Chude Pam Parker Allen
Cathy: I wanted us to start, as a way of introducing ourselves, by going around and saying what your relationship currently is to gathering oral histories, or writing memoirs, or reading memoirs? Where is this whole subject sitting with you now, and what are you thinking about doing in the future or what would you like to do?
Sheila: I guess I can start because I'm gathering oral histories. I've read some biographies but not too many. I've probably interviewed about 90 people so far. It started out with my old roommate Mary Hamilton [CORE field secretary] because nobody was going to interview her. That's how I became an independent [interviewer], because Columbia [University] said, "You do it, why don't you do it and we'll do something with it later."
And then as I was leaving Ron Grele [of Columbia Univ.] said, "Why don't you do CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), nobody's done CORE." And I said, "That's ridiculous." I called Jimmy Robinson and Marvin Rich [because] I figured nobody could do anything about CORE without talking to the two of them. And they said, "No, nobody's done it. That sounds like a great idea. Why don't ya?" And that's how I became an interviewer.
Ron said, "You know, SNCC (Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee) has been done to death because all of those people who went down [to work for SNCC] are now in senior positions in academia, and they've all been studying SNCC. And then I talked to a couple of SNCC people and they said, "The hell you say." So I started talking to people in SNCC too, which was natural because I had been a SNCC field secretary. And then Grele said to me, "Why don't you start doing War Resisters League too." Like we're not going to give you a penny, we're not going to help you. We're going to forget to record, forget to copy your stuff, but why don't you do War Resisters League too? So, I've been doing a couple of people in the War Resisters League and some people in the peace movement as well.
Cathy: How is it for you, I mean obviously you wouldn't have done all of these if it wasn't rewarding for you?
Sheila: I don't go anyplace I can't drive to. Which means that I interview people who are between St. Louis and New York as a rule. At some point I have to go down to Washington and find a place to stay because that will be extensive, there are a lot of people down there. Other than that, if it's an overnight I tend to stay directly with the people I'm interviewing and we talk. Or they come to my house, or I go to their house if it's in the New York area. And it gets me out of the city, it gets me up to areas that I wouldn't normally have gotten to. It gets me to meet people that I haven't met before, that I didn't run into, so it's been wonderful.
Cathy: And you're going to keep doing this?
Sheila: Yeah, until I keel over! I think. I had some trouble learning the digital equipment, and so now I'm back with tapes. The last trip that I had to San Francisco was just about the end for me, because of the failure of the tapes and the bad mikes that nobody could, everybody kept telling me were fine but the recordings are spotty and dim. And I was really unhappy with it and I couldn't learn the digital. So, now that I'm back with tapes I'm happy. And I'm starting to interview people again.
Miriam: And I have been the interviewee, interviewed by Sheila. Somebody from Brandeis [University] came out because she was doing a senior thesis in the history department, and she interviewed me.
I was happy with Doug McAdam's [interview for Freedom Summer], because Doug had got the resources to send me the galleys and I was able to make corrections. With Deborah's book, all the quotes that she has from me are correct because she taped it, but some her interpretive conclusions are not correct. It's not bad to be in somebody's book though.
Cathy: Do you ever think of writing a memoir?
Miriam: No. In order to be able to attend the meetings of the [Bay Area Veterans of Civil Rights Movement] I was required to put a summary of [my Movement activity] on the web, and I did that, and I'm really proud that I did that. I'm basically a math person not an English person.
Bruce: Did I ever tell you the story about the other mathematician I knew in the Movement? It's a funny story, Dave's Driving Lesson. Anyway, Sheila interviewed me and did a bang-up job.
[For my part,] what I'm doing is trying to get as much oral history and written narratives as I can on the website. I've interviewed Chude, Jean, Wazir, Jimmy, Hardy, Phil, most of the people in our group, and that's been really good. I'm encouraging other people to send in their memoirs and send in their interviews.
For me, I think that as interesting [as the interviews] are the discussions we've [posted on in this section of the website]. They're a different form of "oral history. Because in the discussions we bang up our perceptions against each other and it makes us remember and think of stuff that we never would have, or put it in a different perspective.
We've all had the experience [in the discussions] of learning new stuff [and feeling] "Is that what was going on?" I mean there were probably people living in California who knew more about what was going on in Alabama in '65 than I did, and I was there. Because, Lord knows, the Selma Times Journal did not cover what was going on with the movement in Montgomery, or Demopolis, or places like that. [Though] they did have some articles about all the nuns who had come down [for the March to Montgomery] for sex with Black men. (laughter) For example, TIAL (Tuskegee Institute Advancment League) organized that big march [in Montgomery], and we had heard a rumor that they got attacked, but that was 50 miles away, we didn't know what was going on.
So, [the discussions] have been great. We started talking about Selma, the march that turned around, and the rivalry between SNCC and SCLC, and of course, I'm there representing SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), and we have some really strong SNCC people, so we had quite a lively discussion. (laughter)
You know, for decades after, I never thought about the Civil Rights Movement. When I came out to California and got involved with SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] at [San Francisco State College], I quickly discovered, I was informed in no uncertain terms by Progressive Labor Party members and other leftist, Marxist, "leaders," that my experience in the Civil Rights Movement was negative. That it was "bourgeois," "integrationist," "counter-revolutionary," and it should be hidden in shame. That was very forcefully impressed upon me. And ever since then, until we started our veterans group, I had pretty much put the Civil Rights Movement [in my mental attic].
Sheila: Yeah, I always found that people who didn't have the balls to go South saw it as "bourgeois" & "counter revolutionary," & they'd proclaim every tinhorn with a gun to be a "true revolutionary."
One of the things I've noticed is that many of the veterans who send in their testimony [for the Veterans Roll Call] say the same thing over and over again: "This was the most important thing I ever did in my life. This shaped who I am today." And that's certainly true for me, yet I did not think about it for 35 years. So, this process that's going on in our group has been very, very good for me. And I think it's been good for the others.
I did consider writing a memoir once, but I couldn't. There was just no way I could do it. But what I did do, and Chude knows about this, I wrote a science fiction novel [as a metaphor] of the Civil Rights Movement. (laughing) I'm either going to get it published with a publisher this year or I'm going to publish it electronically myself. It's set 50 years in the future, in San Francisco where artificially manufactured people have no civil rights. And they start a non-violent Civil Rights Movement [patterned on the Southern Freedom Movement] to resist that oppression. And it was much easier for me to do it as a science fiction. For one thing, I didn't have to worry about offending anyone. (lots of laughter)
Chude: And this is an aside on that. One of the main characters is a woman who keeps doing brash things and I kept saying: "STOP, NO, NO!" [that's crazy, no one would be that foolhardy]. And then, of course, the more people tell their stories, the more I realize it's very accurate. (lots of laughter)
Bruce: Chude would tell me, "Nobody would do that, it's stupid, she wouldn't take these chances," And then we're telling stories in the group stuff like, "Oh, did I ever tell you about the time I went into the Klan headquarters?" (lots of laughter)
Sheila: I tried writing a memoir, when Univeristy of Alabama Press asked. But the Movement was such a cooperative venture that I exhausted myself calling & cross-questioning & calling again to everyone who was on that little venture in my first chapter.
Chude: In the early '80s I was in a cult for a very short period and emotionally and psychologically I threw away my life [because] I was going to start anew. And so [after leaving the cult] when I was at the point of picking up my life again, Doug McAdam came and interviewed me for his book Freedom Summer. It was a very nice way of reclaiming [my past] for somebody to come along and say, "Tell me about this part of your past."
After I left the cult, I started writing these poems in the voice of Sojourner Truth. And I finally went into a writers group to get some help with it, this was an all-white group, and one of the women said, "You really have to explain how you got to the point where as a white woman you're writing poems in the voice of a 19th century Black woman." So I started like plotting my life and literally, this is 1987, '88, I thought I could mention on one page that I'd been in the Civil Rights Movement, and then move on. (laughter)
And I did, I wrote one page and was going to move on, but of course I'm still there. (laughter) It was that somehow I would close the door on that period of our lives, but it was only when I opened it up,
One of the odd things is that Cathy and I had gone to the same college. And Cathy had been at Spelman College as an exchange student two years before me. We'd both been involved in the Southern Freedom Movement, and then in 1970 Cathy came here [S.F. Bay Area]. And although we knew this about each other, we did not talk about our experiences until I had already been [working on it for] more than a year. I was bugging her to start because I really wanted to talk to somebody else, because once you start unearthing your own [past] you want, And she opened up her box and she started pulling out these things, these memories.
So, now I'm coming here today with having finished the first draft, finally after about 17 years of my story of knowing Ralph Featherstone. And the interesting thing this, I don't know how it fits with memoir work, that I thought I was done with my poems about him. And I thought, "Okay, all that work I did, it got condensed into these poems and I'm done with this and I can go on with my life."
And then Jean Wiley told me that I had to write the whole story because it [was] getting stuck in other places. And she said it was taking away from the other things I was writing by poking up there. It was as if I needed to know that somebody [else] needed to hear the whole story, and I needed to have a place to put it (meaning the web site).
So I feel really good, I feel very, very good and I feel that it still needs some tinkering but basically I understand what I was doing. And as a person who, I taught myself to write. I'm a person who's self-taught as a writer. And I've done it mostly over all these years just in a vacuum and it's much, much easier to write when you have a place for it to go.
I also have been very critical of the things that have been written by white women where the focus stays on them. And I won't know, of course until people read this, but it is my hope with everything I'm trying to work on that the people we met and came to know and love come alive. They aren't just names, that they come alive. And that's one of the things that, especially for those of us who were white, but I think even for northern Blacks, what was so profound about the Southern Freedom Movement was the people.
[Too often] they just go by us as names, or as references you can read. For example, David Harris' book which is really about Lowenstein and whoever it was that killed him, and that's what the focus is. But you wouldn't know there was a Black person in McComb when Harris describes going to McComb. And that's what I had to teach myself to write. I still don't know how well it works, but my goal is to do my memoir work so that the people who I met, and who touched me so profoundly, come alive for the reader.
Cathy: I got into the Civil Rights Movement when I was an exchange student at Spelman College. I was with SNCC there. Then I went to graduate school at Tulane Univeristy in New Orleans, but I was always sneaking up to Jackson [MS] on the weekends. I continued to be a part of the Movement there, and in New Orleans. We started a part of the women's movement in New Orleans. I finished my Ph.D degree in sociology in '69, and moved out to San Francisco where I became part of the women's movement. My life took off in terms of the women's movement and I came out as a lesbian in 1970.
I became a photographer, the same spring I came out as a lesbian. Recently all these pieces of my life are coming together. I've started a business of doing personal histories, and photography, and photo-organizing, to record people's stories. Most of my customers are activists who have a strong sense of history.
Of course, the more I recorded other peoples' stories and connected with Chude and different people in the different reunions, I started to think about my own memoirs. My memoirs have a civil rights piece, and a lesbian-feminist piece. It's a lot, it's really overwhelming.
Starting years ago, some women began writing the SNCC women's anthology. They sent me a letter inviting me to write, so I did. They had some questions they were suggesting and one was, "How did your being in the Movement affect your family?" Wow! It just sprung out at me, partly because my father had had a nervous breakdown because of me being in the Movement. I ended up interviewing my siblings about what it was like for them. It was fabulous to hear from them. Starting there I put some of my stories together, and I got to add things from Miriam's story. I got to go back and dig out some documents from when I was in Albany [GA], the few days that I was there, and I put it together in a memoir, My Family, the Movement, & Me.
Part of why I wrote the memoir was asking myself to do what I'm asking my personal history clients to do, to know what the process was like to work better with them. In the process of all this I also managed to wangle an invitation back to Albany. I went back in March of 2003, 40-year anniversary, I had a photo exhibit of my feminist and lesbian photographs, spoke and saw people and connected with C.B. King's widow, Carol King. All these amazing things happened.
So, now I have this civil rights memoir, though I haven't been able to give attention to disseminating it. I'm being pulled into working on memoirs of my feminist and lesbian days. Recently, I have started to sell some of my lesbian feminist photographs to the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. I get to write notes to go with those pictures and that's pulling me more and more into my memoirs.
I recently found this folder that said "Lesbian Photographer Support Group" of a 1974 group that I was in. I have a picture the group and there's some documents that were in that folder that I had no idea existed. The big step that happened this week was that I asked one of my close friends in the group to let me interview her about that group because there was so much I couldn't remember. She could remember all details, then all this stuff came back to me, and I really could put it together. So this was my first time of interviewing a friend about our, her life and my life, and seeing how much is available to me and how much I really can get back. It's kind of blowing my mind. It's very exciting.
So my interest in these discussions come from a personal part, and this political artistic part, and then the business that I'm doing to support myself. I work with the Gay and Lesbian Historical Society. A lot of things are happening.
Pat: Basically, I have nothing to do with memoirs at all. Other than I've been interviewed by Sheila and I guess most recently by BBC on "Sleeping With the Enemy," because of my marriage to a Black man during Black Nationalism. So had no thoughts of writing memoirs. I worked in civil rights, the anti-war movement, and then became a hippie and lived on communes. Now I'm a social worker.
Chude: But if we do pull something together for freedom school teachers, would you want to come and...
Pat: Perhaps. I think one of the problems, especially when Sheila interviewed me, is that I've forgotten a hell of a lot. It was a very frightening time for me, actually. I thought I was very brave and it turned out I really wasn't. I've just forgotten a whole bunch. I might be interested, but I don't know how much I really would have to contribute.
Chude: But that is the experience that most of us have, that we don't think anything's there. Correct? I mean, I literally thought in '88 that I could write it in one page. I went here, I did that, end of story. I wrote the thing, and then it just kind of started eating at me, I was desperate to talk to other people. It's one of the reasons I helped organize the '89 reunion we had, because I wanted to talk to other people. I wanted to hear, I think it's what Cathy and others say, as you hear other people's stories, things pop in.
And some of it, at least in my experience, is that it's the places that are discordant, where somehow our own experience does not fit the party- line, as it were, the narrative. It's usually the academics, and the writers have done this. Interviewed some people and they've come up with "the" story of what happened. And as you begin to open that door of memory, what partly has come out for me is the way it doesn't click with the common story. It's a little bit different, whatever the little differences are. Just because we were all...
Pat: It's more complex than the standard narrative...
Bruce: Yes, but I think it's more than that.
Now that I've gotten back into thinking about the Civil Rights Movement, which really only started five years ago, with Mike Miller calling, saying: "Let's talk about helping with the walking wounded of the Movement." Which we never actually did other than helping ourselves. (laughter) But since then, I've become more and more aware, and disturbed and angry over the way that the Civil Rights Movement is being iconized, taught, distorted, and commercialized, in the South, in the culture at large, in the schools. The story is becoming unrecognizable in some ways. And the story of what happened in the South becoming unrecognizable is infuriating.
And equally infuriating is that what they, and by "they" I mean the people who have the power to shape our culture and our education system, what they're doing is that in essence they're saying that the Civil Rights Movement only took place in a couple places in a couple states, because there were a couple bad people there. You know, Bull Connor, Jim Clark, George Wallace, etc. etc. And the problems were all solved mainly by benevolent court decisions, magnanimous legislators, a few heroic martyrs, a great speaker like Dr. King, and so forth. They are stripping reality out of the Southern Freedom Movement, and completely ignoring what happened everywhere else.
We had this protest screening of "Eyes on the Prize," and I was one of the people who gave a little talk, and I asked the people, there were about 35 people, most of them activists of one sort or another, "How many people here in this room, know or remember that Berkeley, San Francisco, and Oakland were major centers of the Civil Rights Movement?" And all of the people with gray hair raised their hands, and none of the young people raised their hands. And this guy who had been with CORE, whose name escapes me, says, "You mean they're not teaching in the schools about the Movement in the Bay Area?" And the younger folk all say, "No, we didn't know anything about it." They had been taught that the Civil Rights Movement only occurred in the South, and for that matter only in Mississippi and Alabama.
They didn't know that hundreds, thousands, of people were arrested in Berkeley at Mel's Diner. At Lucky markets. People go down to eat at Jack London Square [where there had been marches of thousands of demonstrators] nobody knows. So, to me there's anger at this distortion, it's part of the motivation for putting [the oral histories up on the website.]
Cathy: On another level what happened with me is that I reconnected with Joyce Ladner a friend that I haven't seen or made contact with for maybe 40 years. It sure doesn't seem that long. We emailed each other and she said, "Well, you know what I remember about you, was that you were really fun." What a gift, for that is not how I have been thinking about myself (laughing). I reconnected with Curtis Hays the other day, and I remembered the fun the two of us used to have, just giggly, silly fun. It's giving me a whole new sense of who I was, and who I am. It's been really, what? Fun! Oh yeah!
Bruce: It was fun, wasn't it?
Cathy: Yeah. So, there's different angles of you know, of what this work does.