Amid Racial Tension, an Actor Finds His Voice

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Ricardo Pitts-Wiley was a teenager in Michigan when he transferred to a new high school in the years of school desegregation in 1968.

Now Ricardo is an actor, and has worked as a director and writer for the past 35 years – a calling that came to him in the midst of the civil rights era and high racial tension. He speaks with his son, Jonathan, in Providence, R.I.

Ricardo got bussed to a high school during his sophomore year — from a school with a large black population to a school where African-Americans made up only 2 percent of the student body.

“It was awful, just awful,” Ricardo says. “Even though I always thought I had intelligence, I never felt like I wanted to even try to want to use it there. So I did just enough to get by.”

During Ricardo’s junior year, one of his teachers cast him in the play, Romeo and Juliet.

“I was the only black kid in the play, and I caught hell,” he recalls. “I caught hell from the white kids at this school, and I caught hell from the black kids. And in some ways it forced me, caused me to distance myself from both of them. Neither one of them were willing to support what I wanted, so I became single-minded in that respect.”

On opening night, Ricardo went out on stage with a fake beard and a big, floppy mushroom hat that the director’s wife had fashioned from upholstery fabric. The audience burst into laughter.

“And what could have been a crushing moment in my life really was just something different,” Ricardo says. “I said ‘No, I’m not going to give in.'”

Ricardo says he had a squeaky voice at the time and begged for the voice and spirit of Brock Peters, an actor most commonly known for his role as Tom Robinson in the film adaptation of the novel by Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird.

“I always loved his voice, Brock Peters,” he says. “All those muscles and everything, he was like a black man with a big voice and muscles…and bad. And I said ‘I need that voice, Brock,’ and he sent it to me.”

Ricardo says a voice came out. He was playing the role of the prince — not a big part.

“And after that opening scene, when I walked offstage I said, ‘That’s it, this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.'”

Produced for Morning Edition by Michael Garofalo and Katie Simon.

After Disaster, A Survivor Sheds Her Regrets

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On the afternoon of July 19, 1989, United Airlines Flight 232 crash-landed just outside of Sioux City, Iowa. Of the 296 people on board, 111 died. Of the survivors, only 13 walked away unscathed. Martha Conant was one of them.

“There was a jerk,” she remembers. “The airplane really lurched, and the pilot said, ‘We’ve lost an engine. No problem. DC-10s can fly perfectly well on two engines. Sorry for the disturbance. I hope you enjoy the rest of your lunch.’

“The flight attendants were picking up the dishes and one member of the flight crew came back to look out the window at the wings. But he was calm, he was talking to people. So there was confidence that this was just a hitch, that we were going to be fine.

“It was 40 minutes from the time that the plane lurched until we … I’m going to say landed rather than crashed … because we were intending to land. And I remember the pilot told us over the P.A. that ‘It’s going to be the roughest landing you’ve ever experienced.’ And he yelled, ‘Brace, brace, brace.’

“The next thing was a huge influx of air and debris. My body was being bounced around so much, I was out of control. I lost consciousness and when I came to, I remember saying to myself, ‘Oh, I’m still alive.’ Then the motion stopped and the plane was still.”

Asked if she ever thought there was a reason why she survived unharmed, Conant says, “I have asked myself that question so many times. When survivors were being fed and cared for, I ended up talking to a young man who was a social worker. And he said, ‘God must have had a reason for saving you. You haven’t finished your life’s work yet.’

“I was quite troubled. It felt like I was saddled with a lot of responsibility … to figure out, ‘What is this work I’m supposed to be doing?’ And then the flipside is God didn’t have anymore work for all those other people, and I don’t believe that.

“I decided to live with as few regrets as possible: Not leaving home in the morning being upset with someone, not passing up a chance to tell my husband or one of the boys how much I love them.

“It was hard to do that because it wasn’t the habit. But whenever I thought, ‘Oh, this is hard,’ then I’d think, ‘Well, I might not be coming home tonight. It’s not that hard.’

“That event was like being picked up by the scruff of the neck and shaken and God says, ‘This is your only life. Just be grateful that you’ve go these days and these hours and these wonderful people in your life. Just be grateful for that.’

“One of the things that has followed me, surrounded me, wrapped me, I think, is that feeling of gratitude.”

Produced for Morning Edition by Nadia Reiman. The senior producer for StoryCorps is Michael Garofalo.

Learning to Read After Decades Brings Joy

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Joe Buford, 63, has a high school diploma but kept a secret, even from his family: He couldn’t read.

“I could memorize things,” he says. “I call it drawing the words …. Nobody in my family really knew how bad it was with me and how hurt I was over it.”

Buford’s wife didn’t know about his reading problem until after they were married, he says.

“Some mail came one day and normally, she’s telling me what came and what [bills] needed to be paid. But this time, she gave it to me and said, ‘Here, read this.’ And so she found out that I couldn’t just read something from top to bottom. That tore my heart out.”

He worked in a construction equipment repair shop and was offered a desk job. “I’d have to read books to look up parts and part numbers,” Buford says. He knew he couldn’t do it.

“I would lay awake at night trying to figure out, how can I tell them I didn’t want the job.” He told his employers he was “satisfied” with what he was doing.

Before Buford had children, he worried that “what was wrong with me would be passed on to my kids.” He was afraid they wouldn’t learn to read. “It just broke my heart,” he says.

He was terrified of the prospect of having to read to his young daughters.

“So one day, I asked both of them could they read? And they said, ‘Yes. We can’t remember when we couldn’t.’ That just made me feel so happy that what was wrong with me … I didn’t pass it on to them.”

After his children were married, Buford decided he would try to learn how to read. He turned to the Nashville Adult Literacy Center, where he worked with volunteer Michelle Miller.

When Buford realized he could learn to read, he was so excited.

“I jumped up and ran through the house. It made me cry and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, it really is sinking in.'”

Produced for Morning Edition by Lizzie Jacobs. The senior producer for StoryCorps is Michael Garofalo.

Launching a Life with $10 and a Dream

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Growing up in Tennessee in the 1940s, Larry Young was determined to get off his father’s farm and do something else with his life. His father wanted him to follow in his footsteps and refused to help Young go to college.

So, with $10 in his pocket, Young set off for Tennessee State University, determined to register.

“I walked up to the bursar’s office, threw my two $5 bills up there on the counter,” Young says.

“I plan to make something out of myself,” Young told the school official.

“He saw this country boy, took me over to the side — he didn’t want to embarrass me. He said, ‘But you can’t go to school with $10.’ I said, ‘But I’ve got to go to school.'”

Young was taken to see the school dean, who asked if he could drive a truck. Young had never driven before, but said yes anyway.

He got a job hauling trash from a girl’s dormitory to the incinerator.

“I didn’t know what I was doing, but by the grace of God, I did it. That took care of my tuition, but they didn’t know I didn’t have a place to stay.”

He found a place to sleep — between two mattresses in the dormitory.

“One morning, the matron of the dormitory came up and saw me, and it scared her. She took me before the discipline committee — two women. I shall never forget, both of them broke down and cried when I told them my story. And from that day forward, I never looked back — they gave me everything that I needed.

“That’s why I’ve always felt that, as long as I live, I was going to use my life to reach out and touch another life with hope.”

Young is proud to say he was the first African American to be the director of food sanitation for the Detroit Health Department.

Young remembers a female high school student who came to work at the department. “She was hostile. She didn’t want to be anything. She came from a family of seven — some of them were on drugs — and she had every right to be mad. So I sit her down and I talk to her.

“I said, ‘You see this big desk here — it wasn’t designed for me. You see these drapes — they weren’t designed for me. Do you see these fingers — way back in the South, in the sticks, I picked cotton. But you see where I am today.’ And she became a different person.”

Young ended up hiring her. “It’s been over 19 years ago. She has two teenage kids, has a wonderful husband. She’s an executive secretary today. That is the greatest thing I’ve ever done in my life.

“If you just put your arms around people, they will go forward in life — and that’s my mission.”

Young recorded his interview as part of StoryCorps Griot, an initiative that travels the country collecting the recollections of black Americans. This segment was produced for Morning Edition by Selly Thiam. The senior producer for StoryCorps is Michael Garofalo.

A Mentor and a Friend

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Ky-Antre Compton and Stuart Chittenden aren’t the most likely of friends. There are 27 years between them. But after one year of friendship, there is no end in sight.

Compton, 11, and Chittenden, 38, met a year ago through the youth mentoring program Big Brothers/Big Sisters.

At first, Compton says, he was not excited.

“When I first met you, I thought this was going to be so boring, that this was going to ruin my whole summer, my whole life,” he says.

But their relationship grew.

“You taught me respect. You taught me how to be mature,” Compton says. “You taught me how to be a young man.”

Compton says he asks Chittenden all the time why he acts the way he does — why he is polite, why he is respectful.

“I understand that you’re just trying to be a good mentor to me, and I love that,” Compton says.

The positive examples Chittenden has set, even when he “screwed up,” are important models for Compton.

“You taught me that it’s OK to make mistakes, it’s OK to get mad,” Compton says. “But it’s just not OK to get out of control.”

Chittenden worries about making the most of his life. He is, according to Compton.

“I can tell you one thing: You’re the best role model I ever had,” Compton says.

They learn from each other. Teaching each other things brings them closer together, Compton says.

“I want you to know that this isn’t a one-way relationship,” Chittenden says to Compton. “I’m learning how to be fun and engaging and open, and so I want to thank you for that, Ky-Antre.”

Their friendship might last long after Compton has grown up.

“Do you think we’ll be friends for a long time?” Chittenden asks.

“I think we’re going to be brothers for a long time,” Compton says.

Produced for Morning Edition by Katie Simon. The senior producer of StoryCorps is Michael Garofalo.

A Father Disappears; A Daughter Wonders

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Teenagers LeKeisha Williams and Tia Williams are schoolmates and best friends. The pair, who are not related, recently talked about Tia’s father, who left her life very early.

“Who is important in your life right now?” LeKeisha asks Tia.

“My mother,” Tia answers, “because my mother was the one that raised me, and we went through so many things together when I was little.”

Much of those hard times came as a result of Tia’s father, who was addicted to drugs.

The last memory Tia has of her father is also one of the only good ones. He came to her second birthday party.

“And after that, I’ve never seen him again,” she tells LeKeisha.

“We didn’t have that much money,” Tia recalls, “and whatever money we had, my father would take the money and go buy drugs, or something like that.”

Tia says her mother was so desperate for money in those days, she often had to hop the subway turnstile to get to work.

“What is you father’s name?” LeKeisha asks.

“I don’t know,” Tia says.

When it’s suggested that Tia could ask her mother for her father’s name, she says she isn’t sure that would be a good idea.

“I don’t like to bring back memories from her past,” she says, “because she’s doing so much better now.”

Still, Tia admits to occasionally thinking about her birth father — and wondering whether he thinks about her, about how things are going for her, and where she’s living. For her part, she wonders whether he’s still alive. But looking for her father could bring another decision: what to do next.

“If I really do find him,” Tia says, “I don’t know what I would do — say, ‘Hi, I’m your daughter?’

“And then what?”

Produced for ‘Morning Edition’ by StoryCorps Senior Producer Sarah Kramer.

Reflecting on Democracy and Segregation

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The StoryCorps mobile recording booths are in Washington, D.C., where 12-year-old Ezra Awumey interviewed his grandfather Sam Harmon. Among the questions Awumey asked was for Harmon, 75, to tell him what has made him saddest in his life.

Harmon recalls a day during his service in the U.S. Navy, when a tour of the nation’s capital from his home port of Norfolk, Va., ended with a belittling reminder of segregation.

After his time in the Navy, Harmon went on to work as an engineer and scientist.

The Washington sessions are the beginning of StoryCorps’ first national tour.

Standing With Dr. King in Memphis

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In 1968, 1,300 sanitation workers, most of whom were black, went on strike in Memphis, Tenn., protesting horrendous working conditions and low wages. Martin Luther King, Jr. went to Memphis to lend his support to the striking workers.

Taylor Rogers, one of the men on strike, went to the Mason Temple on April 3, 1968, with his wife, Bessie, to hear King speak. What they heard is now known as the “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech — the last the civil rights leader would deliver.

As Rogers, now 79, recalled with his wife recently, “You just really can’t describe it. He stopped everything, put everything aside to come to Memphis to see about the people on the bottom of the ladder, the sanitation workers.”

“After his death, we marched. You couldn’t hear a sound. You couldn’t hear nothin’ but leather against pavement,” Rogers says, comparing the loss to what he would feel in losing a family member. “But we survived and with God’s help, we came through.”

The StoryCorps project records oral histories all around the country. Each interview is archived at the Library of Congress — and a selected excerpt airs on Morning Edition every Friday.

Note: The music heard at the end of the Rogers’ conversation is “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” a favorite of Martin Luther King’s, performed by Mahalia Jackson.

A Young Boy’s Stand on a New Orleans Streetcar

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It was 56 years ago that Jerome Smith, then 10 years old, removed the screen that acted as a barrier between white and black passengers on a New Orleans streetcar. “The streetcar became very hostile,” Smith recalls.

The event took place five years before Rosa Parks energized the civil rights movement on Dec. 1, 1955, when she refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Ala.

Smith says that as he sat in the white section of the street car in Louisiana, an older black woman from the rear of the car descended on him, hitting him so hard that “it felt like there was a bell ringing in my head.”

The woman loudly said she’d teach the boy a lesson, telling him, “You should never do that, disrespect white people. You have no business trying to sit with them.”

She forced Smith off the streetcar, and around the back of an auto store. But once they were behind the building, the woman’s tone changed.

“Never, ever stop,” the woman told Smith as she began to cry. “I’m proud of you,” she said. “Don’t you ever quit.”

Smith, who went on to help found the New Orleans chapter of CORE, The Congress of Racial Equality, says it was that moment that made him who he is today.

“Even though I didn’t know the words ‘civil rights’ then,” Smith says, “that opened up the door.”

Smith currently directs the Tambourine and Fan, a New Orleans organization that teaches young people about civil rights, leadership and political engagement.

Produced for ‘Morning Edition’ by Katie Simon. The senior producer for StoryCorps is Sarah Kramer.

Until the Building Falls Down: A Fight to Vote

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When Theresa Burroughs came of age in the late 1940s, she was ready to vote. But in her Alabama town, it took two years of effort just for her to register.

Accompanied by J.J. Simmons, a minister who would not let her back down, Burroughs went down to the Hale County Courthouse on the first and third Monday of each month.

“The white men,” Burroughs says, “they would not let us register to vote.”

The chairman of the board of registrars, remembered by Burroughs only as “Mr. Cox,” posed questions meant to disqualify black voters, such as “How many black jelly beans in a jar? How many red ones in there?”

When Burroughs responded that Cox didn’t know how many jelly beans were in the jar any more than she did, the answer was quick: “Shut your black mouth.”

But Burroughs, with Simmons’ support, kept on going, despite the embarrassment.

“We’re going to go until the building falls down,” Simmons said.

On the day that Cox finally relented, he asked Burroughs and Simmons a simpler question — to recite part of the preamble of the Constitution — and also gave her a final insult.

“You’re going to pass today. Because we are tired of looking at your black faces,” Burroughs recalls him saying. Then he handed over the slip of paper that meant Burroughs was a registered voter.

Burroughs voted in the next election. And she hasn’t stopped since.

“It shouldn’t have been this hard,” she says. “I knew it shouldn’t have been this hard.”

Produced for ‘Morning Edition’ by Katie Simon. The senior producer for StoryCorps is Sarah Kramer.