[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Moorhus: We'll start with where and when you were born, and the family into which you were born.
Simpson: I was born December 7, 1940, in Chicago, Illinois, to a family that included a father [Lytle Simpson] who was a mail carrier, a mother [Doretha Wilbon Simpson] who took in sewing in our home—she was a seamstress, a stay-at-home mom—and I had an older sister [Jacqueline], nine years older than I was. You might call us a typical working-class black family with a strong middle-class ethic that I grew up with. My grandmother was religious. I grew up in a religious home. There was no smoking. There was no drinking. We went to church every Sunday. We were Lutheran. I had a very strong mother and a very strong father that had high expectations of their two daughters.
My mother had not finished school. She had dropped out of school in the ninth grade to take care of her young brothers and sisters in Georgia. She was born in Georgia. She was a mulatto. My grandfather was white. My grandmother was black. She had to drop out of school, so she had not been educated.
My father was a young man who finished high school and wanted to be an architect, but for a young black man in the 1920s in America, he was laughed at, and he began painting signs. He had great artistic talent, and it's one of the great tragedies, as I look back on my family, that he was never able to use his talents as an artist. He went to work in the Chicago post office and delivered mail for thirty-four years.
Moorhus: Where had he been brought up?
Simpson: He grew up in Terre Haute, Indiana. His father was a barber. His mother was Cherokee, full-blooded Cherokee. My family is pretty mixed up. [Laughter.] He, at a very early age, could draw and wanted to do that, and was shattered when people told him, "You'll never get into architecture school. You can't go to art school." He died when he was eighty years old, but after he retired, he began painting and taking art classes. He passed away in 1985, but I still have many of his paintings in my office. You will see one of his paintings. I think of how much was lost to the community that he was not ever able to fulfil that talent.
Moorhus: What were the names of your parents and your sister?
Simpson: My mother's name was Doretha Wilbon, and she was born in a small town in Wilkes County, Georgia. My father's name was Lytle Simpson, born in Terre Haute, Indiana. My sister is Jacqueline Dillard now. She was Jacqueline Simpson, but she is Dillard now, and she lives in Compton, California.
Moorhus: How did your parents meet?
Simpson: Oh, it's a wonderful story. As I told you, my grandfather was white, and he was the son of one of the richest men in Wilkes County. But my grandfather, when he was about sixteen years old, saw my grandmother, and she was about twelve, a black girl, playing in the yard. And he, as he described it to me, fell in love with her immediately. And he went to my great-grandfather and said, "I'd like to court your daughter." And, you know, here's the white man, the son of one of the richest men in town coming to my grandmother's father saying he wanted to go out with her. He didn't know exactly how to handle that, because, in those days, of course, a white man could take any black girl that he wanted and you didn't say a thing. And he said, "Well, I think she's a little too young. You know, maybe in a few years." And he waited. He waited until she was sixteen, and he came back courting, and sat in the parlor, and did all of the proper things you did in the early 1900s, and decided he wanted to marry her. And he did—without his father's blessing, with great distress to his family. And from that day forward, he lived as a black man in that town. He would have to go to his father's house with his hat in his hand and use the back door like black people did.
And so he married her. They had nine children. My mother was the oldest of nine. She actually was the oldest of twenty-one, because he married again and had more children. He had a farm, a big farm, and he needed all of these children to work the farm.
My mother's mother had died when she was nine, leaving all of these little eight brothers and sisters so that my mother actually became the mother of these children. She was very beautiful and, at some point, some white man in town came to my grandfather's house and said, "I want your daughter. I want her now." And he [grandfather] threatened him and said, "Over my dead body. You will not have my daughter." And the next day, he put her on a train to Kankakee, Illinois, where he had a half-brother living. He sent my mother away from town immediately, just like that, to get her away. And she, at age thirteen, came to Chicago. She was living in Kankakee, Illinois, which is like a suburb of Chicago.
They lived in Chicago for a time and she lived on the farm in Kankakee and then they moved into the city of Chicago. She had long hair that she could sit on, and he took her to a barber shop to get her hair cut—her uncle, my great-uncle—and my father was the shoe shine boy in his father's barber shop, and he said he laid eyes on her—he was about seventeen at the time, and she was thirteen—and he said, "That's the girl I'm going to marry." And he again, like my grandfather, wanted to court her, and my great-uncle said, "Oh, no, she's much too young." And he waited. He waited until she was about sixteen, and then when she was eighteen, they got married.
Moorhus: Why was it that her father had sent her away?
Simpson: Because he did not want her treated as a concubine, becoming the mistress of a white man in that town. I mean, he knew what would happen—the history. That's Georgia! Lynchings were going on at that time. So, you know, he just wasn't going to have that for her. He would not see that happen to her and leave the family and be the other woman somewhere. So he wanted her out of that situation and sent her off the next day.
Moorhus: The story of your parents' meeting is really wonderful.
Simpson: Isn't it? And they were the great love affair. You ask about my stable marriage, and it's probably because I grew up in a home where there was great love. They were married forty-seven years.
She died of cancer in 1974. But they had the great love affair. I mean, he would not leave the house without kissing her good-bye, and when he came home he kissed her hello. I can't get my own husband to do something like that. [Laughter.] But they were a wonderful couple, so I grew up in a family where there was, you know, a man and woman who really loved each other and respected each other—a very stable home.
Moorhus: Did you have examples around you of homes that were not so stable? Were you aware as you were growing up that it was unusually stable?
Simpson: No, because much of our social life revolved around the family and my many uncles and aunts, because, as I said, my mother ended up being the oldest of twenty-one because my grandfather married again and had another family. So many of them came to Chicago, came north from Georgia, as many blacks migrated from the south during the forties and fifties. So we had a family and all of them have very stable—I don't think there is a divorce among my uncles and aunts. They're all intact marriages. So, no. As I say, most of the social life revolved around family and Sunday dinners and visiting family. No, they were all stable.
Moorhus: What's your earliest memory as a child?
Simpson: The earliest I can remember—well, there are two things. My dad went to work very early in the morning to deliver mail. He would get up at like four o'clock in the morning and leave the house about five o'clock in the morning. So I wouldn't see him when he left in the morning. My mother, who was doing sewing in the house, she would have her hair tied up in a bandanna with curlers underneath. She would have cream—she was very beautiful—she would have cream on her face, and I can remember that at 2:30 she'd get dressed, and we'd get dressed. We'd be running and making mud pies all day long, but when Daddy came home, we got all cleaned up. We had to put on fresh clothes, and she would then apply her makeup and then undo her hair. So I can remember Daddy coming home.
And Daddy always had something for me and my sister in his pocket. It might be a stick of gum, might be a Mary Jane candy or something like that. So the first thing I would do as soon as he'd come home is give him a big hug and reach in his pocket to see what was in there. [Laughter.] It might be a penny some days if he hadn't had a chance to do something, but that was pretty fun.
The other thing I can remember, and I must have been four years old, my mother would have me on the floor—as I say, my sister was nine years older, so it was like being an only child because she was so much older—but I can remember my mother sewing at the sewing machine and me on the floor writing my ABCs and writing my name. In fact, she saved some of them. I've lost them now, but she had saved some of my earliest writings. But at the foot of her sewing machine I learned my ABCs and learned to write my name. And when I went to school I was unusual—I mean there was no "Sesame Street", so to come to school and already know how to write your name and know your ABCs and your numbers and things like that [was unusual]. But I really learned at her feet at the sewing machine, and began reading early, according to her. I don't know how early I began reading, but I loved reading—loved it.
I loved the radio. I grew up when there were things like "Let's Pretend" on the radio and "Inspector Keane: Tracer of Lost Persons." [Laughter.] I can remember all of these. And "Smiling Ed's Gang" was on the radio, and I can remember loving the radio. I still love it to this day, because it is a medium through which you must use—it's not a passive medium like TV, but you hear something and I would imagine these stories, and I would imagine what these people looked like and what they were doing when I heard that. So, I guess during that period of time, this
curiosity, this interest, a creative sense almost of reading stories and imagining things and listening to the radio and imagining things gave me some sense of wanting to be creative.
And I took piano. My sister was the talented one. My sister, at age fourteen, began taking voice lessons. She has a gift. She was given the most beautiful singing voice, mezzo-soprano, that you've ever heard. And at fourteen, she began voice lessons. This was quite a bit for my parents, who didn't have a whole lot of money to spend—$15.00 on a half-hour voice lesson—but I mean they scraped [the money] together, because they were told, "Your daughter, she'll be the next Marian Anderson. She's a Leontyne Price." She had this wonderful, wonderful voice. So I, at about that time, kind of faded into the background. Much was focused in the family on her and the dreams of her some day singing at the Metropolitan Opera. And I was quite proud of her. I was not jealous of her, but all of the family's attentions and energies and money—there weren't any extra paper dolls for me to buy or extra books to get because all money was spent on my sister. And they had great dreams of her becoming a great opera star some day.
And about that time I started piano lessons, because the view was, "Oh, it'll be the Simpson sisters. Carole can play the piano." And I hated the piano. I took it for five years, but I hated it. I really hated it. And maybe subconsciously because I would be accompanying her on the piano.
To make a long story short, she became a disappointment to my parents. She went to Northwestern [University]. She had won the Chicagoland Music Festival sponsored by the Tribune. She went to Northwestern University and majored in voice there, and all of this was continuing. There were concerts, and there were recitals, and she sang at our church and she sang at weddings, and was making money singing at these various things. She went to Northwestern and graduated and got married immediately. Kind of like you did, Donita. [Laughter.] To my parents' great dismay—I mean great. I mean I can't tell you. From the time she's fourteen, and you think of to twenty-one—that all energies and all efforts in the family were focused on making her this great opera star some day, and she didn't want it. She resisted it. And it was something that she later told my parents, "You wanted this. I never wanted it." And it hurt them so much, because she did have a gift. She still has it. I mean, she still has this wonderful voice, which she doesn't use, but she could have.
So I can remember, after my sister married and moved to Los Angeles with a young man that my parents didn't know very well, and they were so upset about this, and I can remember when my sister left, my mother turning to me and saying, "You're our only hope now." And I think had it not been that all of a sudden I had to make them happy, because my sister had disappointed them, I'm going to do—try to do, I don't have her talent—but I'm going to try to do all the things she wasn't able to do. I mean, I think that's a very strong influence on my drive, my determination, my ambition, which now is second nature to me, but then I think that was the beginning of it: "I can't let them down the way she did. I've got to do something to make them proud of me."
So I began getting very good grades. She wasn't a very good student. She had the voice, but she wasn't good academically, so, "Damn it, I'm going to be good academically. I'll show them." So I made very good grades. I skipped a grade in elementary school. I wanted them to come see me perform at things. I couldn't sing, I didn't like the piano that well, so I got into plays. I could speak. And I started getting in elementary school. I ran for student government in the eighth grade. I mean, I started doing those kinds of things that I thought would make them proud of me in my own little way, and continued to do those kinds of things.
But had my sister—I wonder sometimes—maybe I would have done nothing. If my sister had been successful, I might have been very ordinary and been satisfied with a very ordinary life. But that wanting to succeed—because I loved my parents very dearly, and I did not want to hurt them, and I did want them very much to be proud of me. And I think it's because of that that I went on to do what I did.
But acting in grade school, acting in high school, acting in college served me very well. I was a very shy child. I can remember my mother telling me that she was always pulling me from behind her skirts, that I would just kind of fade behind her skirts and she was always telling me, "Speak up. Speak up. Say hello." [Laughter.] I mean, she was very distressed that I was very shy and timid as a child. And then getting into the plays and developing that confidence to get up on stage and speak before people really helped me overcome [being shy]. I was a timid and shy child. I always wanted people to like me. I was afraid of ever thinking people won't like me, or being disappointed [in me]. I had to do well for the teachers—feeling that kind of burden as a child.
But the plays kind of freed me, and I could get up there and I could talk, and I could get into a character, and that kind of thing. Now as I look back on it, it helped me so much with a broadcast voice, because I learned how to project. I learned how to use my voice. I learned how to enunciate and all those kinds of things.
Moorhus: What do you remember about the early years of school and the education part of it?
Simpson: I was teacher's pet. As I said, I was a very good student.
Moorhus: Did you go to public school?
Simpson: I went to public school in Chicago, Wadsworth Elementary School in Woodlawn in Chicago.
Moorhus: So you grew up in the Woodlawn area, which is near the university [University of Chicago].
Simpson: Right. Exactly. I was at Sixty-fourth and Woodlawn. That's where I grew up. Yes, I went to public school, and it was a period of time when Woodlawn was changing. Blacks were moving in and whites were moving out. And when I started elementary school, it was predominantly white. By the time I left, it was about fifty-fifty, and, of course, it's all black now. That is a whole ghetto area, ghettoized neighborhood now. But it was a nice, middle class, you know, changing neighborhood when I grew up. So I went to school with Japanese children and Jewish children and white children and black children, and I'm glad for that.
My best friends were Japanese twins who had been interned in a camp during World War II in California, and had moved back to Chicago. So I was in a situation where I knew people from different cultures, and again, I look back and appreciate that kind of experience, that I knew how to get along. I knew what Passover was and I knew what Seder was from having friends and growing up at a young age with friends of many different backgrounds.
Moorhus: Did your parents have friends outside of the black community? Was their social circle interracial?
Simpson: No, not at all. Not at all. My mother tried to be neighborly, and would bake cakes and cut flowers from the yard and take them over to people, but there was no reciprocal action from them.
We never were invited into white families' homes. I was, as a child, to play, but my family was not.
Moorhus: What was your relationship like with your sister, with her being so much older and being such the focus of attention?
Simpson: I would say as good as it could be between siblings. But I was quite proud of her. Nobody was any prouder. When I heard her sing and when she won the awards, I would run around with articles out of the paper of something that she had done. I can remember being quite proud of her. But I was the little sister, so I was in her business and in her room, and sneaking around when she's kissing her boyfriend. [Laughter.] So she probably hated her little sister, but I think the relationship was as good as it could be with a nine-year age difference.
Moorhus: Yes, that's quite a large difference to expect to be friends.
Moorhus: Were you involved in any kind of athletic activities or sports?
Simpson: No. I was terrible. [Laughter.] I was a tomboy, and again, that was another thing. I was the last of the Simpsons. My father had four older siblings, and he was the youngest, and three of them were women and one was another brother, but he didn't have any children. So I became the last Simpson born, and they had wanted a boy to carry on the name. So I tried to be this boy for a while. I pretended to like wrestling matches and went with my dad to wrestling matches, and we used to go to the Indianapolis 500 Speedway race every year. I guess I was interested in it. And I climbed trees a lot, and really liked playing with boys and stuff like that. But I don't think I really enjoyed it. I mean, I really think I was trying to be the boy my father never had, and about age eleven or twelve, I gave up. I gave up. But I never liked athletics, like baseball and stuff. Growing up in a city neighborhood, there weren't opportunities to play baseball and soccer.
Moorhus: And the schools didn't have programs for girls.
Simpson: No. No, not at all.
Moorhus: What about sewing? Did your mother try to teach you how to sew?
Simpson: She did. To my great regret, I don't know how. [Laughter.] She tried time and time again and used to tell me, "You're going to be sorry." And it wasn't until I had my own daughter that I realized how nice it would be to be able to run up a little Halloween costume for her. I got about as far as hemming and putting a button on. She had me cut out a pattern, and I tried, but I have not been very good with my hands, and handicrafts, things like that.
Moorhus: What about cooking?
Simpson: Cooking. I had to cook. Yes. There were many chores that I had to do as a young woman. I had to scrub the bathroom and the kitchen every Wednesday and Saturday. Those were my jobs. If I didn't cook or finish the dinner that my mother may have started while she was sewing, I would have to finish the dinner and set the table, and, of course, clean up. But again, my sister was away at college or at voice lessons or something like that, so a lot of the household chores fell to me. And I can remember my mother saying—and I'm going, "I'm not going to ever
have to do this," and she said, "Even if you don't have to do this, you need to know whether somebody is doing it right for you. So I want you to know how to do this." And she used to always tell me, "No matter what you are, if you're going to be a waitress, I want you to be the best damn waitress there is. If you're going to be a nurse, whatever it is, I want you to be the best at that." So it was important for her to teach me cooking and ironing and all the household chores and things like that.
Yes, I had lots of responsibilities around the house, because even though she wasn't out of the house working, she was working in the house. She had customers coming for fittings and things like that. So I had to pitch in a lot.
Moorhus: Where did you go to high school?
Simpson: I went to Hyde Park High School, which is also in Woodlawn in Chicago. As I told you, I was this very good student. So in eighth grade, I was selected from among all the elementary schools that feed into Hyde Park High School, they selected what they thought were—they wanted an experiment. This was like honors program now. They picked the top students from several elementary schools. I think maybe eight of them fed into Hyde Park High School, and they picked two or three of them to all be in the same classes together. We apparently had tested well enough, we were the gifted group at that time.
So I continued with those students. There were only three blacks. There were mostly white students and mostly Jewish students, but we were tracked in special things, college preparatory things that other students weren't in. It was one of the first times that they had tried this kind of thing, which is now tracking students in honors programs and gifted programs. I was in that.
I was also, as a young child—I think I must have been about in fourth or fifth grade—but I can remember my mother saying that the school had called and thought that I should go to the University of Chicago Lab School, that they thought I was capable of that and they should really put me in that kind of program, and, of course, they [my parents] couldn't afford it. I don't know what may have happened then had I gone into something like that. My grades say I was very smart. [Laughter.] I'm not smart now, but apparently as a child I was pretty smart, but they weren't able to send me. My mother wished she had been able to do that.
Moorhus: What year was it that you started high school? Would that have been about '52?
Moorhus: What kind of social consciousness did you have in 1954, going into a high school that was predominately white and Jewish? Were you aware of any kinds of discrimination at that point?
Simpson: Yes I was. First of all, let me back up and say, according to my mother—and I don't remember this—I was part of one of those historic studies on the black dolls/white dolls that you've heard about that Kenneth Clark did, the sociologist, apparently through the University of Chicago. I don't know if they came into our elementary school or something like that, but I was very young. I think I must have been in first grade or something. But I was among those children that were asked to decide which was the nice doll and which was the bad doll. Which doll did you want to have and which doll didn't you want to have? And at that time I chose the white doll, to my regret now, but those were the only images that we had seen. Now it's quite common to see
black dolls, but back then there weren't any dolls that were black, so it looked kind of strange. I participated in that study. So I guess there was something there that even I wasn't aware of.
But the first time I can remember being aware of prejudice and discrimination and separateness and that I was different—I had grown up in these integrated situations and gone to integrated schools, but my grandfather still lived in Georgia, and when I was eleven years old we went down to visit. We drove from Chicago to go down for a family reunion in Georgia. It was the first long car trip that I can remember and we were going through the Smokey Mountains. I had never seen mountains before, and I was just real excited on the trip, and it was just the three of us going down. I don't know where my sister was. I can remember my father stopping to try to get motel rooms. We'd see vacancy signs up, and he would come out and say, "They don't have any vacancy." And we would stop and stop and stop. It's getting darker and darker, and we needed a place to stay. I can remember now my mother and father exchanging these knowing glances, but I still didn't understand what's going on. "But it says vacancy." And my dad would say, "Well, but they say they don't have any vacancies for us." And they didn't explain this to me any further. I'm just getting this vague uneasiness, like, "What's going on? This is very strange." And we were tired. And that night we had to sleep cramped up in the car.
The next morning we got up and we went to a truck stop where my father wanted to get the thermos filled with coffee. He went into the truck stop, because we hadn't had breakfast or anything, he was going to get some rolls, donuts or something, and coffee. He wanted them to fill up the thermos, and he came back to the car, saying they wanted him to go around to the back. And I'm still going, "Go around to the back? Why?" And he just left. "We don't need any coffee. We'll get some soda out of a machine or something like that."
So we get to the Smokey Mountains and we're going to go through the park, and we were going to go visit in the national park, and we climbed up to whatever is the top summit up there, maybe five thousand feet elevation. And I just thought it was the greatest, to look out all over these mountains, and I'd never seen anything like that before. We took pictures and we looked and we looked.
And then I went to get a drink of water. I was drinking from this fountain, and some woman came up to me and said, "Get away from there! You can't drink from there." And I looked at her and I didn't know—and she said, "Don't you see the sign?" And it was at that time that I saw the "White" sign. And I can remember my eyes welling up. I mean, it finally all—the sleeping in the car—I mean, obviously there were things floating around in my head about race which I had never confronted before. But clearly, all of that, when she showed me that sign and it said "White", it just all kind of—and I went running to my parents and saying, "That white lady told me I couldn't drink from that fountain. Why not?"
And then they tried to explain to me that, "Now we're in the South, and things are different here, and we're going to have to use separate bathrooms, and we're not going to be able to drink out of the water fountains."
And I said, "Well, where can I drink from?" And we looked around up there at this tourist spot, at the top of the best site in Great Smokey Mountain National Park, and there was the "Colored" sign on a spigot. I mean, it wasn't even a fountain that would come bubbling up; it was a spigot. It had chewing gum on it. There was refuse all around it, and that "Colored" sign was there. And I burst into tears. I can remember them trying to comfort me and trying to explain to me. I mean, it was only then that they began to explain to me how different things were in the South than in the North, and we would be confronting this. "But we're going to see Grandpa and
you know, it'll be all right. This is the way it is here." I couldn't understand this. How could this be? How could this possibly be that I would have to drink from a spigot with trash and refuse on it?
And we went on, continued the trip. What was so incredible about that—and I've written about it, I wrote a paper in college about it that was later published—but it was the contrast. Here I was at the most beautiful natural sight I had ever seen in my life, the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen, a kid growing up in the city of Chicago, and then to have that jarring reminder that you're less than some other people, was just incredible to me.
That trip, I can remember vividly how much then I was just in a funk the rest of the time. The world never looked the same after that moment. From that day on, race became an issue for me. I began to understand it. I looked for signs of it. I mean, my antenna then began to be up at all times. And it's continued to be up throughout these years, but that day was defining—a defining moment in my understanding of what it means to be black in America today.
And we go on to my grandfather's house. It was a wonderful old farm house, the family's there. All of this should have been wonderful for me. And I can remember my parents must have told him how upset I'd been and how I'd cried. He took me aside and he told me that things were different, and he said, "We're going to go downtown today. We're going into town today to the store. And I don't want you to say anything to anyone. If anyone speaks to you don't open your mouth."
I'm going, "But why? Why, Papa?"
And he said, "Because you may not say the right things. You have to say the right things. Down here, a little black girl would have to say, 'Yes, ma'am,' to a white woman if she spoke to you. Or if a white man spoke to you, you'd have to say, 'Yes, sir.' And so, rather than you forgetting that you have to say that, I don't want you to say anything when we go downtown."
So I go with him to the store, and I was terrified. Here I am, I can't open my mouth! It was like I was on another planet. And we're in this little town, in the store, and I'm looking at all these white people and terrified of them. I can't open my mouth to these people.
Then I came back to Chicago.
Moorhus: Was it confusing to you that your grandfather was white?
Simpson: No, because as I said, again, he didn't seem white. I didn't think of him as white. I wasn't told he was white. He was just like us, because my mother was fair-skinned, and many in the family were fair-skinned, so I never grew up thinking of him as a white man. I mean, again, he lived as a black man.
Moorhus: But in that situation where he is clearly identifying himself as a black person, he's talking about the other people who are white, and I just wonder about your trying to understand all of that situation, as well as all of these other white people around. I mean, you were suddenly looking at everything a lot differently.
Simpson: Right. But I still didn't think of him—I don't think it was until later that I even realized. I mean, it wasn't something that anyone ever talked about. It wasn't until I was much older and talked to him about things and found out his story. But he was just Papa. He became a
Baptist preacher. He was on a county circuit. He was a white man who was a hell and fire, brimstone preaching guy. But he was a farmer, and he would preach on Sundays, a different little country church every Sunday.
Moorhus: Was this the first trip your parents had taken back to Georgia in a number of years?
Simpson: We had gone on the train when I was five years old. I was in a relative's wedding. I was in an uncle's wedding. I was the flower girl in the wedding, and my aunts, two of my aunts and my mother and I took the train down. And apparently we had to switch to the Jim Crow car. My mother tells me this, but I didn't—you know, at age five, I had no idea. But we had travelled by train down there, and we had gone to Indiana. We didn't have any problems in Indiana. I went to camp in Benton Harbor, Michigan. And so all of my experiences had been in the North where none of that was a problem. So it was the biggest, longest trip that I had ever had. But my mother had to go back and forth, and she would take the train, and often she was just going herself to see about her dad or some business at home.
Moorhus: Do you remember how you felt coming back to Chicago, and whether things looked different when you came back to Chicago?
Simpson: Everything looked different. My world changed. My world changed in that instant. I had lived this happy-go-lucky carefree life, a happy little girl. And all of a sudden, everything had changed, and I began to think of myself as a colored girl—a colored girl. I was just a girl, but that woman telling me to get away from that, "You drink from over there." And I remember, we'd be out—I would not go to a colored restroom. I would wet on myself before I would use a restroom like that. Because we later went down when I was older, and, you know, trips continued down there, but I knew how to act. But I would never use those facilities. I just couldn't bring myself to.
Moorhus: What were some of the ways in which you behaved differently in Chicago, reflecting the sort of change in your self-perception? Do you remember any way in which this change affected your behavior, the things you were involved in, or interested in?
Simpson: I began to be suspect of every white person, all of my friends, my teachers who were all white. I wondered how they were viewing me. Did they think of me as less a person? This worried me, and I wondered about it. I don't think I verbalized it to anyone. But I think I looked for cues, looked for some sign that maybe they thought I was less than they were—my friends. Or that the teachers didn't have the expectations. As I said, the best way to describe it is like my antennae were up, kind of looking. And I didn't get any, in particular. I mean, I don't remember coming back and immediately getting that kind of thing.
And then, I guess, I remembered hearing about the Montgomery bus boycott. I mean, I didn't know a whole lot because I was young. And Brown v. Board of Education, that was all '54, and I was thirteen years old at that time. I guess I remember that things were starting to happen, and I kind of understood it. I understood the Montgomery bus boycott, Rosa Parks finally saying, "Nuh-uh. I ain't getting in the back of the bus." I could kind of understand that. And then I remember Little Rock and the integration of Little Rock High School, and [President Dwight D.] Eisenhower called out the troops.
So all of that stuff started to enter my consciousness and my having some feeling and my beginning to identify with other black people that, hey, we've got some problems that need working on.
Moorhus: You said that you were identified for this gifted program going into Hyde Park High School. As you described that, you identified that you were one of three blacks, and that must have been something that you were conscious of at that time.
Simpson: Yes, because this was after my—I went to high school at thirteen.
Moorhus: Did you experience what you perceived as discrimination in high school?
Simpson: It was in high school—and the same thing has happened with my own children—that these close friendships that you've had as elementary school children begin to change. I had a lot of contact with white students because we were in this group, but I noticed that most of the other black students hung together. And I had to make these efforts to walk in both these worlds, to continue to have friends that lived in my neighborhood, but yet most of my classes were with white students that I might have to study with. But when boys start becoming a factor, with these close white girlfriends of yours, it changes. It happened with my daughter in high school. When you get to be the teenage years, those really close, wonderful friendships that you had begin to—it's a whole different relationship. And I don't know if it's the dating scene and the parties that you start going to—I'd be invited to the black parties, I wouldn't be invited to their [white friends] parties. It changed then. I still have white friends that I went to high school with, but it was different, and I always felt from that time on that they thought that they were just a little tiny bit better than I was. No matter how good the grades were or if I got the lead in the play, I felt that there were things they could do and places they could go that I couldn't—that I could not.
Moorhus: And was that true in Chicago?
Simpson: That was true in Chicago. Well, you had South Shore Country Club, and no blacks belonged. You know that. And they were going to bar mitzvahs and to parties, and the separation began socially.
Moorhus: As you said, that was a period when that whole community of Woodlawn was changing.
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Moorhus: Tell me more memories of high school and what kinds of influences you were under, what you felt the expectations and opportunities were for you, and then what you wanted to do after high school.
Simpson: High school was good. As I said, I had real interesting classes in this program. We did a lot more that other students did, and we had field trips that other people didn't. I was in everything—student council, and I was in the honor society, and I sang in the a cappella choir. I was in the plays. It was in my junior year when I joined the newspaper staff. I became what would probably be the equivalent of the gossip columnist for all the homerooms. People would feed in the bits and pieces of news, and I had a column that was called "Division News." Each of the homerooms was called a division. I thought that was really neat. I got to ask people questions, I got to write down these things and see it appear in the paper. And it was quite a nice high school newspaper. I think it was eight pages, and it was weekly. So there was quite a good staff. I thought this is really interesting.
I had wanted to be an artist. I drew fairly well like my dad did, and I went to art classes at the Art Institute, and I used to think about being a commercial artist. But when I started writing—I mean, even though I enjoyed the acting, I never thought about some day becoming an actress.
I just thought that was fun. That was extracurricular and dressing up in costumes having people applaud you, take bows at the end. That was just kind of neat. But I really loved working for the newspaper staff and asking people questions and going to some of the events and getting the best seat up front because you're reporting. [Laughter.] You're reporting for the paper.
I had an English teacher that thought I wrote pretty well. And she was advisor for the paper and she said, "Have you ever thought about being a newspaper reporter?" I'd never heard the word "journalism," and the only newspaper reporters that I had heard of were Brenda Starr and Lois Lane in the comic strips. But I thought, "Hey, they live pretty glamorous lives." [Laughter.] And I began to think of myself as a colored Lois Lane or Brenda Starr.
So it was in my junior year in high school that I decided, wow, this is really interesting. Having a teacher, and I don't remember this teacher's name, unfortunately, but having a teacher who even planted that in my mind was, again, really important.
Moorhus: A woman?
Simpson: It was a woman teacher, yes.
Moorhus: Was she white?
Simpson: She was.
Moorhus: And you never had the feeling that she was in any way saying your options would be limited?
Simpson: Not at all. She probably thought I would be working for the Chicago Defender or Ebony magazine. She just thought I wrote really well, and since I seemed to enjoy it so much and enjoyed the writing—writing was very easy for me. Some people find it a painful process, but I was always able to write easily, and I had learned that writing is part thinking and the other half is writing, so that was an easy process for me to sit down and kind of organize my thoughts and think it through, where I'd start and where I'd begin, and then start writing. So I enjoyed it a lot. And then having that payoff of seeing your name in print was really exciting to me.
So I go home and tell my parents one day that I want to become a journalist. And they go, "A what? What's a journalist?" [Laughter.] And I said, "A newspaper reporter. I want to become a newspaper reporter." And they're going, "You must be crazy!" I mean, my mother had visions of my becoming a teacher. Her plan all along was that I would become an English teacher. She thought I'd surely have a job, that I'd be able to take care of myself. It was very important to my mother that my sister and I went to college and had a job where we did not have to depend on a man to take care of us. I don't know why it was so important to her. As I said, there were stable marriages. She had not gone to college, but she saw for us getting a college degree so we could make more money, so that we could be self-sufficient, that we would not have to depend on any man to take care of us. "And if something happened, if you do get married, if something were to happen to your husband or something, I want you to have a profession, that you'll be able to work."
And, of course, at that time just about the only things that young women—black or white—aspired to were nursing, teaching and social work. Those were the three fields, pretty much, that college-educated women went into. I told her I didn't want to be a teacher; I really wanted to be a journalist. And we fought and argued, and fought and argued, and my mother wanted me first of
all to get a teaching degree. "And then if you want journalism later, then do that later, but let's make sure you can get a job." I mean, she was convinced I would not get a job. And my father goes, "This is really crazy. How could you think of something like this to do?" But I really wanted it, and they saw that I really wanted it, and said, "Okay, if this is what you want." I'm grateful for that.
Moorhus: So the argument probably went on over several weeks?
Simpson: Oh, yes. This was getting up to applying to colleges, and there was never any question that I would go to college. It was just this, "You need to do this first, and then you can do that other thing." But I said, "Why would I waste the time? I'm not going to be happy doing that, and I think I can do this."
So they finally relented and said, "Okay, if that's what you want." So I applied to Northwestern Medill School of Journalism, which at that time was the best journalism school. It's right outside Chicago, and I applied. I had a B-plus average. I had everything that you would think a college would want. I had high test scores on the college boards, I had a B-plus average in school, plus all of these activities, plus two years working on the high school newspaper. I mean, my god, what else could you want from a student coming in?
I applied, and I was called for an interview, and I went up to Northwestern and had an interview with one of the admissions counselors. They said, "Why do you want to come to Northwestern Medill School of Journalism?" And I said, "Because you have an excellent program, and I want to be a journalist. It's as simple as that." And this admissions counselor was very kindly—a white man—very kindly, very patronizing, and he said, "I'm going to level with you. If you went here, you probably wouldn't be able to get a job. If you got a job, probably the only places you could work would be Chicago Defender or Ebony magazine, and I think you'd be much better off applying to Chicago Teachers College and being a nice English teacher."
And I was just, you know, hearing my parents. I hear this and I knew what was going to happen. And, sure enough, a few months later, I got the letter, "We regret to inform you that—" So Northwestern turned me down. And I had put all my eggs in that basket. I mean, I was so confident that I would get in, that I had everything that they could possibly want in terms of a student. My sister had gone there for voice school, to the music school, and so I thought the sibling—I really thought this is where I was going to be able to go. It was a big disappointment when I found out I couldn't go.
So I went to the University of Illinois that was at Navy Pier, you know, the Circle Campus is there now, but what was the circle campus was at Navy Pier, and I went there for two years. And I continued to work, I worked on the paper. Navy Pier had a paper. I was continuing this. And then as a sophomore I applied to Michigan, University of Michigan.
Moorhus: What year did you graduate from high school?
Moorhus: Why did you choose Michigan after two years?
Simpson: After two years? Because I thought it was a great university. It had a terrific reputation. I had written them about their journalism program. It was a department of journalism at that time; it wasn't a school. I thought of Missouri, which was the other good
journalism school, but Michigan had the reputation of being the Harvard of the West. All that stuff came into play, and I just thought it was great. And I liked the Big Ten schools and liked being in the Midwest.
Their program was such that the great emphasis was on economics, political science, history—a minimum of journalism courses and a maximum of a broad liberal education which they felt would best serve you. Technology will change, techniques, you know, you get some writing courses, and you understand how to write, but it's more important that you be grounded strongly in a liberal arts education. That sounded good to me, plus if I decided to do anything else, like go to law school or something, having a good strong liberal arts background would serve me well.
So I went to Michigan as a junior—that was 1960—and I was the only black in the entire school at that time. There were none others, and in 1962, when I graduated, I was the only black graduating among sixty graduates. And at school, I went to all the job interviews on campus at the placement bureau. I wanted a newspaper job. And every place I went, I got the same story that I had three strikes against me: I was a Negro, I was a woman, and I was inexperienced. Nobody wanted to hire me. And now I'm thinking about the admissions counselor, and now I'm thinking about my parents, and, I mean, being very, very upset that I could not get a job, that no one wanted to hire me, and that I had these three strikes against me, but there was nothing I could do about it. I was all three of those things, but it's like, "How do you get started?" I kept going, "Well, how do I get experience? I mean, if you're not going to hire me, where am I supposed to get experience?" They suggested, "Maybe your community newspaper," and I had done that. I had done that during my summers.
Moorhus: Did you work on the Michigan Daily?
Simpson: I did. Tom Hayden was editor of the Daily when I was there. I did all the stuff you were supposed to do, and clearly my race, more than anything else—I mean, they say sex was a part of it, and I'm sure it was a part of it, too. And it was '62. It was before the civil rights movement.
I was so devastated that I could not get—I mean, no matter how small the paper was, now matter how big, Ann Arbor News, everything—I was applying for everything. And no one would hire me.
So I went to work, after graduation, at the Chicago Public Library, where I had worked every summer from the time I was sixteen. I had a job at the library. I would work after school and on Saturdays. I went to work full-time at the Chicago Public Library, because I couldn't get a job and was trying to use the summer to continue to look for a job. The head of the [journalism] department was Wesley Maurer, who's now ninety-five years old. He and I were at the University of Missouri in 1990 when I got one of their Distinguished Journalism Awards, and he was there, and I hadn't seen him in all these years. He felt terrible about my situation, you know, "We've trained her and we've got to find her a job," and he assured me before I left [Michigan], "I'm going to find you something. Don't you worry. Over the summer I'm going to be looking. I'm going to see if I can get an internship for you which would be working towards your master's degree, but working in a job," so that the university would kind of be the wedge to get me in.
That's why I gave $15,000 to the department of journalism when I gave the commencement address in May of this year . I was the commencement speaker at LS&A.* Because the university really, really—and Wesley Maurer, I will never forget, trying very hard to get me in and caring. I was graduated. He didn't have to care about that.
But I'm feeling really disappointed, and my parents, thankfully, did not say, "We told you so." But I felt really kind of foolish, that I'd been foolish and that I'd been stubborn, and now look at me working in the Chicago Public Library.
Moorhus: And you went back home to live?
Simpson: Went back home. Left Ann Arbor and came home for that summer, still hoping against hope that something would come through. Tribune—I tried all the newspapers in Chicago. But I was still thinking newspapers at this point. Broadcasting never entered my mind.
I had met my future husband [James Marshall]. He was an engineering student at Michigan, and we were dating. He wanted to get married, even though he had another year. The engineering program, you know, is five years there. He had another year to go, and I could have done that. I could have gotten married and just forgot about it, which was what most of my friends were doing—left college and got married. Most of them got married right after college.
Now it had become a challenge. I was just determined. I had prepared, I'd done everything. "I've done everything you say I have to do and somebody's going to hire me." Now it was really a challenge, and I was bound and determined that I would get a job.
So in August, Professor Maurer called me at home, and he said, "I've lined up an internship for you in September at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama." [Laughter.] Now, you know my feelings about the South after what I had been through. And I'm going, "Tuskegee Institute?"
Moorhus: "This is progress?" [Laughter.]
Simpson: "In Alabama?" And he goes, "Carole, you know, it could turn out to be very good. They need a journalism instructor, and they want an editor for their information bureau, writing press releases, and you can work towards your master's degree here at Michigan in communications. The money is really good." And it actually was. It was $5,800 a year, which was more than most of my fellow graduates were getting back in 1962, and it was a lot more money than my father ever made as a mail carrier. I considered this really something. And he said, "You'll have new experiences." I mean, he was trying to persuade me, "You can make use of this, and this is not all bad, and this is good, and don't worry about it."
So I took the job and went to Alabama, dreading the South. It's still a segregated South in 1962, and Governor [George] Wallace was the governor of Alabama, vowing "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." But I went because it was the only job I had, and it turned out to be a really good job in many respects. One, because I went from urban Chicago, big city, urban area, now to a small rural town, predominantly black in the deep South at the height of segregation. This was a whole new thing I had to get used to. I'd never been in a predominantly black situation. It was a black college. The people were very rural. I had never been around very rural blacks before. I had to learn a lot, because I didn't speak to people, and
* College of Literature, Science and the Arts, University of Michigan.
they thought I was stuck up. But you don't speak to people in the city of Chicago. When people walk up and down the street and say "Hello" to you, you don't say "Hello" back, but in the South you do. And I had to learn how to speak to people, "Good morning. How are you doing today?" even if you didn't know them. I didn't know about speaking to strangers.
There was the whole situation about my color which I wasn't aware of, of being a light-skinned black and being looked down upon by the darker-skinned blacks who always felt, you know, the whole difference of the house niggers and the field niggers. The house niggers were the light-skinned ones that the master was more comfortable with in and around his house, and they had advantages that the darker-skinned field niggers did not have. And I didn't realize there were churches—you had to pass the brown paper bag test. If you were darker than a brown paper bag, you didn't go to this church, or you didn't belong to this organization. Because there were people of all shades in my family. Many people were fair skinned, but they married brown-skinned people, so I had grown up in a family where people were all different colors, and I was not aware in the South, that light-skinned people still enjoyed advantages that others—I was referred to as "high yellow" down there, because I was fair skinned, and it's a derogatory term. I hated that term. So I tried very hard, in this new environment, to adapt to it. I guess that's the hallmark of my life, making adaptations where you need to make them.
I've got to go back to Michigan, too, because there's a lot of stuff about race at Michigan which I did not talk about, if you're interested.
Moorhus: Oh, absolutely.
Simpson: It was an amazing experience [in Alabama]. And the whole segregation thing there, when the bus, the freedom rides began, and stuff was starting at Michigan when I left, SNCC was forming, Students for Democratic Society, the freedom rides, a lot of freedom rides left from Michigan to go South. So I wanted to be a part of that movement in a way that I thought I could. So they were beginning to break down the barriers. We'd have to go to Montgomery, Alabama, to shop, and I would use the restrooms that blacks were still afraid to use. I would stand in the bus stations—in the areas, not the colored waiting room, but in my own little way, doing my little piece to integrate, and having it be very frightening. No one ever touched me, but I had white men say very derogatory things to me when I would try to do things, like, "How big is your pussy?" and "You black bitch slut," and all kind of nasty things. And you take it. You know, I did nothing heroic, but it was my own little way of helping to integrate the South, which at times was kind of scary.
Moorhus: Had your parents expressed any concern about your going to Alabama?
Simpson: Yes. But what could I—I again had to prove that I could do this and that I could get a job in my field.
Moorhus: But did they warn you or did they try to discourage you?
Simpson: Not discourage me. Because I was fairly close to where my grandfather was in Georgia, I could go to Atlanta on the weekends and stuff like that, so I felt I'd have a support system, kind of, down there. And because I was mostly in a predominantly black community, most of my working was just involved with black people, so they didn't think I'd be coming into contact with a lot of the racism anyhow. But it was scary times, very, very scary times.
Moorhus: Do you want to go back to Michigan and some of the other things that were going on there?
Simpson: Yes. At Michigan, when I was there, as I told you I was the only black in the [journalism] department, but there were only sixty-five black students at the University of Michigan out of 35,000 students. Well, you probably know that. And we tried to be part of the university community. And some of this I spoke about in my commencement address, of how different—I gave the commencement address three days after the Rodney King verdict,* and L.A. [Los Angeles] was in flames still when I spoke on May second  at the University of Michigan. I had written a nice commencement address, and I had to throw it out, and I had to deal with Rodney King and the racism and what was happening. As I told the students, "This is not the speech I wanted to give, but I've got to talk about this. You've got to talk about this."
I tried to explain to them some of the experiences that I had, that they found shocking, that I, as a black student at Michigan, had to confront. We would go to the mixers; nobody would mix with us. We were segregated—I don't know if you remember at the Michigan Union Grill, the black students, I think, still do this, but we kind of were in a corner, kind of sat in one area. It didn't start off that way. We would sit down with our trays, and people would get up—white students would get up. So you end up coming together like this. We were trying to be integrated into that university community, and could not.
I lived in Mosher, and there were three black girls in the dorm. We would sit down at the table. I would sit down with my tray, and the whole table would get up. Now, this is the University of Michigan! I'm not in Alabama. I'm not in Georgia.
Moorhus: And this is 1960. It's not 1950.
Simpson: Yes! Exactly. Exactly. And I was just shocked that this was going on. I had white roommates, and one of them was Polish, from Hamtramck, outside Detroit, Michigan. She came and visited with me for Thanksgiving, and she wanted me to come to her house, but her family would not have me. She and her family had a falling-out that probably persists to this day. She couldn't believe that. She could not believe that someone that was a close, close friend and her roommate at school would not be able to come and visit with her family. They did not want me sleeping under their roof. They finally relented and said that maybe I could come for dinner. But she told me this. I mean, she was so shocked and it hurt her, because she never knew that her parents felt that way. She had never really had any contact with black students. We had a wonderful relationship. We had great fun together.
Moorhus: What was her name?
Simpson: Her name was Kathy Rogalski. I'm not in contact with her. She couldn't believe that her parents would be—and then she began to question lots of things they told her. You know, "You're wrong about this. You're wrong. She's wonderful. She's my friend, I want her there." I was like, "Kathy, I don't want to go. I really don't want to go."
* Riots erupted in Los Angeles after four white police officers were acquitted of charges in the beating of black motorist Rodney King, despite a videotape of the incident.
Also at Michigan, the house mother referred to us—the three girls in the dorm—as her Negresses. I had never heard this word before. "Yes, I have three Negresses." And she referred to us as the Negresses. It was very hard.
One of my best friends that is now a professor at Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina in psychology, she was living in Cousins [Hall]—a black girl. She moved in in the fall of our senior year, and her roommate was already there. She'd been assigned—you know, you get the housing assignments over the summer. So she moves in, and this girl goes down to the housing office and says, "I will not room with a Negro. She's got to go." And I can remember her calling me, asking me if I could come help her move. Now it's so hard to believe that we didn't even protest it. If she didn't like it, why didn't she move? No, here we are, dragging all her stuff, boxing up her stuff, and it wasn't even on the same floor. We had to go up and down stairs carrying her stuff, because this one refused to [live with her].
In 1968 when the Cornell students—and all the stuff started happening at the universities—and at Northwestern, where black students were demanding their own houses and demanding their own organizations and clubs, I mean, I could understand it, because it was already forced upon you. When you tried to integrate, you were not allowed to mix like that.
My husband, nobody would cut their hair. They would go to the barber shops. My husband doesn't have very curly black hair. His hair is fairly straight. Certainly white barbers know how to cut their kind of hair. None of the black guys could get their hair cut in Ann Arbor, Michigan. No barber shops would take them. I remember my husband, when he wanted to move off campus—he was living in West Quad [Quadrangle], and he and two roommates wanted to get an apartment. They went all over the city of Ann Arbor, unable to rent apartments that were vacant, and their white friends after them could come right in and take the apartments.
So again, all this race stuff is happening. You don't want to face it, but it's right in your face. It was so much in your face. And that does radicalize you. It radicalized me, not to hate whites, but to fight the injustice, to fight the racism. I understood that there were lots of white students, like my friend Kathy, who hadn't had contact. And that's why I felt integration was so important. If we come in contact with each other, we have a chance to get beyond these kinds of things. But if we're all together, you know—you'll see that your concerns are the same as mine.
Moorhus: You said that your husband was in the engineering school. How many blacks were in the engineering school? Do you know?
Simpson: I think, in his class, two. I don't know about the whole—but graduating with him there were two.
Moorhus: So, if there were only sixty-five black students on campus, you all got to know each other.
Simpson: Oh, yes, and we're still in contact. The university pulled together a bunch of them to come back and celebrate the commencement weekend with me, and they're all doing extremely well. When we look back, I mean, there wasn't one student that we went to school with that isn't doing very, very well—an executive of Honeywell, one is a conductor, one of the assistant conductors for the Detroit Symphony. My husband is vice president of a management consulting firm here. Doctors, lawyers, General Motors executives. They all did extremely well, extremely well.
Moorhus: It was certainly a difficult period.
Simpson: It was.
Moorhus: Let's take a break for a few minutes. [Tape interruption.]
Where would you like to pick it up again?
Simpson: At Michigan. I had a great education. I continued to act. I was in the junior girls' play, and I was president of my sorority, my black sorority. I was not an A student in college. I was probably a B-minus student, but I got so much from college because I was involved in so many things, from the sorority, where I sat on the Pan Hellenic Council and had organizational skills in planning parties and providing leadership to young black women; the play, again giving me more confidence. I had like the third lead in the junior girls' play, working on the newspaper.
I had a boyfriend. We went to the football games. I lived the college life to the fullest and enjoyed every minute of it, despite the racism things. I look back on those years at Michigan as a very wonderful, wonderful time and wonderful experiences, probably the last really carefree, wonderful period of my life. And the education I got there, I think was just terrific with the strong liberal arts, the economics, the politics.
When I look back after having been a reporter for twenty-five years, there is not one course that I had in school that I have not had to draw on. Whether it's my languages—I took French at Michigan, and I also took Spanish in high school—but I was in Paris last November doing some stories for Peter Jennings' show, and I found myself at one point in a store with nobody along who spoke French. We have a Paris bureau, so we had translators when we went out doing stories. And I was amazed. I haven't spoken French, or tried to, in years. I've always been able to translate, but not able to speak at all. And I'm in this store and trying to tell this salesclerk, who spoke no English, that I wanted a size smaller. And I'm thinking and I'm thinking and the words were there. I haven't said those words or thought those words, and it was amazing to me that that stuff is still in your brain somehow. And for the eight days that I was there, I continued to try to draw on my French, and it was there. That was so amazing to me.
Throughout my years as a reporter, I may have had to interview a Nobel Prize-winning scientist with my pitiful knowledge of physics I've had to draw on, or social psychology, covering riots and things like that, or geography. Everything I had in school, as a reporter I've had to draw on. When people say education is irrelevant—you hear kids go, "Oh, you need to really just do it," in this kind of job, where I don't know from day to day what kind of story I might be covering or whom I might be interviewing, I have appreciated the good education that I got. That special honors group in high school and all my college stuff has meant a great deal.
Moorhus: Was it important to you at Michigan that it was journalism, but basically a liberal arts education?
Simpson. Yes. Yes, because, my god, if I had taken all journalism courses—at some universities in the last two years you are pretty much specializing—I wouldn't have had economics. We're covering the budget deficit now. We're covering these people's economic plans. I'm analyzing these presidential candidates' economic plans for rebuilding the city and getting the economy back on track. Had I not had economics, it would be a lot harder to know what these forces are and that kind of stuff. And certainly the history, and certainly political science.
Moorhus: Do you remember special professors?
Simpson: No. Really, Professor Maurer was the one I remember the most because he cared. [Laughter.] He cared.
I want to tell you something else about Tuskegee. I was twenty-one years old when I went, when I graduated from Michigan and went down to Tuskegee, Alabama. When I anchored the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings for two days last year, I was so amazed that a lot of women could not, or did not, believe her. As a twenty-one year old, first job out of college, I go to Tuskegee Institute. My boss was the vice president for development at the university. He was a very respected black man in that community. He was married, he had four sons, and not only was he my boss, because I worked for him, but he was also grading me toward my graduate work at the University of Michigan.
I started getting the calls, "Can you meet me at the office tonight at eight o'clock? We've got a project that we've got to get out tomorrow." There wasn't a whole lot of work. He just kind of wanted to chat, and I began to get uncomfortable by this. But it got to the point over the two-year period that I worked for him that he physically attacked me in his office, trying to force himself upon me. And I remember the shame. Did I do something? What did I do to make this man—and then realizing I hadn't done anything. Why is this man doing this to me? And not knowing what to do. What do I do, a twenty-one-year-old or a twenty-two-year-old? Do I go to his boss, who's the president of the university, to say that this man, who is this paragon of the community, has been coming on to me and almost sexually assaulted me? I couldn't tell my father, who would have come down there and killed him if he had heard. And so when I heard all this stuff with Anita Hill, and that people couldn't believe—I had been in that situation.
Through the years I have continued contact with this man. I tried to make it plain, we're not going to have that kind of relationship, but I didn't know how to handle that. I didn't know how to do that, but yet I continued [contact] once I thought I had made it clear, "We're not going to have that kind of relationship." I have stayed in contact just like she did, and people go, "Well, why would she stay in contact?" And it's the same kind of thing. If you think you've made it clear, "I'm not interested in you that way," that you can go on. This man was grading me, and this man, I have called upon and talked to about different issues and things like that.
But it was at Tuskegee Institute that I suffered my first bout of sexual harassment and not knowing what to do. I identified with her [Anita Hill] so strongly, and realizing that it was the only job. Remember how difficult it was for me to get a job. I couldn't leave this job, and that was 1962, '63, '64. It was still before women had—these were things you had to put up with. But I can remember not being able to talk to anyone about it and being so afraid I had done something to make this man treat me this way. I just thought you'd be interested to know that.
Moorhus: Absolutely. How soon after you started working for him did this begin, and how long after you confronted him with it did you stay there to work?
Simpson: It was six months before it started, and then it continued for a year and a half. I was there for two years.
Moorhus: So it continued the entire length of time you were there?
Simpson: Yes. Yes, of calling me at strange times, "I just wanted to talk to you. My wife doesn't understand me. I love my wife, but I can be attracted to you." [Laughter.] I mean, listening to
this stuff, and he knew I had a boyfriend. But it was such an uncomfortable—and not knowing how to handle that is as a very young woman. Of course, today I'd know how to handle it in a minute. But feeling that discomfort of not knowing, and I had to come around him all the time. I had to see him every day, and he was cutting his eyes at me while other people were in the room. I mean all that, that I was so afraid someone would see, and I didn't want anybody to think I was having an affair with him, or what would his wife think, whom I had met. It was awful, pretty awful. He tore my clothes. My clothes were torn.
Moorhus: Oh, for heaven's sake.
Simpson: Oh, yes. He physically attacked me, and I got away, fought myself away.
Moorhus: And yet you still had to continue working for him?
Simpson: Still had to continue to work for him. Yes. Twice he did that to me.
Simpson: Yes. And not knowing what to do. What do I do? "Please leave me alone."
Moorhus: And there wasn't anybody that you could talk to about this?
Simpson: I was afraid. I somehow thought that I was somehow responsible for it, or that people would think I was responsible. No, there was no one I could talk to. Actually, who I ended up talking to was my boyfriend, who was still at Michigan, and calling him up, and "They ought to fire him. You ought to call the police." I mean he was [saying], "You ought to do something." But I think he's about the only person that I told, even though we were not that close. We remained friends. We didn't marry until five years after we left Michigan, but we were friends all through that time, so I would call him from time to time.
Moorhus: That's an ugly story, isn't it?
Simpson: It is. I hadn't thought about it for a while. I saw Anita Hill this morning, and I started thinking about it.
Moorhus: You were very involved in civil rights activities during this period, and you talked a little bit about that, and I want you to go on with that. But also, what was your daily work like?
Simpson: At Tuskegee?
Moorhus: At Tuskegee. What kinds of things were you working on?
Simpson: Three days a week I had a morning class, like at nine o'clock, and I taught journalism. It was in the English department, but it was for students who might be interested in that. And it was such a shock to me, the quality of the student that I had. Many of them had gone to rural, segregated schools in the South, and they were college students who couldn't spell, who could not put a sentence together, and I found myself almost having to teach them subject, predicate, punctuation, capitalization. It was so astounding to me, because they were clearly bright kids, but just had not had the opportunities at all. I really saw the effects of segregated education in the South, and the inferior schools. And then when I talked to them about some of the schools that they had, you know, "What books did you have?" and, "Did you do this?" and, "Did you have that?"
—they didn't have anything. And I just compared, because I wasn't much older than they were. I'm teaching at twenty-one. And such a difference from what I had had in my high school and what I'd been exposed to that they had not. One of them is now a sports editor for the New York Times, another one is managing editor at the Atlanta Constitution. Some of these kids, just taking one little journalism course, I mean, they really turned on to the field and have gone on.
Moorhus: What are their names?
Simpson: James McJunkins. I can't remember the guy at the Atlanta Constitution.
Moorhus: McJunkins is at the New York Times?
Simpson: He's at the New York Times. And I'll have to think about that. I think it's Peter Scott, but I'm not sure.
Moorhus: So you had a long lasting impact on these kids?
Simpson: Yes. And I was advisor to the student newspaper, and one of the things that we did in my class—the newspaper functioned as a student activity, but my students would do articles that would appear in the monthly newspaper—and I was advisor to the student paper and that was great fun. I mean really putting it together, layout, and taking it to the printer and distributing it and all of that, I really loved teaching. And some day I want to do that.
I taught at Northwestern, which we'll get to later, but teaching, you really see the difference that you're making with someone. I could see those kids come in, and even at Northwestern, very bright students with many advantages coming in with their complex sentences and sixty-four-dollar words, and you know, getting them to write for a mass audience, and seeing that progress which was so rewarding. I do a story and sometimes there is feedback and people react, and I get wonderful feedback on some of the stories I do, but actually seeing. When it goes out on the airwaves, it's kind of out there and you deliver it and you wonder how much is making a difference, and sometimes there are clear ways it is.
But I just found it fascinating to take those kids and get them excited about the subject and move them in the direction of really being able to write under pressure and write clear concise language and declarative sentences and good communication. It was just terrific. I really loved that.
And then I would teach that course, and after school we would work on the newspaper, but the rest of the day I was writing press releases for the university.
[End Tape 1, Side B; Begin Tape 2, Side A]
Moorhus: You were talking about the press releases you wrote.
Simpson: I covered the football games, and most of the stuff was printed in the black press, the Atlanta Daily World, Jet magazine, and so on, but it was honing my writing skills. I was continuing to write, and I'd have to go report. If somebody famous came to the college I would go and talk to them. I also edited a newsletter that was an internal newsletter for faculty and staff about happenings in the university, and it was a wonderful experience.
My first broadcasting opportunity happened at Tuskegee Institute. There were quite a few African students there, and the Voice of America contacted the university and said, "Is there anyone that can interview some of your students or do some pieces for the Voice of America for our African outlets?" And I began doing some interviews with the African students, so it was kind of the first broadcasting that I really did. I never knew whether they used it or not, but once a month I would find somebody and interview them, and send in a tape. It might be a fifteen-, twenty-minute tape.
Moorhus: That's an incredibly rich, complex, and responsible kind of position for somebody to have right out of college.
Simpson: That's what I'm saying. It turned out to be a wonderful job. And, as I said, the money was good compared to what some other people [got] that had gone off. All of my fellow graduates went off to their radio and TV and PR and newspaper jobs. I was making actually one of the highest salaries. And I had this wealth of experience, not only personally, living in totally different environment than I had grown up, but the wonderful experiences of working—working with the students, teaching, and learning about all that. I mean, nobody told me what to do; I just kind of did it.
Moorhus: Were you reporting back to Professor Maurer?
Simpson: Yes. Once a month I would have to send him reports on what I had done or what was interesting. It was kind of like a monthly progress report, and my boss had to do the same thing, "She's involved in this," or, "Her failings are here," and that's what I was wondering. What is he sending back to Professor Maurer? But I got As for the work that went towards the graduate degree, which I never finished there.
Moorhus: So you didn't finish the degree?
Simpson: Not at Michigan, no.
Moorhus: Can you talk a little bit more about some of the civil rights activities you were involved in?
Simpson: Well, there were just those little personal things. I wasn't involved in any marches. Again, because we were in a black community where, I mean, the town was 80 percent black—the town of Tuskegee, Alabama. And I was in the university community which is out from it, so there wasn't a lot of civil rights activity as part of the university community. It was just my little personal attempts when I was out and about in Montgomery and whatever, of trying not to use the segregated facilities and making a stand and letting people see that things are changing—at some small personal risk, I guess, to me. You never know when you're doing stuff like that.
Moorhus: What was your social life like?
Simpson: Not great. [Laughter.] I spent a lot of time with the students, and most of the other faculty were married and older, so there weren't many opportunities to move in those circles. And I was closer in age to the students, so there were some graduate students—we might have parties once in a while. We'd go to all the stuff that was on campus. There wasn't anything else in Alabama to do. So it revolved around the football games, parties afterwards, and that kind of stuff, church.
Moorhus: You went there in September of '62 and you stayed two years?
Moorhus: So you were there in the fall of '63 when President [John F.] Kennedy was assassinated. What do you remember about that?
Simpson: Oh, god. I hadn't thought about that in a long time. I lived in a dorm. There was a dorm for graduate students. There weren't apartments. There were either houses or the dorms in that small rural community. So I lived in a dorm, and I had gone home for lunch. I had like a little hot plate, and I remember warming up some soup. I was just going to have some soup and crackers and tea, and the television was on. Because I was often alone, television is like your companion, so it's kind of on as background noise. Even to this day, when I go into hotel rooms, the first thing I do is click on the TV just so I don't feel so alone.
But I remember having the TV on, I think maybe there was a soap opera on or something like that, and I can remember the bulletin with Walter Cronkite. It was, first of all, just a slide up and said, "We interrupt this program to bring you a special bulletin from CBS News." And I can remember the announcer saying, "This just in. President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas, Texas. It's all the details we have. We'll bring you more." Then you think maybe it's shot in the shoulder. It didn't—I mean, it was shocking, but it didn't seem like it was that bad. And then I can remember Walter Cronkite coming on a few minutes later and him being visibly shaken and moved, and it appears he [Kennedy] was shot in the head and he's been rushed to Parkland Hospital.
I remember hearing that and [being] just stunned. It was disbelief. And then I could hear wailing outside my windows. The word was spreading around the campus. I can remember hearing screaming from students, because it was lunchtime, and people were up and down, and you could just hear all this. And people began to gather, and they put on the loudspeaker, the TV broadcast so that people could hear. And I can remember just people crying and crying. It was horrible. It was absolutely horrible. And then we found out he was dead, and more crying and crying. He was very much loved in the South. I remember there was a memorial service later in the day. Classes were suspended. The next day, I think they were suspended so people could watch the coverage. Was it on a Friday or was it a Thursday?
Moorhus: It was a Thursday.
Simpson: I don't remember myself crying that much, but reacting to others crying. I would feel welled up because I was really surprised at the reaction. I hadn't had that gut feeling about John F. Kennedy that apparently many in the South had, and I guess because of Martin Luther King [Jr.], when he was in jail,* integrating the University of Alabama, and stuff like that, he [Kennedy] meant a whole lot to black people down there.
Moorhus: Do you remember whether or not your career and profession as a journalist was affected by watching the coverage or being particularly alert to, or sensitive to, the way this major event was covered?
* The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was arrested April 12, 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama.
Simpson: No, not at all. Again, I was still wanting to be a newspaper reporter, so watching the television coverage, I was just part of the rest of the American audience watching this. No, I can't remember that making me say, "Gee, I want to do this," or, "I should be covering this."
Moorhus: When did you leave Tuskegee, and why, and where did you go?
Simpson: As I told you, things were pretty uncomfortable with that boss I had, and I figured that I couldn't get a newspaper job with just a bachelor's degree, but surely if I had another degree, somebody would hire me. So I started applying to graduate schools in journalism. I really was stupid and thought, "Well, they'll have to hire me if I have another degree." So I started applying to several universities, and ended up accepting an offer from the University of Iowa which would include a fellowship, working on the Radio Television News Directors Association Bulletin. It was the journal of that organization, RTNDA, and the professor that I would be working for, I would be assigned to him and I would work with him, because I had the experience laying out the newspaper and stuff, and this was all layout and headlines and really putting this publication together. And it was going to pay me $1,000 or something, which would help. My parents couldn't afford to send me to graduate school, so I had saved up my money. There wasn't a whole lot to spend it on in Alabama for two years, so I was able to save money, and I put myself through graduate school at the University of Iowa.
It was at the University of Iowa that I was trying to fit a two-hour course into my schedule. I had room for one two-hour course, and the only thing that fit into my schedule was a radio-TV workshop. I had not thought about broadcasting. I was going to still be a newspaper reporter, and I majored in the print discipline at the school of communications, but this radio-TV workshop was the only thing that fit. And the people at the radio-TV workshop also did newscasts for the radio station. So I thought I'd audition for the radio station, because I had spoken, I had done all these plays and stuff like that, and I had done these Voice of America things, and I thought maybe, "Let me try out for the station."
And I became the first woman to broadcast news on WSUI in Iowa City. Although it was the campus radio station, it was heard throughout Iowa City. The whole community heard it. And I loved it, because I got to write and I got to report, and then I had this added thing of being able to go on the air with my material, and people hearing you and hearing your name and saying your name. And that was it. From then on it was broadcast journalism. I just thought this was the neatest stuff in the world.
I had a professor who's now at San Diego State, Jim Buckalew, who was the professor for that course, and he said, "Carole, I think you ought to try out for broadcast journalism. You've got a great voice." It's now 1964. The civil rights movement is really getting going, '64 and '65. He said, "They're going to need black reporters." And I told him how disappointed I had been, and I couldn't get a job. He said, "I think they're going to be looking for blacks and for women." And he said, "I think you've got real talent."
People weren't used to hearing a female voice, so people reacted, and people remembered my name because they hadn't heard a female voice on the radio doing news. So he said, "You ought to think about that. You ought to seriously consider that." I thought, well, do I want to go into newspapers? At that time, too, newspapers were starting to have some difficulty, and some of them were beginning to fold. It was clear that television was coming on, and more and more people were getting—their primary source of news was television, and so I was still thinking about radio, but I thought eventually maybe I could go into television. And that's when I began to think about it.
It's real interesting, because after I started working in Chicago in broadcasting for a radio station, I was contacted by the news director [Bill Corley] of WMAQ-TV, the NBC station. He said that he had been driving to Des Moines to visit his mother, had been driving through Iowa one day, and had picked me up on the radio in his car, and he remembered the name. I later was working in radio in Chicago and he remembered, "That's the woman I heard in Iowa City." And he offered me my first television job later, but it was from hearing me first on that little tiny radio station in Iowa City. He just happened to be driving along and remembered.
So I left Iowa.
Moorhus: Before you leave Iowa, what was it like being black in Iowa in mid-1960s?
Simpson: Same stuff. [Laughter.]
Moorhus: Same stuff as Ann Arbor?
Simpson: Same at Iowa as Michigan. I dated a Canadian guy. He was a graduate student in journalism, too, and he was from Winnipeg, Canada, so I dated him. Now, here's the first time I've run into this stuff with interracial dating. He and I were stared at constantly. It became so uncomfortable to go out and to be at a movie. I mean, he was Canadian. He didn't even think about any of this at all.
Moorhus: You were just an American. That was enough, right? [Laughter.]
Simpson: That's right. [Laughter.] We had a good time together. And that was really awful. I really thought I could never be in an interracial situation. People today still confront it, I'm sure, but being stared at? Then the black students would give me a hard time about going out with somebody white, and he was being given a hard time by his friends, going out with a black girl. It was too bad. Again, just too bad that we couldn't just be, that society would not let us be, that you're this oddity, you're this strange thing. And, of course, people were used to seeing black guys with white girls, I mean, even the football players at Michigan and some of the football players at Iowa, that was okay. People were kind of used to seeing that because these white girls liked to be with the big, black buck athletes and the football star, which was of great concern to us black girls, but it gave them more stature and more status to be on the arm of a white girl. So people were kind of used to seeing black guys and white girls, but not used to seeing white guys and black girls. And even today there aren't that many, and much more the other way. So that was tough. That was really tough.
Moorhus: What about housing?
Simpson: I was with graduate students, and it was a little bit different. These were older people and people that had been through that, so it wasn't as obvious. Plus the civil rights stuff was happening. People were beginning to be aware. We'd seen the hoses and dogs in Birmingham [May 3-5, 1963], the bombing of the church in Alabama [September 15, 1963]. People were more aware that there were problems with the black community, and, I think, a little beginning to open up with some tolerance that, "Yeah, you people have had a tough time." So I didn't feel the same overt kinds of stuff that I felt at Michigan, and I was really busy in graduate school, so there wasn't a whole lot of socializing.
Moorhus: Were there other black graduate students?
Simpson: No. I was the only one again. [Laughter.] I've been the only one a lot of times. But there again was the pressure to perform well, being the only one. Being the first one gave me this extra burden—the burden I kind of felt of not disappointing my parents. It was the same kind of thing: "I can't disappoint my race." "If I'm given this opportunity to be up there or to be on the air or to be this, I've got to be good." And the same stuff my mother—whatever it is you're gonna do, be the best at it. So I worked very hard to be very good. I made lots of personal sacrifices. When other people were partying, I was studying, because I felt I must excel. I must do well.
Moorhus: Why don't we stop before we get you back to Chicago and pick that up next time.
© 1994, Washington Press Club Foundation.
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