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.
Williamson is the seventh interview in the yearlong “Wise Words in Troubled Times” series that runs the first Saturday of the month in the Today section of The Spokesman-Review.
Here’s the complete transcript of the interview.We didn’t have a whole lot of money. There were nine children in our family. I’m the third from the oldest. At the grocery store, we had a tab. We had to put our groceries on there. When my father got paid, we paid the tab and got more groceries. It wasn’t a supermarket, it was just a little grocery store. It was called Frank’s.My father worked all the time in order to raise all the children. And later on, my mother went to work after the youngest were a certain age. 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. I went there as a person to press the clothes, but then they found out I had taken typing in school and I had taken different things in school, and they put me up there to do the bookkeeping, unknown to everybody else because it wasn’t done at that time. I was paid the same thing I was when I was a person doing the dresses and putting them out on the floor. I was doing the bookkeeping, but they couldn’t let it be known, because they didn’t hire black people for things like that. That was right out of high school. I graduated in 1950. I learned a lot about math. And I hadn’t been that great in math at school.I learned to be on time getting to your job. And be presentable. Always wear your best clothes to go looking for a job. And I learned to manage the little bit of money I did get. My mother said save some of your money, save some of it. It wasn’t a great amount of money. It was under $100 a week, way under. 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.I thought it was a good ethic. A lot of people live at home now, and they don’t contribute because the parents have more and they don’t expect them to contribute, even though they have a job, parents don’t expect it of them. 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 to do and not think about others in my family.We were a black family living in a white neighborhood on the North side of town. All of our neighbors, they didn’t have anything, and we didn’t have anything, so to speak. We just had the regular things, a house and furniture. We were kids who were friends. Even here in Spokane, a predominantly white place. Our house was there first, because my grandmother bought the house, on 407 E. Broad. She had bought the house and when my father came back here from Chicago with three of the children, we lived in that house. Other houses were newer around there. They were built after our house was there. That’s probably why we didn’t have a whole lot of problems. We were there first. Other parts of the city weren’t exactly that way.My father was a janitor at the Old National Bank and at the old county courthouse. I’m remembering him talking about Mr. Witherspoon and that he was real gentleman. I know that he was from a well-to-do family in Spokane. 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. But Mr. Witherspoon even helped him out some time. He was a class act person.I had hand-me-downs from my sister. I don’t think I really minded it so much, because there were clothes to wear. When I got to high school it was a little different and I wanted something new, like kids do. My sister by that time was out of school and working at a dress store, Rusan’s, I think. She was doing the stocking and things like that. She was also working at the YWCA at the desk, signing in people. That wasn’t done, either. Black people said, “How’d she get in there? How did she do that?” I’m OK, but my sister Mary was a whip. She was born smart. She got that job. Black people couldn’t get those good jobs. They had the menial jobs.At Rogers, my best friend was Russlynne Hagen. She was somewhat of a relation to Wallace Hagen. We went all through school together from the first grade on. I always had a good feeling about Rogers because they were friendly. Friendly teachers and most of the kids were friendly, too. There weren’t that many black students. Russlynne and I were the only two in our graduating class. Our parents let us know we were as good as anybody else and so we didn’t feel we weren’t as good as anybody else.I was 33 when I took the Safeway job. I had all five children then and 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. The tabs for groceries were not nearly as high as when I finished working. Prices just went up. Even my wages when I started changed as I got further along in the job. 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.At first people bought just the staples then all the prepared foods came out and that was something the young wives would get because they might be working, too and they would get foods they could fix quickly. When I first started, you’d have two or three brands on the shelf, plus the Safeway brand, and later on, it was just all kinds of brands on the shelf. Do we need that many brands? According to the people putting them out there, yeah, but I don’t think so!Money is one of the most important things in a marriage. Children come first and then finances. Money can cause so many arguments 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 out there. 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.We knew our kids didn’t have the resources to pay their way through college, so we did it for them, with the help of scholarships. Jennifer, she was very smart, she got scholarships. My son James was smart and a good sportsman. He got his scholarship through sports. They wouldn’t have been able to do it without scholarships. It was a pretty huge sacrifice, but if it’s got to be done, do it. My folks never went to college. I never went to college. Sam never went to college. We felt like that was the road to a better life and that’s why we sacrificed for it. My folks couldn’t have even thought of college, but they were smart people. Sam’s folks couldn’t have thought of college, but they were smart people. You go to high school, you get out, you get a job. That’s the way it was.How do we feel about our investment in college now? It’s great. All of them are doing well. It was worth the while. I think about the student loans now and wonder how those kids are going to pay back those loans. They’ll be stuck with them the rest of their lives. Couldn’t the government do something about those loans?What have I learned about surviving in hard financial times from being in a long marriage? Caring, for one thing. Learning to do with what you have. And not so many credit cards. We do have them, but we don’t have so much on credit cards. We’ve learned don’t overspend with what you don’t have.Difficult times I survived? One of them 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 they had good health benefits. Faith got me through that time. Faith, prayer, church. And the family. They were concerned. My family and his family helped us. His family was still around at that time. He came from a family of 12. There were nine in mine. He was the youngest. I was the older of a young family and he’s the younger of an older family.Do I have a special prayer I say? Yes. “In all thy ways acknowledge Him. He shall direct thy path.” That’s my prayer. It’s small. It’s short. We say it sometimes after we say grace at the table. My children all say it now. The meaning? Take over everything, Lord, and show us the way to go.You’d have to have come up in those times to realize that white people just didn’t want to be close to black people. They didn’t want me to work in the store when I first worked for Safeway. I have to tell you this story of something that happened in the store – and it’s in my book. I started in Safeway in 1965. This was around 1966. I was waiting on people. This man was waiting in line. 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. That’s the worst thing that happened. 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. That’s what he said. I didn’t know what to think.That story is in my book (“African Americans in Spokane”) and over in the Black Museum in Seattle. They interviewed me for that and that story is there. The people who interviewed me gasped, just like you did. Somebody said that? Yeah. But worse things have been said to other people.Another woman waited in line to come through my check stand. And then when she got up there she said, “Uh-uh” and turned away. She had all these groceries. Why did she wait all that time in line?People began to like me, I have to say it. Why Jerry, she checks fast; she gets us through. I started out at Sprague and Stone, where the bingo parlor is now. I was there for 10 years. Then I went to the one at Sprague and Pines and then I went to Argonne after that and retired from Argonne.Why didn’t I get bitter? It’s not in my nature. I figured I was going to let everyone know that I can do this. I’m going to make it. My mother used to say, “People are foolish. Don’t pay any attention them.”How do you not become bitter about this recession? Keep your faith in God, because he’s the only one who can change things. And do the best you can. Keep on keeping on. Keep on doing. Don’t let it flatten you out. Keep on working on it. At the end of the tunnel, there might be a great light.Something needs to be done to help the economy. Something needs to be done. Or we’re lost. I think people need jobs. In my own circle, there are six people I know who are looking for jobs. They want to make it, but if they can’t get jobs, they can’t. I noticed at the Christmas Bureau, people lined up in big numbers to get toys. That shouldn’t happen to people in this country. We’ve been a prosperous country. People are there in Washington to get things solved, but there is too much ego in the House and the Senate and hanging in the balance are we the people. Last week, the House passed a jobs bill. What happened with the Senate? They are not coming together. How can we get anything if they don’t come together? It’s not up to us. It’s not really up to the president. He can’t do what they don’t do. I don’t have a solution. I leave it to the people I elected.How is singing a good thing in a hard time? Singing lifts the soul, especially the words of a song. I even like to hear singing from other people, like on the television. What would the world be if we didn’t have love and music? Those two things. Where would we be? Love first, singing second. If you don’t sing, you can listen to songs. They lift the soul because it changes your day.Some people learn to pray — after they have children. Things change when a person has a child and you are looking out for somebody. That’s when you really start to pray. I went to church and I sang and all that in my early years, but I didn’t really grasp onto prayer until I had children. You’ve got to do something to lead them on the way.How important is family in tough times? Families have a natural way of sticking together, but sometimes it takes a few, or even one in a family, to keep that family together. Mom is usually the one. Fathers do, too, but not as much as mothers. When Mom is gone, it takes someone else strong to keep that family together and keep their hope and faith up. I just hope when I’m gone there will be someone in my family.How important is forgive people? It’s very important to forgive people. It comes easy for me to forgive people. No matter what, it’s never been a hard thing. I can forgive in a minute. I don’t know what that is that’s in me that causes me to do that, but I can forgive in a minute. Everyone is not that way. 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 after you’ve forgiven somebody for something they did.Yes, I have forgiven the man in the Safeway line. I say to myself, “I wonder what happened to him.” Not that I want anything bad to happen to him. I just wonder what happened to him. Does he know how much he devastated my life? Just those few words, how it devastated my life? But I did forgive him. When I talk about it, tears come to my eyes. I know that is one of the signs of having forgiven. I’m not doing that (angry sigh) thing and saying, “That man!” The tears tell me I forgave him. I can’t speak about it without becoming emotional. He was part of my life, but not really a part of my life. He passed through but he taught me something – maybe forgiveness.I can remember one time when we came to a place where we didn’t have money, and we were trying to get ready for Christmas. It was before I went to Safeway and before Sam went to the track out there. He just had his job of floor sanding. And we had little kids then. Two Swabbies ran an ad. They had had a fire in their store. So we said, “Maybe we can go out there and get something.” We went out there and found these great big stuffed animal lions. We brought them home. They smelled smoky. We also got a Beany and Cecil doll for my littlest son. And a couple of dolls for the girls and the lions. We brought them home and I took some spray and sprayed the lions trying to get the smell way. It was sort of like a deodorizer. I got rid of it with a little perfume, too. The kids were little and they were just as delighted as they could be. I will never forget those lions. I think of those lions today. And Beany and Cecil. It was a fire sale, so I think we only paid about $3 a piece for the lions. But at least we were getting something for the kids. The lions were for the two older girls, and the doll was for my youngest girl. And we found something for James, too. It’s a joyful memory, because we didn’t know what we were going to do, and there it was. A door was opened and there was a way. I found something for all of them. Our children have their own families now. They are passing on some of the things that we taught them, whatever it is that we taught them. You don’t know until your children act a certain way. You don’t really know what you’ve passed, but you’ve passed on something to them that’s a good thing.My husband always said, “Always save a little bit of money.” His father passed that onto him. You save something. You get your money, save at least a dime. That’s what he did. And he passed that onto the kids.When I was working, every morning I would get up and put on my makeup. In fact, I did it when I wasn’t working. I wouldn’t go to the store without putting on my makeup. I see people in the stores now 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.”It’s very important getting a job. I can’t believe that people go to get a job looking like they look some time. My youngest son was going to look for a job. I said, “Is that what you’re wearing?” He said, “Well, yeah.” I said, “No, you wear something better than that. You can’t get a job that way.” He went in and put one of his father’s tops on. Even though people themselves doing the interviewing might be sitting there casual, they are not looking for someone looking casual to work in their place. They are looking for someone who looks nice.