Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Page News and Courier Q&A: Audrey Tutt Smith

We do these Q&A sessions in the Page News and Courier each week. I've sort of unofficially become the "Q&A Guy" since I do them in every issue. I had met this lady at the high school's MLK Day event that I covered. She was the emcee of the event and mentioned that she had attended segregated schools as a child. A few weeks later, when bringing up interview ideas, I realized that it was Black History Month and brought this up.

The newspaper doesn't have a large online presence at the moment, so this isn't available anywhere except the actual newspaper. I guess I'm trying to change that - I created a Facebook page for the newspaper and am trying to make it more social-media friendly. I thought this was a cool Q&A and wanted people to see it, so it's here in the blog for everybody to read.

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By Chris Slater
Staff Writer

LURAY — Forcing back tears, Audrey Tutt Smith thinks back to the segregated childhood she and other black children were forced to live. Smith, 78, grew up in a world that today’s generation only reads about in history books. The black school in Luray only went to the 11th grade, meaning that if you wanted a high school diploma, you needed to move to a boarding school in Manassas. Smith did that, but tried to not let the tears show when describing her father’s vow that she would graduate from Luray High. 

"He said that when I finish the 11th grade, he was going to take me to Luray High School and leave me on the doorstep," Smith said. "But, that was not to be. He died when I was 15, and my mother sent me to Manassas. I graduated in 1957." 

During Black History Month, the Page News and Courier sat down with Smith — a former assistant superintendent of Page County schools, with a 53-year career in education — to discuss attending segregated schools, racism she encountered as a child, Martin Luther King, Jr., and more. Excerpts follow: 

What was life like in Luray when you were a kid? 

That is a good question, especially since that was over 60 years [ago] when I was a kid. I grew up in the west end of Luray. At that time, and it may still be today, that part of town was known by white citizens as "The Hill." When I was young and growing up in Luray, everything I can remember was segregated. The schools, churches, drug stores and soda fountains. In our neighborhood during that time, family, church and receiving an education were all very important to our families. Our parents were supportive of each other, and we were taught very early, and it was required, that we be respectful to the elders. Any adult in the community could correct us and if any kid — I never did — if any kid was disrespectful, they would take the kid home and let the parents know what they did. They knew all of the families. I don’t think that’s the case anymore. 

Can you describe the segregated school system you were a part of? 

Regardless of where you lived in Page County, Luray, you had to attend the schools that were designated for your race, either black or white. As it was referred to back in the day, schools were "separate, but equal." But, they were never equal. It’s almost impossible to say separate, but equal. I cannot remember anything that our black school had that was equal, or near-equal, to the white schools. I think that it was overt; there was no doubt about it, we had to attend our colored school — we had one school and that was Andrew Jackson School. And that still stands on West Main Street. In fact, it was not known as an elementary or high school, it was just Andrew Jackson School. Yes, it was obvious that it was overt racism. That was the way it was, and we couldn’t change it. We had no choice, and our families didn’t have the ways or means to change it at the time. 

Did you realize as a child that you were being discriminated against because of your skin color? 

Yes, I knew we were being separated based on our skin color as a child. There were many things and places we were not allowed to do and or participate. We could not attend the white schools, as I said. Seating in the theater, we had a small section in the balcony. It was a separate entrance. You would buy your ticket and go upstairs. To the right, as you went up the ramp, it was — I can’t remember how many seats, but that’s where we sat. And they had a lady who would take our tickets. And, she was mean. She was very hateful. If we would laugh too loud, or you know how kids are, she would put you out. She would let you know that you had to leave. The bathrooms were separated and marked "For Colored" on the side where we entered. That’s the way it was in the theaters. Even though we had separate entrances and everything, we still had to pay the same amount for our tickets. We were allowed in the drug store. If they had a soda fountain, we could buy a soda or whatever it was they were selling, but we had to leave. We could not sit down, we had to buy it and leave. That’s the way it was at the drug store. To me, that was evident and made me know we were being judged by our color. We just knew it. 

Were there some open-minded people, who weren’t as prejudiced in those days? 

I think that there were those who were racist and felt inherently superior to blacks. They felt that everybody had their own place, and our place was to be separate. I think we had some who felt that way. Then, there were those who felt it was the law and so, they had to abide by the law. There were others, I think, just being passed down by generation, "This is the way it is." To my knowledge, there was no social encounters between the two races at that time. You just knew it: "This is your place. You belong here and that’s the way it is." Probably, there were those who knew it was not right and did not agree with it, but had to go along with it and not against the law that prevailed at the time. 

Were there any particular moments of racism as a child that stick out to you? 

School. This is what I’m very passionate about. As I mentioned, we had one school for minority children. At one point in time, Andrew Jackson School had grades first through seventh. Four rooms in the school. At one point, parents in our community decided that it was not right, it wasn’t good and it was unacceptable that the children could only go to the seventh grade. They approached the school board, so the school board then agreed that they would add a grade each year. Not all at once. "We’ll add the eighth grade, the next year the ninth grade" and so forth. My older brother Walter was one of the students that was in the seventh grade. He often said that he sat in the same desk from the eighth grade to the eleventh grade — four years in the same desk, but not the same grade. 

If the school only went to the 11th grade, how did you get a diploma? 

Until then, families who wanted their children to get a high school diploma had to send their kids to live with relatives or to a boarding school in New Jersey. Some of the [places] were Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. and New York, and maybe some other states. If you had extended family in one of those states and wanted your child to further their education, then you sent them there. Many of the children during that time completed only the 11th grade, because their parents did not have family in other states or places they could send them to live. So, in the early '50s our parents again approached the school board. So, in the early '50s Page County School Board offered to send any child in the 11th grade that wanted to get a high school diploma to a boarding school which was in Manassas, Va. They would pay a fee of $500 per child. That is the only financial assistance that we received. Our families were left to secure transportation to and from the school, and other necessities for living away from home. Ultimately, many of the black families were unable to afford the extra cost, and their children only completed 11 years of school. That was so unfortunate that children dropped out because they could not afford to go to school. 

Were there any teachers you remember fondly? 

In my 11 years at Andrew Jackson School, we were lacking. The furniture, books and supplies were hand-me-downs from the white schools. We had no lunch room; we ate at our desk in the classroom or went home for lunch. Despite all that we were deprived of, we had dedicated parents and teachers. They instilled in us that education was the key to being successful. But you had to work hard, and in many cases harder. You had to be good, but good wasn’t enough. You had to be better. Our teachers set high standards. There is one teacher that stands out in my mind and many of the students. That’s Mrs. Elsie Dotson. She’s still alive today. She’s in her 90s, lives in Deleware with her granddaughter. Up until a year ago, we were in contact with her. She has Alzheimer’s now. I cannot say enough good things about that lady. I was even sort of afraid of her in the seventh grade. It wasn’t scared, it was that she expects so much. But, we gave it back to her. She always told us — and I took it all the way through college and up to today — and, if you ponder on it, you can understand what she was saying. She told us, "pick your friends, don’t let them pick you." You need to decide what are you doing, where are you going, what are your goals. That has stayed with me, and I have given that advice to others. 

How did the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. affect you personally? 

That was one of the greatest things, I think, that happened, to be living when this history was being made. I think he accomplished a lot for me and others. Being able to walk through this history with where he was at. The one thing that was a fear that I and others had — and it came to pass — was that he was going to be assassinated. That was very sad. I believed in his non-violence. His non-violence approach made me very proud to be a part of what he did best — fighting for our freedom. 

What are your thoughts on Black History Month? Could more be done? 

Personally, I do support Black History Month. I’m happy that the time is given, nationwide, to acknowledge the history and contributions. However, I really feel it is an injustice to our race to limit this very rich and contributing history to one month a year. I feel it is an injustice and what appears to happen is that we celebrate for a whole month — newspapers, television, whatever — and then at the end of February we put it on the shelf. It stays there until next year, when we pick it back up. Like all other history, it should be going for 12 months a year and put in the proper perspective.

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