Interview with Charlene Boston (Part 1), 1 May 2006
About This Recording
Charlene Boston was an educator in Baltimore City beginning in the late 1960's, later becoming the Superintendent of schools for the Wicomico County Public School system in Salisbury, MD, until her retirement in June 2006. In this interview, she describes her upbringing in Baltimore, her education, and the beginning of her teaching career around Baltimore City in the late 1960's.
This interview is part of the Teaching American History Program. For more information, see the Edward H. Nabb Center Finding Aid.
Recording Date: May 1, 2006
Interviewer: Richard Wilson
Narrator: Charlene Boston
Date: May 1st, 2006
Keywords: Baltimore city, Morgan college, education, teaching
Richard Wilson (RW): This is an interview with Dr. Charlene Cooper Boston, superintendent of schools for Wicomico county. Dr. Boston has agreed to this interview as part of the Teaching American History program, a program which in short—in part includes oral history interviews, the interest of the interview on ethnicity and gender, as they relate to Dr. Boston's life, the interviewers are Donna Messick, Richard Wilson. And we'll start with a biographical sketch of the interviewee and then move into the rest of the questions that we have. Before we start, do you have any questions at all, about the process or?
Charlene Boston (CB): No, I don't.
RW: Okay, first one, I need a date of birth?
CB: December, 1944.
RW: Place of Birth?
CB: Baltimore, Maryland.
RW: Where were you educated, elementary?
CB: Elementary education in Baltimore County and Baltimore City.
RW: Which schools?
CB: Elementary schools? In Baltimore City and Baltimore County, Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Baltimore City was the last elementary school.
RW: And secondary, high schools?
CB: High school, Edmondson High School in Baltimore, Maryland.
RW: And, the different jobs that you've had?
RW: Well, I worked in Public Education. Prior to that, I worked in a sweat factory for one summer in Philadelphia, I worked as a teacher's aide in Philadelphia schools, and summer, I worked out in a restaurant, beach restaurant.
RW: Were you a teacher at any point?
CB: Oh yeah, I was a teacher, principal—
CB: Where were you a principal?
CB: Beechfield Elementary School in Baltimore city.
RW: Teacher, principal?
CB: Assistant superintendent.
RW: In the city?
CB: In the city, all these are public education, all were in Baltimore City. Associate superintendent in Baltimore City. Coordinator of Early Childhood Education.
RW: That's what your Ph.D was work was in, right?
RW: Okay. That's right.
[Boston asks for more details on why her birth date is needed, she and Wilson discuss why, interview resumes at 04:11]
RW: Okay, we're going to start with questions that deal with childhood, and the first question is who was the oldest person you can remember in the family as a child?
CB: I can remember my Aunt Maude(?). Her name was Maude Moorhead(?) and at that time I might have been about seven or eight years of age, and I remember her because she was my grandmother's aunt.
RW: So she was an elderly person, what was it about her that you remember?
CB: She was very stern, and sort of, I don't want to say mean, but perhaps mean might be the correct adjective. Very quiet person, sort of a matriarch figure in the family, in terms of my mother being afraid of her and everybody being fearful of her, and you didn't go into the refrigerator without asking, I remember that! [both laugh] You had to ask permission to go into the refrigerator but she was an elderly person at that time to me, and I was seven or eight. So she died when she was probably about 60 years old, which seemed elderly to me.
RW: It doesn't seem celebrity, anymore.
CB: No, it doesn't it.
RW: What kind of things do you remember as a young girl, pre-teen?
CB: Pre-teen, I remember family outings, visiting our relatives. I remember going to cook outs, our family members believed in cook outs, and that's a way for family members to get together. Of course, I remember going to church. My grand—when we moved from Baltimore County, at first I lived in Baltimore County and went to elementary school there for a short time, and when we moved to Baltimore City, I remember my grandmother trying to find a church within the community, and she found a Baptist church that she liked. It wasn't the closest church and I marvel now, thinking about it, I wonder how she found that church, I don't know but that was very important to her. And that church became a very important part of our lives as pre-teens and teenagers, as the family. In fact, the pastor of the church introduced me to my husband later, and we got married with that church, the church moved but the pastor was the same pastor and he married us later. So finding a church was sort of important to us. And of course, all the activities of the church, they had a Girl Scout troop as a part of the church and I was a part of the Girl Scouts. I was in the choir, but I couldn't sing.
RW: They wouldn't let you sing?
CB: No, they would let me sing, but I couldn't sing. I had poor talent. We had to be the choir, all children had to be in the choir in the family and I couldn't sing. So I had to find other things that I can do a little bit better than singing. And so I would be in the plays and read the announcements in church and—
RW: I don't think I've ever met anybody who said "I can't sing."
CB: I can't sing. It's a fact. It doesn't mean I don't sing, I do sing. But we had a grand time, we would go to my great aunts' homes, great aunts, I had several of them. And we would to their homes like, Christmas time. My grandmother, who was living with us, wanted to be with her sisters and so we would pack up in a car and hit the road. She was living—my great aunt was living in Philadelphia, so we would get in the car and take all the toys they would be hidden in the trunk, but we didn't know that they were there. And we would go up to Philadelphia at that time to be with my great aunt, Anisi(?). And in fact, Anisi was a person that I lived with for about three years during the school year. I went to a school in Chester, Pennsylvania, junior high. You didn't ask me what junior high I went to, so. I went to junior high in Chester, Pennsylvania with my aunt and my great aunt and great uncle. So that was very, very grand time. They didn't have any children at that time. So I became like their daughter.
RW: That was okay with you?
CB: It was fine, yeah, it was nice.
RW: As a teenager do you remember your family discussing world events and national politics, stuff like that?
CB: Even as a child, you says a teenager, but I firstl remember them talking about who was running for president. Adlai Stevenson was their candidate of choice. Of course, I didn't know one from the other. I think I might have been before school age probably. But think they were disappointed. And whoever won the election, I guess it was Eisenhower, for some reason said that that was interesting for them to be talking about President in front of us, and discussing the pros and cons of that. Then as a teenager, of course, they were talking about world events, talking about integration and segregation and discussing people who were advocates or supporters of improving integration and helping to desegregate schools and that sort of thing. So they were always talking about that, my father and mother.
RW: What do you know about your high school years? Positive and negative?
CB: It was a good high school. I remember the colonel was our principal.
RW: The colonel?
CB: Yes, he was a retired colonel.
RW: Was this in Edmondson?
CB: Edmondson High School. And he would have a standard parade rest, and marching in the halls with straight lines and of course, our skirts could be only a certain length, I remember that, and we could not carry shopping bags, for some reason. That was before the book bag craze of today, so we had a lot of books, so some errant students would have shopping bags and he would demand that they would discard those and get proper tools to carry your books in. So anyway, the Colonel was there, and that's all I remember about him; I had no other interactions with him. I remember my science teacher, Sue Miles(?). She taught me biology and very stern. I later—it was funny because she became a principal later. Although I was not her supervisor, I had interactions with her in the central office because I was in the central office by that time. But she was my 10th grade teacher of biology, she was wonderful: no nonsense, excellent person, gave me a level of science, and I felt very competent in that arena of science. She recommended me for advanced placement class in science, which I participated in, did very well. But she was a great teacher. I remember another teacher that I had, I can't remember his name. I remember his face, though. I hated the man, so I guess it's good that I won't say his name for all to know. He taught me trig, and he thought that I was not able to learn trig, he didn't know why I was in that class. He thought that, you know, I should be on some sort of other class, a basic class probably, but not in trig. Of course my family members would always say, "You can learn this, you don't have to worry about what he has to say about you. You can learn." And so, he was quite a deterrent to several African-Americans—but there were only three of us in the class anyway, so he didn't think that we belonged in that class. My counselor, I remember her, she was a nice person, but she was a person who was not forward thinking either. I remember her saying to me, "Your record is very good. You'd make a nice appearance. You speak well. When you leave high school, we're going to make sure you get a good job." And that she did, she gave me no catalog, she told me nothing about college. She gave me no indication that I should try to sit for any S.A.T. or any of that sort, which was, to me, certainly demeaning, because in my class, other kids were saying they were showing the catalogs. So I was in a college preparatory class, so I was not getting college catalogs. I had good grades, later I found that in the science area I was probably in the 95th percentile in whatever test it was that they gave us because I had good science background. So, my mother and father said to me, "We don't care what they say, your cousin went to Morgan. Your great uncle went to Morgan. Your grandmother went to Normal School," which was above college. And remember, my mother's 82 years old, so for my grandmother have gone to college and my other great aunts, they said, "You are going to college." So only because of my parents am I sitting here with you today—not only because that they saw that I could go to college and had me circumvent the high school process and apply, which I was accepted, evidently, into college. So I remember some of the positive things. We had a long-running (?) cheering(?) squad that I was on, I could swim. They had a great athletic program at Emerson at that time, and many of the kids in my class would go to a TV show at the time, called Buddy Deane Dance Show.
RW: Before your time.
CB: And so we all remark, "Colored people are on Buddy Deane!" but that was when African Americans could go on Buddy Deane, because the other white kids in my class would go on Buddy Deane show, but I couldn't go on the days that they would go. So, they had a certain day that they would let African Americans go. And so, I was on Buddy Deane when they would let colored children on Buddy Deane.
RW: Buddy Deane came here to Salisbury and performed several different times.
CB: Is that right?
RW: Yeah, when I was in high school.
CB: Oh, so you were in the same class as me. You're about the same time.
RW: I'm older than you are.
CB: I don't know about that!
RW: I remember just going down the questions just so nicely. I was going to ask you, what made you decide to go to college? And somebody decided for you.
CB: Well, I think I always thought I was going to go to college, that was what was so interesting about the counselor who didn't even approach me about it, because my family members said, "You're a teacher." I was teaching in Sunday school, I became the Superintendent of the Sunday school when I was in high school, Young People's Department. So the thought of not going to college, probably on my family member's mind, they said, "Oh, she's definitely going to go to college," and when I came back and said that I was, I had a job at Gas and Electric, which worked nice for a summer job, even though that was going to be a job for me, for my career. So, family members didn't think about it(?). So of course, they had to scrape up the money, for them it was a lot of money for us to go to college. And so that's where I began to work in the summer time so that I could have money for clothes. My family paid the tuition, but for extra things that you might want, clothes, and to belong to a sorority and all that, then my mother and father said we would have to work for those things. We'll provide the basic education: your books and your tuition, if you want money for pretty clothes and to belong to organizations and all of that, we don't have the money for that.
RW: Was that right when (inaudible name) was there?
CB: I don't know that name [both speaking] I can remember somebody—I was a cheerleader at Morgan too, by the way. I would say his name and you would remember him, he was a football player who became a club player and—
RW: Morgan had several of those.
CB: Yes, in those days we had quite a few people who were great athletes.
RW: Alright, how long did it take you to declare a major? or did you just, go in?
CB: I was right away, I knew I wanted to be in education, which is interesting. I remember when you go to Morgan, you have to take biology, as a biological science or something 101 was a course and my professor said, "you don't have to take this course," he exempted me from the course [laughs] which I thought was great. I said, "will I still get the credit?" he said, "well, fine you can get the credit." He said, "but you don't need to take this course," which was interesting, and he wanted me to really go into sciences, but I decided to go into education early on.
RW: What do you remember most about your academic life as a college student at Morgan?
CB: It was good, most of the professors seem to—if I can recall, back in those days—they did fine, they were supportive persons. Many of them didn't get too personal that I can recall, though some of the professors later have said to me, "I remember you when you were a student," but I didn't think that they had any personal relationship with me, but later they said that they did which is interesting.
RW: Wish you'd known that at the time, huh?
CB: [laughs] Right? It'd have been nice to know that then! But you know, they were, I don't know, they were fine.
RW: How was your social life in college?
CB: Fine, fine, I was—
RW: You cheered.
CB: I was a cheerleader. I was a part of a Greek letter organization on campus called Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, and it's a public service organization that's still going strong across the world, probably with 200,000 members.
RW: And you're still active in it?
CB: Mm-hmm, I was the past president of a chapter, alumni chapter. So, I was active on campus and we did public service projects then, and that's what we continued to do.
RW: Were you living at home?
CB: Yes, for the most part, yes. Only one semester did I stay on campus, but I was living at home and commuting because I lived in Baltimore City and Morgan College at the time was on, not too far. I mean, it was, we had to have busses to get there.
RW: Was it off 33rd street?
CB: 33rd street, and you'd have to ride the busses to get there, which I did do, and that was fine. Sometimes we would have friends who had cars, I remember Willy(?), her name was Willy May(?) had car when I was about a junior and she would drive. I don't know how she got to have a car, but, she lives not to far from me, and her family didn't need it any more. I think—this was an old car, I do remember that because I remember that there was a hole in the floor of the car and you could see the street [laughs] but it got us to school!
RW: You probaly enjoyed the freedom that it had.
CB: Oh yeah, it was nice being able to be in somebody's car. But other than that, it was a good, it was a fine college. I remember when I graduated, I was so impressed that the president of the college, acted like he knew my name. I have later learned the technique: when they say your names and then you come up to get your diploma, the president will shake your hand and he will say, "You've done a fine job, Ms. Cooper." I said, "How does he know me?" I had, listen, three, four hundred students in the class, 500 kids, how did—but he had just heard my name announced when they read your names, you understand, but not understanding all of that, I remember him saying my name to me as I got my diploma. I just thought that was so grand. Then later, afterwards, parents were on the lawn taking pictures, and my family was so impressed that he would take a picture with me. He came up and, "Ms. Cooper!" Oh, and he would, "Let's take a picture!" and he stood there and so the family members could take pictures, of course they're very proud of when when someone is graduating in the family. And so, the president of the college, Jenkins, yeah, Jenkins was the president of the college and he acted like he really knew me and he was a very, very nice, man, and maybe he did [know me], I'm not saying that he didn't, but I just—I was so impressed that the man knew my name. [Laughs]
RW: Let me ask you the next question that pertains to that. How well did you do in college? You said you'd done very well?
CB: No, I did good, it was fine. I guess I could've eliminated some of the social activities and I would have done a better job but I did okay. I was a good student.
RW: Okay. What decisions did you make after after graduation? Sort of like the immediate six months to a year time period.
CB: I think I worked that summer, or did I? I may have worked in a, as an aide that next summer which was getting me closer to my profession, and [pauses] I guess that's about it, I worked.
RW: Okay. Where did you get your start in education?
CB: I worked in the school where I was a student, where I student taught.
RW: In Baltimore City?
CB: Yes, the principal—I was a student teacher at Margaret Brent School, elementary school 53, which was located near the headquarters of the central administration the city schools. And they had a special project there, when I was in college and I spent a year as a student teacher there. So, back in the sixties, late sixties, when I graduated, before I left the school, the principal said, "we have an opening for first grade next September we know what you're capable of doing, will you sign off?" I never went to North Avenue to sign anything, I signed the papers right there in his office in the spring of '66 and knew I had a job before September, worked in the summer, and then went to to my school, which was the same school—in fact, it was the same room where I was doing my student teaching because the teacher who was the cooperating teacher got a promotion and he knew she was leaving that post. So I got to be in the same room where I was, in fact, what happened, she was working on her master's, and at that time, African-Americans couldn't get their master's in Maryland, they had to go out of state. And so she left, I guess in May or late April to go work on her master's.
CB: Yes, Columbia.
RW: I know that was where the African Americans went—
CB: Yes, and so she left me with the class. And at that time, so think about it, I was left with a class for like two months. Of couse, they never gave me any extra pay or anything like that but, I guess we didn't know any better and I took her class to the end of the year. Now, she went on to get her master's degree. Wanna know something? that, which is interesting that shows you a little bit about how things were because, when I went to the school my first day as a teacher, I wore a pillbox hat and white gloves. [Laughs] I had a little hat on and white gloves when I went to work my first day. Of course, you couldn't wear pants.
RW: Right, men had to wear coat and ties.
CB: Right, and [pauses] I was fine with my first, you know, I had a wonderful first year—no problems whatsoever. In fact, some of the other seasoned teachers would come down to my room to ask me how did I get such order, and what was I doing, and I seemed to make it look easy. It was interesting because there were teachers there at that time who did not have four-year degrees. They had had, I guess, two years of college and they could be teachers and now, of course, that's not the case. But there was lots of teachers there who only had a high school diploma at first, and so the principal was trying to put in more qualified people in those classes.
RW: My mother-in-law was a teacher in Baltimore County, and she only had two years of college.
CB: Right, that's right. So that's the way it was. In college, I was a part of—you asked me this and I didn't say it—a four(?) foundation called Project Mission. It was a program designed to take college people and give them experiences in the inner cities and to work, we were working with very skilled teachers, we called them cooperating teachers, and had them training, Coppin, Morgan, and Towson worked together on this project and got a grant. And we as students, we were college students at the time, we got 1,000, it was $1200 to be a part of the program and to commit to teaching afterwards in an inner city school. That was the commitment that we had to make. But in addition to that, it was excellent training. Excellent, excellent training, wonderful, wonderful. Out of the program, I know at least three superintendents came out of the program. There was a guy named Edward, I forgot his last name, he became a superintendent; Walter Ampre became a superintendent, and I became a superintendent, and I think there may be more, but I just don't remember some of the other people who were in that class of young people. So that would have been—we all had to commit, though, to working in inner urban areas for a couple of years at least, and we all did.
RW: What are the steps between the first-grade, first-year first-grade teacher, and where you ended up at the end of your career in Baltimore City? What kind of things did you do?
CB: Well, professional development ongoing, that was the whole—one of the important aspects of our work as student teachers we continued the training and we would do it not on college campus, we would do right there within school buildings in the city, and the professors would come to the schools and give us training. So then, when I became an associate teacher, I continued learning from my supervisors and that sort of thing. But then trying new things, I remember trying, applying, Did I apply? I think I applied, well I was asked to apply for a special project, early childhood program, and Betty Showell(?), who was my cooperating teacher had now progressed to be a project manager or something of a special project. So I guess that's why she asked me to participate. But as teachers we were training, getting training in early childhood and finding out what people were doing across the country. We had people from PIT [Pennsylvania Institute of Technology], they were doing some (inaudible) things in early childhood. Mazar(?), I guess I can remember some of these people's, some of the names of some of the people, we had Engelman, the writer(?) Engelman, at the time, you know Engelman?
CB: Well, anyway, all these great minds talking to us, and we would go visit their programs and try to get the best program design together, so I was involved in a lot of that
To listen to and read the transcripts of parts 2 & 3, click here.