Ollie M. Smith

Smith: I'm Ollie M. Smith, and my husband is George W. Smith. And we reside here in St. Augustine, Florida.

Hartford: How did you get started in the Movement?

Smith: At that time our children were not old enough to be in school. This was in the 60's then. But our neighbors had some kids that integrated the schools. Robinson and his wife Lilian and some others, — they had some kids that were enrolled in one of the local schools, an all-white school, but now it's supposed to be integrated. I guess it was not well accepted. And their first PTA meeting that was held at the school, — they attended. And of course, when they came out, their cars were burnt up. Really, they burned it up.

And then the situation proceeded on to we had attacks on our homes. There was a Molotov cocktail thrown into our home. We were thinking they thought that we were the family that had the kids in the school, because these people lived right next door to us. There was no major damages done to the house, just shingles were broken off of the home. So I guess when this came out in the paper, these people realized that they had the wrong home. So a few weeks later, my husband and I went out and left our kids with a sitter, only to come home and find our street littered with fire trucks and police and everything. Well, what had happened, someone had come back and burnt that house down. Even the telephone melted in the home. They burnt it down.

So it was at that point that we realized we needed to get involved and try to do something about this ignorance that's taking place in our residence, — in our community. And we realized that when situations like that occurred, the police delayed coming, the fire department delayed coming, I mean, it's like they're waiting for everything to be taken care of before getting there. So we realized we need to take some of this into our own hands. So we set up our neighborhood watch. My family and the other families, the Black families that lived on the street, we took turns watching and securing our own street. We would hide on the roof at night so many hours.

Hartford: With weapons?

Smith: With a weapon. Yes,  — unfortunately. We stayed on the roof top so many hours, and one come down and another go up. We did that because we're on our own street. And from then, as our kids all grew and became of age to enroll in some of the public facilities, schools and other things, then we realized the need to really get involved and try to make it a little easier for our children to live. And so it was that time that I got involved.

When we heard that Martin Luther King was coming to town, we got down to St. Paul church to participate. We went over to meet at that church, and from that church we would march downtown to, and around, the Old Slave Market. We used to sing "We Shall Overcome" as we marched around. And I recall one time in which we got down there around the Slave Market, and we were met with police, — city police with dogs, — sic'ing them on us as we marched.

Hartford: Did you get bitten?

Smith: I did not. I was very, very blessed and fortunate not to have suffered anything, because it was a non-violent march. We were told from the church that if you didn't think that you could march non-violently, we'd appreciate if you'd just wait at the church. So we went along, but after arriving downtown and suffering the verbal abuse that we suffered from residents and policemen, — what have you, — my husband he got angry and he said, "You know," he said "I hope no one touches you, or this is no longer going to be a non-violent movement." But I thank God that no one ever touched me. We marched peacefully around the Slave Market and back to the church safely.

I recall being on one of [the marches], I believe it was Rev. Andrew Young was thrown to the ground and kicked in the face. He was covered by someone else. I believe it was Young, I can't remember right now, you know, sixty-four years old. I was quite younger then, so I have forgotten many things. Yeah, that's a long time. But those were the days of struggle.

Hartford: How did it end? How did it come out?

Smith: Well, in my opinion, as a result of the sacrifices that were made during that time, things has been a little bit easier for us as Black people. But in my opinion, we still have a long ways to go. I think things are not as harsh as they used to be. We have like a subtle type of hidden racism across our country now.

Hartford: How does that show, what would be an example?

Smith: One thing, we can feel it. You feel when you're not accepted as you should, just as an individual, you can sort of sense this.

After the orders to integrate the country, integrate the United States, after the Civil Rights Act [of 1964], we thought that our kids could now go and enroll in the YMCA, go to any public facility, or eat in a restaurant, or whatever. Maybe you could to some extent. But we decided that we wanted to enroll our children in the YMCA swim program. And we thought, — no problem, we just knew everything would be fine. So I called [the YMCA] from my workplace and scheduled an appointment. I asked them if they had any vacancies, and they said, "Yes, of course we have vacancies." And I told them I had three kids that I would like to enroll in the summer program. So they told me, "Fine, just bring them down, dressed for the pool, drop them off at the pool, and come inside and take care of the paperwork."

So on that particular time I did just that. I dressed the kids, I took them there, I dropped them off at the pool, I went inside, and realized that I was being avoided. And didn't quite understand why, because I knew they had said, 'Come on.' But the problem was I think they didn't detect in my voice that I was a Black person. So they just said, 'Come on.' So I went down and got ignored for a while.

The secretary, she looked at me and she turned around and went back in another room. She came back, so I said, "Listen, I'm Mrs. Smith and I dropped my kids off at the pool. I'm at work, I got to go." So she looked at me again, and she went back to this room. Then she came back out. The manager of the YMCA came out too, so I told him, I said, "Look, I'm Mrs. Smith. I have dropped the kids off at the pool and I have to go."

So he told me it was a mistake. Yeah, he said it was a mistake. And I said, well, "I'm sorry, the kids are at the pool, give me a receipt." And I explained to him, "Nothing better not happen to my kids in this pool," I said, "or there will be a national boycott against the YMCA." And I said, "Do you understand?"

So they reluctantly gave me the receipt for my kids, — for the tuition. And that was the end of the story, my kids never had a problem in the pool. But my friend, whom I told about my kids participating in the program, she wanted to enroll her kids. So she went there to get her boys into the swim program and was told that they could not accept them. And she said, "Well, my friend Mrs. Smith's kids are here in the pool." And they said, "Yes, we know, but it's a mistake, they weren't supposed to be here." So her kids did not get to swim.

Hartford: They never let them in?

Smith: They never let them in. They never did.

Hartford: And this was in the 70s?

Smith: This was in the early, early 70s I believe. I'm not sure of years, not really sure.

Hartford: Are things still that way now?

Smith: No, I don't think so, not at all now. I think we can pretty much go wherever we like. They may not like us being there, sometimes, but nevertheless I think no one would dare say anything.

Another situation that we were faced with was one of our family members, a sister, that I brought here to attend high school after the Civil Rights Act. I assumed that all was well. She enrolled at St. Augustine High School. I found out in November that she had a racist teacher that was not allowing her to even work with the rest of the class. It was a homemaking class. Whenever that class met, all the Black kids were separated. She was sending my sister to the back of the room while the other kids worked on projects. Baking things, you know.

But [my sister] never said anything to me about it until here it is, November, I think it was. And the reason I was made aware then, was this teacher would not even verbally ask her to do an assignment at home. She didn't want to speak to her, I guess. So she wrote a note that said, 'Juanita, I want you to make me one cupcake at home for your grade.'

So Juanita brings this note home and she lays the note on the stove in the kitchen. And I happened to go by and I looked at the note, and it says, 'Juanita you have to make one cupcake at home and bring it to class for your grade.' So of course that got my attention, so I called Juanita and I said, "Juanita, what is this note about?" I said, "What do you mean one cupcake? I said why can't you make a lot of cupcakes?"

And she said, "Well, the rest of the kids have already made their cupcakes." I said, "Really? Why didn't you make yours?" I thought maybe she just didn't do it. So she said, "Well, I'm not allowed to work with the rest of the class." I said, "What do you mean you're not allowed?" She said, "I don't know, I'm just not allowed. She always sends me to the back of the room, while the other kids cook and involved themselves in whatever projects they're working on."

I said, "Well, this is not going to happen. You are not going to make one cupcake at home." She said, "Oh, but I have to, it's going to be my grade." I said you are not going to make one cupcake here. I will see her tomorrow. I said, "You're going to make that cupcake at school, just as anyone else made theirs there, you are going to make yours there as long as you're in that class. I can assure you."

So the next day, I went to the school. Juanita told me where the room was. I went to the room, I got there early, because I had to go to work, so I got there early, hoping the teacher would get in early so I could speak to her about the cupcakes. So I stood at the door, and when she came I'm standing right beside the lock on the door. She took her key out, unlocked her door, went inside, sat down at her desk, and I'm standing there thinking, "What in the world is going on?"

So I slowly walked into her room and I just stood in front of her desk. And she was just opening her notes and getting things together, straightened. And I called her by name. She said, "Oh, good morning." I said good morning.

I said, "I'm Juanita's guardian and I am here to speak to you about the note you sent about one cupcake being made at home." I said, "I want to inform you that she did not make a cupcake at home. And also that she is not going to make a cupcake at home." I said, "Juanita is going to make that cupcake in this class with the rest of the class, who has made theirs in the class. She's going to make hers in here." I said, "Why does she have to make hers at home, could you tell me?"

So she said, "Oh, Juanita is such a nice little girl, and the kids does not accept her, and I hate for her feelings to be hurt." I said, "Really now. Is it the kids, or is it you? You seem to have a problem." I said, "Are you not the teacher in charge? Are you telling me that you have no control of your class? But you know what, it's not the kids, — it's you. You have a problem." (But she had a lovely daughter in that school though that had no problems with race at all, she was a nice girl.)

She said, "Oh, you're insulting me!" I said, "How do you think Juanita feels? She is insulted every day when she comes in here and you send her to the back of the room. I couldn't care less about your feelings, I really couldn't. And when I leave here, I'm going to the principal's office, but I want to tell you something before I leave. Juanita had better make that cupcake in this room, and she had better make a good grade out of here."

I went to the principal's office. The principal was Mr. Yates, and I told him what had happened. He was so surprised. I said, "It's happening, and has been happening since school began up to now." So he got on the intercom, and he called for all the kids that went to Mrs. —— I won't say her name, she's dead and gone on now, — but he said he wanted all the kids that went to this particular teacher's 5th period class to come to his office.

So I stood there while all these kids come out of their other classes and come to the principal's office. So when they all got there, Mr. Yates says, "This lady here is Juanita's guardian and her sister. She's here with a serious accusation against you all in Mrs.  ——'s class." And so he said, "Is it so that you all will not work with Juanita in this class? And she has to be sent to the back of the room to work alone?" All of these kids together said, "Oh, no sir, Mr. Yates, it's not us, we love Juanita, it's that teacher. Every time we try to get closer to her, to Juanita, she calls us away. She never allows us."

So, okay, so now he calls Mrs. ——. So she comes down to the principal's office, and he confronts her with the situation. She's not knowing what the kids have already said. So he says, "Mrs. Smith here says that you do not allow them to work, —  Mrs. Smith here says that these kids does not work with Juanita in your class, and these kids have said that it's not true, that it is you that prevents them from working with Juanita." And he looked at her and she says, "Well!" She went stomping right out of the room. Because the kids had told that right in front of her, you know? They had made that known. That was something.

Hartford: What year was that?

Smith: I believe that was '72. Because I think my sister graduated in '73.

Hartford: During 63 and 64, when they were having the marches, they had the mass meetings, did you ever speak at a mass meeting?

Smith: No I never did, I'm not a public speaking person.

Hartford: Well, you sure tell good stories.

Smith: When I stand up, my thoughts sit down, usually.

Hartford: Did you go to a lot of the marches?

Smith: I don't recall how many, maybe two, three.

Hartford: But you risked things, I mean it was dangerous, people's houses were being burnt. What do think now? How do you feel about the fact that you did this? Is this something that you think was a good thing, or do you regret it, or do you feel proud of it, or how do you feel about it now?

Smith: Well, I feel fortunate to have been here during that time, to put the efforts that I put, — which was not much, — but the efforts and energies that I put towards a better life for myself, my children, and my grandchildren. And I see improvements.

Hartford: What do your children and grandchildren think about all that? Do you ever talk to them about this?

Smith: Yes, we have. They're aware. What excites them is merely the fact that I knew Dr. King. That's what's so exciting. Because they read about him and they realize what a dynamic person he was, and the effect that his movement had on their lives, and they don't remember him, because they were too young, and for them just to realize that I was a part of that movement, they're excited. They'll tell people, they'll say, "Mom and Dad marched with Martin Luther King."

Hartford: One of things about the stories we put on this website, most of the people who read them are students, or school children, trying to learn about what happened. So, just like you talk to your children and your grandchildren, if you could tell something to children everywhere in the world who want to read about this, what would you tell them?

Smith: I would tell them to plunge forth and enjoy the lifestyle that many people have suffered and given their lives for them to have. Don't stand back, go forth, — and take advantage. There's still a lot more to do, and there probably always will. But the young people now have become sort of complacent, they're just complacent, they're not involved, aren't concerned about too many things. And I don't know what has contributed to that.

Copyright to this web page, as a web page, belongs to this web site. Copyright to the story above belongs to Oli M. Smith.

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