Nadine Blackwell and Chandra Blackwell

Recorded September 13, 2010 Archived September 13, 2010 01:23:30 minutes
0:00 / 0:00
Id: MBY006942


Chandra Blackwell, 40, interviews her mother Nadine Blackwell, 80, about her memory and involvement in Brown vs. the Board of Education, integrating the Topeka Fire Department, and integrating the downtown Topeka restaurants.

Subject Log / Time Code

NB remembers in high school, though officially integrated, there were still “black parties” and “white parties” in separate parts of the school
NB family was part of the Brown vs. Board of Education trial, but NB was still young when it was going on in Topeka. She says: “We were making history and I had no idea; I didn’t realize it was important”
NB describes her husband, Albert Blackwell, who helped integrate the Topeka fire department, saying “He integrated himself.”
NB remembers going to eat in a restaurant in downtown Topeka that was thought of as for whites only. She was so nervous she didn’t really enjoy the meal, but she and her husband were served.
Of her part in history and change, NB says “I have made things possible for my daughter. America will eventually get to where it needs to go.”


  • Nadine Blackwell
  • Chandra Blackwell

Recording Location

MobileBooth West



StoryCorps uses Google Cloud Speech-to-Text and Natural Language API to provide machine-generated transcripts. Transcripts have not been checked for accuracy and may contain errors. Learn more about our FAQs through our Help Center or do not hesitate to get in touch with us if you have any questions.

00:05 My name is Chandra Blackwell. I am 40 years old. Today is September 13th, 2010. I am in Kansas City, Missouri, and I am talking to my mother.

00:16 My name is Nadine Blackwell. I Was 80 on August 18th. This year. Today's date is September 13th. 2010 location is Kansas City, Missouri relationship to my partner. She's my daughter my youngest daughter.

00:34 One thing I wanted to talk about because you just turned 80 and you spent all of those 80 years in Topeka Kansas, which doesn't sound like a very exciting place to most people and it certainly wasn't to me when I was growing up, but you were actually involved in a lot of things that since I've become an adult. I actually realize are really really awesome and really really interesting. One of those things is that your family was really heavily involved with Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education the Civil Rights case in 1954. So talk about your involvement with that.

01:13 Well my uncle McKinley burn that was president of the NAACP during those years from about 1950 in the 50s into the sixties and we had four black grade schools at that time. They were at the one in East Topeka with Washington. The one in South Topeka was Monroe West Topeka was Buchanan in North Topeka was McKinley.

01:46 And in when I first started the school, we went the first grade through the eighth grade and then the ninth grade to junior high school and then the 10th to 12th at Topeka High.

02:01 And the year that I endured in the seventh grade was the first year that they allowed blacks to go to Junior High School in the 7th grade and

02:14 McFarland was the superintendent of schools. He brought with him a black man named Harrison Caldwell and made him well superintendent of all the black children and all the grade school junior high school and high school. I feel like that we were more segregated at that point that we had ever been before we did go to the same, especially when we got the high school, but we had a club that we went to the use Club. The downbeat was at Monroe School on the clock was at McKinley in North Topeka. We also had a separate

03:00 Basketball team we could participate in track. That was the one thing that they did allow blacks and whites to participate in but the Ramblers we travelled in and when asked if he was a basketball team and we traveled and we went to like Fort Scott Coffeyville, Kansas City just around the area and played other black teams.

03:38 Segregated or did you how did you understand it when you were that age? What was happening to you while you are knew I was segregated you were taught you were taught that you know that you were who you were and you had to go above and beyond to get anywhere in this life. So, yes, we definitely knew that and by going to Junior High School in the 7th grade that was a step up if you know it didn't

04:11 It didn't open the school because because that was like about 1942 and other words to schools work were the legislation wasn't passed until 1954.

04:32 No, not really. My friends were there and also it was okay. There was no there wasn't a lot of problems with that at all. I know some of the schools when they are and if they were integrated in the South cousin Ashley I've read about it, you know where there was true problems, but in Topeka it really it really wasn't after 1954 even after they pass the legislation. We were still separate because of the house in the neighborhood kept the school separate. So that was just the beginning my other daughter Pamela. She was 3 and we were not satisfied with things the way they were that would have been about 1964. We picketed the school board to the several days a week, but she and I along with others.

05:28 Stove

05:31 Things are better. Well for instance even after we got to high school.

05:39 We went to class together. But when we had our parties the blackheads had their parties up in the music room and the white kids had their parties in the cafeteria and during the all-school party. We had a black king and queen and a white king and queen the white king and queen would go up and dance at our party in the music room. The Black Queen would come down and dance with the white children in the cafeteria. It was separate. It was we were together, but we were not together. So

06:15 And it has improved over the years so that now we don't think too much about you know.

06:23 It did it.

06:26 It's still separate in a way because of neighborhoods, but we have made progress and said that way involvement did McKinley Burnett have specifically your uncle he was the president he was president of the NAACP. He was the one who saw to it that the case was filed against the school board. In fact, they didn't want him to do it some other people there.

06:56 Told him that if he didn't file the case that he had five children. They would see that his five children got a real good education. So that was the main thing is that he's the one that was the basis of filing the case and seen that it was done. And then Vicky your cousin was one of the plaintiffs. Yes. She was walking the plank of my my father sister Maud Esther Lawton was one of the the plane isn't in for her daughter Vicky that was involved in that.

07:34 Cantwell, is there anything else you want to say about that particular well?

07:53 Brown vs. Education forced the school board or the school district 501 to open the schools to all students regardless, in other words, you went to the to the school in your neighborhood when they had the four black grade schools. Of course, you had to be bused. I'm a little kid for bus go halfway across town and so it it open the it opened the way for total in integration now, like I say at this point be there is still segregated some because of housing but

08:37 But it was a federal case. Yeah, I mean eventually went to the Supreme Court and the court.

08:47 Ruled in our favor

08:57 I had been well, he was the the force behind filing the force behind filing. It was he saw two at the lawyers. Of course. We're from Topeka and he saw to it that the case was filed will know my memories of it. It was I knew it was happening, but I had no idea that it was the event that it was just did not.

09:35 So what?

09:40 Well, just that that the case has been filed and like I said, I didn't realize it was important. You know it I was a child hitting it didn't mean that much to me at the vet at that point. It's only been in later years looking back over the years and what has happened that we were making history and I had no idea we were another experience that you had talked a lot about is the integration of the Topeka Fire Fire Department because my father your husband was a fireman in Topeka for a lot of years. So do you want to talk a little bit about

10:35 Publix Dania gracian of the fire department. Yes, they integrated the fire department in about 1962 when I got married in 1951. My husband was a fireman and he was at the all-black station at 3rd and Jefferson. They had two shifts which would have been. Oh, maybe 6teen the 18 of black fireman that worked on Egyptian back. His brother was a fireman to they did not let them work on the same shift because of the danger so they were always on opposite shifts.

11:13 That when they actually integrated.

11:20 They didn't talk about it an awful lot when they were actually integrated what they did was they put two firemen two black fireman at each station working opposite shifts to one another so that it really huge black fireman was basically by him by himself and they shared a bed.

11:43 Dad, that was one of the thoughts behind it that they could not sleep that a white Farmers would not sleep behind the black fireman course the black fireman were grateful for that cuz they didn't want us to leave at like 5.

12:00 Well, you know what? This gives me a little perspective on a moment that I had with with my dad who I call Bertram. So he had come to visit me in Atlanta and I was telling him about a friend died recently gone to visit a white girl that I was friends with and I went to visit her and I said, you know, I felt really bad because she put me in her bed and she scrunched up on the loveseat in her living room for the whole time. I was there and the fact that a white girl gave me her bed made him cry that situation and how big of a deal it was to me. No, share your bed with somebody of A different race. Yeah, they actually win they did that. It really kind of left each fireman very lonely and to himself and they did then have to put up with stuff that people did to that man was kind of shunned they were

13:00 Taking an right away. You know it. I know he made went after they integrated he made inspector and it was inspector for several years and he was the first black inspector there in Topeka and then of course he made

13:20 Assistant first assistant Fire Chief and what he had that job for several years before he retired then in about 19. I was about 19.

13:34 68 in 83 to 1989 and I talked to him a little bit. He came over the other evening and I kind of talked to him because you know at this age my memory is a little shaky at times and I wasn't remembering everything but he said that he felt like that they were just thrown out there and with no one was was monitoring it to see that things are going like they were supposed to go but eventually it worked itself around that he made some very good friend. So did your father he made some very good friends. And before he died, of course he is and before he retired yet had worked out pretty well what that did do however they're there are fewer black fireman on the fire department at this point.

14:34 Because for some reason or another they just don't they are they haven't there in Topeka. I think we maybe have four or five at this point, but not very many and you see we had like 16 18. What do you think? That's because there was at that time a black fire station that needed to be staffed so that rotter people knew that I had black people right? That's right. Where is maybe they wouldn't have wanted to be in the fire department if it hadn't been like right and it was the comrade comradery comradery was just excellent between I mean, you know, we we had a good time together at work away from work, even we all Associated together. So that changed when the department there any did yes, it did through them so that we didn't get to see one another like we used to so, what do you think it was that Bertram did to make friends so easily. I mean, maybe it wasn't easy but

15:34 I know he ever have you ever known your father to meet a stranger. You know that.

15:46 I love Riff Raff. You remember the time that we went to the it was in Winchester, Virginia when your brother Garland was there and they had the the fire trucks from all over the Eastern Seaboard and he wanted his dad to see it. So we invited as well and he had a seat for us in the viewer section and Garland. I sat down and you and your dad got up and went on down and Robinson. Just look at it. He was shaking hands and introducing himself with people all down the road 1996. By the way, I believe that actually I think it's cooking could have helped him out to his he never met a stranger anything else you want to say about that. I think that's about it on that.

16:39 Alright

16:51 Black people

16:53 No, yes, it wouldn't be as far as where they had a certain section of town and the main section they had was the downtown. So no they were us each of fire station was signed a certain section of the city. It just so happened that they that they were all at one station. There was a saying that there was a lady that they were handy with their axes and there was a lady saying when she saw the Black Friday partment coming she said just let it burn down don't chop it down.

17:41 So

17:44 Albert Blackwell was my husband. I didn't say his name did Albert Blackwell because of the game. We used to play where he was my butler little girl and my chauffeur.

17:59 And so what was what did he do? Remember having conversations with him about

18:07 The integration of the fire fire department

18:12 Well when he first went to the station, yes, because he was a little unhappy with some of the treatment that he got but he was a type of person that never met a stranger and was soon it will be integrated himself. That was just his personality.

18:38 Someone saying something about how Evony magazine or someone had wanted to interview him about something to do with the fire department. And he said no did she just make that up? I don't know. I've never heard I had heard that one is well and back when people were talking about this stuff. I didn't care. So yeah. Yeah, right. You know what? I don't remember that much either.

19:10 Okay, so can you describe describe your husband Nadine or describe your your dad more from each other while he was just really Jolly. Not that he didn't never get in a bad mood. But my mom is right. He never ever met a stranger and he came to visit me in Atlanta. I was working at a restaurant that had a terrorist that was right on the sidewalk and the waiters. He made friends with everyone. I worked with every single person to it and shook everyone's hand in the kitchen and everywhere and but the guys that would work with us sort of made it there on official responsibility to keep homeless people away from the people who were eating on the terrorist because it was just a little railing and then the sidewalk and if if a homeless person saw quite often saw people

20:05 I dressed up really fancy to go to the show. He got the idea that he could intimidate them just by walking up there because they probably would just be like we'll get away and then step away and he can have their food or you know, whatever and

20:18 And had quite a problem with my dad because they would come running out there to get the guys away and my dad had like whole club of homeless guys because he was giving him cigarettes at

20:31 The guy's been the homeless men were just refused to leave cuz they would say I'm talking to my friend. So he just he would talk to absolutely anyone and everyone and dumped, you know, I think you like some people better than others, but I think that he was really good at making people feel at home. He was a people person and I work for a lot of people gas. I was not when we got married, but I learned to like people because he was always bringing somebody home, but I didn't know anything about so how is it true that you brought Count Basie home or is that something he just made up? No. No, he did. He did he did bring him. Yes.

21:21 How did that happen? Well, he went to the concert went to the concert. That's Count Basie was giving there and made himself a grilled and he brought them home and fed them he did cuz he wasn't he he learn to his mother taught him how to cook and of course, they cooked at the fire station. And so when I went to work in

21:48 When did I what year did I go to work? I forgot to ask you something and I want to see 30 about 66. I when I went to work, I made it that he would do the cooking and I would do everything else. So he did and Pamela and Garland and dancing and Chandra all all of you expected your father to cook not me and you did a good job with regard to him when I used to go to I love parades probably because of him, but whenever we went to a parade st. Patrick's Day or Thanksgiving or anything that happened in Topeka always at least a dozen people in the parade would turn and be like, hey everybody everybody knew him.

22:40 Yeah, so what was his and we talked about this a little bit already, but what was his?

22:46 The integration of the fire department then he was the first black fire inspector and the first black assistant fire chief things with with integration that may be splintered the relationships with the black fireman previously had was that some of them like my dad were being promoted up the ranks and others weren't and suddenly they were on these aren't even playing field when they had previously been a family. Yes. Yes.

23:22 So I think that was probably hard for him because it's hard for him to be loved to be loved.

23:29 Okay, and then the third thing that I wanted to talk about was your experience with Bertram helping to integrate the downtown restaurants. Okay. Well it was in 1950 before we married we were dating and he told me he had a surprise and they didn't tell me what the surprise was and we went downtown to Kansas Avenue, which is the main downtown Street of Deepika and park the car and the 600 block.

24:03 I believe it was a 600 block of cream. He's gone now. Anyway, he we started he opened the door and we started to go in and I stopped and said I'm not going in there because it was a second deposit was a white restaurant and he said now you are going in there. Don't embarrass me. Let's go so I went in and we sit down.

24:30 And I was very very nervous and upset but I tried to to do what he asked and they did service. He knew that the cook there was a man by the name of Kerman Coleman Kirk tall and Coleman had told him what just come on in see if they will serve you. He said I'm the main cook if they don't serve you. I'm going out the back door. They'll not applicable cook for the rest of the evening and they did service. We have a nice dinner and as I'm saying I didn't enjoy it because I'm too nervous to enjoy it because I knew I wasn't supposed to be there and then someone he got word to us that they thought if we went to the ranch house, which is on 6th and Gage that they would service there. We went they service and then in that case we told

25:30 My friends and I had forgotten it but Joe reminded me the other night that I had we had taken him in Napa with us when we went out the next time.

25:39 And also there was another placement in the Jayhawk hotel is called The Purple Cow.

25:48 And we heard that we could go there just I don't know who your father talked to but she talked to some people and we went there and they served us and then we told everybody else about it and gradually now not those three restaurants we could go to and gradually the restaurants opened. I think it's interesting that the one that would not serve blacks was the Jolly Cafe, which is run by Chinese. They never ever open the black they simply closed their doors and went out of business. They never ever serve blacks, but now after I don't even I hadn't thought about that in years because we can go to you know to any restaurant do anything we want to do. So we did integrate the restaurants are in Topeka to alone or with Natalie and Joe what were the other people around you doing love?

26:48 Are the weight or even looking at us and when we went to the creamery most of the blacks were in the kitchen and everybody was in the door, so it was interesting. But like I say, it's a we did open the restaurants are in Topeka.

27:17 David still was it something that was just a remnant of how no, it's just know it really wasn't posted now, but if you went in and you weren't supposed to be served they would tell you we don't serve blacks here are they didn't say blacks? I said Negroes. We don't we don't serve in those days. We don't serve you. Well, I can tell an incident of where my mother was in we will had gone to the Kansas City and we were on our way home and we were hungry and there weren't up. It was late and there weren't a lot of restaurants open. And so we stopped at this one restaurant and she went in we all stayed in the car.

28:00 And when she came out now they did put it in a sack and a lot of them wouldn't even do that. They just would not serve you she went in and the proprietor whoever told her we don't serve blacks year and she told him I don't blame you. I wouldn't either I'll have such and such and such a thing. And so they did serve her it was to go.

28:27 Now I know in the South that they had a lot of signs that said, you know blacks not served here or in the rear or something like that. But in Topeka it was not like that the signs weren't they are particularly, but you just knew that you weren't supposed to go in and if you did and you weren't supposed to go get that wouldn't serve you that's all it was that.

28:50 So what day did you ever ask your husband what gave you the idea to just start or gave him yet? I think the Coleman did I think Coleman told him you come and if they don't serve you I'm going to go out the back door and they won't be serving anybody cuz they don't he was the only cook so I don't know whether he had talked to the owner ahead of time. I'm assuming he probably did but we never did really discuss that but I'm I'm sure that this is how come this is why we did go was Because poem and it told him to come in and and

29:28 See if they would service and they did.

29:32 I think that's pretty cool. All right, is somebody who was born in 1970? I didn't have to worry about well, that's piano the time you came along. It was a different story.

29:54 Yes, you were doing it.

29:56 With with with your you and your husband going into the restaurants in downtown Topeka. Did you have the sense that you were making history a little bit or no? And I still don't feel that way because most people have no idea how the restaurants are open.

30:14 LOL, I know they don't I don't talk about it. They just got word that it was okay to go that I don't think they had any idea that my husband and I are the ones that went first and you know and as a test case holder so to speak and so I didn't know I definitely didn't have a sense of history there. I just even though I was wrong it. Well, she's never crossed my mind.

30:42 In talking about it. Now does it do you feel like you made history? Well, I know I've made history will talk about it now because there was like I say there was a time when you you couldn't go and now you don't think anything about it, you know, you couldn't stay in hotels. You couldn't go to restaurant. You couldn't do it hardly anything. Now one of the things there's good and bad about all things segregation had his good points in that it takes a village to raise a child will when I was coming along that Village was your your relatives your teachers your your church, whatever I can remember I could do something that I wasn't supposed to do them. But I am I got home my mother knew about it. I mean, you know it just the closeness that we had when we went to a convention for SSI. Was a teenager when we went to the convention.

31:42 NBC we stayed in the homes of other blacks because we couldn't stay at the hotel and you made close friends. I know the lady that that kept us I wrote to her for years. You know, it just was there was a closeness.

32:01 That we don't have now. That's that's that's all I can say about that.

32:07 It was that I experienced a little bit of it just because you still have a lot of friends in Topeka and I can remember when I first started learning how to drive my brother's 13 years older took me out to practice and some somebody got back to you that they saw me with boy in the car people in to pick up you were and that's not a bad thing because that goes this is not there now and so many of the kids get into trouble because their parents have no idea what they're doing and all it. Like I said, there's good and bad in most things into and that was the good in in that you were in a community and they kind of surrounded you.

32:57 How can I agree with that? Well now I know we don't have a lot of time left. So I'll skip some of my questions but I have to ask you in light of everything we've been talking about what you were thinking when you found out that I was planning to marry a white man. Which which I did I mean, what did you think it was going to be like for us? I didn't think anything about it. I expected it you were different from your eye. As you know dancing was what 17 years old of Garland was 13 years older and Pam was at 9 and are eight and a half when you were born and I raised them entirely different from what I raised you because they came along when we still work pretty segregated by the time you came along. We were not and you always were very Cosmopolitan. You are your father and you it was just people to you I mean

33:57 You would say about certain with a friend on obviously, are they black or white?

34:03 Black and white, but what difference does it make they're my friends. And so, you know, you looked at things differently and that's the reason that I was willing to send you to Spelman was because even you know dancer sister was what she was counselor at Sumner and had before she talked to me. I wouldn't have considered sending you to a black school. I was jogging being prejudiced. I guess I didn't feel like they were that good but she said to me especially spell she says it's a natural School. She'll get a good education and she will when she graduates by that time. She will know who she is because right now she does not what you said. So but you were always you think people were just people to you so I know that you well, I just wasn't surprised.

35:03 Married Matt when you did

35:07 I know that your friends have commented that we we go out and we're awfully social for a mixed couple. Yanuar of somebody it wasn't legal. But if somebody was even together romantically they wouldn't let people know. Yes and if it had been earlier I would have had more to say about it because I would have felt like that marriage and itself is a hard row to hoe, you know, and you really have to be dedicated for it for it to last in for it to take and that just added when when you married out of your race it simply added more to it. So I just I wouldn't have had had more to say but I was okay with you marrying me because I felt like things have changed enough.

35:59 That

36:01 It probably would work out. Okay, and it has and yes. Usually when when you do that when you marry out of your race, you are isolated Marsh is a good example of that, you know, when she married Robert and she she to this day is out of the weighted. Yeah. It's a cousin that we have them that married out of her race. But yes, yes 60 she is 60. So it makes a difference. Is that it when they married it was a different time so well.

36:35 Since we have only a couple of minutes left. Is there anything that you want to say to Auggie who was mass in my child or to Adrian and Ariana who are my sister's children with her husband? Who's from Nigeria? Yeah. Well, I want to say that.

36:55 Always

36:58 Love your family.

37:01 Because your family will take care of you when nobody else will.

37:07 You may fall out with your family, but you always make it up again. It don't stay angry because they will do for you when no one else will.

37:21 Also, my mother is saying was

37:25 And that's for you and everybody else for my grandchildren and for my children is that

37:35 My head just like that.

37:46 Your mother used to say

37:50 You can be content with anything with whatever happens to you in life.

37:57 You can make yourself content. It's all left up to you.

38:03 Thank you, and thank you for doing this with me because I know you didn't want to know I didn't I just want to say thank you. And I love you. I love you, too. That's why I did it.

38:16 2 minutes left

38:18 Another

38:19 And I'm wondering Chandra what and what have you learned?

38:23 From your mother and from your father and from this.

38:28 Heritage well, you know it really not a lot because I didn't really appreciate it until I was a grown person. I guess what I appreciate most is, you know, you always take your parents for granted no matter who you are and no matter who they are. You never really know everything that they go through to make sure that you're healthy and happy in but you know, in this case when I look back at all the things that they took part in and all the things that they did to change society so that I could grow up being you know, the flighty free-spirited. Everybody's everybody hit the person that I am I have more appreciation than just, you know, the day-to-day stuff that they did that, you know fed me and they were nice to me and you know, I have even more appreciation because they they were doing a lot more than that before I even got here behind the scenes.

39:21 Changed the quality of my life is a black person and not just as a person growing up. Yeah, we moved to a white neighborhood where we were the only black family there and you

39:33 It made for a difference with you children, especially in school and things like that Garland did all right with it, but he he was one of the first ones and he was a little unhappy behind General Tso.

39:49 Because I didn't give it a second. Thought I know you didn't but he did.

39:54 And I'm wondering to Nadine as if in talking about all this history and these this history that you helped make and in the Civil Rights.

40:09 Like when you look at your daughter across the table and talk about your past and your history and see your daughter and your grandchildren in the future. They have I feel like that I have made some things possible for her for her to have the life that she has had to 2 and I feel like it's time goes on America. Probably will Gap where it's supposed to go. I think that we will one of these days be truly integrated and I don't know that it's going to be in your lifetime or even though he's lifetime but I do feel that we are going to get there. Well now I feel like you know when you always used to ask if somebody was black or whites and I would think you know, I might have brushed you off but I still notice like I noticed mixed couples in the grocery store. I noticed things, you know, and I guess people in your generation would have disapproved I just noticed but I think maybe by the time I'll get grows up. He won't it won't even be a blip on his radar.

41:09 But I make I mean, I see it and I notice it. Where is I think people younger than me. Don't even though yeah.

41:25 I think I'm done.

41:28 Yeah, I think I am too. Well. Are you glad you did it? Yes. I am. I'm glad I did it. I'm proud of my children.