by N. Beatrice Worthy, as told to Karen Leahy
We're here on this earth for only a moment, a small spark in the flow of human history, but what we contribute can last through the centuries. I've tried to make my own contributions and, despite the odds against me, I've succeeded in at least doing some things that mattered.
I was born in the worldwide flu epidemic of the early 1900s. I was only three or four years old when I got the flu and was sent to a convalescence hospital for six months, and then was cured enough to be sent home. It left me very weak as a child, and it wasn't expected that I would live to adulthood. I wasn't very active by nature, and the illness made me even less so. I'd come down with a serious cold or flu just about every winter, and spent a lot of time in bed. At that time, medications hadn't developed which might have made me a stronger child.
So I missed a lot of school, but I took to books and reading very early. I loved to read, and my parents always made sure there were things handy for me to read. My mother would say, "Where's Bede?" (That was my nickname.) And they'd say, "Oh, she's got her head in a book!"
And I always enjoyed music. My father bought a player piano for the purpose of earning a little money. We had moved from South Carolina to New Jersey. Back in those years, it was very hard for my father to get a job. My mother cooked for a very wealthy family and she cooked very well, and my father had a knack for cooking also. What they would do is on Saturday night they would buy a lot of food and have what they would call a "parlor social" in our house. They would invite all the young African American people who were dating and didn't have any public place they could go. My sister and I would pump the piano while they'd dance, then they'd go in the kitchen and eat all the chicken and other good food. No hard drinks, but I think they had beer.
I enjoyed that so much, and when my father saw how I loved music, he very early put me in the church to take piano lessons from the organist, Mrs. Lee Ballard. Her own musical education had come from the interest of a wealthy woman who saw her skill and sent her to music school, and eventually to Juilliard. She was so interested in me that when my parents said they could no longer pay the 25 cents or so for lessons, Mrs. Ballard said, "Well, bring her anyhow."
So I've had the good fortune all the way along of people spotting me out and singling me out for something special. I want to pass my story on the young people in my family—and all the young people—in the hope that my experiences might give them encouragement to develop their own talents and help others along.
One interesting part of my life was during my late teens. There was an African American woman named Elizabeth Thomas, and she was outspoken and a very eloquent speaker. She was one of the vice-presidents of the National Baptist Convention and was in great demand as a speaker. She traveled all over talking about freeing the African Americans from injustice and prejudice. She knew how to speak about it in a way that would not incense the larger population. She inspired me to be that kind of speaker, and I was. You know, it's funny: even though I loved books, as I look back I can't remember being inspired by books. It was mostly people who inspired me.
I got up in front of audiences all the time—churches, conventions, and all the Baptist groups. The ministers would select a group of young people in their church who, because of their talent and their interest in the work the National Baptist Convention was doing, would be sent to Long Branch, New Jersey, for two weeks in the summer. One year I was chosen. A wealthy woman had given the use of her estate for this gathering where the young people were inspired and encouraged to continue to develop, to learn, and to lead our people.
Years later, I helped pass this message on to my nephew, Joel Harrison. My parents had worked hard and saved and bought a three-story house. My sister Odessa, who had married young, lived there with us, along with her husband and children. There was room for them and also for some close friends of ours. Everybody had their own room. One Saturday morning, I was cleaning my room and had gone into another room to get something. When I got back, Odessa's son Joel, who was about five or six years old, was dancing to one of the records I had on my record player—Brahms or something. He didn't know I was watching him, but I was so amazed at how he could dance. I didn't say anything to him, but I went to his mother and said, "You have got to put that child in dance school!"
She did, and years later I helped him found a school of dance-the multi-ethnic Hudson Repertory Dance Theater and School—that is alive today. Joel passed the lesson along. When he was running the dance school, there was a little fellow whose mother couldn't afford to pay the twenty-five cents for dance classes, but he would go along with a friend of his and stand in the corner to watch. Joel turned around and saw the boy trying to do what the others were doing, so he brought him in and let him take classes without charge. After Joel passed away, I served as head of the Hudson Repertory Dance School. Of all the things I've done in my lifetime, I think I'm proudest of the dance school.
I think there is something in my story for the younger people to learn. If they look at what this sickly little girl was able to do in her lifetime, it might inspire them. I want them to know that, in 1954, even though all my college studies were done at night because I had to work during the day, I was the first African American woman to graduate with a master's degree in business from New York University. I wrote my thesis on "The Contribution of Women to the Management of American Industry," which wasn't much recognized in the 50s! It took me a year to find a job, not so much because of my race as because I was a woman trying to take a place in what was still a man's world.
Eventually I was accepted, and, even though it was still a struggle, I left my mark on a number of places I worked, including the Department of Defense, Bell Laboratories, and AT&T, where I helped start the company's affirmative action program. In 1965, an essay of mine, analyzing the attitudes toward women in management, was printed in the Harvard Business Review. I continued to do public speaking and served as a visiting professor in a summer program of the Urban League.
I was an active member of the Community Church in New York City for over 50 years, served on its board, and in fact am still a member. When the church recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of ordination of the former minister, Donald Harrington, they decided I needed to be a part of it. So the current minister, Bruce Southworth, sent a car to pick me up from where I live in an assisted living facility in New Jersey and take me into Manhattan for the celebration.
What a large part of my life is centered there! Community Church was one of the only interracial churches in the city in the 50s and early 60s, and, when I was a young professional, I sought it out based on its reputation for speaking honestly against the injustices of society. I didn't know what Unitarians were when I got there, but I found that what they said made sense to me, and I left the Baptist Church, where my sister Odessa is still a member. In fact, Rev. Harrington and I started the Social Action Committee at Community Church, and it's still vibrant and active today.
I have been honored with various awards in my lifetime, including a Certificate of Appreciation from the National Council of Negro Women and the National Urban League, as well as special honors from the NAACP. A few years ago, New York 1 television interviewed me on Martin Luther King Day about my life and experiences.
Not many who lived through the flu epidemic of 1917-18 are still alive. But here I am. I've seen world wars come and go, and now I'm 94 years old. I can't say that life isn't a series of struggles. Now that I'm old, I struggle with forgetfulness. Sometimes I can't seem to remember the very meaning of life, or to put ideas together in a way that makes sense.
But, as each of us goes through this turmoil, we must believe that the part we play contributes to the continuity of life, however unknowingly. All of our lives are interwoven. We may not see what our lives contribute to the total fabric, but we can't neglect to do our part. We are part of the great river of life that flows through the centuries.