Against the Odds

Updated: Jun 25, 2020


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| This is the 431st story of Our Life Logs |

United is the second word of the title of our land, but I come from an era when it was very divided. The year was 1922, nearly 60 years after the Civil War ended. I was born the oldest of three daughters and lived in a small rural town called Wilsons Mills in North Carolina. My father was a handyman, my mother was a teacher, and they both worked in New York. I’m sure my mother didn’t like being away from me, but at the time, the northern region of the country was the only place a woman of color could find suitable employment to support a family of five.

With my parents away working in New York, I lived with my grandparents during the school year. They took on the responsibility of taking care of me and my siblings with great joy because they knew how dedicated my parents were to make a decent living, and I had a deep bond with them. They were born slaves and taught us the importance of becoming educated. My grandmother was one of the rare former slaves who knew how to read. In fact, she was the only person who could read in the house until us girls were taught. She would read the Bible and the newspaper to my grandfather every day.

My grandparents.
My grandparents.

My grandparents did not want to shield us from the hardships of society, and they encouraged us early on to break the stereotypes already stacked against us by being born black. Hearing their stories made me want to get the education they were deprived of. I wanted to prove that little black girls were smart too. I looked at learning as a privilege and vowed to make use of the opportunities presented to me. I always thought that as long as I was educated, I could do anything.

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I would visit my parents in New York during the summertime, and as young as I was, I noticed how segregation was applied differently there from what I had seen back in North Carolina. New York City was buzzing and I’d see the self-hatred my people carried as a direct result of over 300 years of slavery and discrimination. This made me even more aware of my surroundings and of myself. The adverse effects it was having on my self-image were inevitable.

In my childhood.
In my childhood.

Despite what my grandparents taught me, I was shown and taught that my colored skin was terrible, a setback. The segregation laws excluded me from every natural human right. I could not use the community water fountain, pools, bathrooms, I had to go to separate schools, read separate books, go to separate libraries, hospitals—public transportation even forced me to give up my seat to white people. Blacks had a separate everything which made me believe my skin color was bad.

In both places I lived, my race was treated as second class, the help, or an outright disgrace. It was a very difficult time to grow up black, let alone have any dreams of being highly educated. How dare I dream of being a highly-educated, successful black woman? Who did I think I was? Elsie McIntosh, that’s who.

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I was so excited when I became old enough to attend Short Journey Elementary School for Colored Students. Segregation laws kept all the black people in the same neighborhoods, and with no school transportation or car, I had to travel with my teacher every day to school.

Because of my eagerness to become educated and change my fate, I was very diligent and advanced in my studies. However, I had to be meek about my intelligence when I was around white children to avoid bullying and racial slurs. It was tough, but it also humbled me and gave me more motivation to prove everyone wrong. One year, I scored so high on a state exam that the Johnston County School District was notified of my results. I’ll never forget how shocked they were to discover that the top four scores came from the colored school. Still, my skin color remained a barrier, and I never qualified for scholarships despite my exceptional scores. It was believed that African American students did not have the mental capacity to excel academically. But I was not going to let that break me. If anything, that made me bold enough to keep scoring high and acing my exams.

I stayed in the colored school until I was about 12. Then, I tried going to middle school in Jamaica, Queens in New York, but it was too much of a culture shock. The “Negro Movement” was heavy upon us and I felt like a fish out of water. A social, intellectual and artistic explosion was in my face, and it redefined how the rest of the country understood African American culture. People of color were asserting their identity instead of hiding it in shame. This was foreign to me, and it was all too overwhelming. I wasn’t ready for such change, so I asked to go back to North Carolina to stay with my sisters and grandparents.

When I was a teenager.
When I was a teenager.
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In 1935, my mother was given an opportunity to move to North Carolina and double her salary. Of course, she took it. She left her teaching career and became the hospitality manager and head chef for the President of Duke University and lived on school grounds. My sisters and I would visit her on campus in the summer.

Living at Duke changed my entire life. We lived in a two-bedroom apartment on top of the mansion. I got to see my mother serve President Roosevelt while he was in office visiting the university for dinner one evening. The meal was fit for kings, and my mother planned it all. I was so impressed at the way her education put her above the other help. I also fell in love with the college environment. I decided then that I’d get a college degree.

I worked even harder. I was the highest honor student throughout high school and graduated Valedictorian. I obtained admission to Kittrell College in North Carolina in 1940. To put myself through school, I worked as a busboy at the dining hall and then a housekeeper. Unfortunately, around this time my parents split up, and we could not afford to keep me enrolled. I was almost kicked out, but I made a deal with the college. If they let me finish out my second year, I promised to pay them back in installments. And they did. I kept up my end of the deal by becoming a full-time tutor to pay off the debt and afford the other years.

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By the time the fall of 1943 came around, I’d saved enough money to enroll in a better, more challenging school. I wound up choosing Delaware State and graduated with flying colors.

Following several conversations with my mother, I decided to enter graduate school at New York University. Unfortunately, I was denied admission, because they told me I did not have the capacity to do graduate work. My skin color still told the world I was stupid even with my degrees. But when God shuts a door, they say he opens a window, and that is exactly what happened. I went right over to Columbia and applied the same summer, and I got in. I gracefully began my graduate program in the summer of 1947 and when graduation came in 1952, I was beaming with pride.