[Transcript of interview with Dora Cooper, recorded as part of the Springfield-Greene County Library District's 2010 Big Read. For more information contact the Library at 417-883-5366 or visit us on the web.]

My name is John Rutherford and I am the host for the Recollections and Connections audio recording project at the Library Center.  Today is Thursday, April 8, 2010 and today I am talking with Dora Cooper.  Dora, what would you like to talk about today?

Well, I lived in Springfield all my life.  I am now 60 years old.  And I dated a black man and married him and we’ve been together for 44 years and I would like to give a racial understanding of an interracial couple and some early and later ideas of things that have happened to me personally.  When I was in grade school probably around 1959, Springfield only had a square.  Everything took place on the square.  There was not a mall or other businesses.  I remember being on the square in probably summertime and people looking at a black woman walking across the square and pointing at her feet, pointing at her feet to show the color of the soles of her feet being a pinkish and the top of her feet being the brown and it was like she was being pointed out as different, you know, this, this person is different and in a way that this person was less.  When I was around age 12 I remember being in Newberry store and there was a black lady wanting to try clothing on.  The clerk told her in a very harsh voice “either buy it or get out.”  Around 1966 I worked at Davison's cafeteria.  It was closing time and we had already cleaned the area up and was ready to close.  There was a tour bus of blacks that needed somewhere to eat and Davison’s decided to stay open, in my opinion to make money, but when the black people ate and left we rewashed all of the tables, all of the chairs in a hot, soapy water scrubbing them as this is what our owner wanted us to do.  Around 1971 I worked at the restaurant that was at Rail Haven Hotel.  There was a very popular black man that was around my age, I was 21 at that time.  He came in late at night with some friends and was sitting over in a corner area, but this was a very open restaurant.  I noticed that he had been there for a very long time and I asked the waitress that was serving his area why she had not served him.  She replied to me I don’t serve the “n word”. 

Around 1972, when I was 22 at SMS, I took spring break, and at that time we went on a Greyhound bus.  While I went with my mother we were going to New Orleans, and we went down through Mississippi stopping at every little town.   I went to, into the bus stop building and got a drink of cold water at a cold fountain that said “whites only.”  This is 1972.  On the outside of the building there was a warm water fountain, and it was in something like a sink, it was not in a regular water fountain, and it was marked “coloreds only.”  While I was on this bus, I don’t know if it was enforced for the blacks to sit in the back of the bus, but that’s where the blacks did sit. 

I met my husband in 1966, July 2, of 1966, at the Gillioz theater.   We were at the kids show which cost a quarter at that time.  It was a Saturday morning, and I had never dated a black person in the past.  I had a very dear black girlfriend that I attended school with, that was, we were close, and I had had in my opinion, an open personality about people of different ethnic or racial backgrounds.  The movie that we seen was the Magnificent Seven.  I remember watching Billy walk down the aisle, cause we were on like the second or third row from the front,  I turned around and looked at him and he had a little pimpy walk, and I thought he was so cute and that very second I was in love with him.  When he came down and sat down in the row behind us, because he did know my girlfriend and that is why he was walking down there, I started talking to him and what I’ve always told friends since then was that I mass attacked him.  I went from my chair, asked him if I could sit with him, went back and sat in his chair and talked his leg off.  And anyone that knows Billy knows that he talks everyone’s leg off.  But I was, I was determined to have this guy.  Within a short period of time we were, you know within a week or two, we were in the upper level of the Gillioz theater and there’s a round circle that sees down to the first floor.  This is where we had our first kiss.  And during the first kiss we had to look all around, we had to look and see if someone was here, if someone was there, were they going to see us.  And I remember that very distinctly. 

So we had met in the summer of ’66 and going back to school in 1966, our junior year, we were told that it was against Springfield Public School rules that Billy and I could not see each other at school or at any other school function.  My parents, and his parents also, were called to let them know what was going on because they were concerned.  At that time there was only, Glendale and Kickapoo had not opened yet, Central had a large population of students but kids were not bussed.  Where I lived on the west side of town we had two buses that would pick us up at 7:30 in the morning, at my house at 7:30 in the morning, and the buses would be packed with kids.  Every seat was full and kids were completely standing in the aisles, there wasn’t room for anybody.  One thing that I remember so clearly and has affected me in a harsh way all my life was getting on this bus at 7:30 ready to go to school, and there was a person that would be on the bus and every day, every day, he would say, and he would say loudly, and he would use the “n word”, and he would say “n” lover and there was hate.  And the kids sitting next to him would laugh.  And he would stare and as I said, say it loudly and say it more than one time.  Which back at that time I was very hurt but I have, at a period of time after that, I have been angry that the other people on the bus did not say anything.  We’re talking about 50 kids, we’re talking about 50 kids on the bus, that every morning heard him say “n” lover to me and never once told him to shut up.  I remember being in school and in the hallways between classes. I remember girls walking toward me, getting as close as 5, 6 feet from me and saying “that’s the one”, over and over and over I would be in the hallway and someone would say “that’s the one”.  I remember people a distance from me in the hallway pointing to make sure that people knew I was the one. 

After I started dating, my entire family, almost my entire family, disowned me.  It was, it was very hard.  My grandmother that I loved so much did not want to see me ever again and did not come back to Springfield to see me ever again.  And when she died at age 82 she did not notify, her family did not notify my mother, because they did not want me at the funeral. 

Also, while we were dating between 1966 and 1969 the police followed us everywhere we went.  There was one officer especially that loved following us, pulling us over saying the most ridiculous things, giving my husband a ticket for a broken taillight.  I had a girlfriend who was not, who had dated blacks, but did not have a black person in her car at the time and the policeman had stopped her and walked around her car three times, three times he walked around her car, to find a reason to give her a ticket. Another time I had a police officer, a person you’re supposed to trust, a person that is to look after your welfare, I’m age 16, 17, I’m around age 17, he had me get out of the car with Billy to get in his car, the police car, supposedly to see if I was ok.  He then followed up with comments to me that I could be with him.  I remember in 1968 on the public square, George Wallace came to Springfield, he was a very racially motivated person running for president.  The Springfield square was packed.  It was packed.  There was loud cheering.  To a person that was black or in a racial relationship this was, this was not a good thing.  This was a very open thing that you were hated. 

When we got married in 1969 at age 19, in Springfield, we went to Smith-Glynn Calloway Clinic, which was located at that time on Glenstone; we went together to get our mandatory blood work.  We were so excited about getting married and had planned a small church wedding, cake, flowers, and had already invited guests.  When our blood work came back we were told that we both had syphilis.  We were embarrassed and cancelled the wedding, which had been scheduled for May 3.  We went back and, we went back, and to get another blood work and, and asked you know, what had happened, that my husband and I had only been with each other, we couldn’t understand the syphilis thing and we were young and it scared us and the people that draw blood asked us what we had ate that morning.  And we said Campbell’s vegetable soup, and they told us that the Campbell’s vegetable soup is the reason we tested positive for syphilis.  We had to cancel the wedding, we were so embarrassed and we were young.  We got married one week later, in our apartment, with six people in attendance.  We were married by Reverend Andrew Darton, a black preacher about the age of 86, who wanted to see a change in his lifetime.  In Missouri it was still on the legal books that a black and white person could not get married.  Federal law had approved it, but Missouri still had it on their books.  When I went to get the marriage license, there was a series of questions, and the answer was no to this series of questions.  Toward the end of the questions the statement said are you marrying a first cousin?  Are you marrying a mentally retarded person?  Are you marrying a black person?  I said no because previous answers had been no, then I laughed and I said yes.  And at that point the clerk at the court house stopped the process and told me that my husband would have to come in with his father, for his father to sign for him and that she could not give me the paperwork to get married. 

When my son was born in 1974 Cox hospital had a reputation for mistreating racially involved women, that they had not been treated well during the childbirth process so I chose to go to St. John’s.  My doctor, Ronald Benson, had been very kind to us, which you know kind to us, he was a kind man, but it is especially important that he was kind to us as a biracial couple in 1974.  We’re not talking the ’50’s, we are not talking the 50’s, in 1974 there was still such a strong dislike for interracial couples.  Dr. Benson came into the hospital on my delivery day, on his day off, allowed my husband to be in the delivery room, which was a new thing at this time and made our experience a good experience, having our child. 

Different times we took numerous vacations, we have always traveled a lot.  It became apparent very early on that if my husband went in to get the hotel room there was not any available, they were all rented.  There would be five cars on the parking lot but there would not be rooms available.  I became the person that would go in and get a room and the room would then be available. On one trip we took back east, to Washington, D.C., we went to a hotel and I went in to get the room.  As I was getting the room I made some comments about going into Washington, D.C. and seeing the tourist sites, and et cetera.  The man, the hotel clerk, had a map to show me where some different things were located to see, and then he circled in dark ink pen over and over and over making a circle of an area on the map and told me not to go there because that’s where the “n word” people lived and it would not be safe. 

In 1974, when we were buying our first home we were buying it from an older lady on a contract for deed.  When she saw my husband, cause she had met me first, and I took my husband back to see the house to get his opinion, she did not want to sell the house to us.  It was kind of a, I don’t know if it was a new thing at that time, but there was a feeling of not letting black people live in certain neighborhoods.  That is not a new feeling, that is a terrible joke. But there was, there was this situation that no one wanted a black person in their neighborhood. She especially did not want a black person to ever live in her house.  Her realtor, being afraid that there would be complications from her not selling the house, talked the elderly woman into selling the house to us.  When we received the actual abstract for the property which at this time dated back a hundred years, it dated back to where the property had been a farm, on, when I read through the abstract I found that a black female and a small black boy were listed on the sale of property.  I have that abstract. 

Children of black and white parents were commonly called mixed, not biracial, and the kids would make comments of, or we would think mixed with what?  Are they paint?  Why are they mixed?  Later we suffered many things that were where we had been in scary situations.  We had gave many lectures to our son when he was young, that if we had got in a situation, a racial confrontation, and we told him to run, we meant run.  There was a subtle, and sometimes less subtle things that, there was dangers, there was things that black people went to jail for that was nothing.  If you remember "The Color Purple", you can see minor situations that were drastically made worse, that black people went to jail, black men were beaten for looking at a white female.  It, you know, this is the ‘70s, this is the 70’s and still people have such hatred and such a fear, I believe, of black people that they just were not reasonable about anything.

I attended SMS in 1972 through ’76.  During that time period I only believe there were about a hundred American blacks in the school, total.  If 15 black people, black students, got together the whites were cautious, I would say scared.  There was racial tension, there was a fear of the riots.  We heard of riots in Chicago and LA, but Springfield, a riot with less than a 2% black population?  But things were that different at that time.  I remember as a child going to camp, and hearing songs that would have verses in the songs such as “children all dressed in black driving a Cadillac”.  There was different things like this that you heard over and over that were racial, racially toned, and, and it affected a majority of white people to think that that was accepted, to, to stereotype black people.  I remember people telling me, especially in high school that besides myself dating my husband, that they would feel sorry for the kids of our biracial marriage.  They didn’t seem to believe that they could make a difference and our child would not be lost in society where they could not make my son fit in. 

Another major thing that happened to me, that I, that bothered me, was that people would tell me when people were racial and didn’t understand blacks and didn’t understand just, you know, just getting along, just getting along, they would say "I was raised that way."  You know, however you’re raised, when you’re 16, when you’re 21, when you’re at some age, you’re responsible as to what is right and what is wrong and to continue to use the excuse that they were raised to dislike blacks, raised to have these opinions, at what point are you responsible for your own opinions?  In 1963, I was in the 8th grade at Study Junior High; we had a black teacher.  This is totally unusual.  Mrs. Hughes.  Racism was conducted behind her back, in the classroom, almost daily.  I had another teacher that when we had went into his classroom told the students that we just needed to get along with her.  In 1969 I was working at a very prominent hair salon, I was a beautician, in Springfield.  It was the largest beauty shop in Springfield, and an elder lady with a weekly, she got her hair done weekly, I remember her bragging, bragging, that she had a cut off finger from the blacks that were lynched in Springfield.  Her husband was an elected official. 

I remember being at Silver Dollar City, my son being young, 5, 10, 8 years old, and they had a sheriff that worked on the square and he would give badges to the little children.  He never gave a badge to my son.  Many times I had to go over to him and ask for a badge.  He did not willingly come to my son, he did not say little nice things to my son, this is, this is the mid to late ‘70s.  I, I, racial situations is not something I talk about, that I ever talk about, because I have extremely strong feelings.  I do not have debatable feelings.  So that I am in a situation of being instantly angry or maintaining quiet, maintaining not getting in to it, knowing that I would explode.  Many times my husband and I have felt like it was us against the world.  We were in situations between black people not liking me, and white people not liking us, that we had racial difficulties that strongly affected our lives.  I have three quotes and I don’t know, well, I think I know that Martin Luther King made one of them, but that’s what I would finish with.  Martin Luther King says “judge a man by his character, not the color of his skin.”  My dad told me, daddy, my daddy told me that you must stand for something or you will fall for anything.  And in high school I read a book, perhaps by Thoreau, and the chapter, or part of the book, said “to thy own self be true”.  I have tried to live that.

Thank you.

Those were wonderful reminiscences, Dora.  Thank you ever so much.

[Transcript of interview with Dora Cooper, recorded as part of the Springfield-Greene County Library District's 2010 Big Read. For more information contact the Library at 417-883-5366 or visit us on the web.]