CGP Community Stories

Hilda Wilcox
November 17, 2010

Title

Hilda Wilcox
November 17, 2010

Subject

New York (N.Y.)--Social life and customs--20th century
Education
Socialism
Pacifism
NAACP
Teaching
Poetry and the arts

Description

Mrs. Hilda Wilcox is a woman who has lived according to her own beliefs and passions. Mrs. Wilcox was born in Utica, New York in 1929 and moved to Cooperstown with her husband and three children in 1969. Along with being an English educator for over 25 years at SUNY Oneonta, and the University of Texas and Wagner College on Staten Island, Mrs. Wilcox has published her own book of poetry, Proving the Pudding, and participated in various activities throughout the Cooperstown. She was co-founder of the Friends of the Library and the Cooperstown Concert Series. She established and edited the Leatherstocking Journal, and also the Writer’s Workshop of Central New York.
Mrs. Wilcox is also a champion of civil rights. During the 1940s, she became a member of the N.A.A.C.P. at the age of 15. She expressed her desire for integration by participating in sit-ins during high school in Utica and during college at Antioch College. She also worked at the New York Public Library in Harlem, New York, and as a Boy Scout leader at the Cosmopolitan Community Center in Utica, New York. Her activism and passion for social justice is a legacy of her mother and father, who were both active Socialists and pacifists during the 1930s and 1940s.
Mrs. Wilcox discusses her Socialist parentage and influences, her activism within the N.A.A.C.P, her dedication to education and lifelong learning, her passion for community service and the changing social make up of Cooperstown from the 1970s to the present.

Creator

Tramia Jackson

Publisher

Cooperstown Graduate Program,
State University of New York - College at Oneonta

Date

2010-11-17

Rights

New York State Historical Association Library,
Cooperstown, NY

Format

audio/mpeg
1.12MB
audio/mpeg
27.5MB
audio/mpeg
27.4MB
audio/mpeg
24.0MB
image/jpeg
640x480 pixels

Language

en-US

Type

Sound
Image

Identifier

10-118

Coverage

Cooperstown, NY
1929-2010

Online Submission

No

Interviewer

Tramia Jackson

Interviewee

Hilda Wilcox

Location

6 Pine Boulevard
Cooperstown, NY

Transcription

Cooperstown Graduate Program
Oral History Project Fall 2010

HW = Hilda Wilcox TJ = Tramia Jackson

[START OF TRACK 1, 30:04]
TJ:
This is the [November 17, 2010] oral history interview with Ms. Hilda Wilcox at 6 Pine [Boulevard] for the Cooperstown Graduate Program Oral History Project. Could you tell me a little bit about your parents?

HW:
My father was a painter and paper hanger, who had his own business in Utica, New York. He had come over [to the United States] from Germany when he was nineteen before the First World War. My mother was born in Utica of German parents. Her father was a woodcarver, whose carvings I showed you last time.
TJ:
What were your parent’s names?
HW:
Erna and Wenzel Mader.
TJ:
Okay. I know that your parents, through the [Freeman’s Journal] article that you gave me and in reading up on you that your parents were involved in Socialist and pacifist organizations, how did this shape your world view growing up around that?

HW:
It was very important. What it meant to me as a child I think is that my mother didn’t have time to put me to bed when we had socialist meetings. I was allowed to just fall asleep on the sofa, listening to the people argue. Occasionally there was someone who would try to persuade us to the Communist side, which is an anathema to Socialists because Socialists believe in economic democracy. They are not believers in totalitarianism. I remember when a man came once to try to interest my mother in a magazine called the New Masses, he left in a great huff because my mother was very adamant about not being interested about what was going on in the Soviet Union [laughs]. I remember that he slammed our French doors so hard that the panes of glass, I was so afraid, would break. I can still hear the terrible slam. My mother was instrumental in arranging for speakers in Utica and she was quite an amazing woman, even though she had not been formally educated, because she had to go to work. When it came time for high school she was valedictorian of her 9th grade class. Then she worked in the 5 and 10 in Utica. Nevertheless, she read very important books like Das Capital by Karl Marx, and I was very aware that she was interested in ideas. My father joined her in opinions. However, because English was not his native language, I don’t think he did much reading, but he still participated in a quiet way.
TJ:
So your mother was the more instrumental [in the Socialist movement]?
HW:
Right.
TJ:
Okay.
HW:
And she was also a very strong pacifist. My father believed in any cause that represented freedom of expression. He was, for instance, a poll watcher at election time and he was very, very verbal despite his strong German accent. So he would always argue with people about what was wrong with the United States and what was wrong with every country. He would have made a good anarchist I guess, except that he never got, I mean he was a working man, he never got that involved himself.
TJ:
So how did hearing all of those speeches, and your mother being very strong [influence you?]
HW:
Well, it made me, by the time I got to college, have absolutely no interest in politics. But of course now, the rest of my life, I’ve been writing a lot of letters to the editor against war, and against American imperialism, which I feel is a great danger for our country, because it will end up not expanding our possibilities but limiting them.
TJ:
So where do you send your articles? You said you write letters to the editors.
HW:
Well, in the local papers. Mostly Oneonta, Cooperstown, Binghamton, Utica, like that. I’m very strongly against our going to war in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

TJ:
Okay, going back to your childhood, could you tell me about your education?
HW:
Well, my older sister had gone to Antioch College, so we attended her graduation. I was very impressed with the college myself and I decided I would like to maybe go there. In fact, I didn’t even consider going any place else. It’s the only place I applied.
TJ:
What year did you enter?
HW:
In 1946. This was a very important time, of course, in our history because the men were coming back from the war. So it was a very lively place, not like during the war when there weren’t any men. My first co-op job was in the New York Public Library. Antioch had a co-op program, so we worked five months out of the year and split into two pieces. So it’s a five year school instead of four.
TJ:
So can you explain what a co-op program is?
HW:
Yeah, the co-op program is that you study for three months and then you went on a job that you had picked with the help of reports from former students who had been there. And then we went to school for four months and we worked for five months. And then we had a month vacation. So that took five years. My first job was in Harlem, where I worked at the 135th Street Library. And above the 135th Street Library then, not now, was the Schomburg Collection of Black History. So it was a very small library then, the Schomburg Collection, but I worked in the Children’s Room. And I was the only white person working at the 135th Street Library. You know Harlem was a pretty wonderful place in 1946. What the most exciting thing for me was the Apollo Theater. I don’t know if the Apollo Theater is still there, but I was always involved with theater all through college. So seeing Canada Lee on stage was impressive and of course I had made friends with the people I worked with. Good friends.
TJ:
Where did you live while you were working in Harlem?
HW:
It was funny, I lived in East 23rd Street I think it was. In an apartment that was $5 a week. I mean it was one room, needless to say. And it didn’t have windows or hot water or heat that I could tell. But it was exciting, I would just put all my clothes on top of me at night and they had a little light bulb and I got to know New York City because in those days, students who were, I was making $153 a month, could do everything they wanted. There was nothing they couldn’t do. You know, I would be in the last row or in the balcony at all the Broadway plays that I wanted to go to and all the museums were free. I saw a lot of foreign films, and of course Greenwich Village was wonderful. I got to know Harlem a little bit too. I mean I wasn’t working all the time.
TJ:
Did you live by yourself?



HW:
By myself, yeah, which was probably not the best idea but there was no danger. In those days New York was not a terrible place.
TJ:
So, I know that you did a co-op in Savannah, Georgia, at a detention center. I read that in your biography, can you tell me about that?
HW:
Yeah, after Harlem I worked in this home for neglected and delinquent children. And it was a horrible, horrible, horrible experience because they put children in cells. You know while they were making sure that they weren’t contagious with anything. And this was the white part of town, and I had joined the NAACP when I was 15 in Utica, so it was natural that I would want to go to NAACP meetings in Savannah. The problem was getting a taxi [that] would take me there and I didn’t want to travel by bus because I didn’t know the city. But I finally did get someone to take me to the meeting. But on the way home that’s when I almost go into terrible trouble, not for myself but for other people. Because this was, [the time when] you sat in the back of the bus if you happened to be black, and I very stupidly said to the President of the NAACP out the bus window…[that I was used to having the person who saw that I got off at the right stop sit with me.]
TJ:
Do you know the name of the President at that time?


HW:
Oh, heavens no, that was 1947. I was 18, so it was ’48, I guess. Anyway, I said I’m used to having people who see me home sit with me. Mistake. But no one paid attention, of course, to this crazy girl from the North. But when I got back to college, I did run into trouble because my professor of education…all of a sudden I can’t think of her name, I’ll think of it, but she was the one that Coretta Scott, who was also an education major at Antioch. Coretta Scott King.

TJ:
At the same time that you were [in school at Antioch]?

HW:
Well, she was a year ahead of me, at least she finished a year ahead. Because she went to Boston Conservatory and I was still a senior, so I don’t know what year she started but we heard through the grapevine that she was marrying some southern Baptist preacher. And we thought, "Oh no, not Coretta. That shouldn't happen to a nice girl like Coretta." We just imagined that the South was just-you know, below, wherever you had come from. So anyway, when I got back I was called in by the professor of education to her office. I don't know how she put it, but she said she had heard that I maybe started a race riot in Savannah, Georgia [laughs]. And apparently some kid who loved to make up stories had told somebody, who had told her that because I had wanted to go to this meeting of the NAACP that I had been a source of uproar in Savannah, which was not true. Oh! It wasn't because of that, come to think of it; it was because I had a Chinese boyfriend that I had gotten to know in New York, and he came down to make sure that I was escorted properly on the train back to New York. The people in Savannah, the women who worked there, they didn't know Chinese from anything else, it was just color to them. So, I supposedly had a colored boyfriend, which was in 1947, not done. But you know Coretta also said that she [English Professor] cost Coretta the chance to practice teach [...] well it wasn't she, it was Southern Ohio. We didn't have many black students at Antioch in my day, we had a few in my freshman class, but very few and there were no chances to practice teach around us, so...

TJ:
So you went to the detention center in Savannah to practice teach? HW:
It wasn't just a detention center. It was for neglected and delinquent children. TJ:
What did you do while you were there? HW:
Oh, I was the world’s worst secretary to the director, and he was the world’s worst director, so we did not make a nice couple. But we finished okay. It’s just that he liked young girls and I was afraid to say anything about it for some reason until my senior year of college, and then I had a dream, a disturbing dream, and I was talking about it to somebody else in my senior dorm and she said that she had had the same experience there, so the two of us went to the people in the administration and they removed the job. But, you know, I learned a lot, because I learned that in Savannah there was still, quote 'shooting prowlers' end quote. I heard that the word lynching but that was before my time.
TJ:
So what, what did you learn from that experience?
HW:
Oh, what did I learn from that experience? That the South was very different from where I grew up. My mother was responsible for-well-with working with other people in Utica, to get the first black children in our pool at the YWCA. She wasn’t afraid in a quiet, positive way to stick her neck out and she was never ostracized for it, you know, and she knew she wouldn’t be. She had a great deal of dignity about her position and she was asked to be on the Board of Education, and she turned it down because she wasn’t educated. But she was a forerunner of....I mean she was also the first woman juror in Oneida County.

TJ:
It sounds like your mom was a very strong person.
HW:
Yea, but she was even. I mean she didn't seem like a flaming radical at all. She was very dignified.

TJ:
So did you ever join women's rights movements?
HW:
They didn't have women's rights in those days. Oh yea! I found out in the attic, in our attic, there were pamphlets for ... you know ...who is the great leader of women's being able to use contraception? [Margaret Sanger]

TJ:
I can't remember.
HW:
Yeah...I’ll think of it.
TJ:
You found those pamphlets in your house here? HW:
In the attic, no, in Utica TJ:
In Utica. HW:
Yeah my mother was definitely a leader in women's rights, to plan their families. TJ:
Okay, so going back to your education, can you tell me why you chose to pursue your career in education?

HW:
I was badly torn in my second year, when you have to declare a major, I was torn between languages, which I still love very much, and education, but I decided that education was a broader field, that I could do a lot of different things with it, but with language I just had to teach language. So I discovered when I was at Antioch that I was very good in literature so I went to graduate school at Northwestern in literature for my masters and then at the University of Texas still in literature.

TJ:
What was your favorite form of literature? What was your favorite author? Did you have one?

HW:
Well, the thing I just taught at CCAL, the Center for Continuing Adult Learning, was Whitman and Emily Dickinson and William Blake......then I had the students bring in poems that they liked too...but when I was in graduate school I did my-well, the equivalent of a thesis, a long paper, on the Chicago Renaissance in literature. Which meant, you know all those people like … [Theodore] Dreiser, because Dreiser ... certainly reflected socialism in his point of view.

TJ:
I am not familiar with Dreiser, do you know his name, can you explain... HW:
Sister Carrie was one of his first books and American Tragedy was the one that was made into a movie …he wrote quite a few books ... I’ve always been drawn to the worker's...the rights of...people. But Cooperstown is a very class-conscious town. But interestingly enough, my husband and I have had to pleasure, I will say, privilege and pleasure of straddling all sorts of classes. We know people living on food stamps and we know people of the old families, like the Coopers and we feel at home with any of them because I don’t think class is you know...yes they are significant, but they're not that important to us personally.

TJ:
And you moved to Cooperstown in...?

HW:
1969 from Staten Island. My husband had graduated from Columbia [University] in social work and I had a terrible conflict when we were leaving the University of Texas because I was offered the chance to be supported through my PhD as I had already had some courses and taught there. But I wanted to be with my husband in those days and women didn’t think of going back and forth in airplanes, especially if they wanted babies and I think that was my major interest- eventually having a family. I taught while he was at Columbia. I taught on Long Island in New Hyde Park Herricks High School, which was a very important experience to teach in a large public high school and I did a good job and they asked me to be chairman of the department, but we moved to Staten Island then because he had gotten a job and I certainly didn’t want to spend the rest of my life slaving away at a high school. It’s very hard work. Don’t let it happen to you.

TJ:
Where was the school located?

HW:
New Hyde Park in Nassau County I guess, I don’t know. I didn’t pay much attention. But it was very, what I called the Divine Agony. It was great, and it was divine, you know, it’s wonderful to teach young people, but it’s terribly hard to have five classes with 25 students. Don’t try it.

TJ:
And when did you teach at the school?

HW:
I taught at the University of Texas the first year, the year before integration and the year after integration. So that was 1955 and 1956 I think. So after that I was in New Hyde Park High School and then when we moved to Staten Island, I applied for a job but then I found out I was pregnant, so I didn’t start teaching until 1960, Yeah, I didn’t teach until 1960. I taught there until 1969 when we moved here.

TJ:
Was the high school just starting to be integrated at that time when you started?

HW:
The high schools? I think in that part of Nassau County…I don’t remember ever seeing a black student. But you know I was a member of the NAACP when I was 15 in Utica, I think I told you that before, so, it was a very exciting thing that happened at the University of Texas because at that time it went over the international news circuit that, I think I told you, the girl who got the part of Dido in Dido and Aeneas. She’s from some place in North Africa, Dido, and Aeneas … she loved Aeneas. The girl who got it, her last name was Smith, she was black and she got the part of Dido and it was perfect. The graduate school, like the school of music, was already integrated during the first year I taught at the University of Texas. But the legislature was determined that she would not play that role in the opera. But she had already won it. So this was a real problem and they had a faculty meeting and the auditorium was just filled with professors and the president of the university, you know, tried to finagle us into saying that it would be all right to have somebody else take that role. And, very quickly, there was a first to support that motion. But then this man stood up, who later turned out to be a conservative president of Boston, I can’t remember if it’s Boston College or Boston University. I think it’s Boston College I’m very bad at names now. So I cannot remember his name, but he was told that he was out of order. There wasn’t to be any discussion, but he went on talking, which was the bravest act I’ve ever seen.

TJ:
He was in support of…

HW:
To support discussion for the girl staying in the role. But then they had a vote and it was overwhelmingly to support what the president wanted, because his argument was that if we just go along with what the legislature says, and they had threatened to withdraw funds from the music school if we didn’t go along, then later on it would be easier to make our own rules kind of thing. If we just cooperated [laughs]. There were eight people still sitting, I can still see them they were sitting towards the front. I was sitting towards the front and we were still sitting when everybody else left. And we looked at each other. We were deeply moved to feel that we were in a very special group. It was against the law by the way, to belong to the NAACP if you worked for the state of Texas. Can you believe that? It was against the law or at least against the rules of the university, I don’t remember which. Anyway that was [laughs].

TJ:
[That sounds] exciting.

HW:
Yeah those were bad, bad days. When I was a freshman at Antioch-I think I was a freshman- I participated in a sit-in in a luncheonette. Talk about culture shock. It was everything shock, because the woman who [was the]

[START TRACK 2, 30:00]

HW:
manager, whoever she was, came up to me. I was with this black woman who I found out much later had spent her whole life as an activist, her entire life. I don’t even know if she is still living, I wrote to her a couple of years ago, she didn’t remember me. She and her husband were really courageous activists fighting for what they believed. Anyway, the manager went up to me, and I think she was trying to get me to push her, hit her, or something so that she could call the police and all I did was to burst into tears, which was not very much like, you know, a great activist.

TJ:
Where was the sit in?

HW:
In Dayton, Ohio.

TJ:
What facility?

HW:
In a little luncheonette [laughs]

TJ:
Do you remember how many people were with you?


HW:
I suddenly realize that the dream that I had a few months ago was of a luncheonette. I [must] tell you the dream. Oh, yeah, it was [in] September. I dreamed that there was this luncheonette combination bakery and they had this big, big basket by the cash register. And I looked in the basket and there were all these loaves of bread, baguettes, but twined around the baguettes was a black and white snake. I never realized, that that’s that dream.

TJ:
Did you just have this dream?

HW:
I just had it in September

TJ:
Do you think it’s from that experience?

HW:
I have no idea, but I was wondering what the black and white snake was about. Then I went to the luncheonette to have lunch after I’d seen this and no one was paying attention. I said to somebody sitting next to me, “Did you see the snake?” and they just sort of shrugged, they didn’t pay any attention. [Laughs] Because when I was in high school in Utica. Did I tell you that I was a volunteer in a settlement house for black kids?

TJ:
No, I didn’t know.

HW:
I was 15, that’s when I joined the NAACP. The director was a very well educated man [he] was an organist and he had a Masters in social work and he had gone to very good schools in Boston.

TJ:
This is the director of the settlement?

HW:
The director of the settlement house, called the Cosmopolitan Community Center, which was in a condemned building [laughs]. The building was horrible, but you know, we only had a population of 500 black people then. So, you know it was big enough for kids. He asked me “Well, what can you do?” And nobody had ever asked me what can you do before and I [laughs] couldn’t think of anything I could do. But it turned out I was the only volunteer. I had found out about their need for volunteers at this Quaker friend’s discussion meeting to discuss post war planning. I remember this was in 1945. Anyway, I was 15, 1944, 1945 and so I became the Boy Scout leader [laughs] that was wonderful. I mean I wasn’t a very good Boy Scout leader, because I didn’t know how to be one. But then I taught arts and crafts. And I would go to that part of town.

TJ:
Was that a…?

HW:
[inaudible] The bus and that was wonderful. I would take the kids to the park and I remember walking down the street with the director who was sort of an in between color and men in the barber shops on Bleeker Street would turn in their barber chairs and stare and Nathan Burnett was the director, he said, “Just stare right back at them.” [Laughs] And it was like, I don’t know, the old woman in the shoe. The two of us leading this pack of kids to the park that was wonderful.

TJ:
And they were all African-Americans?

HW:
They were all African Americans. We didn’t know that phrase then. I don’t know what we, we said Negroes, of course.

TJ:
And how did you get involved with all of these activities in high school?

HW:
Well, like I said, I went to this Quaker meeting, discussion meeting of post war planning for after the war and that’s where I heard that they needed volunteers or a volunteer at the Cosmopolitan Community Center. And that was a very, very important experience. Shaped me very much.

TJ:
How so?

HW:
Well, it’s just that it was an independent thing to do. That, although my parents certainly did not oppose me in any way…my parents gave me a great deal of freedom. I was used to being on my own, I wasn’t just “in the group,” you know. I’m still not just “in the group.”

TJ:
What made you decide to join the NAACP at 15?

HW:
Well, I guess I was invited to go to a meeting so from there it was very I can still sing the Negro national anthem [laugh].

TJ:
Do you know it?

HW:
Yep.

TJ:
Could you sing it?

HW:
Let’s see, [sings] with every heart and sing/ [inaudible] bring/ [hums] of liberty/let us rejoice and [hums] till all of the listening skies /till earth and [hums] [inaudible] and so forth. I can’t remember if I got the verse. I could get it all if I tried. But I felt a part of the NAACP and I still am a member and I still, you know, believe that we all have to help each other in this world.

TJ:
So were you ever involved in the [March] on Washington or anything major?


HW:
None, I missed it all because I was having kids. I mean even though I had been in those two sit-ins-well-one in Utica and one in Antioch. By the time that all the marches began, let’s see I had my first child in 1961. But you know people act as if that’s when all the civil rights things started. [Uh-uh] it didn’t start then. It started you know at the Revolutionary War-any time, it’s always been a struggle, whenever somebody is in the out group, whether they’re Irish or African American or whatever. You know we build every bit of progress on the backs of people who came before us. So, yes, I’m interested in the history of blacks in America, but also, you know, any place. You know when I was in Italy it was wonderful to see, you know, everyday kind of matrons coming back from the grocery store with their bags and you know one of the women I saw was black and she was just a resident of that city and now this is happening more even in Cooperstown and even in- I don’t know about Savannah, Georgia. I was just in Texas visiting my husband’s sisters in central Texas and as long as you are of the same class you’re okay. Doesn’t matter what color skin you happen to have. Like this fellow [who] was riding by on the bike and my very prejudiced brother-in-law, prejudiced against Mexicans that is, he said, “Oh this is my neighbor so and so,” and the person was African American but it’s because, you know, all those people all had magnificent incomes. And as long as you had that income it didn’t matter what your color was.

TJ:
And do you think that that is still the case today where there is a lot of a class distinction or class consciousness?

HW:
Yeah, I mean I haven’t been around that much, I’ve led a very sheltered life in Cooperstown. [In the 1970s] black means you’re from Africa, you’re a doctor who is studying here for a while and will probably go back. It’s Bassett people mostly who are, you know, all different. Thai people come and Chinese, I don’t know about [Japanese], but you know I loved teaching at SUCO for all those years because when I first came there were very few, I mean there were many fewer foreign students and black students and now the numbers have grown and it makes me happy because that’s the only way for us all to get together, I guess. I mean once upon a time it used to be unions, but unions have faded out in this country. Well the military is the one place where if you’re willing to put yourself in harm’s way they don’t care what race you are.

TJ:
Going off of the military, I understand that you were a friend and supporter of an antiwar activist, Howard Moore. [And you encouraged him to write] his book Plowing My Own Furrows. Could you tell me about him or your experience with him?

HW:
Oh you got it from the library. How nice. Well, we were very good friends for twenty five years and towards the last ten years I’d say I would go up there like once a week and I was particularly, well,. I loved both of them but I became particularly close to Louise who was a Quaker, but Howard I also valued deeply. I know that it was she who wrote the book, even though his name was on it. He said she “typed” the book, meaning she used the material that was available to her and that he told her. Have you ever read Plowing My Own Furrow?

TJ:
I’ve read parts of it.



HW:
You read parts of it, the prison part? [Fort] Leavenworth. I mean that was something, right? It took such courage in Cherry Valley, New York to say, “I’m not going to war.” When he came back from prison, many people wouldn’t speak to him. He was really ostracized after the First World War. But he registered for the Second World War, which is funny. I mean not planning to go, but because he wanted to declare himself a conscientious objector again. But by that time-you know he lived to be 104. Anyway, towards the end he had a few little strokes, but I went to see him at Bassett Hospital here and he told me afterwards when he was home, he said, “You were there, weren’t you?” Well, he was unconscious but he knew I was there. When I was in the hospital once with something dire, Louise and Howard came. Only, but the terrible loss was when Louise moved away. It wasn’t terrible that Howard died, because he was 104-you know, you have to die some time. I admired Howard and I totally loved Louise. I think I told you she organized the group that restored Windfall Barn and someone told me that it cost her $100,000. Her father had been, I believe, either President or one of the big stock holders of the American Cement Company. So she inherited a lot of money. She lived with Howard for a while-she and her husband, but then came the day that her husband said that it’s time for us to go. Somebody here told me this story- she didn’t tell me. She said, “No, I’m staying here. I love Howard, I’m staying.”

TJ:
And this was when she got married?

HW:
She was married when she came to this part. She was working, in fact, when she first came here doing domestic service. She was I don’t know a maid or something, but then she was married to a former professor of philosophy. Howard had this farm. He was raising-well, I guess mostly fruit but other things as well, I guess. So Louise and her husband stayed with Howard. Howard didn’t marry until he was-you know, really old. I can’t remember how old he was. Then they lived together for a number of years and then they married in a Unitarian Church in Oneonta I think—oh, no-- at home. A minister came up here, then married them. I remember Louise was wearing blue jeans. I wasn’t there but that’s what I heard.

TJ:
I’ve pretty much gone through all of my questions. Can we go back to Cooperstown?

HW:
Yeah, I was hoping we’d come back to Cooperstown.

TJ:
Yes, I read that you had joined a lot of cultural community organizations like the Friends of the Library you started and the Cooperstown Concert Series.

HW:
Well, I gave it a real organizational structure, but I didn’t absolutely start it. I was there the second year and that’s when it expanded from one person to a lot of people and I stayed with the organization, the concert series, I can’t remember how long, quite a while. And then finally some people decided they wanted not “culture,” but “entertainment.” Mrs. Ross, who is no longer with us, said, “I know what Cooperstown wants.” We don’t want what I was bringing, which was pianists and singers, violinist and so forth- we want entertainment. So that’s when I resigned. But also I started something, we didn’t have a name, it was a poetry reading group. I put an ad in the Penny Saver saying, anybody who would like to read and then I mentioned various poets, can get together, call me. That went on for eleven years. We would meet. It was a terrific group. We would choose a particular poet or a particular subject for the next time and everybody would bring a poem and the rule was that if you had an original poem that always took precedence; you could always read your own. But I started a writing group and that was important because it’s still continuing although it doesn’t meet anymore. That was the Writer’s Workshop of Central New York. We met in the library and we brought our poetry and had it discussed by other members. Some pretty wonderful people were in that group, including Ruth Yule, who is the greatest English teacher that they’ve ever had at the high school. She had the kids reading War & Peace, for instance. Really terrific literature. And she always stood up. Ruth Yule should always be known because she stood up for the kids who were not the doctor’s children. She drew them out, she got them interested in reading because she herself grew up in this area and wasn’t influenced by ideas of class. That was a great time in Cooperstown, but often times Cooperstown schools in the past, at least-when my kids were growing up-people would say you’re either in the museum-hospital group of families or else you’re a woodchuck, meaning you came, because no one could afford to live in Cooperstown unless they had a pretty good income. In fact, some doctors have had trouble, people just starting out. So people that lived outside in our time, people outside of town, I felt there was prejudice against the woodchucks, the people who came from rural areas which is too bad, and I’ve been told that if you didn’t belong to a clique you were out of luck in Cooperstown. Well, I think when my daughter, my daughter is the oldest in our family, she was in third grade when we came here. She had her own friends fortunately, but if you didn’t have your own little group of friends, it was hard. I found that because I’m a very extroverted person, I didn’t find it problematical at age 40 to fit in because I would just invite a person I just met over for coffee or I would volunteer at the blood bank. As a volunteer you could always find welcome in any community. So I think the most important thing I did in certain ways, is to have gotten Fairy Springs opened [Laughs].


TJ:
Fairy Springs?

HW:
Yes, Fairy Springs Park. Have you ever been there?

TJ:
I have not been there.

HW:
You have to go visit over the summer, if you are going to be around. Anyway, it’s a public beach and it’s the Village of Cooperstown’s property. There is Three Mile Point and there is Fairy Springs. Well, I had been taking the Freeman’s Journal before we moved here because I wanted to learn about Cooperstown when Sam knew that he had gotten the job here at Bassett, the director of social work. So I was very upset when I saw a sign over the driveway that said “closed.” And I had heard that Fairy Springs Park was a pretty park and so I decided that I would organize a group to get it opened. I heard that it was [closed] because it was in bad condition. It had gotten dirty, that the caretaker hadn’t taken care of it. Then I heard that the caretaker was an old man who liked to peek in through peep-holes in the dressing room and look at the girls, so therefore they closed the place. Not only did they fire him but they closed Fairy Springs. So I got a number of people with brooms and mops and things, but then I realized that we didn’t have any publicity. So I asked them to come back the next week and I invited the Freeman’s Journal to come that time. So that was a big help because they took a picture of all these prominent people in town. I can’t remember who all was involved. All I can remember was the psychologist, Charlie Lamb. It was a lot of us and then they said well, they need money to open it so I decided we should have a square dance and I asked for use of Lake Front Park. No problem. We got Lake Front Park. I got a caller and somebody who, I don’t know what kind of music it was, but that was great that we were able to have this girl go around with a cup and collect money. Well, we didn’t collect a huge amount of money, but I always felt that that shamed the village into opening the park. It only cost $2,000 in those days a year to keep the park open. To hire somebody I mean. I’m not saying that I was all responsible for it but, you know, I was able—oh, I know. The reason why I had the courage to do things like that, I almost forgot to tell you, is that I was head in Staten Island of the group to open the schools in New York when they closed the schools-in 1968 I think it was.

TJ:
Which school?

HW:
They locked the schools of New York City because Bedford-Stuyvesant parents decided that they wanted-some say, understandably-in who would be teaching their children. So it became a racial issue.

TJ:
In what part of New York was this?

HW:
Bedford-Stuyvesant? I can’t even tell you where it is, but it’s traditionally considered a black section of town. But I was living on Staten Island, but they closed our schools and the janitors actually closed the schools. They changed the locks so that no longer could anyone get in. I mean this was the teachers’ union. The Jewish Teachers’ Union was involved and they blamed the whole thing on the Black Panthers, which was untrue. The Black Panthers hadn’t done anything bad. I was in charge of organizing the movement to try to get our schools open in Staten Island because I had a child in school; that was before I taught at Wagner. We never did get the school open but finally the Jewish Teachers’ Union put a little piece in the New York Times saying, “we have been duped.” The Black Panthers were not responsible. Everything became like a war, where no one knew what the truth was anymore. But finally even though we didn’t win, they did open the schools again. Nobody won. But for six weeks the schools in New York City were closed. Having failed, that was the great thing. The fact that I failed. I didn’t get any schools open in Staten Island, although I tried very hard. That gave me the courage to do all the things in Cooperstown.

TJ:
What did you do to try to get the schools open?

HW:
Well, we had meetings. Oh, I know what we tried to do, we tried to go through the picket lines. That was very painful.

TJ:
There were picket lines in front of the schools?

HW:
Yes, the picket lines of the teachers’ union. For me, coming from a socialist background [and] believing in unions. That was very painful. I think what the issue was is community control. I mean that the fact that the community should have some say over the kind of teachers that were teaching their children-that was the main issue. Although political things can often not be what they seem.

[START OF TRACK 3, 26:18]

HW:
Maybe, I don’t know if it helped or didn’t- the fact that the people of Bedford-Stuyvesant rose up and said, we don’t need…well I guess they wanted, naturally, to have more teachers representative of Bedford-Stuyvesant. But what was very, very painful for me was, I went to the PTA meeting, I think my child was still in second grade, and there was one black teacher who went to the meeting and my activities had isolated her, that’s what she felt. I mean she felt that she wanted to be colorless, we all want to be colorless ... we can’t represent one group or another group. We are individuals, and I think she, she said something about my being “a blabber mouth.” She just wanted to melt into the teachers’ group, she didn’t want to stick out like a sore thumb and I understand that. Everybody left when the meeting was over and I was standing there alone and for the first time I felt that I wasn’t alone.

TJ:
Alone in feeling…

HW:
Yeah I mean, for the first time I had a sense, I mean I didn’t come from a religious background, but I had a feeling of what God was.

TJ:
Because you failed?

HW:
Yeah and you know that can give you a lot of courage.

TJ:
So, what other activities did you do in Cooperstown?

HW:
Cooperstown? Besides swimming in Otsego Lake. Well, now I’ve just- Gee, I’ve been involved in so many things. I don’t know [Laughs].

TJ:
Could you tell me about starting the Leatherstocking Journal in 1979?

HW:
Yes. I’d say it was a mid life crisis time of my life and I was starting to write. But like a lot of people who write poetry, there are very few places to get published. All the national magazines, you have quite a few competitors, so [laughs]. So I finally published my own book of poetry with the help of the New York State Council of the Arts, something like that. Did it say that in the book?

TJ:
It did say that in the book. [Gives book]

HW:
It says where the money came from. I also had to pay. [Reading] Published in the print center funded by the New York State Council of the Arts and the National Endowment of the Arts. It’s right in the beginning of this. I decided that since it’s so hard for local people to get published that I would start a magazine. Only I didn’t have any money, so that was very, very, very hard because I’m not used to asking for money. So I asked various people to form the board. Louis Jones, by the way.

TJ:
Louis Jones.

HW:
Yeah, he was head of NYSHA (New York State Historical Association). Louis Jones Center is named after him. He and I became friends and we’d take walks together sometimes and I admired him and he would criticize my poetry very kindly. You know it was wonderful that he was willing to do that. Because he knew a lot about literature and by the way I was asked to read Ulysses by Tennyson at his funeral at NYSHA and I was very proud that he asked me to do that. Anyway he was on the board of the magazine. We had four issues, it was quarterly and after four issues it was in 1979 that I started it and it finished in 1980. We turned what money we had left over to New York History Journal I had gotten and recruited this man, can’t remember his name right now. All the magazines are in the library, I’m sure.

TJ:
At NYSHA?

HW:
Yeah, at NYSHA. We turned the money we had left, we decided we couldn’t go any longer after that year, over to the New York History magazine. Therefore, they very kindly bound, they gave me the four issues bound in very nice library binding, which I have. It was good. Wendell Tripp was the inspiration behind that. Wendell, by the way was, in our, he still works occasionally, I think he goes over people’s Thesis. At least he did until recently. You know because they needed somebody to heed them. Oh, by the way, another person who’s a friend of Louise and Howard you probably know is the head of the Graduate Program.

TJ:
Gretchen Sorin.

HW:
Gretchen Sorin. She’s a great friend of Louise and Howard.

TJ:
She was the one who directed me to the book.

HW:
She was the one that what?

TJ:
She’s the one that directed me to read the book.

HW:
How nice. How very nice.

TJ:
Have you known her for a very long time?


HW:
Well, just through Louise and Howard. But whenever we see each other we feel this great surge of warmth because we’re both connected through Louise and Howard. Yeah, I met her mother. Is her mother still living?

TJ:
No, she’s not. She passed away.

HW:
Her mother was quite an impressive woman. [Gretchen] spoke to the Women’s Club and also to Friends of the Library not long ago. She showed pictures from her childhood. That was marvelous to see.

TJ:
What did she speak about?

HW:
Oh, about traveling down South. About that experience. There was a little book. I don’t know if she had a copy of it. I can’t remember ... you could buy it if you were black and you wanted to travel down South so you’d know where to stay.

TJ:
The green book, I believe.



HW:
Green book! Yeah, very good. Yeah. So you’d get a chance to know good places to sleep so you don’t have to sleep in your car, for heaven’s sake and to eat. I had a wonderful experience going traveling. (I’ve taught in Hawaii for two years-that’s where I met my husband.) On the train on the way to San Francisco where I would get the boat to go to Hawaii. It was a three day journey and that meant you know I had to eat in the dining car and there were a lot of young people. It was in the August after I had finished graduate school, so I was 22 I guess.

TJ:
Where were you riding from?

HW:
I was going from Utica where I had spent the summer there, and it was in August I went to San Francisco and got on the Lurline and went to Honolulu where I had a job waiting for me. But on the way we were waiting in line to get into the dining car dash and there was this elderly African American couple who were just ahead of me-and friends that I had been hanging out with on the train. The person, he was German with a German accent, he was the maitre d' of the dining car and he said, “You’re next,” and he picked me and my companion. I said, “Oh, no, this elderly couple is ahead of us.” I found out things about them while we were in line, that they were going to a funeral of some relative on the west coast, and he said, “No, you’re next.” Anyway, so I found out the name of the maitre d' and I found out the name of the Superintendent of Dining Cars and while I was there on the train I wrote to the superintendent of dining car and told him what had happened. In the meantime however, like an idiot, I became friends with the maitre d’ [laughs] and I stupidly gave him my address where I’d be in Hawaii. So after I was in Hawaii for a little while I got a letter from him saying, “I hope you’re happy now. I just got fired,” and he said “One of these days [I]will come over and look you up.”

TJ:
Did he ever come?
HW:
No, thank the Lord, he never came, but I was a little bit tense for the rest of the journey because I knew as soon as I got to San Francisco I would mail that letter. I felt little like Mata Hari or something. So it’s been a long nice life. May you have a nice long life.
TJ:
May I have half as exciting a life as yours.


HW:
You can. You do what you want to do. That’s the important thing. It’s very exciting that you thought that maybe someday you might like to do a collection of black history. That would be wonderful.
TJ:
I have spoken to one of the curators at the National Museum of American History.
HW:
Museum of what?
TJ:
National American History.
HW:
Where is that?
TJ:
In Washington, DC.
HW:
Really, I’ve never been there.
TJ:
In the Smithsonian.
HW:
Oh, at the Smithsonian!
TJ:
Yea, at the Smithsonian. She spoke to our class on interpreting African American artifacts and doing exhibitions on very culturally sensitive topics and she was amazing and made me want to…
HW:
Have you ever read Beloved?

TJ:
I have not read Beloved.
HW:
Well, you have a big experience coming. Make sure you’re in a good mood. It is such a painful experience, that you think you’re just going to melt away. Well, Toni Morrison is one of my favorite writers. I think it’s her first book that she wrote that I read first. The Blue--.
TJ:
The Bluest Eye? I have read that book.
HW:
Don’t you think it [inaudible]?
TJ:
It’s very intense.

HW:
Very Intense. She’s not an easy writer. I tried to bring her to SUCO once when she was teaching at Albany. She was only asking for $5,000, which was peanuts, but I was told that that would be too much money. Of course now you couldn’t get her for love or money.
TJ:
When was this that you asked?
HW:
When I first started teaching there. When was it?
TJ:
You didn’t start in 1969?
HW:
No, no. I know when it was exactly. It was 1973, because I worked there from 1973-1975 teaching freshman English. Now that was definitely in the mid 70s.
TJ:
How many books had she written by then?
HW:
I have no idea. I’m not good at numbers. Both of us should remember. She’s written so many books now. Keeping up with her writing is…I always felt very sad that her house burned down and with it some manuscripts. Did you ever know that her house burned down?
TJ:
No, when did her house burn down?
HW:
I have no idea. About 10 years ago I imagine. By the way, read some of her essays some time and not just novels. I used one of her essays in class about her growing up and what a proud man her father was. How assertive he was. Also how her mother got a letter from Franklin Delano Roosevelt because she was complaining about some food that they got that wasn’t good. Franklin Roosevelt wrote her back and her family was very proud about that. Yeah, that’s a book of essay that I used with my freshman.
TJ:
What kind of English did you teach in SUCO to your freshman class?
HW:
Oh, mostly composition. Occasionally I would get the chance to teach literature but I would include in freshman English always some literature. One of the first times [I taught] I gave them a choice between the Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Have you ever read the Invisible Man?
TJ:
No.
HW:
That’s another thing you have got to read. I mean it’s one of these turning points in Black History in the way black people perceive themselves. He was very important fiction writer and between that and a book that I just love too, Primo Levi’s [Survival] in Auschwitz. Primo Levi, well, it’s called Nothing but a Man in some translations-he’s an Italian writer who told of his experience as a prisoner in Auschwitz. I remember the student I had from Africa who’s now a college professor herself. She picked that book. I’ve got the book in my bookcase. The idea of one year or one period of time … in Auschwitz.
TJ:
I have one question about teaching English. When you taught at the college in Texas during the time where it wasn’t acceptable to have an African American theater actress compared to working at SUCO

HW:
She was an opera singer.
TJ:
Opera singer, compared to working at SUCO did you see a transition to more tolerance?
HW:
Well, we didn’t have any black people. Period. No undergraduates at the University of Texas the year before integration and so I had a chance to discuss with my freshman class. I asked them, “How will you feel when black students are admitted?” And some of them said, “Well we’ll be relieved because our religion teaches us that discrimination is un-Christian, but the girl from Mississippi, she dug in her heels and she said I still don’t think that it’s right to go to school with black kids. But it was interesting that the kids gave a religious reason, but then the year after integration there weren’t black people flooding into the school. We had a suicide that year of a girl who had been a very popular, very, very pretty, lovely girl who committed suicide because it was just too hard.
TJ:
She was African American?

HW:
She was black—African American. But the graduate schools were open to black people the year before. So this is when, I don’t know if I knew her personally, but I was in the English Department then, so I was a student too. I took courses. This one woman, I think she was a teacher-I don’t think she was a principal-I think she was a teacher. Black woman. She found it terribly demoralizing because she had been denied [the right] to teach education before. I don’t know where she had gone to college, I mean certainly there are certainly wonderful black colleges, you know, in the South, but I think she felt it was just too difficult to handle and yet she was already a middle aged woman and that was a very destructive experience.
TJ:
I’m almost done with all of my questions, but going back to the community in Cooperstown. I know that you moved in 1969, what has been the biggest change in the community that you’ve noticed?
HW:
Well, I can’t be objective, of course, because I had children then and I don’t have children now. They’ve all gone their own way. So I couldn’t help but see the community particularly through whether it served my children well. I was very happy for the most part for my children’s experience in school and finding friends and having the lake and having the freedom to move around without danger. I mean that’s what a mother thinks of. Yeah, I think that we’re open to the world much more. When I first came here everybody, as I told my husband, everyone looked like they were blond and blue eyed. But now not everybody is blond and blue eyed. I got to know this retired social worker, she was in her 80s and she was here long before I came, and she said that Bassett would never have hired anybody Jewish, anybody black, anybody of any sort of different nationality or background, but that has changed. Now, also a matter of sex, I mean people can be homosexual and still be doctors at Bassett. Men and women. I think that, yeah, the town has opened up along with the rest of society. But, particularly, Cooperstown was a much more typical small, but well-to-do, small town. But now because it’s a teaching hospital, naturally it opens itself to a greater variety of people.
TJ:
Do you have anything you would like to add?
HW:
Oh, yeah I have one thing, not good. We might as well end on a sour note. Once when I was, see I taught at Herkimer College, I taught at Utica College and I taught at SUCO. When I was having a hard time getting a job I decided to apply to the high school and there were two other women who were also very experienced and well qualified. We had good degrees from good schools and we had had experience. All three of us applied and got no answer. We never got an answer to our letter of application because, I think you know, older people are harder to knuckle under and they will stand up for what they believe and also you have to pay them more-I think that’s the main thing. So they prefer to hire younger people so all three of us went our own ways, we went to different fields. I went to college teaching [for more money]. One woman became a nurse, another woman taught in a far away town. But I like ending in a blaming note.

TJ:

[Laughs] Well, that’s it.

HW:

Well, it was great to see you again…

[END]




Original Format

born digital

Duration

01:14 - Preview Clip
30:04 - Part 1
30:00 - Part 2
26:18 - Part 3

Bit Rate/Frequency

128kpbs

Files

Citation

Tramia Jackson, “Hilda Wilcox November 17, 2010,” CGP Community Stories, accessed April 25, 2019, http://cgpcommunitystories.org/items/show/94.