|All interviews were taped and documented. They are available through the Reference Department of the Teaneck Public Library. The Library is not responsible for the accuracy of the statements nor does it necessarily endorse the opinions expressed.|
|NARRATOR:||R. Carolyn Witherspoon|
|DATE OF INTERVIEW:||March 7 1984|
|TRANSCRIBER:||Jackie Kinney (7/7/1984)|
This is Myrna Gillespie interviewing R. Carolyn Witherspoon, 134 Voorhees Street, Teaneck, NJ.
(I) Carolyn, How many years have you lived in Teaneck?
(N) We moved here August 1, 1961. So this August 1st will be, what, twenty three years.
(I0 What made you decide to move to a community like Teaneck?
(N) I'll have to say it was just picturesque because I really didn't know anything about Teaneck when I moved here. I just, I had one friend here that I visited, and I just liked the appearance.
(N) When you came to Teaneck and you moved into your area, I should say since the time you came to Teaneck. Sorry, I am going to start again. Could you tell me some of the changes you have seen in the twenty three years that you've been in Teaneck?
(I) Well of course it is interesting to go back to when we first moved here. We liked the area and happened to see this house and bought it and it wasn't until after we were in did we realize that there was a steering going on. So then, as you recall, everyone was putting signs in their windows - HAVE THEY SHOWN YOU HOUSES IN THE OTHER PARTS OF TOWN. The reason I started liking Teaneck is then there was a big factor that really wanted to get I would say the white community to understand the blacks that were moving in town. I think it was the church and the ministers, rather the ministers who were the guiding forces in this. And I really don't know who found our name, and we were invited to came to a group, I remember Frank Hall being there, but we met over the Temple Emmet. But I still, do you know who, I don't know what the name of the group was but I know we met over in Temple Emmet for about maybe then weeks and the purpose of this group, they were about maybe 10% blacks, may the groups wasn't even more than 20 people so that maybe there was two or three black there, was for the people to get to talk and interchange ideas and I'll never remember (?) how upset I was at one woman wanting me to go out and have coffee with her which I refused because until she met me, now she was my age, she had never in her life spoke to an intelligent black. I found that really very upsetting. And I couldn't help but ask her where had she lived all her life. But she had been brought up she said in the Bronx and the only blacks she related to were servants and I don't know what kind of school she went to, but then she said she moved to Teaneck and she stayed home and didn't work so whether she was just involved in her, I don't know, but I thought it is a shame for people to isolate themselves.
And that's the reason while Bill and I were new to town, we took the time to go, because it wasn't so much a learning for us but I think the reason that, it was a minister group that had it together, what was it, Rabbi (inaudible), I think he is still there, and I think it was so that the whites could sort of understand or get to know them and to meet people who, at that time, were in their late 20s, early 30s, had never spoke to an educated black. I think it was just shameful. However, it made us think a lot about Teaneck because here was a town trying to something. Then I remember we had, then Matty Feldman, he must have been mayor around that time, he was always either coming to meetings or calling groups together for the same purpose and it made us thing, well this is a nice community that we moved into because instead of the people just, being some did resent blacks moving in, but there was enough in the town that really were concerned about trying to work harmoniously together and almost live together. So that's what made me first have a good feeling for Teaneck and also it made my husband and I feel more part of it which was one of the reasons we left New York City. It was just getting too big for us. So that we felt then that we should try to go that we could to give back to the community and I think almost every since then that he and I have been in some kind of townwide committee. I really can't remember off the top of my head. I know I was with the Community Relations Advisory Board.
(N) In what year was that?
(I) I wouldn't. I really, I just can't remember when the years I was with that - Bernie Confer was chairman.
(N) Were you the only black on that board at that time?
(I) No. There had to have been one or two others. The policeman, Freddy Green, I know was there. We were the group that recommended to having the community center. Plus or minus but nonetheless, we saw a lot of things accomplished. We used to go away for weekends and, which was very good because you had all different factions of the town meeting together and it was like a closed kind of thing. And I thought it was good. I didn't think I've heard them doing that recently. I know one time we went up to an inn upstate, Tappan Zee or something. But then one of the better weekends that we had, we went down south jersey someplace. I think it was a religious place and that was later on because that was when these three women were elected to the town council. That was the year Boyd ran for council. And we were discussing then, was Teaneck prejudiced? i can't think of that woman's name that was on the council. Her first name was Dorothy, very thin. I am almost certain her first name was Dorothy. But I remember that the comment was made that they didn't think that Teaneck had prejudice and I thought, here we go again. Because there is so much prejudice still in Teaneck and I commented to her at the time that her very election proved, in my mind, the prejudice in town. Because Tom Boyd was running that year, and he had been active in advisory boards, adjustments, everything and everyone in town knew him and here she walked in, just coming to town and nobody know her, and she could get elected and it was my feeling that if whites will elect a white when they really don't know, hasn't done any service in town, over a black that everyone universally respects and had done service in town, then don't tell me that the town still isn't carrying a theme of prejudice. I'll have to think of her last name eventually, very thin, subsequently I think she moved out of town. But she hadn't been in town long and got elected to the council. I guess I have an attitude for people who are elected to the council and haven't paid their dues so to speak.
(I) What about the Community Relations Board. Can you tell me a few things that the board might have been responsible for as far as setting policies in the township?
(N) Well remember it is an advisory board so it was advisory to the council but a lot of the things we did particularly when Bernie Gothal was chairperson wasn't really for publication. For example, if they would know that neighbors, the friction be among neighbors could be racial, it could be other things, they would try to get a couple of people from the community board to go to talk to the neighbors. In other words, they tried to build, mend fences and they kind of thing that wouldn't be in the paper but that was something that they did on a regular basis. I can only think of the Recreation Center that we recommended when that building got empty that they buy because we thought of all over the town and that was really the only building really in town. A lot of people criticized because of the placement but it was the only building in town that was adequate to house a recreation center and so that was one of the tangible things. Buy they did a lot of things that really were behind the scenes, that you know people could bring problems and they would discuss them in that vein. Now did the community relations start that VISIT TEANECK. This was years ago too to help improve relations in that they deliberately had, on a Sunday, black visiting white and another Sunday, the whites visited the blacks. And that was
(I) Do you remember about what year that was?
(N) Oh well I can't. I am sorry. Someone else has to fill in dates. But you know who I met. I am trying to see if that's when I first met Dorothy Bell because we thought that we would register and go. Bill and I, and we had such a delightful day. You know whose house we went to, Erna Weil, the sculptor. And that was fascinating so since she lived along, she wanted someone to be co-host with her and Dorothy Bell was there as co-host but it was fascinating looking at her sculptures and there again, we got such an interchange that it wasn't a matter of race. It was nice to meet, just to learn your Teaneck neighbor. And then when it came our time to host, you know it is different that what they are doing now just knowing Teaneck's history, this was a matter of at that time the black families registered and were sent to white house and later the white family went to the black house. And then I know when it was our time, it turned out it was a professor from N. Y. U. and his family came over here, you know, and we served coffee and cake and that kind of thing. And we found that when people are from, how shall I say, the same education level, they have an awful lot in common and you start thinking, Gee, if it wasn't for the color factor, chances are you would have been good friends. And there again, you think it is sad that people don't relate say beyond the color factor and the children, they brought their two children who were wide-eyed because the father had to say it was the first time they had visited in a black home. And I think those kind of things that they did years ago helped smooth feeling because it helped people understand that we are all really just the same. And they are not doing that now in Teaneck and I think, you know, maybe it is something they should start back up. Now they just have Teaneck history or something like that but I think that that was really a very good thing and it made for a wonderful Sunday afternoon and you felt closer about the town. Since that time, I've been on my Teaneck Architectural Site review and a lot of people don't realize what they do.
(I) Would you tell us something about that?
(N) Well this is a big help because if a person, a person can paint their house any color, but you would really hate for someone to put up stone or a purple and a green and an orange, you know, that really would not only offend others but might really run down property value. So the architectural site review, if you are doing something permanent on your house, it really has to go so that they can sort of make sure it is not aesthetically, or is aesthetically pleasing, not glary, you know. I want to respect what you want but also it is in fitting with the town as well as when people want to put up signs, the township has ordinances as to the size of the sign and how many signs and that's why it is nice that Teaneck is not glary, no billboards, which I feel, I pay my taxes, I am not one to say I pay my taxes, I want this, but I do pay my taxes and I don't really complain until just recently because I want a quite atmosphere that I can relax after working so hard all day and I don't want the glare of the billboard. And this is another thing of Site Review. It keeps the signs at a certain size and in proportion and sometimes, they always have at least one architect or so on the board who can then sometimes give the people constructive comments on how they can maybe help the facing so that Teaneck looks nicer. And that's I think a board that few people know too much about.
(I) And that's called the
(N) Architectural Site Review.
(I) what other boards do you serve on?
(N) Well, I sort of stayed on boards because we won't go into the PTA. I am so grateful that my children got finished and I finished PTA because I think I have been on PTA, well not on every school in town but all while my three children were going, I was on every single PTA but we can get to that at another time. After I left the Site Review, then I went on the board of adjustment so I left the site review for the board of adjustment and that I find very gratifying. And I think that that is very important because when people want variances, I think it is important that the town have codes so that we can see what kinds of businesses are going up, how they will effect, for example, one business wanted to start in a business zone but it was the kind that would be wrong to be right across from a school and I think it is important that we have these kinds of concerns and so that's board I am on now and I find it very gratifying that there are citizens who give up their time and, I might add, all these boards are voluntary. I sort of played Cinderella because for the times I've sat until midnight, it's time for me to get my rest to go to my paying job but one thing you have to commend Teaneck for is the number of boards they have that are all voluntary that people give of their time for the town. I think that speaks well for the town too.
My husband now, he has been on one of the, I don't know if it is a board - he had to be sworn in - that is very important and what was that, the youth guidance council. And I am sure you know about that but that I think is excellent because it helps get some of these youth offenders and stop them before they've gotten a record and sometimes gets all the sources in the town mobilized to help these offenders before they really get into a lot of trouble. And that's a tough group to sit in on. Now Bill in on the Rent Board which he finds is very interesting buy very tough too and you don't realize the landlord/tenant problems that came up. But all in all, I think it keeps Teaneck, that's why I keep saying when I retire, I think I am just going to stay right here in Teaneck because Teaneck is a concerned town and I think all these different boards prove it because they sort of help and try to keep life better, help people however they are involved, help solve problems with a volunteer group that you know are only going to be there because they understand. I think sometimes that the advantage in the sense of a volunteer group, as against a paid group, you don't really know if it is a paid board whether someone is just going for the money or whether they have some kind of interest in this and I think that's what makes Teaneck the kind of town it is. It is not that they are perfect, because they still have a long way to go in my opinion, but at least it is an area that you feel strongly is trying. And sometimes the most that we can do is try.
(I) Carolyn, you have been here about twenty three years. Can you tell me any great changes that you have seen or that you were involved or helped happen in this township.
(N) Well, I, when you say have I been involved or helped happen. I think that as you work in all the different groups and boards that all of that adds to the town so while you can't maybe pinpoint things to get a plaque for, I think that alone establishes the fact that that helps makes the town what it is and as long as you have stayed involved and not just been on the sidelines or, as some people in this town are as you say a bedroom community. For example, I have been on every single PTA. And by that I mean not just going to the meetings but on the executive board from the time one child was in Eugene Fields to Bryant School to BF to the high school and I am sure you have been on them too and you know that that's a lot of work when you are on executive boards of all these PTAs and by the time I, and unfortunately, my children are four school years apart so by the time I ran the gauntlet will all three children, that's more than twelve years of fooling with the executive boards and working hard and, now they are called the TAs, I think they changed their name to something, they were PTAs in my time, but I think just being active how your help in the schools in that. You can't say well I caused this or I caused that. But it is only all the little people, if you want to say, who help on these boards that help make the town what it is. I think that's what's important. Not can you point to one thing to label or not one great change because it is not all of these people working to help making it a good community it would be and you still have to work. I think they need more volunteers but I think it is all of this together and I think that that's what is important and people shouldn't lose sight of all the little people that helped doing the day to day things of helping to run the town.
(I) You were here when the policy of busing for integration came into effect.
(I) Could you tell me some of the things that went on during that period of time?
(N) Well, I guess when it comes to busing, people get very heated on it. I've never seen the problem with busing because, I used to say years and years, I want to say down south, they bused the black children all over to keep them away from say schools that the whites were going to. When I go into the city where I work downtown, I see the buses driving up and down Park Avenue picking up all the right white children. They get bused to school. They go up to Riverdale and they get all over. So kids get bused all day, all the time. They only get heated when right now everybody buses say the Catholic children, you know the private school that they are going to Englewood or I forget where the Catholic high school is, they are bused. No one is up tight about that. They only get tight, and this is what gives me an attitude, they only get tight when they are busing for racial. They can bus for religion, nobody cares, the whites can get bused.
But when they are busing, then everybody gets tight. And that's I guess is when I start resenting it. Because the kids didn't seem to mind. For example, when they first started the kindergarten, the k-1, a lot of the parents were having fits. Their precious darlings were getting on the bus. Then when the kids got on the bus, they discovered those little kids loved it. The teachers had to say they just loved it; it made them feel so grown up. Sometimes you think if parents would just back off and leave the kids alone; they just felt grown up getting on the bus and marching real big with their little lunch boxes on there. You know I heard all the comments that were made at that time but I couldn't see what all the fuss was about because in one sense, even some of the black parents objected because they said initially the big onus was mainly on the black children being bused out of this area so that some of the black parents felt that their children had, that the onus was all on then, but then again, I didn't take that attitude. My children got on the bus because they enjoyed it and as for as I am concerned, it saved me from getting in the car to drive them to school. It saved them every carfare of having them walk so that, I don't know, I guess I just can't get an attitude on everything. Then well some say they have to have hot lunches. Kids don't care that much about hot lunches, it is the parents. So sometimes the parents should just stay out of it. Kids sometimes much rather have a peanut butter sandwich. And if you give your youngsters a hot breakfast and a hot dinner, no doctor is going to tell you that they are going to suffer if they didn't have that hot lunch. So that goes out the window.
(I) How about your immediate neighborhood. Have you seen change in the neighborhood in the past twenty two years.
(N) Oh well, you know that. As a matter of fact, well not myself but two doors up is Gladys McNatt and the day she moved in, the next day, her neighbor put up a six foot fence. Then of course when we moved two doors down and needless to say, the white person had black on eight side, they immediately put their house up for sale. When I moved on this block, did you know there are twenty two houses on this block? I counted one time, eleven on either side. And I am the middle house. I think one time I wanted to see which corner was the closest to walk and I learned I am the middle lot. However, when we moved on the block, we were the third black on the block and I guess it bothered me because I minded my own business. And one of the white neighbors told me that well, she really felt she had to move because blacks were moving on the block. She had nothing against me personally. And I told her right out, I said if you would only mind your business half as much as I mind mine, we'll get along fine. And I said, why did you say because blacks are on the block. I said, there are twenty two houses on this block. I am only the third. Therefore, you nineteen could stay here and have your own good times, ostracize us three, you know and you have your block.
But there is another woman, I won't mention her name because she really was very nice. Remember I had been ill and she came over and brought me, she was the first one when I cam home from the hospital to bring me something, and she was she just told me she as so sorry that she had to move. And I asked her why did she say she had to move? This wasn't the other woman who said she was moving because (inaudible) and she said, because her friends no longer wanted to come over on this block because blacks were on the block. And, you know, she really was so upset because the house she was buying wasn't as nice as this and I really felt sorry for her that she let her friends dictate to her that way. And, of course, as you know for all the fact that blacks run down property, I wish to goodness I had my $600 a year tax bill that I had when I moved here as against a $3,400 that I just got.
So if you want to know some changes, that's the big change. My tax bill then was $600 so I really don't know where blacks run down the property. I really wish it had gone from $600 down, not $600 up to $3,400. So of course now we are seeing a lot of change. Right now there is not any whites in this particular block now and, but I will say two families did stay. They did not run. I forget the other ones name but the Burkes, who are charming people. And they stayed until their children all left, and like all of us, the house was too big. And then there was another family that lived across the street - I remember they had twin boys and their boys went off to college, then they left. But all the rest left so we is - tough on them - because they ended up going further into Jersey, some admittedly told they went to older house; some stayed in Teaneck; but these were lovely new houses. These, when I moved in, these houses were five, six years old houses. So these were brand new houses and well built. Some of the realtors say now they are not building as well. So they left good strong, good property houses, and now my house is appreciated more than 200 % from what I paid for it so therefore I feel it is their loss but there again, Teaneck still has to have an education, or maybe the country as to attitudes on white because I really felt so sad for this woman who really was a lovely person. She had given a couple of cottage parties. She stayed here a couple of years and then just felt she had to because her friends no longer would come in the block and at that time, there were only about four blacks out of twenty two. So I've seem a complete turnover as far as the northeast but as far as I am concerned, I would like to retire here in the northeast if I could find a smaller house here. Because it has stayed lovely and it only has improved.
(I) Ruth, you've mentioned the organizations that you have been involved in as far as the town and the schools. Are there any other organizations that you have participated in?
(N) Well , yes. My husband and I were part of the founding group that started NECO, Northeast Community Organization and that was started at a time when we thought it was important for, well, northeast and there were many whites in that organization. It wasn't just a black organization. But it was more or less for the northeast to get together and to make certain that now that blacks were in this area, that suddenly the town fathers didn't let things deteriorate so that they could point to that area. When I spoke to you once before about meetings that Matty Feldman called when we first moved in, I'll always remember him saying, your area will stay as good as you insist. If you see things are wrong, you call the Town House and I mean the municipal building, and you insist on it. And that was what the focus of NECO was.
(I) Do you remember what year NECO started?
(N) Oh, I told you before, you have to dub in all dates. I am just not, we came here in 61, it wouldn't be 61, 2, 3, 4, probably it had to be before 4 because 3, it almost had to be before, maybe 62 because it seems to me we had NECO going before the March on Washington because I though that that's how we helped get groups together or else it was right after that. I just don't, can't really pinpoint it. But NECO was important because it helped focus on the northeast. It let (END OF SIDE 1, BEGIN SIDE 2)
one gentlemen I know always stayed active with the bowling league of the NECO. Snyder if I am not mistaken. And so that was a very viable group for a number of years and I think very important and we felt very good about that. Then, of course, I belonged to the Teaneck Negro Business and Professional Women's and that's an organization that really tried to help youth. We've had programs like on sexuality and today's youth where all our programs are free where the youth can come and talk out their problems. Recently we had another program that was a free admission this past February 24th at At. Anastasia on Youth Speaks Out. We had free admission and social hour and about forty young people came and it really was a very interesting evening and these are the kinds of things that our organization tries to do. One time, sometimes we have given free PSAT tutoring, another time we had given what you might call a charm school. But sometimes you know when our young girls, everybody in Teaneck primarily focuses on going to college. But there is a need for helping youngsters that high school finishes. And we try to give a charm school so those coming out of high school will have a poise to know how to go apply for a job. And the Negro Business Women also, we went to help Negroes in business but our main focus is for the youth and, of course, we give scholarships every year and we give them through the high school and sometimes we take part in the high school programs and of course that I think has been, I have been active in that group, they just recently gave me a plaque for the, I was one of the founders of it, for being active in it for twenty years. So last October, they honored me for being one of the founders and also for, of course as you know, I had been president for four years as well as I have been national office for four years but (gap in tape) and with its limited resources to help the youth in Teaneck and it is just very important to me and I think it is good for the town as well.
(I) Are there other organizations that you have belonged to that you have seen make changes in public policy?
(N) Well, I wouldn't say so much make change in public policy. I do know that our, now I am trying to think, was it our NECO or let me see, after NECO we changed our name, oh no, later we helped start - later, my husband and I, together with the Pruitts, McClouds, we helped started the Afro American organization. Now I will say for a fact we were instrumental in the first black principal being appointed in Teaneck. And I would say how that happened, when we know there was an opening, a number of, a committee and one on the committee was Dr. Cote, Cote's husband, Dr. Cote, who was an educator so we had any number of people who know what they were talking about and we asked for a hearing with the superintendent of schools only to find that they weren't even considering a black. I think at that moment they had like one name they were going to present to the board and the committee merely said there are others that are equally as qualified and you know we just feel that you should at least present, give the board a selection, not just you take one person's name. And at that point, the superintendent, in all fairness to him, stated that they would then present I think three names to the board for superintendent and that's when Frank Allen became so that if our group had not been instrumental but there again, Frank Allen was very qualified and he turned out to be an excellent principal. But there again, for some reason, I think there again you see how we just don't tend to look to see if blacks qualify for many things so that was one thing that we don't go around saying that the group got that but by talking to the superintendent and making him look at and evaluate, because he wouldn't have just put someone's name if they weren't qualified. But opened his eyes to evaluate a black and then since then, of course, we have had other black principals as well but that was the one thing that we felt very good about.
(I) Ruth, what contributions do you think black people have made to the township of Teaneck?
(N) Well, I could give a quick answer and say that they pay their taxes but blacks have had to just hold their own and try to prove that they are just as good as everyone else and that they have spent all their time, in the twenty three years I have been here, we've spent all our time trying to fight for equality of being treated as first class citizens in Teaneck so that we haven't had time to make say, call it a great contribution, except the contribution of being good citizens, of working as I say in all the community, in all the little areas, in all the committees that are very important. I mean if you want to say what contributions have, if you want to list any ethnic, so were the whites, the whites just by being there they have made a contribution. By the very fact that the town is a very good viable self-sustaining town, that we now have Glenpointe we can point to with price. It is not a backwater, bankrupt community. But the blacks have just had to constantly, and still are, trying to prove who they are and that they are the same as the whites and I think that after twenty three years for me to have to say that, I think that is sad.
(I) How do you think the township in general reacted to having a black mayor?
(N) Well I think that we are fortunate in the type of individual. For example, our first deputy mayor - everyone has to love Ike McNatt. But there again, it proved what I am saying. A black has to prove himself. You could have, you know if he is a white mayor, he can be almost anything. Half the people in town could dislike him, the same way as the Mayor of New York. There is as many dislike him as like him. But in order for a black to get there, he's gotta be a super person and everybody can't be an Isaac McNatt and that just shows what I've been saying. That you have to be so special. it shows that we have the quality of people being special but why can't just an average person, but no, in order for a black to get anywhere, we have a black mayor now, but they have to run with a group of whites in order to get in and if two blacks are running, it shows again, in my opinion, the prejudice of the town because the town, two qualified blacks can run and you look at the voting. The whites will look at them they will know both are qualified, they will pick a white not qualified but they will only vote for one of the blacks. But this is one thing that I don't understand why we are supposed to sit innately, they feel superior because it is all right if we are ruled by white but heaven to Betsy that they have more than one black up there on the town council even though now. I think, and I don't necessarily go for quotas, but the reason there comes a time for quota is because a white being, I mean a black being duly qualified will not get his due and he will not get his due in Teaneck. Because if there is something to be given, they will break their neck to find a white, even if they are not qualified, and give it to them and I have seen it time and time again that happen in council elections. That whites not qualified are elected over black qualified so that's the reason that sometimes you need to have quotas or numbers. Only for qualified blacks. I don't want anyone to put a non-qualified, because I am not going to respect anyone who is not qualified. But yet I have to sit and go up there and listen to a white not qualified and they take that as perfectly normal. So as I say, Teaneck, I love Teaneck but it still has a long way to go.
(I) So your response to township dealing with growth in integration - how do you feel about Teaneck in that respect?
(N) Well, as I say, it tries but it still has a long way to go. I would sooner stay here and work with it. I am not going to run from it. And the most you can do is compliment Teaneck because there are those who are trying but there are also those that, when it goes down in the ballot box, they change their minds and they are going to vote race.
(I) Ruth, I want to thank you.
(N) Carolyn, I'm sorry, I want to thank you for talking to me this evening. Perhaps I might get a change to add something to your interview. Thank you.