Opening Doors

Frances Hooks, USA
A bowl of bananas

Since her youth Frances Hooks has worked for civil rights and social justice and also helped her husband do so. She lives in Memphis Tennessee. We talked sitting on the balcony of her apartment with a fascinating view of the Mississippi River. Frances received many calls on the phone while we talked.

A typical day begins with preparing breakfast for my husband when he is in town. After breakfast or even before the phone starts, and since he is a retired judge, a retired NAACP Executive Director and still pastor in the same church after 48 year you can imagine what my phone is like. I am maid, mistress and chauffeur all in one. After 53 years of marriage I have finally reached the elitist status of having someone come in and help me with the housework and the ironing. So I feel like I am Miss Ann right now.

I devote most of my days to taking care of him, he is constantly going, and I chauffeur him or his sister chauffeurs him. I do all the correspondence, answer the phone, manage his calendar and program him. Everybody says that, "if you should die the minister will need three women to take care of him."

We go to meetings and to church every day except Friday, that is the one night I don't have anything that is attached to anybody. I'm in a couple of social clubs and go to meetings in them on Thursday and Saturday, but I don't have time for my girlfriend just to chat. 12:30 at night is when I sit at my computer and take care of the letters.

Last night I set Benny on a plane and went shopping. I enjoy shopping because it takes my mind off everything. I also love to play bridge but I haven't had a chance to do so since God knows when. It is a busy, busy life, but we have managed to do, what I think is a considerably good job.

I shall always be grateful

My father comes from Canton Mississippi and I have a letter of recommendation for him, where a white man says: "Andrew has been one of the best workers we will ever find, and I hate to loose this nice coloured boy to Memphis Tennessee." My father had finished high school in Canton and worked as a bellhop in a hotel, when he came here.

My Mom was born here, but her mother and stepfather, who was a German, travelled. They went to Ohio and then to Philadelphia, where my mother grew up. She was in her last year of girls-high, when she was charged with bringing her baby sister back to Memphis, where my Grandmother's family lived. So my Mom finished school in the only high school for blacks in Memphis. She was very bright and got a job teaching, and then she met my Daddy. They married in 1926, and I was born in 27.

My father and mother lived with my Mothers aunt for several years, while our home was being built. My dad was one of the few black men to build a house, especially a brick house. Our house had a living room, dining room, breakfast room, kitchen, three bedrooms and a bath. The house was also built with a basement and an attic. We moved into our home on my second birthday, February 23rd 1929. This was the time of the great depression in America. I shall always be grateful, that my father worked very hard to provide for his family. Our family consisted of three children. I am the oldest, I had a sister and a brother, who are both deceased. My father was a bellhop at the Gayoso Hotel in down-town Memphis.

When I take people over to show my old home they think we were rich. We were not, but my father's values were in place. My mom never taught school again after she was pregnant with me, but she was head of the PTA, and she taught us not to mispronounce or misspell. In the summer we went to Philadelphia where the kids would tease us for speaking like Southerners. When we came back to Memphis the children would say, that we tried to sound like white folks.

Opportunities were opened

My sister and I started college together at Howard University in Washington, DC in 1944. While our features were alike, we differed in colour. She was a red head with green-gray eyes and I took after my fathers's side - considered dark. At Howard University, I developed an inferiority complex and didn't do so well, so I ended up graduating from FISK University in Nashville, TN. I came back to Memphis to teach in 1949. My sister had finished the year before me and neither of us were hired by the woman in charge at the Board of Education because she said, that undoubtedly we didn't need to work, since we had attended the two most prestigious colleges for Blacks America.

I got a job as a teacher at the county and went 30 miles to work and 30 miles back every day. I was so sleepy because I had to get up early in the morning to catch the streetcar to a stop where I met a lady who drove me to my job. So my father gave me money to pay down on a car, I made 147 dollars a month, and it took me two years to pay the car off. That was the first car the family had, it was a Chevrolet.

When I married Benjamin Hooks, I was still teaching the county in a Rosenwold School. These schools were donated by a Jewish man, who felt that Blacks needed educational opportunities. The school had two classrooms and a large kitchen. There was no bathroom, and we had to go down the hill to the "outhouse". There was no such thing as a refrigerator or running water. So I learned to use the pump and also had to go down the hill to get drinking water. The black children went to school on a different schedule from the county's white children. "My" children had to walk to school no matter the weather. They also had a different schedule and were not bussed. Many times I have cursed a white bus driver, especially when it was rainy.

I loved my kids and I would go to visit their homes. One time a lady insisted, that I had a glass of wine. She washed the glass in dirty water and dried it in her filthy apron. I only got out of it by asking if I could take the wine with me home, because I was driving. Those were interesting and foundational days, that I will never forget, because the children taught me so much. The parents were very grateful and they would bring me cabbage, corn and stuff.

When we married Benjamin Hooks had risen to a position where he could help me get a job in the city school system. The district I went to had kids from the lowest social groups. When the US government brought counselling into the system I was educated as a counsellor at the University of Tennessee and the University of Memphis.

The city schools of Memphis were segregated until the late 60's. One day a white man came to ask, if I had a student who was prepared to go to Howard. I told him that I had one who was academically prepared, but not prepared for the racism there. So we talked and talked, and Jed became the best friend I have ever had. Out of this grew a program, where all the seniors and not only the brightest could go to see councillors from the colleges. This meant that many kids sitting on the border got a chance to be somebody, because somebody took an interest in them.

We also made a program, where white people volunteered to help black seniors to go to college or to the world of work. Because of this kids from the lowest social group in the city were able to go to schools, that I had never even heard of. Opportunities were opened because a white person took the time to really see through the colour of a child. I told the volunteers not to buy the students shoes or feed them, unless they wanted to teach them what utensils to use when invited to have dinner with them.

People have to be comfortable

I worked with counseling, until my husband was called to the Federal Communications Commission as the first black person in 1972. After a while he said that I had to come to Washington, and I thought that when a husband after 25 years says that he needs his wife, she had better go. We were able to buy a home in Embassy Row, where we lived with congressmen and senators and went to parties in the White House. This was a completely different environment from Memphis. I worked in my husband's office as a volunteer, and we had students come in to learn about working in a federal agency.

I invited all the commissioners and their wives over to dinner, and this became a monthly thing, where the commissioners' wives would each month invite the group to their home. By doing so I found out, that they were really wonderful people. I went to places where blacks had never gone, and this was a learning and growing experience that equipped me to see people for who they are and not be afraid.

I have experienced racism in high society and in low society, but I always think that people have to be really comfortable with themselves. If you are comfortable you can say: "If you like me it is OK, and if you don't that is your problem."

It was a tense time

Then my husband took it to save his people and other folks too by becoming Executive Director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1976. This meant that we had to find a home where we could entertain. I walked the streets of New York and thought, "who will rent an apartment to this little black woman." But then I found one at a very prestigious address that we were able to get and we actually did entertain the governor, the mayor and other people there.

I grew up in the NAACP, my parents were members of that organisation and I still have my father's card. We were not active, but we were members like most people. It has always been out there fighting for us. At one time the NAACP had advocated Black Mondays and encouraged kids to stay out of school one day a week to fight for fairness and equality. I was thrown between supporting it and wanting my kids to go to school because I knew they needed education.

When Martin Luther King was killed in Memphis back in 1968 my husband called me and said that I had better buy groceries and get home because the situation was going to be ugly. I had bought all my groceries and was in the line, when the white woman behind the counter said: "I'm glad that nigger is dead." I left my groceries and walked right out of the store. It was a very tense time and everybody had to have a pass to be in the streets. I didn't think I should leave this out, but it was a trying time in the life of Memphis.

The whole time my husband was head of the NAACP he had five secretaries. I was one of them and I never got paid. I worked along with the other secretaries and did my share of typing and learnt to use the computer.

We lived in New York until 1986, then the NAACP moved to Baltimore in Maryland to a huge facility, which had been a monastery. The role of women in NAACP was always secondary, so together with others I started Women in NAACP, and we helped in disaster areas internationally. The media would announce on the news that Red Cross had solved the problems before they were actually solved for my people. At one time we went to Jamaica with a whole plane of supplies and found this out for ourselves by walking the muddy back-roads. Eventually we succeeded in getting a black person on one of the boards of the Red Cross.

I also participated in the marches when my husband was in the NAACP. I have been in marches in California, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and other places. I have been part of everything that was opening doors. I have always felt that if there is a man in the house he ought to be up front, but I did what I could.

My husband was also pastor in two Baptist churches one in Detroit and one here in Memphis. For thirty years every other week we went to one of the churches. We are not sanctimoniously religious. In fact they say I am atypical of a pastor's wife. My religion is mine and if you have got yours, I can't make you be anything. But by the way I live my life you may see if I am living the right way, and then you may want to ask me, who is this man you are talking to.

Getting to see and to know

Things are much better than they were. I can stand on my balcony and look at the hotel where my father worked and think of the days when I couldn't go there to see where my Daddy went every morning. In the complex I live in now there are half whites and half blacks, if you have the money there seems to be no discrimination. But I think that neither young blacks nor whites appreciate the changes, they take them for granted.

I see black children more blessed than I ever dreamed children could be. I see us having more things than we have ever had before. But I also feel that we are missing something. We are so busy trying to be like the majority population that we have forgotten the basic principles that brought us to where we are now. I don't see parents having time to sit and talk with their children, television is becoming their guide. Young people don't appreciate the bridges that brought us where we are, and when you try to tell them, they don't want to hear. I remember the time when I couldn't try on a hat or use the restroom, and when a black policeman at duty couldn't arrest a white man.

I would love to see a world where people are respecting one another because we are human beings and understand our differences. I don't know if that is coming though, people are still fighting everywhere. I just know that I want to be the best grandmother, mother and wife I can possibly be, and whatever example I can be for the future is good enough for me.

Prejudice is such a two-way street. I would say individually try not to prejudge before you get to know. You look at me and I look different, try not to go by the stereotypes that you have heard. It is a matter of getting to see and to know.

I wish for tomorrow's children a world of understanding and patience one with the other. If we have patience enough to hear another person and understanding enough to put ourselves in their shoes maybe we can move the world forward a little. But it is a hard job and I am going to pass off the scene, I am going home.

If you ask me how my life has been, it has been a roller coaster. But I wouldn't want to change anything in the life I have had.

August 2004

Frances Hooks passed away in January 2016.

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