'We Were Representing Our Whole Race': A Mom Passes On Her Civil Rights Story

Apr 27, 2018
Originally published on April 27, 2018 11:38 am

Charisse Spencer, 64, grew up in southeast Virginia during the 1960s civil rights movement.

Back then, the area of Portsmouth, Va., where her family lived — Cavalier Manor — was one of the largest black suburbs in the country.

"I could stand in my backyard and listen to Ku Klux Klan meetings," Charisse tells her son, Myles Spencer-Watson, in a StoryCorps conversation recorded in 2009. "And in my young mind, I'd imagine these ghostly demons in white sheets with their eyes being black holes and —"

"Your imagination is too far, I'm sorry," Myles, then 17, says jokingly.

"But it wasn't that far off," Charisse says. "That's a real prominent memory in my head."

She says her father was a federal employee of the U.S. Navy and was not able to be involved in civil rights work. So her mother, Clara, grew politically active in the struggle for social justice.

"She became the frontman in the public eye," Charisse says. "And by the time I was in the fifth grade, my parents told me I was going to integrate an elementary school in a white neighborhood not too far away. And there were going to be five of us that were doing it. So we'd walk about 2 to 3 miles from Cavalier Manor."

They were harassed and antagonized along the way.

"Some days, gangs of white boys would spit at us, throw cigarettes at us, they'd have growling dogs," she says. "And you just kind of hunched together, and you just kept going."

"Y'all didn't want to fight back?" her son asks.

"They wanted you to fight back, 'cause if you fought back then you could get kicked out," she says. "But your parents are telling you, 'You got to do this because if you can just withstand this, things are going to change for everybody.' So you just grit your teeth and hang in there, you know. That's a lot of strength to ask for a child. But we did really good at that school. We had to. We were representing our whole race."

Now, Charisse wants to hand down her civil rights legacy to her son so it can continue.

"So you're saying I gotta pass this on?"

"Yeah."

"I have no choice?" Myles says, facetiously.

She laughs. "Hopefully you'll be inspired with that and have a lot of pride in it, and keep up the struggle."

"I do," he says.

Produced for Morning Edition by Kerrie Hillman

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Hey, it's Friday, time for StoryCorps. And this morning, a mother talks about growing up African-American in the 1960s. Charisse Spencer told her son Myles about her childhood in Cavalier Manor in Portsmouth, Va. It was, for a time, one of the largest black suburbs in the country.

CHARISSE SPENCER: I could stand in my backyard and listen to Ku Klux Klan meetings. And in my own mind, I'd imagine these ghostly demons in white sheets with their eyes being black holes. And...

MYLES SPENCER-WATSON: Your imagination is too far. I'm sorry (laughter).

SPENCER: But it wasn't that far off. That's a real prominent memory in my head. Daddy was a civilian employee at the U.S. Navy, so it was illegal for him to be involved in civil rights work. So my mother, Clara...

SPENCER-WATSON: She was holding it down.

SPENCER: Yup.

SPENCER-WATSON: (Laughter).

SPENCER: She became the frontman in the public eye. And by the time I was in the fifth grade, my parents told me I was going to integrate an elementary school in the white neighborhood not too far away. And there were going to be five of us that were doing it. So we walk about 2 to 3 miles from Cavalier Manor over to...

SPENCER-WATSON: Whoa - 2 to 3 miles.

SPENCER: Yeah. That wasn't a big deal then.

SPENCER-WATSON: You know you couldn't get me to do that (laughter).

SPENCER: Yes, I know you can't do that. In any case, we'd walk 2 to 3 miles over to Academy Park Elementary every day - every day. Some days, gangs of white boys would spit at us, throw cigarettes at us. They'd have growling dogs. And you just kind of hunched together, and you just kept going.

SPENCER-WATSON: Y'all didn't want to fight back?

SPENCER: They wanted you to fight back because if you fought back, then you could get kicked out. But your parents are telling you, you got to do this because if you can just withstand this, things are going to change for everybody. So you just grit your teeth and hang in there. You know, that's a lot of strength to ask for a child. But we did really good at that school. We had to. We were representing our whole race. And I want you to know about it, so I can give that legacy to you, so it can continue, you know?

SPENCER-WATSON: So you're saying I got to pass this on?

SPENCER: Yeah (laughter).

SPENCER-WATSON: I have no choice (laughter).

SPENCER: No choice. Hopefully, you know, you'll be inspired with that and have a lot of pride in it and keep up the struggle.

SPENCER-WATSON: I do.

INSKEEP: Charisse Spencer and her son Myles Spencer-Watson. Their conversation was recorded in Norfolk, Va., and will be archived at the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.