AACHM Oral History: Mary McDade, Alma Wheeler Smith, and Nancy Cornelia Wheeler
When: July 13, 2021
Mary McDade was born in Columbia, South Carolina in 1939, but grew up in Ann Arbor. Her parents Albert and Emma Wheeler were active in local politics and civil rights. As a college student, McDade helped found the University of Michigan chapter of the NAACP. She moved to Peoria, Illinois with her husband Joe Billy McDade in 1963. After raising four children, she built a career in law. McDade graduated from the University of Illinois College of Law and she has been a justice of the Illinois Appellate Court since 2000.
Alma Wheeler Smith was born in Columbia, South Carolina in 1941. She grew up in Ann Arbor, where her parents, Albert and Emma Wheeler, were active in local politics and civil rights organizations. Wheeler Smith made her name in politics as a Michigan State Senator for the 18th district. She was elected in 1995 after working on staff with her predecessor, Lana Pollack. She served full terms in the Michigan Senate and House, and remains politically active by serving on boards and working with Citizens for Racial Equity in Washtenaw.
Nancy Cornelia Wheeler was born in Ann Arbor in 1944 to Albert and Emma Wheeler. Inspired by her parents’ example, she participated in local civil rights protests and served in the Peace Corps in Peru. She graduated from the University of Michigan Law School and worked as an attorney at the Model Cities Legal Center for 16 years. Under her former married name, Nancy Francis, she served as a juvenile court judge and trial court judge for Washtenaw County until her retirement in 2014.
- [00:00:15] JOETTA MIAL: Today, we're interviewing three daughters of the legendary local civil rights activist Al and Emma Wheeler. We're just thrilled about it today. There are five sections to the interview questions, and we're going to start with the first one. I'll ask each one of you the same question. These are some demographics about you all. We'll start with Judge Mary. Please say and spell your name.
- [00:01:04] MARY MCDADE: Mary McDade, M-C capital D-A-D-E.
- [00:01:12] JOETTA MIAL: What is your date of birth?
- [00:01:14] MARY MCDADE: August 26, 1939.
- [00:01:19] JOETTA MIAL: How would you describe your ethnic background?
- [00:01:24] MARY MCDADE: I am Black. There's a bunch of other stuff mixed in there, but I consider myself to be Black.
- [00:01:31] JOETTA MIAL: [LAUGHTER] All right. What is your religion, if any?
- [00:01:36] MARY MCDADE: I'm Catholic in that I believe in the Catholic faith. I'm disaffected from its social policies.
- [00:01:46] JOETTA MIAL: What is the highest level of formal education you have completed?
- [00:01:52] MARY MCDADE: Law school.
- [00:01:56] JOETTA MIAL: What is your marital status?
- [00:01:59] MARY MCDADE: I'm divorced.
- [00:02:02] JOETTA MIAL: How many children do you have?
- [00:02:04] MARY MCDADE: I have four.
- [00:02:07] JOETTA MIAL: How many siblings do you have?
- [00:02:10] MARY MCDADE: Three.
- [00:02:11] JOETTA MIAL: I see them on the screen.
- [00:02:12] MARY MCDADE: Or two.
- [00:02:13] JOETTA MIAL: Two. [LAUGHTER]
- [00:02:14] MARY MCDADE: Yeah.
- [00:02:16] JOETTA MIAL: What is your primary occupation?
- [00:02:19] MARY MCDADE: I am an appellate court judge in Illinois.
- [00:02:27] JOETTA MIAL: You're still working?
- [00:02:29] MARY MCDADE: I am.
- [00:02:32] JOETTA MIAL: The next question you would not answer. "What age did you retire?" You're still working.
- [00:02:37] MARY MCDADE: I am, [LAUGHTER] yes.
- [00:02:40] JOETTA MIAL: Alma, you're next.
- [00:02:41] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: All right.
- [00:02:42] JOETTA MIAL: Please say and spell your name.
- [00:02:45] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: Alma Wheeler Smith. A-L-M-A. Wheeler, W-H-E-E-L-E-R. Smith S-M-I-T-H, and there are no hyphens.
- [00:02:58] JOETTA MIAL: What is your date of birth including the year?
- [00:03:01] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: August 6th, 1941.
- [00:03:05] JOETTA MIAL: How would you describe your ethnic background?
- [00:03:08] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: I am Black. As Mary pointed out, we have a number of other racial and ethnic groups in the background, but we are Black.
- [00:03:22] JOETTA MIAL: What is your religion?
- [00:03:24] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: I'm one of those disaffected Catholics.
- [00:03:31] JOETTA MIAL: What is the highest level of formal education you have completed?
- [00:03:35] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: Bachelor of arts.
- [00:03:41] JOETTA MIAL: What is your marital status?
- [00:03:43] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: I am divorced.
- [00:03:46] JOETTA MIAL: How many children do you have?
- [00:03:48] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: I have three children, Conan, Dana, and Tara.
- [00:03:56] JOETTA MIAL: How many siblings do you have?
- [00:03:58] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: I have two siblings. [LAUGHTER]
- [00:04:05] JOETTA MIAL: I'm saying what was your primary occupation?
- [00:04:11] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: My primary occupation, I started out in broadcasting as a producer at the University of Michigan Television Center. I moved from that occupation to the political side of my life. I worked on staff with Senator Lana Pollack for a number of years and then ran for office. I have held a number of local and state-level offices. So I've been in politics for the balance of my life.
- [00:04:50] JOETTA MIAL: What age did you retire? Doesn't sound like you've retired, but what age did you retire?
- [00:04:55] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: Well, I flunked retirement. I was term limited from the Michigan legislature in 2010. I did not do well in retirement, so I've been on a number of boards and continued to stay active, now in the local community working with a group called Citizens for Racial Equity in Washtenaw. We are looking at racial equity in the criminal legal system in the county.
- [00:05:36] JOETTA MIAL: Nancy, it's your turn.
- [00:05:38] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Okay.
- [00:05:39] JOETTA MIAL: Judge Nancy.
- [00:05:41] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: I'm here. [LAUGHTER]
- [00:05:44] JOETTA MIAL: Please say and spell your name.
- [00:05:46] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Nancy Cornelia Wheeler, N-A-N-C-Y, C-O-R-N-E-L-I-A. Wheeler W-H-E-E-L-E-R
- [00:06:04] JOETTA MIAL: What is your date of birth including the year?
- [00:06:09] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: 10/4/44.
- [00:06:12] JOETTA MIAL: How would you describe your ethnic background?
- [00:06:15] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Well, Black and all mixed up.
- [00:06:22] JOETTA MIAL: Okay. [LAUGHTER]
- [00:06:24] MARY MCDADE: Not Scotch, Nancy?
- [00:06:27] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Yes?
- [00:06:28] MARY MCDADE: Not Scotch? [LAUGHTER]
- [00:06:32] JOETTA MIAL: That's in there too, I guess [LAUGHTER].
- [00:06:39] JOYCE HUNTER: Hello, everybody.
- [00:06:40] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: Hello Joyce.
- [00:06:41] JOETTA MIAL: Well, Hi.
- [00:06:44] JOYCE HUNTER: For those of you that might not know me. I'm Joyce Hunter.
- [00:06:47] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: All right.
- [00:06:49] JOYCE HUNTER: So glad you're going to be doing the interview. You're being interviewed. Joetta's actually doing the interviewing.
- [00:06:54] JOETTA MIAL: Right.
- [00:06:57] MARY MCDADE: It's nice to meet you.
- [00:07:00] JOYCE HUNTER: Thank you. Nice to meet you.
- [00:07:02] JOETTA MIAL: They're leaving me on the screen, Joyce.
- [00:07:04] JOYCE HUNTER: So you're not going to be off?
- [00:07:09] JOETTA MIAL: No. In fact, we have started the interview.
- [00:07:13] JOYCE HUNTER: I'm sorry. I thought we started at 2:00. Okay, I'm going to shut off my video and my mic.
- [00:07:28] JOETTA MIAL: We'll continue with you, Nancy. What is your religion?
- [00:07:37] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: None.
- [00:07:39] JOETTA MIAL: None, okay. What is the highest level of formal education you have completed?
- [00:07:46] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Law school.
- [00:07:49] JOETTA MIAL: What is your marital status?
- [00:07:52] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: I'm single.
- [00:07:54] JOETTA MIAL: How many children do you have?
- [00:07:56] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: One.
- [00:07:59] JOETTA MIAL: Siblings?
- [00:08:01] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: I have two. But my sisters didn't mention that we had another sibling who died in a fire in South Carolina. She died before I was born. We had four siblings all together. Now I have two siblings.
- [00:08:31] JOETTA MIAL: Okay. What was your primary occupation?
- [00:08:34] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: I was a lawyer for 17 years and then I was a judge.
- [00:08:43] JOETTA MIAL: Okay. What age did you retire?
- [00:08:49] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: At 70.
- [00:08:52] JOETTA MIAL: At 70?
- [00:08:53] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Yes.
- [00:08:56] JOETTA MIAL: Did you fail retirement like Alma?
- [00:08:59] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: No, I didn't. I kept on with retirement. But that's because I have glaucoma. I don't see well at all. So there wasn't much I could do.
- [00:09:13] JOETTA MIAL: Okay, we're going on to part two and you all are going to do this together but speak separately. This is memories of childhood and youth. What was your family like when you were a child and who wants to start?
- [00:09:38] MARY MCDADE: I'm happy to start.
- [00:09:39] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Yeah.
- [00:09:41] MARY MCDADE: This is Mary. It was active, involved. As children, we were involved in a lot of things that a lot of children these days are not familiar with. We were involved in civil rights activities and in political activities. We were very close, as a family. We integrated a neighborhood in Ann Arbor and were somewhat socially isolated for awhile. Alma, Nancy and I were our best friends and most frequent companions.
- [00:10:29] JOETTA MIAL: Do either one of you want to add to that?
- [00:10:34] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: Well, I remember the family as Mary described it, but very close-knit. We would come home from school and mom and dad would ask, "How was school?" And like all kids, we would say, "Fine." As long as we were doing well in school, we got away with fine. If one of us and that was usually me was not performing up to expectations, there would be a lot more discussion about let's see, whatever subject it was at the moment I had gotten a C or D in, and how I was going to bring that up. But if the answer was "Fine" and we were doing well, then as Mary said we would get into the discussions of the times that we were in. Whatever activities our parents were involved in in the community, how we would be involved and how we would, as kids be safe, kept out of the fray, to the degree that our age dictated that we be in the background and not in the forefront. As we aged our presence in the civil rights activity of our parents became more and more involved.
- [00:12:05] JOETTA MIAL: Thank you. Nancy, do you want to add anything to it?
- [00:12:09] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Just that we were very happy and very close, with both parents and with the children as well. We did a lot of crazy stuff and had a great time.
- [00:12:28] JOETTA MIAL: What work did your parents do?
- [00:12:35] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Yes. We'll start with you, Mary.
- [00:12:38] MARY MCDADE: Are you sure?
- [00:12:39] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Yes.
- [00:12:40] MARY MCDADE: Well, daddy was involved with the University in the medical school. At the beginning it was serology and then he started working with cancer and then he was with the dermatology department. I just remember a little building where his offices and his lab were down in the basement. He would come home so that he could have dinner with us and then he would go back to work. With regard to mom, she never worked outside of the home unless you consider the garden and the farm outside of the home. She grew practically everything that we ate. She sewed practically everything that we wore. She raised chickens in the garage until the health department came and put her out of business. That was the kind of work that she did. She was a super homemaker.
- [00:13:54] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: I think mom and dad had decided that in Ann Arbor and raising their kids, mom would be the homemaker and daddy would work. That was a separation they kept going for a very long time. But mom was also active--at first, I think, behind the scenes--in civil rights. We could hear a number of arguments in the evening about process and procedure and what should be involved. We would hear mom advocating for a position and then daddy would say, "You're absolutely wrong, that's not the way to go." Then a day or two later, we would hear him saying, "Well, I think we should proceed this way," and it was exactly what mom had proposed a couple of days before. It was just an interesting dynamic in the household.
- [00:14:57] JOETTA MIAL: This was still in your childhood?
- [00:14:59] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: Oh yeah.
- [00:15:00] JOETTA MIAL: Okay. Nancy, you have anything to add?
- [00:15:05] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Yes. My father was the head of the serology lab in later years. He worked for a long time trying to come up with a syphilis vaccine. That was before he worked in a cancer research area. But he was very well-respected in that field. My mother became active as the head of the NAACP, when that was the agency of choice. She was the president of that for years. Then she became the head of the dental clinic in Ann Arbor and this is a little later on. But she ran that very well. She ran that until she and the city came to blows [LAUGHTER] about how it was run or where the money was going or something like that, I cant remember now what the issue was. But they defunded her and that was the end of that. But she was active ever since.
- [00:16:39] JOETTA MIAL: This was still when you all were young?
- [00:16:44] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: It began when we were young.
- [00:16:48] JOETTA MIAL: The dental clinic was in Model Cities, part of what they called Model Cities?
- [00:16:53] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Yes.
- [00:16:54] JOETTA MIAL: Okay.
- [00:16:58] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: Lest you think it was all work, growing up with mom and dad was also fun. My sisters were pranksters.
- [00:17:09] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: What? [LAUGHTER].
- [00:17:17] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: What? They had great fun tricking dad. He had equal fun scaring the heck out of us. But they've got great stories to tell about putting one over on pa.
- [00:17:40] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Mary and I. Well, we did it twice. We made a doll--well it wasn't a doll, but we called it a doll--in the bathroom. There was a--
- [00:17:51] MARY MCDADE: Dress form.
- [00:17:54] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: A dress form, yeah. We put a volleyball on it for its head and we put something on it for a jacket, I don't remember what all we did. But we put it in the corner where the clothes hamper was, so it was behind the door. Nobody thought about it. We went to bed and went to sleep, and daddy came in and just he saw this thing I guess out of the corner of his eye, and he just beat it down into the [LAUGHTER] bathtub. Mom came in to say, "What is going on?" Then we did it a second time a few months later. Well, as you would guess, he was still taken by that and blew up against it a second time [LAUGHTER]. We didn't do it anymore [LAUGHTER].
- [00:19:05] JOETTA MIAL: Which holidays did your family celebrate, and how were they traditionally celebrated in your family?
- [00:19:15] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Mary?
- [00:19:18] MARY MCDADE: Well, we did all the traditional holidays. We did Christmas and Halloween, Thanksgiving, Easter, New Year's. The celebrations very frequently revolved around food. They were opportunities for us to get special kinds of things to eat. The house was frequently full of people. There were people who came to organize and plan things, people who came because they were in need and they were looking for help, either monetary help or help with a problem that they had. Those things too frequently revolved around--Mom was always cooking and sharing whatever it was we had with everybody else. We had a Christmas tree and Christmas dinner and presents that we exchanged. Because the university had been pretty negative about, particularly at that time, daddy's civil rights activities. They had put a freeze on his salaries and promotions. So they ended up having not enough money. I can remember times when they would share one of those large cans of pork and beans for an entire week to make sure that we had the food that we needed. They always made sure that we had a quart of milk to drink every day. They came in glass bottles and we had glass straws and we were supposed to sit in the chair and drink our milk. But a lot of what mom did she did out of necessity because his salary didn't increase over a period of time. I guess Alma and Nancy can add anything that they would like to that.
- [00:21:41] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: Well, as Mary said, we celebrated the traditional holidays and I think pretty much in traditional ways except we would also have Christmas gifts that arrived from South Carolina where my mom's family lived. There would be boxes of books coming from Aunt Jessica to Mary, primarily, because she was the book fiend. The holidays were also a family time even though family stayed in South Carolina or St. Louis. The major holiday I don't remember celebrating was the Fourth of July. We would do fire sparklers. That was the extent of our celebration. Daddy was very careful about fireworks then. He and mom were both public health professionals and they were very particular about safety and our well-being as most parents were even without public health backgrounds. But I mean, there were things that we learned growing up that I think many kids were not exposed to. The germ theory of life [LAUGHTER].
- [00:23:13] JOETTA MIAL: Nancy, you have anything to add?
- [00:23:19] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Yes, and I thought of it all while they were talking and I can't remember a thing of it now. [LAUGHTER] It'll probably come back to me.
- [00:23:29] JOETTA MIAL: Okay. All right.
- [00:23:31] MARY MCDADE: Wait. Can I add one thing, Joetta?
- [00:23:33] JOETTA MIAL: Sure.
- [00:23:34] MARY MCDADE: We did not do Halloween as a rule because as I had said earlier, we integrated a neighborhood, and they were nervous about having us go out and beg candy from people in the neighborhood. So there were a couple of close friends that they had and they would take us over to their houses so that we could get some candy or other goodies. But we did not do the typical trick-or-treating that other children in our neighborhood did.
- [00:24:10] JOETTA MIAL: Were you the first Black family in the neighborhood that you moved to?
- [00:24:14] MARY MCDADE: Yes.
- [00:24:17] JOETTA MIAL: Can you tell us where that was?
- [00:24:21] MARY MCDADE: It's on Eighth Street.
- [00:24:24] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: In the Old West Side.
- [00:24:27] MARY MCDADE: Yeah. We had lived on Brown--
- [00:24:29] JOETTA MIAL: [OVERLAPPING].
- [00:24:29] MARY MCDADE: Yes. Right by Slauson school. We had lived on Brown Street earlier, which was over by one of the entries to the University of Michigan football stadium, and as I recall, there were not any Black families in that neighborhood either. But I don't remember the same kind of animosity that we encountered when we moved to Eighth Street.
- [00:25:01] JOETTA MIAL: You did. Harry and I lived on Brown for a while. We'll talk about that later. Nancy, did you think of it yet or shall we move on?
- [00:25:11] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: I did, and then it went out of my head again. I was thinking that--well, it's gone.
- [00:25:21] JOETTA MIAL: Well, okay. Let's go to the next one. Did any of you play any sports or any other kind of activities outside of school?
- [00:25:36] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: This is Alma. The longer we were in the neighborhood, the easier it got with the neighbors. Kids will play sports. They don't care who you are and what their parents have said, in particular. If they're trying to get up a sandlot baseball team, and you're the people around, they're happy to have you play. [NOISE] So we did a lot of sandlot baseball, and pickup games, touch football [NOISE], pickup games in the park next to the house, riding bikes. But I do remember wanting to play tennis and my school did not have a tennis team or court. My coach at the time was willing to help me learn but we didn't have the facilities. I went home and tried to beg my sisters [LAUGHTER] to take up the game. They really wanted nothing to do with me and tennis. But daddy had played a little bit in college, I guess. So he would go over to the park with me and we would knock the ball around and practice. But this is where Mary's memories come in better than mine. Do you want to take over?
- [00:27:03] MARY MCDADE: Yeah, when she was pushing us to play tennis, I was willing to try, but I was not willing to invest enough money for a brand new tennis racket. So mom and I went to Treasure Mart to find a used tennis racket so that I could try to play with her. While we were there, she told me that she had been a tennis champion in South Carolina. She had been the women's champion of the Black colleges and universities in the state of South Carolina, which was something we had not known before. She had fairly serious back problems, which is probably why it was daddy rather than her who was playing with Alma. But it's interesting, we all developed an interest in tennis and have continued to play over the years. So it was a good thing that Alma did. [LAUGHTER] I don't know whether she stayed an ice hockey fan, but she was always trying to make us watch the Montreal Canadiens on TV when we wanted to watch other stuff.
- [00:28:20] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: And listen to them on the radio.
- [00:28:22] MARY MCDADE: Yeah.
- [00:28:27] JOETTA MIAL: [LAUGHTER] All right. So your mom was a tennis star?
- [00:28:34] MARY MCDADE: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]
- [00:28:39] JOETTA MIAL: What about your school experience in Ann Arbor and how was it different as of today?
- [00:28:53] MARY MCDADE: Do you want me to start, guys?
- [00:28:56] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Yeah. We'll just have you start all the time. [LAUGHTER]
- [00:29:04] MARY MCDADE: I started when we moved into the house on Eighth Street, I started going to a school called Bach School. I don't know if it's still there.
- [00:29:13] JOETTA MIAL: Yes.
- [00:29:14] MARY MCDADE: But I was in kindergarten there. Mom had made me a nice dress for the first day of school and I went off. She took me to school. When I came back home, my dress was all torn and I was bleeding and she asked me what was wrong and I told her that some kids at school had caught me on the playground and had beaten me up. She took me by the hand and walked to me right back to the school looking exactly the way I had come home. She had a long talk with the school and the upshot of the whole thing was that they solved the problem by saying that I could no longer go out on recess. I had to stay in school when the other kids were out playing during the course of the day. They were not happy with that so the following year they enrolled us at St. Thomas, hoping that we would be able to deal better, we wouldn't have the negative racial things there that had been at Bach School.
- [00:30:27] JOETTA MIAL: These were white kids that beat you up?
- [00:30:30] MARY MCDADE: Yes. Nancy did a little better at that school than I did because when she was in kindergarten, I remember she brought her entire class home to see the new puppies that had just been born, without saying anything to mom about the fact that she was bringing them. We ended up with a lot of little kids looking around at the puppies while mom was still in her night gown. [LAUGHTER]
- [00:31:03] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: Nancy had quite a few surprise things for mom to cope with, including a birthday party that she invited some of her classmates to. Mom found out quite by accident that this party was planned for a couple of days from the date of the phone call from one of those--
- [00:31:26] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: A few hours.
- [00:31:27] MARY MCDADE: [OVERLAPPING] Yeah, it was the same day. [LAUGHTER]
- [00:31:32] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: That makes it even better. A few hours before this birthday party because mom called to see where they were supposed to come and mom said, "What?" [LAUGHTER] But Nancy had a birthday party a few hours later, complete with cake and ice cream and party favors and I don't know how she did it, but mom worked miracles for us. [LAUGHTER]
- [00:32:01] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: And she told me never to do it again [LAUGHTER], so I didn't.
- [00:32:08] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: She must have called on a whole host of friends to say, "I've got to put this together in two hours, what can we do?" [LAUGHTER]
- [00:32:16] JOETTA MIAL: Wow. Did your family have any special sayings or expressions that you can remember during this time?
- [00:32:27] MARY MCDADE: Ooh, can I start?
- [00:32:29] JOETTA MIAL: Yes.
- [00:32:30] MARY MCDADE: "Hard times will make a monkey eat red pepper." [LAUGHTER] Every time you would ask daddy for something and he would say that you couldn't have it and you'd start complaining and wheedling and trying to get him to change his mind and he would just stand there and look at you and he'd finally say, Mary or Alma, or Nancy, "Hard times will make a monkey eat red pepper." I never, ever growing up, knew what that meant. But I think a couple of years ago I figured out something about it and it has become something of a mantra for me. Because I think that what it means is that you will do whatever you need to do in order to get something that's important to you. Like when I'm sitting in court and there's a judge who's taking a completely opposite position than my position, and I need to compromise and I can tell myself, "Okay. Hard times will make a monkey eat red pepper." [LAUGHTER] That's the one that I remember the best. I also remember, "Everything but Jubal on a horse," but maybe somebody else would like to talk about that one.
- [00:33:59] JOETTA MIAL: Do you remember Alma?
- [00:34:01] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: I do. [OVERLAPPING]
- [00:34:02] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: I remember that one. That was kind of a combination of a commercial on television and part of a story that we were watching on Rawhide, that television program. My mother made that up because she said she was watching something on TV and she ended up saying, "Everything but Jubal on a horse." Because somebody was looking for Jubal and somebody was looking for a horse and, I don't know, it was just funny. [LAUGHTER] Maybe somebody has a better rendition of that than I do, actually.
- [00:34:53] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: Well, I remember "dawn breaks gently" because it was usually reserved for me. Because I think of the three of us, I was the slowest and mom would be explaining something or daddy would give an example, and fifteen minutes later I'd say, "Oh, I get it." You know, my sisters' having gotten it and the conversation having moved on, and mom would look at me and say, "dawn breaks gently." [LAUGHTER] So that was one of the many we heard.
- [00:35:29] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Mom was especially enlightening about the language of the South. She was from the South and so were Mary and Alma, but they left it at very early. Mom didn't leave until she was in her 20s. She said everything with a Southern accent after that. Like “ah-runge” she would say when she was trying to say orange. Well, I can't remember all of them. [OVERLAPPING] Go ahead Mary.
- [00:36:10] MARY MCDADE: No, go ahead, Nancy.
- [00:36:12] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Oh that's all that I had to say. I was just going to say that she brought us up with that language and I wish I could remember it now. [LAUGHTER]
- [00:36:23] MARY MCDADE: One that I remember was she had something--she brought us a gift one day and she said, "I brought you this Yuma book," and we were going, "Yuma book?" That was a humor book. It was a book with jokes and funny stories in it, but she pronounced it, "yuma."
- [00:36:43] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Yeah.
- [00:36:44] MARY MCDADE: Sometimes when she would get on us and daddy was making fun of her, he would imitate her and he'd say, "If you do that again, I'm going to hit you on your head with a pork chop." [LAUGHTER].
- [00:36:58] JOETTA MIAL: Oh wow.
- [00:37:01] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: That reminds me of "three scares of butter." [LAUGHTER].
- [00:37:06] MARY MCDADE: Yes.
- [00:37:06] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: That was me.
- [00:37:07] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: Yes, that was you. [LAUGHTER]
- [00:37:11] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: That was me and my bad spelling.
- [00:37:16] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: Nancy was copying a recipe and the recipe called for three squares of butter and she wrote three scares of butter. I thought my dad was going to die laughing. [LAUGHTER] Those were the things we find funny.
- [00:37:33] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: He very rarely did that, but every once in a while he'd go off into great gales of laughter. That was one time.
- [00:37:43] JOETTA MIAL: You all had a lot of them.
- [00:37:47] MARY MCDADE: Can I share one of my favorite memories with you?
- [00:37:50] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Yes.
- [00:37:53] MARY MCDADE: Daddy always did the bills. He did them at the beginning. We would always quietly go off to our rooms when he was getting ready to do them because it was always an adventure in ranting. He was a man who was generous to a fault. He would give money to anybody who needed it. He would give you the shirt off his back. But he really hated the thought that he might have paid too much for something. There was one night we were all upstairs in our rooms and it was quiet and suddenly we heard all of this racket. It was pots and pans being flung around all over the place. We went running downstairs to see what was going on. We had a pantry underneath the stairway and all the pots and pans were in it, and he was down on the floor on his knees and he was grabbing these pots and pans and he was just heaving them out of the closet and they were hitting up against the wall on the opposite wall of the hall. We got down there and mom said, ''What are you doing?'' and he said, ''Where is the pot? Where's the goddamn gold plated pot? [LAUGHTER] Because she had spent $7 for this new fangled gadget called a pressure cooker. He could not understand why a pot would cost $7. But I'm wanting to counter that by saying how generous they were. The generosity generated a gift from the NAACP. They called it a discretionary fund so that they would not have to take money out of their pockets when they would give things to people who were in need. It was an interesting contrast: this incredible generosity on the one hand, and the parsimony with something when he thought that it was costing too much.
- [00:40:10] JOETTA MIAL: Oh, wow.
- [00:40:11] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: Wasn't too long after that that mom took over the bill paying. [LAUGHTER]
- [00:40:21] JOETTA MIAL: Let me go on to the next question. Were there any changes in your family life during your school years? Any major changes.
- [00:40:37] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: This is Nancy. The only ones that I can remember were my mother suffered a severe back injury. Well, it was a continuation of a back injury that she had before, but it just got worse, and she had cancer also. She had a breast removal. She came through both of them. But this was in the 1950s and she was one of the first in Ann Arbor to have this kind of surgery, the breast surgery. She was asked by the doctors to meet with several women in the community who were thinking about having it, and so she was a liaison to these women to talk about it and give them an idea of what they'd have to face when they went through it. That's all what I remember about changes in the family, [LAUGHTER] except that my dad got more and more, deeper and deeper into civil rights at that time.
- [00:42:04] JOETTA MIAL: Anybody else?
- [00:42:08] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: We lost Mary? Looks like she locked up. Oh, there she is. We thought we lost you for a minute, Mary.
- [00:42:20] MARY MCDADE: I'm sorry, my computer locked up so I missed most of what we did. [LAUGHTER]
- [00:42:26] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: Nancy was talking about mom's back surgery and cancer surgery and what kind of impact that had. The cancer surgery was the first time dad sent us away from home. I think the back surgery was first and he took care of us and did all of the routine things that had to happen with three girls and the household. But with mom's cancer surgery, he wanted to be more available to her and at the hospital whenever he could be. We went to stay with the Bryants; Henry and Barbara Bryant who were a family that they knew who lived on Sunset, right?
- [00:43:13] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Yeah.
- [00:43:13] MARY MCDADE: Yeah.
- [00:43:13] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: Another medical family, but we stayed there for about a week, I think. Maybe it just seemed like a week because I was not used to being away from home. But that certainly showed us the critical importance of mom in the household. If we hadn't understood it before, we certainly did then. Daddy was extremely reliant on mom, not just holding the family together, but as a sounding board to bounce ideas and responses off. He was devastated with her cancer surgery and the fear that he might lose somebody who was so central to his life and I remember that was quite a change.
- [00:44:19] MARY MCDADE: That was the first time I ever saw him cry because they started that surgery and they ran out of blood, and so they had to close her up and resume the next day. When he was telling us about it at dinner that night, he started crying because it was a traumatic surgery to begin with. It was the first radical mastectomy that had ever been done at the University of Michigan Hospital. It was frightening in and of itself and the fact that they had run out of the blood and couldn't finish the surgery that same day was just more than he could deal with.
- [00:45:08] JOETTA MIAL: Wow. Well, let's go on to the next one. When thinking back on your school years, what important social or historical events were taking place at the time, and how did they personally affect you and your family?
- [00:45:35] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Are you talking about college included in that or just high school?
- [00:45:41] JOETTA MIAL: Well, it just says school years. You could include it. We can do the span from K-12 to college.
- [00:45:58] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Mary?
- [00:46:05] MARY MCDADE: I remember all of the civil rights activities that were going on through that time. I remember marching and going to meetings. I remember passing out leaflets. I remember us picking up people to take them to vote, picking up people to take them to marches. We were involved in all facets of that. But when I say, we, daddy was never a marcher. He was always there around so that if anything happened to us while we were involved in a protest or a march, he would be available but he did not participate in them. He was more of the thinker and the planner, is my recollection. I'm about stuck there.
- [00:47:10] JOETTA MIAL: What period in your life was that when you were marching and bringing people to the polls?
- [00:47:19] MARY MCDADE: It was high school. It continued while I was in college because I can remember I was one of two people who founded the college NAACP and I can remember our NAACP group coming down and participating in the march for the Fair Housing Ordinance. The City Hall is probably still in the same place. What I remember about those marches was the Fire Department was right across the street and the firemen would always come out with their hoses and water the plants around the Fire Department. I think that they were reminding us of the things that we would see on TV with the hoses and the dogs and the Southern protests. They never sprayed us or anything. I think it was just a little bit of hassling that they were doing. So that would have been for me high school and college.
- [00:48:18] JOETTA MIAL: Alma?
- [00:48:26] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: This is where memory fails me. [NOISE] Let's go to Nancy. [LAUGHTER]
- [00:48:36] JOETTA MIAL: Okay. Nancy?
- [00:48:42] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: [NOISE] I can remember participating in the same kinds of marches that Mary mentions. We didn't go down South with the students who went down South. Our position was that there was enough to do up here and that they couldn't see it. But that was the way we were. We stayed here and fought the fights up here. I remember Mary and I used to picket Kresge's and Woolworths, mostly Kresge's because they had stores down South that were discriminating. Even though the stores up here weren't at the time that I know of, they may have been [LAUGHTER] in their own ways. We picketed those stores, and also all the political things at City Hall. I remember that daddy did picket, but he wouldn't do beyond that. Well, I wouldn't call it a fight exactly, actually, I don't know what it was. It was a disagreement between our dad and Harry Mial, [LAUGHTER] and two other people that I can't remember now, but I remember Harry very clearly. They wanted to sit in on one of those fights at City Hall, about something. One of those laws, probably the Fair Housing Act, and daddy just wanted to picket and they were going to sit in. So they did, and he did, and that was it. [LAUGHTER]
- [00:50:51] JOETTA MIAL: Well, the next question is, some of that you've already answered, but it says, you lived during the era of segregation. Can you speak about that? You've done some of that. Was your elementary school near your home? How did you get to school? Who were your teachers? Were there restaurants or eating places for Blacks where you lived? How were Black visitors accommodated during this time of segregation?
- [00:51:33] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: Let me start on this one. We did live in an era of segregation, but every summer we went to South Carolina to visit mom's family. Her mother and siblings were there in Columbia. But I spent the first two years of my life in Columbia, South Carolina, and I think Mary, you spent the first four maybe of yours there while daddy was in school, because there wasn't the housing in the Ann Arbor that would accommodate our small family. Daddy just felt it would be safer and better for us to be in Columbia. That was when my twin sister was playing with matches and caught her dress on fire. The ambulance that came to take my sister Lucille to the hospital turned around and left her. She died in mom's arms. They left her because the family was Black, and that ambulance would not transport her to a hospital. I think that was probably, if I was aware, at age 2, that was probably the first experience that we had with deep racial segregation that had such horrible consequences. After that, dad and mom moved the family to Ann Arbor so that they could be together to adjust to that tragedy. But we would go back every summer, and there were episodes of not being able to go into the department stores, and having to drink from segregated fountains, and the whole experience of flying in on Eastern Airlines. They had a segregation policy when we got to South Carolina, but didn't have one necessarily in Detroit, not as formal in Detroit, anyway. There was that shock when you got into Columbia. I know there are other great stories that people can tell about Aunt Majeska, who was my mom's sister, who was very active in civil rights in Eastern Airlines. But that's a story for another day I think. But there was also discrimination in Ann Arbor, not quite so blatant. Black families, if they went out to eat, their table seating would be near the kitchen or the restroom. You wouldn't be able to try on hats in the department stores. I particularly remember a day going to Jacobson's and not being allowed to try on a hat. Then the woman who was in charge of the department was from Russia, and she came over and she said, "Well, I don't know how you know if a hat works for you if you can't try it on", and right there and then, she broke that tradition in Jacobson's with the family. You couldn't try on shoes. The housing was definitely segregated. Education in Ann Arbor, although the schools would tell you they were not segregated, that they were just neighborhood schools. The Black kids, by and large, went to Jones Elementary School. Some of it was housing pattern, yes. But that housing pattern was also segregated, and that's why you had a Black elementary school in the city of Ann Arbor. Those were the things that daddy, and Harry Mial, and mom, and the Bentons, and Rosemarion Blake--
- [00:55:38] MARY MCDADE: Mrs. Grubbs.
- [00:55:40] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: Mrs. Grubbs, and I'm forgetting the woman who told dad how to--
- [00:55:45] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Mrs. Rumsey.
- [00:55:46] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: --Mrs. Rumsey, were engaged in. We had to have change, or our outcomes were going to be the same as they were in the deep South where you had formal segregation.
- [00:56:07] MARY MCDADE: Alma had talked about the flying to South Carolina. Originally, we drove, [OVERLAPPING] and mom would pack up a picnic lunch and we would get in the car and take that lunch because we knew that we would not be able to get food at a restaurant going into the South. A couple of times, they stopped, and daddy would go in and try to get a room at a motel, but then they would see mom and us and they would say that we couldn't stay. He carried a gun in the car because he was afraid that something was going to happen on the trip down. Then he didn't want to drive anymore and we started taking the train. We would get on the train in Detroit, and when we were leaving Ohio, we would have to get off the train and get onto another car because we were going into Southern territory, and we couldn't stay in an integrated car. When we flew, we could fly into, I think it was Charlotte, North Carolina, and then Aunt Majeska would come and pick us up because there was no plane that we could fly on into Columbia. It's amazing thinking about that now because of course, you can just get on a plane and go wherever you want to go. The reason why we were going to South Carolina every summer was daddy was working at Howard University in the summer because the university didn't have anything for him to do over the summers. But he couldn't find decent housing, temporary housing for our family there. We would go to South Carolina and stay with mom's family while he would go on to Washington and work at Howard for the summer. [NOISE]
- [00:58:27] JOETTA MIAL: Nancy, do you have anything to add to that?
- [00:58:30] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: No. They've covered it beautifully.
- [00:58:33] JOETTA MIAL: Okay. [LAUGHTER] Thank you. We're going to go on to section three, which is including adulthood, marriage, and family life. I'm going to take each one of you separately. This will cover a long period of time, from the time you completed your education, entered the labor force, started a family until all your children left home and whether you and your spouse retired. So we might be talking about stretch of time spanning about four decades. I'll start with Mary. After you finished high school, where did you live? Did you remain there? Or did you move around through your life and what was the reason for these moves?
- [00:59:31] MARY MCDADE: When I finished high school, I went to the University of Michigan, undergrad. I went on a scholarship and we did not have enough money for me to live in the dorms so I continued to live at home. I rode my bicycle back and forth to school. It was about three miles, would you say guys?
- [00:59:59] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: Yes.
- [01:00:00] MARY MCDADE: I think it was that. I went four years undergrad. I was elected to student government council and we would have meetings at night. Daddy would never go to bed until all of us were home. I remember one particular meeting where we were having a very involved discussion. I rode my bike home and I got home about three o'clock in the morning and he was sitting at the dining room table and he was very irate because he was tired. He asked me if I had solved the problems of the world since I was gone so long and I told him what we had been talking about. He asked me a couple of questions and then told me to go to bed that I was too stupid for him to talk to. Then several years later, we were living in Chicago and the family was there for Thanksgiving. One of our friends had her brother coming in and he was going to Harvard and daddy was sitting in a rocking chair and he said, "Well, tell me what's going on at Harvard. " This young man told him about what they were discussing on the campus, which was the same thing that I had told him about the night I came home at three o'clock in the morning. Just as he had done with mom, he said to him, "Well, I've always thought that the way we should handle this is this," and it was what I had told him that he had told me I was too stupid for him to listen to at the time. I'm sorry, I've gotten off track. After college, I went to law school at Michigan for one year and then I got married. I moved to Illinois, to Chicago, because my husband was working for the Justice Department in Chicago. We lived there for two years and then we moved to Peoria. I have been in Peoria ever since. We moved to Peoria in 1965 and I have been here since that time.
- [01:02:28] JOETTA MIAL: Thank you. Okay, Alma?
- [01:02:34] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: Oh, I'm a homebody. Oh I'm sorry, Joetta, I cut you off. [LAUGHTER]
- [01:02:39] JOETTA MIAL: After you finished high school, where did you live and did you remain there? Did you move around? Tell me about your adult life.
- [01:02:50] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: Well, I was a homebody. I never left Ann Arbor or Washtenaw County. I went to the university and as did my sister I lived at home, so there was a commute daily. When I finished the university, I worked at the University Television Center. That was another place in Ann Arbor. I got married in Ann Arbor and my first two children, well, all of my children were born in Ann Arbor and then we moved out to Salem Township to raise the kids. We needed an affordable place for three children. My ex fell in love with a three-car garage [LAUGHTER] and a house with a lot of potential as my mom said. I've never left Washtenaw County. I remember my sisters were very active when I was in college and I wasn't so much, I was in journalism. I certainly tried to stay on top of the news but I just withdrew from the political process. I think it's fair to say that my sisters have said to me, and will say to anybody who asks, I was the last person they expected to go into politics. I think no one was more surprised than they. Like Mary, I've lost track but she was able to get herself back on. [LAUGHTER] I'm going to have to rely on my notes here.
- [01:04:57] MARY MCDADE: Well, while you're searching for your track, I have to say you were amazing at politics.
- [01:05:02] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: [LAUGHTER] Well, thank you. I had great examples in politics. I often said to Lana Pollack, who was the politician who hired me and the Michigan staff up for the Michigan legislature, that she was my mentor and she said, "No, Alma. You have the greatest mentors in the country in your parents. I'm happy that you think I was important in your growing into the political realm, but you grew up in that your dad was my mentor, so he had to have been yours." But we were just such lucky women. My dad would say to us, "There is nothing you can't do." My mom would say, "If you apply yourself." Now there's an expression we heard all the time, whether it was the piano or school or life. [LAUGHTER] "You have to apply yourself." But we were really blessed. I'm going to turn this over to Nan. [LAUGHTER]
- [01:06:16] JOETTA MIAL: Nancy?
- [01:06:23] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Who is a blessed person who can't remember what she was going to say. [LAUGHTER]
- [01:06:29] JOETTA MIAL: About after you finished high school, where did you live? Did you remain in Ann Arbor or move around?
- [01:06:41] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Yeah. I had big dreams of going to a school in New England, which I can't even remember the name of now. I remember it off and on. I was accepted there and at another school in New York. But of course, my father said, "I don't have the money to pay for it." [LAUGHTER] So I just stayed home and I went to University of Michigan. I had a lot of fun there. I worked hard, and then I came out and I went into the Peace Core, and I went to Peru. When I finished that, I went to Mary because Mary was going to have a baby; a third child, I believe it's third because I went to her. Billy was born before I left. She was going to have this third child. I went there to take care of the other two children because she was going to run for the school board, and was going to be very busy. I went down and had a ball with her children. The third child came and I just hung around. But that's when I got married, and I married this awful person. I stayed married for about a year-and-a-half and came back home, and that was that. He never paid any child support or anything, and so I got rid of him. Then I went to law school. I went back to Mary's for some reason. No, I guess I was just there that time. I went there twice because I remember having a terrible automobile accident. I can't remember this. I was going home to vote because they couldn't find a place for me to vote anywhere else. I had this great idea of that they had voting all over the country. Every place I went in Illinois, they told me that I was wrong, that they had it, but I had to register for it 30 days, or 60 days, or something ahead of that. I did have this terrible automobile accident and with two of her children in my car, and that was terrible. But, I guess, we all came out all right. Now, the little boy then, he was in the backseat. They asked him what he did when the car crashed, and he said, well, I sat in the back and ate the lunch that I had packed for us to eat [LAUGHTER] on the way. Then I went to law school. I took my law school exams, and I did very well on those, and they accepted me. I was also working in town for one of the few female lawyers that there was then. I was able to take 12 hours every semester and go to law school, finished law school, and then I married again. I stayed married for 20 years or so and had a child, Joe. No, he was born in my first marriage, but I guess I get confused because my second husband adopted him. He was always considered his child because Joe never knew his father. He left early, early in his childhood, so he never knew his father, who came to see him once when he was a baby and that was it. That was my life.
- [01:11:32] JOETTA MIAL: Okay.
- [01:11:33] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: And then I went to the practice of law, which I enjoyed very much.
- [01:11:40] JOETTA MIAL: The next section we're going to talk about involves work and what was your main field of employment. Do we want to start with Mary again?
- [01:11:52] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Yes.
- [01:11:52] JOETTA MIAL: Okay. Here are some of the questions I'm going to ask you. What was your main field of employment? How did you first get started? What got you interested? Tell me about a typical day. What do you value most about it? Let's talk about your work life.
- [01:12:19] MARY MCDADE: Okay. Well, I primarily raised my children until I was 41. I had gone one year to the University of Michigan Law School, and then I got married. Then, when I was 41, my husband said that if I was ever going to finish law school, that was the time to do that because our kids would be starting into college in a couple of years. I went to the University of Illinois and because of the large span of time between my first year and that year, I had to start all over again. I did three years at the University of Illinois. After I graduated, I clerked for two years for a federal judge. There was a civil rights law that was pretty prominent at that time. It still is, but everybody was using it for everything at that time. I became something of an expert in Section 1983, civil rights law. At the end of my two-year clerkship with him, I joined the law firm in Peoria, and because of that experience with 1983, I ended up specializing in that particular area [NOISE]. But the interesting thing about it, [NOISE] was that it was a defense firm. I ended up doing defense work for police departments and sheriff's departments, which interestingly was exactly the opposite from the reason why I had said I wanted to be a lawyer in the first place. Then, after I had worked practicing law for 16 years, I ran for the appellate court. I had never served on a trial court as a judge. I just ran for the appellate court, which is the interim reviewing level. It's between the trial court and the supreme court in Illinois. I have been on the appellate court now for 21 years. I just got retained for a third 10-year term, which being 82, I am probably not going to serve out. I probably will just do another couple of years and then maybe pack it in and find something else to do. [LAUGHTER]
- [01:15:04] JOETTA MIAL: Great.
- [01:15:04] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Joetta, you laugh at that.
- [01:15:11] JOETTA MIAL: What do you value most about what you do for a living?
- [01:15:19] MARY MCDADE: I think, it's that I do in my court, something that I wish all of the judges would do. One of the things that really concerns me is that Illinois is second in the country for wrongful convictions. We're second only to Texas, and we're first in the country for the number of years served in prison by people who have been wrongfully convicted. To me, that means that we're doing something wrong. There's something that we should be doing in terms of reviewing the decisions that are coming from the trial courts that we're not. I think that one of the things--I have become the queen of dissents on my court, and that's because I pick the cases apart. I try to figure out where it is that we may be going wrong. I write a large number of dissents. To me, I think it's valuable. It doesn't change anything right now. I think that people who write dissents are writing for the future when there's another court, and that court can look back and say, here's a precedent that we can follow for this. It's frustrating. I feel like I'm beating my head against a stone wall all the time. But my kids keep saying, "Mom, you're writing for the future, you're not writing for now." I take that, and I just keep going. But, I think that's the most rewarding part of this job for me, is trying to bring about some change that hopefully will result in there being no wrongful convictions in Illinois.
- [01:17:33] JOETTA MIAL: Yeah. When thinking back on your working life, what important social or historical events have taken place during your time of work life? How does it affect you in any way or your family?
- [01:17:59] MARY MCDADE: The election of Obama, the election of Trump, the feeling of great hope going to this absolute abyss. I have become more political recently. I've always been political. You couldn't grow up in our family and not be, but I have gotten much more actively involved to the extent that I can with my job. Were you asking me that, Joetta?
- [01:18:42] JOETTA MIAL: Yes, I was.
- [01:18:43] MARY MCDADE: Okay. [LAUGHTER] I didn't want to dominate this conversation.
- [01:18:49] JOETTA MIAL: No. I'm going to ask the same of the other two.
- [01:18:52] MARY MCDADE: Okay.
- [01:18:53] JOETTA MIAL: Thank you. Okay. Alma. Tell me about your work life, your main field of employment. How did you get started, and what got you interested, and what's a typical workday, or week, or month, and what did you value most about what you were doing? You're muted.
- [01:19:35] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Can you hear her?
- [01:19:37] JOETTA MIAL: No.
- [01:19:41] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: I started my life in journalism, and I worked at the television center doing documentaries and other special interests kind of programming, and spent about nine years doing that. I moved into the political arena because of my kids. I ran for the school board in the South Lyon Community School District, which came into Washtenaw County and took in most of Salem Township. The district at that time was about Ivory soap--99, 100 percent white [LAUGHTER]. There was an economic divide in our community. We were creating specialized types of education programs that would take care of, essentially the wealthier and more advantaged families. We had a gifted and talented program, and the kids who were engaged in that were generally the ones that had opportunities, and mentors, and parents who had education, and could spend more time with them. I wanted to see a greater balance in opportunity created in that school district, so that was the reason [BACKGROUND] I ran. I served on that school board for a number of years--eight, I believe. I was elected for a third term but left the board. While I was on the school board, [NOISE] dad called and said, "Senator Lana Pollack is looking for someone to work in her office as an aid. Do you know anybody who might be interested?" I said, " Yeah, I would be interested, " and he said, "No, you wouldn't. It's a long drive, you would be leaving the kids home alone. It's just not the right place for you." I interviewed with Lana [LAUGHTER] the next week and took the job part-time in Lansing. That part-time job moved to full time, and that's when I said to Lana, "I am really interested in taking your job when you've decided to do something else." She said at the time she would teach me everything I needed to know to get there and that included the politics of campaigns and how to connect with constituents. I was terrible about returning constituent letters on her behalf, and we had many a long discussion about how important your constituency is, and how you need to nurture your constituents [LAUGHTER]. It really wasn't until I sat in the seat that I appreciated fully what she had been trying to drill into my head for a few years. I knew that in order to run for a seat in Washtenaw County, I needed to be somewhere where I could have greater name recognition. [NOISE] An opportunity arose with a new district at the county commission level. There was redistricting and they carved out essentially a new seat, so I ran for that district and was fortunate enough to be elected, and served there for two years when Lana decided she was going to run for the US Senate. It was what we call in the business, "Not a safe election, " because she couldn't retain her seat if she lost the run for Senate. Both seats were up at the same time. She decided she was running for the US Senate, and I decided I was running for the State Senate. Once again, in making that decision, I had talked with mom and dad and my dad was very concerned. He was always very protective of us and he said, "I just don't want you to be hurt. Washtenaw County is not the bastion of liberality that everybody thinks it is; it is not as progressive. And I don't want you to be hurt so I don't want you to run." Well, I took his council under advisement and ran for [LAUGHTER] the seat, and was fortunate enough to be elected to the Michigan Senate. I served there for the term-limited life of eight years and then sat out for two years because the House seat was occupied by a former classmate of mine at St. Thomas and a good representative of the people of the 22nd House District. When Ruth Ann Jamnick was term-limited, I ran for the House seat. I had one opponent for the primary in the Senate seat with the first election. In my run for the House, [NOISE], there were five or six candidates, and I decided late in the process that I was going to run for the House seat, so they had been out on the street for a long time knocking doors and campaigning. No one worked harder or faster than I did, in what I was sure was the hottest summer of my life. Walking up and down lots of stairs, and long sidewalks, and knocking on doors, but again, I was fortunate enough to be elected by that constituency. In the meantime, as with Mary and Nancy, we were raising our children, so it was that weaving of family responsibility, and work and civic responsibilities. People think politicians have an easy job, that you work for three days a week, for six months when you're in session, or eight months when you're in session. But we put in a full week and I mean full, I would work Monday through Monday. Our weekends were not ours, when we weren't in Lansing working on legislation and the people's work in Lansing, we were in the community working with people on issues, trying to find solutions to their problems locally. Sunday was not my day; Sunday was a workday. But as elected officials, you put in the work that you want to put in, and my parents taught us a great work ethic and I worked 7/24. If somebody called me at 2:00 AM with a problem, I was going to try to wake up and give them some kind of response. I think I covered that first question I hope?
- [01:27:49] JOETTA MIAL: What did you value most about what you were doing?
- [01:27:55] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: It was the opportunity to come up with broader solutions than you would have to work on at a local level. It was looking statewide and seeing what the problems were in health care. I was on the Appropriations Committee, so one of my responsibilities was how we spent the taxpayers' dollars. I was on the corrections subcommittee, higher education, I served, I think at some time on all of the subcommittees, but you couldn't just look out for your own district. You were responsible to the state for policy. I very much appreciated when I was in the Senate, being with senators who were not term-limited, who had been in the process for a long time and knew that you could work with one another on an issue, and divide over another issue, and still maintain a civil conversation among you in order to get to, not the best solution, but a compromise that would work for the majority of people in the state. That chance to make government work for its citizens was really critically important to me. I think term limits has been devastating to the process. I don't know--this might be a question later on. But we're there now for eight years and then your term-limited for life from the Michigan Senate. You can never run again. So you can't come back with the experience that you picked up and use it on behalf of the citizen to represent. It's a constant turnover, it's a revolving door--well, it's not a revolving door it's term-limited--and at the end of six years when a House member is just getting to the point they get it, how to work through the executive branch and get things accomplished for their constituency, they're out the door. That experience and wealth of knowledge is totally lost, so a constituency is starting all over again. If the people wanted to cut their own throats, term limit was certainly the way to do it.
- [01:30:30] JOETTA MIAL: When thinking back over your work life, any social or historical events that impacted you and your family and community? [OVERLAPPING] Mary mentioned the election of Obama and Trump. [LAUGHTER]
- [01:31:01] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: Well, for me and I don't have to repeat it since I've already answered. I think it was term limits. [NOISE]
- [01:31:08] JOETTA MIAL: Okay.
- [01:31:13] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: I can't quarrel that the election of Obama was just a moment that was stunning and had such ramifications and opportunities. [LAUGHTER] I don't even want to talk about Trump, but for me and for the citizens of Michigan, I think term limits was definitely the event that weakened the political representation of the average citizen of the state of Michigan.
- [01:31:51] JOETTA MIAL: Thank you. Okay Nancy, your main field of employment, and I think you've answered some of this: How did you get started? What was a typical day, and what did you value most about what you did for a living?
- [01:32:18] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: My typical day was atypical every day. The work that I did was to represent people of the low and moderate income of Ann Arbor and then it gradually moved to Ypsilanti and around in the county. I did that. It took me all over the state of Michigan. I can remember going to the Upper Peninsula a couple of times [LAUGHTER] and going to Detroit frequently and going to other places that I can't even remember the names of, and representing them in cases that touched on every subject that I can think of. I found it a very gratifying job and I loved it. I loved doing that work and I learned something through every case I did. And Alma hired me once. Alma and a friend of hers hired me to work on a case for them at the school board. She wasn't on the board then. That was before she was on the board. And we won that case, I was amazed by that. [LAUGHTER] We won it, and it was great. My cases were like that and they covered the whole field, so that was my job.
- [01:34:13] JOETTA MIAL: What did you value most about what you did for a living?
- [01:34:19] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: I valued the distinction of the cases that I worked on, the difference between them, and I enjoyed learning so much about the law: its failures, and its successes. And its failures of course were principally like with everything in this country, were the failures to Black people. I learned a lot of stuff when I was growing up, but I didn't learn until I practiced law that most of the people in jail were Black, and they were mostly there for nonsense, and many times they were there for things they weren't guilty of. I would talk to many police officers and many others about what happened to these folks that were in jail--what happened, things that I saw, police lying in court. They'd come in and one of them would say one thing and another one would say something else, and I knew somebody was lying [LAUGHTER]. I didn't always know who it was, but I knew that somebody was. And fortunately two of the three judges that worked in 15th District Court then at the time knew too that somebody wasn't telling the truth, and that bothered them a lot. I can't say that it bothered the circuit judges as much at the time, but I hope that it did, one or two of them. [NOISE] Now I've lost myself.
- [01:36:49] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: I think Nancy made a tremendous difference in the lives of so many juveniles. People come back today and say what a great opportunity she gave them to turn their lives around, so don't overlook your judicial life. [LAUGHTER]
- [01:37:19] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Okay, I won't. [NOISE] My judicial life, it was fine. It wasn't as exciting as my legal life, [LAUGHTER] but I got paid more as a judge, so that was nice. In juvenile court, I felt very responsible and it was a wonderful job to have at the juvenile court because you could feel like you're really helping people and moving them along. I was moved after about 11 years, I guess, and I was moved from juvenile court into circuit court, and there I did divorce work. [LAUGHTER] When I first started out there, I did a variety of trials to keep things going, to let them build up my divorce caseload and then it got to the point where they needed another judge on divorce work and they put me on it. I started off hating it and then I decided I could do many good things with it, so I tried. It wasn't as interesting, it wasn't as-- [OVERLAPPING]
- [01:39:01] JOETTA MIAL: Rewarding?
- [01:39:02] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Rewarding.
- [01:39:03] JOETTA MIAL: Yeah.
- [01:39:04] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: It was all right.
- [01:39:07] JOETTA MIAL: Those of us in the school system, Joyce and I can attest what an impact you've made when you were working with juveniles in the school system.
- [01:39:17] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Thank you.
- [01:39:20] JOETTA MIAL: We're getting near to the last section but no one has mentioned when your father was mayor. Does anybody want to talk about that [LAUGHTER] before we go to historical and social events? Or maybe we'll include it in that. How old were you all when he was mayor?
- [01:39:50] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Let's see.
- [01:39:51] MARY MCDADE: We were all adults, right?
- [01:39:55] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Yeah. [NOISE] I remember. I was practicing law, I remember but I hadn't been at it too long.
- [01:40:04] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: I was on the Ann Arbor cable commission and having my third child when daddy was elected, I think it was the second term as mayor. He announced the birth of that little kid [LAUGHTER] at a city council meeting, so yes, we were all adults at the time. But I think [OVERLAPPING] Nancy was probably closest to the election and all of the campaigning that went on. I was definitely immersed in lots of diapers. But I think we can probably cover that in the next section.
- [01:40:50] JOETTA MIAL: All right, we're going to go to part five so we're getting near the end, and this will be individual. Tell me how it was for you to live in this community. And when you're thinking back on your entire life, Again, what historical events have had an impact? And when thinking back over your life, what are you most proud of? What would you say has changed most since you were young persons till now? What would you give advice to a younger generation? So you can start, Mary, and you can ask me--I can repeat any of those. The first one was tell me how it was for you to live in this community.
- [01:41:48] MARY MCDADE: What, Nancy?
- [01:41:50] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: I was just thinking that you didn't live in this community, but that's already passed.
- [01:41:57] JOETTA MIAL: When did you leave? [OVERLAPPING]
- [01:42:07] MARY MCDADE: I left when I got married in 1963. We've talked about what it was like living through school years and things. I think, that the meaningful part of that question for me is the foundation that I got growing up in the family that I did and in the community that I did, and the impact that that had when I moved out of Ann Arbor. As I had said earlier, we moved to Chicago first, and I got involved in politics, and I got involved in civil rights. But when I moved to Peoria is when I really started doing a lot. I ran for the school board there, and I served five years on the school board. Then I did a number of other community activities, all while I was raising my children. Because I had no family in Peoria, my kids had a very dragged-around kind of childhood because they went to all the meetings that I went to, and they were in the car and at meetings all the time. I got involved in a number of other things. I worked with mental health. I worked with drug abuse, and so I developed some programs. I was on the board of trustees at Eureka College. I'm not sure why because I never had anything to do with that college, but they were wanting me to do that. [OVERLAPPING] I think that one of the things--I'm sorry.
- [01:44:14] JOETTA MIAL: Go ahead. I was just going to let you off the hook and go to Alma and Nancy about how it was to live in this community, in Ann Arbor.
- [01:44:30] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Alma.
- [01:44:31] MARY MCDADE: Okay.
- [01:44:37] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: Well, growing up, we had an opportunity to see a lot of change in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County due to the work of the NAACP and a number of churches in the community, white and Black churches that wanted to see an advance in equity and equality in the community. Watching people of different walks of life working together, coming to conclusions that a school needed to close in order to create greater opportunity for Black kids. Deciding that segregated housing through policy and practice of the Realtors Association had to stop if we were going to improve education and opportunities in the community. Those kinds of activities that were driven by the grassroots members of the community were critical to the success of not just the city as it put itself forward for economic development opportunities, but for the University of Michigan. One of the events that Nancy reminded me of when we were preparing for this interview was the Atomic Energy Commission's effort to include the Ann Arbor area in the Particle Accelerator siting. The NAACP, during public comment, sent a letter to the AEC saying, Ann Arbor is not a great place for racial equity, and until people are treated equally in terms of job opportunities and pay and education, it really wasn't a fitting place for the federal government to be spending funds. I think, that was an historical resistance to segregation and racial discrimination in a county that made a significant difference because I think it brought to the university and to the political structure in the community, that you can't put yourself out there falsely to attract funding. You have to be thinking about how you can be inclusive and have the changes necessary to make you a functioning environment for every one of the people in your community, not just for the select few or the privileged whites. I think that was a critically important historical event for Washtenaw County, if not for other places in the nation. Because the Atomic Energy Commission and the federal government had to recognize that if they were going to lead, if they were going to make their own Civil Rights Act real, they were going to have to keep these questions in the forefront of their minds. Boy, I should get off my pulpit now. [LAUGHTER]
- [01:48:51] JOETTA MIAL: Let Nancy--
- [01:48:57] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: I just want to continue with that if I could, for a couple of minutes. Alma gave you a good background on it. The end of it was that they placed that facility eventually at Three Mile Island, which, of course, became a disaster because of that very research facility, and the people moved out. And I don't think anybody's ever moved back. [LAUGHTER] I think that was the end of the federal government's interest in federal facilities for a while. But that's off the point of what my dad did. But I remember, Alma read the proceedings of council to me today about that incident. The mayor was talking about all these wonderful things that the city had done. They were all things that my father had started and that the community followed up with him on. It was the Fair Housing Ordinance, the Human Rights Ordinance, all of these things that he had started. They claimed that they belonged to the city, and they were the city's marks in human rights. I thought it was just disgusting to read about it. But I will go on with my own now. [LAUGHTER] I was just following up on that.
- [01:50:48] JOETTA MIAL: Thank you. Tell me how you feel about living in this community.
- [01:50:54] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: While it has been quite a change. I remember it, and you probably do too, when it was a Republican community. The city council was all Republican. I remember when we tried to run Wendell Mason as the first Black candidate for city council, and he lost by, I think, one or two votes, something like that. He lost by that, and people kept running. I remember when I was little, the only thing that I could go to with my father when I was young was his meetings at Bob Marshall's Bookstore to restart the Democratic Party to make it over into what it was years ago when they used to have a two-party system and that was the early '50s, if not the late '40s. But it was very early '50s that those meetings were going on. I can remember thinking of Ann Arbor as just a Republican city, which it was for a long, long time, and then suddenly all these Democrats came up. Well, there's Republicans and Democrats.
- [01:52:35] JOETTA MIAL: Okay. Let me ask each one of you, when thinking back over your life, what are you most proud of? Mary?
- [01:53:05] MARY MCDADE: I am probably, absolutely most proud of my children. They are fine people, contributing citizens, thoughtful and kind. I believe that that is probably the best thing that I've done with my life. But looking at it more broadly, I'd like to think that I didn't fall too far from the tree that I grew on. That the lessons that I learned from mom and dad are lessons that I have carried into my life. I have worked with young people, tried to give them hope, tried to give them inspiration, tried to give them skills and ways of thinking. I have contributed to the community. I'd like to think that they would look at me and think that I have carried on what they started and that they would be proud at that.
- [01:54:36] JOETTA MIAL: Wow, thank you. Alma has, oh here she's back. [LAUGHTER] Do you want to tell me what you're most proud of?
- [01:54:47] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: Well, I would certainly echo Mary. I remember mom saying to to people, my children are the best thing I ever did. I think that I feel the same way Mary did about the good fortune I've had to have had my three turn out so well. They are, as Mary said, kind, thoughtful, generous people. They have been involved in their communities and in the lives of people who are not as well situated as they are and then people who are better situated than they are and they have brought groups together. But in terms of personal achievement, I am grateful for the opportunity that the citizens of Washtenaw County gave me to serve and to use my wits and wisdom to try to create an improved situation in Michigan for people of lesser opportunity. I would like to think that mom and dad instilled in us a desire to look out for the least of the brethren and that's what my work has reflected. As Mary said, I'm delighted that in looking back I can say that--Dad had a phrase he used with his high school when he went back to be installed in the high school Hall of Fame. He was asked what advice he would give to the youngsters there and he said, "Be good to one another and be careful to right the wrongs." I think that's what he wanted his children to do, and I hope we've lived up to the challenge.
- [01:57:12] JOETTA MIAL: Thank you. Nancy, what are you most proud of?
- [01:57:23] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Well, I have to agree with Mary and Alma that my child, they'll be amazed to hear me say this, but I think he's quite wonderful. [LAUGHTER] He's rough-voiced and [LAUGHTER] he can be hard on issues, but he's very kind to people, very sweet to people, and he's [OVERLAPPING] a teacher, I was going to come to that. He's a good teacher. He's a good basketball coach. He's coaching a son who's a better basketball player than he is. [LAUGHTER] Aside from him, I think my parents were just excellent. They were excellent with me and my sisters. They treated us equally. I can't think of any thing that made us different. They treated us naturally for what we needed treatment for [LAUGHTER]. Not treatment, but for what we needed. They were just excellent parents in every way. They were excellent leaders in the community. Well, that's what I think.
- [01:59:46] JOETTA MIAL: Thank you. I want to piggyback, for the next question, on what Alma said Al said at a Hall of Fame--and for the record we need to say that Al was the first and only Black mayor of Ann Arbor--and ask you all, what advice would you give to the younger generation?
- [02:00:30] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: They need to run for mayor. [LAUGHTER] He always wanted somebody in there after him. He never wanted to be the first and only but he has been so far and that's bad. It's wonderful for his image, I guess, but it's not right. But then Ann Arbor is changing so much, in that there's no longer the few pockets of Black people that there used to be in this community. They're spread all over or they're kicked out of this community, so there's nobody. Well, there are very few people left to do that work, I think, or who want to do that work. It's not so easy to get people together to have a vote. But then that was a different process then. That was priority voting and he had to have a lot of people vote for him in order to get into office. I've gone off the subject too.
- [02:01:52] JOETTA MIAL: It was advice for the younger generation, besides running for Mayor. [LAUGHTER].
- [02:02:01] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Well, I think that they should keep up what they've been doing in Black Lives Matter and the rest of the organizations that are working now. They have to keep fighting to make things different because they'll never get there by being simple. The South is turning back into the South now with these silly regulations that they have come up with about voting. It's turning back to its former self and that's bad. I think that needs to be stopped.
- [02:02:55] JOETTA MIAL: They need to fight on.
- [02:02:57] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Yes.
- [02:03:01] JOETTA MIAL: Mary, what advice would you have for the younger generation?
- [02:03:10] MARY MCDADE: A couple of things, I think. One is there was a saying that people used to use when we were growing up, that "no chain is stronger than its weakest link." Part of what I would say is to do things to make your life better, to grow, to achieve, to be successful, but to always bring people along with you. To make sure that as you rise, you're bringing people up with you. I guess another would be, I feel very cliché-ish here, I'm sorry, but I'm thinking of that song that says, "Walk a mile in my shoes. Before you refuse, criticize or abuse, walk a mile in my shoes.” I think that we're at the point in this country where we need to develop the kind of understanding that's based on empathy and understanding because I think that intellectually we don't always see what the other person sees and what they feel. I think that young people need to try to do that, so that there's real understanding and we can get to know one another and work together in a meaningful sort of way. Those are the two things that I would say.
- [02:05:12] JOETTA MIAL: Thank you. Alma?
- [02:05:15] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: I hearken back to dad's, "Be mindful to right the wrongs." But you have to have a solid foundation as a young person to know what is right and what's wrong. That depends so much on parents and the guidance that they give their children and the values that they establish for their kids. I think as younger parents, people have such a tremendous responsibility to understand, to guide, to listen to what Mary and Nancy have said as advice, to have empathy and to want to make things better for everybody, not just ourselves. We have to get away from the "me" generation and the "me" outcomes and look at the importance of a society that everyone has the opportunity to be successful. Righting those wrongs means making sure that people have economic and educational and health opportunities that give them the best chance for a good life. [BACKGROUND] I always thought that dad's final comment to his high school was the right tone, "Be good to one another, and be careful to right the wrongs."
- [02:07:15] JOETTA MIAL: Thank you. Now, I have one final question, but before I ask that I want to thank you all for taking the time to share your wisdom and history and making this work for the museum. The final question is, how do you personally feel about the interview and its impact on you? [LAUGHTER].
- [02:07:48] MARY MCDADE: Are we starting with me?
- [02:07:50] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Yes.
- [02:07:53] MARY MCDADE: Okay.
- [02:07:53] JOETTA MIAL: Nancy says yes. [LAUGHTER]
- [02:08:00] MARY MCDADE: I enjoyed doing the interview. I love my sisters. I love talking with them about things that happened when we grew up. I love the way that our memories feed into one another and we remember things together that we don't remember individually. I love the opportunity to try to help people understand the kind of people that mom and dad were. Not just the contributions that they made that you read about in the newspaper, but the everyday people that they were. The caring people, the loving, the sharing, generous with their thoughts, generous with their worldly goods, generous with their love. I have thoroughly enjoyed this. Thank you very much for including me.
- [02:09:02] JOETTA MIAL: Thank you. Alma?
- [02:09:06] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: Well, I love to reminisce with Mary and Nancy. They bring out the best of memories and we can remember some hard times where there was great humor. It was a great childhood and a launching pad for what I hope was a successful future for me, I know it was for my sisters, and for our children and grandchildren. This gives us an opportunity for them to talk about mom and dad as real people, the accomplishments, the fun, the humility. They never talked about things that they did. They talked about things that the Black community achieved. They could cite any number of individuals in the Black community and some real progressive people in the white community who made change in Washtenaw County, and particularly Ann Arbor, possible. It was that humility that I think we all learned. This has just been a great opportunity to reminisce. It will start us on a path to doing something like this for our children and grandchildren. I think you've set a great challenge for us.
- [02:10:48] JOETTA MIAL: [LAUGHTER] Thank you. Nancy?
- [02:10:51] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Well, thank you for giving us the opportunity to do this. This has been very much fun and very much hard thinking for us to go through. I remember things that I forgot to tell you, like my parents dancing in the street, like a dance [LAUGHTER] in the living room. But that's another time. I think this has been wonderful for all of us. I love talking about my parents and working in things about myself and my sisters. I think this has been just wonderful.
- [02:11:45] JOETTA MIAL: Thank you so very, very much.
- [02:11:48] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: Yes, you're welcome.
- [02:11:51] JOETTA MIAL: All right.
July 13, 2021
Copyright: Creative Commons (Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share-alike)
Rights Held by: Ann Arbor District Library
Civil Rights Activists
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
Illinois Appellate Court
Michigan State Senate
Michigan House of Representatives
Citizens for Racial Equity in Washtenaw
Model Cities Legal Aid
Model Cities Dental Clinic
Washtenaw County Juvenile Court
University of Michigan - Television Center
University of Michigan - Research
St. Thomas High School
Ann Arbor Fire Department
Fair Housing Ordinance
Human Rights Ordinance
Jones Elementary School
University of Michigan Law School
South Lyon - Board of Education
Elections - Candidates
Ann Arbor Cable Casting Commission
U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC)
Bob Marshall's Book Shop
Black American Women
Black American Politicians
LOH Employment - Health Ed Public
AACHM Living Oral History
Mary Wheeler McDade
Alma Wheeler Smith
Nancy Cornelia Wheeler
Albert H. Wheeler
Joe Billy McDade
Charles A. Benton
Ruth Ann Jamnick