Marilyn Conner and Pan Awsumb

Recorded October 7, 2019 Archived November 5, 2019 39:28 minutes
0:00 / 0:00
Id: mby019370


Friends Marilyn Conner (74) and Pan Awsumb (77) describe formative moments from their childhoods and how these moments informed their "life missions" and current work.

Subject Log / Time Code

PA talks about her family's origins in New York City.
ML remembers growing up on a cotton plantation which her father owned in Arkansas.
PA talks about her childhood and public school education.
MC talks about her caretaker, an African American woman, who worked for her parents. MC reflects on her caretaker's death.
MC remembers going to college and moving to Memphis with her husband.
PA remembers moving to Memphis.
MC remembers teaching at a school with predominantly black students and realizing the way black people were treated "wasn't right."
PA describes her work in Memphis and its impact on her.
PA and MC talk about how they came to work for the Lynching Sites Project in Shelby County.


  • Marilyn Conner
  • Pan Awsumb

Recording Location

Crosstown Concourse

Partnership Type



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00:01 Hi, my name is sorry.

00:08 Hi, my name is Priscilla awesome. But everybody calls me pan within an I'm 77 years old as of last month. Today's date is Monday, October 7th, 2019. We're in Memphis Tennessee. The name of my interview partner is Marilyn Conner and she is my friend and colleague.

00:35 Hi, my name is Marilyn Conner. I am 74 years old as of last month. Today's date is Monday, October 7th 2019. We are in Memphis Tennessee. My interview partner is pan awsumb.

00:54 With your friends and colleagues

01:00 We are part of the lynching sites project of Memphis.

01:06 Which was founded about 5 years ago now and is based on the work of Bryan Stevenson who has challenged people across the country communities across the country to memorialize and to honor lynching victims in their respective counties and both Marilyn and I have been working on this together for several years now and we decided to do this and to know each other more deeply because this project from me has impacted and clarified my life's purpose and meaning

01:53 On so we're doing what we can I'm doing what I can to fulfill then lived into my life purpose.

02:04 Marilyn how about you?

02:08 I believe I am too. I have I have been told and have it is felt very true.

02:19 About my life's purpose and and my work in the lynching sites project has has deepened my thoughts about it has increased my knowledge about it has given me hope that

02:37 Like every human I'd like to I'd like to do something while I'm here. I'd like to do something that might help that might help somebody.

02:47 Not even anyting grandiose pick something to help somebody while I'm here. We were both talking the other day about not wanting to exclusively play bridge golf or take take days just to do self centered things. But that Community really needs to come together Co lesson we need to be part of high need to be part of that community.

03:21 And we need to help our community grow. And Memphis is my adopted Community going back to early years. I come from New York City and my mother comes from New York City and we come from very highly educated families kind of what you would call the WASP be Blue Bloods. My parents were ivy league graduates. Both their parents on my mother's and father's sides were ivy league graduates.

03:55 And they chose to live and stay in the north and I grew up on Long Island and went to a public high school. I had been born in Manhattan and lived in the at where my mother grew up.

04:10 My mother grew up in a very

04:13 Rigid and difficult situation. She had three brothers. They all died from various things. She was left quite alone. When this was in the early 1940s. My father went into the service and she had me and her parents her father got dementia that she had to put him in a home her mother died and her father died shortly thereafter and there she was with me.

04:45 You on the other hand on the other hand. I am I am place where I was born. I was born right here in this is Tennessee, but that's because it was the closest big hospital. I grew up in the Arkansas Delta. My father was a prominent became a prominent and the fluid cotton farmer and Northeast, Arkansas.

05:15 As far as education and in my father's generation, he was the only one of nine children that did not get to go to college and he did not because of the families.

05:27 Financial situation that also reflected my grandfather. My grandfather had the same thing. He ended up taking care of his brothers sending both of his brothers to medical school at Vanderbilt and talkin to Pam one of my great uncle's was at Ellis Island in turning in 1903. So he was up in New York and not in, Tennessee.

05:58 My mother grew up in Mississippi. My mother was the first person in her family who had the opportunity to go to college. So I'll get my mother and my father and my father's family played the violin.

06:17 My mother's family my grandfather played the title. So that was the two difference the two differences in the group. But I grew up and in a house full of books and I and a big library and I've always wondered where this cotton farmer about all these books. I wonder where did I hate wait, we had we had Chinese poetry. We had rods and third of rise and fall of the Third Reich. We had gandi gandi gandi disciple. We had all kinds of books in her house and I was at 56th Mile and I and I stayed up in the library upstairs Andrea because I had four older brothers.

07:09 So they'll protection very protective of me. I was always a first girl after 4 boys and it was my mother my parents waited seven years and then I came and had my sister and self-defense. So I would be able to walk and talk without help.

07:32 I had a brother and a sister both younger. So as the oldest and my parents moved out from Manhattan to Long Island on the North Shore and that's where I grew up and went to public high school, which is formative to me because it gave me a commitment to public education. It was an excellent school. I didn't know how really find it was at the time, but it was and that has stayed with me is of reflected back and and realize the benefits of that kind of Education.

08:06 Another thing that impacted me and and has led me to understand other people's struggles Moore's that hears this wonderfully educated people from my great-uncle being the governor of Massachusetts on down to all the stuff but my mother struggled she came from a very authoritarian household. She always want to be an actress and it's a time. She acted Off Broadway with Frank Lovejoy in basil Rathbone, if you've ever heard of him and loved theater and loved acting but that was not a quote suitable profession for young woman at that time really virtually. Nothing was for her except to

08:51 Get a good education married have children support my father her husband be upstanding and I think she had such an inner struggle going with that.

09:03 That she got caught up in a very she's a very social person and she got caught up drinking.

09:11 And gradually that strongly impacted me and strongly impacted our family my dad travel quite a bit. He was a Management Consultant and so he was gone, you know, maybe one week or two weeks a month during the week and would come home be big celebration when it came home, but my Mount mom then had us to raise the three of us to race and I think I was rather handful to her. So I loved her very much and I felt that love in return.

09:50 So, how about you? Did you have any?

09:55 Struggles or I had Starbucks cuz again, I was the first girl but my biggest struggle was that.

10:06 Was the person that took care of me when I was a child. She worked for my mother and father. She worked in her house her husband worked on the farm with a tenant farmer and live right across the road out in the country from our house and she was the deer heart of my life and she is one of the main reasons I didn't see inside the project because she has been with a figure in the early life who nurtured me and took care of me first words I ever said,

10:39 I her husband sandwich Jack and is he walked across our front yard back to his Senate house? She would greet him everyday at noon. I would be sitting on the front porch in her lap and I would say hi Jack the very first words I ever said for her husband's name and she was very dear to me. She died of cancer when I was seven and I attended her funeral and it was traumatic for me to to lose someone like her and because

11:15 It was traumatic because she was very dear to me and also because I came neither one of my parents were very emotional at all. They were beer.

11:28 Self contained and I had only gone to the lights nice white Methodist funerals where you weren't supposed to cry and I went to a black funeral and I lost it completely completely at that and that made a great impact on my life several other things. I would ride with my daddy and the car all over hit by this time. I had a large farm and

11:55 It's a small child. I rode with him all over the farm and saw a lot of the people and Sohail the different cultures worked for different people lived and

12:08 I never saw either one of my parents do anything mean or say anything mean but it was obvious that there was a huge huge huge difference at that point in time in the state of Arkansas on a farm of the bay people's economic wealth and prosperity also.

12:34 I was sixteen this was this is the second time that I really got to be close to my father that I drove on that. He taught me how to drive when summer and well the summer before I turn 16 and I rode with him in the feels all over the farm. So I was a safe place for me to drive on the highway or even a gravel road, but I learned a lot from about him and I learned a lot about what he did and who we lost those are wonderful memories that those are Treasures.

13:11 I remember my mom doing a great deal of volunteer work and it was very important to her to stay involved in theater. So she was involved in a local group called The Clan players and actually acted and directed play at word bound and it was a great treat for us to come to we never came to the place themselves, but we came to the dress rehearsal. She was very involved in Woman's Club. She did the things that people socially active in that at that time did and she I think she really enjoyed them and didn't well, but I just don't think she was complete and part of her struggle. I think was that her father before he died had had hardening of the arteries and so the money he had amassed as a lawyer and as the Director of the commission for

14:11 Prevention advice in New York City, he lost his his money and he lost his position in and then she married my dad who would not work for the family company his family, which was a business a manufacturing business in Western, Massachusetts that he had grown up with over ultimately totally 150 years, and she and my dad broke out on their own. That was one thing that was a positive. We always felt poorer than people around us at our house out on Long Island was a little bit smaller. We shopped it John's bargain-basement for close. My mom did was not proud of that fact that she didn't feel like she could take us to Lord & Taylor in Manhasset and buy things.

15:10 We washed out. I remember in junior high school washing out socks because they were the certain kind of socks that kids wore. This bobby socks and I only had two pairs. So one pair to wear one pair to wash I think they gave me something of an internal understanding of people who had less and how they felt.

15:33 I think also I developed a serious spinal curvature about 90u00b0 when I was about twelve and was taunted some even by my younger sister a little bit. Not much. I think she understood more but by some friends particularly guys particular if we were doing sports are had anything where there was a bathing suit or something involved where my back would show and I remember my mom being very I remember her lovingly think very protective. So one Primetime came, she had squirreled away silver dollars and she would take me to buy the special dress that was music to the prom and and a strap. My father would say that is not necessary. She can just go and in my mother would say no she can't she's going to have this since she's going to have it fixed. So she feels good about how she looks so remember that

16:33 I went away to college. I went to State University of New York at Potsdam to study music was a total dilettante, even though I'd sung and played timpani through high school and all but I changed my major and discovered English and teaching and absolutely loved it and became infected teacher.

16:57 I high school English teacher back on Long Island.

17:03 I absolutely love doing that. And you also I remember your saying yes. I'm actually still stayed in Arkansas. I went to a liberal arts college in Arkansas and I all through high school I had

17:19 That one of these brains, I don't know that I've ever equal a English and math pretty even but the English was always easy and the English was more appropriate, but I went to this liberal arts college and majored in English and stuff. So I had to the after I graduated from college and married and moved to Memphis, Tennessee. I taught secondary English and that I can do both.

17:50 But and you know broke some and

17:54 What do I did some poetry never published never published internal so we can move into Memphis Tennessee we sup we can so I moved to Memphis Tennessee. I married my childhood sweetheart. My daughter always ask me why I married her daddy because the marriage had did not last and my mother told her that I loved him so much that she was not going to stuff. I did marry him and we were together and he was I was he Big Ben in Vietnam and was stationed in Memphis.

18:40 At Millington Naval Air Station Todd helicopter school, and I talked to Junior High School.

18:49 And that's how I ended up in this message which my whole life Memphis what had been the closest town. So it had always been the place to go to plays or good movie or to shop for special things. My mother sewed and did made a lot of my clothes but for special things we came to Memphis had came to Memphis Kicking and Screaming. I hate had lived after I got out of college I lived in the village and that was the time of you knowing that in the middle 60s where life was very full in Greenwich Village Jazz try to live a dual life have fun and party at night and teach during the day so drive out to Long Island to West Hempstead High School and teach

19:40 The I met a guy and 1969 as a result of being a teacher who had been in the Peace Corps with the person who was too soon become my husband and he had kept talking about this guy from Tennessee and I went and please, you know in Eric and arrogance and ignorance of use and I don't know I think that Memphis why met this guy at a party in New York, and we got engaged two weeks later and we got married four months later.

20:11 We've been married 50 years now.

20:14 Something stuck something about us and what we were seeking and yeah, we had our bumps along the way for sure, but it sucks but we moved after we married to Chicago.

20:25 4 year and I became the editor of a social issue magazine for high school students and that was during the time in Chicago of the trial of the Chicago 7 and a Native American people taking over Alcatraz it broaden my horizons incredibly to do research at the University of Chicago and come back and work on writing articles every month downsizing. I didn't write them but I made them readable at a level for high school students.

20:58 And then the magazine is called synopsis and every would come out once a month, then every issue would be devoted to one cost. So it would be Native American rights or or what. We call welfare the welfare system at the time or financial things or War and the few points would be about the problem from a fantastic array of opinions from Spiro Agnew to the Black Panthers.

21:25 And things in between and the second part of the magazine would be devoted to Solutions and I discovered how difficult it was again. It would be from abroad Viewpoint of what those solution should be and will be again very very wide and I discovered have difficult how easy it was to just that once a complain. I want to see bitching my own problems, but not be ready or willing or able to find adequate solution and I found myself thinking about solutions for My Life Solutions there. We stayed there a year and then we moved to London for two years and my husband who's an architect.

22:12 Had a job there and I didn't have a job and I didn't know anyone we lived on an English salary. We were again poor we had no TV we had no radio we had no car and four. We had no mail for more than two months because there was a generalized strike plus it was November and November in London can be pretty dismal and gray and rainy, which it was that year. But I kind of True Grit and not sure quite how but I overcame it and and decided to study ESL and I took a course. I was only American in it for teaching English as a second language and really Thrive doing that but we decided after very careful deliberation to come home after two years. We had thought about becoming British citizens and we realized both of us.

23:12 Do a lot of discussion that we could not have the benefits that ended that

23:23 People born in Britain might have and that we needed to come back and to see firsthand what was happening in our communities and in the United States and so we came back. I thought we were going to be in Memphis a couple months and this is forty five six seven years later. We're in Memphis was difficult at first. Yeah. It was it was hard because I didn't know anybody again. I kept going to places where I didn't know anybody and head fit in and and just started.

24:04 Working at the beach shop shop on Walker Avenue for kids at the University of Memphis. Then I got a job as the trainer social workers for the West 20 counties of Tennessee and my supervisor Margie couser. I'm always indebted to her. She's the first woman supervisor who is black that I had had and I started to look at life in a different frame. I really hadn't been around.

24:40 Black people African American people very much at all, but it change radically seeing how well run at that time. I thought the Department of Human Services. That was call Department of Welfare.

24:55 I was but how frustrated and how overwhelmed and how understaffed and underappreciated the workers were.

25:07 So that was Seminole for me to work there in terms of my life's Mission and Rodney how did teaching and what did you do that affected you that way?

25:20 So here on grown up here at always known that there were things are not equal and things were not but but I accepted the fact when I was in college at the small liberal arts college in Arkansas the first two black students, this is some religious a Methodist School the first two black students were admitted that my senior year in 1967. And then I was the resident assistant in the dorm. They were put in a senior girls during warm-up Forsyth GA mean nothing happened, but but just to be sure it was such a radical thing. So then I married and then if you have relationships with those yes, yes. Yes. Yes, so that was probably my mother my first equal equal tight.

26:12 Relationships with five people and I've been around them my whole life but the cultural overhang was there growing up and in the place my family had in that small town just just because of that. Yeah. Yeah, so it was several years. I may not have you know, I was there, you know when Martin Luther King was killed and I can remember that. I was I knew about Martin Luther King. I had actually my between my Junior and Senior year had been in London been in England all summer the experiment in international living and was prepared by that group on what to say about racism and integration and in that had made me really think a lot more about that.

27:00 That's interesting. Yeah, I know where it is. I've had for send it to people.

27:06 My feelings about it. I had to think about what my feelings were about it and and my feelings personally were why not but

27:17 So. But when Martin Luther King was killed I thought it was off all thought it was I was sad for him, but maybe I was scared.

27:27 That was I was scared that there was going to be riots in Memphis. I was living at in the suburb and North Mrs. It was not until I talk at a black school eight years later and saw the film The Martin Luther King film with the sitting there in the auditorium with with an entirely all my all the students in the schools in the 7th to 12th grade work work by children and that it finally dawned on me what was going on and how I felt about it and what not what I wanted to do about it, but how

28:09 And in and I knew I known always been probably because of my early relationship with the woman that took care of her name was Maddie.

28:23 That

28:28 That it wasn't right that it wasn't right and I needed to do something and that I knew at that point that that black women particularly black women had such strength and knowledge and wisdom always I had always done that but that's when it became apparent at that point when I saw that film and I began as I change careers in and went into business and I remember that when I was working at the welfare department that households were off and headed by black when he can be grandmother. Yes at that time. And that was new to me. I did not know that I had not had any grounding in that and I found myself in positions where off and where I was The Listener in the learner.

29:23 To a great extent but it was very impactful. But I'm remember my mom's service that kind of said you need to be doing something. I still didn't know what it was. So I went to work with the Arts Council is here in Memphis has their assistant director and their grants administrator and we had three grand someone was an arts in the prison program and we brought to the Shelby County penal Farm. That's what it's called at the time the Arts and literature and I started to see dichotomy since complexity send that people could be one thing in the eyes of some people 10 minutes and others.

30:09 And something else in the eyes of other people after working there had two children stayed home for a while and then became the director the assistant director of the world carrot Lancer project, which brought me an opportunity to go to China and to Mexico and to see

30:34 Cultures and cultural differences there and to see the poverty there. We were doing cataract surgery at the time and I was administering the program putting it together and we bring Physicians and nurses to Memphis to train that products project is still going on this more years later and I'm still involved with them and they operated for me I but it brought by cultural understandings some more and kept deepening and deepening through when I became leadership Memphis director years later and

31:11 It was a top-down top program. It's still very active has kept its Community sense to me. I began to see the total inequities in the black white communities and but I began to see that for me life is is very Broad and all and we need to include everybody in it. And my life's Mission has evolved in and that way but it's evolved into bringing Justice and understanding

31:50 The ability to listen

31:53 And two to talk and understand people of all kinds of other cultures and I brought that into leadership Memphis cuz we were treating have any Asians in the program that time or Hispanic people. And so that was an act if I actively sought that out to make it not just this black white thing all the time. I was there total of 13 years when I retired.

32:20 And since retirement I thought don't want to be just sitting around, you know, so certain things have come up one is the lynching site to Eric.

32:30 And I have loved the lynching sites project because of the way that we try to approach what we are doing which is a very sensitive painful difficult task.

32:46 With humility

32:49 And with deep honor

32:52 To everybody involved and it's caused me to peel layers away and to really reflect on what I as a white privilege female.

33:05 Have and don't have what are the things weight? What are ways that I can be of service? And what can can I bring to the table and how can we share it?

33:21 And I know you came to launching sites project because of you our deep commitment to yes, so I had to

33:31 Going going back to my my mother may I have not said that much about my mother. My mother was always not doing it with organizations in the local community. But a lot of individual work with people regardless of color and and my lovely lady that took care of me was my mother's best friend is my mother delivered the same age, and I knew that she she had cancer and

34:03 She would call my Daddy and mother at time. He was very busy prominent had a car that he did all his traveling around and then she would tell him to bring the car home that Maddie's husband had to take her to the doctor and he had to go get a work truck and it was just too bad and I guess that's the way that's the way that went her commitment to people.

34:28 Was amazing. So the whole the whole thing as I lived in Memphis and work mainly with children. I had a scout troop.

34:40 I talked with black teachers the more I was with the more it was normalized and I would just put in two places that I learn about people and quit seeing so much difference.

35:00 And so the similarities

35:03 So besides teaching and Girl Scouts and all this before I did mention science project. I was involved at a nonprofit in Memphis that treated people with

35:23 Very serious health problems and a woman that I work there with and worked teaching GED to her and became her mentoring and black woman a black woman Latonya is her name and she has been an inspiration to me Nettie in my early life and Latonya and highlighter life has been two black women who have shown me what it is to be strong and courageous and kind and everything and do unbelievable things and still still love still love their families, even though their families.

36:04 Our falling apart and having difficult times and yeah and knowing that she doesn't know where some of her family came from. Oh my goodness sakes but she still helps she still helps but she has good boundaries. Anyway your life meaning if you stated in one set out to upload pay for car to up with not. Just African-American, but I've been in Memphis, Tennessee. So that's the main group and mine has been this interrelatedness of everybody with each other and interdependence of all people.

36:44 And all of us with the Earth and with nature because there's Hoegaarden side. Talk about but there's an earth Mission side that is operant in my life too. And in addition to the launching sites project Micah has become Memphis Interfaith Coalition for action and hope our church is involved with that and so education Equity bringing equity in education in Intercultural matters and economically.

37:16 How can I build a healthy country and healthy people and we're not there but

37:26 True working together. I'm really happy to know you. I'm happy to know other people and lynching sites project.

37:35 It takes time. It takes times. It's not a quick food. No, no quick fix. My life is not a good thing in life is messy community building a learned that leadership Memphis eyes really messy business and we might also often be accused of what did you do? That's the bottom line part, but the part that really happens. It happens over years like with the relationships you had and with the relationships that I hadn't leadership Memphis and have brought a change that is causing me. That's where I noticed. Right? Right and my willingness to say this isn't right.

38:22 And to approach someone and friends I have who say why don't they get over it to say It's Not Over.

38:31 It's not over we have so much more work today and we can can do it together and how to do this without screaming at people are being angry and saying what don't you realize I mean give it up. Look what's happened. That doesn't

38:55 So here we are here we are in this wildly imperfect and joyously loving each other some reason that I've been here misses my whole life by so I realize here I am instead of me. Memphis has become my adopted Hometown even though our kids don't live here, but they're drawn back.

39:22 Thanks. Thanks.