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Boise Voices

Boise Voices

Oral History Project

Grandfather Leonard Smith

When I grow up (0:15)

Louise Grogan




    When I grow up I want to be an old lady--older than what I am now. Much older! You know what that's saying? That's saying, "Hey, I want to live!" 'Cause you have to live to get old. Did you get that? Are you sure? I'm shooting for my mother's age--92. See, I'm 72 now, so I've got 20 more years to go.

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    • I'm an Okie from Muskogee. My name is Myrtle Louise Taylor Philip Grogan. I was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma on Dec the 30th, 1936. When I came to Portland in 1941, I was five years old.
    • What is a favorite memory from living in the Boise neighborhood?

      When I was going to Boise, I think what I enjoyed most--believe it or not--was the sports. You know, I liked anything to do with English too, but I used to run track cause I was skinny and kids used to call me 'Sticks' and 'Bones' and 'Myrtle the Turtle'--remember that first name? And that's why now I'm just called Louise.

      Can I ask you one more question about this question? What is the part when you said about when you, you know, how you loved gym? Did you guys used to take showers then?

      Yes, we had to take a shower when we had gym. You have to realize, at that time, we were negroes. (gasp) No! That's not a bad name. I grew up a little colored girl. It's nothing to be ashamed of, okay? When I was born in 1936 I was a little colored girl. And I was a negro.

      And guess what, our hair would get really nappy. Do you see the way my hair is now? I love it. But then, if my mother straightened my hair with a straightening comb and curlers and I got in that shower, I'd have naps and kids would tease me like they teased me with my name. They had bullies and people that teased then too--it wasn't nice and it wasn't as bad as it is now, but yes, I didn't like taking the showers, but I loved the gym.

      Thank you.
    • In 1948, Vanport flooded. Have you ever heard of a place called Vanport? It was a housing project that was put up for mainly people that worked in the shipyard in low-income housing. And then it flooded. The dike broke. And it was with not too much warning because they said everything would be okay, and then it wasn't.

      But we didn't live in Vanport, a lot of people did. But you know where we were when Vanport flooded? We were getting out of the movie, it was a movie theatre downtown and it was called the Blue Mouse. And we heard about it.

      And it happened on a Sunday. I remember a girlfriend saying they'd been in church and had gotten out of church.

      And then we didn't have gym for several days and the reason why was because they were housing a lot of the people from the Vanport flood in our gymnasium. They had them sleeping on cots and I guess, probably--I can't remember, but I know we didn't have gym, for days. And they were asking the families around here who could take some people in. Red Cross was helping. But it was really devastating because so many people had lost so many things.
    • Where did your father go to work every day and what did he do?

      I can remember when we were in Muskogee, Oklahoma, my Dad was a cab driver for a little while and then he worked at the railroad station--probably what you would call a porter. And then in 1940 that's when my mother and father started working at the shipyards. That was the first on-the-job training, I guess. They were cleaning and building and doing whatever you do on the ships.

      Describe your father in his work clothes.

      Truthfully speaking, the only thing I can remember is a hard hat--my mom and my dad both--because they brought those home and my sister and I used to put them on. We'd butt each other's heads. And we were told not to, of course.

      How did your mother spend her day? Did she have a job or do volunteer work out of the home?

      Beautiful. No, mother didn't have the pleasure of doing volunteer work. Any work she did, she had to do it for the money. Okay? I can remember mother worked in a kitchen--and that was in Muskogee. And then she worked in the shipyard. And then, she used to work for a Mr. and Mrs. Geider, they lived in Council Crest. And I can remember Mr. and Mrs. Geider were going someplace and it was a weekend and it was my birthday and mother had planned me a party. We were living on Michigan and I was going to school here and mother had already invited four or five little kids to come to my birthday party. And Mrs. Geider wanted her to come up and stay with her two kids. And do you know what they did? They sent a limousine to pick up my playmates--there was about five or six of them--and took them up to this big, beautiful mansion on SW Patton Road, and they stayed up there the whole weekend. And it was such luxury--wow, it was out of sight. We just felt like we were rich there for a weekend. And then we had to come back here to Michigan.
    • Describe your mother in her best dress.

      Oh, God--my mother was elegant. She belonged to a Rose City social club here, they had an Oklahoma Social Club, and Modern Matrons and the Urban League Guild. And she would just look elegant and most of the time, her dress would come up like wings, it would be white and flowing with sequins on it. Anyway, she'd be dressed to the nines. And guess what, she loved her furs. That was when furs were really in. That was one of the benefits of working for rich white people. So mother, she dressed really well.

      Did she ever go dancing?

      - Oh, my mother and father, they went dancing all the time. Because all the social clubs they had here in Portland--this is in the 50s and 60s now, we're in the 50s and 60s--that was the only thing for you to do, because you'd go to a social club and that was the only thing for you to do. It was a formal affair and on the invitations it always said, "black tie" or "After 5." What you did mostly was dance--ballroom dancing and slow dancing and swing dancing. Now I can remember in the 60s we used to do the twist--I was a twist champion--but you asked about my parents. There was Paul's Paradise, the Cotton Club, the Oklahoma Club, there was Esquire Club. These were all--I don't know if they were black-owned, but most of the clientele was black. And then, they used to say, colored or negro. Because it wasn't until I think the 70s when everybody started saying "black" or "African-American." But when I grew up I was just a little colored girl and I was proud of it.
    • How is the world different now from when you were a child?

      Oh, sweetheart, it is so much different now than when I was a child. We had a theatre over on used to be Union Avenue--now it's Martin Luther King--and the name of it was the Egyptian. And guess what? Since I was a negro, or a little colored girl, we could go to that theater, but we could not sit downstairs. We had to sit upstairs. And if we tried to sit downstairs, we'd be told, "Oh-ho, where do you think you're going?" So that has changed. Now we have rights.

      I can remember when I was going to Jefferson, my girlfriend and I, we went to the class where they had flight attendants--it was the airlines there--and at that time--it was in 1952, they could actually tell us, 'Forget it, we don't hire negroes.' That hurt me. So the first chance I got working for an airline, well, I finally got a job working for an airline--United Airlines. And I traveled--you name it, I traveled anywhere there was to go and we were so welcome every place and it seemed so sad to that I would return home to the United States, where I was born, and I wasn't welcome. Say we were in Tokyo, all those people taking pictures--they loved us. In Italy, they loved us. And in the hots spots like the Caribbean, well the men loved us, you know. It was really interesting to say you can go all over the world and be treated as an equal and you come back to the United States and you're treated as second-class citizens.

      I have so many magazines from back in the 60s and the 50s and everything in there is a 'negro this and a negro that' –the first negro to do this, and the first negro to do that. And now, guess what? In 2009 we have the first African-American that became president of the United States. I mean, I didn't think I'd ever see that day. You know?

      And so I think me being an African-American, what has changed is that people have realized that when I bleed, it's red just like yours, and when I love, it's the same kind of love. And that God--he loves us all. You understand? We're all one.
    • Could you describe what the upstairs of the movie theatre looked like?

      Yes, the upstairs of the movie theatre was really neato. You know what neato means? Yeah, okay. The reason I say that is because we could peep over and we could see what downstairs looked like. And we used to, sort of feel like as if we wanted to be downstairs so we could sit closer. And then when I was here at Boise, I belonged to the Safety Patrol and we got free passes to go the movie. It was on Mississippi and it was called "The Rio." Upstairs: seats, lots of kids, because usually we'd go to the movies to see kid movies and it would be on a Saturday and it was full. I really don't remember anyone actually telling us that we couldn't sit downstairs, but I remember at the Egyptian theatre, you knew you couldn't sit downstairs.
    • How did historic events affect your family and community? For example, what were some of your experiences during the Civil Rights movement?

      During the Civil Rights movement--say for instance in 1955--that was when Rosa Parks, you've heard of her? Well, I was a senior in high school then. And that was when she sort of like said, "Hey, I'm tired, I'm gonna sit here." And they arrested her, because she wouldn't go to the back of the bus.

      Back in the 40s, when I went to Oklahoma for the summer when I was in the 7th grade--I was going to stay there and go to school but I couldn't because of all the segregation and I refused to go to the back of the bus and so my grandparents wouldn't let me ride the bus then. Had to be in 1949 and 50. If we were walking home and we stopped at Newberry's--Newberry's was like a little drug store--and guess what? I was probably doing it out of spite and doing it to be rebellious and I really could have got in trouble but I didn't know the severity of it all, because we'd walk into the drug store and my cousins, they were all ordering from afar. And they were saying, "I want an ice-cream cone, I want a soda." And I would go and sit at the counter and I'd tell them I wanted an ice-cream cone. And at that time, they could say the n-word just like it was my name. And my cousins would say, "C'mon, Louise, you know you can't sit there." And I'd say, "I'm not going to stay, I'm just waiting for my ice-cream cone." But you couldn't even sit there for a minute.

      But it really wasn't that bad here in Portland. It was sort of like under-lined. There was lots of prejudice, like the home that I'm living in now--my parents bought that home in 1956 and at that time when my mother and father, they were looking for a home and you know how you call the real estate company? They accused my mother of trying to sound white. Mother would be talking to them on the phone and they would set up the appointment to go see the home and the real estate guy would be there and my mother and father they would get out of the car and mother would say, she knew that's who it was because they would be sitting there on the steps and she would go up to them and they would be surprised because they didn't know she was a negro. See, they could tell you at that time, because they didn't have that Fair Housing Law, that they couldn't sell, rent or anything to negroes in this particular area--there were just certain areas that you could live in, and the real estate people, they knew that. So that was part of that Civil Rights era also.
    • My ambition when I was young? You know what? I can't truthfully answer that because when I was young I didn't have any ambitions, because I didn't really know what ambitions were. I could easily say I wanted to be able to run faster so maybe I wanted to be a track star, you know? But I never had an ambition to be a doctor or a teacher.

      But an ambition, something you strive to be, and you, you want to excel at it, I didn't have any ambitions. I was just a little old colored girl and my ambition was just to grow up. That's all we had to look forward to. When we looked at TV, we didn't see anything on TV that we could say 'Oohwee, yeah, I'd like to do that.' There was nothing but white faces. We weren't anywhere.

      And I can remember when we did see somebody on TV once, everybody in the neighborhood knew about it: 'Did you see that negro on TV??' You know? And we thought that was marvelous.

      And I have a grandson now, he'll be 22 years old, and when he'd come to the house and visit and mother would be watching TV and somebody would come on TV and mother would say, "Oh, Lou, look at that colored man, he has a--look at that suit." And my grandson, he'd say, "Grandmother, did you hear what Grandma said, she said 'colored.'" I said, "Yeah." He thought that was offensive.

      I said, "Baby, your Grandmother's 91 years old. She doesn't want to be called black. She doesn't want to be called African-American. She's a negro. She's colored. She was born in 1916, you see?"

      I said, "But if you find that offensive, hey, you tell someone. If they refer to you as colored you tell them you really don't like that. And if they refer to you as a negro, you tell them you really don't like that. But with me--I don't care. Because I'm God's child, whether I'm a negro or black or colored or whatever!"
    • Since we're in the library, what was your favorite book when you were a child?

      When I was a child, my favorite book was any book that was read to me. But one of the books that I read the most, and my family read, was the Bible. But I remember Henry, Henry Huggins, or someone. It was a series of books by Beverly Cleary. You ever heard of that? I loved those books.

      I worked at the library here. I worked at the Central Library downtown. I was in charge of Registration and Lending. And I was at the front desk and that was something because that was probably in 1958, so that was something to be sort of pat on the back--a negro working at the front desk. But guess what? You notice now you can see women now that are pregnant, and you can tell their stomachs are out? You couldn't do that then. They had to sit me behind a desk when I started showing. I couldn't stand up so people would come in and see my stomach out because it was offensive to them. See how times have changed?
    • How has this neighborhood changed over time?

      All the stores and everything--that's an improvement. Mississippi Avenue, they had lots of stores there and everything but it wasn't as plush and it wasn't as developed. And when I went to school here, there really weren't too many negroes going here. It was mostly, you'd say 'European-Americans.'

      What brought about these changes?

      What brought about these changes? People. They build things, they tore things down, they came here from various different parts of the country, from various different parts of the world. But change is good though--you realize that, don't you. That's what it's all about, change.
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