Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influential People: Community Members

BOND: Mary Futrell, thank you for agreeing to spend this time with us.

FUTRELL: It’s my pleasure to be here.

BOND: We want to begin with some examination of your background and education. Who are the people in your background who helped to shape you as you were coming along as a youngster?

FUTRELL: As I reflect on my background I would think the first person would be my mother. She was not an educated woman but she believed very strongly in education and insisted that my sister, Anne, and myself, that we study hard that we do what we needed to do. She believed that we had the potential to do the schoolwork and so she insisted that we concentrate and focus very strongly on education. She was a no-nonsense kind of parent so the report card had to be turned in. She wanted to see the homework. She would visit the school anytime. Even though we didn't have a car she changed buses two or three times just to come to the school to see how we were doing and to and to write with the teachers. I would have to say, secondly, the teachers that I had – and a particular teacher that I had named Miss Jordan, who was again a no-nonsense teacher, but a very caring person.

And Miss Jordan used to always tell us, "Don’t ever put yourself down," that "You can do it, just take your time and put forth the best effort." My teachers also taught me that education was absolutely crucial to anything that I or my classmates wanted to do in life, and so when I look back, I look back at the teachers I had at Robert S. Payne Elementary School; I look back at the teachers I had at Dunbar High School and how they set very high standards for us, but they helped us to achieve those standards, and they worked very closely with the parents, with my mother. They understood that she had to work but they worked with her.

I also think the community had a tremendous influence on my education. I grew up in the ghetto, but the neighbors didn’t say, "Look at these -- they’re poor, they’re from a single parent home," etc. They were like extended family, and like parents as well, and unlike today, if we were outside playing and they felt we had not done our homework, we were told, "Go in the house and do your homework." And you did not say no and you did not talk back. You went in the house and you did whatever you had to do. They also would talk about our grades that we were in, activities in school, they would come to see us, they would encourage us, and so it was that extended family, it was my mother, and it was the teachers in the schools who just insisted that we meet the highest possible educational standards.

BOND: Now the kind of encouragement you got from Miss Jordan, was that standard, you think, among black teachers in segregated schools at this time? Was that what other children were getting, too?

FUTRELL: Yes. And you again have to remember, I was not one of the affluent, quote unquote, black kids in this city. I was a very poor child from a – what they now call – a dysfunctional family, but I didn’t realize I was from a dysfunctional family. But the teachers all insisted, that, "Yes, you can learn, yes, you will learn, and you are going to learn." And they were there to help us. They were there to encourage us. They were there to teach us. And so I think the teachers made a tremendous difference in the lives of the children in those schools. Our schools didn’t have the supplies, we didn’t have equipment. We didn’t have the nice furniture and things that the other schools had. But they didn’t let that stop them. They said, "Regardless as to what we do or do not have, you still are able to think. You have a mind, you have a brain, and we’re going to help you develop that, we’re going to help you learn." And that’s what they did.

BOND: This kind of community support you described a moment ago, people in the neighborhood --


BOND: -- watching out for you, telling you -- telling your mother when you didn’t go to school.


BOND: Those kinds of things -- how important was that feeling that everybody in this area wanted you to do well?

FUTRELL: Well, Julian, when I look back on my life it was very important, because my mother worked all the time. My father died when I was very young and she decided not to go on welfare, she decided she was going to work. So she had a steady job, but she also worked all these piece-meal jobs, cleaning churches and serving as a short-order cook, whatever. So we were alone, a lot. And if it had not been for caring neighbors, who looked after us not only to make sure we were well fed and that we were safe, but to also say, "You have chores to do, you have homework to do. If you don’t have homework, you have books you can read," and to make sure the report card -- they looked at our report cards just like my mother looked at our report cards, and if we did something wrong, they corrected us. They also would make sure my mother knew what we were or were not doing. And it wasn’t like a tell-tale situation. It was trying to help us and trying to help the family. And I’ve often looked back and I’ve thought about the fact that if I had not had that kind of extended family from the community, where would I be today? I don’t know where I would be today.

BOND: Well, at the time, did you think it was unusual or did you think it normal that your next-door neighbor and the people up the block looked out for you?

FUTRELL: Well, I thought they were being very nosy. I thought they were intruding. They had nothing to do with me; I was not their child. That was my -- sometimes my inner feeling, but I also had been taught you don’t talk back to your elders and when they tell you to do things, you’re supposed to do it. And when I look back now, I’m very grateful for the fact that they were the substitute family for me then, because my mother didn’t have a lot of relatives in Lynchburg. And so it was my mother, my sister, Anne, and myself and we -- and she raised two foster children – and we were it. And so the neighbors became that surrogate family. The neighbors became the ones who were there looking out for me, but at the time I resented it, and I didn’t want to do what they asked me to, but thank God I did.