Lois Fisher Interview 2

Antioch College
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Sarah Bragg: It is Monday, February 1st 2016. I am sitting with Ms. Lois Fisher for a second interview as a part of the Engaging the Wisdom oral history project. Thanks again Ms. Fisher for being part of this project with the Society for History and Racial Equity in Kalamazoo College.

Lois Fisher: Thank you.

SB: So during your last interview you mentioned that one of your regrets was that you didn't talk to your grandparents more. If you could sit down with them one last time, what would you want to ask them?

LF: Oh! I'd like to know what it was like during their childhood and their teen years and then into their young adult years as far as growing up in a society that was segregated, what experience they had or knew of slavery and what they 00:01:00knew about their parents, how they were raised, how they lived, how they survived. I'd like to know even more about what it felt like to not be allowed to vote. I remember when voting was finally allowed for African Americans in Mississippi where my grandfather lived. He was the only grandparent that was alive at that time - my mother's father. And I remember he called us in Washington DC when that happened and he was so excited. He said "I get to vote. I'm going to vote. I'm going to register so I can vote." And he was just, you 00:02:00know, excited like a, like a young kid and he went on and on about it and I was so happy for him and we celebrated with him and that enthusiasm, and so and after he did vote he called us and said "I did it. I did it. First time ever." And oh Grandpa was (sigh) he was well into his age. I have no idea right now. I'd have to figure that out - how old he was, but he was very seasoned, elderly person.

SB: You also mentioned over the phone when we talked about Peabody Hotel-

LF: Mhmm

SB: -your father and your grandfather. What was um- what do you remember about that? Could you tell us something about that?

LF: Well, the Peabody had always been spoken of as this landmark in Memphis, 00:03:00Tennessee, and now I'm talking about my father's father, where he grew up. He was born and raised in Memphis and my grandfather - Bose was his first name - I don't know how long, but he worked at the Peabody in their famous restaurant as a waiter. And I can remember as a child whenever we'd go in the summer, Grandpa got dressed to the 'T' - suit, white shirt, his long coat, overcoat, and he had a walking stick--he didn't need a cane--but he had a walking stick and - very dapper - and his hat and he'd get ready to go and he'd just look like he was 00:04:00getting ready to go to some important meeting, but this was every day. And he'd, he'd go down to the Peabody and change into his uniform and perform his waiter duties. But he was a very proud man so that kind of was why he always left the house looking like that. At some particular time after my father graduated high school he applied to work there, was accepted and was the second generation young Bose Moses working at the Peabody. And again, they were proud men and they took what they did seriously and like my parents always said, whatever your job 00:05:00is, do it to the best of your ability, be proud, do it well, and that will help you keep your job, but whatever you're doing, do it to the best of your ability. But grandpa and my father worked at the Peabody, which was interesting because the Peabody also had the reputation that they did not allow any African American or Black guests. It was strictly employees, and they were only the wait staff or the cleaning staff. So it was kind of like a running joke with my dad, he always said, "One day I'm going to stay as a guest at the Peabody." And sure enough, many years after, Dad was well established in his career and after he had 00:06:00graduated theology school and became a minister there was some kind of, I want to say convention or meeting--some big meeting--and it was going to be held in Memphis and he said, "Guess where I'm going to stay," and I said, "Where?" and he said, "I'm staying at the Peabody." I said "What?" and he said, "I'm staying at the Peabody," and when he called us after he had registered he said, "History - I'm a guest in the Peabody." So he was very happy for that and then I think not too long after that, on a vacation we--in Memphis--he took me for a tea at the Peabody so he showed, showed me around and even got to show me in one of the 00:07:00corridors there was a picture of, there were lots of pictures of former employees, and he showed me a picture where his father was in it and he was in it. So it was kind of interesting.

SB: So your father was a reverend-

LF: Yes.

SB: -and you also had a pretty religious upbringing. How did that influence your perspective on life, specifically your involvement with the civil rights movement and civil rights activism?

LF: Well, it undergirded the belief that you had to love everybody, no matter who they were, no matter how they treated you. It was your responsibility to love other people as you would have them love you, as Christ loved his people, as God loves all people and that was the foundation for, for me and how I grew 00:08:00up and how I received people, how I treated people. I always remembered that - treat other people as you would want to be treated, that being with the respect and with love. So it was very, very important as the foundation for my life. And that continued as we entered into different situations, be it civil rights protests or marches or anything else, and especially following Dr. King's philosophy of nonviolence. That was very important.

SB: So can you tell me a little more about your experiences at Loy Norrix - any relationships with fellow students that stood out to you, any specific experiences?


LF: Well, I did form some good friendships with non-African Americans or non-Blacks without naming names, I don't think we should do that. But when I was a junior there was a senior student that had become really close friends with, myself and three or four other Black students and we formed a singing group. She liked to sing and we liked to sing. We had planned to be in the annual show at Loy Norrix, and we were going to do a couple numbers and we were going to get 00:10:00outfits alike and we were going to be this rock and roll group. And when she heard about it, heard about us talking about it, she said, "Can I be in the group?" and we said, "If you can sing," (laughs). But at any rate she did participate, and she thought it was really cool that she was gonna be in this group, singing group, in the annual show and, as it turned out, it was really great for us and for her because it helped the other students see that, what it was like for us to be friends. And we had a wonderful time and she remained a close friend.

SB: Are there any particular teachers from Loy Norrix that stick out to you - 00:11:00either for positive or negative reasons?

LF: I'll stick to the positive. There were about, I can remember my English teacher, college English teacher was super fun, very intelligent. She really got us to delve into literature and just kind of pulled it out of us, made us want to learn about it. So she was always positive. And her husband also taught at Loy Norrix and he was a lot of fun. There was a world history teacher I remember who, coincidentally, later in life, when I started teaching, he was the husband of one of my colleagues, and when we realized that it was like, "Oh wow!" You 00:12:00know, small world. So there were several staff members that I took a liking to, and hopefully they took a liking to me.

SB: So can you tell me more about what it felt like to be a part of the application process of the Van Avery protests?

LF: Well, like I said, Van Avery's had this unwritten policy or rule that they didn't hire Blacks in the store, even though the Black community was really their primary source of livelihood. They were, I won't say nasty about it, but they were very insistent that there were no jobs, and when we found out that 00:13:00they did in fact hire a young white girl for the same position that they said was nonexistent, we took it to the next level - we being the African American community. And from then on, it was a very uncomfortable situation because they tried to just deny, deny that they had any wrongdoing, and then we started the boycott, which lasted quite a while. It caused some soul-searching in the Black community because that was a very convenient place for us to shop, so there were people who didn't want us to protest, didn't want us to boycott. And of course, 00:14:00the white community thought it was being unfair, and we had no right to pursue that. But, like I said, in the end, they ended up changing policy, but by the time that happened, business had dropped off and people had found other places to do their shopping and to do their business, and just chose not to come back to Van Avery's, and Van Avery's closed. And that is now where the Ecumenical Senior Center is located. It was a very historical time in Kalamazoo community.


SB: Was there anyone close to you or anyone that you knew relatively well that didn't support your involvement in the boycott, and if so, what did that feel like?

LF: Yes, there was. There was a family, and the family was divided because the father figure and my father were close friends. They were members of our church, and he really took exception to the whole boycott issue. He didn't want us to rock the boat. He didn't want us to bring, so to speak, the dirty laundry out and have it be part of the life of Kalamazoo, because he just didn't agree with 00:16:00it. His family was divided as to whether or not to support, and it caused a lot of animosity within his family, between the two families, and between other families in our church. But that particular family, it was very, very difficult for us. But we survived it and remained friends, but it was always a bone of contention with the fathers.

SB: What did support look like for this event in your community and in your family? What were your experiences with those who supported your involvement in the boycott?

LF: Well, it was very positive, and it brought the Black community together. It 00:17:00brought the churches together because we were able to come together for a particular issue that was a major concern in the community, and it wasn't just an issue that only affected a few people. It affected the whole community, the whole neighborhood. And it really was an issue that brought the community together, not only for that particular issue, but again as other issues came to light, especially about voting, about housing situations in Kalamazoo, about how the city was divided, and how the City Commission elections were held, and the 00:18:00County Commission elections were held, because it was very obvious that the voting for those two particular governing bodies in Kalamazoo was orchestrated so that most of the Black community was situated such that they were only represented by one, maybe two representatives, but they weren't African Americans. It was always a Caucasian or a white person that represented the Black community, and finally that changed when the voting patterns and the 00:19:00design of the voting districts was finally changed. It also affected how people responded or reacted to civil injustices or human rights injustices in the legal system, in the court system, within the police department, the sheriff's department. So that really was probably a foundation for bringing people together to work for a common cause.

SB: If you could just take yourself back a bit to that moment, to those days in the boycott, in the midst of the boycott, what was that like? The people, all 00:20:00the support, whether you guys picketed or not, or just the boycott itself, what were those exact moments like?

LF: Well you never really knew what to expect, because, like I said, the store was right on the corner, so the way we organized the boycott was like the L. We would be in a line and walk to the corner and then turn and walk that way, and then turn around and go back. We never stopped anybody from going in, and those who went in would go in between walkers. But you never knew what to expect, whether people would just go ahead and cross the line and go in, or if they 00:21:00would make some kind of rude comment, a negative comment, or whether or not people would come and stand on the sides and say, "Good job, keep it up. I'm proud of you." So it just depended on the day and who came. Sometimes it would be a little nervousness if somebody looked as if, or did actually say something unkind or negative, but these spirits were bouldered when we would meet before or after a shift of picketing at the church, because it was like you were 00:22:00reminding yourselves of why we were doing it, and then of course when it was apparent that it was going to work, it was a real bolster to our attitudes and behavior.

SB: Could you tell me a little bit about your close friends growing up? Were they involved in civil rights at all? And if so, did you all have similar feelings about it, or conflicting feelings?

LF: Well, I believe that is when, if memory serves me correctly, that is when the youth division of the NAACPreally took hold, and a group of us went to our parents in the adult leadership and talked about forming a youth arm of the 00:23:00NAACP, as well as a youth division of the Democratic Party, and that was exciting for both of those avenues to be opened. And the youth, being bolstered by the positive effects of the boycott, then we could see ourselves as actually doing something positive within a bigger framework, a larger framework of the NAACP and the Democratic Party. That is how I met Robert Kennedy. When Robert Kennedy came to Kalamazoo to campaign, I was an officer of the Young Democratic 00:24:00Club, and we were invited to be on the welcoming committee for Robert Kennedy. We met him at the airport, and we went with him in a motorcade downtown, outside the, I believe it was the court steps, and there was a rally downtown and so on, and a lady took his shoe. That made the papers - big picture, nationwide, about the lady that stole his shoe. He spoke in Kalamazoo, and after the rally and the speech, again the welcoming party was invited to go back to the airport, and I 00:25:00got to get on his plane with the others, and we just had a short conversation with him, and it was really exciting, really exciting.

SB: Can you recall any times in your activism when you felt discouraged?

LF: Sure. Whenever negative events or negative situations occurred, that would be discouraging, but you would have to try to focus on what the underlying purpose of our activity, or our position was, and you had to remind yourself why we were in this fight, and why we were doing what we were doing, and if there 00:26:00were sound reasons. And if it was the right thing to do, you were able to re-focus and continue on, as is the case in any situation. When you face discouragement, you have to decide, is it worth continuing, or do you give up the ship, or do you continue to help the ship stay afloat?

SB: Are there any people in particular that motivated and inspired you to keep pushing forward?

LF: There were several people, my parents being foremost in my mind, but there were a lot of community people, black and white, who were positive and were not 00:27:00afraid to speak out and be supportive. Whenever you have people like that around you and supporting you, that really helps to make you more encouraged and to make you know that you're doing the right thing. But yes, there are several people in this community that I could say "thank you" to.

SB: What were some other events that took place in Kalamazoo during the Civil Rights era, and how did they impact your life in the community overall?

LF: I think we touched on most of them in the last interview, but (long pause) 00:28:00probably election, election time was always a difficult time, or a hard time because you wanted -- you as a citizen -- wanted to be sure that people were seeking the office in order to better the lives of the people that, whom they were gonna represent - all of the people, not just a few of the people, but all of the people. So that was very important, and that's probably the impetus of my 00:29:00father running for office as a County Commissioner. And, as I told you, he was elected the first African American, or black, and the first Democrat on the County Commission. And that was really, that was, he was a pathfinder, and I was very proud of him for that. Some people took exception to that, but I think it was very important, and that, you know, he lived what he believed, and he fought to make life better for other people like him, whether or not they were important people or they had a lot of money, or if they had a super fantastic 00:30:00job and some very well-respected company here in town -- it didn't make any difference. All of the citizens of Kalamazoo needed to be able to be represented in a fair way, and that was his goal.

SB: So looking back, how do you feel now about the civil rights involvement that you've had, that you were a part of?

LF: I'm proud of it, very proud of it, and, and to know that I had a little part in making history here, a little part in sharing what I experienced, and what I learned, with my students. You could talk to any student that I've ever had, and 00:31:00they can probably tell you that I was a community and civil rights activist, a human rights activist, and that, that's how I treated all students in my classroom. All of them were there for same reason -- that was to learn -- and I showed them respect, and hopefully they showed me respect, and we were in this together -- to learn how to live together. And that is what I'm most proud of.

SB: So how would you explain the need for ongoing activism today to people that think that our problems have already been solved?

LF: Well, if we just look at the news, be it local, state, or nationwide 00:32:00(chuckle), it's not over. There's still things that need to be done. There, there are still problems with human rights, civil rights, individual rights. Every day we see something that is happening that is not right, or not fair, or people being treated in a manner that is (long pause) not worthy, and any time something is done to someone that is unjust, anywhere, the same thing could happen to you, to me. Unkindness, evil, or anything of that negative nature, it 00:33:00can happen to anybody, at any time. It just depends on the people involved, and the, the, how entrenched people in whatever position that is, and so an injustice anywhere is an injustice to all of us. If we have the opportunity or the, are in a position to speak up, or to help somebody, we should do that because that's the right thing to do. And to be silent on an issue is just as bad as doing the injustice yourself. So I think it's everyone's responsibility to speak up, to be supportive of making sure that everyone is treated in a, with 00:34:00love and kindness, make sure that everyone is treated fairly and with respect.

SB: What do you hope will be your legacy?

LF: One of my favorite songs just happens to be, I am told, Dr. King's, one of Dr. King's favorite. And that is, "If I can help somebody, as I go along, then my living will not be in vain." I love that song. I used to sing it quite often as a solo at church. The words are very powerful and very true for me.


SB: So, do you remember what was your experience like when you first realized that Dr. King was assassinated?

LF: Mmm--

SB: Do you remember where you were or what you felt or -

LF: I was at Loy Norrix High School. We were having a rehearsal for another annual show. We just finished the part of the show that I was in, and, excuse me, the people from our segment had just come, gone into the music room, and it came over the loudspeaker that Dr. King had been assassinated, and (long pause) 00:36:00it, it was like, what? Somebody must've made a mistake. It, it just couldn't be true. And I remember I was coming down the stairs, and I tripped, you know, and, and when I tripped I fell and my, I went to grab, to catch myself, and someone was behind me, and my finger got, the door opened on my hand, and my h-h-hand was under the door, and it, it wasn't broken, it was, it sprained it. Anyway, I was a, I was a bawling mess. I, I couldn't believe what I heard, and I had 00:37:00gotten hurt, and it was like, and everybody started screamin' and cryin' and, it was terrible, it was terrible. And I called, went to the phone. I called my mother, I said, "Is it true?" Yeah --ooh (shakes head, sigh).

SB: So how did --

LF: MmmSB: -- the notification of his assassination inspire your future activism, if at all?

LF: More determined. More determined. You know, (shakes head) it's, it was like, we can't let his life have been in vain, you know? And, I gotta do my part, gotta step up, do more.

SB: Was there ever a fear, for those that were activists, of something taking place?


LF: Oh -- oh yeah, well, (chuckle) absolutely. Directly related to that, my father, like I told you, was a minister, he was a friend of Dr. King's, and he was contacted, he was invited to come to Atlanta for the funeral to be one of the clergy that was invited to go inside the church for the service, and I don't remember how the Gazette got wind of it, but it was published in the Gazette that he was going to attend Dr. King's funeral. As a result of that, there was -- mmm, excuse me, mmm -- when my father left, to fly down there, we got - we 00:39:00being my mother and myself -- we got phone calls that there was a bomb at our house, and, he had a lot of nerve going there, going down there to, to attend that so-and-so's funeral and, you know, they'll show him and his family. So you better watch out, what have you. The police were contacted. They came to the house, searched the house, around the house. They searched the church and whatever. They did not find any bomb, but we were advised to leave the house, and we did. And (moderate pause) even after dad returned from Atlanta, we, we 00:40:00were advised to stay away from the house for a while. They kept the house under surveillance. There were several letters, anonymous letters, that were sent to the house -- death threats, on him, on the family, and that was gonna be the end of his being a minister in Kalamazoo. And unfortunately the police never found who was responsible for the letters or the calls or anything like that, but yeah, we were affected by that.

SB: So your life was filled with quite a few experiences, both good and bad, but 00:41:00mostly good, and at this point, if you could talk to your younger self -- a younger Ms. Fisher, whether a teenager or a child or either, or, what would you tell yourself, knowing now what you do know about your experiences and about life?

LF: You're doing the right thing. Keep on, speak up, be vocal, continue participating, encourage others to do the same, (long pause) be the best that you can be, and bring somebody along with you.

SB: And what advice would you give to present-day people that are involved with activism?

LF: Just to be careful, to be safe as much as possible. Be aware of your 00:42:00surroundings, people who are around you. Not everyone is your friend, ok? Not that you wanna be distrustful for everything, but just to be safe, take care of yourself, and to not be afraid to speak up and speak out, because you might be helping or saving somebody, and we need more people to do the right thing.

SB: Well I just want to thank you again, Ms. Fisher, for taking out the time to do the second interview

LF: Oh, it's my pleasure

SB: At this moment we've come to the end of --

LF: Ok

SB: But I would like to ask if there's anything that we haven't covered quite 00:43:00yet, anything that you may have forgotten or left out that you just want to share, want people to know. Any final thoughts or -

LF: I don't think so. I think you've been very thorough (laughs), but, I don't think so, just, I'd just like to say that I try to live my life the way God purposed me to do, and I just hope and trust that the things that I do, the things that I say, are of His will, and that (long pause) I've touched somebody in a positive way,

SB: Thank you again for agreeing to be a part of this project --


LF: Thank you

SB: We really appreciate it.