These Books Made Me

Bonus Episode: Sandra Johnson, St. Mark's Church Historian

July 22, 2021 Prince George's County Memorial Library System Season 1 Episode 3
These Books Made Me
Bonus Episode: Sandra Johnson, St. Mark's Church Historian
Show Notes Transcript

We had such a good conversation with this second community expert for our last episode, we had to release it as a separate episode. Ella (of Ella's Ephemera fame) chats with St. Mark's Church Historian Sandra Johnson about sharecropping and other related topics in Prince George's County African American history that are connected to the book "Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry" by Mildred Taylor.

These Books Made Me is a podcast about the literary heroines who shaped us and is a product of the Prince George's County Memorial Library System podcast network. Stay in touch with us via Twitter @PGCMLS with #TheseBooksMadeMe or by email at TheseBooksMadeMe@pgcmls.info. For recommended readalikes and deep dives into topics related to each episode, visit our blog at https://pgcmls.medium.com/.

Ella:

The conversation with our second community expert was so good. We decided to release it as its own bonus episode. Join me, Ella of Ella's Ephemera as I chat with St . Mark's church historian, Sandra Johnson. How long have you been a historian there?

Sandra:

Maybe about 20 years or more. Oh, wow. Yes, yes. Yes. And I've worked on several projects with the Laurel historical society and the Laurel museum and helping them with exhibits that have to do with , uh, African-American citizens and Laurel and African-American life in Laurel.

Ella:

Oh, that's awesome. We've only recently I think started working with the Laurel historical society, but they included us in their exhibit a few years ago and we were taken back by how much information we didn't know about our own library system. So they just do exceptional work. I could never be a historian.

Sandra:

They are a wealth of knowledge. I've learned several things from them , uh, as well. So , um, I mean things about , uh, the Rosenwald schools , um, and just things like just little tidbits of, of , uh, African-American history that are not really written down that I learned, I've learned through their , um, very intense research that they've been doing over the years. And it's really been nice because , um, to be included because for a long time African-American history from, for Laurel residents was really wasn't that , um , um, just wasn't that prevalent people just didn't know that much about it. So now with the , um, uh, Laurel historical society and the people that they have, they're, they've been very , um, interested in including us and , um, just becoming knowledgeable about , uh, African-American life in Laurel.

Ella:

Oh, that's, that's great. We have at the Prince George's county Memorial library system, our Oxon Hill branch has an ongoing oral history , uh , specifically for, for historically African-American towns in Prince George county. And even with that, you know, that was so recently started. Whereas obviously we have residents who have been here for generations.

Sandra:

Right, right. Yes. So, I mean, it's really nice that , uh, they have really , uh, been interested in African-American life in Laurel, in prince George's county. And , um, I've learned so much about, you know, the , the struggles, the way people lived , um, how segregated Prince George's county was, how segregated Laurel was. But when you're a small child, you take a lot of things for granted. I mean, you know, that you're aware of it because you know that there are certain places you can go, certain places, you can't go places you felt comfortable being in those settings, other places. But I mean, it was just to the point where there were just places where you just couldn't go , uh , which was , um, you know, young people now in Laurel just take those things for granted. It was nothing, nothing for them to just say, oh, I feel like going to the Laurel pool today, it's hot outside. I'd like to go to the pool Laurel pool and just go. Whereas , uh, we knew we just couldn't go. And , uh, I mean , it seems strange now in 2021, but when I grew up in Laurel that, you know, you just didn't go, you just weren't allowed to go there.

Ella:

So I'm not, I'm not from Maryland, but I definitely in talking to people that are from Laurel, you know, there is this kind of like, oh, Laurel is so progressive. Laurel's always been so progressive, but that's just not true at a certain point. You know, Laurel wasn't, as far as I understand, didn't seem to be this magical place that was separate from the rest of Maryland.

Sandra:

Well, it depends on your age. Um , now if you are, let's say 30 years old, you may think of this as this very progressive city, because it , Laurel is just so different now than the way that I grew up. And it was different for me than it was, let's say from my parents, because , um, you know, there was, that's why I'm reading the book was just so interesting because , um, I can I can really see why this book was required reading for junior high, middle school and high school students, because I was talking to my oldest daughter and she was telling me that she read it. Of course, when the book, I think the book was written in the seventies...

Ella:

I believe mid eighties was the first...

Sandra:

Okay. Okay. Well then I was way past college, high school and college. I never read it. I had heard of it, but I had never read it. And when I, you know, when it was suggested I said the title of the book piqued my interest, because I do remember , um, my , my daughter, I did remember hearing about the book, but not reading it and because I'm a retired teacher. So instead of reading that I was grading papers. Um , but when I read the book, it was a pace where, I couldn't, I just couldn't put it down because it reminded me so much of things that , um, not necessarily that I experienced , because the setting of the book was about 1933, something like that, and the deep, deep south. And , um, but things just came back to my attention as to , um, some of the things that maybe my parents , um, experienced living in Prince George's county or , uh, things that older people, because I do live in Baltimore and things that , um, older people in Baltimore and the Baltimore school system they told me about. And , um, how, you know, you had two separate , um, school systems, I mean, you know, under one umbrella, but they were both completely different the way they were funded the way, you know, so, you know, it brought back a lot of memories to me, of things that I had been told. So I , I really enjoyed reading the book. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Ella:

Good!

Sandra:

So I can see why it's required reading because some people don't experience it, but they, they know that things like this did happen and how the , the, the strength of , um , the young people in the book, the strength of their family and their family structure, their work ethic, their, their values, their morals, all of that just came into play into the, you know, reading the books . So I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Ella:

Good. I'm so glad I, like you, I, well, I didn't read the book as a child , um, for required reading, but I did read it as an adult before, and I recently re-read it for this podcast, but I definitely do think I knowing myself as I was, as a student, I'm kind of glad I read it as I was older, because I feel like I wouldn't have absorbed it as much when I was a child and kind of forced by my teacher to read it.

Sandra:

I can understand that because I probably would've done the same thing. Um, because sometimes when you're forced to read things, sometimes you don't get the , the understanding or you're , you're reading it so that you can maybe pass a test or , or answer review questions or something like not for the real, the true meaning of the novel. And you're very, that's a very good point. That's reading it when it's required as to just reading it just for, you know, to , just uh , knowledge for yourself. And , um, you're broadening your horizons or broadening your experiences. It's completely different.

Ella:

Yeah. And I agree with you completely. It absolutely was a page turner. I, when I read it the first time, read it all in one day, I just read through it very quickly. It was, it's an exceptionally good book now that I was reading it more because I chose to not because I was asked to in school.

Sandra:

Right, right.

Ella:

So based on, you had mentioned stories that you've heard from people that grew up in the local area, specifically around Baltimore county, based on your historical knowledge, do you feel, it sounds like you feel like the book is an accurate portrayal of the 1930s?

Sandra:

Oh, certainly because as I said, I , um, I did a presentation for the Laurel historical society on African-American life in the Grove because the , uh , African-American section of Laurel , uh, was called the Grove. And it was, I don't know if you've ever heard that term, but it was called the Grove because there was a large Oak Grove that really surrounded the community. It's not there now because 198 sorta when , um , progression came and things like that, but it was known as the Grove. And , um, I , uh, as I said, I, I did a , um , a presentation. I did several, I did one on African-American life. And I also did one about , um, the segregation of schools in Laurel as well. But anyway, with the combination of both, I interviewed , um, a lot of older people who have really passed on right now, but they talked about , uh , not being able to attend Laurel High School. I don't know if you're familiar with the location, but Laurel High School is, I mean, steps away from the Black community in Laurel. So some people, I mean, could have just been in that, could have walked to that school in less than five minutes. So the fact that, uh, they couldn't attend the high school , um, and they had to go to, you know , the all Black school in Lakeland, which is in College Park. Um, you know, I thought about that when I read the book, I also thought about how in the book, the children wondered why, you know , um, there was no bus service for them, no transportation service for them, where they had to walk miles to go to school where the white children were bused . And it was the same thing for them. They were there, there was Prince George's county did not provide bus service for any Black students in the county, the people who were in Laurel , um, they had to either catch the train down to Lakeland, which is, you know, off of Route One in College Park or they had, you know, had to get there the best way that they could, which really meant that was a reason why a lot of people didn't complete high school because it was just too difficult to get there. Or your parents couldn't afford to send you on the train every day. So with that, that came to mind with me that that was an actual thing that happened where Prince George's county did not provide bus service for Black students at that time. And we're talking about the same time , um, maybe the, you know, in the thirties, the 1930s, and as I said, they couldn't walk to Laurel High School because that was for white children only when, where they talked about getting , uh , used books. Some friends here in Baltimore would tell me that they remember getting textbooks that had other people's names written in them. They were soiled . You could tell that they were very used and , uh, but they had been books that no longer were used for white students. And now they were given to the Black students to use. And , uh, so, you know, I've heard of quite a few things that , uh, happened in the book that really made me , uh, you know, reflect back on to what the older people in Laurel had told me about educate the educational system there, or , um, my friends , um, in Baltimore who basically told me the same thing. So I could, you know, I could relate to that, not my, that myself, because when I started school integration had really, really started , uh, we didn't have the problem of transportation not being available to us or anything like that. But , um, luckily as I said, being the church historian, I was able to speak with , uh, the older members of St . Mark's and they were a wealth of knowledge and they could, you know, tell me about their, their personal experiences.

Ella:

That's amazing. I doubt it, but because this is a historical fiction and fiction does allow more freedom than just a straight non-fiction . Was there anything in the book that you feel like could have , or should have been told differently might've been changed? Anything that could have been added or removed?

Sandra:

Now it's kind of hard for me to , because number one, I, I didn't really grow up in the deep south nor did I have relatives in the deep south. I do remember things about when my parents used to get , um, things like Jet magazine and , um , which was a weekly publication. That's no longer in existence. I don't know if it's online or whatever, but anyway, it used to be mailed to the home every week. Or you go and you buy one. And I do remember looking in that magazine sometimes and seeing things like , uh , lynchings and , uh , things that were going on in the south. And , uh, to the point I was telling my husband and I was - just the other day I said, I grew up with the fear of the south. Uh , I had a fear of going past , uh, Washington DC going into, I had, I really had a fear. And that was basically because I didn't have relatives living in the south. And my husband was telling me, well, maybe if you had visited because his mother was from Savannah, Georgia, you know, he didn't go all the time, but they did frequent the south . And his mother, sometimes when, you know, before she passed, she would talk to me about things. And she said everything, you know, it was very segregated in Georgia, in Savannah, of course, but they just seemed to, you know, were able to enjoy life in certain types of ways, because a lot of things that they were, they had their own, like they had their own movie theaters, which, which I didn't experience in Laurel, because when we start, when we were able to go to the movie theater, the black people were sitting up in the balcony and the white people was sitting in , you know, on the main level. But she said that they had their own , um , movie theaters, their own , uh, sources of , uh , entertainment and things like that. And , uh , so she said that, you know, it was very, it was very segregated, but, you know , um, they just seem to manage, but certain things did go on, you know , uh , lynchings, it wasn't, I don't remember her saying it was so prevalent in the city, but in the rural parts of the south, as the book was that you could, you know, always hear about a lot of lynchings going on and people struggling to keep their properties being sharecroppers, not really owning their own land , working for other people and never really being in a position to own their own property. It was the more they worked the land, you know, they, they still couldn't get ahead. They still couldn't become property owners and things like that. But , uh, um, I'm trying to think if I thought something could have been written better or differently...

Ella:

And "no" is , is a great answer, too .

Sandra:

Right, and , uh, I , I just couldn't, I just didn't read the book and say, well, why did they do this? Why did they do that? I, I just didn't read it that way.

Ella:

And that's great. That's definitely, you know, and , um , I'm sure you're familiar with, sometimes you read a book, even a nonfiction book and you know, completely factual and you read it and you're like, why did they present it like that?

Sandra:

Right. Well, I have read books like that. You know , I said, well, this is someone in insulting my intelligence -

Ella:

Yeah

Sandra:

- or something like that, or saying t hat, that really doesn't make, that's not logical or doesn't make sense, but I , I didn't get that sense when I was reading 'cause certain parts of it were just so intense. Oh my goodness. You know, what's, what's going to, what's going to happen because, you know, we hear about things like, well, the KKK just riding up in the middle of the night and d ragging people from their homes and burning their properties and, u m, killing people or really assaulting people. So, you know, you knew that those t ypes of things h appened. So but, I was reading over your questions, you know, before our session today, and I was - read the question about what would you have liked to have seen different? And I , I couldn't think of a thing really. I just thought it was well-written maybe someone else, well, maybe someone else who you c ould really lived in the south or had really close relatives, a nd maybe they could have a different opinion about the way certain things were written or way certain things were expressed, but for me, no.

Ella:

And I do think it was obviously a very heavy book emotionally, but I never felt at any time that it was overwhelmingly so. You know, I think it was exceptionally, well-written the tone of it, the pace of it. I personally wouldn't change a single thing about it.

Sandra:

Oh good. because I would even, and I, and I thought, because it was such a good , um, reading for young people. And uh, I think that if it had been too gory and too intense, it would have been too graphic. I don't think it could have held their interest or if it did, it would have just the lesson would have been lost because they, the whole underlying thing of their family structure, of their love for the land that they owned and the pride that they took in in own- being property owners, not just sharecroppers, even being able to survive with their father being gone so much of the time , um, because he was working in the north too. And he was really being away from home just so that they could continue to be property owners to afford to pay the taxes and, you know, just cause they , they weren't people who live really lived above their means, but they just appreciated everything that they had . The , they loved their family. They really valued the relationships within the family, the family structure. So, and I think that if it had been too graphic, I think all of that really would have been lost.

Ella:

Absolutely. And I definitely agree with the emphasis that was not only the family as individuals, but also as the structure and how they related to each other, that you didn't just see one or two family members interacting, but you saw them in small groups, one-on-one, as a whole,

Sandra:

Right. And how they , um, helped each other to deal with everything that was going on, how they were... I'm sure that they were envied by a lot of other people, envied by some, hated by others. Uh , others were jealous of them because they just were such a dynamic family. As I said, the , the fact that , uh , some family members were working, and, just to help pay the taxes and to keep the property going. And , um, a lot of you can see that this was, they were a rarity where they lived , that wasn't the normal, because most of the people who lived in their surrounding county and area, they were sharecroppers and they just, you know, did just enough just to get by. And , um , never becoming property and owning property really meant a lot as it did. I remember growing up with my , uh , grandfather and my grandmother, they always talked about the importance of owning property and, you know, it was, but it , that was came from years and years of not having it and not doing that because they took a lot of pride in owning property and , um, not renting, not, and not- And I'm sure that's where that type of value system came from, from , from the south I'm from here where people, just, everybody, they didn't own their own homes. They were renting. And, you know, but when you own something that meant a lot, it meant a lot, because there wasn't a lot of things that set you apart in the Black community, because, you know, as in this novel, there weren't a lot of professional people there. Weren't a lot of doctors, lawyers. So , um, but if you owned your own property, that sort of like, you know, set you apart from everybody else. It was part of the , the black experience. So as I said, I can just talk about this book. Cause I tell you, I just found myself just...

Ella:

And I I'm surprised you'd never read it. Like I said, I read it as an adult, so I'm not terribly surprised, but I'm so glad that you had the opportunity to read it. And I am honored that I'm here to talk to you about it. Um, I don't want to take up too much of your time cause I did promise 20 to 30 minutes, but is there, are there any questions that I didn't ask or some part of the book that you really wanted to talk about? It's kind of open forum at this point?

Sandra:

Um, I've been just talking.

Ella:

Good! Good.

Sandra:

I basically hit on everything because as I said, every time I, every , you know, every so often as I was reading the book, I was like, hmm. I do remember something like that. You know, someone telling me about something like this or, or someone telling me that they experienced something like that because , um, I mean, you know, thank God things are a lot different now, but , uh, just to know that , um, these things were just so commonplace, you know, where they talked about , um, no matter what was done, you knew that , um, the, the , uh, white residents would not be prosecuted would not be jailed for- and I thought. When I thought, of course, I thought back to , uh , the George Floyd trial where the white officer was convicted and some people probably would say, they probably never thought they'd see that in their lifetimes, just to think of something, you know, but, you know, let's , you know, we, aren't where we should be, but we were not where we used to be. And , um, you know, the type , those types of things that , uh, you know, used to occur on a daily basis. And we just, it was just the way it was, you just said, well that's, and , and that their parents said that a few times and their grandmother said that a few times. Well, that's just the way it is. That's just the way things are. We just have to live with it. Uh, we just, or we just have to learn how to survive with it. And that's just what they did. That's what they did. So, but as I said, I just thoroughly enjoyed it. I don't think I'd change anything. I will probably go back and reread that book within about a year or so, just to, I have a grandson , but he's too young to even think about it , but hopefully I'll be around to see him read the book. And , um, it's got some a lot , but I'm going to tell everybody my family, when I know if you have not read this book, you got to got to read the book. You've got to get that experience. And just to, you know, to reflect upon what life was like in rural Mississippi in 1933.

Ella:

Well, thank you. Thank you so much

Sandra:

For joining me. I'm so glad we got to talk about it.

Heather:

Thanks for joining us for this special bonus episode of these books made me. See you next episode.