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Biographical Details of Leadership
Contemporary Lens on Black Leadership
Historical Focus on Race
Influential People: Parents
BOND: Earl Graves, welcome to the Explorations in Black Leadership. Thank you a great deal for being here. I want to start off with some questions about your family. Tell us about your father. He obviously instilled a great deal in you. He had a favorite slogan, "Never rent, always own." What kind of influence did your father have on your subsequent career and your early life?
GRAVES: Well, first of all, my father passed away when I was a junior in college. And so, at age forty-eight he had had a heart attack, literally, working three jobs. Which would go back to, really, your question.
He ran a bit of a dictatorship in our house. Democracy was with a very small D. You would have to study, there was housework to do. We had three sets of clothes, and you might have done the same thing growing up – you had your play clothes, you had your school clothes, and you had your church clothes, and if you got confused about it, that was – that's no good for you.
But he inculcated, I think, a sense of, "You have to be successful." And that goes back to the whole West Indian sense of thinking, you know – in the West Indian culture, either you do well in the family or the family takes your name away from you, practically. And they say, "Oh, that's that funny cousin of ours, we don't talk to him any more," or "to her anymore."
And so, his parents came from the West Indies. He was an orphan at age sixteen, and actually finished high school, Erasmus Hall High School in New York, and brought his brother up. There were five brothers. Three of them were out of the house by the time his mother passed. His father passed much earlier, and I never knew either one of those grandparents. And he helped his brother finish high school and helped his brother go on to a college or university after the war – that's World War II, you and I at least are young enough to remember that from the history books.
But he and my mother – my mother was a very strong woman. She was all of 5' 2'' – she said she was 5' 2'', I don't ever remember her being 5' 3'' – but again, there was a sense of saving, there was a sense of – I remember moving into our first house in – they used to tell me it was impossible when you were two years old, you couldn't remember, so let's just say I was two and a half, but I do remember that night moving into our first – what was our first new home.
It was a brownstone home in Brooklyn. My father had tenants on the upper floors. And you know, it was striking to me. I mean, we owned the house and yet the tenants had cars. Well, when you're renting rooms or renting an apartment, you can afford to have a car, but we never had a family car. The big holiday for us or the big events for us would be if we actually took a taxi when we got off the subway. Close to the house, he'd put us all in a cab with my mom and I and two sisters and one brother, and we'd ride home in what was then a taxi. And I was fortunate enough so that I could live to send my mother around places in a limousine, so she lived long enough that she passed away at eight-six, a couple years ago.
BOND: Now, your father was working three jobs when he died. What kind of example did this set for you? Surely he could have said, "Well, two will be enough, or one will be enough, I can get by on that." What did that example say to you?
GRAVES: Well, first of all, I didn't think it was that unusual. Again, you know, you see in the joke that's on Saturday – you see in one of those shows that's on on Saturday night, I think it's In Living Color, where they have an example of the West Indian person who has nine jobs. Again, in the West Indian culture, you went from one job to the next job to the next job. One of our sons has a nurse that takes care of his kids and she literally works twenty-four hours, seven days a week. And so that again is part of the culture. When he worked three jobs, I didn't realize that everybody didn't work three jobs.
Now, I do remember him being home in the evenings, but if he had something to do – being a bartender at some of his employers' parties – he would do that. He sold clothes on the side from the company that he worked for – they would give him clothes that he could bring home, and those that he sold, he would get the money, bring it back, and those he did not, he'd bring the clothes back. In addition to that, he was great at doing repairs around the house, and I'm great at doing that also except I buy – I pay for it, but I'm great at giving instructions, as my wife says.
BOND: Now, how – the clothing sales – you write in your book about watching him and not being told, "Do it this way, do it this way," but learning by example. What did you learn from his salesmanship?
GRAVES: It's interesting that you bring that up – it seemed to me that I always wanted to sell something, and if you asked me today what I am best at, I would say that I'm just a salesman. In fact, we own several businesses and so forth. And where I get most animated and involved at the company today goes back to watching my father convincing some lady that that yellow coat she had on was just the thing for her, even if it blended in totally against her skin – but I mean, he wasn't a charlatan, he was just shrewd about the way he sold.
And so when I found myself selling Christmas cards for my first really – big people's bicycle, it wasn't even so much that my parents didn't have the money because they had given me bikes, but the fact that I could say to them, "I sold forty boxes of Christmas cards at a buck each" – which is what I sold them for – and would turn the money over to them and said, "Now I've got enough for a bike." Well, it was more than enough for a bike, but my dad always also took some of the money back of what I earned and when I worked for Western Union, I would bring home my fifteen dollars for work – having worked every afternoon, and he would take, open the envelope – but it was sealed until I got home. He would take the envelope, open it up, take what he thought was due to the house, and give me back the rest. And he somehow always came out ahead, it didn't seem to me with an even division of the monies.
BOND: Now, as you watched him sell these clothes, were you conscious that you were picking up lessons in salesmanship?
GRAVES: Not at all.
BOND: Or lessons in human relations?
GRAVES: No. Not at all. I – and obviously, it's a youngster, you're not conscious of that – if you have a father around the house who's good in sports, you may become good in sports. I became okay in sports, all right, all right, but I –
BOND: You were good in sports.
GRAVES: Well, I enjoyed doing it, all right. I'm still skiing, now it's a question of how long my knees hold up. I'm ski racing, I put on a helmet on Sunday and Saturday out in Colorado, and I'm racing people my age which is – next year, I'll be sixty-seven. The older you get, though, the easier it gets to win because they give you more points if you're older, so that's part of what happens and that's how it's possible to.
BOND: Now, you describe your mother as a, quote, "much more benevolent presence in the household." What about her? What about her influence?
GRAVES: She was the anchor in the house. My father – he did not have to go away to World War II, with four children, they – he was 4-F because of that. But she was always the anchor when he was working late or staying out late or he played cards also, so sometimes he forgot to say, "I'm going to be out late."
And she was always there. She was the one that was sure we were going to go to Sunday School, she was the president of the PTA for many years at the junior high school and the public school we went to. That one building – we went to it – my sisters – my two sisters, my brother, and I went to it for part of our schooling and then we went off to another school about twenty blocks away and then came back again for it to be our junior high school before going on to high school.
But she was an anchor from the point of view – she was really a moral compass in our house as well as a lightning rod for the issues that were key to who we were. And she was very strong about being race conscious, and she was fair skinned – and she was so fair skinned people mistook her for actually being white on occasion. And yet there was no one more militant about talking about who we were.
I got to meet Mary McLeod Bethune, I remember saying that at her funeral. And I remember I met her, and at the time I was such a youngster, and my mother said, "Well now, what do you remember most about Mary McLeod Bethune?" And I said, "She was ugly." And I think I got smacked in the right-hand side of my face. I don't remember her coming back with her left hand, smack, but I remember getting a smack that I had to know more about her, so I had to write a composition about who she was and I didn't do that again.