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Diversity & Inclusion, Her-Story, Leaders

Her-Story: Jean Williams


Jean Williams (photo taken in 2016)

This Women’s History Month has been rich with content featuring known and unknown females who have made great contributions to their communities, the United States, and the world. Perhaps my taking notice of this special content is tied to several events that have already occurred this year that include the Women’s March and release of the movie Hidden Figures in January, and A Day Without A Woman protest earlier this month. However, let’s not forget the many fabulous women, many who are unsung heroines, who do what they do every day of the year!

Today’s post recognizes one of my fellow congregants at First Institutional Baptist Church (FIBC): Jean Williams. Sister Jean or Ms. Jean as we call her was featured in an earlier post in The Arizona Republic Newspaper, and authored by Karina Bland: She had to sit in the back of the movie theater in Phoenix in 1943. Then she watched the city change. [Ref 1]  Bland provides many interesting accounts of Ms. Jean’s life beginning with her arrival in Phoenix, AZ in June 1943.

I along with others at FIBC greatly appreciate the spotlight that Bland created for one of our seasoned members who is a jewel in our church and her community. Ms. Jean’s recollection of her time in Arizona provides a rich history of a changing City of Phoenix, State of Arizona, and United States over the last 74 years.

After reading Bland’s post my first question to one of my favorite nonagenarians was: How did your path cross with that of this reporter’s for her to develop this beautiful story? According to Ms. Jean, the ball started rolling on this post when she and her husband attended a promotion ceremony for her great-niece, Englecie “Glecie” Douglas, a career officer and a member of the Army Reserves back in October 2016. Glecie was being promoted to Master Sergeant and wanted family members to be present for her big day! Prior to the promotion day ceremony, Glecie had shared with the commanding officer of the Papago Park Military Reserve Center that her 91-year old aunt would be attending this event.

Shortly before the program began, the commanding officer came in, spoke to several persons including Glecie, and then began walking in the direction of Ms. Jean. After introducing himself, he asked her what year she arrived in Phoenix? She responded: 1943. He gave her a strange look and then asked, “Do you remember that?” Ms. Jean responded, “Yes!”

She went on to remind him of what Phoenix looked like back then including the fact that the facility where the ceremony was being hosted nor the Military Reserve Center was in existence. She also recalled that the current site was a recreational area and desert. It was a part of Papago Park. She and family members rode horses at Weldon’s and climbed the buttes around the Hole in the Rock.  He was struck that she remembered so much about Phoenix in the 1940s and 1950s.

He told her niece that Ms. Jean was an amazing lady to remember so much for her age. He asked Glecie if Ms. Jean would be willing to do an interview for them. Ms. Jean thought that the interview would be for the Army Reserve, however, a few weeks later, she received a call from Karina Bland at The Arizona Republic. Ms. Jean’s husband was ill at that time and she was his primary care taker. She asked Bland if they could reschedule for another time. Later, Bland contacted Ms. Jean again and she agreed to a date and time for an interview.  The day of the interview, Bland appeared at Ms. Jean’s home with a photographer. This was Ms. Jean’s first interview with a news reporter. They stayed for almost three hours.

Bland indicated that she was interested in capturing Ms. Jean’s story for a black history month post. Bland also said that she wanted to capture some of the changes that Ms. Jean had witnessed in Phoenix and Arizona over the past 70+ years? The story that appeared in the Arizona Republic on February 17, 2017 does just that. The post also captures a 90-second video recording of some of their interview.

After reading Bland’s post, my first thoughts were, “This is an amazing story!” The post was shared on FaceBook between several FIBC members and others with lots of comments. It occurred to me about two weeks later that Bland’s account of Ms. Jean’s life began with her arrival in Phoenix at the age of 18 back in 1943. I was left wondering what Ms. Jean’s life was like before she came to Phoenix?

Like Paul Harvey (a conservative American radio broadcaster who worked for the ABC Radio Networks), I went in search of the rest of her-story. I shared with Ms. Jean that I wanted to capture the rest of her-story and we had our first conversation on her childhood about two weeks ago.

To get our conversation rolling, Ms. Jean recalled that her great-grandmother was 12 and living in West Plains, MO when slavery was abolished in the United States. Her grandmother, Buela, and her mother, Catherine, were both born in West Plains, MO.

At some point, her grandmother moved to Arkansas and brought Catherine and her sister, Sybil (Ms. Jean’s aunt), with her. Her grandmother went off to work one day and left Ms. Jean and her sister at a hotel. The man who would become their father saw these two girls and ended up marrying Buela.  They kept both girls with them. The family moved to Jonesboro, AR. Her mother’s oldest brother was born in Jonesboro. The family eventually moved back to West Plains.

Ms. Jean’s maternal grandfather had a home in West Plaines, and this is where her mother and father would later start their family. Ms. Jean’s father was born in Wynne, AR.  Initially, her mother and father had two children. One died in child birth, and the other died accidentally from a gunshot wound. The following children were later born in this order: Lloyd, Lena, Jean, Frieda, Harold, Sybil Kay, and twins Margaret Marie and Mona Lee. There were now eight children in their family.

Ms. Jean and her sister, Lena, were the first two of their siblings to arrive in Phoenix, AZ back in June 1943. However, her other brothers and sisters would also make their way to Phoenix as time marched on. Of the eight children, only two survive today: Ms. Jean and one of the twins, Mona Lee. Here’s some additional information on the other sibling

  • Lloyd went into the military and later came to Phoenix. He had one child.
  • Lena married her husband in Phoenix and they had one child. Eventually, they would move to Las Vegas where they had more children.
  • Frieda married and lived in Phoenix all of her life until she died.
  • Sybil Kay also lived in Phoenix and had four children. She attended Carver High School.
  • Harold married in Phoenix and lived here until he died.
  • Margaret Marie married and had a daughter, Rhonda. Rhonda is Glecie and DeMar’s mother.

Life in West Plains was much simpler than today. The area had two churches for black folks, one Baptist and the other, Methodist, and they had one school. In these one room school houses, one teacher taught every grade level from 1st thru 8th.

At this point in our discussion, I shared a comment that was made by another FIBC member, Zack Hamlett, year’s ago. Zack is now deceased, however, he always said that a lot of folks criticized the one-room school concept, however, he saw a few advantages. He jokingly shared that you could get a good education if you were paying attention at least half of the time because what you learned in each previous year was repeated each year until you reached 8th grade.

As an example, if you were in the sixth grade, and didn’t master a concept that was taught in any of the earlier grades, you still had an opportunity to learn it because you heard the other students’ instructions just as they heard your’s. The older students also had an opportunity to teach and mentor some of the younger students.

Ms. Jean’s formal education ended at 8th grade because they didn’t have a high school for colored students. As a reminder, we were “colored” back then. She recalls that for a time, her school was the only one that had a furnace in the basement, and a drinking water fountain. The older children were assigned to put wood in the basement to feed the furnace.

For a time, their school was also the only one that had hard wood floors and two separate outdoor toilets, one for the boys and one for the girls. She recalls her teacher, Ms. Lourice Penn, telling the boys to not put soap writing on the windows. Mr. Lacy, the janitor was getting older, and they would make his job harder to clean the windows. Of course, they did it anyway. Ms. Penn made them wash the windows both inside and outside, and as you may have guessed, the boys didn’t draw soap figures on those windows again.

At the end of each school year, they would have a promotion and graduation program. Ms. Penn would create a stage for the program. There were two boys who ran the curtains, opening and closing them after each participant completed his/her part or a segment of the program. For her graduation, she had to sing a duet with a male student. The song was Trees by Joyce Tillman. She greatly admired Ms. Penn who came from Springfield, MO to teach them.

Their one room school didn’t have a principal. They shared a principal with one of the white schools in the area, and he would come over periodically to check on them.

One of the things she remembers about growing up in Missouri is that her mother always kept a pot of hot water on the stove. Ms. Jean and one or more of her other siblings were playing outside when along came a snake crawling up the stairs. Her mother ran upstairs and got the pot of hot water and threw it on the snake. Needless to say, the hot water hit the snake like a bolt of lightning reversing its path and slowing its pace. This allowed her mother to kill the snake and remove it from the home.

When she was old enough to work, the principal’s wife asked Ms. Jean’s mother if she could work after school. Her mother agreed and Ms. Jean earned $1.75 per week. Her family lived next door to the Baptist church. Jean was the janitor for that building and was paid 50 cents each month.

As a child, Ms. Jean loved to read. She especially loved reading the National Geographic Magazine. There were stacks and stacks of them in the basement of the principal’s home where she worked. She fell in love with the State of Hawaii reading those magazines. She also liked perusing The Reader’s Digest.

After sharing many of her childhood experiences, I asked Ms. Jean if she could recall at what point in her young life did she become aware of racism or differences in the way black folks were treated from whites in her community? She said they lived peaceably among the whites and they didn’t have a lot of issues. As far as blatant racism, these people were good neighbors and she didn’t see any of that. She became more aware of racism when she starting working while in elementary school.

“You knew there were certain things you didn’t do in some folks’ houses”, she said. She also knew because of the way the school system was designed, she and her siblings couldn’t go to the school that was closest to their home.

Her grandmother, Beula, moved to Phoenix and started working for the Rice Hotel. Stated earlier, there was no high school for black children. Most blacks worked as domestic or service workers in the Great Plains area. Her grandmother’s brother, Mr. Rice, invited Ms. Jean to come to Phoenix to live with him. Earlier, he had sent for his sister, Tooto, and later she sent for her sister, Sybil.

Her aunt followed up by talking to Ms. Jean’s mother, Catherine, and convinced her to let Ms. Jean go to Phoenix, AZ. Her mother asked her if she wanted to go live with Aunts Sybil and Tooto? She said, “Yes!” Then her mother said, “Well why don’t Lena go with you?” At this point we end up at the start of Karina Bland’s story when Ms. Jean and Lena got off the bus in Phoenix in June 1943.

In wrapping up my conversation with Ms. Jean, I posed these two questions to her:

Question 1: In your 90+ years on this earth, what is the one thing that you thought would never happen in your life?

Answer: The election of our 44th president, Barack Hussein Obama. When the returns started to come in at the end of the day for the 2008 election, she could feel something happening.

Question 2: What do you think should have happened by now, but hasn’t in the world or this country?

Answer: Housing! Affordable housing is not what it should be in this country. Even today, there are places in Phoenix that discriminate against a person based on race or social economic status.

In addition to the above, she also wishes that we, the people, would support one another and be closer together. This not only applies to black Americans, but all Americans. Instead of being jealous of each other, we must do more to teach our children and help each other to move forward in Arizona, this country, and the world.

Many thanks to Ms. Jean for sharing the rest of her-story and some pearls of wisdom!

Sources Cited:

She had to sit in the back of the movie theater in Phoenix in 1943. Then she watched the city change, by Karina Bland for the Arizona Republic, February 17, 2017, http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/karinabland/2017/02/17/she-had-sit-back-row-movie-theater-phoenix-1943-then-she-watched-city-change/97941080/, last viewed on March 22, 2017.



About Vi Brown

Vi is principal and CEO of Prophecy Consulting Group, LLC, an Arizona firm that provides business and engineering services to private and public clients. Prior to establishing her consulting practice in 2001, Vi worked with Motorola, Maricopa County Government, Pacific Gas & Electric, CH2M Hill, and Procter & Gamble. As an adjunct faculty member, Vi teaches undergraduate calculus classes and graduate level environmental courses. She is also a professional speaker.


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