Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: I’m wondering if you could tell me when you became a feminist or identified as a feminist, and what were some of the factors in your background that kind of led you down that particular political orientation.
Beverly Smith: I would say one of the most important experiences I have is that Barbara and I—and you may well know this—grew up in a family, in a household, specifically, that was all women.
Oh, yes. I didn’t hear her phrase it quite that sharply, but that’s an important thing to be aware of.
Yes. And I think—well, there are lots of reasons why I feel that that was an important part of my orienting toward feminism. And one of those things I would say about it is because everything that needed to be done in our household was done by women.
When my family moved to the house where we spent most of our years, it was a two-family house. And when we moved there, our aunt, our mother’s sister, lived upstairs with her husband. So there was a period of like I would say three or four years when there was a man in the household—my aunt’s husband . . . even when he was there, I don’t remember anyone sort of like—not only not deferring to him, but I don’t remember anyone saying like, “Oh well, we had to get Bill because only he can do this,” and whatever. I don’t remember that kind of behavior, although he did exercise authority. But after he left, it really was an all-female household. And so, as I said—everything that needed to get done, women were doing it.
And what kind of work outside of the home were the women in your house doing?
Our mother worked as a supermarket clerk, as like an assistant manager perhaps. I’m not sure exactly what that title was.
Barbara may have told you that she had a bachelor’s in education, and that she was trained as a teacher. But unfortunately she was never really able to practice her profession. There were several reasons. One reason was because she had the necessity of earning a living as soon as possible, because she was supporting us, of course, and her mother, who could not really have worked outside of the home because she was taking care of us.
So that was the division of labor. And then our aunt worked as a clerk, or administrative assistant, but her title was clerk, at the Cleveland Public Library. It was the main library, and the Cleveland system was huge.
My aunt worked in a special division that was based upon the personal library of one of the founders of the Cleveland Public Library, and he had certain interests, like he was interested in folklore, religion. He was interested in Asia, which was called “Orientalia” at that point. There were a lot of Korans [laugh]. There was an exhibit hall, like a foyer or something, all before you went into the library part, with the books. And there were Korans there, and other things.
So those were the two women who worked outside of the house. But when we were first born and were living in our first home, we had a great aunt, in fact, our great aunt Phoebe, who we call[ed] Auntie, who was the first person to come up from the South to Cleveland. I’m not exactly sure when that would have been. Probably sometime in the ’20s. She was a terrific cook, and that’s how she earned her living. When we were born, she was still working—I’m pretty sure that she was working for this millionaire at that time, in his house. She would stay out there during the week and then she would come home probably on the weekends or her days off.
How do you think the experiences of the women in your household impacted your own sort of consciousness or ideas about the world?
One thing I would say—in describing the job that my aunt who worked at the library had, and then I’m thinking of my great aunt, who worked at this private girls’ school, even though neither of them had the whatever it would have required—probably white skin and being male—to actually put forth and work with all of their gifts, both of them had incredible talent.
Not so much academic, necessarily, although my aunt was really great academically. She was second in her class in high school. And my great aunt, I used to refer to this particular [great] aunt as my first Black studies teacher, because she would like tell us incredible things. I knew about Marian Anderson and, you know, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and then her singing at the Lincoln Memorial. I heard that growing up. She would talk about that often. She would talk about Eleanor Roosevelt.
I remember once she talked about the play The Merchant of Venice. She was talking about how Portia, in The Merchant of Venice—she’s a woman who is, I think, defending her father, the merchant. And she’s a woman. So Shakespeare wrote this story where a woman acted as a lawyer. And of course we know how long ago that was. Our great aunt, who I’ve been telling you about, took particular note of it.
So what I would say [is] they were very gifted. And also, they all had whatever it took in order to pursue their interests and their gifts and develop their talent. Another great aunt who I would like to tell you about, because I think it’s relevant, was a certified or qualified teacher down south. When she came up to Cleveland, of course she didn’t have any certification. I’m not even sure whether she would have been of age to pursue teaching up in Cleveland anyway. So what she did was—I tell people that if she had been white, she would have been considered a nanny. But [laugh] because she was Black, no one would ever have referred to her as that, that way.
She took care of lots of very well-off children, and she was a teacher. I mean, she taught us amazing things. She was so creative, and we were always doing like little craft projects and things like that. And at a certain point, because money was always an issue for her, as it was for all of the family, she decided that she was going to become a practical nurse.
There was a school in Cleveland, a public school, although they may have sent [her] to the adult education. There may have been tuition involved. She lied about her age in order to get into the program, because she was too old as far as the requirements were at that time. And she did very, very well. But then unfortunately—she had arthritis, and she had an accident and fell, and she was not able to continue, because she became disabled as a result of the arthritis and the fall.
I’m assuming that you all talked about politics and the news, and what was happening in the world.
All the time. I remember when—I guess it was when the lunch counter sit-ins were happening, I remember my grandmother saying, “They say we’re not supposed to trade at Woolworth’s.” The reason she used that phrase was that was an old-fashioned way of talking, if you were living and growing up in rural Georgia. You went into town to trade. And so she said, “I hear we’re not supposed to trade at Woolworth’s.”
She was very, very active in the community, too. She worked at the polls. She was in every kind of club you can imagine, in relationship to the church. She did huge amounts of volunteer work that no one would really recognize as such. Every fund drive they had—people used to go door to door to collect for things like the Cancer Society, you know, or the March of Dimes, things like that. She was always doing that, and we would go with her.
So, yeah, there was a great interest in what was going on in the world. There was a great habit of discussing politics. The grown-ups would be downstairs—in our first place, we had up- and downstairs. And I realized that it seemed like the grown-ups were always talking about race. I might not have put it in those terms, but I remember wondering, when I was very young, “I wonder why grown-ups always talk about race.”
I didn’t see it necessarily as something that Black grown-ups did. To me it was just—“Well, I guess that’s just what they do. That’s just what grown-ups talk about.”
You two must have been coming of age politically perhaps actively during the civil rights movement.
Oh, absolutely. I remember—like the remark that I told you, that my grandmother made about boycotting Woolworth’s, I remember that. I remember hearing about the Supreme Court decision. I was aware of that, even though that was 1954, and we were born in ’46, so we were seven during that time period.
We also, a couple years earlier, were aware of the presidential campaign, when Eisenhower was running for the first time, because he had a slogan. His nickname was “Ike,” I-K-E. And so he had a slogan, “I like Ike.” We heard that, and we would repeat it, and one of our great aunts, the one who was the cook, used to laugh and thought it was so funny that, you know, we were aware of this slogan.
Little Rock—[we were] very aware of Little Rock and when they integrated Central High School, because that was during the Eisenhower administration, the second administration. And that was really, I think, the first nationally noticed skirmish, more than a skirmish—battle—in the civil rights movement. We were aware of the bus boycott, the Montgomery bus boycott. I remember—pretty much anything and everything that happened [laugh] in the civil rights movement, we were aware of it, because we’d be watching it on television.
I remember particularly, I think this was when we were in junior high, New Orleans was integrating the schools. And they were really hateful. One of the things I remember from that time is that there were white mothers—some of them with their hair in curlers. And I remember these white mothers screaming at the Black children, just like being so horrible to the Black children. And I was so young, I remember thinking, how could these women, how could they be mothers? Because it did not accord with my concept of what a mother was like.
But in terms of the questions you’re asking, I knew that was going on.
When did you become politically active?
I would say we became politically active—well definitely in high school. I can’t remember exactly. I would say probably sixteen, seventeen.
What were you doing? What was the source of your activity?
One of the things, I don’t know exactly how we hooked up with this, but we actually were quite involved with CORE. The Congress on—what is it—the Congress [on] Racial Equality?
CORE was an organization that initiated the Freedom Rides. But in Cleveland, the big issue was de facto segregation. And CORE was very involved in that. I’ve told people this recently—one of the things we used to do when we were in high school was a lot of picketing of the board of education, which was downtown, because of the issue of de facto segregation.
And specifically the issue was that the school system kept choosing to build schools in all-white neighborhoods and areas, which prevented the possibility of integrated schools, because of where they placed the schools. This was a big, big issue. And in fact, there was a minister, a white minister, who lay down in front of a bulldozer on one of these school sites, and the bulldozer operator didn’t know he was there, and he was killed.
Yeah. Yeah, it was pretty darn intense. So we were involved with CORE. We would go down and picket at the school board. And then we would go back to our high school and be honor students.
We met Fannie Lou Hamer—it probably had something to do with CORE. She had probably come and spoken somewhere, and then we went back to someone’s house and had a party, in...