Today on WYSO, we begin a journey into Dayton’s history. We’ll hear from Daytonians who share their memories and their hopes and dreams for their community. It’s a series called Senior Voices.
Last summer volunteer interviewers spoke with elders from the Dayton community to preserve and share their stories as part of a collaboration between the Dayton Metro Library, Rebuilding Together Dayton, and WYSO.
This week on Senior Voices, Brenda Shephard recalls her childhood in the segregated South, including an inspirational encounter in 1963. She shared her story with Dayton Metro Library volunteer interviewer, Dana Kragick.
Brenda Shephard (BS): My earliest memories was in Anniston, Alabama. When I was a little girl starting school we lived in a segregated area in Anniston, and I went to school with all Black children. And, I noticed things growing up as far as the differences where we lived and where other people lived in the city, but we always felt safe and grew up with family and neighbors and friends, it was a good childhood.
Dana Kragick (DK): What is your best memory from your childhood?
BS: One of them I can really pick out was Dr. Martin Luther King came to town. My mother had explicitly told us we could not go down to 17th Street Baptist Church to see him. But being the curious child that I was, I went and got one of my best friends, Ruby Nelle Watkins, and we went down. We sung “We Shall Overcome” and I know my mom was afraid, because she didn’t go, it was threatening riots and everything, but being a child you don’t think about being afraid or anything like that, but I tell you what, I got in trouble about it, but when I went to school, I told my teacher and my classmates about my experience, you know, I thought it was just a beautiful thing.
DK: What’s the worst thing you remember about your childhood?
BS: Being poor.
DK: Do you think that was different where you started in Alabama or do you think it was worse when you were her?
BS: Well, we moved to Dayton for a better life, but being poor, a child never forgets that. Being hungry is a scary thing. And that’s why I advocate to help the homeless, to help people that’s less fortunate than me, because I know what it feels like. And you move on and you do better things in spite of being poor, it’s not the worst that can happen to you. It makes you a better person and a stronger person.
DK: So, when did you move up here?
BS: We moved up here in 1967.
DK: So did you find the schools here different than down in Alabama?
BS: They wasn’t segregated.
DK: [Laughter] I guess that would be different!
BS: So seriously, one of the first things I did, in the classroom this girl was sitting in front of me, and I went up to her and I said, “Would you mind,” I didn’t say it like that, I said, “Would you mind if I can touch your hair?” She looked at me, she said, “I guess so.” And she was a white girl with long blonde hair. I had never touched a white person’s hair in my life, in fact, I had never touched a white person. So that stuck in my mind, because coming from a segregated town and city, that was important to me and I explained to her why, you know, I wanted to do that and she said, “It’s ok,” and then we got to be friends and everything like that.
DK: How long do you think it took you to feel comfortable at the school?
BS: Right off the bat, ‘cause I’m the type of person I get to know everybody, Black, white, any color, any nationality, I’m just a person that my mom taught us that everybody’s good until they are not and you treat everybody with love and respect, and that’s the way I was raised.
DK: I love that.
This interview was edited by Community Voices producer Jason Reynolds. Senior Voices is a collaboration between the Dayton Metro Library, Rebuilding Together Dayton, and WYSO. This series is made possible through the generous support of the Del Mar Healthcare Fund of the Dayton Foundation. Jocelyn Robinson coordinated this series as part of Community Voices.