“I was born of Italian immigrants. They were brought into Lake Village to a big plantation in Lake Village and were indentured farmers.”
Adjoia Aiyetoro Interviews Mrs. Rosalie Gould, McGhee, AR
AA: What we’re really looking at are stories from people of different races, women! of different races and ages, about their interaction with people of other races and ethnicities and their own experiences. So, I have a series of questions…
RG: I think that’s a wonderful…. project, I really do. It’s something that needs to be gotten from us who grew up in a different generation,
AA: Exactly. Exactly. And one of the things that spear–, what really started it was we had, uhh, uhh, when “The Help” came out when I had just started at the Institute…
RG: That’s an excellent book!!
AA: We had a project, a discussion at the Pyramid Bookstore in, Little Rock, “The Help: Black and white women, then now, and in the future.” We had a panel, and one of the suggestions was, in fact she’s part of our storytelling group, was why don’t we have, collect stories and that kind of thing.
RG: Well, in 1980, the Arkansas Press Association came up with a book “One Hundred Women in Arkansas”, and it was called The Horizon. And the caption above mine was “A big mouth will speak for others.
There it is over there!
That’s it!! See The Horizon over there? See it? That book? You see what it says on that big… But that’s true, that’s what I’ve done, see there are so many people who are never heard, there are so many that are leery of getting up and standing up for themselves and saying something, and heavens I don’t mind looking like an idiot. I don’t mind, or just telling it the way it is.
Or telling them the way it is…
AA: Exactly! You’re a woman after my own heart.
RG: It’s best not to get up and yell at somebody, try to be reasonable and express yourself. Tell them why you’re saying what it is you’re saying, and why you think you should be heard and these people who can’t be heard, well you can speak for them.
AA: Tell us the name of my town, city or county where you currently reside?
RG: Well that’s McGee, Arkansas, Desha County. I’ve lived in Desha County, I guess, for about 50 years.
I was born of Italian immigrants. They were brought into Lake Village to a big plantation in Lake Village and were indentured farmers. They were brought here to farm for this man who owned this big plantation but they were exploited, they were, had to use the commissary, they had to buy from that, they were told that they could buy land to farm on but the interest and all were so high that it took them forever to try to pay out what they owed. You know, just like after the slaves were freed they were treated the same way, so it was just a continuation of that. And we left Lake Village and moved to Tiller, well Tiller… I don’t know if you know anything about Tiller or not, but in the 1930s it was the richest town in the United States. It was made up of big farm owners, and they were of course white men. So we moved there when I was six years old and the story goes that they got together at church one Sunday, the Baptist church, most of them were Baptist, and said, “(Gasps) This family is moving in and they’re Italian and their Catholics!”
Well think, they were only White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, is what they were… So I know what it is to move into a place that was different, but then I remember not long after we got there I started school in the first grade and came home crying because everybody kept making fun of me because I was olive complexioned, black eyed, with black hair and I remember coming home crying because everyone was making fun of me and I never will forget. My father and mother only went to the eighth grade and then they had to stop and help with farms, and he said, “Sis, you have to respect yourself before other people will respect you” and he said, “Do you understand what I am saying? “ And I said, “Well no..”
You know, I didn’t know what respect was, he had to explain it to me…that, first you have to conduct yourself in such a way that people will know that you think something of yourself and are projecting it. I mean, that wasn’t exactly what he said, but that was what he meant. So it seemed to, I guess, it must have helped me because I didn’t seem to have any more trouble. See I had three sisters, they didn’t look like Italians, they had fair complexions, and they were real pretty. I was the only one, I was known as the plain one. My daughter can’t get over that, she thinks that should make me feel terrible because everybody said “Well, the plain one’s Rosalee.” Well, so what? I mean, beauty isn’t everything, you know, I keep trying to tell her that doesn’t make any difference. A lot of people are plain that get through life okay. So…
When we moved to Tiller, my father had a farm and he also ran a Filling Station and he was an excellent mechanic. So that’s what he did when we got there. And then I, of course went to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. Went in ’43, I went and finished my high school and I went to college. Then I went to Med school for two years. And the man I married was born with a congenital heart defect, and they had told him he wouldn’t live to be 25 so he keep saying, “Well, if we’re going to get married you need to quit and come on home and let’s get married because they didn’t expect him to live. So I did, I came back home to Tiller to live. So that’s what I did, I moved to Rowher in 1949, not knowing nothing about the Japanese-American camp they had down there. Nobody talked about it, nobody had ever moved out of that, and nobody talked about it. So then Joe and I were married.
AA: Where did you meet Joe?
RG: I knew him, well, I knew him because he lived there in Rowher, and we would see each other at church. In fact, we were both Catholic. And he went to the, he graduated from LSU, Baton Rouge.
AA: Oh, okay…
RG: But one summer while I was at the University, he came up to take some subject, I’m not sure what, and we dated a couple times and not very much because there were 500 Air Force pilots at the University and also 400 Army engineers, so we had a good time… Us, the young girls, laughing and having a good time…
The plain one, thoroughly enjoying it! But as I said, we got married, and we had three children. And then he died, we had been married 15 years and he died in 1965. He was, he would have been forty. He would have been forty at his next birthday…
He had surgery, we stayed in Johns Hopkins, in Baltimore for six weeks. He had open heart surgery. They had just perfected it, well, not really perfected it, but they had just started doing the surgery and that gave him 10 years. They had told us that he would live 10 years and he died in February, if he had lived to October it would have been 10 years. But yea, he had a nice long life … we had three children.
AA: Tell me about the camp.
RG: Okay, so… As, I said I didn’t know anything about it [Japanese Internment Camp]until I moved to McGee. And in 1982, I was asked to put on a dinner for some Japanese-Americans who were returning to dedicate a monument out at Rowher. And, that night at the banquet, I was going around talking to the different Japanese-Americans and met these three people: Jamie Vogul, who is an art teacher, and Sam Yarda, who was the only (unintelligible) who stayed in Arkansas, and George Sakaguchi whose parents had been interned at Rowher and he was a retired major in the Air Force. So they all were talking, which is all the people there were talking about how terrible it was that there were no Japanese in this area to take care of the site. I mean. I had nothing to do, I mean, my farming was going ok, my children were growing, and I told them that I would be happy to take care of the site, and if they came back, or any of their friends came back, to call me and come by here and I would take them to the site. And I would show them the site and I would treat them to lunch, or any overnight stay or whatever.
1982. May the 30th. It was 1982, that was the first that I had anything to do with it. And they said fine, and one or two of them said, “Oh, Mayor Goose…Well, we’ve got so and so in the attic can we send it to you to keep it. And then somebody else, and it just started, it just started escalating and everyone had something that they wanted to send, or give to me, as you know, as a gift.
These were all Japanese-Americans. So about two weeks later I got a call from a tour company in Los Angeles and they said that they understood that I had said that anytime anybody came to call me and I would be glad to host them or whatever and they were sending a tour bus, and it would be here at so and so, and would I be interested in greeting them and going out there to Rowher. I said I would be glad to, I’ll be glad to have a catfish dinner catered for them at noon. And they said, well that’s fine. And what do you know, sure enough here comes this big tour bus out in the front.
AA: You were living here then?
RG: Yes, I was living here in 1968. And half a dozen of them came in holding pictures or carvings or, you know something, that they understood that everybody was sending me things. And so we did, we hosted the lunch. Well, two or three years later, this family calls and says that they’re coming and that they understood that I would be glad to have them come and so forth. Well, it just kept escalating and every year two, to three, to four buses would come in and I would host them, and of course they would sign the guest book. It just escalated, and then it got to where people kept calling me and asking would I come and speak to this reunion of internees, or that reunion, or one of the universities would call and say “Well, I understand that you know something about the Rowher camp, would you come and tell us about it?”
AA: How did you find out about it?
RG: Well, they came in 1942. The government never told anybody what the camps were for or what the camp was. We didn’t know they were Prisoners Of War, whether they… we didn’t know what it was. The government never said. They just, these people were here. And of course, I lived at Tiller and they were rationing, gas rationing so you couldn’t go anyplace. Unless, to the doctor or something. So then I went to the University and thought no more about it, but when I married and moved out there everything had been moved, everything had been auctioned off, there was nobody out there and the people that were there refused to talk about it. My in-laws, my mother and father in law were good friends of the director and Mr. Johnson, who had been here, of course he had left. And they never talked about it. I didn’t think anything else about it until 1982, when they, the Japanese-Americans came back to dedicate the third monument that’s standing there, in the middle there. Two there, two back in the back, and one in the center. And that one was dedicated in 1982.
And, like I said, it just escalated and I was invited to speak at Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Colorado, St. Louis, Chicago… In, uh, Florida… Two places in Florida and about ten in Arkansas. And in Texas and in New Mexico…Just everywhere, because everybody was interested in the Rowher camp.
AA: How did you learn more about it?
RG: I would ask questions and get them to tell me their stories and then I would have them write them down. And the more that would, the more they came the more they told me what happened and of course, I would try to find books and all. But it was close to impossible to find any books, and the thing is you don’t only talk about the Rowher, the internment camp. There are quite a few, in fact, 866 young men left the Rowher camp to join the 442nd Regiment Combat Team. Now that’s 866 men that left their parents behind barbed wire to fight for their country. Also, some of them joined the MIS, which is Military Intelligence Service and they fought with General Merrill in China.
The China-Burma-India, they would, they spoke Japanese, these ten MIS. Two of them came from Rowher and they would infiltrate the Japanese lines and talk to them and find out what they were doing and then they would slip back and tell General Merrill what was going on and they would tap into their telephone wires and find out what the Japanese were planning. So it just, it seems that you just go from one thing to another and then from that thing to another. And some of the people who went to Rowher was George Taka with Star Trek. In his autobiography, the first chapter is about… he was three years old, is about his stay in the internment camp. And now, he has written a play about the internment camp and its out, its in New York right now, on Broadway.
But he has been here, I’ve got a picture of him over there. He has been here a couple of times. And, but, uh, almost 2000 internees have been here to go through that collection. I’ve got the guest book, they’re all in the guest book, I mean, not saying that all, they came here, I’ve got the actual…I’ve got proof that they came here so…
AA: When was the first time you became aware of the differences along racial and ethnic lines?
RG: Well, I have always been interested in people and some of the African-Americans here are my dearest friends. We talk on the phone all the time, and when I was mayor, my office was always open and any time any of them, in fact, I think that I worked more with the African-Americans than I did with the Caucasians. It just seems like it was something, like the Japanese-Americans, it seemed that it was something that… there was a connection between the African-Americans that live in this area and me. It, uh, we would laugh, we would joke, we would tell each other stories about… It’s just been, its just been wonderful , as I said, the friendships that I have made, either by being in politics or with the Japanese-Americans.
We didn’t have that problem in the, in Tiller, most of the African-Americans lived out of town, there were not very many, see there were, there was really no business in McGee, really in Tiller, except for department stores. That was all there was. That was all run by white, by white people. And I know Daddy had a farm, and I would go out when they, the cotton-picking time and all, and bring lunch to them. While they were, you know, chopping or picking or whatever. And then when I moved to…
A lot of them [worked on the farm], but not all of them . A lot of them were the white people. But when I married and moved to Rowher, we had about 30 families on our farms, and I would go and visit with them and I always brought candy to the children. Of course, there were white families that was working on the, living on the farm, too. And, uh, to just see the children… See, back then Rowher was just getting over the Depression and all, and it was still, it was, I mean there was no riches out in the country, it was just… People was living off the land, and that’s exactly what was happening. And to see the children, and they would say, “Here comes Miss Rosalee, here comes Miss Rosalee, here comes Miss Rosalee!” And it was just like, you couldn’t help but to just smile and to see the smiles on the faces of those children! And they all knew, the mothers knew, if they had any trouble, if their children were sick or if they had any trouble, that all they had to do was call me and I would take them to the doctor or whatever. And people don’t understand how much joy you get when you help someone. Its just, I just don’t get why people don’t understand that.
AA: Did you feel that you were treating the black families different from the white families? Or feeling differently about them?
RG: No, I don’t think so because we had, I know some were out there were these three young, well they were middle-age, I would guess, no, two of them were young… Three of them, there was Buster, Oliver and Kiddie who were my favorites. They worked on the farms, but, uh, at least twice a week they would come and have breakfast with us. I would insist that they would, you know, before they would go out on the farms with my husband and I would insist that they’d come in and have breakfast with them. For Christmas, they always came when we opened the presents on Christmas Eve and I always had presents for them and see…
AA: Were they African-American?
RG: They were African Americans, but… See, that’s what I can’t understand, to me they weren’t African-American! They were Buster, and Oliver, and Kiddie. And, the ones on the place, except for the Irwins… Now, they were… I don’t know what you would call them… That’s the family that I was telling you about that we had to burn the house down.
They were white, they were white… Uh, but I can’t understand when people keep saying, “Were they black?” or “Were they white?” And, I can’t see that, it’s just … It’s hard for me… now I have three sisters, who have a big difference between the black people and the white people…
No it’s just never been a… You can ask anybody in the town, to me people are people, and one day… I mean, what difference does it make? I guess I was teased because of the color of my skin, that I can’t see any difference between the black people and the white people.
AA: So how did it make you feel when you saw other people treating black people different?
RG: That’s terrible! I mean, I don’t care if they’re Muslims, or if they’re Catholic or if they’re Baptists, or Protestants or what… They are people, and you’ve got good people, white people, you’ve got bad people, white people, you’ve got bad people black people, and you’ve got wonderful, black people. So, what difference, and see, that’s what gets me and sometimes, it, you know, uh… City Council meeting, when I was Mayor… Sometimes there would be a disagreement, what the African-Americans wanted and what the whites wanted. And they would play the race card… “Oh, well you just want to do this because its African-Americans…” or “You just want to do this because the white person brought it up…” And that defeats, what you are trying to do, and people don’t understand that… and can you tell me why it’s like that? I have never been able to figure it out, but some people, got to… “It’s race, I don’t care what the problem is, or what the solution will be, its racist… And I just don’t like that. I don’t like the word, because it… it hurts people… Racist, because it hurts people. It really does. It takes away from trying to work at the problems that are between people. It does, not necessarily between the black with the white… But when one person starts up and says, “Well, that person is racist,” That destroys what you are trying to do immediately.
AA: You talked about when you were mayor. Can you say a little bit about how you became mayor and who supported you?
RG: Well, I really had no intention of running for… I’d say I did a lot of volunteering when I moved to McGee because I had my, well, let me back up… When Joe had, when Joe died, he had just bought a thousand acres of fresh woodland and we had those other farms. He, when he died, he left me with that thousand acres to be cleared, he left me with these other six or seven farms to put into cultivation and left me with a huge farm debt. And I had three little children, my oldest was twelve, and Mitchell was nine and Lee was four, five… four or five… And the first thing my attorney told me while we were waiting to go to the funeral, he goes, “Well, Rosalee, you know, we go to court Monday…” Joe died on a Friday, on a Wednesday and he was buried on a Friday. While we were waiting to go to the funeral, he says, “Well Rosalee, you know Monday we have to go to court to petition guardianship of your children.” And I said, “What do you mean?” “I mean, if you had died, Joe would have gotten automatic guardianship of the children, but with Arkansas law, when the husband dies the wife has got to go to court to apply for guardianship of her children.”
That was in ’65. That was the one thing that told me that somebody’s got to open somebody’s mouth, I said somebody… Ok, you go, but this is going to be changed, you wait and see! Well, it has been changed, and then Monday… I told you, I had to clear that land and put the others in cultivation and pay that debt off… I went to all the banks in this area, they didn’t loan money to women. And, especially a woman farmer, because there were no women farmers . They had no, no basis of what , of whether a woman could farm or not. I said, “What difference does it make that I’m a woman or what? “ I said, “I’ve got to do it!” So they all turned me down, so finally went back to the McGee bank and I told them, “Mr. Bowman, if you’ll loan me this much money, I promise you in ten years I will pay this money back , every penny I owe you and I’ll never borrow another penny.” Well of course, he looked at me like, well, “You idiot!” (laughs) I guess he thought, “Well, that’s a woman…’’ He said, “Well, I’m gonna take a chance on you.” He said, “You act like you know what you’re doing.” I said, “Mr. Bowman, I haven’t the faintest idea but I guarantee you I’ll try.” Within ten years, I had cleared that land and put everything in cultivation and paid back every penny. And I’ve never borrowed another penny. And not, I mean, that was the good Lord’s doing, not… It wasn’t me, I can assure you, I don’t take any credit for it. But, it just seems like something was helping me, and like I said when Joe died and I moved to McGhee, and got my farm in all, in thing… And at that time, I was doing a lot of volunteering, I was… As the book will show you, I was named Volunteer… I was named Volunteer of the Year… I’ve forgotten what year, ’74, it might be ’75… whatever… And they called me to tell me and I, told them that I can’t accept it because I don’t think a person should be honored for the privilege of helping others. Because it is a privilege to be able to help someone, I mean, that’s a privilege. It’s not something that you, it’s not that… your just giving, just giving… And as I was saying, I was doing a lot of volunteering and thoroughly enjoying it and, the uh… The Mayor, oh shoot, what was his name… He decided not to run, and like I said, I had no intention of running and the three men, who were friends of mine, were running. But Lee came home and said, “Well, Mother, I want you to run. I think you’ve got time and I think you would enjoy it. “ Well, sure enough I did and thoroughly enjoyed it.
AA: Who supported you?
RG: I had a big African-American support. And its, as I said, we just got along beautifully and they did, they supported me. Where some of my good friends, that I had before I became Mayor, didn’t support me like the African-Americans, and I will never forget them. And that’s what they all, what they all know. If there is anything that, if anything comes up, or if they have any kind of trouble that I can help them with. They can just call me because friends are friends and…
AA: You count them as your friends?
RG: Oh, yes. [I count African Americans as my friends] Most certainly. I certainly do, I can give you some names of… that talk, that we talk quite often… And that they laugh about stupid things that I do, you know.
AA: Who was the first person of a different race you had a relationship, a meaningful relationship with?
RG: I guess, when we were little, my mother was awfully sick for a while and, uh, this African-American came in, and her name was Moriah, and she was the sweetest thing. She took care of us and uh, made life so much better. I mean she did everything in the world she could, I was just little so I just, I was only seven or eight or so and I’ve never forgotten that woman. Because she was absolutely, she was the mother that we really needed, I mean we would talk to her about anything we needed , anything… We’d sit in her lap and she’d hold us and that was just, absolutely, that was just a great time…
AA: Did you ever meet her family?
RG: No, she had no family.
AA: Oh ok, ok
RG: And I don’t remember where she came from or anything, because at six or seven or eight, you don’t…you just know she was there for you. She was there for me and see I have never forgotten her. And my youngest sister called her Rama. (laughs) She couldn’t say Moriah, she called her Rama! I never will forget that. And of course, Moriah would laugh every time that she said Rama…
AA: Thinking back… how has your view about race changed over time?
RG: I remember when… The integration of Little Rock, and we had some Ku Klux Klan members here… Oh, God, talk about rednecks, they were something… And I remember when the guard was called out, and all… I remember some of, some of the Klan members trying to raise money and all, they called me and wanted me to send them some money so they could go to Little Rock. Uh, I wasn’t very nice, let’s put it that way. And I used words that, when my father found out I had used them, he called me in and said you don’t ever use them, use words like that. He said, “My daughter doesn’t…” “Well, Daddy,” I said, “You don’t understand…” He said, “I don’t care what the provocation is, you don’t use those words.” But, I tried to explain to him. You don’t understand, what difference does it make, the color of their skins. What difference does it make? I’m sure that they are some of the brightest, the smartest people you have ever met so why…? Just because of the color of their skin, I said, “Why are you…?” And he said, “Because we just don’t want them around.” And I said, “Forget it, well, just don’t ever contact me again about something like this.”
I was living in Rowher…In’57.
AA: So how did your father find out about what you said?
RG: Somebody told him. [my father]. See, my father and mother, my mother and father both have three brothers. Who all, each of the brothers died of alcoholism, and my mother and father don’t drink. Well, neither do my any of us, I mean I don’t , I just don’t like… Well, I could go into that story but I won’t , but, uh… Daddy and Mother told us, I never heard them use a curse word at all, and it was instilled upon us that you don’t use it, you just, you don’t use it. Don’t you let me hear it. I remember the first time, I got back from the university and I was in the kitchen and I dropped a plate on my toe. And I said, “Oh, damn!” Well, Daddy, he passed by and he jerked me around and he said, “Now let me tell you one thing, Sis, I don’t care if you are at the University, but you’re at home and you don’t use that word. Never, ever let me hear that anymore!” I said, “Yes sir.” And I thought, “Old toe, got me in trouble…”
AA: So when you let the Klan people have it, somebody was listening?
RG: Oh yea, there were quite a few people around. [during the conversation with the Klan member]
Yea, and my father heard about it. I mean, he wasn’t interested in what the conversation was, his emphasis was that his daughter did not use that language, and especially not in public like that. His daughter didn’t do it. And heck, I was a grown woman.
AA: And where were you?
RG: I was here, in McGhee. They were raising money here…
Yea, I was in McGhee, I remember, and I don’t remember if it was in the grocery or, it was in some store, or on the sidewalk or something… I don’t remember, I just remember that lecture that I got from my father more than I remembered anything else.
AA: How have relationships between women of different races changed over time?
RG: They’ve changed, in the first place because the views of black women are becoming well-known, they are being listened to and that’s just what I said… Like, when I was Mayor, some issues that some of the black people wanted, but you just didn’t want to get up and say anything, well, that’s when my big mouth would get up and say… But now, the black women are beginning to stand up and say, “This is the way we think it should be, this is the way we think that should have been done, and this is what should be done in the future. And they are beginning to be given the opportunity to be heard and that, that’s all most people ask for, just let me say it and listen to me say it when I say it. I’m not asking you to agree with me, but please just let me say what I want to say.
They’re able to stand up, not that they are standing up, they are standing up, but they are ABLE to stand up. And that is the actual difference. When before when they would try to stand up, but they weren’t listened to and they are now.
AA: Do you have anything you want to add about relationships among women or your experiences about race?
RG: I think there is one bad thing about women, I don’t… I think that there is a lot of women who don’t give other women credit. They think that they have no business speaking or saying anything and I don’t know if it’s a kind of jealousy or what, but its not as easy for one woman to accept another woman’s thinking as it is for a man to accept another man’s thinking.
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The Institute on Race and Ethnicity at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock was founded in July 2011. With a vision to make Arkansas the best state in the country for promoting and celebrating racial and ethnic diversity, the Institute conducts research, promotes scholarship and provides programs that address racial inequities. It does so by facilitating open and honest dialogue aimed at empowering communities and informing public policy to achieve more equitable outcomes.