“We aren’t always completely honest about our failings or our, you know, emotions about race.”
Laverne Bell-Tolliver Interviewing Janis F. Kearney
JK: I currently reside in Little Rock, Arkansas which is Pulaski County. I have probably lived here about 25 years. I lived here for 17 years before 1993, then I left and then I returned in about 2006 or seven.
LT: Where is your birthplace Janis?
JK: I was born in Gould, Arkansas. Gould, Arkansas, which is in Lincoln County.
LT: Okay, and how long did you live there?
JK: I was there most of my childhood. I was born in 1953 and I lived there until I went to college in 1971, and then… that was about the last time I lived there on an on-going basis.
LT: You went away to college, where was that?
JK: I went to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.
LT: Okay, and then you didn’t return to live in…
JK: Actually, when I was in college I got married and had a child and my husband and I lived in Little Rock, we moved to Little Rock once both of us had graduated.
LT: Okay, so would you tell us a little about your background?
JK: I grew up as a sharecropper’s daughter. My family were share-croppers. We had, we grew up with a family of 17 children. Actually, there were 19 but my Mom and Dad had one that didn’t live with us, so… We grew up picking cotton, and chopping cotton. My father rented cotton acreage each summer and we would work it. His children would be his workers. And we did that from the time that we were seven years old until we grew up and graduated from high school and left.
LT: So, from the time you were seven years old, you all did that?
LT: Just wanted to make sure I understood. Did your father, was he a sharecropper or he just rented the land?
JK: My father was a share-cropper … We rented land, and worked the land of others. We didn’t own the land. But we worked 50 acres of land.
LT: And what was that experience, of growing up, like for you?
JK: It was a great experience because we had a huge family. I had siblings that were my best friends, we never needed someone, you know, sometimes children grow up needing to find someone to play with. We never needed that, we had a very close-knit family… My parents were very religious, so religion was an important part for us, but they also pushed education so we were a family pretty much centered on education, and religion and hard work.In looking back, I had a great childhood, I really did. There were times when I, you know, complained because we were all so very poor and we did not have some of the things that my friends had, so sometimes I felt sorry for myself about that, but now that I’m older and look back on it, I had a great childhood. We didn’t really want for anything. There were times we didn’t have the food or the clothing or the whatever, but we made it because we were really close-knit. And we believed, we were very religious, so we never believed that God would really let us perish because of anything that we didn’t have.
LT: By the way, how old was the child that passed away?
JK: My earliest sister, my sister that passed away in 1987 was… I was 34 at the time, she was 32. I recently had a sister to pass and she was in her 70s. So our ages spanned, as you would guess, there were forty years between the youngest and oldest.
LT: Tell me about the time that you became aware of differences in people, along the lines of race and ethnicity.
JK: When I realized the differences between people along the lines of race and ethnicity, I was very young, probably the first time was when I was about ten years old, and I have written about this, but I had a terrible experience with a white man and… I’m guessing now that it was attempted rape but he actually was someone that we knew very well, who kind of tricked me to get me into his truck to show him where a certain thing was. I actually had to jump out of his truck to get away from him. And I was ten at that time, so… So that of course colored my thoughts and feelings for a long time. But I also, I met people as I grew, that I liked. I went to a school that, a segregated school until I got to 7th grade and that’s when our school… They didn’t actually integrate but they did something called, freedom of choice. And my parents sent me to what we called “The Whites School.” We actually went to school with whites from 7th grade up until when I graduated. That was not a great experience. Freedom of choice was like forcing whites to go to school with us when they didn’t want to go to school with us. So I really didn’t have a good relationship with anyone white during that time, at all, except for one person who was my choral instructor, and he was my civics class instructor and also he taught English. And I liked him a lot. But that was the only person really, out of those years. In 1967, they integrated the schools, and they integrated just in name because I think we had about five or six hundred students in High School and we had about ten whites, maybe fifteen whites. So it really wasn’t integration, but… Uh, that’s what we called it.
LT: I want to go back just a little bit, how did your parents handle the attempted…
JK: My parents didn’t know [about the attempted rape]. I did not tell my parents, because my father would have probably done something to the man and that would have been the end of my father…
LT: So you made a conscious choice?
JK: I did, yes. The first time I told them was through a book that I wrote. My first memoir.
LT: How did your parents talk to you and your siblings about going to the school, the freedom of choice?
JK: Back in those days, parents might have done something and then tell you later and explain it to you. But, we understood. Education was just so important to them, they knew, we knew that the white students were getting a better education because they had all the resources, they had all the new books, they had the new buildings, so we fully understood why they sent us, even though we were leaving our good friends. We were leaving, you know, the comfort of the school that we had grown up in.
LT: How did you know that, that they were getting better education?
JK: Oh, we knew! We’d get the books and their names were already in the books, some of our classrooms had holes in them, you know, the elements coming through the walls… I mean, and we knew what the white’s classes were like. We would drive by sometimes, the white school, so we knew the difference.
LT: How many of your siblings went with you to this school?
JK: Actually, at the time my sister, she was very smart and had a double promotion so we were classmates. And we had three older brothers, and I had two younger siblings that all went to the white school, we all went.
LT: And you said that was not a pleasant experience, would you just briefly talk about that?
JK: Well, you leave a place which was my elementary school, which we were comfortable with, we were comfortable with our teachers. We had teachers who really believed in us and pushed us and wanted the best for us. And then you go to a school where not only does, do they not expect anything of you, they don’t care whether you do well or not. And they made sure that you knew it. And we had not only teachers , but we had students that felt the same way. So it was not a good atmosphere, at all.
LT: I think you and I shared similar experiences with that. Was it helpful to have your sister in the classroom?
JK: Oh, it was, definitely [helpful to have my sister in my class]. It was.
Jo Ann, that was my sister… Jo Ann was very outspoken… Jo Ann was a much more outgoing, outspoken person than I was. And she was kind of, she was younger than me, but she was kind of my big sister. So we talked about it, we would go home and we would talk about it, and that would make it easier. We would get up and go back, and that was because we had each other and we had our brothers as well. So it was great to have siblings going at the same time.
LT: Now what kinds of experiences, if any did your parents have with people of other races?
JK: My parents’ experiences with race? Well, they were share-croppers so the experiences that they had were, as, they had experiences with the farmers, white landowners, my father tried numerous times to purchase land and he was not able to purchase it. So, not very positive experiences at all, but even so, we were always taught the same thing, that another speaker said – The Golden Rule. They were religious and they believed that we were all was created equal, they believed that God put us all on this earth for a reason and…. But as far as color, that was a man-made thing deciding that somebody was more than another person because of their color. So they explained all that to us. My father is a great historian and talked about history, the history of our race, the history of slavery, we knew all about that, so… But they never taught us to hate at all, never, but they did explain to us that we have to, we had to love ourselves and we had to, just like many black parents told their children, you had to be better because you are never going to be considered as good so you have to do twice as much.
LT: What was the educational background of your parents?
JK: Neither parents graduated from high school. My mother went to eighth grade, she was a very smart woman. But in that time, they only went to eighth grade for most black schools. And a lot of people were able to go on to another city or town and live with someone, but my mother was never able to do that. My father went to tenth grade and he did not graduate from high school, but they were both very, very intelligent people.
LT: How did your parents’ views of the other race, white people… how did that shape yours? It sound like they taught you quite a bit, but how did that shape your own, personal view of race? Taking into consideration, your first major experience.
JK: I would always remember what they said about, and I was a church member early on and so I knew, that, what the Bible said… that everybody’s supposed to be equal and all of that… So that was a conflict for me, really, reality was a little conflict. When you looked at how people treated each other, and how blacks were looked down upon and I had to just force myself to remember that really what people believe about you is not reality. It’s a man-made thing. God made us all equal, so that was a constant battle for me…
LT: You had to constantly reinforce what they were saying even though you had the conflict about what you were seeing.
LT: Thinking back to that time how has your view of race changed or evolved since that time? Now that you’re an adult.
JK: It has evolved, probably because I have changed as well, as well as other people, other people of other races. I’m more mature and I accept people at face value a lot more than I did as a child. And I know that there can be negativity in any race, it’s not just the white, it’s not just the black, it could be either one. It has made me more accepting of people, beyond their race. I have white friends, I have friends of all different nationalities, and I really enjoy the diversity of friendships and knowing people’s culture and understanding why people are the way they are because there is a reason, there is always a reason. So I think that I have just opened up a lot more. I think I was dealing with things that were in my face when I was younger, I mean, everyday; and when I could step back from that I could look at people and say that one person may do that, you know, I really hate but that doesn’t mean the whole race is that way.
LT: Were there some experiences that helped you to step back from that?
JK: I think it’s just, meeting people of different races that were not right there in Gould, Arkansas. Knowing that there are people all over the world, people all over the state that don’t necessarily think or act the same way as the people that I grew up with.
LT: Based on this and other experiences throughout your lifetime, how have relationships between women of different races changed through time?
JK: Oh, I’m definitely sure they have been improved, but I know there is always room for improvement. We aren’t always completely honest about our failings or our, you know, emotions about race…. I think that if we could get to that point, that would be the ultimate… But definitely, I think we’re more accepting. When I was growing up, there just weren’t a lot of people that I could point to and say that they were accepting of another race whether they were black or white. So, I think that has definitely changed. For a person who had some pretty bad experiences growing up and for me to be able to say that I have white friends I love like sisters, that means that a lot of progress has been made.
LT: What would you like to add that we have not talked about during this time?
JK: The only thing that I would like to add, is that educators have such a big role in this whole evolution of race and children feeling good about themselves no matter what. That was one of the big hardships that I had when I moved from one school to the other – the difference in the educators, because no matter what you say, children listen to adults and teachers and believe a lot of what is passed on to them. And if you’ve got teachers, sitting in the classroom, even if they don’t say anything to the child, that’s telling them something right there. So, we as parents, and I am a grandparent now, but parents have to be aware of who is teaching their kids, and who is in the classrooms, and make it a habit of going out there and visiting their classrooms. I think it is so important because it makes a difference. Our children are impacted by the type of instructor that they have…how they feel about them, how they feel about their learning ability, whether they really are compassionate or passionate about teaching. All of that is very important.
LT:I have to ask you you said something about some educators, when you were a child, that made it a point to show that they did not care about you or other children of color or expect much from you. What would you say specifically to instructors of this time?
JK: Oh, my God, I would just tell them that stays with a child forever and you can really impact a child when you do that, either when you ignore them or you really let them know that you don’t expect… Oh a C is great, a D is great, well, you’re passing… That is just not acceptable at all. Because that’s a child, that’s a whole life, that’s a product of the world that you’re helping create and, if you’re not going to do any better than that then I don’t even think that they should be in the classroom.
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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.