What are your memories of segregated Maryland?
I grew up in total segregation in Harford County. Total. And by that I mean we could not even go to the hospital. We could not go to the public library. We were told our library was on Route 40, whatever that meant. We had a hanging tree on Magnolia Road in a little town called Magnolia, and in Bel Air there was a hanging tree. It was cut down when they put the Harford Mall there. And of course, they probably wouldn’t admit it now because they are ashamed of so many things that happened then. And we went to school in a little place called Mount Calvary, which is a short distance from Aberdeen. It was a one-room school. The teacher was excellent. She taught, if you can imagine, 78 students in seven grades in a one-room school. Most of the students she taught did very well. Later I went to Havre de Grace Colored High School. Not many people of color actually went to and finished high school. Believe it or not, they couldn’t afford to pay to ride the train to Havre de Grace. It was something like 15 cents, but if you didn’t make much money—you did house work or something like that—and you had four or five children, that amounted to quite a bit of money. So, later, the County did supply a bus. We all graduated from high school. I know it’s hard to imagine, but at that time, it was quite a feat for everyone to finish high school.
How did you get involved in the civil rights movement?
Actually, I grew up with it because my mother was an activist herself, and my cousin, Walter Banks, had been the president of the Harford County branch of the NAACP for more than 30 years. When they had state meetings, local meetings, NAACP meetings, she always took us with her.
What sorts of things would you do?
We did so many things growing up. We would go to restaurants where you couldn’t sit, and we would challenge these places. There was one on Route 40 called the Hilltop Inn and we’d deliberately go to the white section, and they’d say, “Oh, the colored section is over there,” and my sister would say, “Oh? What color is it?”
Were you ever arrested or afraid for your safety?
I was arrested at the desegregation of Gwynn Oak Park. I was single then. I went on my own, and there was a group there to demonstrate. We just paired up with people. A young, white female and myself were holding hands, we walked in, and we were waiting for this policeman to use the Billy club he had. But he didn’t. He just arrested us.
You seemed to not mind making yourself a target?
Well, my mother being reared in Pennsylvania, she would not tolerate being segregated against. [Black people] were supposed “to stay in our place,” that was the expression, and I did not know how to stay in my place!
Your involvement brought you in contact with national figures as well, right?
Oh, it sure did. As a matter of fact, Martin Luther King taught my husband at Virginia Union University. He was a visiting professor. He came to teach them non-violent resistance. We were just honored to even be in his presence. The way Dr. King could speak would grasp you and give you hope and courage. And I did know Mrs. [Medgar] Evers. I have lots of pictures with her. I knew a lot of them. I wouldn’t say I was buddy-buddy and went out to lunch and all that. But we were all at the NAACP events and whatnot.
You also found yourself in the middle of very big events.
I went to Mississippi when they had the Freedom Schools. I was a Freedom Rider. We registered people to vote. There was a lot of fear, and it was justified. I remember the day they found those young men [murdered Freedom Riders Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney]. We were getting ready to go to the school to teach the kids. The news came on the television and said that they had found the boys and showed the picture of where they had dug up part of the dam. It was a sad, sad day for all of us. It was horrible. We didn’t stop. We kept on going. We worked on the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and Fannie Lou [Hamer] became famous from that. She said she was, “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
How have things improved?
Things are better. There are still subtle things. But I’m so glad to see the relationships between young people. I imagine they’re surprised to hear some of the things that did occur.
I was never ever reared to come against anybody because of their skin color, because my family, basically, they were white people in the beginning. My aunts and uncles look white. People will say, “Oh who are those white people you have in your house?” And then later, my father was extremely dark. I had a Jewish great grandmother and an Irish great grandmother. My family has married Jews, Chinese, Welsh, Korean. I have a United Nations family, so skin color doesn’t mean a thing to us.
Janice Grant will be participating in the “For All the World to Hear” storytelling series this month. umbc.edu/cadvc/foralltheworldtohear.php.