WSP: Cathi Compton Interview Transcript

“Live by the Golden Rule…It Works!”

Mildred Randolph, interviewing Cathi Compton

CathiComptonMR: Can you state where you currently reside?

CC: I live on Wye Mountain, in the western part of Pulaski County, Arkansas. I have lived there almost sixteen years.

I grew up in El Dorado, Arkansas; and when I got my law license in 1985 I went back to El Dorado, and practiced law there for twelve years, with my Dad. Then, it looked like I was going to remarry, and the person I was marrying lived in Little Rock, so I moved my law practice, and two young daughters from El Dorado up to Little Rock.

Being a second-generation attorney, going back to work with my father was almost perfect We were both headstrong so we saw things a little bit differently from time to time but overall, it was an incredible experience.

MR: Can you tell me about the first time you became aware of the differences among people along the lines of race and ethnicity?

CC: I can tell you, generally, when it was, I don’t know how old I was. But I went with my Daddy to court, at least to the courthouse, and I saw separate drinking fountains. Something that I’d never seen before, and now that I think of it, naturally I wouldn’t because everywhere I went, church, school, there were only white kids. So I saw that for the first time at the county courthouse. And, when my Dad finished doing what he was doing, I asked him about it and he was a very big man, had huge hands; and he took my hand in his and said, in certain places in this country, people live separate lives. And, this is the way it is, it may be sad to some people, its ok with other people but right now it’s the way it is. But, you are never, ever, to treat anybody any differently on account of the color of their skin. Your mother doesn’t do it, I don’t do it and you and your brothers will never do it. And that – I was an up-settable child –that resonated with me. I was born in fifty-five so it was in the early sixties.

MR: What kinds of experiences, if any, did your parents have with people of different races back in El Dorado?

CC Well, it was probably very limited except for a professional basis. my mother worked while we were little, and there was a woman, the woman I interviewed, Vernita Ellison, who – I don’t know what time she came – but, she either picked us up from school or she was already there when we got home from school. She got us started on homework, or took us to whatever after school events, or whatever. And she was another mother to me. I mean, I loved her intensely. I still do. And then, my Dad did criminal defense and so, this was before the civil rights act started happening in Arkansas, he did a lot of criminal defense and he was of a mind that everybody deserves good representation, So he represented people of color who might not have otherwise had a lawyer, or a lawyer who cared.

But, it was limited in that way because of, at that time, our church was still fully segregated. Our schools were supposed to have been integrated but they were not, until I got to Junior High.

MR: How did you categorize that as a child?

CC: Well, up until I was about eight years old, all I cared about were horses. I was so caught up in rodeoing, and horses and being outside; and, that’s literally all I thought about. When I was about fifteen, things changed and I became a little more interested in boys than horses. So I’m gonna say I was a little late to the party and I was probably in about seventh or eighth grade when it dawned on me what was happening around me.

My brother…I had two brothers, but one is about two and a half years older than I am, and when he was either in tenth or eleventh grade, I think he was in tenth grade. El Dorado High School had a, well, not a race riot but, uh, a very violent misunderstanding that was racially motivated. I don’t know what happened, but the principal took everybody into the, I don’t know whatever the assembly room was called… and he just, he pointed to different people – I think that they were all boys – but I am not sure, but he pointed to different people of each race and said you, you, you, you, you, you, you, and there were 8 or ten of them, and he took them to his office and he said,` stay here until you work it out.’ He literally held them captive. He said, `y’all will not leave my office until you’ve found a solution that will work, at least for today.’ Of course I wasn’t there, but my brother told me about it. We were very close growing up, and he told me about it, and he said, `We talked, and sometimes it was hard, and sometimes feelings were hurt, but at the end of the day, we had a plan for getting up the next day and going to school.’ And I think that was a pretty big breakthrough moment for me too.

You know, I don’t know what year it happened, but… I’m gonna say that El Dorado School didn’t integrate until probably sixty-seven, sixty-eight, sixty-nine…

MR: How did that affect you personally?

CC: I don’t recollect it affecting me personally. I just remember my brother coming home that day, and telling what had happened at school. Maybe that raised my awareness a little bit, but I don’t remember having a personal issue.

MR: So would you say, and maybe you’ve answered this, maybe you’ll want to elaborate on it more… but who was the first person of a different race that you had a meaningful relationship with?

CC: Vernita Ellison was (the first person of a different race I had a meaningful relationship). Basically, I spent more time with her than my own mother, for several years. And, her husband too. Her husband was a sweet, sweet man. And I’ve just, I’ve spent all kinds of time with her, really up until the horse thing, (laughing) when I abandoned all humans for horses…

MR: Did you identify with the movie, “The Help”?

CC: Yes! I did, and in fact, I don’t have a sister but I have a woman, we were born like three weeks apart but we’ve grown up together. And she refused, she started the book, but she said she closed it because she said it made her feel so upset about the way she had grown up. It didn’t upset me. I like the book, I like the movie. But, she was, she said I can’t… I’m not reading that book, and I’m not going to the movie because it makes me feel guilty.

MR: How did my relationship with Vernita Ellison affect how I dealt with other people of color?

CC: Well, Vernita’s a very religious person and she just told me over and over again that… `We live by the Golden Rule’, and I was, I mean, I was a religious child, so basically, I was forced to go to church every Wednesday and Sunday, but she would say… she was a much more spiritual person than I was, and anytime I went to her with a question about fairness, or right and wrong, she always told me, `all you have to do is think of the Golden Rule. That’ll get you through whatever it is.’ And I think that’s real good, philosophy.

MR: Was your relationship with Vernita the only meaningful relationship with a person of difference race while growing up in El Dorado?

CC: Yes, until I got to junior high. Well in junior high, the schools have become integrated. And then I had classmates, cheerleader friends, and people of different races that I was with on a daily basis. And until junior high, I don’t remember that having happened.

MR: Thinking back to your early roots in El Dorado, and relationships, how has that framed how you deal with people of different races today?

CC Well, I don’t know what all exactly has framed… Vernita had a huge influence on me, and with her, it was so simple – the Golden Rule to life. Both of my parents were very…I’m looking for a word, other than Liberal or Democratic, and I can’t find one. But, politically, they instilled in us that all people are equal. I started speaking Spanish at an early age and I have relationships with Latino people and I have seen the ways that they are treated and mistreated. I now have a godson, who is twenty-eight, about to be twenty-nine this month, who is bi-racial. I’ve seen different ways that he was treated, in different stages of his life, in different towns…so, framework? I don’t know.

MR: Did your upbringing impact how you deal with people of different races today?

CC: I think that, from an early age, I was just taught and believed that everybody is equal and we live by the Golden Rule. That’s kinda how I’ve tried to view life.

MR: How have relationships between women of different races changed over time?

CC: Well, in my view, it’s gotten better. For one reason, we are all sittin’ here together in this room – which sprung from the discussion of “The Help.”

So I feel like we’re all working harder about communicating about the differences. And because I’m a professional, I think that, there’s so many more women of color in professions then there were when my mother was my age. So, it’s just not uncommon…

It’s not uncommon in the legal profession, and in a state like Arkansas, its not uncommon for professional women to get together and, there don’t seem to be any differences – within at least our profession.

MR: Talking about race, differences along color lines and ethnicity. What would you like for your take home message to be from this interview?

CC Live by the Golden Rule, because it works.

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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.

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