Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influential People: Parents

BOND: Let me take you back to a period before the Brown decision when you were a little girl. Who were the people — parents, I'm thinking — but parents and others who influenced you early on?

LEFTWICH: I've been thinking about my memoirs, and one day I was thinking about that period of growing up. I was an only child until I was ten. And I thought that I would call my memoirs Blessed because I had a wonderful, wonderful childhood. I had both my parents, who were college-educated and who involved me very much in their lives. My mother was an elected official of the Republican party, because you remember back then that was the party. And I had two godparents who had no children but me. They had a niece whom they also — but she didn't live there, so they were mine. And here's this little kid who has four parents. My godmother was a homemaker. My mother worked. My mother taught and worked and did different things. And my godmother took care of me when my mother, when my parents were at work. And she would take me down to Niagara Falls, down to the falls with the little picnic lunch and we would have lunch there.

So, I had a childhood during which I was the center of adults' attention, and I was — I expected — I grew to expect that I would be able to do within reason — parents were also not permissive in those years. So there were rules — but within the boundaries of the rules I should be able to do whatever I wanted to do. I was encouraged to try to do things that I was interested in. I had the feeling that there wasn't anything that I wanted to do that I couldn't do. And so, while people say, "I owe it to my parents," I really do. I had wonderful role models who mentored me actively because they — my parents and my godparents were born in the South, and they were all living in Niagara Falls. And they recognized that I was in an environment different from the one in which they had grown up. And that I could be given the tools to be able to cope and manage that environment.

You know when I think back, there are many examples of just things that we did together or they said to me that reinforced the fact that I had great potential and it was my responsibility to develop it and take advantage of every opportunity that came around.

BOND: Was it both a matter of them saying, "Here's the way you behave, here's what you should do, here's how you should do in school," and a matter of them serving as silent examples of what the result of hard work and study could be?

LEFTWICH: It was both. There were rules of behavior. There were rules of etiquette. There were rules of interpersonal relations — the way you ought to treat people and how you ought to treat people as you would like to be treated. But then there was the other side. My grandfather was a physician and also was an author. There were his books around that were an active part of my life. I had cousins who had won the medal for having the highest grades in school or in — we then moved to Buffalo where these cousins lived. And it was just understood that these two cousins who were older than I was had won the Jesse Ketchum Medal for having the highest grades, and I was supposed to win the Jesse Ketchum Medal. So it was both in terms of expressed and implied expectations and a nurturing that made me feel protected and able to take the risks. And so as the opportunities came on — like I started traveling by myself when I was eight or nine years old.

BOND: Really?

LEFTWICH: Yeah. When we moved to Buffalo my godparents stayed in Washington. They owned property — they owned the homes, both the homes in which we lived in Niagara Falls, and they stayed in Niagara Falls. I would visit them for every school holiday and several weeks in the summer. Well, the way you get from Buffalo to Niagara Falls is by train. My father had been on the railroad like many educated African American men. He was a sleeping car porter, and he would take me to the train station and he'd find one of the porters there and say, "This is my daughter. I want you to take care of her. She's supposed to get off at — in Niagara Falls." And they put me on the train.

This — of course, this is something I think that just recently is being discussed again a lot about the network of the African American community. But it was clearly understood that I was to respect this man as though he were my father when I was on the train. He was going to look after me, make sure nothing happened to me. He was going to make sure that I was turned over directly to the hands of my godparents. So there was little risk. And so I was able to travel and do this kind of thing on my own. Really, I know that I had to be under ten because my brother was born when I was ten, and there was just me. So I was — we moved when I was five. So it was five years running up and down the road by myself.