Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

From Okolona to Indianapolis: Life Experiences

BOND: You go from this small town in Mississippi to the big city of Indianapolis and in another conversation, you described the differences not being that much, but there had to be some differences for you.


RASPBERRY: Oh, there were differences. I mean, it was my first experience -- first, it was my first time crossing the state line leaving Mississippi. I had never left Mississippi before I got in the car to drive to Indianapolis to go to college and there I was for the first time in a big city and I didn't know how cities worked. I didn't know anything. I remember getting on a trolley car to go downtown because there was a parade or something. I was bored. I was living with my sister and her husband and I didn't notice the number on the bus. I looked at the words that were on the front of the destination marker and didn't know enough about big city transportation to know that it would have a different name there on the return trip and I didn't know what number it was, and I got downtown and I didn't have any idea how to get back. I don't know if I ever told anybody that. I just sort of blundered around and found out how to get back and felt a little smarter for having figured that out.


But Indianapolis at that time was a very confusing city racially. There were a few places in town where a black person could -- a few restaurants where a black person, a black couple, could eat and there were several where this was not possible.


BOND: How did you know which was which?


RASPBERRY: That was what was so confusing. You didn't know except by experience or word of mouth. I mean, it didn't come up that often for me because I didn't have a lot of eating-out money, but I do remember there was one place called The Pole, a drive-in theater, that would not serve you in your own car.

BOND: Right.

RASPBERRY: We -- during my early years there, when I'm in school and I'm working for the Recorder, had major major picket lines and things to desegregate the grocery stores, to get them to hire black check-out clerks. I mean, it was -- there had been a major -- a major impact. I mean, this was John Birch Society territory, but it had been Klan turf for a time.


Indianapolis -- I mean, Indiana had three old black schools that were black from their inception. They were designed as black schools and this was up North. It was Indianapolis, it was Crispus Attucks; in Gary, Roosevelt; and Evansville, Lincoln. There were black high schools and the locals used to speak of going up north to Kentucky because that was the adjacent state, I mean, bordering state on the South, but in some ways they thought Kentucky was a little more progressive than Indiana was. Indiana's made significant strides since then but it was, as I say -- I mean, there was more racial integration than I'd ever experienced in Mississippi, of course, but just enough to be confusing. And --


BOND: And you go from this all-black educational system to an integrated college.


RASPBERRY: Scared to death, because I thought -- I guess I thought I was about as smart as the white kids in Okolona, but, geeminee, these kids are not only white but they're Northern. I'm going to have, you know, really work to keep up.


BOND: Did that turn out to be true?


RASPBERRY: I worked my buns off that first year to prove that I could and then, really, I lost a lot of interest in school. I went to school the first year, my freshman year, then laid out and worked for fifteen months to get more money, then went back to school. Looking back, I'm thinking that I probably had a bout of adolescent angst at about that time. I had my seventeenth birthday as a college freshman. I was quite young. I didn't know what was going on and I didn't -- things were very unsettled for me. I was going through some of the same things that people say junior high school kids go through now but I didn't know that and there was nobody to talk to about it, and I became for a while a rather indifferent student.


I do remember being shocked and amazed that two professors asked to see me. And I went to see them and they started to talk to me as though they were my uncles or something and wanted to know what was going on and if they could be helpful or -- and I thought, "This is really quite amazing. In college, they do this?"


I talked about seeds getting planted. I find myself doing it now with students I teach if they seem to have some important distractions, come by to talk. Probably not supposed to do it, but I remember it was beneficial to me when somebody did it. And it just seems like a thing that grown-ups ought to do for children, you know?


BOND: What was the racial composition of the school?


RASPBERRY: Overwhelmingly white. There were -- I think my first year there were probably twelve black kids. We all knew each other and we were all careful not to all sit together in the cafeteria. It could go up to four but if a fifth one came, he had to go and start his own table, you know. We don't want them to think that -- it's funny thinking about that.


BOND: It is. And funny thinking about it today.