WSP: LaVerne Bell-Tolliver Interview Transcript

“I was the only black student for two years at Forest Heights…it shaped my identity of who I am.”

Janis F. Kearney  interviewing  LaVerne Bell-Toliver.


JK: We’re gonna start with the first question which is please state the name of the town, city, county, and state where you currently reside.

LT: I currently live in Little Rock, Arkansas. Pulaski County.  I’m a native of Little Rock, Arkansas. But I returned to the state of Arkansas, since 2004, I have lived in Little Rock since 2008. I lived in Dallas, Texas for about 30 years.

JK:  What was it like growing up in Little Rock during the 50’s…60s?

LT:  I was born in 1949. I lived here basically until I graduated from high school.  I lived during a time when, initially, when I was about in the second grade that was during the Central High School Crisis, and where we lived at that current time, just a couple of blocks away there was a bombing of the house of one of the Little Rock Nine.  But, also during my, elementary school years, everything was still segregated except for the high school.  And, so I attended school from first grade through the sixth.  Stephens Elementary and initially it was right up the street from our house, however, we moved when it was during the summer of the second grade, I believe, right after the second grade. To another part of town, we were able to continue at Stephens Elementary.  So growing up, I knew the friends in that particular area. Then some of those people that attended Stephens, a few of those lived in that newer area as well. So it was a time where I also had not only those friends, but also our church, family, but some of my relatives attended that church, so there was a close connected kind of area.

Ours was an all-black community.  At the time, my street was thriving,… That was where we attended the movie theater, the Gem Theater, I don’t know if you know; there were barbershops and, my doctors were there… the eye doctor and the regular doctor, Doctor Jackson’s office.  All that was around there;  all black businesses.  Doctor Townsend was my optometrist and Dr. Morris Jackson… All of those were African-Americans.

JK: Tell me about first time you became aware of differences in people as far as race and ethnicity?

LT: Well, along the lines of race and ethnicity, the differences were pretty obvious; especially, when we moved to the newer area. In our first place that we lived there was a street called Valentine. It was, an all-black area, the school was right up the street, as I just said. But when we moved to, actually where my dad lives right now; that’s 24th Street on the corner of Monroe and Madison. That area at the time was white, primarily white and gradually people began, African-Americans began moving in, Caucasian-Americans begin moving out. But during that time of transition, it was very volatile, people would be called names, they would throw bottles out of the car window, call us different types of names if we were walking from one part of the neighborhood … nobody jumped out of the car, but they were pretty loud and boisterous in making their displeasure felt.  I became aware of the differences, even during that particular time…

I forgot to mention that in my childhood experiences, I’m the oldest of six children, and, so we had a kind of close family connection. My mother and Dad lived in, my mother and Dad… My mother lived until 2005, and so they had 55 years of marriage but, with the siblings and all, there was a close family connection.

JK: What kind of experiences, if any, did your parents have with people of other races?

LT: Well, my Dad was what they called `the first’ medical technician in the VA system.  I don’t know about the service, but I know in the VA system he had somewhat positive experiences for a limited amount of time.  He started out as a janitor and two doctors took an interest in him there, and gave him experiences that he probably wouldn’t have… And kept giving him more duties, and the VA said, when they upgraded… When they evaluated the position, they said, “Well, you can’t be a janitor and do all these things.  So he had a lot of experiences, but the negative came when he went to St. Louis and was trained to run a lab and came back and set up the lab. And shortly thereafter, they decided that position needed someone who had a college education and so that was taken away and he was moved into a rotation of other people.  He had positive and negative experiences. He was a Veteran and he had traveled across the world. So, he got to see different types of life, but he also knew that in Arkansas he had to operate within a certain perspective.

Mother was a teacher, and she traveled across Arkansas in her teaching experiences and she had some positive and negative types of encounters in both of those, in several of those areas. I think that she experienced something, I know that she had a lawsuit but I can’t remember what it was, but … after a number of years, she returned to teaching.  But I don’t know the specifics of that but I know, I do know that race was somewhat involved.

JK: So did she have to go all over the state of Arkansas?

Initially, African-American teachers were placed in different part of the black areas of the state.  If there was a black school in one area, then they would send the different teachers out to different places and eventually, once she completed her degree she had a little bit more, an ability to determine where she was.  She retired in Little Rock, but she started teaching right after Junior College… Something along that line… then continued teaching outside of that area.  She wasn’t a native, neither of them were natives of the Little Rock area. but Mother finished at Dunbar Junior College before going on to Philander and finishing there, and so she and Dad wound up here.

JK:  Do you think that their experiences – how race impacted their lives – did that have any anything to do with the way you view race now, or in the past?

LT: One thing is, they didn’t necessarily talk about race, except for one time there was a news show of the dogs attacking the people; I believe, in Alabama.  And, I asked a question, but it was not a general topic of discussion and so it was not until years later when I was an adult and asking about why they sent me to a junior high school that was all white that they talked to me about race. So…, their actions contributed to my shaping an identity about race.  Again, Dad being the first African-American,  and that being important to both of them, and Mother working in different parts of the state. There were no verbal, you know, saying this is important.

JK: Okay, so you went to your jr. high -all white?

LT: Yes the year that I began the seventh grade was the year that junior highs were desegregated. And, just from what I can understand, just from talking with other students of that area, there was some sort of discussion among, I believe … the Urban League or the NAACP,  one or the other. .. about which students may be able to desegregate those schools.  Their families were approached by these individuals, so we didn’t have those discussions in our house.

Our house was very authoritarian, so I was thinking that I was going to Dunbar… One of the… Dunbar had become a Junior High School at that time, and … one of the traditions was for the sixth graders to walk to Dunbar Junior High School and they got a chance to see their new school and enjoy that experience. But during the summer before that my Dad and Mother took me to Forest Heights, drove me around and said this is your new school. That was it. I didn’t … know that this was going to happen. So, I did understand that there was supposed to be two of us that would attend Forest Heights and the other student didn’t show. I was the only (black) student for two years, at Forest Heights.

JK: What kind of experiences did you have?

LT: Well, Mother took me the first day, to school. In fact, Mother drove me the first year, to school. And there was one student who said, “Hi.” So I could sense the relief in Mother, she was just glad someone said hello. But after then that student never spoke again.

So that school at that time was not much like it is, like the reputation that it has now, but at that time it was considered one of the best schools, the wealthy went there; people who owned stores, and doctors and those kinds of things.  So, I guess, if you didn’t go to a private school then you went to Forest Heights, maybe Pulaski Heights, and so there were several types of students there, well really, two types. That was, really wealthy which would ignore me, a smaller group that would be spiteful.

So the experiences there were largely of being ignored, no conversation;  or the other might be, I would be walking through a hall and someone would push someone on me and say, “Will the black run-off on you?” Would the black get off on the other student? Just, you know painful experiences, the fact was that eventually, maybe in the eighth grade or whatever, there might be a couple of students that would say something or be a little bit kind, inside the room, but outside the room, there was no discussion with them at all.

JK: Now, that had to have impacted the way you viewed “race” later on. I mean, two years of that?

LT: Yes, and then the third year, there were two other students that came to the school.  They were African-Americans, but they were of course younger so … , it shaped my identity of who I am, and about, you know, race in terms of who is better and who is worse, you know, how do you get to be accepted and all of those because… I’m a social worker, so from a developmental standpoint , that’s a very important point in your life, as far as not only your identity but later on as we have come to understand, your racial identity and all of that. So those were important chunks of life and there was just kind of a painful period and…

This table is, kind of reminds me of the cafeteria… There would be… I would have my table, there was nobody else sitting there. The auditorium, you know, I had my row and those kinds of things.

JK: Thinking back to that time, how has your view of other races evolved since then?

LT: Well, I have lived largely in a majority population, Caucasian-Americans, and when I went to Hall High School and that’s when I considered a large group of black people with twelve attending.  Of course, they were younger… But I didn’t have any in my class, but to me it was a lot easier than at Forest Heights. And then when I went to college, it was majority Caucasian because I, well I chose to go to a school where I thought there would be no prejudice and that was Drury, in Springfield, Missouri.  That’s what they call it up North, so (laughs) it’s a little bit different.

But, they only had about 0.3 percent minorities in the school… at that time,  it was 0.5 percent minorities in the whole town.  So, there was not really a racial problem there, so they considered. So… Identity has continued to evolve because even after I got there, more African-American students got there. The school also started having classes, courses that focused on race and so that was an important thing to me. I don’t know what made them decide, they had no African-Americans teaching the courses. In fact, I don’t think they still have any African-Americans teaching courses there.  They took it upon themselves to include that in their courses and so that helped me to study a little bit about me. I want to go back to…I think it was in High School, an interesting thing happened.

Our American History class, so I think that was in High School… , the teacher gave us an assignment to go home and find out what our background was, what our racial background was, our racial or ethnic background; and that was the first time that I ever talked to my parents about… I had never heard about slavery or… And they told me that I was a mixture of Caucasian and African and Cherokee, and so I was just so excited. You know to go back and talk about that and raise my hand…. And she never called me.  Never called on me.  Instead, so that also helped to silence me. During that time, I was shy. I was naturally shy but, that was even much more of a difficult time because I realized, “Oh, she didn’t mean me!” So, that was a difficult time for me.

JK:Was that unusual for you?

LT: That was not unusual, but from time to time, if I raised my hand, every so often, a teacher would call on me.  And, in our English class, for instance, when we were in high school… There was … I think it was high school, sometimes I get those times mixed up, but when we were in High School we were reading Greek mythology and those kinds of things, and well, I like to read.  And I liked to read that; so,  we read it out loud and the teacher would call on me several times to read. That was a positive experience at that time, but in terms of identity, I would… There was a struggle, in trying to figure out, going back to your original question just trying to figure out, just who I am and trying to figure out what being African-American meant;  what being a student in a large, majority, learning institution means… All of those, and oftentimes, I would, just from my paradigm, would see myself come out `less than’. And students who had been my friends were either gone, or in the neighborhood. They didn’t really understand what I was going through. So we kind of drifted apart during that particular time. My identity, I think, took a toll. Only later on when I started studying African-Americans and our history and all of that, that began to do some healing for me.

JK: Based on your experiences and relationships, how has relationships between women of different races changed over time?

LT: I don’t know that I can answer that.  I’m trying to think… My mother’s relationships were primarily within the church, and so it was a, black Baptist, kind of affiliation, association or,  I can’t say that she had very many relationships, I’m trying to think, but I can’t remember… Hers were primarily education, , and largely, black education, and when she came to Little Rock, even though she taught in a school in Lonoke, when she came here it was Carver, if I’m not mistaken, that was still largely African-American. She didn’t get a chance to… affiliate.

I can say that it has been interesting to me to observe that when African-Americans had that, as we used to look at it and used to say, “The Revolution,” there was not necessarily an explosion of Revolution, except in small parts of the country. Then shortly, thereafter, women began to have, what is it, the Peace movement and then the women’s rights and all those kinds of things. And I feel like there was some kind of benefit from those kinds of groups, those subsequent groups.

The relationship might have been on a larger plane. And, you know, what I’ve also thought about was the fact that African-Americans were doing things such as going out and working and that had to, you know, work from either the slave fields, either to the maid jobs, those kinds of things. And… they might have had some of the better jobs, some of the teaching jobs, and some of those… Long before many other races did. And so, we have been the trendsetters in some ways, but relationships… I don’t think, except for maybe the National Council of Christians and Jews, at that time, now its called Just Communities, might not have been forged in the way… just from my perspective. I understand that there have been pockets of groups working together for some time, but on a larger perspective, I don’t… I haven’t seen that particular thing. Now, a lot of people could give you a different perspective…

But, just from an individual perspective, I’ve worked, you know, in the larger community a long time, so I’ve worked around Caucasian-Americans and have had relationships, but when we think of a larger perspective then I haven’t seen that until these latter years …

JK: Okay, would you like to add anything else? Any experiences that you might remember very well that would, you know, add anything to the conversation about race and relationships?

LT: Well, the only statement that I would like to make, and I’ve pondered this during the years… A larger question for me is, what was the benefit of desegregating? When I think of students now, the high dropout rate, students who don’t complete school or any other kind of thing… Students who might be just sitting in class not gaining benefit of learning… It makes me kind of disappointed, even though I didn’t really have a choice as to whether or not I would be able to attend a black school or a desegregated school.  But I did, which means that was a sacrifice and in this day and time it seems that students devalue… a large percent of the students seem to devalue the education process. That’s not to say that education is not important, but I am just thinking, would it have been different, you know, had we been able to maintain those institutions, those businesses, and people could see that there was a value in education, because it seems to me that during those times…even though I don’t want to say that those were the good old days, because some people would; during the times that we did exist in our separate communities people valued education and they valued, you know, moving on to having some type of a better life, I recall, even though that was in spite of having books that were out of date.

We would have….by the time the books got to us, they were five, six, seven years old;  but we would still learn as much as we could from them. You know, that’s just a question for me, that I’ve wondered… There’s no way of really knowing would it have been any better… I know that it is somewhat of a disappointment to me to see so many people drop out across the state of Arkansas and I think, I know it’s a nationwide trend because I’ve seen statistics.

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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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