Black Austinites Share Stories for UT Oral History Project: Students Get Different Perspective on City's History as They Talk to African American Residents
August 15, 2010
by Patrick Beach
It's a quiet, poignant and telling recollection, Austinite Dorothy McPhaul's memory of being treated as a member of the family of a childless white couple for whom her mother cooked, taking her "where a lot of blacks never went because they would carry me everywhere they went."
Hers is one of roughly 100 oral histories, almost without question the most exhaustive accounting of African American life in Austin. They are revealing, moving, funny stories about the resilient lives of people whose accomplishments are notable or more quiet. They are exhaustive. The transcripts of the interviews equal about 6,000 pages.
And the whole package is sitting on a hard drive on Martha Norkunas' computer.
Trumpet player Donald 'Duck' Jennings participated in the African-American Oral History Project at the University of Texas. He plays at the Victory Grill.
It is the African-American Oral History Project, which Norkunas formerly of the University of Texas, now a professor of oral and public history in the public history program at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee and her graduate students began scooping up back in 2004, the earliest of them recorded on audio cassette and all of them transcribed. And that's just a fraction of what's available. It began as part of a larger venture called the Project in Interpreting the Texas Past.
Whether you have heard of the participants or not, these stories are worth exploring for their richness and vibrance.
From John Q. Taylor King, the late president emeritus of Huston-Tillotson College and much more, to trumpet player Donald "Duck" Jennings, to antique dealer McPhaul, to Lemuel Bradshaw, who has the heart of another man beating in his chest, these stories might upend the way you think about a lot of things.
This is important because as much as Austin likes to think of itself as tolerant and inclusive, it was also as segregated as most any city in the South. A good many narrators the preferred term in the academy recount the civil rights struggle on every scale, from the community to the nation.
"It's an extraordinary collection," says Norkunas. "I've been doing oral history for 30 years, and I personally changed my ideas about the U.S., about Austin, about race and race relations. Austin, from a black perspective, is a very different city."
It most certainly was before desegregation, which had consequences both planned and unanticipated. Here's Elanor Thompson's recollection of the old days, in an interview conducted by Meg Brooker in April 2008. She's talking about walking down Congress Avenue with her father: "He would get off the sidewalk if he met white people coming. Black men had to do this. ... And so my dad would just step off, and I thought it was a game, so I hopped off. And so then he would step back up, and I'd hop back up. And we would do that." But when she walked down Congress Avenue one day with her grandmother, she says: "It hit me. She doesn't get off, because I was about to I saw these people people coming and I was going to it was like she doesn't. Huh, this is different. What is she doing? And I watched her and she just went right on. Thought something's different here."
Thompson recalls that her grandmother later explained why she acted the way she did. "She said she was a Yankee. She was different."
Lemuel Bradshaw will go to work in communications at the Seton Family of Hospitals, the hospital group that did his heart transplant. He talks about how his view of race changed once the heart of a Hispanic man began to beat in his chest.
In many of the stories, there's a sense of determination to thrive even in a society in which the game is rigged, in which the rules are written by others, in which you need to know your place or else. In some, including those of a couple of musicians who waxed nostalgic about clubs in East Austin that closed after desegregation, there's something bordering on ambivalence about the loss of a self-contained African American community. And in the extraordinary case of Bradshaw, 40, an African American Austinite with the heart of a Hispanic man beating inside him, there's proof that, color differences notwithstanding, we're all the same inside. What was without doubt the defining event of his life was both about race and transcending it.
Bradshaw, a native of northern Louisiana, received his transplant after a virus enlarged his heart in 1999, and a few years later, he met his donor's wife and family near Houston. After sharing stories and photos for several hours, the man's wife said she had a final request: She wanted to hear her husband's heart.
"She pressed her head against my chest and wrapped her arms around me," said Bradshaw, who's set to graduate from UT with a degree in public relations and will take a job as a communications consultant at the Seton Family of Hospitals, the hospital group that did his transplant. "Everything in the room was silent except for the sobbing. Three weeks or so later, I went to West Texas and (the donor's) mother did the same thing. She's a tiny little woman, and one of the brothers of my donor said, 'The mother would like to ask you something. She'd like to listen to your heart."
Unsurprisingly, Bradshaw is positively evangelical on organ donation it's the reason he chose a career in public affairs and he credits his donor's family.
"One of the reasons I keep doing what I'm doing is to further spread the donor message," he said, "And my donor family is the impetus for everything I do now. There are so many people waiting."
Several but not many of the graduate students identified themselves as African American. Because our default setting is to associate with people who look like us, the interracial element of the collection of histories is revealing, and the simple act of reaching out, of saying, in effect, "I think you're interesting enough that your story should be written down" is a chasm spanner.
"For many of the white students, it was the first time they had sat in a room with someone of African descent and talked with them for two hours about their lives," she said. "And it was the same for the subjects. It became, for that moment in time, a small trust-building experience. I'm hoping it's mutually positive."
Former student Meg Gibson certainly got more out of the experience than class credit. She says: "This project changed me in profound ways. I grew up in a small town in South Texas. Really, I had very little interaction with African Americans growing up. As an adult, of course, I live in a big city and interact with all ethnic groups, but my knowledge of what happened in Texas (was limited). I knew all about the civil rights movement. I knew there was segregation. But I had never really heard the stories firsthand from people about how it impacted them."
Here's another testimonial from Roger Gatchet, a former student of Norkunas' and a huge fan of blues who jumped at the chance to interview East Austin musicians he'd long admired, including Jennings and Henry "Blues Boy" Hubbard.
"What's so important about those guys is they are a living link to an Austin that no longer exists," Gatchet said. "We hear a lot about the storied and very active East Austin blues scene, which is still there but not like it was in the chitlin' circuit days. These guys were working five days a week back when Austin was segregated really hard. ... It's the favorite course I took at UT."
Not all participants' memories are warm, of course. Karen Riles, who used to work at the Austin History Center and now writes grants for a nonprofit in Shreveport, La., recalled moving from nonsegregated Arizona to Smithville in the winter of 1969 and finding herself on the bottom rung of a hierarchical ladder she didn't know existed, that African Americans even children had better learn quickly that not to say "yes, ma'am" or "no, ma'am" to a white person was seen as a sign of insolence. The experience still stings.
Dorothy McPhaul, who owns Johnnie's Antiques and Collectibles on East Sixth Street, talks about her early years when her mother worked as a cook for a white family for the University of Texas oral history project.
"The fact that I brought that up in that interview, it still weighs on my mind, being treated like that," Riles said. "I can understand kids being crazy and doing things that are rude and mean, but adults, you hold them to a higher standard, and they should behave differently. In Arizona, the Native Americans, Mexican Americans and black folks and white folks all played together. In Texas, what I found was cruel behavior."
Gibson underscores a point: "Even though I knew it on an intellectual level, it was shocking on an emotional level to confront the fact that this country operated on a system of apartheid in the not-so-distant past. That is the beauty of these narratives: They personalize our distant and recent pasts in sometimes raw and sometimes beautiful ways. I will forever be grateful that I was given the opportunity to be a part of this project, and I know I am not the only participant who feels this way."
This sort of interracial sharing and the understanding it fosters suggest that segregation created mutual prejudice and mistrust.
Consider the case of McPhaul, whose earlier experiences helped her navigate the changing cultural landscape when she got to LaGrange to teach school shortly after Brown v. Board of Education.
She says: "Every student, white and black, knew that I was fair. I had the parents even behind me. All, both, both races didn't, they liked me. And if I had one prejudiced, I remember I had one prejudiced father come in, and oh, he was really, really up and at 'em. But by the time we finished, I had him on my side."
Given the passion of the people involved in collecting the histories, why isn't this stuff in a museum or something? Partly because of Norkunas' new job (she moved out of Austin this month), partly the sheer volume of material and the lack of money to build an accessible and comprehensive website. Norkunas says she's "the only person on the planet who's read all 6,000 pages of transcript, and I'm just one person. In three lifetimes, I couldn't finish it alone."
While at UT, Martha Norkunas collected stories of about 100 African Americans. 'Austin, from a black perspective, is a very different city,' she says.
She has other ambitions for the material. Maybe a book. Maybe more, although a grand and all-encompassing design isn't yet in place.
"I hope my students, and other students, will create radio and sound slide pieces," Norkunas said, "I hope we can do plays. ... In short I hope to get them out into the public domain in a variety of forms so that people can hear the narrators speak and come to understand something about race and identity in our country. I hope the public will find the stories as moving and as important as I have found them to be."
In the meantime, let's finish with one more story, this one from Robert Ford, whose father, on the eve of entering basic training in the Air Force, was accused by New Orleans police of raping a white woman. (It's believed that he was not formally charged.)
Then he says this: "The thing that I just applaud my mother and father for is that out of all that, they did not instill a sense of hatred or revenge. In fact, they begged me, implored me in conjunction with the faith that we had as Roman Catholics to love everyone you meet until they give you a reason not to. There's just no reason to act like that. And I think it's somewhat of a novel approach coming from someone of that era. I was always taught to have a guarded trust, you know. To always be aware that there is a possibility that you could be maltreated because of the way you look or where you come from. But to a great extent, beneath it all, we're all people, and we all deserve to be treated with respect and love. So it was very important to me."