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Sun May 18, 2014
A First Black Professor Remembers Her Segregated Education
Originally published on Sat May 24, 2014 4:25 pm
Each week, Weekend Edition Sunday brings listeners an unexpected side of the news by talking with someone personally affected by the stories making headlines.
Hortense McClinton has lived with a remarkable sense of determination — for 95 years.
Her father's parents were slaves, and McClinton grew up in a completely segregated society, the all-black town of Boley, Okla.
"I didn't realize how segregated everything was," she tells NPR's Lynn Neary. That changed after a visit with her uncle in Guthrie, Okla.
"I went to the movies and I didn't know blacks were supposed to sit upstairs. And I sat down and they told me to go up," she says.
"Well, later that evening when we were eating supper, I was talking about it, and I said they make the children sit upstairs," McClinton says. "My uncle said, 'They make you sit upstairs because you're colored.' And that was my first experience."
McClinton left Oklahoma to study at Howard University and then at the University of Pennsylvania. She went on to become the first black professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where she taught social work.
As the nation marks the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that resulted in school desegregation, McClinton says some things have gotten better — but in some ways they haven't.
"I think if people who are in charge could, they would take us blacks back," she says. She thinks of the recent incident involving racist statements by LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling.
"It's very sad to me, at 95, to know that there is so much hatred still in the world. I know that's not a nice thing to say, but it's true. I do feel it."
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Hortense McClinton grew up in an all-black town in Oklahoma and has lived through almost a century of U.S. history. She says in some ways it is worse for African-Americans today than in the past. Do you agree? Tell us what you think on the Weekend Edition Facebook page, or in the comments section below.
HORTENSE MCCLINTON: My father used to say everybody's the same, and treat everybody the same. But then if they bother you, he would just say, do what you can, and you know you might die. So that was the way I lived.
LYNN NEARY, HOST:
Hortense McClinton has lived with that remarkable sense of determination for 95 years. She grew up in a completely segregated society, going to segregated schools, but she got an education first at Howard University and then at the University of Pennsylvania.
She went on to become the first African-American professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill where she taught social work. As we mark the 60th anniversary of Brown v. The Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision desegregating schools, we asked Mrs. McClinton to reflect back on how important education was for her own family. Hortense McClinton is our Sunday conversation.
MCCLINTON: My father was older than my mother. His parents were slaves. But - and he was born in 18 - what is it?- 65. And he went to Wiley College in Texas. He said - the thing that I remember - was that he picked 300 pounds of cotton daily to get the money to go there.
So he did finish there, and then after that, he started very veterinarian science. And he talks about how he was not allowed to take the exam to become a veterinarian with the whites. He had to sit in a room himself. But he said he was through and out and the whites were still there, he says, chewing on their pencils.
MCCLINTON: So that's my father's side, but my mother's mother went to a college in Memphis, Tenn. where they burned it down, Le Moyne College. And she went there two years, and then you could teach.
NEARY: It was called a normal school. Is that right?
MCCLINTON: Yes. Yes. That's right.
NEARY: So I'm guessing that the whole time you were growing up, it was pretty much taken for granted that you were going to be going to college.
MCCLINTON: Well, I thought so. I really did. And I don't know whether you know it or not, but I was born and grew up in an all-black town.
NEARY: Oh, I didn't know that. No.
MCCLINTON: Yes, completely black. And everything - the mayor, the judge, the school board, everybody was black.
NEARY: What was the name of this town?
MCCLINTON: Boley - B-O-L-E-Y - Boley, Okla. And my father went to Oklahoma after he was threatened to be lynched. Everybody that came to Boley came from some other state, you know, as a way to have a town managed by blacks.
NEARY: Let me go back for a second. So your father was threatened...
MCCLINTON: To be lynched.
NEARY: ...With a lynching in Texas.
MCCLINTON: Yes, yes.
NEARY: For what? Why?
MCCLINTON: Well, he had a peach orchard as well as a lumber mill. And I understand that he was going to ship lumber out. And when he got there to see if it was loaded, he had said they couldn't ship it because there was a white man who said the boxcar was his.
And my father said he went up to him and said, well, I have a certificate of lading - or whatever they called it then. And this man said he didn't let [bleep] talk to him like that. He'd jump out there on him. So my father said, well, jump, but you'll never hit the ground alive. So he said, well, we'll just lynch you. So after that, he decided to move on to Oklahoma.
NEARY: And you left there to go to college to Howard University and in Washington, D.C., the nation's capital. You left Oklahoma. What was it like for you when you arrived in Washington?
MCCLINTON: It - I don't know. At first, I didn't really want to go there 'cause I don't know why, I just thought that it was so far and everything. But I did, and I loved Howard. And it was just something different but very wonderful to me.
NEARY: And we're talking about the 1930's 'cause you graduated from Howard...
MCCLINTON: Yeah. I graduated in 1939.
NEARY: And of course, Howard was - is a historically black university, correct?
MCCLINTON: Oh, yes. Yes. It started in, I think, 1867.
NEARY: I'm curious. When you were - as you were getting older, and as you are moving out, I guess, into white society to some degree, did things change for you if you were leaving that segregated atmosphere of both the school and the town where you grew up?
MCCLINTON: I didn't realize how segregated everything was 'cause in Oklahoma, there were towns that did not allow blacks in after dark. And we didn't allow whites in Boley after dark. So that was my only contact until I stayed with my uncle, who was a physician in Guthrie, Okla. And I went to the movies.
And I didn't blacks was were supposed to sit upstairs, and I sat down. And they told me to go up. Well, later that evening when we were eating supper, I was talking about it. And I said they make the children sit upstairs. And my uncle said they made you sit upstairs because you're colored. And that was my first experience.
And then after that, there was segregation at places when you'd go in Washington, places in Philadelphia where I went. But it's - segregation was and still is. It's just a different kind now than it was then. But it's just as bad now. Just finished looking at Sterling - the man on TV. I know you read about him.
NEARY: Oh, yes, absolutely. The basketball team owner.
MCCLINTON: Yeah. So I think in some ways, it's better and some ways it's worse.
NEARY: You think in some ways it's worse?
MCCLINTON: Well, I think if people who are in charge could, they would take us back - blacks back. It's very sad to me at 95 to know that there's so much hatred still in the world. I know that's not a nice thing to say, but it's true. I do feel it.
NEARY: Sounds to me like at the age of 95, you are a pretty sharp and paying for the close attention to what is going on in the world still.
MCCLINTON: Well, I don't know that I'm so sharp. I think I'm getting a little bit dowdy, but I'm trying to stay sharp. But some things I see and hear on TV and things that I read in the paper do make me angry.
NEARY: Sometimes you just got to turn that TV off.
MCCLINTON: Yeah. That's right. Yeah.
NEARY: Hortense McClinton speaking with us from her home in Durham, N. C. Thank you so much for talking with us today, Mrs. McClinton.
MCCLINTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.