David: It’s a pleasure to meet you, finally.
GP: I’m just humbled that you considered me to be a part of what I think is a wonderful discussion. We need more of it.
David: Now, you’ve spent your life battling against ideas that you thought were unfair.
GP: Well, you have to remember, first of all, I come from a very race-conscious family, from what you would call black middle class. My granddaddy, in particular, had his own construction company, and my father, as a youngster, teenager, would accompany my granddaddy Patton to the bank ‒ you know, to get money for construction projects. And my father was constantly humiliated by the bank. We’re talking about, now, the Forties… the late Thirties and the Forties.
David: How was he humiliated?
GP: First of all, lots of times they had to stand up to talk to the bank president. They were not allowed to sit down. My grandfather had cultivated – which my father later learned – a survival mechanism of ‘Yes Sir, no Sir.’ And questions would be: ‘Nigger, are you just building stuff in the black community?’ Which meant there was a limitation. And my grandfather would reply, ‘Yes, Sir’, and my father was just humiliated by that. You know? That kind of interaction.
And my father finished a year of college at Alabama State, the Blacks’ college, and he would always tell my brother and me: ‘If a white man hit me in Detroit, I could hit back. If a white man hit me in Montgomery, I just had to bow and scrape’ ‒ because it was always a life-and-death situation.
David: Was it really that bad here? Even in the Forties and Fifties?
GP: It was really that bad. My uncle, whom I never saw – was just part of my folklore – was shot and killed by a policeman in 1943, September. He had been shot and killed by the policeman because you could not be in certain neighbourhoods.
David: When did those ideas which your generation… the ideas of…
Ard: Freedom and equality.
David: When did those ideas…?
GP: Germinate in me?
GP: I’m eight years old ‒ it’s 1952 ‒ I will never forget it, and I’m down here visiting. And across the street from my Mommy’s home – if we can keep my lineage together – there’s a bus stop, and every Sunday after Sunday school and church, the treat for my brother, my first cousin Al and me was to ride the entire bus line to the end of the route and come back. And Mommy always told us to sit on the back long seat and look out the big back window and see the world going backwards. That was such a wonder. I never knew we couldn’t sit in the front of the bus.
So one Sunday – being the elder of my brother, my cousin – they wanted an ice-cream cone, and I decided we would stop downtown at the Court Square and go on to a drugstore called Liggett’s drugstore, which is part of the Rexall chain, to get an ice cream, get ice cream cones. And I drink a lot of water, always have, and I wanted a cup of water, and I paid three cents – at that time we had paper cone cups ‒ and I just sat on a counter stool to drink my water. And soda jerk, which is not a pun, called me a ‘piccaninny’, and told me to get up. Now I’d never heard of the word ‘piccaninny’, but I knew it was an insult. And she would turn red as a beet. And I poured my cup of water on the counter.
David: And you were eight years old?
Ard: Eight years old?
GP: I’m eight years old, and we stamp out of there, come home, and Mommy would always be at the bus stop to greet us, to meet us. And I told Mommy about it, and Mommy hugged me and said, ‘No, you’re beautiful,’ reaffirmed, and that when God made me, he didn’t make none other like me. I’m sure a whole lot of folks are happy that happened.
But then I had to tell her why I had to ask. Why would she say this to me? I’m a little girl. So Mommy then had to tell me we couldn’t ride in the front of the bus, and all of what the mores were. And I wanted to know why, so that began to germinate in me.
Meanwhile, I’m getting older. My grandmother, Mommy, canvassed the neighbourhood to get people to go down to attempt to register to vote. So I grew up with that. And I was an obedient child, but also very curious and wanting answers.
David: Do you think there was… Do you think ideas have a power to change people?
GP: Oh, yes, oh, yes ‒ ideas are powerful. That’s why they didn’t want us, the white class, powers that be, didn’t want us to get educated. You know? Don’t you educate them little negroes. And you have to understand I learned much, much later about the midnight school during antebellum slavery days. But our parents instilled in us to get an education.
GP: To be smart.