Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Early Influences: Teachers

BOND: You began talking about teachers in the lower grades. What experiences did you have with mentors or figures who pushed you and pulled you in a particular direction then?

JEALOUS: You know, quite frankly, I — I mean, I had some good teachers, a good science teacher here, a math teacher there, who encouraged me. For whatever reason, I was also highly confrontational with teachers when I was a kid, and there’s a librarian back home where I went to grade school who — she tells the story — she’s now been celebrated as an expert in diversity in children books and she said that it started because I walked into her library when I was six years old in the first grade and asked her for books on my mother’s family. She kind of looked at me like, "This child must be crazy if he thinks we have books on everybody’s family in this library." And so I went over and I said, “Well, you have books on my father’s family.” My father’s family has been in New England since the 1600s and, indeed, some of them were actually captured in Willard’s painting of “The Spirit of ’76.” The little drummer boy is one of my father’s cousins way back. And so she said, “Oh,” and she goes off. She knows my mom is black. She says, “Oh, we have a book on George Washington Carver, we have a book on Harriet Tubman,” and I said, “Look, I don’t want the peanut guy or the railroad lady. I want to know something else.” And she realized that all I was asking for was just a book on some other black person besides Harriet Tubman and George Washington Carver and so she made sure that there were plenty of books and I guess that was my first protest.

BOND: And it was successful. What about Henry Littlefield who influenced you to go to Columbia?

JEALOUS: Yeah, Doc was great. Doc really taught us — he was a man who had grown up poor, you know, white poor in, I think, Brooklyn or the Bronx, who had sort of a bit of class rage in him because his — his father’s brother had been able to go to college and had done better than his father had and employed his father working in an asbestos plant knowing that asbestos would kill his own brother. And in Doc’s mind, he was never quite sure — when we two talked about this — whether it was just simply that his uncle understood the necessity of having a job at that point in the economy and there really were no other options or whether he was just so callous. I mean, it was a — you know — who had contracted polio while at the Olympic wrestling camp and had defeated it, simply because of his physical strength, that he could lose that much muscle and still walk, had gone on to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps and had ultimately discovered his passion was teaching history and was also a pretty good actor on the stage for school plays. He was just this tremendous Renaissance man and a person who loved life and who loved justice and he taught us to believe that history lived and that we could impact it. And it was him and Bob Watts who convinced me to go to Columbia. I wanted — I was interested because I wanted to be like Doc and Dr. Littlefield was my hero. It was Bob Watts, however, who told me I had no choice. I told him I’d been admitted to Columbia. He said, “Well, then you have to go.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because you want to be civil rights player, right?” and I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well, Jack Greenberg is the dean so that’s where you’re going to school.”

BOND: And Jack Greenberg is —

JEALOUS: Jack Greenberg was Thurgood Marshall’s sort of handpicked successor at the Legal Defense Fund, former head of the LDF.

BOND: And he was dean at Columbia College.