AACHM Oral History: Walter Blackwell
Sun, 07/21/2019 - 3:33pm
When: March 15, 2019
Walter Blackwell was born in 1930 in Petersburg, Virginia. He shares memories of growing up there as well as in Mount Vernon, New York before serving in the army during the Korean War. He worked for 30 years at the Ann Arbor VA hospital, where he enjoyed helping fellow veterans. After experiencing discrimination in housing and employment, Mr. Blackwell fought for civil rights in Ann Arbor as a member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and mentored black children in his neighborhood.
- [00:00:15.13] INTERVIEWER: Good afternoon. I'm so happy that you agreed to this interview. It's been a long time coming. I would like for you to tell us your name and spell it for us, please.
- [00:00:29.47] WALTER BLACKWELL: My name is Walter Blackwell, W-A-L-T-E-R B-L-A-C-K-W-E-L-L.
- [00:00:44.02] INTERVIEWER: And what is the date of your birth, including the year?
- [00:00:48.79] WALTER BLACKWELL: The date of my birth was September 24th, 1930.
- [00:00:59.92] INTERVIEWER: And you told me you were 89. Is that right?
- [00:01:04.45] WALTER BLACKWELL: Yes.
- [00:01:06.22] INTERVIEWER: How would you describe your ethnic background?
- [00:01:10.24] WALTER BLACKWELL: Could you repeat that?
- [00:01:12.04] INTERVIEWER: How would you describe your ethnic background?
- [00:01:20.67] WALTER BLACKWELL: I call myself now African-American.
- [00:01:24.40] INTERVIEWER: OK. And what is your religion, if any?
- [00:01:30.75] WALTER BLACKWELL: Methodist. Methodist.
- [00:01:35.84] INTERVIEWER: Methodist? OK. And what is the highest level of formal education that you have?
- [00:01:46.31] WALTER BLACKWELL: I took-- I have a high school diploma. And then when I came to Michigan, I started taking classes at WCC, so it was just in and out of getting classes.
- [00:02:09.80] INTERVIEWER: So you've had additional education from your high school education. What is your marital status?
- [00:02:18.52] WALTER BLACKWELL: Marital status now?
- [00:02:20.38] INTERVIEWER: Mm-hmm.
- [00:02:23.63] WALTER BLACKWELL: Well I got a divorce years ago. And we're back together.
- [00:02:29.48] INTERVIEWER: Wonderful. How many children do you have?
- [00:02:35.72] WALTER BLACKWELL: Three girls.
- [00:02:37.43] INTERVIEWER: Three?
- [00:02:38.33] WALTER BLACKWELL: Three, two girls.
- [00:02:39.68] INTERVIEWER: Two girls. Two girls. And how many brothers or sisters do you have?
- [00:02:46.85] WALTER BLACKWELL: My brother passed and my sister passed.
- [00:02:50.33] INTERVIEWER: So you had a brother and a sister.
- [00:02:52.31] WALTER BLACKWELL: I did.
- [00:02:52.96] INTERVIEWER: Bu they passed, OK. What was your primary occupation?
- [00:03:01.67] WALTER BLACKWELL: The most recent one?
- [00:03:04.82] INTERVIEWER: Well let's start, what did you spend most of the time doing your working life? What was that? What did you do?
- [00:03:13.85] WALTER BLACKWELL: Well, I spent, since coming to Ann Arbor, I spent 30 years at the VA Hospital, working there.
- [00:03:25.30] INTERVIEWER: What did you do at the VA hospital?
- [00:03:27.95] WALTER BLACKWELL: I started at the VA hospital doing laboratory technician and then I got into electron microscopy. I was sent to university to learn how to use that. And before I retired, I became a safety officer, checking radiation in our labs.
- [00:03:54.35] INTERVIEWER: And that was all at the VA Hospital?
- [00:03:56.55] WALTER BLACKWELL: All at the VA. [PHONE RINGING]
- [00:04:10.29] INTERVIEWER: So you said you were at the VA for how long?
- [00:04:15.51] WALTER BLACKWELL: I worked at the VA for 30 years.
- [00:04:17.40] INTERVIEWER: For 30 years. OK. And do you remember what age you were when you retired?
- [00:04:28.71] WALTER BLACKWELL: Not exactly. Not exactly.
- [00:04:32.82] INTERVIEWER: OK
- [00:04:33.84] WALTER BLACKWELL: I never thought about that before.
- [00:04:36.99] INTERVIEWER: OK. But it sounds like you kept going, doing things, after you retired.
- [00:04:47.15] WALTER BLACKWELL: Yes.
- [00:04:47.71] INTERVIEWER: OK. Now, I'm going to ask you some questions, if you can remember, about your childhood and your youth. We're going to do a section on that. What was your family like when you were a child?
- [00:05:03.54] WALTER BLACKWELL: When I was a child, I lived in Petersburg, Virginia. And my father was not there, so I was raised by my grandfather with my mother. And my grandfather was a minister. So he was my father-- my male figure. So I learned a lot from him. And at the time, there was a lot to learn about being a person of color coming into this world.
- [00:05:46.00] INTERVIEWER: In terms of, can you be a little more specific about that? There was a lot to learn as a person of color from your grandfather. You said there was a lot to learn.
- [00:05:59.68] WALTER BLACKWELL: My grandfather lived in the community for many years, and he was very respected, and he had a very strong personality. And most of the African-American people there was very kind of intimidated by white people. At the time, when walking down the street, you'd have to get out of the way of whites. You'd sit in the back of the bus. At that time, you had to drink out of fountains for-- they'd call it colored.
- [00:06:38.57] And so, I guess it is a matter of trying to know your place in the community. And if you didn't, you suffered the consequences. But my grandfather was a very strong person. I remember one time, as a child, a white insurance man came and asked for Mary L. Hill, which is my grandmother. And my grandfather looked at him and he told this man that her name is Mrs. Mary L. Hill.
- [00:07:18.91] And at that time that really impacted me for the rest of my life, to show how a man should be, and I think that stuck with me until I grew up, being very independent-- not independent, but taking care of myself and minding my rights, being mindful of my rights.
- [00:07:42.19] INTERVIEWER: So he was a really good role model.
- [00:07:44.38] WALTER BLACKWELL: Oh, yes, because he had no fear of being who he was.
- [00:07:54.37] INTERVIEWER: Mm-hmm.
- [00:07:55.15] WALTER BLACKWELL: And look at a lot of the men around, they, for whatever reason, they were not as outspoken and not as forceful as he was. So that made me feel good to know that there is a positivity in being related to him.
- [00:08:22.60] INTERVIEWER: Were there any special days, or events, or family traditions that you remember from your childhood?
- [00:08:35.71] WALTER BLACKWELL: Well, we didn't have that much. No, we didn't have that much to really do gatherings. But we had dinners and people come to dinners and things like that, but other than that there was no big outings and things like that. It was just as a matter of just going to school and doing various jobs around the house or neighborhood to keep busy. And then there's playtime with your friends.
- [00:09:21.49] INTERVIEWER: Mm-hmm. Which holidays did your family celebrate?
- [00:09:29.57] WALTER BLACKWELL: Which holidays is what?
- [00:09:31.25] INTERVIEWER: Did your family celebrate?
- [00:09:34.46] WALTER BLACKWELL: Oh, they celebrated Christmas. I guess, I was so young, I didn't even know what was the name of the holiday. It was just time to get together. I knew Christmas was Christmas, but other than that, it wasn't that [? famous ?] for me to be. Not like now, all the holidays, nothing like that.
- [00:10:07.31] INTERVIEWER: Did your family create any of their own traditions or celebrations?
- [00:10:16.85] WALTER BLACKWELL: Well, my family-- are you speaking of my relatives?
- [00:10:24.14] INTERVIEWER: When you were a child, when you were young.
- [00:10:29.27] WALTER BLACKWELL: Not that much. Not that much.
- [00:10:36.23] INTERVIEWER: You've already told me the highest grade you completed, but you did some other work. Did you play any sports or other activities outside of school?
- [00:10:48.43] WALTER BLACKWELL: No.
- [00:10:49.54] INTERVIEWER: No, none at all. Did any of the kids around you? Or were you-- did you have other activities for kids to be involved in?
- [00:11:02.73] WALTER BLACKWELL: Well, we had play activities.
- [00:11:05.08] INTERVIEWER: Play activities, OK.
- [00:11:06.34] WALTER BLACKWELL: Play activities-- cowboys and Indians, and--
- [00:11:10.22] INTERVIEWER: Cowboys and Indians.
- [00:11:11.45] WALTER BLACKWELL: And hide and seek, things like that, you know. But that's about--
- [00:11:18.12] INTERVIEWER: That was about it.
- [00:11:19.66] WALTER BLACKWELL: Yeah.
- [00:11:21.92] INTERVIEWER: What about your school experience is different from school as you know it today?
- [00:11:33.25] WALTER BLACKWELL: My school experience was not very good. And I think it was the best that they had at the time. Because at the time, the word Negro was used so commonly. And there was not much information about the history of African-Americans, to really-- they just mentioned a lot about Africa. But other than that, it was-- there wasn't that much information to help me to realize the importance of knowing history. So that's why I started reading a lot. I learned a lot out of school to learn more about African-Americans.
- [00:12:39.37] INTERVIEWER: Did you graduate from high school there? In Virginia?
- [00:12:44.49] WALTER BLACKWELL: Yes, I graduated from high school in Virginia. So one of the things my family did was to travel from Virginia to Mount Vernon, New York. And then I would go back down to Virginia, and then I'd come back to Mount Vernon, New York.
- [00:13:05.59] INTERVIEWER: Now, what was in Mount Vernon, New York?
- [00:13:08.23] WALTER BLACKWELL: Well, my aunts, getting there to get jobs, working, they was working for white people who needed aides or help, or-- I don't know what you call them, but they were needing help and they would hire women to be working in there.
- [00:13:43.30] INTERVIEWER: Working in their homes?
- [00:13:44.59] WALTER BLACKWELL: Yes.
- [00:13:45.01] INTERVIEWER: So working in white people's homes.
- [00:13:49.46] WALTER BLACKWELL: Yes. And since my father wasn't available, my aunts helped my mother with my brother and my sister. So we'd come to New York, and then we'd go back down. Because coming to New York, we'd get a lot of the things we needed. And go back down there. And then we'd come back to New York.
- [00:14:19.87] INTERVIEWER: So, was that in the summertime, when school was out?
- [00:14:24.61] WALTER BLACKWELL: Well, I went to elementary school in New York.
- [00:14:29.35] INTERVIEWER: Oh.
- [00:14:31.06] WALTER BLACKWELL: I went to elementary school in New York. And I went to elementary school in Virginia. And so, I was a crazy kid. I was up and down. I was sitting with white people in New York and black people in Virginia.
- [00:14:48.30] INTERVIEWER: In Virginia?
- [00:14:48.83] WALTER BLACKWELL: Yeah. And so that was very confusing to me, but after a while, I got to understand that that's how it is done in certain places, to be accepted here and not accepted there.
- [00:15:07.69] INTERVIEWER: So in New York, when you were in elementary school, how was that school situation, in terms of African-American kids?
- [00:15:17.08] WALTER BLACKWELL: Well, there was a few in the neighborhood going to the school. And we had a lot of fun times together, playing. And we had activities there at the school in New York. Then, going back down south, there wasn't much there. But they would teach you-- well, they didn't have the funds to furnish the schools with similar kind of things. So that was the difference. But I did benefit from going north and going back, because I was exposed to things that I wouldn't have known if I stayed down there.
- [00:16:14.92] INTERVIEWER: Did you like going to school in New York better than in Virginia?
- [00:16:19.99] WALTER BLACKWELL: Well, because it's-- I had a lot of friends in Virginia, but the activities wasn't as much available. So it was-- so that was the difference. I had friends in both places, but I didn't have the option to have-- they had a band with horns and you can choose that. But they didn't have that in the south. So they had opportunities and more advantage in the north school.
- [00:17:04.05] INTERVIEWER: Did you do anything with music when you lived there?
- [00:17:08.27] WALTER BLACKWELL: Did I--
- [00:17:08.96] INTERVIEWER: Do anything with music? You mentioned the band as something that they had.
- [00:17:14.27] WALTER BLACKWELL: No, I didn't join the band. But I could have. They had choices for you, but I didn't do that.
- [00:17:23.81] INTERVIEWER: So back to the question about your school experience and how it's different than school today.
- [00:17:35.18] WALTER BLACKWELL: When I came to Ann Arbor, I was really surprised at the Pioneer High School. Information about African-Americans was null. And I think that's what got me really interested in working for change in Ann Arbor, in education, and employment, and all those kinds of things. Because I had expectation of a town being a little more advanced, and with the university being more sophisticated, but it wasn't.
- [00:18:17.18] But at the high school, I was on a committee to inquire about their knowledge of Africa. And they just said-- they just said that they just knew that they had natives there. There was nothing that they could say positive about Africa. So they were very ignorant about the history about Africa. And I think from there, we would be approaching individuals within the school system to demand that these students learn more about information that they are lacking in their history books.
- [00:19:04.11] INTERVIEWER: So when did you come-- how old were you when you came to Ann Arbor?
- [00:19:09.77] WALTER BLACKWELL: To live? When I came to Ann Arbor, I was in my 20s. I had been in the army for three years. And came out of the army. When I came out of the army-- I was living in New York when I went into the army. So when I came out of the army, I came back to New York. And I was trying to get a job. I wanted to get a job as a laboratory technician in New York. There was nothing available.
- [00:19:52.01] And I had a car and I decided that-- just before I got out of the army, I was told that the VA has a brand new hospital and they needed laboratory people, and you have a job if you come to Ann Arbor. And then that's when I said, I'm going. I came and I got a job at the hospital.
- [00:20:25.66] INTERVIEWER: At the VA Hospital?
- [00:20:26.90] WALTER BLACKWELL: Yes, and I enjoyed making that decision because I would prefer living in Ann Arbor than New York, especially raising a family.
- [00:20:41.11] INTERVIEWER: So we're you single when you came to--
- [00:20:44.89] WALTER BLACKWELL: No, I got married in New York, before I came. So I got married and jumped in the car and drove out here. And she came after. I had to dig around and try to find a place to live in Ann Arbor. And it was hard to find a place to live. So one of the cooks at the hospital let me sleep on his couch until I could find my place. But I was married. But she was there. Then she came. And then we found a place. But it was not easy.
- [00:21:28.07] INTERVIEWER: Well, I'm going to get more into that later, in terms of your married life. Were there any changes in your family life during your school years, when you were in school?
- [00:21:52.19] WALTER BLACKWELL: Any changes in my family life?
- [00:21:53.78] INTERVIEWER: Right.
- [00:21:54.07] WALTER BLACKWELL: When I was in--
- [00:21:55.09] INTERVIEWER: You already said that your grandfather and your mother were the ones raising you-- so were there any changes in that circle?
- [00:22:12.84] WALTER BLACKWELL: Not that I can recollect. The changes, I mean, I just had a routine of doing certain chores and things, but changes means something out of doing the routine things, which was just doing what I was told to do.
- [00:22:35.34] INTERVIEWER: When thinking back on your school years, can you remember any important social or historical events that were taking place at the time, when you were in school? Do you remember any historical changes?
- [00:23:00.63] WALTER BLACKWELL: When I was in the south in school, it was like we were seeing or have a little bit of history about Paul Laurence Dunbar, and a little history about-- I forgot the person who was a very important person with the peanuts or something like that. But that was the most important thing for me to learn, that there were some quality people of color contributing to this society. Because other than that, it was just nothing to be valued.
- [00:23:55.17] INTERVIEWER: Were you in a black school when you were in the south? Were all the kids black?
- [00:23:58.49] WALTER BLACKWELL: Yes, it was very--
- [00:24:02.57] INTERVIEWER: And there was no black history taught there?
- [00:24:07.24] WALTER BLACKWELL: Yeah, I was just mentioning a little of that. They did have black history. But the thing about it, it didn't go very deep. They did talk about Paul Laurence Dunbar and mention certain people. And then we were taught the national anthem, as they called it, the Negro National Anthem. And so, it was a kind of a splattering of history, black history.
- [00:24:57.70] INTERVIEWER: So you definitely lived during the era of segregation when you went to school. And you told me that all your students were black. Was the elementary school near your home?
- [00:25:13.48] WALTER BLACKWELL: No, no, my elementary school, way across town. You had to walk. No buses. You walked to school. And the white school was closer to my house, but there was no integrating schools at the time. But we had to walk. There were no cars to take us to school. So we had lots of books to carry, no book bags, but just books.
- [00:25:47.35] So it was-- and to see that we had to do that. And I had cousins who lived further away from the school. And they had to come all the way from where they lived to come into the area of the school, because they didn't have but one.
- [00:26:09.96] INTERVIEWER: Were there black teachers? The teachers were all black?
- [00:26:13.31] WALTER BLACKWELL: In the school?
- [00:26:14.82] INTERVIEWER: Mm-hmm.
- [00:26:15.18] WALTER BLACKWELL: Yes.
- [00:26:19.35] INTERVIEWER: Were there restaurants or eating places for blacks where you lived?
- [00:26:26.61] WALTER BLACKWELL: In the south?
- [00:26:27.79] INTERVIEWER: Mm-hmm.
- [00:26:31.74] WALTER BLACKWELL: They didn't have any place where you could eat. You could take out things. And other than that--
- [00:26:40.80] INTERVIEWER: Other than that, OK.
- [00:26:43.71] WALTER BLACKWELL: --no. There was segregation in everything.
- [00:26:47.58] INTERVIEWER: In everything.
- [00:26:48.39] WALTER BLACKWELL: Everything was segregation.
- [00:26:52.33] INTERVIEWER: OK, this next section, I'm going to talk about your adulthood and your marriage and family life. From the time you entered, completed your education, and entered into the workforce, so we might be talking about a stretch of time that spans. So now we're talking about you after you're adult and married. After you finished high school, where did you live?
- [00:27:33.74] WALTER BLACKWELL: After I finished high school?
- [00:27:35.23] INTERVIEWER: Mm-hmm.
- [00:27:41.29] WALTER BLACKWELL: As I mentioned before, I was traveling between north and south.
- [00:27:45.23] INTERVIEWER: Right, back and forth from New York.
- [00:27:53.12] WALTER BLACKWELL: And after I finished high school, I was in Virginia. I graduated from high school in Virginia. And after that, I went to New York. And I guess I went there to get employment at that time, after coming out of school.
- [00:28:21.40] INTERVIEWER: You were still single then.
- [00:28:23.23] WALTER BLACKWELL: Oh, yeah. So that was '48, that was 1948, I graduated. And I went to New York. And I worked as a-- a friend of the family needed-- he worked at a hotel for wealthy people, not far from Mount Vernon, where we lived, Bronx. Bronxville was a place where elite white people lived. And they had a hotel there. And they needed some busboys there.
- [00:29:09.37] So I got a job there. And that's how I saved money to buy a car, by working at the hotel as a busboy. So I was there long enough to-- and then from there, that's when I joined the army, when I was in New York. And I was in the army three years and came out, came to Ann Arbor.
- [00:29:49.58] INTERVIEWER: How was the army? Which area were you in?
- [00:29:56.83] WALTER BLACKWELL: I was in the-- I wanted to be a medic. And I wanted to go to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, where you go for medical training. And they put me down there. And I thought, at the time the war in Korea was going on, I thought probably I'll be trained for that. They take people of color and put them where they want them to go. You don't get what you want.
- [00:30:30.58] So therefore, I had to settle for driving a Jeep in Korea. I didn't-- even though I went to Texas for medical training, I didn't get nothing there, because they preferred me to do colored work. So that's what I had to do. That's why I said, when I get out, I'm going to still pursue the medical interests, which I did, which allowed me to work for 30 years. So I learned a lot by staying with what I was doing, without getting discouraged and losing my focus.
- [00:31:23.96] INTERVIEWER: So where did you meet your wife?
- [00:31:29.27] WALTER BLACKWELL: Oh my wife-- my sister, and my aunt, and my mother, we were in Mount Vernon, New York. And we were friends-- my aunts were friends to a lady. They played a lot of bridge and socializing. And then the lady that my aunt knew-- my wife came from Richmond, Virginia up to New York. She asked her to come to New York, I guess for the latter part of her high school. And she graduated.
- [00:32:24.61] INTERVIEWER: In New York.
- [00:32:25.21] WALTER BLACKWELL: In New York.
- [00:32:26.27] INTERVIEWER: She graduated from school in New York.
- [00:32:27.73] WALTER BLACKWELL: Yeah, graduated. And then I guess she got a job as a nurse's aide in New York. And then, I guess, by our families socializing together, I got to meet her. And I think when I was about to leave, when I got out of the army-- I was getting out of the army, I knew I was going to leave New York and coming here without going back. And so I asked her, do you want to get married. She said, OK.
- [00:33:11.02] INTERVIEWER: OK. Now what made you pick Ann Arbor?
- [00:33:17.57] WALTER BLACKWELL: Because the hospital, that's where the job was.
- [00:33:21.29] INTERVIEWER: OK.
- [00:33:23.20] WALTER BLACKWELL: I mean, I could have gone to any place, but there was no job guaranteed. The guy, when I was coming out of the army, he said, you got a job. And when I came to Ann Arbor, the door was already open and waiting for me for the employment.
- [00:33:44.75] INTERVIEWER: So did you and your wife-- was your dating in New York?
- [00:33:51.02] WALTER BLACKWELL: Yeah, we were dating before I came out. Yeah, we went to nightclubs, and musical things, and church, activities like that. So, yeah, we did. So she was from Richmond, Virginia, which she's connected to a lot of people in Richmond. And my source of relatives wasn't as big as hers.
- [00:34:23.85] But anyway, she really didn't like New York because there was too many people. It didn't bother me, but anyway, coming to Ann Arbor was something that you had to adjust to, because it was quite different than New York for me, a college town. So Ann Arbor was not as liberal as I thought it would be. So it was a surprise.
- [00:35:04.87] INTERVIEWER: So did that spark your interest in being a civil rights advocate?
- [00:35:18.07] WALTER BLACKWELL: Lord, yes. I mean, I was told that I was fighting for my country. And I was told this land is your land and all this stuff that they hand you. And by me being in the army three years, and then being in Korea, and seeing death all over the place. And while we were going there, they was telling us what we were fighting for, to encourage us to do our best.
- [00:36:03.02] INTERVIEWER: But you were separate in the armed forces.
- [00:36:07.84] WALTER BLACKWELL: Truman, President Truman integrated the armed forces at the time. And it was very interesting, because at the time, there was white GIs saying they ain't going to be in no foxhole with no black person. And so they had to integrate. So when the bullets started flying, they were calling you brother, because we're in there together. You know, you don't think about color. They call it staying alive.
- [00:36:50.29] So that was really good that that happened like that, because the color barrier was this and that, but once that thing broke, in '48, when he integrated the army, it broke down a lot of the stereotypes of blacks being cooks and laborers and all that stuff.
- [00:37:25.52] INTERVIEWER: Well, tell me a little bit about your married life and your daughters. So they were brought up in Ann Arbor?
- [00:37:35.95] WALTER BLACKWELL: Yeah, yeah. My wife, she came up, working as a nurse's aid at the university.
- [00:37:53.75] INTERVIEWER: At the university hospital?
- [00:37:56.44] WALTER BLACKWELL: I think it was at the health service, worked at the health service, on Fletcher, somewhere over there. I'm not sure that she-- she might've worked at the hospital too. Yeah, she probably worked at the hospital. But she was always nursing, things like that. And I guess by me being so involved and so focused on doing that, trying to make changes, it really probably affected the marriage. Because it was so easy to, I guess, not pay attention to that.
- [00:38:55.70] I guess, the thing about it, what made me so-- I couldn't buy a house. I had-- because they wouldn't show me a house. The whites were saying that if I got a house, they would lose their value, they would lose the value of their homes and things like that. And I guess I got so hyped up in commitment of fighting that racism that I guess I just over-did it with being married, because of the intensity. And I guess by me being a veteran, denied, denied-- I couldn't even join the Foreign Legion.
- [00:39:47.41] The Veteran of Foreign Wars organization in Ann Arbor, if you come out the army and you've been in overseas you could join, I couldn't even joint that.
- [00:40:00.47] INTERVIEWER: Really?
- [00:40:01.25] WALTER BLACKWELL: So, it was a boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. And that really tore up my mind. And so I just got myself involved.
- [00:40:15.43] INTERVIEWER: Tell me about some of your involvement in the movement in Ann Arbor.
- [00:40:23.21] WALTER BLACKWELL: Well, Ann Arbor, was-- before I got into anything, it was just that friends, we couldn't eat at certain places. They wouldn't serve us at certain places. And I guess on top of all of this stuff that I experienced, it made me more, twice as angry, because I couldn't-- I had to qualify to buy a home. I couldn't because of the realtors wouldn't show it to me, because they had a pledge to not show anything to people of color. Only if it was in the North Central area, around Beakes Street, 5th Avenue, 4th Avenue, that's where you all live.
- [00:41:32.61] And so it was just one thing after another, that you can't, you can't, you can't. So I think CORE, I think it might have been on campus earlier.
- [00:41:50.96] INTERVIEWER: CORE?
- [00:41:52.79] WALTER BLACKWELL: Yeah. And then somehow Bunyan and-- I don't know, I got hooked up with guys who-- Alex Hawkins, and Harry Mial-- people who were connected with talking about things that I was interested in and that made me want to belong to change groups, which I got into. And for one of the things, Pittsfield wouldn't show or allow people of color to live out there. So we had to start picketing there, Pittsfield.
- [00:42:53.45] And then discovered that there was people of color, younger people, couldn't get jobs because they were not white. And we would be focused on that also, about employment. And so we look at the housing, employment. And so CORE got representatives to train us to be non-violent. Non-violent means you're not supposed to fight. And even if you're on the line and they hit you, you're supposed to not fight. But anyway, you had to follow their philosophy in order to stay with the group.
- [00:43:49.43] And at the time, we would be picketing for fair housing, housing. We picketed city hall. But anyway, I started taking karate. And I stayed with karate till I got a third-degree black belt. And I said that this is my defense, because the policemen be watching us and ready to pounce. And looking for-- but the only things they see is the hands. But they can be lethal if you want it to be. So that made me feel secure, being exposed to danger. So that security of having a third-degree black belt.
- [00:44:53.51] INTERVIEWER: Where did you take your training in karate?
- [00:44:58.49] WALTER BLACKWELL: At Huron High School. Mr. Yu taught classes there at Huron High School. And I studied under him. And then I trained under him. And I guess I-- and that was the only place I trained, at Huron High School. He had classes there. And I guess you could just keep taking karate forever if you wanted to be a master, master being as high as you can go. But I just wanted enough to stay alive.
- [00:45:44.42] INTERVIEWER: But didn't you teach others, younger people?
- [00:45:47.48] WALTER BLACKWELL: Oh, yeah, well, in the neighborhood, around Jones School, I was-- Alex Hawkins and myself, we were trying to communicate to boys, like a lot of boys didn't have fathers and things like that, and we tried to communicate with them, and support them, and tried to be a role model. And that was activity that was helpful. So it was just like using your talents to help people. And I guess in doing this, it messes with your married life. You're out doing all this stuff.
- [00:46:37.04] INTERVIEWER: So talk about-- you talk about you're so involved in the movement, so what about your family? What were the girls doing?
- [00:46:49.73] WALTER BLACKWELL: Well, my girls, the youngest one, I was teaching her karate, because she was the youngest one and they kept picking on her in school. And she got to learn how to stand up for herself. That's the youngest one. So I guess I impacted her about being able to take care of herself.
- [00:47:21.96] The oldest one, she was not as interested in the kind of things that the younger one was, so there was a difference. And parenting an older child, who was influenced with so much stuff going around them, that you got to really be on them more. And so it required a lot of time to do all of that. So time just comes and goes. And you've got to be selective of how you want the time done. And so that was something that I know-- I guess I should have backed off of activities and paid attention to more of that.
- [00:48:24.29] INTERVIEWER: So you're involvement in the civic activities impacted your marriage in a negative way.
- [00:48:32.47] WALTER BLACKWELL: Yeah. Yeah.
- [00:48:35.66] INTERVIEWER: But the kids, how was their experience in school?
- [00:48:41.63] WALTER BLACKWELL: Well, they had-- they did well in school. There was some kind of program that taught children, gifted children. I can't think of-- a university student, who was helpful in introducing to us availability for children to learn higher levels of schooling. And my youngest one grabbed that. She loved that. She was really good at that.
- [00:49:23.45] And so, right now, she's-- anyway, she did very well. Because she loved to read, and learn, and I guess she was mimicking me, because of my love for music, which she picked up on, and being able to stand up for herself. Instead a lot of times, girls don't. And the older one wasn't like the other one, with the differences. But anyway, that was effective with the children, by me being what I was doing.
- [00:50:13.60] INTERVIEWER: And how about your wife? She continued to work?
- [00:50:18.67] WALTER BLACKWELL: Yeah, she continued to work. I got a loan for the house where we were living. People in town didn't want children in their apartments or houses. So that was a problem with you tell them you have children-- no. And I remember on the west side, I forget where it was-- we had a second floor-- you walk up the stairs on a second floor. It was the house that they didn't partition off. But we had to-- with children, you got to get that you can get.
- [00:51:14.89] But we built a temporary thing. But that was when the crosses were burning on my lawn on Fountain Street. They had crosses burning on my lawn. And I came-- I think that made me get a pistol. Because I didn't know how that was going to continue. So anyway, nothing happened after that, but it made me more aware of there's danger still alive and well in the community. So I guess my main thing was to try to make sure I protect the family. And then I got, by being a veteran, I got a loan.
- [00:52:15.04] INTERVIEWER: A VA loan.
- [00:52:17.30] WALTER BLACKWELL: Yeah, to buy a house. And that's where it is now. She stayed there with the kids and I had left and she stayed there.
- [00:52:39.79] INTERVIEWER: And you were working at the VA all this time, during your involvement in the movement. Were you at the working at the VA at that time?
- [00:52:56.45] WALTER BLACKWELL: Yeah.
- [00:53:00.01] INTERVIEWER: So there was something I read-- and you were interviewed by the people at the university, the Bentley, something I read about when you were supposed to get a promotion at the VA.
- [00:53:21.31] WALTER BLACKWELL: Yeah.
- [00:53:23.47] INTERVIEWER: Tell me about that.
- [00:53:25.16] WALTER BLACKWELL: Well, being connected with civil rights, which I was, and my boss was a Republican, somehow he discovered that I was doing what I was doing. And I guess he-- and after working so many years, I never got-- as everybody else was getting great raises and I wasn't getting anything at all, and that made me angry right then, why, because he resented me doing that. And I somehow corresponded to Washington about the situation. And somehow Washington communicated back to the VA my situation and it changed. But only through going to Washington. Because if I had not, I would have still been the same.
- [00:54:57.92] INTERVIEWER: That same level.
- [00:55:00.35] WALTER BLACKWELL: Yeah. So that just showed me that there's a lot of people who resent people of color doing anything.
- [00:55:15.78] INTERVIEWER: I'm going to ask you about from when you came and now, in terms of your work. What is the biggest difference in your main field of employment, like the medical technician, whatever, from the time you started until now?
- [00:55:49.01] WALTER BLACKWELL: I'm trying to follow the question.
- [00:55:52.01] INTERVIEWER: OK, what is the difference in your field of employment from when you came in terms of now? Or have you been retired so long that you haven't paid that much attention to it.
- [00:56:09.67] WALTER BLACKWELL: I've been retired so long. Yes, many, many years ago. I'm trying to think of the year that I retired.
- [00:56:25.79] INTERVIEWER: But you started in what year?
- [00:56:30.34] WALTER BLACKWELL: 1953 or 4.
- [00:56:35.55] INTERVIEWER: Yeah, 1953 or 4.
- [00:56:37.80] WALTER BLACKWELL: Yeah.
- [00:56:38.69] INTERVIEWER: So you've been retired for quite some while.
- [00:56:43.97] WALTER BLACKWELL: Yeah.
- [00:56:48.62] INTERVIEWER: What did you value most about what the work that you did, when you were working? What did you value most about it?
- [00:56:58.95] WALTER BLACKWELL: Helping, helping veterans. By me being a veteran, I was helping veterans and listening to veterans. And I had a very close friend. At the time, Ashel Overstreet was my friend. And his family and mine became very close. So it was nice that I-- the people there was very open to be supportive and helping a person get settled in the community, inform you of what's going on, and things like that. So very open. And that was very nice to feel like you have someone, people who care about helping.
- [00:57:53.70] INTERVIEWER: How did you feel that you were helping them?
- [00:57:57.77] WALTER BLACKWELL: Helping who?
- [00:57:58.98] INTERVIEWER: The veterans.
- [00:58:02.58] WALTER BLACKWELL: Oh, the rapport. Men have a way of showing by kibitzing, and joking, and laughing, and talking. So it's sort of like become like family, they're warm. Because other than that, you know, coming here without that, you're in a cold kind of atmosphere. And people don't care anything about you. But when you're around people who seem to be warm and it makes you feel comfortable, and so that was nice to have.
- [00:58:49.70] INTERVIEWER: OK, and thinking back on your working adult life, what, in your mind, important social or historical event were taking place at the time? And how did they personally affect you? I think you've answered some of that, but--
- [00:59:16.53] WALTER BLACKWELL: I'm trying to remember what you just said.
- [00:59:20.48] INTERVIEWER: OK, when you look back on your working life--
- [00:59:24.78] WALTER BLACKWELL: OK working life.
- [00:59:26.03] INTERVIEWER: OK, what kind of historical events or your involvement in civil rights, what in those events that took place during that time, that personally affected your life?
- [00:59:50.96] WALTER BLACKWELL: Oh, I guess I-- my life was affected by one, white people supporting, and caring, and showing that. Because I wasn't getting any of that in the community. For one thing, from the picket lines and things, the Unitarian Church people were on the picket lines. That helped me to change my focus not on all people, but certain people. And then, on top of the thing of me, and to music. I learned to play the guitar. And I had a fondness for singing. So I don't know, I got the job here at the library. I think it was over 15 years of something, singing children's songs.
- [01:01:05.13] And that really empowered me, because there were little children who hadn't seen a man of color playing a guitar. And they went home and ask their mom to get them a guitar too. So it was impacting, little things like that, leaving footsteps in the sand, by doing things like that. So children and big people, making a change. So I really enjoyed that.
- [01:01:37.83] INTERVIEWER: Now, you don't have your guitar with you, but could you give us a little song? Maybe sing a little verse or two, a little song?
- [01:01:47.82] WALTER BLACKWELL: Or little song.
- [01:01:48.64] INTERVIEWER: A little song, OK?
- [01:01:52.48] WALTER BLACKWELL: OK. Ohhhh, freedom, ohhhh, freedom, oh, freedom over me. And before I'd be a slave, Lord, I'll be buried in my grave, and go home to my Lord and be free.
- [01:02:30.96] INTERVIEWER: Thank you, thank you. Now, you sang to little children. And you've also sang for older people at the Turner African-American Services Council.
- [01:02:44.94] WALTER BLACKWELL: Yes.
- [01:02:45.53] INTERVIEWER: So do you still sing and play your guitar?
- [01:02:51.60] WALTER BLACKWELL: Yes, we have a senior event coming up in August. And different people are participating. And I'm volunteering to sing the blues to educate some people what is the blues. Ad I'm looking forward to that myself. That's another process of learning, from each other, different ethnic groups or what they're doing. And we learn from each other, our talents.
- [01:03:31.11] INTERVIEWER: Wonderful. OK, the next section is about historical social events. And I just want you to kind of summarize. Tell me how has it been for you to live in this community?
- [01:03:53.22] WALTER BLACKWELL: How has it been?
- [01:03:54.75] INTERVIEWER: How has it been for you to live in this community.
- [01:04:02.85] WALTER BLACKWELL: Ann Arbor.
- [01:04:03.75] INTERVIEWER: Ann Arbor community.
- [01:04:05.23] WALTER BLACKWELL: Ann Arbor-- I appreciate living here because of the-- being safe. I say that, but when I came I was told I could move to Detroit and commute to Ann Arbor. And I had the option of joining the Detroit people who worked at the hospital to live in Detroit. And by having children here in Ann Arbor, I'm so glad I did stay here, because they reaped the benefits of what was available for them to grow intellectually, and I guess learn a lot, without fear of danger or whatever. They could be, as a child, not worrying about anything. And nothing has happened to them here in town. So that decision was very good for me.
- [01:05:31.24] And I learned a lot from people. The political climate here to me, I think from before to now has changed in regard to the neighborhoods where I live. I bring my trash can in. I said, what's going on? Just the idea of you get to see good people. You have good people in all groups. And to experience them, it makes you look at people in a different kind of way. So that helped me to be more appreciative of people. And that, to me, as I'm aging, they're right there. And that's no fear of somebody taking advantage of you because of your handicap. So that makes me sleep well.
- [01:06:48.21] INTERVIEWER: Do you think all the efforts and energy that you put into the Civil Rights Movement, do you feel that it helped some?
- [01:06:59.34] WALTER BLACKWELL: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, because it's a matter of-- it's a feeling you get. And you'll see it more as you age. By people being right there for you, supporting, helping you. They don't know me, but these people are caring, not just me, but they're caring people. And something like that is really nice to have and to expose your children to activities like that, so that they can benefit from things like that, learning from one another.
- [01:07:47.92] And I guess being older, I experienced more of it than when I was younger, because I have doors open for me, and ladies open the door and stuff like that. There's no fear of someone asking could they help you. And that makes you feel that some of the barriers have been broken, for them to say I'm going to help this black man. I'm just going to help this man, which makes me feel good. And it's the same way, I would do that to someone else, help them. So it's a nice kind of a way to be and live.
- [01:08:48.26] INTERVIEWER: Looking back over your life, is there one social historical event that has had a greater impact than others in your life?
- [01:09:18.42] WALTER BLACKWELL: One big one?
- [01:09:20.14] INTERVIEWER: Well, it doesn't have to be big-- one historical event over the years that has impacted your life.
- [01:09:36.93] WALTER BLACKWELL: I guess to be able to-- to be able to be more trusting. From the exposure and experiences and so forth, that I'm able to feel more relaxed and trusting. And I sleep very well, because my brain is at peace with no drama, no stuff. And that helps to experience day by day things like that, without worrying and caring about.
- [01:10:24.18] INTERVIEWER: Is there one event that caused that peaceful feeling?
- [01:10:29.43] WALTER BLACKWELL: Well, I guess for one thing, I took a meditation. And meditation allows me to turn it off and turn it on. Before, years ago, I would be-- I'd have to get some liquor.
- [01:10:52.46] INTERVIEWER: OK. But is there any historic event, like Martin Luther King or any of-- any-- or some war, or--
- [01:11:15.48] WALTER BLACKWELL: Historical events?
- [01:11:18.57] INTERVIEWER: That you feel has impacted your life.
- [01:11:23.01] WALTER BLACKWELL: Well Malcolm X came to Ann Arbor and spoke at the Union. And that was powerful, really powerful.
- [01:11:38.94] INTERVIEWER: So his movement. OK. And thinking back over your entire life, what are you most proud of?
- [01:11:56.07] WALTER BLACKWELL: Staying alive.
- [01:11:57.47] INTERVIEWER: OK.
- [01:11:58.86] WALTER BLACKWELL: Because most of my friends are dead. A lot of the men that I did a lot of things with have passed on. And I guess I sort of looked at what I was doing, probably was working for me, to not-- and some of them were younger than me. And I don't know why they passed or what they were dealing with and so forth. I had to make sure that I stayed on a track that allowed me to be centered and not get crazy. Because it will allow you to really go downhill fast. And so the meditation to me, I remember back when the Beatles were taking up meditation with Maharishi or something. And I was doing that, because I wanted to try it, the meditation. And I even tried to impart that to my daughter, the one in Atlanta. She talks about the driving and all of this stuff, can't sleep. I just say meditate.
- [01:13:37.41] INTERVIEWER: You tell her to meditate.
- [01:13:40.12] WALTER BLACKWELL: Yeah. So that gift I discovered, I shared with her.
- [01:13:54.50] INTERVIEWER: What would you say has changed the most from the time you were a young person to now?
- [01:14:07.33] WALTER BLACKWELL: Say that again.
- [01:14:09.32] INTERVIEWER: What would you say has changed the most from the time you were a young person to now?
- [01:14:25.73] WALTER BLACKWELL: Taking time to appreciate, to evaluate things, to allow the time to really understand things, instead of not understanding for some resolution to come from. I guess been slowing down the mind, slowing down the thoughts, slowing down your decisions by taking your time to discover what works for you, what doesn't work for you. And by finding your niche, that helps you to feel good about your decisions. Because everybody's got to make their own decisions. So that helps me to want to deal with now. Being younger, I wasn't thinking about that. I was just thinking about hurrying up and things like that, and not evaluating. I had a different pace. I had a more--
- [01:15:55.36] INTERVIEWER: More reflective?
- [01:15:58.70] WALTER BLACKWELL: Yeah.
- [01:16:00.44] INTERVIEWER: What about things around you, the world around you, what do you think has changed from when you were young to now?
- [01:16:12.53] WALTER BLACKWELL: What has changed now is, it's very sad for now. I like to read a lot of history about African Americans and how they lived and how they suffered. And this is 2019, the year, and around me is-- and I'm not saying right around me, but the atmosphere, the political atmosphere, is not healthy. And there's-- danger is in the air for me, because I really follow how politics are and how-- I have a picture on my phone that I would like to show you when this is over with, for you to see from then until now, the times, to show you.
- [01:17:35.71] I can explain to you now about the political situation, who is polluting minds, and people, and things. And it gets very stressful. And guns and things like that, so prevalent. And overreacting police. There wasn't that much at the time, but it seemed to be growing. And that to me is a concern now, because from the top is allowing things to happen without checking them. And then you got a problem.
- [01:18:30.68] Because history, it helps you to understand what happened in the past, but makes you wonder at this time now, that we've come a long way, but I don't know if we've come a long way because of-- the danger is not the same thing, but it's more of a deadly danger available now, to your encounter, you're subjected to. And that makes me concerned. I don't know if you saw the movie, the five boys in New York, about the boys--
- [01:19:19.14] INTERVIEWER: I don't think so.
- [01:19:20.19] WALTER BLACKWELL: --who were charged with raping.
- [01:19:23.43] INTERVIEWER: Oh, yes, I haven't seen the new one out, but I want to see it.
- [01:19:29.64] WALTER BLACKWELL: It's powerful. And the thing is, this is today, it could be today. And that's what makes it so stressful. That you think from time has been checked and corrected, and how to deal with, but it's still alive. So that's a concern. If you're concerned with issues like that. And I'm concerned about it.
- [01:20:08.43] INTERVIEWER: What advice would you give to the younger generation?
- [01:20:13.50] WALTER BLACKWELL: Well, the advice I would give the younger generation would be to manage your money well. Manage your money well. To try to have a goal and stick with it. And be sure to get counseling from some person who can help you. And do not procrastinate. And if you need help, to seek help, but don't keep repeating that same problem again, because it ain't going to work. So it's a matter of, as they say, keep on keeping on, way of being.
- [01:21:14.30] INTERVIEWER: Last question. How do you personally feel about doing this interview and its impact on you?
- [01:21:25.47] WALTER BLACKWELL: I feel good about doing it, because I hope in time to come, someone can get bits and pieces to help them. That's how I learned, by listening, and learning, and giving little bits of pieces to help me. And maybe somebody can, a person, younger person, older person can do the same thing. We can learn from each other. When we open up to share, because each person is an individual. And they have experienced different things. And they can let each other know what's-- as Marvin Gaye said, what's going on.
- [01:22:18.17] INTERVIEWER: Thank you so very much. Thank you. And I bugged you enough to get you to do this. And I'm glad. And I learned a lot. And I'm sure others will in listening to it. Thank you.
March 15, 2019
Copyright: Creative Commons (Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share-alike)
Rights Held by: Ann Arbor District Library
Ann Arbor Veterans Administration Hospital
Pioneer High School
Ann Arbor Public Schools - Curriculum
Black National Anthem
Lift Every Voice and Sing
Black American Veterans
United States Armed Forces - Desegregation
Civil Rights Movement
Civil Rights Activists
Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)
Huron High School
Jones Elementary School
Ann Arbor District Library
Turner African American Services Council
The Beatles (Musical Group)
Race & Ethnicity
AACHM Living Oral History
Mary L. Hill
Paul Laurence Dunbar
George Washington Carver
Harry S. Truman
James B. C. Yu
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi