AACHM Oral History: Gwendolyn Calvert Baker
Tue, 07/24/2018 - 12:12pm
When: April 5, 2018 at Downtown Library
Gwendolyn Calvert Baker was born in 1931. She talks about growing up in Ann Arbor where she began her distinguished career teaching at Wines Elementary and winning Teacher of the Year. She was also faculty at the University of Michigan’s School of Education; National Executive Director of the YWCA; a member of the New York School Board; and president and CEO of United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF).
- [00:00:07.74] INTERVIEWER: Please say and spell your name.
- [00:00:11.38] GWENDOLYN BAKER: I am Gwendolyn Calvert Baker. That's G-W-E-N-D-O-L-Y-N. Calvert, my middle name-- C-A-L-V-E-R-T. Baker-- B-A-K-E-R.
- [00:00:29.66] INTERVIEWER: Thank you. What is your date of birth, including a year?
- [00:00:35.03] GWENDOLYN BAKER: 12-31-31. That's December 31, 1931.
- [00:00:42.56] INTERVIEWER: How would you describe your ethnic background?
- [00:00:45.87] GWENDOLYN BAKER: I'm African-American.
- [00:00:49.38] INTERVIEWER: What is your religion?
- [00:00:51.65] GWENDOLYN BAKER: I'm Protestant.
- [00:00:54.43] INTERVIEWER: What is the highest level of formal education you have completed?
- [00:00:58.92] GWENDOLYN BAKER: I have a PhD from the University of Michigan.
- [00:01:04.28] INTERVIEWER: What is your marital status?
- [00:01:06.76] GWENDOLYN BAKER: Currently I am-- my husband is dead, but we divorced before he died, so I guess I could just say that I'm single.
- [00:01:16.89] INTERVIEWER: How many children do you have?
- [00:01:19.33] GWENDOLYN BAKER: Well, I had three, but I lost one, Claudia, 11 years ago. So I have two living children, Joanne and Jim.
- [00:01:29.88] INTERVIEWER: What was your primary occupation?
- [00:01:33.17] GWENDOLYN BAKER: Well, after I received my bachelor's degree, I started out as a teacher, and then throughout my life, I became, not only a teacher, but more or less a professional administrator. That was combined with my education background.
- [00:01:56.89] INTERVIEWER: And we'll get more into detail about that shortly. At what age did you retire?
- [00:02:02.80] GWENDOLYN BAKER: I retired when I was 65 in 1995.
- [00:02:12.57] INTERVIEWER: We're going to move to part two now-- memories of childhood and youth. This part of the interview is about your childhood and youth. Even if these questions jog memories about other times in your life, please only respond with memories for this part of your life. What was your family like when you were a child?
- [00:02:33.68] GWENDOLYN BAKER: We had a family. I had a mother and a father, and they were married, and there were five of us. I was the oldest child, and we lived together in a house in Ann Arbor, Michigan on 4th Avenue. And we were a very close knit family.
- [00:02:57.81] INTERVIEWER: What sort of work did your parents do?
- [00:03:00.82] GWENDOLYN BAKER: Well, my father worked at Ford's automotive company for a long time, until he was laid off soon after the war. And then he worked for the WPA, which was something that many of the men in Ann Arbor worked on when the jobs were folding up. And he started his own business as a rubbish collector, and he kept that business going. And it flourished until my youngest brother bought the business from my father, and he kept it until he sold it some years ago.
- [00:03:43.69] INTERVIEWER: Was that Russell?
- [00:03:45.19] GWENDOLYN BAKER: That's Russell.
- [00:03:48.55] INTERVIEWER: The next question is, what is some of your earliest memories? And I want to go to your book for a second. Your book, which is entitled Hot Fudge Sundae in a White Paper Cup: A Spirited Black Woman in a White World. So I want to just read a paragraph from Chapter 2. "Whether or not my first real experience with racism was a small step in what later became known as the Civil Rights Movement, it was a giant step in shaping my future. My world was never the same. I had difficulty believing the reason I was served my sundae in a paper cup, while the white girl was served hers in a glass dish, was because of the color of my skin. What difference did skin color make in deciding how I would be served?" And I wanted to read that because this next question talked about some of your earliest memories. Can you elaborate on what I just read?
- [00:04:52.92] GWENDOLYN BAKER: I remember that very clearly. Would you like me to say something about my earlier childhood--
- [00:05:01.17] INTERVIEWER: That's fine.
- [00:05:01.58] GWENDOLYN BAKER: --with my family? Because I mentioned to you that we were a close knit family. We did so many things together that so many families today do not do. We went fishing together on the Huron River. We collected apples during the apple season. We collected nuts on the side of the road. We did things that-- the world has changed in such a way that it didn't really make much difference in terms of skin color, but we just did things that we liked to do together. And then as I grew up and started feeling more like a young lady-- and you'll notice in that book I mention that I was collecting little tips from running errands in the neighborhood. And so I would save my dimes-- not dimes, because that was a big coin in those days.
- [00:06:00.92] I would save my pennies, and during those years, I would go to the drugstore with my father. And I noticed that there was a calendar in Crippen's Drug Store on Main Street. And I've always wanted to sit down at that corner and have a sundae, but I knew it would take money, but I decided I would save my nickels and pennies till I got enough money to go and have a sundae. So the portion that you just read about, Joyce, is what happened to me after I finally had my $0.15, if you can believe that at day and age I could buy a sundae for $0.15. Well, anyway, whether you can believe it or not, I did.
- [00:06:57.59] And I went to the drugstore, and after I brushed my hair and put on my best blouse, and went like a little lady right up to the drugstore, sat down, and ordered my sundae, and was experiencing a very, very lovely part of my life. I felt very grown up and had no indication of the fact that I was black and that I was different, but as I sat there, eating my sundae, I happened to notice at the end of the counter there was a young white girl-- I don't think much more than a year or two older than I was-- and she had ordered a strawberry sundae.
- [00:07:45.82] And when she was served, I noticed how beautiful it looked, but when I took a second gaze and looked, I noticed that hers was more beautiful than mine because hers was in a beautiful glass dish and mine was in a paper cup. And at that point, something happened to me. I still did not realize it was skin color. I finished my sundae, and went home, and talked to my mother about it, and that was my exposure to racism.
- [00:08:22.35] She told me why I had the paper cup, and in the latter part of that paragraph that you read, that experience changed my entire life. It reflected what I didn't know at the time-- what I was going to be doing the rest of my life. And as I look back, I realize, at that time, that I had really experienced something in a very small way to the world, but in a very big way to me. That was my contribution to what we were experiencing at that time with the civil rights movement, and that's what I was trying to display as I was writing those words together. And as I put together the title of the book, Hot Fudge Sundae in a White Paper Cup, and I became a strong black woman in a white world.
- [00:09:35.05] INTERVIEWER: Thank you for that further explanation. Were there any special days, events, or family traditions you remember from your childhood?
- [00:09:44.88] GWENDOLYN BAKER: No, for a while, we did Christmas and Thanksgiving. Not much at my house in terms of Easter, except we did have a new dress or something and went to church on Easter Sunday. That was pretty much like most families, until my mother became a Jehovah's Witness and later when my father became-- and of course that meant that we would no longer be celebrating the national holidays, because they did not believe in them. And so I did not continue the celebrations until I became partly head of my own household after I became married.
- [00:10:40.76] INTERVIEWER: So what was the highest grade you completed? I think you I already shared that, but go ahead.
- [00:10:48.21] GWENDOLYN BAKER: Right, I didn't do anything after I got my PhD, because I became involved in teaching, which is what I really was-- I had started doing that after I had my bachelor's, but other than just going to conferences and meeting people in my field, I didn't do anything in addition to that. But it's very interesting, because I never really felt that I was privileged-- it was a privilege to go to the University of Michigan.
- [00:11:25.87] I wanted to go away to school so badly, and of course my parents couldn't afford that. So I thought it was like a no-no to go to the University of Michigan. The thing that changed my mind, of course, was when I continued my education and began to meet people throughout the country and throughout the world. I realized what a prestigious university I had attended and what a prestigious university the University of Michigan was and is.
- [00:12:01.95] INTERVIEWER: I want to go back and talk a little bit more about your high school days. So did you play any sports or join any other activities outside of school?
- [00:12:10.85] GWENDOLYN BAKER: I didn't participate in sports. I was not a very athletically inclined person, but I was in the a capella choir and participated in some of the musicals we had. And when I became a senior, I took part in the after school work program-- or I guess it was a part of the school program. And I had a job on State Street in a dress shop, but until then, I spent most of my days after school in my sophomore junior years going out into the white neighborhood and helping white families clean their houses and get ready for dinner.
- [00:13:00.83] So being exposed to the job on State Street in the mademoiselle's shop, that was a big leap for me, and I truly enjoyed that experience. High school, for me, was fun. I had a lot of friends. The only thing-- and I didn't notice too much at the time, but there were very few blacks, and in fact, in my graduating class, I think there were only five of us. And I can remember one was Bob Elliott. One was Willis Patterson, Grace Blake, and Dorothy Turner, and myself. Isn't that strange after all these years I could remember that? It was integrated, but Ann Arbor did not have a large black population.
- [00:14:01.90] INTERVIEWER: So I was going to ask you-- and you basically answered that-- in terms of the a capella choir, were there any other blacks in the choir besides yourself during your high school years?
- [00:14:13.64] GWENDOLYN BAKER: Two of us-- Grace Blake and Willis Patterson. Willis, of course, because he had such a beautiful voice, he was involved in almost everything that was musical.
- [00:14:25.89] INTERVIEWER: And we also interviewed him for this living oral history project.
- [00:14:31.18] GWENDOLYN BAKER: I'm losing your voice, Joyce.
- [00:14:32.48] INTERVIEWER: Can you hear me now?
- [00:14:34.02] GWENDOLYN BAKER: It's better.
- [00:14:35.71] INTERVIEWER: I was just saying we also have interviewed him for the living oral history project, as well.
- [00:14:44.51] GWENDOLYN BAKER: Oh, I'm sure you did, yes.
- [00:14:45.90] INTERVIEWER: Right.
- [00:14:47.69] GWENDOLYN BAKER: We lived on the same street and did many of the same things.
- [00:14:52.04] INTERVIEWER: I wanted you to talk-- give a little bit more detail about working in the dress shop. I know in your book you talked about that and kind of how that worked out for you, the kinds of things that you were able to do or purchase. Could you talk a little bit more about that?
- [00:15:07.26] GWENDOLYN BAKER: Well, it was an unusual decision, because at the time, there were no other black people in the major dress shops in the city. And of course, I was considered just a student. And I didn't become visible on the floor until after I had worked in the shop for a while, and sometimes someone would be late or absent, and I would have to go down on the floor to help out with some of the customers, but I learned how to interact with people. And I realized that, because of my skin color, at that time, the position did not make a difference. I mean, no one refused my help in helping them select something.
- [00:16:00.87] But the fun part of the story of the work at the dress shop was that I became probably one of the-- [INTERPOSING VOICE] Oh dear. Just a minute. Just a minute. I didn't know that was coming on.
- [00:16:19.08] INTERVIEWER: That's OK.
- [00:16:22.45] GWENDOLYN BAKER: I became one of the best dressed students because I-- [INTERPOSING VOICE] Just a minute. See if I can unplug-- can you hold on a minute?
- [00:16:32.76] INTERVIEWER: Yes.
- [00:16:33.66] GWENDOLYN BAKER: I want to unplug this. I didn't know it was plugged in. A Christmas present that I didn't need.
- [00:16:43.93] [LAUGHTER]
- [00:16:46.90] OK. Being the best dressed student, because I got 20% off of everything, and so most of my paycheck went home in boxes and bags, because I was also in charge of the stock. And some of my ability to organize things I learned at that shop because they didn't have a system of coding and of organizing their stock, and I invented one. And because I became so involved in what was happening in the shop, I really became a part of it and finally quit when I started the University of Michigan.
- [00:17:39.26] INTERVIEWER: I'm going to ask a couple more questions about your family during the years that you were high school aged. Did your family have any special sayings or expressions during this time?
- [00:17:52.04] GWENDOLYN BAKER: Any?
- [00:17:52.67] INTERVIEWER: Special sayings or expressions.
- [00:17:57.44] GWENDOLYN BAKER: No, I don't think I quite understand what you mean.
- [00:18:00.59] INTERVIEWER: Sometimes people have certain sayings that they use in their family, or you hear your--
- [00:18:05.90] GWENDOLYN BAKER: The only thing that I knew-- my parents-- we would always refer to people of dark skin color. We were always referred to as colored, and we never used the N-word in our family. It was not one that was common. And then, as I got older, people started referring to the colored people as black, and that was hard for my parents. They did not like the word black, and even when I started teaching school, it was hard even for white students to go from calling people that they had previously called colored going into black. And then, of course, the rest is just history.
- [00:18:56.76] INTERVIEWER: So why was it difficult for your parents? Do you know?
- [00:19:01.51] GWENDOLYN BAKER: I do. Because black is the sign for most people of something that is not good, and in fact, when I taught school, in order to help not my parents, but the young white students feel better about using the term black, I had them for a year become involved in an art program where they did everything in black. So they began to understand that they could create things that were black that became beautiful. For them, it was kind of a transition. And for my parents, it was not that easy, but as I said, because it was so negative. But then they, too, began to move into using the word Negro rather than black. And as I said, then the rest of it is just history because the media and the environment has the ability of changing people whether they want to be changed or not.
- [00:20:11.81] INTERVIEWER: So I'm going to continue with one more question during your school years, your high school years.
- [00:20:17.42] GWENDOLYN BAKER: Louder, please, Joyce.
- [00:20:19.10] INTERVIEWER: What important social or historical events were taking place at the time, and how did they personally affect you and your family during your high school years?
- [00:20:29.99] GWENDOLYN BAKER: Well, the most important thing I remember was-- one of the things I remember is the end of World War II, and I was only, what, 9 or 10 in the early '40s. And of course, we were all downtown in the streets, and everybody was just so happy that the war had ended, because those were the days when you had to stand in line to get five pounds of sugar or a pair or hose, or anything that people really wanted. It was difficult because of the rationing system. You had to have a coupon even to buy a pork chop.
- [00:21:12.59] So through the early '40s, that sort of was on its way out, but it did impact our younger lives and family life in terms of what we ate and when we ate it. Let's see. Where did I want to go from there?
- [00:21:37.34] The impact-- I think it was more or less subtle. Ann Arbor, being a northern town, we didn't really think at the time that we had much segregation, and as I said, it wasn't until I grew later and moved into high school did we begin to see some of that. Now, when I was in high school, one of the things-- this didn't really involve my family, but on the side, it really did. I couldn't take my senior trip with my class. And you've read the book, so you know that the reason I couldn't go was because, unless I had family or friends in the nation's capital where I could stay overnight, I couldn't stay in the hotels.
- [00:22:34.66] This was the nation's capital, and I remember at the time the NAACP was alive, but not. It was almost dead in those days. It was not what it is today, because I so much wanted to go to someone or some place to get somebody to do something to get rid of these feelings. And my experiences from that sundae that caused me to become a strong black woman in a white world-- they began to become alive and take stronger roots, because I felt that everything I was going to do would have a way of helping people understand how ridiculous it was to be racist. And what did skin color have to do with anything?
- [00:23:37.90] The one thing that was interesting was that most black people that I came across during those days were very concerned about young people getting an education, and sometimes it was not easy for some, depending on where they lived, to get what they wanted. And also at that time, a lot of the young men were coming home from the war, and they were enrolling at the University of Michigan. So we could see the results of the end of the war.
- [00:24:14.89] And then the southern states, where they would not allow blacks to enter advanced education centers, but they would pay for their education if they moved north. And so we had an influx of very fine black people, many who later became very good friends that came up from the south to go to school at Eastern, and at the University of Michigan, and Michigan State, so that the results of the war, and the clamor, and the activity of the Civil Rights Movement-- that was beginning, was creeping into our environment.
- [00:25:06.42] I remember having to take my children to Ypsilanti to have their teeth cleaned so that they could be able to see a black dentist. At the time, there were absolutely none in Ann Arbor, Michigan. And I remember also taking them to Atlanta so they could see black men having breakfast before going to work in a restaurant in shirts and ties. I wanted them to know that there was another world, and there were things that we could do in our daily life and what we did together and with other people that could help us move in some direction, hopefully a little faster than it was going.
- [00:25:56.72] INTERVIEWER: And so we're talking about segregation, and I want to continue along those lines with a couple more questions. So when growing up, who were your teachers? Did you have any black teachers?
- [00:26:10.73] GWENDOLYN BAKER: Repeat that, please.
- [00:26:11.76] INTERVIEWER: When growing up, who were your teachers? Did you have any black teachers?
- [00:26:19.38] GWENDOLYN BAKER: I wish I could say I had black teachers, but I did not, and that was one of the reasons I wanted to go into teaching, because I felt that they needed some black teachers in the system. At the time I got out of high school and went to Michigan my freshman year, I think there was one black teacher, if you could call her black, in one of the junior high schools, but they had not started to hire blacks. And I'm trying to think. I know I'm right.
- [00:26:59.67] It was a predominantly white profession in Ann Arbor, and in elementary school, when I went to Jones School, I had no black teachers, but the white teachers, those I did have, were very, very helpful, and most of them were very nice. There may have been some that were not, but if they were, they didn't cross my environment. So I have nothing negative to say.
- [00:27:32.25] And again, when I mentioned there was only five African Americans in my high school graduation, most of the black kids in my neighborhood went to Jones School, and also most of the Greek children, because we all lived in the area around what is known as the-- or then as the market area. And at that time, our social lives were contained within what we called the Dunbar Center. The house is still on the corner of 4th, and I can't think of the other street right now, but it later moved down on Main Street and is now called-- what is it called now, Joyce? It's not the Dunbar Center, but it's the big center on Main Street.
- [00:28:28.92] INTERVIEWER: Ann Arbor Community Center?
- [00:28:30.79] GWENDOLYN BAKER: I guess it's Ann Arbor Community Center now, but originally it was the Dunbar Center where Douglas Williams and his wife-- where they lived and they controlled the activities of most black Americans at that time. And those activities were connected to basically three churches. I can't think of the name of the evangelical church, but then there was Second Baptist and AME church, and this really created our neighborhood.
- [00:29:11.41] And so anything that came that we wanted to do that was outside of that we really had to seek some help. I remember when I had one of my first jobs at the YWCA in Ann Arbor, and the reason I became the secretary receptionist was, at the time, Douglas Williams, who was the executive at the Dunbar Community Center, and Reverend Carpenter, who was a minister at the Second Baptist Church-- they had convinced the Y that they needed to have an African American on their staff. At that time, it was black or Negro.
- [00:29:59.67] And they hired me, and I stayed. I stayed as long as I could until I really became involved in getting my education. I didn't want to sit and type all day long, and it was nice greeting people, but that was not what I wanted to do. I wanted to have some place somewhere I could go to make an impact, and I felt that teaching really was my answer at the time.
- [00:30:36.73] INTERVIEWER: So let's talk a little bit about the area that you lived. So talk about that area, and the streets, and was it comprised of primarily blacks? Talk a little bit about the area where you lived growing up.
- [00:30:50.68] GWENDOLYN BAKER: You mean the neighborhood?
- [00:30:51.61] INTERVIEWER: The neighborhood, yes.
- [00:30:54.19] GWENDOLYN BAKER: Well, I was fortunate, because our house was just two doors from the AME church, and so even though I was not a member, I felt like I was a member, because on Wednesday nights, which was prayer evening night, and on Sunday mornings, I could sit on my porch and watch people, if I wasn't going to church myself, to Second Baptist. Sit and watch the people in the neighborhood go to that church, and some of them would come in from other neighborhoods where they were now living, and slowly, bit by bit, people were finding houses in other sections in the city.
- [00:31:39.13] And in fact, so many of us were confined to 4th Avenue, 5th Avenue, Beakes Street, some sections of the Main Street, and that whole area, they began to move out and across the bridge and up the hill until we began to be all over. But in my specific neighborhood, we were mixed. Two doors from me lived a very fine white family that my brothers played ball with their sons, and my mother would talk with the head of the household, the woman who was there, just like any other neighbor. And on the other side of us-- I spoke about this family. It was a family of a white woman who was married to-- I think he was an Indian mixed with black blood, whatever. They were truly integrated.
- [00:32:43.75] And all up and down we had whites and blacks, and so I couldn't understand why people couldn't understand, because we were all getting along so well in our own environment, even over on Main Street, where the Greek Orthodox Church was. And we would play with those kids after school and on the weekends at the playground, and the older I got, the more I realized that it was truly-- Ann Arbor itself was really segregated, but it was very well hidden. And it, too, needed to be revitalized, but I was not the only person that felt like that. Willis and a lot of other people, people who are as young as you are, Joyce, or younger at that time--
- [00:33:43.48] INTERVIEWER: I don't know about young, Gwen, but go ahead.
- [00:33:46.23] [LAUGHTER]
- [00:33:48.69] GWENDOLYN BAKER: I think people began to realize that there were things that needed to be changed. And when I look at Ann Arbor now when I go home, I hardly can believe that it is the same. There were no black restaurants. There was a black section called Ann Street, where black men hung out, much like is described in the book that you're probably familiar with, Tally's Corner, and I notice here in Sarasota there's a corner where black men all hang out, and play chess, and drink.
- [00:34:24.65] And certainly Ann Street was a place where the men got together, and I guess they had chicken dinners and things like that, but it wasn't a place where respectable families went. It was always where the single men went to have their beer and hang out--
- [00:34:43.40] INTERVIEWER: So let me ask you this.
- [00:34:44.54] GWENDOLYN BAKER: --and to do the things that men do.
- [00:34:46.10] INTERVIEWER: So when I've interviewed other people, they talked about 4th Ave and that area also being a business district for blacks, where you could go and get your hair cut, your hair done. There were restaurants there, and so some people are surprised to hear that that used to be a predominately black area.
- [00:35:09.96] GWENDOLYN BAKER: Well, that's a part of where I'm talking about, but that developed when I was a child. You have to remember, I'm 86 years old. When I was a child, the YMCA was down there right off of 4th Avenue, and around the corner there was a gas station, and then there was a little restaurant upstairs. It wasn't a nice restaurant. It wasn't anything I would go to. And yes, there was a barber shop, because I remember my cousin's husband opened a barbershop, but he was much younger. That became later. And this was during the time that I was going to the university that was I was-- my youth had left. I left all of that behind, and then the market started to develop much more than it was before.
- [00:36:05.77] And it's very different now. And then-- what's his name? I think he's passed now-- had the barbecue--
- [00:36:16.32] INTERVIEWER: DeLong?
- [00:36:17.60] GWENDOLYN BAKER: --barbecue stand, and then my brothers had the Beer Vault. Do you remember that?
- [00:36:22.19] INTERVIEWER: I remember DeLong's, the barbecue place.
- [00:36:24.83] GWENDOLYN BAKER: Yes, well, my brother, Russell and-- not Russell. Don and Duane-- Don died two years ago, but they had the Beer Vault. You could drive through. I don't know if it's still there or not, but at that time, it was kind of connected to the 4th Ave area. So people that you are interviewing who are younger than I am-- they would know more about the development of that area than I would, because I was long gone.
- [00:36:54.94] INTERVIEWER: OK. I'm going to move us into part three, which is adulthood, marriage, and family life. 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 think we might be talking about a stretch of time spanning as much as four decades. After you finished high school, where did you live? Did you remain there?
- [00:37:28.58] GWENDOLYN BAKER: After I finished high school, I lived with my parents while I went to the University of Michigan because I couldn't afford to live on campus, but at that time, black students could not live on campus, male or female, and us females lived where they called Britt House over close to the hospital area. And the men lived at Lewis House, which was a black family, older man and woman, who rented out their rooms to black male students. And there were some black male students that lived in other places like [INAUDIBLE] and 4th Ave while they went to the university.
- [00:38:17.23] My uncle went to a southern school to try to get an education because he wanted to play basketball. You probably knew my Uncle Mallory, and he couldn't play basketball at the University of Michigan. So he went south to go to school, and then he ended up becoming a captain in the Army, but there are many, many things that happened because Ann Arbor was not what people thought it was at the time. It was segregated, but not as segregated as south. We never saw a sign that said for colored only or blacks couldn't go there.
- [00:39:02.78] We knew that, when you passed a restaurant on Main Street and all you saw were white faces inside, you just knew better than I knew when I went to Crippen's Drug Store for a sundae that you weren't supposed to go in there and ask for service. Fortunately, I was serviced, but in a very different way.
- [00:39:30.78] During my first year at the university, I had started before that during my senior year. No, let me go back. During high school, I had become very good friends to James Baker, who was one of the members of the Baker family. They had 12 children and lived across the street from me. And James and I used to hang out together and go to movies on Sunday. We were just a very close knit couple, and when I went to the university the first year, at the end of my first year, I became pregnant.
- [00:40:12.66] And it's interesting, because since my book went out, in the book, for those who have read it, I mention that I didn't know how I became pregnant. And someone on one of my book signing trips said, how in the world would you not know you were pregnant? And I said, well, at that time, first of all, we didn't have cars like they do today. Almost everybody has a car.
- [00:40:40.36] Any time we went to something where we needed transportation, James's mother would take us and pick us up. So there was never a time in a car that we were together. We could never go to a motel, because we just knew that was an off-off. And where would we get the money anyway? Because most of us didn't have that kind of money, and were not that sophisticated.
- [00:41:05.29] So I said I guess my answer to that question, Joyce, is we did some heavy, heavy-- what do they call it? There's another word for it.
- [00:41:15.73] INTERVIEWER: Making out?
- [00:41:16.08] GWENDOLYN BAKER: Making out, I guess what it is, because the only privacy we had was Jones School playground, but whether I knew it or not, I got pregnant, and that affected my life, because then I married James Baker immediately, and I discovered this in December. Eight and a half months before my first child was born, Joanne, I dropped out of school, but during that time, James and I developed a home. And we tried very hard for five years to have a second child, which we did, and then, being very stupid, we thought it would take another five years to have another child, so we tried, and we had our third child, a boy, within two years. And we decided we would not have any more children, but to just cultivate a very secure and warm environment for the three children that we had.
- [00:42:22.27] And James and I stayed married for 17 years and did most of the things that most families do, but somehow I think during our lives, when he went one way, I went another way in terms of what it was that we wanted out of life. And that's why I ended up sitting here talking to you in Sarasota, Florida.
- [00:42:55.91] INTERVIEWER: I'm going to move to part four, which is work and retirement. And I know--
- [00:43:00.13] GWENDOLYN BAKER: I can't hear you.
- [00:43:01.52] INTERVIEWER: I'm going to move to part four, which is work and retirement. Can you hear me?
- [00:43:05.80] GWENDOLYN BAKER: Yeah I can hear you [INAUDIBLE].
- [00:43:06.91] INTERVIEWER: And so I know in reading your book you talked about different positions that you had, and for me, I learned a lot about the YWCA, and I learned a lot about you working for Avon. So can you talk about some of those positions?
- [00:43:27.32] GWENDOLYN BAKER: Well, when we were raising a family-- and of course, it still was very difficult for us to find the kinds of jobs that we would like. And so I decided that I would try selling Avon, which I did, and I invented Avon parties for women who were wives of students and lived in North Campus. That was just a new-- wow, it's blown up, and it's almost another city unto itself. It was just a new student area where students lived.
- [00:44:02.56] And so I really did very well. I made enough money to buy clothes for my children, and sometimes I'd buy my husband a pair of socks. And I just laugh about that. But after that, once I went back to school and finished everything I needed to do and then became qualified to teach school, but there was something I wanted to say between the Avon job-- no, it wasn't the Y. I worked for the YWCA before I had Joanne, but I was married, but I was married while I did the Avon. And then I started teaching school, and then that just led to another whole development.
- [00:45:03.47] My husband worked in his father's stock foundry. Mr. Baker was co-owner of the Ann Arbor Foundry across the river, across the bridge, and they were a very well-to-do family, although a lot of people didn't realize that, because they didn't they didn't show it, but they lived it internally.
- [00:45:34.26] INTERVIEWER: I want to go take you back for a minute in terms of Avon. I remember reading some of the things that they supported, and I didn't know that. Can you talk a little bit about how they used some of their dollars to support certain projects?
- [00:45:51.51] GWENDOLYN BAKER: Well, we have to go from there to another part of my life.
- [00:45:57.57] INTERVIEWER: Well, go ahead and continue then. I just thought were leaving Avon, but continue.
- [00:46:04.03] GWENDOLYN BAKER: First, let's see. Well, how many years. That would be about a span of 10, 12, 15 years, because I went from teaching school in Ann Arbor to eventually being put on the faculty at the University of Michigan. And from there, I went to Washington during the Carter administration and became the CEO of a research project that focused on helping ethnic students complete their PhDs. And then from there, I went to New York and became vice president to Bank Street College. And while I was there, I was recruited to be the CEO for the YWCA of the United States.
- [00:47:04.83] Now, in that position, I had to raise money, even though the YWCA had over 400 YWCAs throughout the country. It was a very big and important job. And one of my jobs, as I said, was to raise money. And I went to Avon Products to talk to the person who was in charge of contributing to whatever, and I wasn't sure what they contributed to. But as I said in the book, with my nerves in one hand and whatever else in the other, I went to the head of the company and asked them about giving us some money to help with our projects on breast cancer.
- [00:48:03.69] And what I did in terms of my entry to this whole thing was to tell them that I had sold Avon when I was a young student at the University of Michigan, which opened their ears, and they listened to what the YWCA had done all these years throughout the country. People who are from the south, particularly African-Americans, are very much aware of the YWCA, because while in the north, churches used to pick up all the activity of bringing young people out into the community. Whereas in the south, the YWCA would have the cotillions, and the dances, and the lessons, and whatever you needed in a community. The YWCA was there especially for blacks.
- [00:49:07.56] Well, to make a long story short, I was able to get money from Avon-- started out with $300,000. Next thing I knew, we had $30,000. That was funding the breast cancer projects not only for the YWCA, almost all the 400 YWCAs throughout the country, but they were also funding projects similar to other organizations. The names have escaped me. I don't know who they are.
- [00:49:44.80] But you had two organizations. Both were working towards the betterment for women, and they were much more active, I think, in the south-- at least the YWCA-- then they were in the north. But the YMCA was about as old as the YWCA. When I left the YW, they were 130, 135 years old, and they had been organized before the YMCA. I don't know if that answered your questions or not.
- [00:50:19.13] INTERVIEWER: Yeah, it did, and I'm sitting here thinking about reading the book and listening to you, and you had so many wonderful experiences in terms of your career. And I was trying to get in my mind sort of the order that things happened, such as teaching and then YWCA. And I know there were other things you did, as well, so I just want you to continue on with listing some of the other areas in your career.
- [00:50:46.67] GWENDOLYN BAKER: While I was with the YWCA, I was called one day by someone whose last name was Baker, but we were not related, who said he wanted to nominate me for a position on the school board for New York City. And I was amazed, and they wanted me to send them a resume immediately, which I did. And that ended up in me becoming-- David Dinkins at the time was mayor, but that ended up in me becoming one of the five members of the New York City Board of Education, which is over a million students in 35 school districts.
- [00:51:41.31] It wasn't just one district. I was on the board that was over all of them. And before I left them, I became president of that board for one year. I had to give up that job because I was also at the time working with the YWCA, and I just couldn't handle two jobs at one time, even though they provided me with a car and driver, and picked me up early in the morning to take me wherever I needed to go. Sometimes I was so busy I had to change my clothes in the back of the car, Joyce, to get ready to go speak at a dinner or something that evening.
- [00:52:24.94] So I would keep a long black skirt, and a top, and some shoes in the back seat of the car, and then wiggle into my outfit, powder my nose, and hop into some hotel, and give a speech, and go home dead tired at midnight, get up the next morning at 6:00, and be on my way. But also during that time, or shortly after, I became nominated for a member on the board of the United States Olympic Committee, which I consider very, very important, because I learned so much about the Olympics. And the Olympics is much more than most people think that it is, but again, I was the only African American at that time on that particular board.
- [00:53:22.98] However, two years or three years before that, there had been another black woman. I can't think of her name now, but she didn't participate, and I don't know why, because it was one of the most interesting and prestigious boards I had ever served on. And then during that time, also, I had been approached to serve on a bank board, which also gave me an opening into a whole other different world and opened many doors for not only contributions, but it also opened my eyes to the stock market, which I had had very little exposure to.
- [00:54:08.27] And I tell most young people that I know, get involved, especially when you're young. Instead of buying a new pair of shoes, buy some stock and just watch it grow. You don't realize 65 gets there sooner than you think, and it's worth saving for a future that you can certainly look forward to if you take care of yourself. Let's see. What have I left out?
- [00:54:40.35] INTERVIEWER: Well, I know in the book there was-- I don't know when UNICEF came in, and I was going to ask some questions about that, some of the pictures that you have included in your book.
- [00:54:50.13] GWENDOLYN BAKER: In the book? I have the book in front of me. Let me see.
- [00:54:54.20] INTERVIEWER: Well, it was your picture with President Carter.
- [00:55:00.71] GWENDOLYN BAKER: My last job-- how did I forget my very last job? I became president and CEO of UNICEF.
- [00:55:10.05] INTERVIEWER: There you go.
- [00:55:12.09] GWENDOLYN BAKER: Oh my goodness. The best job I ever had, and I just skipped right over it.
- [00:55:20.16] INTERVIEWER: Well, talk to us about that.
- [00:55:21.06] GWENDOLYN BAKER: I was just trying to think. A headhunter called me one day and asked me if I knew anybody who was interested in the job, and he described the job, and when he told me what the salary was, I told him I knew somebody that was interested. And I would like to have an interview.
- [00:55:45.11] INTERVIEWER: Good move.
- [00:55:47.11] GWENDOLYN BAKER: It was me, and I didn't realize that's exactly what he was asking for. He wanted me to apply. And I was there for three years, three wonderful years that sent me all over the world. I've been to more than 50 countries, and most of them were through UNICEF and the YWCA. Some I did on my own before I got as involved in these countries that I did, but I went to-- the picture is in the book-- and I tried to make them show how diverse, because I was able to take my strong feelings about ethnicity, and racism, segregation into the international scene, and I wanted to see what was happening in places like El Salvador and into China. And the northern part of China is as different as night and day as it is southern part. Did I say that right? Anyway, you know what I mean.
- [00:57:02.28] INTERVIEWER: Yes.
- [00:57:03.06] GWENDOLYN BAKER: And went to Vietnam and was able to understand that a little bit later. So I went to Africa, many countries in Africa-- Ghana and Ethiopia-- and the list just goes on and on, but that was a very special part of my life. And it was a wonderful way to kind of pull my life together, because I had done so many exciting things. And then to have them pull together under the umbrella of UNICEF, which took me into the United Nations, and there were times that I spoke at the United Nations, depending on what I was trying to get support for. Usually it was not for money, but it was for something legally that we wanted to have approved. And still I was meeting some heads of state and some very interesting people, and a lot of the movie stars who were involved, I became very close to-- isn't that awful? I can't think of his name.
- [00:58:18.80] INTERVIEWER: Maya? Maya?
- [00:58:20.87] GWENDOLYN BAKER: Well, I became very close to Maya, yes, but I was thinking of the guy that sings-- what's his name? He's about as old as I am now, but anyway, and many of the white movie stars, as well as the blacks, because they all wanted to help either the YWCA or UNICEF mostly. I got a lot of support for UNICEF. And I was in the United Nations as much as I was in my office, because my offices were not too far from there. So it meant that I could go back and forth very easily.
- [00:59:08.21] INTERVIEWER: So talk to us a little bit about--
- [00:59:09.59] GWENDOLYN BAKER: And then during that time I had my cancer, but I was able to hang in that and got through that OK. I retained my thinking in terms of being a strong black woman and functioning in a white world and trying to integrate my whole process of thinking about integration in every single thing that I did. I was always a spokesperson, and I wouldn't let anything go by. Nothing passed me that I couldn't raise my voice to. So I've had a wonderful journey, and I'm so glad that you are interested enough in me to ask me to have some conversation with you.
- [01:00:02.27] INTERVIEWER: Well, I'm so glad we're able to do it. And I do want to ask you, just in case people don't know about UNICEF, explain exactly a little bit more about UNICEF and your role.
- [01:00:13.76] GWENDOLYN BAKER: My role was-- first of all, UNICEF is the United Nations organization for the welfare of children, and there are 40 some UNICEF organizations throughout the world that contribute to the betterment of children and families throughout the world to some almost 200,000 countries, even though there are only about 40 some units, but I was over the United States unit. And we raise money by selling greeting cards and by just plain out asking people for contributions, and that was a part of my job.
- [01:01:12.97] We had a strong board of people from all walks of life who supported me, and I had a staff originally of 100, but I had to cut it back. So when I left, we only had about 60, I guess, but we were very successful in raising money for projects, like it could be in Ethiopia contributing to the development of a lake, or in some places it's the development of a well. To some other places, it might have been development of a vegetable garden. It varied.
- [01:01:59.93] And also, in some instances, the YWCA and UNICEF-- some it was due to the fact that I had had my foot in both organizations. We would do some things together because our effort, our focus was very, very similar. And of course, one of the main ways of raising money is during the month of Halloween. And it used to be just one week of having children go from door to door, raising money for UNICEF. And I expanded it to a month, and made, before she died, Maya the national chairperson for the United States.
- [01:02:52.88] It was a very impressive job and one that I just loved very much, and it still-- it has its kinks, and a lot of the kinks still are about ethnicity, racism. These things are not, as we well know, just common to the United States. They're common to the entire world. And so that you go to China, you find it. You go to South Africa. It depends on your skin color. The coloreds are living in one section. The blacks live in another. In some countries, the women don't live with the men.
- [01:03:43.53] So it was a world of learning about what happens in so many parts of the world. One of the most interesting things, if you have another minute, I learned about in Ethiopia about women and men-- they were families, but not as we think of a family. But they live throughout the country in clans, and the women would get pregnant, but they would have to find someplace to have these babies. And most of them could not have a baby like we think of having a baby, but in some instances, if word got to one of these women who was living in the clan and she was pregnant about a hospital in the main city, she would get on a bus or on a horse. And I was there one day when one of these young women came from the woods on a horse, pregnant, to the hospital because she had heard that they would help her have the baby.
- [01:05:03.31] And when she got there, she was practically split open before she could deliver. And I sat while they talked with her about what they were going to do while she was there, and the woman took a sheet of paper and a pencil, and punched a hole in the paper. And she said, this is what has happened to you. You have a hole in your body, and we're going to sew you up again, and we're going to give you a beautiful new dress. And this hospital was run by two white doctors from Argentina-- not Argentina. Can't think of-- anyway, another one of the white countries.
- [01:05:56.72] And it was so amazing to walk through that hospital and see the dedication of two people who got no pay for what they did, but they were putting the lives and the bodies of these young women back together again. And then they would return to their families, to their clan once they got well enough to go back into the woods. It was very, very interesting.
- [01:06:24.35] INTERVIEWER: Thanks for sharing that. I want to go back just for a second. You mentioned Maya Angelou. Did you say you, in fact, appointed her the chair for the annual?
- [01:06:34.59] GWENDOLYN BAKER: I appointed her the national chair. In fact, it was the day that my-- what was it? We were at the United Nations, and I was able to not authorize, but it means the same thing. And we did it there with a lovely dinner that afternoon. And she had a group of young women that she had taken under her arms as a result of our relationship. She was a lovely woman. And as you notice in the book, she did a poem.
- [01:07:15.19] INTERVIEWER: Right, and that that's where I was going to next. I want to read a little bit of that poem. And it's called "Daughters and Sons," as you know. And I just want to read a couple paragraphs here-- or stanzas here:
- [01:07:28.86] If my luck is bad
- [01:07:31.29] And his aim is straight
- [01:07:33.30] I will leave my life
- [01:07:34.50] On the killing field
- [01:07:36.51] You can see me die
- [01:07:38.22] On the nightly news
- [01:07:39.75] As you settle down
- [01:07:41.01] To your evening meal.
- [01:07:43.29] But you'll turn your back
- [01:07:44.88] As you often do
- [01:07:46.48] Yet I am your sons
- [01:07:47.88] And your daughters too.
- [01:07:50.03] In the city streets
- [01:07:51.24] Where the neon lights
- [01:07:52.95] Turn my skin from black
- [01:07:54.48] To electric blue
- [01:07:55.95] My hope soaks red
- [01:07:58.21] On the gray pavement
- [01:07:59.97] And my dreams die hard
- [01:08:02.00] For my life is through.
- [01:08:03.84] And there's quite a bit more, but when I read that it really made me think a little bit about hashtag Black Lives Matter.
- [01:08:14.24] GWENDOLYN BAKER: And I think it says very well-- every line you read in that poem was the kind of person she was and how she felt about girls and boys, and her daughters and her sons. And I think you take away from it what you want as you read it, and you picked a very lovely portion to read.
- [01:08:40.45] INTERVIEWER: So I'm going to move us now into part five, which is the last part of the interview, and it's called historical social events. But before I do, I do want to ask you one question from work retirement area. 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? So we covered a lot of territory. So anything in particular?
- [01:09:09.63] GWENDOLYN BAKER: I think when I put down my notes after I read this-- I think that the historical social event that I always start with-- well there are really two. One was the end of World War II. The second one, because we were you listening to it on radio, was the bombing of Pearl Harbor. That kind of brought war home to us, but for me, those events were intertwined with the warmth that I felt from the family that I had. My mother did a lot of reading, and what she could do-- she was active with the PTA, which made our family a part of the environment that I was living in and that was intertwined.
- [01:10:07.68] And I was very proud of being involved in the church. Second Baptist Church was very, very important to me. I later worked for them for a short period of time, but I learned so many of my social skills, and not just about the Bible, but things about how people do things and what is important. And then as I've mentioned already, the Dunbar Community Center, which is where we interacted, not only with Doug Williams, and his wife, and his family, but interacted with other people, young people, because it was the only place we could go, and dance, and have fun in a nice clean setting.
- [01:10:56.25] And then, of course, I couldn't speak of my life at all without mentioning the University of Michigan, not only as a professor or as a student, but I remember some of my little temporary jobs were at the University of Michigan, because so many people that went to my church worked for the fraternities and sororities because those were the only jobs they could get-- to do the cooking and the cleaning. And at the end of the school sessions, they would need someone to come in and help them, and they would ask the young African-American students to come in and help them.
- [01:11:43.65] And they asked African-American students because we were all from the same church. And in some instances, this was a joy to us, because so many of those girls were rich, and they would leave beautiful clothes. And so we not only got paid by the hour, but sometimes we would walk away with a new sweater, or a new jacket, or something. And so I had access to the public and private lives of the family, the church, the community center, the University of Michigan, and it just kind of culminated into kind of like the salad that's [INAUDIBLE] it all takes a little bit of everything to put a person together and make something decent come out of it. And I know that you said also in this section--
- [01:12:47.55] INTERVIEWER: I can read some of it. I'll just--
- [01:12:49.92] GWENDOLYN BAKER: Well, maybe I shouldn't go to the last one. It said what advice would I give to the younger generation.
- [01:12:56.13] INTERVIEWER: Yeah, just hold out for a second for that one.
- [01:12:59.94] GWENDOLYN BAKER: OK.
- [01:13:00.30] INTERVIEWER: So you sort of talked about how it was to live here, and when thinking back over your entire life, what are you most proud of?
- [01:13:11.17] GWENDOLYN BAKER: Well, I think I didn't say it in that way, but you know, Joyce, in today's world, there are kids who don't even know who their father is, and sometimes-- well, most of them know who their mother is, and some of them don't know what it is to sit down every evening to a meal and have conversation with family. I am so proud that I came from a family like that where we were what I consider a family. I am so proud of the fact that, while I may not go to church every Sunday now, I'm proud that I'm a Christian, that I learned how to treat people, and I learned what's important to one's life, and the whole social aspect of the pulling together of the public and the private.
- [01:14:15.08] It's hard for me to pick out just one thing. It's a combination of all of those, of pulling together and having access to both the public and the private sector. And even some of the jobs that I had-- and people I worked for were contributing people, but sometimes the negative aspects, including the white cup with the hot fudge sundae, which turned out to affect my entire life, has a way of making you what you are. And so my pride goes back to all of those things that contributed to my journey.
- [01:15:03.58] INTERVIEWER: Thank you. Now the last question. What advice would you give to the younger generation? You sort of mentioned some things earlier.
- [01:15:11.59] GWENDOLYN BAKER: Well, I think the main thing is education. I wish there was a requirement that every student had to do something past high school. Doesn't mean they have to go to a higher education. As long as they got some training, I don't care what it is, but everybody needs something that they can be supported by and that they can help people with.
- [01:15:44.42] I have my granddaughter living with me now, and she's looking at what she wants to do in the technical center. And I said you need to do something that will make sure that you will be helping people, because as long as you help people, you'll never be without a position in life, and you will always be satisfied, because you will be helping people. And you can carry out whatever it is that you want to carry out, but you have to be educated. You have to be trained.
- [01:16:19.40] And so that's my one flag that I wave. Go to school. Get some training. Get some education--
- [01:16:33.24] INTERVIEWER: Thank you.
- [01:16:33.96] GWENDOLYN BAKER: --period.
- [01:16:35.19] INTERVIEWER: It's been really a delight interviewing you. I do want to share with you that we always have a premiere of our different phases. This is phase five. And so when we decide when we're going to do that, we'll let you know, but I do want to see if you have any final thoughts that you want to share before we end the interview.
- [01:16:58.77] GWENDOLYN BAKER: No, I just am so glad that you're doing this, and I wish I was in a position financially to help you build what you're building. And I'll do something later, but I mean in a very demonstrative way, because I know it's going to take a lot, and I'm pleased with what you're doing to pull this all together. And I also appreciate Matt and his team for working with you in helping to complete probably not only this interview, but others, too.
- [01:17:40.37] INTERVIEWER: They have. They're a great partner. They really are.
- [01:17:43.09] GWENDOLYN BAKER: That's great, and I thank them.
April 5, 2018 at Downtown Library
Copyright: Creative Commons (Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share-alike)
Rights Held by: Ann Arbor District Library
Ford Motor Co.
Works Progress Administration (WPA)
Calvert-Burgess Rubbish Service
Calvert's Roll-Off Container Inc.
Crippen Drug Store
University of Michigan - School of Education
World War II
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
Jones Elementary School
Dunbar Community Center
Second Baptist Church of Ann Arbor
Bethel AME Church
Ann Arbor YWCA
DeLong's Bar-B-Q Pit
Avon Products Inc.
Ann Arbor Foundry
Bank Street College of Education (New York)
New York City Board of Education
United States Olympic Committee
United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF)
Black Lives Matter
Race & Ethnicity
AACHM Living Oral History
Russell Lee Calvert
Douglas E. H. Williams
Charles W. Carpenter