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Interview with: Felicia Jeter
Interviewed by: Louis J. Marchiafava
Date: January 13, 1989
Archive Number: OH 371.1
LM: (00:08) Today’s date is January 13, 1989. I’m Louis Marchiafava interviewing Mrs. Felicia Jeter. We’ll be talking about the broadcasting industry in Houston and her role in it. I would like to begin the interview by getting some background information. I know you were born in Atlanta, Georgia, and I’d like to find out a little bit about your family life first; about your father and mother and whether you went to public schools or not.
FJ: No, I went to a Catholic school, and it’s kind of interesting that I did because I came from a Baptist and Methodist family. I’m the granddaughter of a Methodist minister and here I was in Catholic school only because my mother was beaten by a Catholic school kid in a spelling bee when she was in either elementary or high school and she vowed that day that when and if she ever had children, they would go to Catholic school, and that was quite a feat, actually, for her to send us to a private school because as fate would have it, my mother and father divorced when I was maybe in first grade. And so she had to pay for that herself as a single parent. So this was more than a notion—sending a couple of kids to private school. But she did it, and I went through elementary and high school and even college—I went to a Catholic undergraduate school in Chicago as a result of my mother having lost that spelling bee. I wonder what that word was. (laughs) Probably “communication.”
LM: Do you have any other siblings?
FJ: I have a brother who is younger and I have by my father’s second marriage two half-sisters and I claim them as part of my nuclear family. My mother doesn’t—that poor woman--but I do, and so I consider that I have a brother and a couple sisters. But I am the eldest. I am the first-born.
LM: You’re the first-born, which means you are-?
FJ: Well, a social scientist would tell us more likely to attend college. Smarty. I’m not telling you my age! (laughs)
LM: I had to ask. So how long did you live in Atlanta?
FJ: (02:46) Straight through elementary school and high school. I left Atlanta to move to Chicago to go to college in 19—whatever that was—66.
LM: How was life in Atlanta for you?
FJ: It was actually a wonderful place to be a kid and to be a black kid. Atlanta is such a fertile place; sure it was when I was coming up. I was right in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement. My mom and dad when to high school with Dr. King and that was—I grew up with Dr. King and Julian Bond and Andy Young and Maynard Jackson and a lot of the people who will be a part of the history--and not just of Atlanta, but of the world—were people with whom I was very familiar, people who were like play uncles and part of my extended family. It was also a real education center. There are five or six black colleges or universities in Atlanta and education always played a big, big role in my life and in the lives of a lot of black people there.
There was also a certain energy that I thought just was everywhere, and I learned after I grew up and began to travel was not. But there was an attitude among a lot of the black people that I grew up around that even though we were living in—especially when I was younger—segregated times, that that was A.) Not necessarily always a bad thing; very often a good thing, and even when perceived as a negative could be turned into something positive. For example, black people couldn’t always count on being picked up by a taxi cab. If you called and they perceived that you were black, you probably wouldn’t get a ride, and the people that I grew up around or the people who would look at that situation and say, “Hey, we need a black taxi company,” not, “Hey, aren’t white people mean and nasty, and pity poor us and life is hard,” but, “Hey, we need a black taxi company,” and I grew up around that kind of energy and that kind of attitude. I thought everybody did, and it certainly makes a difference about where you perceive ceilings to be as you grow up. I just always thought that the entire planet was my home and that mountains were to be climbed and that things were just challenges. I always thought I was very special and very loved and that life was going to be exciting and interesting, and that is not always the attitude that you find in all black people growing up. (laughs) I laugh, but it’s just heartbreaking because it’s true that for so many people--without regard to race or sex, actually, or any of the other givens—there’s a certain hopelessness that I didn’t grow up surrounded by and that can make all the difference.
LM: So you knew first-hand then, Dr. King and Andrew Young and the rest of them?
FJ: Lester Maddox.
LM: And Lester Maddox?
FJ: (06:42) Oh, let me see. Who else—Stoner? What was his name—one of those initials with the Klan. Yeah, I knew all these people.
LM: We could have a whole interview on that, and I know anyone listening to this is going to be exasperated that I’m not going to pursue it to the extent that I could, but I don’t want you to leave without asking you at least, looking back at your youth and at the time you knew Dr. King, what stands out for you about him? What was it about him that you remember most?
FJ: His aggravating habit of rubbing me on my head and telling me how I had grown. (laughs) I had no perception at all that this was a great person who was going to be in the annals of history. I knew he was a very warm and a very kind man who was very concerned about people and I knew that he was very busy and well-traveled and that the grownups perceived him to be very important, but he basically just kind of got on my nerves because he rubbed my hair. He mussed my hair when he did that—something that I swore I would never do as an adult and I lied. (laughs) He didn’t seem that special. I’m sure people that probably knew Jesus probably could say the same thing. He just seemed like a very fine fellow and I think that would probably be perceived as a compliment by Dr. King. I don’t think people who wind up being thought of as outstanding or heroic really perceive themselves that way. You think of a kid who had parents and got spankings and flubbed and got embarrassed on your first date, and you know, you think of those things when you think of yourself, even if history says in retrospect that you were great, and so I don’t think he would mind that that’s one my outstanding memories of him. (laughs)
LM: I certainly won’t let you leave here without asking you how did you get to know Lester Maddox in person.
FJ: Well, let’s see. Old Lester was Governor of Georgia when I was a cub reporter and so Atlanta was the capital of the state and so that was my beat. I also knew Jimmy Carter—I forgot old brother Jimmy—for that same reason, and a number of folks because I just happened to be there.
LM: So you were a reporter then?
FJ: (09:48) I was a reporter by the time I met Lester and Jimmy Carter. I was a little kid when I knew Dr. King. I was—I guess a teenager and a kid when I knew Julian Bond and Maynard Jackson. Well, I guess he was the first black Mayor of Atlanta. I knew—and I’m blocking out his name—I want to say Sam Massell, who I guess was the Mayor who lost to Maynard. I knew all of these people and I think part of that had to with my mom. In fact, my mother was very much in the public for a number of reasons. She was just kind of a go-getter kind of guy; she was active in political campaigns and she was in property management in a very public place that was kind of a social center for gathering for middle-class blacks in Atlanta. And so I would be just surrounded by these grownups all the time and I remember having huge crushes on, say, Julian Bond and Maynard Jackson and finding it very interesting that at some point in my life, we were both adults at the same time. You know how you look up to some people and you see them always to be grownups and you always to be a kid, and then to be able to look at each other adult to adult and laugh about some of these things. Obviously, I wasn’t very good at covering that up because they both knew that. They knew probably, that big-eyed look I gave to both of them.
I remember campaigning for Maynard Jackson and being a Jackson Girl and having a straw hat and a paper dress and riding in parades and getting people all worked up to register to vote and to vote and driving around with my mother, giving people rides on election day; those kinds of things. So probably the fact that my mom was so active exposed me to a lot more than maybe some other kids my age and we even were living on the same block might not have. I have very mixed background, because for example, I mentioned that I went to private school, but for the longest time, we lived in a housing project because she didn’t have any money. She was a single parent with I think one or two years of college; hadn’t finished because she started having us, and so we lived in a housing project which I’m told was like the first housing project built in the United States. I think this was like the pilot program for housing projects in the country--very well-built, by the way. They’re still standing pretty good. They were brick, I remember, but it was quite a strange combination to be commuting from a housing project to a private school. So here I was going to school with like the children of doctors and attorneys and carrying a cheese sandwich for my lunch and wondering if I was going to have milk money. So I had exposure to both sides of the track right from the beginning. Interesting kind of background; good preparation for a journalist.
LM: I would say so.
LM: Now, you said you met Maddox, for example, when you were a reporter. Now, was that when you were working for WAGA?
FJ: Uh-hunh. (affirmative)
LM: I don’t want to get ahead of myself here. Let’s get you back to college.
LM: You moved to Chicago and attended college there.
FJ: (14:13) Mundelein College.
LM: Mundelein College.
FJ: Named after Cardinal Mundelein.
LM: And you majored in psychology?
FJ: Uh-hunh. (affirmative)
LM: What made you take psychology?
FJ: I think if a lot of psychology majors got together in a room and they were actually candid about the moment they decided to major in that, it would go back to the fact that they figured that somebody in their family was nuts and that probably they could help by pursuing this. (laughs) And I had no question that everybody in my family—besides myself, of course—was absolutely off the wall and that maybe this would help. Actually, I had thought very early on about several other majors and in fact had changed my major almost every term and just settled on that because that’s what I wound up having the most hours in when it was time to escape. (laughs) But I liked everything. I really liked school.
Just jumping back to high school, I would leave home at dark and come back at dark. I took extra courses and I was involved in all the extra-curricular activities. I just loved the idea, I loved the process. I thought it was just exciting to know new things and this was just wonderful. And when I got to college, I had decided that I was going to be a diplomat, and I think that was what I had settled on. I had passed by ballerina and doctor—pediatrician, specifically. I had decided against those two by the time I was a freshman and had decided--for sure--that I was going to be a foreign diplomat, and so I was going to be a language major. And so I think I signed up initially as a Spanish major and probably would be somewhere in D.C. today or somewhere abroad trying to keep something major from happening but for the fact that I am a night person and my first class in Spanish from Senor Martin was at like eight in the morning and I remember him—in Spanish—trying to wake me up, “Senorita Jeter! Please wake up! You must wake up to learn this!” and, “I really want to be where you are, Senor Martin, but I’m just not.” (laughs) So after that term, I decided to change my major to something they offered later in the day. I actually chose that college because they offered fencing. I just have this-
FJ: (laughing) Yeah. Listen, I actually took one of those college guides; I got the list down to the number of colleges that generally fit the bill. I wanted to be away from home. I liked to travel. I have always liked to go--from the time I was teeny-tiny--I wanted to go away from home and I wanted to be in an all-women’s college. I decided—erroneously—that this was the atmosphere that would be most conducive to really getting down to those books, fool that I was. I would like to tell everybody same-sex institutions are a major distraction—and I’m laughing—and all you think about—all we thought about, having escaped those nasty boys, was how to get back to those nasty boys! So after I had determined that I was going to find a women’s college far from Atlanta, Georgia, and these colleges fit the bill, I looked for the ones that had something exotic about them and Mundelein was on Lake Michigan and offered fencing.
LM: Now, your mother approved this school, I suppose? She gave you a list?
FJ: (18:48) My mother was—bless her heart—just free with us. The only thing that had to happen was that we went to school. Where we went to school, what we majored in, what we did with our lives was up to us. The only thing that was mandatory was that you go on—go. So she left this decision up to a high school senior! (laughs) It worked out.
LM: Yeah, I’d say it did. It certainly did for you. Did you decide while you were an undergraduate that you wanted to go into journalism?
FJ: Not really. That’s another funny thing. I always thought of myself as a natural communicator and I always thought of—even when I was thinking about being a diplomat--I thought that I would enjoy that because I enjoyed bringing people together and I enjoyed trying to get insights into other people and bringing people together, sharing things that I had learned with different people about other people. I always thought of myself in that light and I was actually always doing things that were journalistic, even in high school. I was editor of the yearbook and I was feature editor of the newspaper and all of these things, and I loved to write and I loved to read and I was constantly doing these things, and my mother--in addition to all the other things I told you she was into—was also a DJ on Sunday evenings. She had a jazz show at what was the first black-owned radio station in the nation and I would spend my Sunday afternoons there at the radio station because she taught me how to work the switchboard so that she wouldn’t have to do that while she was doing our show. So that was actually my first job after babysitting and those kinds of things—my first real paid job. And so I grew up around radio and microphones and producing and all these things, but I never thought of that as something to do for a living. That was always hobby stuff. Writing, communicating—all of that was just something that you kind of did on the side for enjoyment and fun. A job was being a doctor, you know? I didn’t have any problems seeing myself as a doctor with a radio show, but the doctor part was the job and the radio show was just kind of fun. So it was all the way after I had gotten out of college before I really had reason to think of it as something to do for a living and that was after nearly two years in advertising. I kind of accidentally fell into that industry right after college. That’s a story I won’t- (laughs)
LM: Oh, no, you’re not going to get away with that!
FJ: No, that’s a long, crazy story, how I got into advertising. (laughs) But it was—you want to-?
LM: Yes! Yes. Sure, of course!
FJ: (22:25) Let’s see if I can find a ten-second version; I don’t think so. Jesse Jackson was head of Operation Breadbasket at the time, and he had organized in Chicago where I was going to school and he had organized a job fair, and I went and I remember meeting Jesse Jackson at this fair and giving him I’m sure the same gaga look that I had given Julian Bond and Maynard Jackson when he recognized me and he knew my name and I remember thinking, “Wow! How do you know my name?” and he pointed down, and he said, “Felicia,” and he touched my name tag and I felt like the world’s largest fool. (laughs) I went, “Oh,” and kind of slinked away to other exhibits, but that’s an aside when I first met him. But because he had had this fair, where I went to after I had slinked away was this row where I met an advertising agent and he came up to me and said, “Hey, what do you do?” and I told him I was a senior in college, and he said, “Well, consider advertising,” and he said, “Actually, consider modeling, too.” And I thought this was just an older gentleman making a pass, and in my southern belle kind of way just said, “Oh, thank you very much,” and took his card and put it in my jacket and thought this guy’s really bizarre. Me, a model? Me, go into advertising? And I went around to other exhibits. Well, later, as I was looking for my first job and having been very frustrated and having found nothing for which the potential employer didn’t ask me how many words I typed, reached into my jacket pocket and there was this guy’s card, and I thought, oh, maybe this means something. Maybe this is a sign. Maybe I’m supposed to go into advertising. Maybe I’m supposed to be a model. So I was in walking distance to his advertising agency, went there, and the guy had, in fact, been legitimate. He had left that agency and gone on to form his own agency, and it was after hours. There was no one there but the president of the agency and the art director and we started talking. I explained my situation and we liked each other—the three of us—immediately, and we spent several hours sitting there talking, and we talked about everything. (25:24) We went past advertising very quickly and first jobs and college and all that to politics and the future of the black race and all these things—they were black—and they owned—this guy, this president of the company Vince Cullers, owned one of the few black agencies in Chicago and he had an office right there on Advertising Row on Michigan Avenue. And within a few days, I was working at that agency, and he was a father and his son had also just gotten out of college and was looking for his first job, and so what Mr. Cullers did—bless his heart—was create a job for me and his son--these very energetic, very bright and eager children who didn’t know how to do anything. He stuck in a room with a computer and said, “I am going to develop a broadcast wing to my ad agency.” His son had background in theater and I had interest in theater and broadcast and had spent time at various television stations there in Chicago, doing little things—though I of course did not consider job-related; just fun—and he, being wiser, saw this potential and our ability to work with figures and all and said, “We’re just doing print at this point. I’d like to get into radio and television and I want you guys to do the research and tell me what’s necessary for my agency to get into broadcast.” And we did. And so they’re in there now, doing television, radio, along with magazines and newspapers and I’m in a whole different world.
(27:19) I left there—I left that agency and Chicago not because I wasn’t in love with my first job, but because I was cold in Chicago and I just felt like I had spent enough time there. I think I also had broken up with my boyfriend. These are the real heavy-duty things that change the course of history. (laughs)
LM: Sometimes those things do play a real role in one’s life-
FJ: Yeah. Exactly.
LM: If you look back upon it, it seems like it’s unimportant now, but at that time-.
FJ: Yeah. All those things came together and I’d broken up with my little college boyfriend and it was a particularly cold winter, and I said, “I’m out of here. I’m getting back to the nice Bible Belt where it’s warm and I’m getting back home,” and I went back to Atlanta. I couldn’t find a job in advertising, accidentally walked into a television station where I had met the news director a year before while I was doing research for the advertising agency. I was waiting to be interviewed for a commercial to again do some modeling, and modeling has played a strange role in my life. I have never actually done a great deal of modeling professionally, but it’s always been in pursuit of that, as a fallback, as something to do, that has been my entre into something that I really wanted to do, as with the advertising years. (29:08) I wouldn’t have wound up in advertising had that man not told me I would have made a good model. I actually didn’t do any modeling except in-house. We’d do stills or set-ups for layouts. But I was waiting to do a commercial interview with a producer in a TV station in Atlanta—this is years later—because I couldn’t find anything in advertising. I was going to do some commercials because I knew how to do them and they pay very well, and I had time to kill, so I called this news director on the house phone and he said, “Where are you? I’ve been wondering and wondering where you were. I need somebody just like you to take this job.” And I said, “What? This must be a sign!” (laughs)
LM: You had lots of signs.
FJ: (30:00) I had lots of signs! And as it turned out, his secretary had had a nervous breakdown and the pressure was just more than she could stand and he needed me to become his secretary, and I thought, eh, this is a big come-down. I had just left this position—first job out of college—where I had a secretary and I come from a genetic base adverse to doing these traditionally female things, and I’m not going to be a secretary. I’m supposed to be president! And after having that conversation with my mother, she said, “Go over there, girl, and take that job.” (laughs) So I said, “Perhaps I’ll think about it,” and I did, and that was my entre into television news because my job there was kind of like a Mary Tyler Moore kind of job. I helped with everything. I was his assistant and I was kind of the den mother to the newsroom. I had to make sure that all the supplies were ordered, that there was film for the cameras—that dates me. This was pre-videotape, paper for the wire machines—that dates me. We don’t use the same kind of wire machines. We had the little kind—(tapping on table top, inaudible) back in those days. I had to make sure that that was ordered and that those were in the proper places. I was also kind of a counselor for everybody. The reporters and the camera guys would come in and they would tell me all of their problems and tell me what had gone right and what had gone wrong with their stories and with their lives and with their marriages. (laughs)