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´╗┐DAVID WOLFFORD: David Wolfford, and I am here with Mr. Fred Willis. It's the 19th of August, 2002. We are at his home in Louisville, Kentucky. Mr. Willis, would you just kind of give us a bit about your background, where you're from, where you grew up.

FRED WILLIS: I grew up in Columbia, Kentucky, and I was born in the 5th of December 1938 to a, I was a, my parents are Earl and Genevieve Willis. I went to the old, I guess, Jackman High School there as a grade school student for the first through the eighth grade and then one or two, one and a half years of high school before the school burned down for whatever reason. I don't know, I think 1:00it was a four-room frame building. They had all twelve grades there. When the school burned, of course we didn't have a school to go to. At the time they put us in, we went to school in a house and a church, and I think two of the churches in the community served as school houses, and then there was a house, a dwelling that served as a school house for a period of time. I can't recall the dates nor anything. But that's where we went to school there for I guess six months or something there before they Brown versus Wade I guess decision that was before the Supreme Court. And of course our parents were very instrumental in getting the suit started, and also there were some white people in Columbia 2:00that were very instrumental in this too. The old man Alvin Lewis, Morris Epperson, these are just a few, just a couple of people that I can remember that would call my dad up to the side and encourage him to follow through with this. I can't recall all this, and I wasn't privileged to all of it.

DW: Why do you think those people were supportive of the suit?

FW: I think they were just people who knew the community and were interested in the community to see that we weren't involved in a bunch of stuff like other cities. I remember was it Sturgis, Kentucky where they had all the problems. I 3:00think they were very concerned that this wouldn't happen to this town. I can't recall all these names. It's just a couple of names that I knew.

DW: Did those same people or others like them, white, the whites that were supportive, did they get together when any kind of meeting happened?

FW: I don't know. I really don't know.

DW: You were in high school, young high school at the time.

FW: Yes, and I don't know. But my dad was a truck driver, a local driver so he was, he saw these people every day, and I'm sure that he was called off to the side and said things, things were said to him that weren't privileged to anybody else. But I know that when we went to school, some of the teachers were very supportive. There was a Miss Rosenbaum that was a real good just very 4:00supportive of me.

DW: This is a teacher.

FW: Yes.

DW: This was at the Adair County High School.

FW: Adair County High School, yes.

DW: Once?

FW: Once we integrated, yes.

DW: Okay. How did you feel that support? In what way was she supportive?

FW: You could tell, and then she was say things to my parents and she knew my dad, and it wasn't just a rush out and tell him, but when she would see him, she would say things to him. They were very supportive. I know me being a son of a truck driver they had us all kind of us into a driver education class. Some of the people were saying, some of the people were asking my dad well, what are they doing with your kid in a driver education class when he drives your truck. But this was, I guess it was one of those things I'm just glad to be here. But 5:00this was a question and then of course they plugged us into agricultural class there, and some of my friends were farmers but other than that, I don't know. I did real well until I thought I was grown and then my grades slacked off, but then I was able to.

DW: Right. Tell me a little bit more about the Jackman School building.

FW: The best I can remember it was a four-room, I think, four-room school, four-room building with an auditorium with sliding doors that would close and could be divided into classrooms. But when they needed them, assembly or something, they could open those things up and it made one big room. I had pot-bellied stove, and of course their deal was to throw the coal for the stove 6:00to make it turn red, and that's what we had to do. We had to stoke the fire, keep it warm. The teachers, I can't remember, oh Miss Wilma Brown. Have you talked to her?

DW: No, I haven't.

FW: Okay, now she was instrumental in this suit also. She lives here in Louisville.

DW: Wilma Brown.

FW: Yeah. I saw her about four months ago at a wake for a friend of mine. I don't know her. She's in, I'm sure she's in the phone book. But then of course we had just some of the teachers that I can vaguely remember, old man Shelton. He was from down around Madisonville some place. Then we had another guy from 7:00down that way, Traylor, Professor Traylor. He was from down there around Princeton or someplace. Of course my uncle taught there for a while too at Jackman before he moved to Louisville.

DW: What's his name?

FW: Robert Ewing. He was a teacher there and I. Bomer, now he, I don't think he ever taught there. He was more out in the outlying areas, out in the rural schools there. You know Columbia's rural, but this is even ruraler than Columbia. He taught out in the rural, and I'm just trying to think of these other teachers that we might have had. There was another lady, we got a, for some reason or other we got a lot of teachers from Louisville. I don't know, Miss Crowe, she was a teacher had come down from Louisville also. But I can't 8:00remember the rest of these people. I don't know. For some reason or another some of the students, older students might have acted as teachers or something. I can't remember.

DW: Could you, how would you describe your education at Jackman?

FW: Old books. No modern books. We got the hand-me-down books. The books that we used were probably outdated by, we were probably the third people that used them because I'm sure that the white schools got the better books there. While we're talking about that, I lived within the stone's distance of the old Columbia High School. I guess we just lived not very far, and we would walk past the school and not in a direct proximity, but we would walk within two 9:00blocks of this school to go to Jackman. The white kids would ride by on the buses, and we would be walking to school now. If we were fortunate enough to have a car, well, the parents would take us, but not many people in that community had a car at that time. We're talking fifty years ago, forty-five at the most because well, longer than that because I am going to Columbia to a class reunion at Adair County High in a couple of weeks, the fiftieth class reunion there. This, I don't know how long you're going to be there, but we're going to be down there at our class reunion in a couple of weeks if you might want to think about that.

DW: Um hmm.

FW: You might be able to get some perspective from some of the white kids. I 10:00don't know.

DW: Right. Right. Tell me a little bit about your father and how he got involved with this suit.

FW: I have, well, he was part of the NAACP. He was the president, local chapter president of the NAACP.

DW: Did he begin the NAACP down there?

FW: Yes, I'm sure he did because he was, he was the guy that was always outside the community and would go out and come back because he was a truck driver. He'd come to Louisville five days a week or I guess back then two days one week and three the next. So he was always going out of the community, coming back. Of course we were privileged with having a black community paper, the Pittsburgh Courier that and the Louisville Defender that brought us information in. So we were always privileged to some black newspaper information. I think just the 11:00idea of knowing that we were taxpayers in that town, or he was a taxpayer to see his kids have to walk to school at, and I guess it just bothered him. It was a sign of the times. He didn't particularly care for it, and my dad was a strong man. He was very strong in his beliefs in his Christian beliefs and everything else. So I think that's mostly part of it that he just believed, he knew it was wrong for us to be getting a substandard education, going to a substandard school, and someone had to step up and do something, and I think he just, he was instrumental in doing it.

DW: You think his job, the fact that he's traveling around, driving the truck, do you think that that had something to do with motivating him a little bit, seeing other places.

FW: I think so. I think that seeing that just seeing what was happening in our 12:00town and seeing that you don't have to be a rocket scientist to know that if these kids are going to this school--. These kids are going to that school, and they're riding buses and these kids are walking right past one--. One group is riding and one group is walking, but when I see my property tax, my taxes are no different from your taxes. My tax money is going to support, going into the kitty, but you can't put anything back into it. That's pretty much true today. But anyway, I think that was it. I think it was just the idea, and of course there's this thing as it moved on and encouragement and the progress that was being made and the stuff that was going on, the things that were going on that they were able to just really keep this thing going. Then of course they got in touch with Crumlin here because he was, I think he was a state lawyer, the top 13:00lawyer for the NAACP in the state of Kentucky. Then this thing began to, because I remember when they went down, and they sent, of course they had to have, they couldn't just--of course things are coming back to me now as I'm talking about this, but they couldn't just file a suit for us to get in. They had to have a confrontation. So they march us out to the school and then they'd come out there and read this, you can't come in. Well, then that was the beginning of the suit.

DW: When they took you to the school to, you had to be turned down in order to file suit, what was that like? Do you remember those experiences?

FW: Well, no. Other than being, all the white kids sitting around looking at us like we come from Mars or something. Other than that being a youngster like that, being put into a situation like this it wasn't, the best I can remember it 14:00wasn't an ideal situation because I knew quite a few of these white kids because I, we lived in a little enclave there being the only--. Well, it was only two black families in my little enclave. My, all my neighbors surrounding were white. So I knew Don Yates and Tommy Hagen and all these guys. We were, when we were small, we played together. But as we grow and then you go different ways for whatever reasons, but these kids used to walk by my house all the time. As we got older then when they'd come back or it was, we would jump on them or they would try to jump on us. It was kind of a little rivalry fighting thing. But it was never, and as we got older of course all this disappeared too. But yeah, we'd go out there, and I can't remember when we rode, I think maybe the 15:00buses refused to pick us up. I'm more than sure that's what happened. Our parents took us out there. Someone took us out there. I think my father in law might have took a bunch of us out there to the school. I think that was part of turning us down. He was a guy that, my wife's dad, now he was, he worked at a store downtown. So worked at Merman's department store, so he was downtown all the time with these. Everybody in town knew the guy. Of course in that town everybody knew everybody anyway. But he was talking buddies with these guys. I'm sure that he was getting a little encouragement too from the same group of people saying hey, your kids need an education. They should be out there. There's nothing wrong with these kids going to school together. They play together all summer so why can't they go to school. Why can't they go to school?

DW: Would you say that on the whole at this point and before, did the blacks 16:00and whites tend to play together on the street or in baseball games and stuff like that?

FW: No, not so much.

DW: You were an exception because of where you lived.

FW: Yeah and then there was other white, other areas where the white people lived and black kids and white kids kind of lived together, played together. So it wasn't really a, of course we realized that there was a difference in the way that we were treated and different things that happened in every day life. But you did, most kids, but not most kids but quite a few kids played with white, black kids played with white kids. White kids played with black kids.

DW: Do you think that paid off when you did finally make it to Adair County High? I mean, did, were there some whites that were supportive because they knew you before or?

FW: Well, it's probably like today that secretly or when they would be out by 17:00themselves, they would say, but when they got among other whites then it was kind of a standoff feel. But as time went on there were quite a few guys that, even right now today, I run across some of these guys that I went to school with and we talk. There are guys, a buddy of mine right here in Louisville, Richard Rogers, I see him. I stopped out on the interstate and talked to him for an hour one day. Then another guy down there, Bill. Of course we knew him early on, but even now today when I go to Columbia and I see Bill and a conversation of anything and everything. Just quite a few of these guys that we do and then there were some guys that were just, openly friendly I thought. I can remember them. I know there's--well, there's a guy Sullivan, Thurston Sullivan there that was just overly friendly. He didn't live in Columbia, but he lived out in 18:00the rural area. He was overly friendly. So a lot of people were, I just thought real friendly, and it made you suspicious because I don't know about this guy.

DW: What was the, do you remember the white reaction to the lawsuit?

FW: No. I don't. Being young like that I didn't really pay that much attention to it. Back again I didn't see any reprisal against my dad.

DW: No, he was never threatened or?

FW: If he was, we never knew about it or nobody ever threatened to burn our house down or my dad went to work every day. Of course I guess it was the people he worked for didn't live in Columbia, but I don't think there was a--. If it was, he until the day he died he never mentioned anything like that, any 19:00threats or anything.

DW: The story in Adair County's pretty unique, in Columbia because of the Jackman School burning down right before the Supreme Court made this decision. Do you think the black community desired to go to school with the whites init--before that happened?

FW: No, I don't. I don't think it was ever, I don't think it was ever a, to just by, I can't speak because I was just a youngster. But I don't think there was ever a desire to, not that I ever picked up on a desire to go to white schools or desire to do this. It could be. It could've been, but I never, if it was there, I never saw it. If I saw it, I didn't recognize it and if I 20:00recognized it, I don't remember it. But the best I can figure out is that I don't think there was ever desire to go to integrated schools. I don't think it crossed most people's mind. Of course we were privileged with information from the North with these papers, newspapers and everything. I don't think that anybody ever, I know my dad at the time he had went to, of course my dad was in what they called a Three-C camp back in the day, the conservation something.

DW: Yeah, the Conservation Civilian Corps.

FW: And he being out in California, and of course they had all of them different units. Black and white were in different units. When they came back to Kentucky, he was, he used to tell me, he told about how he was a machinery 21:00operator, and they had these. Blacks couldn't operate machinery in daylight hours, they had to operate this machinery at night. Well, then he started driving a truck and he went to Ohio. Of course he had to sleep in a truck stop in kind of a bunk-type--he just went in and got him a room, and he was talking about the black guys and the white guys were sleeping together. Well, this was in the same room in the same building. This was kind of unique to him. I'm just a little bitty fellow there, and I remember him talking about this. So but other than that, there was not much integration, intermingling of the races other than maybe kids playing together. Just every once in a while you'd hear of some black guy and some white women getting together and I don't know. I don't know of the white people's reaction to it, but the black people's reaction to it was kind of a mixed thing. I remember my parents there was this guy, and 22:00he was kin, he was relations to my mother. He and some woman from down in Cumberland County got together, and he left his wife and they wound up going to. Of course it was against the law I guess in Kentucky then for blacks and whites to marry I think. I'm not for sure. Anyway, they wound up going to Massachusetts there and he got up there, and of course things didn't work out for him. So I remember him talking about my dad and a bunch of his friends raised enough money to get him back to Columbia. He had to come back. Of course I guess he had to get on the streets. But I don't think, if there was a lot of race mixing, it was very small, and it was kind of a subtle thing. Like today we walk anywhere in this country now and you'll see it. But back then you didn't see a lot of race mixing in this part of the country or anywhere else 23:00that I knew of, and now, of course nobody pays any attention or I don't. I guess some people do.

DW: Much more accepted now. Right. Why do you think the, once the, again it was a unique situation. The school burned down, and so many students had to attend school in these houses or in churches or whatever. Why do you think the school board was reluctant to go ahead and to take the blacks in at its first opportunity?

FW: I think that there was probably that element out there in society that said no way because even, I kind of vaguely remember that maybe when the grade school, of course the high school went first. I think maybe when the grade school started there was a little resistance, a little demonstration. I can't remember now. My younger brothers went to grade school over there, but I think there might have been a little resistance to it because then you're talking '57 24:00to '60, and I left in '60 going to service. So it was, I can't remember well just, I vaguely remember some people over there maybe going out there standing in front of the school door or something.

DW: Do you think, when do you think integration would've happened in Columbia or in Adair County if Jackman had not burned down?

FW: I don't think it would've been that long. I really don't there. I think with the ending of the Korean War and the beginning of the Vietnam War, and I, I just don't, I think maybe four years at the most because I think that people 25:00would have gotten fed up with the secondary school, with kids going over to that building. I don't think it would've been long. I think reasonably economically it would've been almost impossible for them to maintain that school there, and I just don't think the board would've stood for it. I don't think the community, I think people like my dad, like my father in law, like Irving Bomer, these people would not have, they would not have stood for it. My dad like I say I don't think he would've stood for us to have went out there and went to a school of that caliber without and I'm just--. I think that there would've been a whole ruckus there, and I think there were people in the community who would've stood up and said--. I mean not only black, white too. I think there were 26:00white people in that community who would've stood up and said.

DW: When did you move out? You said you went in the service in 1960. Is that when you left town?

FW: That's when I left town.

DW: Then when did you end up in Louisville?

FW: I ended up in Louisville in '72. I stayed in service for eight years, and I worked for the government for four.

DW: Is your wife's from Columbia as well?

FW: Yes.

DW: What's her name, maiden name?

FW: Taylor. Jean Taylor.

DW: Oh okay. How would you, I guess you've made it back there several times.

FW: I go all the time. I do. We still have property down there and we go down there all the time.

DW: How would you describe race relations in that area since?

FW: I think it's just fine. We, our homeplace there, my brother's cleaned it off. They go down there and mow it all the time. They've got it nice and flat and everything. We go down there and you go up there sometimes, and there's black guys and white guys and everybody else sitting around talking, and I'm 27:00sure that there are some, there are still some animosity there toward black people, and I understand some animosity towards white people. So it's a two-way street. You still have this, but overall it's pretty good. I've always said over my life there that Columbia was very unique. There were a lot of good white people in Columbia. A lot of good white people. I couldn't begin to name these people, and even to this day, even to this very minute I see black guys get by with stuff in Columbia that they couldn't get by nowhere else in the world.

DW: For example?

FW: Just crazy stuff, just old crazy stuff that you would think, are you out of your, have you lost your mind or something? But I, and whether it's the law or 28:00anything else dealing with them but for some reason or another there was a, there was a, I thought that Columbia was just a nice place. It's a, to me it's not a nice place to live because you couldn't make a living there. But if I was retired or had a, could live comfortable, I would live there. My wife don't want to go back, but I'd like to go back there in another year, but I don't think she will ever go back. But I'd like to go back because it's laid back. It's easy living in.

DW: Small town community.

FW: Small town, yes. You miss when you talk because my sister still lives there. Both my sisters still live there and my wife's mom. She lives, spend some time down there. She lives between here and down there, and then I have a sister in law down there and a host of relatives, but it's a good town. I think 29:00it would be a good town to raise your kids in. Like any other town they have their problems. They have their problems and everything else, but it'd be good, no different than from here. You just keep your kids away from it or do your best to anyway. But I don't think the influence down there is any more greater than anything than it is right here. But it was a good town.

DW: Yep.