Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influence of the Community

BOND: Now, when did you begin to notice in your own life -- not from the television or from news accounts -- that this black/white divide your parents and grandparents had described, was permeable, was moveable, that you could break out of it, if you tried? When did that become apparent to you?

OGLETREE: It took a while. It was interesting as a child. I have to remember being black and being poor wasn't a bad thing because we didn't know that we were black and poor. There was no disability. I remember on Saturday mornings, Rev. Robinson, whose church was right there in the community, would come having gone through the bakeries in town, picked up stale donuts and old bread. And he would almost like lead us this, this group of children that we would -- he was the Pied Piper. We would follow him to his church. He'd give us free, stale donuts. We didn't know that they were stale.

BOND: Right.

OGLETREE: They were free and they were good. And he would talk about God is good and we would go to church with him Sunday. I remember Money Back Lee, a black entrepreneur on the corner, who had a shop, it was a cleaners. But he sold used jewelry, other artifacts, things that he claimed were originals, and they clearly were things that the whites on the north side of town had tossed out of their house. He picked them up on Saturday and sold them to our families.

He had a credit, an informal credit system. There was a Pine Cone Inn, where folks would have dinner, play cards, dance. And so, the black community was functioning and it seemed fine. It didn't occur to me that there was something different until I went to elementary school and the first time I was called a "nigger." That made a difference to me that, "Uh, oh. I am something," and that was used in a pejorative and negative way.

BOND: Yeah.

OGLETREE: But at the same time I knew that it was a chance of opportunity because I started seeing that in the classes, whether it was science class or math class, that I was the only African American, but I was there competing with the top students in my environment. I started seeing small progress -- Sam Pipes having a job as a postal worker, which was an important change in Merced. I saw Burt Alexander having a little newspaper shop on the north side of town where blacks had normally visit.

I saw Julia Bill, the NAACP representative, sitting with whites, talk about issues of civil rights and racial justice because I could see the doors starting to open, and I saw my first black teachers, in elementary school, who obviously had gone to college, got an education. And they were saying "We made it, you too can make it." So, I started seeing those small signs that there was an opportunity for racial progress.

BOND: And these examples, the entrepreneur, the postal worker, the NAACP -- all these lifted aspirations for you?

OGLETREE: Absolutely. They were lifted in the sense of "Here are role models. Here are people who are enormously successful," given what I knew before -- that they had an education. They had real talents. They had real jobs. They had confidence, and respect, and character. That was extremely important.