Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History & Culture Enduring Connections: Exploring Delmarva's Black History


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Interview with Betty Roberta Smith, 13 July 2004

Audio Recording

About This Recording

In this interview, Betty Roberta Smith recalls her memories of growing up in the era of segregation in Salisbury, MD. She recalls her time at Fruitland Elementary and Salisbury High School as well as her memories of the Civil Rights movement and its legacy in Princess Anne, south of Salisbury.

This interview is part of the Teaching American History Program. For more information, see the Edward H. Nabb Center Finding Aid.


Interviewer: Janis Robinson
Narrator: Betty Roberta Smith

[Recording opens with Robinson testing audio equipment, interview begins at 00:29]
Janis Robinson (JR): Testing. Testing. Testing. Testing. Testing. One, two. My name is Janis Robinson, and I am interviewing Betty Roberta Smith of Edgewood Avenue in Fruitland, Maryland.
[interview begins]
JR: Mrs. Smith, you attended the Fruitland Elementary School?

Betty Roberta Smith (BRS): Yes, I did.

JR: Could you tell us something about your experiences there?

BRS: I remember when I started in the—I started here in the first grade, and Mrs. Garrison(?) was my teacher, first and second grade and when I was in the third and fourth grade, I had Mrs. Dennis(?) as a teacher and in the fifth grade I had, Mr. Brooks(?) as a teacher and when I reached the sixth grade, the school was so crowded at that time we had to go to school at the Mt. Calvary Church's Sunday school department. So, the sixth grade, I finished school there and I had Mrs. Agnes Coques(?) as my teacher. Then after that, I went to Salisbury High School and at that time they made the seventh grade a part of high school and it was, so Salisbury High School was on one side of the building and the elementary school was on the other side and it's in the, within the same location where Chipman Elementary School is now. And I went there from September until March, and then we moved into the new Salisbury High School, which was on Morris Street and I finished at year there and I graduated from that facility in 1959.

JR: Did you feel that you got a good education [continues speaking, audio too faint to make out]?

BRS: Yes, because the teachers were dedicated and they wanted every child to learn. And not only the teachers, but the people that worked at the school, because I remember we had a bus driver Norma Lee Barkley(?). You didn't get on her bus without books. If a child got on her book—leave school with no books, she made you go back into school, get your books. She said, "You're carrying some books home tonight." So, it wasn't just the teachers, it was the people that worked with the system, the school system, from the janitors, the cafeteria workers, right on to the school bus drivers.

JR: Would you [continues speaking as recording volume lowers. After this, Robinson's questions are inaudible]?

BRS: Yes. Although a lot of our books were used, we very rarely had new books until I guess when I got to the seventh grade, then we had started getting the new books, but before then all of our books were used.

JR: [Inaudible]

BRS: Well, no, because I didn't even think of that and it turned out at that time, everything was segregated. So, it never crossed my mind about being upset that we didn't go to one school or the other. I—also going back elementary school, I remember we did not have indoor plumbing. We had to go outside to toilet and also for our heating, we had coal stoves in the classrooms but I knew no other life, so that's why it didn't bother me.

JR: [Inaudible]

BRS: I'm trying to remember if I have, if there were a time, I know there were times, but [pauses] probably when you went to eat, there were certain places you couldn't sit because I remember at McCoy in Salisbury, they had a lunch counter and if you were black, you couldn't sit at the lunch counter and eat. And I remember English Grill, if you were black, you had to go to the back door and they would serve your food to you. You could get carry-out by going to the back door, but you couldn't go in and eat. I think that was most prominent, the eating facilities, and separate bathrooms.

JR: [Inaudible]

BRS: Yes, theater. When you went to the theater, you had to go to the balcony. You couldn't sit down on the main floor. These are things I hadn't thought about in years.

JR: [Inaudible]

BRS: I was not actively involved but I would listen to the news reports and I remember the sit-in that they had down to Princess Anne and hearing on the news, heard them having the K-9 dogs, and having fire hydrants and turning the fire hoses loose on the college kids. And I just thought that was awful, [pauses] because they only wanted the same rights that was afforded to others.

JR: [Inaudible]

BRS: After Martin Luther King, and I remember the day I heard that he was shot and I just cried, and I remember a president that I looked up to—God, I'm getting emotional—at that time, was John F. Kennedy, because he, from my point of view, did a lot to move the Civil Rights Movement along, and when he was killed, I cried that day. I remember I was standing in the yard and I was hanging clothes on the line and I heard the church bells going and I was wondering what had happened and then when I went and listened to the news that's when I found out what and that was a horrible day.

JR: [Inaudible]

BRS: Well, some of the best things are that some of us have been able to take advantage of segregation—I mean integration by getting better jobs, housing, and schooling. But I think we still have a long ways to go because a lot of [Pauses] even though we've made a lot of strides, we still got a long ways to go because a lot of [Pauses] trying to get my thoughts together. We'll come back to that later.

JR: [Inaudible]

BRS: I will—this is just from my point of view. I don't think he's been honest with us about a lot of things and I would tell him to be honest and tell the truth whether it's good or bad. You'll find that people can face the truth, and they can deal with it if you just let them know what's going on. And, [pauses] I really don't want to say too much about this because, not my favorite person at the time now.

JR: [Inaudible]

BRS: Well, I would say that—from the beginning of—two parents that didn't finish elementary school. They instilled in all of their children that education was important and to do your best with anything that you attempt and there's still these values in you. And I've learned over the years their good work ethic also, because I have a policy of where any job that I'm assigned to, a path that I aspire to. I do the very best I can and I usually—trying to think, I forgot a word there—try to finish any tasks that are assigned. And so therefore, when I lost the job that I had for 20 years when I was working, Manhattan Shirt Factory. I had been there for 20 years. When that closed due to bankruptcy, I decided I'd go back to school because I said “I don't want to go back in another shirt factory.” So I went to—that's when I went to Woodbridge, Virginia and that was through the PIC industry—Private Industry Council—they paid for my education and I went to school, and when I finished that [in] 1986, I went on a job interview. In fact, it was my last day of school and I went on a job interview and I got the job and I stayed there at that job for 19—I mean for 17 for years and which I retired from May 30th, 2003. And so, I don't—I haven't had a lot of job experience because I tend to go to a job and stay there. Instead of hopping from one job to the other and that was very rewarding because when I went to school, went to Woodford's Business School, I went there to become a county clerk and I end up being senior buyer at (inaudible name) Pharmacist. So that was quite an experience.

JR: [Inaudible, gradually becomes loud enough to hear] ...what words would you like to tell them?

BRS: Well, I would like to tell them some of the same things that I’ve told my daughter and my son. That no job, or no position is perfect. We have to look at the positives as well as the negatives of a job and decide whether the positive to outweigh the negative and put in some stability, because job hopping, it always looked greener at the other pasture and job hopping doesn't hurt you— I mean, it doesn't help you. You need to put in time and therefore then you would have some equity in your old age because nowadays you have to provide for your retirement. Social Security is not going to do it and you cannot put in for your latter years if you are job hopping.

JR: [Inaudible]

BRS: You are so welcome, and I hope you can hear this.

JR: I do too!
[Recording ends]