Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Peace Corps Experiences

JONES: A lot of different events, Julian, impacted to make me who I am. And then, when I left Howard, one thing – my senior year, I knew I did not want to go to law school then.

BOND: But why not?

JONES: Because I had worked so hard. I had really worked hard, I mean, not only physically but academically. I mean, it was challenging. And I needed a break. I needed a break, but yet I wanted an educational break. I didn't want to just do nothing, but I wasn't ready for a three-year grind in law school. And I kept thinking through that thing. I said, "What can I do of interest?" Then I realized, "Elaine, you haven't been anywhere. You haven't traveled." My first plane trip I ever took was my senior year of college when I went up to the Port Authority in New York for a job interview, which I didn't get. So, I said, "You haven't done anything. I mean, Virginia, Washington. You haven't seen anything. Father took you to Chicago and New York and different things, but you still haven't seen anything." So I decided. I said, "I need to travel". First I wanted to go abroad. I said, "The Peace Corps. Peace Corps is the answer for me." And so I applied for Peace Corps and indicated I wanted to go to Turkey. I did not indicate Africa because I said later in life I will get to Africa and I would spend some time in Africa.

BOND: But you wouldn't get to Turkey?

JONES: I won't get to Turkey, not in this way. And the location of Turkey, where it was centrally located in right there in the Bosporus, between Europe and Asia. The gateway. A whole -- Muslim culture, you know, just so different and alien from anything that I knew and it would be an adventure. Also, I could travel. It was -- Turkey was located so that I could get to the Middle East, I could get to Israel. I could get to Europe, because, coming from Turkey, I came back through Luxembourg and saw Pat Harris who was the ambassador to Luxembourg. She had been my dean of women at Howard. She had been my dean of women at Howard. But I said, "I can really travel and see this part of the world," and Peace Corps accepted. I was accepted.

BOND: Is it unusual for the Peace Corps to let you go to where you want to go?

JONES: You know, I don't know at that time.

BOND: Unless you have some special language skills or something. You didn't speak Turkish?

JONES: No, but we had to learn it. We went to Princeton.

BOND: Can you do it now?

JONES: Oh -- no.

BOND: Okay.

JONES: No, I did it in law school for a little while, because the dean of the law school, Hardy Dillard who went – of University of Virginia Law School, who later went on to World Court – had a Turkish medical student living with him at the time. So, when I came back, he would put us together and I tried --

BOND: Kept it up.

JONES: Yes, right. But I haven't, you know -- and I haven't been back since I left Peace Corps, haven't been back. I need to go back and see what I can pick up. So, that's why I went to Turkey.

BOND: What did you do in the Peace Corps? What was your assignment?

JONES: It was called TEFL -- Teaching English as a Foreign Language. I taught English to Turkish medical students. Turkey had a new language as of the fall of Turkey, Ataturk in 1935. So Turkish was relatively a new language, so the textbooks were written either in German or English. The textbooks. So, they had to become proficient, and in Turkey, you went straight – at that time – straight from high school into medical school. You didn't get the liberal arts education or whatever, but you stayed in medical school for something like seven years. You know, you did medicine.

BOND: Right.

JONES: So, I was teaching English to these medical students – and it was very interesting. Teaching -- the repetitive, you know, the rote method. And I really got to love Hacettepe – the university was called. Hacettepe is in Ankara, and Ankara is the capital – not Istanbul, as a lot of people say – right in the middle, flat, right in the middle of the Anatolian Plateau. So, I would teach and I could -- after a while, I could hear my students. You know, you say, "The child has gone to school," you know, and you give them a noun like "adult" they have to put in the right place. "The adult has gone to school." Then "church." "The adult has gone to church." You know, they have to -- and so -- they have to recognize the parts of speech, and they have to recognize the appropriate verb and the nouns and the pronouns and where to put them in a sentence, and that was the oral way of teaching it, the oral word. But not only did they, were they learning and substituting the right word – and they're putting it in the right place, usually – they also were mimicking my accent. I could hear them. Come back to me as a class and I could hear this Southern twang, I said, "Oh my God, I have branded these doctors, you know, for the rest of their lives." But it was quite an experience.

BOND: Now I wonder, you know, Turkey by then is a modern sophisticated society, at least urban Turkey. And these students are, are they not? Or not.

JONES: No, they're not and you know --

BOND: Well, what did they make of you? Were you an exotic creature to them?

JONES: It was tough. See, there was no love lost. We were in the middle of Cyprus -- there was a big fight between Greece and Turkey on the island of Cyprus, and there was no love lost between the Turks and the Arabs, you know. They do not like one another, and they didn't know what I was. And I would say, "Ameri-con." I would say, "Siyah Ameri-con." Siyah means black -- siyah Americ-con. And they said, "[sound of sucking teeth] Thst, thst." That means no in Turkey, that's no way, and then say, no, no. In other words, there was no such thing as a black American. Americans were blond and blue-eyed and were not me. And so, they would say to me, "Arab. Arab" -- "You're Arab, you're Arab." So, the white Turkish volunteers – and I was the only black – the white volunteers were getting all of the negative reactions because of anti-Americanism, big wave of it in the late 60's. I was getting it also because they thought I was Arabic. Different reasons -- one time, you know, I was stoned in Turkey.

BOND: Oh really?

JONES: Yeah, yeah. Because I lived -- I didn't live -- there was an American compound there because they had a lot of service folks there, service families, big base, air force base in Turkey. But the Peace Corps, one of their requirements was that we not cluster together, that Peace Corps volunteers go out and live in the communities. And so I lived in the community, but I didn't realize that my house was in the red light district. I didn't know enough Turkish to know, and I couldn't understand these little Turkish soldiers knocking on my door. I couldn't understand it, so one day, though, some kids, I was coming home from school, and they start throwing these stones at me, you know? And a guy, they called it dolmus, which was a Turkish taxi. He got out and he shooed them away and told them to stop. He apologized effusively, you know. And so it was an adjustment period, but I'm glad I went. I'd do it all over again.