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


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Interview with Maybelle Smiley and Ernestine Brown, 13 July 2005

Audio Recording

About This Recording

This interview was conducted by Matt Gresick and Cristel Savage with Maybelle Smiley and Ernestine Brown. In this interview, Maybelle and Ernestine describe their lives in the early 20th century in San Domingo, MD, and their experiences with race relations at that time. They describe average life at that time, and their education in segregated schools as children as well as the impact of Brown v. Board of Education on their community. They comment on their experiences of segregation and racism, such as segregated restaurants and theaters. They also comment on race relations today compared to what they experienced when they were younger.

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


Interviewers: Chris Grande; Matt Gresick; Christel Savage

Narrators: Maybelle Smiley; Ernestine Brown

Keywords/Phrases: Segregation, African American History, African American Education, San Domingo

MD Intro: Maybelle Smiley and Ernestine Brown are sisters and both grew up together in Columbia, Delaware. In this interview, they describe their experiences growing up in the early-mid 20th century and their experiences with segregation and the Civil Rights movement.

[Interview Begins] Interviewer: Today is Wednesday, July 13th, 2005, and is the start of an interview at 25954 Quinton Road in San Domingo, MD. The interviewers are Chris Grande, Matt Gresick, and Christel Savage. This interview was done in conjunction with the Teaching American History project of the Wicomico County Board of Education. Okay, I think we’ll just go back and forth with our questions here. Ladies, when and where were you born?

Maybelle Smiley: In Columbia Delaware. I was born April 14th, 1927.

Ernestine Brown: I was born in Columbia Delaware, October 7th, 1930. Interviewer: Question #2: What were your earliest memories as children? they look around as they think

Ernestine: I can remember before I started going to school. Uh... my mother was a single parent because my father died when I was young around 4 years old. I had to stay with some of our relatives and that was hard for me.

Maybelle: I, too, my mother was a single parent because, as she said, our father died when we were very young; I was about eight. My grandfather lived with us and one of my mother’s sisters. My grandfather lived to be a bit above 90. I remember going to school—or did you want me to wait? Interviewer: Uh, we’ll get to that in a little bit. Could you describe your childhoods or some of the things that you did growing up?

Maybelle: Well, we lived in a rural area out on a farm. Naturally we did a lot of play. We had a brother and one cousin that grew up with us. Ernestine was the youngest and I was the oldest, so I was always the head and hold my own against the boys. I was small but I pretty strong.

Interviewer: Next question: What were race relations like at this time growing up in America?

Ernestine: Well, at the time we were growing up... we lived on a farm, as she said, and the farm that we lived on, it was children both girls and boys, and we had a good relationship with them but when it came to going to school, we had our own country school and they went to school in town. So, they rode a bus to get there.

Interviewer: What memories do you have about the area or what stories might you have heard from your parents or other relatives about the area of Columbia?

Maybelle: Well, it was a farming community. Then, I can remember there was the Coopers family. It was John Cooper and he had four or five sons and they all worked right there with the father. They had a saw mill where they went out cut the trees and carried them to the mill and sawed them into lumber. Then, he also had a tomato factory where they grew the tomatoes and the ladies skinned the tomatoes and they were canned. During the winter months—while it wasn’t too much work to be done around the farm to take care of the farm animals and chickens. The women, it wasn’t much work, just domestic. Some babysat and like that.

Interviewer: How many years of education have you completed?

Ernestine: I completed twelve years.

Maybelle: I’ve completed twelve, and completed additional courses since then.

Interviewer: What were some of your favorite subjects in school?

Maybelle: Well... I liked just about all of my subjects. Growing up, I was a good learner. They used to tease me, they said I read, which my grandfather always encouraged. He was elderly and there wasn’t many people of his age that had education enough to read and understand what they read. So, that was one of his main things, to always encourage us to read and he was a great storyteller. So, they said I was raised in the books and... I really enjoyed going to school and all of my subjects.

Interviewer: Can you describe the school that you attended?

Ernestine: Well, the school we attended was a two-room school and... we had no heat, only a coal stove, but we never had outside toilets, we only had inside. We didn’t have running water, and we had two teachers and recess was playing ball; dodgeball when it’s warm, baseball and like that but I don’t remember having no outside equipment or nothing like that.

Maybelle: And we could look forward to our superintendent visiting us and we had a music teacher who visited, art teachers. Then, the teachers reinforced what they taught when they came. But that was always a time that we looked forward to, knowing that our superintendent was going to visit, and we’d have a visit from our music teacher and her name was Mrs. Cappa. Our supervisor was Mr. Early, as far as I remember.

Interviewer: How did your community respond to the Brown vs. Board of Education decision of 1954?

Maybelle: Well... some of them—they thought, for a long time, that our schools should be equal. Whereas she said where we walked to school in this little two-room building with two teachers, you went in town there was a better school with better books. We wanted to be equals as far as our education was concerned.

Interviewer: Have you ever experienced or seen examples of racism on the Eastern Shore? If this is too personal, please feel free to not go into too much detail.

Maybelle: Oh sure. I can remember we went to the movies, you stood up in the balcony; you went in the drug store where they had the fountain and the counter, you stood off to the side and ordered what you would like to have and you took it and went out. You looked at the other patrons sitting and around the tables and the stools. Restaurants, you were served mostly from a window; you ordered and your order was brought out, but you weren’t allowed to go in and sit at tables or booths.

Interviewer: What kinds of jobs have you had throughout your lifetime?

Ernestine: I started working on the farm, then I moved on up to working at a chicken plant. Then, I went to a basket factory. After that, I worked at a nursing home as a dietary agent.

Maybelle: I did farm work and I did work at the poultry plant. Then, I went, when the schools were integrated, we went under a program, it was a federal program, and I was hired as an instructional aide at the Delmar Elementary school, which was in Maryland. I worked there and when the program ended, I was hired by the county. So, I worked in Wicomico county for about 18 years as an instructional aide and library aide. After I left that, I decided I would go back to school and take on something else. So, I went to Del-tech and took up a nursing course, and I did helpful nursing from the state of Delaware for Sussex county and I worked part-time in a nursing home.

Interviewer: Do you feel that there was any discrimination in these jobs that you’ve had? Whether it be in the past or more currently.

Maybelle: Oh yeah, in the past. We had—at a certain point, we had certain jobs that we were allowed to do was never too much in the supervised. One thing I can always remember was when we lived on the farm and I was in high school and the farmer's daughter—she and I were the same age by a couple of months, something like that—she stopped school; she didn’t go to the 12th grade, she stopped in the 10th grade. She went to Salisbury and got a job working in the five-and-ten cents store and even after I finished high school, I couldn’t get that job. You notice things like that. Interviewer: Can you name one of the hardest choices that you’ve had to make and in this choice, do you feel you made the right choice? both pause for a few seconds

Maybelle: One choice I made was when I left the Wicomico Board of Education. My health, I wasn’t too well and I had one problem in my family. I felt like I was unable to do my job as I would like to have done and I made the choice to resign. At that time, I thought I had made a bad choice but later on, you know the things that—problems worked out and I went on and took further training. So, I was satisfied with my decision.

Interviewer: Back to your younger days, what sort of activities did you do to, I guess, pass the time? What did you do for fun growing up?

Ernestine: When we were growing up, we—as we said, we were growing up on a farm and our entertainment was popping popcorn, making candy and things like that, you know; making cakes and pies and all that. Then later on, there was nothing else to do but go to the ball games because then the neighborhood communities had ball clubs and they would go to different towns and play ball. We would go in town to Salisbury for a weekend and that was about all. Listen to the radio.

Interviewer: Would you say race relations are better or worse today than in previous years?

Ernestine: To me... I don’t think they’re better but they’re not worse because now, we have to... well, you should always do your best, but we have to do our best to get where we want to get to or we might have to have to wait a while and prove to people that we are what we say we are. I hope you understand what I meant. Interview: What has been your opinion of today’s interview? Maybelle: I’d say it’s been good. It made me go back and think back to, you know, past things that have happened. pause … and speaking to you about things that have happened, I feel that things are better, in some ways, today. Now, what you are doing today, probably no one would ever have thought about doing 25 or 30, or even 10 years ago, to come in and interview and find out our true feelings about what has happened in our lives. Things that people took for granted, such things happened and that just happened.

Interviewer: Very true, very true. Okay, one final question: Could both of you ladies please state your full name and where you currently live.

Ernestine: My name is Ernestine Brown; I live in Seaford Delaware.

Maybelle: My name is Maybelle Smiley and I currently live with my sister in Seaford. There was one thing I failed to bring up-- I don’t think it was really mentioned about, like, in our growing up: we never mentioned religion and our church. In our little community, the church still stands that was attended when my grandfather first came to Delaware from Maryland, and we did have a deep religious background. That was some of the things that took care of our activities was Church services and the programs and the things that were done there.

Interviewer: Okay. Well, thank you ladies very much, that was excellent. I appreciate all your time and efforts and what you had to share today-- video cuts

Interviewer: One final question, ladies, if you would describe your connection to this town of San Domingo, please?

Maybelle: Yes. Our father was born and raised in San Domingo. I can go back as far as my great grandmother, which was Sally [Sye], and my grandmother was Elizabeth Brown, and my father was Andrew Sye; he had brothers and sisters that were raised here, born and raised here.

Interviewer: Now, your grandfather, was he born here? Did he move here?

Maybelle: As far back as I can remember, I don’t know when he moved here. He would have been my step-great-grandfather. That’s where the title “Sye”-- our family name of Sye.

Other interviewer: Can I ask a question? Did you get to visit from where you lived to San Domingo?

Maybelle: Oh yes. I visited-- I used to come down to San Domingo. In the summer, I used to spend so much time with my great grandmother and at that time, our grandmother had been living with them; she had been sick but later on, she moved on back to Philidelphia. I always visited down here-- I knew my relatives around here, we had a lot of places down here. Newell was in my family but Newell’s grandmother and my mother were sisters, so that’s the connection there. So, Delaware and Maryland was-- gestures back and forth with hands.

Interviewer: Thank you once again. It’s been our pleasure. video cuts again

Maybelle: We had to live on-campus or you went to Wilmington and live in the city.

Interviewer: They’d bus you all the way from...?

Maybelle: No, we didn’t bus to Dover, we had to go there and live on-campus. We lived on-campus.

Ernestine: we had to pay our laundry bill. It was a dollar and a quarter a month! chuckles Maybelle chats with another interviewer off-camera

Other interviewer: Date of birth?

Maybelle: My father’s? Oh... I don’t know, I’d have to count. I’d have to count way back.

Ernestine: I don’t know that neither.

Maybelle: Okay, I can—my mother... audio and video ends