Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Race Consciousness

BOND: Dr. Cole welcome to Explorations in Black Leadership. Thank you very much for being a part of this.

COLE: You're welcome.

BOND: We're curious about the origins of prominent black leadership figures. And, of course, your origins are in Florida, in Jacksonville, in a remarkable, remarkable family that you call "the" black family in Jacksonville. Tell us about your family.

COLE: Well, first I really should be careful with "the." It's like "the" black woman. But certainly I grew up in an extraordinary family that I think in many ways had ordinary attributes and characteristics. And I'll try to explain. On my maternal side my great-grandfather shared a name with many, many black men of his era. He was Abraham Lincoln, in his case, Lewis. And Abraham Lincoln Lewis became a man of, I think, exceptional service to his community. But he was also a man of entrepreneurial interest and great business skill. With six other African-American men, A.L. Lewis began an insurance company. The first insurance company in the state of Florida. He named it Afro American Life Insurance Company. And he went on to become Jacksonville, Florida's first black millionaire. So I grew up clearly black. I grew up female. But I did not grow up poor. And I have commented often that growing up black, female and of this family gave me, I think, an unusual sense of the tenacity of racism. Because there was simply no amount of money that could buy us out of Jim Crow-ism in Jacksonville, Florida.

BOND: At the same time it must have given you some, I hate to say, protection, but some sort of shield that wasn't available to other black people in Jacksonville.

COLE: True, true. For example, I didn't often sit on the back of the bus, because we had a car. And, in fact, in the family beyond the natal family there was more than one car. I remember very distinctly, Julian, that someone would call my mother and say, "Mrs. Betsch, we're having a particularly good sale, you might want to bring the girls down after hours." In other words, because black folk could not try on clothes in a store, we were being given the privilege of coming to try on clothes after hours. So, I don't want to deny the privilege here, but I do want to say that in an interesting way, the privilege only made the basic, tenacious presence of racism even more obvious, Julian.

BOND: I was going to ask what was it in the family and in the larger community that kept the privilege from making you feel like the privileged person, the privileged family, the special people? How did you resist that?

COLE: It wasn't hard to resist, because A.L. Lewis insisted that we resist, as did my mom, as did my dad. Well, first of all my great-grandfather was a race man. In the classic sense of a race man. He was a very, very close friend of a great race woman, Mary McLeod Bethune, who indeed gave the eulogy at my great-grandfather's funeral in 1947. So I grew up with these things being said constantly: "Doing for others is just the rent that you pay for living on this earth." Mary McLeod Bethune was quoted incessantly: "You may climb, but remember to lift others as you climb." So I remember a very conscious effort on the part of folk in my family to say "Now look 'a here. You may have a little more money than anybody else. But let me explain to you what that means is greater obligations, more responsibility than perhaps other folk have." And so I watched my great-grandfather use his wealth in the interest of the race. Buying property for American Beach to which black folk from all over the South would come. I watched him start the pension bureau of the Afro. So that employees could put in a little and when they retired have something. And I certainly watched that community spirit right in my family with my mom and my dad.