200 North Main Street | Bloomington, Illinois | 309-827-0428

Merlin and Beulah Kennedy

Brief Biography:

Merlin Kennedy was born and grew up in Decatur,Illinois. He was drafted into the Navy right after high school graduation in 1945, and was discharged a year later. He spent several years in Detroit, moving to Bloomington in 1958 for better employment opportunities. He soon became involved with the local chapter of the NAACP and civil rights issues. He also served as chairman of the Bloomington Human Relations Commission. In 1966, he dressed as Santa Claus for the local Christmas Parade. This action and the ensuing reaction to a Black Santa Claus gained national publicity.

Beulah Jones Kennedy was born and grew up in Bloomington, attending Bloomington public schools through high school, and attended Illinois State University for 1 1/2 years. She worked at St. Joseph's Hospital for many years. She also was active in the local NAACP, and remembers much about the employment and housing situation for Blacks in Bloomington-Normal.

Tape 1

Interviewer: Dr. Mildred Pratt | Date: February 2 1986

Narrators: Merlin Kennedy and Beulah Kennedy
Interviewer: Dr. Mildred Pratt
Date: February 2, 1986
Side A
MP It's February 2, 1986. I'm speaking with the Kennedys who live at [address omitted], and Mrs. Kennedy is going to introduce herself.
BK My name is Beulah Kennedy. I was born here in Bloomington in 1923. I live at[address omitted].
MP You were born in Bloomington then? Would you tell us about your education and your employment and history?
BK I went through Bloomington Public Schools through high school and a year and a half at ISU. Later I was employed at the hospital which I worked at for about fifteen or twenty years off and on.
MP Which hospital was that?
BK Saint Joseph's.
MP What was your position there?
BK Nurse's aide. At one time, they didn't even hire Blacks for nurse's aides. Would you believe that?
MP Is that right? When did they begin to hire Blacks?
BK Let's see. It was probably after the war. After the Second World War, they started hiring Blacks.
MP How did you happen to get that position?
BK I knew they were hiring. I needed employment. My husband was in the services, my first husband. And I went up and applied for a job, and I got it. In the meantime-I had four children, and one of them got sick. And so then I had to quit for awhile. Then I went back after she died, and I worked there for three or four more years until I was hired at GE in [19]55.
MP What position did you have at General Electric?
BK Machine operator.
MP You said you attended ISU. What year was that?
BK 1943 and [19]44.
MP At that time did ISU permit Black students to live in the dormitories?
BK No.
MP Would you tell about that?
BK There was one Black girl that lived in the dormitories and that was because she was passing for white. She was from Chicago. Otherwise, they found housing outside in private homes.
MP Where those Black homes?
BK Yes they were mostly Black homes. Right. Some of them were in Bloomington, and some were in Normal. And they had no place for a Black person in the dormitories on campus.
MP What about hiring? Were there Blacks employed at ISU at the time you were there?
BK No.
MP Not to your knowledge.
BK No Blacks were hired working on campus during that time that I was there. Plus that they had Spring Prom every year. The Blacks had their Spring Prom and the whites had theirs. (a loud ring or whistle)
MP Was there any friction between Blacks and whites as you remember when you were going to school?
BK Well, not really because the only contact we came in with them was in class. That was it. I remember once I was in hospital. They did put Blacks and whites together in the hospital. That was only because we were from ISU. In the hospitals they had Blacks with Blacks and whites with whites. That was it.
MP Would you talk about other aspects of discrimination or segregation during the thirties and forties in Bloomington? You said there was discrimination in the hospitals. They were separated. What about restaurants?
BK Definitely there was. You either ate in the backroom in the kitchen or you took your food out. That was it. You did not eat in the dining area in the restaurants here. Another thing, employment for Blacks was almost nil unless you worked in the kitchen or done menial labor. And that's the reason a lot of the Blacks after they graduated from ISU or Wesleyan, left Bloomington. So they could get better jobs than Bloomington offered them.
MP You said they worked menial jobs?
BK Working in somebody's kitchen or cleaning somebody's house or being a chauffeur for somebody. Something like that or yard work. That was what was really offered in Bloomington at that time.
MP Was there a chauffeur's club? Do you know anything about the chauffeur's club?
BK No, I don't.
MP They said the people in Bloomington who were chauffeurs were organized, and I was wondering about that.
BK I don't know anything about that.
MP Was there any kind of an organized way by which Blacks were hired to work in domestic service? There was no organized system for that.
BK No.
MP You went to the Bloomington Schools and there was no discrimination in the schools when you attended Bloomington schools?
BK You could feel it - I mean the way the people felt. Even as a child, you could feel, "Well, you're Black. This is it," you know. It was definitely there. You could tell it with the way the teachers reacted and the whole bit.
MP But you attended the same schools though?
BK Yes, we did.
MP Would you speak about when things began to change for Blacks in Bloomington and what caused the changes for Blacks?
BK To me, I can't really pinpoint it except it seemed to start when the NAACP had their convention here, right Merlin? What year was that? It was when Bill was president.
MK I think, late fifties or early sixties. No, no, no-middle sixties, I think.
BK Earlier than that, wasn't it?
MK The convention was in 19[60] or 19[61]-somewhere round there.
MP Was that the National NAACP which met in Bloomington?
BK That was the State. They were marching against restaurants that wouldn't let Blacks sit at the counters to eat their food. I think that was one of the turning points, you know. At least, afterwards then we were able to sit at the counters and eat. That was the start.
MP Who kind of spearheaded that in Bloomington? Who were the Blacks that kind of organized that activity?
BK It was really the State president. Not only did the Bloomington [members] participate, but the whole convention went down and marched against-well, it was Woolworth's at the time, wasn't it? Woolworth's and Kresges, wasn't it, they marched against.
MK Let's see now, if I can find some of those clippings.
BK Woolworth's still wasn't particular about us sitting there eating, but Kresges finally gave in, you know. Bill Kennedy was the president at that time that we had the state convention.
MP Is that your husband?
BK No, that's my husband's brother.
MP He was president of the State?
BK No, of the City of Bloomington chapter of the NAACP. Dr. Holman was the president. I can't think of his first name, but Dr. Holman was the president of the State convention.
MP And after that convention, some of the restaurants opened up? Did all of them open up?
BK No. I can't say that all of them opened up at once. It was a gradual process.
MP What about the theaters? I understand that Blacks had to sit in the back. Did that begin to open up?
BK At the Irving the Blacks sat in the back. At the Castle Theater the Blacks sat in the balcony. Never on the main floor. That opened up slowly soon after that, I think.
MP What about employment for Blacks?
BK Employment was still a hassle. Until they started having the Civil Rights Movement, nationally and also in Bloomington, did employment really give us a break, I'll say. But before then-no.
MP Were there any whites involved with the NAACP in Bloomington?
BK Yes, there was. Quite a few.
MP Who were some of the white people that were active?
BK Ralph Smith, George Warren, Jack Porter. Also, Ralph Smith's wife was involved at the time, too. Who else was there, Merlin?
MK Irvin.
MP Is that the Irvin who was head of Housing?
MK Not him. It is his cousin. I can't think of his first name. He's a cousin to Lawrence Irvin. This cousin of Lawrence. I can't think of his name. He's a teacher down in Heyworth, but he lived here.
MP Can you think of any other things about your own life that you would like to tell us?
BK Not offhand.
MP Then would you tell us any organizations that you were affiliated with?
US I was affialiated with and was secretary of the NAACP for quite a few years. We had an US group that we organized that I was associated with quite often.
MP Tell me about that group, the US group.
BK Well, they worked on basically civil rights. They were fighting the housing because there was quite a bit of discrimination in housing. They were fighting for jobs for Blacks. Jobs for minorities, period. For a long time we met down in the basement at Union Baptist.
MP That's a Black church?
BK Yes. We had our meetings down there once a week. We would organize and make strategies, you know. There was Black and whites working with that.
MP Do you know how that got organized, the US group got organized?
MK Well, it was just a group of people who was formed before they had the open-housing - I mean before they had a housing law. And it was a group that formed to help organize and fight for the housing law here in Bloomington. There were also members of the NAACP. We used that group as a splinter group to do some of the things that we couldn't do under the banner of the NAACP, you see, because the NAACP is structured in a way that some of the things you couldn't do without obtaining permission from the national or the State. We made our own rules. That way we didn't have to-no dues or nothing was paid, and we could operate more freely and could attack whatever we wanted to. And we didn't have no guidelines to do it. We were able to operate more freely on whatever incident we wanted to attack. Boom. We'd go after it.
MP What kind of strategies did you use basically?
MK Anything to bring exposure to the subject which was at hand. So anything we had that was up-like housing. We would do demonstrations. We would make trial tests. We would send people, and Ralph Smith and his wife were two and George Warren. They were all white. And they were some of the people who would test some of the structures that they had that wouldn't rent to Blacks and see if they could obtain lodging at these places. And if they did, then we would institute a complaint against these people. And we come out pretty good on that. And they were very diligent in helping us in that way.
MP Was this basically discrimination with respect to purchasing or renting or both?
MK Purchasing, renting or anything. It was just a "no, no" in those days before the open housing law took effect in Bloomington. When it was created, ours-the one here in Bloomington-Normal was one of the strongest open-housing laws in central Illinois. I think it was one of your first cities around here that actually put an open-housing law on the books.
BK That was mentioned in the Pantagraph on Martin Luther King Day. It was on the radio, too.
MP You may want to ask some question, too, Linda. I wanted to ask you what areas were kind of sealed off for Blacks? Could you give me sort of geographically where Black people lived, and where the line was? You know, in most cities there's a line. Where was that line drawn in Bloomington?
MK When I came to Bloomington, most of the Blacks lived mostly on the west side of town. Very few-well, you could call this part of the east side maybe. Well, at that time there wasn't too many Black in this area. But mostly your Black, I think, lived mostly on your west side.
MP So that's west of Washington, right?
BK No, west of Main Street.
MP That's what I wanted to say-west of Main Street.
BK There was a few living out around Empire, but very few families. Most were on the west-far west side. Maybe past Allin Street except for maybe one or families. Even past Morris Avenue because there were some places even on the west side of town that would not sell to Blacks. Would not rent to Blacks or anything.
MP What about bus transportation was it segregated?
BK No, that seemed to be no problem. They didn't have Black bus drivers at that time, some time ago. But as far as getting on the bus riding, you could sit anywhere you wanted to. That was no problem.
MP How did you get involved with the NAACP and various activities to break down discrimination?
BK Well, number one I had teenagers, and teenagers were interested in organizing. So I got into the NAACP, and then they needed an advisor for the youth group. So then I ended up being the advisor for the youth group. Along with being secretary of the NAACP.
MP So you got involved through your children.
BK Yes. That way you can keep up with your children, too. I've been trying to talk my daughter into getting involved.
MP Do you have two children?
BK No, those are my grandchildren. I have three children. One son and two daughters. My son living here. My daughter lives in Bloomington, and I have a daughter in Florida.
MP Mr. Kennedy, would you speak with us briefly about where you were born, and the circumstances under which you came to Bloomington?
MK Okay. I was born in Decatur, Illinois, which is about forty-two miles south of here. I went to school in Decatur and was drafted out of high school in 1945 and went to the Navy. Came back to Decatur after being discharged from the Navy in 1946. That's when you could get out if you had a dependent. My mother was one of my dependents, and I got out on dependency in 1946 after World War II was over in Japan and Europe both. I stayed in Decatur for about three years and in 1949 moved to Detroit and stayed there until about 1958. Then I migrated back to Bloomington. That's when Detroit had more people unemployed than most people had population. That's when (unintelligible) and Packard and all those people went out of business. Then I migrated here to Bloomington to seek employment. I had a brother here at that time, and I stayed with him. And he was involved with the NAACP. After I got here, he was the president of the NAACP for some time. Then I become vice-president. When he left, I guess I inherited it somewhere back in [19]63. Off and on, all but two years I've been president ever since. All but one term, I think, I've been president. I'm still president of the NAACP now. And along with being that, I had another hat I was wearing as chairman of the Human Relations of the City of Bloomington. And we were fortunate enough to help form the housing law, plus get the first coordinator, which the city did not have a human relations commission at that time. They had the commission, but they didn't have any staff, paid staff members. And we were fortunate enough to get a budget. The first human relations coordinator they had was AaronVessup. He was only working part-time as a coordinator at that time. The city agreed to give him some money for a small budget for stamps and I think-I forget how much money it was. I think about seven or eight thousand dollars a year for part-time staff. And then after that, they got a full budget. Also, they got full-time people and office work. I think Ray Hodges was the second person who was the human relations coordinator, and he went on to be the assistant city manager of Bloomington. And now Tim Walker has got that job along with being some kind of (unintelligible) duties to the city manager. Ray Hodges went on somewhere else to get a city manager job in some other city and that was most of the activity there in the human relations commission. Dr. Smith and I made a trip down to Jackson, Mississippi to help in the voter's registration somewhere around 1965 or [19]66. We had a lot of demonstrations around. The parade-this is one of our demonstrations that we had around Christmas at one time. You've probably heard of it, the Santa Claus deal.
MP [19]66.
MK And that was the picture of the wife, myself, and one of the grandsons. They took the picture. There is another picture of a float. We had a float in there and that was nation-wide. It went all over. It was in the Jet and everything nation-wide all over. We got national coverage on that. They didn't want a Black Santa Claus.
MP Isn't that interesting.
MK We raised the idea because a lot of people had never seen a Black Santa Claus, and we just wanted to show them the thoughts of the mayor and everyone else in Bloomington-how they react to situations of that nature. And that brought their true colors out. That caught on, and it was-all the TV coverage and wire services and everything. Plus in the Jet.
MP That's very interesting.
MK It was all over. We had-some other incidents we had. I run for political office a few times. I was unsuccessful about three times when I run for political office, which was the city council. I wasn't fortunate enough to win. This was one of the programs we had down to the Catholic High School. We was on the program down there-Dr. Smith, myself, and Dr. Morris. A bunch of us spoke down there. Here's another picture of that in the paper. The Santa Claus picture and a lot of other different clippings about different incidents that happened around in Bloomington that we covered. Some of them I don't remember. This is a picture of Dr. Smith and I-something we were involved in. I think this was on housing. That's Dr. Smith and myself. I forget who that other person was there.
BK Carrol Cox was in there too.
MK That wasn't Carrol Cox. No, it's somebody else. I don't know who that is. It's not Carrol Cox. There was somebody visiting in the community who Dr. Smith and I were talking to. I don't remember. At the time there were so many things that we were involved in and did that it is hard to remember them all. Here's some more pictures from the local papers-the Christmas and Santa Claus and things. Where is that Jet at? There's another picture of the float that we had-if I can find it.
MP Oh. So they tried to block it, right?
MK Oh, yeah. They was going to arrest me, but they decided not to, and little kids on the street didn't know me from nobody else. "There's Santa Claus." They just seen the suit, and they didn't recognize a Black person in the suit. One woman almost jerked her little boy's arm off because he called me Santa Claus. "That's not Santa Claus." And almost ripped his arm off. That's a picture of one of the floats. That's the same parade that I was going to participate in as the Black Santa Claus, which they didn't want to see.
BK And didn't let you do.
MP Isn't that strange?
MK They were very upset when we appeared. And we appeared a couple times down in City Hall in a Santa Claus suit. And that kind of upset the City Council. That was during the heyday when we were trying to get the open-housing law. When a Black had a hard time trying to find a residence and buy a residence. We had run-ins with-not the Veteran's of Foreign Wars. What's the other one? (pause) The other group. The American Legion. The American Legion. I had a run-in with them quite a while back. At that time, a Black person couldn't join the white organization. They had a Black one and a white one. Redd-Williams, I think, was the Black organization of the American Legion, and they had a white post. I challenged them to join that. I didn't get to join it, but we got publicity out of it. It run in the papers. That's one of the articles on that part of it.
MP You really got good coverage on these things.
MK Well, that was the way we planned it. That was the strategy. We called on the wire service and the newspaper. We would tip them off when these incidents were going to happen. At that time they were there. They were story hungry, and they were right on the site, specially with the national coverage with that Santa Claus. We had UPI wire service and all, of course, here in Bloomington. That's why it went nationwide. And that gave them a kind of black eye, and they didn't like that. During the time when Detroit, New York, and Watts in California was burning, we were doing our demonstrations and things here, and it was very helpful to us to get them to put the open-housing law on the books because they didn't want it here. They were kind of scared, and every time we appeared on the streets, they would be kind of afraid what was going to happen. They didn't ever know. We were fortunate enough to get our open-housing law without any bloodshed. Although we did have a couple of incidents during that time when somebody came by and threw a brick through.
End Side A
Side B
MP Attacks on your house?
MK Oh, yes. Threatening letters and everything. I used to get (unintelligible) threatening letters in the mail, phone calls, and everything at that time. It won't be nothing passed and someone wouldn't call up and threaten to do something. Or somebody would call up and want to meet me somewhere, and you wouldn't know who it was. We run through that quite a bit.
MP When they called, did you call the police?
MK At that time they had a FBI man, which was very nice. He would come by and check every now and then. He's retired now. He used to come by and check, and any incident that I heard or thought I would let him know, and they would check it out.
MP Who was responsible for the FBI coming out?
MK Well, I guess-that's their job.
MP I understand, but someone has to call them?
MK They were interested at that time. They knew that the least little thing would offset a powder keg, you see, and they were trying to keep the lid on whatever would develop. And they made-he made several visits by here to talk to me personally.
MP What about the Ku Klux Klan? Was the Ku Klux Klan active in the Bloomington area at any time to your knowledge?
MK Well, there have been crosses burned.
BK Yes, years ago. Even way back years ago they did. There was one time they had Blacks working on the railroad, and I remember one guy-they had crosses burning on the railroad where they didn't' want these Black guys to go to work.
MP Would you say that was in the thirties?
BK I'd say yes, because I was real young. I just vaguely remember it happening. It's been here way back then. They've even had crosses burning. It hasn't been too long ago.
MK This is another incident that we had. We had a Black Joseph and a white Mary in a Christmas parade one time. And that kind of upset...
MP (laughs) I guess it did.
MK That kind of upset them. It was her son and another lady was playing the part of Mary. We had a big float and everything right in the parade. They didn't know what we was going to do. So we told them we'd have a float, and when they saw our float, it was too late for them to pull us out. We were in the parade. They didn't like the idea, but there wasn't nothing they could do about it at that particular time. So the NAACP sponsored that. We did everything we could do to bring it to them to know that we was unhappy, and we was willing to go to lengths to make changes. All that helped to bring about some of the changes that some of the people enjoy now. I'm not saying that everything is all right. There is still a lot of work to be done. We have made progress, but there is a lot more progress to go. And if the people don't keep on, it will be (unintelligible), and then it will start backing up. So this is the thing that we are trying now to get our NAACP reorganized. We have quite a few youth in there now-younger people which we hope to get back, and we can start blowing our horn again and letting the people know. A lot of people are claiming that they don't know that the NAACP exists. But I guarantee that if things keep going as they is, they will know the NAACP exists again. It's taking time and we're getting our committees going. Once we get that started and get going, we'll be all right.
MP I was wondering Mr. Kennedy what was the nature of your employment?
MK Well, when I came here, it was rough. When I came here, I had training as a mechanical draftsman. Technical courses, I've taken. And every place that I went, you couldn't get hired as a draftsman. General Telephone, Portable Elevator [920 E. Grove]. The time that irked me the most was at Portable Elevator. When he interviewed me, he liked my work and he saw my plates. And he asked me did I drink, did clown, did I go out at night, and things like that. I said, "I don't do no more than what any other normal person do, you know." And General Telephone they told me my work was too good. They didn't want to hire somebody at that [level of] work.Any other time, it would be, "You get some training and we'll hire you." Their standards were, "No, we don't need anybody with those type of standards. We're looking for somebody with lesser standards." And lesser standards was not a permanent suntan. They didn't want nobody with a permanent suntan. All the places I went I never did find a job as a draftsman.
MP That was in the fifties?
MK [19]59, [19]60, around in there. Early sixties-maybe [19]59. Finally, I obtained a job working as a punch press operator in Eureka Company, and at that time I don't think they had over about two or three Black working there, at that time. I worked there for about nine years and things are beginning to change a little bit. And they had a layout job which I had been trained in, and I challenged them on that. I obtained the job. They gave me a chance, and I proved myself, and they gave me the job. And I held on to that job for a while, and I guess about eight or nine years ago a foreman job come up.
MP At Eureka?
MK At Eureka. Same place. Well, I challenged them for that and with the training and experience I had with the applicants they had, mine was superior to theirs. But I had trouble getting the job because the general manager at that time, he strictly did not want any Black foremen, see. And I had heard the rumors. He told some of the people, and they came back and told me. They were his own color who told me. He didn't want it. He bogged down as much as he could. The job stayed vacant about a month. Then finally they did make the decision that I got the job, and I've been having it ever since as supervisor in the service division of the Eureka Company. About sixty or seventy-five people in there. About sixty-some-almost seventy-and no Blacks at the present time. They did have a Black in there, but he was discharged on account of absenteeism. That was of his own making. There wasn't anything other than his own making. I've been supervisor there now for about nine years.
MP Were you ever threatened by the management because of your involvement with NAACP activities and activist kinds of things?
MK No. I had one foreman-I was going out to investigate grievances almost every week. They wasn't the onliest one-my wife was kinda ticked, too, because my paycheck was always coming up short. That's all volunteer work, and I had no other income and all this NAACP work is volunteer work. You get no money for it. You see, most people-you'd be surprised-our own Black people, think you get "x" number of dollars. That you're getting paid for this work. But it is your time and your money that you invest in this. A lot of times-I don't know when the NAACP has ever paid any postage for letters and things? That come out of my own pocket. I do that myself. And stuff like postage and other small little odds and ends, which I pay myself which I don't even charge the NAACP for it. And going different places. A lot of times we went to different places to travel.
M Yes, you were saying you went to Mississippi.
MK Well, the NAACP didn't pay any of that. It was our US group paid that money to go down there. See, a lot of things the NAACP didn't pay for, but they got credit for helping by me being a representative of the NAACP.
BK Plus the fact that when people had complaints, they never had them in the daytime. It was always one of two o'clock in the morning. And you would have to get up at five or six o'clock in the morning to go to work. People never take that into consideration, and a lot of those members that do that calling don't even have a membership. But they want to be represented when they've got a problem.
MK I've lost several dollars with people coming through. Well, they'd give them my name as the president of the NAACP. They'd get a traffic ticket or something like that. Well, they ain't got money or gas money and you go up and help them out. "As soon as I get where I'm going, I'll send it back." Today I have never gotten any of it back. Not a penny. She was lucky once. She went when I wasn't here one time and gave one individual some money. He sent that back.
BK He was real nice. He got arrested for some kind of traffic violation and didn't have any money with him. And he called here, and Merlin wasn't here. He asked me would I give him this small loan that he needed. He was in city jail, and I went up to the city jail and gave it to him. He said he'd be sure to send it back to me, and he did with a nice note attached to it. Merlin told me I'd never get it back.
MK I take that back. We did have a schoolteacher who had some grandchildren. She lived in Michigan. Her grandson and a granddaughter and the grandson's girl friend had stolen a car and some credit cards. They got caught in Illinois here, and they were in the Macon County jail up there. She wrote me, and I went up to see them. I took off from work and went to the trial. One time she wanted me to take some money up to them. I took some money up to them so he could get some cigarettes and things like that. And she did-when they got back to Michigan, after they did get the trial settled, she sent back a donation for the NAACP. I think it was a fifty dollar donation to the branch. And she was nice. But she was the only one that I had contact with. The rest of them, which was several, I got nothing back. When they turned their back, that was the end.
MP How do you think you got involved in this activity because many people didn't get involved in the sixties?
MK The need. The necessity for change.
MP Your brother was involved I know. Was your family? Were your parents involved in activist activities?
MK No, not my parents. Just my brother and I from my family that was involved.
MP How did you learn to be a draftsman?
MK That's when I was in Detroit, I spent many hours on the drafting board at the Chrysler Engineering Institute where I went five years, going nights and working days. Worked full eight hours a day and going three hours a night. I went to the Chrysler Institute for five years straight. I went through blueprint reading, mechanical drafting, layout and design, and when I finished that I went to diesel engineering for a year and a half. I had some GI Bill left, and I took about a year and a half of diesel engineering. That's mostly design and stuff like that. And I took a course in diesel maintenance, which I tried to get job which was two years apprenticeship as a diesel mechanic, and I couldn't-at that time they could tell you, "No, we're not hiring no Blacks." It was straight out "no." There was no law; no affirmative action. You just couldn't no job at all. For a brief time when I first got out of service, I took aviation. I had had about six months, about ninety hours in the air flying, as a pilot down in Decatur at (Unintelligible) Airfield where I was born, when I first got out of service. I was going to try to get a commercial pilot's license. But after I moved away from Decatur, I didn't continue. I went into the drafting field, diesel mechanic, diesel engineering, and into drafting, but I attended several technical schools throughout my time. I've spent probably most of my time in school in the younger days. Every chance or opportunity I got to go to school I was there. It was hard though trying to work eight hours and going to school. One time I had a little part-time job, working, going to school, while I was in Detroit, and working eight hours in the daytime. And then another little part-time job and trying to go to school.
MP That was rough.
MK You better believe it was and hard to find time to study. That was quite a bit. And I started out to ISU back in, I think it was [19]62 or [19]63. At that time, work wasn't too stable here. Just about the time I got started, I got laid off, and at that time they had a strict unemployment laws. You had to be available for work. I was going to school in the day time and I was working the night shift, but they made me quit ISU in order to draw unemployment compensation. I couldn't exist because I didn't have no other income. So I had to drop out. I just got started that semester, and I had to drop out because he told me down in the unemployment office, you can not go to school and draw unemployment compensation both. I was laid off for two or three months at least. Well, I had to use that money for income. So I had to drop out of ISU. And I never did go back.
MP But all that training paid off because you have a very good position now, right?
MK Yeah, it's fair. It's a good position.
MP I was wondering about Black businesses in this community. When did Black businesses begin to develop as far as you are concerned? Like barbershops or restaurants?
BK (pause) Actually, Black businesses as far as taverns are concerned-now as far back as I can remember, they've had the two taverns, you know. This is to keep the Blacks in their own little place. So as far back as I can remember, they've had two taverns going.
MP Which ones are those?
BK Used to be Al Nathan had one on the West Side called the Royal Palms, and then the Third Ward Club, which still exists. And they did have-I remember when I was a teenager Mrs. Nathan had a restaurant right down here. This was before the viaduct was rebuilt. There was a little place down there where she had a restaurant down there. And every now and then there was a restaurant that would crop up or something like that. We had one lady that had a cleaning business. That was when I was working at the hospital. Then there was an explosion where she got badly burned. And she didn't-her business was out on West Washington Street. She really didn't get completely well. They done a lot of skin grafts and everything. Her body was two-thirds burned. Consequently that was closed down. They had little businesses crop up.
MP Did Black people have difficulty getting into business? Did whites support it? Did they have difficulty getting loans?
BK Back then they didn't have the deals they have now. Now, if a Black person wants to get started, I understand that some get started off of these small loans. They might not thrive. I noticed that several of them have folded up, also. So have white businesses.
MP But I'm speaking about the forties and fifties-for example, did Black people have difficulty getting loans or mortgagees from banks to your knowledge?
BK I can't say.
MP I want to ask you one other question about Saint Joseph's. Did you know a lady by the name of Sister Antona?
BK Sister Antona?
MP A Black lady who was interested in being a nun and working at Saint Joseph's Hospital - I thought you may have remembered-but she was refused. They would not permit her to get training at Saint Joseph's.
BK I think I know who you are talking about because she went into the nunnery real early. Is she the one who had TB (unintelligible)?
MP Yes.
BK Okay. I didn't know her other name. Okay, Betty Lu Ebo. Her and I went to school together. Betty Lu Ebo and I went to school together. And I remember at the time that Betty Lu got sick, she was a patient over at Saint Joe's for quite some time, and she had TB of the bone. Then she got interested in becoming a nun. She couldn't go...
MP They rejected her. They wouldn't permit her to go to Saint Joseph's.
BK Her and I kept in contact. In fact, after she became a Sister, she came to visit me once and I was working, and her time was limited so I didn't get see her. We were real good friends. I heard from once or twice when she was down in Saint Louis. At one time she was pretty sick down there. Now, the last time I heard Betty Lu was up in Wisconsin some place.
MP She's in Mississippi now. I saw her in 1984, I suppose it was.
BK Oh, she's in Mississippi now. How is she doing?
MP Quite fine. I wanted to get your concurrence about Saint Joseph's position regarding Blacks at that time, accepting Blacks in training.
BK No. It was only back in I would say forty-no, it would have to be the late fifties that they actually started training Blacks in the nursing home. They had their own nursing home there. No. It had to be before then because I started at GE in[19]55. There was one girl in training I would say in [19]53. She was the first one to my knowledge. Her name was Jones. There was another one, but I didn't have too much contact with her so I don't know what her name was. But there was two of them in the class together. Eventually, both of them dropped out. But those were the first two Blacks who were accepted in the nursing training program.
MP Is there anything else that you would like to share?
GE at one time, but the people seemed to reject his ideas to a point. Then this is what would bring them out to meetings-but I remember that my first real contact was when Reverend Jones was president of the NAACP.
MP I see.
BK He would walk everywhere he would go. And one time we seen him walking out to GE from over here. And you know where GE is, and he had walked out there. But he had a way of attacking things, and the people would hear about it, and they would really get out to the meetings. I don't know how he did it, but he did. He always had something going.
MP What was his first name? What church was he affiliated with?
BK He was affiliated with Wayman A.M.E. Paul Jones, Reverend Paul Jones, I think, was his name.
MP You said he was radical.
BK The people thought he was radical. The Black people weren't even ready for him. You see what I'm saying?
MP What did he do? What kind of things did he do that caused people to think he was radical?
BK Like he would attack employment at GE or-I can't remember some of the things that he did, but he always had the people on the ball. Especially, the younger group of people like we were then.
MK Most of the people-that's when I first came to Bloomington-a lot of them were "don't rock the boat" type people. When he would do something-they were scared he was going to do something-they would like to be there to try to cool him down. That's why they would come out. So if he had anything that he was going to do, a lot of the "don't do nothing" people would be there to try to cool it down because they might have started buying some old house or something and they feel they're doing all right. More than what they had been doing. And they were scared "the man" was going to take it away from them or something. And they were scared that he would upset the boat. So they would be there to see what he was going to do. It was more out of fear.
MP Than really being supportive?
MK Right.
BK That's the reason I called him a radical because at that time the people were not ready for what they was doing.
MK That was before the times of the bus rides down in Alabama and places like that because they were afraid. People didn't have the nerve to stand up against "Charley," you know, to do what they wanted to, see. That was just in the beginnings of things. It wasn't until the late sixties that the people got enough nerve to stand up for some of the things they really wanted to and were willing to make the sacrifice - whatever - to gain those means. That's the thing if you are willing to pay the sacrifice for it, you can obtain some of those things. If you're not, just going to get lost by the wayside.
MP Were you involved with Dr. Martin Luther King?
MK No, I never did have any contact with Dr. King. One of his lieutenants, Jesse Jackson, he was here. I was in a program once way back in the sixties. Jesse, when he was young, was here for a program at Illinois Wesleyan. We were on the same panel at one time. I got a chance to meet him then. He was much younger than he is now. That was back in the early days in the sixties when he was here. That's the only contact I had with him.
BK But we have got to see Martin Luther King speak. We have heard him speak at Wesleyan. I mean he was a dynamite speaker.
MP Did you get an autograph?
BK We didn't get that close. (laughs)
MK That's right. He spoke at Wesleyan. We were there that night.
BK because he was well guarded. We didn't really get that close.
MP I'm sure because if you were protected by the FBI, I'm sure he was.
MP I appreciate this very much because this part is very important to have.
End Side B

Beulah Kennedy

Interviewer: Beth Maltby | Date: January 15 1989

A

Beulah Kennedy - January 15, 1989
 
Narrator: Beulah Kennedy
Interviewer: Beth Maltby
Date: Jan. 15, 1989
BK My name is Beulah Kennedy, and I live at [address omitted], Bloomington. I was born here June 5, 1923. Here in Bloomington I mean.
BM Would you like to tell me a little bit about your family, your parents, where they were from?
BK My parents came to Bloomington from Mississippi in 1922. My dad was probably about twenty years older than my mother. He died in 1942. My mother never remarried, and she is now ninety years old.
BM What brought your parents to Bloomington?
BK I don't know. She had friends and relatives here. So she just came to Bloomington.
BM What did your dad do when he first came here as far as an occupation?
BK Well, he did yard work and stuff like that. There wasn't a whole lot that Black men could do back then. He done yard work and janitorial work.
BM Was he mostly on his own or did he work for a company?
BK He was mostly on his own.
BM Did your mother work?
BK She done day work. Would you believe that at that time she made seventy-five cents a day?
BM Tell me the way your family was run. Was your father the authority?
BK Definitely. There was three boys and one girl. I was the oldest. My father was the figurehead, you know. You listened to him I had a brother that was a year younger than I, and he died at seven. He contacted pneumonia because him and I were playing in the snow, and we got good and wet. But at the time we didn't think any thing about it. And he sort of got over his pneumonia, but then he had a heart condition which-his heart just gave way. And my dad died on my eighteenth birthday. Of course, my brothers were thirteen or fourteen then. My mother raised us, and she put me through a year and a half of college at ISU. And then because of the financial strain I quit. Eventually I got married.
BM Where are your brothers now?
BK I have one brother in Milwaukee, and one that lives here in Bloomington.
BM Could you describe some of your childhood experiences-your playmates or school?
BK We lived over by Booker T. Washington Home, and at the time when I was real young my mother used to take us over there to day care. And they had two old houses. One for the boys, and one for the girls. Eventually they tore those down and built the building that they just tore down in the last four or five years. But those were our playmates. Plus we just had a neighborhood full of kids. We had baseball games going all the time. I was really, really a "tomboy" since I was the only girl in the family and there was one other in the neighborhood around my age, and she died. And the rest were just boys. So that's what I had to play with except when we went over to the Home and played. And sometimes we couldn't go over there and play because Mr. Calimese had kids on punishment. So that was the extent of, you know, our-we walked to school. We went to Raymond School. That was the district we were in. Then when we graduated from Raymond in the eighth grade, we went to Bloomington High School which is the junior high school at the present time. And we walked every day from the west side of town all the way to Bloomington Junior High. Of course, when my brothers got that age, they caught the bus, but we walked.
BM How far is that?
BK It's about a mile and a half total.
BM It would get cold in the winter time?
BK Yes, right. But it didn't make any difference what the weather was, we walked to school.
BM Was your neighborhood an integrated neighborhood?
BK There was only one white family that lived there, and they didn't particularly, at the time, want their kids to associate with the Black kids. So they had all the things they needed in their yard, and that's where they played.
BM Did they have several children?
BK They had two. A boy and a girl that was in our age bracket. And like I say-sometimes we would go to school together or something like that. Maybe now and then, he'd let us come over there and play. But most of the time those kids played by themselves.
BM Do you remember when you did have contact with them, did the children voice any problem with that? Did they want to be playing?
BK Not really. It didn't seem to really bother them. This was instilled in them. And then when we started going to grade school, of course, they was well integrated, you know. We used to get called quite a few names. Well, the first three years we went to Irving School until they built what they called the new Raymond at the time. And then they cut the district up and sent us to Raymond School. We still pretty well kept to ourselves. We weren't too friendly with them, and they weren't too friendly with us.
BM What years were you in grade school?
BK In the thirties.
BM Speaking of the thirties. Can you tell me anything about the Depression? Did it affect you?
BK Oh, yes. It did. My father couldn't find work. My mother had the day work. She was lucky enough to have put her money in the safety deposit box. The little savings she had. We were fortunate there, but we still received Relief, and whatever we could you know because there was just no work for my dad. And then my dad got sickly and wasn't able to work. He died in [19]42. I had a brother who died in [19]32. But he died in [19]42 so it was after the Depression.
BM Can you describe your home to me?
BK Our house was three rooms. We had an outhouse. I slept with my mother, and the boys and dad slept in the back room. We slept in the front. And then we had a kitchen.
BM How about your yard?
BK We had a big yard. We had a large backyard, and my dad done gardening in the back, and we had a grape arbor of tame grapes and wild grapes. We had a peach tree. At one time I remember, we even raised chickens, but we didn't have running water. We had to go over to what is now known as MacArthur, and they had a fountain. And we used have to carry our drinking water from there until they ran the pipes down Oakland Avenue so we could have water put in our house.
BM Did your mother make grape jelly and that kind of thing?
BK Yeah. In fact, I had to help her make it. I do not make it now.
BM What other kinds of things did your mother cook? Anything in particular that was special?
BK She cooked greens. And every morning for breakfast my dad demanded bacon, eggs, and biscuits. This was his meal. When I got to be about fourteen years old, I decided I was going to cook some thing different. Like coffee cake and I can't remember exactly what else I cooked. I remember cooking the coffee cake, and my dad was very, very upset. In fact, he went down to the train station late because he refused to eat since it was not what he was accustomed to every morning for breakfast. Well, my mother just cooked regular food. Other than we had plenty of greens, and I hated greens at that time. I've learned to love them, but I hated them then because we had them all the time.
BM Did you have a church affiliation as you were growing up?
BK Yes. We went to Wayman A.M.E. Church on Center Street. That's where my mother and dad joined. That's where they brought up all of us kids. We walked to and from church. We went to church three times a day on Sunday and sometimes during the week. And we had better go to church. That was a must.
BM The three times on Sundays-they Sundays-they were all services?
BK Yes. Usually they were. And as I got older I joined the junior choir, and we had quite a few activities with the junior choir. And we raised our own money, and we just had an enjoyable time in church.
BM All the kids enjoyed it?
BK Yes.
BM So it wasn't a push to get you to go.
BK Not really. It was only a push when we got to the point we were seventeen or eighteen years old, and we got to go out on Saturday nights. Then it was a must that you get up and go to church no matter how late you were out. That was a must. And that was the push. Staying out too late.
BM Were there any other activities that your parents were involved in?
BK My father was a Sunday School teacher. My mother was the president of the pastor's aid at one time, which was an organization that helped support the minister. But most of it was church affiliated. My mother did belong to one little social club that they had. And they entertained once or twice a month. And since Dad didn't particularly like to go, I used to get to be her guest all the time.
BM You mentioned that your junior choir raised your own money. What kind of.?
BK Well, for our robes and stuff like that. We used to have penny suppers. We had programs. And, you know, we just got busy and raised our own money.
BM You also mentioned a couple of times that you walked here and there. Did you not have a car?
BK We did not have a car. No. There was bus service. And buses even ran on Sunday, and it was a rare occasion when we got to catch the bus to go anywhere. Sometimes we would catch the bus to come home from church at night because it was quite late. But Bloomington was a very safe town back then, too. It was not near like it is now. You'd feel safe out in the street walking even by yourself. Now it's a little bit different.
BM We talked a little bit about your family members, but I don't think we named them.
BK My oldest brother-the one who died-his name was James Jones. Then I had another brother younger than him. His name was Walter Jones. Then there was Charles Jones.
BM And you were the oldest?
BK Yes.
BM Did your mother do most of the preparation of the meals, or did you eventually take over for her?
BK Not too much. My dad didn't particularly like my cooking anyway, even though I thought I cooked pretty good. I helped Mom with cooking, but as far as taking over the meals-no, I didn't do too much of that.
BM Did all of the children have household responsibilities?
BK Yes, and it was usually evenly divided. My mother felt that each of us should take turns doing dishes. Of course, that was one of the things that Dad thought that boys should not have to do, but my mother ruled that one. So I didn't always have to do the dishes. My brothers had to help.
BM That's good. She was progressive.
BK Right.
BM After your father died - you said you were eighteen when he died - how long did you stay with your mother?
BK He died on my eighteenth birthday. I was twenty-two. Like I say I went to ISU for a year and a half. Then I worked for a while. Then I decided to get married.
BM How did things change when your father passed away?
BK Well, my father had been sick for several years so it wasn't too much change as far as responsibilities and having money and not having money. Things like that. There wasn't too much difference then when he was living except that my mother had the full responsibility then because dad would get some help, but he just wasn't well enough to work.
BM Did you and your brothers work through your teen years at all?
BK I did. I worked in school in the office, and they paid us five dollars a month. And then I worked sometimes for a lady-especially in the summer time-for a lady my mother was working for. Of course, that was cheap labor, too. And my brothers managed to-of course, there was about six years difference between us, and my brothers would be caddies at the golf range. They made their money that way. As my brother got older, my oldest brother, he worked at Bloomington Country Club waiting table. He did quite a bit of that, too, waiting tables. So we did the jobs they would let us do. It was really an honor to work in the office in Bloomington High School because you didn't work in offices.
BM Did either of your brothers go on to college?
BK Both of them went. My oldest brother went for three and a half years. He only had half a year to go. He just blew it. He wasn't interested, and he was an alcohol. He could go to school and take a final exam drunk and get an A. Would you believe that? He was very brilliant. My other brother only went for a year. Both served some time in the services. But he just never finished.
BM Did they both go to ISU?
BK Both went to ISU for a short while. Then my oldest brother went to Tennessee State. Then he went to Illinois University. That's where he spent his last year in college at Illinois University.
BM What was he working on? What degree?
BK Mostly correspondence. And he does work with the newspapers, and he's been doing that for years because he's worked for the Defender and he's worked for the Tribune. He's worked for the Milwaukee Courier and the Milwaukee Star. So he's done quite a bit of editing. The only reason he didn't stay here was because the Pantagraph would not hire him. The Pantagraph would not hire Blacks back then.
BM This would have been in?
BK Like in the fifties. Early fifties.
BM As you were growing up and in your teen years, do you remember any discrimination that you felt?
BK Oh, there was definitely that. We felt it all through school. Then when we got old enough to apply for jobs, we knew there were some jobs they weren't going to have regardless of what kind of training you had. And then there were jobs that required training that how are you going to train if you never had a chance to do them. But that was just one of the ways of cutting you out of jobs. There was definitely that. Even back in the forties, I put an application in at Saint Joe's Hospital as a nurse's aide, and at that time they wouldn't hire me. They did later in later years, but in the beginning they were not hiring Blacks. Not even as a nurse's aide.
BM For my generation that seems so...
BK Well, ISU was prejudiced too. Very, very prejudiced. You would have to live in people's homes. You did not live on campus. You did not live in the dormitory. There was one girl that we knew was Black from Chicago, and the reason why she got to live in the dormitory was that she was "bright" enough to pass for white, and she got by with it. But Blacks did not live in the dormitories on campus. They had to live in these private homes that people had rooms for students.
BM Do you remember when things started to change?
BK Well, not really because I really lost contact with what was going on at ISU. I know in the forties and fifties. I think that it was after the Civil Rights Movement mostly that things really started to change. Sometimes I think they felt sorry for us, you know. (laughs) I don't know.
BM At that time what were you doing? You were married by then.
BK Well, I had worked at Eureka Williams until-well I was working there and going to school at one time. This was during the time of war. Of course, they let all the Blacks go [after the war]. Even working out there there were only certain jobs you could do. You could not work at a machine. You had to sit there and file. File burrs and stuff. Black men were sweepers mostly. There was just discrimination right there in the factory even during the war.
BM Are we talking about World War II?
BK Yes. Then my husband went into the services, and then I had babies so in between I wasn't working. Then I started working at Saint Joe's Hospital until I lost my daughter. Then I took off for about a year, and then I went back. And then I started at GE in 1955. And worked there from [19]55 until I retired, and then I went back school.
BM You went back to school?
BK Yeah. I'm just taking off this semester. I haven't talked to my counselor yet, but I'm going to talk to her tomorrow.
BM I see. What are you doing?
BK I was working on sociology. I was going to take psychology, but it requires a lot more math than I want to take. So I cut it down to sociology. I had taken several psychology courses. I was even psychology when I was going back to school in the forties. But they didn't have enough for a major so I had started minoring in it. I just started my first semester in psychology. There is quite a difference. I wish I had finished then because with psychology you did not have to take math. I might have had to pick it up later, but at least I would have had my degree, and I still wouldn't have had to take math because it wasn't required back then.
BM There are a lot of changes, I'm sure. After you were married, you stayed in Bloomington?
BK Raised all my kids in Bloomington. I lost a daughter when she was four and a half with rheumatic fever. But I raised them all here.
BM How many children did you have?
BK I had four. The oldest one's name is James Jones. Sharon Jean is the one that died. Ethel Esters-that's her name now, and Diane Thornton.
BM Can you tell me anything about your grandparents? Did you know them?
BK Yes, I knew both my grandparents. They lived in Tennessee. In Humboldt, Tennessee. I used to go visit them, and sometimes I used to go spend the summer with them.
BM What can you tell me about them?
BK Grandpa was tall, and every time I'd come every year he'd measure me against him to see how much I had grown. Both my grandfather and grandmother was strict. They believed in you going to church. (phone rings)
BM Was this your mother's parents or your father's?
BK My mother's. I didn't know my father's parents. Just my mother's.
BM What were their names?
BK Ida E. Berry and Malcolm Berry. It was just Grandma and Grandpa to me.
BM What kind of a home did they live in?
BK It was just a regular house. It had five rooms to it. She had-Grandpa had a big farm. He raised peanuts, and he'd send us peanuts. He also raised hogs. He had a couple of cows. And he raised corn and stuff like that on the farm. Sorghum. Sorghum stalks-I remember sucking them. And then he had a great big blackberry bush. They had six boys and six girls. Not all of them lived to be grown, but they had twelve children.
BM Did you know your aunts and uncles?
BK Yeah. Most of them. The youngest one is nine months younger than I am. She lives down in Centralia now. I have an aunt living in Kansas City, and I have an uncle up in Evanston, and one right outside of Chicago. So there's only five of them living now, but I knew several of them when I was coming up.
BM Do you remember any stories that your grandparents would tell you about their lives as they were growing up?
BK Not really. They didn't dwell on it very much. Especially, as far as telling me, they just didn't talk about it very much.
BM Did you have any slaves in your history that you know of?
BK Not that I know of, but there probably was. I know my grandmother and my grandfather both have some Indian blood in them and some German blood. I know that. That is my grandmother, and you could see that there is, you know...
BM I love old pictures and that was something I needed to ask you about-do you have any old pictures or articles or anything that you would want to share with the project?
BK Not really. I just have a picture of my grandmother. My mother probably has some. I really don't. Most of mine are collections of my grandkids.
BM You said you spent summers with your grandparents. Did your brothers also go down?
BK They went down some, but my brothers weren't particularly fond of the South. So they just as soon stay home. But I went down several summers.
BM How did you get from here to there and back?
BK On the train. The Pullman porter would watch me, you know. I would catch the train from here to St. Louis, and then you had a lay over in St. Louis, and then you went from St. Louis to Humboldt straight through on a train. And I remember when I was about thirteen or fourteen years old, I went down there on the train, and I went by myself. And I think it was the first time I really noticed the segregation because after you got to Cairo, if you weren't sitting in the back, you would have to go back and sit in the back. Then when you got off the train, even though you might be first in line, the porter got in front of you and made you wait until all of the whites got off-men and women. And I was very outraged because I remember - I think my grandmother got mixed up as to the time the train was due in, and I came on the early morning train. I knew how to get there so I walked, which really wasn't very far from the train station. And I went in, and I was so mad that I said, "Grandma, I just can't understand how you people stand this stuff. The man just jumped in front of me and wouldn't let me get off." And said, "Well, Child, that's the way things are, and that's the way we have to accept them."
BM So it was very different then up here?
BK It was different as far as you could sit where you wanted to. On the bus in Bloomington you could sit in the front of the bus or the back of the bus. It didn't make any difference. The train. You could get on the train and sit anywhere on the train you wanted to, but after you got past Cairo, you got-that was the Mason-Dixon line-you got in the car where Black folks were. That was it. And my brothers weren't too fond of the situation down there.
BM I can image. Do you remember anything about any other relatives further back than your grandparents?
BK No. I don't remember any of them.
BM As you were growing up here in Bloomington, did relatives come and stay with you and visit?
BK Yes.
BM Did you ever have any family move in and stay for a while?
BK I had an aunt from-she was living in-she went to Evanston I guess. My grandmother's sister came and stayed for a while, and she done day work here while she was staying here. She's really the only one I remember that came to work, not just to visit. The rest would come to visit. but they didn't particularly stay. In fact, none of my relatives lived here. I had a half-sister that lived here when Dad did. Of course, she was quite a bit older than I. She had a house on MacArthur Street, but she was already married. And she had kids my age. But other than that I don't remember.
BM So your father was considerably older than your mother?
BK Yes.
BM When was he born? Do you remember?
BK I don't know. I remember my dad was approximately seventy-eight years old when he died. Like I said that was back in [19]42. So there was quite a difference between Mom and Dad.
BM Do you remember anything about businesses in Bloomington that were run by Blacks when you were growing up?
BK I remember us having Black funeral home. I remember us having a Black doctor, a Black dentist that not even the Blacks supported. And they really couldn't thrive. And the funeral home, to me, should have done better business than they did because most of the funeral homes in Bloomington did not want Black bodies. Beck's-I can't remember them having but one Black body, and that was because they were pressured to have it because of the man this Black man worked for. I can't remember who he worked for at the time, but I remember Jim Barker. They had his body for a long time. Murray's was out here on what is now MacArthur. Murray's would not take Black bodies. The only one that would take Black bodies was Stamper. And Stamper and Murray were together at one time, and he pulled out because they wouldn't take Black bodies. They just didn't take them.
BM Do you have any theories about why the Black people in the community didn't support the Black businessmen?
BK Because the Black people of Bloomington have learned from the white man not to trust each other. And they don't want to see nobody get any farther than they get. And this is the philosophy. They still don't trust each other to a certain point, and it's really bad for us. The white man has instilled this in a lot of Black people. And it hasn't helped the businesses. There are times when Black people don't do maybe the job they should do for the Black person, but there is this distrust, too.
BM We talked a little bit about discrimination, but do you remember it in any recreational activities or housing? Did your parents own their own home?
BK Yes.
BM Not a problem?
BK Oh, there was definitely a problem. You could only live in certain places. You couldn't just buy a house anywhere. You just couldn't.
BM So when your parents first came to town they just bought the house that you grew up in.
BK Yes.
BM You stayed there then.
BK Yes. And most Black people were located around some railroad tracks.
BM And why is that?
BK It's just one of those things.
BM Do you remember any famous Blacks that came to Bloomington or were from Bloomington?
BK I remember Walter White coming here, and he was executive secretary of the NAACP, the National. He was on the national level. I remember, I think, it was Mahalia Jackson was here at Wayman at one time. As far as, I can't remember too much about any Black figureheads from Bloomington being up in power or whatever it may be.
BM Since this is a momentous day. What does this holiday-Martin Luther King Day mean to you?
BK It means a great deal. I worked for civil rights in Bloomington even before Bloomington acknowledged that they had a problem. Some people in Bloomington still say we never had a problem. That is not true. We had problems buying housing. We had trouble getting jobs. And now it's improved compared to what it was. We had a group called US that ventured out and fixed it so that State Farm would hire people to do other than just cleaning toilets. That's what they had. Then, they trained people to go into State Farm. Some of the people that work at State Farm don't realize that. There was this community, the people from Bloomington, that created the jobs that they have now. So Martin Luther King was an example of non-violence. He was a great leader. He was not only for the Blacks. He was for the human being. And I like that. The Blacks are not the only ones that have the problems. We seem to think that we are the only ones that have it. Our problems might seem to us bigger than anybody else's, but we are not the only ones who have problems. I have always said, and I think I still feel this way that I can't understand why a white man is extremely poor because they had more advantages to get what they wanted by the color of their skin. Therefore, I can not feel sorry for them if they don't have because it was there for them to have-where it was not for us. People don't believe that Black people can be prejudiced. But they give us this whatever. And I've always said that. I just can't understand that. They've got the advantages. They've got the privileges, and I still understand to some white people "poor trash" is a disgrace. You know what I'm saying. The whites feel this way. But I have a feeling that the reason why they feel this way is because it makes them look weak because these people should have been able to get anything they wanted. There is no reason why they should be poor.
BM They've not taken advantage of the opportunities.
BK Right, right.
BM Outside of the church do you remember any clubs you belonged to?
BK I belonged to a club called the Emily Wilson Club. Its just a lady that-we have reactivated it. Most of the girls were a little older than I was. Then they moved away. I was president of the Emily Wilson Club at one time. And when I was in school, we had a club they called the Girl Reserves. It was strictly a Black club. Both of these were Black clubs. In fact, the Civic Women's Club is a sponsor of the Emily Wilson Club, and I am now president of the Civic Women's Club. We're still strictly a Black organization. We are national and we are state-wide and we do have a district, and it's still a Black women's club.
BM What kind of things do you promote?
BK We promote education. We just gave out two scholarships in December of three hundred dollars apiece that we raised at the beginning of the year. We gave those to two students. We had to be sure that they were in college, and that they had a need. My granddaughter got a scholarship from the district. She didn't get one from the club because at that time they hadn't reactivated the scholarship. She got one from the district after she had started at Tennessee State. We believe in doing civic work. We are going into the nursing homes. We are going to visit in the nursing homes, and we are going to adopt a family. That's in our plans now. And we're going to have two groups. Well, they are going to be divided into two groups of girls-the senior girls and the junior girls because the little tykes can't keep up with those teenagers. So we are in the process of dividing those girls so that they can work in the community, too. Then we do have the district meeting. We had our district meeting here at the Sheraton Hotel last year. The state was in Chicago. They have the national every two years. But I haven't been to a national yet. In fact, I really haven't had a desire to go. The Civic Women's Club was at a lull earlier-a couple of years ago. We sort of got members in and started back to working so we can be in the community's eyes. The club has been going on since 1909. It is an old club. Then I worked for the NAACP as secretary for several years under the administration of Bill Kennedy.
End Side A
Side B
BK With the NAACP during the Civil Rights, and also worked with the NAACP youth group during the Civil Rights Movement here in Bloomington. So I was quite active with the youth group and adult branch. At one time, we had several marches around the courthouse. At one time, the kids after the march went over to (unintelligible) Kresges, which was the little dime store they had right across from the courthouse to get some candy and stuff. And somebody made a statement that, "There are those `niggers' that are out there marching around the courthouse." And the kids got real hostile, but it just so happened that I walked in at the time it happened so I talked the kids into calming down and coming out of the store without any event at all. And of course, when the Pantagraph mentioned "an unidentified woman stopped what could have been a messy situation in the dime store." But I did have control of the kids then. And it helped quite a bit during the Civil Rights Movement, and when Martin Luther King was killed, we had a meeting down at Union Baptist Church with the kids. We called all the kids together and-because we knew that there was going to be a problem. Of course, our house was under watch and our telephones were taken care of through the investigation of-the FBI, yeah, and because my husband was the president also, and I was the secretary. And it was sort of shaky there for a while because we didn't know what would happen. But we did have this meeting down to Union Baptist Church, which is a Black church. And just before the meeting was over with, the pastor of the Union Baptist came down-and all we had was a quite meeting-and he said there will not be any more Black organization meetings in this church.
BM And it was a Black church?
BK It was a Black church.
BM Because they didn't want trouble on their premises?
BK I guess they were sorta scared, and he definitely told us that the night that Martin Luther King got killed. And we had had meetings all the time down there because the US group used to even meet down there and discuss the problems of segregation or whatever any problems anybody had, Black or white. I know we had one white girl that came down there. She had two kids. She seemed to have problems all the time. She didn't want to work. She liked collecting that money from the state. They got her a job out here at Eureka Williams. She'd go in one day and the next day she wouldn't go in. She might go in. They don't put up with that kind of stuff. I mean, you get hired to work. Show up for work. She just didn't want to work. I told Merlin she doesn't want to work. That's her biggest problem. She'd rather for the state to take care of her and her kids. And like she said she could make almost as much money as she could at Eureka Williams.
BM That's a shame.
BK Right. And she was white. That's the reason I say I can't really feel sorry for them because they have all the advantages. They had them all, anyway. Whether they used them or not was their problem.
BM You said the US group? I hadn't heard of it.
BK We had a group called the US group. George Warren. There were several teachers involved in it. And Merlin Kennedy and myself. Several of us got together and just met. It was something that the NAACP couldn't do that we could do. We could do a lot of things on our own because we were just an organization just made up of people. And the NAACP comes under the direction of the National. Whether anyone knows that or not, they still have things they can and can not do. And so we just decided to call us the US group. We met once a week down at Union Baptist, and we just hashed out problems like-they even got together and helped one little old lady fix up her house because they were going to throw her out because they were going to condemn the house you know and stuff like that. Ralph Smith was another one that also involved in that. He was a teacher out to ISU. And what was he in? English I think. George Warren was in-they both retired. George Warren just retired in the last year or so. The other was a teacher at U High. But we'd get together, and we'd go around and check out the people who wouldn't give you a place to stay. Under the pretense that we were looking for. Or we would have somebody go and check them out to see if they had a place for rent. You'd be surprised at the people who would refuse because you were Black. They'd say it's already rented, or they'd up the price. Something like that.
BM It sounds like you and your husband were very important in this community for the Black people.
BK We were quite active. Like I say we were really active during the time of the Martin Luther King episode and everything.
BM Do you remember any other particular events-this is very interesting to me. I'm learning a lot-while you were involved with the NAACP?
BK While I was involved with the NAACP? I remember one time they had the state meeting here, and this was before Tilden Hall was tore down. It was on Washington and Madison, I think it was, on the corner. And anyway we went up and picketed Woolworth's during the lunch hour because they would not let Blacks sit at the counter. This was back in sixty or sixty-one, I think. It was sometime back there. We went up, the whole mass of us just went up there and picketed for an hour around Woolworth's because at that time Kresges Dime Store had decided we could sit at the counter and eat, but Woolworth's you could not. You had to take your food out. There was a lot of places like that. Steak 'N Shake was like that. There was a Steak 'N Shake down here on Main Street. We used to go down there and order food and tell them we were going to sit down and eat it. And they'd say, "No you're going to have to take it with you." And we'd walk out and leave it there. We'd just check them out to see if they had started serving us or not. There was this incident with Jefferson Cafeteria where they weren't serving Blacks either. And they ended up being sued by some people from Chicago. They got a suit against them, and they had to open up their place for Blacks to eat. This is where they really started letting people eat anywhere they wanted to because they realized they could be sued if they refused.
BM Did anything come of the picketing at Woolworth's?
BK Yeah. They finally opened the counters up so Blacks could go in there and eat. But it wasn't a popular place to eat anyway. I don't know I just-I've noticed there wasn't too many Blacks went in their and ate. I never went in. I think I went in once or twice and ate. I wasn't too enthused about it. It was just a matter of principle. A lot of it was a matter of principle. We wanted first-class citizenship. We had to pay first-class taxes. They're not going to say, "You're Black you're not going to have to pay as much as the white man." We're charged the same amount, and we wanted to be treated not as second class, but first-class citizens. That's what it's all about. (papers are shuffled and tape is shut off)
BK Twice. We both have. My first husband lived here in Bloomington. He kept chasing me, and I kept avoiding him for a long time. Then finally I started being nice, I guess. We finally got married, but we really didn't get along too well. Even after we had four kids, it was still a struggle. He had a chance to go to California, and I told him by all means go. I'll meet you there later. That was not my intention. When he got out there, I guess he realized it. He died about three years ago. In the meantime. I've been married to Merlin twenty-two years. Merlin and I have no children between the two of us. He had three children by his first marriage, and I had four. I have a son now that has the same problem that my husband did. That's who I was talking to on the telephone. He has asthma disease that causes (unintelligible) in his lungs. And right now what we are waiting for is-he had surgery on his lungs about six or seven years ago. They only gave him five years to live then. And now the lungs are deteriorating, and he is on oxygen all the time. The doctor tried to check with Barnes to see if he could get a lung, and Barnes turned him down because they said they wanted a perfectly healthy body other than the lung. So now we have two doctors working on two possible cases that might give him a lung. Otherwise, my son is forty-four. He'll be forty-five December twenty-fifth of this year. And the doctor said he will not have (unintelligible) at the age of forty-five. I usually-when he calls, I take time to talk. (unintelligible). It's really touch and go, and this is one of the reasons-my mother is in the nursing home. Everything seems to be piled up on me so these are the reasons why I decided I wasn't going to school this semester. I can't study under all that pressure. I had to drop a couple of courses last semester because of all of this. This coming down on me at once, you know. So I felt that was better to drop than to get a D or F. So that's the way I came up. I kept one subject and got an A in it, but then I was able to concentrate on that one subject only. I didn't have a lot of research to do on the other two. This semester I decided I just can't handle it. I still got to call Pat, and tell her.
BM Are you a member of the Union Baptist Church?
BK No. I belong to Wayman A.M.E. I've been a member up there since I can't remember when. I left there for two or three years and went to the Catholic Church. I like participation in religion, and Catholics they're.. (laugh) So I went back to Wayman.
BM Are you involved there in organizations?
BK I was in the choir until I lost my voice last winter, and just never got back in. I'm on the steward board and also church clerk so I have enough jobs to do. And I help with the ushering so I still work in the church quite a bit. I'm just not in the choir right now. I'm always afraid that I'll lose my voice again. I'll have to get back out. I was a firm believer that if you didn't go to choir rehearsal, you had no business standing up there singing on Sunday morning.
BM I'm going to regress to your childhood. Do you have any vivid memories of your school years that stand out?
BK Not really. I know in high school I was active in several organizations. We even had an amateur program at Bloomington High School, and I was one of the dancers on the program. It was fun. But even at Bloomington High School, we sort of stayed by ourselves. We enjoyed our own company, you know. We had a place right down near the door that we called "nigger heaven." And that's where we congregated. Most of us. There were a few that did not, but most of us would congregate around the door. I would say that during my school years, I was somewhat popular. I know a lot of white kids in grade school that we lost contact somewhat after we got to high school. Because Gilbert Ault was a pharmacist over here, and I went to school with him. And then Bill Ahlers was one of my bosses at GE. And we went to grade school together. This was in grade school. We have fond memories of when we'd go out there and play baseball, you know, during recess and before school started in the morning and in the afternoon. I was on the basketball team in grade school, and we used to play the different grade schools around here in Bloomington. I was on the baseball team, and I was a regular "tomboy."
BM These were girls' teams?
BK We had basketball with girls' rules which are quite different from the way girls play now because the girls' basketball now is almost like boys' basketball. But then we had only half the court we could play in, you know. Baseball was quite different. We all had the same rules. School was something I liked. I missed a year of school when I was in the third grade because I was sick for a year, and this was the same year that my brother died. After he died, first I got pneumonia and ended up in the hospital. I was in the hospital for six weeks. When I came home, I got the whooping cough. I got all the childhood diseases you could get during the one year. Never had any problems after that, but I had it all in one year. And I missed a year. I think that had a lot to do with the fact that I liked school so well because I missed it when I couldn't go. And then you didn't have tutors to come in and teach you anything either. Of course, I loved to read and I still love to read. So I would do a lot of reading when I was in the hospital, and that kept me occupied because nobody could come and visit you but your parents up in the children's ward. That's where I was. My mother couldn't get there during the day because she was working.
BM That sounds like that was a really tough year for you.
BK It was. It was a really bad year. The only child who didn't get pneumonia was the youngest. It was rough.
BM I've heard now that you sing and you danced. Did you ever take any lessons or any thing?
BK No. But I just loved to dance. This husband doesn't dance at all. But I've always loved to dance. My brother and I won several jitterbug contests. It was interesting. Then I kept up with my kids through "the stroll" and all that.
BM Some racial issues. When do you remember first being aware of the racial differences?
BK I really didn't pay any attention to it until I started school. Then I could really tell the difference. I guess I just ignored it. I was active and did a lot of playing so I didn't really pay any attention to until I was in school. You could tell by the teachers' attitudes and the students' attitudes, the whole bit. Some of them didn't want to sit beside you and all of that.
BM The NAACP is somewhat political, but have you been involved in other political organizations? Or active in the Democratic or Republican Party or anything?
BK I worked with the Republican Party once. Richard McGuire was running for sheriff? He was running for something, and I worked with him. His wife and I were great friends. So that was the only time I reverted to a Republican for a short time so that I could help him get in, but he didn't get in anyway. I really don't get too involved in politics. I make sure that I go vote. And I've worked at the polls the last couple of years, but politically I don't get too involved. I think my husband tried to get me involved a couple of times. We used to have these fireplace chats and things. What is his name-Bob-he was out there near the castle, but I can't think of his name now. Anyway we sort of worked with him for a while. Politically, I'm not too over-enthused except to study the men who are running and try to vote for the right one.
BM What would you say has been the best part of your life?
BK The years since I've been bowling. At one time, we couldn't even bowl in Bloomington. Seriously, it's true. They wouldn't let you bowl in the bowling alleys. Savages was the only bowling alley for a while. Then they built Oakland. Oakland was the next one they built. When they built Oakland, immediately some of the people went out there to bowl. Mary Lu Jamison and George Jamison went out to bowl. They would not let them bowl. They went to see their lawyer. The lawyer called them up and told them out to Oakland, "You had better let them bowl unless you want a law suit." Then he told Mary Lu and George to go back out there, and in the meantime another girl went out there. So she claims she was the first Black to bowl. But she was not. She has no right to get that credit. And she has told people that she was the first one to bowl, but it was because George and Mary Lu had gone to see their lawyer. After they built Circle, Circle just fell in line because they knew the circumstances. But at one time, Blacks could not bowl.
BM When did this start?
BK Let's see. It has been about thirty-five years ago when Blacks started to bowl out there because we have had a traveling league for the last thirty years. And out of the thirty years, I think, twenty of it I have been secretary. And when I wasn't secretary, I was captain of the team. It's been about thirty-five years because the traveling league was formed in [19]59. It was mostly Blacks. There's a few whites who bowl, but it's mostly Blacks. I love bowling. I still love it.
BM And you're still in the league?
BK I'm still on the traveling league. In fact, I'm the only original ILLMO bowler from Bloomington that started out when they first started out.
BM Would you have anything to say that would help young Blacks today? What should they be doing? What should they be looking for in their lives to change things?
BK The first thing they really, really need to do is concentrate on getting their education, and being the best that they can be. They can decide what they want to do, but they should get their education. Tackle those books. Make sure they get those grades, and then go from there. But education is going to be the most important thing in anybody's life, Black or white. Therefore, I advocate-this is what they really, really need to do.
End Side B