[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Moorhus: We want to start this morning with the beginnings of your life, where and when were you born. Then tell me about the family into which you were born—your parents, your siblings.
Gilliam: I was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on November 24, 1936. I was the eighth child of Adee Conklin Butler and Jessie Mae Norment Butler.
Before I was born, several of my siblings had died. There are today five of us. They had ten children altogether. Five died. By the time I was born, they had lost four children. I have a younger sister and a younger brother. So even though there were ten children and I was the eighth, I always think of myself as the middle child because for most of the years that I remember as I grew up, there were five of us. One of my sisters [Theo] died of tuberculosis when I was probably eight or nine. I never knew her very much, because she was often away in a hospital. So I really think of myself as the middle child because the five I remember are my older brother [Adee, Jr.] and older sister [Evelyn] and my younger brother and younger sister. The sister immediately after me [Juanita] was mentally retarded, and then there was another younger brother [Lynwood].
My father, when I was born, was a minister, an African Methodist Episcopal [A.M.E.] minister. I only knew him as a minister. I learned later that my father had been a teacher, but felt called to the ministry. So at a date—I'm not quite sure of the date—he went into the ministry, and by the time I came along, he was actively a minister.
My first four, nearly five, years were spent in Memphis, Tennessee, and when I was four years old, my father was called to another church in Louisville, Kentucky, so our family moved to Louisville, Kentucky, on December 7, 1941, which was Pearl Harbor Day.
Moorhus: That's when you moved to Louisville?
Gilliam: That is my memory of when we moved to Louisville. At least that's family lore.
So let me try to talk about the time in Memphis and my memories of that. I was born in a housing project called the Dixie Homes. My father was born in Woodstock, Tennessee, and my mother was born in Lucy, Tennessee. These were both really tiny little blips of country towns just a few miles outside of Memphis, and both of them came to Memphis, although I believe they met, as they say, in the country. But by the time I came along, the family had moved to Memphis.
There was my older sister Evelyn, who was much older. My older sister now is about eleven years older than I am.
Moorhus: Was she the first born?
Gilliam: She was the first born, and that's why there's that gap, because my surviving older brother is just eighteen months older than I am. So most of the deaths of my siblings that occurred before I was born occurred with those older children.
Moorhus: What was the cause of death of those children?
Gilliam: After Evelyn, there was Theo. Theo was the sister who had tuberculosis, and she, I believe, had tuberculosis from an early time, although she didn't actually die until, as I said, I was probably eight or nine, which meant that she was in her late teens. There were twins who were stillborn. There was another child who was stillborn. One died of pneumonia. And then Theo, that would be the four. I can get some more information on that from my sister as to the exact causes. Interestingly enough, it was not something my mother liked to talk about. I guess that's understandable. But it was also kind of typical of my mother, who didn't talk about a lot of things like that. It was like life moved on. At some point I will show you their pictures which I have upstairs.
Gilliam: So you can see both my mother and my father. I have other family members whose pictures I will show you.
Then my next oldest brother is Adee Conklin Butler, Jr., and then my name is Dorothy Pearl Butler. I don't talk about that often.
Moorhus: My grandmother's name was Pearl. I like Pearl.
Gilliam: Well, that's not one of my favorite names, believe me. Growing up as a teenager, that's not the jazziest name, as they say.
Then my sister who was immediately born after me, who was mentally retarded, is Juanita. Then I have a younger brother who is Lynwood Odell. Juanita was Juanita Ronell. I don't quite know the origin of that name, but that was her name.
I was born at home in the Dixie Homes project. My father at that point was pastoring Wards Chapel A.M.E. in Memphis.
My father's brother lived in Memphis, and he had a store and a tailoring shop. One of my earliest memories is playing with his children and his family and going to his little store and his tailoring shop. My early memories are very fragmented. I mean, that's one of the memories I have. I have very few memories of the kind of day-to-day things. I don't know how many people remember what life was like when they were three and four. But my most vivid memories really begin when I got to Louisville. In many ways it seems as though my life kind of started there.
When I think of Memphis in those early days, you think of a minister and his family, you know. Even at that point there were certain kinds of restrictions in terms of your life and activities, and so my memories are like kind of good, clean fun, like eating ice cream at my uncle's house. One of the things about Southerners and one of the things about ministers—these are gross generalizations, but certainly I can say for our family—food was a very, very big thing.
Its curse has kind of followed me all my life. It's something I've had to struggle with in many ways. I'll certainly talk about that as we move along. But one of my few memories of that early time is my Aunt Gussie, who was a good cook—and my mother was also an excellent cook—my Aunt Gussie making homemade ice cream in the old-fashioned freezer where you would turn the crank and you'd have the cracked ice all around the can in the middle, and it would always be something luscious and rich, with all the richness that certain people had in those days. So those are some of the pleasant things that I remember.
I remember very little about the house we lived in. As I think back to that period, I think about the rapid speed at which my mother was having children, because there were two younger than I was by the time I was just turning five. When we moved to Louisville on December 7, 1941, my younger brother [Lynwood] had been born October 19, 1941, and as I said, I was born November 24, 1936. Then I had an older brother [Adee, Jr.] who was eighteen months older. So I'm sure, on the one hand, my mother was just thrilled that these children were surviving. At this point she still had a sickly older daughter, and then my older sister Evelyn. But I am very sure that there was not time to give me the kind of attention that apparently my little spirit needed, so that's been a factor at some level with me, just needing and wanting. I think the need and desire for a certain kind of recognition has been a factor. This is certainly hindsight, but I think that's part of why I've done some of the things I've done.
Memphis, Tennessee, was the home of a very famous street called Beale Street, where both jazz and blues and just an incredible kind of musical creativity took place. Because I was too young to be very much a part of any of that and also because those were not the things that we took part in, in terms of my family and our church, these were things that I learned about many years later. It's as though I feel very much that there was a Memphis out there that I never really experienced, partly because obviously I didn't grow up there, but I always think of Memphis as having a special kind of lore and culture. It's such a rich repository of black culture, and I think about Tennessee and I think about now some of the great writers who were from Tennessee. Alex Haley grew up in Tennessee.* Tennessee has produced some outstanding journalists. Carl Rowan was born in Tennessee. So I feel very proud to have been born in Tennessee. But when I think of the direct influences of it, I think those influences came primarily from my parents.
Let me go back just a little bit and talk about my father, because he's a very, very key figure in my life. As I said, my father was born in Woodstock, Tennessee. He was one of about eight children as well, and they were farmers. I never met my grandfather; he was dead by the time I came along. But my Uncle Odell, who died a couple of years ago at the age of ninety, was telling me something about my father, and he said that my father always had an incredible desire to succeed. Of course, this is the time when segregation was at its most intense, and there were just incredible odds against black men of that era in the South achieving educationally. One of the things, for example, they only went to school when it wasn't planting season, because when there were things to do on the farm, they had to work on the farm. But he said my father rebelled against this and talked their father into letting him go away to school. So my father ended up going to a little—they call it now a college, but it was really kind of a normal school, I'm sure, in Mississippi. Uncle Odell remembered that he and the other boys were really quite jealous and upset. How did Adee get to escape the burden of the farm and the country and go off to this school in Mississippi? I'm sure that when Daddy went, he didn't have any money, but he went
* Alex Haley (1921-1992), author of the novel Roots, (1976). Recipient of the 1977 Pulitzer Special Citation for Roots, which traced Haley's family back seven generations to an African village in Gambia. Haley also helped with The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
and worked his way and did whatever he could possibly do, you know, to make it. But he was always motivated by education and a desire to succeed, so he escaped the farm life that my uncles were bound by.
Moorhus: How old was he when he went away to school, would you guess?
Gilliam: The school in the region where he was, most of the schools for black people stopped at around eighth grade. So my guess is that he was probably around fourteen, fifteen, that he went through the schools they had there and then went to Mississippi. In fact, after he graduated from that school, he attended Hampton. At that point it was Hampton Institute; now it's Hampton University. He graduated from Wilberforce University, obviously the only one in his family who finished college. He was always a person who pushed himself, who wanted to achieve, and who had dreams and who was just very determined. I'm sure some of my spirit I got from him. I'm trying to dispense with some of the more dangerous aspects of that. [Laughter.]
Meanwhile, my mother, growing up in Lucy, Tennessee, there were just two of them, a sister and a brother, and her father was better off. These towns are not that far apart. Her father had one of the first cars in that area. He was very protective of my mother. In that era in the South, families were more likely to try to educate their daughters, because they knew that the alternative for a daughter, a woman, was that she could be a schoolteacher or she could be a maid. There wasn't the whole range of middle-level jobs that women could have. So my mother went to normal school. They are, as you probably know, the equivalent of what today would be community colleges. So she went two years to normal school, and when she graduated, she was able to teach school in rural Tennessee, with two years of college.
Moorhus: That would have been in the early twenties, wouldn't it?
Gilliam: Yes, it would have—twenties and thirties. My father was born in 1899, and my mother was born in 1901. My father died in 1951 at the age of fifty-one. I was fourteen years old, so that was a very defining incident in my life.
But to back up a little bit: In many ways my parents were much better off educationally than a lot of the people who were their peers. My father did several things during his life, all before he became a minister. As a teacher, he would sometimes spend the summers driving a river boat. He drove a river boat up in New York, up and down the Hudson [River]. One of the ways he paid his way through college was as a football player, and he was very big, because weight was one of his issues. So he paid his way through school playing football.
One of the things I've got to really verify, because, as I said, my father died when I was so young, and because he had totally switched careers and his whole mind set was somewhere else, I've got to really check on this, but my understanding had been that my father had been All American. But when I went to Hampton Institute and looked—I was there on another occasion, and I looked at some of the All American listings—I didn't see him. So before I put that down as fact, I've really got to do some more checking on that. But he certainly was quite an outstanding football player and tackle, certainly to the point that he was able to help work his way through school.
He did graduate from Wilberforce University, and came back to Tennessee, and he was teaching, and that's when he met my mother.
Moorhus: They were teaching in the same school?
Gilliam: I don't believe they were teaching in the same school; they were just teaching in these little towns.
Moorhus: Was it the normal school environment? Were they teaching some of the lower grades or high school subjects?
Gilliam: They were teaching in lower grades. Country schools stopped at eighth grade. According to my sister, what happened was that my mother, once the children started coming, my mother stopped teaching, and I don't quite know how long she taught.
My father was teaching, but my sister [Evelyn] said he was kind of getting ill at certain times, and she said that he promised God that if He would heal him, that he would stop fighting what had been apparently this inward call to the ministry, and that he would give Him his life.
According to my sister, my mother was just horrified at the thought that she was going to be married to a minister. While she was a quite—I guess God-fearing woman, you'd call her, but certainly she was brought up in the church and all that, she said, "I married a teacher; I didn't marry a preacher." At the point when Daddy made this decision, she had two children, Evelyn and Theo. So she took her children and went home to her daddy and said, "Adee has gone crazy, because that is not the man I married, and I don't want the life of a minister's wife." Particularly she knew about the very uncertain kind of financial situation. She also knew that as an A.M.E., the pattern was for ministers to be moved around periodically, unlike in the Baptist Church, where sometimes a Baptist minister can be there for twenty, twenty-five years. The pattern in the A.M.E Church was very definitely that one moved around after a few years, moving up or just moving in a lateral way, and she had these children and she didn't want that kind of life.
So she went home to her daddy, and apparently she stayed home with her parents for about two weeks, and then her father said, "Well, Jessie, it's time for you to go back to your husband." In effect, "You've had your temper tantrum, but, you know, this is the deal you made." And he called my daddy and he said, "Adee, come and get her." [Laughter.] So she went back. I have no idea what happened, what her discussion was, because this was never a story that she told me. I only heard this years later after she had died, that she had had this kind of rebellion and had done this, because by the time I came along, my mother was about the most faithful wife that you can imagine. And I mean a faithful minister's wife.
I can remember that one time my mother, years later, said to my father, "I would just like to know what beer tastes like." So he said, "All right." He went out and got her some beer, and it was like these two bottles, and they just sat kind of under the sink for years and years. I don't think she ever tasted them. But my sister [Evelyn] said that when she was growing up, she remembered my parents as people who would be what would have been called by church people at that time "good-time people." She said they liked to play cards, and that was all considered things that you didn't do once you really got involved in church. Apparently once she went over and became this minister's wife after her two-week rebellion, she took on the mantle with full force. So, as I said, by the time I remember them, they were very entrenched as minister and wife.
Always, always, always money—money was a problem. No money. Whereas my mother, with her two years of school, had been able to teach in rural Tennessee, when the family moved to Memphis, where my father was assigned a church, she was unable to teach. She did not have the credentials. In order to teach in any city system, you had to have a college degree. My mother's option then was to do housecleaning, so all of my life I remember my mother as a housekeeper, as a housecleaner, as a maid, as a domestic. That's how she earned money to supplement and help
my father. The tradition of women working has always been one in my culture. I mean, black women worked. Those who were able to stay home, those were exceptions. I remember reading, you know, that some people had those experiences, but I didn't.
Moorhus: You said that her father had had a car. What did he do?
Gilliam: Her father was also a farmer, but he owned some property, as I recall, or he owned more than my father's father.
Moorhus: And had fewer children.
Gilliam: Right. Exactly. I also don't know whether or not my mother's father was really a sharecropper, you know, as opposed to having owned his land. But then, of course, a car was a mark of some—not wealth, but certainly a mark of being relatively better off. But it was all for naught, because the horror of that whole system of segregation, the way it worked itself out, had my mother with that two years of education been in New York, she could have sold—she could have worked at—well, I don't even know.
Moorhus: She would have had other options.
Gilliam: I don't even know in the thirties if that would have happened, but at least I think there would have been possibilities, other options. But the result of the horror of segregation, the way it operated on a very personal level, was that that was what my mother ended up doing, basically scrubbing floors. I have to say I never heard her complain. So my memory of my mother is being busy, gentle, very gentle, but always tired, you know, because she was doing both things.
My sister, my older sister Evelyn, who will be one of the people I'll be seeing for Christmas, became kind of the caretaker. She used to say that she would go out to play and she'd have to have me on one hip and my brother [Adee, Jr.] on the other, so she'd be running around on the baseball field trying to make bases carrying both her two younger sister and brother.
That early time in Memphis, as I said, as I think back on what other relatives were there and available, my father's mother was still alive—Grandmother Mary. But her husband, Nick Butler, my father's father, I do not have any conscious memory of. Grandmother Mary eventually came to live with us or to visit. She came to visit us quite a bit in later years, but my memory of Grandmother Mary was she looked as though she had some Indian blood. She was a little fairer. She seemed to have some yellow in her skin, and her hair was sort of longer and more—I mean, I just think back on it, the vision that comes to me is somebody who might have had some Indian blood. She was always what I considered kind of a mean woman. She was a real contrast to my mother. I can remember her saying—this was in Louisville in later years, and I'd be playing with the kids around the neighborhood, and she would have done something like maybe mop the kitchen, and she'd yell, "Get those stinkers out of my house!" I just have no memory of her being somebody into whose arms you would cuddle, you know, the stereotype of the grandmother.
Neither my mother's mother nor father can I consciously remember. In fact, my mother's father died before I was born. My mother took care of her father. He moved in with her and spent his latter years in the family. I don't know at what point my grandmother on my mother's side, my maternal grandmother, died.
So for me, Memphis in those early years were years where we were in relatively small quarters. I passed those projects some years ago, and they are still there. Housing projects did not
have the stigma that they have now. They were one story, spread out. They were urban and they were certainly not sumptuous at all, but basically they were decent-looking places. So those early memories are about basically being a minister's daughter.
Moorhus: Do you remember going to church and hearing your father preach?
Gilliam: I don't remember that a lot until Louisville. One thing my sister [Evelyn] told me about that time was that even then I had started something which would become a pattern, and that was reciting and saying poems in church. I thought I started it when I was four or five, but she said I was doing it even earlier. Now, I know that I was going to church, even though I can't remember anything about the church at that point, and I know that all the children went to Sunday school. One of the things we did, of course, was for all of the major religious holidays, we had little recitations, little poems and things to say. But my memory is that I was always saying really long poems, like when I was four or five years old, I would be saying "The Night Before Christmas" from beginning to end. That was this performance, the star performer, you know. [Laughter.] I apparently assumed it pretty early.
Looking back, I think part of the reason for it was not only the fact that my mother was very burdened just between working—and I don't know how many days she worked—and with the children and then coming right after me was a mentally retarded child, Juanita. Years later, my Aunt Gussie, who is still alive in Memphis, told me that they used to take turns and they would sit and they would rock her and rock her. I think it was a case of the handicapped child getting the attention. There's something very shocking, I'm sure, about having a child who has Down's Syndrome. I sensed that my mother struggled with that. Certainly there was never any case of her doing anything other than being taken care of in the home, but there was also, I think, a sense that she was going to be normal. So I presume that there was some conflict and some guilt and some other things around having this child.
I speculate that maybe some of what had been the attention that I might have wanted as a three-year-old, that I didn't get because, in part, that situation was going on. Then, as I said, shortly after that, my mother had yet another child [Lynwood]. So I think all that affected the tenor of the household at that time.
I want to say a word or two about the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The African Methodist Episcopal tradition is just an extraordinary tradition. The A.M.E. Church was started by Richard Allen. Richard Allen was a former slave who started this church in Philadelphia back in the early eighteenth century. He started that church because he and another group of former slaves were trying to worship in a white church and they had set off some seats in the back for them to worship, and they found themselves just restricted in so many ways that Richard Allen said, "This is horrendous and absolutely against all that God would teach us and that God would expect from Christians." And he went off and he started the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
That church has just grown and expanded over the years. I don't think it was happenstance that my father chose the A.M.E. Church in which to begin a ministerial career, although I think he had been born and reared an A.M.E., and so had my mother. So I think that was part of the tradition, too. But I think it's also interesting that [President-elect] Bill Clinton is going to have his inaugural breakfast at an A.M.E. church. That tradition of the A.M.E., that kind of pride in self and a strong belief, is something that has followed our family.
Interestingly enough—and thank goodness, as I was talking about all the restrictions of the church—it was not as restricted as some churches were during that period. The church has always been—the church was a center of our social life and all of that, and, of course, I come from a culture in which religion has been important, but thank God it wasn't one of these religions where you can't do this, you can't do this, you can't do that. As a teenager growing up, we could go to dances and wear makeup. So even though, comparatively speaking, there were some traditions, it was not a funless kind of church and tradition.
Gilliam: That's about all I can think of right now in terms of the pre-Louisville time. Are you ready to go to Louisville?
Moorhus: Sure. Let's go to Louisville.
Gilliam: Okay. As I said, my father had gone on to Louisville before we arrived, and the church to which—
Moorhus: Did he go earlier because your mother was expecting the baby?
Gilliam: Actually, the A.M.E.s have their conferences every fall, and so he was assigned to Louisville probably at about the same time my mother was expecting the baby, yes. So the short answer is yes. But he went earlier only by probably a couple of months. So Young's Chapel A.M.E. Church was the church to which he had been assigned.
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Moorhus: Oh, I'm so glad you have pictures.
Gilliam: It helps to let you visualize some of this stuff.
Moorhus: That it does. This is a picture from the church?*
Gilliam: Yes. This is the church. Shortly after my father got there, he started building another church, so this is the church that he is in the process of building. This is the old church, and this is our Sunday school group. There I am right there. See that little plump girl?
Moorhus: How old were you in this picture, would you guess?
Gilliam: I would guess nine. I look older.
Moorhus: This is you?
Gilliam: This is me right here.
Moorhus: This is you here. You look older than nine.
* This photograph is included in the videotaped interview session.
Gilliam: Yes, I do, but, see, look at her. Maybe ten. That's one of the things, you know, as a child, being heavier will do to you.
Moorhus: And taller.
Gilliam: It makes you look older.
Moorhus: And is your father in this picture?
Gilliam: My father is not. I'll have to go upstairs and get his picture. This is my—I'm looking for my brother—Adee. Yes, this is my brother Adee right here.
Moorhus: Third from the left on the stairs. And you're about halfway down on the stairs in what looks to be a white dress.
Gilliam: No, it's a white blouse, and that is a skirt that's maybe a tan skirt, but Margaret, who was my best friend, who ended up being my brother's wife, they're still married to this day, she is actually older than I am. She was born in August and I was born in November. So that's, again, an indication of what—
Moorhus: Yes, and she does look younger than you at that point.
Gilliam: Yes, she does. So if you'll cut this off a minute, I'll run up and get my father's picture, just because it is relevant, I think. [Tape interruption.]
Moorhus: We had just gotten you to Louisville, to the church.
Gilliam: Young's Chapel A.M.E. Church was situated at Sixteenth and St. Catherine Streets in Louisville, and it was, as you can see from the picture, not a very large church. We lived in the parsonage next door. You can't see it from there, but it was kind of a long, skinny house with two stories and had a living room, then my parents' bedroom was the next room, and behind that was kind of a dining room, and then the kitchen was along in the back. Then the bedrooms where the children stayed were upstairs. It was right on the corner of an alley, and then the church was there.
My father decided to build the church on property in front of the existing church, and it was on that property that my father decided to build the church, which was sorely needed. And that church stands today. It has been remodeled over the years, etc., but as I think about that, I've realized it was such a remarkable thing to undergo, you know, in the midst of a war. The congregation was predominantly made up of domestic workers and laborers. There were some schoolteachers and postal workers who were among the highest paid in black life at that point. But it was not one of the churches in Louisville where your middle-class blacks went.
The context for my growing up is important to establish. I grew up in almost an entirely segregated system until I went to college, so there were no interactions with whites. I was in black neighborhoods, black schools. I did not go to school until I came to Louisville. Those were not the days when people went to pre-school, at least not when people I knew went to pre-school. So I entered school when I was, I guess, six years old—probably five. I went to Phyllis Wheatley Elementary School.
I guess from the start, Louisville seemed like home. I guess it was because it was there that I sort of started coming of age and remembering and made friends. Living right next door to the church, what my dad did and our connection to it was all very clear and very clear cut. I look back and call those years between five and ten, I would say they were good years, as I look back on them.
In school I was always considered "smart." In fact, I skipped a grade, which was the way we were rewarded then for good grades. I'd say they were good years on many levels. They were marred for me by, as I said, a problem that has followed me through my life, and that is weight. I was always a plump kid, and food was, once again, I guess in most families, or in many families, food was the way people expressed love and showed love. It was also an era when we gathered around the table to eat, you know. There wasn't sporadic eating. We really functioned as a family. My mother did day work, day domestic work, but always was able to arrange it so she was home early enough. She used to say that's one of the advantages; she could get home in time to fix dinner. We functioned very much as a family in a very traditional sense of the word.
The disadvantage, of course, of being plump was that you got teased, and that meant humiliation. So there was always this kind of level of feeling, this discomfort because of being teased. But at the same time, I had two things going for me. I was considered smart—and I was smart—and my daddy was the preacher. That's both a negative and a positive, but in terms of the status in the community, there was the status of the community leader.
We were in a neighborhood called California, and that kind of took in—Sixteenth and St. Catherine Streets was one of the main kind of drags and intersection. I still go to that church when I go to Louisville. For Christmas I will go to that church and will be able to see some of the people who I saw, who taught me in Sunday school. Some of them have died. In fact, my sister [Evelyn] told me a few months ago that one of the men there, Brother Ransaw, a long, long, longtime member, has recently died. He's somebody I always looked forward to seeing when I went there.
What was it like growing up as a minister's daughter? I felt very loved by all the people at the church and very kind of special. I think in many ways that period was probably the height of my father's experience as a minister, because he had taken on this challenge of building the church. When I think about it, you know, you think about challenges in your own life and when you decide to go for something, I understand it and appreciate it more now than I ever did, because when you think about you're going to step out and build something, make something happen, that takes a lot of vision and determination. Once again, with the timing of it, the fact that you had people who themselves did not have much money, I can remember that my father—the salaries of A.M.E. ministers were not that large, but he would often, once he made the commitment to build that church, he would often take his salary and give it back to the church in order to pay the workmen. I have a very vivid memory of being unable to go to school at one point because I didn't have shoes. Even though, as I said, my mother was working and my father was working, I'm sure it was just one of those times when he had to pay the workmen or he had to pay—he just had to put that money back into that church. I don't remember how long I stayed out of school, but I do remember a day when I did not go to school because I didn't have shoes. It was really a matter that we were just caught.
I lived probably three minutes away from school, from Phyllis Wheatley, and I can remember we had wonderful teachers. Obviously not all of them, but that era of black life, that would have been in the 1940s in the South, the fact of segregation worked very much to the advantage of a lot of young people, because the people in our race who were educated had so few
opportunities that they poured all of that wealth and richness on to us, and teaching had always been a very important profession. You could be a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, or a postal worker—you know, some profession that could be utilized within our community. Teachers were at the zenith. So throughout my schooling, as I said, not all of them were, but there were some really fine teachers, because that's where the cream of the crop came and that's where they stayed.
I remember one of my teachers was Miss Black, second or third grade. We took things like Latin. I still can say some of the prayers that I learned in Latin back in the sixth grade. It was that kind of vividness of the way we were taught. As I said, I skipped a grade, so I ended up catching up with my brother, who is eighteen months older, which didn't make him very happy, because one doesn't ever want to be in the same class with a younger sister. I look back and I realize that I didn't have quite the social sophistication that I needed, but as a result, I graduated from elementary school and went to junior high when I was ten. Once again, because I looked older, it wasn't always that noticeable, but what happened was that as my father was working and building this church, his problems with weight and illness finally caught up with him in a way that I could really see it, because he had a heart attack. He was, as you can see, quite formidable, and he continued to build. I'm sure, looking back now, I'd say my dad probably was a compulsive eater. Maybe that's how he dealt with all the stress of what he was doing.
Moorhus: When did he have the heart attack?
Gilliam: He had several heart attacks. The first one that I remember was maybe around 1946, something like that. I remember his going in and out of the hospital. One of the things the doctor insisted after that heart attack, he had heart trouble and high blood pressure, so, of course, he was put on a strict diet. My mother, just as she cooked the meals that he loved, turned right around and dutifully cooked the kind of meals that promoted his health. I just remember his kind of losing weight, and then he was back in the hospital later. So I think he had more than one heart attack. He died of a heart attack in 1951. What happened was that his health continued to worsen as he was building the church. By about 1950, he finally realized that he was going to have to give up the day-to-day pastoring. The church was almost constructed by then, but I think the combination of all that had just been too much.
By the time I was in junior high school, my father gave up the church and was "promoted." And it is the next level, but the next level within the A.M.E. Church, they have active ministers, presiding elders, and bishops. He was promoted to presiding elder, in part because of his work in building the church, but in many ways the presiding elder was a much less stressful job, because the duties of a presiding elder were to be in charge of a certain number of churches. So on certain Sundays he would go to the various churches that were under his charge. My brother, who was able to get his driver's license because he had gotten a special dispensation because of my father's illness, would drive him to these various churches. My brother got his driver's license when he was fifteen. So he would drive Daddy to the various churches where he was to oversee.
When Daddy gave up the church, we had to find someplace else to live. His group of churches was in Kentucky. It was in the Louisville area, but a lot of small towns. I didn't realize what was going on in terms of—we needed a place to live. Right after he was reassigned, we lived for a few months with a woman who was a member of our church, maybe just a few weeks. I don't remember. But we finally ended up moving to the country and living on what I recall was like some form of modern-day sharecropping, because we ended up moving to Anchorage, Kentucky, on the farm of a man named Cameron. My mother cleaned their house. My brother took care of the livestock and stuff on that farm. Daddy was not able to do anything, but he was
able to, on Sundays, go to the various churches that he was supposed to. I don't know if he was really able, but he did, and my brother would drive him.
That represented in many ways a real loss in status for our family. It was a funny loss in status, because there's no doubt about the fact that the presiding elder is higher up on the ladder in some ways, but to go from having been kind of a leader in the community, where you could visibly see it, with him living next to the church, he'd sit out on the front and everybody knew Reverend Butler, and we were there, and then suddenly you're like, in effect, sharecropping out in the country, I can imagine that it was very hard on my father.
We'd been out there about a year when my father died. I was with him when he died, as a matter of fact. My brother and I were going with him. It was a Sunday morning. We were headed to a church, one of the churches under him in Shelbyville, Kentucky. We pulled into the service station to get some gas, and my father had a heart attack right there in the service station. It was just the most frightening, fearsome, shattering experience to be there and to see that happen.
When I look back at the relationship between my life and my father's, as I said, as my father got sicker, I got fatter. By the time my father had died, I weighed 202 pounds as a fourteen-year-old. It was almost as though I was holding my breath—the fear. I don't know, just eating to batten down the feelings and whatever. But after he died, a little after that, I told my mother that I wanted to go to the city hospital and have them put me on a diet, and I did. They did, and I guess maybe six or eight months later, I had lost about sixty pounds and kind of come within normal weight. So by the time I was sixteen, I was looking pretty much like a normal teenager.
Moorhus: What time of year was it that your father died?
Gilliam: It was in the spring. It was in April. I believe it was April 7, 1951.
Looking back, in many ways I think I was always the apple of my father's eye, and maybe it was because my mother had so many pulls on her. I cannot say too much about what a sort of gentle woman she was, but I think she was also kind of a martyr, you know. She just had a lot of things pulling at her. So I guess my father became very special to me, and not because I have a lot of memories of us doing father-daughter things or anything like that.
My father had a lot of race pride. For instance, with black people there's always the thing of do you wear your hair naturally or do you press it. My father did not want us to have our hair pressed, but I looked up, and all the little girls in the neighborhood, it was no big deal, but they'd get a warm comb through their hair and they'd have little bangs or whatever. And I wanted bangs like everybody else. My mother was the kind who would say [whispering], "I'll take care of it." And she would go ahead and press it and do the things that would make me feel good. I never remember my mother saying anything negative about me gaining weight. I mean, never. She just did what had to be done. You just bought what fit. So whereas I was teased outside, I never remember being made to feel bad within my home about that.
I don't remember whether my brother teased me. That would be something that you would just expect, and I really can't remember. I suspect he did, but my more conscious memory of my brother's taunting was sort of exploiting my fear of cats. I was very afraid of cats as a little girl. As I said, our bedrooms were on the second floor. I did not have my own separate bedroom, obviously. At least my sister and probably a couple of us lived in there, and the boys stayed
together. We did not have a big house or sumptuous digs at all. But I remember his getting this cat and trying to put it on me, and I was going to jump out of the second floor bedroom to get away from him and the cat. I remember things like that, but I don't remember his teasing me about weight or anything like that.
I remember teasing like being on the school bus, because once we moved to the country, I went to school—Lincoln Institute—in Lincoln Ridge, Kentucky, and I can remember sitting on the school bus, and you'd pick other people up. They'd say, "Oh, we can't sit next to her. There's no more room on the seat," that kind of teasing. But I don't remember any of that going on in my own home.
I guess it was a very orderly home, even once we moved out into the country, where we basically had three rooms. We stayed in three rooms. Again, my mother sort of did everything. During that period we had an outhouse. It was just so strange, after living in the city, to go back into this kind of setting. We had to get water from a well. My mother washed our clothes in a tin thing in the back. She was always determined that there were certain things I wasn't going to do, and I don't remember her consciously talking about it day after day after day or anything like that, but, for instance, she never wanted me to go down and help her down at the place where she was working in this house. I don't ever remember doing that. Maybe it's something I've consciously suppressed, but I don't ever remember going down and helping her clean these people's houses or wait on them or serve them. She did that. My job at home was to wash dishes. She did the cooking. She did most of the washing. We'd all go and get water, that kind of thing.
We were out there, I'd say, about three years. As I said, my father died after one year, and then after my brother and I finished high school, then we moved back into town, moved back into a housing project in Louisville. I graduated from high school when I was sixteen. Once again, those housing projects, after what we had lived through, were like heaven. They were new projects. Everybody in the family was working. We all helped. When we lived in the country, my older sister Evelyn stayed on the place. She worked for some other people, stayed in their house and worked, so we saw her usually on Sundays. We still would come into church, to Young's Chapel Church, every Sunday.
I think back to the whole business of my mother as a domestic, and I remember once I wrote an article in which I talked a little bit about that. Somebody wrote a book about domestic workers and the women they work for in the South, and it brought back memories of this kind of—they said it was almost like this conspiracy of silence between these women. My mother—I remember once I answered the phone—this was when we were at the parsonage—and it was one of the women she worked for. She said, "Hello, is Jessie home?" And I said, "Jessie? There's no Jessie here. It's Mrs. Butler." I mean, you know, my mother was one of the most respected women in the church and in the community. Who dared call her by her first name? And Mother came rushing in there and she took the phone, and she said [whispering], "Don't you do that! Don't you ever do that again." And she picked up the phone and she spoke. It was this sort of what seemed to me a subservience that just angered me. I was just furious! But she understood what it took to do what she had to do, or certainly felt she had to do it the way she was doing it. I'm sure she did. But I can still remember just that anger of, "Who is this who can treat my mother the way nobody else does?" and being very angry about that, and also being kind of baffled by my mother's silence about [whispering], "Don't you do that." Part of this was sort of some of the—for lack of a more articulate word at the moment, this sort of "thing" about white people. I mean, I knew they were white, but the only time white people came in my neighborhood were basically insurance men. That was pretty much it.
Louisville, where I have my most conscious memories, was not as viciously segregated as further south. For example, the buses were not segregated, so that you didn't have that kind of daily reminder that you had to stop, start at the back and stand and all of that. I mean, this is all very relative. Although we lived in a very separate world, my feelings about whites was that they're different and separate and apart out here, but they had some kind of power that I didn't like but I couldn't do anything about. It was not very much of a conscious thing that I had to be concerned with.
Moorhus: It was just sort of there, but it didn't impinge directly on a day-to-day basis with your life?
Gilliam: That would be correct, until we moved to the country. Then we were living in much closer contact, except they were living in the big house and we were living up in the little shack. It was really not a shack. It was a little house, a little modest, modest house. It had what would be my mother's usual touches of making the best out of whatever she had. So that way I felt it was impinging more on my life, not because—as I said, I didn't work for them. My brother came into contact with the man who owned it, who was a lawyer. I guess you'd call him a gentleman farmer. My mother came in contact with Mrs. Cameron, who was the woman of the house. I would see them sometimes, because we'd come up the driveway and then we'd come up a different path to get to our place. But it was indirect impingement on my life. As a child growing up in Louisville, there were just no whites at all, and there was no direct impinging at all on my life.
Moorhus: Going back to the move to Louisville, do you remember whether your mother made any comments to the effect that, "This is what I was afraid of. Here we are being moved around"? Do you remember some of the dynamics in the family, how Evelyn felt about this, for example, the move to Louisville?
Gilliam: I do not.
Moorhus: What about the war? How did World War II impact on your family and on you?
Gilliam: I have very vague and very fuzzy memories of the war. I think the impact was more in terms of things that were rationed and some of the things that you were able to eat and buy. I was just so young myself, I have no memories of people going to war. I had no relatives going to war. Ours was the only family. We had no immediate sisters and brothers and aunts and uncles in Louisville, so if some of the older cousins or whatever went, I had no conscious knowledge of that.
I remember my father had always been an avid newspaper reader. We got two newspapers a day. We got the Courier Journal and the Louisville Times. We got the Louisville Defender; that's the weekly black newspaper. I used to deliver the Louisville Defender every Thursday. So I know he kept up with the war in terms of reading and listening to the radio. He was always a person who had a large vision. What I don't remember is lots of discussion at the dinner table about it. I'm sure that most people in my family and church were big fans of FDR [Franklin Delano Roosevelt]. I don't think they were terribly politically astute or aware. Despite the segregation and despite the way it impacted on their lives in a very direct way in terms of the jobs and money and income and neighborhoods and all of that, I would expect that they would have felt patriotic Americans. The war is really not a very conscious thing with me.
It's interesting. I was talking to one of my peers who went to Columbia [University] with me years later, and she was talking about the war, and she has all these memories. She grew up in New York, but she has all these memories of the war. I just don't have. It's like a vague backdrop to my life.
Moorhus: Do you remember learning how to read?
Gilliam: No. I just remember seemingly always knowing how to read. I remember always loving to read. I just consumed books the way I probably consumed food at some point. [Laughter.] I loved to read everything. Books were indeed my ticket to other worlds, and I read all the classics. I read writings of the few black authors that were available. In fact, it was more than a few; quite a number. I've always been a voracious reader, and I don't remember when I consciously did it. I suspect it was a combination of learning to read in Sunday school, because we had Sunday school books, and for little kids they were very simply written—you know, "God is love." Then you kind of graduated up. So that by the time I went to first grade, I'm sure I had mastered some of the basic reading. I hadn't thought about that before, but I suspect part of my learning to read was a combination of home and church. So that school simply embellished that.
Moorhus: Do you remember reading your father's newspapers?
Gilliam: I remember reading the funnies. I remember them always being around, but I don't remember—and I can't believe that I didn't, but I keep thinking there must be something awful I've suppressed, because there's so many things I don't remember. Something is waiting to pop out. But, no, I don't. In later years, yes, but I'm thinking now about those early years. But my family continued, and continues, to get newspapers; for years and years and years we always got both the morning and the afternoon, so I started reading newspapers when I was very young. I would think more often—I guess we couldn't have gotten newspapers during those three years in the country, though. I don't know quite what I did or how we—
Moorhus: To get books to read, did you go to the library?
Gilliam: Yes, yes.
Moorhus: The public library?
Gilliam: The public library. There was a public library in my neighborhood. We had libraries at school. So I would get books at all those places. My father also had a lot of books. His books were various kind of compendiums, you know, religious compendiums, but they were also books like—I remember, in fact, I have it somewhere on my shelf, a few of these books I have around here now are my father's, but they would be books like Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. I think now about those concepts about mind over matter and all that stuff that people are into very strongly today, he was nurturing that kind of thought many, many years ago, and that's probably one of the reasons he had the audacity to sort of step out in war years, with a poor church, and try to build what was a relatively large church for Louisville in that time. As I said, it's a church with some additions—they never changed the exterior, but with some continuing remodeling still stands today. So I read some of those kind of books, or at least years afterwards.
But the kind of books I read growing up were everything from Jane Eyre and your standard English books, to things I would sneak around and read, like True Confessions. One of the teachers I remember in high school, in Lincoln Institute—let me just say a word about that. Lincoln Institute was a boarding high school in Lincoln Ridge, Kentucky, which means it was
situated between Louisville and Shelbyville. The principal was a man named Whitney Young, Sr., who was the father of Whitney Young, Jr., who became president of the National Urban League. It had been started, once again, because of segregation. What happened was there were many, many small towns scattered around Kentucky where there were few blacks, and it wasn't enough people to justify building a separate school in these little towns, so what they did was to establish this boarding school at Lincoln Ridge, and the various counties would pay for their black students to come to this boarding school, rather than have them integrate the existing school. In addition to the boarding students, they had a certain number of what they called day students, those of us who came by bus, and we were the ones who the bus would pick up, maybe a couple of busloads from different places, from surrounding counties.
In many ways I felt very fortunate to have gone to Lincoln. Had we remained in Louisville, I would have gone to Central High School, which was the one high school where all of the blacks in Louisville went. So Lincoln gave me kind of a different milieu during that time. There were, again, some outstanding teachers, and because of its unique character, it was one of those places where many teachers wanted to come. Located kind of in the hinterlands here, it had quarters for teachers to live.
[End Tape 1, Side B; Begin Tape 2, Side A]
Moorhus: The librarian's name again?
Gilliam: Louvan Gearing. Of course, when you're fifteen, everybody looks old. When I went back years later and looked at pictures, I thought, "They weren't that old," you know. [Tape interruption.] Louvan Gearing was the librarian at Lincoln.
Moorhus: You were talking about your perception of how old she is.
Gilliam: Yes, and as I said, she looked older, but she probably was in her twenties, because she's still quite alive, and I'm fifty-five. [Laughter.] I actually just turned fifty-six. But at any rate, she encouraged me to read. One day I was in the library and I had a big book in front of me, and I had a True Confessions inside this book in the library. She tiptoed over there and saw this and made such a public fuss about me reading this True Confessions, that I think I was cured for life. I think my addiction to this was cured on the spot. I think part of the reason I read so voraciously and loved just reading everything was because, in effect, I had something of a restricted life. There were things we just didn't do. I can't say that it felt oppressive at the time, in a conscious way, because we did "have fun" around our church and all that, but we didn't go into bars and go to dances and live the wild life. So in a way, books really showed me this other side.
The other high school person who comes to mind was a man named Mr. Mumford, who worked with me in terms of making speeches and debating. We didn't have a debating team at Lincoln, but he liked the fact that I could talk if he told me what to say. He'd come up with these speeches that were just the most—they made me so unpopular because they were like "The Evils of Smoking." I mean, you know, really, in the early fifties, nobody was talking about the evils of smoking. Everybody was sort of slipping around doing it. I guess I was a truly goody-two-shoes, but not really. I mean, I had messed around. I had done, you know—
Moorhus: Did he write the speeches or did he have you write them?
Gilliam: I don't remember. I think we may have done them together. I think it must have been a combination of that.
Moorhus: And where did you give them?
Gilliam: At the school in the assembly. The one I remember most is this one about the evils of smoking, because it was like, "Oh, get out of here! Who are you? Where did you come from? Go back to that place." But there were other things as well.
The point is, there were people who helped to develop you. There were people who cared about you. There were people who really saw something in us. I guess that has been a real trait of my life, all of my growing up. I think that I saw it in my family. I was expected to do things. I saw it in my church. I saw it in my school, in the community, that with all the stuff we did, all the childish stuff we did, there was still always a message that was underscored in almost like ever increasing concentric circles from all of these sources, that we were expected to achieve and to accomplish, and that, yes, you can. My father used to have a saying, "There's no such word as can't." Of course, I've learned now that there is such a word as can't, and you sure the hell better know when to invoke it. [Laughter.] But some of those ideas have been very helpful to some of these real tough situations I've been in. As you said, the first black, the first black, the first black. Some of those ideas were what helped me to survive.
Moorhus: Do you remember your father or your parents talking about segregation?
Gilliam: Not a lot. I remember feeling angrier about it than they, and, as I said, it didn't consciously affect me a lot, but I remember smarting when I did come into contact with it. I found myself smarting at what would be little put-downs of my parents. One of the things when my father became a presiding elder and we had to move to the country, we had to get a car. We hadn't had a car before. So we were living now, as I said, in this place, and my father, the car he got, I am pretty sure it was an old Cadillac, but it was an old one. At one point, Mr. Cameron was calling because my father was going to get gas on his account or something at the filling station out on the highway, and I remember him saying something about the car and about how old it was. You know, it seemed to me a lot of gratuitous comments. I don't know why I happened to be in earshot of it, but I just remember that. It just seemed like kind of a—I don't know what, it wasn't about black people and Cadillacs, but it was something that I felt put down by.
But my family—I don't remember a lot of talking about race and segregation. My sense from them was, and as I said, I felt kind of cheated that I didn't have a lot of heart-to-hearts with my father, because by the time I was at the age where I could have begun to have them in some kind of reasonably adult manner, he was beginning to deteriorate physically. I don't remember that we had many really substantive conversations, the kind I would have with my children or even that I started having with them. When does it start? In the late teens, I guess, when you make that switch from looking down at them to looking at them in a more lateral way. So I don't remember having many talks about segregation, and I don't remember my family being particularly socially conscious.
What would be helpful to me is, as you think about some of these things, if you put some questions down that you'd like some more answers to. I will talk about some of this with my sisters.
Moorhus: Okay. Great.
Gilliam: And I'll do some recording when I get to Louisville, because I need to do this for me, and I can also do it for you.
Moorhus: I'm mindful of the time, so perhaps this is a place where we can stop for today.
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