Vernell V. Wright and Andrea Nicole Johnson

Recorded May 4, 2007 Archived May 4, 2007 01:07:14
0:00 / 0:00
Id: grs000171


Vernell talks to her granddaughter about her childhood, early adult life, travels to West Africa and advice on family life.

Her parents were strict and also sacrificed so their children could attend a private Methodist school. The school was attended by Black children but had an integrated staff. It was a shelter that disappeared once she stepped outside the school.To illustrate that, Vernell recalls a painful experience of not being able to ride the bus sitting next to her white teacher.

As a young adult, Vernell attended a teachers’ training course in Newark during the summer that the riots erupted. She describes her experience and the dramatic change in urban landscape she witnessed over the years, including the times of the riots.

For both Vernell and her granddaughter, travelling to Africa and seeing the “doors of no return” was a powerful and meaningful experience.

Subject Log / Time Code

The bus incident where Vernell was forbidden to ride next to her white teacher.


  • Vernell V. Wright
  • Andrea Nicole Johnson

Venue / Recording Kit



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00:08 My name is Andrea Nicole Johnson Nardi. I'm 27 years old today is May 4th 2007 and we are at the Plainfield Public Library in Plainfield, New Jersey and I am the granddaughter of Ferndale. Right who I'll be interviewing.

00:28 My name is Vernell Hayes. Right? I'm 73 years of age. Today's date is May 4th 2007. We are in Plainfield New Jersey and my relationship to Andrea's that I am your grandmother.

00:53 I know I'm really excited to to have this chance to talk to you and to really sit down and ask certain questions and things perhaps I haven't asked before and to really have this have a record of this. So I'm really glad that that we're here together today. So one question that I'd like to ask is can you tell me a bit about where you grew up in and what it was like growing up there. I grew up in South Carolina in the little town Camden and it was home. It was exciting place to be it's the place. I went to school my parents my grandparents. My great-grandparents were all a part of that place and when I look back now and to see how that place has changed because I've been back but it always brings back those memories in those good memories of being there.

01:53 In that safe place

01:55 Did you did you know your great-grandparents? Yes, I know my my mother's grandparents would for my great-grandparents and I knew my father's parents with my grandparents. So when you think back to, you know, being a little girl in Camden South Carolina and and all the family that you had around were there any favorite relatives anyone who you know, you really look forward to seeing for some special reason, I would think it was would be my grandparents on my father's side and they lived on a farm. So was always exciting going to their house because you had a chance to ride in the wagon and one of the special things about my grandfather is that every time he went to town on Saturdays in the wagon. He brought me back in apples and that was really special. You don't people say what's an apple, but that was my gift from him and I will never forget that he always brought me.

02:55 Apples and not answer apples put in an apple pie.

03:02 I see you as this person who is always on top of things and organized and following through with things but I guess one thing I'm curious about is whether as a child you ever got into trouble of any kind. I probably did but I do with my parents who were pretty strict in terms of disciplined. I found that the best way was always to be up front. So if I did something I try to tell them first that I get done it but I the one thing that I really remember in terms of being disciplined that that I have this brother and when he and he was younger than I am and one day he had gotten into difficulty. He my father was so upset with him and I didn't want him to hurt my I don't want to hurt Bobby. And so I said don't don't don't do that. Don't hit by be anymore and then my father

04:01 Started on me and I said to my brother after that I will never never getting between that and so that's the one incident in terms of being whipped by my father and that was basic because I was interfering with what he was doing in terms of my brother and discipline my brother and that's so funny for me because when I think of my great-grandparents your parents who we call Mother and grants for me, I think because you raised me they were like my grandparents and I just I never saw that side of them. They were always maybe the threat here and there but just the the doting kind of pleasant lots of time and and and I guess it's just different though when it's your grandparent type person versus your parent who has to be there to the discipline and do all those kinds of things because you have to think they were very young.

05:01 And I was growing up because it was just a matter of 17 and 18 years between our bring my birth and and and their ages it's so we'd really and they were very young and I guess all of the frustrations of raising a family and and those kinds of things are involved in our upbringing what kind of school did you go to and did you like school? I like to

05:33 My first couple years is in a public school in Camden. And then I'm there was a school Mather Academy which was sponsored by the Methodist Church. And so my parents enrolled me in their third grade and that was I think kind of a shaping experience for me in terms of what my goals and what my dreams are and it was a private school. So they had to pay $50 to $50.50 a month to send me there which was a sacrifice for them. So

06:07 Was the school in integrated school or and I know you said it was Private. What were there all with all the students African American students or African American but the staff was an integrated staff. Yes. It was very interesting in terms of the people that we had an opportunity to interact with my principal. We had staff members from all over the country were there at the school and who got in the directed us into those kinds of persons through our senior year. How do you think I'm getting to attend to school like that? We're as you said all the students were African-American, but the staff was integrated. How do you think that that setting perhaps prepared you for what you would face after you graduated and & Beyond?

07:03 I think what happened is that we had an opportunity to see people not as those Outsiders, but you really have a chance to get to know those persons whom we were interacting with interacting with and so I felt that wherever I went no matter what that you know, that can background was I looked at people as individuals not as a race of people specifically was there ever any time I mean did you mention this is Camden South Carolina? Was there ever any time that you perhaps at all during school when you're at Mather or after that. Did you ever experience a specific incident of prejudice and or feeling of racism in and if so, what was that about?

07:58 It was president when camping week when we went to the five and ten Cent Store. We couldn't sit on the counter as we have to stand at the end of the counter to order and I'll drink to be could not sit there at all to drink them, but it was just part of what we knew was in existence. But I think the thing that stood out most in an incident that remember most was once one of our one of my teachers going home with me on the bus. And so we gone to the bus stop we waited for the bus to come we got on the bus when she got on the bus and she was going to sit with me the bus driver said you cannot sit with her. She had to sit in the bag and you sit in the front. So this this is remain with me as an as an incident that outside of the school right where those kinds of laws were identified. Whereas when we're inside Mathis Gates.

08:58 I did not feel that so I'm curious as to in and I don't I don't have any children yet. But do you have any suggestions for me and and things that I can tell my children when I have them terms of how to continue to to deal with those incidences of racism or Prejudice or things that that we might encounter. Do you have any words of wisdom about that?

09:26 I would think that whatever you gozar that you will always keep those goals in mind and there will be people and there will be situations that will discourage but I think you have to always remember and you have to always provide that kind of support for your children. The other thing you have to always have the kind of home where kids can always come into their feel comfortable because I think that that's where the security is. That's where they get that strength to be able to face whatever those challenges maybe once you're outside the home and and they're facing those those kinds of things in other situations. And I know we've been talking about Racin and things of that nature. Do you what what do you remember about the Civil Rights Movement? I should say the birth of the civil rights movement because I think there are still a lot of civil rights that weird that are not quite

10:25 Equal yet today, but what do you remember about that that time? And I guess that's the sixties in the late fifties and how how did it impact your life?

10:39 There's a lot of things and I can't even go back to the forties and I saw the first had the opportunity to vote and how excited we were about that and he was going making sure the poll taxes have been paid and that he could read and and and right because we didn't want anything to be there to keep him from him getting that right at the baby to register to vote. And so we were very excited about that. But as I moved away from you know as we move forward,

11:13 We

11:14 Had an opportunity I say we but I had an opportunity to to attend a school. That was also a college that was also very much out in the Forefront and we had this motto that we were going to be free by 50 by I guess it will by 53 and all of that in those initial years. But what happened is that you do as we moved on I left very soon after graduation. I left South Carolina and came to New Jersey and even though I'm here in New Jersey people thought that we did not have many of those kinds of issues. I think that I experienced a lot of those kinds of issues here in New Jersey and just job hunting

12:14 Just trying to get the right kind of education for my children and those kinds of things so

12:24 I did witness and those but I did go to the March on Washington. I know you just a little bit about education and and getting the right opportunities for your children. And you also mentioned that a mother and grams your parents were very young when you were born and perhaps didn't have the same access to education certainly that you did and then that your children did so I'm wondering if you do you think that the education was something that was important to your parents on for them to provide to you in to Uncle Bobby despite not having had like the same access themselves. It's the same opportunities I think so they wanted so much for us. They wanted they and I knew they were making sacrifices for me for me to be able to go to college. That was a big sacrifice on their part.

13:24 And I'm and because of that sacrifice. I think that's what caused me to want to do the best that I could do and then be the best that I could be when I had that opportunity to do so being the first person my family will need the side to have that opportunity to go to college, you know, I don't know that I didn't but I know I felt that they they wanted so much for me to do that. You mentioned that when she moved away from South Carolina and came to New Jersey that that you did still experiencing some of those issues of Raisin in the Civil Rights and things of that nature. I was wondering if you remembered anything about the riots that took place in Newark in the late 60s.

14:16 I definitely remember that that happened to have been the summer that I was staying in Newark because I had a I was part of a workshop on Earth signs for teachers and we're staying in the apartments in Newark at her and told as the the conflict was heightening that weekend in Vegas with 67 and they told us at Fridays usually would go back to our communities and then come back on Sunday night and we didn't usually leave Newark until late on Fridays, but for that weekend when things have gotten so difficult, they told us to leave early so they close the program and sent this home and I remember that night before we were just reached it at the windows and we just watch the fires we could hear the guns, you know, they the shooting we could see people running. Are you scared?

15:16 Very scary very very scared and was hoping you know, am I going to be able to get back to wrong call which was just down Springfield Avenue, but it was really a very frightening variance until that day. We were able to leave and we got out of town and we went home but we had to come back that Sunday Sunday. So I said I'm too Charles. I need to leave early. I don't want to wait till late. So you have to get me down there early and coming down Springfield Avenue. You couldn't get through. The police were stopping every car. They were checking out. I'm you know, what did you have? Did you have any guns that you what was your purpose? You don't have to show papers and turn while I was coming back into Newark and I did get back and it was the Colonnades Apartments. I'd forgot what the first met that but that's where we were staying and but I did get back.

16:16 And I'm going to wind it up finishing but we were I think after that even the program was very protective of us in terms of where when we could leave where we could go and attend the meetings and get him back up to the college. So what do you remember what if if any specific thing sparked the the riots and and what what set it off all of the things that those were the times when Daniel people looking around there was not much success in terms of opportunities. And so I think it said it got to a boiling point and rather than finding resolutions that people took to the streets, right and and that's what happened. I remember time Springfield Avenue B in a certain way because we would always come to Newark to ShopRite.

17:16 New and then you would just see all the burned-out buildings and how it has changed the landscape of that trip to Newark and where we're going to shop. So when you look at it now, you know going down Springfield Avenue way into other parts of of Newark. How does it look to you now? Do you see that things are perhaps changing for the better or is it because you have that image of what it was and I don't have that. But but how do you see things now? I see a tremendous and I would think it's positive and just taking that going down Springfield Avenue in which you now have shopping centers where you have new housing where I see play crowns and those kinds of things that could have brought about that change. I would hope that that we would continue to work in that that that America in PA

18:16 So very strongly that the kinds of changes that can bring a bounce because people work together and then they're try to meet the needs and

18:26 Of the families in the children were there and you mentioned that that summer 67 you write a program in earth science program for teachers. So by that time you were working as a teacher Jersey. Yes. I had been hard that year before in 66 as a teacher in Union Township. And so the summer of 67 I might apply for the network shop because I was teaching signed right? Just wanted to improve my skills in the area of her signed. How long did you remain a teacher employed with with Union or did you have any other jobs while you're working all the jobs it from starting in two basic skills teacher science teacher department supervisor Community coordinator, and then I guess finally I became a

19:26 I get this. Director and please go to all those kinds of things and in 86. I became a building principal.

19:35 And I'm curious about weather throughout your time and Union, which was a number of years. Did you have any?

19:45 Race issues that came up any civil rights type issues involving yourself for students or anything like that. Well, there were a couple things one. I was the integration that I worked on. I'm a committee of Vauxhall residence in which we were pushing for the integration of the of the school the Jefferson School, which it become like 99% African American and we did push that and that plan for the central six School in the symphony on the central 5 came out of the work that we did back in the early 70s. I guess late 60s early 70s

20:26 Now there was something I think my mom might have mentioned this because it would have been I guess her generation of people but she talks about a sit-in or something that happened at the high school at the high school. There was unrest in this occurred in many high schools. I think across the country and it happened in Union many of the high school students were concerned about the conditions and the situations that they were involved with at the high school and maybe men of their needs not being met and so they all win Jay instead of going to classes that morning and they all went to the cafeteria and it's really upset the administration. I bet it did quite a bit because they did not expect that. There were those of us who were called to come to the high school and I was kept that person you wanted to come and to meet with the stew.

21:26 Find out what their needs and what they wanted as a result of the action and then to get them to to move into in terms of becoming organized so that they could submit I'm to the board of bed into the principal what they really wanted to make their life at the high school and their goals possible. And you mentioned that your I guess most your last job with the district was as it a building prints we started in 86. Did you enjoy that that position did you did you like working as a principal?

22:10 I did and I'm part of it was I'm in that I want to go back to math and there was a principal at mathur who?

22:19 In the back of my mind said if I ever became a prince, but I want to be a principal. I like mrs. Bryant and she knew every kid's she could talk to kids about their schedules. She was told such a personal kind of person with a time for families that that's the kind of person. I wanted to be as a principal right? And so when I had the opportunity after being denied such positions a couple times right at times but having that opportunity, I just wanted to be the best kind of a person to help kids be the best that they could be

22:59 And I think one of the things that that you've been saying is how education you know shaped who you are your experiences at Mather, you know, when you graduated in and the different programs that you are involved in and I know something else that can kind of shape who we are is is our past and our history. So I'm wondering do you know where your ancestors come from? I cannot tell you exactly but many of the families along the east coast came from West Africa or her I would have assumed that that's where our family came from laugh. Have you ever been to West Africa had the opportunity to go to West Africa?

23:52 Into

23:54 Connor Gambia ran to the castles in to see those doors of no return and is always impacted mean to say through those doors came someone who in some way might have been connected with me. And so that had a real special meaning when I'm when I visited I felt the same way when I went to to Ghana when I was in college because I was in those rooms inside the door of no return and I think about like the strength of those who survived the Middle Passage and that that my ancestor way way way back then is someone who made it across tells me that you know through my veins flow this Incredible strength.

24:54 And in so what what do I have to fear or complain about or think that I can accomplish because I know that's where I came from and that's that's really really powerful. I really really asked do you do you have a sense of a faith? Do you think Faith also can kind of shape who you are or has shaped who you are definitely faith has a shape in the end that phase where his uniform is early years in terms of my working, you know, when the church and being a part of it, but also I'm going to the kinds of schools are all church-based School are both as I'm a college student and in high school and sold I have that strong belief that there's a higher being and God has made a difference in terms of my life and what I've been able to accomplish because there were times when done

25:54 It was very challenging but somewhere the strength came for me to face. Whatever those challenges were in here. I am today 73, I'm glad that is something that you felt because I think that because of that you've instilled that and me and Mark and and I and that's been so important and I remember that when we were waiting for our bar exam results 2 years ago and my friends who perhaps didn't have the same sense of Faith perhaps in and we're so worried and so scared and I just know that the strength that I had, you know, I said, it's already been done. It's already been taken care of him and I don't know how you can get through life without that. So thank you for teaching me that as well. One. Other thing I wanted to ask you is do you know David and I we've been married like four years four and a half years now. Do you have any advice for us specifically or for you?

26:54 Couples in general, you know is just deal with relationships and marriage and moving forward.

27:03 All right, you know as we've kind of talked about things over the many years is that time there has to be that mutual respect for each other and I would just hope that you two will continue that end in a marriage is a lot of giving Tay and hand but if you go in this equal partners and be able to build on the strength of each other that I you know, I have no doubt that this will not make that and assess a very successful relationship and always when there were some children always remember that time you need to always have that I kind of home where they always feel that dumb that you were there. You're supporting them and you only want the best for them and you're going to provide that well, I remember you probably told me this when I was about thirteen or fourteen, but I remembered you saying that and we're probably talking in terms of

28:03 Boyfriend girlfriend type relationships, but I remember you saying that you should never be in a relationship with someone where you're giving more of yourself and stand to lose more of yourself than the other person is willing to give and then to Toulouse at times and that I just want you to know that that has stayed with me and when I end up being an unofficial psychologist for my friends, I passed that advice on to them too so that definitely lives on but I think that's so whether it's a you know, a girl girlfriend and boyfriend husband wife or just two friends. I think you really have to look at what you're you know what you're giving and and so thank you for for that lesson as well. It's a boy. That's a keeper. That's a really good.

28:49 Do you have any regrets about your life as you as you look back over the past 73 years and there's some things that I probably would have done differently if I had that opportunity to do with me, but I tried to pass and you to move past those. I think the one regret is losing my son in the mic. I think that you don't expect you to go before your children go away. And so that that will has been something that is a few note that I feel strongly about. But other than that I've taken I try to take all of those things that are nouns and maybe I would have done differently and say I can't dwell on those cuz I just have to move on from this day because I can't change any of those things are those decisions were made at that time, and I'm in this place at this time, and I just have to keep me

29:49 Hang on and saying right. I just give me the strength to keep doing this and that everything that that's happened in the past and those past decisions and whatever they are have combined to bring you to this point, you know, you don't know if you change something here and and something it cuz remember you telling me about when you were getting ready to go to college that you were planning to go to hand write study nursing. That was a it was funny, but I can't remember exactly how I happened been accepted at Hampton and it was so weak in that we're getting ready to get right. We're going to be going my fox going to be taking me up and we had this new pastor who would come and he was a graduate of Claflin and he convince my parents that rather than spending of money and taking her all way to Virginia, then let's take her down to see Claflin.

30:46 And that's where the big change came and I think had I not gone to Claflin. I would probably not have been in education to her this class and didn't have a nursing program for her. So I majored in sign right where I am and that's how I got to be. So I guess that was all part of God's plan room because then you wouldn't have met Charles. Who is your that's right. That's right lot of children and grandchildren things would have been different. I think that was part of the part of the plan and plan. Is there anything that you would like to tell me for him? Always wanted to tell me but never did I V if I do have something like that, I'm not going to tell you I will choose another time to do that, but I can't think of anything at this point that maybe I should have should know you probably, you know, within some years that the time that might come fly come to light.

31:46 And do you think that your life has been what you expected it to be or what you wanted it to be.

31:57 I was sick. So I mean as I said before the might have been some things that I would but I take where I am now and they said so bad thing where I am, right? All right in spite of my not making certain decisions. So I don't know if there's anything at this point. I look back to say should have done it differently.

32:25 I'm pleased with who I am and what I brought to the table and that's that's what's important. I think at the end of the day that that you do have that piece of mind and be happy with yourself and then spending time with yourself. It's not time alone time with yourself to just say yes, I've done it and I've I've done I've done well and so I just very thankful that that we had this chance to talk to one another in this type of setting and you know, I've heard stories here and stories there, but I'm really really glad that we got to do this and it's something that I'll definitely treasure forever and thank you so much for all you instilled in me and continue to instill in me because I think it it makes me who I am and it makes me continue to strive to to do good things and and thank you and I would just hope that whatever you have gleaned from Memphis that

33:25 I will pass it on to Anthony and to Jerome Jerome Adams.

33:32 I will.