Chude (Pam Parker) Allen
Karen Haberman Trusty
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Deciding to Go
Life at Spelman
Enjoying Black Community
On Being White
The Spelman Exchange Program was an arrangement where students from Spelman College, a college for African American (Negro) women in Atlanta, and students from a number of Northern (mostly white) colleges attended each other's campuses. Each student paid tuition at their home college and received credits toward their graduation. Most students were on exchange for a semester, a few for a year and there was also a short exchange program of a week with certain schools. According to the Spelman yearbook for 1962, the program was first suggested by Dr. Howard Zinn, chairman of the Department of History and Social Science and continued with the help of Dr. Renate Wolf.
Karen Haberman Trusty went to Connecticut College for Women. Cathy Cade and Chude Pam Parker Allen went to Carleton College in Minnesota. At Carleton the exchange program was known as the "National Student Association Spelman Exchange Program."
This conversation took place at Cathy Cade's home in Oakland, California April 18, 2007.
Cathy Cade: We have three Spelman Exchange students here. I was at Spelman the spring of 1962.
Karen Haberman Trusty: I was there the fall of 1963.
Chude Pam Parker Allen: I was at Spelman the spring of 1964.
Cathy: For me deciding to go to Spelman was a big deal because it was the first decision about my life that I made for myself — independent of my parents. It was very clear to me, at the time, that I was making a decision without asking or consulting my parents. I remember the summer of 1961 being in California visiting a Carleton friend, Betsy, lying on the beach at night, looking up at the stars. I had been working for months on this question of applying to go to Spelman. I said to myself, "Yes, I want to, I will apply, and I'm not going to ask my parents permission until I'm accepted and need to tell them so they can give permission."
The family I grew up in was white upper-middle-class. My father was an engineer and a Republican; my mother was an activist liberal and a Democrat. I was raised in the Unitarian Church.
In 1957, when I was in high school, my father got transferred to Memphis and I ended up going to segregated white Central High School of Memphis right when Central High School of Little Rock was being desegregated. My occasionally integrated Unitarian Church was right across the street from my school. Issues of race were very present in my life.
When I lived in Memphis I never knew any Black kids my own age. The exceptions were the two times our Unitarian youth group got together with a Black Baptist youth group. I wanted more of that.
My younger brothers and sisters got to play with our maid's little kids, but I didn't get to because I was too old — meaning Black and white kids can play together until they are a certain age and then no more. I'd gone to integrated schools in the Chicago suburbs so I'd had some Black friends and then I didn't have any. Spelman seemed like a great opportunity for me. I didn't ask my parents' permission; I told them I wanted to go. My mother couldn't be against it because she was an activist liberal and my dad didn't argue against it.
Karen: I started [my freshman year] at Connecticut College for Women the fall of 1962 and really didn't like it because it was very square. By the end of my freshman year, I felt like, "I can't stand this," but I thought it was something that I had done wrong, that I just didn't fit in there. I read the book Black Like Me and ended up being an exchange student.
I had a good heart, but mostly I didn't go for any lofty purpose. I went to get the hell out of Connecticut College. Also my parents were liberal. When I was making my train reservations for Atlanta, I didn't know where Atlanta really was; I got the map out and freaked out because it was right next to Alabama.
I left for Spelman on my nineteenth birthday. In our house you could have what you wanted to eat for your birthday breakfast. One of my favorite meals was grits, so my last meal at home was grits with bacon and eggs — not realizing that I would have that meal [most days] for the next six months.[Laughs.]
Cathy: Was there anything else that went in to your deciding to go?
Karen: When I was nine or ten and my parents had a Black housekeeper. (I can't tell this story without crying.) Her name was Lottie and I really liked her. My mom was pretty cold; Lottie was the warm mother I never had. She came to work at our house one day and she wasn't feeling well, so she asked me to help her. I was this snotty little nine-year-old and said, "No." Then she died. I took that on and always blamed myself. She got pneumonia. I always felt that if I'd helped her that day, maybe she would have lived. That's the part that's underneath. I'm not sure if that made me want to go to Spelman or not.
Also my family was pretty involved with Black people. My dad produced a jazz festival on Long Island with big bands. I was raised on Billie Holliday, Rex Stuart, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie. Lambert, Hendrix, and Ross were at the jazz festival. If I had a culture, that was it.
My parents are raving atheists. "Fundamentalist atheist" is what I call them, especially my mother. I'd say we were more middle class. We didn't really have the income of upper-middle class. We weren't wealthy in any way. Mom taught school, but she didn't like teaching. Dad did different jobs. They were fine with my going to Spelman, though I think they were nervous about it. It was when The Movement got active and I got jailed in Atlanta that they got worried.
Cathy: Chude, what went into your decision to go to Spelman?
Chude: Carleton sent people on the exchange program during our junior year. Well, I hated Carleton. I hadn't done well in my course work because I hated it. I thought that when I went to college we'd sit around a table and talk ideas. But at Carleton people just booked. They sat and studied for hours, but they didn't discuss ideas, they weren't alive with the ideas. That's what I wanted.
I hated that girls had so many rules and that boys didn't. That offended me to no end. Needless to say Spelman was more difficult because they had even more rules.
For two years in a row I had applied to be co-editor of the yearbook because I wanted to redo the yearbook into a creative, artistic medium. I wasn't accepted and it was at the time one of the great disappointments of my life, but it left me open to do something different.
I need to back up a bit to before I applied to go to Spelman. When I hadn't found a summer job for the summer of 1963, my mother heard that a church in Philadelphia was looking for counselors and that two girls I'd grown up with were going to be there. I became a counselor at the Church of the Advocate and spent that summer in Northern Philadelphia in the Black community. I just loved it, loved everything about the experience. I was a very religious Episcopalian. Every morning at The Church of the Advocate we went to church before day camp.
I lived with the minister and his family. That was my first experience living with a Black family and Paul and Christine Washington were incredible people. There were four of us white girls staying with them.
So when I went back to Carleton and discovered the Spelman exchange program I thought, "Wow! I can get out of Carleton and go some place that will be like The Church of the Advocate." Of course it wasn't like that at all; Spelman was much more like Carleton. I thought Spelman would be more like a poor and working class community than like a middle-class uptight white college.
I'm a WASP, upper-middle-class White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. I think key for my parents was that I was going to school.
Karen: I arrived at Spelman a week before most students, for freshman orientation,. They took me on a bus tour through the richer Black neighborhoods, called "The Gold Coast." Everything was totally segregated in Atlanta. I come from a very intellectual family; my parents are bohemian types. It was the Black bourgeoisie versus my liberal anti-materialistic background.
I went to Spelman with the idea that I wouldn't date Black guys and that I wouldn't get involved in The Movement. I had worked in a mental hospital the summer before my freshman year in college and I wanted to be a psychiatrist. I didn't want my career to be derailed. I didn't keep either of those vows.
Even with all the Black bourgeoisie stuff and having to go to chapel, I loved being at Spelman. Probably the most wonderful thing for me at Spelman was singing in the choir. That forty-five minutes of singing everyday was wonderful for me — except the day the director, Dr. James, pointed out that I was off key.
At Christmas the Spelman choir had a big concert and everybody was decked to the nines. All these rich white people came and everybody [from Spelman] was kow-towing. It was so strange, but I loved being part of that choir.
I remember when the Morehouse guys came over and did double-time step marching in the Spelman quad. I'd been in a ghastly marching band in high school and I'd never seen anything like what the Morehouse guys were doing. I thought it was the best thing I'd ever seen; they were taking this form and making it so alive!
Also that fall on September 15, just a few days after I arrived, a Black church in Birmingham was bombed, killing four girls. The bombing hit everybody hard, like somebody had punched us in the stomach. On November 22, John Kennedy was assassinated. One of my friends said, referring to Johnson, "Now we have a cracker in the White House."
Cathy: I took a social science class from Mrs. Lois Moreland, an African American professor, and what I remember most was that she dressed very stylishly, even wearing a hat to teach. In my upbringing a woman could be smart or glamorous, but not both. If you dressed well or were beautiful you were presumed to be dumb. This was quite an eye- opener for me, for this teacher was very sharp — in both ways.
I took a history class from Howard Zinn, a northern white professor, on modern Chinese history and the Chinese revolution. In '62 I wrote a paper on women in China and how they were fighting for their rights as women. 1962 was early in the US to be thinking about women's rights, but I learned that at Spelman with Howard Zinn.
Karen: I took a class that I really liked taught by a Black woman. But I was anti-education because of all the pressure I had from my parents.
I had a class with Staughton Lynd, another northern white professor. Howard Zinn had been fired in June of 1963 because of his involvement in The Freedom Movement. My class with Staughton was very challenging; I'd never had a teacher like him. He was a great teacher.
I ended up doing a paper on Karl Marx vs. Max Weber, the economic vs. the social reasons for everything in the world. It was at this point that I became an intellectual radical as well as an activist. I was challenged in a way that made sense to me. I got it — click — and I've been different ever since. Being at Spelman took my young mind and gave it some experience, but also a framework of how to look at the world, mostly a Black framework.
Cathy: Did you take classes at Morehouse? I did.
Chude: You had to be a junior or senior to take classes at Morehouse. At Spelman I took Staughton Lynd's seminar on non-violence. I took two classes at Morehouse, which were a waste of time, intellectually. One of them was on Christianity and literature. I felt right at home there, but it was not intellectually stimulating. The other was a sociology class on the city. The teacher was not stimulating, but that was where I was able to listen to and be part of a discussion with Black students about how they felt about whites. One man in particular was very hostile to, and angry about, whites. There I was saying, "But that's not me!" I was naive and not understanding the history and the complexity of racism. The students were nice to me. They didn't attack me personally. They just let me know what I felt made no difference to their lives..
I've often wondered if there were Black literature classes. I would have done better to have taken a Black literature class and learned more about Black culture.
I took a graduate class at Atlanta University on early Russian history, which was both a good thing and a mistake. I'd once read a biography of Catherine the Great and thought it would be fun. It was taught by a British professor and held in his office, because there were only two of us students.
Cathy: That's really risque to study Russia in '64. You could have been called a Communist.
Chude: I had no business being there. I never was, and still am not, capable of doing many things at once. Worrying about racism, developing interracial relationships and being in the Movement was my focus. Early Russian history had no relation to this, but in the wonderful complexity of contradictions, this is the place where I learned how to write. I had to write a term paper and I handed in a last minute paper. The professor took one look at it and handed it back to me saying, "This is a regurgitation of facts. What it means to write a paper is that you now have to take this information, absorb it, and come out with your own point of view." I had been at Carleton for two-and-a-half years and nobody had ever told me that.
Karen: At Connecticut College the big thing they talked about was footnoting and not plagiarizing. They didn't want to know what I thought. They wanted regurgitation.
Chude: This man said I had to think!
Karen: Later, that's what Harvard did for me too. When I arrived at Harvard, they did not want to know what everybody else thought; they wanted to know what I thought. Isn't it wonderful when somebody says that to you?
Cathy: I did not have the same experience that you did, Chude, of feeling that Carleton professors didn't want you to think. My experience was that they wanted us to think, but we didn't know how to make that happen. When I got back to Carleton, all of a sudden I was getting A's in all my sociology classes. I believe it was because at Spelman I had experiences in a world different from the one I'd grown up in and I had something to think about. I had some personal experience that I could bring to my classes. It was wonderful. It wouldn't have happened if I hadn't gone to Spelman.
Chude: I went to Spelman to be part of a Black community and to participate in The Movement there. Going to school was the way to do that. I came from an elite school and I had the assumption that there was nothing that they could really teach me. So it's interesting that both in Staughton's class on non-violence and in the early Russian History class I was pushed to think in ways that I'd never been pushed to think at the elite school. It broke open the elitism for me and opened my mind about where you can get an education.
Karen: What education means.
Cathy: Before I went to Spelman there were several people, students and faculty, at Carleton who were saying to me, "Are you sure that you want to give up a semester at (precious) Carleton to go to Spelman?" But I had one teacher, an anthropologist, who said, "I'm glad you're not letting going to Carleton get in the way of your getting an education."
Karen: When I arrived at Spelman in the fall of 1963, there were three of us white exchange students on the campus: myself, Mardy Walker, who was also from Connecticut College and a woman from Bethel College. That was the first time there'd been an exchange from Connecticut College. I didn't relate to either of the other exchange students.
Chude: I've always been struck by the ways in which we did and didn't support each other. I went to Spelman with another student from Carleton, Marcia Moore. I hadn't known her at Carleton and we talked only once before we went. We didn't go there together and when we were there, we were in different dorms. The chances are that if you weren't in the same dorm, you would have much less opportunity to be together. That's what people don't understand about dorm hours. You got in these buildings and you were stuck there. A lot of your socializing time was limited to people in your building. Marcia and I were both in Staughton Lynd's seminar on non-violence and there we did talk. We also made tape recordings about the Movement to send back to Carleton.
Karen: I became good friends with Spelman student, Venita Sharp, who I hung out with a lot. I think the quality of my friendships at Spelman were more alive. I had friends at Connecticut College, but not with the heart connection I had at Spelman. Even though I was white, I think Venita was one of the best friends of my whole life.
Rich's Department Store had begun to let Black people try on as well as buy clothes. Venita and I went to Riches to see how it was. People stared. It was clear Venita and I were friends and the reaction of the white people was intense. It was really cold, and after about ten minutes she said, "Let's get out of here." Going to Rich's Department Store with Venita was an eye opening experience — that little bit of time there was nasty.
Chude: I also had one of the best friends of my life at Spelman. I've thought that part of what made it a phenomenal heart connection was that you had to be real. You had to be 100% there or it wasn't going to happen.
Barbara Joy had been a Spelman exchange student to Carleton two years before, but I had seen little of her there. So when I got to Spelman, she introduced herself to me. We were in the same dorm. The next time I saw her she happened to knock on my door after I'd gone to bed. She came in and basically told me she hated white people and that she didn't believe whites and Blacks could be friends. I was stunned. After she left I was almost in tears. But then I had one of the major breakthroughs of my life. I began thinking what it must have been like to be a Black child lying in bed knowing white people hated you for no other reason than that your skin was Black.
That's how our friendship started. Either you went for it, or there was nothing. When the connections happened, they were more profound than anything we'd ever had before because we had transcended a barrier.
I had problems with some of the women in my dorm. I'd been given a roommate who was having her own problems before I arrived. I had been put in with this woman everybody was angry at. She used my blunders — there were many — to get back in the good graces of others by saying negative things about me. That was very hard and painful. But Barbara Joy was there in the same dorm with me and although they put pressure on her to stop being my friend, she refused. She took the position that nobody was going to tell her who would be her friend. It was very intense and my being white was part of it.
Karen: I remember a student from Mississippi telling me as we were standing in line next to each other saying, "I've never stood this close to a white person, besides a cop." We weren't tight friends, but she asked me things like, "Are your pubic hairs kinky?" It was so revealing, a strong heart connection. I'd always been much of a loner and didn't feel like I belonged anywhere. Even though I was still on the outside, in some ways I felt more on the inside at Spelman.
I started dating Jim, a Morehouse student. I liked him a lot and that relationship was a big part of what I was doing while I was at Spelman. I was still a virgin and I was afraid to sleep with him. Everybody wasn't sleeping with everybody in those days. I was very naive; I didn't know where I was with sexuality.
Chude: Were you in love with Jim?
Karen: I don't know who I was more in love with Venita or Jim. [Laughs.] In hindsight, probably Venita, but I didn't even know I was gay then, or bi-sexual, whatever I am.
Chude: Was Jim an activist?
Karen: He did some stuff in the student movement. We actually got arrested together, but he wasn't an "activist" activist.
Cathy: I was raised that you were supposed to be a virgin till you were married. In those years and with my middle-class background, you were supposed to "save yourself for marriage." I actually talked about this when some of us were sitting around the SNCC office. [Laughs.] Venturing a more liberal stance than my upbringing I said, "Well, if you're not a virgin when you marry, you should at least be engaged to the person." I'll never forget Ruby Doris Smith looking over at me with complete disgust. At which point I started asking myself, "Do I really believe this?"
Karen: My mom and dad used to joke about how they'd slept together the night before they got married, how they got up out of bed and got married. So I wasn't raised with that expectation. But there was a whole lot of shit around sex, and marriage — as well as race. It's huge.
Cathy: I was lucky in that I got to know Lana Taylor, the Spelman student who came to Carleton the year before I went to Spelman, and she was back at Spelman when I was there. An added delight — besides who she was, she was a wonderful woman — was that she was from Memphis. I had lived with my family in Memphis from 1957-1961. I went to her house during Spelman's spring break. This was an incredible opportunity for me to get to know more of Memphis. There were whole areas on the map of Memphis that I had never even known existed — and that's where she lived. Her mother gave me such a warm welcome. What a contradiction to the complete segregation I experienced when I lived there.
Lana gave me support, but we could have taken more advantage of our both being at Spelman. Because she lived in another dorm, I didn't see her a lot. She was also newly engaged and focused on her fiance as well as on her studies.
Karen: Did you know Betty Stevens?
Chude: Oh yes!
Karen: She was the student body president and I was friends with her. She was really nice to me, very supportive.
Cathy: Most of my memories of being an exchange student are of being in The Movement, but the biggest lesson that I got from being at Spelman (verses the lessons from being in The Movement) was figuring out that many of the Black students didn't know who I was. For many of them, I was the first white person their age that they'd ever met and they would project their expectations about what a white person was onto me. I finally figured out that I needed to let them know who I am. That was the big thing that I learned at Spelman: that sometimes you need to let people know who you are. At the time I felt that it was a really valuable lesson. I still do.
Karen: What did you tell them?
Cathy: Mostly, I remember the generalization that I can't completely go on what they think I am. In those days at Spelman, if the students thought you were racist, they had such extreme ideas of how racist you were, that it was pretty clearly not correct. I wasn't ever telling them directly that I'm not a bad person; it was more the case of letting them know: I'm interested in knowing you, I'm willing to listen. Putting that out.
Karen: I've always been grateful that I was at Spelman just before Black Power and the expression of anger, so that it gave us a chance, maybe naively, to be with each other.
Cathy: Anger was around.
Karen: Oh sure.
Chude: Except for the dormitory situation, I didn't take the anti-white feelings personally. With my dormitory situation ultimately it worked out and people started to say that I got caught in the middle of something else and that it was easy to dump on me because I was white.
Cathy: I got caught too, in terms of the roommate I was given. She didn't want to have a white roommate. It was not a good decision to put us in the same room. But that was only one person, not a group like with you.
Karen: I think it was one of the mistakes with how Spelman set it up that they did not ask for volunteers for who would get the white roommate.
Chude: There were thirteen white exchange students on campus when I was there the spring of 1964. By the end of the semester the general feeling on the campus was that that was about twelve too many.
There was a rumor that two of the best roommate combinations were split up to be with exchange students, on the idea that "Well, if you do so well as roommates, you'll do great with an exchange student." I was glad I wasn't put with one of them. They must have had phenomenal resentment because they didn't have a choice. Now I don't know if this rumor was true, but I believed it at the time.
Karen: There was some tension with my roommate, but I don't remember what it was.
Cathy: At Carleton did the roommate with exchange students get to choose?
Chude: The Spelman student who came to Carleton while I was gone stayed with my Carleton roommate Sally. Sally was open to it.
At Spelman there was a white teacher, Dr. Renate Wolf, who was there for us if the white exchange students needed to talk about problems. She was an older, small woman who taught French. I don't remember talking with her except at the beginning when we met her. I think today the situation would be handled very differently. You would not only have somebody to go to, you would have the other white exchange students plus the previous Spelman exchange students meeting together. A weekly, on-going dialogue amongst both Black and white exchange students about both experiences would have been very rich.
Cathy: I was at Spelman the spring of '62. I was there only two days when I saw notices all around my dorm about a demonstration at the Georgia State Legislature to be held the next day, February 1st, the second anniversary of the student lunch counter sit-ins in North Carolina. About 100 students gathered at the colleges and walked to the legislature to continue two years of attempts to desegregate the galleries of the Georgia State Legislature. A group of about five of us white students and Howard Zinn ended up sitting in the Black section of the legislature. The legislature was having a heated debate over lowering the legal age of marriage for girls from sixteen to fourteen so that pregnant fourteen and fifteen year-old girls could get married and save their honor.
Seeing us in the "wrong" section, the chairman of the Senate said that if we were looking for trouble, we'd found it and he was calling the state troopers. We could see down to the main floor when he picked up the phone. We decided that we didn't want to be arrested that day, so we got up and walked out into the hallway. There were a lot of people in the hallway. We were walking down the hall, and all of a sudden we see three big highway patrolmen marching toward us. It was a scary sight, but they never saw us as we walked right past them. At the time, it seemed to me ironic that we were supposed to be such a threat to how things had always been, but they didn't recognize us. (Now, I suppose the state troopers were not supposed to see or think, just take orders — another scary thought.) We left the building and joined the other picketers, where for the first time I was called a "nigger lover." I'd been at Spelman three days and I was in The Movement and I was happy to be there.
Very soon I was hanging out at the small church across the street from Morehouse, where SNCC then had their offices. Making friends with activist students, listening to their stories, was very important to me. I remember Ruby Doris Smith and Frank Holloway talking about their Freedom Rides into Mississippi and their stays at Parchman prison in 1961. I also remember Frank Smith, telling me about growing up in Newnan, Georgia.
The spring of '62 was a period when the student movement was relatively quiet in Atlanta. There were some demonstrations, but there had been a lot more demonstrations in Atlanta the fall before.
For a month there were daily pickets and some clinic sit-ins attempting to desegregate Grady Hospital, the local public hospital where there were often no beds for Blacks and unused beds in the white section. We were often heckled by whites as we picketed. One day as we were picketing an old white lady with a perplexed expression asked, "What would Jesus say if he saw you doing this?" Once a middle-aged nicely dressed white man went up the block reading all our signs and then walked back telling us to keep up the good work.
The commissioners who made decisions regarding Grady were coming up for re-election. When we were inside Grady I saw signs on two doors reading "Men's Restroom-White," "Men's Restroom-Colored." On the wall in between was a poster in red, white, and blue saying, "Register to Vote." I did some voter registration, knocking on people's doors in the neighborhood near Spelman.
Karen: In October or November of 1963, after a lull, The Movement in Atlanta started up again. There was a sign on campus that said that if you're thinking about being involved in The Movement, come to an informational meeting. There were quite a few people there in a little room in a basement. Jim Forman from SNCC was there. I, this very naive white person, eventually raised my hand and said, "I want to be a psychiatrist; that's how I want to help people." (I still can't believe I said this!) So I feel like I shouldn't get involved with The Movement because I don't want to get off track. Forman was so gentle, he said, "I think what you want to do is really great and you cannot have an effect until there's a social change." As soon as he said it, I knew — also from my experience at the mental hospital — that he was right. The next day I was on the picket line. I became very active after that. That's how I got recruited into SNCC.
We picketed Lester Maddox's restaurant and they locked us in there. They also locked the bathrooms so we couldn't use them and we had to pee on the floor behind the booths.
I was at a demonstration when the Klan came in their regalia to the big street in downtown Atlanta. Everybody got completely quiet with fear. The Black people knew what this represented to the tips of their toes; they all had history with it. It was like ghosts coming down the street.
Then a Black person got a sheet and marched behind them and everybody started laughing. He took history and tore it apart. Bam! That was gone; it was so great. I remember it being Chuck Neblet who put on that sheet, but I always had a crush on Chuck, so who knows. A while ago I actually asked Chuck if he'd done it and he didn't remember it, so he probably didn't. Lefever's book talks about several people doing it.
I'd been to a non-violent training where we were taught that if somebody started hurting you, you should start yelling, so that people would know. The idea also was that maybe you'd scare your attackers into stopping. One time I was being carried out of a paddy wagon and these two Black trustees (prisoners who worked for the sheriff) jumped on me. One had his knee in my back and I started yelling. Judy Richardson came flying toward me, saying, "Get off her, get off her!" ([At that time] Judy Richardson was a big presence in SNCC.) They got off me and took me to jail. I remember purposefully blurring the fingerprints, so they had to do it another time — my act of rebellion.
Then the question was, where were they going to put me — in the Black part of the jail or the white part? At first they put me in solitary confinement because I was raising a ruckus about not wanting to go in the white part. When they put me in solitary confinement I either went crazy on purpose or I just went crazy. I was very scared of going into the white women's section. I'd heard is they'd throw you in there and say, "Here's another nigger-lover. Get her!" I also didn't want to leave my Black friends.
I freaked out. I yelled and I picked up the bed and I banged it on the floor. I raised enough hell that they put me in with the Black women. Then we got to sing songs and it was fine. It was great. I was there about three or four days.
When I got out of jail and walked into the SNCC office I was greeted by a chorus of "Call your father!" because my father had been calling twelve times an hour.
The semester I was at Spelman ended at the end of January I went home for Christmas and when I came back we resumed demonstrations. I worked in the SNCC office for a while. The office was on Raymond Street; it wasn't by Morehouse any more. I got arrested with Dick Gregory and that whole group. That's when Mardy Walker got put in the white section and was harassed and hurt. Dick Gregory would go off on the Black trustees, who used to beat up on people: "You Black son-of-a-bitch. How can you do that to your people? Don't you understand...." He was also being humorous at the same time.
That time there were so many of us, we filled every floor. At one point the police tried to turn the heat off. [We developed this technique where] we got a person on each corner of our heavy metal beds, we'd pick up the bed and then drop it. The whole building would shake. We figured out how to bang on the pipes [that ran between the floors] and yell through the pipes to do this or that. [We were all dropping beds at the same time.] They turned the heat back on.
If they didn't feed us right, we'd do the same thing. We felt like we had some power. It was exciting.
Right after I got out of jail I made a speaking trip to Connecticut College to raise money to get Mardy Walker out of jail. Mardy was still in jail, in the white cells, where they were harassing her, beating on her, and pouring ice water on her. I got off the plane in Connecticut, having just got out of jail, and literally went from the plane to this student assembly where people were saying, "Well, she knew what she was getting in to.... She deserves what she gets." I'm trying to stand up and say something, while my friends are thinking, "Oh God, what's she going to say? Is she going to say 'Fuck all of you?'" That's what I wanted to say, but I said, "Yes, she did sign up to go to jail, but she didn't sign up to get beaten. It's a dangerous situation and we need to give her support." They raised five thousand dollars and sent it to Atlanta to get her out of jail.
Cathy: It must have been a moment when you had immense authority, though it may not have felt that way.
Karen: I guess so. I felt like this alien from Mars and I was supposed to talk in this language that I didn't know any more. It was awful; I felt so alienated.
Cathy: What was it like to be back at Spelman after you got out of jail?
Karen: That last time I was in jail, I pretty much went from jail to the SNCC office, spending little time at Spelman. I figured out that because I was white, Spelman wasn't going to throw me out, so I was bolder. I wasn't risking my college career. I stopped going to chapel, but choir was still my favorite and I did finish my classes. Then I went back to school at Connecticut College.
There were a lot of students at Spelman who didn't participate in The Movement. They were scared of it. One student said to me, "I'm not going anywhere where the Klan is."
Chude: But what about Spelman itself, because my experience was that Spelman was so constrictive. I'd hated the rules for girls at Carleton and here they were worse. Spelman would have been an impossible situation for me if it hadn't been in Atlanta with all these other people involved in the Student Movement.
Cathy: I was looking through my archives from Spelman recently and found a letter I wrote to Dr. Bacote, a Black teacher at Morehouse who had asked me to write him my impressions of Spelman. The spring I was there 300 Spelman students (and exchange students) signed a petition to President Manley seeking reform of the rules. Some of the faculty supported us, but the response from the administration was intimidation. Only minor changes were made the fall of 1962.
Karen: I don't know what I would have done without The Movement.
Karen: Chude, did you get involved in the Atlanta Movement when you were at Spelman?
Chude: Yes, I worked with The Committee On Appeal for Human Rights (COAHR), the student civil rights group at the Atlanta University Center, where Spelman was one of six Black colleges.
I can't say that I went to Spelman and started working with SNCC. Cathy, you described the SNCC office as being across the street from Morehouse, but by the time I got there it was somewhere else further away. I was part of the student movement, both at the AU Center and with the Georgia Students for Human Rights (GSHR), a mostly white group with members from Agnes Scott, Emory and the University of Georgia. I attended their meetings as one of two representatives from COAHR and participated in their demonstrations against segregation in the restaurants downtown. There were interracial parties that I would go to on Saturday nights at the apartment of one of the GSHR members. I have no idea what we signed out for before leaving Spelman, because, of course, it would have been completely illegal to go, much less drive in somebody's car to get there. Sometimes SNCC people, especially Freedom Singers, would be there, but mostly it was Black and white students, some of whom were activists and some not. Unlike you two, I didn't actually relate to the SNCC office during most of my time at Spelman, or to SNCC people. My experience was as a student.
That was due partly to the timing The mass arrests in Atlanta happened in December and January while Karen and Mardy were still there. By the time I came, students were demonstrating in support of those who'd been arrested and also, continuing the picketing of the segregated restaurants.
In the middle of the semester SNCC started to recruit for the Mississippi Summer Project. Staughton Lynd was going to be director of the Freedom Schools, so he was encouraging those of us in his seminar to consider it.
Then it was spring break. Since I couldn't go home with my best friend, Barbara Joy — because she lived in Alabama and she said we would all be arrested — I ended up lying to the Assistant Dean of Women about where I was going and spending the week at a friend's apartment in Atlanta. A friend from Carleton and I went to the SNCC Spring Conference. I knew some of the SNCC people, we would be on the same picket lines in Atlanta, but that was really my first experience with SNCC as a group. They were older or more experienced than I was.
I applied to go to Mississippi. A group of us from Spelman, Morehouse, and some of the white schools started meeting as a group. Two of the Spelman women who'd been arrested in the December-January demonstrations were part of this group. I hadn't known Gwen Robinson (Gwen Zohara Simmons), who was a Spelman student. We weren't in the same dorm and we didn't have a class together. I had heard Gloria Bishop (Gloria Wade- Gales) speak about the demonstrations. She was a teacher.
Before leaving Spelman I spent five days at the SNCC office mimeographing materials for Staughton Lynd to take to the Mississippi Summer Project orientation in Oxford, Ohio. I said hello to everybody; people said hello to me. Then I worked and they worked; everybody was working hard. Then I went back to the campus. I didn't socialize with the people in the office. I didn't have the experience of going to the office and hanging around, so I realize it's not accurate to say, "I worked with SNCC." I worked in the Student Movement in Atlanta.
Chude: One of the most meaningful experiences for me while I was a Spelman exchange student was going to the mass meetings of The Movement. I wrote a poem that's up on the Vets web site, called "For Justice and For Love" about being at a mass meeting in Atlanta. Prathia Hall was speaking. She was important to me because I'd felt this split between being a religious person and being an activist. Prathia had both of those aspects together. She said we were doing God's work. I was hearing what I was about from someone a few years older than me who was active in The Movement.
Cathy: Why did you feel a split?
Chude: At Carleton the activists were atheists and the Episcopalians were not activists. Some were quite conservative.
Karen: At the mass meetings in Atlanta and later in Mississippi I felt like I'd died and gone to heaven. [Laughing.] You could have shot me right there and I would have been happy, died with a smile on my face.
When I turned sixty I presented my life to forty of my friends and I played part of the mass meeting recorded on the Smithsonian's "Voices of the Civil Rights Movement." The mass meetings were what saved me. I've never experienced anything like that since. I think we transcended ourselves in The Movement. In spite of our fear, and because we were facing death sometimes, we transcended our own human experience in a certain kind of way. We were able to go to this high plane of living — not all the time, of course. But the basic thing we were saying is death is not the most important thing that happens here. What is important is quality of life and freedom. Just to touch that was what made the difference for me. That's what was at the mass meetings, more than anything.
People were willing to risk their lives just to be there and they knew how dangerous it was — way more than I did. They knew it from the time they were five — that their uncle had been run out by the Klan — and they still went. They could be completely in the present, completely there. To me, that was a miracle. That in the face of death, they could show up. I felt like you could feel it in the air. It wasn't just the music. They were saying, "We aren't going to let it happen to us anymore. We don't give a shit what you do to us." How free can you be?
It was such a visceral kind of freedom, not something theoretical. It was, "This ain't right; let's fix it."
Cathy: There were particular people that I was close to, but there were wonderful things about the Black community as a whole that I remember. It wasn't just having this or that Black person as a friend; I got to be a part of a Black community. When I was growing up who had ever told me about the wonderful things of the Black community? I still appreciate those qualities; I live in Oakland partly for the Black community. I value the pieces of Black culture that come my way.
On the other hand, there are all the stresses and internalized racism that we also saw when we were living as part of a Black community. How could we talk about that? We were white, we weren't even supposed to know these things. Here we were learning all this stuff we're not supposed to know. That was hard.
Karen: There was something about seeing too. I've had Black people ask me, "How do you know that, as a white person?" It doesn't happen often, but it's because I had my experiences. There's something that opened there and I don't even know quite what it is.
Cathy: Sometimes I want to say, "I'm not as white as I look." But do I really want to say that, because people can misinterpret that.
Karen: I certainly know that I don't have the whole experience, but there is a glimpse.
Karen: At one point while I was at Spelman, I flew home to go to a concert that my sister was in. We went right to the concert and I was sitting there shivering because I was around all these white people.
Cathy: Do you remember not wanting to be white? I do.
Karen: I still don't want to be white. [Laughs.]
Chude: I think that's very hard for those of us who are white to talk about, but I do think it's key. What I remember is the summer before I went to Spelman when I would go back and forth between my home and The Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, PA. At home I was aware of how white, bland, and all-the-same everybody looked. I liked the wider range of how people looked in the Black community — all the different colors. I remember feeling odd when I looked in the mirror, but I don't remember not wanting to be white.
The following summer when I returned to my hometown after being at Spelman, I spoke at my church about why I was going to Mississippi to be a freedom school teacher. I wrote out my talk, which is on the website. Then I did speak about not wanting to be white at Spelman in the context of experiencing anti-white feelings and feeling shame for racism.
Cathy: It's been years since I've used those words, "I don't want to be white," but at Spelman, that's exactly how I felt. I'd been at Spelman for about three months and there was an occasion for a group of us to go to Emory University. I was in a white community for the first time in three months. I was looking around and people looked so pale and their noses looked really sharp, like they we were going to hurt each other with those sharp noses. I realized that I had been thinking of myself as having more color than I really did. A few years later you really weren't allowed to say "I don't want to be white" — it was politically incorrect — but that's exactly how I felt.
Chude: I felt ashamed. How could you not feel ashamed when white people were doing these horrendous things? But I also had role models of how to become a human being who happened to be white.
Because of Staughton Lynd's seminar on nonviolence, I was reading the writings of whites who opposed racism, and hearing some of them speak, many of them southern whites. Of course, Staughton and his wife, Alice, were also role models, pacifists who lived their ideals and have continued to do so.
Also, it made a difference, I think, that I was socializing in an integrated group of activists that included many southern white students. And there were 13 white exchange students at Spelman that semester. My experience was being in a Black community that included white students and professors, but also being in an activist group that was integrated.
I experienced an "us-them" occasion while at Spelman because of my participation in Canterbury House, the Episcopal student group. We went to a church conference on racial dialogue. The first evening we Spelman-Morehouse students sat on one side of the room and the southern white students sat across from us. The facilitator, the Episcopal minister Malcolm Boyd, broke down the feelings of separation and distrust by reading us skits he'd written. He exchanged all the stereotypes — Black people couldn't dance; white people smelled and were lazy. I've never been able to find these printed anywhere and can't explain why they were so funny. But I remember us all laughing and laughing and how it broke down the "us-them" dichotomy.
Karen: I remember one time walking across the campus with Jim at night and Venita saw us. She yelled out, "Hey Karen, you're shining" because I was white and she could see me at night. It was humorous and affectionate, but I was so stunned that I was white. It was not what I felt in my heart. I felt part of there in a way that I hadn't been in other places.
I was so touched and opened up by the spirituality and heart in the Black community. My family was so insular. I had bigger feelings than the other people in my family. My father had big feelings, but he used them to dominate the family.
What being white means to me is this cultural deadness, the lack of heart, and spirit, and soul. I don't identify with a white woman screaming racist stuff; I can distance myself from that. It's the deadness and the particularly fucked up way white people relate to their kids-the cold, cold mothers.
Chude: It's probably partly a class issue. In Lilllian Smith's book Killers of the Dream she talks about how as Blacks become middle class they begin to take on the sexual repression of the white culture. What you're talking about is repression, and it is more so with WASPs.
Karen: Later, when I was in Appalachia, I was very envious of the way kids were raised there — and they were white. They weren't as warm as people I'd met in Black communities, but there was an acceptance and love of their children no matter what their kids did. My acceptance and love from my family was based on whether I went to college or not, or things like that.
Cathy: After Spelman I spent the summer of 1962 working at a settlement house in downtown Chicago in a Black and Polish neighborhood. Back at Carleton for my last year, I did SNCC support work bringing Frank Smith and The Freedom Singers to campus and helping collect truckloads of books and clothing for Greenwood Mississippi. I missed The Movement terribly and the summer of 1963 I worked in Albany Georgia and the Atlanta SNCC office.
Karen: I was a mess when I went back to Connecticut College. I'd been in jail and being at Spelman had opened up a lot of stuff for me. I hated Connecticut College and I hated being white and I didn't like being around white people. Connecticut seemed so sterile and everybody was dancing to the Beatles. Because I'd been totally in the Black community, I'd never even heard of the Beatles. I thought it was the worst music I ever heard — and nobody was dancing well. It was disgusting.
I was in bed most of the time and was throwing up before every exam and I finally decided I could not stay at Connecticut College. There was one sociology teacher who tried to help me understand at least the sociology of some of my experiences. I wrote a paper for her about my experiences at Spelman, which helped me stay in the experience, but I no longer have it.
I decided that I wanted to be a sociology and psychology major. Connecticut College had rat psychology and statistic sociology and I wanted something about people, so I decided that I needed to transfer. My choices were Tougaloo, a Black college in Mississippi, or Harvard. As I took the train up to Harvard I read in their catalogue about their Social Relations Department that blended psychology and sociology. I had an interview, and even though I only had Bs, I got into Harvard and didn't go to Tougaloo. I often wonder what my life would have been like if I'd gone to Tougaloo. It would have been very different. I liked the independent study part of the Harvard program, but I think I also was afraid to stand up to my parents. They would have had cardiac arrest if I'd gone to Tougaloo.
I think if I'd gone to Tougaloo I would have ended up spending more time in The Movement, but I'm not sure that I had the emotional constitution to do it. For all of Harvard's shortcomings, and what Harvard represents, they had some Marxists teaching there. At that time there were people who had been in SNCC and other smart rebels there.
Chude: I'm curious about Mardy Walker because when I was at Spelman that spring we knew of the arrests. She came back for a trial.
Karen: We both went back to Connecticut College to finish the school year, but we really weren't friends. She was a preppy person, who was coming at it from a more religious perspective. I remember her as extremely square and I just wasn't. It's a shame that we didn't have more contact.
Chude: It interests me that often people have such profound experiences and sometimes are not able to share it and build some kind of support. I know a woman, Fran O'Brien, who went on the Mississippi summer project from Oregon. She was the only one from her college and didn't know anybody else who went. She had a terrible experience in Mississippi — she was kidnapped and beaten by the Klan. In 1989, she came to the first reunion we organized in the Bay Area. There she met a white guy who had come from another school in Oregon. She said to me how much it would have meant to her to have had somebody else to talk to back then, but I think that's an illusion. I think that for those of us who are white there wasn't the ability to come back into the North and support each other. I don't know what happened to Black activists.
One of my strongest memories when we came back to Carleton, was the other exchange student Marcia, who also went to Mississippi, telling me she couldn't do much organizing for SNCC because she had eleven papers to write. Some of the activists, when they were in school, were focused on school. I was not like that. When I became an activist, that's mostly what I did. When we went back to Carleton, I was the one who did most of the speaking. Marcia did write an article about Spelman.
During the 1964-1965 school year there were three white women at Carleton who had been to Mississippi with the summer project. Second term I took a sociology class on race relations and decided to ask the Black students on campus to meet with me to talk about what it was like to be in a minority. At this point there were thirteen Black students in a student body of 1,300. Some of the students who met with me — not all of the Black students were interested — formed an organization, which turned out to be made up of the Black students and some of the international students. They had a lot in common. There were two white women, myself and the roommate of one of the freshmen. What strikes me now is that neither of the other women who had been in Mississippi were part of that group.
Karen: I think I was in shock returning to my family and the white community. I couldn't talk about my experiences, especially to anybody white. And I couldn't talk about it with Black people, because I was white and it was a different experience. I couldn't even talk about it with myself, I didn't know what had happened. I was glad for what had happened, I'm still glad for what happened, but I still don't know everything that happened. When I describe it sometimes I say, "I came from this really fucked up family that only believed in education and nothing else and I went to Spelman and all of that upbringing was blown up." There were ways that I was deeply touched. Thank God! But I was blown up in the process and I couldn't talk about it. I didn't even know what had happened and then to go back into the white community was a total shock.
Chude: Also when your heart is open, when you have to make yourself much more vulnerable, then [that experience] is very tender. It means more to you than anything has ever meant to you in your life. You're not going to go back and share it easily. In fact, you're going to cover it up, and partly even lose it from yourself because it's too important and too tender.
Karen: I always described it as I put my movement years in a box inside myself. I didn't know how to share them. I just had them and they were my most tender, most important things that had ever happened to me in my life.
Cathy: I've felt that way.
Karen: One of my best friends asked about Spelman, "How did they respond to you as a Jew?" She's very Jewish and I had never considered myself Jewish; I'm an atheist Jew. I didn't know how to answer. I just said, "I don't really consider myself Jewish." This whole Grand Canyon chasm opened up between us. I was in shock that she thought of me as Jewish and realized that that was one of the reasons she was open to me. I was so vulnerable that it didn't take much to make me think I was more alien than I thought I was. Now I was a non-Jewish alien.
Chude: You've been changed. You've been altered. I think people who went to other countries in the Peace Corps came back changed and could never integrate fully. Somebody I grew up with came back with a Guatemalan wife; he brought part of his experience with him.
One of the accusations against Northern whites was that "you can go home." The idea was correct that you could leave and would not face the same forms of discrimination and danger, but could we go home and be able to go back and integrate into what we'd come from? I don't know if anyone could do that. I think people handled the transitions differently, but I think many people got lost inside. Doug McAdam said about one of the people that he interviewed, that the man had never talked to anyone about his experience.
Karen: I had one friend in Kentucky I could talk to, Mary Elizabeth. She went with me to the SNCC reunion in 1980 at the Smithsonian. Just a month or two before I had produced a performance by Bernice Johnson Reagon and "Sweet Honey in the Rock" in Portland. Bernice invited me to the reunion and I got a plane ticket the next day.
Mary Elizabeth was very liberal and always wished that she'd been born earlier so that she could have been part of The Movement. [Laughs.]
Cathy: We were lucky.
Chude: When The Movement shifted and SNCC ended, our Black comrades had a similar crisis of going on with their lives, the feelings of being alienated or isolated.
I also think it made a difference for us if there were other movements that we became part of, but I don't think, on an emotional level, that solved the whole problem. I became part of the early Women's Liberation Movement, as did Cathy, and that was a very wonderful thing, but I kept hoping for and looking for a multi-racial women's movement. That's what I wanted.
We experienced the loss as our own personal experience, but, in truth, it's a profoundly common experience.
Karen: I think all of us are heartbroken.
Chude: For me it always helps to know that I was not the only one. My crisis as an adult was coming to terms with how different I was from other people. I hadn't known how different I was. I thought I was a "normal American." It was hard when I understood that there was nobody else like me-and that that was the "human condition." It's one thing to understand this intellectually and quite another to understand that it's your condition. I came to realize that some of my experiences, and who I've been in the world, can be reflected by others, but I'm never going to find anybody that reflects all of who I am. It has helped me a lot to know that I'm not the only one who has had a certain experience, but I'm not sure it always helps.
Cathy: This conversation has been wonderful for me in not feeling alone with this story. It has lifted the burden of trying to articulate my experience at Spellman by myself. It's a big weight lifted.
1. In 2005 Zinn was honored by Spelman and gave the commencement address, available at www.newtondialog.org/Speeches/ZinnAtSpelmanCollege.htm. His autobiography, "You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, Beacon Press includes a chapter on his experience at Spelman, particularly his Movement experiences.
2. The Carleton student newspaper, "The Carletonian," has the articles Cathy wrote about the Movement. It is on line.
3. See "Undaunted by the Fight: Spelman College and the Civil Rights Movement 1957-1967" by Harry G. Lefever, Voices of the African Diaspora, covers this demonstration.
4. See "Stepping Stones: Memoir of a Life Together" Alice Lynd and Staughton Lynd, Lexington Press, which includes their time at Spelman.
This tape recorded conversation between Cathy, Chude, and Karen was edited and approved by all three participants.
Copyright © 2010