Toggle Index/Transcript View Switch.
Search This Transcript

Michael Jones: All right, it is Sunday, March 28, and I'm Michael Jones. I'm interviewing Renelda Meeks Higgins Walker for the Metro Housing Coalition's Unfair Housing Program that is going to be stored in the University of Louisville Oral History Archives. Renelda, you were telling me about your--we were talking about Okolona because you have family there, and you were going to tell me it was originally an African American--

Renalda Walker: Community, community. There were lots of black families around there, of course, I was born in 1950, so I just know about history from the '40s up. But there were several black small farms out there, and you know, black 1:00people always had to live together with other black people because of the housing and because of the community--the overall society. We lived together for safety reasons, for one thing. And so Okolona had farms that were like 10, 20 acres.

And we used to go out there every weekend to visit our mother's sister. And I asked you about that because when the barn fell down, we found muskets and--we found arrowheads. That's what my parents really loved. My mother loved. Arrowheads and old money, we found musket--the little round things, ammunition. We found so much old stuff that was from 100 years ago, and we were surprised 2:00that someone from Louisville, I think, had done a history that that was a thriving farming community at one point.

All I saw, it was in a photocopied booklet form. Somebody self-published it I believe. But I think it was a history project done maybe 20 years ago. It's very interesting. But we loved going out there. So anyway, let's get started with yours, and I'll probably get back to that.

MJ: (laughs) So where was your mother from?

RW: So my mother was born and raised in Tennessee, Southeastern Tennessee. My mother's mother was the next to the youngest daughter of a stone mason and sons who were very prolific and very well to do from Pulaski, Tennessee. As you know, 3:00Pulaski, Tennessee became the home of the KKK. So anyway, this black family owned a big beautiful stone house that was built by Jones, Smith, and Sons in Pulaski as well.

They had built it--beautiful, this stone mansion up, it's at the top of the hill that leads down into the business district. And they also had a farm out near Abernathy Hill, which is--I think was 10 acres--that's about 10 acres, and it was about 18 miles outside. We actually had a family reunion there. I could see the house that he built. The house was--it's on Madison Street in Pulaski, Tennessee. And if you go down the hill, the first business house has a plaque on 4:00it that commemorates the founding of the KKK. So they were landowners. The family was a homeowner.

They all lived together, and they were well known. My mother's father was a mountain man. He came from East Tennessee, south of Knoxville. He's a mountain man, but the father, his father, our great-grandfather owned a lot of land and he left a lot of property to his boys and daughters. Now we own some of that, but we lost a lot of it in the late '60s.

MJ: So what was your mother's name?

RW: Eloise Kline Meeks. But I wanted just to tell you that the biggest and most beautiful farm in that area was a Kline farm. It was over 100 acres--110 acres, 5:00I think, and it was gorgeous. We still have property around that area from cousins, you know, we sort of got it from them. She was--my great-grandmother from Pulaski was a Smith. Our great-grandfather from Tennessee was a Kline, K-l-i-n-e. He was a German trapper.

MJ: So how did your mother end up in Louisville?

RW: When black people traveled, they traveled to family. And there was family in Louisville, family in Columbus, family in Chicago. It was also family in Atlanta. They went north, so they went--gosh, it gets a little tangled. The 6:00Pulaski family, because remember my grandparents married in--I don't know when--but they got married and one is from Pulaski, one is from East Tennessee.

The oldest daughter came to Louisville to live with some of the relatives from Pulaski who had come to Louisville. And Louisville was a big town at that time. It's a river port. It was where you could go. It was exciting, I suppose, and they came to stay with my aunt. They couldn't all stay with my aunt, so they came--I think after they graduated from school, one at a time. And they met in Louisville. Both of my parents met in Louisville.

MJ: And what was your father's name?


RW: Florian Meeks, Jr. He was Florian Meeks, Jr.

MJ: And he was one of the first black Marines, is that my--

RW: He was in the first class of the Marine Corps, 1943. He hated the Marines. He hated them, and he never talked about it.

MJ: So that's some Montford Point Marines?

RW: Yes, Montford Point Marines. Yeah. He was also was a commissioned person. So he went--that was World War II with the Montford Point, but he became a second lieutenant in the Army for the Korean War.

MJ: And so where are you at in--how many kids did they have and--

RW: So I'm the oldest. There was one boy born before, but he was stillborn.

MJ: Oh okay. So you're the oldest out of how many children?

RW: I have four brothers.

MJ: Okay. And where did you live in Louisville?


RW: So we started out living with--what I remember as a baby, living with our--my aunt, the one that was the first, my mother's oldest sister who came to Louisville. And I just remember we--when my dad left to go to the war--to the Korean War, we had some pictures, and I remember being with my aunt and my cousins. And we lived in College Court, I think, for a hot minute.

MJ: And so where did your aunt live, because you had talked to me earlier about Little Africa and--


RW: So that's--College Court was a housing project that I think was a development. It's still around today. It's still around today. They bought out that--one of the small properties after we left, at some point when I was very little. But I remember living with them. And here's another anecdote--in New York City, 55 years later, maybe 60 years later, I was coming out of--I used to work at Harlem Hospital. I'm coming out of the subway and somebody comes up to me that I seem like I had seen her before. And she said to me, "Oh I know you."

I'd never saw this person, and I said, "No I don't think so." You don't really talk to people you don't know, but she looked vaguely familiar. She says, "You're from Louisville." And she said Louisville the correct way, so she had my 10:00attention. So I stopped, and she said, "And your mother's name is Eloise, and you lived in College Court." So now I know, she knew exactly who we were.

She remembered me as a baby, and she remembered the story. She was up there just for--an artist was opening, doing some stuff in the subway system there that was sanctioned by the city, and she was just there. These little things happened in there--incredible, incredible. I'll remember that as long as I live. Her name--oh gosh--but I called my cousins right away, and of course they were my cousins age and that's why she remembered me. Because my cousins were about 10 years--8 and 10 years older than me. They were girls and they were like my sisters because I had all brothers. (laughs)

MJ: And so you ended up living on Virginia Avenue?


RW: Yes we did. We ended up--we lived for, I think Mama said about six months at 3379 Duvall Drive. That was the first address that I ever remembered, and my mother drilled it in all of us. Because it was the projects. What are the projects that are down there? They've been repurposed and they put roof--

MJ: Yeah, like Cotter Homes?

RW: Cotter Homes, that's where it was. That's where we lived for about six months there. But we moved from there to Virginia Avenue. And my family's still there now. One of my brothers is there now. Yeah.

MJ: So what was the community like growing up there on Virginia Avenue?


RW: Well let me just say, because we were there so--it was a wonderful community. It was a great house, and I remember we had just moved there or we had been there maybe--no, probably we were getting ready to move there when my mother took us down to Little Africa. So I think we moved to Virginia Avenue in '54, 1954. But I sent you two pictures, I don't know if you received them.

MJ: I did.

RW: Yes, okay. So one of those pictures is a picture--is a plastic bag that has Little Africa Garlic Seeds, Little Africa 1953. So it was somewhere between Cotter Homes and Virginia Avenue that my mother took a very emotional trip, actually, and I must have been--I would be 3 years old--2 going on 3, because I became 3 in July. But I remember her taking us--taking me and going to--and she 13:00was saying, "This is Little Africa, and look at all these cute little houses. Everybody was forced to move."

What she did was she went to the gardens. Everybody had a garden, a flower garden or a vegetable garden. And it looked like to me as a kid, that it was just a ghost town. People just left for the day. Maybe they would come back, maybe not. But she was saying that they were not--she was telling me that they were not going to come back. And so that was a travesty in her mind.

MJ: Why were they not allowed to come back, because the projects were been built, or--

RW: This is part of urban renewal as far as I know.

MJ: Oh okay.

RW: Yes. That's because what happened was that area was--I guess it was considered a blight. But the issue was these were people's homes. They owned those homes. They were forced to move, and they became renters after that 14:00because they weren't building houses for people to buy. And if they were, the people couldn't afford them. They were building to move that community and disperse it. Now also remember that was right about the--no, that was before Brown vs. Board of Ed. But that was very interesting anyway.

MJ: So a lot of education depends on where you live, especially are now. So what schools did you attend early on?

RW: Okay, so I also sent you some books of--I had sort of put something now because I really wanted to make sure that there were parts that I did not 15:00forget. You'll let me do--you'll remind me, right? That I can go back or maybe we'll do this again. Because I have a 12:30 conference call that I have every Sunday, which I think I told you. So we lived in a--the house was on--near Catalpa, kind of diagonal from Catalpa and Virginia Avenue. And you could see Parkland Elementary School which was where all the white kids went.

The black kids went down to Virginia Avenue. And that picture I showed you, I had--I keep--there's a little button. The ones with the buttons, I collect buttons. And this one says, "100 Great Books Club, Virginia Avenue School." That's the thing. So that school--the principal of the school lived right across 16:00the street from us. The pediatrician, Grace James, one of the first female black pediatricians lived in the corner house. We had two teachers from Virginia Avenue that lived on our way to walk to school.

So I was very lucky because my parents sent us to the black schools. And the black schools--she was very involved in PTA. She started a Brownie program, Girl Scout Program. She was involved in the, you know, it's a Den Mother, she was involved in the Boy Scouts. I mean she was involved. There was some stuff--wait hold on--with the Girl Scouts--okay, another thing, the questions that you had were really good questions. So I sort of answered the questions in the questions 17:00that--the way they were asked.

So we would walk down the street and going to school, and I knew if my brothers were in trouble before I got home, because the word would spread. So my mother was always involved. Now I'm going to divert to another little part. Around that same time, so it would have been about '56, and one of these buttons, there was a button that I had, "Nothing New for Easter." Here's one that you would appreciate, says, "To End Slums, Fight to End Slums," this was open housing button. So this was one of the buttons, "We're on the Move."

I wanted--what am I saying that for, because--so we walked down to Virginia Avenue knowing that we were getting a good education. Whereas the kids who went 18:00to the other school, the black kids after 1956, were not treated--I don't want to be quoted as saying this. But they didn't fare as well. I think but--the thing is, when you're totally vested in an area, when you really live in an area, not as a renter or as a transient, but you're vested in that area. Then you got time--your family has time to think about educating the children, taking them out to other places. But when you're struggling for rent and for food, you can't do that. So are you less likely to do it, or it's more difficult to do it.

So housing and food is the precipice of life, and it should not be--it shouldn't 19:00be questioned. It should be just is. Everybody has a right to housing because they need it. Everybody has a right to air. Everybody has a right to the water. (laughs) What happened? So yes, I think that taking away housing from people, moving that Little Africa--there's another street, Walnut Street? It used to be Walnut, what's it called now? Is it Muhammed Ali?

MJ: Muhammed Ali, yeah.

RW: So we had my dad's uncle, only uncle, William Meeks lived on Walnut Street. And that was the black business district. Most of those--the businesses were torn down for urban renewal. Few houses were left, and that house--these were shotgun houses--some of them were shotgun houses, which were really nice. My 20:00favorite house in the world, by the way, and I grew up in a gorgeous Victorian. And then the Platos, which was a very famous architect--

MJ: Samuel Plato.

RW: Yes, Samuel Plato. He was my dad's idol and mentee--mentor, I think. And he had built a house on that street. That's probably why those two areas on Walnut Street were not torn down. But as you can see, there's a lot of other businesses. They sort of tried to expand the downtown Louisville area. That's what it looks like to me now. So yeah, so we had those housing--everybody had housing in our family. Everybody was expected to go to school. We never questioned it. Virginia Avenue was an excellent, excellent school. A lot of the people who--well I know a lot of people who came from Virginia Avenue.


MJ: So when did you--how did you get involved in the open housing movement?

RW: Well, so let's start with--when I was a Brownie, my mother found--there was a button that I couldn't find. It was called, "Nothing New for Easter." Very similar to the "End of Slums" button. So the "Nothing New for Easter" program from what I remember, because I was little, was that JC Penney, and I don't want to should out JC Penney because all the department stores were doing the same thing. You could come and buy clothes, but you couldn't try them on. So most of us sewed. We learned how to sew early.

And that was one of the things my mother wanted to make sure I could do, sew. So this one year, "Nothing New for Easter" campaign was that if you couldn't try it 22:00on, you're not going to buy it. So my mother found out that JC Penney was going to have a fashion show with kids, and they were using the Girl Scouts as the models for these children's clothing. So she answered the call for our Brownie class, our Brownies, and when we showed up, they didn't know what to do with us. They didn't know that there was a black Brownie troop, and we showed up.

So they let us try on clothes. I just remember two of us, and then they told us, "Well you can have the clothes that you are wearing, but you can't--you know, we're not going to have--it's too long, too many kids, you can't walk the 23:00runway." That's what it was. That was my first real experience where I knew that something was happening, and this was JC Penney, but all those department stores in Louisville--

MJ: How old were you?

RW: So Brownies, I think are 9 years old. So I must have been 9 or 10. Yeah, yeah, that's what I remember.

MJ: And so did you start becoming more socially aware?

RW: You know what, I think any black family growing up in our area, and with us, we knew what the deal was. But it didn't bother us. We were very protected. We were stable. We were housed. We had a very close--I was saying something--we had a--I put, "If you have a safe community, you'll have a safe family, and vice versa." So in our church, which was 1114 South 15th Street, Louisville, 24:00Kentucky, still there, the minister was my grandmother's sister--my grandmother's sister's husband, who was an anchor--

MJ: What was the name of the church?

RW: The church is Church of God or Sanctified Church--Church of God or Sanctified Church. And that's the minister--the founding minister was JS Woodson, and he was the husband of my grandmother's sister. She had come to Louisville. So you know, there are lots of ways that we got to Louisville, and that was one of the ways. And we were in the church, all of our relatives were in the church. All the people from Cleveland, Tennessee who came up were in the church, and a lot of people from Pulaski also belonged to that church.

So it was a bond, we had something to do every day that had to do with that church. We didn't experience, for example, we didn't go to the movies because 25:00there was no black movie house, and you could only go to the movies once or twice a week and you had to sit in one area. We didn't have a bowling alley until my uncle, my dad's uncle became the manager of one of the bowling alleys and he was very fair. So a lot of people did not know he was black. And once they found out, that became the black bowling alley.

We didn't need those kinds of outlets. We would go to my aunt's house in Okolona every weekend without fail. Because remember my mother's people, half of them 26:00were mountain people and they loved the mountains. They loved the grounds. My mother would--she would take us on--we'd go out there and she'd say, "Take your shoes off. We're going to follow the creek." And that's what we did, we followed the creek. I mean, we were always busy. I was going somewhere, but now I don't even remember where I was going with that. (laughs)

MJ: I wanted to ask you about--because near your home is kind of like where the epicenter was in the 1968--

RW: Yeah, let me just tell you. So I heard that we were going to have--a speaker from some place was going to come over to 28th and Greenwood, which is three blocks away, right, because we lived at 28th and Virginia. So we walked up 28th Street. Another story I wanted--don't forget to let me tell you about the 27:00library, because that library was the main--was very important. So I went up there, and I was a teenager, so I must have been about 16 or 17. Nah, I wasn't 17, must have been 16.

So there were a few people there, and then when the time came, some guy had a little--I think he got on a car--got up on the hood of a car and started talking. And he wasn't preaching or anything, he was just--I thought it was kind of odd. But he was talking, and he was talking about civil rights and, you know, black people have to stick together and blah, blah. And then I remember there--a bigger group was together, people I didn't really know, because we knew everybody in that area.

And then what I remember was that there was a bus that came by, and then things started happening in slow motion. When the bus passed the guy who was standing 28:00on the car giving his little speech, a bottle was thrown over the bus in slow motion. And it was a glass bottle. Didn't hit anybody, it hit the sidewalk. And then suddenly, another bottle came from nowhere. So to me it was a setup. I don't know who it was, but I tell you after it looked like people were intent on not being nice, I just walked back home.

I was amazed at the amount of damage that was done. I was amazed, because that's not our community. That was not our community. And to this day, it has never returned. To this day, '68 to 2021, and that's a real failure of the town 29:00leadership. A real failure. It was very ugly for a long time, and there was a time when you want your parents to be able to--you know in old age, they had been there. They had been living in that same house since 1954, and there was a time when they couldn't be there safely.

There was also--they started, for example, the corner where Grace James, the pediatrician lived, they sold that house. The estate sold it, and rather than build another, you know, fix up that house, they tore down the house and put two little shotgun houses there, and they're rentals. So I mean I don't believe that was legal to do that, but it's there to this day. And there was--and again, I 30:00don't want to be pointing fingers and I don't want--you know, if this is going to be videoed or anything, I don't want to point fingers at the people who live there.

Because not all of them were there, but there were (inaudible 0:30:15.9) up there. There were weapons over there from time to time. So if you--and if the city let that happen right across the street, I mean we're looking at it from day to day, then once I went home and there were U-Haul trucks all up and down both sides of the street. This is a residential area. To this day if you go and you'll watch people because there's a railroad track, you'll watch people driving backwards, and it's a one-way street.

If they think they're going to get stopped by the train and the trains are still pretty long. I've seen people do a U-turn and barrel up a one-way street to try 31:00to beat the train at the other two or three spots. That's very dangerous. That's a leadership issue. That's a city. Yeah. So I mean I think that--I say it's a leadership because it's the South. I never thought I grew up in the South until I got to New York. (laughs) And then I started feeling it, but compared to the state, (laughs) compared to the political image that you have in Congress and in the Senate, it's kind of--I don't--I tease my brothers about it. But it is sad.

But Louisville itself is a great place, was a wonderful place. It was a safe 32:00place for us. I'm just--now that I'm out, you know, in Louisville, I mean out of Louisville I'm in New York and looking back, I can see how wonderful it was. How safe it was. How much it had to offer and it probably if everything had gone--maybe in 10, 15 years, it would be what I would have wanted my kids to grow up there and have, you know.

MJ: You talked about the library.

RW: Oh, yes. (laughs)

MJ: It's been closed for a while and--

RW: They've been closed for many years. The librarian--I used to go--my mother would take us to the library all the--

MJ: And this is on 28th Street, right?

RW: 28th and Virginia, yeah. It was a beautiful place. I learned how books were cataloged. But I didn't know until after my parents died that there was a relationship--a long time relationship with the librarian and our family. So the 33:00librarian knew our names, obviously, and knew my dad from even before they were--my parents were married. So she looked after us. She looked after us. We had a police officer who retired. I think he retired right before the riot, maybe right after the riot.

He had been walking that 28th Street beat because it was a business district for like 40 years. He knew me, he knew all of my brothers. He knew how old we were. He knew all the kids on the block. He walked that block for as long as he was there, and he retired right before or right after that riot. That's what we need. So a young white guy that grew up in the neighborhood with us, you know, as a police officer. Yeah.

MJ: So when you were on Virginia, was a more integrated neighborhood?


RW: No, no, no. Because I think that we--my parents bought it from a German family. But I don't remember any or very few whites except for a family that lived on this side of the tracks right by the railroad. Right on the railroad tracks it looked like to me, and when we moved there, one of them--we just know who--we don't know which one, but threw a rock in the door.

We had a plate glass door, and on the first week, I think, he was high, threw a rock in the window. My dad put plywood there and proudly kept that plywood in until--it actually had made--no, my brother got a new door. But that was just 35:00recently because he wanted us to remember that. Yeah.

MJ: And was there tension, is that when the neighborhood was changing or--

RW: Yeah, I think what happened was that blacks started to buy houses in that neighborhood. Once two or three got moved in, then others came. And you know, you think--I've heard that people were afraid that the property values would drop. But they didn't drop. They just went up because every time you sell a house you make money. So that was like bogus. And it was a quiet neighborhood. Very quiet, very peaceful, everybody went to school. All of my friends went to college--I mean people my age, and there were a lot of kids on the block and from there to Virginia Avenue, to the school. So it was the best for us. That 36:00was best for us.

MJ: When did you leave Louisville?

RW: I left after high school, after high school.

MJ: Where did you go to high school?

RW: So I went to Atherton. Yeah, I went to Atherton. That was--so I, you know, when it comes to busing, I've always been bused. I took the bus to school, the transit--what is it called, Louisville Transit? I don't know what the bus system is called.


RW: Yeah, TARC. Okay, I took that. It was an hour and a half to get to school every morning to get to Atherton. And I'm still in--it was a good--it was--I didn't want to go. I cried for the first three or four weeks on my way to school, but I'm still in touch with the some of the guys right to this day. I just, you know--


MJ: So were you assigned to Atherton, or did you--

RW: No, no, no, no, no, no, no. They didn't start assigning until after I was gone. This was before the signing, I think Atherton was a school that was outside of the district. Outside of the city, but it was part of the public school system, so taxpayers' money--if you lived in Louisville, you were paying for Atherton and I believe the story was that it was demanded that Atherton had to integrate. Their thing of integrating, because it was in a Jewish community, was to bring some white folks from the south in, from Portland to Atherton.

They had one teacher who lived across the street from us who was also very, very fair. She was teaching at Atherton, and they probably didn't realize that she was black, but (laughs) but that's how my mother probably found out that they 38:00were looking for some brown skinned kids to go to that school. And so I was one of the first. All of us did very well out there. All of us, all of us did real well. So that's where I went, and then, I had been in the summertime--we had been going to camp, to a Quaker camp in Vermont.

So I had never been so far away from home. I was 11 years old--was I 11--maybe I was 12, when my very first train ride by myself. It wasn't by myself, it was a group of kids and a chaperone, but my mother took us to Cincinnati to take the train to Vermont. And the rest is history. So I would go to Vermont as much as I could. I loved being out in the open. And it's Quaker camp, it's called Farm and Wilderness Camp. Make a plug for Farm and Wilderness Camp because they were 39:00bringing kids who were involved in civil rights movements all over the country to go to camp as a safety measure.

And the Bradens, Anne Braden's kid, Jimmy Braden and I were good friends. We actually went to Male's prom together, and we were told to be ready for problems at the prom. So I had a pair of jeans on--cutoff jeans under my outfit at the prom, and I was ready to take off shoes and get out (laughs) if I needed to. Anyway Farm and Wilderness was bringing kids up to camp.

They had one year--and I had been there long enough, they had two of Malcolm's kids, Attallah and I don't know the other kid. But I still am in touch Attallah 40:00Shabazz today. They had Andrea Young was there. They had Donzaleigh Abernathy was there. And I was the black counselor, (laughs) and I'm telling you, it was the best--for me, I was in Heaven because it was--

MJ: What kind of things would you learn there?

RW: Say that again?

MJ: What kind of things were you learning at this camp?

RW: Well, it's a Quaker camp. So it was--even though they had people from all over, they had Hindus, they had Buddhists, a lot of Buddhists, they had Jewish folks. But one thing that you would know that it was a Quaker camp was that we had silent meditation every morning, 15 minutes of silence every morning. And on Sunday, it wasn't mandatory, it was a half hour of silence if you wanted to. And 41:00everybody wanted to, everybody.

And I'm a Quaker to this day, even though I believe in AME Zion, that was my grandparents--my great-grandparents' church, and I believe that Church of God or Sanctified Church, I absolutely do. I'm right now a practicing Quaker.

MJ: So when did you start getting involved in like social justice movement?

RW: Well that's--everything that I'm talking about now is social justice. As a child, as a baby, my mother and parents took us, and our grandparents did the same thing for them. And the great-grandparents, you know, they were landowners. They were homeowners. And the great-great--I have a picture of my great-great-grandmother on my daddy's great-grandmother--so it's my 42:00great-great-grandmother, on the porch of her house.

So I mean that's the justice movement has always been here. It's nothing new. (laughs) It's been here for hundreds of years, and it's going to be--and before that, I'm sure, there was another one. Just wasn't my family, I don't know. But I'm telling you there was never a beginning and there's not going to be an end until everybody has justice. I mean we're all going to live it peacefully, or we're going not have it at all and die, all of us.

MJ: So where did you go to college after you graduated from Atherton?

RW: So I actually had a four year scholarship, room and board included, at the University of Louisville. And I started there, I was--I think I might have--no, it wasn't you. I started with Blaine Hudson. Did you know Blaine?


MJ: Yes I did.

RW: Yeah, Blaine--I don't know who else was there from that era, but we were all together. Blaine has tried for years to get me to come down to talk about--I guess social justice or the Black Student Union in those days, in '68. I think it was '68. And I just--things busy, I was busy, I guess. And now the second I could do it, he died. Yeah, and I went there one year.

MJ: Did you help start the Black Student Union?

RW: I did, I did. I was the only girl to be arrested in that initial administrative takeover, which wasn't a takeover. It was a show--it was all just 44:00a show that we were serious about what we thought was needed there which was a comforting place for black students. When I was there, I got a--I think actually my scholarship was in literature. But I had started at the Speed Museum drawing when I was kid. When I was 14 or 15, I think.

And this was another person who lived in the neighborhood that we lived in that got me--that told my mother, "Here's a place, an opportunity for your kids to go, you know, to learn how to draw. Here's the Actor's League"--what was the name of this--the Children's Actors--well we were in a couple of semi-professional--you know, we were the street urchins or the kids that could sing on the corner in some of the plays. I can't remember exactly what it is, but actually my brother Reggie was on the board of that place for a long time. 45:00Now tell me--you just asked me something, I did--

MJ: Well I wanted to know about U of L, like what was it that you felt was lacking and why the Black Student Union came about?

RW: So yeah, this is--and this is--I'm going to give an anecdote too about something that happened in New York. But we were watching--we would--this was--I was so happy to be just in Louisville, and on campus and really--I was able to emerge myself with these guys. They were almost all guys because it was the football, the basketball, the baseball team were all black men. And then there was--there were like--there we a couple of guys who were medical students, then a couple of lawyers, and then there was Blaine, who was the philosopher and he 46:00was the well-read person.

We would always get together in the morning or at night, play chess. It might in the morning just talk, and it was the--you know when you used to see the pontificating on--what was it, there was a show? They used to make jokes about pontificating, but this was the real stuff. This was the real deal, and these people--we were really very serious about it. Talking about how things should be. There should be like--I was always the only black--or maybe one or two--there were three of us on campus who had dorm rooms on campus.

So we thought that there should be a lot more--there just should be more of us around. And then instead of just giving us white history, give us some African history, instead of just giving us--you know, talking about--I don't know--give 47:00us some South American history. So we one day went to--and often Blaine would have read the New York Times before we got up in the morning. So he'd say, "Look at this."

One day he said, "Look at this," and he showed us a picture of Columbia students, front page students--picture of three guys with a rifle and the berets, you know, and they had taken over the student building, the Administration Building, and they were demanding Black Student Union. And we looked at each other, "We could do that. (laughs) Why don't we do that?" And the rest is history. That's exactly what we did. Now when it came time to actually go and take over the building, that's another story.

There was about six of us and we, "Are we still going to do this? We really going to do this?" I said, "Well I'm doing it. I didn't come all--get up early 48:00and do, you know, I'm doing it. So who else is going?" So there were several of us who went in. The administrator whose office we took over was a great guy. He says, "Listen, let us not get into any trouble. Let me just stay here with you and assure everybody that everything's"--and it went really well. However when they came to arrest us, one of the officers said, "I'm going to show you how we do this in Louisville." And I'm thinking, "Uh-oh, I think we're in trouble."

And he picked me up by the shirt and drug me out to be arrested. And I said, "Well that didn't go so well. That didn't go like we planned." Because nothing happened to the kids, those students at Columbia were not arrested. And they 49:00made it--our folks made it very clear that in Kentucky, you're going to be arrested. Now, let's see, it was 1989, I'd just been hired. I was being recruited for Harlem Hospital to work at that facility, Harlem Hospital. I walk into the office of the Administration's Office, and I see that New York Times article in a frame on the wall with the picture.

And I said, "Oh my gosh. I know that picture." Turns out the picture was of the Deputy Director, Sherman McCoy. He was the one in the middle holding the rifle. And he was now--and then he went on from Harlem to become the Director at Howard University Hospital. So these guys who did this at Columbia were--they were no joke either. They went on to do wonderful things. So that's another story. We 50:00talked about how he--how his--the administration at Columbia dealt with the student body demands and ours.

But Columbia had the very first affiliation of black colleges--of black--I'm sorry, of hospitals, public hospitals. They were the first affiliation in New York State and probably in the country. So they also had a small black student body in the medical school and the law school as well. So they were a little bit ahead of Louisville, but we were right behind them, University of Louisville. However I told you that Miss Hutchison was a neighbor and she had--the Speed 51:00Museum, that's it. The Speed Museum, they had an art--place where students could come and learn to draw.

And so she had actually helped me get into that school, but Atherton also--into University of Louisville. But Atherton had also a teacher, Mary Bernard, who I loved and who loved me, and because I could draw, I was her favorite student for a (inaudible 0:51:24.2), for a long, long time. And so she wanted me to go to Pratt Institute in New York City. Well New York City--Brooklyn, New York, Harlem to me it was the same, and she had the last word because she was teaching at Atherton and I decided I really wanted to go to Atherton.

So once I got kicked out of University of Louisville, I had to wait until they, "reinstated me." Which they did, but by the time they reinstated me, they didn't 52:00reinstate all of my scholarship and I was already enrolled at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, yes, and happy. And I have a meeting--the same kind of meeting for oral history with them next week. I don't know what the deal is. By the time I got to Pratt, all I was interested in was art.

Yeah, there was--I was not--I wasn't politically active, in terms of they had the Black Panther Party doing something with Pratt. I was oblivious. (laughs) I was in France in the summer times. (laughs) I was oblivious to that, so I told them, "Well I can only talk of my experience at the school." They did not, once again, Pratt did not teach black history or black art history or any other history except the Renaissance. So that was one of the issues I had there. But I loved Pratt.

MJ: So how did living New York change your perspective on Kentucky when you came 53:00back to visit your family?

RW: So I told you before, I never thought that I lived in the South until I lived in New York. And it's very clear, Kentucky at that time when I left was Southern, definitely Southern. Dick Gregory had come in to a--when he was running for president and he had come to Louisville, and he said, "You know, they"--, he had said something like, "In Kentucky, they treat horses better than they treat"--and he used the N word, which I never have used.

I'm trying not to ever use it. But that word was used in New York City at nauseam. At nauseam. And I still have not embraced it. We don't embrace it to 54:00this day. But, "Yeah, he said, "They treat horses better than they treat y'all down here, so you got to do something about it." But I had written some--hold on one second. Now my perspective is--yeah, Louisville was a safe haven. These are notes I read. Louisville was the safe haven. It was home, and in 1969, New York, however, provided the curiosity--not the curiosity, but the curious. It was a global culture.

The stimuli in New York to me was like this is where--I was--the globe is so big. The world is so big. The more you travel, the smaller it gets. So I've traveled a lot, and I just am very fortunate of the people that I've met here. I 55:00think that--was at that time, I believe it was like a cultural Mecca. People came, even in the black arts, but it's just now 30 years later--40--my daughter's 50--50 years later that the black artists are--even at the Smithsonian. So it's still a long walk--I believe it's moving. The dial is moving, but it's moving awfully, awfully, awfully slow. (laughs) So slow.

MJ: Over the last year, we've had a lot of, like, the Black Lives Matter demonstrations and things like that. So given your history when you heard about what happened with Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, I mean, how do you feel 56:00about that, and--

RW: How do I feel about that?

MJ: Are you surprised? Well I mean--

RW: No, I'm not surprised.

MJ: (Inaudible 0:56:08.0) didn't make you--make you anxious with what you went through?

RW: No, not at all surprised. In Louisville, there was the killing of the first black--I believe she was an assembly person? There was the killing of a couple of the civil rights leaders. There was the marginalization of black boys. I saw that. It's never stopped. It has not stopped. And so and in New York, it was already, I guess, prominent. Because by the time I got there in the '70s, Harlem was--and I started working at the hospital later, but Harlem had a terrible 57:00reputation as being crime and lot of drugs, but it was also a Mecca for artists.

It was a wonderful place--a lot of great people lived--and still live in Harlem. Yeah, including my youngest brother. (laughs) You know, and there's the hospital, Harlem Hospital, there's a whole section called "Strivers Road" that's--since the, I guess, the '20s. Black artists, black doctors and judges have lived there. This is to me--I think the rest of the country maybe is made aware of it, and certainly it looks like white people just found out about it. Black Lives Matter, of course black lives matter. I mean that's not a new move--it is a new movement, it has a name, but it's not nothing--it's nothing new. They've been lynching black people forever. Yeah.


MJ: How did you go from studying art to working at hospitals, what was that?

RW: So remember art is pervasive, everywhere you go. I mean, you can--so I freelance with my ex, who worked for the New York Times for 40 years. So I freelanced for almost 15 years in design illustration. And remember, I went to--I was going to University of Louisville for literature so I could write. (laughs) So I can write, and that, I think, has helped me get into public affairs. I found that the schools and most of the kids in New York went to didn't teach people how to read and write, and that's a travesty.


And so you could see the damage in that next generation. So at the time we were talking about black studies, if those kids had been taught to read and to write a sentence--a grammatically correct sentence--they would have a better shot at all kinds of stuff. But these folks, even the lawyers that I know that--they just don't read and write. And they certainly don't dialogue. So I did that for a while--I guess, maybe 10 years, but when we split up, when my ex and I split up, then I had to get a job. And the arts and black arts were not paying.

I had a wonderful--lived on Roosevelt Island, a marvelous place, it's beautiful, but it's got a high overhead so I had to get a j-o-b. And it just so 60:00happened--well the first job that I got was at the NAACP national office, in public affairs, public relations. So I left that and there was a hospital that was looking for somebody to do PR for them, and they were paying good money, and I'm saying, "Whoa, I can do that." So that's where I started, North General Hospital.

And I stayed in the hospitals for 12 years, I went to work in the Mayor's Office for two years, then HRA which is the Human Resources Administration, which is like they take care of welfare payments and Medicaid and that kind of stuff. And then I went back to hospitals. You have to write. You have to design. You have to be a people person. You have--there is a job for everybody in a hospital. It 61:00is a microcosm. It's very complex. There's all kinds of professions in there, but you got to be a professional, whatever you do. Because there are a lot of standards that have to be maintained. So yeah, it's like a little city in a hospital. The smallest hospital.(laughs)

MJ: So have you always stayed in New York since you left Louisville?

RW: Yes, I've always been in New York. Right now I'm in the town of Poughkeepsie, but my life is in New York. (laughs) Yeah, I mean my livelihood. I'm still going to work every day.

MJ: So how often do you get back to Louisville now?

RW: I have not been back since my mom passed, so that was two, three years ago now. Yeah, we have--you know it's like--we have the property--we have property in the farm property that's very--we have a lot of stuff to do in the farm. I've 62:00been there since I've been to Louisville. But I talk to Lamont, to Michael all the time. I talk to them at least once a week. He called me about Breonna Taylor. I didn't find out until he said--boy, but I'm not surprised, unfortunately.

MJ: And your brothers have been really involved in politics in Louisville. You had a brother's an alderman, he's state senator, Reginald. And so, is that just a streak? You said that runs in your family. You said social justice has always been there. Is it--

RW: Yeah, I don't know that we would have called it that, but when you're seeking the best and what's right for the most people, that's what it is and that's what--if all of us did that, it's like getting the vaccine. You know the 63:00Covid vaccine, if we all do it, we'll be good. We'll be all right. So I mean we were--and Lamont, I call him Lamont, his name is Michael Lamont, I got dibs on Lamont. But for him, he was also--he worked for the state legislative resource and he's always been industrious.

Everybody, my brother up here is--he worked for a Black Enterprise firm. He worked--you said you worked for The Defender, he worked for The Amsterdam News as managing editor. And then he started working for the Black Enterprise, and when Black Enterprise moved over to television and he moved over to the television. So he's still with Black Enterprise. He has his own business, but 64:00that's his client is Black Enterprise.

So we're all in this--you know we come from good folks. We're always put around good folks. And there was--we didn't have a choice. Our parents did this for us. Thank God, thank goodness. And our grandparents and their parents before them. So when we do something now, we're doing it for our great-grandchildren.

MJ: Well that's all the questions I had. Is there anything else that I didn't ask you about? Or you think you wrote in your notes you wanted--

RW: I'm looking, I'm looking. Yeah, I'm looking. I wanted just to--let's see--but Girl Scouts; safety; stability of housing lets families, you know, better themselves, the personal, they're not thinking about how they're going to 65:00make money to pay the rent. Yeah, you had said what's the legacy of urban renewal on the community of West Louisville. And my answer was in Little Africa, it turned home ownership into renters and nomads as far as I could tell. And now again, I was 2 or 3 years old. And so that's probably why we know about open housing.

Another thing is the church. The churches were also active in those open housing and social justice and all of that. We were all church oriented. So our church--not so much the church but the people in the church, the Sanctified Church, Church of God. Those were my cousins and my family, and we were all 66:00family. I think that's all. New York provided stimuli, no that's all I--I don't have--Holy Cow, did I say all of that?

MJ: Yeah. (laughs)

RW: Uh-oh, sorry.

MJ: Well thank you for your time. I really enjoyed this.

RW: I hope that it's helpful. I'm sitting here looking at all of my buttons--the oldest buttons--I've got another set of buttons here somewhere. Let me just see if I can show it to you. Can you see them?

MJ: Yes, yes.

RW: And then there's a--it says, "Freedom, Freedom." That was a head wrap that they gave us at some point for a march. And I don't know--I think it was--I think it was an open housing march, because it was open housing marches that were--when I was at Atherton that I would sneak away. Don't use the term sneak 67:00because my parents were concerned for my safety. But those were the marches that I was--I guess most active in because I was a teenager. I had the energy.

And I had a really good friend, Randy Bledsoe, whose sisters were--Bledsoe sisters, one was an attorney at Legal Aide when we were kids. When we were teenagers at Atherton, and we were just, you know, we knew where to go. We went to the coffee houses that were--there was a coffee house where people would gather on Broadway in the West End, right before a march, that just happened to be two doors down from my cousin. (laughs) One of the ones in the church. The one that played the piano in church. So I mean--yeah, this was all--it was a family affair.

MJ: How would you find out about the open housing marches?


RW: Well again, it's word of mouth, and I told you, I gave my source up so don't give my source up. That was Randy. Randy's now--I think she was in Boston as a headmaster of a school for a while. These are brilliant people, and she's doing--she was like we do what's going to value--what's going to impact--if you're doing the right thing, it'll impact more people. Like our elected officials, we need to get out there and support them all the time. Yeah, our electeds, our people who are civil servants essentially, and that's what I am now, a civil servant because I work for a public hospital. Yeah, and we work hard.

MJ: Do you ever get to interact with people like Georgia Powers, who was 69:00organizing those open housing marches?

RW: As a matter of fact, yes indeedy, yeah, but not in the way--I'm not sitting with her because I'm a kid. But we absolutely knew Georgia Powers. We absolutely knew, you know the group from Chicago that came, I think it's--it was Jesse came for a short--Jackson was here for a short while. But there's a guy, he was--another guy that looked like Jesse to me who was down here.

José Williams was here. And I met José when I came back to New York. Abernathy was here. A.D. King, that's where those people came from. A.D. King was here, and he had a daughter that was just--we're almost the same age. She's a little younger than me, but he always made sure--A.D. always made sure that I--that his daughter was with me when we were on a march. So I mean that was the kind of closeness. He knew that I would take care of (inaudible 1:10:06.4), you know. I 70:00would take care of people.

MJ: All right, well thank you very much. I know you got a meeting coming up.

[End of interview][1:10:15.1]