tv Oral Histories Esther Terry Civil Rights History Project CSPAN July 3, 2020 4:55pm-5:53pm EDT
you today by your television provider. next, oral history interview with esther terry who talks about participating in the 1960 lunch counter sit-in protests while the student had been in college in greensboro, north carolina. she served as president of bennett college in 2012 and 2013. this interview is part of an oral history project on the civil rights movement initiated by congress in 2009, conducted by the smithsonian national museum of african-american history and culture, the library of congress and the southern oral history program at the university of north carolina chappech chapel hill. dr. terry, i think i know that your parents drove you to the college here in fall of '57
rn . >> yes, they did. >> what did you discover here at bennett college? >> it was a big day for me. i came from someplace. i came being supported by the whole community. they prayed for me at church. i had a little scholarship money. i was going to work a little bit. there was always that let me give you a few pennies. so i came from the community and off we came to bennett college. i'd never been to bennett college before. i'd never been to greensboro before. i arrived here to hawith my par
and a lot of parents and a lot of students all deposited by parents. it was a lonely feeling when they said good-bye and left. >> people in short order would become persons who were important to you on the campus, staff and fellow students. >> as my parents were getting me situated in my room, there was a girl being deposited from west virginia. her mom met my mom and they talked. roz's mother told my mom, how they talked and just told each other so much in so little time, i'll never know. but here's what got established
in that little while. roz's mother had other children in college at the same time. so she immediately knew, she told roslyn immediately she wouldn't be coming home. there wasn't going to be money to bring roslyn home except at christmas time and in the summer time. my mom told mrs. smith that we lived a couple of hours up the road and they would be driving back to see me often and i could come home, quite often. i could come home for thanksgiving and that roslyn could come home with me any time. so mrs. smith and mrs. alexander sort of bonded that day and they exchanged children. my mom became surrogate roz's mom and roz's mom became sort of my mom, although it would take a long time before i got to west virginia to meet roz's mother. roz went home with me the very,
very first break that we had and she went home with me for all four years. my very best friend to this day is roslyn smith. she is actually living in gree s greensboro. she retired from new york and came back to greensboro. she came to greensboro. of course when i took the job here i was delighted that she's here. >> she studied sociology. >> she studied sociology and political science. i was in theater. [ inaudible ] >> oh, my goodness, it was wonderful. my english professor, well, i
had several, but dr. jarred was the man who taught me literature. what a wonderful man, what a brilliant man. all of my faculty was. dr. jarred was hard, he was tough. he exacted absolute perfection and we were arrogant enough to think we could give it to him. he really had us just charmed into thinking that we could write anything, we could articulate any idea, we could debate anything. he was just a wonderful teacher and he empowered us a great deal, but no nonsense. so i have very much was very mu him. he would walk on campus and say, ms. alexander, i am going to pick up my lesson book. >> i would say literary history. those little games.
he was such a showoff. we revelled in it. he also was a very handsome man and he smoked a pipe. he was so elegant. we all sort of drooled after dr. jarred but in a nice way. we were so so proud to be his student. then there was dr. crawford who taught us grammar. how should i say this? i don't want to say he was less polished but he was less polished. just a fact, he was less polished. he taught us grammar. he would make us diagram sentences.
he was tough. i don't think i was one of his favorite students, but i was treated kindly by him because i could diagram a sentence. he was serious. you know, he was just a serious man so he wasn't quite liked like dr. jarred. then we had in the theater we had fred alan edie who had come to us from howard and was a terrific director. we got him married. we thought he needed to be married. so we selected the lady on the campus that we thought he ought to be married to. so we collected money and bought her flowers and sent her flowers and said they were from mr.
edie. we told him we took this lady flowers. you should follow up. we put your name on it. he did. you want to know something really funny? they got married. we always took credit for that. bennett was wonderful. i lived in the honors dorm. we were proud to be bennett girls, because we were taught every day that we were as good as everybody in the world and better than a lot of people in the world and had responsibility to help those who weren't as fortunate as we were. but there was something in life that rierd required us to be as good as we could and give back to the community.
it was that the that made us be cognizant of what was happening in the community, helping to get people to vote, understanding the importance of registering to vote and getting people to do that, taking ourselves into the community to be helpful to help people in the ways that we could and to talk about the community. i think it was important to me that they taught us these things. you see, i talk about having been happy when i was growing up as a youngster. what i mean is i felt safe. happiness was somehow connected to being safe. in that time the whole southern terrain was dotted with white-only towns, with the sign
that says, you know, coloreds, reminders that there were places that you couldn't go and places that you ought not to go if you wanted to be safe. safety was a part of being happy. and when you were cocooned in safety, that's what this campus was. this campus was a place that we knew we were taken care of. now, we were asked to give all we could give in the classes, but we also knew that we were special. and that is why it was inevitable that we entered into the sit-ins. we knew they were wrong. you see, you can't have someone inside the gates being taught how they could be the best and anybody could be everything and
then walk right out the gate and be told you can't sit here. i think it's very important to know that woolworth's that you can't sit down for a coke. you could go into woolworth's. it was not closed to black patrons. you could go into woolworths and buy anything that they sold. you just couldn't sit down at the lunch counter. you couldn't sit down this to eat. so it was in stark contrast to all the things we had going on here at bennett where we dressed for dinner in the evenings and sat with table cloths and we learned which fork to use and how and we went downtown wearing hats and we wore gloves and we were ladies. you can see how it was just such a jarring thing to be told,
well, bennett lady, guess, what you can't sit down there and have a coke. it was uncomfortable. >> what portion of your attention was in some broad kind of sense did you give to these wider questions? little rock is happening, the first desegregation of schools was happening. >> yes. >> there were some lawsuits going through the courts filed by people like dr. simpson, who tried to break down various segregation in the cities. >> yes. >> how much of that was a part of what you gave your attention
to? because there were lots of other things. >> there sure were. i told you a part of bennett was always that the education at bennett was to prepare you to make a contribution to the world and to be reconnected into your community. my classmates had experiences before we got in. even i didn't come here sort of from mars where everything was great and we never had a sense that there could be clashes between white and black. we all knew about those things. i grew up here. my mother worried all the time about what happened. what i meant when i say we were safe is exactly that. a storm is going on around us. we are aware of the storm, but
we can also feel safe in here. that's what i meant when i said that safety was a very important part of how i became healthy. i look back i think i was healthy. i think i have a healthy ego, a healthy psyche growing up. i don't think it damaged me in any way. my mother was wise and she would talk about these things to us precisely so that they wouldn't scare us so much or we would know how to live with it. my mother would tell us, she didn't want us to hate white people. she wouldn't let us say they when we talk about white people. one day she took a piece of chalk and wrote they and erased
the t and the y. you tell me who he is. you will not ever speak of all white people as dad. we understood that. so we couldn't afford to be shielded from what was happening in the world. i just am always grateful that my parents taught us, i think, the best way to negotiate it. she told my son, i have one son, he w when he was home talking to his grandma, he told her something about some white people. he said, grandma, why did you let them do that? why do you let them call you? she says, you know, they're as good as they know how to be. what are you going to do with that? they're as good as they know how to be.
my mother allowed us to have an ego about who we were and she wouldn't let anybody damage that. we were just told, they're as good as they know how to be. what are you going to do with that? they're as good as they know how to be. to come back to your question, yes, we had dr. edmunds, we had. we talked in our classes about what was happening in the world. we didn't pretend that the world wasn't out there. >> dr. king appeared on the campus, that is correct? >> yes. >> '59 of course the momentum was gathering and will soon lead to some protests. what do you remember about the
fall of '59? >> my classmates took sociology. that group gloria brown, they were the ones that were engaging in an intense way. they would come back to the dorms and tell us what was happening. as i say, roz was my best friend. we knew what was going on. you thought how do we conduct ourselves in the world if that is the case? what would happen if we
boycotts? what would happen? how can these barriers be torn down? there has been sit-ins before. greensboro was not something that had never happened before. there had been protests before. bennett girls had been engaged with protests in the showing of the film "birth of a nation," which is a pretty ugly film. [ inaudible ] >> so i cannot tell you exactly and precisely what i end up knowing is that students were planning and talking about a protest, going downtown and picket i picketing. what would happen if they picketed? then it went to, well, what
would happen if we sat down at the lunch counter? these were conversations that were being talked about. students were talking about training in non-violence. dr. edmunds and our faculty talked about what does it mean to be nonviolent. you remember king talking about nonviolent. what does it mean to be nonviolent? if somebody hits you, you hit them back. how do you conduct yourself? is it dangerous? it was in the air. and we were here on the campus and, yes, we talked about those things. >> you just described a group of women who were very much active in these kinds of conversations on the campus and friends of yours. do you think that among them
there was a sense, to what extent would they think they ought to be faced in the, how much should they be credited with the full realization among students and now reaching over that opens the door to direct action protests? are they credited sufficiently? >> they are not. [ inaudible ] >> two years ago for the 50th anniversary of the sit-in, i was here as the new provost. i remembered those days, so i called a group of them to come
back to talk. we had a retrospective. roslyn smith came and others, linda brown was here. we had talked about that. they would say, no, here's how they talk about it. they say what they did, didn't argue with the fact that the four young men were the first to sit down. but they say that action had been born of a plan that had been carefully, carefully considered and deliberated beginning here on bennett's campus with the girls.
they had, in fact, been considering it and dr. jarred said to them, well, you girls shouldn't get engaged in doing that alone, because girls must be protected. so they were encouraged to invite the amt boys to sit with them and plan the sit-in. we were talking about something that could be very dangerous. nobody asked their parents. our parents did not send us down here to go do that, you hear me? they would not have been happy. some of them. m my classmates have wonderful stories about their lives. one girl's parents had been run out of mississippi paubecause o her dad's political action.
nobody had ever asked her to sit in the back of a bus or anything. we all came with a real deep feeling that that's wrong. that's wrong and we knew that. they wanted to correct it and to be ebducated. so these girls would tell you they worked very hard and they can tell you that dr. player, our president, was involved as well. dr. player was told and dr. player said she couldn't tell us not to, the girls. we were always called her girls. she couldn't tell her girls not to engage in that, but she did point out that it would be sort
of folly to start this sit-in, to start the action before the christmas vacation. because if you started it at thanksgiving, say for instance, and then everybody says, sorry, i've been politically active but i've got to go home now and i'll see you after vacation. so she cautioned them to wait and they did. here's an important thing. she said i was in woolworth's. why were you there? she said because we were there. first she had to buy something. because we had been trained if you didn't buy something, you could be tossed out of the
store. so you go in the store, you buy something. there was a plan and it was a plan that had been created here on the campus. so the girls would think that they did not get enough credit. that's what they would think. >> many other students sat at the lunch counters, there were carpools and rotating shifts of students. you sat down there too. >> yes, i did. beside linda brown. >> can you take us back and kind of describe the experience you had and the feelings that that generated and what you saw. >> i think we might have been young, because honestly i felt
proud. i don't think my mother ever felt, maybe she felt proud, but i think that was not her main feeling. i think she was terrified. i know that now because i have a child. i think as a mother i would be afraid. but i'm going to tell you i was proud to sit there. i was very, very proud. i'll tell you something else. i never ever understood the hatred that came. it was absolutely surprising, because i did not understand how people would glare at us with such hatred. that was a little unnerving that i was basically very proud to have done that.
>> on learning about it, did your parents have any words of guidance for you or comments? >> no. interesting enough, my mother never talked to me about that. she was very quiet. my mom was never very quiet but my mom didn't talk about that very much. i think i understand why. i think my mom didn't want to say i wish you hadn't done it. i think my mom regretted the world as it was that it had to be done, but i don't think my mom -- i think my mom would have forgiven me if i had called in sick. i think she might have. i don't think she would have been too upset if i had called in sick, but she never ever let me know from her own words what she felt.
she was just quiet. >> she made clear in certain unmistakable ways. [ inaudible ] >> i want to ask a little bit for your thoughts and perspective on dr. player and her role here at bennett college and the leadership at amt because of course institutions have separate histories, many similar general aspects of the history but also different relationships to the state of north carolina et cetera. talk a little bit about black leadership in that era and the forces active upon that leadership.
>> what do you want me to say about that? let me first tell you a little bit about dr. player. she was a big, big, big, big woman. i don't mean in stature, physical stature. i mean in the shadow she cast over the campus when she walked. she was quiet, very quiet, very dignified woman, but we all believed that she was profoundly committed to making bennett women, the girl who s who game bennett into women who could stand in the world, strong women with a commitment to social justice. now, that i don't mean just to be good english teachers, being good math teachers, being good
physicists. i mean, undergirding all of that was a profound sense of social justice. and she talked about that, but quietly in her philosophy. she talked about the fact that education was no good if you didn't use it to correct wrongs in society. she just believed that. she didn't make fiery speeches about that. she wasn't a fiery speech person. she was very quietly committed and knew when you were in her presence that it was not just nonsense that she was talking. she really believed and lived what she talked about. she was a really great woman. if she cared about anybody, she cared about the legacy that she would pass onto us at bennett college. she was an incredible woman. so that's dr. player. i don't know very much about the
leadership at amt, but i do know that whatever is said and written about the movement here as it played itself out in greensboro, bennett college women were involved in it from the top down. the college was there. it was what we learned at the college. dr. player, we knew she was monitoring us. we knew for instance we knew she said that we could go down and march and sit down and sit at the lunch counter but that we would have to turn in our grades. there was no faculty member was to give us excuses. when i was in amherst kids used to ask before they went off to march at a protest. they'd come and ask the professors to overlook the fact
that they were there, to forgive their bad grades. she said, we don't do that. that's not a political stance. you're not giving up anything if you're not handgun willing to r grades or take a d to go do something, then you don't mean it very much. here we knew that this was something real, it was profound and it was sort of like it was like dr. player was here with us all the way and we knew what that meant and anybody who saw us knew that we came from there, they could trace us all the way back to where bennett started. i don't know very much about, i don't know the name of the president at amt. i can suspect that the young people down there from amt were spending a lot of time being
supported and encourage ed by t president. i don't know. now, i said that, but i can believe from my heart that he probably wanted the sit-ins to be successful. i can believe in my heart that he wanted those sit-ins to be very successful and whether he was able to say i don't know. there are different relationships that people had with the state and being funded by the state. dr. player, you see we were private. every one of us will tell you i think if we hadn't been private, i do believe dr. player would have done exactly what she did. i cannot prove that, but i believe that, because it was so much a part of her. you know, later, you must snkno
this story. girls were arrested in the second wave. she got in her car and drove down. she didn't get a driver to take her downtown. she got in her car alone and drove downtown to say, these are my girls, i brought them their homework, i want to see after them. i believe she would have taken risks, risks that others did not and would not have taken. and i don't think that she would have judged them for that. i believe dr. player would not have become the enemy of anyone at any of those institutions because they did what they did. i think she would simply say you must understand, i do what i have to do and that's the difference between us. i think that's the difference. >> she went to the jail to see bennett women who had been arrested. >> yes.
that was very dangerous. here this is a black woman in a car. a lot could happen to her. a lot of people in greensboro did not like what happens happening. and to see this woman, you know there has been a cross burnt. she did have a cross burned at the college president's house. you know, dr. player was a committed and sincere soldier. she really was. >> let me turn your attention to the graduation and beyond spring of '61. and go onto chapel hill as a fellow. >> yeah. >> i'm very interested to have you describe your ambition and your experience in chapel hill. let me just invite you to speak
on that. >> well, at that time i knew i didn't know so much when i came to bennett as a freshwoman about what i wanted to do. it was sort of vague, i want to teach and i'll go back home and teach. by the time i had studied with dr. jarred and dr. crawford, i wanted to be really, really i wanted to work and i wanted to be an english teacher. i wanted to study english. i knew that i needed to go to graduate school. at least i had been encouraged by dr. jarred to go to graduate school and dr. crawford and dr. elizabeth sole who came later. she thought i wrote well. she said, she was an english woman.
until that time i never could figure out how this worked, but if one wanted to go to graduate school prior to my time, and it was just changing when i entered, just beginning to change, if one were black you could apply to the state after you had been accepted at a northern university and the state, of course, would pay your way. [ inaudible ] >> the obligation to desegregate and to have you in the class there is. you know the history and all of that. my father and mother said to me, if you want to go to grad school, i'm a taxpayer, my dad
said gor said, go to chapel hill. this was my mom really pushed this idea, go to chapel hill. now, this is after the sit-in. i think my mom thought, all right, she can do it, she's okay. so mom was a little less tense. she never talked to me about bennett and sit-ins, but she did say she wanted medical to eed chapel hill because she said you'll be nearer home. i didn't believe that. i thought she was kind of proud i would go to chapel hill. so i did, i went to chapel hill. i left here and i went to hartford, connecticut, where i lived with my sister and brother-in-law and i worked as a waitress there. my sister took all of my money, she took all of my money.
every week she'd take my money. then when i came back, got ready to come back to chapel hill, she gave me my money. that was enforced savings and she took my shopping. my sisters and brothers were always very kind to me. well, i came home. before i got home i had called to chapel hill to ask to apply for graduate housing. i was going to stay in the dorm. yes, they asked that i fill out the form. they mailed it to me toi mailed would like a roommate. they sent my room assignment and said i should appear at a certain place on a certain day to pick up the key. i sent forward my deposit, et cetera. so on that day my mom and my brother road down, my sister. we drove down and i went to the place and i said i'm here to get
my key and there was a look of absolute consternation on the woman's face and she finally said you can't be esther alexander. well, that kind of confused me and my dad. yes, i am esther alexander. as it turned out, you know what she had done. she had not known that i was black and she had paired me with a white roommate and there was a rumor at chapel hill at that time that that was not to be. she didn't quite know what to do with me. now, i thought, oh boy, this is not the best way to enter school, but i learned something that day. and my mom and i talked ed abot a lot. they kept me aside and eventually they came and said, now you have your room, your room is ready. and i said to my mom as we went
down the hill, i said well i'm going to be the only person in that room. she said, yes, i expect so. and i was prepared to just be furious. i think i was. but on the way there there were white girls sitting on suitcases because they didn't have very much space, housing space for graduate students and they would have to go in the city someplace. those girls were from i don't know where but they were saying do you have a room, do you have a roommate, would you like a roommate, would you like a roommate, i'll be happy to room with you. the lesson i learned and my mom and i talked about it. she said it's not the girls, you have to remember that. my mother said it's not the
girls. it's the law. it's the ruling. don't hate the girls. she was right. i made some good friends there. they could come to a certain point in friendship and there were ways they couldn't cross or wouldn't let themselves cross and i probably wouldn't let mine cross either. but they didn't do me harm and they didn't wish me harm and i managed to get a master's degree at chapel hill without much fanfare. >> the faculty and the academic experience. >> i took a class with holeman. it was the handbook to english literature.
he was a brilliant man and a charming man and a gentleman. my faculty members were gentlemen. i didn't have a woman. it's interesting, i just thought about that. i was only there to get the masters, i'm just going to tell you. i had to go to work. i'd been in school too long. i couldn't stay. i needed to have a break, so i did. then i went to college and taught for a couple of years and i really did, if i was going to do this work, i really did need to get the doctorate and ended up getting the doctorate at umass. >> we're back on after a short break. our last segment, i want to ask
about some of your experiences up in amherst. there's so much. we have limited time so i'll skip past other things that would merit a whole separate interview. i want to ask about '69, the creation of african-american studies at umass amherst. you directed that for a couple of decades. >> not at the beginning. >> in 74 you stepped into that role. that was i think one of two programs at the time that was create created. you'd be one of the very first two in the nation to offer african-american studies. >> yes. >> so probroad theme, but i'm interested in the creation of the foundation period and how you thought about the pedagogical challenge, the
framework, the narrative. >> where do you want me to start? massachusetts was easy in massachusetts. i think what happened in massachusetts could not have happened at other places and i'll tell you why. we had a very, very, very sympathetic administration on the campus. there were some things that had happened in the college community of faculty. it was an incredible assembly of people there. first of all, in 1959 the massachusetts had the umass press had come forward with the
massachusetts review, like the college literary magazine. read the pages of that magazine. it's eerie because when that magazine was launched, it was dedicated to the four young men who, in deference to four young men who sat down at amt university. it committed itself to being a magazine, the pages of which would be readily available to black writers, to young black writers in the country as they expressed themselves and their traditions. it was an amazing thing. i did not know that. i had no way of knowing that, but the group of people who had started the massachusetts review would become my family almost
when i got to umass. when i got to umass, there were very few black people on that campus, but that didn't bother me by now. i was there to study to get the doctorate. i was an older woman now, all of 32. i'm seasoned. i'm a grown woman now. actually i was 25 or so. i was able now to handle this. so i got there and at the same time i got there bernard bell was there. my husband to be eugene terry was there. black people, now let me tell you, we were 50% of all the black people on the campus at that time. how do we get there? we got there because sterling
brown out of howard university had been sending his graduate students. we were writing to him saying we want to study at howard university. he said, no, no, no, you don't want to study with me. if you really want to study literature, if you really want american literature, you need to go study with sidney kaplan who knows more about black american literature and how it fits in american literature than anybody i know. so he had sent us all there. and sidney kaplan, of course, was in the graduate program there. as soon as he got to be the head of the graduate program in the english department, he's the one who who wrote to sterling saying send me students.
sidney has been a pad been a pa creating the massachusetts review. he said, send me some students and we all got there to be students. the first thing we started to be involved in, of course, was a program, not a department, a program under the english department. we started and we would go visit the home in the evenings of the professors and the staff people who ran the massachusetts review. it was a wonderful, wonderful place to be at that time, because politics was everything. we talked about the world. we talked about making it better. we talked about obligation to make it better. mike bell had come from the movement. he had been involved in getting the mississippi freedom democratic party down in atlanta with julian bond. it was just the most amazing,
amazing assemblage of people. then we talked about what would a program look like. here is what we always talked about. we never talked about erasing american literature. we talked about embellishing it with the story of the african-american and black contribution. so ours was an american story and we thought ours would have to fulfill the narrative, that the narrative of the black person would be a narrative that belonged in the consideration of narrative for american literature, whether uniquely american. we always talked about that. then we had a program. then the next thing we knew, we were talking about a department.
amherst is the flagship but the president's office was in boston. my colleagues went to talk about the establishment of such a thing to the president and to the board of trustees. we were never alone. we had people. not one thing happened at umass of protests. there was never one such action that had all black kids and only black kids and only black faculty involved. so we had a wonderful assemblage of people who were there to work with us and to stand by us and to help us with that. so it was easy. so i'd love to tell people if you know what was happening at cornell, what was happening all over the place where fights were breaking out, the day we were granted the right to establish
our independent department in afro-american studies, people kind of went on and nobody was blown up. it was a real quiet thing. i thougfelt let down. we wanted there to be some protest. if not protest, let there be some celebratory noise of some kind. but it's okay. it's all right. i think umass was a very special place for me. i spent a long time there in my career, grew a lot there and got to learn so much more than i ever learned.
i was, if i look back at what i had done in terms of how, it just worked absolutely right. and i was able to join with people, black and white, to make sure that we had a program that was a good program, that's a program that talks about making what was existent in the ivory tower better because it did not now have to close off. we had open doors and we knew that we had students that could do that. we knew that we had a country that needed to understand that and who could swallow that and grow from it. that's what we thought. that's what we did. we had a great program at umass and i was very, very sad to leave it, but i needed to. >> final question. is it closing the circle when you come back as provost here. >> when i come back as provost.
>> maybe a final thought on bennett today and how it stands in the lives of the young women who are here now. >> everything has changed, because when i was here the signs were up, blacks this way, white this s this way, don't co. if we're not very careful, we think we are free and there are no more things to be done, there are no movements to have. but there are now. there are economic considerations. i say to the young women who come to me, you only can run the relay that you're in, the lap