WSP: Deborah Manfredini Interview Transcript

“A lot of people are fearful of what they see as different, when all they have to realize is it’s just window dressing.”

Donna Shelton interviewing Deborah Manfredini


DS: Deborah, can you please state the town, city, county and state that you currently reside.

DM: I live in Sherwood, Arkansas. Pulaski County, Arkansas.

DS: How long have you lived there?

DM: I have lived there off and on, 34 years. I’ve only moved away once in 34 years.

DS: Tell us a little bit about your background growing up.

DM: I grew up in the military. My father was a career Air Force sergeant, and, lived mostly in the North… Illinois. We are originally all from Chicago. Northern California, we spent 3 ½ years in Okinawa. And then went to Idaho. When I was 13 we ventured South for the first time and moved to Smyrna, TN where I eventually graduated from high school. And then I moved to Los Angeles for 9 years on my own and then my parents had been transferred here when I graduated, and I came to visit them after about 9 years, and I loved it so much that I moved here, too.  I chose to live here.

DS: What was it about Arkansas that you liked?

DM:  In contrast to LA, there were real people. Real sky, blue sky, not smog. There was a real river instead of a cement ditch. You know that the LA River is nothing but a big old cement ditch with a little trickle down the middle. And I was just tired of it all. I was just tired of all the…everybody, the plastic, you know; I was just tired of the plasticity of it all. The plasticity of LA compared to the realness of Arkansas. And Bill Clinton, who was running for governor for the first time and I thought ‘This was somebody who was up and coming.’ So…

DS: Since you were so young when you moved, you were thirteen when we first moved to the
south. Did you notice any differences, when you lived in other places versus the South?

DM: Well… Yes, before we moved here, we were living in Idaho, but my father sat us down. We grew up in the Air Force where the only differences in people were rank, and that was something that you earned, you know, based on your merit, your effort. But everybody lived the same, had the same housing, shopped at the same places, everything was the same.

But when Dad got his orders to come to Tennessee, Dad sat us all down and said, “Now look, this is what you are going to see, this is what is going on.” This was 1966. He said, “You are going to see a few people call other people names. We are Catholics, or Italians, and they don’t like either one. But you’re also gonna see other people treated badly…and, I want you girls, (My sisters and I) … You don’t treat anyone badly, or call names. If you don’t want anyone doing that to you, then you do not do it to others.”

And, then he tried to explain what was going on with the race issues and everything else and our eyes just got bigger and bigger because we had never experienced it, had never even heard this language. And so we were kinda… nervous… about moving south. And the first questions we got asked was where do you go to church? What is your background? Who are you? We always went to schools where the government sponsored school, so you know the DOD, the Department of Defense sponsored schools, so we were already integrated.

By the time we went to school there was no…segregation, but there was still tension. We saw that, and we were -my sisters and I – were just blown away. You couldn’t even stop and make friends or talk to somebody without your other classmates going, “You can’t talk to her!” And, you’re like, “Why not?!” You know, because on base, we’re neighbors! On base, we shared a duplex with neighbors who were African-American; so we’re like, “What do you mean?!” “What do you mean I can’t talk to their child I live next door to? But I can’t talk to them while I’m at school. You know, it just doesn’t make sense. So yea, it was, it was different.

DS: Did that experience help shape my views about other races?

DM: Yes, very much so! Very much so, my father has always been a progressive. I was raised to think progressively and Dad was going to college at the same time while he was in the Air Force, at Middle Tennessee State University, and he started a Beacon School, in Smyrna, as part of his practice teaching…a program where older kids tutor younger kids. If you’re strong in English, then you tutor another English student. You know, and help them, or you know, math or whatever.

Because most of the kids we were tutoring were African-American, and we were using this little school out in the African-American community, they cut the water off. The city fathers cut the water off to the school… because they didn’t want the program. And so, my father said, “Ok fine.” He went out and got a five gallon tank, and cans and we trucked water in everyday so that we could flush the commodes and you know we could have a drink of water.

DS: And this was is Smyrna, about what year?

DM: It was 1969. And I remember my Sociology teacher, me and her went head to head, every day, because I would say, “No they didn’t.” And she would say, “Well this is the way it was supposed to be.” She was the granddaughter of a plantation owner, and she would talk about …`Oh well, I would go out to our cabins and check on our people… and they have the cleanest dirt floors.’ And I would sit there and look at her and say, dirt floors?!! This is 1969 and you’re proud of someone’s dirt floors? And so I was a budding, ha, firebrand then, and so you know, we would have some interesting discussions.

DS: Did that ever make you a target?

DM:  If it was my attitude was sort of like okay fine. I was asked to leave the girl scouts. I think it was more social than I was a Catholic and Italian and I didn’t quite fit the Girl Scouts. I would have been a Cadet in Tennessee, and when we moved, and I joined the Cadet troop in Smyrna…So we were asked to leave. And I was just kind’a disinvited to the Troop meetings.

DS: Did that change your views of people in your own race in any way?

DM: That didn’t change my views of people in my own race in any way, because I took it on an individual basis. At that time we were listening to Dr. King’s speeches also. And it really is based on character. I knew Italians who were in the Mafia but not all Italians are Mafia. You know, and my grandfather was, he owned a speakeasy but, not all Jewish people own speakeasies, you know! Its kind’a like you just base people, things, you base people on their acts, on their action.

DS: How has your views of other races evolved, since 1969?

DM: It really hasn’t changed, it really hasn’t. I think it’s still based on individual action, I think a lot of it’s hype, a lot of it’s window dressing. A lot of people are fearful of what they see as different, when all they have to realize is its just window dressing. It doesn’t make a difference, not to a real person, and I’ve always stuck to that.

DS: You touched on some of this earlier about you father, can you tell us about and incidence of how his relationships with other races affected you?

DM: My father’s best friend is a black man. They both started the student teaching here. Dad was transferred here in 1970 and he worked to earn his Master’s degree, and he met Frank Smith while they were in, UCA, in the Master’s program. They both started teaching at Sylvan Hills Junior High, at the same time. They both became the Social Studies coordinator for Pulaski County Special School District, at the same time. Dad did one side of the river, and Frank did the other.

DM: We called them the Bobbsey twins. They did everything together. Dad died last year. Frank cried. We still stay in touch, and Frank’s also the godfather – him and his wife Florence – are my youngest granddaughter’s godparents. So our families are very intricately intertwined.

But, that’s just how we, in our family are. It’s not been what you look like, it’s who you are. What you stand for, and Dad and Frank were a great team. Back in the eighties, my daughter was born in eighty-one. A team came from Texas and were trying to have the textbooks thrown out. The Social Studies textbooks thrown out because they mentioned terms like suffragettes and dinosaurs and things like that, and both of them, both Frank and Dad had to go head-to-head and fight these, fight this. You know, they wanted to have creationism put in the books, and things like that, instead of, just, no, this is Social Studies, this is Civics! You know, this is voting and things like that, so…

DS: I want to shift a little bit and talk about women has your relationships with women of other races changed, evolved, or gotten stronger?

DM: Its gotten stronger! Work, I work for a department that is, out of twelve employees, uh, eight of them are African-American, four are Caucasian. My director is African-American, and I have a very, I think I have a very close relationship with her. I’ve worked for her for ten years. So, then again, its not based on race, its based on personalities, you know. It’s like, you know, who is stronger, who is feeling better, who has got a bigger bone in this fight, you know, like, and that’s how its been based on. I think we have been able to throw all the other nonsense out, and just deal with each other, everybody as person-to-person, you know? We make it work.

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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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