Interview with Jessie Smiley, 12 July 2005
About This Recording
In this interview, Jessie Smiley describes her memories of her town of San Domingo; a small area northwest of Salisbury, MD. She describes her experiences as an African American woman during segregation, her education in segregated schools including Maryland State College (UMES), and her life after desegregation. She also describes some of the local activities and persons she can remember from her town.
This interview is part of the Teaching American History Program. For more information, see the Edward H. Nabb Center Finding Aid.
Recording Date: July 12, 2005
Transcription of Jessie Smiley Interview
Interviewer: Sylvia Nichols
Interviewee: Jessie Smiley
Short Summary: Jessie Smiley, interviewed by Sylvia Nichols on July 12th, 2005. Smiley details her life growing up in San Domingo and her transition to the eastern shore, which includes her education career and her community and church activities.
Nichols: I’m Sylvia Nichols and I’m interviewing Jessie Smiley, in particular about San Domingo, but about her life as a teacher, and her life going to Salisbury High School and working in Wicomico County also. Tell me about your early childhood in San Domingo Ms. Smiley.
Smiley: First of all, on the day I was born, was the very day my father had to leave to get on the ship to go overseas. I can imagine what he and my mother were going through, so they called me the “precious bundle”. I grew up in San Domingo, went to school, I can remember as a little girl as I said, San Domingo, we used to take our shoes off, walk up and down the sandy roads, and pick blackberries. I guess that’s why it’s called San Domingo, because the roads were very, very sandy. However, today we are living privately with our paved streets and highways, etc.
Nichols: What was your family like? And the neighborhood?
Smiley: My mother did not work when my brother and I were growing up. My father worked at duPont in Seaford [Delaware]. I can remember him working shift work. He was very strict on us so when he was working shift work mother would let us go out with the teenagers and do different things. However, during that time, there wasn't much for us to do. It was a big thing for us to go to Sunday School. I can recall we also had our carnival. We also had our fire department, so it was a big activity for us the week before we went to school to go to our carnival at the fire department. It was just such a big thing for the families to get together and socialize. We no longer have the carnival or the fire department. Behind the building that was the fire department is the elementary school that I attended, that’s called Sharptown Elementary School. My class was the last class to graduate from that school, however the building is still used today. Basically by unity large numbers, 73, which is the Masons, and Friendship Chapter Number 57, order of Easton Star. We still use the building today. When we attended the building, we did not have any hot meals delivered for lunch. We had to carry our lunches from home, however we were able to purchase a carton of milk for our lunch, and that’s what we had for lunch. No hot meals, as the students are very fortunate to have today, and they still complain. But we didn’t have them, and we didn’t complain.
Nichols: How many people were in your family? Were you an only child?
Smiley: No, I had a brother who's a year older. Then my mother got pregnant with my sister when I was 18 years old. I had gotten a full scholarship to go to Morgan State University [Baltimore, MD] and I told mother that I would not go because I wanted to stay home and see my baby brother or sister, whatever was gonna be born. So she said to me, it was called Maryland State at the time, “Will you go to Maryland State if we promise to bring the baby to you every weekend?” and I said yes. However, my brother was already going to Maryland State. After the baby was born, it was a little girl, and as I said I was 18 years older than she. Then my parents decided to adopt a cousin, and so therefore there were 4 of us, because we considered the cousin to be a member of the family also.
Nichols: What are your favorite memories of your childhood in San Domingo?
Smiley: Well, I guess playing out in the sand. I had an aunt and uncle who took us to Salisbury [Maryland] every Saturday night, and we thought that was big time. They would park downtown, we could go uptown to the movies. Speaking of the movies, the blacks had to sit in the top, and the whites stayed on the bottom, and that didn't bother us because we were busy throwing trash and popcorn down on the whites heads, but we were not allowed to sit downstairs with them. But that was a big thing to go to Salisbury on weekends, and Sunday School the next day, Sunday. That's about all we had to look forward to. [Coughs].
Nichols: Were there any memorable characters in San Domingo you’d like to mention?
Smiley: Definitely my Aunt Esther. I really didn’t try to be like her, but family members and friends told me I was so much like her. She didn't have any children, she didn’t marry. I have not married. I guess take in children or giving to them, when she was great for taking children from New York throughout the whole summer, she would let them go visit her. I think they were called Fresh Air Kids. But she was always on the go, very active in the community. I don’t think the doors of the church were open unless she and her husband Uncle Levi were there. But she was just so active, and then sometimes my father would say “Alright Esther, clean up your house Esther, clean up your house”. So everybody said I was so much like her, and I was so hurt when she died, she was somebody who was not supposed to die. We know we all have to go that way, but it was just hard for me to handle that when she passed.
Nichols: Where did you go to school? Let's start with your elementary education.
Smiley: Okay, I mentioned Sharptown Elementary, and I mentioned that the building is still used today. We have about 7 teachers who are still living who taught at that school, and last summer, a group that I will mention later called “The Friends of San Domingo”, we contacted all 7 of those teachers, invited them down for a luncheon, and we let them tour the community. There's another elementary school in San Domingo that was called Quipper Mill Elementary School, that has been closed. Only black students went to that school as well. They closed that school and then built Northwestern down the road. So we invited those teachers who had taught at either Sharptown Elementary, which was all black, and Quipper Mill which was all black, and we just had a good time. We took pictures, we had church service, and like I said we went on a tour, we gave them a tour of the community. Some of them had remembered, and some were still talking about the sand in San Domingo, so it was really enjoyable, they enjoyed it and so did we.
Nichols: How about your high school education?
Smiley: Well high school, we had to walk about quarter of a mile to get to the bus. Then we got on the bus and we had to travel to Mardela. It’s a hardware store, and the store is still open today. We got on that bus, we traveled to Salisbury High School, which is on Morris Street in Salisbury. That was an all black school. We did have I think about 2 white teachers. All of our books were very, very old. They came from Wi [Wicomico] High, we didn’t have Parkside at the time. Wi High and Bennett. Whenever the teachers got finished using those books as long as they wanted to, they sent them over to Salisbury High School. We did not have an overhead projector as such, we did have maybe 2 film [inaudible] projectors in the whole school. So we had to share, so we basically got the hand me downs. Very nice school, very dedicated teachers who made you learn. There was no such thing as “I don’t wanna do this, I don’t wanna do that”. And we were interested in attending school. It was like, if we didn’t go to school we were afraid we would miss something. During those days, we had a Home Economics teacher, and we knew better than to walk down the hall past her holding a guy's hand. When we got to her room, we knew we better drop hands. If we had a skirt on that was too short, she would give us the signal “Come here”, send us in the back of her room, we knew to take the hem out of the dress, the skirt or whatever, press it, then we would go on to class. We didn’t worry about what the teacher would say about us being late, we didn’t worry about what our parents would say, because we knew that we were wrong, and the parents would back up the teacher, her name was Mrs. Chipman, and at the time her husband was the principal from New Jersey. His name was Mr. Chipman. Very, very dedicated persons, and we knew we had to do the right thing, we respected them very highly. We had sports. We had great basketball teams, football teams, baseball teams, who competed with other black schools in the county. Washington High, [Inaudible] High, Bates High that’s in Annapolis. And the students had to have high averages before they could participate. 1.6 is really not a high average during our time. It was 2.5 or something like that. We never had any new textbooks, never. We got the hand me downs, but we learned.
Nichols: And it was a black high school?
Smiley: Predominantly black high school. I think we had maybe 2 or 3 white teachers.
Nichols: And where were you during integration?
Smiley: Must’ve been the ‘60s. It was probably in college, down in Princess Anne. I can recall, there were so many disruptions. My roommate and I were always afraid. We would stay in the room, lock the doors, get under the beds, and nobody knew we were there. The others would be uptown fighting for their rights, but we both were just too afraid to participate, and we didn’t. Didn’t have any spitting on each other, it was just “Get over there”, “Nigger”, “You’re not supposed to be here”, “Go back down across the railroad track”. The campus was across the railroad track. Like I said I didn’t participate, and I often wonder if I would’ve participated if I had been older, I don’t know. I mean I know it was a worthy cause, but I was just so afraid.
Nichols: So you graduated from University of Maryland, Princess Anne and then you also attended another college?
Smiley: Yes, also from there I went to Temple University. That's when I started getting my Masters, and it was called Education of Media. My brother lived in Philadelphia, but I could just not handle the city, I'm such a country girl. It was just too hot to sit on the steps, we were afraid to do this. So I ended coming home with 9 hours that I needed to get my Masters. Could not find anybody who travelled to College Park, that was the closest college to go. So I just took a couple courses at Salisbury State University then. That was about it as far as colleges.
Nichols: Were there any problems on your college campus during the integration problems?
Smiley: No not on the campus, uptown Princess Anne, but not on the campus. Not even when I was at Temple. I do remember Salisbury State, I was the only black in that class, and the professor said “There’s only gonna be one A in this class”, and of course I knew that it wasn’t gonna be me, but I just stayed there anyway I think I ended up with a B. But I’ll never forget that statement, I was the only black in that class.
Nichols: Did you see changes in University of Maryland, Princess Anne when the integration [inaudible]? Did they have to adapt the college and those types of things?
Smiley: No, they just went ahead and sort of ignored them and did what they had to do. Continued with their education, to them education was more important. It was just a small group of whites who were harassing the blacks, just a small group. So they could have been ignored, and they were.
Nichols: Did any of this inspire you to become a teacher? Your life in San Domingo or Princess Anne? Where did you get inspired to become a teacher?
Smiley: I think when I was a little girl. My mother’s mother who was living in Pittsburgh, she was a teacher, her name was Jessie Blair, Blair was her last name. She was an English teacher in Pittsburgh. I said I never got to know her, she had passed before I came of age, and I always told my mother “I’m going to be a teacher like my grandmother, I’m going to be a teacher like my grandmother”, so that’s why I decided to be an English teacher.
Nichols: You changed jobs several times during your career, from English teacher to other jobs. You want to explain those changes?
Smiley: When I was an English teacher, I was getting near the end of my rope. My mother was ill, I had to get up mornings, like 4 o’clock in the morning, go to her house, bathe her, fix her breakfast and lunch, then I had to go back home and get myself ready for school. I said “I can’t handle this”. I said to Mr. Turner, Richard Turner was our principal, “Mr. Turner I’m gonna have to quit or do something”. I thought that had been my worst year of teaching. I said “I can’t handle this”, but it was my best year, at the end of the year from my supervisor I got all commendables, and I don’t know how he did it because it was such hard work. But somebody had to do it for my mother, and I was the one. Then, at the end of the year there was this job opening for In School Suspension teachers became available. And my friend Norby said “Smiley don’t quit why don’t you apply for that”, and I said “No Norby I think I’m just gonna give it up”. She said “If you don’t apply I’m gonna apply”. So my friend Norby and my friend Bob got together and wrote a letter applying for that position. Norby typed it, I signed it, it got in just at the deadline. I went for an interview. There were 58 teachers who applied for 4 positions, one for each school. [Coughs]. We individually interviewed with each principal, and I told Mr. Turner “If I don’t get Mardela High School, I don’t want the position because I don’t wanna go in town”. So that was fine because that was my decision. I guess a couple days later, we found out we had to go for another interview. I think that time it might’ve been like 20 something teachers that applied. So Mr. Turner said “Ms. Smiley, if you do as well as you did on the first one, you won’t have any problems”. I said “I don’t know Mr. Turner I’m about burnt out, I’m ready to give it up”. So I went for the second interview and found out a couple days, months, whatever, weeks, that I had the job. So I was In School Suspension teacher for maybe 3 years. I had an assistant. And then they had the opening for Conflict Resolution teacher, And I said “I’m not qualified”. Come to find out there were no courses that were given so no one’s really qualified, it was just using common sense. They asked “What would you do if…”, “How would you handle this…” and from that they thought I was qualified. Gosh I skipped the english part. Well I taught english for X number of years, everybody knows what english is. But that’s where I went from In School Suspension teacher, to Conflict Resolution teacher, which is what I am now.
Nichols: When you think back on your job as an English teacher or a Conflict Resolution Teacher, what are the best memories you have in your teaching career?
Smiley: Most of them were, not all of them were good memories. Best memories, when I talked with a student and I saw success, that made me feel good. I would have some toys and they would say “Ms. Smiley may I have that?”, “If you don’t come down to the office or don’t come see me for X number of days I’ll give it to you”. That was an incentive for some of the students. When I checked with some of the teachers and they would say “Johnny is doing better, he’s doing his homework”, and sometimes I would make them come into my office for a while, “Start on this”. I would get them out of gym class, they did not want that, and say “Okay do your work, you do your work and you don’t gotta worry about me taking you out of class anymore”. I guess they made me feel good, that made me feel good when I saw progress. Same thing when I was teaching, just for a kid to try. If I ask you what color’s the pencil, and the pencil’s green, and you tell me purple, I say “You have tried”, but when you say to me “Oh n woman leave me alone”, I can’t deal with you like that. So I was really glad when I saw progress, really glad.
Nichols: And what parts of your job had been extremely hard on you?
Smiley: I can never forget the first time I started doing In School Suspension, and a little girl came to me, and she was telling me she was 12, her father was in the hospital, she had three younger brothers and sisters, and she was just so tired because she’s 12 now, the father’s in the hospital. She had to get up, get herself ready for school, get her brothers and sisters ready, go home, prepare dinner, and help them with their homework, and I just could not believe that. And that was the same time I was going through my routine with my mother, and here I am grown, and I’m ready to give up. Here’s a 12-year-old. I said to her “What about your mother?” and she said “Ms. Smiley she’s retarded”. Well tears just came from eyes, I just couldn’t keep them back, and she was there but she just couldn’t do anything to help her daughter. But that was the hardest situation and one that I’ll never forget. Another situation that I’ll never forget is when the girl from San Domingo just couldn’t get along any longer, and one day they had a big fight. I would not have thought that would happen because they were such close friends. But before I knew it they were fighting, and one girl said “Ms. Smiley I just lost it”. She was like a foster child. It was near Christmas. The other girls had been talking about what they were gonna do for Christmas, and she had nothing to plan for. And she said “Ms. Smiley I just lost my cool and before I knew it, I hit her. I had no reason to hit her”. But that one I’ll never forget either, I had to call their parents in. Community people. I also went by their house that afternoon talking to them, and that same girl called me in her bedroom, and when I went in there she had OD’d. We called 911. What would she have done if I had not stopped there, who would she have told that she had OD’d. So those two situations I know I’ll never, never forget, never.
Nichols: Most of your working experience has been at Mardela High, why did you decide to settle mainly on Mardela High while you were working? Or was it an accident?
Smiley: It was an accident. I had gone to Temple, and I told my father “When I go back, I don’t wanna go to Pitts or to Mardela, because I know the Mardela kids are gonna be calling me by my first name, and I don’t want to go there. Well, when I came here, and since I’ve been here, I would not want to even go any other place. Very respectful people, very respectful students, most of them were. It was an accident, but it was a good accident if there were such a thing.
Nichols: What kind of changes have you seen in Mardela High, Middle and High, through the integration process? Did you see a lot of race problems there?
Smiley: Not that many. There’s some, no doubt about it. But the students have no respect for themselves, for the teachers, for the parents. It seems to be getting worse. That’s the biggest problem I see here. Of course, like I said there were racial statements made to the students, but not one time have I heard the word nigger used. But when students come to me and say so and so, we talk about it, and we get it ironed out. But no respect, no respect.
Nichols: I think I’m coming to the end of my questions. Are there any things you would like to touch on? Your personal activities, things you’d like the public to know about? You or your life that I haven’t mentioned?
Smiley: Okay, this is about my church that was founded in 1850 by the late James Brown. At that time the Church was called Little Zion. At the present time we had grave sites of James Brown and his wife. They are located on [inaudible] Road in San Domingo, and the owner of the property has given us permission to make that a historical site, but we want to get permission from the county or we want to get something in writing. So we’ve had men in the community clean the area, and you can still read the names on there. So in 18… when did the church burn? Little Zion burned in 1979, it burned. And in 1981, we had built a new church that we called Zion. We had a female minister, Reverend Gertrude Brown. When Reverend Brown was in our community, a minister led church, there were about 6 young adults who became ministers from her teaching. They all have their own churches now, and they’re all doing great. Minister today is Reverend David Lee. He’s young and he’s doing well with the young and with the old. We also have in our community a tutorial session. Where students are taught, right now they’re working on computers, they give them a computer lesson. Also the adults, we go every Wednesday at 2 o’clock. One of the guys in the community wrote a grant, and teachers from the [inaudible] Library come out and teach us every Wednesday. Also, that community is also used for many, many activities. I mentioned about my education, my high school, my church. Some of the church organizations that we have are Administrative Board, that’s the group that’s in charge of the church. Governing body, Methodist women, Methodist men. Church Anniversary Committee, that was the committee that I was the president of for 10 years. Pastor [inaudible] Relations, Trustees, Trustee Aids, Church Choir, Methodist Men Choir, and of course the Sunday School. Those are just a few of the church activities that I could think of right now. Community organizations, I mentioned the Friends of San Domingo. Some of the things that we have done, we always carry the student’s Christmas Caroling, and we bring them back and feed them. We have a Thanksgiving dinner for the senior citizens. We recognize those teachers who have taught in the community. We take the young girls out, we try to teach them about etiquette. So we take them out to dinner, and just watch them and ask them different questions about growing up. We had the John Quentin Foundation, and that is a group that’s a family. Each year they give a 1,000 dollar scholarship to a graduating senior. We have the Order of the Eastern Star, which now I am the Worthy Matron and have been for 9 years. Unity Lodge Number 73. We have the America Legion, and by the way my father, Daniel Lee Smiley was the first commander. We had the America Legion of [inaudible], and we had Bible Study. Every Wednesday night we had Bible Study, we’d go out and study and talk about the bible. Anybody is welcome. Much of the residents wither work at Purdue, sewing factories, there's still some working at DuPont, or teach school, there’s still a number of us who are teaching school. We also have the San Domingo Park, that is sponsored by the Wicomico County Department of Recreation. You use it for family picnics, and family reunions. They have basketball courts, they have barbeque pits, the pavilion overhead. They even have a hockey box. It’s really nice toys for little children, games and toys for them to play. I wanted to mention my grandfather, the late Harvey Smiley, was the first barber in San Domingo. And my aunt, whom I said I admired very, very dearly was the President of the Church Choir for over 20 years. We also had Jerry Matigo, house movers in San Domingo. Jerry lives in Sharptown, but he houses his equipment out in the San Domingo area. A number of the men work for him, the Jerry Matigo House Movers. They go all over the world moving houses. I believe that’s all I have to say Sylvia. If I think of anything else or you think of any other questions?
Nichols: I have just a few. Describe for the people what the land looks like in San Domingo. It appears when I go through that it’s mainly farmland and cornfields. Are there old buildings and historic places there that I don’t know about?
Smiley: No historical other than the America Legion, which houses the tutorial session where the Cooper Mill School used to be. But they renovated it so you wouldn’t think it was an old building. The Sharptown elementary school. There’s some old houses, and some of us go through the community. We have a photographer who loves taking pictures, and he would take pictures of old houses and say “Who’s house is this? Who’s house is that?”. He is really into San Domingo history. I forgot to tell you that right now the Friends of San Domingo are in the process of visiting historical areas on the eastern shore. Like we’re going on a tour of Harriet Tubman’s building, Frederick Douglass’ place, we’re going to Easton. We’re starting with Dorchester and Talbot, we’re doing a number of places in Wicomico, we’re going to [inaudible]. We have a church van, and if the van is full then we’re gonna use cars. That’s our latest activity that’s being done by the Friends of San Domingo. It’s announced in church, and anyone can go who wants to. Also in church, every summer, there’s 3 churches that belong to my Charge. But every summer each church nominates an outstanding community person. Sometimes we do the men, sometimes we do the females. Last week we did the men, and one man said “I’m just so excited, I have never been recognized for anything”, and it just makes them feel good, so we honor them every year. We say we’re gonna start with the children, because we have some children who do some worthwhile things. But I’m just proud to be a resident of San Domingo. I’m just a country girl and I love it. Getting back to the land, most of it I guess is country land. There’s fields, people don’t have gardens like they used to. Even I can remember when my father had pigs and chickens, daddy hasn’t had any kind of vegetables in such a long time he said “Go to the store and buy it now”. Not many people have gardens anymore, but like I said I’m proud to be a resident of San Domingo. Didn’t wanna come here to Mardela, but now I don’t wanna leave.
Nichols: Only one other question. Who is this photographer? We might wanna contact him for the Nabb Center.
Smiley: He would be glad to. Rudy Stanley. He teaches math at Wi High. His name is really Eugene, we call him Rudy. Getting back to the Friends of San Domingo. Once a year we have a church anniversary, he takes pictures all during the year. He made slides, and everybody would bring a cover dish, and we’d sit down and we’d look at the slides and we say “Oh who is that lady? Oh she’s gained weight! Oh she’s skinny!”. Our former pastor Reverend Gertrude Brown was so skinny when she came, but when she left she was so fat and she said “Oh is that me?”. I mean it was just funny. But Rudy would be glad to. Rudy Stanley teaches math at Wi High, and he does a lot of research on the computer. He went back and found out how he and I were related. And we never knew that for years.
Nichols: Thank you Ms. Smiley for your time. We will keep this document in the Nabb Center. Thank you very much.
Smiley: You’re welcome.