“I think relationships that I’ve had with women of different ethnicities are better than what my mom had.”
Deborah Manfredini, Interviewing Mildred Randolph
DM: Please give us your name, the town and city of where you reside and the state you live in.
MR: My name is Mildred Montgomery Randolph. I live in Little Rock, Arkansas right now. I moved here in 2007. I actually grew up in rural southeastern Oklahoma, a little town called Poteau, Oklahoma.
DM: What was it like growing up in Poteau, Oklahoma?
MR: …very different. Poteau, Oklahoma is a town, then, of about seven thousand, eight thousand people. It’s rural but it was still the county seat, so relatively speaking, people used to, now that I look back on it, come to Poteau to shop, but it was very rural. And the demographics were, you know, agriculture, farming. And my parents moved there in the early fifties. They are originally from Texas. And my Dad is a veterinarian and has had absolutely no contacts or connection with Oklahoma and was just strictly…
-He [Dad] finished veterinary school and one of his classmates was in another part of Oklahoma and he said that there was a good opportunity for veterinarians in Oklahoma so you should check it out. So that’s why they went there.
DM: Okay. How were your parents received when they moved, when they moved there, by the community?
MR: Well, the other part about Poteau, that I didn’t get to say, is that even when they were there… there were maybe one hundred, one hundred and fifty African-Americans.
DM: In a city, community of 7,000?
MR: Mhm. Actually, my mom, one of her favorite stories to tell us is that the night that they got there… In the evening, I think there is like a state veterinarian that maybe didn’t know the race of my parents, and they got there in the evening, and they met at the Chamber of Commerce and he was just looking dumbfounded when my parents got out of the car. He said, you know, I wanted you to meet some local leaders because we need a veterinarian here but you got here late, so my thing is, where are you all going to stay?
And he said, `I heard there is a rooming house across the tracks. (A lot of cities, you may not be familiar with it, but most cities are divided up by railroad tracks.) `I hear that there is a rooming house across the tracks and maybe you all can find this lady and find a place to stay.’ And my mom was saying, `you know, we were exhausted, we had driven up from Houston and this is….’. But I don’t think they were too surprised.
They met this lady who, when they knocked on the door and said do you have a rooming house? She said, yes. And I’m sure my Dad was talking, `well, I’m Dr. Montgomery and I am a veterinarian and I want to come here and establish a practice.’ And the lady was extremely kind, she said you know what, I’m full, but come in and I’ll make a pallet on the floor. You seem like a nice couple and you can sleep in my bed, and get a good night’s rest and in the morning I want you to leave here because these people don’t take care of their children, much less their dogs and cats! Y’all need to rest, because you’re going to have a long drive tomorrow. So throughout my childhood, my mom would tease my dad and say, we should have listened to Ms. Emma May, she told us what to do! So that was their welcoming.
DM: Did my parents have a difficult time?
MR: Yeah, they did. They had a very difficult time, but as in many situations, the economics of it was, they needed a veterinarian. So, I just grew up hearing these stories that had to do with race. So, many times people would be surprised [that we were black], but it’s a small town, you know they heard there’s a new colored veterinarian in town. So, maybe, it wasn’t like for the love of him, just they got cows dying, they got issues and it was just the economics that they had to call on him. And then that later got transformed to respect and even some friendships. But initially, it was just about the economics.
DM: What kind of impact did that have as a young girl growing up??
MR: I can literally say that every night at our house there was a discussion on race. We lived with that. Now that I’ve heard other people talk about when they first noticed race… I don’t remember when I didn’t have a discussion on race. It was always front and center because … just typical family, my dad and us around the dinner table, there would be at least a story of the week. `What’s this little black dog’s name? Nigger—Oh no, I mean Tigger!’
But, I remember one time when my dad said early on when he hadn’t been there long, he treated this cow, it was a common problem, simple to treat, but just…. you know, ignorance on the farmers’ part; the cow had milk fever and once you give them some calcium, it’s a very dramatic effect. They just get up, almost like Lazarus from the dead. He recalls this white farmer saying, – as this cow that he thought was about to die just literally got up:
said `I want you all, you and your wife – because my mom would go on a lot of calls with him – I want y’all to come up to the house and meet my wife.’ And my dad was, like `oh this guy is going to invite us to dinner. This is a guy that kind of respects us.’ And he’s gathering his stuff and the farmer is in front of him and he said, yeah, she ain’t never seen no niggers like y’all. That was just… he wasn’t upset, or… No actually his quote was `you all ain’t no ordinary black niggers.’
So that became a joke in our house. But we would just use the acronyms, you know? But, that was commonplace. I literally grew up with that. Every day there was a talk of race at my house.
DM: What kind of experiences did you have in school, did you make any friends?
MR: Well, yes, but I can just remember different moments, because I’m still getting Ebony magazine, and I can remember telling my mom, if I make straight A’s I wanted to wear an Afro. My mom was always so concerned that she didn’t want me to go to school with my hair natural. I didn’t understand it. I saw Angela Davis and all these people with Afros, I was telling my mom I wanted to wear my hair in an Afro, and she didn’t want to come out and say to me, `You’re gonna catch a lot of flack about that. I am trying to keep you as fitting in as I possibly can.’
I remember I just keep trying to manipulate her. I got straight A’s, I got this, I got that… And I finally got to, I think it was in the seventh or eighth grade, I got to wear my Afro to school. She would be pressing my hair or something like that. In my junior high there were never more than five blacks throughout the school, not just within my class, throughout the whole school.
And I remember this one little boy saying, “You look like you stuck your finger in a light bulb socket!” But, as I look back on it, race was such an issue for us, and my brother and I frequently said we should have left Poteau and went straight to a psychiatrist couch. I mean it was just something we dealt with.
But, I still have some really good friends from there, but I was so exhausted by dealing with race by the time I left high school. I just wanted to go and be anonymous somewhere. And I went to the University of Oklahoma, which, at that time probably had about three or four thousand [black] students. But that was the most black people I had ever been around. I just thought that was a huge population of African Americans. The school had about twenty-eight thousand students but they still had pockets of four or five thousand African Americans, and I just wanted to get in the middle and just blend in and not have to be defending something about being black, because I had done that. And I had no desire to stay in touch with anyone from Poteau.
DM: You didn’t want to stand out in the crowd anymore.
MR: I didn’t want to stand out in the crowd and I always felt I spent my first twelve years dealing with the race issue and I’m really just now getting over that because I felt that I had done so much explaining… And, probably hadn’t done as much as I heard my parents. These boards, commissions, it was just too much. I just had enough of it so, I’m just now kind of, like before I wouldn’t have participated in a group like this.
DM: Right, do you understand or see your parents bravery, in what they did?
MR: I think that they were economic… I don’t really see it as that. I think economically they came up very poor, they had an education, and they wanted to take it to a different level, economically.
My opinion, having lived through it, is that they didn’t put much thought into how their children were going to come up, So…. You’re talking about esteem issues, never feeling validated… And my parents were thinking of when they could go, and this has actually been a bone of contention for my brother and I; at fifty years old we will hunch each other — and my Dad is now ninety-five, and ask, “Now why is it that you stopped in Poteau, Oklahoma of all the places you could have gone?” And, you know, it has become a re-occurring theme in our family.
Recently, the town of Poteau had a big banquet for my Dad and we took him back and, literally it was very, very nice. I mean, thanking him for his years of service there and all of this, but I took him down, went to it, and then I left. Just going to that town, I still feel ill in the pit of my stomach, not that there are not some very nice people there. But just, mentally it took a lot.
DM: You and your brother feel like you paid the price of your parents being there?
MR: Yeah and it wasn’t just that, even my Mom, as I think back, and look back on it, my mom had no peers. No good girlfriends. And my Dad was so busy working, he worked all the time. And it’s different when you have your own business because then he was like a coon hunter. So he likes outdoors, but, you know, my mom, was a college graduate. She had her masters’ degree, she was a Delta. I just , you know, marvel at… Because, there’s no way in the world I will follow any man and sign up for that. I would never have done that. And, my mom is deceased, but as you get older you think back, “What were you thinking?”
DM: So she wasn’t able to form friendships amongst the community?
MR: Oh I would say associates. Friends go to each other’s houses, and they eat dinner. Associates talk for five minutes when they meet at the post office.
DM: Did your mother work outside the home?
MR: She didn’t work outside the home, but worked with my Dad, helped in the clinic.
DM: I was going to ask -first time you became aware of the differences of people but you grew up knowing the differences.
MR: But, the first difference in race was even before I went to school… I remember conversations… And we kind’a lived out there, and I could hear Dad responding to the dog named Nigger. I kind’a grew up hearing that. We lived in the black part of town, but actually poor whites lived their… I remember playing with them and then when we would get up to school we would pass each other in the hallway and not speak. Like, okay… we do this on weekends you know, but during the week they may not have anything to do with each other. Differences with race were always, probably the largest looming issue.
DM: Who was the first person you had a significant relationship with, of a different ethnicity or race?
MR: You know, I have some good friends, I mean people who—I was in their wedding, they were in my wedding… So I have especially one really good friend that we have been friends since first grade. I knew her before school because her dad was a big farmer and my Dad used to do work for him. And we still are good friends. I would say beyond her, I look back and say that other people are associates. It’s that… we’re cordial, but… You know friends are like, when you need something you call them up and you can get it and that kind of thing.
DM: Those kinds of friends almost come just once in your lifetime. They are very rare.
MR: She was an exception. I had so many other people that validated my opinion of white people.
DM: How has your view of other races evolved since then?
MR: I think just having gone through some maturity, some life experiences, I have sort of come to the realization that we… People are more alike than they are different, especially when you come to those life-changing events, you know, death, cancer… When you go through those common denominators, race is not such a big looming issue. So I guess in that way I have kind of grown some, because I just grew up as race, every day I got up and put it on and left the house. And now it’s still there, but not flashing a neon sign. And because I was, I always felt that I was constantly reminded of that.
DM: How have relationships between women of different races changed over time?
MR: I guess they have gotten better. I think relationships that I have with women of different ethnicities are better than what my Mom had. So, I guess they have gotten better. [Mom] She would have loved to have had some peers. And you know we went back to this banquet last year and while they were praising my Dad, I was just thinking about the kind of miserable existence that my Mom had. And, she really paid the price for that. I guess it is not that important to me, but that would have been important to my Mom.
DM: If your parents had moved to that community today. Would they have had a different experience?
MR: Actually, if they [parents] moved there today, I’m not even sure, what they… In some ways, It may not have been as good… because the experience they had then… The economics have changed now. I mean, they moved there at a crucial time that, economically, they didn’t care what color you are they need your services. But now there are several other veterinarians there. They may starve to death if they moved there now.
DM: Is the racial atmosphere still the same?
MR: I think in a lot of ways people then were more uninhibited. Their dog is named Nigger, they will tell you that. Now it is more subtle. And so… I don’t know. I can’t really say that. In some ways, it was kind of easier then because you just kind of knew what people’s attitudes were back then. Now because it is not politically correct to be a blatant racist, it may be some differences.
DM: Is there anything else you’d like to add. Is there anything else you’d like to add…you feel that we’ve missed or any other points you’d like to make about growing up and your experiences of race and ethnicity, over the years?
MR: I guess just being adult, I went to Tuskegee, which was just refreshing to just not deal with race. That was just really nurturing and I think I kind of healed, in a way. But, I just think that one of my goals is to put my children in a place where they don’t have to make race their banner every single day of their lives. And, I guess that is the lesson that I learned from that.
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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.