History 118: US History Since 1877

Dickinson College, Fall 2023

Ignorance isn’t Bliss: an Interview with Annie Wymer on Her Experiences during the 1999 WTO Protests

Ignorance isn’t Bliss: an Interview with Annie Wymer on Her Experiences during the 1999 WTO Protests

By Michael Wymer


Annie Wymer was 30 years old and six months pregnant when she was caught in the chaos of the 1999 protests against a meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle. After crowding onto a bus, she borrowed someone’s phone to contact her husband. She recounts that she “told him what was going on, . . . there was no way he could come and get me”.[1] As the bus slowly worked its way through a crowd of protesters and police Annie recalls “pounding on the bus”, swearing “there was an armored car like a tank in the street”.[2] Desperate to get home and “scared spitless”, Annie rode north as the world’s media turned their eye to the violence happening in Seattle.[3] The World Trade Protest is highlighted in H.W. Brand’s American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 as an example of discontent at the ongoing trend of globalization in the 1990s voiced by residents of a liberal enclave in the United States.[4] Brands asserts that “a rapt world” had its eyes on Seattle, but he leaves out the experiences of the young professionals working in the areas affected by the protests like Annie Wymer, who were not aware of the ideologies clashing in their city till they were in the middle of them.

Police Pepper Spraying Protesters. Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/djbones/125523970

The World Trade Organization announced their plans to meet in Seattle well in advance of the planned kickoff at the end of November. The goal of the meeting was to host a new round of trade talks before the new millennium for its over 130 member nations. Trade representative Charlene Barshefky was quoted in the press release announcing the event as saying it would be “the largest trade event ever held in the United States”.[5] Protests were anticipated; a week before the conference, the Seattle Times reported that the talks would likely bring “50,000 people downtown”.[6] Demonstrations didn’t quite reach that number, but an estimated 40,000 people thronged the streets on November 30th to voice their opposition to perceived moral and environmental issues posed by globalism and the WTO.[7] By noon, several more militant factions of protesters proceeded to engage in violent behavior.[8] Protesters smashed store windows in the shopping district near the Washington State Conference and Trade center where the WTO was meeting, lit trash cans on fire and looted stores.[9] Those who engaged in vandalism made up a small fraction of the protesters, but the police responded by cracking down on the entire demonstration. By the end of the night the national guard had been called in and the crowds mostly were dispersed.[10] when a convention would be in town, it got busier”.[11] On her lunch break there were “a lot more people . . . more people wanting to mix things up”, but she returned to work on the upper floors of the Nordstrom building as usual.[12] When the manager for the building began asking people to leave because violence had broken out in the city, she “didn’t know what was going on . . . how bad it was”.[13] She describes exiting the building as “loud, and lots of people yelling” but

Annie Worked West of the Conference Center, within the Yellow Zone. University of Washington https://content.lib.washington.edu/wtoweb/index.html

she “couldn’t tell you what they said”.[14]  As she wasn’t up to date on the news at the time, she couldn’t understand what was going on, asking herself “why are they doing this? . . . what would cause them to be so upset and to do this?”[15] After stumbling through the tear gas wafting through the streets and finding her way onto a bus, Annie was able to make it home safely.


Other than offering a harrowing story, Annie’s testimony points to a perspective not given in Brand’s section of the WTO protests in American Dreams. Brands neglects the uninformed and politically ambivalent perspectives, both in the events they experienced, and how they recall them. While she knew that WTO was visiting the city, she had no idea what the protesters wanted, even after seeing them firsthand, assuming that “they were protesting against . . . the world trade organization and . . . some of their policies and what they were trying to do, I think”.[16] One would think that from Brand’s assertion that “few single events in American history ever received more global coverage”, the whole city of Seattle would be fully informed on what was about to happen on its streets. The section wrongly paints the participants in the event in black and white, protesters, onlookers, and police, without interpreting the in-between. Because of this, he generalizes several aspects of the 1999 WTO protests in ways that contradict Annie Wymer’s recollection of the event. Some of these are larger omissions than others, but each fact omitted would have created a more accurate picture of the impact the protests had not just locally, but in national history.

Seattle, as Brand paints it, was a “haven for hippies and tree huggers”, a stereotype which is in many ways true.[17] As Annie recalls from her childhood in the area “in the seventies you’d have more of what my parents would call the ‘flower children’”.[18] With this counter-culture idea of the city in mind, it is not clear why it was selected to host such a historic establishment trade conference. If Brands were to give the city a full historical context these questions would disappear. The Seattle of 1999 was the home of exporting giants like Microsoft, Boeing, Costco, Starbucks, Alaska Airlines, and Nordstrom. As part of the boom in global trade, Annie was helping Nordstrom as they “shipped everything from overseas”, one of the things protesters would hound upon during their demonstrations. This shipping happened at the 6th and 10th busiest commercial ports in the country in Seattle and Tacoma respectively, and transportation from SeaTac international airport was paramount for conference logistics.[19] Conventions happen in Seattle frequently enough that it didn’t surprise Annie that the WTO was coming to town, even though she hadn’t bothered to learn what they were planning to do while there. For her, business conferences were exciting because they brought “more people globally to town which was always fun to see . . . a lot of times they’[d] come into Nordstrom”.[20] To Annie the event was nothing out of the usual until the protests erupted.

Proceedings of the Cofnerence. Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/djbones/125523970

In neglecting the stories of people like Annie Wymer who do not stay up to date on the state of the country, Brands misleads the reader into assuming that every individual in history chooses a side. He selected the World Trade Organization protests to illustrate the growing backlash against globalization in the 1990s. But for Annie, that backlash was not in her mind at all as she went to work on that Tuesday. The legacy of the protests is misrepresented for the same reason. If there were some Seattleites not in on the debate over globalization and trade, surely, they would be after an event that Brands says had global attention. Annie’s testimony refutes this, today she doesn’t know exactly what the protesters were demanding.[21] During the chaos she even believed that the tear gas “was the protesters, throwing stuff at the police”. When asked about returning to work she states that the office quickly “moved on from it” and went on with their jobs.

When writing about an event, it is very easy to concentrate on the extremes of emotion. But in focusing on only the protesters and the police response in Seattle during the 1999 World Trade protests, H.W. Brands leaves out the fact that some people caught in the crossfire had no clue what was going on. Those people left in confusion illustrate an important fact about American History, that not everyone is appropriately informed about what they are living through. Most people don’t know they are living through history until years after the fact, and even then, they might not understand it. Brands’ claim that the WTO protests were universally understood as a conflict between anti-globalists from Seattle and outside officials is a mischaracterization of the event, and an omission of stories like that of Annie Wymer. With her oral testimony, key insights are now revealed about ordinary people during extraordinary events.


[1] Zoom Interview with Annie Wymer, November 30, 2023

[2] Zoom Interview with Annie Wymer, November 30, 2023

[3] Zoom Interview with Annie Wymer, November 30, 2023

[4] H.W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2010)

[5] “World Trade Organization.” WTO. Accessed December 11, 2023.

[6] Stephen H. Dunphy, “WTO In Seattle – Trade Rebound Seen for 2000 as Asia Crisis Fades”, The Seattle Times (Seattle, Wa.) Nov. 23, 1999

[7] Brands, 336

[8] Brands, 336

[9] Editors, “Wild in the Streets”, The Seattle Stranger (Seattle, Wa.) Dec. 2, 1999.

[10] Marc, Edelman. “Peasant—Farmer Movements, Third World Peoples, and the Seattle Protests against the World Trade Organization, 1999.” Dialectical Anthropology 33, no. 2 (2009): 109–28. http://www.jstor.org/stable/29790875.

[11] Zoom Interview with Annie Wymer, December 5, 2023

[12] Zoom Interview with Annie Wymer, November 30, 2023

[13] Zoom Interview with Annie Wymer, November 30, 2023

[14] Zoom Interview with Annie Wymer, November 30, 2023

[15] Zoom Interview with Annie Wymer, November 30, 2023

[16] Zoom Interview with Annie Wymer, November 30, 2023

[17] Brands, 332

[18] Zoom Interview with Annie Wymer, November 30, 2023

[19] “Meaningful Consensus.” Economic and Political Weekly 34, no. 51 (1999): 3556–57. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4408723; Bayne, Nicholas. “Why Did Seattle Fail? Globalization and the Politics of Trade.” Government and Opposition 35, no. 2 (2000): 131–51. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44482886;

[20] Zoom Interview with Annie Wymer, December 5, 2023

[21] Zoom Interview with Annie Wymer, November 30, 2023


Further Reading:

Araya, Mónica. “Lessons From the Stalemate in Seattle.” The Journal of Environment & Development 9, no. 2 (2000): 183–89. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44319494.
Bayne, Nicholas. “Why Did Seattle Fail? Globalization and the Politics of Trade.” Government and Opposition 35, no. 2 (2000): 131–51. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44482886.3
Bieschke, Marke. “The Battle in Seattle (Seattle WTO Protests, 1999).” In Into the Streets. United States: Lerner Publishing Group, 2020.
Levi, Margaret, and Gillian H. Murphy. “Coalitions of Contention: The Case of the WTO Protests in Seattle.” Political studies 54, no. 4 (2006): 651–670.
Martin, Christopher R. “THE UPS STRIKE, THE WTO PROTESTS, AND THE FUTURE OF LABOR IN THE NEWS.” In Framed, 162–202. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2018.
Wood, Lesley J. Direct Action, Deliberation, and Diffusion: Collective Action after the WTO Protests in Seattle. 1st ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.





M – Thank you for talking with me, again just to give you an idea we’re going to be talking, doing an oral history about your experiences during the 1999 world trade organization protests in Seattle, to get a couple things away at the very beginning, my name is Michael Wymer, I’m recording this from Dickinson College in Carlisle Pennsylvania, could you tell me your name please?


A- Annie Wymer


M – And where are you currently?


A – I am currently in Mountlake Terrace Washington


M – And do I have your consent to Record this and . . .


A – Yes you do


M – Use it for my project? And you know that I’m going to be sending you some paperwork that will be more official.


A – Yep, no problem


M – Cool, I’ll say just at the start, that this is my Mother, so there’s a little bit of a bias there, but I will be asking you questions, some of them I do know the answer to, so if you tell me anything that seems like I should already know it it’s to get you talking and things like that


A – Okay


M – So I think my fist question is, so you were in Seattle in 1999, could you just talk about your, kind of a brief summary of your life up until that point when you were working in Seattle


A -So I worked for Nordstrom which is a clothing retailer, and I was married, and I was pregnant and we lived in Shoreline [City directly north of Seattle], and I commuted downtown by bus usually and worked there for Nordstrom on Fifth Avenue


M – And where did you grow up?


A- I grew up in Kirkland Washington, which is not too far from Seattle.


M – Alright, growing up what was your impression of Seattle?


A – Um, Growing up? That it was fun, somewhere to go, different, on the water, you had the space needle, um, the king dome back them, so it was a great place to grow up, and I like the weather [laughs]


M – I’ll get into some more questions about politics, so what was the first election that you saw? What was the first election that you can remember in Seattle?


A- Um… Probably Reagan times, can’t remember if Carter came after Reagan but, did Carter come before?


M – Carter came before Reagan


A -Okay so pry Carter just because of peanuts and his brother Billy and, but I remembered Carter and then Reagan, those would be the ones that I remembered, but I’m trying to think who would have been president when I could vote, I’ll have to think on that


M – Do you remember voting when you turned 18?


A  – M’hm, would it have been Clinton? No…


M – It was probably, you were born in ’69?


A – Probably a Bush


M – Yeah it was probably H.W.


A – Yeah but no I remember voting when I was able to, it was a thing in school where you registered to vote, when you were in High School


M – Could you talk a little bit about Seattle as in Seattle politics? It’s very well known for Hippies in the sixties, were you aware of some of the differences between the Seattle area versus the rest of the country?


A – No probably well the only thing I would notice was that it was, you know, a little bit more free spirited [laughs] and hippy-ish, but we also went to eastern Washington which is more conservative if you were where my grandparents were in the Tri-Cities [Richland, Pasco, Kennewick], a little bit more conservative down there, a little more free spirited over in the Seattle area.


M – And when you say free spirited, what would make you think that?


6:54 A – Like Hippie the, I guess that would be in the seventies, you’d have the more, my parents would call the “flower children”, little hippies kind of just going with the flow, long hair, hippies.


M – In the 1990s you were working in Seattle, do you remember the Clinton years? What was the Clinton election for his first term like?


A – You know, I don’t really recall too much about it, but I wasn’t a big political person, but um just remembered him getting elected and them having a small child


M – We’re going to get into the late 90s, right, 1999, so this is where I am going to open it up to you, what would you say, did you know what the World Trade Organization was going to be doing in Seattle? Before it happened


A – Um… No, I knew it was coming, and that it was a big deal, and you know lots of people were going to be in town for it, didn’t really know what was going to happen, the turn it took, but it was more of kind of a little bit of an excitement for Seattle to host something like that.


M – So this is where I’ll open it up for the day of, and you can go in, I know it’s been a long time, but you just tell me the story, what did you do that morning? And did you know there was going to be a protest? And from there just tell me about what that day was like for you.


A – So, rode the bus to work, I lived in Shoreline I would have, actually your dad probably dropped me off at work and then, he worked down by the airport [SeaTac] and I went to work and at that time I was at the top of the Nordstrom Building, that’s where my offices were, and it was a normal day knowing that WTO was going on, and I just remember lots of people, like when we went to lunch, lots of people being around, and then the protesters came in, I did look it up last night and it looks like there was about 40,000 protesters that came in, something like that, and I remember maybe going out at lunch and it was a little hectic, there was a lot more people, not necessarily a positive thing, more people wanting to kind of mix things up and, it was getting, it was getting a little hectic down there, and then I was working and the, oh what would it be?, like the operations manager of the building, they started closing down stores, any of the shopping stores, anything, and they were asking people to get out of  the city, because the protesters were starting to become a little more violent and take over and they were actually bringing in, I think they brought in later in the day the national guard, and for some reason I . . . well I’ll go with that one later. So they were asking everyone to go home as soon as possible so I gathered all my stuff, went down to the street, went to go to my bus stop, and there was just people everywhere, and they were actually throwing like canisters, and there was the police, and they had their riot gear on, and my bus was not going to come down that street and I really didn’t know what I was going to do, so I went down to a different place to catch a bus and my only thought was to catch whatever bus I could and I’d figure it out later, like just get out of the city and I’ll figure it out, now it’s 1999, I maybe had some kind of cell phone, but I didn’t have it with me, cause it wasn’t a common thing, and I went to go get on a bus, and the bus was completely full and they wouldn’t let you on, and so I didn’t know what to do, and I turned around and there was a shoe store, and there were people piling into the shoe store and they locked the doors and by this time now, they had the riot police out, they had the horse police are coming out, they’re throwing like tear gas cannisters, breaking windows, just knocking over garbage cans, and so I pounded on the door of this like footwear store, and they let me in with a bunch of other people, and so, I’m scared spitless, and then the bus actually then were pulling up and they would open their doors and the guy would unlock the door and we would run, we ran out and got on the bus, which I didn’t even know where it was going I just like, I’m just like on a bus I’ll figure it out, and get on the bus, and a guy had a cell phone, so I asked him if I could use it and so I called dad, and told him what was going on, and he had just started to hear about it, and there’s no way he could come get me or anything like that. He had to avoid the city, so I rode the bus, and they’re like pounding on the bus and busses are trying to just like get out of there, and I swear there was like an armored car like a tank on the street, and people everywhere, and so finally I got up, not, I don’t know how far from home, and that was where the bus went, and so luckily I was going down Aurora [Highway 99] got off and then I walked the rest of the way home, and then was watching everything on the news, so that was my adventure, and plus I was probably six months pregnant, five and a half – six months pregnant, to add to that [laughs] and they asked people then, I don’t know what day it was, do you know what day it was?


M – I can look that up


A – and then I did not go into work for the next few days, they did not want people coming into the city, cause they were trying to get all those people out and then yeah, I went back probably then next week, and they had a lot of cleaning up they did, there was broken windows, all sorts of stuff


M – It was a Tuesday


A – It was a Tuesday? So, I wanna say it started on Wednesday but the riot was Tuesday [sic] and it went downhill from there, so that was my adventure


M: Well, thank you for sharing I have a couple follow up questions, that’s not the whole thing. These are just questions to get you to think a little more about some of the aspects of the day. So, you mentioned how your operations manager was asking people to leave and explaining the situation, do you know, did you get a sense of where the information for the operations manager was coming down from?


A – I think he had, where I was there wasn’t like any windows, and so the store’s maybe three or four stories, and I think they were getting work from probably the Seattle police cause they were locking the doors and I don’t know if like a windows [sic] got broken there, I can’t remember, but they were just assessing and the police pry said we need to get, you need to get people out of here


M – So earlier in the day you had gone out for lunch, and you said there were people out, what kind of people were about? Did they seem like onlookers? Did they seem like people who were protesting? Did they have signs?


A – It seemed more like protesters there were probably signs, I can’t remember exactly, but they were more, there were protesters and then there was a bunch of people that were looking to make trouble, not necessarily protest, cause you can protest, but then there’s the people who want to make trouble and that’s, I think that’s when everything went bad is when those guys came in.


  1. – So when you came out the second time after work closed and things had gotten a lot worse, so the protesters can you kind of set the stage for me, was it like police on one side protesters on the other? Where was the force being targeted at?


A – So I had to go from the Nordstrom store and I had to cross Westlake, so anyone who knows the area you had to get across Westlake park and then there was a lot of yeah, it was protesters [gestures with one hand] and police [gestures with the other hand] but they were in  their riot gear, with the shields, and then there were also horses, so they were kind of trying to push them back, get them out of, pry out of downtown area, or away from the stores, so it was kind of back and forth as I recall


M – So how were you getting information about this, was it just word of mouth? What was going on, how did you come to understand the situation if you did at all?


17:39 A – That’s a good question cause it was not like now, so it wasn’t instant, no, I remember you know being in my cubicle and then basically coming in and like hey we want everyone going home so we first heard of it cause again, there was no windows, you don’t, can’t see down and see what’s going on, and then really when I was trying to get on a bus to get out of there I didn’t know what was going on, like I didn’t know, like I said, I’m just gonna get on a bus and I’m gonna try to get as close to home as I can, and I’ll figure it out then, but there was not the technology, there’s not the phone I didn’t know if, how bad it was, are we even going to get out of there, how long, I mean the traffic was horrible, and it was just basically word of mouth because nobody would even have, it’s not like you would have your transistor radio or something like that so it would be just word of mouth or what people had heard or seen.


M – So dad was further south by the airport, when you finally got in contact with him, what did he think was going on?


A – I just wanted to let him know that what was going on downtown, and that I was on a bus and that I was trying to get the heck out of there, but it was chaotic and traffic and he’s like there’s no way he could come and get me and, cause you also don’t want to be involved in that and so he had only just started to hear about it, and again they weren’t really on computers you wouldn’t get an alert, anything, like that was all probably word of mouth or maybe somebody had like the news on in a break room and then you’d hear about it


M – do you remember what channels you were watching?


A – I would say, probably 5, King 5, probably 4 [Komo 4] or 5, but pry 5 I like 5 better [Laugh]


[End of first recording]


M – So I’m going to ask a little bit about the after of the event, so you said that you had a couple days off of work, what did you do with those days off?


A – I just hung out at home, wasn’t going down into the city [laughs], yeah just hung out at home, pry did chores, and then I think I did a few work things too, I worked a little bit, but it’s not like you had the options of nowadays to work from home, but kinda took it easy from my traumatic exit


M – Did you know anybody else who also had a similar experience to you? Did you talk with anybody else about what was going on?


A – I can’t remember but probably, I think we were all probably in that same boat and a lot of us took the bus trying to get out of there, everything like that.


M – And returning to work what was that like? What were you feeling when you were riding the bus in right after you were allowed to come back to work?


A – Why, I think, well I wasn’t scared or anything like that, but I think if anything, as I recall, there was still a presence of the national guard and everything, trying to clean up and just make sure everything stayed at bay once they cleared em out but I think it took some days for them to, took a while to get people out of there, I mean you know what happened, so


M – So when the protests started, what was your understanding of what the people were protesting?


A – I think they were protesting, probably against some, well obviously against the World Trade Organization and I think some of their policies? And what they were trying to do, I think they were, that’s what my understanding, and I didn’t look it up [laughs]


M – Would you say that on the day when it was happening, you had that same understanding? So try and think back, like you are leaving and you are seeing the protesters, what were you thinking that they were protesting? And it’s okay if you don’t know


A – I was just like why are they doing this? I mean what, what is making, I didn’t know, so it’s like what would cause them to be so upset and to do this?


M – So in the next couple months did you, did this become a point of conversation or did you move on from it pretty quickly?


A – Um… Moved on from it, but it was a, I mean obviously we’re talking about it now, it’s, we, it was more like oh man sorry that happened to you or that was scary, it’s like oh yeah I’m pregnant trying to get on a bus and they’re throwing cannisters with tear gas and doing all sorts of stuff and so I guess it’s part of history


M – Was it pretty apparent that it was that important at the time? Or did that feeling come later?


A – I think when I got home and saw it on T.V., you know, they were showing, at that time you’d have like a helicopter outside taking pictures of it and just the mass of people in the streets, so I think it was more afterwards cause then I was more in a safe situation to look at it.


M – So just a logistical question, could you go through again, if you can remember, so where your building was and kind of where these events were happening, just so, it doesn’t have to be specific.


A – Well my building, I think it was on fifth [Ave.] and Pike [St.] or Pike [St.] one of those, and it was happening maybe, maybe I’m up farther, but anyways Pike and Pine and then you have Westlake Center so you are heading West, and that’s where a lot of people were gathering, but you had to get across Westlake Center and then the busses were running the other side, so you’re kinda in the core retail area in Seattle, And then I think they were trying to mainly gather there at Westlake, cause I don’t know if the Convention Center is there if that’s where, actually I don’t know where they were meeting, if they were meeting like at the convention center or if they were at the Westin hotel, they might have been at the


M – I believe they were at the Convention Center


A – Okay, which makes sense, the Convention Center would have been to the East of where I was, so they were travelling probably east but definitely Westlake is a gathering spot.


M – So going back to the protesters, when things started turning violent, could you talk a little bit more, or just reiterate what were they doing? Were they chanting? How would you identify a protester? Was it based off of just what they were wearing? Was it just kinda the situation you were in?


A – The situation I was in and they were just, kind of their clothing, they were, lack of a better word, just looked like punks, and they were, and you could tell they were looking to be destructive, that’s just, yeah


M – And talk about the destruction, so did you see any of the destruction of property that was going on at this time?


A – I saw a window broken, they were taking like those big metal garbage cans, throwing them, that kind of, that kind of stuff, and then you had the riot people kind of pushing at them but they were definitely pushing back, and then they were throwing whatever they, throwing things at the police and the national guard.


M – Were you at all, what was your thought on the police response? Were you, had you seen anything like it before?

A – No


M – Were you surprised by it?


A – No I thought it was fine, and then especially when they bring in the horses and all that too, and like I said they had like a, it wasn’t a tank but it was like an armored car because they were block, that just came to me, they had like a streets, they were starting to block streets off to keep any cars out, anything like that, so I think the police response was adequate, fine.


M – Was it, was it a surprise? Had you ever seen that level of police response before?


A – No, Never, it was a surprise but it was a good surprise


M – We’ll move a little bit into the future, the 1999 protest, The Battle for Seattle as it is often called, is controversial because of the use of tear gas by the police, rubber bullets, and the militarization, did you ever hear anybody talking about that controversy?


A – No, cause if you ask my philosophy, if you’re gonna do that you deserve what you’re gonna get, so [laughs] but no I don’t recall at all


M – Have you talked to anybody, I know you talked to me and my sister about it, but have you talked to anyone else about it in the years since?


A – Oh it gets brought up every once in a while, just more of, WTO, and trying to get out of the city and do that kind of stuff, so I’d say, you know, maybe once a year.


M – And what’s usually the consensus of it?


A – Oh yeah I remember that, that was, you know, it was crazy so, and it, it’s just a short conversation, no one’s dwelling on it, anything like that, um, but, everyone has, who was downtown, has their own little story about it


M – So you were working in an office, and you talked about your, your kind of boss or manager who was kind of directing people to leave, can you remember at all what your coworkers, what their response to everything was like? Were people worried?


A – It was all kind of the same, it was just like what is going on, and just kind of how am I gonna get home and, so there was, I don’t want to say panic, but there was nervousness, and a little bit of what the heck’s going on, so everyone was kinda in the same boat, I know probably when we got back to work the following week everyone told their stories.


M – Did the events of 1999 change how you saw Seattle?


A – No, No not at all, there’s other events more current that would make me think different but nothing changed then with my opinions on the city.


M – Do you think that the events were at the time, so thinking back to the time kind of what people were talking about, were most people on the side of the World Trade and kind of the establishment as opposed to being on the side of the protesters? That you talked to


A – [Nods] Most everyone I know is on the side of the World Trade versus the protesters


M – Could you just kind of describe the circles you were in, were they kind of young professionals?


A – Yeah, young professionals probably friends being, I don’t know, between 27 and 37, you know, young professionals working, you know, in offices, kind of all similar backgrounds growing up, that kind of thing


M – I think I’ll end with asking you a little more about the substance of the protest, so what are your thoughts on, these are going to be broad questions its okay if you don’t have an opinion on them, at the time thinking back, you’re Annie Wymer, it’s 1999 what were your thoughts on world trade, in the 1990s American trade was the freest it had ever been ,we were doing deals with China with South American, south-east Asia, what were you feeling at the time if you had any opinions on it whatsoever?


A – The only thing I knew about is cause I worked for Nordstrom, and we were importing from overseas, you know I knew a little bit about that, just the importing, shipping of goods, flying in of goods, Dad, same thing he’s an international trading freight forwarder so he, we just knew of boats coming in with stuff on it, you could see the port you can see those boats coming in and out all the time so I didn’t have a lot of thoughts on it, I just knew that it was happening, and it was, from my perspective a good thing


M – Similar thing, so globalism, interconnectedness of the world, the idea that you can get a McDonalds hamburger in Paris and Madrid and Bangkok and all of those things, that kind of thing where culture was being globalized did you have any opinions on that, again it’s okay if you weren’t thinking about it, that’s also an important thing too.


A – I wasn’t thinking about it then, but I mean I have travelled and would see, you know, Mozart’s birthplace and a McDonalds next to it, but I refused to eat there, I just stayed within the culture, I think some of it’s good, not all of it’s good, but I didn’t really think about it, I think about it now, but not so much then.


M – And so for the 1990s one of the big elements of protest was the environment, obviously in the 1990s the environmental movement was very different than it is nowadays, what was, 1999 Annie Wymer then not Annie Wymer now, what did you think about people who were very concerned about the environment?


A – I think they had knowledge and that they knew what was going to happen, some of the extremists I thought were wacky, but you know you’d have someone who was always like, I guess recycling wasn’t a thing, but they were always reusing or repurposing, and I thought that that was good.


M – Did you partake in any of that yourself?


A – Some, but not to big extremes like, I’m trying to think, I mean back then we were starting to recycle and do all that I would try and do my part and do all I could there.


M – Do you have any final point you want to make or anything we didn’t get to touch on?


A – No, I would say back in those late 90s in Seattle, you’d go down there, you’d go down to the market, you’d walk around, you’d go shopping, it’s beautiful down there, there’s a lot to see, but it definitely has changed, so hopefully someday it will go back to that.


17:25 M – Do you draw a line between that change and the events of 1999?


A – No, No, I think it’s just how culture has evolved, so I think it can go back, not the same but I think it can go back for the better.


M – Thank you for talking with me.


A – No problem, happy to do it




M – These protests are often pointed to as the beginning of the rapid expansion of militarization of the police, so you said this was your first time seeing the police in riot gear in person?


A – Yes, nope, well here now I just thought of that cause I had been the month before in London, and we were at a soccer match and the London police came in with their horses and the police in their riot gear for the hooligans, but that wasn’t here in the U.S., otherwise that was the first time I saw anything like that


M – Was that surprising to you to see the sophistication of technology that they had?


A – No it didn’t surprise me, it was just more surprising that they had to use it


M – So going back to 1999, in the mind of Annie in 1999, if I was to ask you, you’re thirty years old, in politics what was the most important thing to you at the time? When you were voting what was top of your mind? If anything in politics?

A – I don’t know, just someone who, obviously they can say whatever they want, and people will believe them whether they are truthful or not, but hopefully someone who is truthful and gonna do good for the country and everyone in the country and not just a bunch of BS.


M – What would you have said that your position on globalism was, international trade treaties with other countries to increase trade and production oversees of goods that Americans then buy.


A – It, was a little bit, I only had a little bit of it because I worked for a company that, I did go to Hong Kong, I mean we shipped everything over from overseas, I was used to that, my husband your dad works in international trade, so it’s definitely something we’re aware of, I guess we’re aware of it but it’s not like how we’re aware of it now after COVID and the supply chain issues.


M – So you talked a little bit about some of the work you did at Nordstrom, what was your position at Nordstrom at the time?


5:08 A – At the time I was, I’m trying to think what it was called, I was like a production assistant for women’s active and Callaway Golf and men’s active, yes that’s where I was.


M – So when you went to Hong Kong, what were you doing there?


A – I went to Hong Kong, I was in a different position at that time but I went to Hong Kong and what we were doing was working with the companies that were making our clothing, so let’s say the blouse I have on, we would, we were like picking out the buttons and clarifying the quantities, the colors, they probably had mock ups of the exact garment that we looked at, but we would know what factories they were getting made at, cost, all of that kind of thing, and then also it kind of goes in with the shipping and the trade of it


M – So in your time at Nordstrom, what years did you work at Nordstrom?


A – I worked there from ’92 to ‘99


M – Did you notice an increase in an emphasis on international business at the time, so that’s like looking towards overseas factories, how the business did its dealings?


A – They might have, there were times where they would change country of origin due to different issues, but they definitely had the company that they would use that were respected and had good practices, so I didn’t notice too much change, if anything it would just be change because a company wasn’t doing something good.


M – Were you ever worried about your positions or your work going overseas at the time?


A – No, I was not, because that’s what my position was here, needed to be here, but I could see that with other, positions like the people who picked out the sizing of the garments and specced those all out, I could see that as something that should be done potentially overseas.


M – Back to November 30, 1999, so this is the day of the protest, we talked about the day of, can you remember anything about the week leading up to that day? So were there people about in the days leading up, I think we determined it was a Tuesday so I guess you would have been at work the day before.


A – I think it was just know that this whole thing was going to be happening and that it would be busy, you knew when a convention would be in town, it kind of got busier, so I would speculate that it was just busier, more hubbub, more people globally, internationally in town, which was always fun to see, a lot of times they’ll come into Nordstrom to see everything.


M – You said that you had come to work and there were people milling about, and then you got out for lunch and there were more people about, so when you say people about, was this on the sidewalk, were there people blocking traffic in the street? What was the scene like during lunch?


A – it was just more people, on the sidewalks, and in shops, you know they were a little busier, the main place, there’s a, well they call it Westlake Park, which is bigger than a sidewalk, not necessarily, it’s a cement park if you will, but there were more people gathering around in there, so just a lot busier than a normal Tuesday.


M – So you get back from lunch, you get back to your desk from lunch and you said that your buildings operations manager type person came around to give you the news, had you met this person before?


A – Yes, yeah, they were quite known as like a facilities person, operational facilities director.


M – What was there attitude like?


A – Go home, now


M – Did they seem concerned


A – Yeah it was like, I want everyone out and now


M – So you are leaving your desk, you said you packed up your things, to get out of the building did you have to go through the store?


A – I had to go down an elevator, cause you couldn’t take, you could probably take the stairs all the way, I think I was on the eighth or ninth floor, you had to take an elevator, and then you went out some side doors, if you went through the store you had to go back through security to get out so there was like a security place, so I probably just went out the employee entrance.

M – So you come down and you’re coming out of the exit, when was the first moment where you realized something big was happening? Was it when the doors opened?


A – Pretty much, pretty much, there was, it’s not an alley it’s still on the street but its between where pacific place is and Nordstrom, where the sky walk, and there were lots of people in a hurry moving, so, but then when I got to, and I think that I got to my bus stop and there was police and protesters and national guard people, so then I couldn’t get my bus where I wanted to go so had to go, I think they were coming from the north to the south on that street and so that was me just trying to get to another bus stop.


M – What do you remember hearing?


A – it was loud, and lots of people yelling, but I couldn’t tell you what they said, just that people yelling, and, that’s kind of all I can remember, it was just loud, so kind of chaotic, just people, not like pandemonium but like definitely chaos of unknown


M – So you had mentioned that there were canisters being thrown of tear gas, at that time who did you think was throwing the tear gas?


A – I thought it was the protesters, throwing stuff at the police but it could very easily have been the police throwing it and them throwing it back.


M – So you went to your first bus stop, did you have to go through the park? Where was your bus stop when you would leave from work, normal bus stop?


A – My bus stop, that must have been, like maybe it was like fourth and fifth, I usually caught it right in front of where the Bon was [The Bon Marche] or Macy’s now, and McDonalds, otherwise known as Burgers and Bullets [Laughs], and the Westin, which is north of there, is where I think they were all coming from, but I normally caught my bus there, but it wasn’t at the normal time, so I had to go south on that street, and that’s where I ended up catching a bus, probably Fourth and Pine maybe, I can’t remember which one’s first Pike or Pine, but down there.


M – So you got to kind of a second bus location ,you got into the shoe store, and then they let you out, you got on the bus, and then you were heading out, can you tell me about, the doors open you get on the bus, what was the ride out like immediately?


A – A lot of people relief that they got on a bus, but kind of, it was packed, and we were going down Fourth or Fifth, and it would have just headed down and then got on Aurora, but it was more, there were people everywhere so the bus driver is just trying to drive, he’s not gonna let anyone else on, and you know, there’s people in the street, there’s chaos, so just getting past that central hub area of what was going on, then I think once we got on Aurora then it was a little bit more of a, if you will a relief, because we were out of that situation.


M – You had mentioned that there was some banging on the bus, could you tell me a little bit more about that?


A – Sure, you know people just banging on it, and those were just the people who were protesting, just to be, there was, they were throwing stuff and the bus is trying to get through them, so they’re just banging on the bus, probably trying to scare the people in the bus.


M – How long do you think from when you were dismissed from work to when you got home, do you think that took?


A – Oh I bet you it took probably at least an hour and a half


M – And could you give an idea of how long that ride would usually be?


A – Usually, actually it was probably longer than that, usually it would have been pry half hour or so, 45 minutes max with traffic.


M – Have you ever met anyone who was protesting?


A – Not in WTO, yeah I don’t know anyone who would have been in WTO who would have been doing that.


[End of interview]





Family Leisure in the Face of Conflict

By Jane Canfield

“The blood of the two Kennedys and King, the blood on the streets of America’s cities, and the blood in Vietnam made that hope almost impossible to maintain,”[1] H.W. Brands writes of the turbulence of the 1960s and 70s that destroyed liberalism’s hope of peaceful problem-solving. In his book American Dreams: The United States Since 1945, Brands characterizes the late 60s and early 70s through its counterculture and conflict, demonstrating societal evolution on a widespread scale. Protests, war, and prominent political figures are emphasized while the typical American experience fails to be mentioned. Brands focuses heavily on typical middle-class American family life in his chapter on the 1950s but never follows up with how those experiences evolved. Brands’ avoidance of this highlights a trend among historians, as the 60s and 70s are more often than not portrayed through the lens of social and political movements. By focusing on the more memorable turmoil like the Vietnam War and counterculture of the 60s, Brands omits the stories of how typical life was unfolding while these events were taking place, thus omitting a fuller picture of the period he explores. The experiences of those directly involved in the conflict are valuable, but personal anecdotes from those who were not are also worthwhile in that they can more accurately reflect the experiences of most Americans of the time.

Frances O’Connell-Canfield’s childhood memories speak directly to the experience of daily life in the late 60s and early 70s, and particularly middle-class family life, which can act as a continuation of Brands’ exploration of middle-class families in the mid-50s and early 60s. Though Brands describes the “Golden Age of the Middle Class” as 1955-1960, he forgoes to explain whether or not the “Golden Age” continued or diminished. The 60s and 70s can be understood as a time of increasing leisure and entertainment for families, the peak of the middle class occurring in the early 70s.[2] Frances O’Connell-Canfield was born in December 1961 and grew up in Queens, New York in a middle-class neighborhood. When recalling her childhood, she describes a time of middle-class bliss, remembering that “we were lucky in that we never experienced any economic hardship. My father had a position where he made a good salary, and my mom stayed home. We were able to, in the 70s, buy a summer house in the north fork of Long Island.”[3] The disposable income that Frances expresses is characteristic of the “Golden Age” of the 50s that Brands writes about. However, what was shifting was the political landscape in which these families existed. The families of the 50s were experiencing the Cold War, while the 60s and 70s saw the Vietnam War through their television screens. Famously dubbed the Television War, attacks were viewed on the news in people’s living rooms. Because the war was prevalent in daily life, one could assume that family life during that time might not be as leisure-filled as the idyllic 1950s suburban life. However, Frances recalls a childhood full of road trips, amusement parks, playing outside, and television, despite the chaos occurring in the U.S. and abroad.

Promotional image of The Partridge Family, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

“We used to take road trips to upstate New York to see Niagara Falls,” Frances recalls, “we went to Cape Cod for the beaches. We loved to go to Golf City, it was a mini golf place. One of my most memorable trips was taking the ferry to Block Island from Long Island,”[4] These memories were not unique. The recreational road trip was an increasing trend in the 60s and 70s, with 68,901 visits to national recreational sites in 1959 skyrocketing to 111,386 in 1964 and jumping another 50,000 or so by 1969.[5] The use of automobiles had also exponentially increased since 1959, allowing more families to have vacations on the road. By the 70s, a culture of spending money on recreation was already embedded into American life as “Americans continued to spend increasing amounts on recreational pursuits, even in the face of higher gas prices and a sluggish economy during the 1970s,” as professor of Economics David George Surdam writes in his study on 20th century American leisure.[6] The “sluggish economy” can in part refer to the energy crisis of the 70s, a time in which Frances remembers “parents were laid off from jobs…And also a construction boom that kind of collapsed. There were three tall empty apartment buildings in Queens. One family moved to the West Coast because they couldn’t get another position.”[7] While the energy crisis laid people off and the Vietnam War was wearing on the economy, recreational spending did not decrease substantially. As Frances remembers, most families in her community were comfortable enough to rely primarily on the income of the fathers, with some of the mothers working by the time she reached high school age. Even so, Frances claimed that the mother’s jobs typically “[weren’t] providing for the household budget but adding to it so they could afford more luxuries like a second car or toward vacation homes or summer vacations, road trips. Vacations were very big in those days.”[8] Therefore, even with financial struggles for some in the 70s, leisure remained at the forefront of family life.

More so than the 1950s, however, family life in the 60s and 70s saw an increase in television watching. While televisions became a new household staple in the 50s[9], the late 60s and 70s solidified the pastime as something to stay. Despite the Vietnam War being televised, watching television was also recreational for the whole family. The amount of children’s entertainment in the 60s and 70s had elevated immensely. Reflecting on the TV shows she watched with her family, Frances remembers the different ways her family watched television: “We all watched the news. 60 Minutes and Face the Nation were popular news shows. Also Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. But for fun, my siblings and I would watch The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family. They were like the number one shows.”[10] With shows like this, the whole family could enjoy the same program. Interestingly, as scholar Andrea Press writes, “Television families of the period tend[ed] to be white, middle-class, intact, and suburban, all appearing in much higher percentages than they did in actuality.”[11] This “ideal” family that was portrayed on television was likely the type of family to be least affected by any of the hardship of the time, meaning that watching these happy families on television could act as escapism from realities of the outside world.

New York Times article about the Atari from Christmas Day, 1975, courtesy of ProQuest

Another addition to family leisure was the rise of electronics and video games. Frances recalls when new electronics began to pop up in her neighborhood, recounting “I remember my dad bringing home from work one day an IBM electric typewriter, I remember when one of the other kids on the block got one of the first VHS tape machines, and I remember when my cousins got the new Atari.”[12] She also recalled watching slideshows of pictures from vacation on the Kodak Carousel Projector. The Atari is of interest, though, because it was the first company to popularize video game consoles.[13] “People want new ways to spend their leisure time,” reads a quote from a 1975 New York Times article on Atari’s popularity, “It’s part of a trend of looking for different ways to relax.”[14] The article claims electronic games to be the newest Christmas gift craze, one that provides an escape from “harsh realities.”[15]

Picture of Frances and her sisters opening presents on Christmas morning, circa mid-1970s.

Whether or not the “harsh reality” of the Vietnam War and other current events seeped into family life depended entirely on personal circumstances. While her family wasn’t directly affected, some families weren’t so lucky as to be so removed from wartime. Frances’ neighbors had a son who had been drafted and she remembers when “he came home and he was kind of…his behavior had changed. In those days people didn’t really understand PTSD or didn’t speak about it. People referred to him as being ‘odd’, saying ‘he got messed up by Vietnam.’”[16] His backyard was next to the O’Connell family, and Frances recalls that he would spend hours lying under a Cherry tree in his yard. As a kid, she wondered why he didn’t get up and do something.

When asked about her awareness of the war at that age, Frances said she was aware, as it was on the news every night, but was too young to have a clear understanding. Frances believes that her parents did their best to shelter their children from the harsh realities, remembering that her mother put away a magazine that had images of the war to not disturb her younger siblings. “I think children,” she says, “or at least middle-class kids, were more kept in a childhood lane in those days. Finances weren’t discussed, and problems of the world weren’t discussed as much except for when they were glaring. Things were hidden from children then.”[17] This protection of childhood innocence in the face of televised foreign violence and violence on the homefront can perhaps be understood as a driving force for the family-friendly entertainment of the era. As an exhibit in the American Archive of Public Broadcasting says, “The late 1960s and 1970s witnessed rising consumer activism in the television industry, as pressure grew on corporate broadcasters to address the commercialization and violence that children saw on television.”[18]

Therefore, while the social radicalism and political conflict of the late 1960s and 70s is the focus of Brands’ exploration, the seemingly mundane life of family leisure can help paint a fuller picture of American culture of the time and how family leisure persisted in the face of conflict. Brands’ claim of how peaceful hope was “almost impossible to maintain” did not apply to many Americans who were somewhat removed from those events and perhaps sheltered through their material consumption and pursuit of leisure.



[1]  H.W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2010), 162.

[2] Willis, Derek. “The Rise of the Middle Class as An Ordinary American Term.” The New York Times, May 14, 2015. [URL]

[3] Video Interview with Frances O’Connell-Canfield Carlisle, PA, and Brewster, NY, November 27th, 2023

[4] Video Interview with Frances O’Connell-Canfield Carlisle, PA, and Brewster, NY, December 8th, 2023

[5] Surdam, David George. “The Rise of Expenditures on Leisure Goods and Services.” Century of the Leisured Masses, 2015, 64–85. [URL]

[6] Surdam, David George. “The Rise of Expenditures on Leisure Goods and Services.” Century of the Leisured Masses, 2015, 64–85. [URL]

[7] Video Interview with Frances O’Connell-Canfield Carlisle, PA, and Brewster, NY, November 27th, 2023

[8] Video Interview with Frances O’Connell-Canfield Carlisle, PA, and Brewster, NY, December 8th, 2023

[9]“1920s – 1960s: Television.” Elon University. Accessed December 11, 2023. [URL]

[10] Video Interview with Frances O’Connell-Canfield Carlisle, PA, and Brewster, NY, December 8th, 2023

[11] Press, Andrea. “Gender and Family in Television’s Golden Age and Beyond.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 625 (2009): 139–50. [JSTOR]

[12]Video Interview with Frances O’Connell-Canfield Carlisle, PA, and Brewster, NY, November 27th, 2023

[13]“Atari 2600 Game System.” The Strong National Museum of Play, November 10, 2021. [URL]

[14] WILLIAM D. SMITH. “Electronic Games Bringing a Different Way to Relax: Electronic Games Bring New Way for Relaxation.” New York Times (1923-), Dec 25, 1975. [URL]

[15]WILLIAM D. SMITH. “Electronic Games Bringing a Different Way to Relax: Electronic Games Bring New Way for Relaxation.” New York Times (1923-), Dec 25, 1975. [URL]

[16]  Video Interview with Frances O’Connell-Canfield Carlisle, PA, and Brewster, NY, December 8th, 2023

[17]  Video Interview with Frances O’Connell-Canfield Carlisle, PA, and Brewster, NY, December 8th, 2023

[18] “Innovations in Children’s Public Television Programming.” American Archive of Public Broadcasting. Accessed December 11, 2023. [URL]



“The blood of the two Kennedys and King, the blood on the streets of America’s cities, and the blood in Vietnam made that hope almost impossible to maintain” (H.W. Brands, American Dreams, p. 162).

Interview Subject

Frances Canfield, age 61, was born in 1961 (near the end of the baby boom) and experienced American family life during the late 60s and early 70s.


Zoom call recording, Carlisle, PA and Brewster, NY, November 27, 2023

Zoom call recording, Carlisle, PA and Brewster, NY, December 8th, 2023

Selected Transcript

Would you describe your family growing up as middle class and can you describe your memories of your neighborhood briefly and the socioeconomic status of your neighborhood overall?

Yes, I would describe my family as middle class. I grew up in Queens, New York in the 60s and 70s. My father and mother came to New York in 1956 from Ireland and we moved into a neighborhood that also had a lot of immigrant and first-generation families from Italy, Germany, Ireland, and Greece. Most of the dads worked and the moms stayed home and raised the children. Everyone came from pretty large families and had ties to a church. There were a lot of activities based out of those churches for families. Most of the kids I grew up with came from families of 4, 5, 6 kids. It was not unusual. In fact, every family on my block had four or more kids. 

How did your financial situation contribute to experiences you had as a child? Did your family ever experience economic hardship?

We were lucky in that we never experienced any economic hardship. My father had a position where he made a good salary, and my mom stayed home. We were able to in the 70s buy a summer house in the north fork of Long Island. And like I said that we had roots in Ireland, we went there every other summer and we took the plane and my cousins also lived in Queens, my father had a sister that he emigrated with. The mothers would stay in Ireland for the summer while the fathers stayed two weeks and went back to work in the United States. You know my father often worked long hours so he could provide that for the family. We were fortunate. But you know I do remember in the 70s some kids in the neighborhood whose parents were laid off from jobs because there was an energy crisis. And also a construction boom that kind of collapsed. There were three tall empty apartment buildings in Queens. One moved to the West Coast because they couldn’t get another position. 

Did you take many road trips growing up and was this the norm for people in your community? And then what was your most memorable road trip?

The houses were small and there were a lot of children so people took a lot of Sunday drives to places like sleigh riding, Bear Mountain Park. Also these big water parks were popular, they were just starting to come, like Palisades park in New Jersey used to have commercials and it was the first wave pool in that tri-state area. A lot of picnics. We used to take road trips to upstate New York to see Niagara Falls, we went to Cape Cod for the beaches. One of my most memorable trips was taking the ferry to Block Island from Long Island. I also remember taking a road trip to Florida and it was long and I remember stopping at South of the Border, the border between North and South Carolina. It had a lot of amusements for kids there. You could buy firecrackers whereas in New York firecrackers were not for sale, they were illegal. We went to Disney World and that was a big deal for us at the time. We didn’t really appreciate visiting our grandparents in Ireland, we preferred Disney World as kids.   

Were there any television shows/movies you and your whole family would watch together?

Yes we would watch Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, it was a popular nature show. I would watch that with my mom, dad, and sisters. We all watched the news. 60 minutes and Face the Nation were popular news shows. But for fun, my siblings and I would watch the Brady Bunch and the Partridge Family. They were like the number one shows. As a family I remember going to Radio City Music Hall in NYC and seeing a movie called 1776. I don’t remember going to other movies except for drive-ins in the summer in the town of  our summer house on Long Island. We mostly played outside with the other kids in the neighborhood until it was dinner time. We played board games, we had a lot of board games. And those we would play as a family. 

In the book I’m reading for my class, American Dreams by Brands, his chapter on the time of your childhood focuses heavily on the political and social movements going on. I was wondering as a kid, did you even take notice of any of that? Because you were so young, do you remember anything about that?

Well, I did take notice of it because it was on the news and it was on the news every night, really. And our next door neighbor, the Hansens, their son had been in Vietnam and he came home and he was kind of, his behavior had changed. In those days people didn’t really understand PTSD or didn’t really speak about it. People referred to him as being “odd now” or “he got messed up by Vietnam.” Their backyard butted our backyard, and they had this Cherry tree. He used to spend hours just laying under that Cherry tree and I remember as a kid wondering why he didn’t get up and do something. And I think part of it was that he was decompressing but we weren’t really privy to that, or it wasn’t explained to us or discussed. And I did have a t-shirt that another older neighbor had given to me whose brother had also been in Vietnam, I actually have a photo of me wearing it. It said “Make Love Not War” and I remember she was a teenager and I was maybe 10 and she passed it onto me when it shrunk in the wash or she outgrew it. I remember her parents being very disturbed that their son was drafted, you know, but luckily he came back okay. Also, a magazine that was delivered to our house was “Life” magazine. It was practically just a photo journal, and I remember one time there was coverage about Vietnam about it and my mother putting it away because I had younger siblings and she didn’t want them to be disturbed by the images. But again, I was young so I didn’t really have a clear understanding of it. Like when I see kids now at protests on their parent’s shoulders or something. As a kid, children weren’t part of it. I think children, or at least middle-class kids were more kept in a childhood lane in those days. Finances weren’t discussed, problems of the world weren’t discussed as much, except for when they were really glaring. Things were hidden from children then. 

Further Research

Willis, Derek. “The Rise of the Middle Class.” The New York Times, May 14, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/15/upshot/the-rise-of-middle-class-as-a-mainstream-description.html

Surdam, David George. “The Rise of Expenditures on Leisure Goods and Services.” Century of the Leisured Masses, 2015, 64–85. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190211561.003.0006.

1920s – 1960s: Television.” Elon University. Accessed December 11, 2023. https://www.elon.edu/u/imagining/time-capsule/150-years/back-1920-1960/#:~:text=Television%20replaced%20radio%20as%20the,million%20had%20them%20by%201960.

Press, Andrea. “Gender and Family in Television’s Golden Age and Beyond.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 625 (2009): 139–50. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40375911.

“Atari 2600 Game System.” The Strong National Museum of Play, November 10, 2021. https://www.museumofplay.org/toys/atari-2600-game-system/#:~:text=Atari%20did%20not%20make%20the,electronic%20table%2Dtennis%20game%20Pong.

“Innovations in Children’s Public Television Programming.” American Archive of Public Broadcasting. Accessed December 11, 2023. https://americanarchive.org/exhibits/zoom/innovations-childrens-television.


Sam Kistler-Vietnam Veterans: America’s Other Vietnam Failure

Video: Vietnam Veterans: America’s Other Vietnam Failure

       Vietnam Veterans: America’s Other Vietnam Failure

By Sam Kistler

“The communist conquest completed America’s Vietnam debacle,” wrote H.W. Brands in his, American Dreams, referencing the Fall of Saigon and the ultimate end of American involvement in the Vietnam War. [1] The conflict, during which direct American military action lasted from 1965-1973, was highly controversial and contentious, and claimed the lives of nearly 60,000 American servicemen. [2] Set against the backdrop of America’s Cold War policy of globally containing communism, the unsuccessful and domestically unpopular conflict saw the United States militarily intervene in support of South Vietnam in their war against neighboring communist North Vietnam. After eight years of harsh fighting, and little, if any, true military success, US forces withdrew from Vietnam completely in 1973, and in April of 1975, the North Vietnamese captured the South’s capital city of Saigon, effectively concluding the war. However, while the fighting itself may have ended in the South Vietnamese capital on 30 April 1975, “America’s Vietnam debacle,” was far from complete.

While America’s geopolitical aspect of the Vietnam War ended with the cessation of hostilities in 1975, a domestic development of the war would continue for decades, one that many, including H.W. Brands, neglect to include in their analysis of the conflict: the plight of Vietnam Veterans. Upon returning from the failed war, often brining with them physical disabilities and mental struggles, American servicemen faced persistent hardships, with many finding both inadequate assistance in dealing with those hardships, and a seemingly ungrateful nation. Robert Van Loon had a front row seat to the predicaments of these Veterans. In 1971, after serving in the Army Reserves during the early years of the war, Van Loon began a career at the Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.), first working as a Benefits Claims Examiner in Buffalo, NY, and then as a Benefits Counselor and Officer-in-Charge in Rochester, NY until retiring in 2001. [3] As a Benefits Counselor, Van Loon dealt personally with Veterans, and he recalls being “inundated” with those who served in Vietnam. [4] “I interviewed and filed claims for many thousands of Vietnam Veterans,” he remembered. [5] As witnessed by Van Loon, throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, the men who had served in what was at the time America’s longest conflict would face struggles of an intensity greater than those faced by any Veterans who had come before. While the war was over for the rest of America, their fight was just beginning.

Unlike in previous conflicts, improved medical capabilities of the American military in Vietnam allowed for the survival of hundreds of thousands of wounded servicemen. However, this increased survival rate of the wounded also meant a much higher percentage of soldiers with physical disabilities after the war. In all, nearly 800,000 disabled came out of Vietnam, with almost 400,000 having been moderately to severely impaired. [6] These disabilities often prevented Veterans from living normal lives, and a great deal found their ability to participate in society quite limited. Most turned to government agencies such as the V.A. for help, receiving benefits and medical care. Many received the much needed assistance from the V.A., as Van Loon remembers, “a lot of people (Veterans) did like the V.A., and they liked getting medical benefits.” [7] However, the US Federal Government and the V.A. did come up short on some important fronts.

Most returning disabled Veterans came to the Department of Veterans Affairs to receive badly needed medical care, often administered at V.A. Hospitals. With hundreds of thousands of wounded and disabled servicemen, the V.A. would have needed to provide highly efficient and effective care to meet the needs of these men. This was, however, sadly not the case. V.A. hospitals were often overcrowded, and often lacked the ability to provide adequate care to their patients. “They should have spent more money on the medical part of the V.A.,” recalls Van Loon, in one of his critiques of his employer. [8] “There always seemed to be a shortage of doctors, and perhaps a shortage of nurses too.” [9] These shortfalls of the medical services of the V.A. are vividly illustrated in wounded Lieutenant Bobby Muller’s account of a V.A. Hospital in the Bronx, NY. “It was overcrowded. It was smelly. It was filthy. It was disgusting,” he recalled, while also going on to recount how the understaffed nurses were often too busy to assist him, and that the hospital even ran out of wheelchairs. [10]

Apart from the physical injuries that plagued many Vietnam Veterans, mental afflictions also followed the returning soldiers back home. Of the many former servicemen he dealt with, Van Loon recalls, “A lot of them had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” [11] Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), an ailment seen in Veterans of most wars, is a mental illness resulting from memories of traumatic events such as combat, and was especially prevalent among Veterans of Vietnam, afflicting up to 15% of all the men who served in the war. [12] What’s more, as Van Loon remembers, it took years until these mental illnesses were identified, as PTSD itself only became a diagnosed mental disorder in 1980, leaving many Veterans to struggle with these afflictions on their own. [13] As a result, a good number of these Veterans were also increasingly unstable, highlighted by an encounter in which Van Loon was threatened by a Vietnam Veteran over a loan payment. “He saw it, he blamed me for it, and said he was going to shoot me with a shotgun,” he recalled, and while the man never went through with his threat, the encounter is a stark reminder of the mental difficulties faced by Veterans of Vietnam. [14]

In addition to their medical difficulties, many Vietnam Veterans also heavily struggled financially. Developments in the mid-late 1970s caused energy prices and inflation to rise drastically in America, leading to increasing unemployment and ultimately a recession. [15] While their mental and physical injuries would have already caused them difficulty in finding work, returning home to a broken economy made it especially hard for many Vietnam Vets to secure employment. Furthermore, many of those who fought in Vietnam  were prevented from finishing their educations, wether it be college or high school. Because of this, a large portion of Veterans found themselves working in low paying, low-skill level, unfulfilling occupations. [16] So, even for those who would find employment, the opportunities were quite slim and grim. 

In light of their economic hardships, many Vietnam Vets would again turn to organizations like the V.A., this time for badly needed financial assistance. While the benefits provided by the federal government did help a good number of Veterans, there also those who felt that, once again, the systems in place to aid them had let them down. Many Vietnam servicemen found that the G.I. benefits that had greatly assisted World War II Vets in establishing post-war lives just three decades earlier were quite lacking, and even “nonexistent,” in the words of Veteran Peter Langenus. [17] In addition to the perceived weakness of the benefits, a number of tricky tacky V.A. regulations prevented some Vietnam Veterans from even receiving necessary aid at all. Van Loon highlights one of these regulations, “The V.A. had a regulation where they (Veterans) had to have gotten a medical determination within one year of leaving service, showing a disability.” [18] Many Veterans were unaware of the bylaw he refers to, and were consequently unable to receive their badly needed disability benefits, “Many of these guys just left service. There was no particular medical examination that they got and they complained, and you know, rightly so.”[19] An instance of this predicament can further be seen in the testimony of Peter Langenus, as he recounts contracting a severe disease specifically connected to Vietnam, after having returned to the U.S.. [20] Langenus recalls that he was unable to receive V.A. benefits or health insurance simply because he was unable to connect the affliction to his war-time service without an in-service medical examination. [21] With many already disabled, impoverished, and out of job, Vietnam Vets now also found themselves unable to receive their promised assistance.

In addition to their medical and financial plights, perhaps worst of all was they way many Vietnam Veterans felt they were treated by American society after the war. Throughout its course, Vietnam was an increasingly unpopular conflict in the United States, with anti-war protests erupting in cities and on college campuses across the country. [22] Because of this, a lot of Vietnam Veterans returned home to a much different kind of reception than they expected. While in most American wars of the past, Veterans were treated to great jubilee and celebration, Veterans of Vietnam were given much the opposite. [23] Many felt unappreciated for their service in the unsuccessful war, with some receiving outright hostility. While being transferred to the hospital upon returning to the United States, wounded Veteran Steven Wowwk recalls passing civilians and throwing up to them the two-fingered peace sign. [24] Wowwk claims that “instead of getting return peace fingers, I got the middle finger.” [25] Because of this kind of perceived resentment, many Vets felt ostracized from society, with the Oklahoma Historical Society even describing their treatment as that of “traitors.” [26] This perception of mistreatment towards Vietnam Veterans was, however, not shared by all. Van Loon himself believes that many of these stories of Veteran debasement, such as the one told by Wowwk, were often “apocryphal”, and that the people of America treated them more or less quite well. [27] While American society’s conduct towards Vietnam Veterans after the war is indeed up for debate, it is clear that at least some Veterans felt unappreciated and disrespected by their fellow countrymen after coming home.

While the War in Vietnam may have ended with the Fall of Saigon in 1975, “America’s Vietnam debacle” as H.W. Brands puts it, was far from over. The returning Veterans of the war who had risked their lives for their country, often faced disability and poverty, as well as a sense of contempt and stigmatization from the American people. And while employees of America’s Veteran-assistance institutions, like Robert Van Loon, did their best to aid these former servicemen, there were many Veterans who felt let down by their government when they needed them most. When asked if many of the thousands of Vietnam Vets he dealt with were happy with their lives, Van Loon replied simply, “No.” [28] Thankfully, it was not doom and gloom for all Vietnam Veterans. There were a good number who did manage to complete their education after the war, and some eventually established steady lives during the period of relative economic prosperity in the country during the late 1980s and 1990s. One such Veteran, John McCain, even became the Republican Nominee for President of the United States in 2008. However, despite the eventual success of some of these servicemen, many of the veterans of this unwanted and seemingly unwinnable conflict faced persistent struggles, whether it was destitution, or mental illness, or physical disability, and the end of their plight will be the true end of “America’s Vietnam debacle.”



[1] H.W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2010), 175.

[2] H.W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2010), 175.

[3] Email Interview With Robert Van Loon, December 8, 2023

[4] Zoom Interview With Robert Van Loon, December 5, 2023

[5] Email Interview With Robert Van Loon, December 8, 2023

[6] Sharon Cohaney, The Vietnam-era Cohort: Employment and Earnings (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1992), 6.

[7] Zoom Interview With Robert Van Loon, December 5, 2023

[8] Zoom Interview With Robert Van Loon, December 5, 2023

[9] Zoom Interview With Robert Van Loon, December 5, 2023

[10] Bobby Muller, Quote to New York Times, May 27, 1979, in Now: Vietnam Vets Demand their Rights, ed. Bernard Weinraub (New York: The New York Times, 1979)

[11] Zoom Interview With Robert Van Loon, December 5, 2023

[12] U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, PTSD and Vietnam Veterans: A Lasting Issue 40 Years Later (Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: Public Health, 2016)

[13] U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, PTSD and Vietnam Veterans: A Lasting Issue 40 Years Later (Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: Public Health, 2016); Zoom Interview With Robert Van Loon, December 5, 2023

[14] Zoom Interview With Robert Van Loon, December 5, 2023

[15] H.W. Brands, 192-196, 203.

[16] Sharon Cohaney, The Vietnam-era Cohort: Employment and Earnings (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1992), 6.

[17] Peter Langenus, Quote to The History Channel, March 29, 2019, Why Were Vietnam War Vets Treated Poorly When They Returned Home, ed. Dante Ciampaglia (New York: The History Channel, 2019)

[18] Zoom Interview With Robert Van Loon, December 5, 2023

[19] Zoom Interview With Robert Van Loon, December 5, 2023

[20] Langenus Quote to The History Channel

[21] Langenus Quote to The History Channel

[22] H.W. Brands, 153-154.

[23] Dante Ciampaglia

[24] Steven Wowwk, Quote to The History Channel, March 29, 2019, Why Were Vietnam War Vets Treated Poorly When They Returned Home, ed. Dante Ciampaglia (New York: The History Channel, 2019)

[25] Wowwk Quote to The History Channel

[26] The Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahomans and The Vietnam War: Veterans Return Home, (Oklahoma City: The Oklahoma Historical Society)

[27] Zoom Interview With Robert Van Loon, December 5, 2023

[28] Zoom Interview With Robert Van Loon, December 5, 2023


Interview Subject: Robert Van Loon, age 84, retired Officer-in-Charge, Department of Veterans Affairs, Rochester District. Former member of U.S. Army Reserves, 1962-1968.

Interview Transcript, December 5, 2023

Speaker 3  Hi, Sam. 


Speaker 2 Hi. So I guess I’ll start off with. You were at one point in the Army yourself, right? 


Speaker 3  I was in the Army Reserves for six years. 


Speaker 2 And from what years were you in the Reserves? 


Speaker 3 Um. From 1962 to 1968. And nicer. Yeah, I served six, six months regular active duty for training down at Fort Dix, New Jersey. And then I went back to Rochester and then I just went to meetings every Sunday. And then every year we would go to a 2 week summer camp for six years. So that’s what I did. Yeah. 


Speaker 2 And then after your service, you worked at the VA, right? The Veterans Affairs? 


Speaker 3 No, I worked. I work with the DHS, the Defense Contract Administration services for work there, maybe about a year. I left and then I went into teaching there. So I taught for about a year at West High School, and then I taught for a year, well, it was later on at Monroe High School, which was my old high school. I had my own homeroom. Then I went to the V.A.. 


Speaker 2  So Which office did you work at? Was it the Rochester office for the V.A.? 


Speaker 3 No, I worked at the Chicago Chicago Regional Office of the VA in Chicago, Illinois. And I was there for almost two years. 


Speaker 2 Okay. And what was your job at the VA. 


Speaker 3 Um, I worked as a veterans benefit claims examiner. So I, you know, did a lot of paperwork for veterans educational benefits, disability benefits, either non service connected disabilities or service connected disabilities. And so that’s what I did at the Chicago VA. And I did that at Buffalo, too. And I finally ended up in Rochester, New York. 


Speaker 2 So while you were there, did you come across a lot of veterans of Vietnam? 


Speaker 3 Oh, yes. Yeah, quite a few. We were inundated, and I had a lot of claims that I looked over from Vietnam veterans. I had one guy, strangely enough, who got attacked by a tiger. Tiger jumped into his foxhole and dragged him out by the neck and his buddy shot the tiger and it turned up in The Army Times, they’re holding tiger. You know, they hung it up and so forth. The guy had gone out. He got a disability. So, yeah, but wasn’t hurt too badly. 


Speaker 2 So when you interacted with these veterans of Vietnam, did they seem happy with the VA and did they seem that they felt they were being treated properly by the federal government?


Speaker 3 I’d say pretty much so. Pretty much so. I had. Mostly when I left Buffalo, I got a job as a veteran’s benefits counselor so that I dealt with veterans personally, either on the phone or in person filing claims for them to send them to our Buffalo Regional office, which that’s where the claim where I worked as a claims examiner also or had worked there before. But pretty much, you know, you do have complaints every now and then. But pretty much, you know, I think most people did like the VA, okay. And they liked getting benefits, you know, a lot of them were getting benefits. Or I should say medical benefits from the VA clinic, which was at the federal building and in Rochester for a long time before they moved out to a suburban location. And. And I moved out there with them. So yeah, I’d say most of them were pretty happy. You get occasional ones that complain about things. And you know, World War Two veterans sometimes complain. Most of the time it was complaints about hearing loss. And the VA had a, you know, had a regulation where they had to have gotten a medical determination, at least within one year of leaving service, showing a disability. And many of these guys, you know, they just left service. I mean, there was no particular medical examination that they got out or so forth and they complained and, you know, rightly so. But that was probably one of the major complaints that we used to get. 


Speaker 2 Were there any specific interactions at the V.A. that came to mind? Or any people that you remember? 


Speaker 3 Yeah, I’d say one time I was actually threatened. I heard this. I heard this from the nurses that from one of the veterans whom I had dealt with. He was getting a non service connected disability benefit which is based on income. That’s an income based benefit. And for some reason, he did not. He did not list that he owned property and that he was collecting rent from his property. And when he told me that, I had to put it down and I sent it in to Buffalo, to our regional office. And then they sent him a notice of a tremendous amount of overpayment. And he didn’t like that at all. And he blamed me for it. And he saw it and said he was going to shoot me with a shotgun. So. I actually had gone to the police there. And but they never they never did anything. They talked to me about it and, you know, so what. Oh. And nothing ever happened behind that. So. 


Speaker 2 Do you think that there was anything that the V.A. or the federal government could have done differently to help veterans after the war? 


Speaker 3 They could have spent more money. I think on the medical part of the V.A., I think they could have. You know, there always seemed like a shortage of doctors and. Perhaps too a shortage of nurses. There are always nurses around, but doctors seem to come and go. And some stayed and many were very good. Some of the ones who left, they probably should have left because they weren’t very good. But they could have spent more money on getting more doctors. I think for the VA clinics. And the hospitals, for that matter. 


Speaker 2 Now, outside of the VA, did you know personally any people who fought in Vietnam? 


Speaker 3 Who fought in Vietnam? Yes. Yes, I did. A friend of my brother’s had gotten drafted. And he was sent over to Vietnam and he was there. He was there for one day. And the enemy had mortared him and he ended up falling on his arm on a tent steak or something. So that was the end of the war for him. And he was all right after that. But he got a decent disability compensation. That’s not a large amount, but it’s, you know, minimal. That’s the only person that I really knew outside the VA who was in Vietnam.


Speaker 2 So did you. I know you say that all of these veterans were more or less happy with the VA. Did they seem happy with their lives? 


Speaker 3 No. A lot of them had post-traumatic stress disorder. But this wasn’t really, this didn’t become a big thing until maybe years later when they really knew. And it was affecting a lot of these veterans. And there was, you know, and it’s just something that I think happens because of the fact that they’re engaged in such really awful, awful warfare. Yeah. I mean, they saw a lot of terrible things. And, you know, that’s just something that happens, I think, to anybody who’s probably caught in a traumatic or frightening event. And you can’t get more frightening than combat. 


Speaker 2 And apart from the VA and overall, how would you say that the American people treated people coming back from Vietnam? 


Speaker 3 I think that they treated them well. I think a lot of the stories that you read are apocryphal stories like people spitting on veterans and so forth in the back or we didn’t nobody, nobody really felt that way. I mean, it’s possible there were a few people who did something like that. I can’t imagine it. But it’s something that just spread. And a lot of some veterans like to spread those things. Mm hmm. That makes them feel more important or whatever. So, yeah. But I don’t think that that happened very much. If at all, even. 

Email Interview, December 8, 2023

Q. Do you remember the exact years you worked at the V.A.?

A. I started as a VA Claims Examiner at the Buffalo, NY Regional Office of the VA in September 1971. Worked in Rochester, NY as a VA Benefits Counselor, and then as VA Benefits Officer-in-Charge of the Rochester region until I retired in July, 2001.

Q. Do remember if most of the Vietnam Veterans you dealt with were doing well financially?

A. It depended on the benefit the veteran sought. I issues VA loan guarantee certificates for home purchases, applications for college, and trade schools. If the veteran had a low disability percentage, they were perhaps doing well. However, most of the veterans who applied for benefits were not doing well financially. As to numbers, I couldn’t brake it down. I interviewed many thousands of Vietnam veterans.




Standing Up, By Sitting In


Alice Littlefield

For modern Americans it is unthinkable to live in a society where racial segregation was the norm. However, for Alice Littlefield (nee Russ) segregation was her reality growing up in the Jim Crow South, “School was always separated, church was always separated” she explained, “But for the most part everybody sort of lived in peace. This was the way things were and [there were things] you didn’t do, like… didn’t even think about doing”.[1] Her reality changed in the fall of 1959 when she entered her freshman year at the newly integrated Women’s College of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. The university had integrated in September 1956 following the 1954 Supreme Court Case—Brown vs. Board of Education and subsequent faculty resolution discussions at the college. Brown v. Board of Education ruled that segregation of public schools was unconstitutional; following this decision the Faculty Council of the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina had internal conversations about the possibility of integration at the institution. In December of 1955, the council agreed to desegregate—thanks due in part to the advocacy of philosophy professor Dr. Warren Ashby.

News release on Faculty Council statement of desegregation


As the sociopolitical tides were turning in favor of racial equality, so too was the pushback. The transition from an all-white campus to a more diverse population proved to be tense. As H.W. Brands states in his book American Dreams: The United States Since 1945, “The most contentious issues in American life continued to center on race.”[2] At the heart of the issue, according to Littlefield was American culture. Specifically, that the pushback against integration was rooted in the misguided belief that preserving American culture partially depended on the systemic disenfranchisement of African Americans in the United States.

Foundationally, the United States as a settler-colonial state began with an economy which revolved around the exploitation of enslaved African labor through the mechanism of chattel slavery. Thus, the shifting societal position of descendants of these enslaved Africans challenged the backbone of America’s foundation and its monetary success. The anxieties associated with the possible sociopolitical ascension of Black Americans through legal means manifested themselves through different avenues at the Woman’s College. Particularly through the rhetoric of Littlefield’s professors and classmates as well as discriminatory housing policies. In her interview, Littlefield spoke about how professors implied or explicitly said that black people would not be able to succeed academically because of their race. “That was one of the history professors, he announced that no black person could pass his classes”; continuing she told me that her academic advisor, Dr. Anderson confided in her saying, “…they knew the…teachers were prejudiced. But they [the faculty] could not do anything about it.”[3] The numerous instances of discrimination on campus contributed to Alice Littlefield’s decision to become involved with the Civil Rights Movement.

Fortunately, the Woman’s College was located at a hotspot of civil rights advocacy. In the spring semester of Littlefield’s freshman year, the famous Woolworth’s sit-ins occurred. In February of 1960, four black students from North Carolina A&T sat down at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s. This protest was significant because it was a nonviolent protest that displayed the nonsensical segregation policy within the store, which allowed African Americans to be patrons but not sit down in the store. In the following weeks after the initial Woolworth’s sit-ins many more popped up in North Carolina, and more broadly in the South. Brands briefly mentions these sit-ins, writing that “…the movement accomplished its immediate purpose: to bring the spotlight of national publicity upon the Jim Crow system.”[4]

In Littlefield’s case, participating in the sit-ins was a matter of self-preservation. Although she had never personally faced any mortal danger in relation to her racial identity, the emotional toll of constant derision, social isolation, and the institutional complacency in her continued subjugation was detrimental. For example, Littlefield confided that she had developed a stutter during her college career due to the mistreatment she faced from her professors.[5]  Further, she emphasized the importance of paving the way for future generations to feel comfortable participating more broadly in American life as Black Americans.

When Alice Littlefield was entering university, she remembers being told that her attendance was not wanted, but rather required because of the change in federal policy positions in favor of integration.  According to a local newspaper article from 1956, the acting chancellor of the Woman’s College, “admitted black students were admitted solely due to a Supreme Court ruling”, and that “the students were deserving of fair treatment”.[6] Littlefield’s activism was focused on establishing equal protection under the law for all people. This legal change came a year after her graduation from the Woman’s College with the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This law prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin in public accommodations and federal programs.[7] When Littlefield looks back on her time as a young activist, she acknowledges how dangerous her advocacy was for that period, “Usually when they [opponents of civil rights] take retribution it’s against the whole group, the whole town. We were a threat to everybody.”[8]

The contributions of Alice Littlefield, and people like her are immeasurable. Her actions—participating in sit-ins, forfeiting a typical college experience, helping integrate her university—all had an impact on the subsequent experience of all Americans. As a protestor, Alice Littlefield laid the groundwork for future generations on how to advocate for the change you want to see. Her advocacy helped to change national attitudes surrounding the societal place of African Americans, not just as laborers, but as students, and as people. Alice Littlefield’s actions made it possible for students like me to attend a university like Dickinson College. For that I am forever grateful.

[1] Alice Littlefield, Interview, December 1, 2023.

[2] Brands, American Dreams: The United States Since 1945, (New York: Penguin Press, 2010), 108-109.

[3] Littlefield, FaceTime Interview.

[4] Brands, 109.

[5] Littlefield, FaceTime Interview.

[6] “Negro girls were ‘not sought’ for college, Dr. Pierson says”

[7] “Legal Highlight: The Civil Rights Act of 1964”, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed December 10, 2023. https://www.dol.gov/agencies/oasam/civil-rights-center/statutes/civil-rights-act-of-1964#:~:text=In%201964%2C%20Congress%20passed%20Public,hiring%2C%20promoting%2C%20and%20firing.

[8] Littlefield, FaceTime Interview.

Interview subject:

Alice Littlefield, is a retired Child Protective Services (CPS) employee in Washington, D.C. She attended her undergraduate institution, The Woman’s College of North Carolina Greensboro, from 1959-1963 and participated in countless civil rights protests, including sit-ins during her attendance as a student.


Q: I have never done a professional interview before. Have you ever been professionally interviewed?

A: No, but you know I’m a social worker and interviewing is one of our tools of the trade.


 My name is Amina West. I am currently a junior at Dickinson college—an American Studies major, possible Russian double major. I don’t know yet. I am interviewing my grandmother Alice Faye Russ Littlefield.

Q: So, Grandma, can you tell me a little bit about your childhood, what was it like growing up in the Jim Crow South?

A: It was… [laughs] it was okay. I wasn’t used to anything else really. I always lived in the South. When I was very young, we lived in a place called Newport News, Virginia. Which is the South. [I] don’t remember much of that. We moved to North Carolina when I was in about the fourth grade. There was no black ghetto or black neighborhood, you lived wherever you could find housing, for the most part. You couldn’t do things like–I’m trying to think about this… People didn’t bother you usually.

Q: So, would you say it was almost self-segregated or are you saying in the interactions black people had with white people…[mutters]; How would you describe it?

A: Well in some places you were separated. School was always separated, church was always separated. But if you had to do other things, like for example, my grandparents worked on a farm so sometimes black and white neighbors did work. Like tobacco…there were women’s and men’s jobs, and everybody would participate in them. The movies, when we went to the movies the black people sat in the balcony, uh the hospital. There was one floor, I don’t care what you had, all the black people were on one floor in the hospital. But stores, you could go into stores. Didn’t go to restaurants and food places where you ate in.

Q: Could you [get] takeout?

A: Well, you know nobody was really “taking out” [laughs].

Q: Oh y’all didn’t have take out yet?

A: [laughs] Eating out wasn’t a big thing then. Uh yeah.

Q: Would you say that you faced any racial terror? I remember when we visited great-grandma Glovenia’s house there was a KKK billboard. Did you ever feel afraid for your mortal safety?

A: No. We laughed at that sign, by the way. We did interact with white kids sometimes. And as I said, there was no one black neighborhood, they were sort of scattered around wherever you could live. And we lived in a neighborhood where we had to walk through white neighborhoods to get to the black school. And you know we’d fight and throw rocks, nothing serious. You know, it was sort of proforma, we gotta do this [laughs].

 Oh, ok [laughs]

A: [continuing] Call names, I won’t repeat any of that stuff some of it was vulgar.

 [laughs] STOP! [jokingly]

A: [laughs] It was true though. And parents didn’t approve of it, they would get you. But for the most part everybody sort of lived in peace. This was sort of the way things were and [there were] things you didn’t do, like you didn’t even think about doing…so…

Q: So it was like…because you hadn’t experienced anything else it wasn’t out of the ordinary. Sort of like me having the internet, I’ve never lived in a world without the internet.

A: Correct.

Q: Okay. Why did you choose Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina Greensboro?

A: I didn’t.

Q: Why did you want to go to college?

A: I’ve always been curious and done things and explored and I’ve read a lot. I knew that in order to get ahead and do things you needed to get a college education. Uh, I was real good in school, by the way…uh…I had all of the—we used to get awards—I’d get the award for everything in my class.

Q: The kids hated you? Were you the type of kid to say, “Teacher there was homework?”, was that you?

A: You know, all of us were… we didn’t have that many outlets. People were very proud of making good grades in school. And now you know you think you have a class full of dummies? We would have just one.


A: People were attentive and uh, you asked me about my childhood earlier?


A: Activities were centered around the school and around the church. So, you were really good—anybody that could be good was good.

Q: Why did you choose the Woman’s College?

A: I didn’t.

Q: What do you mean?

A: [laughs] I applied to the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and they sent my letter to the Woman’s College of North Carolina, which was located in Greensboro. What I didn’t know was that…at that time the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill did not…was not admitting women. They started admitting women at the same time that I started at the Woman’s College. They didn’t allow women to live on campus, if you lived in Chapel Hill or you could be a day student you could go. If you weren’t you didn’t.

Q: Is it because they didn’t have coed dorms yet?

A: I don’t know why. You know it is one of the oldest state-funded universities in the United States?

 No, I didn’t know that.

A: It was just a male school I suppose.

Q: Interesting. Why did you want to go to that kind of school? A state school instead of a historically black institution? What was your rationale?

A: You know, I really didn’t have one and nobody discouraged me at home because they didn’t think I would get in. And they got really upset that I did. The school tried to talk me out of it because they thought there would be repercussions from the white community. But the only repercussions\ was that the bank gave the valedictorian and salutatorian at each high school a four-year scholarship and they refused to give me mine [scholarship]. But my parents said it was fine don’t worry about that, worry about getting in.

Q: Why did you choose biology as a major? What were you hoping to do with that?

A: I thought I wanted to be a doctor, I also liked science. I told you I was very curious, and I was in to everything. So, I chose biology.

Q: What years did you attend Woman’s College?

A: All four years. I went from 1959-1963.

Q: You entered the Woman’s College during a time of transition, four years prior the first black students were admitted and then a year after you graduated the school became coed. Could you feel the societal changes at the time you were attending school?

A: Yes. It was sort of rocky. I was, I had gone to a different part of the state and customs and cultures were a little different. In the class I was in, we originally had five black students and one dropped out almost immediately; so, there were four. I didn’t know the town students but there were approximately 20 black students on campus. I was the only black person majoring in science, so I was rarely in class with another black person. That was interesting.

Q: Was that a culture shock? Going from an all-black school to then being in an all white environment?

A: It wasn’t necessarily a culture shock. But initially it was nobody to study with, nobody to ask for help. It was just different.

Q: Did you feel like people were standoffish?

A: I had sort of a double whammy. Not only was a going to a desegregated school and among the black students I was the only one from a rural area. There was the “You’re country”, [I] didn’t have the same culture as them…Well let me tell you how it worked. We were segregated in the dorm, all of us—each class was in a dorm. I was in the dorm with the four [black] freshman when I went but our dorms were divided up. There were 16 rooms in a block we, the four of us, got all 16 rooms nobody else was there. It was that way because it was divided by bathrooms. They [the administration] didn’t want us to use the same bathrooms [as the white students]. The funny thing is that people were used to having one or two people in a room, we only used two of the rooms.

Q: So they were all squished together like sardines?

A: Yes, there were three or four of them in a room and they were annoyed. They had to get their parents’ permission to move in. At first, we got two Jewish girls and then we got one “good God-fearing Presbyterian” girl—and I’m saying it like that because she kept reminding us that she was a God-fearing Presbyterian—and it’s like “So what?”, leave us alone [laughs]. We got friendly with her before the year was over. But things happened in the dorm, for example one time they were harassing us and decided we needed to stand up to sing Dixie. And we were like, “Okay we’ll stand up and sing Dixie if you stand and sing the Negro national anthem”. And since they weren’t going to stand up we didn’t have to sing Dixie or the Negro national anthem—which was good because I didn’t know it. But for the most part they just ignored us. But sometimes they would ask, “Are you the one that…” and it’s like “One who?”. Like, “Are you the one who’s in my Spanish class?” and somebody would say, “Well there’s a lot of people in your Spanish class”.

 I was looking at your yearbook pictures and none of y’all [the black students] look alike.

A: I know.

At all. You’re just all black.

A: Nobody looked alike nobody talked alike and that was it. We got together. In class the teachers—the professors in science were [sighs] I don’t know how to put it… They were just racist in the science department.

Q:  Did they evoke Darwinism or phrenology or something like that?

A: That was one of the history professors, he announced that no black person could pass any of his classes. In senior year we had to take a class called “coordinating” which drew all of your courses together, they exempted the black history majors from “coordinating” because he taught it. My advisor told me, my advisor was upset at me because I wasn’t making good grades. She was confused because I scored really high on the placement test and they [administration] were glad that you didn’t take French because you scored in advanced placement and that would get rid of what they thought about the black students not being able to do whatever. I also got into the higher science classes because my school had labs and many black high schools didn’t. That was another reason I was the only one in my classes. Dr. Anderson [her advisor] told me that they knew the science teachers, mostly the chemistry professors, were prejudiced. But they couldn’t do anything about it.

Q: Why? They were tenured?

A: Yes. They were bitter. My advisor told me “Women are discriminated against too”. They were all women, except for two in the biology department. One of them [the men] was Jewish, they didn’t like the Jews either. So she [Dr. Anderson] said not to include him in any of my issues and I didn’t [chuckles]. She said they should be working for Shell Oil or EXON—it was EXO then. Because that’s the kind of knowledge they had, they were really good. But those people do not hire women. That was it, so they were bitter. I’d get into trouble…I hate to say “get into trouble” … how do I want to put this? I knew that I was right sometimes but it was denied. Like the physiology teacher would say things like, “Hey everybody come over here, look at this mess Ms. Russ has made” in dissections. She was also the person, when she would call roll—I wouldn’t answer by the way—and someone else would answer for me because she would mark me absent and I didn’t care. I took a chemistry course called “Qualitative Analysis”, that’s where you had to separate the elements from different solutions. The instructor told me my work had ammonia in it, for example, and I knew it didn’t. She tested my solution and said “It’s ammonia. You should have known that”. I knew it wasn’t true, if it had ammonia in it because I heated my solution and when you heat a solution with ammonia it boils off.

Q: Did you feel like your professors purposefully tanked your assignments to reaffirm their own biases about black people?

A: They didn’t want anybody black to pass these classes. And you know, Woman’s College is in the same town with North Carolina A&T which is the historically black college there. I would tell my friends who were students there about my experiences and they wouldn’t believe me until one summer one of the biology teachers taught a class there and he was terrible to them.  See, I’ve been telling to tell you.

Q: Were there no institutional ramifications that could have been done to these professors or was it just the administration that wouldn’t do anything?

A: You know I didn’t complain really because I didn’t know who to complain to. And even if I knew I wouldn’t have done it anyway, I cried a lot by the way. One time I remember I was sitting on the steps crying because I had pushed a glass tube through my hand—I still have the scar—and one of the lab assistants, believe it or not they ha black lab assistants from A&T came out and said to me, “Don’t get upset. All the black students that came through here before you that were biology majors who’ve transferred out of here”, and that was my senior year; and he continued saying, “You have stayed”. Outside of the science department I did anthropology and sociology and those were good.

Q: Did you do any extracurriculars?

A: Not really, oh you know what I did? I volunteered outside a lot with the American Friends Service Committee and that was good I made a lot of friends there.

Q: I know you mentioned A&T, did you meet any students from there or Bennet College? Did you go to their social events or functions?

A: You know really there weren’t any. We had curfews if you believe it or not. We would go over to A&T and sometimes we would go over to Bennet but we were in a bind because they didn’t necessarily like us because we were at a “white” school.

Q: Did they think you looked down on their institution? Why do you think there was that disconnect?

A: I don’t know. We’d go over anyway. We’d go over on weekends, [A&T] was across town. We didn’t go to Bennet much because we thought it was basically a prison. The girls had to go off campus in groups.

Q: Why? Was that for their own security because they were black and women or was it just school policy?

A: They had a gorgeous campus, and they couldn’t sit out on campus, they still had to wear white gloves, very traditional. They’d sneak out though. They were interesting that’s where we went when we wanted to do something. Once one of the other black girls who came into the room she was annoyed because they had been planning the dance and one of the white girls said, “Make sure to invite one of the boys from A&T so you have someone to dance with”, and that didn’t go over to well with Elizabeth. We thought that was a scream.

Q: How was the dining hall? Describe your experience at the cafeteria.

A: Believe it or not I worked at the cafeteria. It wasn’t very nice. The food was very good by the way, we had white tablecloths and everything. I heard the year before we came, they even had waiters. There were four dining halls and at the school there was something called the “Honor Policy” you were on your honor to eat at only one dining hall. The food was great.

Q: Were the bathrooms in the academic buildings open to everyone?

A: I don’t remember there being any bathrooms in the academic buildings. But in general, the bathrooms were horrible [laughs]. When I think of it now, I laugh because we didn’t have individual shower stalls.

 That’s interesting, that’s what they do in prisons.

A: I know. But that was in the freshman dorms. When we were upperclassmen, we had suites. The suites were for the [house] presidents, they would be graduate students who were responsible for the dorms. Those suites had individual bathrooms. We got suites, that made the white girls angry too.

 That is so funny. If you think about it, it is such backwards logic they literally made the conditions worse for the white students just so they didn’t have to interact with y’all. You got the better treatment than the white students in that sense.

A: Uh-huh. But then they sort of got wise and kicked us out of [the suits] and we lived in the rooms like everybody else. It was nice while it lasted, the rooms were bigger too. We thought it was a scream, let me tell you. We also had maids in the dorms.

Q: They were all black?

A: They didn’t like us either. They thought we were looking down on them. We took care of that though when we discovered one lady who was really nasty when we first started couldn’t read. We taught her how to read and she liked us. I also went to Chapel Hill to take courses and I always made A’s down there. The dorm I stayed in there actually had a dining hall in the dorm. They gave you a menu and you told them what you wanted for breakfast, and they made it and the waiter brought it to you. The first day I was down there I started downstairs, and the black staff was lined up along the stairs. I asked what was going on and one of them said, “The house mother said no n***** was going to eat in her dining hall”.

Q: Did anything happen to the waitstaff?

A: No, nothing happened. I thought that was real interesting. The whole thing was…interesting. I’ll put it that way. But I was never afraid there either.

Yeah, when I was reading up on internal documents amongst the faculty and staff, I found a document that said the Woman’s College was integrating because they had to legally. The chancellor went on to say that he would treat black students equally to their white counterparts in adherence to Brown v. Board of Education but that it ultimately wasn’t his choice to desegregate.

A: Guess what? He told us that. We had these meetings we had to go to—all campus meetings. When we were freshmen, he said to the student body, “Look, the negroes are here, and you have to be nice to them”.

[laughs] That’s so funny.

A: Well, you know if you’re one of those negroes sitting in the audience, it’s like “Oh my god”.

Q: So, the attitude of the school body was that they had to accept you all?

A: Well, I remember, one night we heard a car backfiring and all of a sudden, the housemother comes down all worried telling us that it was just a car backfiring.

Q: Was your house mother black? Did she think it was gunfire? That they were threatening the dorm?

A: No. I don’t know what she thought, she never told us what. She was a northerner. That was freshman year. All of the other years, same dorm. The housemother was horrible. She didn’t like us. She kept us with us. We didn’t get into trouble. She was suspicious of everybody, did room checks. She’d come and check to see if we were in our rooms. People would break curfew and they wouldn’t come back home. They would get us because people would leave the doors open so their friends could come back in.

Q: You would get in trouble for being “complicit”?

A: Yeah, because you had to sign out. But common sense says if you aren’t going to sign back in don’t sign out.

Q: Do you remember the names of the residence halls that you stayed in?

A: Yes, freshman year it was Toit Hall. I went back. I have been back. I’ve only been back twice. I went back once when Katie [my aunt] was looking for schools and it had been recommended as her safe school and I went back for my fifty year reunion. For upper class years it was North Spencer. They searched the dorms for everybody, because North Spencer and South Spencer were connected so they would search both sides of the building.

Q: Were the house mothers compensated monetarily?

A: The grown-ups got paid, I don’t know about the house presidents, they tended to be seniors.

Q: The family lore is that you were a part of the Civil Rights Movement. Were you ever arrested? Can you tell me about your experience as a young person fighting for civil rights in North Carolina and why you decided to do that.

A: [sighs] Why did I decide to do it? The answer to your first question is yes.

Q: Do you have a copy of your mugshot picture?

A: No, they didn’t get me a copy of any mugshot picture.

Q: Did they take your mugshot?

A: Yes, and fingerprints. That has caused me problems later by the way. Because I have an arrest record. The sit-ins occurred in Greensboro, but I wasn’t there when they occurred. 1963 is when things really got to a boil and I participated. I was arrested several times.

Q: What did they arrest you for?

A: [laughs] Anything. Loitering, blocking passages, we discovered that three people was a crowd. We discovered that in the dorms. We would joke around saying, “Look y’all one of us has got to leave because there are three people in here and we don’t want to get arrested”. [laughs]

Q: That is so funny. Were you a part of CORE or any other organized civil rights group?

A: I didn’t quite “join” CORE, nobody was joining but it was CORE there [in Greensboro]. I did a lot of things. Believe it or not I was in jail one time and the big beefy sheriff asked for the girl from Woman’s College, you got bailed out. I was wondering who bailed me out. I found out later that one of the anthropology professors paid my bail many times. I went to “jail” jail actually once, but there were so many of us they were just housing us in city facilities. Once I was incarcerated with a group of girls from Bennet College and A&T. And the Bennet girls were discriminating against the girls from A&T. They were upset because I was chummy with the girls from A&T, and it was like we’re all in here fighting for civil rights…

 [interjects] and y’all are cliquey!

A: Yeah. Well you know Bennet, high class etcetera. And that time all of us got out at jail at night and they hauled me off to Bennet College. Their president was very nice, Dr. Player, she was a neat lady. [Dr. Player] says to me, “Look it’s going to cause trouble if you stay here overnight. I will call one of my friends from Woman’s College”. That is when I met Dr. Ashby because I spent the night at his house and went to class the next day just like anybody else that stayed out all night. I also got “campussed” because of the sit-ins and campus meant you could only go to class.

Q: Campussed was basically like being grounded?

A: Yes. You couldn’t leave campus, you couldn’t participate in any school activities. You weren’t supposed to have any visitors. [laughs] My friends, other sit-in people would come and bring in stuff. Talk to me out the window. I didn’t get to walk at graduation because I was involved [with civil rights activism].

Q: What do you mean?

A: I had to go to summer school.

Q: Why?

A: It was all screwed up.

Q: Was it an academic reason? Did you break the school’s code or something?

A: Believe it or not it was academic. I missed so much school because I kept getting arrested. But anyways, like I said that was interesting. By that time, the head of the biology department was a white man that I had sort of gotten used to. He asked if I still wanted to go to med school. I told him I didn’t. He told me that if I still wanted to go to medical school that he could get me in. But I didn’t want to go. I was traumatized. School was so bad. I had begun to stutter. Most of the times it was just me [in a class]. When I went back to my 50th reunion they asked me to do sort of what I’m doing now with you. How was your experience here? How did you feel? The works. When I talked about it some of the people told me that I was aloof and that they didn’t want to bother me.

Q: What is aloof? Standoffish?

A: Yes. I didn’t bother them [white students]. It was a different situation for everybody. At that reunion we were catching up and I asked some white girls who I had become friendly with what happened to a girl named Lilly who was in the class above me. Lilly apparently got put out of school because she introduced one of her white friends to a black boy.

Q: She got kicked out of school for that?

A: Mmhhm

Q: How did they find out about it?

A: You know teenagers don’t keep anything secret. Anyway, Lilly just disappeared and nobody knew where she was. But you know I did make some friends, Sally, Gwen, Dae, Donna. We [Class of 1963] have had many family reunions in Washington, DC. It’s been recent, until Covid we were meeting.  The last one we did was in Bethesda, and it was funny because we were the integrated group. People would come up to us and say that they knew we were in some sort of group and ask “what is this”. We would explain it was just college friends catching up. The only reason I went back to that 50th reunion was because when we were still a Woman’s College, we had a tradition called the Daisy chain. When somebody dies your daisy gets dropped into the pond. It is sort of a little religious thing. This was in spring. People would pick daisies and weave them into a chain. Anyway, when you die your daisy gets dropped in the pond so I suppose you can float on off to wherever. I went to the reunion to drop Gwen’s daisy. Since Gwen was my roommate, I figured I would drop her daisy. You know traditions, you have to have some traditions.

Q: Were you a part of the Desegregate Tate St. movement?

A: That was the street that was down by the college, it was happening at the same time as the sit-ins. I was up at the sit-ins.

Q: It was simultaneous?

A: [Tate Street] It was just a little business thing on the corner, right at the edge of campus. People would protest there, it was a scream. The Klan would be down there picketing too. You get a fat old white man and his little boy, and it’s like hahaha who is he?  Who is scared of them?

Q: Did they have guns?

A: No. They’d do things like at Chapel Hill they were hosing people. Those hoses were strong enough to rip the skin right off. They hosed people in Greensboro too. Yeah, because I got wet one time.

Q: What was the worst thing that happened while protesting?

A: Nothing really. It was sort of like now. People used to consider it a badge, how many times they’d been arrested. I will tell you, these three nice middle-class black ladies would come up to us and tell us to go home and if we didn’t they would say nasty things to you. But guess what? College students never have any money, so after the lunch counters were integrated, the students couldn’t afford to eat. Guess who was sitting at the lunch counters? The nice little ladies. Now that I’ve grown up, I realize why I was having problems with people back home when trying to go to a “white” college. I understand why we were a threat to the old ladies. Usually when they take retribution it’s against the whole group, the whole town. We were a threat to everybody. We were a threat to the other black classes at school by the way. My class was because we didn’t take any mess. I’ll never forget once we were meeting with the Chancellor because we demanded to meet with him. So we sat in front of him, all four of us [laughs], we were the senior class by then. We were the last of the originals. They were talking about how complacent they all were and the chancellor almost swallowed his pipe! [laughs] when they said that! We just smiled at him because we were a little more subtle on campus. We didn’t just raise hell when we had to take care of business, we took care of it.

Okay [laughs] grandma!

A: And that was it. We had repercussions we would just go out and raise hell if they don’t follow through. Which is why I think a lot of this marching now is over, we’ve passed the time of marching. We need to move on to something else?

Q: What do you think people should do now?

A: [Sigh] Well you can’t just march and go home. You have to follow through you have to follow up. Even then we couldn’t boycott because we didn’t own anything, but now people make excuses for not exerting pressure where they could. I’ll put it that way. They keep participating, and it’s like I’m not participating in my own destruction. Are you crazy? I can do without those shoes. Or I can do without eating at such and such a place, but we don’t do it.

A: To me being black you’re in a bind because there is that racism from the outside but you also have prejudice from the inside because we fight that color line and that “pulling the ladder up” too. So it’s not always comfortable and people aren’t as overtly racist as they used to be but it’s hard to get away from—when things are a part of your culture—you don’t realize some of those things are racist. Some black people think that all black people are poor and they have to “prove themselves”. Or that being black is speaking dialect or acting like hoodlums. All I can think is, “You all should have met my grandma”.


A: Or met my mother. My family in general doesn’t go for that stuff.

 Yeah. We’re strong willed.

A: People think if you don’t speak dialect you’re not “genuine”. In my house dialect could get you killed. It’s the culture. I think that the young black people now keep talking about black culture. There isn’t a black culture, there are many black cultures. If they just take time and look around them. It depends on where you’re from and except for the discrimination parts and the things you have to endure because of discrimination, your culture looks just like whatever group you’re present in. We have the same accents, we eat the same foods, we do the same things.

Q: Yeah. Black people are not a monolith. Okay, well thank you so much for the interview.

A: You’re welcome.


Brands H. W. 2010. American Dreams: The United States Since 1945. New York: Penguin Press.

“Negro girls were ‘not sought’ for college, Dr. Pierson says”. September 11, 1956. University Archives Subject Files Civil Rights Greensboro. Greensboro: Greensboro Daily News. Accessed November 30, 2023. https://gateway.uncg.edu/islandora/object/ua%3A284659

“Resolution concerning the Negro students of the Woman’s College”. March 13, 1965. University Archives Subject Files Civil Rights Greensboro. Accessed November 29, 2023. https://gateway.uncg.edu/islandora/object/ua%3A284670

 U.S. Department of Labor. “Legal Highlight.” Accessed December 10, 2023. https://www.dol.gov/agencies/oasam/civil-rights-center/statutes/civil-rights-act-of-1964#:~:text=In%201964%2C%20Congress%20passed%20Public,hiring%2C%20promoting%2C%20and%20firing.

Wilkinson, Albert. “News release on Faculty Council statement of desegregation”. December 15, 1955. University of North Carolina Greensboro. Accessed November 29, 2023. https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/news-release-on-faculty-council-statement-of-desegregation-albert-a-wilkinson/rgF6MrRaGljz4g?hl=en

University of North Carolina Greensboro, Pine Needles. Greensboro, North Carolina: 1961. University of North Carolina Greensboro Archives. https://lib.digitalnc.org/record/27838?ln=en#?xywh=-305%2C-510%2C6079%2C5386&cv=254 . Accessed November 30, 2023.

University of North Carolina Greensboro, Pine Needles. Greensboro, North Carolina: 1963. University of North Carolina Greensboro Archives. https://gateway.uncg.edu/islandora/object/ua%3A283694 . Accessed November 30, 2023.

“Women’s College faculty votes for desegregation”. December 15, 1955. University Archives Subject Files Civil Rights Greensboro. Greensboro: Greensboro Daily News. Accessed November 30, 2023. https://gateway.uncg.edu/islandora/object/ua:284663

Vietnam Through A Veteran’s Eyes

Vietnam Through A Veteran’s Eyes

Sam Schmidt, History 118

One November morning in 1968, twenty-five-year-old Jerry Begley disembarked from a military aircraft at Travis Air Force Base in California. He and a cohort of other young veterans were thanking their lucky stars for returning home from Vietnam in one piece. Buses whisked the tired troops to San Francisco International Airport for their flights home. None of them anticipated that they would soon be intercepted by the city’s many antiwar protesters. “We were there at three o’clock in the morning”, Begley recalls incredulously, “and there were lots of protesters”.[1] The bus driver promised to drop the veterans as close to the door as possible as the protesters began to approach the buses. As their bus neared the entrance, Begley remembers, “The protesters…[were] throwing stuff against the buses…[then] we got off. I didn’t get hit with anything. Some guys got hit with eggs. We got inside and from that point on, then everything was okay”.[2]

Whatever Begley and the other Vietnam veterans expected of their return, surely it was not bitterness from their own countrymen. Begley had guarded convoys, patrolled the streets of Saigon, and defended the American Embassy during the Tet Offensive of 1968. He had involuntarily weathered twelve months of harsh and dangerous Army life at the nexus of one of the most controversial foreign-policy engagements in American history. In his book American Dreams: The United States Since 1945, H.W. Brands says that Vietnam “seared itself onto the American mind”.[3] Brands’ own coverage of the Vietnam War is appropriately detailed and complex. However, it does not fully encapsulate the experience of Vietnam veterans like Begley, who fought and returned home only to often find themselves relegated to the fringes of both collective memory and any discussion of the war.

Click above for background on Vietnam and Begley’s thoughts on the conflict before his service.

Begley in Vietnam, 1967 or 1968.

Begley was drafted into the Army in 1966 and arrived in Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, in late 1967, where he worked as an MP (military policeman). Cycles of routine security patrols soon devolved into the war’s turning point: the 1968 Tet Offensive, wherein a supposedly handicapped Viet Cong coordinated elaborate attacks across South Vietnam. Begley and other MPs witnessed Viet Cong sappers bomb the US Embassy; Brands calls this event the “handwriting on the…wall” for the war’s future.[4] Begley says he realized then that the war was a “losing affair”, despite assurances otherwise from the military brass.[5] Brands similarly contends that many U.S. generals acted unfazed by the offensive.[6] However, this posturing was belied by changes in policy on the ground. Before the offensive, Begley was instructed, “We were told to respect the Vietnamese…and only return fire. We couldn’t shoot first. After [Tet], it was different. All of that went away”.[7] Brands effectively corroborates this situation, recalling Marine Philip Caputo’s encounters with frightened Vietnamese confronted with forceful American suspicion.[8] Already-wary American troops had to treat the people they were supposed to defend as foes. The war had taken a turn, and not for the better. However, Begley was out by November 1968. He had been fighting the Vietnam War a world away; he returned to a country fighting itself over the deteriorating situation there. He had not chosen Vietnam service, but he now found himself representing the divisive war, for better or worse.

The airport reception was the only antiwar protest Begley ever witnessed. San Francisco specifically was a hotbed of pacifist activism at the time, which Brands connects to the growing 1960s counterculture movement.[9] Condemnation of the war varied from complex accusations of imperialism to simple moral outrage. Verified accounts of the directly anti-soldier protests Begley saw are uncommon. However, Begley remembers an officer warning his bus cohort to ignore the insults and projectiles, knowing that any reaction would play into the protesters’ hands.[10] Evidently, this was a repeat experience for the officers. However, the situation for returning veterans varied significantly, and it remains a source of debate.

Accounts of veteran-protester interactions like Begley’s form a complex tapestry. The sociologist Jerry Lembcke asserts that the infamous stories of protesters spitting on returning veterans were likely fictitious.[11]Brands doesn’t really weigh in on these events, only offering vague accounts of Vietnam veterans participating in a diverse march on the Pentagon.[12] Begley never protested the war, and he was not sympathetic of the protesters: “I thought they were totally wrong, because they’re protesting the soldiers that were there under orders. We didn’t make the decision to go there”.[13] Jerry’s return to conservative rural Iowa was much warmer, and most veterans likely didn’t experience what he had in San Francisco.[14] But it was still not the welcome many had hoped for. 53 percent of surveyed Vietnam veterans called the often-lukewarm reaction to their return a “big letdown”; 79 percent agreed that people “just didn’t understand” what they had endured.[15]Jubilant parades welcoming returning WWII veterans still loomed large in the national memory; many Vietnam veterans glumly wondered where that sentiment had gone.

Antiwar protest in San Francisco, 1967. (Harvey Richards Media Archive)

The country debated Vietnam until its end, but evidently, many veterans simply felt shut out of that discourse. Brands never really covers their postwar experience. Of course, he cannot document everything, but he gives significant attention to WWII veterans and their role in the growing postwar economy, from the demobilization to the GI Bill to the baby boom.[16] Although he assures the reader that people simply wanted to move on from WWII, one wonders if that sentiment is really more applicable to Vietnam.[17] WWII had vindicated America’s economy, military might, and national spirit. The ever-decaying effort to prop up South Vietnam was fostering little more than doubt about all three. But whatever the case, life moved on back home.

Begley finished another year of service in Chicago before returning to Springville, Iowa, in 1969. He settled into a job and started a family. He didn’t discuss his service much afterwards. “Military service was respected” there, Begley remembers.[18] However, he also recalls, “For a long time you would hear the occasional comment about drugged-up Vietnam vets”.[19] Begley says he never saw hard drug use in Vietnam, although he concedes that his fellow MPs, as enforcers, would be less likely to partake.[20] Nonetheless, drugs were very present in Vietnam, and fed a common stereotype of the troops as demoralized, lazy junkies. Brands somewhat feeds this narrative of chronic addiction among the troops, citing a 1971 report alleging that one-sixth of the Vietnam force was addicted to heroin.[21] Epidemiologist Lee Robins disputed this assertion, also noting that Vietnam veterans rarely resumed drug use once home.[22] These comments, probably coming from Iowan conservatives who likely supported the war, reflect the social complexities of the time. The rising tide of drug alarmism was adopted by Nixon in 1971 in the “War on Drugs”, and many citizens flinched to see drugs proliferate in the proud U.S. Army. Desertions, heroin, crumbling resolve? What had become of the Vietnam war effort?

The unpopular and unsuccessful war did not last much longer. In 1973, the U.S. withdrew its last troops from South Vietnam; by 1975, the North Vietnamese communists overran the country and negated nearly two decades of American effort. Begley’s second daughter was a toddler by then. Besides the home loan, his service was fading into the background. Indeed, he recalls little reaction to the war’s end. He was happy to see long-imprisoned American POWs freed, but otherwise he recalls thinking, “The war’s over now…put it behind us, I guess”.[23]

Evacuation of the US Embassy in Saigon, 1975. Begley helped to defend this building during the Tet Offensive in 1968. (PBS)

Many Americans certainly wanted to put Vietnam behind them. Lembcke calls the loss a “tough pill to swallow”, particularly given the lingering triumphalism of WWII.[24] Jerry reflects, “It was definitely a waste of 58,000 American lives. Definitely a waste of tons of material…and a bunch of money. To prove nothing”.[25] If the war proved anything, it was that the U.S. was not an omnipotent power. As Brands puts it, Vietnam unveiled the lesson that “When in doubt, America must not [fight]”, a stark reversal of the hyper-vigilant anticommunism of the early Cold War.[26] The country is still yet to fight another war on Vietnam’s scale.

Scale defined the Vietnam War. The commitment of 2.6 million soldiers, 58,000 lives, and some one trillion 2023 dollars was precisely what made the loss so harsh.[27] Brands’ book covers grand figures and broad trends in American history like these, and for good reason. However, the individual stories of the war are equally valuable. They have often been defined by political strife, memories of addiction and desertion, or just the defeatist pity of an ugly loss. As with all wars, though, life went on. Begley himself worked, raised two daughters, traveled the world, and enjoys a comfortable retirement today. His service did not define him, but neither is it invisible. However unpleasantly forgettable Vietnam proved to be, it was an experience that personally impacted millions of Americans. Brands is right to argue that Vietnam “seared itself on the American mind”.[28] It divided and challenged the country in more ways than historians can expect to document, stirring both the unfamiliar fidgeting of loss and the militant fires of protest. Americans both immortalized the war and tucked it away. Begley balances these instincts. “The war probably shouldn’t be remembered,” he reflects. “The people that lost their lives, like the Vietnam War tribute wall, that’s very appropriate. The only memory I would cherish would be the wall”.[29] And neither can the living be forgotten.

Begley (far left) and other veterans revisit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 2023. It commemorates 58,276 soldiers who gave their lives in Vietnam. Currently, it is estimated that over 500 Vietnam veterans die every day. [30] (Russell Hons Photography)

[1] Video Interview with Jerry Begley, Carlisle, PA, and Stalker Lake, MN, November 27, 2023.

[2] Ibid.

[3] H.W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 (New York, Penguin Books, 2010), 175.

[4] Ibid., 155.

[5] Brands, 175.

[6] Brands, 157.

[7] Video Interview with Jerry Begley, Carlisle, PA, and Stalker Lake, MN, December 4, 2023.

[8] Brands, 143-145.

[9] Ibid., 147.

[10] Video Interview with Jerry Begley, Carlisle, PA, November 27, 2023.

[11] Jerry Lembcke, “The Myth of the Spitting Antiwar Protester,” The New York Times, October 13, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/13/opinion/myth-spitting-vietnam-protester.html. [Google]

[12] Brands, 154.

[13] Video Interview with Jerry Begley, Carlisle, PA, November 27, 2023.

[14] Email Interview with Jerry Begley, December 4, 2023.

[15] Loch Johnson. “Political Alienation Among Vietnam Veterans,” The Western Political Quarterly 29, 3 (September 1976): 398-409, https://doi.org/10.2307/447512. [JSTOR]

[16] Brands, 13, 17, 27, 69, 78.

[17] Ibid., 22.

[18] Email Interview with Jerry Begley, Carlisle, PA, December 4, 2023.

[19] Video Interview with Jerry Begley, Carlisle, PA, November 27, 2023.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Brands, 170.

[22] Lee N. Robins et al., “How Permanent Was Vietnam Drug Addiction?,” American Journal of Public Health 62, 12 (December 1974): 38-43, 10.2105/ajph.64.12_suppl.38. [PubMed Central]

[23] Video Interview with Jerry Begley, Carlisle, PA, November 27, 2023.

[24] Lembcke, 2017.

[25] Video Interview with Jerry Begley, Carlisle, PA, November 27, 2023.

[26] Brands, 175.

[27] “The War’s Costs”, Digital History, 2021, https://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtid=2&psid=3468.

[28] Brands, 175.

[29] Video Interview with Jerry Begley, Carlisle, PA, November 27, 2023.

[30] Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan, “The Unclaimed Soldier: A Final Salute for the Growing Number of Veterans Who Have No One to Bury Them,” The Washington Post, November 11, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/11/11/unclaimed-soldier/ (accessed December 1, 2023). [Google]

[31] Video Interview with Jerry Begley, Carlisle, PA, November 27, 2023.

Appendix I: Additional Photos

Begley took this photo of an MP security convoy in Saigon, 1967 or 1968.

Marines resting after a Tet Offensive battle, one of some 120 that occurred across the country in late winter 1968. (Associated Press)

Begley and his wife Diane, before and after his tour of duty, October 1967 and 1968.

Celebratory parade in Seattle for returning troops, 1969. Such pictures of returning troops are rare, and none exist of the protests Begley encountered. (HistoryLink)

Begley in 2023 returning from an Honor Flight. These trips to Washington, D.C. are provided free of cost to veterans. Jerry described the celebratory welcome as “something I’ve never experienced before”.[31] (Russell Hons Photography)

Appendix II: Initial Interview and Transcript

“The vain struggle…seared itself on the American mind” (H.W. Brands, “American Dreams”, 175)

Interview subject: Jerry L. Begley, age 80, former U.S. military policeman, served at American Embassy in Saigon, South Vietnam from 1967-1968 before returning to the U.S. and reentering civilian life in his home state of Iowa.

Zoom Interview with Jerry L. Begley from Carlisle, PA and Stalker Lake, MN, November 27, 2023.

Q: What were your feelings on the Cold War in general before your service?

A: I agreed with the [containment doctrine] in my own evidently, perhaps naïve way sometimes, but yeah, I thought it was the right thing to do, because we didn’t want Soviet aggression in all those countries. So I thought that was okay.

Q: What were your feelings on military service before and during your being drafted?

A: I wouldn’t have decided to [volunteer]. But when I entered military service, it was still okay. It was a Midwestern thing to do. There was no protests going on of the war – in Iowa, anyway. Okay, so yeah, we’ll go do this. It was the thing to do.

Q: How did your views of the war evolve during your service?

A: Initially, I thought, this is what we gotta do, I’m in the army, I’ll do what I’m told to do. But I was there during the Tet Offensive on January 31st, 1968, at that time, what I would call a disconnected NVA and Viet Cong army overran military installations, they bombed the embassy [in Saigon]. And from that point on, I thought, if they can still do this in 1968, we’re never going to defeat them. That turned a lot of people against the war, and us also, because if they continue to do so, this is going to be a losing affair…it was definitely a waste of 58,000 American lives. Definitely a waste of tons of material…and a bunch of money. To prove nothing.

Q: What was your experience with commonly narrated tropes about Vietnam veterans: drugs, desertion, violence, et cetera? Did you experience this?

A: There wasn’t much drug use within the MPs because if you got caught, you were out the door to [an] infantry unit or whatever…but there was drug use amongst troops…There were desertions in Vietnam amongst troops. As a matter of fact, our military police unit would conduct raids at times on a refugee area just outside of Saigon where deserters were known to stay. So we’d go in there and search that and yes, we’d find some deserters. I didn’t really feel [any emotion either way about that]…it was just a job. A couple I remember in particular were just plain afraid of the war. They weren’t mad or anything. They were just afraid…they were young guys – they were just afraid.

Q: What were the reactions to your service when you came home?

A: I flew into Travis Air Force Base in California to get processed out and then we went from there in buses to the San Francisco International Airport. There were protesters outside the Travis Air Force Base, protesting us and throwing stuff against the buses and stuff. We got to San Francisco International, and we were there at three o’clock in the morning. And there were lots of protesters there…so we got off [the bus]. I didn’t get hit with anything. Some guys got hit with eggs. We got inside and from that point on, then everything was okay. So after that, I came back to Iowa. There was no protesting in Iowa. Every once in a while you’d hear some comments about some drugged-up Vietnam vets, but there wasn’t any protesting.

Q: What did you think of the protests?

A: No I thought they were totally wrong. Because they’re protesting the soldiers that were there under orders. We didn’t make the decision to go there…the politicians made those decisions. And that was the general feeling. Why do they want to protest us? And you’d hear terms like “baby killers” and all that, and that may well have happened, but they were protesting our involvement in the war.

Q: How did you feel about the conclusion of the war after you had come home?

A: As part of the peace accord…they got to bring all the POWs home…I thought, that’s wonderful…[Otherwise] the war’s over now. They’re home safe. But uh, put it behindd behind us, I guess.

Q: How did you feel about how Vietnam should be remembered?

A: The war probably shouldn’t be remembered. The people that lost their lives, like the Vietnam War tribute wall that’s now up to them, that’s very appropriate. Everything else…yeah. The only memory I would cherish would be the wall.

Further Research:

Boyle, Brenda M. “Naturalizing War: The Stories We Tell about the Vietnam War” In Looking Back on the Vietnam War: Twenty-first-Century Perspectives, 175-192. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2016. [JSTOR]

Michael Clark. “Remembering Vietnam,” Cultural Critique 3, no. 1 (Spring 1986): 46-78. https://doi.org/10.2307/1354165. [JSTOR]

  1. Drummond Ayres Jr, “Army Is Shaken by Crisis In Morale and Discipline,” The New York Times, September 5, 1971. https://www.nytimes.com/1971/09/05/archives/army-is-shaken-by-crisis-in-morale-and-discipline-army-is-shaken-by.html (accessed November 15, 2023). [New York Times Archive]

David Flores. “Memories of War: Sources of Vietnam Veteran Pro- and Antiwar Political Attitudes,” Sociological Forum 29, no. 1 (March 2014): 98-119. https://www.jstor.org/stable/43653934. [JSTOR]

Eric T. Jean, Jr. “The Myth of the Troubled and Scorned Vietnam Veteran,” Journal of American Studies 26, no. 1 (April 1992), 59-74. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27555590. [Article, Waidner-Spahr Library]

Loch Johnson. “Political Alienation Among Vietnam Veterans,” The Western Political Quarterly 29, no. 3 (September 1976): 398-409. https://doi.org/10.2307/447512. [JSTOR]

Jerry Lembcke, “The Myth of the Spitting Antiwar Protester,” The New York Times, October 13, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/13/opinion/myth-spitting-vietnam-protester.html (accessed November 15, 2023). [Google]

Middle Class Women in the 1950s and 1960s

Middle Class Women in the 1950s and 1960s


By Matthew Tabrisky

“It was, I guess you could say common knowledge that you could be a secretary, you could be a teacher, you could be an airline stewardess, you could be a nurse. And, you know, that was about it….,”[1] recalls Barbara Leighton, a former nurse and 1957 graduate of Syracuse University who took part in a new Bachelor of Science oriented nursing program. These innovative programs constituted a part of the growing opportunities that American middle-class women were beginning to see in education and careers during the 1950s and 1960s. Yet just as Leighton describes, career options were still limited, and many of these women later moved into domestic life despite professional success. Leighton herself had such a pivotal moment in 1963 with a heart surgeon who, “…asked me to go to New York with him when he went to Mount Sinai as head of cardiac surgery. However, I got married instead,”[2] as Leighton recalls. In H.W. Brand’s book American Dreams: The United States Since 1945, Brand touches on the career restrictions middle-class women faced during the late 1950s, as well as the discontent many women had with their domestic lives as argued in Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique. Though not directly challenging Brand’s description, and despite a pause in her own career for marriage, Leighton had a negative view of women like Friedan, believing they just complained instead of engaging in nondomestic activities. Leighton’s outlook aligned more with the idea of celebrating women when they could balance both career and homemaking, emphasized in women’s magazines. While Brands highlights the nature of women’s career restrictions and discontent, his narrative lacks the greater complexity and detail regarding middle class women’s access to higher education, career options and developments in fields such as nursing, as well as comment on the stories of women with both careers and domestic life in magazines and the unique perspective held by those like Leighton regarding the dissatisfaction stressed by Friedan.

Nurses preparing for a surgical procedure, Philadelphia General hospital, c. 1960, courtesy of University of Pennsylvania

Women’s education and professional careers saw substantial growth through the 1950s and 1960s, albeit within limits from traditional gender expectations. Though Brands mentions that most middle class wives did not work during the 1950s, he omits details of women’s increasing college attendance and job participation.[3] In the 1950s and 1960s, Women’s college enrollment annually increased 5 and 9 percent respectively, both more than men.[4] This coincided with an increasing percentage of married working women, as the 1960 decennial census found that more than half of working women were married and typically college educated.[5] Universities such as Harvard even creating part time degree programs for older women to become teachers.[6] The nursing profession especially felt this change, with the postwar era marking the rise of college-educated and specialized nurses, including nurse practitioners, anesthetic and cardiac nurses.[7] “At the time open heart surgery was just starting. Not too many nurses that were on the roster wanted to take those cases, and I said I would. I became known as a cardiac nurse,”[8] Leighton recalls in her time at Miami Dade Memorial Hospital.

Yet despite this growth, societal norms limited both the accessibility and type of education middle class women received. Various private colleges and universities had admission rules favorable to men, with institutions like Stanford even placing quotas on women’s admission.[9] These limitations even affected classes for female dominated careers like nursing, as Leighton recalls, “I think there were thirty students in my class. We started out with around fifty in our freshman year, and a number of them obviously dropped out.”[10] Leighton’s tiny nursing class compared to some thousands of students in her year is better contextualized with the few career options and lack of expectation beyond domestic life many had for women.

Throughout the academic world, many educators sought to design homemaking-based curriculums for female students, expecting most women to settle down after some time spent in traditionally female jobs, such as teaching and nursing.[11] From 1953-1962, the ACE’s (American council of education) Commission on the Education of Women conducted research into women’s education and job choice for application to collegiate curriculums across the country. As their research indicated that women’s decisions regarding motherhood and career were highly individual based, some members proposed curriculums centered around homelife and community building, while others still advocated for a more job-oriented curriculum. The commission’s conclusion was thus the need for a broad liberal arts education to satisfy both aims.[12]

Though this liberal’s arts education supported some career-oriented women, job choices remained extremely limited, with many educators pushing college women into one of a few careers. In American Dreams, Brands indirectly mentions these limitations, but never explicitly describes the larger forces contributing to them. A 1964 address to the American Association for University women advocated for the nursing profession and highlighted its “…open pathway to a full and useful profession after periods of nonemployment imposed by family obligations.”[13] During the space race, a 1957 national policy report titled Womanpower even recommended that women study more science and languages for teaching high school and thus “free” more men for key positions in higher education and research.[14] Such career limitations and lack of expectation for their professional lives were obvious to women, as Leighton recalls, “…at that time, there were not that many options that we knew about.”[15]

Ladies Home Journal May 1958, courtesy of Internet Archive

Just as liberal arts education for women mixed domestic and professional attitudes, media perceptions of women focused on both domesticity and professional achievement through individual success. Stories of women who had both a career and a family were popular in women’s magazines, including an article in a 1958 Ladies Home Journal article about Frances Olsen, a mother who entered medical school to become a doctor in an “act of sheer self-assertion” to both satisfy her love of medicine and take care of her family.[16] Similarly, a 1954 Coronet article described Sylvia F. Porter, a journalist who turned a small newspaper job into a thriving column, with enough “energy left over to manage her roles as a wife and mother, write popular books on investments and savings and edit a newsletter on government finance.”[17] In these articles and others, professional achieving outside domesticity was even the primary focus, with most praise given to a woman’s career and her domestic life as an added benefit.[18]

Betty Friedan in 1960, courtesy of Wikipedia

This celebration of a woman’s public and professional success lay in stark contrast to the opinions of many other middle-class women. In her 1963 The Feminine Mystique book Second wave feminists like Betty Friedan held a different view of women’s opporuntites in her 1963 book , with Friedan detailing women’s discontent with their lives as homemakers, as well as the pressures they felt from education and the media to settle down and not pursue careers.[19] Friedan was not a lone voice either, as a 1962 Gallup poll stated that around 90 percent of housewives expressed dissatisfaction with their life, wanting their daughters to be better educated and settle down later.[20] While perhaps in the minority, as Brand’s account of women’s reactions to Friedan concurs with description, Leighton disagreed with Friedan’s methods, echoing the individual achievement applauded in women’s magazines, as Leighton recalls about this dissatisfaction, “If you’re not that happy with it, go to school, take classes, and learn, you know…. Some women were rather too loud about their positions in life.  And my thought was, well, go and do something about it. Don’t broadcast it all the time.”[21]

Middle-class women experienced a mix of both increased and limited opportunities for education and careers, adding complexity to Brand’s description of women’s overall career limitations. While women’s participation in higher education and the workforce grew over the decades, expectations of women as homemakers restricted their career options and changed collegiate curriculums to emphasize domestic livelihood. Magazines also brought focus to women who managed both successful careers and domestic lives. The stories of women like Barbara Leighton elucidate these complexities, with Leighton’s view of dissatisfied women like Friedan as complaining instead of solving their problem providing a distinct perspective in relation to Brand’s account of Second Wave feminism. The gradual but substantial changes in education and career, as well as evolving attitudes towards domesticity that middle class women saw in the 1950s and 1960s, lay the foundation for understanding the greater changes in access and opportunity for women in the following decades.

[1] Audio Interview with Barbara Leighton, Pikesville, MD, November 25, 2023

[2] Audio Interview with Barbara Leighton, Pikesville, MD, November 24, 2023.

[3] H.W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2010), 80.

[4] Stacey Jones, “Dynamic Social Norms and the Unexpected Transformation of Women’s Higher Education, 1965–1975.” Social Science History 33, no. 3 (2009): 261.

[5] Jones, 260.

[6] Jones, 265.

[7] Apesoa-Varano, Ester C., and Charles S. Varano. “Nurses and Labor Activism in the United States: The Role of Class, Gender, and Ideology.” Social Justice 31, no. 3 (97) (2004): 87.

[8] Audio Interview with Barbara Leighton, Pikesville, MD, November 25, 2023.

[9] Jones, 262.

[10] Audio Interview with Barbara Leighton, Pikesville, MD, November 25, 2023.

[11] Jones, 263.

[12] Linda Eisenmann, “A Time of Quiet Activism: Research, Practice, and Policy in American Women’s Higher Education, 1945-1965.” History of Education Quarterly 45, no. 1 (2005): 10-11.

[13] Jean Wells, “Women’s Job Prospects.” American Association of University Women Journal 58, (1964): 23, quoted in Stacey Jones, “Dynamic Social Norms and the Unexpected Transformation of Women’s Higher Education, 1965–1975.” Social Science History 33, no. 3 (2009): 263.

[14] National Manpower Council, Womanpower, 1957, in Stacey Jones, “Dynamic Social Norms and the Unexpected Transformation of Women’s Higher Education, 1965–1975.” Social Science History 33, no. 3 (2009): 263.

[15] Audio Interview with Barbara Leighton, Pikesville, MD, November 24, 2023.

[16] Neal Gilkyson Stuart, “Mother Is a Doctor Now!” Ladies Home Journal, 75 (May 1958), 136.

[17] Jana Guerrier, “Wall Street Woman,” Coronet, 35 (Jan. 1954), 26.

[18] Joanne Meyerowitz, “Beyond the Feminine Mystique: A Reassessment of Postwar Mass Culture, 1946- 1958.” The Journal of American History 79, no. 4 (1993): 1460–1461.

[19] Meyerowitz, 1455.

[20] Jones, 265.

[21] Audio Interview with Barbara Leighton, Pikesville, MD, November 24, 2023.


“The [middle-class] workers were mostly men, except for the secretaries in the offices, and their wives typically did not work outside the home.” (H.W. Brands, American Dreams, p. 80)

Interview Subject

Barbara Leighton, age 88, is a former nurse who got her license in 1957 from Syracuse and worked in a variety of hospitals along the East Coast before settling in New Hampshire with her family in the mid 1960s. She took a break from nursing to raise her children but then returned to work full-time in the 1970s and retired in 2013.


– Audio recording, Pikesville, MD, November 24 2023

– Audio recording, Pikesville, MD, November 25 2023

Selected Transcript


Q: At that time, I believe it was when a lot of medical procedures were just at their inception, such as open heart surgery. Because of  procedures like that, was that what drew you in to like these kind of workplaces, like that opportunity to be a part of something?

A: Yes, very definitely…. We worked at Miami Dade Memorial Hospital. And then I did private duty and got into open heart surgery with one surgeon. And  I worked very hard. And it was brand new.  And, luckily, the surgeon seemed to like what I did, so he asked for me constantly. So I had a really, really good experience there. Nicely enough, he asked me to go to New York with him when he went to Mount Sinai as head of cardiac surgery. However, I got married instead. But the experience was wonderful. 

Q: In the 60s there was this like growing support for the Equal Rights Amendment, and Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963, which talked about the dissatisfaction some women felt in their lives as just mothers and homemakers. Did you disagree with this perspective?

A: Probably, Matthew, I can’t pinpoint it at this point. I had a career. I was quite happy with it. I  still pursued it off and on.  And, we did have a you know, a group of friends that they had been to college but hadn’t, hadn’t pursued a career very truthfully. There were some that did not go to college. And, yes, I remember the feminine mystique.  I don’t know that I identified with it very truthfully. Maybe because I had a profession. I knew I could go back to it if I had to. I could support my children if I had to.  And I liked being a homemaker. So, but I also knew that I, you know, I was a good nurse. I could go back to it. So I can’t say that I, you know, I associated with a lot of people that were dissatisfied, a lot of females that were dissatisfied.  Or if they were, I didn’t recognize it because I wasn’t.

Q: Um, did you feel that was like, true in like the media and like what you read? Like,  did you read a lot about women just being viewed as like homemakers and like, uh, caregivers and mothers?

A: Yeah, I read about it and I guess very truthfully I would think well, you know, if you feel this way, go back to school  get a profession or do something about it. Maybe that’s because I had a profession and I was very proud of it and I knew I could go back to it if I had to. But, you know, some, some of it, you know, was a little more whiny than I thought was necessary,  truthfully.  And, sometimes, you know, as this movement continued, there were too many people that I think chimed in and didn’t know what they were talking about half the time. 

Q: Could you, explain more about that?  Like, what do you mean by, like, people who think you didn’t know much about it?

A: Well, there seemed to be a lot of, you know, all I do is take care of my children and wash the dishes and make dinner and stuff like that. And, yeah, if we were housewives, we all did it. And I guess also I was of the generation that, yes, that’s also what you did.  But if you’re not that happy with it, take, you know, go to school, take classes,  learn, you know, you don’t have to get a degree or something, but stimulate your mind. You can, read.  I’m an inveterate reader, as you well know.

Q: You recently mentioned that, like, you know, at the time there weren’t that many career options for women. Did you find a problem with that? Or, did you not, like, think about that at all?

A: It was, I guess you could say common knowledge and that, you know, you could be a secretary, you could be a teacher, meaning women. You could be an airline stewardess. You could be a nurse. And, you know, that was about it. And, I guess I didn’t think too much about it one way or the other because, I had my goal, if I was inviolate, I had to be a nurse. And if the other people wanted to do something else, that was fine. But,  that was basically what, more or less what, uh, at that time, there were not that many options that we knew about, I guess you could put it that way. As there are today, there’s so many more.  That was not the rule at that point. It was starting. I worked with some female doctors, not many, not many at all.


Q: You’ve mentioned that all of these nurses were women. So at Syracuse,  were there a lot of like female students at that time and like people going into the nursing?  Or was it pretty limited?

A: It was quite limited. I think there were like 30 students in my class. And we started out with like 50 odd  in our, in our freshman year. And a number of them obviously dropped out. 

Q: I’ve been doing some research on women’s magazines, like from the fifties and sixties that often highlight women who were both successful mothers and, like, in their careers. Did you, like, read any of those stories or, like, see anything on the TV that you identified with in that sense?

A: Oh, yes. Yeah, it was very popular, you know, whatever I did.  And, good for them. I did not, you know, I did not feel cheated or left out or something like that. Interestingly enough, I also had enough friends who liked my nursing expertise. Let’s put it that way. And, that kept me busy too. But other than that, no, I read the magazines. I did understand.  That, frankly I felt, you know, there were times when I read it and I thought, well, I really should go back. You know I’m a good nurse. I know what I should be doing. But between marriage and the children, I didn’t. 

Further Research

Apesoa-Varano, Ester C., and Charles S. Varano. “Nurses and Labor Activism in the United States: The Role of Class, Gender, and Ideology.” Social Justice 31, no. 3 (97) (2004): 77–104. http://www.jstor.org/stable/29768259. [JSTOR]

Linda Eisenmann, “A Time of Quiet Activism: Research, Practice, and Policy in American Women’s Higher Education, 1945-1965.” History of Education Quarterly 45, no. 1 (2005): vi–17. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20461921. [JSTOR]

Joanne Meyerowitz, “Beyond the Feminine Mystique: A Reassessment of Postwar Mass Culture, 1946- 1958.” The Journal of American History 79, no. 4 (1993): 1455–82. https://doi.org/10.2307/2080212. [JSTOR]

Stacey Jones, “Dynamic Social Norms and the Unexpected Transformation of Women’s Higher Education, 1965–1975.” Social Science History 33, no. 3 (2009): 247–91. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40268002. [JSTOR]

Neal Gilkyson Stuart, “Mother Is a Doctor Now!” Ladies Home Journal, 75 (May 1958), 136-137. https://archive.org/details/ladies-home-journal-v-075-n-05-1958-05/page/136/mode/2up. [Internet Archive]

Jana Guerrier, “Wall Street Woman,” Coronet, 35 (Jan. 1954), 26-29. https://archive.org/details/sim_coronet_1954-01_35_3_0/page/26/mode/2up. [Internet Archive]

The Desegregation of Sports

By Myra Naqvi

Video (ClipChamp)

YouTube Link

Newspaper article detailing the boycott of the New York AC track meet in the Philadelphia Inquirer, 1968, courtesy of ProQuest

Craig Nation was twenty-one years old when he and his teammates at Villanova University decided to boycott the New York Athletic Club’s indoor track and field meet in 1968. The meet was supposed to mark the 100th anniversary of the first indoor track meet in U.S. history and was expected to be the highlight of the indoor season [1]. Not to mention Villanova was the reigning NCAA champion. While it was a prestigious event, the NYAC prohibited black and Jewish membership, continuing segregationist policies that were supposed to have been abolished four years prior [2]. Nation remembers making the decision to boycott the meet with his team and how a year later, the NYAC was no longer a segregated organization. He describes the event as a “great, great thing which we accomplished as a team, or made a contribution to as a team. All of this put together in the context of the time made it a special sort of thing. I can say it’s still a big point of pride” [3]. In his book American Dreams, historian H.W. Brands details the rise of spectator sports in the 1950s and the subsequent use of athletics as a means of protest [4]. Craig Nation’s experience as a college athlete in the 1960s reflects Brands’ description of the slow dismantlement of the Jim Crow System and the power of protest in sports as a mechanism for change.

The NYAC boycott was part of a greater movement led by Dr. Harry Edwards and the Olympic Project for Human Rights, who sought to boycott the 1968 Olympics in protest of human rights injustices within sports [5]. While the boycott did not fully materialize, Olympic medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in protest of inequality in what Brands detailed as “the action that garnered the greatest attention for the black power movement” [6]. Nation recalls that the day after Tommie Smith and John Carlos podiumed in the 200 meters, his teammate and friend Larry James won gold in the 4 x 400-meter relay, and silver in the open 400 meter. He remembers that “Larry and his teammates were under terrible pressure to do something [like Carlos and Smith had” [7]. But Carlos and Smith were thrown off the Olympic team and sent home, putting Larry in a difficult place. Larry and his teammates “went for a slightly more modest form of protest by wearing black berets on the podium” [8]. Nation explained that people competing at such a high level of competition “had choices to make about how to comport themselves. They could use the stage or abuse it. It was a difficult, personal choice. Yet sometimes it was an opportunity” [9]. While H.W. Brands addresses the impact that protests in sport had on the Civil Rights movement, Craig Nation’s first-hand account and connection to the NYAC and Olympic protests provide humanity and complexity to the issue.

Craig Nation expressing his excitement after Villanova won the 1968 NCAA championship, The Villanovan, Courtesy of Craig Nation

Across the nation and on the international stage, black athletes faced persistent discrimination on and off the field, but Craig Nation did not recall having any problems at Villanova University. He remembers feeling like he was in a “fully integrated harmonious environment” [10]. Nation and Larry James were teammates at Villanova. In fact, he was James’ mentor when he joined the team in 1967. Nation described James as a “great, great American track and field runner. An Olympic gold and silver medalist and world record holder… Just great. I was his mentor. Black, white, no issue. No question” [11]. Nation was always impressed that on his team they had “a very positive atmosphere in a day and age when it was really difficult, when there was a lot of tension” [12]. Of course, this was not the case at every university. For example, the Southeastern Conference did not begin to integrate until 1966, and the University of Mississippi was not fully integrated until 1971 [13]. A common phenomenon in the south was that black athletes were hated throughout the day but celebrated under the lights. This caused many black athletes to become nonpolitical to avoid confrontation and violence from their white counterparts, which ultimately emboldened universities to continue to uphold racist practices that would allow the edifice of the Jim Crow System to survive, even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1965.

On April 4th, 1968, Martin Luther King Junior was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. That weekend, the Villanova team was scheduled to travel to Knoxville to compete at a meet hosted by the University of Tennessee. Back in Philadelphia, Nation’s team gathered for a team meeting to decide whether they would compete in the meet. Nation remembers that on his drive to the meeting, “there were a lot of African American people on the street. They were very upset, and for a good reason. A group of people for around my car and started to pound on it. I tried to show solidarity and continued to move throughout the crowd. Nobody did anything. They were just expressing their anger” [14]. After making it to the meeting, his team voted to go to the meet. Nation remembers that their flight to Tennessee flew over Washington, and “through the air it looked like the whole city was on fire” [15]. He explained that “it was a very striking thing to see. I was twenty-one years old trying to put it all together” [16]. Nation’s experiences as a student-athlete at Villanova in the late 1960s illustrate how the Civil Rights Movement impacted the everyday lives of American citizens, like Brands alludes to throughout his novel.

The Philadelphia Pioneers after winning 4 x 400 at the AAU national championship, courtesy of Craig Nation

Upon his graduation from Villanova University in 1968, Nation began a new running career with a local track club, the Philadelphia Pioneer Club. The Philadelphia Pioneer Club was a historically black segregated organization, but in the era of desegregation, Craig Nation became the first white person to join the team. He remembers how interesting and eye opening it was to cross the color line and immerse himself in a culture that he was unfamiliar with, “to see the world the way the other side sees it” [17]. While Villanova’s head coach, Jim Elliot, was in full support of integration, not all of Nation’s coaches were in support of him joining the Philadelphia Pioneers. Nation remembers some of his coaches saying, “well what are you doing that for? Why are you running for that club?” [18]. While he was fortunate that his experiences at Villanova were mostly positive in regard to race relations, Nation acknowledges that “not everybody was on board for change,” yet that “segregated track and field, segregated sporting culture seemed so ironic” [19].

In his chronicle of American history since 1945, H.W. Brands illustrated the complexity of history by detailing the American pursuit of democratization and development abroad contrasted with the ongoing battle over race relations at home. While he briefly mentions the impact that sports had on the Civil Rights Movement, Craig Nation’s experience as a student-athlete in the late 1960s gives humanity and perplexity to the issues being faced by everyday people. His account proves that “nobody was immune, and certainly not collegiate athletics. You had to deal with the issue in some way. Either by self-consciously ignoring it or by engaging with it. Either way, you had to do something” [20].


[1] “Boycott may End NYAC Track Meet,” Chicago Daily Defender (Big Weekend Edition) (1966-1973), Feb 03, 1968. [ProQuest]

[2] Dexter L. Blackman, “’RUN, JUMP, OR SHUFFLE ARE ALL THE SAME WHEN YOU DO IT FOR THE MAN!’: The OPHR, Black Power, and the Boycott of the 1968 NYAC Meet,” Souls 21 no. 1, (2019), 52-76. [Taylor and Francis Online]

H.W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States Since 1945, (New York: Penguin Books, 2010), 127.

[3] Interview with Robert C. Nation, Carlisle, PA, November 20, 2023.

[4] Brands, American Dreams, 74-76.

[5] Nikole Tower, “Olympic Project for Human Rights lit fire for 1968 protests,” Global Sport Matters, (2018). [Web]

[6] Brands, American Dreams, 152.

[7] Interview with Robert C. Nation, Carlisle, PA, November 20, 2023.

[8] Interview with Robert C. Nation, Carlisle, PA, November 20, 2023.

[9] Interview with Robert C. Nation, Carlisle, PA, November 20, 2023.

[10] Interview with Robert C. Nation, Carlisle, PA, November 20, 2023.

[11] Interview with Robert C. Nation, Carlisle, PA, November 20, 2023.

[12] Interview with Robert C. Nation, Carlisle, PA, November 20, 2023.

[13] Matthew Wills, “The Uneasy History of Integrated Sports in America.” JSTOR Daily, (2017). [JSTOR Daily]

[14] Interview with Robert C. Nation, Carlisle, PA, November 20, 2023.

[15] Interview with Robert C. Nation, Carlisle, PA, November 20, 2023.

[16] Interview with Robert C. Nation, Carlisle, PA, November 20, 2023.

[17] Interview with Robert C. Nation, Carlisle, PA, November 20, 2023.

[18] Interview with Robert C. Nation, Carlisle, PA, November 20, 2023.

[19] Interview with Robert C. Nation, Carlisle, PA, November 20, 2023.

[20] Interview with Robert C. Nation, Carlisle, PA, November 20, 2023.



“The second shortcoming of the Brown decision was that it applied only to schools […] Segregated public schools were an important pillar of the Jim Crow system, yet the edifice could survive without them. The much larger realm of segregation remained untouched.” (H.W. Brands, American Dreams, p. 86)


Interview Subject

Robert C. Nation, age 77, Dickinson College professor who ran track and field for Villanova University in the late 1960s and witnessed the slow desegregation of sports.



Interview with Professor Craig Nation, Carlisle, PA, November 20, 2023.


Selected Transcript

Q: Can you tell me a little about the culture of your team at Villanova as it pertained to race relations?

A: “I have always been impressed with Villanova as a model for what a collegiate athletic program can be. Our coach, Jim Elliot, left no doubt about priorities. Your first priority is to be a student. To learn, to grow, to educate, to mature. And then comes track […] I think we probably managed to have a successful team at the highest level of competition without sacrificing any principles or priorities. That was that was good.”

“Race relations were very interesting. I can’t speak for everyone, but I can say what I remembered. We didn’t have a problem at Villanova with race relations. In this era. I was at Villanova from 64 to 68, so this is the height of the civil rights movement. Intense engagement.”

“I never perceived it as an issue in my environment I felt like I was in a fully integrated harmonious environment, that’s the way I perceived it.”

“I think my junior year the way we did it was a team member was assigned to a first year as a mentor. I was assigned to Larry James. He was a great, great American track and field runner, Olympic gold medal, Olympic silver medal, world record holder, just great. From White Plains, NY. I was his mentor. Black, white- No issue. No, no question. It always impressed me that on our team we had a very positive atmosphere in a day and age when it was really difficult, when there’s a lot of tension.”

“My senior year, my black teammates raised the issue that track was in many ways still a segregated sport. And one of the biggest track and field organizations was the New York Athletic Club which hosted a big indoor track meet every year. But the NYAC was a white only organization, not just the meet, but the organization. So, as national champions, we said we wanted to boycott this meet. And we had a big discussion about it as a team. We decided unanimously to boycott and not low and behold it the next year the NYAC was no longer a segregated organization. It was a great, great thing. Which we sort of accomplished as a team or made a contribution to as a team. All of this put together in the context of the time made it a special sort of thing. It meant a lot to me that we could do that. I can say it’s just still quite a big point of pride. It’s like 50 or 60 years ago or something like that.”

Q: Was your coach supportive of your team boycotting the meet?

A: “Absolutely. Although I had more than one coach, and not all of them had… like when I went to run for the Philadelphia Pioneers some of them said “well what are you doing that for? Why are you running for that club?” This was part of that time; those perceptions were out there. Not everybody was on board. It was a battle in some ways, but in sporting culture it seems so ironic. Segregated track and field…” (15:15)

“My senior year in 1968 was the assassination of MLK. That weekend we had a track meet at the university of Tennessee- where MLK was assassinated. We had to have a team meeting to decide whether we would go. There were a lot of African American people on the street, they were upset for a good reason- they got around my car and started to pound on it. I tried to show solidarity and keep moving. Nobody did anything, they were just expressing their anger. I got through and made it to the meeting, and we voted to go. We flew down to Tennessee. I remember our flight flew over Washington; through the air it looked like the whole city was on fire. It was a very striking thing to see. I was 21 years old trying to put it all together. Those are all my experiences as an athlete at Villanova.”

Q: Today it feels easy for college students to disengage from current events and remain protected in a “bubble.” Was everyone engaged? Were the opportunities to remain passive in this time?

A: “Nobody was immune, and certainly not collegiate athletics.”

“You couldn’t dodge the issue. You had to deal with it in some way. Either by self-consciously ignoring it or hunkering down or engaging with the issues but you had to do something like that.”

“I don’t think the majority was all that engaged back then either- when you look closely maybe it’s not as different as you think (the generations)”

“There was then too a lot of disengagement.”

Q: Were you and your teammates moved by the demonstrations of the 1968 Olympics?

A: “Larry James was also involved in [the 1968 Olympics] because John Carlos and Tommie Smith had their dramatic demonstration, fist raised all that, and then the next day, Larry and his teammates won the gold medal in the 4×400, so they were under terrible pressure to do something like that. Remember, Carlos and [who] got thrown off the team, it was awful, they were sent home with gold medals around their neck because they took a knee basically. They didn’t hit anybody in the head. So then Larry and company, he talked to me about this in great detail, they didn’t know what to do. Larry was one of the leaders of this movement and demonstrations at the Olympic games, and he was the best athlete too, so he had a lot of prestige, everybody admired and respected him. And I was supposed to be his mentor [laughs] So they went for a slightly more modest form of protest. They wore berets black berets it was a a more temperate version of Carlos and Smith. The people that engaged in those activities had choices to make they were making risks. […] All of these people had to make decisions about how to comport themselves. They can use the stage or abuse it. How to represent the causes they believe in. It is a difficult, personal choice. Sometimes it can be seen as an opportunity.”


Further Research

Fraser, Gerald C. “Black Athletes Are Cautioned Not to Cross Lines.” The New York Times Company. (1968). Olympic History (nytimes.com) 

“1968: Mexico City. Black Power Struggles.” The New York Times Company. (1968). Olympic History (nytimes.com) 

“Tommie Smith and John Carlos Raise Their Fists at the 1968 Olympics.” History.com, A&E Television Networks. (2021) https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/black-power-salute-1968-olympics 

Wills, Matthew. “The Uneasy History of Integrated Sports in America.” JSTOR Daily. (2017) The Uneasy History of Integrated Sports in America – JSTOR Daily 

Spivey, Donald. “The Black Athlete in Big-Time Intercollegiate Sports, 1941-1968.” Phylon (1960-) 44, no. 2 (1983): 116–25. https://doi.org/10.2307/275023. 

“Sports- Levelling the Playing Field.” National Museum of African American History and Culture. Smithsonian. Sports | National Museum of African American History and Culture (si.edu) 

Reese, Renford. “The Socio-Political Context of the Integration of Sport in America.” Journal of African American Men 3, no. 4 (1998): 5–22. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41819345. 

Sellitto, Anthony. “Villanova Track and Cross Country Teams 1966 1967 & 1968 NCAA Champs.” YouTube.  https://youtu.be/l2yHIZlM-dI?si=KW45RbtbKwQpCfcK.

John F. Kennedy and Physical Fitness

By Jenna Deep

“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”[1] These words from President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address captured the attention of the nation. One person who was captivated by this was a twelve-year-old girl in Clinton, New York, Barbara-Jo Deep. Watching the inauguration on television, those words “made the biggest impression. It started making me feel empowered.”[2] Kennedy’s sway of the American people helped to drive national programs and policies, especially his stress on individual contribution to make America greater. “He always seemed to ask for our help,” Deep recalls. “He always said “I need your help, we need to be strong, I believe the country is strong, but we can be stronger.”[3] This made Deep feel a strong sense of patriotism and duty towards her country.

Barbara-Jo Deep circa 1961

Barbara-Jo Deep circa 1961
Courtesy of Barbara-Jo Deep

While historian H.W. Brands does a reasonably good job describing Kennedy’s election, policies, and influence in American Dreams, he does not discuss President Kennedy’s emphasis on personal fitness. Kennedy’s fitness program is an excellent case study that demonstrates the intersection of his policies and influence that impacted the lives of everyday Americans. The fitness program also offers insights into the state of the American government during the Cold War, particularly the looming fear of a physical war with the Soviet Union. As a young girl in Clinton, New York, Barbara-Jo Deep recalls the way that the president’s advocacy of personal fitness influenced her and her community in ways that Brands is unable to document in American Dreams.

When John F. Kennedy began his presidential campaign in 1960, he quickly captured the nation’s attention as “the vigorous exemplar of the new generation.”[4] The rise of television in particular helped contribute to this. In the first televised debate in American history, Kennedy was able to make his opponent Richard Nixon appear “harried and worn.”[5] Kennedy’s collected appearance on television was a major factor in terms of his public perception both before and after the election. After his election, Kennedy’s charm and use of media continued to influence the American people. Deep recalls that the press and reporters were “very complimentary to the president and his family,” which enabled Kennedy to promote his ideas to Americans.[6]

One of the most impactful ways JFK influenced teens like Deep during his term was the use of his fitness program. Though Kennedy can be credited with the popularization of fitness, presidential concern over the physical well-being of Americans began with President Eisenhower. A 1955 report found that 57.9% of American children failed at least one category in the Kraus-Weber fitness test as opposed to just 8.7% of European youths.[7] This caused a panic within the executive branch that Americans were growing weak or ‘soft’, leading to the president calling a council regarding youth fitness in 1955. Eisenhower feared that in the case of a hot war with the Soviet Union, American would be physically unfit to fight, which led to the establishment of the President’s Council on Youth Fitness (PCYF) in 1956.[8] However, PCYF was not very effective. The US government had no power to mandate or implement fitness policies into American schools or youth life, and therefore very little change was made.[9] Kennedy was able to use media outreach to encourage Americans to buy in to the suggested fitness program. In this way, he was able to succeed where Eisenhower failed.

Kennedy began promoting this program while president-elect. On December 26, 1960, an article he wrote was published in Sports Illustrated. Titled “The Soft American,” it warned of the decreasing fitness of the American youth, and the dangers it could pose to society. He cites the same fears that Eisenhower had, that in a war with the Soviet Union, unfit Americans would be unable to fight them.[10] However, Kennedy had a different approach in reaching the American people than Eisenhower had, by turning fitness into a patriotic gesture. He published this article in a popular magazine that was readily consumed by the masses and shared with the nation how disastrous unfitness could be for national security. Kennedy wrote “the physical well-being of the citizen is an important foundation for the vigor and vitality of all the activities of the nation,” and encouraged individuals to improve their fitness to improve the country.[11] In this article, he outlines administrative goals for American fitness, but specifically acknowledges that the government cannot impose itself on Americans to enforce such goals. While the government could not force people to exercise, “we can fully restore the physical soundness of our nation only if every American is willing to assume responsibility for his own fitness and the fitness of his children.”[12] This individualized fitness and transformed it into a patriotic statement rather than just another government policy.

Kennedy strengthened his suggestions by portraying them as a means of preserving the free state of the American people by implicitly juxtaposing it to the Soviet Union. “We do not live in a regimented society where men are forced to live their lives in the interest of the state.”[13] By contrasting the United States to the Soviet Union’s totalitarianism, he was able to capture the fear of a communist state but also individualized the prevention of its actualization to amplify his call to action. “He specifically said that a strong and great country needs strong healthy people,” says Deep, “he really felt that you needed to take care of your health, he really stressed that you needed to be healthy and active and strong.”[14]

Once he assumed full presidential duties in 1961, Kennedy quickly rebranded the PCYF to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness (PCPF), which used more covert strategies to encourage American fitness. “The council hired Oklahoma football coach Bud Wilkinson as their first celebrity spokesman” for both his prestige and prior rhetoric on the importance of American fitness on the global stage.[15] Kennedy also struck a deal with ABC news to have free airtime to promote fitness, and used marketing tactics directed at children to grab their attention. Not only was Wilkenson used to promote fitness, but astronauts and other celebrities, including Kennedy himself, starred in ads and even a promotional film about the importance of fitness.[16] New technologies like personal televisions and accessible movie theaters enabled the widespread advertising of Kennedy’s program that helped make it so popular.

Red white and blue fitness pamphlet with a photo of JFK on the front to detail and demonstrate exercises to keep Americans fit.

PCPF fitness booklet
Courtesy of jfklibrary.org

Deep recalls that the Kennedy administration encouraged physical fitness in American youth through schools. Although the federal government could not mandate that schools use their fitness program, schools were encouraged to buy into it. “The Council… strongly encourages every school to adopt the basic philosophy of Wilkinson’s program” but made it clear that such an adoption was a choice.[17] The government sold blue books to schools that detailed exercises and recommendations for improving fitness. Deep’s school, Clinton High School, opted to use these books in Phys. Ed. class. “There was a little blurb in the front that said it was sponsored by President Kennedy,” she remembers. “I know that I spent a lot of time looking through it and figuring out the exercises in it and doing them, because he said that we need to be strong and healthy to be a strong country.”[18] According to Deep, the exercises mostly focused on bodyweight movements and calisthenics rather than things like weightlifting. These strategies were effective in encouraging school engagement with the presidential fitness program. Before the PCPF, “fewer than 18 million school children had participated in physical education… while about 27 million had by 1964,” and a majority of these students had P.E. at least three times a week.[19] Some states even codified P.E. requirements into their state education systems, demonstrating the effectiveness of using schools to promote American fitness. In addition to this, “half again as many students passed a physical fitness test” in 1962, one year after implementing the Kennedy fitness program.[20]

Another way the Kennedy administration went about encouraging fitness was the promotion of a fifty-mile hike. While Kennedy himself never engaged in such a hike, he challenged his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, to complete it. This became a bit of banter used in public, which Salinger declined each time, but brought attention to the initiative. In early 1963, Salinger “ finally released a statement… in which he publicly declined the honor.”[21] Famously, Kennedy’s brother and Attorney General Robert Kennedy completed the hike in the snow in loafers to demonstrate that the hike was nothing to shy away from. Although the administration did not largely engage in this hike, “the real impact of the fifty-mile hike was with the public at large” and many Americans felt encouraged to attempt it due to these efforts.[22]

Google Maps route of a similar path to what the boys would have taken from Clinton to Cooperstown

Route from Clinton to Cooperstown
Courtesy of Google Maps

The high schoolers in Clinton viewed this hike to be an admirable expression of patriotism. In the fall of 1961, a group of boys including Deep’s brother, cousins, and boyfriend all decided they would go on their own ‘Kennedy March.’ Around twelve boys total partook in the walk, and they ranged from fifteen to eighteen years old. “They were all juniors or seniors in high school,” and many of them had just wrapped up football season, “so they were pretty well conditioned, but not conditioned to walk fifty miles.”[23] Their route was from the Clinton town center to Cooperstown.  “It was pretty much a last-minute thing.”, Deep remembers. “They didn’t really train for walking that far…within a day it just came upon them… so they all got together a day or two later in the morning” to begin their walk.[24]

Deep went with her parents to drop off her brother in front of the newspaper office. The boys began their walk early in the morning and it took them “in the range of like 9-11 hours. It depended on whether you were in the front of the pack or, you know, further behind.”[25] Deep and her parents also drove out to Cooperstown to watch the boys finish their hike and give them a ride back home. They came upon them a few miles away from Cooperstown, and Deep’s boyfriend did not want to continue walking. “He was beat, I was literally pushing him physically the last 2 miles,” Deep recalls, laughing. “I kinda got in on the walk, but only the last couple of miles from the end, but I felt like I was a part of that because of doing that.”[26] Although she did not do the whole hike, she still feels an immense amount of pride that she was able to help someone else complete the Kennedy March.  Deep wishes that a group of girls had also done the hike, but “I don’t even remember think that we should do it as girls, I guess that was just the mindset back then, where nowadays I think that would be totally different.”[27] Had the hike taken place in the modern day, “we probably would have walked together, not separated male/female, and girls definitely would do it.”[28]

On the ride back to Clinton, “They were all just so beat. riding back in the car took a little over an hour, their muscles kinda seized up.”[29] While waiting outside the paper office, one of the writers found out what the boys were planning to do and ended up running a story on them later on. “When the community found out about it, they were all definitely getting, you know, pats on the back when their names were in the paper.”[30] When they went to school on Monday, they were “heroes for at least a day or a week. You know, wow, they actually listened to our president, they went out and they did it, hooray?! It was definitely, everybody was just so happy about it and praised them.”[31] While this route ended up being closer to forty miles than fifty, the principle behind the march was still the same. “The President had inspired them!”[32]

While the intent of American Dreams is to provide the reader a firm foundation of historiography and context from 1945 onward, this means that lesser-known events are often left out of the book. Brands’s book is an important resource to use to develop a broad understanding of historical context before diving into small-scale or personal accounts of history. Brands makes it clear that the Kennedy administration was able to use new media combined with the influential nature of the president to sway the public. However, Deep’s account brings the idea of Kennedy’s influence to life with her vivid recollection of him and his promotion of fitness. By describing what the actual implementation of school fitness guidelines looked like, as well as her own reaction to them, she is able to showcase the individual impact Kennedy had on her. By describing the hike her classmates went on, Deep is able to demonstrate that other people were inspired and influenced by Kennedy’s words as well. She describes the general atmosphere around such fitness initiatives as patriotic, or inspiring. A purely academic text may not be able to address the human emotion in the same way as an oral history. While Brands may not be able to incorporate personal accounts into his book for clarity and conciseness, personal accounts are an important supplementary resource to demonstrate the real life impact of the events detailed in his book.


[1] “Inaugural Address.” JFK Library. [WEB].

[2] Email interview with Barbara-Jo Deep, Clinton NY, November 13, 2023.

[3] Interview with Barbara-Jo Deep, Clinton NY, November 24, 2023.

[4] H.W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 ( Penguin Books, 2010), 103.

[5] Brands, American Dreams, 103.

[6] Interview with Barbara-Jo Deep, Clinton NY, November 24, 2023.

[7] Matthew T. Bower and Thomas M. Hunt “The President’s Council on Physical Fitness and the Systematisation of Children’s Play in America”, International Journal of the History of Sport, Vol. 28, No. 11, (August 2011): 1497. DOI: 10.1080/09523367.2011.586789.1497 [EBSCO].

[8] Bower and Hunt, “The President’s Council on Physical Fitness and the Systematisation of Children’s Play in America”, [EBSCO] 1499.

[9] “The Federal Government Takes on Physical Fitness.” JFK Library. [WEB].

[10] John F. Kennedy,  “The Soft American,” Sports Illustrated Magazine, December 26, 1960. [WEB], 2.

[11] Kennedy,  “The Soft American,” [WEB] 1.

[12] Kennedy,  “The Soft American,” [WEB]4.

[13] Kennedy,  “The Soft American,” [WEB] 4.

[14] Interview with Barbara-Jo Deep, Clinton NY, November 24, 2023.

[15] Rachel Louise Moran, Governing Bodies: Americcan Politics and the Shaping of the Modern Physique, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018), [JSTOR] 100.

[16] Moran, Governing Bodies [JSTOR] 100.

[17] Moran, Governing Bodies [JSTOR] 103.

[18] Interview with Barbara-Jo Deep, Clinton NY, November 24, 2023.

[19] Moran, Governing Bodies, [JSTOR] 104.

[20] “The Federal Government Takes on Physical Fitness,” [WEB].

[21] “The Federal Government Takes on Physical Fitness,” [WEB].

[22] “The Federal Government Takes on Physical Fitness,” [WEB].

[23] Interview with Barbara-Jo Deep, Clinton NY, November 24, 2023.

[24] Interview with Barbara-Jo Deep, Clinton NY, November 24, 2023.

[25] Interview with Barbara-Jo Deep, Clinton NY, November 24, 2023.

[26] Interview with Barbara-Jo Deep, Clinton NY, November 24, 2023.

[27] Interview with Barbara-Jo Deep, Clinton NY, November 24, 2023.

[28] Interview with Barbara-Jo Deep, Clinton NY, November 24, 2023.

[29] Interview with Barbara-Jo Deep, Clinton NY, November 24, 2023.

[30] Interview with Barbara-Jo Deep, Clinton NY, November 24, 2023.

[31] Interview with Barbara-Jo Deep, Clinton NY, November 24, 2023.

[32] Email Interview with Barbara-Jo Deep, Clinton NY, November 13, 2023.


Further Reading:

Bowers, Matthew T. and Thomas M. Hunt. “The President’s Council on Physical Fitness and the Systematisation of Children’s Play in America”, International Journal of the History of Sport Vol. 28, No. 11, (August 2011): 1496-1511. DOI: 10.1080/09523367.2011.586789.

Brands, H.W. American Dreams: The United States Since 1945. Penguin Books, 2010. Chapter 5.

JFK Library. “Inaugural Address.” Inaugural Address | JFK Library

JFK Library. “The Federal Government Takes on Physical Fitness.” The Federal Government Takes on Physical Fitness | JFK Library.

Jenkinson, Clay S. “John F. Kennedy and Theodore Roosevelt: Parallels and Common Ground, including North Dakota”. North Dakota History 78, no.3-4 (2013): 2-18. JFK Library.

Kennedy, John F. “The Soft American” Sports Illustrated Magazine, December 26, 1960. The Soft American : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

Moran, Rachel Louise. Governing Bodies: American Politics and the Shaping of the Modern Physique Selling Postwar Fitness: Advertising, Education, and the Presidents Council. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018. https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv16t67w9.7.



“Kennedy’s style charmed the Democratic convention and it charmed the country after he landed the nomination”

H.W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States Since 1945. New York: Penguin Books, 2010, 102.

Interview Subject:

Barbara-Jo Deep, age 74, was a young teen during the Kennedy administration, and recalls the powerful effect Kennedy had on the American public.


Q: How old were you during the Kennedy campaign? How old were you when he was assassinated?

A: 12,15. I do remember I had to do a school project in a scrap book with the topic of the Presidential campaigns: Kennedy vs. Nixon.

Q: Did you have an idea of who you/your family supported during the Kennedy-Nixon election?

A: family supported Kennedy

Q:What was the popular climate in Clinton around the election? Did it seem that more people supported Kennedy?

A: At the time Clinton was very Republican. But at School the young people I knew supported Kennedy, but I believe adults supported Nixon.

Q: Were you able to watch the televised debates? If so, do you remember who you thought did a better job? What did people around you think?

A: I watched the debates and I thought Kennedy did better. More poised, relaxed but engaged, Seemed like he was for the “ little guy”, not the elite. I remember pundits reporting that Nixon was sweating. That was a negative. Kennedy seemed more personable. My friends at school liked Kennedy. I don’t know about adults except my parents. They liked Kennedy. I did too.

Q: What was the most impactful statement that Kennedy made and how did it impact your perspective?

A: “Ask not what your country can do for you;ask what you can do for your country “. That made the biggest impression. Started me feeling empowered and not looking to the government to “take care” of me.

Q: Tell me about the walk that your brothers and Gido (Grandpa) went on after Kennedy discusses fitness standards for Americans.

A: The President stressed physical fitness. We were given ( in school) nice little books of exercises as a guide. President Kennedy encouraged walking and hiking and kind of challenged people to strive for 50 mile hikes. My brother and friends, including my cousin and my then boyfriend ( Giddo) decided to do a 50 mile hike from Clinton to Cooperstown. It was pretty much a last minute thing. They hiked and I went with my parents by car to see them walk into Cooperstown. I think the local newspaper was reporting on it. They were about 5 miles from Cooperstown when we came upon them. Your grandfather was exhausted and I thought he couldn’t finish. I got out of the car and literally pushed him from behind for the last mile! They were so sore because they didn’t train for it. But the President had inspired them! It gave them a great deal of prestige at school on Monday. I think we all felt very inspired to challenge ourselves to be better for the sake of our country.

Q: What do you remember about the Kennedy assassination/learning that the president had been shot?

A: I was sitting in the next to the last set of desks ( near the windows) with my friend Patty to my left. It was English class with Miss Jacobs, a middle aged, short dramatic type of teacher. I can see it like it was yesterday . Someone ( a school secretary) knocked on the door and quietly said something to Miss Jacobs. She ( Miss Jacobs ) put her hands up top of her  head and spun around in circles. Patty and I looked at each other and laughed because she looked so frazzled and funny. Then she told the class dramatically and overly emotionally “ president Kennedy has been shot!”. She kept spinning and we did stop laughing  in a second or two. I don’t remember what exactly happened for the next 5-10 minutes. I know we didn’t resume our lessons. So about  10 minutes later there was another knock on the door and whispering to Miss Jacobs. She exclaimed as if in pain “ The President is Dead!” She paced about the front of the room. She was crying. We were all silent. For some reason I remember at dismissal everyone was quiet, not noisy as usual, and there was a boy in the hall near the auditorium with a pack of cigarettes in his front white T  shirt pocket. I don’t know why that stuck in my mind, but he was an upper classman and was normally boisterous.

Q: What other information do you think I should have about this time period/administration that I haven’t asked about that you think I should know?

A: The newspapers and TV were very complimentary to The President and his family. We saw images of him with his wife and children. He had a great smile and looked as though he was a wonderful family man. Jackie Kennedy was seen as a role model, and a very intelligent, interesting person. She did defer to her husband when asked political questions. Something like “ I am in favor of whatever my husband is”. She did a live tour of the Whitehouse on TV and was poised and knew a great deal about the history of the Whitehouse. She said it had been worn and shabby, and needed restoration. She wanted to treat it with honor and respect.


I remember hearing President Kennedy commit to sending a man to the moon in the next decade. I remember him saying something like (paraphrasing) “we choose to do these things not because they are easy—-but because they are hard.” It made me believe as Americans we can do wondrous things. That made me feel confident. There is certainly other stuff about that time period. I’ll think about it.


Q: How did you feel watching JFK speak?

A: Well, he always seemed to ask for our help. He didn’t, like, always say how great he was, I don’t even know if I ever heard him say things about himself, he always said “I need your help, we need to be strong, I believe the country is strong, but we can be stronger, I believe we’re great, but we could be greater,” he never was negative, he was always very positive, and that’s what I remember about him, and of course, his Boston accent too.

Q: Did you feel uplifted or optimistic about the future of the country? Did his speeches increase your patriotism?

A: Oh absolutely. It was really a time of patriotism because he was calling us together to make the country greater. He wasn’t saying “I’m gonna do this or I’m gonna do that, he said I need you to do this, or I need you to do that”, and it made us feel like we could actually do something about the country. He didn’t disparage the country but he said we can make it better and we can do things, we needed to be stronger and , yes, he gave us a lot of patriotism and a lot of very optimistic feelings. He never bragged about us like we were better than any other country, he just said, you know, together we can make the country even better than it is right now.

Q: So you said that your mother and father supported Kennedy. Did they ever talk to you about why they liked him, or anything like that?

A: Well, I don’t recall a lot of it, but I remember that, for example, when I was about that age or a little younger, my dad was working 2 jobs because we didn’t really, have any kind of financial backing, when they got married they started from scratch, and they had 5 kids, so they felt that Kennedy was for the working man, and really, for the working MAN, because women didn’t really work a lot back then. My mom was a stay at home mom, not that Kennedy discouraged women from seeking work and being active, and getting an education, I mean, he really pushed education, but my parents really, especially my mom was interested in his ideas on education, and my dad liked that he was really, you know, for the working man. He wasn’t really elite. Where we lived was a pretty elite town, and at that point in time, the town was very Republican, and at that time the Republicans were more for the elite and the Democrats more for the working class, and my family was working class.

Q: So your parents were Democrats?

A: Absolutely Democrats. But they did feel that they were discriminated against in the community, because it was so Republican, it wasn’t something that they talked about, you know, in groups, because in this town if you weren’t Republican, people get opposed to you. So it was yes they’re Democrats, but you don’t kinda talk about that with others.

Q: Even though Clinton was primarily Republican, do you know if people crossed party lines in support of Kennedy?

A: I wouldn’t really know, but my feeling from growing up here is that not many crossed the line. I mean, when Kennedy won, of course they backed him, but I don’t think they voted for him because at that time in this community, Republicans were just voting Republican. But again, when Kennedy was elected, it was pretty much treated positively.

Q:Do you remember why Kennedy was so big on physical fitness?

A: I’m not sure that he ever said why other than to make our country better, because a strong country means.. HE specifically said that a strong and great country needs strong healthy people, and he really felt that you needed to take care of your health, he really stressed that you needed to be you know, healthy and active and strong, and I remember getting little booklets from School about physical fitness, we got it in gym class, and it was called the Presidential Physical Fitness and it had diagrams and there was a little blurb in the front that it was sponsored by President Kennedy, and we were encouraged, and I know that I spent a lot of time looking through it and figuring out the exercises in it and doing them, because he said that we need to be strong and healthy to be a strong country.

Q: Those exercise books, were there standards related to sex and age corresponding to say, how many pushups you should be able to do?

A: It wasn’t standards, it was just do the exercises, and if you did it, youd be good, it didn’t really tell us to do X amount of whatever, it would suggest so many repetitions, but it didn’t set a standard. Instead of measuring yourself against others, you were competing against yourself.

Q: Do you remember any of the exercises that were depicted in the booklet?  Was it mostly muscle-building, cardio, flexibility, a combination?

A: It wasn’t cardio, it was mostly muscle building , and what we called calisthenics back then. I don’t remember any weight training, although I do remember being encouraged to do like pushups and chin-ups and things like that. And Kennedy specifically said that fit people without any infirmities should strive to walk for 50 miles, and that would prove, if you could do that , you were healthy. HE didn’t say to go out tomorrow with no training and do it, but he said that all young strong healthy people that don’t have a disability should try to be able to walk 50 miles.

Q: Did he or his admin talk about a healthy diet along with exercise?

A: I don’t remember anything about diet at that time. And remember, back then, there wasn’t a lot of processed foods, everything was pretty fresh My mother canned foods, and in fact, with the vegetable garden, everyone in the country grew vegetable gardens, and like potato chips, my mom would make her own by cutting up potatoes and frying them. You didn’t go to the store and get them with preservatives and stuff.

Q: What time of year did that group do the 50 mile march?

A: It was in I think 61, it was pretty early in the Kennedy administration. I wanna say it was in the fall, after football, because all but 1 of them or 2 that marched were all football players. So they were pretty well conditioned, but not conditioned to walk 50 miles.

Q: So it was in like late October, early November?

A: yeah, I’m pretty sure it was. The local paper wrote about it so you could find out exactly, but I’m just taking a guess about it. Because it wasn’t really hot and it wasn’t really cold, and school was in session.

Q:  How did the newspaper found out about this?

A: Well, we-I say we, I wasn’t actually walking, I just dropped my brother off, but they had assembled outside the Clinton Courier office at the time, by the post office, and they were probably in the office and saw them and wanted to know what they were doing. They were all boys by the way, because back then you didn’t really see girls and boys together except on social occasions, it wasn’t a social occasion, it was really a show of strength to say that “I’m gonna do what the president has challenged us to do!” For whatever reason, it was all boys, and they at the spur of the moment, it wasn’t planned, so they didn’t really train for walking that far, they basically within a day it just came upon them “lets do it”, so they all got together a day or two later in the morning and then after they did, the newspaper did run an article on them.

Q: Do you remember how long it took them?

A: It was over 8 hours for sure. They left early in the morning, and it was before daylight savings, so… I’m gonna say maybe 11 hours. Some did it faster than others. I think in the range of like 9-11 hours maybe? It depended on whether you were in the front of the pack or, you know, further behind.

Q: In that group, what was the age range of them?

A: They were all I think between 15 and 17. They were all like juniors or seniors in high school. I think there might have been an 18 year old in there too.

Q: How many people did you say did it?

A: Oh I would guess about 12 of them, I think.

Q: Did they see this as a more political or patriotic act?

A: Patriotic, definitely. Nothing political about it. When the community found out about it, they were all definitely getting, you know, pats on the back when their names were in the paper. It was definitely not political, it was a patriotic challenge. And the way Kennedy challenged you inspired you, made you want to do it!

Q: Within that praise, when they went to school the next day, was it mostly from peers, or teachers, or both?

A: Everybody, everybody. They were like heroes for at least a day or a week. You know, wow, they actually listened to our president, they went out and they did it, hooray, you know?! It was definitely, everybody was just so happy about it and praised them.

Q: Do you remember any specific times they were praised?

A: Seeing them Monday in school, you saw other people, like wow, going up and congratulating them. It was all word of mouth, there was no text or social media or anything, but the word spread. Some of them were just so beat too. Like my cousin, wore brand new blue jeans without washing them to hike, and back then, you know, they were stiff, cotton and thick. He had gotten so sore from the jeans rubbing, he could hardly walk from that, never mind the muscles! Their muscles, riding back in the car took a little over an hour, their muscles kinda seized up.

Q: What else do you want to tell me about fitness, or the 50 mile hike that I haven’t asked about yet?

A: I mean, I was there at the end, my brother and my boyfriend at the time were both doing it, and um, you know, my boyfriend didn’t want to continue the last couple miles, he was beat, and I was literally pushing him physically the last 2 miles, so I kinda got in on the walk, but only the last couple of miles from the end, but I felt like I was a part of that because of doing that. And I don’t know why a group of girls didn’t then decide to do it. Cause I was very athletic and did all kinds of sports, the girls were pretty fit. I don’t even remember think that we should do it as girls, I guess that was just the mindset back then, where nowadays I think that would be totally different. Now, we probably would have walked together, not separated male/female, and girls probably definitely would do it.

Q: Do you remember the exact start or end points of the hike?

A: I know they started by, there’s a parking lot, kind of in front of where the NBT bank is, on the north side of the village green, and I don’t remember where they ended, if it was the park in Cooperstown, or just the sign that said Cooperstown.

The Pied Piper from Boston

In November of 1960, Thomas Randall was 15 years old and living on Long Island, New York when then-U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy was campaigning for President of the United States and visited Long Island that month. Randall remembers going to a campaign event and remembers seeing him in person. It was a weekend in Commack, and Kennedy arrived in an open convertible, and Kennedy was sitting in the back of it. Randall explains how he “broke through the police barrier and ran up to Kennedy’s car and touched him on the shoulder.” Randall was able to get back to safety without being arrested by the police or anything. Randall’s memory of bursting through the police barrier to touch Kennedy gives a sense of the extreme excitement that many people felt during the last days before the election, due to Kennedy’s powerful charm, but this charm was not empty or meaningless. Kennedy’s magical, Pied Piper charm was the charisma of a great leader, who was likely, had he lived, to have become a great President.

John F. Kennedy campaigning in Commack, New York on November 6th, 1960.

Randall was not the only bystander who did something like this. In “The Making of the President, 1960” by Theodore H. White, he wrote “One remembers the grabbers, bursting through police lines, trying to touch and reach him, and the squeezers who grasped his hand and, to prove their affection, squeezed extra hard until, one day in Pennsylvania, even the candidate’s calloused hand burst with blood.”[1] Kennedy reportedly loved riding with the top down. During a parade in Dublin, which Kennedy attended, Irish President saw him standing up and waving to crowds. His immediate thought was “what an easy target he would have been.”[2] according to Larry J. Sabato in “The Kennedy Half-Century.” He was quoted as saying “The whole point is for me to be accessible to the people.”[3] The date was November 6th, 1960. This was one of Kennedy’s last campaign stops before the election took place on November 8th. At this event, Kennedy said that “with a new Democratic administration…we can demonstrate that we are a strong and vital and progressive society.”[4]

John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon shaking hands just before a debate.

Kennedy was very charming, and H.W. Brands says that his “style charmed the Democratic convention, and it charmed the country after he landed the nomination.”[5] Vice President Richard Nixon, Kennedy’s opponent in the presidential race, was critical of Kennedy’s charm. On November 3, 1960, in a speech in Houston, Texas, Nixon said, referring to Kennedy, that “when the people go to the polls they should know where the roads lead. They must not follow a Pied Piper from Boston down the road to disaster.”[6] Kennedy responded to Nixon’s criticism at a campaign event in The Bronx on November 5. “Nixon, in a high-level or high-road campaign which emphasizes the issues, in the last 6 days has called me an economic ignoramus, a Pied Piper, and all the rest. I just confine myself to calling him a Republican. But he says that is really getting low.”[7] It wasn’t just Kennedy’s charm that landed him the nomination, it was also his background. He came from a very rich family. His father, Joseph Kennedy, “made a fortune on wall street”[8] and managed to “hold on to his fortune”[9] when the Great Depression happened. President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Joseph Kennedy as director of the Securities and Exchange Commission. John F. Kennedy was able to work his way up through the ranks due to his privileged background. After he returned from WWII a hero, he won election to the House of Representatives in 1946, and was elected to the Senate 6 years later in 1952. After Dwight D. Eisenhower won the 1952 and 1956 elections in back to back landslides. Kennedy ran for President in 1960, winning the Democratic nomination in the summer of that year. Kennedy wasn’t done just yet, as he had to face incumbent Vice President Richard Nixon in the presidential election of that year. Randall remembers very much about the 1960 debates between Kennedy and Nixon. H.W. Brands says that Nixon “knew far more about government and policies than Kennedy.”[10] but this was the first televised presidential debate in U.S. history, and Kennedy used that to his advantage, along with his charm. He appeared “tanned, fit, and rested, while Nixon looked harried and worn.”[11] Randall remembers watching the debates and remembers the public opinion on the debates. Randall recalls, “Because of the visual nature of television, Kennedy was a much more handsome guy than Nixon, who always looked like he had a 5 o’clock shadow, which means dark, dark cheeks, that hadn’t been shaved, which probably wasn’t true. He probably did shave, but he didn’t look like he had. Whereas Kennedy was handsome and outgoing and so on, so it was significant for that because it showed the power of television.” Randall and his family supported Kennedy in the 1960 election. “We were loyal Democrats.” says Randall. When asked what he thinks of Kennedy as a president, looking back on his presidency all these years later, he says “I think he is a President in the making. They botched a lot of stuff, especially in regard to foreign policy, like the Bay of Pigs, for instance. He was very charismatic, and came from a very wealthy family.” Kennedy did a number of good things during his presidency, such as avoiding nuclear war with Cuba and the Soviets, supported Civil Rights and was a staunch opponent of communism. He challenged Americans to take action to make the country better, and he set a goal of going to the moon by the end of the decade. He inspired people, not just with charm, but with great new goals for the nation. If John F. Kennedy’s presidency did not come to an abrupt end as a result of his assassination, he may have gone down as one of the best Presidents. He was a young man, and it is possible he could have succeeded in reaching many of his ambitious goals for the country.

John F. Kennedy riding in his motorcade in Dallas, Texas, on November 22nd, 1963, just seconds before he was killed. Next to him is his wife, Jackie and sitting in front of them is John Connally, the Governor of Texas, and his wife, Nellie.


On November 22nd, 1963, Kennedy was campaigning for re-election in Dallas, Texas, when he was killed by an assassin’s bullets. On this day, Randall was in ROTC. As Randall says, “We were all dressed up for Friday afternoon. Every Friday afternoon the troops had to be—we were the troops—had to be reviewed, they had to pass muster.” While he was lined up with the other troops, one of the leaders on the campus was talking to someone else on a walkie-talkie, and came over and told Randall and the other troops that the President had been shot. Randall recalls, “I don’t think anybody at that point used the word, “killed.” But that he was shot. And there was complete silence and nobody could believe it. It was a total shock to everybody, and I say that including Republicans as well. It was such a significant event that politics took a back seat for quite a while.” Randall doesn’t remember much about JFK’s funeral, but his wife, Judi does. She recalls, “I remember especially his son, John John, was about three or four years old, and I remember him saluting when the coffin went by. It was very moving. He was this little boy who had just lost his father and didn’t really understand anything that was going on.” She also recalls that the funeral was “endlessly televised” on all television channels.

Kennedy definitely had great plans for the nation, and possibly would’ve gone down as one of the best Presidents in the history of the United States if he was never assassinated. In considering the legacy of his presidency, “it must be acknowledged that the Kennedy thousand days spoke to the country’s better angels, inspired visions of a less divisive nation and world, and demonstrated that America was still the last best hope of mankind.”[12]


[1] White, Theodore H. The Making of the President, 1960. Cape, 1962, 331.

[2] Green, Robert. “Kennedy’s love for convertibles made him an easy target.” The Globe and Mail, November 21, 2013, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/kennedys-love-for-convertibles-made-him-an-easy-target/article15543696/

[3] Green, “Kennedy’s love for convertibles made him an easy target.”

[4] Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files, Box 914a, “Long Island Arena, Commack, New York, 6 November 1960.” (https://www.jfklibrary.org/archives/other-resources/john-f-kennedy-speeches/commack-ny-19601106) John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

[5] H.W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2010), 102.

[6] “Remarks of the Vice President at Herman Park, Miller Memorial Theater, Houston, TX.” The American Presidency Project, November 3, 1960. https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/remarks-the-vice-president-herman-park-miller-memorial-theater-houston-tx

[7] “Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy, Concourse Plaza Hotel, Bronx, New York, November 5, 1960.” JFK Library. Accessed May 6, 2023. https://www.jfklibrary.org/archives/other-resources/john-f-kennedy-speeches/bronx-ny-19601105

[8] Brands, 100.

[9] Brands, 100.

[10] Brands, 102.

[11] Brands, 103.

[12] Dallek, Robert. An unfinished life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963. New York: Back Bay Books/Little Brown and Company, 2013, 942.

The Segregation After Integration

In his book, American Dreams: The United States Since 1945, H.W. Brands offers insight into race relations up until the Civil Rights Act.  Although detailed depictions of race relations trail off post-1964, Brands writes “Americans challenged poverty, inequality, and prejudice and mitigated these historic scourges substantially.”[1]  His recognition of mitigation connotes that racial integration continued as American society addressed equality issues in daily life.  The real-life accounts of people who came of age after 1964 reveal practical lessons and challenges of true desegregation, not based on legal precedent or legislative mandate but upon personal connections among people.

Brown v. Board II (1955) prohibited segregation in schools, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed segregation in all other aspects of life, ending the longstanding “separate but equal” doctrine established in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).  Although history notes that the effects of Brown and the Civil Rights Act were not felt immediately, history often fails to articulate the everyday process of integration.  Real integration happened beyond the headlines and court cases.  Judicial rulings cannot educate ordinary citizens about how to enact change, especially when upending multigenerational norms. Such change takes time.

Blackwell (right) with his twin brother and mother, 1969, from Andrew K. Blackwell

Andrew Kevin Blackwell, born in 1964, lived through the aftermath in the small town of Monticello in southern Mississippi’s Lawrence County.  Blackwell recounts growing up in the newly integrated South.  He began first grade in 1969, the same year Monticello’s school system was desegregated.  He says, “My class was the first to actually go all the way through school in an integrated system.”[2]  It was not until the following summer, in 1970, that all public schools in Mississippi were fully integrated.[3]

Blackwell describes being unaware of racial issues.  He says, “I was six years old and more interested in baseball and frogs … than I was in race relations at that time.”[4]  He said, “All of my neighbors for miles in any direction were white.”[5]  Once he went to school, he met many black children, but “society there was [still] segregated.”[6]  For example, school buses were one of the numerous aspects of life that remained segregated.  Blackwell described how the buses lined up outside of school every day with a clear distinction between those ridden by the white student versus black students:

One day in the fifth grade, [I see] a different bus located where [my bus] is supposed to be…this bus was dilapidated, it was old…the seats were torn…And all of my black friends who were going to get on their bus were laughing at us basically saying, “you get to ride the n-word bus today.”[7]

Blackwell noted the delineations among white students as well: the town kids and the farm kids.  The town kids’ “parents were on the school board,” and those students had the newest buses.[8]  The farm kids, like Blackwell, rode the average buses; they were not shiny and new like the children in town, but they were not run down like the buses for the black students.  While Brown v. Board of Education dictated school integration, communities leveraged the decision’s lack of implementation details to funnel resources away from black students.

In 1976, the bicentennial brought joyous celebrations and filled classrooms with discussions of the nation’s founding.  A school field trip took his sixth-grade class to the local theater to watch the movie 1776.  He recalls, “I was thinking on the way over there, you know, I’ve never seen any black kids at the movie theater. That’s a white kid thing.”[9]  Upon arrival, Blackwell entered through an unfamiliar side door.  It was dark and led to a steep, narrow stairwell that he did not know existed.  At the top of the stairs was a balcony.  When he sat down, his chair

The old Monticello (Mono) Movie Theatre with segregated entrances, 2018, from Scott Boyd

broke.  His friend in the next chair, Bessie, “looks at it and says, well get used to it. That’s what we deal with all the time.”[10]  Bessie was a black girl.  The reason Blackwell had never seen the black kids at the theater was that they sat in the rundown balcony, despite no rule forcing them to do so.  For the black students, “it was just understood that’s the way it had always been.”[11]  Black and white students attending a movie together to celebrate the bicentennial marked significant progress, but racial separation remained omnipresent two centuries after the country’s founders grappled with the issue of slavery.  As 1776 illustrates and Brands writes, “Americans have been dreaming since our national birth,” but full racial reconciliation remained unfulfilled.[12]

Blackwell relayed a subsequent story from high school.  A white friend who lived in town, Shellie, came to him for help.  Her mother and other mothers were hosting a pool party, so Shellie was talking to friends, both white and black, about attending.  When other mothers learned that black friends were being invited, “as politely as southern ladies can be polite, not necessarily nice, [the mothers] basically told Shellie, go back to school and tell ’em all they can’t come.”[13]  Shellie wondered what to do.  Blackwell proceeded to tell their black and white friends about the situation, effectively beginning a boycott of the party.  Embarrassed by the situation, the hosting mothers retracted their previous statements, and Blackwell told everyone to go.  He said, “We all got along and here intrusive mothers are driving wedges between us based upon rules that we didn’t have anything to do with creating, nor certainly any interest in propagating.”[14]  This event illustrates the progress of breaking generational attitudes.  Shellie had no hesitation about inviting her black friends, but other parents were making unfair rules.  So, Shellie and other students responded.  The host parents’ swift retraction demonstrates that the new generation was intolerant of rules against their black peers and supports Brands’ belief that “the moral foundation of America’s dreams had always been the right to dream, and Americans weren’t about to surrender that.”[15]

Segregated Homecoming Court, Monticello High School Yearbook, 1982, from Andrew K. Blackwell

Buses and the local movie theater were two examples of segregation’s remnants that followed Blackwell as he moved into high school in the fall of 1979.  Perhaps coincidentally, some policies put in place in order to combat segregation created further divides.  For example, in order to create the opportunity for black students to be homecoming king and queen, even with a student body that was 55% white and 45%black, the school board implemented a policy to have both a black homecoming couple and a white homecoming couple. This well-intentioned policy further projected a divide among students that Blackwell said had largely diminished by the time he began high school.  Students began to reject “these old archaic rules and stupidity that was created many, many years ahead.”[16] The homecoming dance itself was another issue.  The attitude of the school’s administration was, “Now you got white kids and black kids dancing together…No way!”[17]  The solution was not to have a dance between 1970 and 1980  The students eventually took a stand against the administration, leading to the first integrated homecoming dance in 1980.

In 1969, the Supreme Court ordered the Fifth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals to enforce the desegregation of schools in Mississippi, which led to integration in 1970.  However, de facto segregation in Mississippi remained prevalent after this order, and private schools emerged as an alternative to public education.  Lawrence County Academy opened in 1970 in Monticello, Mississippi, Blackwell’s hometown.  The all-white school began as a so-called “segregation academy,” even selecting The Rebels, a nod to the Confederacy, as its mascot.[18]

Further, in 1984, a group of black families filed formal complaints about continued segregation in Lawrence County.  In United States v. Lawrence County School District, the Circuit Court ruled that the county’s tri-district school system reinforced racial segregation in the small, mostly white Topeka and New Hebron districts.[19]  As buses remained segregated in integrated districts, in 1984, the U.S. demanded that the 1969 order be enforced, and the judge presiding over the case found that Lawrence County had not implemented the 1969 ruling.  In response, the Lawrence County school board voted to combine the tri-district into a single one.  Blackwell noted that the community largely supported this approach because it created a larger district that could better utilize resources.[20]  To eliminate the vestiges of past rivalries, the newly-formed Lawrence County School District created new mascots and school colors.

Blackwell (middle) with brother and friends, Monticello High School Yearbook, 1980, from Andrew K. Blackwell.

The path to true integration was a long one.  Beyond the court cases and headlines, “the dreaming persisted,” and residents of small towns like Monticello, Mississippi, desegregated schools and communities.[21]  The integration process extended far beyond the 1960s.  Residents did not have a clear roadmap, and as children, people like Mr. Blackwell formed friendships across racial lines and challenged long-standing social norms.  True integration occurred through daily activities, sports, and hallway conversations, far away from courthouses and news cameras.


[1] H.W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2010), x.

[2] Video Interview with Andrew Kevin Blackwell, April 23, 2023.

[3] Charles C. Bolton, “The Last Stand of Massive Resistance: Mississippi Public School Integration, 1970” (Mississippi Historical Society, February 2009), https://www.mshistorynow.mdah.ms.gov/issue/the-last-stand-of-massive-resistance-1970.

[4] Video Interview with Andrew Kevin Blackwell, April 23, 2023.

[5] Video Interview with Andrew Kevin Blackwell, April 23, 2023.

[6] Video Interview with Andrew Kevin Blackwell, April 23, 2023.

[7] Video Interview with Andrew Kevin Blackwell, April 23, 2023.

[8] Video Interview with Andrew Kevin Blackwell, April 23, 2023.

[9] Video Interview with Andrew Kevin Blackwell, April 23, 2023.

[10] Video Interview with Andrew Kevin Blackwell, April 23, 2023.

[11]Video Interview with Andrew Kevin Blackwell, April 23, 2023.

[12] Brands, ix.

[13]Video Interview with Andrew Kevin Blackwell, April 23, 2023.

[14]Video Interview with Andrew Kevin Blackwell, April 23, 2023.

[15] Brands, x.

[16] Video Interview with Andrew Kevin Blackwell, April 23, 2023.

[17] Video Interview with Andrew Kevin Blackwell, April 23, 2023.

[18] Ashton Pittman, “Hyde-Smith Attended All-White ‘SEG Academy’ to Avoid Integration” (Jackson Free Press, Inc., November 23, 2018), https://www.jacksonfreepress.com/news/2018/nov/23/hyde-smith-attended-all-white-seg-academy-avoid-in/.

[19]Alvin B. Rubin, “United States v. Lawrence County School Dist” (Casetext Inc., September 15, 1986), https://casetext.com/case/united-states-v-lawrence-county-school-dist/.

[20] Phone Interview with Andrew Kevin Blackwell, May 6, 2023.

[21] Brands, x.


“The promise of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the rest of Johnson’s Great Society seemed distant and often irrelevant to the trials of everyday life on the streets.” (H.W. Brands, American Dreams, p. 148)

Interview subject

Andrew Kevin Blackwell, age 58, grew up in a small town in newly integrated South Mississippi in the 1960s and 70s.


– Video recording with Andrew Kevin Blackwell, April 23, 2023.

Q. So Brands doesn’t really discuss race relations post-Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. He does acknowledge that these acts didn’t eradicate racism from America, the South in particular, but doesn’t continue the race discussion afterward. What was your experience like growing up in the newly integrated South?

A. So, just to put myself in the proper timeframe here, I’m 58 and a half years old, and so schools were integrated in Mississippi in about 1969, just as I was entering the first grade. And back then in Mississippi, we didn’t have kindergarten, so all students started school in the first grade. So I was the first in my county, a rural county in Mississippi called Lawrence County. I was the first class, my class was the first class to actually go all the way through school in an integrated school system. I never went to school with whites. Only there were blacks in my school system. That said, uh, there was a lot to, um, deal with, not so much me because I never knew any better. And I was six years old and more interested in baseball and frogs and whatever else than I was in race relations at that time. But definitely, society there was segregated. And so the first time, other than a black family, a man and a woman older who lived on the property where I lived, close by and on a family property, rented a house there and served as our, my part-time babysitter, I never met or dealt with any black people whatsoever until I went to first grade. Uh, I have an older brother who’s two years older and he went to first two years of school in an integrated school system, only white kids. Sometime during his second grade, they started integrating the schools. So that was kind of my perspective. It was limited. My parents would give you a very different, um, perception of what was going on there, I would assume because they actually had an understanding of the politics, the Civil Rights movement, the Civil Rights Act, Martin Luther King. I wouldn’t have heard of him in the first grade. I wouldn’t have known who he was. So I think it does, um, I, I’ve always consider it a unique perspective to have gone to the first grade or, you know, from first grade through 12th, uh, integrated with black students. I had the same, you know, there wasn’t a lot of in and outgoing students in rural Mississippi. So pretty much most of the kids that I started first grade with, I graduated with in high school after 12 years. So a couple of, um, interesting points. And incidentally, I actually write short stories about these experiences. I called a grouping of the short stories remnants, that’s the name of, uh, list of short stories. Most of these stories I just tell as I will do today, but I have a few of ’em that I’ve started writing down. And one day when I finally retire, I’ll, I’ll finish ’em. But they’re just stories of experiences of a young kid anywhere from first grade to about, well, really senior in high school, just different things that happened to me or that I was involved in or aware of that sort of gave a unique perspective on what it was like to integrate with a bunch of black kids that you didn’t have anything to do with outta school. These are actual true experiences, true stories of things that happened.

Q. So I think, of course, the Civil Rights Act was really monumental legislation, but it sounds very much like society was still very much segregated, despite the fact that legally, that was not the case.

A. That’s correct. I’ll give you a real story. This one I called number 29. That’s the name of the story. When I started school in the first grade, my brother had been going to school for two years. He was going into the third grade and every day the school bus, we lived in a rural community about eight miles from town. And the town is where the school was. So we had to ride the school bus to town every day. All of my neighbors for miles in any direction were all white. And the black kids, the black families lived in other parts of the county, some in the town part in the center of the county, some of ’em in more rural areas. But we didn’t encounter them on any given day. I’d never had black friends that I went fishing with or anything like that when I was really young. So my brother always, I watched him get on the school bus every day and go to school and the school bus was number 29. All the school buses were numbered. And I couldn’t wait to start school and get on old number 29 and go to school with my brother and all of my friends because all of my friends were on that same bus. We lived in the same area, same general area, big farms and all. All my friends were on number 29. So I went on number 29 all the way through first and fifth grade. Uh, and in the fifth grade I went to the middle school. Now it’s interesting how the schools went before integration in my county, there were three schools for the white kids. They had two schools. One, the Monticello Elementary School, which went first through sixth grade if I recall correctly. And then the high school, which went eight or seventh through 12th grade. That’s what the white kids did. And that was called Monticello Elementary and Monticello High. The black kids went to another school, it was called McCullough High School at the time, or McCullough School I think. It included all 12 grades and only black kids and black teachers went there. When integration came, the solution to actual buildings was to keep the elementary school, but take the fifth and sixth grade out of it. So all the kids went to Monticello Elementary School, first through fourth, middle schoolers, fifth through ninth grade went to McCullough, which they renamed McCullough junior high. And then for high school, 10th through 12th, we all went to the integrated high school, which was the white kids high school originally. So in the fifth grade I was at McCullough Junior High, which had been the black school. Interestingly McCullough was the name of a guy. He was the superintendent of education some years before. And they named that black school after him. And he was a white guy, superintendent of education. He was a white guy. So in the fifth grade, I leave one day after school, right bell rains. We all go to the school buses and the school buses are lined up down this street. Two in two different columns, basically Two buses, two buses, two buses on the on back. And I never paid much attention. My bus was always at a particular location, old number 29. And I went and jumped on it and all my friends were there. And the bus would go from the elementary school to the junior high pick up students, then to the high school, pick up more students, and then start going out into my community and dropping ’em off. So I get there one day in the fifth grade after school and there’s a different bus located where old number 29 is supposed to be. And I was confused. So I looked and in fact my bus driver was on there and all my friends were on there. But this bus was dilapidated, it was old, it had, the seats were torn, it had duct tape all over the seats, keeping them together. And I thought, what the heck? Why are we riding in this? And all of my black friends who were going to get on their bus were laughing at us basically saying, you get to ride the n-word bus today. And that was one of the buses that they rode every day. And I had never paid attention. But if you actually look at the buses, the way they were lined up, there were three statuses of buses. The first four were brand-new shiny buses. And they took all of the kids from town whose parents were teachers or doctors or you know. And all of the black buses that were, I don’t know, maybe three or four, maybe five were at the back of the line. And those buses, none of them were new. The, the one they had given us our bus that day had broken down, had a problem, whatever. And the school system kept one or two extra buses in case they had a problem with the bus. And because old 29 was broken down, they gave us this old broken down bus that wasn’t even good enough for the black kids. Right. It wasn’t, they didn’t even rate that on a day to day. Uh, you know, they, they, they had a little bit better buses than that, but not much. So it taught me something that, while there was definitely a black-white divide in rural Mississippi at that time, there were other divides as well. There were the town kids whose parents were on the school board. There were the farmers’ kids who were in the middle tier and were sent with average buses. And then the black kids. And I always thought about those drivers. All the black buses had black drivers, all the white buses had white drivers. And I was never aware of a black kid being on a white bus or vice versa. So the school, the bus system was still very segregated, very segregated many years after the school systems actually integrated. And I don’t think most people know that. But it also taught me, you know, there’s, there’s a little bit of a divide here, even, but among the white kids, and maybe there were some I didn’t understand among the black kids, I’m not sure. But, um, anyway, that’s my story of old 29.

Q. Would you say that the, um, black families and as there still a noticeable difference in sort of the jobs that black people tended to have or like those kinds of things?

A. Yes, there were differences. I’m not sure that they would be as stark as some of the ones with the white kids. Just cause, you know, some of the white kids’ parents were better educated and made more money. In some cases, some cases not. I mean, some of those farmers in rural Mississippi were loaded, right? Some of them made a lot of money, but their kids were different. They didn’t live in town. They didn’t swim in swimming pools. We swim in rivers and lakes. We went hunting and fishing. We did play baseball, but we didn’t play a lot of other sports. The town kids had a diving team. We never dreamed of having a diving team among the rural kids, you know. So, um, I can tell you another story if you want.

Q: Go for it.

A: Okay. So in the sixth grade was 1976. And what was 1976?

Q: The bicentennial.

A: The bicentennial. Now of course you weren’t born yet, but that was a big deal, the 200 anniversary of our founding of our nation. And they printed, they had all kinds of, you know, all kinds of activities in, in America to celebrate the bicentennial all year long, but especially around July 4th. But really all year long, lots of things educational-wise. They printed new coins, whatever, all celebrating the bicentennial. So one day at school, I’m in the sixth grade, and they load us all up in these buses, all of the fifth and sixth graders as I recall. And they took us across town to the local movie theater. Now, the bigger town, which you’ve been to Brookhaven even back then, had a more modern movie theater. Not quite as slick as they have ’em today, but you would recognize it and whatever, it wouldn’t be that different than what you’re used to. But in our local little town, there was an old theater that we used to go to and watch horror movies in. They never had like real release movies or whatever. It was just a bunch of kids being silly. And they would have old movies or whatever on Friday night we’d go watch a movie. So, I had never been on a field trip to the movie theater. That was weird. So they loaded us up on these buses ‘for a field trip, and they took us across town, which is only about three miles to the theater, this local theater. And the movie they were playing was 1776, which is the old, uh, you know, celebration. We have the Decoration of Independence written, there’s a Broadway play, whatever. And I know you’ve, you’ve seen that. Um, and so, you know, it was just teaching us about the history and all. So we get on the bus and I’m thinking, oh, this will be cool. It’s better than sitting in math class or whatever else. And they put us on each bus, not segregated. My bus, whatever bus I was on, wasn’t old 29 was my class. Whatever class I was in, which was fully integrated, probably about 40% black, 60% white, thereabouts, fairly even. And so we go to this place the, to the movie theater. And I was thinking on the way over there, you know, I’ve never seen any black kids at the movie theater. That’s a white kid thing. I’ve never seen any of ’em there. That’s, so I wonder if any of these kids have ever been there. So when we get to the movie theater, I’m expecting to go in the front door and sit. They have these old wooden chairs that are in rows, you know, the old-timey kind of chairs by today’s standards, not a lot of padding or whatever else. And the place isn’t real fancy, but the chairs were sturdy and, you know, everything was, was, um, simple but fine. But when, when I get there, they redirect us through this side door to the movie theater that I had never been, and didn’t even notice was there. So we go in and I’m thinking, why are we going in? There’s a lot of kids there. They got, you know, two class loads, probably 250 kids there. And, um, I’m thinking, where are they taking us? I’ve never been in this door. Don’t know. And as I go in, I start going up this narrow stairway, it’s really narrow. And so we go stomping up there and I’m just following the leader. And when I get up there, I realize there’s a balcony to the movie theater that I never knew was there. And I’ve sat in the bottom before, never looked up, never knew there was a balcony there. And so I go on up and sit down. There’s probably enough, maybe for my class, so maybe 25, 30 students, something like that. Maybe. I’m not exactly sure. It’s been a while. But anyway, I start to sit down and my chair is broken and it kind of folds back. I’m thinking, geez, I can’t sit here. And I tell the teacher who’s with us, my chair’s broken, and she’s a black teacher and she says, just sit there, you’ll manage, you’ll manage. And all the other kids sit there too. And next to me is a girl, a black girl who I’m still friends with. Bessie Williams is her name. And I look at Bessie and I say, my chair is broken. I don’t know if I can sit here through the whole movie. And she looks at it and says, well get used to it. That’s what we deal with all the time. So I didn’t know it, but the whole time that me and all of the other white kids in town are sitting in the bottom of the theater, the black kids are in the balcony with the broken chairs remaining fairly quiet if they can afford to see a movie at all. But there was no sign that said blacks up, white’s down. It was nothing like that. It was just understood that’s the way it had always been. And so, you know, I sat through the movie and it’s interesting, the movie is, has a big part of the movie when they’re trying to do the declaration and they’re debating slavery as to whether they should outlaw slavery and the Declaration of Independence. And they’re singing songs about it and drowning on and on, and finally putting the issue of slavery aside so that they can have, you know, um, unanimity among all of the founding fathers, all white fathers, of course. Um, and they put slavery aside. And here I am in the balcony of a rural movie theater, 200 years later. And to some extent, we’ve still put the issue aside.

Q: So there was also sort of complacency among everybody because that’s just kind of the way that it had always been?

A: That’s Correct. And it, it took time. There were, you know, I would say that blacks and whites had kind of come to a conclusion about how things worked, whether they should work that way or not work that way or whatever else. But I think the interesting thing about my generation and particularly my school year, I think it gave us the chance to, uh, reset expectations on how things were going to work. And it took a while. It did, because of course we were young and there were other people in charge of things.

Q: So, both of those stories were kind of about you going, like in your younger years of school, like, um, elementary and middle school, how did sort of race relations evolve as you got into high school in the late seventies, early eighties?

A: So I think when, by the time I got into high school and my class, and even my brother’s class who’s two years older than me, we started resetting some of those, uh, historical precedents, I would say, or trends or characteristics or whatever. As an example, when the schools integrated, it’s easy enough to say we’re gonna put ’em all in the same class. They did things to help bridge to transition. Like for instance, when I went to the first grade, the year before, if any student was given a first-grade teacher, they would’ve been all white, of course. And, um, you had that teacher all day long, they taught it’s first grade, so they teach math and teach math and reading and everything all at once. But now you’ve got black kids and white kids in the same class. So they changed it so that I had two first-grade teachers and I would, they were right across the hall from one another. So I would spend the first half of the day with Mrs. Baggott, who happened to be black. And Mrs. Fortenberry was white across the hall. And I would go into her class for half the class too. So we each had black and white students, uh, all through high school. Well, not, some of this was still in place as I graduated high school, although the students actually killed some of it. For instance, you have the homecoming queen. It’s a big football game, right? Well, is the homecoming queen going to be black or are they gonna be white? Well, in 1971 when the county was about 65, 60 to, well, 60 to 65% white and the other percent black, that would’ve been reflected in the student body of any given class as well. There was never going to be a black homecoming queen in those years. It wouldn’t have happened. So they changed the rules and they had a black homecoming queen and a white homecoming queen. And we voted for both. I got to vote for both queens, black and white, but all the ones running for black were black. All the ones running for white were white. We didn’t have to worry about Jewish people and Muslims and all the other, we didn’t have those people in rural Mississippi at the time. You were black or you were white or you were Tim Smith, whose mother happened to be from Spain, and he was Catholic, he was unique. That’s the only Catholic student in my high school. Um, but we treated him as though we, he was part of the white group, right? He happened to be Catholic. So any case, by the time I got into high school, there were still several of those things. One of them, how do you deal with the homecoming dance. Now you got white kids and black kids dancing together in 1979? No way that was gonna happen. So the solution was easy till the homecoming dance. And there was not a homecoming dance between 1970 and 1980. During all of those years, there was never a school dance whatsoever until I got to be in the 10th grade and my brother was a senior. And we started calling BS on that and said, why is it we can’t have a, um, you know, a homecoming dance because of these old archaic rules and stupidity that was created many, many years ahead. Now, the school buses were still black and white, even all the way through high school. They had never changed. We had the first integrated homecoming dance in 1980. Now, interestingly, we actually had to have two because all the white kids wanted to dance to rock and roll, and all the black kids wanted to dance to soul music or R&B. So we had two, but all of the kids went back and forth between ’em. They weren’t very far apart. So they just kind of went back and forth depending on what kind of music you wanted to dance to. By the time I got to be a senior, even that was done. It was just one, and it played all kinds of music or whatever. And so, um, even that had had kind of died off at that point.

Q: So, it sounds like the fact that there were two homecoming queens, it was, it was sort of like the answer to the inequality and division was sort of more division because there was the black couple, the black homecoming king and queen, and then the white homecoming king and queen.

A: So it was kind of, that seems a little bit. Yeah, it was, uh, I don’t know what of a better solution for that time would’ve been. I mean, we can easily look back now and say, how stupid was that? But at that time, given emotions given everything else that was going on, I did think it mattered that the white kids voted for the black homecoming queen and the black kids voted for the white homecoming queen and student. There was one student body president who turned out black or white, and actually kind of flip-flopped back and forth. It never seemed to be a problem. And so it, when I got into my senior year, I had a friend, her name is Shelly, still a friend today. She’s white, happens to be. But I had a lot of black friends too, and her and a few of the other girls, the town girls, right? Not my rural farming community, but the town girls, their mothers got together and decided we’re gonna have a party for our girls or about five of ’em as I recall, roughly five. And we’ll invite all of their friends and we’ll have a pool party. And one of ’em had a swimming pool. And so they came to us, Shelly came to me and said, my mom and the other moms were having this party and want you to come. And I said, absolutely, you know, be there. And she also went to James Hill and Bessie Williams and Angela Middlebrook and Sonya Lewis and said, Hey, we’re having this party. We’d love to see you. You know, it’s on this day. You’ll get a formal invitation, whatever else. Well, those kids happen to be black. And then the moms found out that Shelly had talked to all of these black kids and said, well, we’re having a pool party. You know, however, they said it as politely as southern ladies can be polite, not necessarily nice, basically told Shelly, go back to school and tell ’em all they can’t come. And so Shelly came to me first and said, I, I just don’t know what to do. I, there’s no way I can tell Sonya and Bessie and these others, they can’t come to my party. There’s no way I’m gonna do that. I’m just going to tell ’em I’m not gonna be part of the party. And I said, you don’t do that. Let me do that. And so I’ll go to all the white kids, I’ll tell the black kids what’s going on. I didn’t hide it from ’em, but I told all of the other white kids we’re not going to their party. And it’s nothing to do with the daughters, it’s all to do with the mothers. And so we sent the message back, no we will not be there until finally they changed their rules. I think they were a little embarrassed about the whole effort, um, and changed the rules and said, no, everybody that Shelly and the others want to come will be there. And they were there. We’ve then sent the word out. No, they’ve, they’re contrite and they’ve apologized and so we’re all gonna be there. They changed that and uh, we were there. It was a great party. And I would guess, um, Lawrence County’s never had that problem again, ’cause I think the message got out-don’t be stupid about such things. It causes problems for people. We all got along and here intrusive mothers are driving wedges between us based upon rules that we didn’t have anything to do with creating, nor certainly any interest in propagating.

Q: Well, I mean, you’ve talked a lot about how you were on the football team and a bunch of your teammates were black and it just didn’t, like, it was just not a thought.

A: Generally not now on a serious level. Now on a joking level, that was constant teasing and whatever. My last name is Blackwell. So the black kids gave me a nickname and it’s “n-word”-well. And that was my nickname to the black kids. They called me that pretty much on the football field all the time as a joke, a friendly joke. The white kids picked up on it. Even a couple of teachers picked up on it. And they started calling me that too. I don’t think that would go today. But at the time it was kind of funny. And, um, I don’t know, we just all, I can’t say we always got along, uh, based upon, you know, racial issues. But there was a lot of joking around about it. There was a lot of things like we would tease them about their music and they would tease us about ours and, they would all, you know, accuse us of being rich cause we were white when it wasn’t really true. But more than likely, we were a lot richer than most of them, things like that. They had their own football teams. There are the black, traditionally black, colleges in Mississippi and the South, Alcorn and Jackson State and so forth. And the black kids, they all kind of followed those football teams. Whereas, you know, the white kids never followed those that closely, they do today actually. But, never followed them that closely, but followed Ole Miss, Mississippi State, those types of schools which have a lot of black kids, but are predominantly white schools. So anyway, there were differences between us all, but we just kind of found ways to work. I always thought this way as I got older, southern people generally preach a lot about religion, about friendliness, about hospitality. And they do that at home while they ignore these other historical divisions that have happened over the years. But when you do that at home and you tell a kid, you be respectful to your elders, you be nice to people, you be honest, you be friendly and hospitable, and then they go to school. Um, many of the things that come from others that create division pale in comparison to what was taught at home. And they, small kids won’t distinguish between black and white or any other kind of divisions that a society has to deal with. So to me, that is the key to everybody in the world kind of getting along, is teaching those basic principles at home. Unfortunately, sometimes parents are racist or bigoted, or otherwise biased, and it translates to their kids. If they inadvertently teach the principles that will overcome those biases in future generations, they will be much better off.

Q: So, how much did you learn about black history in school? Like, um, how much did you know about people like Martin Luther King, people like that?

A: We, every year first through 12th grade, we always had some form of a social studies or a history class, one or the other, sometimes maybe both, I’m not sure. Not once in first through 12th grade did we ever study Martin Luther King. Not once, never learned anything about him in school. I don’t know, for one thing, the school system was so bad that you’d get a book for American history that would start in, you know 1492. And the teacher or the school system was so bad you never got to the 1960s most of the time. You just never covered that far. You’re lucky to get to World War II, but then there’s probably some element of avoidance too. Just avoid the topic that has caused friction. Um, and, and, and there was friction, I didn’t necessarily see it, but many of the students in my grade, in the first grade, their parents took them out of the school system rather than send them to first grade with an integrated school system. And they created their own school systems in South Mississippi. Many of them are still there, but they were whites only and they were private. You had to pay to go there. And they over with a few notable exceptions, they were really bad school systems. They were underfunded and just full of people who had really no interest in education. They were all just about bigotry and segregation. So there was all of that friction over time. Most of those died and integrated back into the regular school system. A few of them that were very well known still exist today, but they’re integrated. One of them is Park Lane Academy. It’s where Britney Spears went to school, close by my house. But when she went there, it was segregated. It was all white. And today, it’s not. And I don’t think there’s a segregated school system in Mississippi by design. There might be some accounting that’s just like overwhelmingly black or overwhelmingly white. But, um, they would accept a black kid or a white kid in any school in Mississippi today, without a doubt. Those segregated school systems just died of their own stupidity over time. I can tell you one more story.

A: Go for it.

Q: So in high school, in the 10th grade or 11th grade, I think it was summer before the 11th grade, I got a, a job, summer job and a little, um, it’s a kind of like a general store, but it did sell a lot of auto parts and other kinds of stuff like that. It’s called Western Auto. It doesn’t exist anymore as far as I know. But it was a small country store in town and I, you know, worked at the counter and I would put together bicycles that we were gonna sell and change cars, tires and whatever else. So just kind of a general dude there. One day this grandmother, black grandmother comes into the store and with her grandson, who was, I would say probably about seven or eight. And it became clear as she talked to me that he had worked, it was a late part of summer. He had worked all summer long, saving money from cutting grass. So he run a lawn mower, get five bucks back then, and saved all this money. And he was coming in to buy a bicycle. And so as I was showing him the bicycles, he finally picked out one that he wanted. And then over on the side there were these racks of accessories for bicycles. There were reflectors and horns and flags and all this junk that you could attach to your bicycle. He picks out his bike and then he starts picking out all of the accessories that he was gonna put on this bicycle. And he had all of the flags and reflectors and everything, horns and I don’t know what all little signs and whatever. And so he piles them up on the counter and I start ringing it up. And as I suspected when he did, he didn’t have enough money to buy the bicycle and all of the accessories. So I started talking to him. He was like seven or eight years old, something like that. So I started telling him, well, you can’t get all of these accessories, but if you get the bike, you can get that flag and this reflector and this horn or whatever, and it’ll work. You’ll be able to buy it. And he started crying and he said, I just, I can’t do that. All the kids in my neighborhood have all kinds of reflectors and everything on their bicycles, so I need those first. So the kid bought all of the accessories and left the bicycle. Now I tell that story because I looked at it and I said, the likelihood of his grandmother, who in 1980 was probably 75 years old, the likelihood she had a real education to be able to kind of work and educate this kid on her own, was probably pretty low. And also the connotation among the black community at that time was that, as I put it, seeming to be rich or successful or wealthy, as in this kid’s mind reflected in reflectors and flags and horns and bells, uh, outpaced the actual bicycle itself, the ability to ride and go. And so it made an impression on me that what was the likelihood a white kid would come in and do the same thing. It was very low, but it wasn’t inherent to his race. It was inherent to the situation that he had to grow up in, in rural, poor Mississippi. I felt sorry for him, I actually started to give him the money, which I didn’t have a lot of money myself, but I thought, no, I would have probably insulted his grandmother if I did. But if, if I’d given him another $15, he probably could have gotten the bike. 


Further Research

ALVIN B. RUBIN, Circuit Judge: and Circuit Judge [70] PATRICK E. HIGGINBOTHAM. “United States v. Lawrence County School Dist.” Legal research tools from Casetext, September 15, 1986. https://casetext.com/case/united-states-v-lawrence-county-school-dist.

Bolton, Charles. “The Last Stand of Massive Resistance: Mississippi Public School Integration, 1970.” The Last Stand of Massive Resistance: Mississippi Public School Integration, 1970 – 2009-02, 2009. https://www.mshistorynow.mdah.ms.gov/issue/the-last-stand-of-massive-resistance-1970.

Domonoske, Camila. “After 50-Year Legal Struggle, Mississippi School District Ordered to Desegregate.” NPR. NPR, May 17, 2016. https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/05/17/478389720/after-50-year-legal-struggle-mississippi-school-district-ordered-to-desegregate.

Pittman, Ashton. “Hyde-Smith Attended All-White ‘SEG Academy’ to Avoid Integration.” Hyde-Smith Attended All-White ‘Seg Academy’ to Avoid Integration | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS, 2018. https://www.jacksonfreepress.com/news/2018/nov/23/hyde-smith-attended-all-white-seg-academy-avoid-in/. 

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