Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Education Experiences II

BOND: I want to go back to your earlier education. You go to Fisk [University] at age fifteen, which is young. What was that like? You've already had this one experience of going away to school at an early age. And now you go away again? And you find yourself in a very different circumstance than was true in Washington.

COLE: Well, in each case my actions are the result of pushy parents. Pushy black parents. And I'm grateful to them. Fisk was an exceptional experience. I was too young really to know the full scope of what I had access to, of the extraordinary historical context in which I had been placed. But I wasn't so out of it. I mean, I knew that there was something special about going to a library where Arna Bontemps was the librarian. I knew when I first stood and looked at murals done by Charles White that I wasn't just seeing ordinary stuff. And because the woman, the marvelous African-American woman in charge of us all as these young entrants, Margaret Simms, had such a sense of the moments in which we were being placed, I think I did gain an enormous amount from that Fisk experience.

BOND: And from Fisk, Oberlin. Why Oberlin particularly?

COLE: Very easy to explain. Toward the end, well, in the middle, rather, of that year at Fisk, in January, my father died. And I was my daddy's baby girl. It was the greatest tragedy that I had ever known. And out of an interest in healing, and feeling -- family --, I decided to go to where my older sister was. And my older sister was at Oberlin. And so I went to Oberlin and it's from there that I graduated.

BOND: So you go to Oberlin and that's a different and new experience. What's Oberlin like?

COLE: Cold. And white.

BOND: And rural.

COLE: And rural and absolutely fantastic. For a youngster -- I'm sixteen -- and to be placed in an environment that was so profoundly challenging, that was so diverse in comparison to the way that I had grown up. I think that I may have written somewhere that, you know growing up in Jacksonville, if someone had asked me about religious diversity, I thought that that would mean "Are you AME or CME? or one of the Baptists?" But that I would now go to school with individuals of the Jewish faith, of Islamic faith, with folk who were of Hindu faiths. I mean, this was, this was startling for a young Southern black woman. It was also a place that was deeply challenging intellectually. And I don't want to, in any way, imply that Fisk was not. One of my strongest memories of Fisk is that I was intellectually set afire in that place. But Oberlin did nothing to put out that fire. In fact, it simply fanned it. They were good years for me. And I've always felt particularly fortunate to have had both the experience of a historically black university and of a major outstanding small liberal arts college.

BOND: Liberal arts also suggests, at least at Oberlin in this period, a kind of political liberalism that you're not likely to have found at Fisk or I didn't find at Morehouse in the same period, a kind of a interest in a larger world, not to say that Fisk restricted that interest, but a different kind of political liberalism.

COLE: Oh, absolutely.

BOND: Did you find that?

COLE: Absolutely.

BOND: Did it challenge you or shake you in any way?

COLE: Oh, very much so. And I'm sure much to my mom's concern. I fell into it. Oberlin was a place that it seemed to me questioned everything. And I loved to question. And so Oberlin began to feed that. There were issues that I hadn't even thought about. Because growing up in the South at the period during the period in which I grew up, race was so omnipresent that there were times when we really did act as if there were no other issues. Oberlin presented me with a smorgasbord of issues and of organizations to respond to those issues. So it was a place of great political agitation and I absolutely fell right into it.

BOND: Did you feel in any way -- well, torn that "Here's something new to me. I'm engaged in it, I'm interested in it. I want to jump into this. But here are these old racial concerns that seem so important and remain important." How did you begin to sift through these? A, B, C, D --

COLE: Well, I think because Oberlin had such a long history and tradition of addressing the race question it was possible for me to move within a larger sphere of political activism without feeling that I had to give up the race question. Certainly the place where I put most of my energies at Oberlin was on the so-called Interracial Committee or the Committee for Interracial Relations, whatever it was called. But the point is that that issue was now being addressed not just by black folk but by all kinds of folk. And being addressed in a context that suggested that there were parts of the world, like in Africa, like in South Africa, in particular, where similar kinds of issues existed. I remember for the first time really being introduced to a place called Brazil. How could I have been that old, and yet not have understood some of the intriguing complexities about the race question in Brazil?