UPDATED DECEMBER 17, 2020
Katie interviews Dr. Shirley Weber, a California State Assembly Member from San Diego, whose mother, Mildred, raised eight kids in L.A. in the 1950s and 1960s, after she her husband, David, fled a lynch mob in rural Arkansas in 1951.
Mildred's philosophy of life: Keep your hand open in order to give.
Dr. Weber, a retired San Diego State University professor, has been a member of the California State Assembly since 2012. She is also the head of the Legislative Black Caucus.
When, the Electoral College voted on December 14, officially making Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Kamala Harris the next president and vice president of the United States, it was Dr. Weber who presided over the vote.
A wide-ranging Q&A with Dr. Weber ran recently in The New York Times, in which she talked about her childhood in Arkansas, and her thoughts on being part of the democratic process: “I continue to be amazed at being able to participate in the process at this level.”
See the blog post about the Mildred Nash episode on ourmothersourselves.com. And while you're there, please contribute your word to the mother word cloud.
Music composed and performed by Andrea Perry.
Artwork by Paula Mangin. (@PaulaBallah on Instagram)
Producer: Alice Hudson
My mother was a woman of tremendous integrity. Her word was her bond, and you could count on her. And I hope that's the way I try to exist. I listen sometimes to my colleagues in the legislature, how am I able to get such such controversial legislation passed? And it's often because I treat them with dignity and respect. My mother taught me how to be a decent person.Katie Hafner :
Welcome to Our Mothers Ourselves, a weekly conversation about one extraordinary mother. I'm Katie Hafner, and I'm your host. My guest today is Dr. Shirley Weber, a California State Assembly member from San Diego. Dr. Weber came to California in 1951 when she was three years old, under dark circumstances. Her father David Nash was a sharecropper in rural Arkansas, and he was forced to flee one night to escape a lynch mob. The family settled in the projects of South LA and Shirley's mother, Mildred, worked hard as a homemaker raising her eight children. Mildred was so beloved in the community that when she died in 1977, the church was packed with mourners, and the flowers at the cemetery were stacked six feet high. To this day, people who know the Nash children -- and their children -- talk about Mildred Nash. Dr. Weber joined me recently for a conversation about her extraordinary mother. Dr. Weber, I know you're really busy right now because the California State Assembly is in session. So I want to thank you so much for taking out the time. I'm honored to do that. You know, I don't often get a chance to chat about my mom as much as I'd like to. So I'm really honored that you want to hear a little bit about her. Let's get straight down to it and start talking about what you know about Mildred's childhood, where she was born, where she was raised.Shirley Weber :
Sure. My mom was born in Arkansas, near Hope, Arkansas, I think in Hempstead County. In 1920. In fact, this year in October, she would have been 100 years old. The unique thing about her was that she was from a small family, just my mother, her older brother, and she had a younger sister who died when she was very young named Elizabeth and she always talked about Elizabeth. But it was just my mom and her brother and her mother. And her father and my grandfather and it was interesting because my mother was actually raised by her grandmother, her grandma Lucy, and grandma Lucy was born in the 1800's. Grandma Lucy was was born a slave actually. And but she was a She was raised by this grandmother she and her brother were because my grandmother, my my, my grandmother was actually Birdell was her name was the youngest in a family of eight or nine kids and she was her, her closest brother and sister was about 18 years older than her so she was kind of a born in a family when she was a baby, and everybody else was an adult and so she was very, very spoiled my grandmother, and and as a result living in the country was not for her. She did not like working in the field. She didn't like doing hard labor. She was a very attractive woman. And so she left, which is unusual, and she left the mid 1920s. She left Arkansas as a single woman and moved to Los Angeles, left her family, her husband and her children. She was going to take her children with her but her her mother's grandmother said "No, California is not a place for children." Plus she knew my grandma, my grandmother was kind of a wild woman, very independent. And as a result, she came to California. And so my mother was raised by her grandmother. It was it was quite interesting because she always admired her cousins and others who had their mother with them. Who could could get their hairstyle very beautifully and, and her grandmother had kind of arthritis and couldn't comb her hair really pretty. And so she stayed a lot with her cousins, visiting them and so she always wanted a big family. And so she had eight children. She always wanted a big family. She wanted and she always wanted to make sure that that she would never leave her children. That was her thing because her mother left her and and that was always ingrained in us that she was going to be with her children no matter what. My mother was very independent as well, like her mother in many ways, because she married first a gentleman and had two children who was very abusive. And she left that man. McFadden was his name. And she left him and moved into an apartment with two small children back in the 1930s. And tried taking care of these children and her husband, to show you how women weren't liberated, her husband wanted her to come back to him. So he went to her employer and told her employer, she worked in this little store, that I didn't give my wife permission to work. And so as a result, he fired my mother.Katie Hafner :
So McFadden went to your mother's boss, said, "I didn't give her permission to work." So the boss fired her from the store. Fired my mother because her husband said she could not work. Unbelievable. And this was in, like, 1941 but that was what the norms were. How did your mother meet your dad? In a small town, everybody kind of knew everybody but they often talked about the fact that my dad was so bashful he saw my mom and thought she was very pretty and she was very social at the time and he was not. He lived out in the country. He was truly a country boy, a farmer, he had only been as far as a fifth grade because they wouldn't let them go further than the fifth or sixth grade. And he worked very hard, you know, tall man, worked hard. And so he just kind of would walk, they say he would walk five miles. All his brothers would laugh at him. He'd walk five miles to see my mom and she'd be on the porch. And he would say hi to her, and then turn around and walk five miles back home. It wasn't until - it was kind of funny - It wasn't until he had gone away to work in the logging area in Arkansas and came back and discovered that my mom had been married and divorced. He was gone a couple of years. He went and met her at one of their socials and then began to date her and, and shortly thereafter, they were married and had all of us, didn't they, at the time, my mom had two kids. He never treated them as stepchildren or half kids or would never refer to them as half brothers and sisters and all those kinds of things. And if you ask my father, "How many children do you have?" You know, some folks will say, "Well, I have six and my wife has two." My dad said, from day one, "I have eight children." So let's, let's talk about the circumstances of how your parents got to California. Well, you know, there were no real serious plans initially to come to California. There was always discussion, but it wasn't until really August of 1951. And I was just a child, a baby at the time. I was three years old. My my dad who was very outspoken, very determined to express himself and felt he was equal with everyone and anyone that he met. He never said yes sir No sir to anyone who didn't say the same to him. And he didn't let people call him a boy. And, and so that became really really important in my dad's life and so they were he was a sharecropper. My family owned land in Arkansas, in Hope, Arkansas, and but it was the the custom or the tradition of the day that you could not work your land. In other words, plant your crop, if you didn't, if you didn't help plant white folks craft first, despite the fact that they had owned land themselves, that he was not allowed to work the land unless he actually worked for someone white and that you had to give them time to basically your time to basically should do their crops before you can do your own. So my dad was a sharecropper, despite the fact that he owned land, lots of land and they could farm their own property. They could not do that without, first of all, subjecting themselves to being a sharecropper. There was always contention around sharecropping, because people will often cheat it, you know, if they said you, you made X amount of money, then that's what you said, even if you knew that you made more. And so my father always argued about that and and confronted the, the owners at the time of at the mill that they had to basically cheated him. And so this year, he went, basically and said, "No, I'm not going to take that you, you cheated me, this is what I've earned." And so that was a major physical confrontation at the mill that day. And as a result, the whites in the town decided to lynch my father, they decided they would have to make him an example so that others would not get out of control. And so the word had spread throughout the town that they were going to basically come from my father that night. His brother and his father and others knew they had and so they had contacted my grandmother in California and they put him in a wagon late at night and that evening and took him to Texarkana and, and then from Texarkana, they put him on a train and sent him to California. Obviously, I often think about how courageous my father must have been one to fight the system. And then on top of that, he got on the train from Arkansas to California and my dad could barely read. I mean, he was he was really not very he was not literate because he'd only been about the fifth grade. And then those classrooms, they had everybody in one class, so you really would not getting fifth grade education. But he but he was smart. He figured things out. I guess they gave him some notes. They had contacted my grandmother and my uncle, who at that time was in California. And so my father took the long three, two and a half a three day trip to California. When he got to California, he got a job working in the steel mills of Los Angeles cutting cold steel. My grandmother's friend worked there and got him a job and he saved this money from August. until November. And then he put us on a train at right after Thanksgiving. And we arrived in California on December 1. So it was your mother, you... It was six of us at the time. Two of my brothers and sisters were born in California. We got here December 1, 1951. And my sisters, because I was just a little kid talk about the long journey, how hard it was how, you know, with so many kids on a train in segregated cars at one point and didn't have the luxury of having a place to sleep. My sister said there was some woman that she believes must have been famous because she was an African American woman who had a little fur coat. And she took a liking to my sisters and brothers because she said they were so well mannered. And eventually she said she sat with them while my mother went into her sleeping car to take a nap. So just to stop you there. I have to tell you I was, before our conversation, I was reading Isabel Wilkerson's great book The Warmth of Other Suns.Shirley Weber :
Yes.Katie Hafner :
And she has as one of the epigraphs she has that Langston Hughes poem One-Way Ticket. And the latter half of that says, "I pick up my life and take it on the train to Los Angeles, Bakersfield, Seattle, Oakland, Salt Lake, any place that is north and west, and not south." Yes, my sisters talk about they talk about how when they got to California there was so many people and things were moving so fast. And one of us has said what really impacted her was that she went to school and they had so many games to play because in Arkansas out in the country with a one room schoolhouse they had maybe you know maybe some chalk to play with or or something that they found or made but but they but she said we went to school and they had balls, lots of balls for all the kids. She said and I got a ball and didn't want to share it because I thought someone would take it from me. She said I had to learn to share because we didn't have balls. And we didn't have all the things on the ground that were the hopscotches that were drawn on the ground and things like that. So, but then it was truly, truly a culture shock to come to California. So when you first got to LA, what part of LA did you live in? And what was it like there? We first when we first came to LA, we stayed in a one room, one bedroom apartment with my grandmother. So you can imagine all six kids and my mother and father, eight of us with my grandmother. Shortly thereafter, we moved to a house on Trinity. A little house, but it was rat infested. Oh my god, there were so many rats in that house. It was unbelievable. And so we stayed there because my family had applied to become to move into a housing project, a brand new housing project called the Pueblos, and they were building this housing project for those for low income families. You know, it was not like the New York housing projects where you see everybody stacked on top of each other. These were houses connected almost like condos in some way with with lots of grass and play areas and but interestingly enough many of our friends in the section where we lived (these were four bedroom houses) all had fathers in the house which kind of defies that image that everybody's a single mom. There were a number of single moms around but there were a lot of of mothers and fathers . But we were the working poor. And and I went to Holmes Avenue Elementary School and the school was kind of geared toward making sure that kids who had limited resources had the same benefits as others. The school was surrounded by factories of where the projects were built was near lumberyard and Coca Cola was behind us and so as a Quaker Oats and a couple of other huge huge kind of, of factories. And the thing that I remember most in terms of my school was that the school was mostly all African American, I think it was 100% African American to tell the truth. And and so most of my teachers, all of my teachers were African American, most of them had come from Texas and Alabama and Mississippi. So you had this influx of a number of black teachers from some of the black colleges to coming into Los Angeles, which turned out to be an amazing experience, because these teachers believed very strongly, and they taught us that we'd have to be twice as good to be considered. They were very strict about academics, as well as expectations of independence and so forth. And they would tell us, you know, you've got to be twice as good to be even considered. And so your journey is going to be different and it's going to be hard. I wanted to I wanted to ask you, speaking of education, about your mom's education, how was she educated? My mom was with my grandmother and her mother was sending money to take care of her because my grandmother worked in Los Angeles. She went to high school. She went to a to high school in Hope, Arkansas, and as far as the ninth grade, and then she says she lost interest because there wasn't a lot of opportunity available and what was she going to do? And most of the kids were dropping out in the ninth grade and a lot of the guys are joining the military. She has to dropped out and start working. And then after that, she got married, but she was, um, she went as far as ninth grade and she was very smart. And the interesting thing was, my dad knew she was smart, which was so uncharacteristic, sometimes of men. He celebrated her brilliance. I mean, he told us, your mother is smart. She knows how to do this, and she knows how to write and she knows how to do math, and she's good at figuring out the family budget. She sewed, she made beautiful clothes for us. And our family. Yeah, I never knew I was poor. I couldn't tell until I went to UCLA and took a sociology class. And then I realized how poor we really were. How would you say she approached being a mother? My mother was a kind of a mother extraordinare. In other words, she was up every morning very early. By the time we got out of bed in the morning, my mother had already washed a load of clothes and most had them hanging on the line by the time we got up. She cooked every day. We had home cooked meals every day. What did she cook?Shirley Weber :
Mostly beans, we had beans and cornbread and greens and cabbage and some kind of meat, you know, she was a great cook, my mom could really cook and, and and if she had sugar and flour, and some butter you were gonna have dessert of some sort, she would invent desserts. I mean, you know, we'd had like sweet potato cobblers, but her whole day was built around, making sure that we were taken care of. She was a homemaker. She only worked every now when we were kids. She worked a part time a couple hours a day in our school cafeteria. But other than that her main objective, her main thing was really taking care of all of us because she had eight kids. She was a disciplinarian. She wanted to make sure where everybody was, she was truly a mind reader. Because if you did anything wrong, my mother could detect it in your behavior. Nothing slipped by my mother, nothing. Nothing! And we all knew that but my mom was was always there. You know, I never came home to a cold house. I never came home when she wasn't there. Even the impact of that on my life, even today, when it's rainy or cold outside, I rush home and cook something that is boiling, that has some smell to it, because I've never walked into a house that didn't have a good smell. Philosophically, she was a giving person she had this philosophy of life it was called we always called it the open hand philosophy. She said, "If you if you have your hand open to give to others," she said, "You might lose a few things. Something may drop or you may miss out on something," she says. "But you're also had the hand open to receive." She said, "But if you have a closed fist, no, you won't lose anything but you won't give anything, nor will you get anything in life." All of our friends respected my mom, as a decent, honest Christian woman who never thought she was better than anybody. She never turned her nose up. She was never overly righteous. You know, sometimes people would call and talk about other people's children, and she stopped them and say, "You know, don't talk about people's kids because I have children too."Katie Hafner :
Let's go back for one second. And I just want to go back to when you got to California, you were living with your grandmother, the very woman, your mother's mother, the very woman who left her daughter. Do you have any sense of what their relationship was like, given that that had happened early in your mother's life? You know, I think it's as sometimes every now and then the tension was great. Quite a bit of tension between my mother and her mother. Every now and then my mom would say something like, "Well, I wish I'd had this," and my grandmother would be a little bit offended and then my mother would apologize. But, but my grandmother never abandoned my mother, you know, to the extent that that she just went off and never came back. She was there. She visited Arkansas regularly. She came in with beaut, my mother said she come with beautiful clothes and all those kinds of things. And she was constantly trying to get my mother to come to California, her grandmother wouldn't let her go because she was afraid that if she went to California, she become a wild woman or whatever. So my mother would have loved to have had a mother when her when she was young, but but she knew who her mother was. And her mother visited her so it wasn't you know, it was it was kind of an unusual relationship. And so surely when when we went to California, there was no question that we would stay with our grandmother, but also that my grandmother would continue to contribute to the family. My mother was really big on family, and anytime it looked like someone was going to kind of decide "I don't want to be a part of the family," they were going to have a very strong conversation with my mother. And and so we have a very family oriented mentality mainly because of my mother. And and she lived a life of giving but a life of support for all of us for our kids and for our family, yeah. Speaking of giving and support, I have a photograph that I printed out that's now sitting on my desk that I've been looking at the entire time we've been talking, which is your parents flanking you at your I guess it's when you got your PhD from UCLA in 1976. And your mother, I keep thinking to myself, she must be tickled pink, and she's in fact wearing a long pink dress. And she looks so happy. That was a high point of my parents life. You know, when they when I look at the the challenge that my family had had coming to California, and my dad insisting that we all stay in school and we did. And his philosophy that he would do whatever is necessary to get us through school and my mom was the same way and then working so hard and making sure that I had whatever I needed as a student to be successful, whether it's high school or college or whatever. I remember my mom was doing some day work working for some woman and she said, "Oh, you shouldn't send your daughter to UCLA because, you know, my son went to UCLA and he flunked out and so send her to City College, she won't make it," you know, and my mother came home and said, "Miss so and so said, so and so. But, you know, you will go and you do the best you can and that's all we ask of you." And so graduating from UCLA with a PhD was, was amazing. But my mother was such an extraordinary support person, not only for me, but for every friend I've ever had. It's interesting that I was at my parents, I was in LA not long ago and talking to some young people who knew my mom. And, and they were friends of ours. And they kept talking about "my mother this," and "my mother that," and "Miss Nash did this," and "Miss Nash did that." And it was interesting because in the process of it after was over, I was with a friend of mine who had driven to LA with me from San Diego. And so she asked me this question. She said, "Wow, your mother was an amazing woman," said, how long a question. "So when did your mother die?" She thought my mother died like a year or two ago. I said, "My mother died in 1977." And she said, "Wow." Mm.Shirley Weber :
"And they still remember her?" I said, "Exactly." I said, "She was a mother to every friend we had." When my mother passed away at age of 56. It was interesting because I go to a large church in LA of about 1500 people. And there were so many people at my mother's funeral. There were so many. First of all, so many floral arrangements, and my mother's not a famous person ,doesn't give speeches and all that stuff. There were a hundred and some odd floral arrangements at the church because when I went into the church, I said, "Why aren't the flowers inside?" They said, "Dr. Nash, we can't put any more flowers in this church." I said, "Oh!" And the church was packed. It took us over an hour to drive to the cemetery. And my uncle after he went back to the church, and after they had to repast, he was leaving, he went to the service station to get some gas, my mother's brother, and the guy said, You know, "I think the preacher, that big church up the street must have died." And he said, "Why?" He says, "Because I've never seen a procession like that coming out of that church." My uncle laughed and said, "No, that was my sister's funeral." And he goes, "Oh, who's your sister? Is she famous?" He said, "No, she's just a woman who had eight kids, and a husband that she loved very dearly, and took care of every other kid and person she could find." He said, "She was the best sister anybody had ever had." And, and so to this day, there are people in Los Angeles who talked about my mom like she died yesterday and she's been gone since 1977.Katie Hafner :
So she died a year after you got your PhD. And how did she die?Shirley Weber :
Very suddenly. My mother got sick one day.Katie Hafner :
Aww. One Sunday, didn't feel well on Monday, went to the hospital on Tuesday, died on Wednesday. They said she had acute leukemia. She always she always had two things she wanted in life, which was and she was never afraid to die, because she was very spiritual. But she said she wanted, she didn't want to suffer. She said, "If I'm going to die, I don't want to suffer. I don't want to get sick and have to struggle and you know, take treatments." And she said, "I don't want to suffer if I'm going to die, let me die." That was one of her wishes. The other wish was, "I want to be able to raise all of my eight children, because I don't want anybody else to have to raise my kids and I don't want them to be without a mother." And so when she died, my youngest sister was turning 19. So in some ways, we often say she got everything she wanted. She had a big family, lots of love from all of us in the community, we surely would have loved to have her with us longer. But she never suffered. And when I went to see her in intensive care I said, "Are you hurting?" She said, "No, I'm just tired." You know, that was it. And and when she passed away, all of us, my younger sister was a student in college at the time, we had all been raised by my mother. And so in that sense, she got her wish. I'm going to ask you one last question, and then I'm going to let you go. What lesson, big lesson, do you think she imparted to you that you wanted to, to carry on when you raised your own kids?Shirley Weber :
My mother was a woman of tremendous integrity. Her word was her bond, and you could count on her. And I hope that's the way I try to exist. I listen sometimes to my colleagues in the legislature, and they sometimes get up and talk about the fact that I'm a woman of integrity. That I'm honest, that they can count on me. Some asked how am I able to get such such controversial legislation passed? And it's often because I treat them with dignity and respect. The issues I fight for are because I believe they help everybody and they basically build a better California. My mother taught me how to be a decent person, how to be an honest person. And she was to the day she died.Katie Hafner :
Well, Shirley Weber, this has been such a pleasure. Thank you so much for talking to me about your mom, who sounds like she was a really wonderful woman, and a great mom.Shirley Weber :
Well, thank you. Thank you so much, and it's my pleasure.Katie Hafner :
And that's it for Our Mothers Ourselves this week. Thanks so much for listening. I'm Katie Hafner, and I'm your host. (This transcript was proofread and edited with help from Jannell Jackson and Benjy Wachter. If you spot more errors, please feel free to get in touch with me directly: katieh at gmail.com)