Jerrelene Williamson, 77, grew up in Spokane in the pre-civil rights era when black families were nearly invisible in mainstream society here. Her lifelong passion has been resurrecting the lost and hidden history of African Americans in Spokane.
She lived through both interesting and tough times, and her life story provides examples on how not to grow bitter, despite injustice and financial challenges.
Here’s an excerpt from a recent “Wise Words” interview with Williamson.
•There were nine children in our family. I’m the third from the oldest. My father was a janitor at the Old National Bank. I remember him talking about (board chairman) Mr. Witherspoon, and that he was a real gentleman. Even though my father was just the janitor, Mr. Witherspoon treated him with respect. My father didn’t say too much about the other people in the bank.
•Later on, my mother went to work. She worked at the State Theatre in the cloak room and she worked out at Natatorium Park checking hats and coats.
•My first job was at Porter’s dress shop downtown. This was right out of high school. I went there as a person to press the clothes, but then they found out I had taken typing in school and they put me up there to do the bookkeeping. They couldn’t let it be known, because they didn’t hire black people for things like that.
•I learned to manage the little bit of money I did get. I saved some and gave my mom some, because I was still living at home. That was the ethic. Parents would say, “When you get a job, you help out at home.” Eight other brothers and sisters? Yeah. You give mom some money to buy the groceries.
•A lot of people live at home now, and they don’t contribute because the parents don’t expect them to contribute. Sometimes kids will just do it, but they more or less just buy the stuff they want to buy. What do they learn if they contribute while still living at home? They learn it’s not all about me. And I can’t do everything I want and not think about others in my family.
•Money is one of the most important things in a marriage. We’ve been married for 59 years. In the beginning, all of the money was coming from Sam’s work. At first, he had his own janitorial service, and then he was a floor doctor and did hardwood floors, and then he worked at Playfair (Race Course) and had the maintenance department. At about the time he started out at Playfair, I was starting to work for Safeway. We had the two incomes and we did pretty well on it. He’s a saver. I’m a saver to some extent, but I’m a spender. If there’s something that somebody needs, I will get it. It was a good combination. When I ran out of money, he had it.
•I can remember one time when we didn’t have money, and we were trying to get ready for Christmas. It was before I went to work for Safeway, and before Sam went to work for the track. We had five little kids then. Two Swabbies (department store) ran an ad. They had had a fire. We went out there and found these great big stuffed-animal lions. It was a fire sale, so I think we only paid about $3 a piece for the lions. We brought them home. They smelled smoky. We sprayed the lions trying to get the smell away. The kids were just as delighted as they could be.
•I will never forget those lions. I think of those lions today. It’s a joyful memory, because we didn’t know what we were going to do. A door was opened and there was a way.
•I was 33 when I took the Safeway job. I went to work because my youngest went to school, and I didn’t have to be there during the day. I learned quite a bit about money. My first check was about $135 and that was for a week. I can’t remember what it was when I left, but it was way higher. There were strikes and things like that with the union to get better wages.
•When I was working, every morning I would put on my makeup. In fact, I did it even when I wasn’t working. I won’t go to the store now without putting on my makeup. I see people in the stores now, and I can’t believe they would come out looking like that. They wear everything. People in short shorts. Sweatpants. The women with bodies hanging out of their clothes. That’s an ethic my mother taught to me: “Keep yourself looking nice, wherever you go, whatever you do. You feel better. And the person who sees you feels better.”
•Difficult times I survived? One was when my husband had a heart attack. I don’t remember the year, but it was when he worked out at Playfair. He had a heart attack and had to go to the hospital and that stopped the money. He was pretty young. The only thing that saved us was the fact I worked at Safeway and had good health benefits.
•Faith got me through that time. Faith, prayer, church. And the family.
•Another difficult time? This was around 1966. This man was waiting in line at Safeway. He was about 50 years old. I waited on him. I got to smiling. I gave him his change. And he said to me: “I wish I had a baby who looked like you. I’d take it out and drown it.” I turned around and went back to my work, but the tears were stinging my eyes. I couldn’t believe this man said that. Actually, it was a little more vulgar than that. But I’ve always changed it around to say what I’m telling you, but it was a little more vulgar than that, but I’ve never wanted to say the other part of it.
•Why didn’t I get bitter? It’s not in my nature. My mother used to say, “People are foolish. Don’t pay any attention them.”
•It comes easy for me to forgive people. It’s important because as long as you keep that animosity and anger toward somebody, you are only hurting yourself. It comes back on you and makes you bitter. You know you’ve forgiven someone by the feeling in your own heart. You have a weight lifted from you.
•Yes, I have forgiven the man in the Safeway line. When I talk about it, tears come to my eyes. I know that this is a sign of having forgiven.