AACHM Oral History: Willis Patterson
Sat, 09/21/2013 - 3:49pm
When: April 11, 2013 at the Downtown Library
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Dr. Willis Patterson is a professor emeritus of the University of Michigan of Music and founder of the Willis Patterson Our Own Thing Chorale. Born in Ann Arbor in 1930, he attended Jones School and graduated from Ann Arbor High School. After serving in the air force, Patterson earned his bachelor’s degree and master’s of music degree from the University of Michigan. He received his doctorate from Wayne State University and was Fulbright Fellow. Patterson joined the University School of Music in 1968.
- [00:00:29.21] SPEAKER 1: So would you please say and spell your name for us?
- [00:00:33.23] WILLIS PATTERSON: W-I-L-L-I-S P-A-T-T-E-R-S-O-N. Willis Patterson, middle name Charles.
- [00:00:44.16] SPEAKER 1: And what is your date of birth, including the year?
- [00:00:46.58] WILLIS PATTERSON: November 27, 1930.
- [00:00:50.79] SPEAKER 1: And how would you describe your ethnic background?
- [00:00:53.77] WILLIS PATTERSON: African American.
- [00:00:55.97] SPEAKER 1: And what is your religion, if any?
- [00:00:58.61] WILLIS PATTERSON: Protestant.
- [00:01:01.04] SPEAKER 1: And could you please tell us what's the highest level of formal education you have completed?
- [00:01:06.13] WILLIS PATTERSON: PhD.
- [00:01:07.88] SPEAKER 1: And did you attend any additional school or formal career training beyond that?
- [00:01:12.14] WILLIS PATTERSON: Yes. I was a Fulbright Scholar in Germany for a year and a half. And I did some special study at the Manhattan School of Music and Opera.
- [00:01:30.78] SPEAKER 1: Great. And what is your marital status?
- [00:01:34.77] WILLIS PATTERSON: Married.
- [00:01:35.81] SPEAKER 1: And if your spouse still living?
- [00:01:37.93] WILLIS PATTERSON: Yes.
- [00:01:39.39] SPEAKER 1: How many children do you have?
- [00:01:41.00] WILLIS PATTERSON: Four.
- [00:01:42.87] SPEAKER 1: And how many siblings do you have?
- [00:01:46.14] WILLIS PATTERSON: Oh. Remaining-- uh, jeez. Sorry. I have to count them. One, two, three, four. Four on one side of my family, and this gets a little complicated, and we can come back to it, if you need to. And one, two, three, four, five on the Patterson side.
- [00:02:14.76] SPEAKER 1: OK. And that was in total you had nine--
- [00:02:22.87] WILLIS PATTERSON: Nine living.
- [00:02:23.66] SPEAKER 1: OK, how many did you have all together?
- [00:02:26.00] WILLIS PATTERSON: Oh, so that's a little easier. 10 on the one side, the Curtises, and nine on the Patterson side.
- [00:02:39.01] SPEAKER 1: Wow. That's a lot of brothers and sisters. And what was your primary occupation?
- [00:02:47.07] WILLIS PATTERSON: Singer, teacher-- university teacher.
- [00:02:51.79] SPEAKER 1: And what age did you retire?
- [00:02:54.58] WILLIS PATTERSON: Oh, that's a good question. So this is my 14th year of retirement. I don't remember how old I was.
- [00:03:01.84] SPEAKER 1: You retired in 1999.
- [00:03:03.64] WILLIS PATTERSON: Yeah, [INAUDIBLE].
- [00:03:04.57] SPEAKER 1: So we can do the math, I guess. OK. Great.
- [00:03:12.55] WILLIS PATTERSON: 14 years, that's not right.
- [00:03:14.44] SPEAKER 1: No, no, no. '69, I think--
- [00:03:17.13] WILLIS PATTERSON: '69, yes.
- [00:03:17.30] SPEAKER 1: --if you [INAUDIBLE] '99.
- [00:03:18.51] WILLIS PATTERSON: Yes.
- [00:03:21.24] SPEAKER 2: So this part of the interview is about your childhood and youth. So even if these questions spark some memories about other times in your life, please only respond with memories of this particular part of your life-- so childhood and youth.
- [00:03:33.16] WILLIS PATTERSON: That's a challenge, OK. [LAUGHING]
- [00:03:37.07] SPEAKER 2: So the very first question is what was your family like when you were a child?
- [00:03:45.60] WILLIS PATTERSON: [LAUGHING] That's-- I don't know how to answer that, what was it like.
- [00:03:50.34] SPEAKER 1: Well, it's kind of broad, but maybe just describe your family that you grew up in.
- [00:03:56.55] WILLIS PATTERSON: I was a stepchild. And I grew up in a very dysfunctional family. Father tended toward alcoholism. Is this what-- the kind of answer you want?
- [00:04:20.43] We were in a community that can best be described as very dirt poor in Ann Arbor-- the north side of Ann Arbor. We were welfare recipients, renters. And in spite of all of that, there was a reasonable amount of comfort and joy.
- [00:05:02.19] SPEAKER 1: Where were you in the lineup of the kids in your family?
- [00:05:04.88] WILLIS PATTERSON: The second oldest of the family with whom I was raised. And I haven't told you what that division is. My father was a Curtis. And that was the part that had 10 children. My mother married to Patterson, and I was the second oldest in that family. Among the Curtises, I would have been right about the middle. There were one, two, three, four, five, six older than me.
- [00:05:49.92] SPEAKER 1: Were your parents ever married?
- [00:05:51.88] WILLIS PATTERSON: No.
- [00:05:53.60] SPEAKER 1: And was your mother-- what was I going to ask? I'm sorry. I totally--
- [00:06:02.35] SPEAKER 2: Oh, no. That's OK. That's OK.
- [00:06:02.87] SPEAKER 1: I forgot. Go ahead.
- [00:06:04.12] SPEAKER 2: If it comes back, it comes back.
- [00:06:05.59] SPEAKER 1: OK. [INAUDIBLE].
- [00:06:07.22] SPEAKER 2: What sort of work did your parents do?
- [00:06:09.44] WILLIS PATTERSON: My stepfather was coal hauler-- he hauled coal. A laborer. He owned his own coal-hauling truck, but that was it.
- [00:06:25.95] SPEAKER 2: What is your earliest memory?
- [00:06:33.17] WILLIS PATTERSON: I really should have looked at those questions and reviewed them. But, jeez. My earliest memory was being a youngster in the Dunbar Community Center Story Hour, age about three or four.
- [00:06:55.99] SPEAKER 2: Could you tell us about story hour?
- [00:06:57.58] WILLIS PATTERSON: Oh, yes. There was a woman, gray haired, charming, White lady, elderly, who volunteered her services to come to the Dunbar Community Center and entertain the youngsters of elementary, almost kindergarten age, with stories that she told-- maybe fictitious, maybe stories that she reconstructed from her reading. I don't know. But they were absolutely enchanting. And she kept us youngsters, busy little ants, as we were, still, quiet, and enchanted for about 45 minutes once a week.
- [00:08:07.41] SPEAKER 2: Were there any other special days, events, or family traditions that you can remember from your childhood?
- [00:08:15.52] WILLIS PATTERSON: Lots of them, but I'd have to isolate and figure out-- I once fell over a Christmas tree on Christmas morning because I was given, at that time, two semi, but mild, epileptic seizures, which I grew out of. But I would recall if I woke up early in the morning and stretched and yawned, I'd pass out. And I'd stayed passed out for an indeterminate amount of time-- I suspect not more than three or four minutes.
- [00:08:59.85] And this particular incident, I woke up and we were going through the gifts that were given to us by the Salvation Army. And in my excitement, I stood up and stretched and passed out, and my stepfather said, boy, get up. You knocked over the Christmas tree. What's wrong with you?
- [00:09:24.26] He was not aware, nor was my mother aware of what my problem was. Certainly I wasn't aware. But his authoritative voice woke me up, and I got up and straightened up the Christmas tree.
- [00:09:42.48] SPEAKER 2: OK. You mentioned Christmas. Which holidays did your family celebrate?
- [00:09:48.52] WILLIS PATTERSON: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter. That was about it.
- [00:09:56.95] SPEAKER 2: OK. So how were holidays traditionally celebrated in your family? How were those holiday celebrated?
- [00:10:07.41] WILLIS PATTERSON: Well, given our economic situation, I don't recall that we had special dinners or special gifts beyond those that were donated by the service organizations. There were, particularly at Christmas, times taken out of the ordinary to be together with other relatives.
- [00:10:42.11] Sometimes we'd go to my grandfather's house, out on North Main Street. And have a generally [INAUDIBLE] time of relief from the regular mundane circumstances of life.
- [00:11:01.67] SPEAKER 2: OK. Has your family created its own traditions and celebrations?
- [00:11:09.47] WILLIS PATTERSON: Actually, my family-- you're asking me now about my family or my childhood.
- [00:11:15.61] SPEAKER 2: Exactly.
- [00:11:20.68] WILLIS PATTERSON: Not really. There was a tradition that my stepfather established of on holidays making stop-bys to his relatives-- his brothers and sisters. And I recall that, because he'd take off for a half a day and do that, and most often he'd wind up back pretty inebriated.
- [00:11:47.09] But it's a tradition that I caught onto. And I tend, over, particularly the past 25 or 30 years since I've been back in Ann Arbor, to go to one of the brothers' and sisters' houses and spend a little time, and go to the next, and go to the next. Make the rounds, is what we call it.
- [00:12:11.33] SPEAKER 2: Make the rounds. Did you play any sports or join any other activities outside of school in your childhood?
- [00:12:20.01] WILLIS PATTERSON: Outside of school? Yeah, I played football and wrestled.
- [00:12:30.65] SPEAKER 2: What about your school experience is different from school as you know it today?
- [00:12:38.53] WILLIS PATTERSON: Hmm. Well, the rugby soccer at recess, which I do understand is probably not a time period outside, very much anymore, for public school children. We had a full hour outside playing rugby football.
- [00:13:07.52] Music is not as much as factor in public school now as it was when I was a youngster. In Jones School, we had a very alive music program-- band, orchestra, and choir. And we had, within school-- I think this probably takes place pretty much now. Within school, we had music programs-- plays, whatever. Like that.
- [00:13:44.02] SPEAKER 2: Did you family have any special sayings or expressions during your childhood?
- [00:13:50.39] WILLIS PATTERSON: Not really that were notable. Lot of expressions that would probably not serve the purposes of this interview. [LAUGHING]
- [00:14:01.70] SPEAKER 2: [LAUGHING]
- [00:14:03.96] SPEAKER 1: Not for prime time.
- [00:14:04.99] SPEAKER 2: Yeah, not for prime time, huh? Were there any changes in your family life during your school years, when you were younger?
- [00:14:11.80] WILLIS PATTERSON: Changes-- say that again, please.
- [00:14:13.47] SPEAKER 2: Were there any changes in your family life during your school years?
- [00:14:18.97] SPEAKER 1: For instance, one of the people that we spoke with said that one of her parents had died, and then she had to-- that was a big change, and she had to move.
- [00:14:29.89] WILLIS PATTERSON: There were no deaths during my school years. But there was the tradition-- not tradition-- an unusual but regular occurrence of visiting my grandfather, who lived about a mile and a half away, and we had to walk out on Main Street. That was a very important function-- regular, maybe two or three times a month.
- [00:15:04.76] SPEAKER 1: And was this your father's-- [INAUDIBLE].
- [00:15:06.88] [INTERPOSING VOICES]
- [00:15:07.69] WILLIS PATTERSON: My mother's father.
- [00:15:11.62] SPEAKER 1: Were you in touch with your birth father?
- [00:15:15.57] WILLIS PATTERSON: No. Twice in my life, a total of about 40 minutes-- a composite total of-- which were, by me, very much cherished. I remember them very well right now.
- [00:15:32.72] SPEAKER 1: Do you want to say anything about it?
- [00:15:33.69] SPEAKER 2: Could you talk about it?
- [00:15:37.21] WILLIS PATTERSON: My father-- I talk about this in my book. I worked, as a young, pre-teenager, in a shoeshine parlor on Ann Street. And I was very good. One day, coming from the shoeshine parlor, going home, walking home, a gentleman stepped out of the barber shop and stopped and asked me if he could speak to me, and I said sure. And he said, what's your name? And I said, Willis. Willis C. is what they called me. And he said, do you know who I am? And I said sure. He said, who am I? I said, you're my father.
- [00:16:27.46] I had been told by my stepfather's sister that my father was Ed Curtis, and that I looked exactly like him. So having looked in the mirror with some degree of regularity, I recognized myself in him. And that startled him, he said, because he had not seen me, and I have not ever seen him to know him. I was about 11 years old.
- [00:17:02.57] That was the first meeting. It was a very short, but really a warm, relieving meeting for me, because I was not ever-- up to that point-- quite sure that I might inherit some of my stepfather's proclivities.
- [00:17:24.27] The next time I met him, I was still working in the shoeshine parlor. And I was about 16. And I had saved my money in order to buy a special outfit that I've seen advertised in the Detroit Free Press at Crowley Miller's store in Detroit, which has probably long since been torn down since you have been around.
- [00:17:53.41] And I went down to Crowley Mill-- I took the Greyhound bus down to Crowley Milner. I found the store. I'd never been in Detroit before in my life. Went into the store with a paper advertisement of a cardigan jacket, which I wanted to buy, and I was prepared to buy a pair of pants with it. And I picked out those things. And as I was getting ready to pay for it, he came up. He was working as a janitor in that store. And he said, what are you doing here?
- [00:18:28.71] SPEAKER 1: Your father was.
- [00:18:29.11] WILLIS PATTERSON: My father was. And I immediately recognized him, and we embraced. And I said, well, I've just-- are you working here? Blah, blah, blah. He said, sir, you tell them the put these things on my bill. I said, no, I've saved for several months, and I want to pay for this myself.
- [00:18:49.57] And after he insisted and I insisted, he relented. And that was the last time I saw him alive. That was a period of about 20, 25 minutes, at most. And so I combine the two, and that was about a total of 45 minutes. The last time I saw him, he was dead. He had come back to Ann Arbor after having lived in California for some time. And I was in the service.
- [00:19:20.75] He came back to Ann Arbor to his family in Ypsilanti. And he passed. My older sister told me that he had passed. And this will drift into another story, so you may not want to go that far with this.
- [00:19:43.95] SPEAKER 1: Well, we can-- [INAUDIBLE].
- [00:19:45.17] SPEAKER 2: Well, let's see. Yeah. Let's see.
- [00:19:46.18] WILLIS PATTERSON: OK. Well, I was in the service. I had met my Curtis family members by then-- all of the brothers and sisters probably weren't close at that point in time. We knew each other, and we had some interaction.
- [00:20:06.77] I was stationed down in San Antonio, Texas, in the Air Force. And I'd finished my basic training. I'd come back to Ann Arbor for my post-basic training furlough of a week. Ironically, it was the weekend of his funeral.
- [00:20:28.21] And I was greeted by a dear friend, who was the boyfriend of my older sister. And she said, wow, you're here for Dad's funeral, huh? You got out-- I said, no. What did you mean? I didn't know about it.
- [00:20:49.82] And she told me that it's going to be held in Ypsilanti that weekend at Lucille's Funeral Home, and at such and such a time. So I took the bus over that weekend, in uniform, to attend the funeral. It had already started when I got there. I sat in the back with my uniform on, just to go and be present.
- [00:21:19.08] When the funeral director, Lucille Richardson, came in the back and said, come up and sit with the rest of the family-- I had no idea that she knew who I was. I had never seen her before. I said, no, I'll sit back here. She said, no, you're going to come up and sit with the rest of the family. And then so I did.
- [00:21:40.19] And it was at that point that I began a close relationship with the rest of the family that has lasted until they've either died or are still present. But the final departure from the routine is to tell you that I went and viewed my father's remains. And I stood there, trying to feel some deep emotion about it, and I came to the conclusion that, here lies a person who I understand is my father, with whom I'd had about a 45-minute interaction. And I shall tell my children when I have them that they must never permit this to be the experience one of their children.
- [00:22:35.37] SPEAKER 1: Yes.
- [00:22:36.67] WILLIS PATTERSON: And I've followed through with that ever since.
- [00:22:38.85] SPEAKER 1: Yes. Do you know why you didn't have contact with your father growing up?
- [00:22:46.51] WILLIS PATTERSON: I was, at that time, back in 1930, considered an illegitimate child. My father was married and have a full family, but also was, himself, an itinerant parent to his other children. And they knew him less well, they say, than I did.
- [00:23:12.74] SPEAKER 1: Really?
- [00:23:13.45] WILLIS PATTERSON: So he was on the fly, most of the time. And I don't know whether that answers your question.
- [00:23:22.53] SPEAKER 1: Well, it sounds like he wasn't available.
- [00:23:24.56] WILLIS PATTERSON: Right. He wasn't around, but to update that, I have three pictures of my father in my house. And I think highly of him purely on the basis of those 45 minutes some 60 years ago.
- [00:23:52.23] SPEAKER 1: He contributed half the genetic material--
- [00:23:54.55] WILLIS PATTERSON: Yes, he did.
- [00:23:55.64] SPEAKER 1: That's yielded you.
- [00:23:56.99] WILLIS PATTERSON: Yeah. And I do look like him. Well, I won't go any farther than that.
- [00:24:05.78] SPEAKER 1: That sounds very important.
- [00:24:06.60] SPEAKER 2: Wow. Thank you. Thank you very much. And perhaps more-- as we go along-- perhaps more things may come up, so feel free to share if you want to. When thinking back on your school years, what important social or historical events were taking place at that time, and how did they personally affect you and your family?
- [00:24:31.47] WILLIS PATTERSON: Social or historical events. I am very impressed with my memory of the Second World War and many of the dynamics that were associated with that, primarily because I was also a newspaper boy. I sold the newspapers at the corner of Huron and Main Streets. There, on that corner, sits a bank now. At that time, it was the Ann Arbor Bank. Is now the PNC Bank. And I sold newspapers on that corner. It was a choice corner during the war, because the traffic, such as it was, was predominantly there on that corner.
- [00:25:31.92] And I quickly adapted to the habit of news boys in those days of picking out a headline that could be yelled in order to attract persons to come and purchase the paper for $0.03. So I became very literate in that sense of the events-- the special events that were happening in the world. And most of them during that time were around the Second World War.
- [00:26:10.14] Likewise, I was very impressed with the ending of the war-- D-Day-- and the celebrations that took place in Ann Arbor during that time. I was very impressed with the Depression, which preceded, of course, the Second World War, and the impact that that had on me and my family, personally. We were, as I said, welfare recipients.
- [00:26:46.86] There was a commissary in Ann Arbor located just to the west of Main Street. I can't recall whether it was on 1st or Ashley Streets. But I and my brothers, younger brothers, would take our wagon up there and get the surplus butter, eggs, and flour once a week.
- [00:27:19.18] That impression registers in my mind very much, along with another result or consequence of the Depression-- was we lived in a house at 708 North 5th Avenue that had a broken furnace. And so our heat had to be supplied by a pot-bellied stove, which was in the large room of the house. But we really needed to heat the entire apartment that we had.
- [00:27:57.77] And my father, though he was a coal-hauler, couldn't afford his habits, his alcoholic habits, and keep enough coal in the stove, or in the basement to bring up when it ran out. So that we had, as boys, to go down to the railroad track-- and I recall this very vividly in the winter, with our sleds and ostensibly pick up coal off the tracks to bring back in a gunny sack.
- [00:28:42.33] We quickly got to the place where we recognized it was much more expedient for us to break the wooden sheds of the coal companies that faced Depot Street and steals the coal and bring it back home on the sleds, which took a lot less time and a lot less effort.
- [00:29:03.60] Sometimes-- and I recall one of the coal companies was the McCudden Coal Company. [? M-C-U-D-D-E-N. ?] And Mr. McCudden finally set himself up to try to catch those little thieves who were stealing his coal, and stationed himself inside office, and took all took off in pursuit of us as we were stealing the coal and with our sled, running back up the street. He never could catch us. He tried several different times. And he, of course, substituted words for, little boys, I will get you with other words that would not be appropriate for--
- [00:30:00.51] SPEAKER 1: Well, actually, I mean, you can--
- [00:30:03.50] SPEAKER 2: For historical, yeah.
- [00:30:04.46] SPEAKER 1: Yeah, for historical purposes, you can--
- [00:30:06.54] WILLIS PATTERSON: Oh, he would cuss us out. He would literally cuss us out and use the N word very profusely, along with several other multi-syllabled words. [LAUGHING]
- [00:30:23.94] SPEAKER 2: OK. You lived during the era of segregation. Can you speak about that?
- [00:30:31.01] WILLIS PATTERSON: Yes. Ann Arbor was a peculiar place, it being, of course, the location of a major educational institution, and it had a rich cultural history around it. But I became keenly aware as a student in grade school that much of what was going on in Ann Arbor that was positive and complementary to its citizens not a part of our experience as African Americans. We went to the university primarily as youngsters, ragtag youngsters, in the Boy Scouts to usher for the football games. And in so doing, I became a fan-- a lifelong fan of the University of Michigan football team and its other activities.
- [00:31:41.44] But after we grew out of the age of being in the Boy Scouts, we continued to attend the football games by way of jumping the fence and defying those on the other side of the fence from catching us. Sometimes they succeeded in catching one and two of us, but we worked out a strategy. We'd line up about 12 of us, spaced generously, along Stadium Boulevard, and we'd hit the fence at the same time, knowing that they couldn't catch us all.
- [00:32:18.46] SPEAKER 2: You can't catch us all.
- [00:32:18.68] WILLIS PATTERSON: That's right. I tore lots of pants on the barbed wire fence. But that was the case with almost all of us. And that was not part of a segregation-- say, for an economic circumstance. But generally speaking, our economic situation-- I was aware that the small African American community at that time was fairly devoid of professional people. There was one doctor who could not practice his profession. He was a graduate of the University of Michigan-- Dr. Dixon, who rose to the elevated level of being the assistant county coroner. That was his highest professional achievement.
- [00:33:23.41] He wound up being a drunkard. This is because the African American community was too small and too poor to support him in his profession, and the non-African American community would not patronize him. He was an honor graduate of the University of Michigan. There was one lawyer who, likewise, couldn't practice his profession. He served as a cook-- a graduate of the University of Michigan.
- [00:34:02.28] Otherwise, we had two preachers and one social worker. And I'm convinced that this is because the African American community lived in a segregated portion of town-- mostly in the north central part of the town, where the few pocket of African Americans in the Woodlawn area and on Katherine Street, close to the hospital, where many of them worked in the menial positions as cooks and-- what are the?
- [00:34:44.52] SPEAKER 1: Orderlies, and--
- [00:34:44.96] WILLIS PATTERSON: Orderlies. Right. So those are my prime memories of the segregation in Ann Arbor, save for the factor of there being a rather pervasive tendency on the part of the school system to, at that time, want to have very lowered expectations of African American youngsters. And with the boys especially, to counsel them into taking-- oh, what do they call them-- special classes, because they anticipated that they couldn't handle the academic subjects and the pre-college curriculum, the college preparatory curriculums that were so pervasive in Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor was an excellent public school system at that time. But they tended to treat African Americans in a much more arbitrary sense.
- [00:35:55.32] I'm happy to note that I've gain a great appreciation for the change, that total change-- and I say total change-- a significant change from that pattern of those adults in those days.
- [00:36:13.84] SPEAKER 2: Was your school segregated?
- [00:36:15.66] WILLIS PATTERSON: No. It was Jones School. In fact, I don't ever remember, in my day, there being a segregated school in Ann Arbor. Jones School had the largest proportion of African Americans of any of the Ann Arbor public schools, but even at that, the African Americans constituted, I would say, at best, a third of the student population. No Black teachers. I never had a Black teacher in public school or in the university until I was in graduate school.
- [00:37:07.87] SPEAKER 2: How did you get to school?
- [00:37:12.09] WILLIS PATTERSON: Walked. To public school?
- [00:37:13.80] SPEAKER 2: Yeah.
- [00:37:14.19] WILLIS PATTERSON: Walked. It was close. From my house, it was about four blocks. And I went from kindergarten through ninth grade to Jones School. Then when I went to Ann Arbor high school, what is now, location-wise, the new North Quad on State. That was the location of Ann Arbor High School-- nowhere near as elaborate as the North Quad is now, and about one-third of the size.
- [00:37:48.93] [INTERPOSING VOICES]
- [00:37:49.32] SPEAKER 1: [INAUDIBLE] the new one.
- [00:37:51.61] SPEAKER 2: Whoa. [INAUDIBLE].
- [00:37:53.99] WILLIS PATTERSON: But that was then an additional five blocks-- easy walking distance.
- [00:38:04.88] SPEAKER 2: Were the restaurants or eating places for African Americans where you lived? And how were Black visitors accommodated in those places?
- [00:38:17.00] WILLIS PATTERSON: There were restaurants, two, for African Americans-- not solely for African Americans. But that was in the one block Ann Street Business District of Ann Arbor. There was the Midway Bar and Restaurant, and what was called Chris's, roughly next door, and a small little greasy spoon, [? Marion Presley's, ?] about four doors from that, all within that same block.
- [00:38:57.15] There were other restaurants in Ann Arbor at that time-- a relatively classy restaurant called [? Precaty's. ?] That was off the corner of-- in fact, located next door to the bank that I described as being [INAUDIBLE] of my newspaper stand. It was right next door to it-- totally unreceptive to African Americans. We understood that Blacks were not welcome there, and so we didn't go there. Except that I, as a paper boy, had free access to go in there and sell my papers. When I'd finished my hocking of the papers at my stand, if I have some papers left, I'd go in [? Precaty's ?] and the other bars and restaurants in that downtown area of Ann Arbor and go from booth to booth saying, you want to buy a paper?
- [00:40:03.30] But the Old German was on Washington Street. That was a fine, fine restaurant. There was never a sign that said No Blacks Allowed. And I don't recall anyone saying that they have been told that African Americans were not supposed to go in there. But somehow or another, the African American community knew that we were not welcome in those places, so we didn't go.
- [00:40:35.21] SPEAKER 2: So you mentioned going in the restaurant-- that's where the bank is now-- to sell your papers. Were you ever able to eat anything from that restaurant, or was it only to sell your papers?
- [00:40:47.37] WILLIS PATTERSON: No. You say able. I don't know. I don't know. I never-- [INAUDIBLE].
- [00:40:51.10] SPEAKER 2: Did you ever?
- [00:40:51.69] WILLIS PATTERSON: I didn't ever go in there to eat anything, no. No. There were a couple of less classy restaurants on Main Street, almost at the intersection of Ann and Main Street-- to the south of Ann Street. You could go in and buy a hot dog or what have you, and keep on your way. You couldn't sit down in there.
- [00:41:35.58] But those were pretty much the restaurants, until you got to the university. And I worked in the university in a bowling alley as a pin setter. And we could go in there and eat-- no problems with the university. Michigan League.
- [00:41:59.22] SPEAKER 1: And how about in terms of if people came from out of town, were there any places that they could stay?
- [00:42:06.51] WILLIS PATTERSON: The Allenel Hotel was the classic hotel in Ann Arbor. Again, we understood that that was not a receptive place to African Americans. Again, now, this is 1945 and earlier. But otherwise, if Blacks came to Ann Arbor, I am not aware of there being a restaurant that they could feel they were welcome. And so if they came, they probably arranged ahead of time to stay with friends.
- [00:42:41.50] SPEAKER 1: [INAUDIBLE] hotels?
- [00:42:42.69] WILLIS PATTERSON: Yeah. One of the favorite contacts for their being referenced-- now, I only know this from speaking to his son-- was Coleman Jewett's father, who was a wonderful photographer. And he knew everybody. So people would call him, and Duke Ellington played at the Army and Count Basie, and they needed a place to stay for their band, they'd contact Mr. Jewett and--
- [00:43:11.67] SPEAKER 1: And he'd arrange for homestays?
- [00:43:13.01] WILLIS PATTERSON: Right. Right.
- [00:43:15.64] SPEAKER 2: Now, before we move on, I know you said that there were places where you might not have seen the sign that Blacks weren't welcome, but somehow you all understood that that was the case. Could you just say a little bit about those messages and how you came to understand that? What was there to--
- [00:43:34.47] WILLIS PATTERSON: I can only deduce that people worked in the kitchens in those restaurants-- African Americans. And somehow or another, they communicated to the rest of the community that this is not a place where you will be served. Or if you go, you will probably wish you hadn't gone. But I never had a personal experience in which I was ever denied service, because I didn't ask for it.
- [00:44:12.05] SPEAKER 2: Yeah. The word got out.
- [00:44:14.00] WILLIS PATTERSON: Right.
- [00:44:15.26] SPEAKER 2: OK. Thank you.
- [00:44:18.45] SPEAKER 1: So now we're going to go into part three, which is the adulthood, marriage, and family life. And so this set of questions covers a fairly long period of your life, from the time you completed your education, entered the labor force, or started a family until all of your children left home and you and/or your spouse retired. So we might be talking about stretch of time spending as much as four decades.
- [00:44:45.27] WILLIS PATTERSON: Sure.
- [00:44:46.86] SPEAKER 1: So after you finished high school, where did you live?
- [00:44:52.71] WILLIS PATTERSON: After I finished high school, I lived-- in fact, before I finished high school, I left home at age 14. And that was the result of the dysfunction of my family and my interaction with my stepfather. And I lived for two years as a roomer with a dear friend of our family, right next to the Second Baptist Church at that time. So it was still in the community.
- [00:45:29.98] In high school, I lived with another friend, who lived way out on Jackson Avenue, about three miles away from the center of town. And I finished high school living at that place. That was the family of my very best friend, who passed just last year. And he was in the service. He's a little older than me. He had gone in the service, and his mother said, look, why don't you come take Bob's place with our family and stay with us? And it'll make it a little easier for you in trying to get your rent and all that sort of thing, and you can spend a little more time studying.
- [00:46:22.98] So. You're asking about where I lived after I left high school, right?
- [00:46:31.12] SPEAKER 1: Yes.
- [00:46:31.75] WILLIS PATTERSON: OK.
- [00:46:33.19] SPEAKER 1: So you lived with two family friends. And then after high school, did you remain there?
- [00:46:44.42] WILLIS PATTERSON: No. Then I went onto the service.
- [00:46:45.92] SPEAKER 1: OK, so then you went to the service. And how long were you in the service?
- [00:46:51.90] WILLIS PATTERSON: Three years, eight months, and 23 days.
- [00:46:54.63] SPEAKER 1: [LAUGHING] But who's counting?
- [00:46:57.51] WILLIS PATTERSON: Four years, for all intensive purposes.
- [00:46:59.14] SPEAKER 1: OK. And do you want to say anything about what your experience was like in the service?
- [00:47:06.85] WILLIS PATTERSON: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I went in the service in 1949-- early 1949, right after a very important event in high school, which was my being featured as one of the lead roles in a Gilbert and Sullivan musical. I was the sergeant of the police. And it was a very proud moment for me, for my family, and sort of coming out party for me, because I came out of my shell of insecurity and felt that, golly, I have some talents that give me a certain entree into areas of life that I never even knew existed previous of that.
- [00:48:01.74] The last performance of the Pirates of Penzance was on one week, and I enlisted in the Air Force the Monday following that last performance because I was notified by the sister of my good friend where I lived, who worked in the draft board as a clerk typist, that my draft card was being sent out to go to the Army. At that time, everyone being drafted in the Army from our community wound up in Korea.
- [00:48:41.93] SPEAKER 1: Oh boy. WILLIS PATTERSON: I didn't want to go to Korea. I'd, by that time, become a convinced pacifist, without saying so.
- [00:48:53.43] So I enrolled in the Air Force and it was a very, very wise trip for me to make. I then went to the Lackland Air Force Base and went into basic training. And that was my first interaction with hardcore segregation. I was in a segregated unit. But just previous to my getting into the unit, I went down to Lackland Air Force Base on a train with a young White follow from Detroit. The government provided for us a booth-- a berth, I'm sorry-- a double berth.
- [00:49:46.48] And we ride go down on the train. It took about two and a half days in those days. We went through Chicago and St. Louis. This was in March. And when we got into St. Louis, the weather was suddenly much warmer. And as we went farther South, it became just oppressively hot. But we stayed in that compartment, except for the times when the train would have to change trains, or whatever. I notice then that things were-- all the Black people were in one place, and all the White people were in another. And we'd go out to the end of the train stations to get a Coke or something, and he'd have to go--
- [00:50:41.11] SPEAKER 2: Over there.
- [00:50:41.50] WILLIS PATTERSON: --that line, and I'd go this line. We got, finally, to San Antonio, and it was burning up. I was dry [INAUDIBLE]. We'd been told that we would be met at the train station by a military vehicle that would take us to Lackland Air Force Base. But the vehicle wasn't there. So I went into the train station in San Antonio to get a drink water.
- [00:51:12.97] And I stopped at a water fountain, and was just about to take a gulp of the water when a Texas Ranger in a pointed hat and a big gun said, you can't drink water there. You have to find a colored fountain. And I said, colored fountain-- OK. My thirst is overwhelming. I was not thinking at all, except to get some relief from this dryness.
- [00:51:49.79] I ran around that huge station trying to find a fountain that was other than white in marble-- marble white.
- [00:51:58.60] SPEAKER 1: The color of the fountain.
- [00:52:02.23] WILLIS PATTERSON: You know? And my mind was saying, well, maybe the water in these white fountains is tainted, or something. So in my frustration, I went to the-- I saw the policeman that had told me I couldn't drink in the White fountain. He was going out another exit, and I ran and caught him. And I said, excuse me, sir. I cannot find a fountain that's other than white.
- [00:52:31.88] He said, where are you from, boy? I said, Michigan. He said-- he was getting ready to tell me, well, you-- and then it suddenly occurred to me. Ohh. Then I turned around and I looked at those fountains, and each one of them was a big sign that said White Only and then Colored Only. I said, ohh, I see. Thank you.
- [00:53:05.72] I went back and got myself a drink of water out of the proper fountain, and that was my introduction to a series of events that lasted a year and a half. I was totally segregated in outfits-- the Blacks. And those outfits, were in a very nice, comparatively nice barracks and what have you, and the Blacks were in far less desirable.
- [00:53:41.86] SPEAKER 1: So you mean the Whites had the--
- [00:53:43.54] SPEAKER 2: The nicer--
- [00:53:44.41] WILLIS PATTERSON: The nicer, yeah. So that was a striking example. It just so happened that was in 1950 that Truman integrated the services, but that didn't get carried out in its entirety until maybe a couple of years later. I left basic training, went to tech school, where it was quite integrated. Then, after tech school-- I went to tech school for stenography, to be a court reporter.
- [00:54:25.40] And that was in Fort Frances E. Warren. I was reassigned to Wichita Falls, Texas-- totally segregated. From there to another base in Florida-- I've forgotten the name of it right now. Totally segregated. From there to Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio-- totally integrated. From there overseas-- totally integrated.
- [00:55:01.94] SPEAKER 1: So did you come back to Ann Arbor after the service?
- [00:55:05.58] WILLIS PATTERSON: Yes. Yes.
- [00:55:11.87] SPEAKER 1: And what were you doing then?
- [00:55:13.24] WILLIS PATTERSON: Well, for two years, I worked in a couple of automobile factories. Actually, it wasn't an automobile factory. I was at the Ford Tank Plant in Plymouth. I worked there for about six months, and then I worked at the Chrysler Proving Ground in-- I forgot the--
- [00:55:37.42] SPEAKER 2: Chelsea?
- [00:55:37.70] SPEAKER 1: Chelsea. Exactly. And while there, I decided that it was time for me to see if I could try to do something with [INAUDIBLE]. In the interim, I was also working with a vocal jazz quartet that was really quite good, and from the community. And we thought we might have a chance at having some professional success. But one of the members of the Global Jazz Quartet was married and had a family, and really needed to spend this time productively earning the upkeep for his family.
- [00:56:23.94] So we broke up, and I went to Eastern Michigan University. I enrolled there in 1952, and I was there for two and a half years as a music education major, and then transferred to the University of Michigan in voice performance. I stayed at the University of Michigan for a Bachelor's Degree. I stayed on for a Master's Degree. I went into teaching in higher education at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where I saw the other side of segregation in terms of how the upper-middle class African American fared in his own totally independent society, with colleagues who were all highly educated and college-trained.
- [00:57:27.70] This was a very rich and interesting period for me, where I found myself, and it was cause to take another backward look at my experiences as a youngster in Ann Arbor, where I became so-- I want to say insensitized to the social circumstances that I had grown up in that I really wasn't aware of it. But--
- [00:58:01.09] SPEAKER 1: I was going to ask what it was like to sort of cross-class the way that you did.
- [00:58:07.22] WILLIS PATTERSON: Right. Well, as I say, it was very enriching. It was very instructional. It taught me about myself and my race, and my background in ways that I had never been exposed to. As I said to you, I had never had a Black teacher in public school or college until graduate school. And I have never had, save for the efforts of my boyhood minister at the Second Baptist Church, any emphasis placed on Black achievement, Black personalities who had overcome.
- [00:58:53.04] I had had an interaction with Paul Robeson when he came to Ann Arbor to do Othello. That was my first exposure to a successful Black artist.
- [00:59:05.56] SPEAKER 1: Larger than life.
- [00:59:06.66] WILLIS PATTERSON: Yeah. Very much larger than life. And he inspired me to go into music-- not because of his words to me personally, but because of what he represented as an artist. And then went back to the public school library in Jones School and read about him. I found out he was a lawyer, PhD, Phi Beta Kappa, football, all-American, performer, actor. It opened up a whole new world to me of possibilities. I had never heard of any such thing as that.
- [00:59:52.03] And so I went down the Southern University and I saw many replications of this. This was, at that time, the largest African American University in the country, and may still be. It was about 12,000 students. But I was on that faculty, and I was interacting with these people who had had these worldly experiences-- they were all Black. And it caused me to say, well, I have something to be quite proud of where my heritages is concerned. I went from there to Virginia State College to teach for six years, and it was much of the same thing.
- [01:00:36.00] SPEAKER 1: I'm going to go back into sort of the personal realm, which is I'd like you to tell me a little bit about your married and family life. You might tell me how you and your spouse met, and--
- [01:00:47.97] WILLIS PATTERSON: Fine.
- [01:00:48.54] SPEAKER 1: --that sort of stuff.
- [01:00:50.19] WILLIS PATTERSON: My wife came to the University of Michigan to do her Master's work in mathematics. I met her when I was finishing my undergraduate work in music. And we met in the nickels arcade. There was, at that time, a restaurant called the Betsy Ross. And I met her and one other African American young lady. And I have not seen-- at that time, the number of African Americans on the University of Michigan campus was minuscule. So to see two attractive young ladies of color at the same time was a mind blowing experience for me.
- [01:01:44.17] So I quickly thrust myself upon them in my own inimitable fashion, saying, who are you ladies, and et cetera. And come to find out, she was a graduate student-- had graduated from Southern University before I knew there was a Southern University. And her companion was a woman who-- well, she was, at that time, also a graduate student in social work-- equally attractive, who later became one of the first African American females on the city council in Ann Arbor, Jean Robinson.
- [01:02:29.97] But so we carried on a courtship for a couple of years, with her going back. She went back and assumed a teaching job at Southern University, me back, and we finally became engaged. And I went down to Louisiana, to the little town of Opelousas, and married her.
- [01:02:57.40] SPEAKER 1: And what was the wedding like?
- [01:03:00.28] WILLIS PATTERSON: [LAUGHING] Well, June the 21 of 1858-- the hottest day of my life. Early in the morning in Opelousas, it was very hot and sticky. And I was unable to have anyone present who I knew of, of my family or my friends.
- [01:03:28.72] SPEAKER 1: Family or friends? Ah.
- [01:03:29.79] WILLIS PATTERSON: So her older brother was kind of a ranger of the wedding, and her younger brother served as my best man. Her parents, who were wonderful people-- all that family has passed on at this point. But I never saw a group of people who were more friendly, sincere, and open--
- [01:04:01.63] SPEAKER 1: Oh, lovely.
- [01:04:02.41] WILLIS PATTERSON: --to a Northerner [LAUGHING] in my life. And so that was a lovely experience, save for the heat.
- [01:04:17.38] SPEAKER 1: OK. And then tell us a little bit about your children and what life was like when they were young.
- [01:04:26.60] WILLIS PATTERSON: OK. My oldest son was born out of wedlock, before I was married. His mother and I-- I was still in the service. His mother had decided that she did not want to marry. I was totally prepared to marry, because I was very mindful of mind experience. But she decided she did want to marry at that time, and shortly after my oldest son was born, she did marry a fellow and they moved to California with my son. My--
- [01:05:21.84] SPEAKER 1: That's history repeating itself.
- [01:05:23.62] WILLIS PATTERSON: Right. Right. My oldest daughter was our first child-- my wife and I's first child-- and she was born when I was teaching at Southern University. We were both teaching there. She was much-- her features and her genes seem to have been largely from her mother's side. In fact, I recall that when she was born, she had long, silky hair and eyes that changed from green to blue, and all that-- very light of complexion. And it made me wonder, well, now, where's Willis Patterson in this? But a lovely, lovely girl. And clearly she wrapped her father around her little finger very quickly.
- [01:06:28.87] We stayed in Louisiana for the next two years, when I decided that Louisiana was just-- and this was right at the beginning of the Civil Rights strife, the school demonstrations, particularly at the Black schools. I decided that for me, an aspiring performer, it was just too oppressive. So I left Louisiana, went to New York for a summer of trying my [INAUDIBLE]. And then I decided that this was moving too slow.
- [01:07:11.16] I came back to Ann Arbor to start a Doctoral Degree. And then that following fall, we became expectant of our second child, our son-- my second son, her first son. He was born in December. And shortly thereafter, I received an invitation to join the faculty at Virginia State College, where our third child was born, a daughter.
- [01:07:51.16] They're all lovely people, I say now in retrospect. But I would have said so then, also. My oldest son is 62. My oldest daughter is 52. My son is 50-- he just turned 50 in December. And my youngest daughter's 45. And they each have proud families. My oldest grandson is 30. And that's by my daughter-- my oldest daughter. She's a masterful spacer, because her next two children are girls, 11 and nine.
- [01:08:43.30] SPEAKER 1: Wow. [LAUGHING] That equals 30.
- [01:08:46.94] WILLIS PATTERSON: Right. My second son lives in California. He's a lawyer. He has three boys, all jocks, all sort of looking at the potential of when they grow older coming to the University of Michigan. The recent--
- [01:09:14.38] SPEAKER 1: It'd be a legacy.
- [01:09:15.86] WILLIS PATTERSON: Well, right. The recent success of the basketball team, with Trey Burke, was of great inspiration to my oldest grandson because he is smart. He's a very good point guard right now. He's only 12, but he's very good in California. Needless to say, I'm a proud grandfather. And my youngest daughter has two daughters.
- [01:09:48.91] SPEAKER 1: And were there any special things that you liked to do as a family, et cetera?
- [01:09:54.99] WILLIS PATTERSON: Oh, yeah. I spent my first 15 summers on the faculty at the University of Michigan teaching in the summers at Interlochen, the National Music Camp. And my kids really grew very fond of Interlochen, because they were up there as day campers. We lived right on the lake-- well, not literally on the lake, but off lake frontage. And they just fell in love with the National Music Camp. My son was involved with acting. My youngest daughter was a cellist. And my oldest daughter was a find soprano.
- [01:10:45.45] SPEAKER 1: That's where she got your genes.
- [01:10:47.71] WILLIS PATTERSON: Oh, I'd like to think so. [LAUGHING] But she didn't go into-- none of them went into music at all. My oldest daughter is the manager for her husband's medical clinic. He's a doctor, a nephrologist. And I said that my second oldest son is a lawyer, and my youngest daughter is a school counselor, a high school counselor in Indianapolis.
- [01:11:28.01] So we really liked going to Interlochen and going to musical concerts up there. And we get together every Christmas-- all of us, the grandchildren and all. We have a place down in Louisiana. And we all are there for at least a week.
- [01:11:48.25] SPEAKER 1: You have a reunion and--
- [01:11:49.47] WILLIS PATTERSON: Hmm?
- [01:11:49.87] SPEAKER 1: Have a reunion, a family gathering.
- [01:11:52.05] WILLIS PATTERSON: Yes.
- [01:11:52.95] SPEAKER 1: That sounds great. And I think you already said what was different in terms of the traditions that were different from your childhood. It sounds like you were able to creative a very conscious family experience.
- [01:12:06.68] WILLIS PATTERSON: Right, mainly centered around our gathering at Christmas.
- [01:12:14.82] SPEAKER 2: All right. So you talked a lot about where we're headed now, but this next set of questions is going to cover a fairly long time in your life, from when you first started working or started a family, up to now. So it's a lot of years. And you talked a lot about it, but we have some more questions about that.
- [01:12:35.35] SPEAKER 1: [INAUDIBLE] focusing on work.
- [01:12:37.03] SPEAKER 2: Yeah. We're focusing on work, work and retirement. So what would you say your main field of employment would be, and how did you first get started with that?
- [01:12:48.53] WILLIS PATTERSON: My main field of employment was-- this is a little difficult to respond in a succinct fashion. I had a good deal of success as a performer-- in opera, in concert work, and as a recitalist. And that was a main focus and energy absorber for me for up to about, I'd say, 20 years ago, when the natural attrition of depleting resources vocally and energy-wise set in.
- [01:13:40.51] But at the same time, my principal source of income was as a college university voice teacher and as an administrator. I acceded to the associate deanship of the School of Music at the University of Michigan and served in that capacity for 20 years, the last 20 years of my employment at the University of Michigan.
- [01:14:14.25] As such, and during that time, I became, I think, a very proficient trainer of voices-- a skill that I have to attribute to my beginning years in African American institutions, where I really wound up doing almost everything in the field or in the area and discipline of vocal music-- choral conducting, directing operas, training voices, teaching pedagogy.
- [01:14:55.23] And I brought that to the University of Michigan and enlarged upon it while I was here. And I became very involved in recruiting minority students and enhancing the stated intention of the University of Michigan School of Music to add two its minority student body and its faculty. My association with two previous [INAUDIBLE] BCUs and my successful concertizing, and many more than that over a period of 20 years, led me to know many of the important pedagogs in my area.
- [01:15:54.15] And so I was able to direct the recruitment efforts of the University of Michigan School of Music in the path of some of these people that eventually attracted, to the University of Michigan School of Music, the largest minority of voice proportion that existed in our peer institutions at that time. I think that's still probably the case.
- [01:16:25.27] So between performing, administrating, teaching, and being relocated in a place where I knew all of the ins and outs, both in terms of-- well, not all of them, but more than probably most other people-- both in terms of the university and the city and the African American community of the state. I was sort of like a rabbit in a briar patch.
- [01:16:59.05] SPEAKER 2: [LAUGHING]
- [01:17:01.01] SPEAKER 1: And you were the first--
- [01:17:02.78] WILLIS PATTERSON: Yes. Yes.
- [01:17:05.82] SPEAKER 1: --which you might want to say.
- [01:17:07.75] WILLIS PATTERSON: For maybe my first five years, the only African American member.
- [01:17:17.61] SPEAKER 2: OK. So what got you interested in doing all of this? You mentioned music and performance, and teaching, and being an administrator. I also remember you mentioned earlier on the interview that Paul Robeson was a really inspirational person to you.
- [01:17:34.62] WILLIS PATTERSON: Right.
- [01:17:36.38] SPEAKER 1: Including Paul Robeson, are there any other things that got you interested in saying, I want to perform, or I want to teach?
- [01:17:41.76] WILLIS PATTERSON: In singing?
- [01:17:42.73] SPEAKER 1: Yeah.
- [01:17:43.04] WILLIS PATTERSON: Oh. I had the good fortune, in the combination of my years as a student and as an aspiring performer, I had the good fortune of meeting most of the significant African American professional performers of the day. I had met Paul Robeson as a child. I met Robert McFerrin, Bobby McFerrin's father. I initially met him when he came here to do a concert. And I imposed myself upon him. He was staying in the Michigan Union. And I imposed myself upon hi schedule and asked him to talk with me. And he came down from his room in the Michigan Union after a dress rehearsal for his performance, and carried on about an hour and a half conversation with me, after which we became very close friends.
- [01:18:59.69] I met William Warfield. We became very good, close friends. [INAUDIBLE] Price, Jessye Norman-- I helped to train her. All of these people, and more, who names don't come immediately to mind, led me into a commitment to be the very best possible performer I could, and to aggressively take advantage of whatever opportunities I could to develop my professionalism, which let me to-- even before I came to the University of Michigan-- make my professional debut as a lead opera singer in the Christmas opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, which was so successful that it became one of the RCA Victor Red Seal recordings. I'm very proud of that, and on the fact that the opera ran on NBC TV for a period of 17 years.
- [01:20:21.88] And out of that, I had a good deal of success as, as I was saying before, with oratorial and concerts, and I've sung with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Boston Symphony and the Detroit Symphony and New Orleans and Richmond. So I guess I have to say that conversations with the likes of Marian Anderson and Dorothy Maynor and Roland Hayes, along with Paul Robeson and Robert McFerrin were-- what do I want to say-- encouraging leads to my success in that regard.
- [01:21:20.31] SPEAKER 2: So you've done a lot of things. Could you tell us what a typical day would look like during the working years of your life, your adult life?
- [01:21:31.95] WILLIS PATTERSON: Yeah. I'd wake up in the morning and go to my studio, whether it was in Ann Arbor or in Baton Rouge or Petersburg. Practice for two hours before I'd begin to teach at all. I then would teach students up until noon. I'd have a very important lunch break, about an hour and a half. Important because it gave me an opportunity to interact with my colleagues, who were of immeasurable value in giving me an important portion of my education. I must attribute to them. Many of whom have been authors of books and have become presidents of HBCUs and all that sort of thing.
- [01:22:43.92] I would then come back, teach a class, either in pedagogy or choral music, and go into a rehearsal. When I was in Virginia, it was-- no, when I was in Louisiana, it was with the college choir. When I was in Virginia, it was with the opera, workshop. I'd then go home, interact with my family, eat lunch, eat dinner, what have you. Go back to my studio and do another hour and a half practice before the day was over. That was typical. Very often, I had to take off for a concert that would have me away for a day or two, but I'd carry on that same routine of practice.
- [01:23:45.47] SPEAKER 1: I would skip that next one.
- [01:23:49.09] SPEAKER 2: This is a great one. What do you value most about what you did for a living, and why?
- [01:24:02.15] WILLIS PATTERSON: Being able to be used. I had, in my early childhood, been so dependent upon the generosity of others-- both from a material sense and from the element of their encouragement to me. And it combined with the teaching of my childhood minister. He gave me the understanding that to whom much is given as a gift, much is also expected.
- [01:24:57.70] I came to appreciate the fact that the gift that I'd been given in music was rather large and impressive. And I have difficulty saying that, because I'd also been taught to be not too large headed. But as I look back on it now, to be perfectly honest, mine was a significant gift.
- [01:25:21.25] So I then understood that I needed to give back. And I've been motivated by that sensitivity and that requirement all my adult life. So I find myself, even now, finding ways to be used-- both by those youngsters in the African American community, and principally there, but also by other people who need me.
- [01:26:02.21] So service, I guess, is the byword that I need to put in there. And I've been very, very satisfied and fulfilled by that. I come to find out that that old saying, biblically-based, I believe it is, that it is more blessed to give than to receive, is very, very true in my instance. I look at those persons who I've taught who seem to have progressed reasonably well under my tutelage, and, in my most honest moments of assessment, find that I've gained much more than they have. So that's the height of my satisfaction.
- [01:27:00.16] SPEAKER 2: How did your life change when you and your wife retired and all the children left home?
- [01:27:10.84] WILLIS PATTERSON: [LAUGHING] Not much. And I was reminded of that just the other day when I found I had an appointment here and a meeting there, are a couple of lessons there, and I'm writing my autobiography, and I'm arranging my papers and collections for the possible contribution of it to an institution. So I'm busy. I'm busier, but I'm not busy, because I'm enjoying myself. So it's not changed an awful lot.
- [01:28:02.79] I spend not anywhere near as much time at home my wife would like. But if I were home more, I think it would become a displeasure for her. [LAUGHING]
- [01:28:19.90] SPEAKER 2: OK. So last question in this section, now. When thinking back on your working adult life, what important social or historical events were taking place at that time and how did they personally affect you and your family?
- [01:28:37.03] WILLIS PATTERSON: Well. You said during my working life?
- [01:28:40.89] SPEAKER 2: Mhm.
- [01:28:41.24] WILLIS PATTERSON: Wow. A lot of things. Jeez. A lot of things. This has been a very, very, busy-- from a national, international, and local standpoint-- 50 years. It's been very busy. We had the first African American mayor of Ann Arbor during the time that I was doing my first teaching job.
- [01:29:23.26] The Civil Rights Act was enacted under Lyndon Johnson. That's a very, very major impact on me and my thinking, and, I suppose, my wife, too, because many things happened as a result of that that I did not have very much optimism we're going to happen. Jeez. The landing on the Moon, I'm still a little suspicious of. The impasse between the United States and Russia that finally resulted in the Soviet Union becoming disintegrated, in a sense.
- [01:30:36.01] These things all changed the vistas of anticipation and points of view for myself and for my interaction with my children and my wife. I found myself deliberately going after a reorientation of the thinking of my children and what goals and aspirations they could actively set for themselves. And we went about this in a very deliberate fashion.
- [01:31:21.05] I recall having been asked by a colleague, an administrative colleague of mine, about 40 years ago, when we first came back to Ann Arbor with the family. And we moved into [? Forsbrook ?]. And he said, do you have any other Blacks that live there? I said, no, unfortunately. Unfortunately, there are no Blacks. Well, how do your kids get a chance to interact with other African American kids? I said, well, I take them to the Dunbar Community Center and the Ann Arbor Community Center, at that time, and I make sure that they go to an African American Church occasionally, although we were, at that time, regular attenders to the First Congregational Church in Ann Arbor, where I served for 38 years as the Director of Music. It has a very small and inconsistent African American attendance.
- [01:32:21.92] But I said, otherwise-- he said, well, how do your kids get a chance to interact with Black kids? I said, we bus them in. [LAUGHING] He pulled my leg about that. I was joking with him. But he pulled my leg about that for the next 20 years. He busses my kids in to see his kids. [LAUGHING]
- [01:32:52.47] There are lots and lots of integration of the university as a result of the band strike. That was a very hefty dose of change for us, because I'd been here as a student when there was little value apparently placed on the presence of African American faculty and students. That's just pulling them off the shelf at random-- response to the question.
- [01:33:30.95] SPEAKER 2: Oh, thank you.
- [01:33:33.26] SPEAKER 1: OK. Well, the last section here is when thinking back in your life, what are you most proud of?
- [01:33:54.21] WILLIS PATTERSON: Golly. I guess I'd have to just throw several things in that I'm most proud of. [INAUDIBLE] being unable to distinguish one above the other. The success that we've had in raising four children. I didn't say to you that about four years after we moved back to Ann Arbor, my oldest son moved from California and stayed with us for a period of about three years before he went out on his own and became married and all. He's a wonderful man. He has a wonderful family.
- [01:34:53.78] All of my offspring, I'm proud to say, are just really nice people. We had minimal difficulties with them. I attribute much of that to the discipline that my wife was able to instill in them, but I think I made some significant contribution to that, as well. That would be one of the most proud things.
- [01:35:26.10] That the other is the role that I think I was able to fulfill in my activities with the university and with the town. I've served on a number of important civic committees, including the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation. I was on their board for about eight years. I've been very active with a number of religious institutions in the area. I've been able to maintain a very comfortable and gratifying relationship with my siblings on both sides of the divide.
- [01:36:32.21] I've made peace in myself with a previous somewhat bitter attitude that I had towards my stepfather, who's passed, some four years ago. I understand what made him the way he was, I sympathize with it, and I've forgiven him. I guess I'm quite proud and pleased with the effort that I made to become a successful performer. I like the sound I made. I have it recorded a number of times, and I think it was very significant.
- [01:37:32.42] SPEAKER 1: You made a joyful noise.
- [01:37:34.31] WILLIS PATTERSON: Yeah, Yeah. Exactly. And finally, I established a choral group 40 years ago. This is our 40th year. What It is a totally integrated group, and a group of reasonable quality that is not predicated upon persons having a superior or even exceptional or even average musical ability, but who have been convinced of the worthiness of that participation because of what they get out of it through the music.
- [01:38:32.88] I'm very proud of that group. We made a six-week tour of South Africa in 2005, in and it came away with wonderful reviews. So I guess I'm fairly satisfied, happy. And lastly, I'm very pleased to have reached this advanced age and have reasonable mental and physical facilities.
- [01:39:05.34] SPEAKER 1: That's pretty great. What advice-- in quotes or whatever-- would you give to the younger generation?
- [01:39:19.11] WILLIS PATTERSON: That's dangerous advice-- dangerous. I am, on the basis of my own experience, convinced that youngsters ought to do for their life pursuits what seems to them to be the most fulfilling. And that is, as opposed to the current tendency to say, you need to secure for yourself a dependable livelihood, to go to those places where you can be seen and experience the most advancement. I think you really need to do what fulfills you, what gives you the maximal amount of gratification.
- [01:40:33.82] That's an important concept, because you can go to extremes and find yourself being gratified by things that are very non-productive. But as I look back on it-- and I made this decision way back in junior high school. If I couldn't sing for a profession, I would do anything I had to as long as it afforded me an opportunity to sing, even if it was only for myself.
- [01:41:11.60] SPEAKER 1: Anything else you want to tell us that we haven't asked you?
- [01:41:15.09] WILLIS PATTERSON: Jeez, have I left anything [LAUGHING] uncovered?
- [01:41:19.61] SPEAKER 1: Well, of course we could be here for days, because you've had such a rich life, and--
- [01:41:24.37] WILLIS PATTERSON: Well, it is.
- [01:41:24.77] SPEAKER 1: --we're very honored to be-- for the opportunity [INAUDIBLE].
- [01:41:29.13] WILLIS PATTERSON: I can't think of anything, except that I'm really very, very, very pleased at the activity that you and I have been involved with with the [? Race ?] Washtenaw. I've been a firm and convinced believer in honest integration. I don't mean integration as vis-a-vis you bring all that your culture and represents through a particular point and drop it there and absorb mine.
- [01:42:17.11] I do believe that this business of really appreciating and honestly reacting and absorbing as much of other cultures as is possible, in honesty and fullness, is really the way to go. And [? Race ?] Washtenaw is bent upon that, in sort of a subtle fashion--- subtle, but effective.
April 11, 2013 at the Downtown Library
Our Own Thing Chorale
Jones Elementary School
Ann Arbor High School
University of Michigan School of Music
Wayne State University - Alumni
Dunbar Community Center
Detroit Free Press
Crowley-Milner Department Store
United States Air Force
Lucille M. Richardson
Lucille's Funeral Home
World War II
McCudden Coal Company
University of Michigan - Football
Old German Restaurant
Gilbert and Sullivan
Lackland Air Force Base
Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (OH)
Ford Tank Plant
Chrysler Corp. Proving Grounds
Historically Black Colleges and Universities
Second Baptist Church of Ann Arbor
Virginia State College
Interlochen National Music Camp
African American Singers
RCA Victor Red Seal Recordings
Black Action Movement (BAM)
Race & Ethnicity
AACHM Living Oral History
Willis Charles Patterson