Village elders reflect on the Black experience, Pt. I
- Published: November 29, 2021
This article is the first of a three-part series about the life experiences of African American elders who are in their 80s and 90s living in Yellow Springs. The African American population of Yellow Springs has decreased significantly over the decades, and now stands at less than 12% of the village population, compared to a high of around 27% in the 1980s.
“Reflect on where you grew up, where you first became aware of racism, and how that impacted you,” prompted local resident and civil rights activist Bomani Moyenda. He was speaking via Zoom to the small group of African American elders who had convened for “Elders Speak,” an oral history dialogue on Oct. 28 sponsored by The 365 Project.
“Respond like they say in the Black church — as the spirit moves you,” Moyenda jokingly said before easing into conversation with Geneva Brisbane, James Felder, Frances Smith, Paul Graham and Phillip Lawson about their life experiences. About 50 people had signed into the Zoom conversation for the exchange.
This article focuses on the youth experiences of Brisbane, Felder and Smith.
“Elders Speak” was inspired by an idea from longtime residents James and Betty Felder. According to James Felder, the idea came after hearing discussions about critical race theory or CRT, and white privilege on the news.
“There’s white privilege, and my neighbors and myself have knowledge of that because quite a few of us have lived in the North and the South and it does not matter where you have lived — you have seen white privilege,” Felder said.
Felder grew up in Orangeburg, S.C., not realizing that his little town was a majority Black city, and remains that way, according to a 2010 census that indicates that the community is 75% Black.
“During my growing up years, I never saw a white plumber, a white painter, any of the tradespeople, dry cleaners or barbers,” he said.
Felder did notice a difference in the way Blacks were treated with regards to infrastructure.
“I lived in an integrated neighborhood mostly and on my block, where there were mostly African Americans, the roads were unpaved, but there were African Americans and whites living together in other blocks where there was pavement,” he said.
His family’s street was finally paved because the New York Yankees established a farm team in his town.
“It was when the … Binghamton Triplets did their spring training there that they decided to pave ours so it wouldn’t mess up their trucks and stuff during the rainy times,” Felder said.
Villager Geneva Brisbane was born and raised in Wilmington, N.C., where she experienced segregation differently. She said her big question growing up was — and still is — “why?”
“I wanted to know why for everything, and depending on what the subject was, my mother would just say — especially if I was talking too loud and on public transportation — ‘I’ll talk to you later.’ But later never came with an explanation as to the reason for the why, the why I was referring to: ‘Why do I have to sit at the back of the bus?’” Brisbane said.
And there weren’t always answers, according to Brisbane. Even the way in which Black people had to navigate transportation in her community didn’t make sense to her. Fare was paid in the front of the trolley or bus, and then Blacks were expected to exit and enter the back through the rear doors. Blacks were always expected to exit from the rear at their stop.
“I know, it doesn’t make sense, but that was their way of keeping you in what was considered ‘your place,’” she said.
According to Brisbane, there were just some questions her parents didn’t have an answer for, but she and her siblings received reassurances from them that were spiritually based.
“We would get not only the reassurance from the parents that there’s nothing wrong with you, it’s the way things are, [but also] that it isn’t right. Being two religious parents, they felt that God was going to take care of everything. My question was, ‘Well, why doesn’t he?’’’ she said.
Brisbane also said that her parents did their best to keep her and her siblings safe.
“My mother felt that one of the big things she wanted to make sure was that both boys and girls were taken care of, but that the girls were protected. They could be physically assaulted, and sometimes people did not know until a long time after. They were frightened to even discuss it,” she said.
Moyenda, who had earlier introduced Brisbane as his second mother, paused to consider what she shared.
“I just want to reflect, somehow the word ‘psychological terrorism’ came to my mind when you were describing your experience. Young girls especially getting assaulted and feeling like they couldn’t talk about it until years later, and having to live with that pain and anguish. I applaud you for just being able to survive all of that,” Moyenda said.
Villager Frances Smith’s experience with segregation, growing up in the Deep South, offers another version.
“I grew up in Meridian, Miss., and [Brisbane] kind of alluded to the fact that our parents sheltered us in a way that we were not aware of a lot of what was really existing in Mississippi,” Smith said.
According to Smith, life for Black people was a little more diverse.
“We were able to live in the neighborhoods and they kind of merged all the time, and we used to laugh and say that if they ever wanted to bomb a black neighborhood, they’d get as many whites as they would Blacks, because of the way the neighborhoods merged. Blacks could live on the west side of the street while whites could live on the east side of the street,” she said.
Smith attended Catholic school when she was a child.
“There were two Catholic schools in Meridian, one for whites … and I attended the Black Catholic school,” she said.
Segregation was still very much a way of life where Smith grew up. She mentioned her experience drinking from segregated drinking fountains.
“We used to go to the movies on Saturdays, and a group of us would go into one of the stores and drink out of the colored fountain and out of the white fountain. We’d look at each other and say, ‘Hmmm, it doesn’t taste any different,’ and walk out of the store. Nobody ever said anything to us about doing it because we’d leave after we’d made our point,” she said.
According to Smith, one thing that was different for Black people in Meridian is that they could try on clothes in the department stores. She said Blacks who lived in Jackson would come to Meridian to shop. Jackson is about 94 miles from the city, approximately a two-hour car ride.
Smith lived in Cincinnati before moving to Yellow Springs, and compared the segregation she experienced in a northern city with growing up in the South.
“In Mississippi, you knew what you couldn’t do, but when you came North — the subtlety was there, although sometimes it was very overt,” she said.
Smith described a situation that happened when she and a white co-worker attempted to get ice cream on a hot day in Cincinnati when Smith worked as the only Black employee on the Girl Scout Council. They were returning from a meeting in another section of the city. According to Smith, when they entered the restaurant, a manager told her, “We don’t serve coloreds here.”
Her white friend decried the illegalities of the statement, saying they would sue the restaurant, but Smith took a different stance.
“I wouldn’t want anybody to know we were in this place, because it was not a nice restaurant, didn’t look particularly clean and I wouldn’t want anybody to know we were in this greasy spoon. So we left,” Smith said.
The experience left Smith frustrated with living in the North.
“The fact that you didn’t know when you were going to be refused was frustrating to me, because I knew where I couldn’t go in Meridian, but in Cincinnati, it was always a question — will they or won’t they?”
Moyenda, upon hearing Smith’s experience, connected a Brisbane reference regarding racism and segregation differences as experienced by Black people to her story.
“I’ve heard many people [refer] to the difference between the blatant and the subtle. I even used to hear my parents say, ‘At least in the South you knew where you stood,’” he said.
“Right,” agreed Smith.
“Come North…” Moyenda started.
“You never know,” Smith finished.