Oral History of June Jeffries
First Interview
October 1, 2018
This interview is being conducted on behalf of the Oral History Project of The Historical
Society of the District of Columbia Circuit. The interviewer is Will Weaver, and the interviewee
is June Jeffries. The interview took place at the Alumni Relations Center in the Hotung Building
at Georgetown Law School on Monday, October 1, 2018. This is the first interview.
MR. WEAVER: To get started, we’re going to kick it off talking about your early life. Tell
me about your parents. Where were they from? What did they do?
MS. JEFFRIES: I will say this. I’m going to tell you my full name. My full name is June
Marie Jeffries Parker, but I commonly go by June M. Jeffries or June
Jeffries. With that, I will say that I am an only child. My mother’s name
was Bettie Wade Jeffries, and my father was Malcolm Sylvester Jeffries.
My mother hails from the Mississippi Delta. She was actually born in the
hills of Lexington. By the time she was around 6 or 7, they had moved to
the Delta to the area of Belzoni, Mississippi. They pronounce it
“Belzona,” but it’s spelled Belzoni, which is the heart of the Delta. It is
the county seat of Humphreys County, about 55 minutes north of Jackson.
My father was born in Farrah in Jasper County, Georgia, in 1914.
My mother was born in 1924. He was the fourth of five children, and I do
believe that in Georgia, my grandparents were sharecroppers, but some
incident occurred in Georgia where the family had to up and move, and
they ended up in West Virginia in coal mining, southern West Virginia,
where my grandfather then became a coal miner. My father worked in the
coal mines for some period of time, and he moved to Detroit in 1934. My
mother moved to Detroit in 1944. Those are my parents.
My father never worked in the auto factories, although when I was
born, he worked for a company, an auto parts supplier, called Timken
Axle, and I know before I started elementary school, he was laid off from
that job, and I believe ultimately they moved to Ohio, and he got like a
payout. Thereafter, my father went to the Post Office. But I’m skipping
My father had some relatives in Detroit. I don’t know who first
came to Detroit, but significantly there were my great uncle and aunt, my
Uncle Pat and his wife, Aunt Lessie, and they owned some properties and
rooming houses which my father lived in, and he was joined in the
rooming house with my mother.
My mother was one of eleven children. She was the seventh child.
The third of four girls. All the girls are born six years apart, so the oldest
child, the oldest of eleven, was my Aunt Fredericka, then Aunt Sadie, then
my mother, then Aunt Ruth. As I said, the family, they were
sharecroppers, and they lived outside of Belzoni, sharecropping at a place
called Four Mile, which I think Four Mile is only like a mile or two
outside of Belzoni, but the land was owned by the Simmons family, which
would include Mr. Mark Simmons, as we would call him, and that would
be Mark Simmons, Sr. And then subsequently after he died, I recently
found out he died in 1939, his son, Mark Simmons, Jr., and I believe
Mark Jr. had a brother and sister, Mr. Rory and Ms. Louise. All of them
are Simmons. So my granddaddy was a sharecropper there. For reasons
that my son and I never could get my mother to fully explain to us was
when she was around 8 years old, she moved into town just a few miles
away to live with her great-aunt because she said her great-aunt told her
parents let that girl come go to school in town. Why she got to go to
school like that and the other ten didn’t, we never could get a handle on
that. But for reasons are pretty clear, my mother seemed to have been
treated I’ll say differently and maybe specially, and not in the way that
made anybody unhappy or dislike her, but I don’t know why she didn’t do
the things like they did, like pick cotton and stuff. She may have said she
picked cotton, but I don’t think my mother picked too much cotton ever at
any point in her life. So she went to school in Belzoni living with her
aunt, and she said that if she wanted to go home, this brings up
Mr. Simmons, and I’m going to talk about the Simmons people too, she
said if she wanted to go home, she could go up to I guess the town square
and Mr. Simmons would be up there doing whatever he did in town, and
she’d say, “Mr. Mark, I want to go home.” My mother back then was
called Pig, and he would say to her, “Well, Pig, you know where my car
is. Be there at 5:00.” So she said at 5:00 she’d go get in Mr. Mark’s big
Black car and he’d come and drive her home, and the next day, he would
let my granddaddy use the car to drive her back into town.
She went to school in Belzoni through 11th grade, but the high
school in Belzoni wasn’t accredited, or only went to 11th grade, or both,
and so she then went to live with a family friend in Greenwood, which is
maybe 30 to 40 miles away, and she graduated there from Greenwood
Colored High School in 1944.
In adulthood, probably in my 40’s if not 50’s, I heard about these
Rosenwald Schools, and I had never heard about that before, but my
mother knew all about them because Julius Rosenwald was connected to
Sears Roebuck and was a millionaire, and he had money available to
communities in the south for the purpose of building schools for the Black
children or maybe they were called “colored” or something else back then.
Apparently, to do that, the local community would have to kick in some
money. My mother said the white people in Belzoni would not kick in the
money for them to have a Rosenwald School in Belzoni. She also said
that with regard to her going to school, somebody told my grandmother
that the white people, the school board, had money available to be used
like she went to Greenwood for education, but I don’t think my
granddaddy went over there and asked because that would probably have
caused problems if you did. So she went to Greenwood.
She finished Greenwood in 1944, and she said she was supposed to
go to cosmetology school in Mississippi, but she had an aunt by marriage,
my Aunt Phyllis, who used to spend time between Detroit and Mississippi,
and when my mother was up in Belzoni or in Greenwood finishing high
school, Aunt Phyllis would write her and tell her that she should come to
Detroit and get a job because Detroit was a good place for a colored girl
with a high school diploma. What happened that summer is my mother
was to go visit Aunt Phyllis for three weeks in Detroit and then she was
going to go see a friend they knew, a lady she called Ms. Sally Ann, that’s
all I knew, in Chicago for a while and then return to Mississippi. But as
my mother said when we sold our house in 2008, she said her three-week
vacation in Detroit turned into 64 years until we sold the house on
Valentine’s Day of 2008. So she got to Detroit, and of course World
War II was going on, and Detroit is or everybody knows what Detroit used
to be, it was this huge industrial place, and there were jobs. She worked at
a few jobs before landing her career in grocery stores. I know she had a
job working at one of the tire company factories during the war where she
said she put a red dot on tires. She had a job first at a laundry, but she was
not cut out for laundry work, so that job didn’t last too long. Of course the
factory jobs for the women ended when the war ended and the men started
coming back home because the men got their jobs back and replaced them.
She ended up working at the grocery stores, and back then, before I was
born, there was I think it was a chain of local grocery stores, C.L. Smith,
and somehow somebody put her in touch with some union people, and
they were trying to get Black women hired to work in grocery stores, and
she ended up being the first Black women to get a job working in a
grocery store as a cashier, and that has meaning to me. But she worked in
a grocery store as a cashier on the east side of Detroit. I think they called
that area Black Bottom. I never really saw it to have any memories of it,
but that’s where we were back then, and that’s how she met my father
because he was a customer, and he would come in and talk to her. He
lived, as I said, in my uncle and aunt’s house, and we had other family
members in the area. My father had a cousin, a woman, and she said the
cousin would come and say somebody said to tell you hello and stuff, so
my mother and father met through her working at the grocery store.
They lived in the rooming house as I said, over on the east side.
We lived on Rivard Street. They lived there, I was born in 1954, in
January, until they bought our house in October of 1955. My mother said
that my father said they had to get June, that’s me, out of the rooming
house and into a house of their own. We moved from there to the west
side of Detroit to our house at 3311 Glynn Court, which was off of Dexter,
between Dexter and Wildemere. When we moved to that neighborhood, it
was a very Jewish neighborhood, and we were the second Black family to
move in, buying our house from the Rubensteins. When we did that, I
think my parents bought a lot of the Rubenstein’s stuff, so we bought a lot
of their furniture and their china and crystal and silver, and so the china
and crystal and silver that we always had at my parents’ house was
originally the Rubensteins’, and when we moved my mother out here, I
packed up the china and crystal and silver, and I have it because I like it.
It’s my plan to pull it out and use it this Thanksgiving.
We moved onto this block in 1955. I started kindergarten in 1959
in January because my birthday is in January, and back then, children
could start school either in September or in January, depending upon when
their birthdays were. January classes were always smaller than the people
who would graduate school in June because if you started in January, you
graduated in January too. People who started in September would
graduate in June. January people are always the smaller group. By the
time I started elementary school, the Jewish people had pretty much
moved out of the area. It didn’t take long. They pretty much moved out
of the area, and on our block, our block was single-family homes, except
that on the end where Dexter is, right on the corner, I guess on the north
side, there was a commercial building but it had apartments on the side
and above, and then at the other end, there was maybe a four-family flat
apartment building, so the only Jewish people and therefore white people
remaining in our neighborhood after 1959 were in that apartment building
down by Dexter on our block. Those people, they’d sit outside, like you
know, you’d have a folding chair, they’d sit outside in the summer, and
they were older. We didn’t really interact with one another, but they all
had their accents, and they were from Eastern Europe, and I’m sure they
had come over because of the war and things that had happened there.
When I was a kid in Detroit, you had a lot of Polish people, and the older
Polish women, they wore babushkas and other things. We had those
people on our block, probably even after the riots, into the early 1970s and
eventually they were gone. What happened with the Jewish people in
Detroit, if I lived on Glynn off of Dexter, you could say they moved out
towards Six Mile, and when the Black people got close out there, they
moved toward Seven Mile, and then when the Black people got out there,
then they just went out to Southfield and places, so — following the
Jewish people as they moved through Detroit.
We had a Jewish bakery on our corner, Epstein’s Bakery. They
had very good brownies. I don’t eat a lot of sweets, but they had really
good brownies, and they had the best onion buns. If I could have one
today. And down Dexter, we had Esquire. They had the world’s best
corned beef sandwiches, and everybody knows that. I wish I could have
one today. I don’t eat a lot of that, but I would eat that.
I should say something else though because my daddy worked for
Timken Axle. Thereafter, my father got a job with the post office, and he
started working nights at the post office. My mother was working at the
grocery store, which was generally daytime or early evening, and in
particular, my father worked nights from the moment he started work at
the post office until he died in 1972 because my parents wanted somebody
home with me. I ended up being an only child. My mother had a
miscarriage a year after I was born, and then when I was six, she had a
full-term stillborn boy, so I was the only child. My daddy would go to
work. I think the routine was he’d wake up about five or ten minutes after
9:00 p.m. He’d come downstairs, and we’d eat dinner, and then he had a
co-worker who would pick him up and ride him to work, and then he’d get
home around 7:00 in the morning. We would eat breakfast, and my father
would take me to school, and then he’d sleep until maybe around 11:15
and be up until around 5:00 or 5:15. So one of the points I’m making is
that I spent a lot of time with my father. In addition to spending a lot of
time with my father, my father had, while he was the fourth of five
children, by the time I was born, it was only him and his youngest brother,
my Uncle Richard, because in the 1930s, back in West Virginia, the older
three children had died of tuberculosis. My grandmother died in the
1930s, so then it was really my grandfather, who we called Doc, and my
father and my uncle, and they functioned as a unit, and they were all very
self-sufficient men, which is one reason why I’m very strong in my
feelings that I don’t like people who don’t have life skills, and that
includes men, and I don’t like men who don’t use their life skills around
the house. So cooking, cleaning, taking care of your own children, doing
laundry, I like men who can do all of that because my father and my uncle
did. My mother did her work too, but it was never that my mother worked
full-time and then had to come home and do everything. Life wasn’t like
that, and in fact, my father, I would call him the better cook of the two
only because my father was a more patient cook than my mother. My
mother might be more rushed, but it was good. My daddy was the more
patient cook. The only thing he didn’t like doing was ironing.
So anyway, Uncle Richard lived with us until I was six years old,
and even my mother said that my father had said that if he ever got a
house of his own, he would get Doc and bring Doc to live with us. So
Doc lived with us, and I have some memories of Doc, but he died when I
was three. Like I said, Uncle Richard was with us until I was six. He also
lived at that boarding house and took care of me, so those first six years of
my life, I was cared for by men a lot, as much as my mother, and she
would be at work.
One of the things I liked about my mother’s job was she got an
hour for lunch, and by car, if she had the car, she could be home in five to
ten minutes, so in the middle of her shift during the day, I would be at
home, like if it’s summer time or not in school, I would be at home, and
I’d get to see my mother in the middle of the day and maybe eat lunch
with her, and then she’d go back to work. That was a good thing. That
was a very good thing. My mother in working at the grocery store, I guess
things were kind of different than they are now, she also got to know a lot
of her customers and became friends with a lot of her customers, and they
had good relations, and then I got to know some of her customers and
some good things happened to me because of customers my mother had at
the store. C.L. Smith had been bought by National Foods, so she worked
at National Foods on the Boulevard, as we call it, but it’s West Grand
Boulevard, right off of Linwood. West Grand Boulevard, I’ll call it a
main street. Maybe six blocks down the way was Motown Hitsville, and a
little past there was Henry Ford Hospital, a major hospital. We lived right
off of Dexter, and part of the Dexter bus rode on West Grand Boulevard.
Later, in my high school days, I would ride the Dexter bus some going to
or from school, so I could be on the bus and ride past my mother’s job,
ride past Motown. Sometimes if I was coming home from school, I’d get
off the bus and just go to the store and wait for her to get off work and just
walk around the store.
My mother and I, I never grew up grocery shopping like people do
grocery shopping now, you make a list and you go and buy stuff for a
week or two weeks because my mother worked at a grocery store, she
could bring food home every day, or if we were at the store, we might get
what we needed, but we weren’t just buying like people go grocery
shopping. I learned about the grocery store business with my mother,
listening to her about the customers, about the way they did things, about
the unions, about the jobs, all kinds of things I learned about grocery
stores. My mother was always very particular, even when she lived with
me, about how they rung up her groceries and how they bagged her
groceries, and always checking to make sure they were ringing up the
right price, even when it was my groceries and I was paying we would
have to go through that.
I was there in Detroit going to school, so my father would take me
to school, my father would pick me up from school. That continued into
high school, although in junior high school, I rode the bus home a few
times, and in high school, I would ride the bus home probably a lot, but he
might pick me up too. I rarely rode the bus to school in the morning,
although I did do that sometimes. So sometimes along the way, we’d see
some of my friends and we might stop and give them a ride. Daddy would
take me to school, and Daddy would bring me home, and he would feed
me and whatever, and I’d have to do homework or whatever. Then my
mother would come home. Her shifts varied from I think the earliest was
maybe 7:00 to 4:00, 8:00 to 5:00, 9:00 to 6:00, 10:00 to 7:00, 11:00 to
8:00, and then 12:00 to 9:00. So I think the shifts that ended 7:00, 8:00,
9:00 were considered night shifts, so during the week, she might have two
of the day shifts and two night shifts, but over time, with seniority, she got
to have more day shifts and not as many night shifts. But that’s how life
My early elementary school, I went to Theodore Roosevelt
Elementary School. I think the address was on Linwood, but it really was
a three-school campus. Very unique. I don’t know any other situation
like that in Detroit. It was a three-school campus. My school was built in
1924, and Roosevelt, the elementary school, was in the middle. Durfee,
the junior high school, I guess you’d say was on the south side, and then
Central, the high school, was on the north side of the campus. In front on
Linwood there was a large field, I guess they played football out there,
maybe there was a track. There was a big field. Roosevelt was a large
two-story kind of Tudor-looking brick building. Starting in kindergarten
in 1959, my kindergarten class was on the opposite side of the campus on
the LaSalle Street side. My kindergarten teacher, I will tell you, was Ms.
Salot, and her kindergarten was unique in that it had its own entrance
directly into the kindergarten class, and it had its own fenced-in play area.
There were other kindergartens in the school, but ours was the only room
like that, and to this day, I remember what the sandbox with the sand
smelled like. I started school at Roosevelt. I went to Roosevelt until I
graduated sixth grade there at my neighborhood school. One of the things
I would say is our neighborhood, I told you it had become pretty much all
Black, was mixed in that we had certainly working people who worked in
factories or other jobs, but we had a lot of the Black professionals who
lived in the neighborhood, people who were teachers, people who were
dentists, people who were doctors, so their kids, we were all going to
school together. On the far end, we had kids who were in households
where maybe they were on the welfare, but I generally didn’t know those
children as well. The important thing is that amongst my friends and in
my circle of friends, our parents all wanted the same things for us.
Amongst my circle of friends, that meant you were going to go to college
and do something, and in my household, probably before I was born, it
was determined that I would go to college, so that was the focus of my
mother with me forever, and I’ll call it the focus of my father too, but as
my mother said, she orchestrated things, and he carried it out. He
followed her instructions.
Roosevelt was a wonderful school. In my entire career with the
Detroit Public Schools, I’d say I only had two bad teachers. I had a
teacher at Roosevelt, I won’t call her name. The teachers would show
films, nature films, squirrels in the woods or something, and then you had
film strips, and then boys would be audiovisual people, but she would put
on a film or have them do a film strip, and you’d turn the lights off, the
door to the classroom had a window, and she’d pull the shade down, the
film would be on, and then she’d put her head down on the desk, and we’d
be watching the film. But you know, you hear your parents talk, and I can
recall hearing my mother say that somebody said she was having marital
problems or something. And then I had another teacher at Roosevelt who
this day still makes my blood boil, and everybody knows how I feel about
her. I’m not going to call her name, everybody knows how I feel about
her. Otherwise, all my teachers at Roosevelt were wonderful people. I
was always a good student. I always was. So they were very helpful to
me in that regard. My mother was always looking for programs and
activities, and so teachers would make suggestions or choose me to do
things. I was born in Detroit at a great time, and any of my friends will
tell you because we say this all the time, we had a great time growing up
in Detroit. We had a wonderful experience. We grew up in the heyday of
Motown and all kinds of things. Things were really good for us, but like I
said, our parents had ideas for us.
One thing that happened when I was at Roosevelt we got a new
principal, and her name was E. Lynette Taylor. So this takes you to 1964,
1965. Mrs. Taylor became our principal. She was married to a man
named Hobart Taylor who was from Texas originally. President Johnson
was President, and Hobart Taylor ultimately went to work for President
Johnson, and they moved to D.C. But they were, I guess you’d call them
well-off people, and people who know Ebony magazine would know that
Ebony used to every year have a best dressed list of women, and when I
was at Roosevelt, Mrs. Taylor was in Ebony magazine for her attire. She
wore nice clothes, that’s true. Well one thing she did, however this came
about, down the street from my mother’s job, there was an office for
Olivetti typewriters. Olivetti typewriters was down the street, and
somehow Mrs. Taylor met people with Olivetti, and she got them to outfit
a classroom with typewriters, so for my fifth-grade year, I was in the class
where our language arts program was focused around the use of the
typewriter, and it was team taught by two teachers, Mrs. Thelma McCrary
and Mrs. Cecil McFadden, and this is what we did. Our reading, when we
would do our writing, anything we did we would be using the typewriter,
but they had to teach us how to type. So I learned how to type when I was
in fifth grade, 9 or 10 years old, and I’ve been typing ever since. So
really, I think, Mrs. Taylor was so ahead of the time because now people
are using computers and they do all the typing. Kids can’t write now
because they grow up using keyboards, but we learned to do this. We
were on television. There was a man, a guy named Dave something or
other, had a local TV show in Detroit. They taped it earlier in the evening,
at least they did with us, but it didn’t come on until about 1:00 in the
morning. Some of us went on his TV show, and we were typing on the
TV show.
For sixth grade, I had one semester I was in Mr. Cross’s homeroom
and class, another semester I was with Dr. Radlow had a group of us
called the Critical Thinking Club, so we would have to do things with
Dr. Radlow to advance our minds. Mrs. Taylor took a group of us to some
program, some operatic program. She was exposing us to different things.
MR. WEAVER: One quick question before we get too far into school, if I could ask just a
couple follow-ups about your parents. Your mother seems like a
remarkable person. You talked a little about how she was unique in her
siblings in that she got to go to school, and I was wondering if you had a
hunch as to why that was.
MS. JEFFRIES: My son and I are still trying to figure that out. Still trying to figure that
out because none of the rest of them came close to finishing high school.
Some of them only went to elementary school. But at least she said she
always wanted to do things, and people let her do it. If you asked her why
is it that this happened with you, that was always kind of unclear to us.
But she said her father would get her the stuff she needed and they’re out
there sharecropping, so whatever, it worked for me and Rudy. My son is
named Rudy. Nobody else complained about her. Everybody got along,
all my uncle and aunts. They loved each other, they supported each other,
all of that. So I don’t know, but that’s what happened with my mother.
It’s kind of curious to us.
MR. WEAVER: It sounds like both your parents worked incredibly hard and worked a lot
of different jobs over the years. Did they ever talk to you about a kind of
dream job or some other kind of work that they always wanted to do but
weren’t able to? Anything like that?
MS. JEFFRIES: Certainly my father never talked about that. I’m pretty sure he didn’t want
to be a coal miner. I can say that. So he came to Detroit for other
opportunities. I don’t know why he didn’t work in just one of the big
three car factories, but like I said, he worked for Timken Axle.
I think my mother, maybe for her it would have been a teacher.
But she was born in 1924 in Mississippi and grew up in the Delta, which I
want to say this very clearly the Delta was and is still rough. So for her to
have done any of the many things that she did by the time she died in 2012
would not have been dreamed for a little Black girl born and raised there
during these times.
Here’s a story about my mom that makes us laugh. Dillinger was
big when she was a kid, and they used to have to walk to school, I guess
before she went to Belzoni. So she was afraid of John Dillinger because
they got the newspapers or had radios. She was afraid of John Dillinger,
so she said you’d be walking down the road and a car comes, she’d be
afraid that it was Dillinger going to do something to her, and she jumped
in the ditch to hide from Dillinger. So this was a great problem for her,
which I pointed out to her, Dillinger was not interested in little
pickaninnies in Mississippi, children of sharecroppers. But she said her
father talked to her one day and told her he didn’t care about people like
them, he was robbing banks and stuff, so that was a great comfort to my
mother, but she could tell you all about Dillinger getting set up by the
woman in the red dress and all of that. This was a big thing to her. So I
lived in Silver Spring for 33 years, and a place that I’ve been eating at for
longer than that now is the Woodside Deli on Georgia Avenue, and they
would have all these old pictures in there framed on the wall, but they
have a Wanted sign for John Dillinger there, and the reward and
everything, so I took a picture of my mother by the sign, and then I took a
picture of my little granddaughter and me by that poster earlier this year,
because now I can go to the Woodside Deli and see the John Dillinger
poster and it makes me feel good because I think about my mother.
So that’s what I was saying. Just like she even left Belzoni to go to
Greenwood. I think that took a lot of personal fortitude. First she was
with her uncle and aunt, and then she’s with these other people, so I think
she had something in her in that regard.
MR. WEAVER: You mentioned that when she transferred to Greenwood, that was a school
that was set up specifically for Black children at the time.
MS. JEFFRIES: Yes. That’s the name of it. They were segregated so she went to
Greenwood Colored High School.
MR. WEAVER: Have you or your parents traced back your lineage, or how far back have
you traced your lineage? It sounds like you’ve done a lot of that work.
MS. JEFFRIES: I actually first year law school got a job at the National Archives, so this
would be 1975, 1976, because for undergrad I went to Wesleyan
University. One of my law school classmates was also one of my college
classmates and he was from here, and one day Cliff walked up to me and
said that if I was looking for a job, his mother worked at the Archives and
they needed somebody and I could go over there and use her name and get
a job. So I went over there, I used her name, and I got a job. I do want to
say this about that job before I talk about the genealogy. When I was at
Wesleyan, I worked in the library, and one of the things I would have to
do is this filing kind of thing, so when I graduated from Wesleyan and I
had my degree from that high-priced New England university, I said to
myself I would never file again. I come down here, I get the job at the
Archives working in the Central Research Room, and the first thing they
said to me my first day was, oh we’re glad you’re here. We have a
backlog of filing of our research applications. And they gave me a box
full of applications, and I had to alphabetize them and file them. I was
sitting there saying to myself I cannot believe this is happening to me. I
have this degree from that high-priced university, I’m here in law school,
and I’m filing all over again. But I wasn’t too good to file, and I did it,
and I worked there.
People come to the National Archives to do genealogical research
big time. They come there for that all the time. In fact, the summer I
worked there, the summer of 1976, which is right before Roots came out,
you would have thought that every person from Utah, every Mormon from
Utah, had come to the National Archives that summer to do their
genealogical research. So I did do genealogical research back then, but
really only of my father’s family and the Jeffries people. I got back to I
believe 1850 and 1860 slave schedules. I found a slave on the schedule
who would be the right age and race and sex to be my great-grandfather.
The slave schedules did not list you by name. Now essentially there were
two slave owners down there, brothers. I believe their names were
Edward and Thomas Jeffries, something like that. If you look at the
census for Farrah, Jasper County, Georgia, for 1900 and 1880s, whatever,
there are a lot of Black people in the census down there who have the last
name Jeffries because they took the last name of their slave owners.
A few years back, I was doing some genealogical research on my
computer, and I came across a couple of documents, one written by a man
named Jeffries, a white guy, who wrote about life in that part of Georgia
back, I think, around the 1880s or 1890s. He had researched it, and he
talked in there about not just the white families but also Black people.
That document was interesting to me, but I subsequently found a will that
had been posted online for one of the Jeffries men, and in it, he was giving
away his possessions, which included some slaves, he’s giving them away
to his children. That was a very moving moment that evoked a lot of
feelings for me because I’m reading that thinking well these could be my
relatives, my ancestors, that he’s giving away, and how is it possible that
you think you can own people or that you can give people to other people.
So that was a very moving moment for me.
One time when my son was maybe 8 or 10, we went down to the
Archives and did some further investigation because at the Archives, the
census can be released to the public after a 72-year period. So since I had
left law school, some other census had become available, and we found
some more information. But that’s one of the things I would have thought
I would have done more of by now having been retired for ten years.
I haven’t tried to do my mother’s family because my grandfather
was an only child, and even though her maiden name is Wade and his
name is Wade, she said that that wasn’t his name originally, but he had
some half-sisters, and he wanted to have the same name. I think she said
his name was Nichols or Nicholson, and I’ve never set about to try to
research him and his family, but I do intend to do that.
The last part would be, as I said my daddy is from West Virginia,
and then some of those West Virginia people also moved to Detroit, and
he was friends with some people. One set of his friends had a brother who
ended up living here in Silver Spring. He did a lot of genealogical
research, and even though I’d never met Bennie, I heard of Bennie, and
one day he sent me a fat envelope. He had researched my family and the
Jeffries people, and all the things he had in there were very interesting.
Plus he talked about people he knew, and I learned things that I didn’t
know because I must say that my father and my uncle did not discuss their
early years. They didn’t talk about their brothers and sisters. They didn’t
talk about their mother, which I always took to mean it was just a painful
subject to them because they died when they were so young. But, if you
asked a question, they would answer the question, but through what
Bennie did, I found out a lot more information.
MR. WEAVER: You talked a lot about your mother’s family and Mississippi as well, and
you mentioned the NewZ2021@
family. Were you going to come back to something about that?
MS. JEFFRIES: Yes. I’m about to meet the daughter of Mr. Mark Simmons, Jr. I, myself,
only had one encounter with Mr. Mark, and that’s when my grandfather
died, and I was 12 in 1966. But through the magic of Facebook, I
connected with his daughter. There is a Facebook group called something
like Memories of Belzoni, Growing up in Belzoni. I didn’t grow up in
Belzoni, but I would visit. I joined that group. She posted one day, and I
saw her name. So I posted and asked if she’s related to these people.
She’s his daughter. Her name is Ann. Ann is about my age, and she no
longer lives in Mississippi, and her father just died earlier this year. He
was down there still in Belzoni. We similarly have good feelings for
Belzoni, but I need to be very clear. The experience of a 64-year-old
white woman from Belzoni is worlds different from a 64-year-old Black
woman living or visiting Belzoni. The land they had was called Four
Mile. Let’s say I’ll call Four Mile a plantation. My grandfather
sharecropped. Ann recently, a few months ago, told me that there was a
group having a Four Mile reunion, and she and her mother and husband
are going to be there. So next week I will be going to Mississippi to go to
the Four Mile reunion, and I’m going to meet Ann and meet these other
people who were out at Four Mile and continue my Mississippi path and
discovery, and I will learn things about Four Mile and everything out
there. So I do look forward to that, and that’s what I was going to say
about the Simmons. Ann, like me, likes sunflowers. Here in Montgomery
County, if you go out River Road, out by McKee- Beshers Wildlife
Management Area, they have a 30-acre sunflower tract, and so they plant
these sunflowers that bloom in July, and I’ve taken my granddaughter out
there. Ann lives in Kansas, and they have sunflowers there, so she posts
pictures of sunflowers. One of the things I do as a retiree is I volunteer at
Brookside Gardens, particularly with the Wings of Fancy Butterfly Exhibit
every year, and I call myself a butterfly semi-professional. Ann is into
butterflies too, and she turned me to a Facebook group, Butterfly
Enthusiasts, and we take pictures and we post and we do things about
butterflies. So I do look forward to meeting Ann, who likes butterflies and
MR. WEAVER: You’ve written a lot about going back to Belzoni growing up and the role
that played in your life. What was it like when you would go back and
visit when you were a child? What was there to do for fun? Were there
culinary delights that you got to enjoy there that you didn’t enjoy in
MS. JEFFRIES: We’re going to Belzoni. Belzoni, if you look it up in the census, I think
now they have less than 3,000 people, but I told you it was the county seat
of Humphries County. When I was a kid, all around it was cotton fields,
and Black people picked cotton. There was a town, so by the time I was
born, my grandfather lived in town. My mother and I would go to
Mississippi every year. We would go by train, and we’d go the last week,
sometimes the last two weeks, of August, which, as I tell people, there
isn’t a hotter time in life to be in Mississippi. Once or twice we did a
week at Easter and a week in August. We would take the train. I loved
this. This is all part of my Belzoni thing. We would take the train, and so
the train would leave out of the Michigan Central Railway Station, which
a lot of people know because it’s been a symbol of decay in Detroit. Ford
Motor Company recently bought it. But we would go there, catch the train
to Chicago, leave Detroit 11:00 at night, and the post office facility that
my father originally worked in was right next-door kind of, across the
street. But we would catch the train at 11:00 at night, go to Chicago and
pull in between 3:00 and 4:00, and you’re pulling in on the train, it was
very quiet at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, but you’d go past the
Buckingham Fountain, and it would be lit, and the colors. I loved seeing
the fountains. We would catch the City of New Orleans, which Arlo
Guthrie made famous in song. We would ride the City of New Orleans to
Mississippi. It would pull out at 7:00 a.m. or 7:30. We would arrive in
Durant, Mississippi around 10:00 at night. If you were going to
Mississippi the last week or two of August in the 1950s or 1960s, a whole
lot of Black people would be going home to Mississippi, and the train
would be very long. There’d be long lines of people. Granddaddy would
come and pick us up in Durant, which was about an hour from Belzoni.
He might have my aunt or somebody or cousins and we’d be driving.
My mother was always very conscious of and supportive of the
Civil Rights Movement and supportive of the NAACP, and growing up as
a kid, I used to have to go to all these NAACP meetings with her, and they
were talking about all the things that were going on, and I’d be sitting
there reading a book. But anyway, I used to have to go to all of this with
my mother, and she sold memberships to the NAACP. We’d eat dinner
and would watch and Chet Huntley and David Brinkley so you could see
all this stuff happening as you ate food, just like I watched the Vietnam
War while I was eating dinner. So you could see people blowing up
things or whatever was going on over there as you were eating your meal.
So we were always looking at everything, and I always knew what was
going on in Mississippi.
I should point out, my father never went to Mississippi with us.
My father said many times, he said he wouldn’t get caught in Mississippi
flying over in a 707 jet. It was a long time ago. He always said that about
Mississippi. But he didn’t object to us going. And in particular, it was
always very good for me. I had a lot of cousins in Detroit. My father’s
family is very small. When I was born, his family was small. They were
old or they were dead. So now it’s smaller, older, and more dead. But I
had all these people in my mother’s family because she’s one of eleven.
My Aunt Sadie, who was the second daughter in the family, she and her
husband had both been married previously, and they both had kids. I think
she had two, and he had five, then they got married, and they had eleven.
They had like sixteen kids or something. So they had children around my
age; I could go to Mississippi, and in particular, be with them, even though
I had cousins in Detroit I could be with.
We would pull into Durant. My mother was born in Lexington,
and she had an Aunt Hun who lived in Lexington. My mother would like
to stop and see Aunt Hun before we got to Belzoni. And this would be
now 11:00 at night. It would be dark. The problem for me was Aunt
Hahn didn’t have a bathroom. She had an outhouse, and so I would have
to experience Aunt Hun’s outhouse inevitably on these trips. That was
one of the two I’ll call unpleasantnesses about the car ride. The other
thing was because this is the Civil Rights Era and I knew the things that
were going on in Mississippi and you’re driving over hills, around curves,
and everything, I always believed that we’d get to the top of a hill, we’d
go around the curve, we’d make a corner, and we would see a cross
burning, and we’d see the KKK people on these rides to Belzoni. And I
must say that never happened. I always expected that. Always. We’d get
down there, and my grandfather had a house, and he had a couple of
houses behind it. He had a screened-in front porch with a swing, and I
could swing on that. Of course this is pre-air conditioning, but people had
fans. But still, it’s 102 degrees in Mississippi. A fan can only do so much
for you. But my cousins, I would eat enough at my grandfather’s home
just so that I could walk two or three blocks over to Aunt Sadie’s house
and be with the kids, or maybe some of the kids would come over and get
me. Aunt Sadie had a lot of kids, so they always had food, but they would
eat biscuits, and Mississippi, they sell something called Alaga syrup, and it
was a dark brown, very sweet syrup, and I’d go over there and eat biscuits
with the butter and the syrup. Granddaddy, my mother liked fish, and in
Mississippi they had a fish – this is before Belzoni became the catfish
capital – because the local fish is buffalo, and it’s a large fish, and my
mother liked that. Granddaddy would get that, and we’d have
watermelon. I had a step-grandmother, Miss Rosie, she would cook a lot
of food and she made coconut cakes, so people were eating. There was a
woman around the corner from my granddaddy who had like a little store,
and she sold snow cones. So I would get snow cones with my cousins.
My Aunt Sadie and them lived on Church Street. I think her address was
188 Church Street. Next to their house was a vacant lot, and on the other
side of the lot was another little house, and the front of it had a store if
you’re facing it on the right, a little store, and then they had s shoe shop if
you’re facing it on the left. That was owned and operated by the Mays
family. Rufus Mays and his wife Alice Mays. They had three children
who were older than me, two daughters and a son, and they were more my
older cousins ages. I remember going in their store and buying stage
plank cookies, which were these flat rectangular cookies that had a pink
frosting, and the daughters would be there behind the counter. I knew
them, but they’re older than me. I would see them there. I went
downtown into Belzoni, I guess you could say kind of rarely because there
was really no reason to go. Until I was in my 40’s, I probably was never
on the white side of Belzoni, so those white neighborhoods, they were
near Aunt Sadie and them, and you could look down the block, but I had
no experience with that or with white people. I never ate in a public
restaurant, I’ll call “public” that anyone can go to, until I was probably in
my 40’s. My mother did allow me to go to the movies once in Belzoni.
The movies were segregated, so we had to sit upstairs. My cousins and I
saw a Sinbad movie, an action movie of the time. Now in reality, we had
great seats. There wasn’t a problem with the seats or anything. You saw
really well. But it was the principle of the thing. She let me do that once.
My grandfather had a phone, but it didn’t have a dial. His number was
453R. If you wanted to make a call, you would pick up the hand thing and
the operator would come on and you would tell the operator the number.
My mother never allowed me to place a phone call in Belzoni because my
grandfather lived alone and had heart trouble, my mother did not want it to
be that white woman operator thought that I was not respectful enough,
that I was disrespectful, and then she’d be vindictive and they’d snatch my
grandfather’s phone. So if we were calling daddy, she would make the
call, and once they were talking, I could get on the phone and talk, but I
was never allowed to place a call.
My mother said the first time she ever had to tell me about racial
discrimination I was 4 years old in Belzoni, and we were downtown, and
she said that I saw a little kid, a white kid, with an ice cream cone, and I
wanted an ice cream cone, but she had to explain to me that I couldn’t get
one because they didn’t sell ice cream to us, because I guess if we all ate
from the same ice cream, they would have turned into me! We did that in
Belzoni. Some of my older cousins were going to college then, which
they went to, which is an HBCU, it was then called Mississippi Valley
State in Itta Bena. I did ride over there a few times, and I was very happy
to see my cousins on a college campus. The late Marion Barry, mayor of
this city, was born in Itta Bena, Mississippi. You didn’t travel around and
go places because there weren’t places for you to go unless you were
visiting a relative or going to a church or something. When I was
pregnant with my son in 1984, I was going to Detroit for Veterans Day
weekend, but right before I went to Detroit, my cousin James, who still
lived in Belzoni, he was a schoolteacher, died. He had been on dialysis
for almost 16 or 17 years. So everybody in Detroit was going to
Mississippi for the funeral, and they were all driving down together. They
liked to drive. Well I decided to go to Mississippi too, and I flew from
Washington National to Jackson, Mississippi. Whatever airline I went on,
Jackson was the third stop, and I paid $548 for a roundtrip ticket from here
to Jackson, which in 1984, I could have gone to California or Europe for
the money I paid to go to Jackson, Mississippi. When I went there,
because I have views about Mississippi, I did not then, nor do I now, want
to be in a car driving on a highway by myself in Mississippi at night
because I don’t trust things down there. So I made sure I got in early in
the day. I rented a car, and I’m driving the hour up to Belzoni, and as I’m
driving, I see a billboard talking about Mississippi State Parks, and I saw
that sign, and I’m like now this is interesting. And then I drive some more
down the road, and then I saw another billboard about Mississippi State
Parks, and I’m like well I’ve never heard of no parks in Mississippi. This
is new. Admittedly I hadn’t been there in ten years. So when I got to
Belzoni, I said to my cousins, I see these billboards on the road about
Mississippi State Parks, but I don’t know anything about a state park. As
my cousin pointed out to me, she said they have always had parks in
Mississippi, but when you were coming, we could not go. So it didn’t get
talked about. That was a revelation to me, really, the idea that there were
parks of Mississippi had never crossed my mind, and in 1984, I was 30
years old.
One of the things my mother and I would do in later years is we
would go to Mississippi ever year and because there was so much of the
state we had not seen; we would go places. So, for instance, one year we
flew to Nashville and rented a car. I read murder mysteries, and one of the
books I read took place in Mississippi with this park ranger who was
assigned to the Natchez Trace Parkway, which I had never heard of
before. So we drove along the parkway in Mississippi, getting off so that
we could go to Tupelo because I wanted to swing by and see Elvis’s
home. We drove past there and saw Elvis’s home, but our ultimate
destination at that point was to go over to Oxford, which is the home of
the University of Mississippi, commonly known as Ole Miss. Well in
1963, I guess it was, that’s when James Meredith was integrating Ole
Miss, and we’re in Detroit looking at that on the TV and everything and
people rioting and all this stuff. I wanted to see what was so special about
Ole Miss that they had to riot to keep someone like me out of Ole Miss.
We went over there and saw the campus. We spent two nights in Oxford,
which is a nice little college town. We ate at a couple of places, cute
places, good food, like you could go here someplace. They had a
bookstore on the square, a pretty good bookstore. I went in there. We
stayed at a hotel for two nights. The young woman behind the desk was a
college student there, but she was from Maryland, from Prince Georges
County, and I was telling her how Mississippi was different from the way
it was when I was a kid. Her response to me what, “It ain’t all that
different.” Which was also true, and I knew as well, but she had been
there that long that she already knew that.
The other thing they had in Oxford is Faulkner is from there. His
home is something Oaks, something with a tree. I think I went over there
and saw Faulkner’s home. So we did that. Another time we went to
Vicksburg and did the battlefield. One time, we’d never been to the
Mississippi gulf coast. This was after Katrina. We went down a few years
later, and we went to Biloxi and Gulfport. I think we stayed in Gulfport.
We were at this fairly large like Courtyard by Marriott. They had in the
lobby, they had a case with artifacts from the hurricane, and then on their
TV, they had a video that you could see hurricane footage. I think the
water had come into the lobby almost to the ceiling, like a foot from the
ceiling. But they had been able to operate. When we were staying at that
hotel, I went out back and got in the hot tub, and as I’m lying there in the
hot tub Jacuzzi thing, I said to myself, if this were 1965, they would kill
me for doing this. And that was probably ten years ago. My mother has
been dead for four years.
We went to restaurants in Gulfport, had good seafood, and all of
that. So we endeavored to see Mississippi that we could not see when I
was growing up. I will always have very fond feelings for Mississippi,
even though it’s a rough place.
The other thing is I’ve been to 44 states and some other places, but
I’ve been to 44 states. Mississippi is the only place where to this day I can
say something about going to Mississippi or having been to Mississippi,
and people will say I’ve never wanted to go there, I’ll never go there.
That is the reaction I get all the time. I said that to someone three weeks
ago, and the lady said she didn’t want to go there. I think people should
go. In fact, I was just up at Harvard for the week, and I was talking to
some friends, and I told one of my friends I’m going to put together a trip,
and people can go to Mississippi and we’ll see a lot of interesting things.
Because there’s a lot that’s different, but there’s a whole lot of stuff that’s
the same, and if you go to the Delta, now you know Mississippi is the
poorest state in the union, you will see things you just don’t know still go
on. People have no idea how it was, how it is. My own son has only been
in Belzoni for three hours, and for three hours, we went to Tennessee one
time at my husband’s, and we drove down for the day. My mother wanted
to go, and she was showing us around. He was maybe 12 or something
like that. Anyway, he doesn’t want to go to Belzoni. Every time I tell him
stuff about it, he says why would you want to go to a place like that. I
would like for him to go. I would like for him and his wife and his
daughter, who is 2 ½, and we’re soon going to have a grandson added to
the mix. I would like for them to go and see things, but my daughter-inlaw
is Jewish, which is white to me, and I told him I don’t trust
Mississippi, so I told him if we went to Mississippi, I didn’t want them in
the car together. She and I could be in the car together, and he and my
mother could have been in the car together. So my son’s response to me,
“And why would I want to go to a place like that.” So anyway. So now
when I’m with him and my little granddaughter, she wants to go on an
airplane, and I tell her she can go on a trip with me and we would go to
Mississippi. I say that to make my son laugh.
MR. WEAVER: You mentioned a time I think it was 1966 or 1967 after your grandfather
died, I believe, that there was a period of time when you stopped going to
Belzoni. Can you talk about that a little bit?
MS. JEFFRIES: I will. Two traumatic things happened when I was a kid. Here’s the first
one. I loved and love I Love Lucy, and I remember the day when I was
about 6 or 7 years old, it’s in the news in the paper that Lucille Ball and
Desi Arnaz are getting a divorce, and I was tremendously shocked by this.
I asked my mother how could it be that they were getting divorced
because they were so happy, and she said things you saw on TV were not
like that. So that was a childhood trauma, the divorce of Lucy and Desi. I
wanted them to get back together until I guess he died first, so that
precluded that.
The other thing is we were going because my mother wanted to go
home and see her father, but also we had the other relatives, Aunt Sadie
Aunt Fredericka and other people down there, and my mother was very
close with Aunt Sadie, and she did a lot for the kids, especially the ones
going to college, sending them clothes, money, helping them with stuff.
And there were kids my age. I had a cousin, Barbara, who – I’m going to
talk about this, but it’s hard. Barbara was three months to the day younger
than I am. She had a sister, Edith, who was born in October of 1955, so
she was almost two years younger than me, and then the next oldest child
was Sadie Ruth, who was two years older than me. I would be playing
with them and doing things with them. So granddaddy died on May 6th,
and we went down. Everybody from Detroit went, and I would point out
my father went, so this was entirely shocking to me because my daddy
always said he wouldn’t be caught in Mississippi flying over in a 707 jet.
So we all went down there. Before we left, my uncles and aunts and
mother, we’re at granddaddy’s house talking about who was going to get
what, and I will say, and this is true, things got kind of heated between
them. The only time in life that I’ve ever seen such. Okay, so then we
leave. We drive back up to Detroit. I have a cousin, Julia, who was ten
years older than me. When I was younger, when she was younger, she
would come to Detroit some in the summertime and take care of me. So
for instance the summer of 1960, we didn’t go to Mississippi because my
mother was having a baby that August, and Julia came up to help with me.
So anyway, on this Sunday night, the phone rang and I was upstairs. I
answered the phone, and it was Julia. The only thing she said to me was,
she said, “Let me speak to Aunt Bettie.” That’s all she said. She wasn’t
like friendly or anything. She just said let me speak to Aunt Bettie. My
mother was down in the kitchen. We had a phone on the wall, so I called
down, and I told my mother to pick up the phone. So I wanted to be nosy,
and I went back to the phone and put my hand over the mouthpiece to
listen to what Julia was saying. She said, she was saying, “and this one is
dead, and that one is dead, and this one.” And my mother was saying,
“Are you sure?” And she was going over it again. What had happened
was my cousin, Tommy Roy, was 18. He had graduated from high school,
and my Uncle Bit, my Aunt’s husband, was in the hospital in Jackson,
University hospital. Uncle Bit had an enlarged heart, and they had had
some of the graduation or a convocation ceremony that Sunday, so then
they drove to Jackson to see Uncle Bit. Coming back from the hospital,
driving back, Tommy was driving, and for whatever reasons, ran into a
Mack truck head on. So there were six people in the car. Aunt Sadie;
Tommy Roy, who is like 18; Clayton Louis, who’s probably around 15 or
16; Sadie Ruth, 14; Barbara, 12, and Edith was 9. So six of them in the
car, and five of them got killed. The only survivor was Sadie, who was
14. She was in a coma for a couple of months. She had a lot of broken
bones. They put pins and rods all in her body. So anyway, we all drove
back to Mississippi. Once again, surprising me, my father went. But in
my mind, I thought that this was a trick to get us back to Mississippi to
talk more about the house and stuff. I told you it their discussions before
we left had been heated, so I thought it was a trick. That would be a cruel
I don’t know the answer to this. We maybe would have still gone
to Mississippi every year to visit Aunt Sadie and everyone, but once that
happened, we didn’t go back.
The part of that is I tell people I say well you know in order for us
to really go anyplace else, because going to Mississippi was our vacation,
in order for us to go anyplace else on vacation, my grandfather had to die.
But the next year, which would be 1967, we went international, and we
went to Montreal because they had Expo ’67, one of the last World’s
Fairs. We went to Montreal. And it’s a critical trip in my life. Sadie Ruth
came up for the summer, and she went with us. In kind of like an Airbnb
thing, we stayed in the home of a French family. People would rent out
rooms. Well Montreal, Quebec, is close to Vermont, so while we were up
there, we drove over into Vermont. My mother would say we went to
Maine too, but if we had gone to Maine, I would remember that, and I just
think she was confused. But anyway, she said we did that, too. We went
to Vermont, and we’re driving around in Vermont, and we’re in some little
small town, and it was blue sky, and they had a little town square with a
duck pond and ducks in the water, and there was a woman by the side of
the road selling roasted corn and a white clapboard church, and I saw that,
and I said at that moment, I said this is very quaint. I said it to myself. I
said “This is very quaint. I’m going to go to college in New England.” So
that was 1967, and I was going into 9th grade. That was very important,
that trip, and that’s exactly what did happen because I never varied from
that in my mind.
We didn’t go back to Mississippi until around 1972 or 1973 –
James got a kidney transplant. This is a lesson I learned about life.
Before we left Mississippi when my granddaddy died, my mother and
Aunt Sadie were talking, and I was standing right next to my mother, and I
was looking at Aunt Sadie. Uncle Bit was in the hospital then with his
enlarged heart. My Aunt Sadie said to my mother while we were standing
there, she said, “I do not think you will see Bit again.” Because she
thought he was going to die. They all thought he was going to die. Well
two weeks later, the person who was dead was Aunt Sadie and the kids.
Uncle Bit died in 1972 or 1973. He lived like another six or seven years
after that. So I tell people, I don’t predict the future. My mother was
living with me, and she had terminal cancer. I still didn’t know who was
going to die first, because I could have gotten hit by a car and died.
But I was standing there when she said that.
To go to a funeral for multiple people you knew and loved is very
hard. I’d say it was an experience. I think at the funeral what I remember
is my Uncle Hugh and Aunt Sarah had twin boys, and they must have
been a year-and-a-half or two. I remember doing the funeral. I won’t say
one of the boys was assigned to me, but I remember I was holding him,
and everybody had a closed casket, except for Edith, and they had said
that she died, and it was a surprise because she didn’t have the visible
injuries the others had, but it turned out she had internal injuries, and
that’s why she died.
I want to say this about Edith. Edith was a very beautiful girl.
Edith was born with a birth defect. Her right arm ended right at the crook
of her elbow, but to her, that was no defect, and she did whatever we did.
And like I said, the last time I saw her was in 1965, which would have
been right before her ninth birthday. She did whatever we did. She could
play baseball and swing the bat. She could put a pen or a pencil in the
crook and write with it, and I think she used her left hand too. She did
whatever we did. I think she said that the state of Mississippi would give
her a prosthetic or something when she was 13, but she told me she did not
want it. She was doing everything the way she wanted to. And I will say
this about Edith. She could hit you with that arm, and it would hurt. So
that is true.
So that’s why we didn’t go back as much. My cousin James, who
died when I was pregnant with Rudy, he was a schoolteacher at the school,
so he taught his brothers and sisters, so he told them they all had to call
him Mr. Gray, so that’s what they called him. I never called him that.
They call him that to this day. We were talking about that earlier in the
summer. He was a science teacher, and then he lost his kidneys, and they
had a dialysis machine at his house. I remember he said back then that the
average life span on dialysis was ten years or something, and he lived
sixteen years. He ended up having two transplants that were rejected.
We went down to Mississippi. It was an experience because I was
in college. Daddy had died. Maybe it was like 1974 or something. We
went to Mississippi because he was going to have a kidney transplant, and
I was home from college, so mama and I flew down. We did not take the
train. I had started flying by then, so she did. We flew down, and while
we were there, we went shopping. We went to some nice ladies’ dress
store. My mother got all these nice outfits and shoes and a purse. It was a
regular store, and the women in there were all white. They took my
mother’s personal check from out of town, and after we got home from
Detroit, the woman wrote my mother a thank you note and told her to
come back. Now that was a different kind of Mississippi experience. We
talked about that. They wouldn’t have taken your check in Detroit if they
didn’t know you, but she took the check. That was nice. She got some
nice stuff.
MR. WEAVER: I know it’s hard to talk about that kind of profound loss, especially when
you experience it at a young age, but I was wondering at the time it seems
like it was very difficult to cope with, and I was wondering if you thought
about at the time when you came back to Detroit, did you think about life
differently? Were you thinking about your role in the world in a way that
you hadn’t before at that point?
MS. JEFFRIES: Not like that, but like I said, the impact of standing there and having
Aunt Sadie say I don’t think you’ll see him again, and then she was the
one who died. That certainly was an impact. Here’s another thing. It did
impact me. The following summer, Sadie Ruth came up for the summer,
and she was with us, and she and I talked, and I asked her about it. She
said she didn’t remember. Well, people with head injury often don’t
remember. People with trauma may not remember. But what she said is
she was asleep in the car when it happened. To this day, for me to just to
close my eyes and be in a car with you driving, I have to feel very
comfortable with you. So when I was going out with my husband, before
we got married, I said to him one day that I could tell that I felt
comfortable with him because we were driving somewhere and I took a
little nap or closed my eyes or something. So even now, I’m probably a
little more relaxed about that, but I still feel that way. She said she didn’t
know what happened. I want to stay awake. I don’t know that I want to
see it coming, though.
The other part in terms of seeing my world differently was like I
said, it allowed us to go someplace else. Probably in my mind, like I
always felt I was going to college, probably in my mind, I felt I would just
be going to the University of Michigan or Michigan State. I also thought
that I saw myself living in Detroit. I was always going to be a lawyer. I
saw myself living in Detroit, maybe being married to a doctor, being like
my friends’ families living out in Palmer Woods or someplace and just
living a nice life. The idea of not living in Detroit or like I said, going to
school in New England, I never considered that. Now some people went
to school down South when we were in high school. Some of my friends,
for instance, went to Spellman and elsewhere. Based upon my experience
going to Mississippi, I had no interest whatsoever in going to school down
South. And all the civil rights stuff that happened, that was not an interest
to me. Another thing that happened was when I was a kid, a lot of kids in
the summertime would maybe go back down South and be with their
grandparents or aunts and uncles and work on the family farm or
something, that never happened in my house. It certainly was never
discussed that I heard of, and I never asked to go. But I think it’s very
clear to me that my father would not have allowed that, number one. And
I really don’t think my mother wanted me there without her, because, like
I said, she kept a rein on what I could do. I was with my cousins at a gas
station, and I drank out of a white water fountain, and they were trying to
get me not to do it, but I didn’t understand what they were talking about. I
wasn’t paying attention. I’m sure Malcolm Jeffries would have shot that
My mother said that when she left Mississippi going to Detroit on
that trip, she took the bus, but with the way the segregation was, she said
she had to stand up from Belzoni to Memphis for the duration, which is a
three-hour drive, but it would be longer on the bus. She said from that
experience, she got flat feet. She didn’t like it. But she said when she
hooked up with my father, he had her take the train down South instead of
the bus because you didn’t have to do that. So that’s how she came to take
the train. I will say Belzoni is my part of my worldview.
MR. WEAVER: I was going to ask a couple of follow-up questions on that because it was
such a time of profound change, both when your mom left Mississippi to
go to Detroit, kind of at the end of the Great Migration, and that
experience of growing up in this kind of center of culture, the center of a
lot of stuff, people moving to Detroit, it was a really important city at the
time, and you kind of grow up in that world, but you also go back and
experience what things are like in a place that was obviously much
different and not as hospitable, especially for you and your family, at the
time. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about of how you
experienced that difference as a child, what the differences between
Detroit and Mississippi just culturally, and how you thought about that
growing up.
MS. JEFFRIES: That’s a good question. For me as a child, the two places I could only
imagine people living were Detroit and Belzoni, and they were worlds
apart and different. I had been to some other places. I had been to
West Virginia, where daddy was from. I had relatives in Chicago. I had
been to Cleveland. But we went to Mississippi. I knew it the most. I tell
you where I did not want to live. I did not want to live in New York City
because I saw Ralph Kramden and Alice and they were living in that tworoom
apartment with the kitchen sink in the living area and everything.
We all had houses, single-family houses, and we had cars. When I was a
kid, we had one car, but as I got older, we had two cars. That was a
biggie. I had my own room and everything. When we would go to
Mississippi where you had to share space, beds, rooms, whatever. When
granddaddy died, or Aunt Sadie and them died and everyone came down,
couldn’t stay at hotels or anything, we’re all double and triple in beds,
people sleeping on the floor one bathroom, this whole thing. But at home,
I didn’t have to do that. We did things more. I always thought it was
interesting, my cousins in Belzoni, they always took school pictures, and
every year they’d have school pictures, and it would have the year on it.
They never did that in Detroit, and I thought that was interesting. Or their
high school, they went to an all-Black school, McNair High School, they
had a marching band and uniforms. I don’t think our high schools had
that, so I thought that was interesting. But we had things they didn’t have.
It was like I had a more, I will certainly call it, a more free world in
Detroit, but you know there are limits to that too because they had de jure
discrimination. There were places in Michigan you shouldn’t be. We
could certainly go down to Hudson’s and try on clothes. Even here when I
came here for law school at this place, one year I took a class, and I read a
book called Simple Justice by a man named Richard Kluger. It’s about the
five cases, Brown and the other cases that came on the school
desegregation. When you read that and they talk about the D.C. case and
about D.C. at the time, you couldn’t eat at the lunch counters at People’s
Drugs or try on clothes at Garfinkel’s or Hecht’s or different things.
White people here of a certain age are always talking about Glen Echo and
going out to Glen Echo. You don’t hear any Black people talking about
that because it was segregated and they couldn’t go.
MR. WEAVER: What was Glen Echo?
MS. JEFFRIES: Glen Echo out MacArthur Boulevard, it’s an amusement park now. You
can go out there now, I think they have a Spanish ballroom, people do
contra dancing and stuff and they’ll have activities and stuff. People of a
certain age, they all went to Glen Echo. Well my people who were here
So it was different in the opportunities and things that we had. It
was a contrast between the two, but I could see people living in Belzoni
because I knew people who lived there. It wasn’t my plan to live there,
but those were the two places I knew people living in.
MR. WEAVER: For those years that you didn’t go
MS. JEFFRIES: I was supposed to say something. You asked about food. Down there in
the Delta, for whatever reason, the Black people make and sell hot
tamales. That’s a big thing down there, and I can remember being a kid in
Detroit over on the east side on Oakland Avenue, people on the street were
selling hot tamales. So a few years ago, I was in Clarksville, and there’s a
place that’s supposed to have good hot tamales. I went by but it was like
11:30 in the morning, and they wouldn’t have them until 3:00 in the
afternoon. So another year I went to somebody’s tamales in Greenwood,
and I got a pan of tamales and took them up to Tennessee with me. But I
MR. WEAVER: This conversation is making me hungry. I was wondering during those
years, you mentioned in 1967 you went to Montreal, and that was your
first international travel experience. Is that right?
MS. JEFFRIES: International vacation. I grew up in Detroit, and you go to Canada all the
MR. WEAVER: Where all did you go, during those years when you didn’t go back to
Belzoni, did you do any other travel that had an impact on you?
MS. JEFFRIES: We came here the summer of 1970.
MR. WEAVER: To Washington, D.C.?
MS. JEFFRIES: Yes. We came here, and I didn’t know I would end up here. We went to
Chicago. I was in the Girl Scouts in high school, and we went to Mexico
City. Those were I guess the places I went growing up.
MR. WEAVER: What role did religion play in your family’s life growing up?
MS. JEFFRIES: My mother grew up Baptist, but when I came along, we went to this
church called Unity, which is out of Lee Summit, Missouri. We would go
there, my mother and I. My father never went to church. I guess he
believed in God, I don’t know. I never asked. But anyway, my mother
and I would go there on Sundays. We had a good routine, because it was
right across the street from Palmer Park in Detroit, which is between Sixand
Seven-Mile Road on the west side. So we’d go to church, and it was
just an hour, which is good. An hour was good. And then our routine was
to go across the street to Palmer Park. They had a pond there, which in the
wintertime would freeze over and you could ice skate. They rented ice
skates. They had tennis courts, and they had a golf course and stuff.
We’d go over there, and there were ducks in the pond. They had a snack
bar, and at the snack bar, they sold in a box of cheese tidbits, which is like
cheese crackers, oblong-shaped, and you could feed those to the ducks.
They had a payphone there, and after church, we would go over there, and
my mother would have change, and we would call my grandfather. We
could call him from the home phone too, but as I tell my son, longdistance
calls, that was a big deal when I was a kid. So we’d call him on
Sundays, and then feed the ducks. Or in the wintertime, I would go ice
skating at Palmer Park. I had an accident on my bike when I was eight,
and I was in the hospital for five days. I now know I could have died, but
I didn’t. I had a concussion and knocked my two front teeth out, that they
had to put back in. I was in and out of consciousness for 24 hours with a
tremendous headache that just thinking about makes my head spin now. I
will say that Palmer Park had hot dogs and hamburgers. I had had a
hamburger, and they had relish that always fascinated me because it was
emerald green. When I was in the emergency room, I saw that relish
there, and I was sick with my head swimming. But going to Palmer Park,
that was going to church, and church was important to my mother, like
you had to go every Sunday, sick or not. Okay, let’s not be that rigid.
After I married and moved out here, she returned to the Baptist
church, and then when I finished law school – a lot of my friends went to
Plymouth Congregation United Church of Christ. I need to talk about the
parents of people that I grew up with, and I said our parents had similar
ideas, and what happened after elementary school.
MR. WEAVER: You mentioned that you had gone to Theodore Roosevelt Elementary
School in Detroit. You talked a little bit about your parents and your kind
of social group there, and I was wondering if you would say a little bit
more about that. What were your friends like? What were you like?
What was that experience in elementary school like?
MS. JEFFRIES: Like I said, we would have a lot of kid whose parents were doctors or
teachers or whatever, and I certainly have friends who fall into that
category. What I want to be clear about is when I said Detroit was a great
place to grow up, it was great in many regards. Because, for instance,
when my parents bought their house, even though I don’t remember it and
I wasn’t participating, they used a Black lawyer to do this. When I was
growing up, I went to a Black doctor. I went to Black dentists. When I
was at the elementary school, we got a principal. My first principal was
white, but then we got a Black woman as our principal, and we had my
teachers. I talked about Ms. McFadden and Ms. McCrary. They always
looked very professional and looked very nice. Even the teacher I don’t
like, she always looked professional. Anyway, so my friends’ parents
were similarly these kinds of people, and so I saw how they carried
themselves. I saw them doing leadership things. I went to their houses,
and I saw how they lived. I knew the kinds of vacations they took. I
knew where they’d gone to college and their sororities or fraternities. I’m
seeing these things. And then I would do things with my friends. I’m
very close with my friend Denise. We met when we were ten at
Roosevelt, and we both were playing the violin. She and my cousin
Barbara who died were born on the same day, so Denise is three months to
the day younger than I am. Her father was a school administrator, and her
mother was a school librarian. Her mother was from Canada. Well
growing up in Detroit, a lot of people had cottages in Canada when I was
growing up, although they changed the rules, and foreign people can’t
own property now, but if you had it, you could keep it. So a lot of people
had cottages, and you’d go to Canada. So, for instance, Denise’s family,
they got a cottage, and she was an only child too, so some weekends when
they would go away for the weekend to the cottage, I would go with
Denise and her parents to the cottage, and we’d be up there. It was on the
Ruscum River and Bell River, maybe an hour outside of Detroit. We’d
drive, and we’d go through the tunnel, and I liked going through the tunnel
because when you get to the middle, you have the American flag and the
Canadian flag. Sometimes there’d be a lot of traffic and it’d be slow. But
we’d go to Canada. And then Denise and I could go out at night. We’d
walk around in the area, or we’d go out in the daytime and go follow the
river some. Her father had a boat. The Ruscum River ran into Lake
St. Clair, which bounded Michigan, so if you’re leaving Detroit on the east
side going to Jefferson, when you get to Grosse Point there is Lake
St. Clair. So anyway, he had a boat, and we’d go out in the boat. Denise
had a little boat thing called a yak. She and I would go out together, or off
the little pier, we’d be jumping in the water and doing our version of
swimming and playing. And then some other friends we went to school
with, the Millers, they had three daughters, Michelle, Charlotte, and I
forget the other daughter’s name. Anyway, Mrs. Miller was our Girl
Scout leader, which is how I really started going to Canada, so they had a
cottage a couple doors down. We’d go over there and be with them. The
Millers lived on the back side of Roosevelt on LaSalle, and what
everybody knew about them was they had a playhouse in their back yard,
so everybody knew the house with the playhouse. So we’d be up there
with them. So I saw all of that.
I have a friend, Jennifer, who she and I went to school from
kindergarten through 12th grade, except for 7th grade. Jennifer’s father was
a surgeon, and when we were in junior high school, he went up to the
Mayo Clinic for a couple of years, I guess, and did a residency in heart
surgery. When he came back, he was a heart surgeon. So all of these
people. But even for my friends’ parents, who weren’t professional like
that, they all had the same goal, what they wanted us to do and be, and
they’re trying to put you in things.
So when it came time to graduate from elementary school, in my
circle of friends, we always knew we weren’t going to the neighborhood
junior high, which was Durfee, right next to there. So we transferred out.
In the city of Detroit at that time, they had what they called open schools,
so if a school was underpopulated, they published a list. The list came out
in the spring, and you could transfer into a school. And, of course, there
were some schools that were more popular than others, and people would
try to get into. So when we’re finishing elementary school, Jennifer,
Denise, and I all applied to Chrysler, which was a small elementary school
downtown in Lafayette Park, that was really popular. We applied to that
school. Well, for some reason, only Denise got in. Now could it be
because her father was a deputy superintendent? I don’t know. But
Jennifer and I didn’t. So then we had to find other schools. Anyway, I
ended up going to a school way out west right near Rouge Park, Dixon,
which was an elementary school that went to 7th grade. And Jennifer
ended up going to the school Mettetal off of Seven Mile up near Henry
Ford High School. Anyway, the point is a lot of people in our circle
transferred out to these schools, not because our parents or we were trying
to integrate schools. That had nothing to do with it. But they wanted
good schools, and you follow the money, which the white people had the
money in their neighborhoods. We went to these schools. Now, of
course, I told you my daddy was driving me to school, but that meant my
friends their parents couldn’t drive them, they’re taking the city buses.
Okay, that’s what we did and how we all came to go to these schools. But
I had friends in my school years who, like I said, Denise’s father was an
assistant deputy superintendent but became a junior high school principal
first. I had people who were social workers, or we had friends by the time
I went to Mettetal, Anita and Debbie. Their mother, Geraldine Bledsoe
Ford, was a judge. One of the first, if not the first, Black woman judge on
the Detroit Recorder’s Court. Nicki Hood and Emery Hood, their father,
Reverend Hood, was minister of Plymouth Congregational, but he got on
the City Council. A guy, Horace Sheffield, his father, Horace
Sheffield, Sr., was a biggie with the UAW. We had all these examples of
people doing things. I always knew that Black people could and did do
these things because that’s what I was living and seeing.
I will say this now while I’m thinking about it. I said I had 5th
grade typing with Mrs. McFadden and Mrs. McCrary. Ultimately after I
finished law school, I got a job working with Mrs. McFadden’s son at a
small law firm, and Mrs. McFadden died maybe about ten years ago. I
was in contact with her until then. Mrs. McCrary is still alive. She’s
around 95. I call her Aunt Thelma. Her husband died a couple years ago,
so she moved from downtown Detroit out to Bloomfield Hills to be near a
daughter, and so she and I talk. We send each other cards. When I go
home, Denise and I go see her. We might take her out to lunch, and when
I was home most recently, we took her out to lunch. I arranged for a lot of
other Roosevelt People to go too, and it was a surprise for her. She
thought it was just me and Denise, but there were thirteen of us that had
lunch with her. But here’s the deal. The letter that I received from
Steve Pollak about doing this was something my mother would have
appreciated and enjoyed, but my mother is not alive. So I made a copy
and I sent it to Mrs. McCrary, and I said “Well, you know, mom’s not here
so you will appreciate this”. So she sent me a very nice congratulations
card last week, and it’s on my coffee table.
MR. WEAVER: What was her impact when you were a student? How did that relationship
begin? It’s amazing that you’ve kept in touch with her after all these
MS. JEFFRIES: I’m looking at these women, and like I said, when I was in school, the
teachers, the men wore suits and ties. The women teachers, they wore
dresses or they wore suits, or Mrs. McCrary and them, they wore dresses
with matching jackets, and they’re looking very professional. And they
had expectations for us, and so you see them and I at least wanted to be
like people I saw. You hear about athletes and entertainers and people like
that, or maybe you’re reading Ebony and they have a nice house. Okay, I
want to have a nice house, but I wasn’t using them personally as role
models. My role models were my parents, neighbors, my friends’ parents,
my teachers. These people and what they were doing, and they were all
encouraging and positive. I’m going to talk about this too at some point
because I went to the Detroit public schools, as I said, and I had excellent
teachers in the Detroit public schools. I had excellent teachers, both white
and Black teachers, who were extremely encouraging and just important in
my growth and development, and I appreciate them and the experiences I
had with them.
MR. WEAVER: What was your favorite subject in elementary school?
MS. JEFFRIES: I guess I’m going to say Reading, only because I was reading all the time,
and my mother says I learned to read because back then, they used to have
What’s My Line on TV, and the people would come on and they’d put on
the screen what their occupation was, and the panelists would have to
guess. Well if you couldn’t read, I didn’t know what they did, and
sometimes when they were guessing, in the enthusiasm, I might miss what
it said. I could be there watching it and call my mother to come in and tell
me, but she might get in there too late, and then I didn’t know. She said
that really got me to read, and she wanted me to read. So I was always
reading, and being an only child, I read a lot because I was by myself a lot.
I had to entertain myself a lot. I looked at TV a lot too, which some
people don’t like TV. I learned a lot from TV. I could be a student and
look at TV. That’s not an issue for me. And plus, being in Detroit, we
also had the Canadian Broadcasting Company, so I looked at the CBC a
lot. I particularly liked curling, the sport of curling. I used to watch that.
I used to watch hockey night in Canada when I was a kid by myself. I’m
not really a sports person, but I would watch, and now my son plays
hockey. And wrestling, and they also had local shows. They had a dance
show, kind of like American Bandstand, Swinging Time with Robin
Seymour, and all the Motown people would be on. Yeah, I used to watch
a lot of TV. Captain Jolly, Poop Deck Paul. I used to want to go on
Milky’s Party Time. Milky was a clown, Milky the Clown, and he had a
show. He’d do magic tricks, and then he’d have kids come on, and if you
won a little competition, he had a big jar, like a bowl, with pennies in it,
and you could put your hand in and get a handful of pennies, which I was
convinced that if my hand went in, I’d be getting a million dollars. It has
occurred to me in adulthood, I never did see any little Black kids on
Milky’s Party Time. But the magic words, as anybody knows, Twin
Pines. Say that to somebody my age in Detroit. They know Twin Pines,
Milky the Clown. So anyway, reading, I liked reading.
I have to talk about one of my all-time favorite teachers in life,
Thomas Mason, who later became Dr. Mason. I had him in 3rd grade. So
I told you I had the bicycle accident. In the Detroit schools, your first
semester of the year was the B, and the second semester was A. So in the
3rd grade, you’d be in 3B and then in 3A. So for 3B, I had Mrs. Mitchell
for homeroom, and her room was directly across the hall from Mr. Mason,
and the doors have windows in them so you can see in. Mr. Mason would
have all this math on the Blackboard, all this math. So the entire 3B, I’m
sitting there hoping and praying to God that I would not go to
Mr. Mason’s class because I’m just looking at this every day, and he has
all this math. Whose class do I go to? I go to Mr. Mason’s class, and I
love Mr. Mason to this day, but he died in 2005. He was fabulous. He did
stuff with us. He later tutored me in math. He’d come to the house and
tutor me. He was engaged around then to his wife Doris. They
subsequently got married and had a couple of kids. I’m still in touch with
Doris. Tom died in 2005. He was just the greatest person and such a big
influence. And plus reading. He made us in his class, we had to
memorize the poem Invictus. You may not know this, but back then,
people had to know this. “Out of the night that covers me Black as a pit
from pole to pole I thank whatever Gods may be for my incomparable
soul.” And then it ends something like, “I’m the master of my fate, I’m
the captain of my soul.” Something like that. Anyway, I had to learn that
with him, and spelling. We had to do a lot of spelling stuff. I won the
school spelling bee when I was in 6th grade, and I went to the next level
spelling bee. I still have my ink pen from the Detroit News and my
dictionary I won with my name engraved. I have that.
So those people were very impactful, and the way they carried
themselves. Like I said, that was very meaningful and impactful. So now,
like I said, for junior high, 7th grade, I went to Dixon. I’m going to talk
about Dixon. Dixon is out there by Rouge Park. It’s like an all-white
neighborhood. When I’m at Dixon, I was one of five Black students in the
school, and I was the only one in my class. A lot of kids were Polish, their
parents were, and they worked in the factories. Whatever they did, they
worked in factories. And they were Polish like they had their Polish
costumes and they would do Polish dancing, and that was a big thing, and
then they’re eating the Polish food and all of that.
So this is Dixon, and I’m out there with them. Well, like I said,
I’ve always been smart, so I’m out there with them, they weren’t
necessarily so. Our homeroom teacher, Mrs. Johnson, liked geography,
and she taught that, and she traveled around the world. So we’re there in
school doing the geography, and she would ask questions, as teachers do,
and I, as students would do, would raise my hand. She would say to me,
“Put your hand down,” number one. She would say to them, “She,”
talking about me, “is not any smarter than you are. She just reads the
book.” Well yes it was true I read the book, but I also was smarter than
they were. So then we’re doing that with them. They weren’t the
friendliest people. Nobody was malicious. Nobody certainly didn’t do
anything physical, they weren’t malicious, but they weren’t into me, and I
was smarter than they were. So, for instance, in school you take some
standardized tests, so let’s say we took the California test or the Indiana
Achievement Test, and the results come in. Well teachers pick kids to do
things for them, little tasks. The test results came in, and she had me file
the test results. Now, I filed the test results, so I know what they got, and I
know what I got, and I was way ahead of them. But she had me file the
test results. I didn’t need the test results to tell me that, but I saw the test
results. So then in the Detroit Public Schools – I liked this – back then in
your gym classes, you did a lot of folk dancing, so we’d do square
dancing, we did Polish polkas. I liked that. I liked square dancing. Now
if somebody would do it with me, I would. And I would dance the polka
now, but my husband doesn’t. Mexican hat dance. We were doing
dances. Our gym teacher was a Black woman. Well here’s how they
handled dancing back then. It’s time to dance and you need a partner, so
the boys had to pick a partner. At Dixon Elementary School in my 7th
grade class, I was the second least popular dance partner for the boys,
which would make you wonder who was the first least popular. What
made her least popular, and me second? And here’s what would happen.
When they’re out picking their partners, when pickings started getting
slim and they thought they were going to be stuck with her, her name was
Linda, they’d make a beeline for me because they really didn’t want
Linda, but they could tolerate me. Here’s the deal. Linda had had a bout
with polio, and she walked, but she walked with a slight limp. She was
mentally slow. I think she’d been held back a year, so she was older, and
she was bigger than almost everybody, and she had a mole with a hair
growing out of it. So rather than dance with Linda, they wanted to dance
with me. And that was our gym class.
What else did they do? Oh, so I was friends with this one girl, and
we traded Christmas presents, which I still have the present she gave me.
She gave me a hairbrush set, a brush and a comb, and I have the brush. I
used it today. She had an older sister and her mother. Her father was in
Herman Keefer Hospital, which was a huge hospital near me in Detroit,
which was the tuberculosis hospital. This is mid-1960’s, so tuberculosis
wasn’t as big as it used to be, but her father was in there because I believe
he had tuberculosis of the spine, and her mother worked at a diner, which
evidently didn’t pay all that well. They literally lived in a shack way out
there by Rouge Park. So her mother’s aunt died. The aunt lived in
Pontiac, not far from Detroit, and left them a house. They were going to
move to Pontiac, and I invited her home to spend the night with us, and
her mother let her come, and she rode home with me and my daddy. That
girl must have called her mother five times that night to say how nice my
house was, how we had carpeting on the floor, we had a fruit bowl on the
dining room table. I don’t know what she thought. She lived in a shack,
not me, but she was calling her mother all the time. I still have that brush.
That’s what I did at Dixon.
So Dixon ended in 7th grade, and I had to go to another school, so
then I got to Mettetal. Now, when I got to Mettetal, that very first day, for
whatever reason when we got out there, and it was far away too, we got
there a little late, and when I got up to my classroom that morning, maybe
I’m like five or ten minutes late, and they had started. When I walked in
that room, there were other Black kids in the room. I don’t know, you
could say there were five, six, seven in the room, including some people I
already knew, and when I walked in the room that day, Patricia Ice was in
the class. She said to me when I walked in the door, “Hi June.” You
don’t know what a world of difference going to Mettetal was for me as
opposed to being out there at Dixon. Out there at Dixon. So then at
Mettetal there was like a busload and a half of us, thirty-nine of us. So
that was a good number. We had fun. Now once again, because the
Jewish people had moved, they were now around Seven Mile Road, so this
was Jewish, a lot of Jewish people up there, so they actually, a lot of kids,
would be out for the Jewish holidays, but this is where I got introduced to
bagels because they’d be having fundraisers and we’d have bagel sales.
So I eat bagels now because of them out there at Mettetal. And that was
good. Seventh and eighth grade. I have a teacher from there, Mr. Jones,
he’s still alive. I hear from him sometimes. I had a Christmas card from
him, and somebody on Facebook, we were talking about the teachers. Oh,
because there’s a Mettetal group on Facebook, so we’ve been talking
periodically. I’m still in touch with him. And then after I returned to
Detroit from law school, one of the teachers at Mettetal, a Black woman,
Mrs. Whittington, she had become a lawyer, so I would see her and run
into her doing my lawyer things when I was in Detroit. So I had good
teachers out there.
Now through the magic of Facebook and the Mettetal junior high
school group, I have reestablished contact with my Mettetal locker mate,
Pat Labella, and I hadn’t seen her since I left Mettetal. She’s retired and
living in some outpost in Mexico so we’re talking on Facebook all the
time, and she’s called me a couple of times through Facebook. You can
make phone calls through Facebook and don’t have to pay, so she has
called me from Mexico a couple of times. We talk about a lot of the
political and legal stuff that’s going on and other things.
The summer of 1971 I was in New York City for the summer, right
after I graduated high school, and Jim Morrison of the Doors died. Oh my
God. Pat Labella loved herself some Jim Morrison and the Doors. I was
in Manhattan and the Bronx. I thought “Oh my God, I should find this
woman. She’s in deep mourning.”
MR. WEAVER: What were your kind of big cultural influences? If it wasn’t the Doors,
what were you listening to? Who were your celebrity idols? Who were
you a fan of?
MS. JEFFRIES: Number one – and Detroit is a big musical town. It has been, and even
now, but Detroit was always a big musical town. So, of course, I said the
heyday of Motown, so you figure the Supremes’ “Baby Love” or
something, that’s around 1964, the Temptations, “My Girl,” 1964. I was
ten years old, so all that Motown stuff was going on, and you’re hearing
about it, or they were on TV with Robin Seymour Swinging Time. They
would do the Motor Town reviews at the Fox Theatre. My parents didn’t
let me go to that. You had that going on. Aretha came out with
“Respect.” I was 14 in 1968. That was big. And it was beautiful. It was
big, and it was wonderful. Our neighbors across the street, directly in
front of us, the Shepards, they had six kids, three boys, three girls, all of
them older than me except the baby girl was a year younger than me.
Well, their son Vander one year married this woman Sharan, and Sharan
was Smokey Robinson’s niece. So when I was 14, Sharan was having her
first baby, and they had a baby shower for her at the home of Paul
Williams, who was one of the Temptations, and I loved them, so I went
with the Shepards to Sharan’s baby shower. Paul wasn’t there, but they
had the gold records in front of the fireplace, and they had one of those
life-sized photo cutouts of him. I still have the pictures of them now. I
posed in front of that. Paul committed suicide later on. That’s sad. Diana
Ross went to my high school. When I went to Cass Tech, and I took
French from Madame Kron, she had taught Diana Ross, and she had
Diana’s graduation picture that she carried around in her wallet then. My
drama teacher in high school, Mr. Bovenshin, he lived in a four-family flat
or the like owned by David Ruffin. I thought that was exciting. So you
had that going on, but then like I said even though I told you I’m not a
sports person, I was looking at hockey, I was looking at curling, I’m going
to Canada, I considered them to be my Canadian brothers and sisters. I’m
extremely bothered now that you have to have a passport to go to Canada.
It bothers me when somebody here talks badly about Trudeau in Canada,
I’m very upset about that. I love my Canadian brothers and sisters.
I liked movies. This is good. Sidney Poitier was on a roll in 1967-
1968, he did To Sir with Love, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s
Coming to Dinner. In the Heat of the Night, of course, takes place in
Mississippi, and he’s taking the train down there, and he leaves on the
train. He’s in Mississippi dealing with those people. My mother and I
went to see In the Heat of the Night when it came out. There’s a scene in
In the Heat of the Night that I will say I enjoy this scene, and with DVRs
and stuff now you can repeat it. I will look at it three or four times
because it’s a very meaningful scene in the context of America and what
life was like then and can still be. Trying to solve this murder, he and
Carrol O’Connor, who’s the sheriff in this town, go see the rich white
man, Mr. Endicott, who’s in his greenhouse with the orchids, and Sidney
Poitier is talking to him about the orchids and stuff and then they get
around to asking pertinent questions. He asked a question that
Mr. Endicott thinks is impertinent, and Endicott slaps Sidney Poitier who
slapped him right back and probably slapped him harder. Now the butler
is watching that, and he cringes, the sheriff is like ‘oh my,’ and Endicott
says to the sheriff, “Did you see that? What are you going to do about it?”
And the sheriff, Carrol O’Connor says he saw it and he didn’t know what
he was going to do about it. Oh, for a Black man down there to slap a
white guy like that, that’s a huge thing. That could have gotten you killed.
It didn’t get Sidney killed in the movie, but people got killed for stuff like
that. So to see somebody fight back that’s a very pivotal moment. And
then, of course, I like when the movie ends, when he’s on the train, and
they pan the scene and you see the people working the cotton fields.
Because when I was going down there, people worked the fields, and they
put on all these clothes because it’s all hot and everything. This is a
problem I have in life. My girlfriend says I’m in denial, and I told her I
don’t think I’m in denial, I think they are confused. But here’s the
problem I have that is never going to be resolved. My cousins would have
to pick cotton, so the Summer of 1965, my last summer there, Sadie Ruth
was two years older than me, could not hang out with Barbara and Edith
and me because she had to go work the fields. She was thirteen, and she
had to go work the fields. Then Barbara and Edith get killed. I have
posed the question to my friend Loreen, who I said her parents owned the
store and the shoe shop, I posed the question to her, whether Barbara and
Edith would have had to work the fields when they got older. To which
she says there’s no question in her mind they would have had to go. And I
told her I don’t think that’s right, and she says why not. I said I don’t feel
they would have had to do it. She said well maybe not Edith, but she said
they would have found something for Edith to do. I said even with her
half an arm, and she said yes, most definitely. She told me if you don’t
believe me, ask one of their sisters. So I asked Julia or Nancy, one of their
older sisters, if they thought Barbara and Edith would have had to work
the fields. Their response is the same thing, “yes.” But I think they’re all
confused, and I don’t believe them. And I’ll never know because they
didn’t live. But I don’t think my cousins would have had to do that. But
they seem to think I’m confused or in denial.
MR. WEAVER: You talked a little bit about how Girl Scouts was one of the things that
took you up to Canada frequently. When did you get involved in Girl
Scouts, and what other extracurricular activities were you doing in
elementary and middle school and then on into high school?
MS. JEFFRIES: In elementary school, I was in Girl Scouts, and at one point, my mother
was a leader or a co-leader. I think I was kind of jealous when she showed
attention to other people. Anyway, Mrs. Miller was our troop leader for a
long time. She had Charlotte, Michelle, and another daughter who’s name
I can’t remember. They had the cottage down the way from Denise’s
family. Out from Detroit, out from Windsor, there’s a place called Jack
Minor’s Bird Sanctuary, and we went up there on field trips. So Jack
Minor, these birds come through and they band them or whatever they do,
and you can go up there and see all these birds. When I was a kid, the
movie, The Birds, came out in 1964. I never saw it as a kid, but I saw
those ads on TV, and they scared me. The school kids were running from
the birds. And now I’ve seen it a lot as an adult. I don’t really trust birds
in large numbers, but I have been back to Jack Minor’s because I like
going up there. We all liked going to Jack Minor’s. That’s one of my
earliest things, going to Canada. So I would go to Canada.
In high school we did yearly trips to a theatre in Canada. So I did
Girl Scouts, I started piano with our neighbor across the street when I was
five. When I was eight, my parents bought me a Wurlitzer upright, which
is in my living room now. I played piano, and in elementary school, I also
started violin. I gave my violin away three years ago to a program that
gives instruments to kids who can’t afford them. In 7th grade you take
Home Economics, which I think they should bring back. We had sewing,
and I made a jumper, a very simple Simplicity V-neck jumper. Then I got
into sewing, and my parents bought me – which was in the top-of-the-line
Singer, a Golden Deluxe Touch and Sew sewing machine. For years on
Saturdays I would go downtown Detroit to the Singer Sewing Machine
shop because they had sewing lessons, and I took sewing lessons from
Mrs. Beasley. I entered sewing contests. I won record players and stuff. I
sew extremely well. My high school was a city-wide high school with
5,000 students. We had 26 curriculums of which 25 were college prep,
but one of the curriculums was called Clothing and Textiles. I took
pattern drafting and tailoring. I made wool coats, wool suits. When my
ex-husband – he was my boyfriend then – graduated from Yale, I made
him a suit the week after I graduated college because we were going to a
wedding. I sew very well. So I did that through high school. My mother
let me do a lot of things. I told you she took me ice skating. I would go
horseback riding. She’d take me to Canada to go horseback riding, and I
had a mishap on a horse, and I guess we kind of stopped going. But I’m
surprised because my son said to me recently that he had talked to my
mother one time and she said something to him that she didn’t take
children horseback riding because what had happened with me. I didn’t
get hurt, though, so it’s okay. She wanted me to be exposed to things. So
some of my friends were in a club called Jack and Jill, and for instance,
one of the girls I went to school with, both her mother and father were
doctors, and her mother was a pediatrician, but her specialty was
teenagers. She said that was called ephibi-pediatrics, and her mother was
a real achiever and stuff and skied and did things, so one time they had a
ski trip and I went with them skiing up north, and then I joined the ski club
in high school. I went skiing with them, but I fell and hurt my knee, so
then I didn’t that anymore. I went away the summer of 1970. I went away
to Olivette College. They had some summer program for high school
students. It’s in Michigan, and I was studying some kind of political
science stuff. I will say since the age of five, I always knew I was going
to be a lawyer because my mother’s favorite TV show was Perry Mason.
So I was always going to be a lawyer. But then in high school, I also
wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to do both. My mother thought I needed
to take Latin because doctors needed to know Latin, but I didn’t do that.
I know there were some other things. Denise, whose father was a
superintendent, they built a new junior high school in Detroit in 1967 or
so, and he was the principal. Johnson was President, and they had this
money out there, so they had a summer enrichment program. We went a
couple of years. Mr. Billups would take me, Denise, and Jennifer with
him, and they had all kinds of stuff. We had violins. Denise and I played
violin; Jennifer played cello. We had photography, we had art with
Mrs. Stevens, we did a lot of things. Here’s something. They had a trip
one time to a youth hostel up in Michigan to Blue Lake, so I went on the
trip. Denise and them didn’t go. Denise and her parents were in the
Bahamas, and Jennifer didn’t go. I went for the weekend. We were all
Black kids at the youth hostel on Blue Lake. That Saturday morning, I
was at the dock with the older woman, she was white, the caretaker, and
she and I were in the canoe, and were going to canoe on the lake. The
man who lived on the property next door, he comes running over there.
To this day, the single most irate person I’ve ever encountered, he comes
running over there talking about the niggers, niggers, niggers. The niggers
this, the niggers that. He and his wife lived in Pontiac, and every weekend
they came to Blue Lake to get away from the niggers, and the niggers,
niggers, niggers, because we kids were there. He’s going to burn the place
down because of the niggers. He’s up there to get away from the niggers.
From us. And she and I are in the canoe. Well, I think the thing that
really got his ire was his wife was sunbathing topless, and some of the
boys had rowed by and seen her precious body. So he’s all in a tizzy.
He’s going to burn the place down, and she and I are in the canoe. Now
she didn’t say anything to him. I didn’t say anything to him. And I guess
he finished and walked away. She and I went canoeing. We never
mentioned it. We just canoed on the lake. But that is the most irate
person I’ve ever encountered because he said he was up there to get away
from the niggers, and the niggers this, that, and the other. But that was a
fun thing. So what else did I do?
MR. WEAVER: A quick question about that. Was it rare for you to experience or hear that
kind of explicit racism in Detroit and in Michigan or anywhere?
MS. JEFFRIES: I certainly had never encountered anyone like that. I hadn’t encountered it
personally in Mississippi because my mother didn’t allow me to be in any
kind of situation where anything could have happened because she didn’t
think I would act in a way that might please people. When I was at Dixon
– growing up, for me, immigration, you were still getting people coming
from Europe after the war, and Eastern Europeans in Detroit, and then we
started getting Arab people coming over, people from the Middle East.
But that’s what immigration was, and when I was a kid, CARE, the
organization that’s sending CARE packages for people in Czechoslovakia,
so that’s what you’re seeing. At Dixon, in 7th grade, one of my classmates
was William Hoffman, and he was from Germany and had moved to
Detroit, and he spoke with a German accent. William Hoffman told me,
who was born at Grace Hospital in Detroit, that I should go back to Africa,
which I didn’t understand that. If anybody should go anywhere, he should
have gone back to Germany. But he had said that to me. Otherwise, I
hadn’t had anything happen.
In Detroit, there is a suburb not so far away, Dearborn. Everybody
knows Dearborn was a very racist place headed by their mayor, Orville
Hubbard, whose goal in life was to keep Black people out. So like I
hardly ever went into Dearborn, and what happened with Dearborn, and
this is true, this has been in the papers, they were so busy trying to keep
Black people out that all these Arab people started moving in, and then
they’re waking up at 5:00 a.m. over the loudspeaker praying to Allah, so
then they’re all upset, their Dearbornites, and I think Dearborn is now like
60% Arab because they were so busy trying to keep us out. Later on, they
opened a big shopping center, and I would go out there to Fairlane and
then go home.
MR. WEAVER: You mentioned you were a good student, and I assume throughout
elementary, middle, and high school, reading and those sorts of things,
you’re a good student, but did you get into any trouble?
MS. JEFFRIES: I did not get into any trouble, and I didn’t get into any trouble in school.
My high school was city-wide, and 8 stories, 5,000 students, probably the
most I ever did was a lot of people might skip a class and go hang out in
the back hallways or something. I did that some, but I didn’t get into any
trouble over that.
I’m going to talk about an incident that happened because this is
meaningful to me, especially in the context of the time, and I remember
this. One of my friends, her mother was a doctor and her father was a
doctor. She had a party at her house in high school not far from where I
lived, in the basement. They had a finished basement. While we were
there, some of the boys got in her father’s liquor cabinet, and he found out,
which I don’t know how, but I imagine she went up and told her father. I
imagine she told her father, which is okay. It’s their house. Oh, he came
downstairs and immediately turned the party out and made people leave,
which wasn’t a bad thing because I’d gone over in a car with my friends.
It wasn’t like you were abandoned outside and couldn’t do anything. I
take that as an example of, for me, someone being a strong parent because
he knew what he was going to allow in his house and what he wouldn’t
allow, and when he found out about it, boom, that was it. There are other
stories in the news now. Things are different with some people.
I didn’t really get in trouble in school. I ended up in the hospital
with the bicycle accident for doing something, which if I was 8, I didn’t
tell my mother until I was 13 what I was doing because I felt if I told the
truth, I’d be in trouble. My parents didn’t let me ride my bike in the street.
We’d gone to church that day, come home. She was cooking, and I was
riding my bike. We had a driveway, which was up an incline. So I
decided to ride my bike with my eyes closed, going down the driveway
and turning onto the sidewalk, when I thought I was at the sidewalk, and I
did it a couple of times successfully. The last time, I apparently rode into
my neighbor’s tree and landed with the handlebars in my mouth, and then
I got my concussion and knocked my teeth out. I didn’t fess up to that for
five years because I thought it would make them mad. Now that’s
probably something I did.
I told you I sewed. In my high school, I was in the honors
program, and in our program, you had to take electives from another
curriculum, so I took a lot of electives from the performing arts
curriculum, which we happened to share a study hall with the PA kids. I
was in SA, which is Science and Arts, and they were in PA, and we were
in 617 for study hall. I had Mr. White then, and they had Mr. Lucci. So I
took a lot of performing arts classes, but not to per se perform, but I did
take classes. I knew I wanted to be a lawyer, and I wasn’t one for public
speaking, so for instance, I myself took public speaking or they had a class
called radio speech taught by Mrs. Frances Hamburger. They used to do a
lot of radio shows out of Detroit, like the Lone Ranger and stuff, and your
voice is your tool, so I took that, and that made you get up and do things,
and you had to do exercises and things with those people in performing
arts. It was a point to me saying that about them, which is good. Oh, so
they would do musicals, so I did costumes one time on the play Auntie
Mame, and I was the dresser for one of the lead characters. When I was
here at Georgetown, they have a Gilbert & Sullivan Society, and I did
some costume work with them. I like show people. I like show people
because if they have parties, they do a lot of singing Broadway shows.
They always know that stuff. For me, and this is an important thing. I
have to say this about Cass Tech. I went to Cass Technical High School, a
great school. Many great people went there, famous people. Jack White,
he’s some kind of musician guy, I’m not into his music, but my son
knows, and people know Jack White. When we went to the hockey
championship, they played Jack White. Anyway, he went to Cass. Cass
was a city-wide high school, and it was college prep. I was there 1968 to
1971 because high schools in Detroit went 10th, 11th, and 12th grade. I was
meeting kids from all over the city, and I learned a lot from that, but the
very reason for being there was that you wanted to go to college, so that
was the expectation of all the teachers. For instance, a lot of people
wanted to be doctors, so people who wanted to be doctors mainly went
into a curriculum that was called Chemical Biological, and they’re taking
all these science classes, or they took my program, Science and Arts, SA,
because we took those classes too. It’s probably equal number girls and
boys, so there are all these girls in there who want to be doctors or maybe
go to grad schools and get a PhD in sciences or math to be doctors, and the
teachers weren’t telling us because we were girls and you couldn’t do it. I
hear people all the time saying how girls are steered differently or not to
do the math and everything, that was the reason we were there. They
weren’t telling us we couldn’t do it. They were telling us we could. They
never tried to encourage a boy over a girl, and I think if you ask any of us
who were there at that time, everybody would agree with that. So we
didn’t have that experience of being in school with people telling you no
you can’t go to college, no you can’t do this. They were helping us get
there. Otherwise why would you be at Cass Tech? So I think that’s a very
influential thing as well. My 10th grade geometry teacher, I’m Facebook
friends with her. She kind of moved into a retirement place recently. She
lived in the suburbs. Not only did we have 5,000 students, but we had
some tuition students who came from the suburbs and paid, so her
daughter, Willow, was in my class in high school, and they lived in the
When I was here at law school, I taught Street Law at Spingarn
High School, which I will tell anybody was the single most depressing
experience of my life, but I’d never been in a school like that, or really
around students like that. It was extremely hard for me to relate and
understand. The first day I went up there, going in, a girl was coming out
and she was pregnant and she had a t-shirt that said, “Baby,” with an
arrow pointing down. Throughout the year, all these girls were pregnant
or they had babies or they were having other babies. One girl had one
baby and she was having another and she’s showing me pictures. My
friend Denise, I’m talking to her one time on the phone, I said all these
girls here have babies, and I don’t understand because we didn’t have that
when we were in school, and she said when we were in school, they didn’t
allow the pregnant girls to go to school with us. They had to go to a
different school. I don’t think I even knew that. I just didn’t know
anybody in our school was pregnant. I take that back. Two girls were
pregnant when I was at Cass. There was a girl, we had swimming together
so we’d be in the locker room across from each other. She was a white
girl who lived in southwest Detroit with her grandmother. I don’t know
where her parents were. She and I would talk. She got pregnant and
didn’t come back to Cass. She was 16, and she had married her boyfriend,
but her grandmother didn’t know she was married. Senior year I was in a
service club. Helen, the president of the club, got pregnant. So maybe it
was like March or something and Helen is pregnant. She finished the
school year. They’re not going to put you out then, but I will say this.
The club had a baby shower for her. My mother did not allow me to go. I
don’t think she wanted to condone that. But I think about that. If anybody
needed a gift, Helen probably needed a gift.
Spingarn was so different, and Cass wasn’t like that. We did all
these things, and it was great.
MR. WEAVER: Did you learn how to drive and get a driver’s license when you were in
high school?
MS. JEFFRIES: You know I did. I’m from Detroit. June is not a public transportation girl.
MR. WEAVER: What was your first car?
MS. JEFFRIES: My father died sophomore year, and we then had two cars and two people.
June thought that meant she’d have a car up there in Connecticut. Wrong.
My mother said no. Senior year she let me take the car, and we had a
1967 Ford Fairlane. It was yellow with Black interior. I had that.
Coming here for law school was traumatic for me because for some reason
I thought I wasn’t going to have a car, and when we came to visit, I saw
these people in a thunderstorm waiting at bus stops, and I practically
became hysterical. I did get hysterical at dinner, because I thought I
wasn’t going to have a car. But then I did have a car. I had a 1972 Grand
Torino. But the first car I bought was when I was working here in 1984, a
Ford Cougar. So the single most popular class at that time I’m sure in the
Detroit Public Schools was drivers training. To take drivers training, you
couldn’t sign up until you were 15 and ten months. So I was there that
November, two months before my 16th birthday, and I signed up. Cass did
not have drivers training. I took drivers training at Mumford High School,
which if people have seen those movies, Beverly Hills Cops with Eddie
Murphy, I think he wore a Mumford t-shirt. So people know Mumford for
that reason. Anyway, I took drivers training at Mumford, which is so
artificial. They had a track on their property, one lane you could go 15
miles per hour, and no other cars. So I get my permit up on Seven Mile
my mother and I went to the Secretary of State, and she says to me, do you
want to drive home? And I said sure. So I’m on Seven Mile, I drive two
or three blocks to Livernois and I turn right. Livernois is a main drag.
They had three lanes this way, three lanes north, and a left-turn lane, and
people are driving, three lanes going south. People are driving 35, 40, 45
miles an hour, and I’ve just been driving 15 miles an hour. After two or
three blocks on Livernois, my mother said “Do you want me to drive?”
and I said yes. She took over, and that was the last time in life ever, from
that point on, I kept up the driving. She went through a phase where she
wouldn’t drive on the expressways. One night there was some kind of a
family event, and she wasn’t going to go. My Uncle Larry picked me up,
and he had Aunt Betty and the two kids who are younger than me, and he
told me to drive. We were going on the east side. So I wasn’t going to get
on the expressway, but he told me to get on the Lodge, and I’d never
driven on the expressway before, and all I was thinking is: “Oh my god, I
hope I don’t kill this family. What will people say if I do this?” But, hey,
he got me on the expressway. I told you I would take the bus sometimes
in school. People won’t like hearing me say this, but I’m from Detroit.
People in Detroit have cars. We don’t have the greatest public
transportation system. Ask people now. That’s a problem for the city. In
my point of view, only people without funds and children ride the bus, and
I went to school, so I don’t have to ride the bus. I have a car. And that’s
why I have the car, so I don’t have to ride the bus. I will ride the subway.
The subway started opening up my first year of law school, and then they
were doing all this building around and everything, so I will ride the
subway. One of my big cases involved the killing of a Metro transit
officer, and so I had a close relationship with Metro people, Metro transit,
and through that case, I had some cool experiences with Metro and got to
fulfill a couple of life-long things, things that interested me with the
subway system. Public bus. When 9/11 happened, I had taken the subway
in, and I thought the subways were closed once that happened. I don’t
know if they were closed or not, but I knew that I was not going
underground with terrorism stuff going on. I called my husband to come
get me, but when I came out of the building, the thing that really scared
me, the FBI is across the street, the field office, they had closed down the
street and they were walking around with shotguns and rifles, so I didn’t
think he could get me, and you couldn’t get through on the cell phones. I
went inside. I had a gym bag to change clothes, and I’m glad I went
inside. My son was in high school. He called me, and then my friend
Joann called. Her husband and I had gone to college together. He was a
doctor. She said Rick was at Howard Hospital, and if I got up there, I
could get home. But I told my son I had changed clothes because it was
11 miles from here to my house, I was going to walk home because I said
okay, I’m still not riding a bus. I don’t like buses. I can walk home. And
I was going to just take my time, because you can stop, go in and eat
something, have something to drink, or maybe get somewhere where
something happened. But a miracle occurred, and when I came out after
changing clothes, my phone did ring, and my husband was near police
headquarters. So I didn’t have to walk home. But I wasn’t going to ride
the bus. I wasn’t that desperate on 9/11.
So anyway, in Detroit we all drove, and I have feelings about that.
All these people around here, 16-year-old kids driving cars and all this
stuff. We all drove and we didn’t have problems, but people had rules.
And we drove with our friends in the car. I’m not aware of any of my
friends having any major accidents or anything with us being young
drivers. But I think there are ways you do it, and I tell people, I’d much
rather have my kids start driving at 16 than to be 18 and boom, if he’s off
at college and he’s not getting experience with me. Rudy started driving
at 16, and I was there with him, and we put in all this time together.
Terrifying as it may have been for me, we did that. Drivers training was
popular in Detroit Public Schools.
MR. WEAVER: I’m going to ask one more question. Talk a little bit about when you
started applying to college where you thought about applying. I know you
mentioned you wanted to go to New England from your visit to Vermont
when you were in Montreal, but how did all of that transpire?
MS. JEFFRIES: In the summer of 1970, which is the summer before senior year started, I
wanted to go to school in New England. I got out the almanac, and it
listed colleges and universities by states, so I looked up New England
states and picked out some, not all of the colleges. Picked out some and
started writing letters. Amongst them, I wrote to Wesleyan. I was also a
National Merit Semi-Finalist. We did that in 11th grade, so you’re
beginning to get inundated with mail from all these schools. One of my
friends from Girl Scouts, Sandra, was a year ahead of me. She went to
Smith. So I would talk to Sandra. She knew about different schools, so I
talked to her. I’m filling this out, I’m doing this, you go to events,
whatever. Through Girl Scouts, Mrs. Washington, our leader, was a social
worker. She knew some white woman out in the suburbs who had gone to
a small women’s school in upstate New York, Wells College, in Aurora,
New York, and they were looking because at that time, contrary to what
Clarence Thomas would say, these schools were looking for Black
students because the federal government was making them, not because
they were so open and just let you do this. So my mother and father and I
went out there. They had something at the women’s house, and they were
talking about Wells College. Gee, it sounded okay to me, but when we
were in the car, my father said you will never go there, and I asked why.
He said because they only have seven Black students. I hadn’t thought
about that part because I had been one of five at Dixon. Anyway, so I’m
applying to these schools, and I applied to eight. I did apply to Michigan
and Michigan State. Michigan State had some honors program. We went
up there and visited those schools. I did it to appease my parents, although
I knew it was pointless because I knew I wasn’t going. I applied to eight
schools, Michigan; Michigan State; Radcliffe, which was Harvard;
Wesleyan; Smith; maybe I applied to seven, and I threw in Brown at the
end because something happened and somebody said to apply there. So I
got in seven of the eight schools. I did not get into my first choice, which
was Radcliffe. Wesleyan was my second choice. I went to the dinner at
this private club on top of a building in Detroit, on top of the Buhl
building in Detroit. My daddy and I went because my mother was
recovering from surgery. They had a dinner for all the people admitted to
Brown. They served apple pie with cheddar cheese on top, so when we
were going home, I asked my daddy why did they serve apple pie with
cheddar cheese on top, and he said because white people eat it that way.
We didn’t eat lamb. I don’t think a lot of Black people eat lamb in general
in the South. So I’d heard of lamb but had ever eaten lamb, and I’m in
high school, so I ask could we have lamb, and my daddy got a leg of lamb
and we cooked it and he got mint jelly, and I said why are we having mint
jelly with the lamb, and he said because white people eat mint jelly with
the leg of lamb. So we had it one time, and that fulfilled my desire for
lamb. And then people were cooking with wine, and I had a recipe that
you cooked with wine, and my parents didn’t drink. It was a chicken dish,
and he got the wine so I could make this dish, except my daddy he got
some kind of Manischewitz concord. That is not a cooking wine. We
didn’t do that again. So that’s how I went to Wesleyan. You see my
point? My grandfather died, so I could go to Montreal so I could go to
Vermont so I could sit there and apply and go to Wesleyan. It was my
second choice. They had just gone co-ed, so I was the second incoming
co-ed class. They were in Connecticut, and that’s what I decided to do.
And I’ll say this point and we can talk about stuff later. I said I had been
admitted to Brown, and I used to want to be a doctor too, so Brown
participated in this program called PREP, which I can’t remember what
PREP stands for, but it was a program created by this woman Alice Miller.
She was Jewish, and her husband was some big surgeon at NYU Medical
School, and it was a program for pre-med minority freshmen. NYU had a
campus at the time in the Bronx, and they had a six-week summer
program at their campus in the Bronx. We took chemistry, math, English,
and some other stuff, and they paid us. They paid all of our expenses and
gave you a weekly stipend, and so I spent six weeks in New York right
after graduating high school, which was extremely significant for my life
and things I later went on to do to spend that summer in New York, and I
will point out on my first day there I met this guy who then became my
college boyfriend, law school boyfriend, husband, and now ex-husband,
on that first day in New York. So anyway, we can talk about other things
next time.
MR. WEAVER: That sounds great. Thank you.