Before The King
This is a true story. Some of the names have been changed to protect those who are still in public office. And their views may have changed toward integration and fairness in the work place. This is my story that I share with many young people in my community.
Leola came out to converse with her aunt early this morning in September. She was expected to be brave today and go to the Army camp near her home to take a typing test along with more young ladies. Leola had taken a dare that she would not walk up with about forty or fifty white girls and type in the same room with them. The entire community was aware of what she planned to do, so there were a few brave souls who followed her. Her colored friends were afraid she would get hurt physically or at least get her feeling hurt. She had made the decision that she could type as well or better than most of the girls in her southern hometown, regardless of what color their skin was.
Leola wore a plain skirt with a white blouse She had on a small round collar with a small ribbon, to match her skirt, tied neatly under the collar. She wore black patent leather pumps with her hair neatly pulled back in a ponytail. Leola rode the bus to her destination and got off and hid behind the other girls who walked on the platform under the tent to be administered the typing test.
The young lady of color was able to pass for what the white people called Red Bones. In this southern town they secretly had a name for every nationality. What was so sad was that everyone who was not too dark to actually be black in those days would put on an application white. Leola was true black, but as she stepped on the platform, she went to the rear where she was accustomed to going and was not noticed until the typing papers were graded and her name was called as passing the test.
As she stepped up on the platform and said, "Here I am," the woman who had given the test looked at her and said, "No, I called Leola Claiborne."
Leola said, "I am Leola Claiborne."
The white woman turned a deep red and turned to the other woman who shared the platform with her. This woman was busy filing papers and slightly looked around and saw Leola. She asked the woman who had tested the girls, "What is the problem?"
"Well, for one thing, she is a nigger, and niggers can't work in an office with white people down here."
The woman who was filing had come from Washington, D. C. to train new typist clerks for positions that badly needed filling.
By the time the woman got nigger out of her mouth, the people who had followed Leola to the Army post made an uneasy circle around her. "Did you hear her?" "She called her a nigger." There were not only black people that surrounded her, but there were some cecireans and a few people that were mixed with Native American and some other nationalities.
The lady from Washington, D.C. looked the other woman directly in the face with disgust and told her in no uncertain words that she would hire Leola immediately. She told Leola to go to the personal office and be sworn in.
Leola had to go to several places before she was sent to the hospital where she was to work. She almost gave up, but a young lady from Texas, who had come all the way to the army base to take the test, befriended her. Jeanette looked at Leola and did not see race or color. She just saw a lonely frighten girl. Jeanette asked her if she wanted to ride and naturally Leola remembered seeing her at the testing site and accepted. When Leola would finish one task she was told to do, the woman would send her on another journey. Jeanette did not leave her. It was after 5:00 in the evening when she was sent home. Some of the doors were closed on her and she had to finish processing the next day. The personnel officers were eventually convinced that she was not going to give up.
The next day Leola was told that she would have to get a physical examination before she could began work on the base. She went to her family doctor, who was white, but not from the south. She told him what was happening to her. He examined her and cleared her for the job. Leola reported to the base and was sent to the hospital where she went to work with about five more girls who had taken the test.
Jeanette was assigned to work in the same office as Leola. Sgt. Bill was not prejudiced at all. They all were there to work as far as he was concerned. A few times the personnel officer moved the white girls one by one into a private office to work as a secretary to an officer, but kept Jeanette, Sarah Daigle and Leola in the admitting office where they came in contact with all types of diseases.
Eventually, Sarah was offered a position in Washington, D.C. They gave her a farewell party and she left. That left Jeanette and Leola along with army personnel who were all white or have white descent. At last, they figured out how close Jeanette and Leola were, so the trouble began for Leola.
Each day Leola brought her lunch to work, because she was well aware she could not go to the dining facility. Jeanette and Leola were sure that the situation had to change sometime, but they dared not walk into the dining facility together. For a while, Jeanette would go into the facility while Leola would wait in the office for the food to come. This lasted a while, and then they both decided to bring lunch and eat together under the trees or stay in the office and work through the lunch period. Another problem was with the water fountain. Leola could not drink from the fountain. At that particular time, Personnel did not see the need for a fountain for the colored because there had not been any colored working in that vicinity. Leola was the first young woman of color to work in an office with white girls at the Army Base. She would bring her own cup or glass and Jeanette would get her water for her.
Jeanette was called into the personnel office and badly criticized for befriending Leola. She was threatened with termination if she did not stop eating with Leola. As soon as Jeanette came back, she told Leola every thing that the personnel officer had told her. Jeanette was angry, but Leola was both angry and frighten. This is the beginning of the harassment for Leola.
Leola was very active in her church. She was a member of the Matron Organization. She was busy with her choir and played for the Sunday school and Baptist Young People's Union. Leola had been married. She was date-raped in school and had to come out of school to have her baby. Leola was the mother of two children who were very lovely children. Jeanette had two children about the same age as Leola's children. They had decided to bring their children up together without being taught to look at each other as being different. They would visit each other in the evening after work. Sometimes Leola would baby-sit for Jeanette so she could go to a movie with her husband.
The two girls became very good friends. They laughed a lot and accumulated another good friend while working. Their friend was a black male, who was very kind to them. He would come over and eat with them or they would all go off post to pick up a meal from a drive in. They never thought about trouble because the other friend was a black male. But this is when trouble really began.
They found a lot to hold against Leola. Her first visitor was an agent from the largest city in the state. He told her she had been investigated and she would do well to leave her job without a fight because, he said, a fight could get real nasty. Leola was sure that she was not going to give up easily. She stood on her ability to do a good job. But Mr. Mann assured her that doing the job was not the issue. He told her she had broken a Jim Crow law and that she had a baby before she was married. He came up with some great strategies, never stopping to note that Leola was doing a good job in taking care of her children without the help of the state. She was working for the government. It was not a high security job. She was just admitting sick soldiers to the hospital and typing up reports for the sergeant.
The next time he came to see her was about three weeks later and told her about her stay in Los Angeles. She knew she did not have anything to hide, but when Leola heard the FBI's side of the story, it was distorted to make her look like a prostitute. This is when she almost gave up. Mr. Mann said that the street that Leola worked on in the diner was known for women on the beat. She explained to him that she was only working in the diner. He went on to tell her that her best friend was a pimp. She was shocked at this news, because her friend would protect her and take her home every night after work so that she would not have to catch the bus. Mr. Mann never mentioned the fact that the next job she had was working for a permanent family in Beverly Hills where she was nanny for Mr. and Mrs. Scotts boys. He never mentioned the fact that even after coming back down south the Scott's stayed in touch with Leola.
The next time that Mr. Mann came to harass Leola he told her she would have to go to work for the dietician in the back of the kitchen. Mr. Mann.helped her move her personal belongings to a room no bigger than a closet. Leola had just enough room for a typewriter to sit on a small table and a straight metal chair. She did not even have room on the table to place the work she had to type from. They did not try to provide a fan or air conditioning. All she could do was sweat. The first day there, she left soaking wet. There was no water for her to get. She knew that was the limit. But she waited until Mr. Mann came back. He waited about two days to show up and told Leola that she couldn't win a lawsuit. He told her to leave on her own and not wait until they terminated her.
Leola's answer to him was that she was not leaving because she was afraid that she would not win; she was leaving because she was not willing to move from the front office to the back office out of sight. She was not really defeated. About one year passed and they hired another lady of color to work in an office on that same army base.
The high school principal in her hometown offered Leola a regular substitute teaching job for a half-year teaching second grade. She took it and learned that was another thing that she could do well. She was very satisfied with her job. After the birth of her third child and the death of her husband, Leola married again.
The same FBI came to her mother's door again and asked her if she was ready to come back to work at the same base. Leola was unaware of Mr. King's fight for freedom. But they, the FBI were quite aware. Leola has often said that if she would have known about the marches for freedom, she would have gone back to work.
Leola was a very quite activist. She would take a dare in a heartbeat. When her family moved to Illinois, Leola applied for a job at a permanent Catholic school where there had never been a black teacher or a protestant teacher in their system. The principal welcomed Leola there, but the teachers did not accept her. When she did leave, there was publicity in the little village of Chicago Heights about the first black teacher and the first protestant teacher being one of the same and that was Leola Claiborne.
Coming back down south because of the illness of her mother, Leola applied for a job in a small parish where prejudice ruled. She worked there for seventeen years as the only black teacher. She left the parish for one year and went back the next year and was rehired and stayed until she retired.
Today, Leola is an old proud lady who talks about her past, and always share her stories of breaking color lines to the young black people of today. She lets them know; sometimes you must open doors as minority people, not only for yourself, but also for other youth that are coming on the scene after you.