Jewel Walker-Harps is President of the Griffin, Georgia branch of the NAACP and chairs the Educational Prosperity Initiative, a grassroots engagement and multi-institution initiative to fight poverty and provide a comprehensive system of general supports through services, programs, and activities for all ages. She is President of the South Atlanta Youth Association, a Library Media Specialist, a Court Appointed Special Advocate for Children, and a member of the executive committee of the Spalding County Collaborative Authority for Families and Children, Inc, which was created by the General Assembly of the State of Georgia and designated as the local decision making body for prioritizing the needs of families and children. She was born in 1939 and raised on a farm in Glenville, Georgia and was educated at Morris-Brown College and Clark Atlanta University. She is a member of the African American Episcopal Church. She came to Griffin in 1961 and taught at the Fairmont High School and experienced desegregation as a teacher in Griffin in the 60’s. Ms. Walker-Harps is a civil rights pioneer in the Griffin-Spalding region: active in a leadership role for the NAACP for over 20 years, in the 1980’s she was the first professional in Griffin to become openly active with the organization. In this interview, she discusses many of her life’s challenges, and her determination to bring hope to the Fairmont Community.
Thursday, July 30, 2015 11:00 AM
- John Cruickshank is a Librarian at the Griffin Campus Library, University of Georgia.
- Be-Atrice Cunningham is a Project Manager for the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Office of the Assistant Dean for the Griffin Campus.
- Samuel Art Cain is Coordinator of Continuing Education for the Griffin Campus, University of Georgia.
Interview with Jewel Walker-Harps
CRUICKSHANK: Could you please start off by telling me where you were born, where you grew up?
WALKER-HARPS: I’m Jewel Walker-Harps. I was born in 1939 in a small rural town called Glenville Georgia- Southeast Georgia. I was born and raised on a farm, so I have had all the experiences that a farm girl would have in the country.
CRUICKSHANK: So you grew up there, and how many years were you on this farm? How many years did you live there?
WALKER-HARPS: Well, I went to school there. At the time it was different from what it is now, and I’ll tell you a little later about experiences of growing up and attending school in a segregated era. I left there and went to Morris-Brown College in Atlanta Georgia, and from there in 1961 I came to Griffin and stayed for 35 years working as an educator in the Griffin-Spalding County School System.
CRUICKSHANK: Tell us a little bit about your family now. I mean, did you have any siblings, where were your parents from, did they grow up on that farm?
WALKER-HARPS: Yes. I had a brother. And I don’t really know much about where my parents grew up, except my maternal grandmother had a farm herself. As a matter of fact, she had many acres and I can remember very vividly that she lived in this great big house with columns and a wrap-around porch surrounded by many pecan trees as well as live oaks because it was in what we called at that time the low country. The land was flat and the vegetation indicated that you were in the palmettos and the vegetation indicated that you were in that part of the country. So I can remember very well playing in the yard under the trees sitting on the porch on a rocking chair and of course we were near the highway so often we would go down just in front of the house and sit beside the road and watch the cars and the buses and what have you pass so that’s all. I also remember that she had lots and lots of good things in the yard to eat. She had fig trees, palm trees and a huge-about the size of a football field-grape arbor. Muscadines. We thought grapes but they were really muscadines. And of course we had the same thing at home. We had a muscadine and arbor which were also about the size of a football field so that the neighborhood children in the neighborhood- everybody went and looked forward to that time of the year because it was open to not only family but friends as well. They would come by and some of them would want to pick and others would want us to pick. I mean, we were children. So we did it the old fashioned way, I am sure they would not do it that way today. My dad had a sheet made out of burlap and we would spray under a part of a grape arbor and we would shake the vine and they would fall and we would just have a good time. So all was not bad but a little while ago I remember talking to a kid, asking her what had she done while she was on her trip in Costa Rica and she said that one of the things was to milk cows and she said, could you milk a cow? And she said, “no”. I said well I couldn’t but I grew up on a farm and I had all those experiences. I had to try to milk a cow. I never learned, but milking a cow, killing hogs was a ritual. It was not just a family thing but it was a community factor so I know all about how you kill a hog and how you put him up on the gallisters and cut him open and what you do with what we called the intestine and the finished product became chitlins. I can see my mom now as she takes a knife and kind of pulls them apart and running water pushing down so that all of the waste would come out and run with water and what have you. We would take the thin ones and put in what they call a sausage machine and stuff up and they became sausage that we would hang in a smokehouse and they would drip and dry and along with the lard -they were probably using lard when we were growing up my grandmother grew up on fatback and lard and what have you but she lived to be 96 years old so we didn’t have all the cholesterol issues and what have you. So I don’t want to go on and on and on so ask me something else.
CRUICKSHANK: So, um, so lived there ’till approximately what age? When did you move to go away to take your courses?
WALKER-HARPS: Oh, I was an average student. I did not graduate early. I was just an average student so I guess it would have been, I guess about 17. But before that time I had gone to New York for the summer. Extended families were important back then. They may not be so important now but you were practically raised by your aunts and your uncles and especially if they lived elsewhere it meant that you had an opportunity to have a summer vacation somewhere else and that applied to me. My mom’s oldest sister would always take me to New York for the summer. So I actually had an experience of attending school in Brooklyn – Brooklyn College because I didn’t stay because as I said I was from the country and from a rural segregated school so the big city of New York did not have that appeal to me. In other words, it took me a while to adjust. I enjoyed the recreational part but I was not academically prepared for going to school in Brooklyn College so I came back home and went to Morris Brown.
CRUICKSHANK: So how long were you in New York when you did this?
WALKER-HARPS: Well I went during the summers. I went several summers.
CRUICKSHANK: I see.
WALKER-HARPS: Yeah. So once I graduate from high school, I stayed until it was time to go to college and I started, and I didn’t like it, so they started earlier than they did at home so I rushed back home to get in school at Morris Brown.
CUNNINGHAM: Did you find any significant differences between how you were raised in the south versus how things were when you went up north for the summers?
CUNNINGHAM: Can you share some of those differences?
WALKER-HARPS: Yes. Very different. The environment was different. I remember travelling along the road and I thought that the entire area from home to New York was going to be simply city but then I discovered that there were rural areas some places other than at my house as I took the bus trip. But I had an opportunity to ride the subway. I had never seen or been in a subway station, nor had I ever been able to go outside and look up at all the apartment houses- New York’s houses and streets. I lived in Harlem so there were people in the streets. There were people hanging out on the walkways and as you go on the steps as you go up. What we ate was different. I was accustomed to grits. They were accustomed to potatoes. Seasoning – I couldn’t stand garlic but everything that my aunt cooked in New York had garlic and she said the only way you can eat the stuff here is to season it well because it’s not as fresh as farm products are. So I learned to ride the subway. It was not as dangerous as it is now so it was not difficult for me to ride alone at night. Then I had my first job. That is why my social security number is so different from others around here because I got my social security card in New York and worked at a -it wasn’t a fruit stand- but is was kind of in what we would call a farmer’s market. It was a friend who took me under his wing and taught me how to … sales person … I was just maybe a junior in high school. So the experiences were different. We travelled on weekends. My aunt and uncle belonged to a lot of activities and belonged to a lot of lodges and what have you so every weekend we had an opportunity to go to Asbury Park, Coney Island, or some recreational place that I had not been. So it was far. I just found that academically I was not as prepared. I did not have the study habits. I had not had the exposure that others had who had come from a much larger area. But yes, it was an entirely different kind of life.
CRUICKSHANK: But it sounds like it was a very positive experience though.
WALKER-HARPS: It was. It was, and I guess that’s why I’m so generous now to my nieces and nephews and to even non-family members because I realized that I would never have had the experiences and the growth that I had if others had not contributed to my life.
CRUICKSHANK: So moving on then, later when you started your studies in education – education, right?
CRUICKSHANK: At Marsden, was it?
WALKER-HARPS: And that was because I was an African American Episcopal Church member. I grew up in an African American Episcopal Church, and Morris-Brown was an African American Episcopal-supported school. So that is why I went there rather than going somewhere else.
CRUICKSHANK: And then, let’s see. You were there.
WALKER-HARPS: I was there and didn’t graduate early, and I didn’t want to leave college. College was the best thing that had happened to me. I did not – I actually graduated from high school even though I had had good high school experience. I was a queen one year and, well, I was pretty popular, but I didn’t want to leave college, it was a great life.
CRUICKSHANK: So that was quite a change – switch from your New York experience.
WALKER-HARPS: Yes, it was. Yeah.
CRUICKSHANK: It sounds a lot more positive.
WALKER-HARPS: It was. It was. I could relate to that and there were other children, many more children who came as well from places in Georgia and whose friendship I still maintain. Matter of fact, my roommate now lives in California and comes about yearly to visit. But it was something that I could adapt to. And that’s why it’s so important that we keep those schools that made it possible for us to have an education because I would have been totally lost had I had to go to a larger school. But that made education accessible to those of us who would not have had that opportunity.
CRUICKSHANK: So this brings us into the early 60’s, is that right?
WALKER-HARPS: Well, yes, the early 60’s – 1961 is when I came to Griffin and my reason for coming to Griffin was the fact that one of my instructors who had become a very good friend was from Griffin- Samuel DuBois Cook – and he wanted me to come to Griffin. And I came to Griffin, the first place I saw was Spring Hill. So that was not very enticing at that time. Spring Hill was a lot of blight and everybody said, well everybody in Griffin could not live like they live in Spring Hill but I applied also to Columbus Public School System and I was accepted. Matter of fact, not just accepted- they called me several times and wanted to know why I was not going to come but I decided to stay in Griffin, unfortunately, and I’m still here.
CRUICKSHANK: I don’t understand. Why did you not go to Columbus?
WALKER-HARPS: I don’t really know, except maybe I thought it was more convenient to be – I really wanted to work in Fairburn, but I had to compete with another girl who graduated from high school in Fairburn and there were just the two of us at the top of the list and of course she had age on me, so my life would have been different had I gotten my first job at Fairburn and worked in Atlanta because I lived in the city at the time so I would never have had the experiences that I have had in Griffin. That’s why I did not go.
CAIN: What was your first job here in Griffin?
WALKER-HARPS: My first job here in Griffin was a seventh or eighth-grade teacher at Fairmont High School under the principalship of C.W. Daniels who is now deceased.
CAIN: What size was it at that time?
WALKER-HARPS: Well, it was about the same size it is now except it’s not Fairmont, it’s the same building- that’s the building that was there when I came to Griffin that’s there now. They have had an addition to it. But my classroom was on the end right next to the garden. There were two of us: Felton Stringer who is now deceased, and myself had that wing, and boy did we enjoy it because it was away from everybody else and we did enjoy it. I was young, and my students were just about my age, maybe two or three years older than I was. They were big boys and boy was it tough. But interesting.
CAIN: A lot of times when you come into a school position you have the academic course that you teach, but you also have extra curricular activities that you do as a teacher.
WALKER-HARPS: Yes. We had Y club. I was a part of the Y club. And something else. I don’t exactly remember what the others were. But I also remember that we had extracurricular activities that we had to supervise like sports. Boy, that’s why I don’t go to football games and basketball games today because I had no choice when I worked in the segregated school. We all had to go. We all had to be on duty. You didn’t have a choice. You also had to do home visits. All of my students that know me, that introduced me to their parents because my principal insisted that we go to visit students at home and become a part of the community. So home and church, school were all connected. My first principal C.W. Daniels was of the old school, sort of: rigid, but good. I was one of those teachers who left there and went to Kelsey. Kelsey is the site of the Rosenwald school. We didn’t know that at that time. But as I visit ….. the garden and beginning that once we found out that’s what it was I had an opportunity to go back into my old classroom and kind of get a feeling of having been there in the 1960’s. I left there when the schools were integrated. There were certain teachers picked who were considered to be the best of the best you might say and were set to working in the schools that were white and I was one of those teachers. Boy, did I hate to go. But the interesting thing about it, they just picked me. Somebody came over to observe me. That was the kind of demeaning part of it. They sent somebody from what was then RESA to observe Bob Flanigett – a great big guy – I’ll never forget I stepped in the hall at the end of one of my class periods there was this man standing beside my door: “What are you doing here?” He came to observe me. I remember that class. I can even remember some of the students were in the class and they did a good job for me. He was satisfied. Anyway, my name was submitted to go to the middle school- I don’t think it was called middle school then – but is was, and everybody went out of his way to make me feel comfortable. I’ll never forget Russell Gray who was then the principal. His daughter happened to have been in my class. But it was an experience- that transition was. The teachers and the principals all went out of their way to make you feel comfortable and believe it or not, I didn’t have a problem with the students. It was not so bad but I was scared to death; not necessarily scared of the people but scared of the unknown and hating to leave where I was because they had some kind of a family and I didn’t want to break up with my friends – the staff people – and go to some place that was totally new, and not have anybody that I thought I could talk to. But it worked out and I survived.
CRUICKSHANK: How long did it take you to start getting a certain comfort level there? You know – start feeling comfortable?
WALKER-HARPS: Ah, well, not too long because I was always kind of confident in myself. So it was not- had I been weaker – it probably would have been different but I would say I probably adjusted quite well but the help was there for us. As I say, it could have been more difficult had the principal been a different kind of person because after staying there for a few years I went back to school and got another degree and there was a position open at one of the elementary schools for a media specialist and I applied. Well, the principal did not want me. I was black and she did not wish to have – it was a new school and of course a black woman was not going to come in and occupy that school. She was just getting rid of the black lady who was there in the first year the school was open – it was the second year and she did not wish to have me so she set me up. Tommy Jones was Assistant Superintendent and scheduled me for an interview so that the time for me to go she called and said I could not come. She had something else to do, I could not come and she was supposed to call me back another time. Well she never did. Tommy Jones understood and realized what was happening. He said, well, she doesn’t want her but she’s going to go ahead anyway. I said, but I don’t want to go anyway. But I went anyway. I went anyway and that was my first blatant experience, I guess, with discrimination on the job. I was very obvious that she did not wish to have me and it would probably have been different had I been a classroom teacher but I was a media specialist and that set me apart from everybody else because I had an office, I had a place of my own. My own office.
CRUICKSHANK: So that made it bearable anyway.
WALKER-HARPS: Yes. But it was difficult to get janitorial service because they expected me to do it and be my own custodian. I had to fight to get the newspaper. The newspaper would come to the office and she would make sure that she got it. They kept it in the office and, ah well, then, me, with the strength that I had, I insisted that it be where it was supposed to be so I had to threaten to go downtown to Tommy Jones in order to get possession of the newspaper so these were just little things that worked but strangely enough, ah, before she died, and of course she retired, we became friends. She for some reason or another started to like me and I don’t know whether it was because I proved to be in her mind competent or whether the times were changing everywhere.
CRUICKSHANK: Was it a really rapid change or did that just
CRUICKSHANK: Very gradual over years?
WALKER-HARPS: Over some years, yes. It was some years. Well, she was an older lady. So it would have taken her some time.
CRUICKSHANK: Just set in her ways and?
WALKER-HARPS: Yes. Yes. I’ll never forget the time that the tale was told, it was not really a tale, it was true. An ice storm and at her church there was a black custodian. She slipped and fell on the ice and he went to help her get up and she …”don’t touch me, don’t touch me, don’t touch me, get away from me!”. Ahah! The fear! And it was told in a joking way but it was really a fact that it actually happened but that was the attitude that existed during that period of time. We would have Christmas luncheons at the Holiday Inn and there were, ah, maybe four or five who looked like me and no other seats except the seat beside where I was so she preferred to walk around and eat rather than to have a seat next to one of us. So these little things that you had to content with.
CRUICKSHANK: And this would have been what, by mid-60’s, now, we are talking?
WALKER-HARPS: Yes. We’re talking mid-60’s.
CRUICKSHANK: Um, and, did it get much better? I mean…
WALKER-HARPS: Oh yes.
CRUICKSHANK: In the seventies?
WALKER-HARPS: Yes, it did. Well, people get to know people as people.
WALKER-HARPS: Yeah. They got much better. As you got to know the person you saw the inside of that person. Yeah. And even the most staunch-hearted segregationist had some humanity about them and, you know, you could eventually win them over.
CRUICKSHANK: But did it ever go beyond just being able to just get along. Did it ever progress to a point where someone you had real difficulty with actually became friends?
WALKER-HARPS: Yes. Ah, yes. I had had difficulty with her. And when I was sick I was out for six weeks because of surgery she came to my house to visit me and brought me food and whatever so I guess it did get to the point where, ah, one could look at the other and realize that that person was simply a human being.
CRUICKSHANK: So it sounds to me like, um – a lot of the friction that goes on racially – maybe it’s just a matter of just not knowing people. Is it that simple?
WALKER-HARPS: Oh, I agree. Not knowing people and then going back to families – parents, grand parents, great great grandparents who lived in areas where people of color were submissive it was a way of life, and a good way of life to many of them. Now not all of them were wealthy. But they still considered themselves to be better than we were. It was even better in rural areas than in the more urban areas because when I was growing up at home we had lots of tobacco on the farm. So we all went to the tobacco fields to work so when the truck came by to pick up whoever was on the route the truck picked you up and you had to go to the back of the truck. Whatever color you were you had to go to the back of the truck. When it was time to have water or whatever, you drank the same water, even though if you had gone into a city or town at that time, there was white water there and black water and you had to go to the black water fountain. It was a little bit different in that area – more family like. If something happened to you and your family, well, white folk came to your aid too.
CRUICKSHANK: So you’re – in the rural community you’re more – there are not as many sorts of artificial barriers that keep you apart.
CRUICKSHANK: You sort of live together a bit more.
CRUICKSHANK: You’re closer, and you get to know people better.
WALKER-HARPS: Yes. Definitely.
CUNNINGHAM: Going back to your time at Fairmont Junior High School and as you transitioned into the integrated high school or integrated school, what were the major differences you saw between the segregated school versus the integrated school?
WALKER-HARPS: Ah, the quality of teaching, ah, the flexibility. Our principals were much more rigid and much more by the book and I guess they had to be because they had to, they were not given the same flexibility as a white principal so they had to hold us to a different standard mainly, and resources were different; the availability of resources in that school were much different from that school that I had previously attended, ah, worked. And what we did have – we had to struggle. We had to have strong principals because there was always that need for that principal to be downtown fighting a battle for the rest of us in order to get the supplies and opportunities that we were entitled to. So kids today just assume that it’s a natural thing. But it was a real struggle. For us.
CUNNINGHAM: So when you talk about resources can you be a little bit more specific?
WALKER-HARPS: Ah, books, audiovisual materials, even down to sports items, it was – what we had was either hand-me-down or non-existent. So it was really different. But on the other hand, our children fared much better because we knew – we knew their needs and we were mommy, nurse, doctor, preacher – we were everything to those children. We didn’t just look at teaching them numbers and letters and what have you. We taught them life skills. We taught them discipline or how to live in the world, which changed once the schools were integrated. So they benefitted – they benefitted tremendously from having teachers who looked like them who knew their parents who had the same values as their parents and who took them as their children. You lost that personal touch once the schools were integrated. They just kind of gave you at that time – black parents trusted you. Teachers were revered, you might say. There was nothing more important to the community than a teacher and a preacher. We were the top of the cream of the crop. So we set the standards and we lost this when the schools integrated. Our children lost.
CAIN: What’s your sense – I don’t know if you have – what’s your sense of kids graduating when you had the segregated school versus after schools were integrated?
WALKER-HARPS: It was important. Nobody thought about not graduating from school – not continuing school. Ah, you didn’t have teenage pregnancy as you have now because it was a disgrace. You were ostracized if that happened to you. Mommy and daddy hurriedly got you sent some place. It was not – where today once that schools were integrated and we lost a sense of value of ourselves. Ah, this way of life became more acceptable. It’s no longer frowned upon. But then, it was. Children wore sox, where children the same age level now wear holes, tights, and leggings and whatever. You were a child and you remained a child. That’s what it was about. So to go to school it was important. I can remember when I was growing up on the farm there were things that we had to do. My parents would schedule farm activities around my tests at school. If you were having a test the next day, no matter what they had planned to do on the farm and needed your help you did not stay home and work. You went to school. It was a high-value of importance. So yes, that’s how it was different. You could say to children what you cannot say to them now. They had respect for you as an adult. And even when I came to work as an adult at Griffin when I encounter the children now, today, who were with me at Fairmont it is a different mindset. They are always very mannerable. No matter what they are doing before I arrive, once I arrive it’s “Miss Walker.” That what they know me as. “Yes ma’am, no ma’am” – I can always tell a child who went to Fairmont because that is their mannerism, no matter how bad they are, they still have that respect you because you were their teacher.
CAIN: Talk a little bit about how you socialized before integration. They were off limits – restaurants –
CAIN: I often hear about parades that were held here in Griffin with, I guess, the high school. What was just the social situation?
WALKER-HARPS: It was phenomenal. Ha ha. We looked forward to homecoming. Especially … any of the games. Now if you want to bring somebody live – you mentioned the Griffin – you mentioned the football team – the band. The Fairmont band – football team for Fairmont – it’s still looked upon as being something of class. The majorettes – the whole community was involved when homecoming time came. The sports – we did… and we spent days putting together sports. But the joy of working together – proms were held in the gym and it was a big deal because the floor was not necessarily ….at the end of the day but what you did to make the preparations and the interaction with each other so as adults in an adult community would have the VFW and American Legion for social activities. There was a club when I came to Griffin called the Cavaliers which all of the prominent men were a part of and as a teacher you would automatically get invited to the socials that the cavaleres had so that was an event to look forward to. Even in Atlanta – well, there were prominent places in Atlanta – but here we had Raymond Head – well, we had Triple H – the Head Brothers: Raymond Head, Otis Head, Philip Head – had a restaurant -well, it was not really what you would call today a restaurant but everybody went there. Then they had little places that you went to pick up stuff they call “hole in the walls” where you went to the back door. You paid the same amount of money but you did not have the same dignity as others. You had to go to the back door and pick up through this little window and pick up whatever it was that you ordered. But is was a close-knit community as I said, you had private parties. We played cards a lot. Those persons played cards at houses. You drank your beer and did whatever you wanted to do but social activities sitting around basically the VFW and American Legion. What else you want to know?
CAIN: How did integration come about in Griffin? Was that something that was state-imposed?
WALKER-HARPS: Volunteer. The plan was a volunteer plan. And I don’t know exactly. I do have a part of it but it was not one of those forced kind of things. It was volunteer. Pressure of course because you knew you had to do it. But it was not like they came in and said that this is exactly how you must do it. I can remember when we were working on some kind of plan and Thelma Davis who was a very prominent educator – very, very prominent – everybody knew everybody in Griffin. Everybody in the state of Georgia knew Thelma Davis. William Walker was my principal and I had not been going – I had been gone but I did not participate really as fully as she thought that I should and she went to him and told him that whatever she wanted done, I didn’t do it. I was not performing the way she wanted me to perform. And nobody did. He pulled everybody together and said, “this is what we are going to do” and put whatever it was that she said she wanted – we put it together. He put it together as a staff. You know, in other words, this is not going to happen to us. You are not going to be able to reflect negatively on any of us because we will make it happen. He was hard on us. We had to really work. Kids could learn. Every child could learn. His expression was always “If a child does not learn then you are not teaching.” So nobody wanted to be considered not teaching. He would walk through the hall and say “What is that you have on the bulletin board? That’s not a teaching board.” I guess what I am saying is that interests are making sure that our children receive the best that we possibly could give them at that time. You didn’t chug and jive. You didn’t fool around in the classroom. You produced.
CRUICKSHANK: So, now, recently, I mean, in the past couple of decades, what have you been doing?
WALKER-HARPS: Taking care of everybody’s business but mine. (laughter). So it’s been very
CRUICKSHANK: You’re currently Head of the NAACP
WALKER-HARPS: Yes, NAACP and I have been there 20 plus years in a leadership role. I became active openly with the NAACP when no other professional in Griffin would dare. It was not the thing that you did because you could experience retaliation. You did not do that but I did. I became not just a card-carrying member but I became the secretary and I actually ran it for – well – early in my experience because the president relied on me to be the secretary and the treasurer and everything else and when he was elected to county commission, then that put me officially in charge of it. So others would say, “OK, I’ll give you a donation, I’ll take a membership, but nobody knew that they did. I was the only one who was a professional person in Griffin who dared to step out and say “This is who I am, this is what I am, this is what I believe should be the case.”
CRUICKSHANK: But now you are talking about – you said 20 years ago – so we are talking – what – ’95 or something?
WALKER-HARPS: Ah, well, we’re talking – I may have said 20 years, but before that time I was a member – an active member. Yea. Before I became leadership.
CRUICKSHANK: So even, what in the 80’s there was intimidation going on?
WALKER-HARPS: Yes. Yes, if you had a job you did everything to make sure nobody had anything on you that could be used against you. You wanted promotions and you wanted security and you had to get loans and whatever. You had to rely on the system and those of us who did – now that’s why the ministers in our community were so very, very important. The ministers and those persons who were self-supporting like the insurance men, the service station men, people who survived from our income – we set them apart – so to speak – so that they were more economically independent. So when we went to jail, then they could afford to get us out and not have to worry about somebody pulling the rug out from under them because they were not dependent upon the system.
CRUICKSHANK: So how much have things changed since then? I mean is there still any of this?
WALKER-HARPS: Much! Much! The dollar became more important. Much. And education had a lot to do with it because even during the early days there were those of us who succeeded. We had Doctor … who is no deceased graduated, went off to medical school, and came back here so when I came to Griffin in the 60’s he was my doctor. So we had a few successes. Well, not just a few, other than athletics. We’ve always had a good football team. Griffin has been known for its athletic prowess, you might say but there were lawyers, there were professors, like I said, Dr. Samuel DeBois Cook – his entire family was a family centered around education. So we survived. Not only did we survive, but we grew. We prospered. The community did not have the same appearance as it has now. The blight and the deprivation that we experience now no longer existed. In the same neighborhood where the Rosenwald School is – that was the booming part of the city. When I came to Griffin the more affluent black people lived in that area. The yards were well-kept, the houses were well-kept, and it was just the most elite part for black people. That’s why we want to change it. We want to save it and we are putting a lot of effort into restoring it. But as the older people died and the younger people inherited what have you, they had not the same interests. Integration had its good part but it also had its negatives and that’s where the negatives come in. The change in attitude and the lack of self-sufficiency – it was important to my parents that you have a roof over your head and nobody could put you out. It might have been meager, but it was yours. And you worked. You had good work ethics. Nobody loafed. And we had truant officers so if you didn’t go to school the truant officer got you. So things were really different. So separate but equal – separate and unequal really is what it was but you knew that you had to survive and there was a great deal of faith in the black community. People went to church and believed and that was a sustaining force for our families. You didn’t run off and leave your wife and your four or five children to fare for themselves. That was your responsibility. So hard work, the church, all were significant parts of the African-American family at home as well as here in Griffin.
CAIN: You mentioned the change in just the appearance – the physical appearance of the community. Can you attribute that to those changes in values or are there other
WALKER-HARPS: Very much so. The freedom to cross the line, so to speak, and the younger people growing up with the lack of interest in the preservation of what their parents left – businesses which were thriving – businesses at that time – the children have no interest in the family business so it’s kind of dissolved and I attribute that to change of values that they subscribed to when they went to integrated school. We had service stations, we had prominent embalmers, funeral home directors, beauty parlors, a lot of shops, cleaners – was a landmark in Griffin. The boys had gone to Tuskegee, they were tailors, so people from across color lines brought their clothes to Clean-well, for Raymond Head to alter. That business no longer – they died and their children did not see fit to maintain the business. So even the name is gone. So there is a difference. In other words, the need to have your own seemed to have disappeared because now I don’t have to have my own, I can go to yours, which is not such a good thing. Think of the funeral homes for an example, where you could not use a white funeral home. There was no choice. Everybody went to the black funeral homes. There were two or three and they were very prominent families because they were dependent upon black bodies so it didn’t matter whether they ruffled the feathers of the establishment because their income came from the black community. But now, we don’t even have a sense of that because a large number of black families now tend to find value in using white funeral homes and taking the money out of the community and that never would have happened in olden days. They have no sense of history. That’s another reason why it is so important that we do this oral history project so that they can understand how they got where they are and the struggles that their parents and grandparents and great grandparents had to endure in order for us to create our own and to establish for ourselves and to throw it away now is just… just terrible. It is unbelievable. But here again, there was technique to that. You don’t teach – if we don’t teach in our community then it does not get taught so our children are growing up not knowing. When I moved to the white school we did not do black history month. Of course the facts about black people were not taught in the text books so you did not take that week or that month to emphasize that it was not until Mr. White came to high school that we were encouraged to do black history, to do bulletin boards or what have you. But then, only black teachers did it. The white teachers did not comply. So if you went to a white teacher you perhaps did not recognize black history month. I had a very diverse black collection in the media center but once I left the person who came behind me was no longer black and saw fit to take out all that stuff and throw it away. Of course that grieved me, but there was nothing I could do…threw it away along with my …somebody saw fit to throw away my portrait when I retired. Some of my friends in my school did a portrait of me to hang in the media center. Well, I thought I’d go back over there and look at it and it was not there. It was not there, but nobody could account for where is was or what had happened to it. But somebody had told me “well your picture will never hang in this media center.” And they were right. It never did. And that is alright with me but I did want to bring it home but then it was never retrieved.
CRUICKSHANK: Do you see – do you see much hope for the future and um, getting back, you know, the teaching of, you know, black history, and proper instruction in the schools?
WALKER-HARPS: In this community, I’m afraid, and I often wonder, and I think, if we are going to self-destruct. We are doing it to ourselves. We are allowing then privilege – we’re taking advantage of the privileges and we are not assuming responsibility. We are not accountable for what we are doing – my thought is it has deteriorated on a cultural level here in this city in terms of race. It’s not what it was even during the 60’s with the segregation. It’s just not… the crime level… the lack of interest in education, particularly the lack of interest in education…is going to make a difference and as a result we are going to lose much of what we spent years trying to instill in our young people and build up.
CRUICKSHANK: Surely someone is doing something.
WALKER-HARPS: Well, we are. We are trying to – this is what we are doing here.
WALKER-HARPS: Now. This is what we are doing with EPI. Trying to remedy that on a small scale, as large as we can. But the apathy which exists within the community is of such that it is very difficult. Those who have achieved are not willing to look back and say, “This is where I’ve made it, I made it, so I am going to give back, and I am going to be willing to reach down and help somebody else, bring somebody up and share.” That’s what happened to me. I didn’t make it on my own.
CRUICKSHANK: Do the teachers nowadays in the schools – African-American teachers – do they not understand this?
WALKER-HARPS: No, apparently they don’t. They retired to be retired, and that’s the extent of it. Their grandchildren are their lives, and I don’t know if they just don’t – for some reason or other, we just seem to have lost hope.
CRUICKSHANK: Well, I think it’s just about time to wrap up for now. Is there anything else you would like to mention before we wrap it up?
WALKER-HARPS: No, I think we’ve covered a lot, and I probably gave you more than you wanted but it was a joy to have had this experience and thank you so much for inviting me to share my memories.
CRUICKSHANK: Well I think this is a very good start and I hope that we can get you back here again soon to continue the story. So thank you very much…
WALKER-HARPS: Thank you, John.
CRUICKSHANK: …for your valuable time.
Latest posts by John Cruickshank (see all)
- Interview with Gerald Arkin, retired Assistant Dean of UGA Griffin - September 6, 2015
- Interview with Ann Autry, retired from the Department of Food Science - September 3, 2015
- Interview with Jewel Walker-Harps, President of the Griffin, Georgia branch of the NAACP - August 31, 2015