AACHM Oral History: Leah Bass-Baylis
When: July 27, 2022
Leah Bass-Baylis was born in 1954 in Ypsilanti. Her parents Thomas and Louise Bass–a doctor and teacher–were influential members of Ypsilanti’s Black community. She studied dance at Ypsilanti’s Randazzo Dance Theater and graduated from Spelman College in Atlanta in 1976. She also holds a doctorate in Educational Leadership and Organizational Change from the University of Southern California. Bass-Baylis was a dancer and choreographer for many Broadway shows, including performing in The Tap Dance Kid. In her later career as an administrator, she developed arts education programs in Los Angeles. She and her husband Doug Baylis have four children.
- [00:00:15] JOYCE HUNTER: [MUSIC] Leah, you received the questions. I'm going to basically be following those questions. I don't always do every question. You might say something that maybe we'll go down a lot of different path, than we had planned. But basically the questions outline what you're going to be asked.
- [00:00:34] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: Okay.
- [00:00:35] JOYCE HUNTER: All right. We're going to start with Part 1, which is demographics and family history. I'm first going to ask you some simple demographic questions. These questions may judge your memories, but keep your answers brief and to the point for now, we can go into more detail later in the interview. Please say and spell your name.
- [00:01:01] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: Leah, L-E-A-H, Bass, B-A-S-S hyphen Baylis, B-A-Y-L-I-S
- [00:01:10] JOYCE HUNTER: What is your date of birth including the year?
- [00:01:13] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: March 1st, 1954.
- [00:01:18] JOYCE HUNTER: How would you describe your ethnic background?
- [00:01:20] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: Black.
- [00:01:21] JOYCE HUNTER: What is your religion, if any?
- [00:01:26] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: I was raised African Methodist Episcopalian. I'm Christian.
- [00:01:34] JOYCE HUNTER: What is the highest level of formal education you have completed?
- [00:01:39] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: I have a doctoral degree. [NOISE]
- [00:01:44] JOYCE HUNTER: What is your marital status?
- [00:01:47] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: I am married.
- [00:01:51] JOYCE HUNTER: How many children do you have?
- [00:01:53] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: I have four children.
- [00:01:57] JOYCE HUNTER: What are their names?
- [00:01:59] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: My oldest son is Lesley Brown. My next one is Milton Little, Jacqlyn Atkins and Kristin Baylis.
- [00:02:14] JOYCE HUNTER: How many siblings do you have?
- [00:02:17] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: I have two sibling. One brother, one sister.
- [00:02:24] JOYCE HUNTER: When the brothers Mike, What is the sister's name?
- [00:02:27] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: Ann Elizabeth.
- [00:02:32] JOYCE HUNTER: What was your primary occupation?
- [00:02:36] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: Well, I actually had two primary occupations. I have been an educator and continued to be an educator, and I am an artist. I started as a dancer, then added singing, then acting, and then choreography.
- [00:02:57] JOYCE HUNTER: Oh my goodness, that's great. What do they call that in sports, they call it a triple threat. I don't know what they call it in the arts.
- [00:03:05] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: In the arts they called it a triple threat. I would not say I'm a triple threat anymore because I'm certainly not doing a whole lot of dancing.
- [00:03:12] JOYCE HUNTER: Well you did at one time. [LAUGHTER].
- [00:03:15] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: At one time. [NOISE]
- [00:03:16] JOYCE HUNTER: Great. In terms of that, I want to ask you a couple more questions. In terms of that, did you train for that or you can get self-taught and you just got involved with it?
- [00:03:29] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: No. I trained for that. I studied dance in Ypsilanti at Randazzo Dance Theater from the time I was five until I left to go to college, and then in college, I became a member of a dance company. I studied dance at Spelman College and became a member of a dance company in Atlanta called Callanwolde. I was the ballet mistress for the company. Then I continued my dance studies in New York City.
- [00:04:01] JOYCE HUNTER: Oh my goodness. All the way to New York.
- [00:04:04] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: Yeah, and I studied here in LA as well. I've studied dance a lot of different places.
- [00:04:10] JOYCE HUNTER: That's wonderful. When you were in New York, exactly. You were dancing with a company or how are you doing?
- [00:04:21] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: I dance with the company called the Henry Street Settlement. Then I danced on Broadway, then I danced around the world, and I danced across the country. Then I came to California, and then in the academy award. Then I worked as the very first dance specialist, at Los Angeles Unified School District. I created it. I was part of a team with people that created the arts prototype program, that put artists in all the elementary schools and middle schools and high schools throughout metropolitan Los Angeles.
- [00:05:06] JOYCE HUNTER: That's really quite an accomplishment.
- [00:05:10] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: It was fun.
- [00:05:11] JOYCE HUNTER: It was great. When you say you did dance on Broadway, what was you in a particular performance or multiple performances?
- [00:05:21] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: On Broadway? I did the tap dance kid. I was the dance captain. Basically I hired dancers for the show. I kept the choreography clean. I worked on the commercial, I constructed the commercial. I worked as the lead person on the Macy's Day Parade performance. I did tap dance kid for quite a while.
- [00:05:51] JOYCE HUNTER: Okay.
- [00:05:52] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: Then I did national tours and international tours of Your Arm's Too Short To Box With God, Black Nativity, Guys and Dolls, Chicago. I came back to Detroit and did, A... My Name is Alice. I did Timbuktu. I did an extensive tour of Timbuktu with Eartha Kitt and Geoffrey Holder. What else? I got lucky. I went to New York really to complete a master's degree in special education at Columbia University Teachers College. I was in the very first year of that program, and I actually left that program right before graduating, because I got a job dancing. Then my husband and I had a baby and I needed to take a break. I went back to school and finished my masters at Columbia in special led.
- [00:06:57] JOYCE HUNTER: Leah, you're really famous.
- [00:06:59] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: I don't know about all that. [LAUGHTER] I would not say that. I've worked.
- [00:07:04] JOYCE HUNTER: But some people would say, [LAUGHTER].
- [00:07:08] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: I've been really blessed to have worked. I did choreography on, I actually did Ain't Misbehavin' in Florida, but I also actually choreographed Ain't Misbehavin'. I did The Wiz, I did For Colored Girls with CCH Pounder and I did Little Shop of Horrors. I've done a lot of shows which when you asked me those questions, I haven't thought about it in a long time, I had to look when I saw these questions as I have to go back and give resumes. I don't even remember half of that stuff.
- [00:07:44] JOYCE HUNTER: Well, you've done a lot. One of the things that we do is to go along with the interview. We collect pictures and different things of the individuals and we include as part of our digital collection. We'll be talking to you a little bit later to share some of those and we'll scan them. Or you can send them to us to scan them. They'll become a part of our digital collection, which would be wonderful.
- [00:08:10] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: Okay.
- [00:08:12] JOYCE HUNTER: Let me go back. You did a doctorate, so talk to me about your doctorate. What did you get that in?
- [00:08:19] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: I got my doctorate in organizational change in educational leadership from USC. I started my doctorate before I retired, and I got busy. I opened a brand new school. I was selected by the superintendent at that time to open a brand new art elementary school, and develop it from the very beginning. I opened that school. We named the school after Carlos Santana, and we developed a relationship with Carlos. I was working on my doctorate, but then I realized it was just too much. During the last year of my doctorate, my husband lost his mother. He lost two brothers. We were flying back and forth to Ypsi and I just said, okay, I got to put this on hold. I finished my doctorate [NOISE] right after I retired in organizational change and educational leadership.
- [00:09:23] JOYCE HUNTER: With the doctorate, do you now do consulting now or not?
- [00:09:29] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: I do some consulting. I do probably more interim principal jobs and assistant principal jobs. Well, I haven't finished it yet. I will finish on Friday a long-term interim principal job with Debbie Allen Middle School. Debbie Allen and I did Guys and Dolls together. Of course, she was the star of the show. Debbie Allen, Richard Roundtree, Leslie Uggams and Maurice Hines. That was probably 30 years ago. But we have stayed friends, and we stayed in touch. She called, and her principal became very ill, and she said, "Well, can you come and help me out?" I worked as the interim principal, Debbie Allen Middle School from February for the entire second semester, basically. I also work at California State University, Northridge. I supervise student teachers. Then I do some consulting with small arts organizations, helping them get into school and helping schools structure art program around the artists that they have selected. So I still work.
- [00:10:55] JOYCE HUNTER: You know what? The next question was, at what age did you retire, but you really haven't retired? [LAUGHTER]
- [00:11:02] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: Well, I'm trying. I retired at 65.
- [00:11:05] JOYCE HUNTER: All right. Okay, for some younger people listening to this, they might not know about Debbie Allen. Do you want to tell a little bit about who she is?
- [00:11:19] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: Well, I would say, now you talk about the ultimate triple threat, that would be Debbie Allen. Debbie Allen, she started out as a dancer. She did some singing. She does acting now continually. She is the major producer-director on the television show Grey's Anatomy. She created Fame. She had a role in the movie Fame. She played with Lydia Grant in the movie Fame, but she developed the TV show, Fame, and really was a choreographer, and producer, and director on Fame. She is a Tony Award nominee. She's an Emmy Award winner. She has for years choreographed the Academy Awards, the Oscar. She works continually as an actress, singer, director; you name it, Debbie can do it. Most recently, Shonda Rhimes, who is the premier Netflix producer at this point, probably most famous right now for Bridgerton. Shonda Rhimes gave her a building, and Debbie was challenged with finding the funding to build it out. She has turned it into a multi-million dollar arts complex. It is just phenomenal. A year ago, she opened a middle school. She wanted a middle school that was focused on the art where she could get the kids young and kids who really have a talent for the art. She could report that and grow that. That was how the middle school came to be. [NOISE] If you look her up on Wikipedia, it's probably 50 pages.
- [00:13:25] JOYCE HUNTER: Thank you for sharing that, because some younger people listening to this might not realize who she is, but when you mention Shonda Rhimes and some of the other things, they'll know about those. Now she also has a pretty famous sister, Phylicia Rashad.
- [00:13:40] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: Yeah, Phylicia Rashad. Interestingly enough, Phylicia Rashad is now. I think she'd be artistic, being at Howard University, but she is a noted actress. She just won a Tony Award. She's a multi-Tony Award winner. I think she's won an Emmy Award as well. She was Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show. But Phylicia and Debbie are real powerhouses. They really have a heart and a dedication to the community. I can't even begin to tell you how many people. Anybody working in the industry—and it goes beyond race—there's so many people in the entertainment industry that Debbie has helped in some way, shape, or form. You just can't even begin to imagine. The people that have supported the facility that she did right now, you're talking about Will and Jada Smith paying for an entire studio for flying, for doing all of that stuff in the air. You're talking about Sam and LaTanya Jackson with the studio. You're talking about Denzel Washington, Denzel, and Pauletta. James Ingram was integral to her work. Arturo Sandoval. Really the heavy hitters.
- [00:15:09] JOYCE HUNTER: I was going to say that as you continue to name them, those are truly heavy hitters.
- [00:15:14] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: Now, truly the heavy hitters. Berry Gordy was the one that first funded the dance studio when it was in a small studio in Culver City. Berry Gordy gave her the first money of everyone. He came out first. He has continued to support her. The Annenberg Foundation, Wallis Annenberg, who supports also, and she has supported and has built theaters in Los Angeles. She has spaces that she's paid for Juilliard, at UCLA, at USC. The Alvin Ailey Studio. As my dad would say, Debbie is an high cutter. [LAUGHTER]
- [00:16:04] JOYCE HUNTER: You might want to explain to people what that means.
- [00:16:06] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: Oh, Debbie's with the heavy hitters.
- [00:16:08] JOYCE HUNTER: Okay.
- [00:16:08] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: She's able to connect to the movers and shakers, and she connects on the behalf of those that don't have.
- [00:16:17] JOYCE HUNTER: Which is great. Leah, you stayed in contact with her?
- [00:16:22] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: I just finished working with her. I talk to her all the time. I'm hoping it's going to finish on Friday.
- [00:16:30] JOYCE HUNTER: Oh, that's right. You said an elementary school, or is it a middle school?
- [00:16:34] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: It's a middle school.
- [00:16:35] JOYCE HUNTER: A middle school, okay. That's wonderful. I'm going to move to part 2, which is memories of childhood and youth. I've often heard about the Bass family in Ypsilanti. What was your family like when you were a child?
- [00:16:56] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: My family had an open-door policy. Anybody that knocked on the door could come here. Some people didn't have to knock, some people just came in. My mom and dad had a real heart for the community. My mom, she could be the toughest nails, but my mom would tell you like it was always. My mom would tell you exactly what she thought. She wasn't somebody that cursed, but she would tell you exactly what she thought about everything. She always did. I'm sure there were people that felt like they wish she would just shut up, but she had an opinion about everything, but she had a love and a care for the community. My mom felt like the house should be an open door. There was always somebody extra living at our house. I remember there was a lady, Solange, that lived with us for a long time. She was from Haiti, and she lived in what was called the pa's room. The pa's room was called the pa's room, P-A'-S because it was the room that my father's father had lived in when he came to live with us. It was a room that had Florida ceiling books. There were bookshelves and every wall in that room had books in it. We always have books. Our house always had books. My mom tutored really until she died. I don't know if she ever charged anybody any money for tutoring. My mom was not somebody, you know how sometimes as people get older, they don't want anybody in their house. Well, that was not my mother. The more the merrier my mother would accept all the help that she could get. I don't know what people were helping her do half the time. I think half the time they would just sit there with her having a cup of coffee. But it didn't matter. She wanted people around and people were always welcome in our home. It didn't matter race, it didn't matter the age. I can remember people coming with kids and I remember being upset because they might break my toys and my mother was like we can buy more toys, don't worry about it. Everybody was welcomed. Everybody could come in. Everybody could open the refrigerator, go in and get whatever they wanted. Everybody could order food. It was a place that people were welcomed to. She was just that person. Most of my childhood was spent at 738 Harriet. Kitty corner from L.C. Perry. Across on one side, I remember was the Evans and then the Stovers, Donna Johnson, and then the Williams lived on the other side in a big, big house. Williams was a big family. I loved to go spend the night at the Williams house. Then the Markses lived down the street Sharon and Timur. Then Yvonne Taylor lived on one side of me. Aunt Fanny lived up the street, the Whites lived up the street. The Dogers lived up the street. The projects were up the street, Parkridge. At that time you can leave your doors open. It was one big family. There were always people coming to see my dad, the family doctor. There were a lot of people that came and he just didn't feel like you should ever turn anybody away. Some people paid with chicken, some people paid with cheques. It was an interesting household. You didn't have to call ahead to say I'm coming over. There were people who would just come. They would just show up. Oh, Mrs. Bass, I wanted to share so and so. Oh, Mrs. Bass, I came to bring you some barbecue. Oh, Dr. Bass, I caught some fish. I came to bring you some fish. For me it was a great household. I hated moving from Harriet Street.
- [00:21:30] JOYCE HUNTER: Okay. Well, you know Leah, one of the next questions I was going to ask you is, what sort of work did your parents do? I didn't grow up in this area, but I often heard about Dr. Bass or the Bass family in general. You started already talking about his practice. Do you want to talk a little bit more about that?
- [00:21:48] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: My dad was an old family doctor. He did house calls and everybody will tell you if you had an appointment with Dr. Bass, you needed to take lunch because you're going to be in the waiting room for a long time.
- [00:22:01] JOYCE HUNTER: Okay. [LAUGHTER]
- [00:22:01] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: Ms. Winnie was going to help you. Ms. Webb was going to help you, but you're going to be in that waiting room for a minute. You might as well take the lunch and relax because Dr. Bass was slow. But he did house calls. He never stopped doing house calls. I can remember there will be times when he would have to pick me up from school or pick me up from some activity. I would have to go with him on a house call. I went to one house call, and then I went to the hospital once and he was setting a leg that was when they used to do plaster. He was setting a broken leg and I don't remember who the patient was, but he had me with him and I was holding the lady's hand. I remember that so vividly. I remember many house calls all hours of the day and night, depending on if he was picking me up, I might have to go with him. I used to love to go to house calls at the Fryes house because they always had good food and they had a lot of kids. I would go with him to the Fryes and I'd have dinner and I'd play with the kids and that was fun. That was the best house call of all. I loved if he had to go to the Fryes house. There was a time when doctors were really about service.
- [00:23:34] JOYCE HUNTER: He made house calls until he retired?
- [00:23:38] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: Yes.
- [00:23:39] JOYCE HUNTER: Wow.
- [00:23:41] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: There was a point at which my mother said I don't like to making house calls because as the world changes, there were doctors that have made house calls and they had been killed. My mother got a little skittish about it and he made fewer and fewer. But there were always that group of people. Like I said, I loved going to the Fryes, I loved going to the Clays, Aunt Doris, and Uncle Dutch. I loved going there. Those were the house calls that go into Shirley Brown or Willa Bates, Mrs. Bates, Nana's house. I loved those house calls because those people, it was like being home. They always had food and kids and it was just fun. But he felt that he had to serve. When he came to stay with me, he brought his briefcase and the briefcase fell open and it was pictures. I don't know if you would remember this, but they used to take pictures of newborns. The newborn picture, it almost looks like a little floating head. The most prominent thing was the head and the face of the baby. This briefcase fell up with and it was thousands of baby pictures, newborn pictures that people had given my dad over the years and that he had kept. Each time I go back to it I was running into some person that knew my dad or my dad was their physician or my dad saved their life. I always wanted at least one person like that. When my son attended U-M Med School, my son conducted, I think it was a diabetes clinic. They were a bunch of people that had grown up with me, but they were also people who had known Milton as a little kid. Then he was going back to the Clays house like my dad used to go to the Clays. Like my dad used to go to Nana's. Like my dad used to go to the Friars and then like he was basically back in those circles again, but as an adult and as the doctor. He realized it was quite a legacy that he had there in Ypsi. It just was so touching and so moving to me.
- [00:26:13] JOYCE HUNTER: Leah let me ask you. I'm going to come back and ask you about our son. But I'm going to ask you a question about your father. You say at one point moved in with you?
- [00:26:23] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: Yes. When my mom died, my mom was a mover and shaker. My mom became ill at one point and she lost one of her legs. But let me tell you, it didn't make a difference. My mom kept on going, she still was the mover and shaker. They have a large house on the green side. My dad was really struggling and it was just really difficult for him. He had said to me when my mom died, he looked at me and he said, what am I going to do without her? Eventually, as he got older and it got more difficult, I just felt it was better that he'd be with me. I went back to Ypsi and I brought him up to California. There were people who continually stayed in touch with him. The Friersons of course, and he came back and forth a lot. The Friersons, I don't know what I would've done without Riba and Nietzsche and Gwen and Bobby, Pumpkin and, Jimmy. The Friersons were really family. Charles. I just don't know what I would've done without them. Shirley and Will Brown, Aunt Doris, Dutch he would come back and forth and go from Los Angeles to Ypsi. He stayed with us here and people would come and visit him here. Now Nita Bolden is here. Now she's Nita Hansen. But people would come and visit him here and he did fine here. He missed Ypsi. I'm not going to lie. He really missed Ypsi, but he was at a point where he needed to be cared for. He needed to have somewhat care for him, so he came to me.
- [00:28:22] JOYCE HUNTER: So good that he had you and still so many people that stayed in contact with him. Tell me about your mother being a mover and shaker.
- [00:28:33] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: I can't even. Well, when I was a little, little, little girl, my mom had a nursery school at home. I realize now, I didn't realize it at the time, but my mom was a stay-at-home mother really until I got to be school age. Then my mom started teaching and my mom was a teacher at East Junior High School. Of course, I ended up going to West Junior High School. [LAUGHTER]. She was the consummate teacher. She felt that the kids needed her. She certainly felt she needed them. I think she felt she learned as much from them as they learned from her. She was a teacher of teachers. She gave a 110 percent. Students of all ages were always coming to the house. Students brought their children, students brought their grandchildren. She just touched a lot of lives simply because she cared. I can remember my mom came up at a time where if you got pregnant as a kid, that was just a blight and my mom told me; I was an illegitimate child per se, and I asked her what about her life and she said, "Well, you know, I would not want what happened to me to happen to anybody else." My mom had a real heart for girls who got pregnant in high school. She was very non-judgmental, and she's felt very much like if we wanted to be Christian, we need it to be not about judging. We need it to be about caring and giving. We have a couple of people live with us. I'm not going to say names, but they just became family. They were extension of family. She paid for people to go to college. There were several people that she said, "Well, you know, they're really struggling, I want to make sure that they don't give up, so I'm going to chip in an extra mile for them to be able to finish this year of college." She always made time to listen, always. There were times when people would come by and she would say, "Okay, Leah, you need to go to your room. I need to talk to Ms. so and so in private. This is an adult conversation." My mom would never gossip around me. I'm sure she knew a whole lot of stuff that was going on in the estate, but she was not going to be gossiping around me. I was a kid. Our home as far as my mom was concerned, was open to everybody. She was the president of the Michigan Association of Colored Women Clubs at one point. She loved being a bogette. That was a social club in Ypsi. She loved being a Palm Leaf Club member. Absolutely loved it. She certainly played a key role in the women's club getting the house that they have. I think it's on Washington. She played a key role in that. She just really felt that you had to give back. She was very much committed to the community. [OVERLAPPING] Committed to the kids.
- [00:32:40] JOYCE HUNTER: I can tell why I had heard so much about the Bass family between your father and your mother giving back and being so open. But I've always heard about the Bass family in Ypsilanti. Let me ask you this question. You talked about open door, people could come and eat. Did she come from the South? Because that sounds like a Southern hospitality thing to me?
- [00:33:05] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: She was born in Arkansas.
- [00:33:07] JOYCE HUNTER: Okay.
- [00:33:07] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: But she grew up in Dayton, Ohio.
- [00:33:11] JOYCE HUNTER: All right.
- [00:33:15] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: She basically was from Dayton, Ohio. My dad's people were from South Carolina, but my dad grew up in Patterson, New Jersey.
- [00:33:24] JOYCE HUNTER: All right. I just think about that Southern hospitality when you talked about people being able to come over, you don't have to call. That reminded me, because my mother is actually from the South, so it reminded me of that. You were born in Ypsilanti?
- [00:33:47] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: Yes, I was.
- [00:33:49] JOYCE HUNTER: Hospital, home where?
- [00:33:51] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: I was born at Beyer Hospital.
- [00:33:56] JOYCE HUNTER: Beyer Hospital. Okay. Getting back to things about the family as well, I think you've shared a lot, which has been absolutely wonderful. Which holidays did your family celebrate?
- [00:34:15] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: My family love, love, love Christmas, and Thanksgiving.
- [00:34:23] JOYCE HUNTER: Okay, talk to me about that.
- [00:34:25] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: Those were big holiday. Christmas, well, going back to her open-door policy, my mom always supported everybody's little I'm selling whatever. If the church was selling trinkets, my mom was going to buy 20 trinkets. But she always maintained what she called her store. All year long she would purchase little knick-knacks and things that at Christmas time, anybody that came by that she forgot to buy a gift for, she would tell me, go to the store and get us something so we wrap it up and give it to such and such. She was real big on Christmas. She loved Christmas. Absolutely, loved Christmas. We loved Christmas. When I was a little girl, Christmas was like magic. The night before Christmas, she would read me The Night Before Christmas and then I have to go to bed. I would make cookies and milk for Santa and then I would have to go to bed. There would be nothing. There would be no gifts, no tree, no decoration, nothing. This is the night before Christmas. I go to bed, I wake up the next morning, of course, I'd be the first one up. I'd wake up everybody and I would wake up and it would be like magic. There would be a beautiful tree. There would be Figurines on angel hair on all the tables. There would be light. There would be gifts everywhere. It was like magic. Of course, the cookies and milk would be gone. Because Santa had come.
- [00:36:16] JOYCE HUNTER: Of course [LAUGHTER].
- [00:36:18] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: But it was like, magic. It just was a good time. Throughout the Christmas holidays, we just had food, food, food, and more food. All the favorite food. We would have shrimp wrapped with bacon and barbecue sauce. We'd have gumbo, we'd have fried chicken, we'd have honey baked ham. There was just food, food, food continually. My grandmother would be there, so we would have a big breakfast every day. You might have grits and eggs and sausage, aunt Fanny's biscuits. Aunt Fanny made the best role ever. Aunt Fanny up the street, on Harriet Street made the best rolls ever. When Aunt Fanny died, Gwen started making them. It was full continually throughout the Christmas holidays. It was magic. I can't even think of anything better. People were continually in and out. If Michael was away at school, and Ann was away at school, everybody would come back home for Christmas. I might have friends that I'd invite in. People would just stay there for Christmas. Christmas was a really, really, really big deal in our house. When I got old enough to actually participate in the decorating, I realized what a feat it was, because my dad would go out with some mail, it usually with crickets. He would go out and he would cut down the tree. The tree would be inevitably too tall and my sister would have to cut the top off of it, because my sister was real particular about the shape of the tree and the decoration. My dad would go up in the attic, because now I'm a young adult. Well, I'm a teenager. I'm privy to all the secrets. I would go up in the attic and my sister would go up in the attic and bring down all the decoration. My dad used to go up in the attic, but once he went up in the attic and fell through the ceiling. So that was the end of him going in the attic because he stepped in the wrong place.
- [00:38:44] JOYCE HUNTER: Right. For sure.
- [00:38:45] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: We would go up to the attic, bring down the decorations, but never until the day before Christmas. We would stay up half the night decorating the house, cooking, doing whatever the night before Christmas. It just was wonderful. Christmas was magical. [OVERLAPPING] It was the best holiday ever.
- [00:39:12] JOYCE HUNTER: Sounds like it was absolutely wonderful. I don't know, I've have heard of people not having decorations until that night. Most people put it up a week right after Thanksgiving, they all started putting up stuff.
- [00:39:26] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: Oh, no. Not my mother. That wasn't happening.
- [00:39:29] JOYCE HUNTER: Right. During your school years, what about your school experience is different from school as you know it today?
- [00:39:47] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: You know as a kid growing up in Ypsi, everybody was your parent. If you got out of line, they were going to call your mom. You're going to probably get a spanking and get punishment at home, and then you're also going to have punishment in school. Mr. Beatty didn't like, and we didn't have schools. We didn't have people talking back to teacher. Mr. Patton, Ms. Shepard, Ms. Evans, the music teacher, Ms. Brooks, Ms. Rosebrooke those people, they weren't playing. You came to school to learn and you better sit down and be quiet and learn. They were accorded a level of respect just because they were your teacher. What they were also like extended family. They had permission to get you in line. They have permission to cut the crap. People don't do that now. You just there are all these rules. You can't do this, you can't do that. Now we have the school shootings and we have people that feel that the school is supposed to be the parent, yet without the actual rules in place to let them be the parent. We came to school, we dressed for school. We didn't come in raggedy clothes to school. I remember we used to dress for school and then we would come home and take off our school clothes and put it on our play clothes. It was a different time. I think we listened to the adults that were in charge. There was a behavior expectations and when you didn't behave, it reflected on your parents. I think as kids, we want it to be good. Some of us were good and some of us we could be challenging. We could certainly be challenging. I'm not saying that just by kids are challenging now that we weren't challenging. But there was a respect we had for our teachers and I missed that today.
- [00:42:20] JOYCE HUNTER: Certainly I've heard a number of people say in different settings that growing up in the neighborhood that other people could discipline or recommend you. As you mentioned you might be at school and by time you get home or if you walk down the street, somebody else might have heard about and it had something to say to you about it. I've heard people say that, share that often. Continuing on with the line, of course and about schools were there any changes in your family life during your school years?
- [00:42:59] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: I think the biggest change was junior high school. We moved from Harriet Street to Greenside, over by the golf club. At that time, I think Washtenaw Country Club was segregated and we moved over in that area. I didn't think it was significant. I didn't think anything about it, although I do remember playing when we first moved there. I remember playing on the front yard and having somebody drive by and call me the N word, and I was perplexed to say the least. Then you know it's a bad word, but when it's not something you hear all the time, you have to remember. We were hearing that in rap songs and that wasn't, you just didn't hear it all the time. I remember how it affected me and I never shared it with anybody. I didn't go inside and tell my mother. I just didn't play in the front yard anymore. When I remember it, I remember it vividly. Other than that, there weren't any altercation. I went to school with kids who went to the country club, the golf club on a regular basis and did certain things. I went to school with kids who did certain things that we didn't do. But I didn't think that we weren't allowed not to do them. I just thought it was not a part of what we did, we had a cottage up for the lake. Everybody at the lake was Black. We had a cottage near Jackson. I never felt that we were up there because we couldn't go anywhere else. I did not realize that I didn't know anything about the history of Idyllwild but I didn't know anything about all of that per se. But moving to Greenside, I really missed all my friends. I missed all my friends on Harriet Street.
- [00:45:15] JOYCE HUNTER: In Harriet Street area that was predominantly Black or all Black?
- [00:45:19] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: It was all Black. But we played in the street. We had all grown up together. We went in and out of each other's houses. It was family and I had grown up there and then I went to Greenside and that was really not it just wasn't the same. I miss those times. I miss those people a lot. I did meet new friends and I did have a group of friends that I walked home from school with from West Junior High. I used to walk home from school with some white guys and girls, Fred Roscoe, Julie Willoughby from time to time, Bob Fidler. I think maybe even Gary Ziegler, Mike Gilbert. We would walk home from school together because we lived relatively close to each other. But it just wasn't the same as being on Harriet Street and running in and out of each other's houses. It was never the same. But we did become good friends.
- [00:46:28] JOYCE HUNTER: The Harriet Street area, that was truly a community?
- [00:46:33] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: Oh, definitely.
- [00:46:33] JOYCE HUNTER: But I'm hearing you say yes. Now you touched on some of these, but I'm going to read through these in case we miss anything. When thinking back on your school years, what important social or historical events were taking place at that time, and how did they personally affect you and your family?
- [00:46:58] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: Well, I think probably the biggest thing was the civil rights movement. You had the March on Washington. You had the Kennedy assassination, you had the 16th Street Church bombing. You had Malcolm X assassination, Robert Kennedy assassination. You had the freedom rights, you had the children's marches. My parents watched all of that, and we talked about all of that continually. We didn't ignore it. We talked, I had questioned. Hardly enough, it wasn't something we talked about in school. I don't remember ever talking about in school. We had all pictorials at my house. My dad and my sister attended the March on Washington, and I remember sitting around the TV and watching that and trying to find, of course, we could put my dad in that crowd of people trying to find my sister. I wanted to go. My mother said I was too young and I still mad that she didn't let me go. We talked about those things. We talked about the church bombing. I couldn't believe there were little girls my age, just a little bit older than me who had been killed for no reason in a church bombing. We looked at the freedom rights and the way the guys would get beaten up. We read about what the lady from, I think Detroit Viola Liuzzo. We've read about the three civil rights workers. As luck would have it, I don't know if I would say luck. But many years later, the lady that baby sat for my son in New York was the mother of Cheney, one of the civil rights workers who had been killed. The three civil rights workers, if they had killed, he was one of them, and that mother ended up babysitting for Milton, my younger son. All of those things I, at the time as a kid, I knew a little bit about Malcolm X, but I didn't know a lot about Malcom X. But the status assassination occurred. It felt like they're killing all the people that are trying to do good. Malcolm X, Robert Kennedy, John Kennedy, Martin Luther King. I can't remember exactly where I was when Dr. King was killed. I remember that vividly, and actually surely Brown was babysitting for me. I think I was home sick or something, and we were sitting there, and we saw the newscast. I just remember feeling like all the good people are being killed. What is going to come up this country? What happens next? It had a profound impact on me. Profound.
- [00:50:23] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: I felt like at that point, what do I do to make the change and it was a question that I would constantly be saying, how do I make the change? When I grow up, what am I going to do to make it better? That was the question I was always trying to answer. I remember as I got older and when I started to tour as a dancer, we were in Germany and I was doing an opera, called Carmen Jones. I decided to take a tour of Dachau, one of the concentration camps, and I remember there was a statue outside that said, never again in many different languages. It was a statue of emaciated people. I remember seeing that, and then I remember my dad talking about, he had traveled to Africa. He talked about, I think it was Goree Island and the passage to nowhere, where the slaves would be kept and then they would get on the ships, and he talked about how he felt about that and the feelings he had when he was in that area, in that small openings. Those two things I just thought, I want to become an educator who creates an institution, a climate, a culture where kids are encouraged to ask questions. Where kids are encouraged to question. It was only then that I really decided I want to be a educator. I want to be able to share information, but I want kids to feel like they can question the status quo. Because it is clear that we have not done a great job of this. We have to do better, and so as a society for us to do better. We have got to encourage kids and support kids in speaking up and speaking out and having opinion and having ideas and becoming change-makers. I spent all that time watching the good guys die, and then it lit a spark in me and made me want to find out. What can I do? What can I do to make the world better?
- [00:53:04] JOYCE HUNTER: I think there's certainly, that's what we need to do when things are happening. Look at ourselves and say, what can I do? How can I make a difference? Sometimes there's maybe only one little small thing that can make a difference. But at least to be thinking about that and looking at how can I as an individual make a difference. But I also want to share with you that I also traveled to Goree Island, and when you mentioned your dad talking about his feelings when he got to Goree Island, I experienced that same thing. Something just comes over you when you stepped on the grounds at Goree islands. So just wanted to share that. Going back a little bit to schools, so you talked about the school experience and when you moved, and what about teachers? Did you have any Black teachers?
- [00:53:57] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: I had all Black teachers. Did I have any Black teacher? [LAUGHTER] I had all Black teachers.
- [00:54:04] JOYCE HUNTER: That was when you were at which school? Which schools where are you?
- [00:54:08] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: At Perry. I had I think all Black teachers.
- [00:54:12] JOYCE HUNTER: Okay, and then middle school?
- [00:54:14] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: In middle school, I had a mix.
- [00:54:17] JOYCE HUNTER: Okay.
- [00:54:18] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: In middle school I had more white teachers and Black teachers.
- [00:54:21] JOYCE HUNTER: Okay.
- [00:54:22] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: But my Black teachers especially Ms. Garner, Sadie B. Garner. She just really took me under her wing. It was Sadie that really pushed me to go to Spelman College because I wasn't really thinking about going to Spelman and I'm glad I did. But she really pushed me to go to Spelman and Sadie just, she took the Black kids under her arm and under her wing and she just really pushed us.
- [00:54:58] JOYCE HUNTER: It's great that you could have teachers or a teacher that can make a difference like that. You always remember that. That teacher, of those teachers.
- [00:55:07] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: She was wonderful. I decided I liked science. I also had a lady, Marie Moore. That class was so hard I took biological science and advanced biology. But she was a wonderful teacher. She made it come alive, and even if I got a C, she's still made it come alive. She just was a wonderful teacher. Then I had a humanities teacher. It was a team of teachers. But Ms. Wackstaff was the lead. The information I learned in humanities and high school when I started touring internationally, and I went to France and I went Italy and I was in Liechtenstein. I went a lot of different places. Guadalupe for a while teaching dance. When I would go to all those places, all the stuff that I had learned in humanities would come alive right before my very eyes, and I use that information. I can't even begin to tell you how valuable it was, to be in Italy, to have an audience with the pope and to see the Sistine Chapel, and to be at the Vatican. Know all of that information, to have talked about that information. That was because of my humanities class. It makes everything come alive.
- [00:56:48] JOYCE HUNTER: So you could draw on that while you are traveling internationally?
- [00:56:53] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: Yes.
- [00:56:57] JOYCE HUNTER: I'm going to move us into adulthood, marriage and family. But before I do, I do want to ask about accommodations for Blacks when they visited the Ypsilanti area, and also about restaurants where there are places for Blacks and stay or go out and eat.
- [00:57:21] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: I think there were, but people visit in Ypsi. [NOISE] They visited us, stayed at our house.
- [00:57:28] JOYCE HUNTER: Right.
- [00:57:31] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: There weren't a whole lot of restaurants that I remember. There was a restaurant on Harriet Street, the Blue Heaven. I can't remember. It was right there, it's where it became the housing office at one point. But there used to be a restaurant there and the Moores used to own it. I used to go there after school with my family, they had great food. Other than that, when I was growing up, I don't remember going out to eat a lot in Ypsi. I remember going over to Ann Arbor, there was a Chinese food restaurant my mom liked. There was a ponderosa, the state place. But I don't remember and they would have downtown Ypsi, and then there were the fast food joints, the chicken, McDonald's, those kind of places. But they weren't [OVERLAPPING] a lot of restaurants that I remember growing up. If anything, I would say the church was more like the restaurant. There was always somebody having a chicken dinner sale or a barbecue sale and that was good.
- [00:58:50] JOYCE HUNTER: Very good. I'm going to move us into adulthood, marriage and family life. I'd like you to tell me a little bit about your married and family life. First, tell me about your spouse. Where did you meet? Tell me what it was like when you were dating and what were your engagement and wedding like?
- [00:59:13] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: Well, I had two of those, so that's hard.
- [00:59:17] JOYCE HUNTER: You can talk about the second one if you like [LAUGHTER]. Pick one [LAUGHTER] .
- [00:59:23] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: I'd have to talk about both of them because they're integral to who I am. My first husband I met in college. He was at Morehouse, I was at Spelman. We were married what almost 15 years. We got married our senior year, at the end of our senior year right as we were graduating. Milton is now the president of the United Way. He stayed in touch with my parents. We're all very close. We're very good friends. He came back to Ypsi and spoke at the Brotherhood Banquet, I think at that time he was the president of the National Urban League. We had a small wedding. There were people from Ypsi there. We dated off through college and then we got married and moved to New York, and we stayed married quite a while. We were probably way too young to be married. I mean, way too young to be married, but you're hard-headed. You do it anyway. But we had little Milton and we're still family for all intents purposes. My second husband and my current husband, Doug Baylis. He works as a water consultant. We dated all through high school. We dated through middle school and high school. Part of middle school and then all through high school, and I came back to Ypsi. We saw each other, we began talking, and then we ended up back together. We've been married since 1989, and we had my youngest daughter, Kristin. We have a very blended family. There's not a whole lot to say other than we're still together. I'm retired. He's not but we're enjoying. He's working from home, so we're enjoying both being home, and we have lots of grandkids. We have 11 grandkids.
- [01:01:44] JOYCE HUNTER: Congratulations. [LAUGHTER] Tell me about your children. You started talking a little bit earlier about wanting your son going to University of Michigan Medical School. Talk to me about your children.
- [01:02:01] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: My youngest daughter, Kristin, is a dancer. She's a beautiful ballroom dancer. She's trying to finish at UCLA in world arts and culture. She's worked professionally as a dancer. She actually has worked for Debbie Allen quite a bit. She's worked as a professional dancer and she's trying to figure out what she's going to do next. She is currently living in Clarksville, Tennessee. Next to her is Jacqlyn, my middle daughter. Jacqlyn is actually Doug's daughter. But we don't really use the stepdaughter thing. Our families are all pretty connected. I think of Jacqlyn as my daughter as well. We just came from Jacqlyn's house. Our youngest grandbaby, Kensley, we were there for her birthday, so it was Jacqlyn and her husband, Doug and I, and then Jamie, her mom, and her husband. We were there for this the baby's birthday. We ended up spending a lot of holidays, a lot of birthdays together, and we tried to support all the kids, and everybody has supported Milton from the very beginning. Milton's father married a woman, Tracey Gibson, and her parents are just really wonderful. They are activists. They were very much, still are very much reminding, reminiscent of my mother and father. We do a lot of things together and they have supported all the kids as well. They supported Jacqlyn and Kristin and Milton and everybody supports all the kids. Jacqlyn works in public policy. She graduated from Michigan State and she has a masters degree from University of North Carolina. I always get them confused. I don't remember, North Carolina or South Carolina. [OVERLAPPING] She has a master's degree and then she also worked as a consultant. She really works in public health and public policy, and then above Jacqlyn is Milton. Milton is my son with big Milton. Milton graduated from Stanford, went to University of Michigan Medical School. He did an internship at the hospital for special surgery, and He's an orthopedic surgeon at Cedar Sinai here in Los Angeles. The interesting thing about Milton is that Milton was a walk on the track team at Stanford. He became the team captain, then became the Big Ten champion in the long jump, and then made it to the Olympic trials. In addition to Milton eventually becoming a doctor, Milton was quite an athlete in college. Then my oldest son, Lesley Brown, that is Doug's son with Pam Brown, and Lesley is trying to figure out what he's going to do with his life. He's there in Ypsilanti.
- [01:05:39] JOYCE HUNTER: Well, that's really just impressive to hear how well the children are doing, and I love hearing the idea that you're blended and you don't use the titles, that's really nice. That your son or then your daughter and that's it. That's great. I'm going to move into Part 5, historical social events, and you've already talked about living here in Ypsilanti, and now you've moved. I'm going to go to the next question. When thinking back on your entire life, what important social historical events had the greatest impact? I think you already told us that, you talked about Dr. King and Malcolm X and what you decided to become a teacher, unless you have something else you want to add to it?
- [01:06:31] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: No. Probably the only thing I would add and I have to credit Ms. Garner for this. Going to Spelman was really the first time I was ever in the majority. You go to a historically Black college and you see the very best. You see leaders. At Spelman, I was able to hear Gwendolyn Brooks, Maynard Jackson, Julian Bond rolled me to the poll, gave me a ride to the poll so I could vote. Rev and I came to speak. Angela Davis came to speak. Muhammad Ali came to speak. James Baldwin came to speak. You hear [NOISE] the best of the best, and that does something to you. I can't explain it. I can't describe it. But my friends from college, I'm close to until this day. We call, we talk, we have all kinds of discussions. But there's something about having that experience that changes you.
- [01:08:00] JOYCE HUNTER: I've heard other people talk about having an experience, and so it certainly is wonderful if you had an opportunity to attend an HBCU. Moving on, what would you say has changed the most from the time you were a young person to now? I just talked about that a little but see if you had anything else you want to add to that?
- [01:08:26] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: No. I think that that probably would be it.
- [01:08:30] JOYCE HUNTER: Okay.
- [01:08:32] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: I wished that the kids now had grew up, I wish they had the community that we had.
- [01:08:42] JOYCE HUNTER: What advice would you give to the younger generation?
- [01:08:49] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: My advice would be, it's not just about your rights. Rights come with responsibilities. It's not just about you having your right, it's about the responsibility that comes with that right. We talk about freedom in this country, we talk about freedom a lot, but the problem I have now is we have all these things that we can't do anymore. We have our freedom, oh yeah. But we have so many freedoms that we're afraid to take walks at night. [NOISE] We're afraid to leave our doors open. We're afraid to say anything to someone who does something wrong. You have all these. You're afraid half the time when you're driving because if you blow your horn, someone may pull out a gun and blow your head off. Is that really freedom? Are we really so-called, so free? I think that young people have to understand that with freedom and right comes responsibility, and we have to begin to think about more than just ourselves. It's not just what I want, what I need, it's bigger than that. I think that that phrase be the change you want to see in the world. I think that the kids need to understand that's real. You want all these changes, you want all these demands, you want all the stuff but what are you doing? What part are you playing in this? What is your responsibility? I think that's where we've done something wrong. I don't know. I just feel like everybody always talks about why I have the right. I'm just at this point a little tired of hearing it.
- [01:11:07] JOYCE HUNTER: But that's some good advice for young people and older ones too. Be the change you want to see or be. I want to say that was our final question, Leah. I absolutely enjoyed this interview, and on behalf of the African American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County, I want to thank you for participating in the Living Oral History project. I'm going to see if you have any final things you want to share. If not, I'm going to share a couple of things with you again that I shared earlier, and that's going to conclude our interview.
- [01:11:46] LEAH BASS-BAYLIS: The other piece of advice probably I would give is education. You can't ever stop learning. You have to keep learning. I spent my time working on a master's degree at Columbia and then I worked on it and finished the masters degree, masters of science at Pepperdine, and I finished my doctorate, and I just want to keep learning, is so much out there to learn. I think that kids don't understand sometimes that when we talk about education, it's not that education gets you a job per se. Education open doors for opportunities. There will be jobs and opportunities that you will never even know they existed because you don't have an education. Education is about broadening your horizons and opening doors. Seeing other opportunity, and I just want to encourage kids to keep learning. I want to encourage kids, I want to encourage adults, no matter what age, keep learning. Keep traveling, keep learning.
- [01:13:21] JOYCE HUNTER: That is great, Leah. That's a great way to end this interview. Once again, I want to say thank you.
July 27, 2022
Copyright: Creative Commons (Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share-alike)
Rights Held by: Ann Arbor District Library
Randazzo Dance Theater [Ypsilanti]
Black American Women
Black American Actors
Historically Black Colleges and Universities
Lawrence C. Perry School (Ypsilanti)
West Junior High School
East Junior High School
Ypsilanti High School - Students
Physicians & Surgeons
Harriet Street Black Business District
Blue Haven Restaurant (Ypsilanti)
South Side [Ypsilanti]
Civil Rights Movement
LOH Entrepreneurship - Harriet Street
Race & Ethnicity
AACHM Living Oral History
Michael Thomas Bass
Ann Bass Berutti
Sadie B. Garner
John F. Kennedy
Martin Luther King Jr.
738 Harriet St Ypsilanti
New York NY
Los Angeles CA
Goree Island Senegal