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Ann Arbor 200

Black Women in the Workplace

In this video complied from dozens of interviews from the Living Oral History Project, Black women speak about their experiences working in Washtenaw County, including the various obstacles they had to face in hiring and on the job.

The Living Oral History Project is a partnership between the African American Cultural & Historical Museum of Washtenaw County and the Ann Arbor District Library, providing a permanent home for 50+ interviews with Black community members collected over the past decade.  The collection continues to grow with interviews added each year.


  • [00:00:15] ESSIE SHELTON: I always wanted to be a nurse. Because I wanted to help people, make them comfortable, and see that they had a good night.
  • [00:00:26] ROSEMARION ALEXANDER BLAKE: I was working in the City Treasurer's office and I was the first African American woman to work in the City Hall in a noncustodial position.
  • [00:00:36] HENRIETTA EDWARDS: The first job we had, we worked at the bomber plant. I helped build those B-52 bombers. I was a countersinker and a riveter of little rivets.
  • [00:00:47] BARBARA JEAN MEADOWS: Social work was my main field and I started out with my bachelor's degree working at Department of Social Welfare.
  • [00:00:56] DIANA MCKNIGHT-MORTON: I was hired as an employment counselor. But I worked my way to become a supervisor and then a manager.
  • [00:01:06] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: I very much appreciated when I was in the Senate being with senators 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.
  • [00:01:27] SHARON GILLESPIE: In all my years of working from the time I was 18 years old until I retired at 62, most of the time, I was the only Black person in the office where every job I was at, I was the only Black.
  • [00:01:43] LAURITA THOMAS: Ann Arbor has grown and changed and developed along with the times. Blacks worked first at University Hospital before working in the schools and colleges of the university.
  • [00:01:55] EVELYN PAYNE: I worked at U of M. I didn't really go there for a job. I went with another good friend of mine. She wanted to put in the application for a job at the U. I started working midnights. With children, you can't work nights. You don't get enough sleep in the daytime. So I went to St. Joe and I got on days and I stayed there for 25 years.
  • [00:02:17] ESSIE SHELTON: The nuns ran St. Joe. I enjoyed my training. I was hired after I finished my training, and that's where I stayed to work.
  • [00:02:32] BARBARA JEAN MEADOWS: I can remember when the first African American woman was hired on State Street to work as a saleslady. Everyone in the Black community was talking about it. Up until then, the only time African Americans went on that campus was when they were maids cleaning the dormitory or they were a janitor.
  • [00:03:00] SHIRLEY BECKLEY: At that time, Jacobson's had one elderly Black lady that was a salesperson and the rest of us that worked there worked in the stock room. But when they were shorthanded, they would always ask us to come out and sell. I remember going to him and saying, well, if I can fill in and sell, how come I can't be a salesperson? Well, he didn't have an answer for me.
  • [00:03:31] SANDRA HARRIS: I don't know if you remember the coffee shop that was around the corner from the Treasurer's office. I never will forget, one day, one of the older white women who worked in the office came up to me and said, "Sandy, would you run around to the coffee shop and get me whatever it was she wanted me to get?" I looked at her and I said, "When I started this job, my supervisor did not tell me that running errands to the coffee shop was part of my job description." She said, "Oh, she won't mind, she won't mind." And I looked at her and very politely said, "Yes, but I do."
  • [00:04:15] AUDREY LUCAS: Even though we lived in a university town, it was like they had expectations that you would probably go and work in a kitchen someplace or mop floors or do that janitorial work, as opposed to having you stretch your imagination to really feel that you could do other things.
  • [00:04:37] SHARON GILLESPIE: My very first job when me and my first husband broke up, I was 18. I got a job at National Bank and Trust, and I was working in the employee cafeteria, washing dishes and so forth and so on. And a good friend of mine said to me, "Why are you down there washing dishes? You got an education. Why don't you do something with it?" At that time, it was a big push for equal opportunity jobs. Every job, they had that little thing. So I answered an ad and went in for an interview at a place called CPHA in downtown Ann Arbor, and I was hired.
  • [00:05:22] DOLORES PRESTON TURNER: Women were starting to, they wanted it all. I said, well, I want to be a wife, a mother, but I want a job, I want a career of my own.
  • [00:05:33] DIANA MCKNIGHT-MORTON: I think about it now. It was overwhelming. Three jobs plus part-time jobs. It was just a lot of stuff that I had to constantly do so I could finish school and still take care of my girls, but I did it.
  • [00:05:50] SHIRLEY BECKLEY: I worked as a community person at Model Cities. One of the things we did was get kids to go into different businesses to learn the business, like on-the-job training.
  • [00:06:06] AUDREY MONAGAN: Model Cities. They had an organization that wanted single mothers. They made sure all single mothers got a decent job. You went and did your classes for this job and what you had to do and then General Motors, they got you right in, General Motors hired you.
  • [00:06:33] ALMA WHEELER SMITH: Dad called and said, "Senator Lana Pollack is looking for someone to work in her office as an aide. Do you know anybody who might be interested?" And I said, "Yeah, I would be interested." 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.
  • [00:07:08] BARBARA JEAN MEADOWS: When I was a student, we're talking now going back to '46 to '49, I used to see a woman, early in the morning while I'm getting ready to go to school, I saw her pass the house, all dressed and going somewhere every morning. Finally, I asked, "Where is she going and who is she?" This woman had a PhD degree in English and she had to go and take the Greyhound bus every morning and go outside the city of Ann Arbor to teach.
  • [00:07:41] DOLORES PRESTON TURNER: I am so grateful to those students, I think the early '70s, who protested at Pioneer High School, the group of Black students. Because if they had not been as vocal and one of their demands was that Ann Arbor hire more Black instructors, because I remember the very first time I was interested in coming to Ann Arbor, I remember the administrator that I had to see said that I really should have a master's in the field that I'm teaching. What did I do? I went back to grad school. I already had a master's, but it wasn't in English and I got a master's in English.
  • [00:08:24] JOETTA MIAL: Started working on my master's and got the master's and then got a promotion to Huron as one of the assistant principals. Well, I was there for 12 years as an assistant and then principal.
  • [00:08:44] NANCY CORNELIA WHEELER: 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. In Juvenile Court, I felt very responsible because you could feel like you were really helping people and moving them along.
  • [00:09:04] AUDREY LUCAS: I can remember when I also had sent a person for a job, a clerical job in the outpatient building where I used to run the elevator. And a guy that I knew called me up on the telephone because I had sent him an African American applicant and he said to me, "Audrey, why did you send her? We already have one." I said, "I sent her because she was qualified."
  • [00:09:37] LAURITA THOMAS: Affirmative action was the byword when I entered so I know that affirmative action opened the door for me, for my human resources career, but I knew I had to work hard to sustain my opportunities in the field. I learned very early on from research and reading, that Black women received the least amount of feedback in their professional careers of any group of people. If you wanted to be successful, you had to figure out ways to get feedback.
  • [00:10:16] SANDRA HARRIS: I work at an institution that is largely white, and so I can say I'm probably the only African American person they're going to come in contact with their whole doctoral program. I often tell people, I could not be where I am today if someone had not helped me. I feel that part of my responsibility in life is to reach back and pull others along and help others and so that's what I do.