AACHM Oral History: David Rutledge
Sun, 11/08/2020 - 3:29pm
When: August 17, 2020
David Rutledge was born in 1945 in LaFayette, Alabama and grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He traces his commitment to public service to his experience protesting a segregated lunch counter as a teenager. He attended Tennessee State University and the University of Michigan Law School. Mr. Rutledge has served as Superior Township Supervisor, Ypsilanti State Representative, and as a member of the Washtenaw County Parks Commission and Washtenaw Community College Board of Trustees. He dedicates this interview to his parents and his late wife, Gerri.
- [00:00:15] INTERVIEWER: First of all, David, I want to thank you for agreeing to do this interview for the African American Cultural and Historical Museum, and taking the time out of your schedule to do this. We have four parts to these questions. The first part is on demographics and family history.
- [00:00:36] DAVID RUTLEDGE: Yes.
- [00:00:37] INTERVIEWER: I'm first going to ask you some simple demographic questions. These questions may jog your memory, but please keep your answers brief and to the point for now. We can go into more detail later in the interview. Please say and spell your name.
- [00:00:56] DAVID RUTLEDGE: David Rutledge. D-A-V-I- D, middle name Elliott, E-L-L-I-O-T-T and Rutledge, R-U-T-L-E- D-G-E.
- [00:01:11] INTERVIEWER: What is your date of birth including the year?
- [00:01:15] DAVID RUTLEDGE: March 23rd, 1945.
- [00:01:22] INTERVIEWER: How old are you?
- [00:01:25] DAVID RUTLEDGE: Seventy-five.
- [00:01:29] INTERVIEWER: How would you describe your ethnic background?
- [00:01:33] DAVID RUTLEDGE: As an African-American.
- [00:01:37] INTERVIEWER: What is your religion, if any?
- [00:01:42] DAVID RUTLEDGE: I am religious, and my denomination is Baptist.
- [00:01:51] INTERVIEWER: What is the highest level of formal education you have completed?
- [00:01:56] DAVID RUTLEDGE: Bachelor of Science degree.
- [00:02:01] INTERVIEWER: Did you attend any additional school or former career training beyond that?
- [00:02:08] DAVID RUTLEDGE: I have attended under a Rockefeller Foundation grant, Harvard University in their law school, in the study of law. It was an intensive eight-week program to introduce students to law. I've also attended the University of Michigan Law School, two years of law there.
- [00:02:44] INTERVIEWER: David, tell me about the Rockefeller. You called it, was it a grant or training? How did you [OVERLAPPING] get selected to do that? What was the process?
- [00:02:59] DAVID RUTLEDGE: At my university, Tennessee State University, I was enrolled in the political science department. In my junior year, the chair of the department called me in and asked if I were interested in attending a special program. That program would be an intensive study of law at Harvard. So, "You're talking to me? Of course I'd be interested." That was the beginning of a process that was amazing. I guess I'd step back and just briefly let you know, the Rockefeller Foundation partnered with Harvard during that time because there was a shortage across the country of Black attorneys. They were interested in encouraging Blacks to go into the field of law. So they partnered with the Rockefeller Foundation. In my cohort, there were 27 of us from different places across the country invited by Harvard during that summer to immerse ourselves in law. We had the option or I should say, the opportunity to take a regular Harvard class, which I did. That class was Russian history.
- [00:04:42] INTERVIEWER: Wow, very interesting. What is your marital status?
- [00:04:49] DAVID RUTLEDGE: I am a widow. My wife, Gerri, of 48 years, passed away in 2015.
- [00:04:59] INTERVIEWER: Right. I knew your wife.
- [00:05:02] DAVID RUTLEDGE: In my mind, I'm dedicating this interview to her, Gerri Rutledge, and to my mom and dad, Ida Lee Rutledge and David Rutledge, my parents.
- [00:05:24] INTERVIEWER: That's very special David. My mother's name is Ida as well. How many children do you have?
- [00:05:33] DAVID RUTLEDGE: We have two children, Felicia is the oldest, and Marcus is two years younger.
- [00:05:45] INTERVIEWER: How many siblings do you have?
- [00:05:49] DAVID RUTLEDGE: I have two. I have a younger brother and an older brother. My older brother lives in West Point, Georgia. He is a retired social worker. He ran the Department of Social Services for the state of Georgia for many years. My younger brother is a retired [NOISE] GM employee.
- [00:06:23] INTERVIEWER: So you're a middle child?
- [00:06:26] DAVID RUTLEDGE: Yes.
- [00:06:29] INTERVIEWER: What was your primary occupation?
- [00:06:35] DAVID RUTLEDGE: My primary occupation was public servant, I guess you would say. Most of my adult life has been in the public service arena. I started that career path as a Township Supervisor. It's part of the reason that I left law school early before completion. I really wanted law school as a stepping stone into a political career and that happened sooner than I finished law school.
- [00:07:17] INTERVIEWER: Okay, now I don't know if this question is appropriate or not. At what age did you retire? Or have you retired?
- [00:07:28] DAVID RUTLEDGE: I have not retired. I don't think of myself as retiring. The reason I don't is because all that I have done has not appeared to be really work to me. It's been like a path that I have been on that is just what I should be doing. It's been hard, but also it's been fun.
- [00:08:06] INTERVIEWER: Okay, great. I'm going to move to the next part, part 2, which is memories of childhood and youth. This part of the interview is about your childhood and youth. Once again, 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?
- [00:08:34] DAVID RUTLEDGE: Growing up, I think it was a normal childhood, and I point that out particularly because I was raised in a family where my father was a Baptist preacher and pastor. I was a pastor's kid, a preacher's kid. Some people may think that somehow that caused us to have some unique upbringing. But from my perspective, it was just normal. I was loved, nurtured, and protected by my mom and dad, and it was just a special childhood.
- [00:09:22] INTERVIEWER: What sort of work did your parents do?
- [00:09:27] DAVID RUTLEDGE: My mom was a housewife. Spend all of her time in the home, nurturing and raising us, the children. My dad, as I indicated was a pastor of a church. But he also was a foundry worker. He worked for a company called Mueller. That company made fire hydrants. Heavy, hard, dirty work; he did for 30 years.
- [00:10:05] INTERVIEWER: That was a long time to be doing that?
- [00:10:08] DAVID RUTLEDGE: Yes.
- [00:10:09] INTERVIEWER: Yeah. What is your earliest memories as a child? As you were growing up, what are some of your earliest memories?
- [00:10:21] DAVID RUTLEDGE: I can remember, I was close to three years old when we moved from the area where I was born, which was in LaFayette, Alabama. We moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee. The reason was my dad was was following work, was looking for work to support the family. So my earliest memories are us traveling in Chattanooga, we moved around a lot. My parents rented a home, and so they would move. It was in junior high school before we really became stable into a house that I can remember we lived in until we went away to college. I also remember, and this was important to us, traveling during the summers from Chattanooga to LaFayette, Alabama, where my mom's parents were, and to Fairfax, Alabama, where my father's parents were. They lived in rural areas. My father's family were farmers. My mom's parents, I would say, her father was an entrepreneur, Papa, we called him, his name was Calloway. It was unusual that he owned a store in that day and time. We're talking about late '40s, early '50s in a rural part of Alabama. But he had worked in a cotton gin and there was an accident, and somehow three of his fingers were cut off. As a result of that, he couldn't do that work anymore, so in terms of supporting the family, I don't know all of the background, but I think he got some kind of settlement out of that which allowed him to open a store in the community where he lived. The thing that's interesting about that, when I was a little kid growing up, he'd have us working, my brothers and I working in the store. When I became an adult--and we could talk about this a little later--but I have owned a store, and I trace that back to what I learned from him, and that entrepreneurial spirit that he engendered in us.
- [00:13:34] INTERVIEWER: So in terms of the people that came to his store, was it a mixed group of people? Was it mainly Blacks coming to his store?
- [00:13:48] DAVID RUTLEDGE: In that community, it was a Black community. He established the store to meet a need in that area. I don't remember any white people coming to that store.
- [00:14:07] INTERVIEWER: What kind of merchandise did he sell?
- [00:14:12] DAVID RUTLEDGE: It was all kinds of merchandise as I remember it, that you would find in a store. Of course I remember the candy, the ice cream. But I also know that he sold unusual items like fish that would be packed in barrels in salt, mackerel kind of fish. He sold pop. The general things that you would need, but basic. In that community, he was well thought of in his neighborhood. He was also a deacon in the local Baptist church, so he was well thought of in terms of his spiritual life, in terms of his social and entrepreneurial life.
- [00:15:17] INTERVIEWER: That was great exposure for somebody your age during that time.
- [00:15:23] DAVID RUTLEDGE: I could tell you one other little incident. These are things that you jogged my memory about. [NOISE] If somebody in the neighborhood needed to get some place, to a doctor's appointment or something like that, he was one of the few people that had an automobile. They would reach out to him, and they had various ways of getting in touch with him and ask for a ride to wherever they needed to go. He was always accommodating in that way.
- [00:15:58] INTERVIEWER: That's great. When he would give somebody a ride, who manned the store? Who stayed and looked after the store?
- [00:16:14] DAVID RUTLEDGE: His daughters. He had three daughters. My mom was the youngest of three. The oldest daughter was a school teacher in that local area. Many times, particularly over the summer months, she would be the person in the store. The second daughter, my aunt Essie, would also man the store. So the family folded in to do the store work, including us kids. We thought we were part of the store stuff because we'd have to pick stuff off the shelf and package it up and all that stuff. These are memories that you're causing me to have. [LAUGHTER] It was a childhood time. It was amazing.
- [00:17:15] INTERVIEWER: Were there any special days, events, or family traditions you remember from your childhood?
- [00:17:23] DAVID RUTLEDGE: I remember that we would--of course this was pre-television--in the evenings we would sit on this long front porch with a swing on it. The house had a tin roof, and the reason I mention that is because on rainy days, and the rain beating down on that tin roof, it was virtually impossible not to go to sleep. It was something hypnotic about that. But I can remember those long evenings where we'd sit on the front porch and listen to grandma and papa and my aunt tell stories. Right next door was a huge magnolia tree, and it looked like every bird in the world would come in the evening time and nest in that magnolia tree. It created just a lot of noise. I also remember that lining the front of our porch were bushes that had these little round things on them, and grandma used to say, "Don't eat those because they will make you sick." I, in later life, learned that those things were actually very special and very powerful health thing for you. They were pomegranates. I now buy pom juice, and every once in a while we'll buy pomegranates, but we had them in bushes and we were not allowed to eat them.
- [00:19:14] INTERVIEWER: You think because your grandmother didn't know the value? [OVERLAPPING]
- [00:19:19] DAVID RUTLEDGE: It's the only thing that I can think about, that they just didn't know.
- [00:19:23] INTERVIEWER: Right.
- [00:19:24] DAVID RUTLEDGE: They just didn't know.
- [00:19:25] INTERVIEWER: Okay. So which holidays did your family celebrate?
- [00:19:32] DAVID RUTLEDGE: Thanksgiving was was a big celebration for us. Even now, I carry over from my childhood days. It just was a special family time. Family came together. Christmas was a celebration as well, but Thanksgiving somehow stands out in my mind as being more special. I think the reason that it does is because it didn't matter how far away we were from my grandparents, we'd always travel on Thanksgiving back to our grandparents' house, either on my mother's side or my dad's side for Thanksgiving dinner. It didn't matter how long it took us, where we were, we were always there for Thanksgiving dinner.
- [00:20:33] INTERVIEWER: When you said, David, that you traveled, how did you travel to get there?
- [00:20:38] DAVID RUTLEDGE: Well, we would travel, at the time I remember we had moved to Chattanooga. He worked in the foundry as I mentioned. He had a car, and so it would take us three and a half hours to make that trip. So we traveled by car. Mom would always pack lunch and that lunch always consisted of a pan of fried chicken. It was because we didn't stop along the way. It was in many ways dangerous to stop. I can also remember that my dad always kept a weapon in the trunk of the car. He would tell us that he was always going to be protective of his family.
- [00:21:36] INTERVIEWER: David, when you talk about it being dangerous, talk a little bit more about that. What caused it to be dangerous?
- [00:21:45] DAVID RUTLEDGE: Well, during that time, remember we're talking about late '40s, early '50s, mid '50s, all the way up to and including early '60s. Traveling roads--and these were not major highways that we were traveling--first of all, there was no place that we could just stop and maybe spend a night or really even freshen up if we got tired. Most of the time if we had to use the bathroom, our parents always encouraged us, they would say, "Hold it hold it." If we had to use it, we'd stop alongside of the road. If my dad had to gas the car, he would always wait until he got to a town that was kind of a major town and always in a well-lit place. It was because of just the conditions of the times. It was a time when you even could not be sure that if you were stopped by the police, that was going to be a stop that would not be harassing in some way. So that's what I mean. They were times of segregation in the Deep South and times of uncertainty. If you were Black, owned a car, were traveling, you could just be stopped just to be checked out.
- [00:23:43] INTERVIEWER: That continues to be the case today.
- [00:23:48] DAVID RUTLEDGE: Yes.
- [00:23:48] INTERVIEWER: Just being stopped. Now, were you ever stopped? Do you recall ever being stopped?
- [00:23:54] DAVID RUTLEDGE: Yes. Absolutely I do. Each of these times I have to say my memory is simply that my dad was asked out of the car, he was searched, lights shined inside of the car, and my dad spending some time talking to the police, and then back in the car leaving. I don't ever remember my dad talking about a ticket or anything being issued. But that was just the nature of the area in which we lived.
- [00:24:49] INTERVIEWER: Okay. Once you arrived at your grandparents for Thanksgiving, I know there must have been a lot of great food. Were there favorite dishes that you looked forward to having?
- [00:25:05] DAVID RUTLEDGE: Whenever my grandmother on my dad's side knew I was coming, I say "I" because it was especially I thought or she made me think this way, butter beans were my favorite dish, a pot of speckled butter beans. She would always have a pot of butter beans. I can't even tell you how much butter or other things that she'd have in the pot. I can taste them as I talk to you now, butter beans and cornbread. Cornbread was made from the corn that my granddad grew in the fields. They allow it to dry out, take it to the mill, grind it, and that became the meal for the cornbread. We also had hams. My grandfather, and I'm talking about on my dad's side, raised hogs, and put hams on the table galore. There were both types. You could either cure it by smoking it, or by sugar curing it, or by packing it in salt. When I would stay with them over the summer, I used to have feed the hogs. I'd take buckets of stuff down to the hog pen and feed the hogs. But all of the things that my grandparents on my dad's side needed to live, they raised and they sold, which was a way that they subsisted for and bought other things that they may need. Furniture for the house or bedding or clothing and that sort of thing. They sold what they raised.
- [00:27:22] INTERVIEWER: Okay. Like you said, hearing about butter beans sounds great [LAUGHTER] even now, right? [LAUGHTER]
- [00:27:32] INTERVIEWER: I'm going to ask one more question about family celebrations. Did your family create any of their own? You talked about Thanksgiving, you talked about Christmas, so were they any specially created by your family?
- [00:27:49] DAVID RUTLEDGE: No, I can't think of any specially created holidays. I can share with you that my parents, they loved to entertain. In fact, at my house, in the basement of my house right now, is a table that they had in the last house that they owned. That table is as long as a room. It would seat 10 people. There are people that I grew up with in Chattanooga to this day, that when we talk, will talk about eating dinner or lunch or breakfast at my parents' house. I mean, they love to bring people in. There's one guy, he can't talk to me without talking about the Kool-Aid that my mom would make. [LAUGHTER] Kool-Aid. But also you remind me--I don't know if people really understand, particularly young people in this day and time, understand the kind of way that we grew up because things are so convenient now. In talking about my childhood and growing up, my grandparents did not have running water, and so the bathroom was an outside bathroom. It was a time that we just thought this was just how it was. Now, when we moved to Chattanooga, of course, we had all the facilities, but whenever we'd go back to visit grandma and granddad on my dad's side, we'd understand that there were no facilities. Now, 17 miles away in the area where my mother's parents lived, that area was on sewer, but they had a well for water. I remember there was a song about the cooling water from grandma's well. That was some of the best tasting water was from Grandma's well. I used to have to go let the bucket down, bring it up, fill the containers. Here again, I remember that they washed outside. They had these big black pots that they'd fill with water, build a fire under the pot, create hot water, and that's what the clothes got washed in.
- [00:31:14] INTERVIEWER: Wow, David, that's quite the experience.
- [00:31:16] DAVID RUTLEDGE: Yeah.
- [00:31:17] INTERVIEWER: Young people hearing this, they'll be learning a lot.
- [00:31:20] DAVID RUTLEDGE: Yes.
- [00:31:22] INTERVIEWER: I'm going to talk a little bit about your school experience.
- [00:31:26] DAVID RUTLEDGE: Yes.
- [00:31:26] INTERVIEWER: You went to school. Talk to me about your elementary, middle school, and high school. Where did you attend school?
- [00:31:34] DAVID RUTLEDGE: I attended school in Chattanooga. From my elementary days through my high school days, I only attended schools that were populated by Blacks; Black kids, Black faculty. In Chattanooga, the schools did not desegregate until the year I graduated. That was 1963. There was a Black high school--one--and then there were white high schools. In 1963, they distributed the busing and other means integrated the schools in Chattanooga. But what I say and what I will continue to say in my mind, I treasure and value the education that I got in that segregated setting. The reason I do is because the teachers, it was like more than their job. It was like they were on a mission to somehow instill in us that we had to be better than the white population in order just to get to where they may be. I went to college because I had a fantastic counselor who told me about college and instilled in me the will to want to do that. There are so many areas of leadership that I learned in those settings, under the tutelage and the nurturing of Black instructors. Let me just give you a contrast. We had clubs in that Black high school, junior high, and in those clubs were where we learn the social skills, where we got a chance to grow in leadership kinds of skills. When they integrated in 1963, the very first thing they did was put a prohibition against all clubs and so the students that came along, particularly those Black students that came along, didn't get the kind of nurturing and attention, I want to say, cultural maturation that we got. I think that's one of the tragedies of that period of time.
- [00:35:11] INTERVIEWER: David, so you never experienced in your elementary, middle, and high school integration? It was all segregated?
- [00:35:22] DAVID RUTLEDGE: Absolutely. I got to tell you, I don't think I lost anything. I wish I could explain to you the kind of-- We had a drama class and produced class plays at this Black high school, auditorium packed, drama instructor that was world-class. The plays that we put on, as I look back on it, were amazing to put on the kind of production we put on with the resources that we had. We had a fantastic band. We had an amazing debate team, and of course, in areas of sports, basketball, football, track, just amazing talent came out of that sports area and the academic areas.
- [00:36:32] INTERVIEWER: I've heard people say that when they grew up in areas such as that, that oftentimes their teachers lived in the neighborhood. They were people that went to their churches, people that they saw in the neighborhood. Was that the case for you with the teachers?
- [00:36:50] DAVID RUTLEDGE: It was. I can share with you, you did not want to do anything inappropriate in the classroom. You certainly did not want to disobey the instructor. You always wanted to try to have your homework done, because what you didn't want was the instructor to have to call your parents. That was a no-no, so we used to always try to do what we had to do, and I think this was across the board among students in our elementary, junior high, and high school.
- [00:37:33] INTERVIEWER: I've heard people talk about being reprimanded by your teacher and then when you got home, your parents knew about it, so you were reprimanded again. When you say that, that made me think about that.
- [00:37:49] DAVID RUTLEDGE: Yeah. I'd like to share one other incident.
- [00:37:53] INTERVIEWER: Okay.
- [00:37:55] DAVID RUTLEDGE: It's amazing how some moments just remain in your memory. I was in an English class and a young lady came in, a student came in and she had to deliver a note to me. I was called to the office for something. She asked the teacher's permission, teacher gave her permission. She came over to my desk, gave me the note as I sat there, and then she left. For the rest of the class session, my instructor chastised me in front of the class for not standing up when the young lady came and stood beside me and delivered the note. So guess what? I don't care where I am, if I'm talking to a lady, I stand.
- [00:39:01] INTERVIEWER: I see that in you, David., over the years. [LAUGHTER] Now I know where it comes from, right? [LAUGHTER]
- [00:39:10] DAVID RUTLEDGE: Yeah. [NOISE]
- [00:39:12] INTERVIEWER: The next section gets into segregation, but we talked about that. But I do want to ask you first before I move to the next section, in terms of school, what about sports, did you do anything in sports at all?
- [00:39:28] DAVID RUTLEDGE: I ran track. I wasn't good at it, I came in second, third in some meets, but that was a sport that my small frame, and my weight allowed me to do. I was a sprinter. I wanted to play football, I wasn't tall enough to play basketball, and wasn't heavy enough to play football, [LAUGHTER] so I ran track.
- [00:39:58] INTERVIEWER: Well, okay. 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?
- [00:40:12] DAVID RUTLEDGE: Back in the time when I was in junior high and high school, it was a time in Chattanooga and across the South, and the nation, I dare say, was a time of great upheaval. Dr. Martin Luther King was coming onto the scene, we had the Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, and so this whole notion of Black is Beautiful and Black Power was all part of the landscape during this period of time. I can remember, as a junior and senior in high school, our objective was to desegregate the lunch counters in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and also the theaters. So we would have marches downtown after school and sit at the lunch counters and go into the theaters. Many times, of course, we always tried to do these things in a peaceful way, but there were arrests that would happen. I never personally got arrested. It was a time when my parents were really--we'd have to do these things sometimes without them knowing because they were so afraid for us. There was a personal incident that happened to me on a weekend. I worked in a Black barber shop, shining shoes, and one day the barber asked me to go down to the corner drug store and get him a sandwich. I did that, ordered the sandwich, and sat down at the counter to wait on it. It was not long before a man came up to me, identified himself as a store manager, and said to me that I couldn't sit there. I said to him that I'd placed an order like everybody else and I was just waiting on my order. Before I could finish the last part of what I wanted to tell him, well, he pushed me off of the stool I was sitting on. Not only was it humiliating, it was--I can still just feel how degrading that was. Nobody came to my rescue. While I was there on the floor, a couple of thoughts ran through my mind. One was, I wanted to get even with this guy somehow, but he's much bigger than I was. The second thought was, somebody, this guy had the authority or perceived he had the authority to do what he did to me, and so I wanted to know where that authority came from. I wanted to know where the rules got made that allowed him to do what he did to me with there being no consequences. Nobody paid much attention at all. I stood up and my sandwich was ready, but I placed additional orders of anything I could think of and stood, and waited for them to prepare it, and they did. They brought it to me and I said, "That's okay, I don't want any of this stuff," and I walked out. It was my way of getting back at them for the humiliation, but the other thing was this idea of where the rules are made. To this day, I trace my commitment to public service back to that moment when I was pushed off the stool and laying on that floor. From that point on, I always wanted to be where the rules were made. It prompted my interest in law, I studied political science when I went away to college. The political science piece of this was to learn about the law and procedures, and then to go to law school, I wanted to go to law school, but not to practice law, I wanted it as a stepping stone to get me into the public arena. If I'd share one thought with you, I always wanted to be mayor of a city. I wasn't able to become a mayor of a city, but I came close because I became a supervisor of a township here in Michigan.
- [00:45:19] INTERVIEWER: Thanks for sharing that, David. When you talked about high school and that was happening during those years--middle school, high school--at what point did you leave and come to Michigan?
- [00:45:35] DAVID RUTLEDGE: After high school, I was fortunate enough, with the help of a lot of people, my parents couldn't afford to send me to college, but the counselors at my school and the faculty just did so much, and I received a full scholarship to Tennessee State University. [OVERLAPPING]. That was in the fall of '63. Now, after college graduation, and I graduated in '67, I had a commitment to the US Military, specifically the United States Air Force because while I was in college, one of the things that I did to help get some income for necessities was to be enrolled in the Air Force ROTC program. When you got accepted to that program, you would be paid $40 a month for being in the program, doing all of the class work, and the drilling, but you had a commitment, after graduation, to the Air Force. So in 1967, October of that year, I had received orders from the United States Air Force to go to a place called Mount Laguna Air Force Station, California. It's 40 miles East of San Diego. After my commitment to the Air Force, which was a four-year commitment, after that, I wanted to go to law school. I took the law school acceptance tests and sent my applications off to two places; to the University of Michigan because I'd married a lady from Michigan, and I sent an application to the University of Tennessee's Law School because I was from Tennessee. I got accepted at both places, but the University of Michigan said I could come in the fall, University of Tennessee said I could come in January, so I came to Michigan because my wife was from Michigan, and because I could come earlier. The longer I stayed, the deeper my roots go, right here in Michigan, never expecting to stay.
- [00:48:29] INTERVIEWER: David, I'm going to come back to marriage in a minute, so you've been in Ypsilanti area about how many years?
- [00:48:38] DAVID RUTLEDGE: From 1971 to the present.
- [00:48:43] INTERVIEWER: All right. So many years?
- [00:48:46] DAVID RUTLEDGE: Yes.
- [00:48:46] INTERVIEWER: Okay. Also, you mentioned marriage, so how did you meet your wife?
- [00:49:00] DAVID RUTLEDGE: I met her at Tennessee State University, and it's interesting. She traveled to Tennessee State from Michigan, but I went to Tennessee state because I was in Tennessee. She came a year after I did. I met her, she was a sophomore and I was a junior. One day, I went to the cafeteria, I was actually leaving the cafeteria, and our cafeteria has swinging doors. She was coming in, I was going out, maybe rushing, for some reason or other. At any rate, I went through the swinging doors real quick and knocked her down. In picking her up, I apologized, said I was sorry and all that, but I also noticed how attractive she was, to me. It was after that time that I discovered that she was friends of friends of mine. We really got an introduction following that that was not cumbersome. She didn't hold me knocking her down with the rushing through the doors against me. That was the meeting.
- [00:50:35] INTERVIEWER: Okay. Very good. Did you marry there in Tennessee, or did you came back to Michigan and got married?
- [00:50:47] DAVID RUTLEDGE: In 1967, when I got my orders and recognized that I would be gainfully employed, I had traveled to Michigan and met with her mom, her dad, and the whole family. Now, Gerri came from a family of 14 siblings. She was the second oldest of 14 kids. I met them all and told her parents that I really wanted to marry her, and I became engaged to her. They had one request. She had another year of school left, and they wanted to make sure that she finish school. I, of course, had no objection to that. At any rate, I asked her to marry me. She said yes, we became engaged. I went off to California, San Diego, in the Air Force. Now, it so happened, it's amazing when I look back and see how things fit together, Gerri's father had a sister who lived in San Diego. That would be Gerri's aunt, and she was married to a Marine drill sergeant, a tough guy. Well, we had arranged that she would come to California on her Christmas break. We talked to her parents, and we talked to her aunt, and her aunt agreed to arrange the marriage. We were married on Christmas Eve in 1967, when Gerri traveled on her Christmas break from Tennessee to California.
- [00:53:03] INTERVIEWER: Oh, my. On Christmas Eve?
- [00:53:06] DAVID RUTLEDGE: We were married on Christmas Eve. Her best girlfriend happened to have been already married to a guy who was in the Air Force stationed 140 miles north of San Diego. She and Gerri flew out together. He was my best man in the wedding, and she, Gerri's girlfriend who was married to this guy, was her best girlfriend, was best girl at this wedding. I got to tell you, and I'll be quick about this; when I went to San Diego not having any place to stay, it so happened that the people who lived across the street from us, in Chattanooga, the guy who lived there, he had a brother who was a retired Navy guy living in San Diego. They insisted that I stay with them until I found housing. One day, I parked my car, drove my car out, it had Tennessee license plates on it, Tennessee State University sticker on the back window. One day, when we were sitting having dinner, somebody knocked on the door, and the lady of house went to the door, her name was Ms. Vince. [NOISE] She went to the door, came back, and said there's somebody at the door who wants to know who's driving that car from Tennessee. Of course, I went to the door and there was this guy, who's a Black guy standing there, and he said, "I just want to see who has this car from Tennessee because I don't normally see a car from Tennessee out here, and I'm from Memphis." That started a friendship that resulted in, when he and his wife learned that I was getting married, they said, "Well, you got to have the wedding at our house." [OVERLAPPING] At their house, they had this big, huge organ, and the living room is where I played the organ in this big house. We've got married in the guy's house that I met while our car was sitting on the street in San Diego.
- [00:55:29] INTERVIEWER: Very special story. [LAUGHTER] Let me ask you this. You mentioned your children a bit earlier. Tell me a little bit about each of your children.
- [00:55:41] DAVID RUTLEDGE: Felicia, we thought Felicia wasn't going to ever get here. Gerri and I were married and having a good time. We were married for about six years before Felicia was born. Felicia is amazing. She is now the clerk for the City of Inkster. She's following in a public service way, which I find really interesting. My son, Marcus, there is no other way to put this except that he's a missing person. He has been missing since 1998. He went missing from Tennessee State University. He was due to graduate from TSU, and he just simply disappeared. We did all of the things that you do, dental records, all of that. I got to tell you, the media in Nashville kept the story alive, longer than I ever expected. The police department there were fantastic. The reason that, I think of this, is in doing such a fantastic job in keeping this story alive for so long, it resulted in his car being found. Thirty days after he went missing, a tip came in to the police. It's sometimes difficult to talk about this situation because it's so surreal. Gerri and I, we've had to deal with it since '98. The thing that's so troubling to me is that she had to pass away without having closure on this piece. But my spirit was even helped in that regard because somebody said to me that she knows now. She passed away, but she knows now. That keeps me going in so many ways. It helps me keep hope alive. Other things happen too that helped me keep hope alive. For example, less than two weeks ago, my phone rang, picked it up, and a guy on the other end identified himself as a detective with the Nashville Police Department, and he was working on my son's case. After all these many years, and this guy said, he works in the Cold Case Unit, and there was something about this case that attracted his attention. He wanted to reach out to me and let me know that that, in fact, was occurring, that they were giving some attention to this case. Things like that just keep happening. We will stay in touch. We have a dialogue going now and there's a review that is happening. He's hoping that will yield some results. But I can tell you another thing that gave Gerri and I just great joy. Before Marcus disappeared, he had a son whose name is Darius. Darius is now 26 years old and lives in Nashville. In fact, he works for FedEx, as a matter of fact. Now, this is the unusual part, and this is a piece that we didn't know. We have discovered that Marcus had a second child, and that second child was a girl. That girl was born, I think three years, two years after after Darius, our grandson. Before Gerri passed away, we discovered that we have a granddaughter. The way we discovered that was by Darius and this young lady who is now 22 years old, going on 23, met online and had been communicating. I happen to overhear Darius when he was visiting with us one time, say that he had a sister. We followed up, I reached out, reached out to the mother. Long story short, we went through DNA testing and all of this. Although we didn't have to, because this young lady is the spitting image of Marcus. Anybody who knew Marcus and would see this young lady would just have to say they were related. There were a lot of unusual things that have happened around the situation. But we just stay so hopeful that Marcus is out there somewhere.
- [01:02:28] INTERVIEWER: Stay hopeful. It's good that somebody is continuing to work on the case.
- [01:02:33] DAVID RUTLEDGE: Yes.
- [01:02:34] INTERVIEWER: Yes. I know it must be very difficult for you, but thanks for sharing that. We're going to move into the last couple of sections. You already talked a lot about your employment. But one thing that you didn't share with us, you were state representative, is that right?
- [01:02:53] DAVID RUTLEDGE: Yes.
- [01:02:54] INTERVIEWER: You want to share a little bit about that?
- [01:03:02] DAVID RUTLEDGE: I represented an area called the 54th district. That includes Ypsilanti Township, the City of Ypsilanti, Superior Township, at one point Salem Township. From that area that is east of Wayne County, as you enter Washtenaw County all the way to the Ann Arbor border and Pittsfield border, was the area that I represented. I was elected in 2010 and took my seat in 2011. It was the realization of a dream come true. It was like, I often say that God placed me on this earth and ordered my steps to serve people. This was in my mind a validation of that. The people of this 54th district permitted me to represent them to the extent of my term, until term limits caused me not to be able to serve any longer. I am so thankful. All I ever promised the people of my district was that I would always be truthful with them in terms of what I would say to them, and in terms of my representation of them, I would always be guided by my conscience, and how I would think that they would want me to vote on every single issues that would come before me. I always wanted to be in the place where the rules are made, and have been permitted most of my adult life to be in that place.
- [01:05:19] INTERVIEWER: Well that's great. I'm going to move into the final section, and historical and social events. But before I do, I thought about asking it a while back when you were talking about the '60s and sit-ins, etc. But I want to ask you to give your thoughts about, that's happening now with young people that are protesting because of the death of George Floyd. Just wanted you to comment on that.
- [01:05:51] DAVID RUTLEDGE: I think that when your spirit is stirred to move, and when you see injustice, I don't think you can just sit idly by and allow that to happen without any action or without taking note. The events that have unfolded recently in terms of George Floyd, but not just him, in terms of others, that caused us to understand and to cry out that Black lives matter. I might add, we do that in a way that sometimes people who are of the other race don't understand. They'll quickly say, "Well, all lives ought to matter." Well, of course, all lives matter. But there must be an emphasis when you look at the privilege that whites have had and Blacks have not, and the way that our lives have been devalued in so many different ways. It's that piece that this message tries to reach out to. I just think that, and it warms my heart to see that there is something that resonates with young people and with people of all colors as it relates to injustice. Now, I hasten to say that if this is in fact a movement, and if we in fact care about justice and despise injustice, then we just can't stop at going to the streets and protesting. There is another step that we have to take. That is, we have to go on election day and actually vote. For someone who has been so disgruntled that it will drive them to march in the streets, it should also drive them to whatever it takes to vote on election day. That's what this democracy is about, and that's what we cannot give up.
- [01:08:49] INTERVIEWER: It's true. Thank you. I'm going to ask a couple of questions here under historical social events. Tell me how it is for you to live in this community. How it has been for you to live in this community?
- [01:09:04] DAVID RUTLEDGE: Well, I think those of us who live at this point in time and live in Washtenaw County, I think we are blessed in a number of ways. First of all, we are blessed that we have an employment base that is not really subject to the cyclical forces, that up and down kinds of things. Employment is pretty even. We're fortunate also, to live in a place that has a high educational opportunity, entertainment, and just world-class universities, world-class community college. [NOISE] Eastern Michigan University on the east side, University of Michigan on the west side, and right in between, a world-class community college. So we live in an area that is where the thinking is elevated, the attitudes are progressive, and a lot different from other parts of the state even. The goal should always be to bring all people of all backgrounds into an understanding and this is critical, that we can have different views. We can have different opinions. But somehow, those views and opinions are to always be expressed in what I call a civil way, and that we ought to always reach out. We ought to always listen critically, to try to hear, and then try to understand the other person's point of view. When I was in the legislature in all of my public life, I've always tried to imagine myself, no matter what the circumstances, I've tried to pretend that I was walking in the other person's shoe, and see what would I do. How would I think? How would I believe? That has helped me to understand people who even sit across the aisle from me, of different political persuasions than me. I think that ought to always be the goal, our goal collectively.
- [01:12:06] INTERVIEWER: Thank you. When thinking back over your entire life, what are you most proud of?
- [01:12:16] DAVID RUTLEDGE: I'm proud that I have been permitted, number one, to experience life. I'm proud that I came down through a lineage of proud people. I'm thankful for my mom and dad, who I think would know I got to the legislature, but never did live long enough to see me there. I am proud of the life that Gerri and I made together during the time that she was with me. I am proud of Felicia and Marcus, and the grandkids that we have been blessed with. My granddaughter that we didn't recently know that we had, her name is Jayla. Of course, Darius is our other grandchild. Felicia's son, Kelton, who lives with me, is our other grandchild. Darius and Kelton are both 26 years old, born in the same month, 22 days apart, and Jayla is about three years behind them. I am most proud of all of that. But if you ask me what am I most proud of in my legislative days, I am most proud of the fact that I got a bill passed that names the length of I-75 as it goes through our state, in tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen. It is one of the things that I always said I wanted to do, if I ever made it to the legislature. It took two years to do, but we got it done. Now the length of I-75, border to border, is the Tuskegee Airmen Memorial Highway. It links with 75 as it goes through Kentucky. Kentucky's legislature has also bestowed that honor on the Tuskegee Airmen for I-75. Some signages are up, but not all that they're going to put up. The reason I single that out is because I was in the military. I was an officer in the military, and I personally experienced discrimination. When I was in San Diego, and I mentioned trying to find housing for the time when Gerri would move to San Diego as my wife, we couldn't find housing until the base commander threatened to put the whole town, the town where we lived, which was called El Cajon, California. He had to threaten to put that town off limits before this Black Air Force officer serving his country, could find a roof over his head, a place to stay. I have experienced the discrimination firsthand in places that you would think you would not. That tribute, I just thought was most appropriate for the people who long before me in the military experienced horrendous discrimination, but still served their country.
- [01:16:53] INTERVIEWER: Well, that was quite an accomplishment in terms of getting that highway named in honor. That's great. The final question for you is, what advice would you give to the younger generation?
- [01:17:10] DAVID RUTLEDGE: I would say that it's important to know that life itself is important and not to waste it, not one single moment of it. There are stages of life that you go through. Recognize the stages. There is a preparation stage, and then there is a maturing stage, and then there is a work stage, and a serving stage. In each one of these stages, there are certain things that need to happen. When you ask me about young people and what they ought to be doing now, I think back to people who were in this community and who when I came as a young person, was so instrumental in helping and guiding me into this work called public service. They were instrumental because they had been on the frontlines of fighting for injustice for a long time themselves. I can still remember in front and center in my mind, some of the names of what I call these warriors. One was a lady whose name was Grace Willis, who lived in the village area of Willow Run that helped so many people get jobs from her vantage point of being in personnel at the University of Michigan. I can remember other people like Ethel Howard. If you look back at Ethel Howard, Ethel Howard was one of the first Black person to ever be Clerk of Ypsilanti Township. These are people who have gone on now. Delores Bryce, and there's so many others. Tessie Freeman. These are people who had to endure a lot, had to give up a lot, just to be on the front lines of protesting when they saw an injustice. I even remember Tessie Freeman and Delores Bryce being at school board meetings when something was going wrong, and really fighting on behalf of all children. So I'd say to young people, find your place. Look around you. Sometimes, there will be a moment and we may not understand the significance of that moment until it becomes a memory. But as soon as it is a memory, and you realize that something could have been done, or you could have done something better, I think it ought to spur movement to do better.
- [01:20:38] INTERVIEWER: That's great advice for young people David. I just want to thank you again for doing this interview. We got through it in spite of the technical difficulties. You had wonderful information to share. So thank you.
August 17, 2020
Copyright: Creative Commons (Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share-alike)
Rights Held by: Ann Arbor District Library
Tennessee State University
Elections - Superior Township
Superior Party Store
Black American Businesses
Civil Rights Movement
Montgomery Bus Boycott
United States Air Force
Nashville Police Department
Michigan House of Representatives
Black Lives Matter
Tuskegee Airmen Memorial Highway
Race & Ethnicity
AACHM Living Oral History
Ida Lee Rutledge
David Rutledge Sr.
Tessie Ola Freeman
San Diego CA
El Cajon CA