Wanda Bridgeforth and Beth Finke

Recorded October 9, 2019 Archived October 9, 2019 50:44 minutes
0:00 / 0:00
Id: chi003160


Wanda Bridgeforth (97) is interviewed by her friend Beth Finke (60) about growing up in Bronzeville, Chicago, her time at DuSable High School, and her love for writing.

Subject Log / Time Code

W talks about growing up in Bronzeville, on the South Side of Chicago.
W talks about her grandfather, and shares some history of her family during the Great Migration.
W talks about her first train ride from Chicago to Missouri when she was about six years-old.
W talks about her time at DuSable High School in Bronzeville, Chicago.
W talks about why she named her daughter Wanda Jr., and shares some memories of her husband and her mother.
W talks about her writing, and reflects on the blessings she's had in this life.


  • Wanda Bridgeforth
  • Beth Finke

Recording Location

Chicago Cultural Center

Venue / Recording Kit


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00:02 Hello, my name is Wanda bridgeforth. I am 97 and I will be 98 on Sweetest Day.

00:12 Today's date is October 19th 2019 in Chicago, Illinois.

00:21 And the name of my interviewer partner is Beth Finke. My relationship partner is my very good friend.

00:32 And my name is Beth Finke and I am 60 years old. I forgot the next question. I love to see the day that you day is October 9th 2019. We are in Chicago and my interview with my interviewer partner is Wanda bridgeforth, and she is my friend and she is a writer in the Memoir class I teach at Renaissance Court in the Chicago Cultural Center.

01:06 So let's start with some questions, you know, I've learned a lot from everybody that's in that Memoir class that you are in but from you I've learned so much about Bronzeville where you grew up in Chicago and I wonder if you could tell me some stories about Bronzeville and what it was like to grow up there. Bronzeville was the city of its own we had and what we call the Covenant so that meant that we couldn't buy property or live in property outside of this area and we had our own businesses and schools and churches and all of their activities that went on in the black on black Grand and all of that kind of thing.

02:06 We had

02:09 A community spirit

02:12 Boost that segregation we had all occupations living as in one Community. We didn't have the rich and the poor we had just everybody.

02:30 You told me once that there did exist because a caste system.

02:34 There is a caste system in the caste system was like the light and it just like colored people and they did not socialize and there and even it was it was based on the texture of your hair while it was yes, that wasn't saying I'm trying to remember it now it was

03:17 In a way it referred to the 5:30. We were on those of us who were almost white and could pass for what and didn't ask for one and that way we got better jobs.

03:33 And it but even song.

03:38 There was a neighborly.

03:43 Cohesion at might say that we are on we were all there together. And the thing is we didn't we will pour but we didn't know before because we live together.

04:00 Community was if you had I had if I had you had and there was an icy Road. And yes, of course now I see what has happened is so many of their three-story buildings apartment buildings. And so many of the houses are gone and they have put up the but I called me to Cold Storage high-rises. You come in you go in your apartment new truck 4-door. Yeah that ends when I was growing up you came home you want in your door, but you could say was always somebody sitting on a porch.

04:43 You put on sometimes it took 20 minutes to a half-hour if you lived in the middle of the block to get from the corner to your house because he was stopping to chat with your neighbors, especially in the summer time and see where I was mowing the lawn or working in their flower beds. Then always had time to sit down. We take a can of Coca-Cola and sit down and on the steps and talk to check. We walked to school together. We had our own store. So we shall pooped on the 47th Street primarily and on 47th Street from the railroad tracks on the west.

05:28 To Cottage Grove on the East that was our boundary and a few cost Cottage Grove to the east side of Cottage Grove. It seems that a policeman goes out of nowhere and asked you where you were going. And if you weren't going to work you had to go back on your side of the street.

05:55 Was it scary?

05:57 Because there were no consequences in the policeman just asked asked you where were you were going and if you weren't going to work here and said well little lady always Source you back to you inside this to the other side of the street.

06:18 And if that's if that's the way things are.

06:22 We accepted it and so many of us had come from the south where we knew once I can gation was.

06:34 In fact, I actually that brings me to your grandma and grandpa Johnson, Columbus, Mississippi and I tell you this.

06:49 That my grandfather was one of the few a black man. We said no a few black men who wore a suit to work.

07:01 Everybody else was a farmer or they worked in the Mills or they dug ditches or something like that, but my grandfather had a conference act and so he wore a suit everyday Every Day He Wore a suit to work and he was he was they did not give him the title of Mister Johnson, but they called him. Mr. Mac instead of instead of Uncle back and my grandmother was Miss Lula and not answering that seems that's uncle was a title of a black people.

07:50 And I guess it was out of respect to my grandfather and his standing in the community.

07:59 And the two of them had five Sons is that correct? The heads will one. So they had six phones and they all come up with the all part of the great migration of my grandmother said she didn't breathe a free breath until the last of her sons left the South o and the last one that left. I had to leave in the dark of night because he was a houseboy for family and the lady of the house told him that he could come prepared to go to bed with her the next day and he told my grandfather and my grandmother my father picked him up.

08:50 And put him in the buggy and drove him to Memphis and put him on the train to come to Chicago.

08:59 My

09:01 So then after that Grandma loses all her boys are up here in Chicago, but somehow every year. She'd remember their birthday my grandmother and why was she knew all of the porters on the train? And that's something I learned from you in from being in my classes about the porters. Can you tell me a little bit about that for all the porters were black men? Oh, yeah, they will all black man, and they

09:33 They said that they said that they are waiting from the time that left Chicago until we got to California because they were on duty and when you got on the train and you took your shoes off or put them outside your birth and the port of polished your shoes for you and he swept your clothes off for you to get lint off you and I didn't know you're awake the whole time cuz there's so much work ahead to do did they were awake the whole time because they had so much work together and didn't you wrote for the Chicago Defender you had a job. I worked there and edited edited for the society and

10:33 Is that time?

10:35 What we did most of the clubs in the city of specially the black clubs had what we called them publicity.

10:47 And the publicity chairman and the whole committee or his committee sent reports into the paper about what the club was doing because so many of our clubs did good work. Yes, and they had a meeting and they had a wedding and all of us with whatever activity food and they would write it up and send it in. Well, of course it wasn't it wasn't the publishing ready printing ready. So we had to revise it still good if it into the paper or whatever and maybe think of the porters is it right that the porters would take the Chicago Defender newspaper? Oh, yes. Yes Mr. Abbott. What makes text of the paper?

11:43 And put them on the train and the porters would take him to Mississippi and Alabama and wherever they get to the end of their line. And that was the way my grandmother didn't have the case of each. She baked just pick for your insulin for my father's birthday. You bake the cake put it in the box sizes up and gave it to the porter ever. He got to Chicago my uncle the youngest one would go down to 12th Street Station and pick the Box up, but I knew every boy's pink birthday and because grandma always sent me the test cake and what was that that was a little case that they made it was about 5 inches around a gasket.

12:43 A little tiny cake and that was made just to see if the oven wasn't right temperature or the batter was right. And so and would you go with Haley be to the station to pick up the sometime sometime but you see and many times have a big would walk to the church to the station. We lived at 50th Street and he wouldn't down 12th Street and he would walk down to 12th Street and pick up the cake and bring it home. Yeah, and you know quite regularly and she had a feather mattress.

13:37 And she had a big big bag that shit made out of sheets and with a drawstring on her and we always knew what grandma was coming because he'll it be had to go to the store City station to get a mattress and and she had a black chicken that she always had a black chicken one. She got another man, and she had she would bring Beauty Black Beauty on the train with her on the train.

14:11 And it's actually the train and then you have don't you have a story that this is what so many things you've taught me wanted that I had no idea though. I was by myself. And I know I was dressed to the nines. How old are you about seven 6 or 7 and I had on my patent my Mary Jane patent leather slippers and my white socks with lace trimming my black patent leather purse and my gloves and months and my account and I was reading and I was getting on the train and the engineer main. Do window and he said, where are you going little lady? And I said, I'm going to Columbus Mississippi to visit my grandmother and my grandfather.

15:11 He said he knew who are your grandmother and your grandfather. I said little more and Mike Johnson. He's a know them. Will you get on then? I'll be happy to have it on board. I'm honored to have you on board. And then when I got off the train everybody on the train all the workers on the train.

15:50 He came and brought me a blanket and a pillow and cleared off a seat so that I could stretch off and because we had to ride in the Jim Crow car. Yeah, that was the car behind the engine.

16:05 And

16:07 No matter how many colored people that were. We had the crowd into that one car or else waiting for the next train and being right behind engine was a dirty and mean was I don't know how trying to her bed was just oh one was run on coal stoker on the train and he kept cold going into the into the furnace that are into the engine what ever ran the engine?

16:53 Cuz that was the worst books.

16:56 But you know it didn't you being a little girl and it I want to talk about you going to school and you want to walk to school while your elementary schools were with a Blog.

17:09 By the time you walk to the streetcar line.

17:12 And then that's from the streetcar line to school. You had walked to school and then you had your friends we started out with okay, if the kids that lived on The Cottage Grove they started and then they picked up the crowd and then Langley and every blocks on to school and by yourself you parents didn't come with you where they like but I don't know. How did your parents come along or was just all kids? Oh, no, no. No that wasn't no need but we had enough kids to to defend ourselves and then all this is long before Brown versus Board of Education. So all your schools were segregated. Oh, well, I've started school Renton 1927. Yeah.

18:12 Yes, what high school is something that something happened to your high school when you were there then what was that? Well that's seen that we were supposed to go to Wendell Phillips on Sudden 39th Street and Wendell Phillips caught on fire.

18:32 That Sunday night so they had to

18:36 They they were working on DuSable that wasn't the name, but they will work on a new school and new school and that new school way to accommodate the colored children that overpopulate Wendell Phillips there cuz they didn't want us in Hyde Park Hyde Park High School, and we've been with some of us at the Inglewood local welcome.

19:11 So they were giving up our very own school. So Hyde Park in Inglewood were mixed up mixed. There were very few very few colored kids in in Hyde Park and I tell you a couple of my friends with their parents insisted that they going to Hyde Park because if it was white it was right and they were getting a better education and Hyde Park Sunday with me at Phillips.

19:45 So then they decided to the population increased so we very no classrooms. So they put on something or very high school in our very own neighborhood. Now, that's another thing you taught me because I was thinking oh how terrible that didn't they put you all and at school and we had we had a glorious time we can't because you see week not to do everything.

20:18 It was the kids that went to Hyde Park if they want to try out for a part in one of the place if if that wasn't a maid or Butler in there and then they listen to half apart.

20:33 Ed DuSable, we did everything we made the scenery directions from whatever was to be John and we had John Johnson what's up video editor and chief of our school paper and what he going to do when he went on to establish a he in Minerva were in the class together and and who is Minerva? She's got it. She plays a very important role in my life with you. Yeah. Yeah, Minerva Minerva play the very important vitamin of hard in my life because we were we were friends

21:30 Well from high school, then I went to work in the neighborhood where she lived in the area lots of neighborhood the area where she lived and she would pass by where I was working and we will chat and she was coming we have lunch and all of that kind of thing. Then we went to college together Chicago State together and then we were in the Alumni Association together last together parallel to each other all the way through so this is Minerva was the she was in my Memoir writing class and she told you about it and knew you I had asked her about writing and she had brought a couple of the essays and she has written for the class to the alumni meeting.

22:29 And that was when I started hounding her about joining the class and I think I asked her. What would you have a class on the south side because of the time I lived out in at 9 and 3rd Street. That's when I started and then gradually moved to the to the city and I did I tried to get a class going in the southside of have the one here in the in the loop. I guess we called you the Chicago Cultural Center and for some reason they weren't at none of the satellites were interested. So anybody that is in our class has to come downtown he have people from all over the place and all I mean from the Northside to Southside the Westside. Oh, you know, it's been a good thing. It's really been a good thing because we have learned things about

23:29 Each other our religion or race our livelihood education, all of them has come together and have they made us more aware of other's figure out. We have a lot in common. I hope in my heart. Just all these people from all different places getting along so well and so kind and you don't ask say that if we could have classes like that everywhere.

24:06 What we had class people from all walks of life.

24:11 It would be.

24:14 I think we would be much better world.

24:18 Because you would realize that I'm not unique.

24:25 That I might win is out there somewhere. If not my twin a close sibling.

24:35 Because what you would when you hear these stories.

24:40 You can relate to him even though we have Denny was born in the Philippines and everybody is some of the bullying that went on in the school or something some of the friendships that we made lifelong friendships. Maybe if our fathers alcoholic we think that I'm the only person with an alcoholic parent and then you come to class I wouldn't just know you're here.

25:19 Somebody said that I didn't know were black people were alcoholics. Well, I'm the famous when I didn't know black people would watch Downton Abbey and even though I can't see I could be kind of I can make my judgments to that. They watch Downton Abbey on BBC TV, and I thought that's what I mean about so much I learned from the classes, you know, we can't we can't we have to talk about your life as a mother and let me know. How did you come to call your daughter Wanda Junior as we call her Junior?

26:01 Well when I was wrong up.

26:04 That was the debut debutante parties were very popular among the rich.

26:13 And there was one girl that made her debut. I think the year that Wanda was born and she was cobina Wright Jr. And I of course.

26:27 Advantage I was still young and silly and I thought that's wonderful and my husband insisted that I named her after my after me. So I said well

26:42 I knew in the family be how we had distinguished between like names we had he'll be here on a little Harold Big James and little James and I don't want it to be big blind and little blind. So I said, okay, I'm going to name her Wonder Junior. So I did and he's out of the funny thing. She wants down to the bureau statistics to get a birth certificate. Well, they looked all over everywhere and they couldn't find it on the internet finally.

27:24 Somebody got the idea. I looked it up on the Wando bridge for junior that had been filed under Junior and not bridgeforth. Tell her last name came out of the yes. She was instead of being filed on the 4th. She was filed on the Junior and when you got married after high school and when you were pregnant your husband was gone, but where was he and she was two and a half when he came home and he was he left or right before she was born in that was did he enlist in what known? He was conscripted because we had Pearl Harbor.

28:14 And we had a zillion folks going down to enlist and then we had a zillion photos to in construction. Yes, and then I think they pull the 15 numbers out of the bowling. He wasn't in the first 15. So he went in at the beginning. Yeah, right after Pearl Harbor and we haven't talked about your mother.

28:49 Geneva yeah, that's who we'll talk about yet.

28:55 Geneva resmi

28:59 And I couldn't I can't think about anybody that had a better mother than I did.

29:07 She was just so calm at

29:13 Just so I don't know if she just made life worth living. Yeah, and

29:21 How old were you when she had to start working in Family Farm? How old were you when she had to start working in family, so she couldn't be with you.

29:34 When the when the depression came 19 about 1929, I guess maybe earlier than that. We had indications of things going awry and

29:54 Well, first of all, my dad worked he passed for wife.

30:01 And the plant that he was working in. I think I don't remember where the

30:15 You can't remember where he I don't remember where the what happened at the plant whether they close down his section or not, but I know that he got an acid burn because he was working and insecticides and there was some some acid got in his book in his boots and ate a hole in his foot so he had to have to come off that job. So he lost his job and family in Geneva. Oh, well, she know, okay. She was a homemaker. Oh, so there was no money coming in and we didn't know what relief was and at that time. They called it relief now, it would be called a welfare.

31:11 Come Mama went to work.

31:14 And the only

31:16 Was she couldn't the jobs that she can get that paid more? Will she has a stay on the place? Right? And the that meant that I had to be boarded out, right?

31:35 Borderlands families for me to see you tell a story about you go to school with a pin a note on your jacket and that would mean you'd read it when your dad would tell you where to go home that day. Is that right there? What you every since for my first music lesson. I mean how you would not some days you go to school and you have a little note that said this is where you go when you go home and see my new address to my coat. Yeah.

32:18 And one day

32:21 Wood plug into the building. We had Lobby ascended 6 flat buildings. I rang the bell. The lady said who is it? And I said wonder she said Wanda who I said want to do I live here. So she bugs me and when we got upstairs, she said she has moved the lady had what we called State children.

32:57 And that was foster children State children. Of course, the caseworker came out that day the day that we were moving in and come to find out the lady head had a dining room that you could be sectioned off could be I had a closed-door to it and she had put the children in there and given us the children's room. So we had to move because we didn't have anything to move but a blanket out of clothes and that was all we had was we didn't have any furniture anyway.

33:45 Mama, mama, just signs and every building rooms for rent apartments for rent. So you didn't have any trouble just walk the door to it. And how many addresses have you had in 240 so moving from and and boy

34:10 My daughter hasn't she lived in an apartment.

34:16 For about a year after she married nothing and that's her only experience for the apartment living. But now I'm

34:27 She's moving in the same building I'm moving in and so she said, you know, I kind of like this apartment living you're not in those cold. What do you call a tall buildings called the storage buildings? Yeah, you're not in the storage building, you know, but the most she's always she's always lived in the house. Yeah, and there's always someone to take care of and the birds to feed and flowers and stuff like that and it's just been a 24-hour day work ya thing. And now she said it's so nice to wear if the sink overflows she call downstairs and tell me. Where are you going?

35:18 Wasn't easy but you don't look at it that way. How do you explain how you're able to stay? So positive? You know, you lost your hearing Mosel out of your hearing at a young age. You had to really they didn't figure that. I never I never read the doctor said I never really had here and then I'll keep your best of thing of it was I didn't know I couldn't hear ya.

35:49 But you knew you were living in 42, I knew.

35:53 I knew I couldn't go.

35:57 Well, that's nice runs in the family. All of the boys are hard of hearing and they are they all said speak up. I can't hear you. You sound sounds like you have a mouth full of mush, but it was they weren't hearing and of course when I came along the doctor took his tuning fork and banged it on the thing and then put it behind my ear. And it says do you hear that? And I said, yes.

36:31 But in school I caught the devil.

36:37 Because

36:39 Leticia's says I didn't pay attention or that I was just erupted. I got S and E and all my subjects but I got pee in the apartment. That was because I was forever turned around speaking out of turn and they said sometimes the kids said I talk to all over them. Well, I didn't know they were talking if there but their back was to me. I didn't know they were talking so I just brought it out and if the teacher was writing on the board and talkin I

37:20 Then I would turn around and I or tap somebody and ask them what she say then she would say that I disturbing the other student since you put me in the hall. So you're filling out a form and I and we were filling out a form and you were asked what how do you identify yourself? And I asked you if you consider yourself a writer.

37:48 How do you say?

37:54 I guess because my writing is just for me.

38:00 And that's for the those around me.

38:06 I don't know if people say that I write well and

38:14 I enjoy writing my first grade teacher starters writing.

38:21 She would reason story to us and then we had wouldn't her to write with a story meant to us.

38:30 Select that that was the beginning of my writing and

38:36 I don't know. I guess I just I just like to rice and another thing too. It was a release for me.

38:49 Well some of the situations that I was in I would write about it.

38:55 And then I would tear it up, but I had vented.

39:01 I had released it and it was it was gone. That was and that was the way I got rid of a lot of me.

39:10 I just frustration.

39:13 Of being alone or being the Oddball because I'll give you one for instance. There was a stay this one lady and she had a daughter my age when we got home from school in the afternoons. She gave me a cookie and a glass of milk and sent me to my room. The daughter said it's a table and ate her cookies and milk and is wants to ride till I lived with this lady.

39:47 And we her daughter and I

39:52 Switch tweaks to wash the dishes after meal on her way. She always had to go to the bathroom after the meal and her mother was coming and she was saying

40:07 Where is someone's on us? And she's in the bathroom? She said why don't you just start washing the dishes and she pick up when she comes out.

40:20 So then it's looking like as soon as I drive the last dish she would emerge from the bathroom. So one night. I got her in the bed and I messed up against her and I took my elbows.

40:39 And I walk the dog in a lot of her.

40:43 So that was the last of my stand there with you last night, but now I was washing the dishes and we had some biscuits left over and I so I just reached in the oven and took a biscuit off took a bite and put it back in the oven she came in and she said out of this biscuit and I didn't answer.

41:16 She took a biscuit and fitted it to my mouth.

41:21 Elgin even gave her what for? Oh, yeah. She told me she said you subjected this child cuz that's kind of activity.

41:34 And she said well she lied.

41:40 So I moved again. I look like I stayed on the farm and how would you identify yourself? And you said one day at a time? What gets you through one day at a time?

42:01 Because I never knew where I was going to be tomorrow.

42:08 So I had to leave today and still I still I when I wake up I give thanks for the day when I go to bed at night I get finished for the day.

42:25 Are you religious?

42:28 Well, I'm like Mama.

42:31 And everybody want to know what church Mama went to what she never went to church because she was always working on the Sabbath and Grandma's my mama and we talked about the Catholic Church.

42:47 And Mama Said

42:50 She didn't need anybody hear her confession. She spoke directly to the Lord. So that's my that's my religion. I speak directly to the more and when I had the scan for the cancer scare.

43:10 I spoke directly to the mall. I didn't go to church they can last I felt that if I started going to church now get here from Korea.

43:20 I have me I'm 97 years old and I have not had a church affiliation. Well before I knew it I had moved out of the parish. What do you mean by see? You move? So often? Yeah. Oh yes before I knew it. I had moved out of the area and gone. So if I wanted to go to church, I just stand outside and we was going to church I walk to church with him chords now when I was

43:52 A preteen we had a religious rituals and I think we got put out a most of the troops to South you. Are you tell me what I mean about your long life and Angelou quote. I wouldn't take nothing for my journey.

44:22 And that's that's the way I feel the mother. I feel that I have been truly blessed.

44:27 How so?

44:29 Well

44:33 I have a wonderful daughter.

44:37 I have very good friends.

44:44 I just dumb.

44:48 I feel like I've just been I've just been blessed because

44:55 Maybe about my attitude.

44:58 My give a damn Jones attitude that my dad said I had.

45:03 And I had I had hella being a s.

45:08 Who were my uncle's?

45:10 And I related to we boys all the way down the line.

45:16 I don't know why I guess maybe I

45:24 I don't hate.

45:29 I don't I don't have time for hate.

45:33 And I don't don't.

45:39 I love

45:43 I live.

45:46 Doesn't look like anything that's has a lot and I feel like I've been blessed ever since you walked into that class I teach and I've

45:57 What's great friendship with you? Well, I love I love people get yours and me and Haley Bean love to talk and my husband said one time that he couldn't take me anywhere that I didn't know somebody.

46:20 And he was rather close.

46:27 He was not the hail-fellow-well-met that my father said I was yes. Well, I don't know I guess another thing do I belong to do everything in the school when I went to HighSchool, I would long do everything in there because I knew all the kids and I was we walk together to school with work together when you run a newspaper staff. You're in the place. You're in the talent shows.

47:00 No, I was not in the newspaper. I think was the only thing that I was no, but I was on I was not a creative writing class the debate team. I just everything and

47:19 Amazon the rifle team that's frightening about hating you hurts the hater and saying you were trying to member before or something like bright the person that you hate doesn't know the two of them and don't care.

47:46 So I don't have some time life is too precious and there are too many things to do like Aunt punching explain are watching. Well. That's Community spirit.

48:04 That's that's what I calls Community spirit and that's what I think all of us could use a lot more off and that's what apartment living takes away from you.

48:15 But not you. You have a beautiful job in your apartment when you're sitting at the table and looking in charge of looking out the window.

48:27 And and what do you see outside your window? I see well I saw a goose ballet.

48:37 We are on the 13th floor. Is that right? Yeah, and then you face Lake Michigan. I can see the lake and

48:48 We have twin towers and I'm on the inside of the shower and the other whenever a flock of geese come through they come through between these two hours. And for just one moment your whole department go to the dark this whole flock going through at one time and they go out and then down into the lake they plump then they they get out there and they bathe and they turn over and they flip and they flopped in their feet are just going

49:31 And it is still it's a sight to see.

49:35 And then all of a sudden this one the leader.

49:41 Raise up come out on the water. Just out on the water lap his wings and get himself dry cuz you know they say, oh, yes, so he goes up there and he flips whatever love and water is left on him and when he does not everybody is on their work.

50:03 And the V forms and off they go.

50:07 So they're even in the fall. They're going south and in the spring they're coming north.

50:14 It's something to say, but it is something to see them rolling over.

50:27 Go on and on but

50:29 Thanks. I love you Rhonda. I love you back.

50:34 Hopefully don't sing.