African Americans resist segregation
In this excerpt, Clark reflects briefly on her racial identity before telling some stories that illustrate the racial dynamics of Jim Crow. The first is about Mary McLeod Bethune, who refused to surrender her seat in the white area of an airport; the second about a black speaker exhorting African Americans to resist racism; the third about how her relatives discouraged her from violence. Together, these stories convey the sense that living in a segregated society required a constant, careful balance between self-assertion and compromise.
Citing this Excerpt
Oral History Interview with Rebecca Clark, June 21, 2000. Interview K-0536. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Full Text of the Excerpt
BG: Yesterday, when we were talking, you mentioned to me something that I thought was very interesting, that a lady had come up to you at work, a supervisor, and she said, “What are you?” And your answer was very interesting. And I wonder if you would share that with me again.
RC: Ah, there was one of these nurses at that time where I worked. She still is very much alive. She worked downstairs at the out-patient clinic but I was in the in-patient, worked in the in-patient department. And she says to me, “Clark, what would you rather be called, Nigger, Negro, Coloured, or Black?” I said, “Neither. Just call me Clark. Because I don’t know who I am? I’m of a mixed race because of how I look.” My two grandfathers were slaves and their fathers, grandfathers were white men. And my grandfather on my mother’s side married an Indian woman. I don’t know what nationality, whether it’s Cherokee or what. My father’s mother was a black woman. So I’m black, Indian, and white, God knows what else. Buy my name is Rebecca Clark, so you can call me Rebecca Clark. So that was my answer.
BG: Are many of your friends in this community of the same kind of heritage, mixed?
RC: Of course. There are many. We know, we have multiple colors. I’ll never forget: there was Robert Snipes, who’s now dead. He went to a football game. And he looked over the crowd there—blacks sat in the end zone at the Carolina games—and he said, “Well, look at us. We’re just a ( ). Multiple colors.” And I’m reminded of a story. I don’t know if you know of Mary McLeod Bethune. She was one of our warriors during World War II. And she worked very closely with Eleanor Roosevelt. I’ll show you her picture before you go. I’m still looking for the story of her, but I’ve got the picture in this frame. During wartime, right after wartime, she was talking about the struggle she had traveled during integration period, and how she went to airports and had to sit in an are with rickety chairs about to fall down. ( ). She went and sat in a white area. Someone came and told her she had to move, the colored would sit back there—they called you colored. She said, “I’m fine, thank you. I’m fine.” They told her, she needed to move. In the meantime, a young, white soldier walked up and told her, “Ma’am, do not intimidate her. Leave her where she is. She’s comfortable.”
And she said the same thing happened to her when she was on the plane. She had to stand—it was a train, I just remembered—then a white man got up and gave her a seat. In the meantime, she says, they came and said, “No. She cannot sit in this area.” And again she said, “I’m very comfortable, thank you.”
( ) North Carolina Central, North Carolina Negro College at that time. In her speech she went on to say—that was in the ‘50s when she made this talk—she was sitting in her son’s library down in Daytona Beach, Florida. She happened to look out the window and there was a cat and a dog. The dog was after this cat. That cat had run as hard as she could run and the dog right behind her. Suddenly the cat stopped and “grrrrr,” and the dog stood back. I’ll never forget because I was sitting in the back of Central’s auditorium and it was packed with black and white who came to hear her. And it front of me was a group of whites. And when she said, “When the cat stopped, the dog backed up, that’s what black folks have to do,” I saw some of the red neck people turn red. That was the story during that time.
I guess at my early age, when we first went to Greensboro, we would go to Sunday school, have prayer for breakfast, go to Sunday school, stay for church, come back for dinner. If something was at A&T College ( ), we were there in the afternoon. So being there, I had learned, being from the country where I never was involved in anything like that as a child, those things, I was able to take in and remember. And the first time I saw Miss Bethune was at A&T Greensboro. And the last time was at Central. I always remember that.
My relatives always said, “Whatever you do, try to be courteous and kind, but don’t let nobody walk on you.” And my father always taught us, “Don’t ever start a fight. If you come home and don’t win it, if you come home and you were beaten up, I’m going to beat you again. If somebody jump on you to fight you and you don’t win it, I’m going to whip you when you come home.” So you had no choice. You either stayed out of fights or you got double whippings. ( ). So they taught you to stay out of fights and keep going. So when I listened to Miss Bethune, that was it.
It was not the same lady, but it was the same era and the same department that I was working in when the lady said to me—I think I mentioned that to you—we had left a patient’s room and coming up the hallway and apparently I had said something. And she says, “I will kick you.” I turned around in her face and said, “Yes, and you’ll pegging the rest of your life” and I kept walking. I didn’t say I was going to hit her. I said she’d be pegging the rest of her life. She turned out to be real nice to me when I retired. She gave me the nicest gift ( ) at this particular place where I was working.