. Just out of the clear blue—I wasn’t working at that time. Linda had quit her job to go. Maybe I wasn’t working because—I don’t remember why I wasn’t. This was on Clay Avenue, by the way.
I had decided I want to go to Europe. I don’t remember why I had the time to go. I don’t remember. Maybe I was between jobs or something. I called a girl, Helen, who was a friend of Linda’s and asked Helen if she would go to Europe with me. Helen said, “Yes, yes, yes, how fun. Oh, yes, wonderful, wonderful,” and that type of thing. I think I’m going, and I’ve got somebody to go with because I didn’t know where Linda was, by the way. Helen calls me up, “Oh girl, I can’t go. I’m sorry.” Oh, I was so pissed off, and I’m doing this planning mentally. We hadn’t bought tickets yet or anything, so I said, “To hell with it. I’m going anyway. I’m going.”
My grandmother said, “Oh,” she can’t believe. See, I lived with my grandmother until I got married, by the way. All of us were still there on Clay Avenue. My little sister got married, though, so she wasn’t living there. My big sister Joyce and I were living with my grandmother on Clay, so we had more space with fewer people—(laughing) anyway, a real nice apartment.
There was a letter or something that Linda had sent from Europe. It was a funny kind of way that it happened, and there was a return address or something. I took a chance, and I wrote that address. I wrote her to say, “I’m coming to Europe,” never knew if she would get it or not get it—and where I was going to be at what time, what plane I was coming in on. I went via Icelandic Airlines, because you had to go all the way up to Iceland and go down to Luxembourg, and you got a cut rate fare. This was years ago. By some miracle of God, I’m on the plane and I’m a little scared. I mean—all strangers and had not been overseas or any place by myself. No one in the family had done that.
Again, it’s a new experience. I don’t know if they’re going to be there or no. There are two guys on the—that’s what’s so fantastic. At least in those days—I don’t know what Europe is like now. Two guys on the plane, and they were going to study, and a lot of students were on that flight. They were going to Italy. It didn’t matter where I was going to. We were going to land, and everybody’s going to land in Luxembourg, but from there you go wherever you’re going to go. You just do that, because it’s a cheap flight. I said, “Well, fine, I’ll just ask them, can I go with them?” Really, it’s two white guys. I just travel with them.
What was so neat, was that like you’re afraid, timid afraid, but you’re afraid someone’s going to molest you. I never thought for a second that these guys would molest me. We carried on a conversation. It was students. They were going to study art, and fine. What happened was, when we landed in Luxembourg, do you know, they were there. Not Luxembourg—I’m sorry—I’m getting mixed up. Luxembourg, yeah, they were there at the airport, and I had missed my flight, so I wasn’t on the flight. I wasn’t on the original flight I told them I was going to be on. I was shocked! That’s why I thought they weren’t going to be there too.
They said what they did was they called the airlines, and they checked the passenger list or something. That’s how they found out that I was on the next flight, because they had been traveling all over Europe all that summer. Not all that summer—they had already been there a few weeks. I was there June, July, August. Maybe they left in May. I think they had gone in May, because I was June, July, and August. I was there three months. In fact, I was there until the beginning of September, so maybe –anyway, so we started traveling together.
They didn’t want to repeat cities. They were repeating already when they met me there. From there we went to Switzerland. They repeat a little bit with me, but they didn’t want to go back to Paris. That’s how I wound up in Paris by myself, because they had already been there, and they spent a good deal of time there, so we split in Madrid. While I was there, my money is getting low, because I’m in Paris a whole month. I think it was like four weeks in Paris, maybe five. I’m starting to run out of money. I didn’t have a whole lot. I only had like $400 or $500 or something for the whole summer. (laughing)
My living quarters started—my living standards declines. At first, I’m at a fancy hotel, halfway decent. I’ve never fancy, but halfway decent hotel, and then I’m at the place for students. One type of place for students, I couldn’t stand it, it was so dirty, but I’m not going to go through all of that. Finally, it’s at the City University over there. They have places for students. This wasn’t far from the hotel I stayed, the Hotel Visionaire. I was looking at some old papers the other day, and I saw I had written a story about some stuff in Europe, and I remember it was the Hotel Visionaire that I had stayed at on the right bank. Left bank is the one where all the artsy—oh, okay, I think it was on the right blank, because the left is the place to be, where all the fun is, but I was not on the left. I wound up there eventually.
The City University, it wasn’t a real bad experience, but it was just noticeable. It would surprise me that I went to Europe to experience what I felt was racial prejudice, because even though I grew up in Harlem and stuff, overt stuff that hit me in the face, and you asked me about it. I can’t pinpoint it. It was mostly from reading, and hearing, and talking about other people’s experiences. To say directly that someone did something to me—I’ll tell you two incidences where race is concerned. One was when on the train with my grandmother going to Manning, South Carolina, when we had to go to the back of the train—this is taking me back some years—when we had to go to the back of the train.
In the South, I do remember when we traveled South, colored signs. It was at the tail end of this stuff, just before the changeover, or Civil Rights was going to come in real strong. I do remember colored signs for the bathrooms. I remember with my grandmother—while she talked about slavery, she would never explain discrimination. Maybe it’s because she felt we were in South for a short time, and if we as kids are not going to have to deal with this on a regular basis, why bother? She never really—she said—I remember there was one incident where she pointed out the bathroom that I had to go to, but there was never any explanation. I never asked her any.
The one time I asked for an explanation was on the train. When we were going to Manning, South Carolina, there was a point—I don’t know if it was Charleston or where—that we had to move from where we were. When we moved from where we were, there were people—I mean—there were empty seats all over. Everybody had gotten off the train, just about, but yet we had to move. As a kid, that made no sense to me. I was a little kid. I wasn’t in elementary yet. I wasn’t in school yet, but the logic wasn’t there.
You see empty seats, then why do you have to move to a seat somewhere else. I asked that question. I couldn’t understand why we had to move. She never answered it. I never understood. I know now. Then the light went on years later, oh, that was what that was about. She never said why we had to move. She never said it was because of color or race or anything. For many years, I never knew why we moved. It was in talking with someone, the light went on, and I said, “Oh, hey I remember when, and that was with discrimination.”
The incidences really—Manning, South Carolina was probably where you felt more of a race thing. Chain gangs, they still have chain gangs there in Manning, because the house that we stayed in was not too far away from—was right across the road from the jailhouse, and they talked about the chain gangs and stuff, which was always very frightening as kids. You don’t know what this stuff is about. There seemed to be more talk of race and color in Manning, I remember as a kid. There was still the picking of the cotton, and I wasn’t familiar with that, being from New York and concrete and all of that sort of thing.
I found the South very frightening, I remember. Just the thought of the South was frightening. The thought of coming to Houston, as a matter of fact, was scary, because I look at as South. People say, “Oh, no it’s Southwest. It’s not South.” The thought of traveling through some of the southern states—again, it wasn’t because anything had happened, but I heard a lot of horror stories. We had a person who lived with us on 116th Street named Shorty, and Shorty could tell you horror stories as a black male about the South. I learned about reckless eye-balling and what that was from Shorty. What I learned, I learned from older
[END OF 380.1_03] [BEGINNING OF 380.1_04]
LM: Whatever you learned, you learned—
DP: From hearing folks in the family talk about race, color, discrimination, racism, but it was not the people from up north. I didn’t hear them talk about it. Like I had mentioned like my grandmother and my cousin—Mitchell was his name—would talk about things. Mitchell would talk about white folks on his job or something like that, but the real scary stuff came—I think she already talked about being beaten once or something in relation to—or thrown in jail—in relation to the reckless eyeballing with a white woman who was getting on a bus. I think that’s where my deepest fears probably came from, listening to them talk about things that would happen to other people.
As far as anything being directly involved, I’m not saying it didn’t happen. I’m sure it did. I can’t recall directly. I recall more the pain of seeing the differences, the different worlds, the pain of seeing the difference in—we’re not talking about poor white world, okay, that I’m talking about. I didn’t see poor whites that much. Not that the neighborhood I went to—they were lower income whites. I’m sure that’s what they were, and they were ethnic groups. I don’t know what generation they were, second maybe, third generation of ethnic groups of Irish and Irish Catholics and Italian Catholics, but I don’t know how they lived. I didn’t to into their house, and I don’t know what they ate, because they did it at home.
It was the whole idea of being exposed to downtown New York where the rich live. You know—where people have wall-to-wall bookcases that you can see through the windows, and the eating in fancy restaurants. Then the stuff that you see on television, and like I said before, you learn about the middle class blacks, and the Sag Harbors, and the places that they live, and the things that they do. I forgot my train of thought, but I guess I was talking about race and color. I was talking about those were the things—I think—that bothered you more. I guess, maybe I’m talking about class more than color, huh?
LM: Well, it’s a combination, I would imagine, in the way that you saw them. It wasn’t—
DP: I think that, yes—I guess—it’s color, but then when you throw in the middle class black person, then it becomes more class. It’s a combination of both of those things. You begin to see some of the lax in your own life, and it begins to bother you as a kid, before you can put it all together and know what’s real and what’s not, and all of that.
I was talking about the other thing. We were in Europe and I came back to the United States. What that incident was about in the City University, was that they were very limited on space there, and I wanted a room because that was what I could afford. I’d gotten down to that. They had a weekly rate. I think that’s what it was. They had a weekly or something, and they weren’t far from the Hotel Visionaire where I was staying. I requested—they would put you in with someone else. It was doubles. A single room cost more. What I noticed that when the woman assigned the room that she gave me a single room. Believe me, I didn’t see any black people, by the way, at all. It was all white. I didn’t see one black person at the whole place.
LM: In the university?
DP: Yeah. I only went there—it was called the City University, but they had living quarters, and that’s all I ever saw. I just hung my hat there for a few days and left. She gave me a room, a single room, for the price of a double. That may not seem like a big deal, but they were limited on space, and everybody’s white. I felt that—this was the first time I really felt a clear cut case. I remember because I remember telling people I had to go all the way to Europe to feel the first that I felt was a clear cut—not guessing are they or aren’t they discriminating, or is this or isn’t it racism, that type of deal.
I felt very strongly that it was a clear cut case of her being afraid to assign—because these were a lot of Americans were there, by the way—of assigning an American white—she was French—and maybe if it didn’t involve American whites—of assigning an American white with me. That was the choice that that she would have to make, give me a single room at the lower rate—and it should’ve been a higher rate—or to assign me with a white American, not a white foreigner, white American. And so I felt it was a clear cut case. I felt it, but it didn’t bother me. I was glad to be alone. I mean—I felt it, but it wasn’t painful. I said, “Wonderful. I’m so happy to have this room by myself, because I really didn’t want to be in with anybody.”
LM: What do you think the influence was of that trip on your life, at least your formative young adult years?
DP: Of wanting to go to Europe?
LM: No, of going through it, of actually being there, of seeing these things, and coming back, did it have any lasting impact on you?
DP: Yes, there are—some of the experiences that I value most in my life, well, Europe is one of the experiences I value most in my life. I went as a individual. I went pretty much solo for a good part of the time that I was over there. I certainly didn’t stay in the same room with my girlfriend and her husband, so I was most of the time alone. When I came back I felt like I had a much bigger perspective on life in the world and people. I felt very good about myself, because I knew that I could go to a foreign country, not speak the language—I knew a little Spanish, no French. I studied French when I came back—not speak the language, and yet survive.
I guess it’s—when you’re young you do things. You look back and you say, “Gee, that was silly.” I’m not sure how smart that was, like being on the street at night, that type of thing, alone, but I guess that’s part of being a young person. Invaluable, I loved it. I like cultures. I love languages. I saw a lot. I learned a lot. It’s still with me. It was some of the best money I ever spent. For the longest time I wanted to go back, and then finally with Kaddafi and all the other stuff. I’m away from the idea of planes. I’ve been up. I took flying lessons—a now, from flying lessons to being afraid to get in a plane, but anyway, wonderful experience.
I studied a little bit over there. I went to the Alliance Francais and caught myself studying French for awhile. I didn’t do that too long, but it was fun and I was alone. I did have a boyfriend over there. I met a guy. I had a boyfriend, a guy from Martinique, a French West Indian guy. He worked during the day, so all during the day I was by myself. He’d come home, and I’d meet him in the evenings. How I met this guy was that I—it was a long story of how I got to the hotel, because this was the first break with my friends, Linda and her husband Lucky.
Scared to death, took the train myself from—I believe it was—Madrid to Paris, which was a long ride. There was a guy on the train, a Canadian fellow, who helped me. As a matter of fact, I just finished reading the story. I wrote a little story about this, and then I took some literary license at the end and I changed it. I said, this didn’t happen. I wrote the story a long time ago about the experience on a train for writing class, and I’m going through the papers for the tenure, I read this story. This Canadian guy was on the train, and he helped me, because I didn’t speak any—here I am, right? I’m going to Paris. I speak no French, crazy, right?
DP: How are you going to get a hotel? I didn’t have any bookings anywhere. We went with Framers Guide to Europe, was it? Nothing set up, you go knock on the door and say, “Hey, you got a room for a week? Got a room for two days, three days?” that type of thing. Now, I’m on my own. You see, before it was two ladies, or two women, with the male. Then the male did everything, now I’ve got to do it. There’s always males around. That’s nice. This guy—I’m in a compartment again. You could lose my life over there by myself. My poor grandmother was probably worried to death. I don’t know—I took a long time before I even sent a card back to say where I was, what I was doing.
The Canadian guy is sitting in the compartment. They have these little compartments. We don’t want you in here. This is where I get scared. I’m scared of this guy. Here I am settled and by myself finally, and I’m in a compartment with a strange guy. I don’t know who he is or where he’s from or anything. He of course, Canadian, he was bilingual. He spoke French, and he spoke English, and carried a conversation back and forth. He said that he was just wondering around Europe, this kid. He was about 19 or 18, or something. He was going to all the small towns. He didn’t want to do the tourist thing, and he didn’t have any money. He was broke, the whole thing, but I was so lucky to run into this kid.
I didn’t know where I was going. It was like in July—you know—with Bastille Day and all that stuff. All the hotels are booked—you mean—crazy already. To make a long story short, I was scared of him and all of that, but he turned out to be the nicest kid. I guess he said, “Well, this poor fool, let me help her. She doesn’t know what she’s getting herself into.” We arrive in Paris. It’s raining. It’s pouring down, the whole thing. To make a long story short, he called up the hotels and got me something to eat because I couldn’t even ask for anything to eat. We ate some croissants and stuff with the continental breakfast at the train station, walked through the streets in the puddles with the suitcase and thing.
He made all the phone calls, and that’s how I got to the hotel Visionaire. He took me over to the hotel, made sure I was in safe and sound and everything. He had not—I think I had told him that—this was in the story—and I think he had not—he had been on a train all night, and I told him he could take a shower or something like that. He said no, that it was okay. I offered him some money, no money. He was broke. He told me on the train that he was broke. No money, no, just what he had in his pocket, which was just enough to get to some little town or something, and he left. He saved my life.
I was sleepy. I went to sleep, woke up, time lag, don’t know where I am or whatever. I said, “God, I got to go out of this hotel. I got to go out of here. I got to function. I’m hungry.” I’m scared to death for the first time. You’re involved in activity and stuff, and you’re with these people, and then all of a sudden you’re by yourself and you realize that for the first time, I am alone. I got to go out. I got to find something to eat. I don’t speak French. Crazy? I don’t know which direction. I’d read in a book something about San Michelle. I don’t know where it is, how to take the bus, the train, nothing. I go out.
I finally said, “You got to get out of here. You got to go out the hotel.” Put on some clothes, wash up, put on some clothes, go out the hotel, and just point myself in a direction and start walking. I see two guys coming down the street, maybe about two blocks away from the hotel, two or three blocks, nice looking guys. I go to ask them where is San Michelle, but I ask them in English. They’re black, so I assume—ignorance, right—and I tell you I learned. At this point in time, I had never seen a black who didn’t speak English, so asked them in English, where’s San Michelle? They’re black, I feel they speak English. In fact, they must be American.
They didn’t know for nothing about what I was trying to ask them. One, the one I’d started dating, he spoke a little Spanish. You know—Europeans speak some of everything—and a little Spanish. It was through the Spanish that I was able to—I don’t know if I said . . . those couple of words San Michelle. The light went on, and he said “Oh, San Michelle.” They literally took me by the hand, got on the bus, the trolley, or whatever it was, to a place where they serve cuscus, Algerian dish called cuscus or something. I didn’t want a cuscus. I never had cuscus the whole time I was there, and they ate cuscus all the time. It’s some kind of a cereal type dish.
After that, I didn’t have to worry. That was my knight in shining armor. I didn’t have to worry about where was what or where was anything and how to get anywhere. I was by myself during the day, and I learned how to use the train. He showed me how to use the train to go wherever, and to change, and all that sort of thing. I knew French money, but how to ask for the tokens, or whatever. He showed me some basics of how to get around. That’s how I got started going to the all the Alliance Francais during the daytime, because then I was by myself during the day. I spent most of my time with this guy.
LM: You all didn’t even speak the language.
DP: How about that? (laughing) Surprisingly, well, there was sign language, and we started more or less—what happened was Americans don’t learn foreign languages. Foreigners learn English. He would go home at night, and he would study English, so between the Spanish and what he could catch in English was how we conversed.
LM: It’s a wonder you didn’t have some misunderstandings on that note.
DP: It took a long time to communicate things, and there were a couple of words that he would say . . . let’s go or whatever, or let’s go over there . . . There were certain phrases that he would say that after awhile I knew what he was saying without even translating them. I had some idea of what he was saying, so with the three languages. (laughing) We wrote after I came back to the states, and we wrote properly for a whole year until I met his sister, and his sister and I wrote for a long time. I went to Martinique years later with my husband, my first husband. I really wanted to look them up, but I didn’t know how to look them up when I was in Martinique.
LM: That’s interesting. That really is.
DP: I loved it. Some of my fondest memories are of Europe, of Sarah Lawrence. I graduated from Sarah Lawrence. That’s where I got my bachelor’s from. I think my early days when I first got married in Francis . . . of God, and my early days when I first got married. I think because everything was new and exciting as a young person. Everything you do is just new, and you’re experiencing life and things for the first time. There’s a lot of just excitement in that, and you can look back on it and really appreciate it. Those are really good times. I liked Sarah Lawrence. I enjoyed it.
LM: Wait a minute. You’ve got to take me back to the Bronx here. We left the Bronx Community College.
DP: Yeah, Bronx Community College. I don’t remember sequencing. I might be able to figure out all the sequencing when I give some thought to it after today, because the Europe thing and the Bronx Community and stuff sort of runs together in my mind right now. I graduated from Bronx Community, was going to go back to Hunter College, because I looked at all of the—with the Bronx Community—oh yeah, I know about the Bronx Community. I said they caught me.
LM: That’s right.
DP: I’m working at NYU—
LM: That’s right. I wasn’t going to let you forget that one.
DP: I’m working at NYU, so they call me into a room. The president of the university, mind you, okay, and about maybe three or four of the faculty members. There were about four or five people in there. I don’t know, are you going to the president’s office? At a city school you never even see the president. Okay, this is a black guy, by the way, which surprised me. I was surprised—I’d never—you see, I had never had a black teacher, by the way until I went to Sarah Lawrence. No, I had never—and role models? Uh-hunh (negative), all the way straight through.
At Bronx Community—let me tell you one little incident at Bronx Community. A black teacher walked into the room. This was a biology class. I said, “Oh, wow,” I thought for the first time I’m going to have a black teacher, right. What am I, 20, whatever, 21? I don’t know how old I am, maybe early 20s. The guy is standing there. He has his book open on the—what do you call it—lectern, so I’m excited. I have never had a black teacher, have never seen a black teacher function in a classroom. He’s standing there with his book, and I can’t wait.
Then he looks up, the class is filling up. He says, “What classroom, what class is this?” We tell him the class, and he says, “Oh, I got the wrong class,” and he walks out. (laughing) I had a white teacher again, really. That was the first time, and then I realized—that was the first time I realized my reaction to that, of that lack, because I was excited about it. Before it, I had never thought about it. You see what I mean?
DP: When I got excited about the whole idea, it made me realize that there’s something going on here, all right. I know a lot of managers have white teachers, and that’s what you’ve got, and you don’t think about—I mean—I just didn’t think about black teachers. Anyway, I forgot what I was saying, but back to this other thing. Oh yes, I said that he was president, and he was black, and I’m walking in and this guy is a black president. I’m just really—it kind of freaked me out. Maybe that’s why I got saved—I don’t know.
Anyway, they started asking me questions. They got my paperwork here, right? When I signed this, they say I had never gone to another institution. They start telling me about how I was more or less—I guess—cheating the government or something—I don’t know—because they were paying for me to take the courses. Some of the courses I had taken at the other institution already, right. They said, okay, tell you what we’re going to do. I guess you have to make a—what do you call it—what’s the word—restitution. I had to pay for the courses that I had taken. They said, “We’ll let you go, but you got to pay.”
It was quite a bit of money, but I was always a saver. I had always saved money. I think it was about $400, which at that time was a lot of money, but I had it, because I was working, and like I said, I always saved money, and I never spent money on frivolously, on a lot of clothes, or anything like that. I laughed when I got out of there. I said, “Oh shit, I got away,” because it’s just only about money. I pay the money, and now I’m at the institution, and I don’t have to worry anymore about are they going to catch me and all of that sort of thing.
I went on, and I graduated from there. I counted up all the credits. I counted up all the credits for Bronx Community and Hunter, and I said, I’m practically finished the schooling. I got this two-year degree, but I really got almost a four-year degree, so I’m going to go back to Hunter, I said, okay. I go back to Hunter. I remember, I was working at J. Walter Thompson, so I had been to Europe. I came back. I’d been to Europe. I came back. I worked at J. Walter Thompson, and went to Bronx Community. I said that I went at Abby Lambs, but I think that I did do something at Abbey Lambs at Bronx Community.
I took the stenography, but then I enrolled fulltime after I got back from Europe—I think—at Bronx Community. I think that’s the way that that went, because then I was transferring everything to Hunter College. I went back to Hunter College. I went back a different person. I went back a stronger person. I went back a person who was verbal and could challenge the teacher, the whole thing. I went through that development stage that I had missed. I get to Hunter, and I see things aren’t any different, but I’m able to see through things now. I can see the teachers who can’t teach, which I couldn’t before. You know—you feel I’m stupid. I could see the kids who were always raising their hands that they really didn’t know that much of what they were talking about, because I knew. They were real dummies, some of them.
I was frightened before, but now I can see everything. I knew to drop a course. I had an oriental teacher who was teaching economics, of all things. Now, I’m sure he knew his economics real well, but the hell if he could teach it so that we could understand it, because we couldn’t understand his accent. We really couldn’t, but I’m smarter at this point in time about life, and people, and things, and I look around the classroom and I said, “I don’t understand it. I know they don’t understand it. Okay, this is a joke. They’re going to fail this class. Half of this class is going to fail. I’m getting out of here,” and I got out. I was able to function and understand.
What happened, what I did understand, was that this was the wrong school for me. There is a right school for people and a wrong school for people, and it is the wrong institution. I learned later that I liked small type situations. I do not like big oversize anything. This was at a time when we were going through black power, and civil rights, and demonstrations, and the whole nine yards up north, CORE and SNIC, and all the organizations. I’m at Hunter College now, and I’ve got the afro, the whole thing. At Hunter I’m going through changes, right? I shouldn’t say I’m going through changes, and one particular class is what changed my life around, this one particular class.
I was always very well in everything, A’s, the whole thing. The way I had done earlier, in earlier years, in grade school and in high school, so I’m back to my old self. I understand the system, but I’m not happy at Hunter. At this time at J. Walter Thompson, well, I meet the guy who becomes my first husband, by the way. He used to pick me up at Hunter at night. He had gone to Dartmouth at the business school up there. He was from Virginia and lived in New York. He moved to New York out of Dartmouth, when he finished business school there. He went to Amos Tuck School.
He’s having some influence on my life, so we’re boyfriend, girlfriend at that point in time. I don’t remember if we were engaged yet or no, but I’m leading up to how I got to go to Sarah Lawrence. It’s a funny kind of way how I got to go. I had never heard of the school, even though I had done all that filing as a clerk typist at McMillan the publishing company. I knew that he had gone to Dartmouth, Amos Tuck, the business school up there. At the same time, I’m at Hunter and I’m not pleased with being there, especially in the law class. I had a business law class, because I’m still doing business. I decided I was going to teach the business courses. That’s what I’m going to do.
It’s the quickest way out and fine if that’s what I’m going to do. I have experience as a secretary and so on and so forth. I had worked temporary secretary for awhile too. I’ll throw that in there. Where am I? I’m trying—I’m feeling the tape is running out, so I’m trying to rush. I said that I was taking a business law class. What happened was—this is a real turning point. You’d be surprised at the little things that are turning points in people’s lives. He gave a test. I was back down at Hunter on 68th Street. I had the AA degree from Bronx Community, and I’m going to go on and take the rest of the secretarial stuff to teach business. Business education is what I was going to teach.
The teacher of that class, I thought he was unfair. I don’t know if it was that he was unfair, but it made me real angry. I got a paper back, and I had studied real hard for this business law class. I had gotten a B in the first class, and I thought I should’ve of got an A when I was in the first class. At the community college I took business law 1. This was business law 2. I got—it was either a failing grade or a D—I can’t quite remember. A girl in the class told me that you had to know how to take his tests to pass it. It wasn’t a matter of studying, you just had to know how to take his tests. She had had another course from him and had gotten a B.
Well, whatever it was, it pissed me off, because here I am back to battling a bad grade and I’d been getting A’s and B’s throughout the community school, the college. It pissed me off to the point that I decided I didn’t want to go there anymore. I’m tired of messing around with this school. Meanwhile, just prior to that, I told you I had the afro and stuff. In fact, I had it for a long time on TV here, as a matter of fact, so we’re talking about a long time span. Anyway, I went to the barber shop to get my hair trimmed. While I’m at the barber shop, again how little things can change your life, so we have the combination of being pissed off with Hunter.
Prior to that time of the test and being upset with the grade, I’m at the barber shop, and there’s a girl in there named Sarah. She had a nickname, and I don’t remember Sarah’s nickname. Funny, I used to remember her nickname and not remember her name. It’s just the opposite right now. It was a long wait for this particular barber. She had an afro. Everybody in there had afros. You go to a barber shop and everyone gets their afro trimmed, shaped, and trimmed. Somehow I—and there was another girl there—there were two black girls. God, I wish I could remember the other one’s name. I can see her face.
Anyway, I sit down in the barber shop next to—one was real light and the other was kind of brazen girl. Sarah was the brazen girl. They were both tall, by the way. I was short next to them. They struck me as interesting anyway to begin with. We started talking schools, and college, and all of that. I talked grades and how I hate the idea of grades, and sometimes they don’t really show what you know, and if you study, and all kinds of things, right. She says she goes to this school where you don’t have grades. You don’t take tests. I said, “Really? (laughing) You’re kidding?” I didn’t believe it. I didn’t believe there was a school where you didn’t have to take a test. I’d taken tests all my life, hating it.
LM: It’s almost over.
[END OF 380.1_04] [BEGINNING OF 380.1_05]
DP: Yeah, that’s really true. Anyways, we started talking about the schools, and we went through the whole thing, and I was really surprised that a school existed where you didn’t have to take exams, and grades weren’t important. (laughing) Then she said they only took three courses a year. I said, “This is unreal.” I said, “God, that would be wonderful if I could do something like that.” Right away, I’m figuring like heck—you know—I forgot you had to be selected. They were very selective. That was the thing. I felt there was no way I could get into Sarah Lawrence, no way. Plus, I had this record from Hunter from before, earlier, remember? Now, that was all a part of the whole thing.
I know that you can’t go say that you didn’t go to a school. You got to send the whole record. I didn’t know if it was enough, just the good grades from Bronx Community, plus, of course, SAT. My SATs were lousy. I logged it about the school, about Sarah Lawrence, and I talked to Mel about it. The night that he met me I mentioned it to him. I mentioned I had met the girls, and then you put stuff out of your mind. Even though you log it, you put it out of your mind. The night that he met me—because I said prior to that was when I’d gone to the barbershop and met them—but the night he met me, and I had the bad grade on the exam, I was cursing like a sailor. I was really mad, really angry, and I told him I was not going back to that school. I had had it.
At first I thought it was me the first time. The second time, it’s the school, okay, so I decide that I’m going to go away to college, right. We weren’t married. We weren’t even engaged, because I remember, and then now I have the money so that I can send to all of the institutions and look them over and everything. He explained that this was a time when black people would get a chance, a better opportunity to go to school, to college. That there was opportunity out there, that there was money out there, you just have to go for it. I said, “No, nobody’s going to let me in these institutions.” I wanted to go to a little school called Bard. I don’t think they exist anymore.
LM: What school?
DP: Bard, B-a-r-d, Bard, upstate New York, a liberal arts school. I don’t know, but I think it is because of reading the catalog, I was interested in the way they do things or something. I had applied to a number of schools. I applied to Antioch. I applied to Bard, Sarah Lawrence. I applied to the state universities, one in Albany and some other places. I applied to ten different schools. Howard was the only black school I applied to. I think that—I believe Howard was actually the school I wanted to go to, even though I applied to Sarah Lawrence.
Well, it’s a funny kind of thing. I had decided—I don’t remember which was my first choice, Sarah Lawrence or Howard. I think that if I didn’t get married, Howard was going to be my first choice. I think that’s how it went, really. We were talking at that time—I guess—about getting married or something, just started talking about it. I figure I better go to a black school where all the guys are, I think that was it. If I wasn’t getting married, Howard was the first choice. If I was, Sarah Lawrence was the first choice, something like that. Anyway, I needed money. I didn’t get into any of the city schools, because they go by numbers.
For Sarah Lawrence I had to go up, have an interview. I had to fill out—I had to do ten essay questions. It’s so funny, later on I got to be on the admissions committee and pass judgment on other people. Some very thorough essay questions, they expect you to be very thorough with them. They counted very heavily, and again, I learned later from being on the admissions committee, what you write there is very important. You can tell if a person is writing it or someone else wrote it, or parents helped, that type of thing, or if it’s something that comes from the heart, from the individual.
I spent a lot of time with those essays. You have to go do a personal interview with the admissions director. I did that, and I was an older person at that time. I wasn’t a kid anymore. I was—I got married at 25, when was that? I went back to school—I think—at 27 or something. Yeah. I’m getting mixed up, because I got married at 25. I’m going to have to get the dates and stuff straight for you. I don’t, really—I know.
LM: Yeah, I think we skipped some time in there, but that’s all right. Go on with what—
DP: No, I graduated at 27. I went back at 25, and I married at 25. That’s what it was. I graduated at 27. Finally. It took a long time. Anyway, but I wouldn’t have missed that experience for anything in the world, for nothing. If I’d graduated on time, if I’d graduated from Hunter at 21, I would’ve missed a very, very good time in my life, a very, very important time in my life.
Okay, I went through the interview and the whole thing. Now, I’m busy saying I’m not going to get into these schools, and Mel is saying, yeah, there’s ways to get in. He took me to some guy who was the head master at some New England school to say would he write some kind of recommendations or whatever. I think we took my records or something, and she said she’s—I don’t know. No, we didn’t take the records. He said, “These schools are real choicey. It would be tough to get in.” No, he wouldn’t put my chances very high. (laughing)
Really, some little guy downtown sitting in a—anyway, because Mel had sent his brother to a school, to some fancy school on the east coast, trying to get him to finish school, because he came from a family where he did the school. His sister did it, but again, they had one out of the three. They had one who just wouldn’t do it, and so he paid money for him to—a couple of thousand dollars—to go to private school or something to make sure he got into college, but he wouldn’t even finish the private school. Anyway, so this was the same man, so he was familiar with him, so that’s why we went to him. He just didn’t think I had real good chances, but at it turned out there was a very good chance of getting in with money.
Mel knew how to fill out the applications and all of that sort of thing, because he had done it before. He was very bright, straight A student, and he got through Dartmouth. You know—you get there and it’s straight A anymore. (laughing) We fill out the applications, and I was scared of the interview. We went through the interview, and then he’d ask questions, and I’d answer the questions. We’d practice for the whole thing to be prepared. We were prepared. Anyway, I got into—I got into Sarah Lawrence easily with this full tuition scholarship with the exception, I think I bought books maybe, but everything else, room, board, no problem. I did very well there too, loved the school.
Got into Antioch. I was interested in Antioch. They had a five-year program there, but they didn’t give me as much money as Sarah Lawrence. They gave me—and they weren’t a high choice. They were maybe third choice or something behind Howard. They gave maybe 75 percent or something. I didn’t have 25 percent, so that just wrote them off. They’re in Ohio someplace—I think. I got into Howard with no money. That eliminated Howard right away. I don’t remember the city schools, the state universities—not city schools—the state universities turned me down.
The main schools that I wanted to get into, I did get into. Sarah Lawrence was right on, because I was just able to go to school, and they had money which was wonderful. Again, I was nervous about going there, because it was a new situation. Now, I’m going to be going to school with the rich people. They’re white, but they’re white and rich. The 60s, and I’m calling it the 60s, but this is around ’71, ’72 or so, what’s happening? Cornell, black power.
LM: Yeah, I remember that, yeah.
DP: The blacks wanted to be separated from white folks, and so that was into at Sarah Lawrence. I went to a white institution where—I don’t remember what the exact numbers were—it’s a small school, liberal arts school, mostly, pretty much white, except for maybe out of a few hundred, maybe 300 to 500 students, you had maybe 50, 40 or 50 were black or something. I don’t remember. It’s 10 percent or less, something like that. I never mingled with any of the white students there outside of class. We had a black house, very—Sarah Lawrence is in Bronxville, New York, very pretty part of new York.
What happened was the students were able to get a black house for the administration, very pretty house, big, pretty house, and a number of student stayed over there. I didn’t. I stayed at Dudley Lawrence dormitory. Mind you, I’m married at this time, but I had a scholarship, and I got married in the summer before going to Sarah Lawrence. Now, I was living in Pittsburg then. See, Mel and I (laughing) oh yeah—I mean—I’ve been in Europe, Pittsburg, everywhere—but Mel and I got married in the summer. I don’t remember the year right now. I’ll get the year.
We got married that summer before—I was admitted to Sarah Lawrence, right? We got married. I met him at J. Walter Thompson when I was working there. He was unhappy at J. Walter Thompson and started looking around for job. He got a job with a company called All Pro Chicken, run by Brady Keeves who was a Pittsburg Steeler and went into the chicken business. He recruited him out of New York to work in Pittsburg, and that’s how we got to Pittsburg. Now, I have to come back to New York to go to school though, but we moved. I mean, we moved all my stuff there and everything, but I have to go back to Sarah Lawrence and go to school.
LM: Mel is in Pittsburg.
DP: Mel is in Pittsburg, so we’re in a real dilemma, but what happened was he fixed it so that he could come to New York, and that’s how we both moved back to New York. We were in Pittsburg for a summer, and then we moved back to New York, but we didn’t have an apartment yet. We looked around, and we found an apartment near the school. It was in Mt. Vernon. The school was in Bronxville. You could walk to school. I’d walk to school from Mt.—not Mt. Vernon, dog gone it. It’s not Mt. Vernon. We lived across from Mt. Vernon. Oh, Christ. Oh, darn it. I can’t remember the town I lived in. It was just right outside of Bronxville. Anyway, I’ll remember it after awhile.
Our apartment wasn’t ready, so I went on and—you see—I had contracted for the dorm during the summer, not knowing that we were going to move back to New York, so I went on and lived at Dudley Lawrence. The apartment was getting ready, but also on campus, because I have this scholarship—we’re not saying I’m married, so I’m on campus as a single student. That made it very difficult for me, because you’re kind of trying to live a lie. It’s really hard to live a lie. It’s not that you’re not saying you’re not married. It’s that you’re living as a single, like with the rest of the kids. (laughing) You go home—well, I wasn’t going home on the weekends.
Mel stayed with my grandmother until our apartment was ready, and then moved into the apartment, and I would go home every chance I got or every weekend. Dudley Lawrence was just a place to go during the daytime. Then I felt it was unfair that I’m keeping another student from having a room, so then I left and I stayed at the apartment, and I would go back and forth. I learned how to drive, and then I drove to school, or rather I’d walk, but prior to that I’d just walk to school. Getting back to that situation, I was really separated out at this school. We had a black table. We ate at the black table, and I don’t ever remember eating with any white students. I never had a white friend.
I only hung out with the 40 or 50 black students on campus. No, it wasn’t 40 or 50. That’s too many. Maybe it was 30, well, whatever. Anyway, the black house, we got that the second year that I was there. Jody was the other girl at the barbershop, that was her name. I forgot Jody’s last name. She went on to get to Yale in black studies or something. She got all kinds of—Damford fellowship and all kinds of things. The other one, Sarah, unfortunately she dropped out. She joined the Black Panthers and dropped out. She came back, as a matter of fact, and tried to recruit some of us for Black Panthers. It didn’t work out too well, to one of our classes.
I’m trying to make a long story short, and I probably shouldn’t, because this is a very important time to me at Sarah Lawrence because again, I was steeped in blackness at a black institution. It’s ironic. I went from kindergarten—not kindergarten. I never went to kindergarten—from the first grade all the way through to this period without ever having a black teacher. I live in Harlem with all black people and Hispanics, and West Indian blacks, and then I’m at these other institutions which are white institutions. Okay, but then I go to this institution, Sarah Lawrence, at this point of time in history. I never have any real contact with white folks, including teachers. Interesting? (laughing)
LM: Yeah, yeah, it is.
DP: Isn’t that interesting, at that time in history? All of my teachers, with the exception of Mrs. Epherapolis (sp) who taught me French, Cynthia McDonald who I say you never know where you’re going to meet people again. Cynthia moved to Houston years ago, and I don’t think she’s here anymore. She was my writing teacher. I believe everybody else was black.
LM: During this militant period, did you take on a militancy yourself? Did your philosophy—well, not philosophy, but your—
DP: My ex-husband and I, Mel, yes we did mentally. The readings, I studied black history, black literature. I had never been exposed to this before. That’s why I consider it a very valuable period in my life. Black history, black literature—what was another?—black child development, black theatre, these are the courses I took. I had taken European art, history, and all of that at Hunter, at Bronx Community. I had probably more than two year’s worth of European history, art, culture, that whole thing. For me, this was an extremely valuable time. I had black teachers, black courses.
I was able to read. I have a whole collection of black books at home now from that period of time which I probably would never have had from teaching. I had South African teacher, Carol Petsitcoatsitseely (sp), one of my favorite teachers was at that institution. I had June Butz. June Butz is—I believe—at Howard University, and she is some kind of a clinical psychologist or something now. There was another one. I didn’t get to take her social change course. She wrote a lot, and had a lot of articles published in the New York Times. Her name was June too, her first name. Her class was so overcrowded, I couldn’t get into it, wanted to cry, couldn’t get into her class in social change. June Jordon was her name.
I had to really—see, there’s education and there’s education. I had fantastic teachers. I had a black writing teacher, who had traveled throughout South America, and I learned so much from their experiences, and she spoke Spanish. She had a housekeeper who she brought up to school, who cooked. I had never been exposed to any kind of Mex Tex or Mexican food or anything before, who cooked tacos and the whole thing for us. This was a small situation. The school itself was small. Okay, and then have a small group of black people within a small school.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There were black students who hung around with white students who were very good and close friends with them on that campus, very good and close friends with them, roommates with them. I’m saying I did not, but we have to keep in mind, I didn’t need to. I had a husband. Okay, I was older. It was a different time in life and history for me than for them. I was a different kind of student, so I didn’t need to pal around with them. My time on the weekends was spent doing other things, going into the city, going to plays. My husband was my social life, so I didn’t need to socialize.
I don’t know, had I not been married, things wouldn’t been a little different. I don’t know, but when I was on campus—because I got to be a day student after awhile—and when I was on campus then, I spent my time with the black students there. Whatever we were doing, I don’t even remember. As far as a militant type of stance, we talked that way. We went and we saw first hand the Black Panthers and Stokely Carmichael speak. We used to go to—what is his name?—Reverent Wyatt Tee Walker who was very close with Dr. King, to his church on 100 and—this was back in Harlem—116th Street, between 5th and Lenox Avenue. His church was there. It might still be there, I don’t know. We started going to his church.
Mel’s a Baptist, as a matter of fact, and we got married by a Baptist preacher. I was through with Catholicism at that time—you know France’s Catholics. It was back in Houston that I started at least going back to a Catholic church. I’ll go to all churches now, and then I’ll include the Catholic church, but at that time I didn’t even want to go to the Catholic church. Where was I? I can tell you’re getting tired. (laughing)
LM: No, no.
DP: What was I saying?
LM: I’m keeping up with you, trying to keep up with you. You were talking about—you were saying that at the same time you were in this environment where you had an opportunity to mingle with whites that you didn’t.
DP: Right, right, right, and I was kind of cheating, because I think I put that on my application. One of the things that they wanted was this interplay among different types of people. They want diversity on campus, and I knew that, so you cheat and write to that. It was very much an anti-white period.
LM: Was it for you personally?
DP: It was anti-white period in the air, in the climate, and personally, yes, because we were reading about things. We were reading about the community and social change, and what was happening with black people in America in my classes. I had teachers who—I did have another teacher—who I bumped into him recently in New York after so many years—who taught social change. We had to read like Before the Mayflower cover to cover. I mean—I was really—before it was at home learning about black folks from overhearing relatives. Here, we’re studying it systematically, okay, and we have to write papers. We have to read books.
Now you’re reading detailed—you talk about slave narratives, one book, Putting On All Masks—it was one of my favorite books that I must’ve loaned to someone, and I don’t have it. I love that book, and I don’t have it.—but detailing the things that happened very vividly, slavery. Why the communities exist the way they exist, why the differences in income, and all of those sorts of things. Of course, they make you angry. You’re not happy with the situation at all. Remember, this was at a time where black folks were doing a lot less than they got to do in this country, than we got to do. This was the upheaval that caused some things to open up. This was around that time.
LM: In a way, this period was important to you for a lot of reasons, but on the subject of what we’re talking about, it presented to you in a very clear cut, systematic way, the condition of the black in America and how it got that way, and why it was that—and why it is that way?
DP: Right, exactly, and it certainly created a certain amount of anger. This was a time of not just Stokely, but the Huey Newton, Bobby Seal—I mean—we had big posters. I wish I had that stuff now. I don’t know what we did with it, but posters in my house. We’d put them up on the wall. These were our heroes.
LM: Let me offer this as a thought. One of the reasons perhaps that you fell away from Catholicism was that in the time that you were educated by them, they presented you with a world view, and a world in which you live that was not real.
LM: You felt deceived by it all.
DP: Sure, yeah, exactly. Oh no, that’s what I meant when I said they didn’t practice what they preached, and maybe I—
LM: Okay, I didn’t take it in that frame. I took it as something else.
DP: No, no, exactly. They didn’t teach you the real world and to deal with the real world, and all of that. I resented that.
LM: I’m glad we clarified that then, because I thought that meant something else. I thought that you found out that they themselves discriminated. While they were telling you one thing, they were actually doing something else.
DP: Some of that too, I think some of that was there too. Some of that was there. There was both. They talked perfection, and yet I began to see imperfections in them. They would tell us why we should try to be perfect, and right, and all of that, and yet I began to see their imperfection. They didn’t allow for the frailties of human nature. I felt that that was necessary to life. That if God is all giving, all knowing, and all of these things that you say, then—I don’t believe in religions where they more or less fire and brimstone or eventual God, because I don’t believe He can be that—you know what I’m saying?
LM: Exactly, but in a larger context, they were hiding the real world from you, either consciously or unconsciously, by presenting a world that didn’t exist.
DP: I think is was unconsciously. I don’t think that they did it deliberately.
LM: I mean—in their minds it was conscious sometimes.
DP: I really don’t know what they were trying to do in those days of Catholicism. Protect us? I don’t know.
LM: In any case, that—
DP: When you consider it. When you consider the fact that—I mean—when you grow up, and you’re in a world, it’s boys and girls. You don’t grow up in a world—you don’t go on to a world of women. That’s unnatural, that type of stuff. The setup just didn’t seem right to me. The whole thing came into question, all of it, the dogma, the nuns themselves. We didn’t see a whole of the priests. Then my grandmother didn’t say, “Ha, ha, ha, you had a priest ring that they drink wine.” You say, “Well, if they drink wine—,” and that type of thing. There’s a lot of good that they teach, but it was just too restrictive.
LM: Then you’re at the university now, years and years later, and you’re being exposed.
DP: At Sarah Lawrence.
LM: Yeah, Sarah Lawrence—and you’re being exposed to a real, a systematic destruction of a world view that you had been presented with before. It’s like opening a window for you.
DP: I don’t get that.
LM: It was like opening a window for you at Sarah Lawrence, where you were exposed to ideas which detailed for you exactly why things are as they are. It tore down an old world view you may have harbored?
DP: Not exactly, you say an overall view. See, remember, there was always an awareness an a consciousness for me. Remember my grandmother talked slavery and—I don’t remember—there was an awareness of race. I don’t remember exactly some of the things that were said, but I was very aware of white people and that they did things to us. Even though I didn’t come in direct contact with it, I was very aware of it.
LM: Now you’re given specific examples of it in the classroom, over a long period of time.
DP: Well, you’re reading more examples—
DP: —because the other is like a shorty. Well, it’s not a shorty. It’s an historian who has documented case after case. I have whole book on—I don’t know if it’s a 100 years of lynching, not 100 years of lynching. It couldn’t be 100 years, but I forgot how many years of lynching. I have a whole book on lynchings, and a lot of it is stuff—we had to read African writers, so you began to see this whole thing, and you’re not happy about it at all.
LM: How did you express your militancy?
DP: I don’t like the word militancy at all.
LM: You used it.
DP: I didn’t never use it. You used it. I never used it. That’s your word. I never use it. That’s very much an Anglo word. No, I don’t use it, Anglo media word. I never use militancy. You used it the first time, because I bristled when I first heard it.
LM: I can see—
DP: The point is, is that there’s—what’s a substitute word sometimes for some of these things? My awareness, how did I express it? Certainly, I wasn’t the active type. I didn’t march, and I didn’t take over buildings. There were some on campus who did it, and I was always timid all my life. I guess through talk, more than anything else, talk about it. There was a lot of talk during that time. You wrote about it, and you wrote papers about it. I guess through discussion and talk was about it really. As far as actually doing something about anything, I wouldn’t say so. I was a member of CORP, the Congress of Racial Equality, at one time, but that was before Sarah Lawrence.
I remember when they had the race—not the race. I shouldn’t say race. Did they call them race riots? The riots in Harlem at one period there, I felt highly motivated, but I never get to go, to go on 125th Street to do what, I don’t know, but I was very angry at the policeman and everything, and I wanted to be a part of what was going on. There were times when I wanted to be a part of it, but I never actually became a part of what was going on, as opposed to Mel, my ex-husband, former husband, was involved in the bus rides with the NAACP, and the freedom rides, and the sit-ins, and all of that, he was.
He was from Virginia, remember. He knew direct discrimination. What I know about direct discrimination—you know—I’ve heard like Francis can talk about it. Mel could talk about it. They were part of it directly.
[END OF 380.1_05] [BEGINNING OF 380.1_06]
DP: I don’t know where I was.
LM: You mentioned that your husband was involved in civil rights activities.
DP: Yeah, he told me about them.
LM: You didn’t know him at that—you weren’t married to him at that time?
DP: Uh-hunh (negative), no, this was—I met him in New York.
LM: Oh, all right, that was before?
DP: This was when he was in Norfolk, Virginia, and they were in involved in equality, making things better.
LM: Let me ask you a question concerning your whole role in college, in going to a university. What did you ultimately hope to achieve? What did you want to do with the rest of your life from that point on? When you first went to Sarah Lawrence, did you have in your mind something you wanted to do?
DP: No, I never knew what I wanted to do or to be after awhile. Let me go back. When I was a small kid, I wanted to be a doctor. I have no idea of why, when I was maybe about five years old. I have no idea where I got the idea from, really had a burning desire, but there was no way to follow up on that or to encourage it. Then later on, because of my neighborhood and seeing the poor in certain conditions—and I’m talking about physical conditions of things and I guess some other things that really haven’t come out yet. I wanted to be a social worker. I wanted to help change things, and I saw that as a way to helping change at that time.
Then later on I think that the only other thing that I can remember becoming interested in was maybe writing, because I even took a writing course at the Y, and I took it at Sarah Lawrence, and that sort of thing, but at that point in time, it was never clear on what I wanted to do, be, or anything like that. Surprisingly enough, television came up, not from me, but from other people, believe it or not. There was a woman who was on television in New York, a black woman named Melba—I can’t remember names. Melba was her first name, and she was the first black person on TV. I remember seeing her on, and I just said, “Yeah, I wonder if I could do that?” in passing, not saying I want to, would, would try it, anything, “Gee, I wonder if I could do that type of thing.” It was delightful to see her on.
Another incident occurs. We were talking about—and Clayton Riley. He was another one who was a teacher of mine. He was my black theatre teacher. I think it was Clayton Riley and maybe somebody else and we were outside. Sarah Lawrence was an interesting school. We did a lot of things on the grounds and outside. It was more of a family type situation—I guess—that type of thing. Somebody said—and it wasn’t Clayton. Maybe it was June Butz—one of the teachers said, “Yeah, I think that maybe you could do with the television,” or something, something to that effect. It was like something far fetched to me, ha, ha, you laughed it off. I mean—it’s really funny.
They said, “Yeah, I think you could do that.” I don’t know what was the reason. It wasn’t like I had been speaking or anything, or doing any such thing, but it did come up that one time on campus at Sarah Lawrence just in a small group. We were talking about what we wanted to do later on, that type of thing. The only other time it came up was years before I had gone to Sarah Lawrence, I went to a black charm school called Afilyadevore (sp). In my graduating class—and I forgot how long we went there through this program. They teach you how to walk and all that, put on your makeup and all of that sort of thing. It was fun. I met some nice girls there.
In the graduating class they were just starting to experiment with video equipment, and—you know—you play with the equipment. You say, “Oh, say something, oh, say something, oh, say something.” One particular teacher said—her last name was Simms—can’t remember her first name—she said, “Oh,” when we were looking at the video, she said, “Oh, you’re a natural,” nothing explained or anything, and she said, “Oh, yeah.” The other kids said, “Oh, yeah,” about how I looked on it. Those were the only two incidences. That time at a Afilyadevore in New York City, and then years later on the campus of Sarah Lawrence that it came up.
At that time, you couldn’t have told me that I would wind up in television. Why, because I was interested in print. I was interested in books from the time I was a kid. Television? Plus, you weren’t seeing black folks on TV. Now, this was after I had gotten out of Sarah Lawrence. I’m skipping a little bit. I got to meet the woman Melba. I can’t remember her last name. Her first name is Melba who was on TV. I got to meet her and talk with her at a seminar.
LM: Where was she on TV?
DP: In New York City? It was interesting because you never know where you’re going to meet or see people again. I was at a seminar. It was a woman’s seminar in New York. In fact, I think I might’ve still been at Sarah Lawrence. Went to the seminar, and I was trying to—or maybe it was between. I took a year off after Sarah Lawrence. I didn’t go to graduate school right away. She was the person speaking at this seminar, or one of the people. She was the main person. I went to ask her a question. I was trying to make up my mind what I wanted to do.
They had a special program in New York, a program that had Geraldo Rivera and some people, some minorities had gone through to hurry up and get them into TV, because folks were raising hell about no blacks on TV. I was trying to make up my mind. It was special intense program for—I think—three months or something, and then they would throw you out there into a job in television. It was television. I said, “Well should I do this minorities generalist program, or should I go and get a degree?” I think I asked her that question, and I also talked about the fact that I didn’t know if I should bother it.
I don’t know how I even got to even start to talking about the possibilities in TV. Maybe it was in the back of my mind. I logged it or something. I talked about blacks weren’t in TV. It seemed like it would be a waste of time to go to journalism school. She said, “You can’t look at it that way.” She said, “You never know what will happen. You have to be prepared if the door opens up.” That’s what she said, “You be prepared if the door opens up.” That was her advice, and she might’ve said a little more. I don’t remember what else, but that was what stuck with me.
I decided to go ahead and to go to the J school. She mentioned the fact that—I think I got it from her—that if you go to the J school, you’ve got the degree, so that if you decide not to do this, you can still go do something else. It seemed like good practical advice to go ahead and go to the journalism school, the J school Columbia, rather than going to that special program, because that means that you’re just being prepared for the profession, and that’s it. The other way, at least you got a degree. You kind of got both. I kind of skipped ahead to Columbia when I was really talking about being on the campus back at—
LM: Yeah, you jumped a little bit there.
DP: I’m jumping all over the place. It’s just—I guess—I’m trying to get so much in, it’s just like—
LM: Well, you can take your time—you know.
DP: I’ve been to a number of schools, a number of jobs, a number of schools.
LM: We don’t have to do it all today. I planned a second session with you.
DP: (laughing) Yeah, okay.
LM: Take your time.
DP: Something else will come in my mind, and then I’ll kind of like—
LM: I know, but I don’t want to interrupt you.
LM: I guide you back to where we were, but—
DP: I know where I was. I can usually kind of get back to where I was, but I was on the campus at Prairie—not Prairie View—all these places. I was on the campus at Sarah Lawrence, and I had mentioned the fact that I had no inkling about television and the two incidences which took me back to Melba, the fact that I had seen her, and then later got a chance to meet and actually get advice to her, which is to say, you never know where you’re going to see people. Then I had also gone back to Afilyadevore to say that that was the only inkling that I might wind up on TV, when I had gotten some outside input, not thinking about it myself at all.
I guess I jumped back to those places from Sarah Lawrence where it was mentioned, and those were the only times. It’s just funny how things happen. I kind of do believe in predestination, yeah, that some things are just going to happen that way. I really do. I really do. Let me tell you, I guess I do. I mean—how do you explain how things happen? They just happen? Why do I meet—Sarah Haggy was her name—why do I meet Sarah Haggy and—I recalled her name before, and now I can’t remember her—the two girls at the barbershop, at that point in time. They tell me about Sarah Lawrence at a time when I’m upset about Hunter College.
LM: You see, one meets many people and nothing ever comes from it. You made the connection simply because something later came of it. It’s coincidence.
DP: Okay, well, maybe it’s coincidence.
LM: I mean, truly, don’t you meet many people who could conceivably lead you or not lead you, but—
DP: Make big changes in your life?
LM: Yeah, but it doesn’t happen. It could happen any time. I can meet you now. Let’s say, we’ve met. You know I’m a historian, so two years from now you write a book on history. You say, “Well, you know, I had an interest in it before, but then I met this guy, and then he interviewed me,” and so you can make these connections.
DP: I am interested. I am interested in writing—
LM: Yeah, I know you are.
DP: —the Hansomer Hughson’s history, really, to tell you the truth.
LM: You were interested in communications before, you told me, so—I’m not trying to blow up your theory of predestination.
DP: Okay, okay, okay. Anyway, Sarah Lawrence was a very peculiar time. I wouldn’t give anything for that experience. I guess it was a real discovery of blackness.
LM: I’d say that was—
DP: I treasure that. I treasure really knowing who I am, and that’s what that institution at that time in history, which it no longer is that way, but that is what that institution at that time in history gave me. It gave me role models that I had not had before. It gave me teachers who patted you on the back. I didn’t have white teachers who did that. I didn’t get encouragement from whites. Oh, excuse me, Zepharaferas, I take that back, love her. She was French married to a Greek. I really liked Madam Zepharaferas.
I saw what it was like to go, not being in that kind of contact with blacks, because remember, I went to school where there weren’t the sororities and fraternities. I wasn’t involved in that sort of thing. This was the first chance to be involved with a group of black folks—do you know what I’m saying?—in a social settings as a group where you have something in common with and you’re doing some things with. Even though, I’m apart from them too, because I’m married and that gives me a whole different—and I’m older. It makes a difference, but they never thought that. At first they didn’t think I was married, and then they knew. They always thought I was their age, which I wasn’t. (laughing)
I really wish that every black person could experience that the way I experienced it. Not Sarah Lawrence, but that particular aspect of discovery, and it’s not all with me now. At that time, to have teachers assign you to—you know—I read for the first time, like James—well, no, I’m sorry. I had read James Baldwin before on my own, because I already had a book collection when I went to school, but I enlarged upon it. Oh, Jesus, the native son, I’m trying to think of his name.
LM: Oh, yes, Wright.
DP: Richard Wright, and oh, it’s just—there was just a lot of material that we had to read and had to write on, and a real discovery time. Oh yes, and something that I use in my classes now, Sarah Lawrence is a wonderful, in taking away the black part of it, a wonderful educational experience, which is what they wanted to be. The school’s philosophy is that they want you to enjoy learning. You don’t enjoy learning in a tight situation when you’re scared to death, and you’ve got to cram for grades and all that sort of thing. We didn’t learn that way. We wrote papers. We picked things that interested us that we wanted to write about and research, that sort of thing.
Some of the students, they wrote books before they left school. They wrote books while they were in school. They were the opposite of Catholic school, like you’re over here, and the world is over here. They operated 30 miles outside of New York, so we operated within the community. You see what I’m saying? If you were in the dance program, you would go down to New York and try out for parts. I was writing freelance articles. I look back and I see where I went to another student that was into photography and have her take pictures to illustrate my story that I was doing, that type of stuff. It was an open kind of environment, a very enjoyable way of learning.
It’s just learning as a part of life. Life is learning. Do you know what I mean? That type of thing, not over here is learning. You learn from each other was something else that I learned there. Also, you don’t have to have a structured classroom to learn. In fact, it might be the worse way to learn. I incorporate some of this now at Prairie View. A classroom is wherever people meet and say there’s a classroom.
Zepharafarus who I mentioned, for our French classes, we had to talk one on one. Classes were very small, by the way. I swear this school is so expensive. It’s among the most expensive schools in the country. The classes were very small, and so you have a very small ratio. You have like five or six in class, and you got to pay the teacher. You know what I’m saying? Who’s paying? Where’s the money coming from? I don’t know, it’s maybe like—it’s in the top five in terms of expense. Anyway—
LM: I wasn’t aware of that.
DP: It’s real expensive. I guess it still is. It was, anyway. I saw some stuff maybe as late as last year on it where it was pretty high. Anyway, if Zepharafarus thought it’s a nice day, we’d go outside and talk in French, sit under a tree. Do you know what I’m saying? Our classrooms—we had furniture in our classrooms. In the dormitory, we would meet downstairs in the dormitory. We had regular stuffed chairs and you know what I’m saying. Then there would be a table maybe. Students sit where they want to sit. The teacher is there, and a lot of exchange going on, a lot of talk back and forth, papers, a lot of discussions, lots of reading, tests, exams, making us do?
You’d burn the midnight oil because you wanted to. You were interested in what you were doing. You wanted to do it. There was a lot of depression at times, but you would get depressed because you’re not completing, you’re not on your own time schedule and your own deadline. Do you see what I’m saying?
DP: It’s not the teachers. Well, yeah, you had to meet with your teachers. What you did, you had your project. You’d go to your teacher. You’d discuss your project, discuss your progress, that type of thing. No pressure. You created your own pressure. Wonderful. To me, that’s what education should be. It’s like not going to school. It’s just learning. That was a world of difference from Hunter, a world of difference from Bronx Community, the city schools. That was one of the best experiences—I count that among the best experiences in my life, going to that institution.
LM: You were there for how many years?
DP: Two. I was a transfer student, and they took two years worth of credits, so I went two years to get the bachelor’s, but it was worth it. It was worth it to put in the time, and I didn’t have to study anything that I had already studied. I was able to—in fact, when I saw their brochure, I saw that they had a black program. That was one of the things, besides the way they had structured their whole school. That was one of the things that attracted me very much to that school, because even if I’d gone to Howard, I wouldn’t have experienced that.
Our teachers, we were not close, close, but you would see them on campus. We had regular conversations, and we called Mrs. Zepharararus, Mrs. Zepharararus. She was an older lady. The others, called them by their first names. You’re not Mr. So-and-so and Ms. So-and-so, and we respected them, and people respected people. We called one teacher “Pony.” His name was Farmer McDonald. I don’t know how much of a teacher quality he was, but he gave us a lot of reading and writing to do.
The point it that they made sure they took in—maturity was important. I know because I was serving on that admissions committee. You had to have an enjoyment of learning, a curiosity. There were certain things that they looked for, so when they took you in, it wasn’t too likely that you were going to flunk out, because they were taking in a person. They didn’t take in a number. They took in a person and a mind.
LM: That’s why that’s—
DP: The quality of teacher was important, but it might not be even as important as some other schools. I really appreciated all my teachers. Qualming, he was a little—I mean—he ran off and didn’t give us our grades, that type of thing. He went off to some little black school in—I forgot the name of it. We finally got our grades, but he didn’t turn in his final grades. That’s what I say about Qualming. Angela, no one who taught writing was really black writing. It wasn’t—we knew how the other kind of writing, but she taught the writing that was going on during the ‘60s and early ‘70s.
We read the poets, Nikki Giovanni, and all. They came on campus, and I saw these people which was wonderful that I was exposed, Sonja Sanchez. Was she on campus? No, I went to somebody’s house, and she was reading. Nikki Giovanni came on campus. I’m trying to think of some of the people who came on campus. Anyway, one other thing, I got a play produced up there at Sarah Lawrence. It was a black play. That was militant, about a black militant, and it was a black weekend—I think is what they call it.
This was a time when the guys would come down, the guys at Dartmouth. It was very funny, because they were known to be like real hungry for women, because they didn’t have women up there. The guys went down, because they always said look out for the guys from Dartmouth. They came down from Dartmouth and from Wesley, and from all the other institutions around for this big black weekend at Sarah Lawrence. We had to plan different activities and things. Well, when Mel and I lived in Pittsburg, I wasn’t working during that summer period, right, so I wrote a play, yes, a play. I was tinkering around with the writing.
LM: We’ll want to put that in your collection, by the way.
DP: I hope I can find it. I wrote it and put it aside, right, so you never know when you’re going to use material again. We’re at Sarah Lawrence, and we’re trying to get together this material to use at the school. I’ve got my play, right; decide we’re going to produce the play. I’m going to produce this play. It was a wonderful experience. I was the writer, right, because I had written the play. I was the producer. I was the director. There were like—I don’t know how many—but the auditorium was full. There were—I don’t know how many fit in an auditorium, 1,000, 2,000 people or something, 1,000?—a lot of people, students and faculty from other institutions, our faculty, students from other institutions. I believe there may have been a sprinkling of faculty from wherever.
Anyway, the wonderful thing—it was the only thing I ever produced that went on stage. No, I did one other thing that went on, a little skit thing. I directed—how many parts? There are not a whole lot of people in it, four or five parts at the most. I directed the whole thing, and it was onstage, and they went wild over it. They went really wild, and I was sitting there, and I’m still a bashful and shy person, right. I’m sitting there, and the whole auditorium, when the curtain went down, they just clapped, and hollered, and whooped, and they loved my play. I did the whole thing.
I mean—the actors, they did exactly what I told them to do. I was the producer, director, and the writer, wonderful feeling. I can imagine how those people feel in Hollywood who do all of that stuff, the person who does it all, great. Anyway, there’s not a whole lot more to say about Sarah Lawrence except that I really enjoyed it, the experience, wouldn’t trade it for anything, wouldn’t trade it for anything, the learning environment in addition to the discovery of self.
LM: Well, it obviously played a—probably was the most significant event that occurred in your young adult life, with the exception of the trip to Europe, perhaps. Even that is shadowed—I think—by the time at Sarah Lawrence.
DP: Knowing yourself, understanding yourself, where you’ve been, your history as a black American, being able to put it all together, then what else is there?
LM: The other experiences made you receptive to what you experienced at Sarah Lawrence too.
DP: It wasn’t just Sarah Lawrence. It was a part of a whole.
LM: Exactly, yes.
DP: The whole country was in turmoil, the whole country, and probably—not Houston, necessarily, but certainly all on the east coast. Articles were being written in the New York Times. Articles were everywhere. Malcolm—when I was in Harlem, Malcolm was on the scene. When I grew up there, the black Muslims were always trying to get you to come to the outdoor rallies that they had. In fact, rallies were part of Harlem. I love it when I think back on Harlem, and I think about the rallies. There were always people on the street corners on a soapbox talking about—that where else I got it from. That was it, about whites, and blacks, and racism, discrimination, and all of that.
In Harlem, 125th Street, there was one man in particular, forgot his name, who talked about what was going on. It always amazed me as a young person or as a kid, actually, as a youngster, that the white cops would be there, and he would be raising hell about the white/black situation. He would say any and everything, and they’d just stand there. You wonder how can this go on? As a kid, when you first hear this, you are surprised about this kind of open talk about white and black, because in that sense it wasn’t the South. There were certain people who would raise hell. This was before the chaos—I don’t want to call it chaos—the turmoil, the social change and all of that sort of thing. This was really leading up to it, like Marcus Garvey was one who was on the soapbox. Of course, I don’t go back that far, but (laughing)—
LM: I don’t think so.
DP: Yes, that’s a really interesting time in the history of Harlem. I really wonder if anyone has that on tape. It’s interesting with these guys. I don’t remember exactly where I remember—
LM: Let me ask you this question. When you finished Sarah Lawrence, what did you do then? You told me before that you didn’t work for a year, or that you didn’t go on to your graduate work.
DP: Right, I took a year. Okay, well, what happened was this. I got a job. I got a job at—which place was it first—Doubleday. That’s right, Newsweek came later. I got a job at Doubleday book publishing. If you notice, I’m always interested in the book thing, because I wanted to be in book publishing at one time. Again, I didn’t see many blacks in book publishing. I saw one black editor once when I was at McMillan, and that was all, but I really did want to be in book publishing, and once in awhile it still crosses my mind. I said, “Oh, Francis and I have problems, and I’ll go back to New York, and I think I’ll see if I can get into a publishing house.” They don’t pay any money, but other things I’m interested in, it pays no money, except TV which I’m not interested in.
Anyway, Doubleday, I went to Doubleday, and I lasted a week. I hated it at Doubleday. The reason why, I had finished at Sarah Lawrence, and I figured I had no intentions of going on for a Master’s. You asked me before if I knew what I wanted to do, and I think yes, in a sense. They talked, but they mentioned TV and stuff, and that was in passing. They said, “Oh, yeah,” and all of that, nothing seriously, not a goal, not an aim, or anything. I must’ve met Melba later on. I don’t remember. I want to get this sequencing right now. I’ve gotten interested in getting this sequencing right.
I got the job at Doubleday, and I was really pissed off the whole time I was there. This editor has this much typing, and I said, “I’m going to sit here and I’m going to type all that stuff? Is he out of his mind?” The reason why is because I had gone back to school to do something better. I don’t want to sit here and be a typist. I had done that already. I had been a secretary, clerk typist, file clerk, all of that sort of thing, gal Friday, whatever. I tried to get through some of it the first few days, and I don’t even remember what it was, letters, or sending manuscripts back, or what have you. I had already been used to reading books, and I had worked as a freelancer.
Well, let me put it this way. I had worked at Simon and Schuster book publishing, first as a secretary, a temp secretary. If you remember, I briefly mentioned that I had worked as a temporary secretary, and that was one of the places that I had worked at. There wasn’t enough work to keep me busy as a secretary, so the two women editors—one was a children’s book editor. At that time they were trying to find books for black kids, black books, and so what they were doing was—
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DP: The children’s book editor was having me read in my spare time—which I had a lot of it on that particular assignment—to read hard cover books and to critique them for her. I guess she didn’t trust her own judgment or something, I don’t know—to critique them for her, to recommend whether or not those hard cover books, black, should be put into a paperback. In the beginning, it was done just kind of casually. She said, “Oh, you read this and let me know what you think about it.” I would read the book, and the first book or two, I would just tell her verbally what I thought about it.
Then I began to write it up. I began to write up a report on what I thought about it. Then the reports got rather lengthy, and at the end, I’d make a recommendation. I don’t know—I liked writing to myself. First, it was just a couple of books, and then it got to be more books. Then I’d take them home, and then after I left there, when I was at Sarah Lawrence, I did it on a part time basis. I did the reviews, and I got paid for them. Then the other book editor, the adult book editor, she started asking me to do stuff, so I’d write some book copy. Then I read a book about Indians and had to comment on that and some other type books that she had, with not a lot of different ethnic groups. I remember the Indian book in particular.
Then she gave me a dictionary, and she wanted to copy edit this guy’s dictionary, which was really a mess. I had done that, so when I’m at Doubleday later on, years later, and I was involved with these editors for awhile, and then I went back and I graduated from school and got the bachelor’s, I figure what am I going to sit here and type for? I went in to the editor, a very nice guy, and I said, “Look,” I said, “I want to read manuscripts and do some of this real editorial assistant type stuff.” He said, “Well, you’ll get to that. He says, “It’s that the other girl had quit,” and he had this mountain of work, and when I got to the bottom of the pile, then I’d get to do this other stuff.
I said, “I’ll never get to the bottom of the pile.” To make a long story short, I told him, “This is a bunch of crap.” I said, “I didn’t come here to type,” etcetera, etcetera. Then after I finished giving him my spill, he says, “You know,” he says, “You’re right.” I said, “Fine. This is my last day. I’m not coming back in anymore.” He said he didn’t blame me. I mean, he tried to get away with it, but he knew what I was saying. He said he didn’t blame me. That was I guess to say that I was interested in book publishing, Doubleday. Oh yes, in between you said, “What did you do?” I don’t remember. I really don’t. Taking time off after Sarah Lawrence, is that what we were talking about? I don’t remember. How did I get to Doubleday, God?
LM: Well, was that some of the things you do after you got out of Sarah Lawrence?
DP: Oh, yeah, I’m sorry, that’s right. Yes, after Sarah Lawrence, I headed there a week or two at Doubleday. What happened was I hated it so much, every time I would met Mel after work, because he worked downtown—I forgot where he was—Lever Brothers—I think. I would meet him after work, and I would complain, complain, complain about how much I hated the job, and he just finally said, “Well, if you hate it so much, quit.” So fine, he always made enough money for both of us. It was fine. I didn’t have to work, but I wanted to work. That’s when I decided I would just go back and quit. That was the end of that, and I did not work for a year.
I said, well—we decided I’d stay home and I’d freelance. I had a couple of things published, nothing real significant. I got one thing published, one or two things in Sarah Lawrence, and a couple of things after that. Anyway, we started a newsletter. We lived in a place called Co-op city, and I would always keep busy. We started a newsletter. Well, I was the editor of the newsletter. Why did I say we? He didn’t do anything on it. I also started a newsletter, me and another student, we started a newsletter at Sarah Lawrence, a black student. We started a newsletter for the students up there. They didn’t have any kind of communication, so we started that.
I always find it interesting when I look back. The black folks at Co-op City didn’t have any kind of way of knowing—Co-op City was a big place. It had about –how many buildings? Fifteen, 20 buildings—I don’t know—it was big in the Bronx, in New York. The buildings were tall. They were like—oh God, not 30 stories—18 floors, 20 floors, big, anyway. There was a black guy, a lot of Jewish people in this community, and blacks, and Jews. I don’t know if there were many Hispanics, but a lot of Jewish folks. There was a black guy who was running. His name was Erin something, and he was running for—I don’t know if they called it city council, but something like a little government position in Co-op City.
It think that’s how the newsletter came about, I’m not sure. I better skip that, because I’m not sure if that’s how it—it was around the same time though, but it could’ve been, in terms of trying to, yeah, let black folks know what was going on, and who was running—you know—to have some kind of communications going. I think that’s what that was about. The newsletter was started, and I was the editor on the newsletter. Now, I’m getting mixed up in time.
Oh, I know what it is. Oh, you know what it is? You see, we moved to Co-op City, and I was in my last year at Sarah Lawrence. That’s why I’m getting mixed up. See, we lived in—God, I can’t remember the town we lived in outside of Proxville—but we lived there. Then on the tail end of me getting out of school, we moved to Co-op City. That’s what it was, and I was the editor of the newsletter. I’m getting all the paperwork mixed up, because I’ve kept it all in a file, that’s what it was. I don’t know what I’m saying. What was the question?
DP: You don’t know what the question was.
LM: It wasn’t a question. We were picking up. We picked up from the point where you left Sarah Lawrence, okay, and you worked for these companies that you mentioned.
DP: For Doubleday, and I quit.
DP: Then I was freelancing.
DP: How I spent my time, and one way was to do the—
LM: I didn’t ask you a question.
DP: Right. One was I was doing the newsletter for Co-op City, which meant reporting on little stories and what people were doing, and who was running for political office, and that type of stuff. I don’t even remember the name of the community newsletter. What I found was, with this freelancing thing—you know—you’re home freelancing—that’s when the editor gave me the dictionary to do, because I still had the contact with the editors and stuff. I knew them before Sarah Lawrence, while I was at Sarah Lawrence, and after I got out I still worked with them some. It wasn’t really enough to keep your days real busy. You’re not doing that much freelance work, and there certainly wasn’t much money.
Well, I had some friends who were working, and I would go downtown. They looked like they were more involved in life than me, so that was part of my discontent. Then the other was I found that I was taking too many breaks, like taking a nap on the couch rather than working, that type of thing, so I said, “Look,” and then the naps got longer, so I says, “You’re not really working, kid. You got to get out of here and do something.” That’s when I decided to—and the work, the job market wasn’t good. That’s why I wasn’t looking for anything either.
That’s how I decided to go on to graduate school. I figure okay, you’re not really doing a bang up job with this freelance stuff. The job market is real slim out here, so you better go do something else with your life, so I went on and applied to Columbia. It was the only school I applied to, and I was taking a chance. It was very—there were a lot of people applying to Columbia. It was the days, what with the Bernstein and everybody felt that they wanted to be an investigative journalist, that type of thing. Competition was real stiff. In fact, they told my class that, that you guys are lucky to be here. The competition was real stiff this year.
I applied, and I got in. It was the only school that I applied to. Again, they had all these essays that you had to write. You had to show a demonstrated interest in journalism. Of course, mine, part of it had been that—I guess—that I had started a newsletter at Sarah Lawrence, and started the newsletter at Co-op City, and so that was some kind of demonstrated interest, plus some other things. They asked quite a few questions. Later on, believe it or not, I went to serve on the admissions committee at Columbia as well, but I was just too lazy to go read all those folders. I was on the committee, but I never really was on the committee.
I was very diligent about the admissions committee at Sarah Lawrence, and that was kind of scary, because you actually really had some power over other people’s lives. You felt a tremendous amount of responsibility to try and be very correct in what you were doing. At Columbia I never did go read the stuff. They had a real sloppy—at Sarah Lawrence was we met and we discussed. The school might’ve seem unstructured, but it was very structured when it came to admitting people. We labored over it, and we read folders at night, and we discussed them, and the whole thing.
At Columbia, they had a student. They had more students. At Sarah Lawrence, you only had one student on the admissions committee, and that was me. At Columbia, they had three or four students on the admissions committee, and I believe I got on that admissions committee because I had been on the admissions committee at Sarah Lawrence and knew what the whole process was about. I’m a day student, and going back and forth, and I’m married. I’m doing my work for school. I don’t want to go read folders. Plus you don’t meet anyone. You just go up on your own and read the folders. They were real sloppy. I saw some kids discussing a folder and laughing about the person. I said, “I don’t like this system at all.” Maybe it was better than I thought, but I didn’t spend much time with it.
I guess back to that’s how I got to go to Columbia. I applied to that one school, because being married, there were other schools I was interested in, but I knew if I got in someplace else, I knew I wasn’t going to separate from him to go to school. I applied there and I got in. That was a fair experience. It was nothing like a Sarah Lawrence or anything like that. They were really haphazard, and I was going to school once again with students who had so much more experience than I had. They had been exposed to a lot more. The kids from Howard University, and they had gone through wire copy and had done all that kind of journalist type stuff, and I hadn’t. I had strictly liberal arts program, so none of the practical stuff. It was all new to me.
LM: Let me clarify this. What specifically degree were you seeking at Columbia?
DP: Journalism. It was the J school at Columbia. It’s called the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. It’s not a very long program. You get a master’s—at that time it was in a year. I guess you could say in nine months, really, basically. It’s a year’s program. Uh-hunh (affirmative). There’s not a whole lot to say about it. It was a day school. I took the bus over there, back to Co-op City. I put in very little effort. They had a strange kind of system. It was practical school. I was exposed to some interesting people.
Interestingly enough, one of the people who we have as a syndicated columnist in our paper, Robert Maynard, who is a publisher and owner of the Oakland Tribune, which is a general market paper out in California. He came and he spoke to my class. They have a lot of speakers over there. What is his name, the big time news guy? Not Peter Jennings. Not the thin face guy—oh, you know who I’m talking about. I can’t think of his name.
LM: No, I can’t help you. I’m trying to think—Rather?
DP: Yes, yeah, I know you know, right.
LM: Dan Rather.
DP: Dan Rather, he came. He spoke, and I’ll always remember him speaking to our group. The reason being is that Nixon was messing with Rather at that time, and calling up his bosses, and trying to call them off and everything. I remember how he looked like he was really shaken by the whole experience. This was Nixon’s error of get the media. All the media personnel were very upset and shaken with it. Rather came and spoke to us personally, and he was talking about how they were calling his bosses and stuff. I think at that point in time, he wasn’t exactly sure of how his bosses were going to react, to the President making personal phone calls about one of your employees. You know—that sort of , so I do remember him.
Charlayne Hunter Gault was there. She was a teacher there at that time, in fact. She was in the—I had her for one of my classes. I said, “Gee, it seems like an easy job these teachers have. The students sit there and write up the papers and the teacher look at it and say oh, do this and do that.” She’d sit there, but I was fascinated that she was a teacher, because I had read about her, the whole desegregating—what was the Alabama school? I don’t know which school it was. It was in Mississippi.
LM: Mississippi, the law school?
DP: No, no, it was regular college, not the law school. Anyway, she was a teacher there. I thought that was interesting. Another guy I know, Holmberg, was a teacher. He died, but Holmberg was interesting because he had written about this many books. They were all at the bookstore downstairs it seemed like. Every time you’d look at it—he was an old man—he was turning out a book. He just churned out books. Fred Friendly, boy we used to talk about Fred Friendly. We used to call—well, I won’t say what we used to call him. He used to blow off a lot of the hot air and stuff. He’d say, oh here we got to go to these seminars.
Seminars were real important at Columbia. They would bring in—because you’re in New York, so all the people that are here, Ben Beckdeeky (sp) and—you know—all of those folks. That was wonderful to have those folks come in and talk with us directly and then to go read their books, and that sort of thing. These are people who had written a lot and had a lot to say about things. Those are the people who stick out in my mind. We had people every—Elizabeth Doe. Not Elizabeth Doe, I’m sorry. Not Elizabeth Doe, another Elizabeth. She was one of the first women in New York to . . . a guy who had been an incumbent for a long time in Brooklyn. It was Elizabeth something. I don’t remember.
We had the police commissioner—I forgot who it was at that time—who came to speak. We had a lot of speakers at the school for various reasons. I ran into Connie Chung at a story. These are kind of interesting little things in Brooklyn, New York. We were covering—I was doing it for school, a school assignment. We had to do something on politics. Connie was covering it for—I think—a radio station at that time. She was in jeans, and it was in Brooklyn. I noticed somebody said something about, “Oh, that Chinese girl is real pretty,” or something. Someone said, “Yeah, and she’s real sharp. She’s going places” or something to that effect.
She already had something of a little reputation, and I’m not sure of how much or anything, but I remember some comments made about her. I don’t know who it was who mentioned it to me. It wasn’t another student, or maybe it was a student from another school, or somebody. I don’t remember who it was, really. Anyways, we’re covering McGovern, and it was really so funny because two of us got a chance to get real close to—because there were so many people out there—real close to him to ask him some questions. I always felt like such an idiot, even today, that here we are. We finally both got our way, and I think the other person was a student. I’m not sure.
You’re a student, and you get to talk to a person who might become President, at least at that time. He had a chance—you know—he didn’t have a prayer, but he had a chance. It wasn’t a decisive thing at that time. He rolls down the window, and he wants to talk. I said, “Oh, what do I ask this guy?” I didn’t know what to ask him. He didn’t talk to anybody else. I didn’t know what to ask him. I just said this is ridiculous. You’re going to be a reporter, right? You don’t know what to ask McGovern? He’s running for the presidency. Anyway, I don’t know, but that was interesting, following him around, because they sent us out as regular reporters.
I remember the word bocce ball for the first time, because he was with the Italians, and they were throwing bocce ball. I never heard of bocce ball before. These candidates get down and all of a sudden they’re ethnic with everybody, that kind of thing. Those were two things I remember about going out. I did some other interesting stories at Columbia. I did a story on midwives, and I went over to Harlem Hospital and saw a delivery. That was interesting with the episiotomy, the whole thing in the delivery room. I enjoyed that, saw a midwife do a delivery. There was something else, another story. Who else was there?
Anyway, Columbia was okay. I didn’t really feel that I fit in there. I don’t know—again, because I was married or what, but I simply went and I did whatever I had to do to get out to get the degree basically. The enthusiasm wasn’t there the way it was at Sarah Lawrence or even in some prior years. I guess they were totally unstructured, maybe. I don’t understand what their system was. At least Sarah Lawrence defined a loose system, but there was a system. At Columbia, it didn’t really seem like a system even. I’d come out of an unstructured type of system.
At Columbia they had the seminars, the round table type thing. I hate where Columbia is located. I had passed by that school prior to going there because Mel had lived over in that area when we met, and we were at J. Walter Thompson and stuff, he lived over near Columbia. I always said I would go to that school, in fact, I said. That’s why I say never say never. I said I would never go to Columbia.
LM: And there you are.
DP: Yeah, right there at Columbia on 116th Street. There’s two parts of 116th. Where I say that I was raised around 116th Street, well, there’s 116th, and there’s 116th up here further over on the west side. It’s raised on a higher level on a mountain with a park and a mountain and stuff. You actually go up a hill to get to that part of 116th, and that’s where Columbia is. Anyway, I did wind up there, and nothing in particular significant about that school. I made a very good friend there named Sandy. Of course, we lost contact after awhile. Sandy and I were older students once again.
Columbia was just Columbia, nothing striking, nothing in particular. I think the seminars are what I remember more than anything else. Perhaps a couple of the stories that we went out on. I always remember the McGovern thing and the Connie Chung thing, because she got to be so famous after awhile. She wasn’t even in television then. I will always remember Holmberg, because he was kind of interesting. I do wonder sometimes about what happened with some of the people out of there.
I met a very nice guy from Houston, as a matter of fact. I don’t remember his name. He worked for the Houston Post at one time, and decided to go to school. I don’t think he was a reporter or what at the Houston Post, and then he left here to go to school there. The funny part is that years later I wind up in Houston, right, and he wound up in New York at a Long Island newspaper. It’s the last I remember he was working on. He did get a job because he had experience. There’s a few people I remember. He’s one of them, and Charlayne Hunter Gault, of course. I guess I remember the people. A few of the people stick out in my mind more than anything else.
As far as a journalism experience or anything, I learned what I learned pretty much on the job at Channel 13. I didn’t do television there at all, and the little experience—it’s best if you go to Columbia and you’ve been to an undergraduate program where you did some journalism, as opposed to going strictly from a liberal arts thing, because you’re with students who—I was with students who had gone through, and they had written for the—I didn’t write for the school newspaper. They had written for the school newspaper and all of that sort of thing, so I felt a little behind, actually, while I was there, but it was enough to get through.
One funny experience, though—at least I thought it was funny. The teachers had more faith in me than I did, as a matter of fact. Norman Isaacs who was the editor of the Louisville Courier, he had seen some stuff of mine and I think he mentioned that I should seriously consider something about something. “You’re better than you think you are,” or something like that. I’ve had a number of teachers tell me things like that. Zapharaferus told me—she said she wanted me to study French. She thought I had a very, very good potential, and she wanted me to be a French teacher and everything. She told me I didn’t have enough confidence, so I’ve had teachers who have said that. She was one.
I think Norman Isaacs was another one. I said the white teachers generally didn’t give you much praise or anything like that, but Norm Isaacs did, and I never knew why. I didn’t understand it, but he called me to his office one day. He had mentioned some papers or something that I had handed in, and he was real positive about it. It sort of surprised me, because I wasn’t used to that coming generally from the teachers that I had had, the white instructors. It kind of gave me a lift, I remember, but I never had any words with him after that. He was not—I don’t know what he taught. He wasn’t a regular teacher. Yes, he did. He was in the journalism thing, except that Charlayne was his assistant or something, so she really sat there, and Norm Isaacs sat in his office. He finally went back to the Louisville Courier, I think.
Judith Chris was there. There were a lot of big names at Columbia at that time. Judith Chris wasn’t a teacher of mine, but she was there. I didn’t take anything that she was offering. I forgot what she—hers was—what was she, a critic of something, whatever, and I wasn’t in that area. It was an optional type course that she was teaching. I had a black instructor, though, for my master’s thesis. He was the only one there, and he was on my project. I think I’ve mentioned all of the things that stand out, Dan Rather and some of the other people, Charlayne, and stuff, and I guess it’s because they have names and they’re still around, basically, but nothing else in particular.
I do remember going to Philadelphia. We had to go to a pharmaceutical company, and do some write-ups on—oh, I know—it was for a medical—I took a medical writing class. It was for the medical writing class. We stayed there overnight. I remember that, not that it was particularly significant, but it was a nice pleasant experience, and it was something different, but nothing significant about Columbia. No emotional attachments, no big turning points or anything. Something maybe I should mention, I’ve never gone to any of my graduations. I don’t know why.
LM: We’ll pick up on that one next time.
LM: This is probably a good place to end, because you have someone coming and it’s a little after 4:00.
DP: Okay, he’s not there yet, but yeah, I’ve never gone to any of them. I didn’t go to the graduation from Columbia. I went and got my diplomas later. I went to the graduation at Sarah Lawrence, but I was not a part of it. I watched the others graduate.
LM: I assume you were physically.
DP: Physically, I stood on the sidelines with everybody else and watched them graduate.
LM: Why did you do that?
DP: I think that for the most part of my life, I’ve hated ceremony. I don’t like ceremony. After high school, I never went to any graduations, Bronx Community College either. I just go later at some point and get my degree, pick it up.