Sylverna Ford and Carlissa N. Graham

Recorded November 14, 2007 Archived November 14, 2007 38:50 minutes
0:00 / 0:00
Id: GRS000672


Carlissia, 21, interviews Sylverna, 57, about growing up in Virginia and Baltimore during the Civil Rights Movement, her interest in libraries, becoming Dean of Libraries at the University of Memphis, and the problems facing African Americans today.

Subject Log / Time Code

As a child, not aware of racism. As an adult, recognized the problem.
Schools closed for five years in Virginia, they moved to Baltimore.
Grandfather voting, and his influence.
Career as librarian.
Lots of wounds in African American communities today.
Her legacy, an obligation to give back.


  • Sylverna Ford
  • Carlissa N. Graham

Venue / Recording Kit



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00:01 And yeah, you feel like you need to move to the side of it or something cuz I see a gram age 21 today is November 14th 2007. I'm at the University of Memphis and I'm a student where dr. Ford is the dean of libraries.

00:21 Silver in a Ford. I'm 57 years old today is the 14th of November 2007. We are on the University of Memphis campus and Carly Sierra is a senior at the University of Memphis.

00:38 Eye doctor for it. I understand that you were born in Southern Virginia family history and Southern Virginia. My both of my parents are from Virginia. They grew up in neighborhoods about 60 miles apart. My mother is from the Farmville area. Actually, the little town is his name Prospect but farm bill is what most people know Mom and my father is from Cumberland, Virginia. So I spent a lot of my growing up years in Virginia Southern Virginia, very rule area a lot of farms and Country. I know you were very very young age to remove. That's right. We moved to Baltimore when I was too and so I grew up in Baltimore Baltimore versus going back to visit. Was there any racial tensions then?

01:35 Remember, you know as a child, I wasn't really aware of a whole lot of it. But as an adult looking back, I realize that it was a problem my parents. We we travel back and forth between Baltimore Virginia regularly and one of the things that they used to do was wait until it was close to our bedtime. They will put us in our pajamas and then they make a bed in the back of the car. And that's how we travel to Virginia most of the time one of the things that I knew it was an adventure for us. But as I got older, I realize that the reason we travel that way was because there was nowhere for us to stop along the way but I didn't know that as a child. We were just having fun camping out in the back of the car and having a good time. So yes, there were racial issues and intentions are I do remember as a child my grandfather?

02:35 Talking about the poll taxes and the problems that he had trying to vote in Virginia. He was a landowner. He was also a Pullman Porter on the trains so that he was able to pass the tests the various tests that were concocted to try to keep black folks from voting during those times. But a lot of the people in the neighborhood were not able to pass the test and we're not able to vote. So I do remember that but I was so young that I didn't really understand what was going on at the time. So you heard stories their grandfather bowling and how he was very well respected in the community about your grandmother. Do you remember her? Oh, yeah. I remember my grandmother. My grandmother was a very quiet person who

03:26 Didn't make waves probably because my grandfather made so many but she wouldn't everyone loved her when she was a one of the dear grandmother's of the neighborhood and I said neighborhood Loosely because the houses were miles and miles apart. So your nearest neighbor might be three miles up the road, but it was still in the neighborhood now that time I know in the South we were very much so I created and we had deep racial tensions and up north they were tensions but it wasn't as bad as in the South was going to school at the elementary students like for you

04:04 I went to an all black.

04:07 Elementary School

04:09 I actually actually lived in an all-black neighborhood. But again, it's one of those things that I didn't realize until I was older that we were living in an all-black neighborhood. We would get the trolley to go shopping and that was when we encountered whites when we went downtown to go shopping but in our in our particular neighborhood, we work that everyone is black the doctors the teachers everyone lived right there together in in our neighborhood the benefit being around all those African Americans in being sheltered from the racial tensions that was going on at the time.

04:50 Would you like to be well, I think it allowed us to grow up as children and to deal with things that you'll drink should deal with me. Certainly we learned about it as we got older and could understand. I was in junior high school when dr. King was assassinated and I do remember that vividly and remember the the aftermath of that that the destruction in the city and the detention in the city at the time now, if you remember that the king assassination, I'm assuming that you guys had TV and the media brought the Civil Rights Movement to Baltimore. What was he like after he was assassinated the city was very tense the the neighborhood where we lived actually suffered a lot of Destruction because we were

05:50 REI close to one of the little local shopping districts about two blocks away from our house. You could walk down the street down the street and then there were like two blocks of shops and all of those shops were destroyed as a result of the rioting that occurred after his death. What did it take to get back to where it was Cano some cities. They read it together cuz anything looting and all that was necessary. What did it take your seat to get back to two people certain parts of a Baltimore. I can't say really ever really fully recuperated like a lot of the stores that were destroyed either never reopened or open someplace else. So as far as the commercial development is concerned a lot of those neighborhoods just began to go down.

06:49 After that, so this is a direct result of what we see now.

06:53 Baltimore Wiki some of these cities some of it yes. Yes, some of they actually some of the the revitalization that's going on now is happening and some of the neighborhoods that were destroyed during the rioting after. Dr. King's death was your family directly impacted by the civil rights movement or opposite of the king's movement in his death.

07:16 My family was was impacted by the Civil Rights Movement a number of ways one that that certainly is very near and dear to my heart. We were living in Virginia as a said you might my grandparents were in Virginia, but we were living in Virginia in 1959 in Prince Edward County with the schools closed.

07:43 I went to the 4th grade in Virginia at the end of that school year, they closed the schools because they didn't want to integrate.

07:51 The school stay closed for 5 years, and you're forced to go to a school in Baltimore or where we went. We moved back to Baltimore the following year. My older brother. My older sister went back to Baltimore.

08:05 My my sister lived with a friend of fat family friends so that she could go to school my older brother live with my father because he was still working in Baltimore my younger brother and I stayed in Virginia with my mother.

08:23 Because she was there because she was caring for her mother who is sick. So I missed a year out of school during that time.

08:34 I understood that the schools had closed. I understood that the white students were still going to school because they open a lot of private academies for the white students. I understood that a lot of the black kids were moving away in order to to go to the to continue to go to school. I understood because during that time my mother belong to the NAACP and we will go to meetings with her. So I understood that there were issues between the blacks and the whites. But at nine years old. You know, how much do you understand of that?

09:16 I think mother was a member of NAACP did the n-double-acp or the church in your neighborhood comes together and start schools to educate some students who were displaced Ashley. What happened was some of the parents who were more educated began to have classrooms in their homes now of my one of my aunts

09:39 Actually had one of the schools that a lot of the kids went to I was fortunate in that my mother was a schoolteacher before she and my dad got married. She taught me at home. So even though I missed that year out of school and we came back to Baltimore. I was ahead of the other fifth grade fourth graders because I was I was due to go back to fourth grade, but I spent three weeks in fourth grade and then they skipped me the fifth grade. So I ended up being back on my right grade, but a lot of people were actually out of school for those five years. I have cousins who were out of school for those five years and never went back to school so that they never got there at all.

10:28 Do you think that affected their income status or absolutely when you go to the area where they're beginning to come back now before a long time Prince Edward County was a very depressed Community because of the number of young people who were uneducated mean they closed the schools of some of these kids went first and second grade. So new you open after 5 years.

10:58 How do you put a 12 year old in first grade that just couldn't happen. So a lot of them never went back to school. Do you remember when the integration of those School safe place?

11:10 They reopened in

11:13 64 I believe I don't think it was 1964 that the schools reopened that you like tell schools or did you go to another at all after me I was on I was in Baltimore then we never went we never lived in Virginia again, but when the schools reopened they did open as integrated schools anything significant happen.

11:40 Oh.

11:42 I remember the I do remember separate bathrooms black and white bathrooms. I remember that I do remember black and white water fountains.

11:57 Did you participate in in in March white when you came of age or an incident or any kind of protest? Not really? I was just old enough to understand what was going on but not old enough for my mother to allow me to go to participate in the March and then my older brother and sister did participate in some they are three and four years older than I am so they were allowed to go off at march sometimes but I didn't get a chance to be in any of the marches was the Black Panthers anywhere in your neighborhood part of the state. They were not visibly in our neighborhood. We certainly knew of them and followed what they were doing around the country, but I am not aware of a black panther unit existing in our area, although they may have so the actual media paid a large.

12:57 Heart and you've been aware of the Civil Rights Museum movement. It did it. Did you doing that. I can remember watching television and watch what was going on and it was something it was a it was a big thing to at the end of the day sit down in front of the television to watch the news to see what new development that come about because it was a time when a lot of things were happening and people were very interested to see what was going on its way to your grandfather. He he he will I be willing to hear about it all the time when loading was both frightening and almost impossible for African Americans. I know in the South those who voted oftentimes face harsh repercussions that your father grandfather experience in those backlashes far as threats in his life.

13:50 Estimate to my knowledge he was not threatened. But again, you know, my family was real good at protecting us. So it's possible that that there were threats as far as I know. He was not threatened. He was well-respected in the neighborhood by blacks and whites. As I said, he was a Pullman Porter and Pullman Porters were

14:13 Really looked up to during that time. So he was kind of special in the neighborhood already and the fact that he was able to vote just added to that.

14:29 It's an interesting time does his legacy or his status as it reflects on you? Is it a part of life that has impacted the way you for what you've done in your life?

14:41 Certainly the standards that he set for himself and his children were passed on to us my mother and my father held very high standards for us. There was a very clear expectation that we were all going to go to college that we were all going to become a gainfully employed that we were going to contribute to the best of our abilities to society and that we were going to try to do the right thing and that's something that I grew up knowing and when my brothers and my sister and I get together now we talked about the fact that

15:22 We knew that there was never a question that once you graduated from high school you go to college. That's the next thing if you're still breathing you go to college and look now at young people who we've lost that and we said we've lost the idea that high school is not enough know whether you go to college or you go to vocational school. Are you go somewhere you need to be doing something to do to prepare yourself to be a contributing part of society and that's not necessarily built into the fiber. Any more reason to disconnect happen between knowing that you had to do to go to education to be better yourself and be a part of society and basically what we're doing now,

16:09 Just some extent my take on it. It is that they're a couple of things that have gone wrong. I think as the as the middle black middle-class forgotten larger. There has been a real widening of the gap between the Haves and the Have Nots so that now those of us who financially can live somewhere can be somewhere else actually do we move to other neighborhoods which means that we leave all the poor people together in the neighborhood and the examples that they see our other poor people I grew up in a poor neighborhood, but I grew up in the same neighborhood where the teachers were the doctors the dentist the black community was the black community. So I had good role models that I saw a going to work everyday. I knew that this was the

17:09 What life was about you go into neighborhoods today? And in the poor neighborhoods you have poor people living together. So they see other poor people not going to work not contributing and those of the models that they

17:25 Strive to a bee if you mean well, I think the other thing that has happened, is that as a middle class.

17:34 For Better or For Worse, we made some choices that say I'm going to make it easier for my child. I am not going to put the same kind of Demands or my child that my parents put on me. So what that means is instead of teaching our children how to

17:55 Survive how to strive how to have their own goals and how to go after them.

18:03 We hand them a lot of things and we make it too easy so that they really don't appreciate what they get and they don't understand that you don't get things by just because you breathe you get things because you work for them and you achieve

18:20 So I think that it's those things have come together and in and worked against us. The other thing of course is the media the examples that young people see in the media all too often are the drug dealers that the crooks that are robbing people any of the the the scam artists and so the message that that we're sending to young people is the way to achieve the way to 220 choir things is to do it illegally entered a relationship, right exactly exactly. So they take all of this in and we're paying the price for those messages plus and images on the tube as you will back in the old days of the Civil Rights era that directly impacted you guys because I'm a weird and hate about what we see now. We see the degradation. We see the bling blings ED drugs UCI.

19:20 And it direct you can see the impact is having as I can into so it directly impacted your Generations. I will tell you that growing up. We had a television but there were certain times when we watched television. We didn't get parked in front of the television. They were certain times we watch and they were certain programs that we watched and all the time. The television was off. We were reading we were playing games might my family is as big on board games. We were playing Scrabble Monopoly or something of that nature or we go outside playing and I think that that

20:01 Gave us a whole different fiber a whole different appreciation for Life family community Society. If you will meet all different pictures. Usually when we were watching television, we were watching something either. It was the news or something educational or it was a family-oriented program that we were watching.

20:33 That's a good question because I hadn't really had one time. I thought I wanted to be a teacher but that never really quite Jill old. I thought one time I wanted to be a nurse but then I determined that if I had if I were a nurse at have to be around sick people all the time and want to do that. I really didn't come to grips with my career until I was in college when the fact that I enjoyed working in libraries and could be a librarian became a reality for me when I get a dean of libraries. How's it feel? Good. I came into Library. I'll tell you I came in the libraries at the age of 15. As I said, I have an older brother and sister both of them had jobs. So it's 15 I decided that I needed a job.

21:28 No one would hire me at 15, but I wandered into the public library one day and found the personnel office and they hired me.

21:39 So I started working in the public library in Baltimore when I was 15.

21:45 I work there until I graduated from high school after school and on weekends and then once I got in college somehow it worked out the all of my summer jobs were in some Library somewhere and the year between my Junior and senior years. I worked in the Public Health Service Hospital in Baltimore and the librarian there spent the summer trying to convince me that I should be a librarian everyday I go to work and she say you should consider this. You really should give some thought to being a librarian. I don't know. I don't want to be a librarian at that point. I was bent on being a textile designer.

22:27 On my undergraduate degree is in in textile science, and I was that was my focus, but I went back to school that year and when I graduated

22:42 Couple of things have changed in my life. I was about to be married. I had determined that if I wanted to be successful in the textile industry at that point. I would either have to move to New York or South Carolina and neither one of them seem attractive to me and the my then fiance still had another year to go in school. So

23:09 I explored Library school and I applied and I was accepted so that September I started Library school and

23:21 It was a good Discovery, even though I can't say it was a good choice because I'm not sure I made the choice but it happened to me and it worked out. Well, it's been good and I started off as a reference librarian and I've had different jobs all through my career increasing responsibility in each position until finally I became a dean of libraries. My first steamship was in, Minnesota.

23:51 At mint Minnesota state university-mankato and after I got as cold as I could be in Minnesota and decided it was time to find someplace warmer. Memphis fit the bill as far as the human culture.

24:10 Minnesota Statewide has a population of about 3%

24:16 And most of that 3% is concentrated in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul area. Once you get outside of the Minneapolis-Saint Paul area. You don't see many African-Americans in Minnesota. I happened to be in a community that was 90 miles south of the Twin Cities. So they weren't many of us in that community. So it's

24:41 It's a very white State and is highly Lutheran state. So in Minnesota when they talk about diversity, they mean you're not a Lutheran and you're not why I never said it was a good place to live in and if the weather weren't so severe I might have stayed but I just couldn't put up with that weather anymore. Did you encounter interested in yourself while working Minnesota being that the community was as was but I did encounter a lot of surprised because people were never expecting for me to be the person in charge when they walked into the library and ask who's in charge.

25:32 And they were escorted to my office. They were always surprised to see me sitting behind the desk.

25:38 But they got over it while it viewed as such a racial state of situation City. How is it working here?

25:49 Interesting me enough. I still get the same reaction sometimes here in Memphis and people are really surprised when I say, I'm the dean of libraries. In fact most of the time when I meet people now, I just say I work at the library and later in the conversation. It will come out where what I do with the library and they're always surprised when they find out that I'm the dean of libraries. So it's some things never change no matter where you are geographically. Do you think the universe has adequate representation of the African American archives our history is going on here in library. I think it's getting better. I think people are more conscious of the importance of including the African American involvement on the campus.

26:41 I don't think that there has been historically there was not a very conscious effort to collect that piece of the University's history as it was not a conscious effort to to collect that piece of American history for a long time, but certainly as the university has become more diverse as people across the campus have become more aware of the importance of including the history of African-Americans as a part of the University that story is being Incorporated. I recall that when the the Heritage room first opened and I I saw that exhibit there was not much of an African-American story to be told they are now so that is being addressed and we we have some material in the archives that appropriately begin to address that story but not as

27:41 I guess we should have probably and we do need to be more deliberate and in collecting that part of the story of the University.

27:51 There's a criticism that African-Americans don't read or they don't read enough and you can work in a lab rats and she's 15 years old you had time to observe this hurt, but it's how you feel about that criticism.

28:02 I think again that's one of those broad-brush statements that gets put out there and gets repeated over and over again so that people begin to believe it. Certainly I think there are black people who don't read. I'm sure there are white people who don't read the reading has lost a lot in recent years simply because

28:30 One we buy Into the Mystic people are not reading into we don't encourage reading.

28:40 But if we didn't we're dying we wouldn't have so many bookstores thriving in the communities now and there are a lot of bookstores around and they are doing good business. I'm so the mystic black people don't read is just that a myth. There are an awful lot of black people who still read and certainly more need to be reading and we need to be teaching our children at a younger age. The importance of reading is that that I don't think will ever change but

29:15 Reading is alive. And well, you better University of Memphis for 7 years now. Correct hasn't have you seen any changes since we first got here and now

29:26 By the way, she'll climate I have I I think that the the sensitivity has improved on campus. I think the openness has improved on campus and that there is a more welcoming atmosphere on campus both for African-American students and for African-American faculty and staff. I think the university is committed to making the university more welcoming and in based on my experience in the community. That's real good because there are an awful lot of people black people in this community who remember when they want it to come to the University of Memphis and they were not allowed to come so we do have a lot of

30:18 Wound wounds that need to be healed in the community. So I think it's really good that the university is reaching out to the community and making efforts to attract black students black faculty and staff and to make us all feel welcome on this Campus of that. You think the what the think what we're doing on campus for sex in the neighborhood.

30:44 To some extent. Yes. It's it's slow. I think we are we are making strides. I do moving around the black community. I do hear some comments that you know, the university is making improvements. It's a lot better now than it was when I was growing up. I hear people saying certainly I think we still have work we have work to do in we still have a long way to go is Memphis all the city you live in in the south.

31:16 Yeah, basically as an adult certainly this is the first my first southern city as an adult. So the move was was the cousin shot moving down here. Did you expect to have KKK or any

31:31 Notions that we still have this racial divide

31:40 That's a hard statement. I've been hard question to address because I think as a black woman growing up in this country.

31:48 I have learned to never be too comfortable to never assume that the issues of racism have been totally eradicated because it does rear its ugly head at the most unexpected times.

32:05 I think that as a nation we still have a long way to go and it doesn't matter whether in the North or the South there are still issues that we need to address and it's going to be it's going to take a long time for us to address our racial issues.

32:22 His speaking of nationally there's a rise of I guess you say noose incidents what we've experienced over the last couple of months or last couple years or year actually a lot of situations where you found what you think about that. Do you think we need to come up and get young people should rise and take up arms those big. I think the young people certainly need to be aware and be conscious and in part of the reason I think that these incidences are happening is that we have forgotten to teach our history we have forgotten to make sure that our young people understand the significance of the Civil Rights battles and the the the the wars that we fought in the in the 1960 fifties and sixties so that we have young people now who are thinking well I go to an integrated school and it's always been that way and everything is fine and in the end there are no problems.

33:22 What they don't realize is that yes, you live here in Memphis or or some other large city and your atmosphere in that community may be okay, but they were an awful lot of people still growing up in salt small town America that have small town ideas and small town mentality and that racism is still alive and well in a lot of those small towns and your paths will cross those people at some point. So we all need to be about learning our history and teaching our history not only to our own children but to our community and everyone across this country so that we don't relive that era as the dean of libraries hitting in West Memphis. Do you feel obligated to do so in your position? I do I think I I feel like I have an obligation as the dean of libraries. I mean, I am one of the black administrator

34:22 On campus and I take that role seriously. I think I have a responsibility first to try to be as visible as I can be on campus Because I think it's important that black students know that there are black administrators on campus. I think that it's important that I be a positive role model not only on campus but also in the community because when I move about in the community and people find out I work at the University of Memphis, I represent the universities of them. So I have to take that seriously and I have to see part of my role is helping to prepare the Next Generation to deal with the issues that they're going to have to deal with some that will be different from the issues that I had to deal with the summoning to be very similar to what I dealt with growing up as a black female.

35:16 We feel that's the kind of disconnection between like your error when you see somebody one person another city can hurt you felt the connection to the correct. There was a communal sense of feeling for the entire Community don't have that anymore people are so separate has separated and we got so we don't feel obligated to each other. How do you feel like we should get that back?

35:41 It's going to take time. I think there are roles that churches can play in that certainly in the black community. The church is still a very strong force and the church's have an opportunity to to build community families. Certainly. I think have a role to play and the building that sense of caring for my fellow man has to begin at home. Unfortunately. No, you see some families now that are disconnected as families. They don't even look out for each other in their household. So we've got to get back to caring for each other at the Homefront first and then in the community and in the the society at large, I think that part of what's happening is people will have people trying to protect themselves.

36:41 We've lost a lot of humanity that we had for years. So people back away rather than than reaching out to their their fellow neighbor. Whatever. I remember growing up that we live in the kind of neighborhood that if I did something down the street then Miss Daisy who live down the street with spank my behind and send me home and my mother was spank me again for making the daisy spank me out in the street. Well that doesn't happen anymore that had a decided of impact on what I did when I was away from home knowing that everybody in the neighborhood was watching me now people are afraid to say anything to other people's children because they don't know how the parents are going to react and that's sad because it's real hard to raise children by yourself in this day and age, you need all the hands and all the eyes involved, but we've gotten away from it and finally,

37:41 What is Doctor Savannah for Lexie what she wants to leave behind?

37:47 I hope that I leave behind the idea that we all have an obligation to give back to our community. We all have an obligation to use the talents and skills that are given to us naturally to not only improve ourselves but to improve our communities to improve the situation for the Next Generation. I think I hope that that I will leave behind the sense that life is about more than looking out for myself life is about

38:32 Doing as much as I can to leave this world a better place than it was when I got here.

38:41 If I can do that, then I think I will have done with God sent me here to do.