Interview with Annette Jefferson by Katherine Borland, 12 May 2017. Transcription and editing by Harmony Bench, December 2017.
KB: So I’m here speaking with Annette Jefferson at her home in the Hilltop on Hague Avenue. And yeah, so we’ll just get started. What I’d like to get from you is a kind of story of your family and the Hilltop.
AJ: Alright well, the best story begins with my mother and father. My father was born on the Hilltop and so was I. So we have that in common. And my dad always said “I was born on the Hilltop and I’m gonna die on the Hilltop.” Well he almost did that. He died in a nursing home–the one in front of Mount Carmel. But he and mom still owned the home, so in a sense he died on the Hilltop. And my father was the second-oldest child of my grandmother and grandfather. My grandfather had other children, but I don’t know if he was married. We know he had two other children before he married my grandmother. My father–when he was in Boy Scouts, they went on a camping trip and he spilled hot bacon grease on his leg, and he was headed for the river–it was up on the Scioto, I guess. And he was heading for the river and was gonna jump in, but he was stopped and he was badly burned. He missed a year of school because of that. My mother was born December 14th, 1918; my father was born January 27th, 1919. So she always said and she seemed to take pride in the fact that she was older than him. Dad was the first child to graduate from high school. His older brother dropped out of high school I went to the, I think it was the WPA. Although they lived in a house that seems to me I remembered it as being dark–didn’t have a lot of windows. They did have an indoor toilet. Mom and dad said on the Hilltop at that time, a lot of people had outdoor toilets. But even as poor as they were, both of them had indoor toilets. And dad said on Halloween they would go around and knock over the outhouses. [laughter] And I said, “You were a hood!,” which is totally outside the range of knowledge that we had about our dad. And he graduated in 1939 from West High School. He was, I guess, industrious because in one of his shop classes he made a shoeshine kit, and he would go downtown and earn money shining shoes. I still have his shoeshine kit that he made. And over the years, he used that to shine our shoes. When I was in the West Cats at West High School, I was the first black West Cat. He would polish my boots and make sure that they look good. And Saturdays he would polish our shoes get them ready for Sunday. So having good looking shoes was just important. My dad went into the army. The pastor of Oakley Baptist Church, Reverend Ashburn, was on the (I’m not sure the exact title) but he was on the board that oversaw people being drafted into the army. So Reverend Ashburn tried to delay my dad as long as he could. Eventually, my dad went into the army…
KB: This would have World War II, right?
AP: Uh-huh, yeah. And he and my mother were married before he went into the army. And I guess that’s why Reverend Ashford was trying to defer his entry. My dad stayed in the United States. He didn’t have to go overseas. And he was honorably discharged. He worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad. And we grew up taking train rides to various places, and we thought that was just something that everybody did, and found out that a lot of our friends had never been on a train ride, but our parents wanted us to have experiences. And I remember we went to Atlantic City. They took us to Atlantic City, and mom bought us swimsuits so we could swim in the Atlantic Ocean. And another trip was to the St. Louis Zoo, which I guess was supposed to be a renowned zoo at that time. So we went there. And it was great fun going on the train trips because it seemed like everybody had packages. And they were wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. And they would get on the train with these packages. I’m talking, you know, colored people. And at a certain time, everybody would open these packages, and it would be food, and people would just share their food. It was amazing to me that that would happen. I mean the first time it happened, I thought it was presents. Cuz mom, she always packed a lunch, you know. Everybody packed a lunch cuz I guess it was too expensive to go to the dining car. But everybody on the section where we were, everybody had packages and opened them at the same time and ate and shared food. Union Station was big. It was huge. And so, it was nothing for us to just get on the train and go somewhere. We went to Montgomery, Alabama one year on the train. Because he worked for the railroad, dad could get these passes. I don’t know if everybody was free, maybe there was a reduced rate, but he would get passes, and we went to–there was a Baptist Convention in Montgomery, Alabama and my mother was a delegate. And I remember that we got on a bus, and of course my sister and I, being from the North, we always like to ride up front on the bus. So my dad tells a story that we sat down up front! So when mom and dad came–so, you know, we went on the bus first, and we sat down. That’s what we always did. We sat down up front. And mom always had us looking good. She made our clothes, so we were always dressed well, always looked nice. And so when mom and dad came they said, “Come on, you have to move.” And dad says a white woman said, “Oh they look so cute. Let them sit here with me.” So they went to the back and we stayed up front. [laughter] And I remembered while we were in Alabama, we went to see the Vulcan, which was a big statue famous in Montgomery. And at that time, delegates to conventions didn’t stay in hotels. Black people didn’t have that kind of money, and I’m not sure that hotels were open to us. Well, especially in the South. So at that time, they had people from churches who would open up their homes. So we stayed in someone’s home. And that’s the way it was then, when we traveled.
KB: What does it mean to be a delegate to a convention?
AP: Well that means the church sent my mother, and they paid for her way. And she did not want to go by herself, so dad and my sister and I, we went along as well. So she would go and attend the sessions and take notes and bring a report back. That kind of thing. We grew up going to conventions. I thought everybody did. We grew up knowing how, as children, to conduct a meeting with parliamentary procedures. We learned that in our one-room church on Oakley Avenue. Oakley Avenue Baptist Church. And so, it was just, you know, we knew how to open up a meeting, call for the minutes of the last meeting, if there are no corrections, we went through all of that. We were taught those kinds of things. And my mom and dad went to different churches. My dad was a Methodist, my mom was a Baptist. So we had roots in both churches. But we went to church with my mother, so we grew up Baptist. But we knew the people at my dad’s church and they knew us. And even today, there’s a close relationship between Hilltop United Methodist Church and this family. That’s the church that my grandparents went to, belonged to, and everybody in my dad’s family, they went through. It was Wheatland Avenue Methodist Church and then when the United Methodist Church–no, it used to be AME, and then the United Methodist Church came in and they had a decision to make, would they stay AME or go with United Methodist? And they chose to go with United Methodists. So they’re Hilltop United Methodist Church today.
KB: And these would have been African American congregations?
KB: So there were no integrated churches when you were growing up?
AP: [laughter] No. But Oakley Baptist Church did have a service with Burgess Avenue EUB Church once a year. And the pastor was Pastor Lane. And I went to school with his son, Roland Lane. We went all the way through elementary to high school together. And even today, Roland and I are still friends, you know. He still lives on the Hilltop. And actually he’s friends with my son, too, because my son had Roland in high school. Roland taught at West High School. So. And that happened for a number of years, and finally that stopped. And I asked my mother, “Why did they stop?” and she said, “No sense in being false.” You’d see those people at the church service, and then afterwards they might not speak, they might not know ya. You know, so that service, for a while happened every year, but then eventually it stopped. And I think it stopped before Oakley moved to its new church home. I never realized that Oakley was a one-room church. I didn’t realize it. We had the upstairs, which was one big sanctuary, and we would have Sunday School lessons in different parts of the sanctuary, you know Sunday School classes. Downstairs there would be different classes in different parts of the basement. But it was one big basement. And I just never realized that I went to a one-room church. Didn’t dawn on me. And we moved when I was in, I think, 11th grade. And we marched from Oakley Avenue to our new church on Highland Avenue. I’m 64 Highland Avenue. We bought the old Glenwood Methodist Church, and the decision to do that split the church. Big church fight. Bi-hig church fight. And it even affected friendships of teenagers. It did. I mean, it was just horrible. I’d never seen people act the way they did over whether we were going to buy that church or not. Some people felt it was too big of a burden, we couldn’t do it. Of course my mother felt that we could, and she was for it. So naturally we were for it. And the church split. And the part of the church that left, they met in the basement of a building, and we called it the bomb shelter church. [laughter] If the bomb dropped, they would be safe because they would be in the building. And we even called it, you know, “Do you go to the bomb shelter?” Because there were maybe three churches the Methodist Church, the Baptist Church, and then Wayne Avenue Church of God. So if you lived on the Hilltop and you were black, it’s quite likely you went to one of the three churches. And most people went to Oakley.
KB: So, this was generally not a black community at that time. So what was the proportion like? How many black people compared to, I’m assuming the other group would be white? Were there immigrants living here when you were growing up?
AP: If there were, I didn’t know them. We had certain streets. We had Wayne Avenue, Oakland Avenue, Wheatland Avenue, Highland Avenue, Clarendon Avenue, a few people were scattered on Midland, and Whitethorn and Belvedere. But you know, those were integrated streets. Eureka, while I was growin’ up was all white. A few people lived on Hague but the streets in between, they were all white. And West Gate Park, West Gate Recreation Center, my mom said they couldn’t light over there. They couldn’t go over there. They better not be found over there. And when they grew up on the Hilltop, like we had streets and that meant from Broad to Sullivant, but when they grew up it was only a certain section. Black people did not live from Broad to Sullivant on the streets I named, but just a certain section. They were crowded in to a certain section. And I would say most of them were renters, when my parents grew up. Eventually my grandfather bought his house–my mother’s father bought his house. We thought grandpa was rich.
KB: Why’s that, because he had his own house?
AP: Well, because he made sure all of his grandchildren had bank accounts and he would bring us banks, and we would say, you know. And then he’d come back to see if we had money in them, and we’re like “We didn’t know we were supposed to put money in them” you know. [laughter] But it was it was quite, for me it was prestigious. I felt proud knowing that I had money in Buckeye Federal and I could dress up, go downtown, and deposit money in my account. You know that was a big thing, because not everybody had a bank account–not even adults–but we grew up with bank accounts. All of his grandchildren did.
KB: And what did he do? What was his work?
AP: You know I really don’t know. But my granddad was a staunch Republican, and he was a Jim Rhodes man. Jim Rhodes used to be mayor, I think he was mayor at one time, and then he went on to be governor of Ohio. And so my parents were staunch Republicans until Jesse Jackson ran for president. And they went down and changed their politics so that they could vote for him, and were very disgusted with black people who did not do the same. You know there were some of their friends would say “Well I’ll vote for him if he gets it!” I remember my mother fussin’, “Well how do you think he’s gonna get it if they don’t go down and vote for him during the primary! Dumb people!” You know, she would just be railing. But my mother used to go to Republican meetings, that’s how staunch they were. I was never a Republican. [laughter]
KB: That’s interesting. So the relationship between the African American community and the
Democrats didn’t really exist back then?
AP: I couldn’t tell you. I’d simply know my parents were Republican, my grandparents were Republican, and it seems to me as I read history, that most black people were Republican because of Lincoln. And then during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s tenure they changed because of the programs that he initiated that help black people.
KB: Right, you said you had an uncle who was in the CCC?
AP: WPA. Maybe it was C–one of them. Two uncles.
KB: Do you know what they did?
AP: I don’t know what they did. But for my mother, the oldest child, he wasn’t doing well in school, and so he had a choice: WPA or work. So he and my dad’s brother, they went in together for that WPA. I don’t know what they did. My mom was the first in her family to graduate from high school. She graduated in 36. She was very smart. She went Ohio State for two years. Her father went for a year. Not only did we think grandpa was rich, but we thought he was smart too. He had a vocabulary! “What does that mean?”
KB: I remember you said your mom wanted to do nutrition and she was told that she couldn’t because she was black?
AP: They didn’t train colored girls to be nutritionists.
KB: And is that why she dropped out?
AP: Mm-hmm. Because she had … she had it hard. She worked for a white family while she went to school. The white family wanted her to come and live with them so she wouldn’t have to, you know, ride the bus back and forth. For a while she went to live with an uncle who was paying her tuition, but she came back home. I said “Why did you do that?” She said it was too quiet. Now you have to understand my mother and eight siblings grew up in a one-bedroom home. The kids slept in the bedroom, and it seems like they had several beds in that room–a bed for the boys, a bed for the girls. I don’t know if they had more than two beds or not. The parents slept in the front room on a hide-a-bed. And then there was a kitchen, and a sink in the kitchen, and a bathroom. And that was the house. That was the house. My father’s house wasn’t much different. There was a front room, a small bedroom off the front room. From the front room you go to a dining room. Off the dining room was the bathroom, or water closet because there was no face bowl in there. And then off of the dining room was another bedroom. So dad did have two bedrooms, and then they had a kitchen. But their kitchen had a wood-burning stove and my grandfather was always gathering this strange wood called kindlin’ wood. I never knew what the kindlin’ tree look like but he’d go outside and get wood [laughter] and put it in the stove. And I mean I’m sure at one point he went to a gas stove but I can’t remember. Cuz when I would go to visit him, you know just walk up there, I was walking home and I’d stop by, he still had that wood-burning stove. And you know my dad said they only had, I guess you would call it a potbelly stove, in the front room to heat the whole house. He said it would be so cold sometimes they slept with their clothes on, and everything they could put on the bed. They’d heat up a brick and put it at the bottom of the bed. And my aunt, she would sleep in the dining room–that was her bedroom. Both families took baths in a washtub. And my dad said they would all use the same water, which was just unthinkable to us! You know, “How could you?” And his mother would be last! Oh Lord, I, uh-uh. [groaning] Uh-uh, uh-uh. But that’s how they grew up. And you know, sometimes he said for Christmas maybe they got a orange or apples. “What?!” Try that. I mean that was just unimaginable that you would be happy getting an orange or an apple or something like that for Christmas. I mean they spoiled us tremendously. My sister and I, we were just we were ingrates, really. Ingrates. Because they didn’t have, and they made sure that basically whatever we wanted to do–we had tap lessons, baton twirling lessons, piano lessons, anything. My mother said anything you want to be in at school, don’t worry about the cost. You just go and try out for it, and if you make it, you can be in it. So that was my attitude for West Cats. It was very expensive. And even, you know, the white girls would talk about the cost and they would say to me–I would just tell them what my mom told me. “That’s what she said, so I’m not worried about it.” And I was the only black West Cat when the West Cats came out. And that was a big thing for the black community here at West. Because blacks were not always included in things at West High School.
KB: So tell me about, so you graduated high school, and then what happened?
AP: Well I graduated from high school in 63 and began my freshman year at Ohio State in the fall, which was really a big thing because some people had to wait till winter quarter. But even though I wasn’t a good student, I was good enough to start in September. And I finished my freshman year and at the end of freshman year, I became pregnant out of wedlock. And the boy that I had dated all through high school he did not want to get married. He was going in a different path. And so I had our daughter, Darrin Michelle, January 22nd. This is close to my dad’s birthday. Eventually we did get married, had two more children, ended up in the Lincoln Park Projects in the South End. He left us and we ended up on welfare.
KB: Was he with you in the Projects or did you…?
AP: Oh he was with us in the Projects.
KB: Did he finish school?
AP: No, he went to college for a while in California. He lived here and then he moved out there to live with his dad, and then eventually moved back here, and we got married. Eventually moved to the Projects, he and I. How long do we stay together? I don’t know, not long. But the children and I ended up living in the Projects for ten years. And during that time I went back to school and got my bachelor’s degree and began teaching school. And all of that was to get us out of the Projects and off the welfare roll, which is what happened. And we moved here and the kids thought that when they said it was an FBI home because it had FBI sign in the window–[imitating official voice] “this house is protected by the FBI.” So we moved here January 3rd, 1976.
KB: And this was a HUD home?
AP: Uh-huh it was. And we bid on it. We sat around my mom’s and dad’s kitchen table with the realtor, and my mom came up with the price. She said nineteen-three. And the bid would go to the highest bidder. We had seen other homes but this was the one that we liked, that I liked too. It had a garage, I don’t think any of the others did. And we’d been trying to move out of the Projects but homes on the Hilltop were not easy to come by then. Because people did not sell their property. And in Westgate, well, I couldn’t even afford Westgate. But they didn’t sell property over there. People didn’t move. So we got this, and we moved here, and have been here ever since.
KB: So when did it stop being a place where people stayed, and became a place where there are certain areas–not here, but certain areas–where there’s blight.
AP: There’s blight here. You know I was in a meeting and over on Powell just one street over. Someone at the meeting said, “Well this is a whole different neighborhood.” And it was in reference to further east on the Hilltop. And I looked at that person, I’m like, they don’t live up here, they have no idea. We’re no different from the people further east on the Hilltop, no different. To me it is the same. You’ll see blight on Hague Avenue. Powell. But when we moved here there were homes on this street that were show places. The house in back of us was a show place. We moved here, okay, so maybe it was in the mid-eighties, I can’t say for sure where we started to see a transition, but my son tells me he’s never lived anywhere nice. I said, “Well, you didn’t think when we first moved here this was nice?” “No. It was buried in the Projects.” I remember when we moved here they asked me, “Were we poor?” [laughter] Because we used to get food stamps and we ate really well on food stamps. I would buy steaks and things like that. But when we got off of welfare, no we didn’t eat like that. And I remember them asking me if we were poor, and I said, “No, we just live in a different place. We live in a better place, and so we have to use our money differently, you know, so we’re not eating a lot of steaks.” But back then I think there was a different attitude about, well, some people had the attitude that if you’re on welfare you’re on the dole. You’re lazy. But they were more generous. Because had they not been generous I would not have been able to go back to school. And they paid for child care, and I was able to get Pell grants, and I remember I got a scholarship from some organization, and that was how we got through. You know I had to pay back loans, but because I was a teacher so much would be forgiven each year. So that is how we lived. When we moved here, we had a brand new car–Subaru. Subaru was new to the United States, and they had a commercial on TV and it showed this red Subaru, and that was our car. I bought a red Subaru and I drove it off of the Beyer’s showroom–Beyers used to be downtown–drove that car off the showroom and people couldn’t pronounce it. Sue bar roo? or Sue bear roo? I remember we went to open house at one of the kid’s schools. Then, your kids didn’t have to go to the school in their neighborhood, so they went to school where I taught, and I taught in Clinton at Clinton Junior High. So they went to school. I don’t know if they called that Clintonville. Anyway, they went to school there and we went to open house, and it was muddy and people had parked in the field and people were getting stuck. But the Subaru, because we had front-wheel drive, which was new, it was really a new concept to automobiles back then, but the Subaru was a foreign car. We have front-wheel drive it was a shiny red car. So we had a new car, we had moved to a new house, we look like we were living the life. But really it was tough. But we did it. We did it. And my parents were very supportive you know. Anything my kids wanted to do. Darrin took piano lessons, my mom paid for it. Just anything they wanted to do, you know. That’s what was told to me, so that’s what was told to them. So they were active in extracurricular activities. Robbie was in the band at high school. He learned to play an instrument in elementary, all of them. One of the things that I saw very quickly when I started teaching, I began my teaching career at an inner-city school–Roosevelt Junior High School–and I saw very quickly that the kids who did well were the kids who were in the band. They played an instrument. “All y’all playing an instrument!” And of course they wanted to play an instrument. And you know Darrin played the clarinet, Robbie played the trumpet, and Kenya played the flute. That was when they had music in the public school system. But when the budget became tight, that was one of the things that they eliminated. Fortunately, though, the rec centers took it up, so he could still get lessons at the rec center, and that made him ready for band. Cuz West High had one of the sharpest bands in the city. We built the reputation when we were there in 62 with the West Cats and the band, and that reputation lasted even when my son joined the band. They still had a good reputation with the West Cats. [whispering] Now it’s terrible. Oh it is.
KB: What happened?
AP: Well a different era. Kids don’t care about playing instruments. And you have, you know, they care about [gesture-computer keyboarding] That’s what they care about! You know, digital equipment. And it just lost favor. To Biddle it never lost favor, but the Westside band. Oh my gosh. And the West Cats. Mmm. My son and I, we’ve both been back for alumni and marched in the alumni band. A lot of support for the alumni band. Alumni comes out, and you know, go down the field like we used to. But the band today? Please. Just pitiful. Just pitiful.
KB: So you have not only an Education degree, you have some other degrees?
AP: I have a Master’s in Community Development, Black Studies, and a doctorate in Social Work Administration.
KB: And did you use those degrees?
AP: I did. Community Development was used when I was working with the Urban League, and with the J. Ashburn Junior Youth Center. I can say that I’ve been told that I’ve used my Social Work degree, but I didn’t use it like I thought I would. I thought that I was preparing to head an organization in government or something like that. That’s really what I thought. Because I didn’t want to teach. I had been a teacher, and so I didn’t want to stay in academia. I wanted to go out in the field, and I believed I had administrative qualities, capabilities, skills, and that’s where I saw myself. But if anybody asked me to take that kind of position today? “No. No!” But they tell me I used those skills. But because it I didn’t follow the path that I thought that I would be on, to me, I haven’t really used them. But they inducted me into the Social Work Hall of Fame.
KB: Oh, wow! When did that happen?
AP: Last year, in September.
KB: Well congratulations!
AP: Thank you. It was a big deal. You know, my family came. And it was Homecoming weekend. So we had started this tradition a year before of going to Homecoming, because the college made it so affordable. And so they had a tailgate, and then you could go to the game. So about nine of us went and we had a ball. That was my first OSU football game. I had never been. Of course, my son had been, and he had been to tailgates, and even my grandsons had been to football games. I think I was the only one in the group would had never been. So, we had a ball. So when it came around again, you know, there were people in the family who wanted to do the same thing. So there we were again at the tailgate, went to the game. And so it just made a really great Homecoming weekend. Cuz they had a luncheon for us on Friday, and then Saturday the tailgate, and the game. It was just was really good. It was a good experience.
KB: So how did you get involved with the historic reenactment black history characters? Can you talk a little bit about how you got started in that, and why you do it?
AP: I got started at The Ohio State University! Where else? I was taking a speech class, and one of the extracurricular activities was going to Heidelberg College and being in a forensic meet Well the boy that I dated all through high school was in the forensic Club at East High School and he had one contest, and did well and we didn’t have anything like that at West High School. So I always wanted to be in something like that. So in college I had the chance, and I remember the instructors said, “Well, have you heard of Sojourner Truth?” And I just met her the quarter before in a Black Studies class. I tried to take all the Black Studies classes that I could because we really were bereft of our history. I mean, I think I said the last time I tried to name the three there were three that they talked about–just three! And so I never knew that anyone like Sojourner Truth existed. Did I know Harriet Tubman? Maybe. I’m not sure. So I went to the library, which used to be on West Campus in Bevis Hall and got this tape of Ruby Dee doing “Ain’t I a Woman?” which is one of Sojourner Truth’s famous addresses. And I learned that, took it to the meet, and did well. I had ones, and one judge gave me a three, I think. The ratings one, two, and three. And the reason he gave me a three is because he didn’t think I sounded black enough. Because I spoke just as I’m speaking now. So over time I began doing research about Sojourner and he was wrong in thinking that she spoke black dialect because her first language was Dutch. And then she learned how to speak English. Because she was enslaved by Dutch owners. So no one really knows how she spoke. But what I find puzzling also is that when you read certain quotes of hers they’re written in dialect, black dialect, so you don’t know if that was the recorder just using that, or if that was the way she sounded. So today, I do her in black dialect because she did not speak–articulately–English. But she was very intelligent and witty. Then in 2001, I did Sojourner, I just did her speech whenever asked, you know, it wasn’t often. And I didn’t do it for pay. But in 2001, Bilhah Chautauqua put out a call for Ohioans in the Civil War and one of the Ohioans that they said they would consider was Sojourner Truth. Well of course she wasn’t an Ohioan, but she was in Ohio so much, and I guess they wanted to include some diversity. So I thought, “I know I have this.” But I didn’t. I had a friend who really liked what I did and she wanted to film me, and she put it on public television. Not PBS or anything like that, but the channel that the city has. She put it on that channel, and then she sent out flyers for people to tune in. Well, it so happens that a person at the Ohio Humanities Council saw the program and the person that they had selected to do Sojourner could not follow through on that commitment. So I receive a call one day at work. I was working at the Ashburn Youth Center as their Development Director–we were building a new Youth Center. And it was Ohio Humanities Council, and they offered me this opportunity and I said, “Well, I really have to check my schedule” [whispers] I didn’t check my schedule [laughter]. But I said yes, and got permission to have time away from work. And that was how I became a humanities scholar, because I had to do more research. I had to write a script, which I never wrote. And that’s amazing because Sojourner just lives in my heart. And so when it came time for all of the presenters to come together, everyone was sitting in this room and they were going over their script. I had nothing to go over, because I didn’t write a script. I could not write a script. I wrote, I guess you would call it, a story about Sojourner that was printed in the magazine for the Chautauqua. But that was not a script. And I was told that they really liked what I wrote. But I think the person who was in charge of the Chautauqua saw me sitting there–I didn’t have anything. So I was selected to go first. So right, Sojourner lives right here. And they were amazed. They really were amazed. And, you know, people who came out [imitating] “That’s a tough act to follow.” But I was just giving out what I had absorbed, and that’s the way it was throughout the whole Chautauqua performance as we went around the state. And I’m not bragging, but I would get standing ovations. And I would be amazed because I was just giving out. And still today, I do not have a script for Sojourner. Everybody else has a script! But she does not have a script. And that’s how that’s how we got started with really being professional about the performance, and doing the research and all that goes with being a living history presenter. Which is different from a reenactor. Reenactors dress from the skin out. Presenters, well we tried to be authentic. But if it’s not exact, it’s okay. So my costume for Sojourner is not what you would call authentic, but it fits the bill. And it was years before I ventured out to adopt another character. The second thing I did was African American women during the Civil War, and then after that, Harriet Tubman, Ethel Waters, Coretta Scott King, and Mahalia Jackson. I would like to bring Dorothy Height to life.
KB: So tell me about why these characters, and what it is that motivates you to do this kind of work.
AP: With Sojourner, she had a relationship with Jesus Christ and so she was known also as a preacher and so I could bring that in, especially when I went to schools. You know, they don’t want you to bring in religion anymore in schools, but it was legitimate for me to talk about the Lord’s Prayer because her mother taught her and her brother the Lord’s Prayer. It was legitimate for me to speak about God and how he had helped me because that was part of Sojourner’s life. So I decided that I wanted to do women who had a relationship with Jesus Christ. And all of the women that I brought to life, that is central in their lives. So it allows me to bring that in, no matter where I am.
KB: So what are the occasions for your performances? Can you kind of give me an idea of how often you do this? So you’re going into the schools to do presentations, are you on the Humanities Council roster?
AP: I used to be on their speaker’s bureau. For a number of years, I was on their speaker’s bureau. And at one point I was the most requested presenter that they had. And they’ve changed their perspective, their thrust, so I’m no longer on the speaker’s bureau. And that’s okay. I don’t go into schools that much. I have a performance at school coming up next week where I’ll be doing Sojourner and then afterwards we’ll be making quilts. I’ve been to prisons, churches, historical societies, a number of colleges…
KB: I imagine that it would be possible to do this kind of work solo, but also possible that you would have other people that you bounce ideas off, or you do dialogue with.
AP: We just did a program in February called Let Us Journey On. And that was done for the Griswold Center in Worthington. And I brought in other people to work with me. And the thrust was we’ve been through a disruptive election period and now it’s time for us to come together, so let us journey on. And it was around an old spiritual, “The Storm is Passing Over.” So I brought in my son who was the narrator, and he also sang. A friend of mine Dr. Karen Mohan, she’s a professional opera singer, and she also does vocal music health, she helped get my voice together for Mahalia because I can’t sing! And a friend who we went to church with at Oakley, he came and played the piano for us. And it was built around vignettes of the characters I do. Sojourner, Ethel, Mahalia, and I can’t remember if Harriet Tubman was one of them or not, but it was built around those characters. And it was well-received. We were pleased with that.
KB: My grandparents went–this is a long time ago–in the 1980s, they would have been in their late 70s, and my grandfather had been in vaudeville when he was a young man, and my grandmother was always very involved in theater–she was a teacher, and she put on all the plays at the school. She’s a theatre kind of person. And she wrote plays. So they wrote a piece together and they took it on the road. Somehow they got in the Women’s Club circuit so they were going all over place doing this performance. It was called, “To You with Love,” so it was like love through the ages, you know from ancient times to the present. But yeah, lots of fun and a little extra income and you get to go around and see things and interact with people. So my brother just sent me a copy, he had an actual video copy of one of their performances. I had a tape-recording, but I’d never actually seen the video, so I just got it. Yeah, so. I guess my last question is really thinking about what are the kinds of things, if we were to do theatre about Hilltop and the people who live in the Hilltop, what are the kinds of things that you would want us to focus on, or think about, or share? We have no idea what this performance is going to be like, right. It’s just wide open and we have a lot of different moving parts, different people who are going to be involved. But yeah, just kind of thinking about what makes Hilltop special, or what is the biggest threat right now, or if we’re trying to evoke this place and its people in all their variety, what ideas would you have about important places, important people, and important–well you’ve given me some of your personal experiences and family but…
AP: Maybe to approach it from a Broad Street perspective and the changes that have taken place on Broad Street. Broad Street of course was thoroughfare, and Broad and Hague is considered by many as the heart of the Hilltop. When I was growing up the Hilltop had everything that you needed. You really didn’t need to go downtown. My mom would go downtown to pay bills, but you know we had a department store, Sylar’s, that’s where we got our shoes. The shoe salesman Harry Graham, I went to school with his daughter, and we’re still friends today. We went all the way from elementary, just like Roland and I did, elementary to high school. And my youngest daughter Kenya, I believe she had Miss Milner, she knew Sonia and there was just this history. And the different communities that resided on the Hilltop. And maybe even juxtapose the communities. One year I was on a planning committee for our high school reunion and everybody was talking about how they went to Green Gables, and I’m like “I didn’t ever go to Green Gables,” you know. We did, but not like they did. It was a drive-in. And how they used to go to these other places and I’m like, “No, that’s not my experience,” you know. And maybe that would be one way to present. Another way, it seems as though the Hilltop has been the nesting ground for immigrants. The Asian community used to be strong here when there were a lot of Asian immigrants coming into the country. And then it was the Hispanics, and we still have a strong presence, I think, of Latinos, and Somalis on the Hilltop now. Black people no longer have streets. My mother would say [imitating] “They’re coming in and taking over our streets!” And so you see the streets are integrated now. But they were called poor white trash runnin’ down our community. And the homeowners have died or moved away, and there’s just a large amount of rental property. And of course they let the property go down. People don’t know how to live like they did back in the day. Even if you rented some place, you kept it up, you cut the grass. It’s like, “Cut the grass, what?” “Pick up trash, what?” You know although my sister and I never did anything like that, my dad did it. We knew that had to be done, so when we moved here, you know, the kids pick up some trash, you know, and I cut the grass. Cuz those are things we can’t expect somebody else to come and do for us. We have to do it.
KB: By the way, you have a beautiful garden in the back.
AP: Thank you. And that was you know something I guess that’s carried down from my grandfather. The lot next to the house where they grew up, it was a big lot, and he used that to farm. And he would grow celery, and my uncle said nobody else could grow celery, but my grandfather could grow celery. And you know, we grew up, that was grandpa’s garden. And he would bring onions, my grandfather also grew rabbits, he [laugh] grew pigeons. And my cousins tell the story of pigeon pie. And they said, “Your mother never told you about pigeon pie?” And my mother said, “No, I ain’t eatin’ no pigeon pie.” I said, “Well what do you do when they ate it?” “I just refused to eat.” And I said, “You made us eat, and you didn’t have to eat food that you didn’t like?” I don’t know how she got away with it. They called her Miss Ann. “Miss Anne’s not eating tonight.” There were just foods she just refused to eat, and pigeon pie was one of them! [laughter] I had never, ever heard that story. Mm-hmm. I don’t think I’d eat any pigeon either. But you know, you have to feed your eight kids! Mm-hmm. And I guess keeping pigeons and growing rabbits was one of the ways that he did it. And growin’ the garden. So my dad always had a garden, and he would plant onions, tomatoes, green beans, he would even grow corn in our backyard. And he did that for a long time. And so my mom, she was the flower gardener. So I haven’t put out any–only seed that I planted so far is lettuce, and the lettuce is coming up. But I just haven’t done a lot. I didn’t tell you this, I’ll tell you now. I used to be caregiver for my mom, and in January I had to put her in a nursing home because I was diagnosed with cancer. So that’s what we are all struggling with now. I had my last chemo last Thursday. So, on to radiation.
KB: Wow. I feel…for you. I hope it’s not too…
AP: … debilitating. Well, we’ll see.
KB: I was lucky, I’m a survivor of cancer too, but it was the kind that they can cut right out, and that’s the end of it. So I didn’t have to go through–I think this is the part that really wears people out.
AP: Mm-hmm. This has been a tiring week, more so than, I think, any other week. I don’t know why. So I just concluded, okay “I don’t know how to rest, so God, you have to teach me how to rest. Thank you for this cancer, so I can rest.” So we shall see.
KB: Well you look great! That’s a good sign, right?
AP: Well thank you. I’m taking it to be a good sign, yeah.
KB: What kind of cancer do you have?
AP: Lymphoma. It started in my face, so my face swelled up. And one doctor said, “Well, it’s not the mumps, but if it’s like that in a month, come back.” Mm-hmm. I was so angry because I was–no, something’s the matter. So I went to my primary care, the reason I didn’t go to her, she wasn’t available. So I went to this other doctor. So I finally got in to see her and she immediately said, “Well I’m sending you to an eye, ear, nose, and throat.” And he immediately start talking lymphoma. And of course I’m thinking, “I don’t have cancer. Me? Nah I don’t have that.” And that’s what it turned out to be. So it’s still hard to realize, you know, I look in the mirror, “Who is that? Oh, you is ugly.” [laughter] Cuz I don’t have any hair…
KB: Oh, I thought that was a fashion choice. You look gorgeous!
AP: No, not a fashion choice. Black women my age … I don’t … very few of us … well maybe now … I was wearing my hair short, but no, we ain’t going bald. Because we remember those days when we wanted hair down to here! You know, and didn’t have it. We couldn’t sling our hair. So no, we ain’t going bald.
KB: Wow, well I hope it works out, and it will, it just will.
AP: I just believe it will.
KB: Yeah, I’m terribly sorry you have to go through that chemo.
AP: Well, it hasn’t been like some people. I haven’t had any ill effects on the chemo, other than just being tired. And that’s it.
KB: Well, and it’s worked, right?
AP: The doctor is looking for good results from the tests that I’m scheduled to take, and I’m thinking he’s right. But he said I would have to go through the radiation. So we’ll see how that goes.
KB: Are you at the James?
AP: No, I wanted to go to the James but my insurance would not. And someone pointed out to me, well it’s good because you have to do a lot of walking. And what this disease has done, it slowed me down. Cuz I used to, you know, I’m not fooling around, I’m walking! And so, I have to slow down. So I’m out here at Doctors West, where it’s close and convenient.
KB: Well good! Well this may be a time for us to stop, and hopefully we will continue to have conversations. And as you have ideas, please send them. I have not yet been in contact with your son, so I still have to do that, but you can let him know we’re around. And if you’d like a copy of this, I can get you … this is all digital, so I’m happy to send you a copy.
AP: Oh, that would be nice! I’d like to hear it.