Legacies Project Oral History: Ernestine Bull
Wed, 01/15/2020 - 9:58am
Ernestine Bull grew up in Detroit after moving there with her uncle in 1943, and she recalls attending concerts by the young Aretha Franklin at New Bethel Baptist Church in the 1950s. She joined the United States Army Women's Army Corps (WAC) and did her basic training at Fort McClellan, Alabama. She was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, where she was a member of the basketball team, and in Yokohama, Japan. After her service in the army she was a teacher at Dexter Ferry Elementary School in Detroit for many years.
Ernestine Bull was interviewed by students from Skyline High School in Ann Arbor in 2010 as part of the Legacies Project.
- [00:00:09.60] ERNESTINE BULL: I'll tell you, today, I brought pictures.
- [00:00:15.33] SPEAKER 1: [INAUDIBLE]
- [00:00:17.33] ERNESTINE BULL: Oh, that's not even a drop in the bucket. And last night I, went home and called my buddy, and we went back daydreaming over back through the years. And we came up with the names of the music and the dances that we did. And let me show you. These pants that they're wearing now, we wore these, and we call these bell bottoms. They were called bell bottoms. And the kids went to school, they wore them. They were so big, and so long till they walked on the back of them.
- [00:00:55.68] And I thought about that. I said, the guys are wearing their pants down below their buttocks. But the kids, and my kids, and just before them, they wore them so long they walked them till it's--
- [00:01:12.09] SPEAKER 1: [INAUDIBLE]
- [00:01:12.79] ERNESTINE BULL: Yeah, and they walked on them, so they were all raggedy around the back, which look kind of sloppy too. But those were the fashions.
- [00:01:25.15] SPEAKER 1: And you said you have some more music too?
- [00:01:27.59] ERNESTINE BULL: Yeah. I just jotted down a list of the music and musicians that we listened to.
- [00:01:35.34] SPEAKER 1: If you want to, you can take them out.
- [00:01:37.65] ERNESTINE BULL: Oh, OK.
- [00:01:38.84] SPEAKER 1: Oh, and I forgot to say, if you want to call for a break or anything, you can.
- [00:01:42.54] ERNESTINE BULL: OK.
- [00:01:43.78] SPEAKER 1: [INAUDIBLE]
- [00:01:46.03] ERNESTINE BULL: OK. Now I have to find it.
- [00:01:51.83] SPEAKER 1: [INAUDIBLE]
- [00:01:54.80] ERNESTINE BULL: You would? See, that's what I say, fashions come back. And they say every 10 to 12 years, fashion repeats themselves. And the stilettos that the people are wearing now, the young ladies are wearing now, we wore those too. And we had the wedges, and the sandals. [INAUDIBLE]
- [00:02:33.19] I guess I'm just like absentminded. Oh, here they are. OK. Now we did these dances, the jitterbug, the camel walk, the hop, the hully gully, the twist, the chicken, walking the dog, shotgun, and the Tennessee waltz. Those were the dances that the music was built around. And those were the dances that we did.
- [00:03:05.81] SPEAKER 1: What's the hully gully?
- [00:03:07.43] ERNESTINE BULL: Hully gully? It's like, you put your right hand out, you put your left hand out, and you shake it all about. And then, you do the hully gully. And you work it all out. Yeah they call it the hokey pokey after we had called it the hully gully. They changed the name. And we did the Tennessee waltz because that was kind of Southern. And we were just beginning to be southern. Listening to southern music before we did. And then, we had James Brown, who did the magic dance. Bobby Brown, Jackie Wilson, who could dance like-- he could dance as well as James Brown. He danced all over the place. He could really dance. He'd slide from that side of the stage all the way over here, do a twirl, he could really dance.
- [00:04:07.47] And your assignment was one of my favorite singers. And Billy Eckstine was one of the cutest singers of all time. He was really cute. He was really a handsome man. We had Jackie Wilson, Gladys Knight and the pips, Aretha. Aretha and I grew up in the same neighborhood. Now we used to go to her father's church when she was about 14, 15 years old. And they would have concerts there on Friday evening. And the theater would be packed. Everybody come hear Aretha sing. And her father.
- [00:04:54.39] SPEAKER 1: So you actually get to meet her, then?
- [00:04:56.39] ERNESTINE BULL: Yeah. Yeah. She was-- I can't remember what school she went to, we didn't go to the same school. We lived in the same area, but I don't remember what school she went to. But every Friday evening, we found all the young people headed for her father's church on Russell, it was in a theater there. And she would get there. And she would just sing. Then he would come in and sing, and preach, and we'd just have a good time. We had a good time. Those are some of the things that we came up with. And we talked about a whole bunch of other stuff. But, of course, I can't remember all of it. And I refuse to write it all down.
- [00:05:57.03] And we had Stevie Wonder. And we had the Jackson 5. They were during my daughters era, but we listened to them too. We played their music at grown up affairs. So we still listened to the Jackson 5.
- [00:06:25.14] SPEAKER 1: Do you want to show us some pictures?
- [00:06:26.53] ERNESTINE BULL: Oh.
- [00:06:27.92] SPEAKER 1: And thank you for doing that research. [INAUDIBLE].
- [00:06:30.88] ERNESTINE BULL: Yeah. We did. When I say we had fun when we got, together and had fun. This is my youngest daughter's wedding. That's her. And I gave her away. I walked her down the aisle.
- [00:07:01.22] SPEAKER 1: Is it possible that next week, we can get some of those to scan?
- [00:07:06.11] ERNESTINE BULL: I didn't take them out because I hate-- you can take them out on the whole page, you know, and scan what you want. Can you do that? OK. But I didn't want to. Because it took me a long time to get these in here. And they're still-- that's my oldest daughter. And this is my youngest daughter. My oldest daughter, her husband is a singer. And before he asked to marry her, he had he said whatever song God gave him about a woman, that was who he was going to marry. So he wrote a song about her. And he came and asked me if he could marry her. And he sang the song at the wedding.
- [00:08:04.62] And she had the wedding at the church. They had this spiral staircase. And as she came down this staircase into the sanctuary, he sang the song. The whole church was in tears. It was so beautiful. So this is my-- this is her daughter and son. That was my dog there, Sheba. She got run over.
- [00:08:46.36] This is one of my classrooms. This is my daughter, granddaughter, and my grandson.
- [00:09:09.22] This is me. I'm in Nashville. This is my cousin. My hand is in there, I'm not sure. Can't tell. This is at the Science Center. This is my backyard. That's my puppy there. He was a puppy. This is me. I'm being sworn in as an officer at our unit. And this is a group that I belonged to that does historical research. And you know who this is. What's her name?
- [00:10:14.75] SPEAKER 1: Whoopi Goldberg.
- [00:10:15.34] ERNESTINE BULL: Whoopi Goldberg.
- [00:10:17.02] SPEAKER 1: You've met her before?
- [00:10:18.23] ERNESTINE BULL: Mm-hmm.
- [00:10:18.39] SPEAKER 1: Where?
- [00:10:19.52] ERNESTINE BULL: Here in Detroit. And that's me. That's one of my-- This is another classroom. I think it's upside-- no, this is just a picture of all. That's Jacqueline. That's Natasha. That's my sister. That's Jackie smiling, Natasha, and myself.
- [00:10:54.14] SPEAKER 1: My aunt is called Natasha.
- [00:10:55.11] ERNESTINE BULL: Huh?
- [00:10:56.08] SPEAKER 1: My aunt's name is Natasha.
- [00:10:58.52] ERNESTINE BULL: Is it? Oh. N-A-T-A-S-H-A?
- [00:11:01.02] SPEAKER 1: Yeah.
- [00:11:02.23] ERNESTINE BULL: Oh, OK. And that's Lasantay as ROTC. And this is the 1989 classroom. And this is one of our get togethers. We were always getting together. This is a get together, this is a family get together. These are all family get togethers. This was in Atlanta at conference. You saw that one yesterday. And this is in Atlanta. And this is in Washington DC. That's an old picture of me.
- [00:12:22.08] These are our conferences of our military unit. These are our women of the unit. This is my uncle. He's the one that brought my sister and I to Detroit in August of 1943. He gave us a two week vacation here. And we never left. And these are his daughters. These are all my uncles, and aunts, and cousins. That's my mom.
- [00:13:10.10] SPEAKER 1: Who are the two kids in the tree?
- [00:13:12.07] ERNESTINE BULL: Mia and their two sons. The two earliest sons.
- [00:13:16.77] SPEAKER 1: You met them all?
- [00:13:18.19] ERNESTINE BULL: Mhm. I was at the Manoogian Mansion. I wasn't at the party they're talking about. I was there for-- I was right there when they had the speedboat. And they had that-- Canada or whoever, they speed up and down the water. We had outdoors party. And I was invited too. This is a classroom. This is a classroom. This was in Yokohama, Japan. These are the huts that we lived in. And that's Congressman Conyers and one of his children. That's the girlfriend or wife. We were at dinner.
- [00:14:33.91] That's my god daughter. This right here is in Yokohama. We were up on Mount Iroha in Japan. It's the tallest, the highest mountain range in the eastern-- I think in the eastern hemisphere. I got up there, and then I had to pray to God to get me from up there. Because it was--
- [00:15:00.73] SPEAKER 1: You made it all the way to the top?
- [00:15:01.64] ERNESTINE BULL: Yes. And I had to come all the way back down. We went up halfway on a bus. And that was the scariest thing in my life because that road is about this wide. And the bus is about this big, and it's going round like this. Up, and up, and up, and up, and up.
- [00:15:28.80] SPEAKER 1: Aw, that's a cute baby.
- [00:15:30.25] ERNESTINE BULL: That's Lasantay. And this is another family get together, that was their reunion here in Detroit. These are some WAGs that were stationed-- I was stationed within Japan. These are all service people here. We were stationed in Japan together. I'm going to flip through those. These are all Japan, except this one. This is the family get together. Who's that? That's me, that's my sister. That's me, and that's her husband. It's all family reunions.
- [00:17:13.22] These are people that I went through basic training with. This is pictures that we took in Tokyo and Yokohama. This is who I was talking to last night, we served together at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. And this is Alabama when we were down basic training. No, this was Yokohama, Japan.
- [00:18:03.44] That's my mom. And we were on the cheerleading-- we were the cheerleaders for the Fort Leonard Wood basketball team. You can't see me too well, that's me right there. And this is General Motors. This is where my mom worked. She's a nurse. Right there. And that's her right there, that's at the General Motors, they had some kind of lunch or something for them. And these are all service women.
- [00:19:16.98] This is what I call a basic training camp. All of these. This is Fort Leonard Wood. I know it seemed like I was doing an awful lot of partying, but I really wasn't. Not all the time. But everything, we made it into a party. We just made everything seem like fun. Otherwise we would've went stone crazy. And this is a bazaar that Dixon and I planned, the bazaar to help raise funds for that orphanage that I was telling you about.
- [00:20:08.27] We also had some people back in the states. A group, we sent the letter to them, and they organized a clothes collection and they sent us tons of clothes over for the kids. Because they didn't have any. They really didn't have anything. Because they were African-American children, they were not treated very well.
- [00:20:38.04] SPEAKER 1: There's a story on Lifetime. Something like the mixed children weren't treated--
- [00:20:43.28] ERNESTINE BULL: They were treated--
- [00:20:44.38] SPEAKER 1: Bad.
- [00:20:44.80] ERNESTINE BULL: They were really treated badly. And this little girl here, she was the second child that I adopted while I was over there. Because the assistant called me and told me they had found her in a abandoned building. But she was still alive. And they didn't have any medication, they didn't have no doctor, he couldn't afford a doctor for her. And she called me 7:30 at night. And I had to go to the PX, get some cough syrup.
- [00:21:28.06] SPEAKER 1: You didn't turn it off, did you?
- [00:21:31.37] ERNESTINE BULL: Get cough syrup, and aspirins, and everything that I could of. And we rushed over to the orphanage, and blankets, and warm sleeping wear. And she almost died. But before I left there, that's the way she was looking. She was really-- and she was adopted by-- I think, a Master Sergeant and his wife adopted her before they left Japan. And this is the other little girl. She was the first one. Because when we found the orphanage, and we were just checking to see who were all those children living in that broken down, beat up building. We went in and they were sisters there, nuns, who were taking care of them.
- [00:22:24.76] And it was-- but, I mean, if you'd seen it, it would bring you to tears. With the condition they were living in. And so, she just took my hand and followed me around everywhere I went. When I got ready to leave, she didn't want to let go of my hand. So I had to stay there and put her to sleep before she would let go of my hand. She wouldn't go to sleep. She wouldn't do nothing. She just held onto my hand. That's OK. I'll be back tomorrow. I'll see you later. She said, oh, no, you're not getting away.
- [00:22:58.66] So the next day, I did go back. And I took her some underpants, slip socks, I just bought her three whole outfits. And I gave her a bath. And she was holding my hand all the time I was there. I said, I can't come too early because she won't let me go. But eventually she got adopted too. The last I heard, her family was living in Mississippi. But she was this little thing here, she was so pretty. She's was such a little doll. I never met the people that adopted her because I was gone by then. But I did get to meet them.
- [00:24:03.13] That's my mom and a friend of hers. That's my mom there. That's myself, and Jackie, and Senator Buzz Thomas. That's another picture of her. That one's upside down. And this is the building that they were building here. They had just put the framework up. But I understand it turned out to be really-- and then they had some Eurasian children that just were orphan. But they were not African-American children. They were Japanese children. But they had been abandoned.
- [00:25:19.07] If your parents didn't want you, and you're-- This is mount high Iroha. See how it comes up there? Come all the way up to the top. It's like you can reach up and touch the clouds almost. It is absolutely scary. There's that, what you call it? Goes across on the rope. The thing that swings across valleys. You know? Like in the Alpines, they have that tram cart, it goes across. You can go on that. They had a train that goes down and around. And the bus stop running at certain times. So you had two choices of getting-- three, you could walk down. And maybe you make it down in a couple years. Or you could ride that thing across. Or you could take the train.
- [00:26:23.87] I eventually got on the tram cart. And I cried all the way across. Till that thing hit down on the ground. And I was boo hooed all the way across, I cried. Call on my mommy. Mommy. Oh my, oh lord, get me down from here. I'll never do this again.
- [00:26:50.55] And this was our fierce, Fort Leonard Wood basketball team. And this is my community. This is my neighbor here. I used to have block-- close the block off, and have this swim mobile, and parks and rec bring in the equipment, and have a little block parties. But the neighborhood changed. And now, the parents just want to sit-in their lawn chairs, and wait for someone else to do everything. So I said, they don't want to do-- you want to do the hot dogs? Well, no, I don't know. So I stopped doing it. I hated to stop doing it. But it just got to be too much. So now, we don't have anything on the block. They just run all over your grass. Play all over your lawn. Tear up your flowers.
- [00:28:04.58] And this was at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri right after-- Fort McClellan, Alabama. And I think that's me right there. And this is the girl, we went in under the buddy system. And this is a young lady I was talking to last night, we were all three stationed here. And that's me. That's me and this is me when I was about 14. I was about 14 there. Yeah.
- [00:28:51.54] And that's my Aunt Lulu. That was my mother's last remaining sibling. She passed in 2007. That was all of my mothers brothers and sisters, that was the last one. My grandfather had 14 children. And they're all gone. My mother had seven, and they're all gone but me. And my dad had seven, six and seven. And they're all gone but me. So I'm the last of the Mohegans. My cousin, her father, the one that sponsored our vacation here, all of her siblings are gone too. Her mother's still alive. And she and I are first cousins. My aunt had one child. And he had one child. So he's our first cousin too. So that's three first cousins. And all the rest are gone.
- [00:30:16.49] SPEAKER 1: Is there anything else you would like to say-- any advice you would like to give anybody?
- [00:30:23.44] ERNESTINE BULL: Well, don't be afraid to live life. Take what you have and make what you can out of it. If you don't use it, you'll lose it. And you shouldn't abuse it so that you'll be satisfied with what you've done in life. The older, you get, the more you realize that if you haven't completed it, and you do have time to do some more things, keep on doing them. Don't stop. I feel sorry for people who retire and go home and sit down. And don't do anything. Just sit. I can't do that. So I have to move around. As long as I have breath, and as long as there's somebody out there that need help, or want help, or I can help, that's what I'm going to do.
- [00:31:37.54] And now, the parents just want to sit in their lawn chairs and wait for somebody else to do everything. So I said-- they don't want to do it. You want to do the hot dogs? Well, no, I don't know. So I stopped doing it. I hated to stop doing it. But it just got to be too much. So now, we don't have anything on the block. They just run all over your grass, play all over your lawn, tear up your flowers.
- [00:32:14.29] And this was at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri right after Fort McClellan, Alabama. And I think that's me right there. And this is the girl, we went in under the buddy system. And this is a young lady. And that's me. That's me. And this is me when I was about 14. I was about 14 there.
- [00:32:57.90] And that's my Aunt Lulu, that was my last remaining, my mother's last remaining sibling. She passed in 2007. That was all of my mother's brothers, and sisters, that was the last one. My grandfather had 14 children, and they're all gone. My mother had seven, and they're all gone but me. And my dad had seven, six and seven, and they are all gone but me. So I'm the last of the Mohegans.
- [00:33:47.10] My cousin, her father, the one that sponsored our vacation here, all of her siblings are gone too. Her mother's still alive. And she and I are first cousins. And we're, no her-- my aunt had one child. And he had one child. So he's our first cousin too. So that's three first cousins. And all the rest are gone.
- [00:34:22.16] SPEAKER 1: Is there anything else you would like to say to-- any advice you'd like to give to anybody?
- [00:34:29.25] ERNESTINE BULL: Well, don't be afraid to live life. Take what you have and make what you can out of it. If you don't use it, you'll lose it. And you shouldn't abuse it so that you'll be satisfied with what you've done in life. The older you get, the more you realize that if you haven't completed it, and you do have time to do some more things, keep on doing them. Don't stop. I feel sorry for people who retire and go home, and sit down, and don't do anything. Just sit. I can't do that. So I have to move around. As long as I have breath, and as long as there's somebody out there that need help, or want help, or I can help, that's what I'm going to do.
- [00:35:47.43] Now do you have any advice for me?
- [00:35:53.33] SPEAKER 1: Keep doing what you're doing. Like, I'm very happy that you [INAUDIBLE]. That was a good thing to do. I love when people do stuff for other people. Because people don't do that and then not ask.
- [00:36:04.45] ERNESTINE BULL: No, they don't.
- [00:36:05.39] SPEAKER 1: I got on a bus before. And there's older people standing up, [INAUDIBLE] people. And dudes will just sit there and just look at them. And not have to give them my seat [INAUDIBLE].
- [00:36:15.07] ERNESTINE BULL: And, you know, parents should teach their young boys. We used to train our young children in the way that we thought they should go. But when I ride the bus, and parents have a young boy with her, and he's sitting there, they don't say, get up and let the lady sit down. They look at you like-- we aren't going to get up. Sit down. I say, no, that's OK. Thank you. I can wait. I'll be getting off the bus soon. Things like that.
- [00:36:44.39] And I was coming in this building. And a gentleman was going up. The ladies open the door, and he held the lady who was behind him. But he never held the door for me. He let the door go. Once he got through the door, he let it go. You know, you usually-- I'll hold the door for somebody if I hear them close behind me. I'll hold the door. I won't let it go. He let the door go, I was like, hm, had the door slam right in my face. He didn't see me. But those kind of things, they're not frowned upon anymore. Men don't pull out seats for ladies. Men don't open car doors for ladies. And ladies don't seem to mind. That's the part that troubled me.
- [00:37:35.80] They come up and blow their horns in front of your house. The boys at my door, they knew they couldn't come in front of my house and blow their horns because I was coming through the door to see who they were. And then, I was going to ask them to leave. If you can't get out your car, and come up here, and ring this doorbell, don't show your face around here. And she had to tell him that before they came. Because if you don't tell him that, I'll have to tell him. And you'll be embarrassed.
- [00:38:08.69] So they always come, that mean old mom. I think I got the meanest mom in the world. I said no. I just expect you to respect me, because if you don't respect me, you won't respect her. It's what you give out. It's the vibes that you give out when you come in my presence. If they're not good, you're not coming back. So they would be tip toey. And I had one of her little friends, he used to come up and-- Lasantay, can you come out? And I'd get my belt and go to the door. I said, yeah, she coming out. But I'm coming out in front. And he'd take off running down the street. But he would be just teasing because I knew his mother and father. And I knew they had trained him about it. But he liked to tease with me. And I could take a joke once in a while, as long as it didn't go too far. He always knew when not to joke with me.
- [00:39:07.63] You can joke and play around with me, but don't take it too far because I'm not going to take playing around with you too far. So we know where each other stand. I mean, I used to have fun with her friends that came around. They just thought I was mean. They'd say, Mrs. Bull is mean. Don't mess with her. Kids in my class would listen. They comeback and talk Ms. Bull, when I first came to your class, my mom I hated you. I thought you was the meanest old woman in the world. I was at that time. I was because you weren't doing right. That's why I was mean. You wouldn't consider me mean if I let you do whatever you want to do. You think you were running over me. See? Which one is better? To think I'm mean or let you run over me?
- [00:39:57.75] But I don't play to the point where we can't get back on line. Like my granddaughter, she was talking to her mother. I said, honey, you better be glad that she's your mother. Because if I was your mother, you'd be finding your teeth somewhere. I don't know how. And I think each parents try to say, well, I'm not going to raise my kids like my mother did. But what's wrong with you?
- [00:40:29.55] SPEAKER 1: That's true, because you've got to look at yourself and say, I did turn out OK.
- [00:40:33.41] ERNESTINE BULL: Right. I mean. And well, something went right. I mean, you didn't do it by yourself. You had to have someone that was going to tell you or point you, try to point you in the right direction. And that's what most parents are trying to do. Sometimes they just don't get it across quick enough. Then everybody can't be perfect. Who's trying? Nobody. I'm not trying to be perfect. I'm just trying to be as good as I possibly can. And enjoy, enjoy, enjoy. Every day is a day of gift. Count it as a blessing, cause it's not promised. You should be able to say to yourself, at the end of the day, I did the best I could. And I thank God for that.
- [00:41:39.16] SPEAKER 1: Thank you.
- [00:41:42.48] ERNESTINE BULL: I was going to take-- I told you technology passed me by. I was going to take a picture but.
- [00:41:52.02] SPEAKER 1: [INAUDIBLE]
Copyright: Creative Commons (Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share-alike)
Rights Held by: Ann Arbor District Library
New Bethel Baptist Church
Women's Army Corps (WAC)
Black American Veterans
Dexter Ferry Elementary School [Detroit]
LOH Employment - Military
Rev. C. L. Franklin
Fort Leonard Wood MO
Fort McClellan AL