Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Segregation and Racial Inequality

BOND: Now, are there particular events, either historical or personal, that affected you as you were coming along, as you're growing up, as you're going to school -- things that, like the Brown case , that you recalled that said, “No I can do better, or I can go in another direction"?

WILDER: Well, yeah you know I -- segregation on the street cars, and we lived at the end of the street car line, so when you got on the street car it was empty for the most part. And my mother -- I would be five or six years old -- and she would say, “Come on, let's go on a little further back.” I'd say, “Well I, I wanna sit up here.” She would say, “No, let’s -- let’s sit here. Let’s go back to the back." I say, “What’s wrong?" “I will explain it to you later.” She never, ever told me that I couldn’t. She never, ever told me that, that it was racial. She would always say, “I’ll explain it to you later. Right now, this is what you should have to do." The other things that impress me was when, I would not only be able to try on a suit, as you know, anything in a department store -- that was racial. What really got me in terms of recognizing that I could do some things -- I would ask her, for instance, about the Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, and I would ask her, “What does this word inalienable mean?” And she said, “What does it mean? It means that no one can take it from you.” I say, “Well, does that Declaration of Independence apply to me?” You know, is what it’s saying -- and she says, "Yes. And when your mother tells you something and you love your mother, no one can take that from you." So, she never ever told any of us that we couldn’t achieve at the highest possible level, but she always insisted we had to work harder to get it done.

BOND: Did you have the feeling that even though you weren’t going to school with white children that you were somehow in competition with them and that some day you might see them face to face, meet them head to head?

WILDER: When I was working there for the summer, I would be driving an elevator in an office building downtown, and I would see some of the people getting on at my age. And they’d be working in those offices. And they’d be doing the actual work. And one fellow, got to be real friendly with him, and I would ask him, I said, “Well, you just finished high school, or you’re in school?” And he said, “Yes.” And I said, “Me too!” I said, “What are you doing?” And he would tell me and I would say, “I could do that! I can do those things.” We struck up a good friendship, and a very nice friendship, and yet, what I found, that the competition level was such that it wasn’t based on competition at that level. It was based on race. I remember when I finished up college I was drafted. I couldn’t get a real job, so I went to the Employment Office, which was on the state capital grounds, and I asked this guy -- I said, "I want a job, I’m a chemist, I had a degree in chemistry." And he said, “Well, we don’t have any vacancies for you.” And he said “Well we do have something that you might find interesting.” I said “What is that” and he said “Vacancies for cook at the Hanover School for Boys, they need a cook.” I said, “I don’t -- I can’t cook!” And he said, “You can learn.” The amazing thing I found later on, Julian, when I came back, that finance building was located on the capitol grounds. And I would come out of the governor’s mansion and looked at that finance building and said, “Wow, isn’t that something.” It’s a dead mint. That finance building now is being renamed where the employment office was located, being renamed for Oliver Hill.

BOND: Oh really?

WILDER: Today, yes