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|Oral History Interview
with Lindsay Cherry
KENNELLY: This is March 27, 1999. We are at Virginia Tech in the Media Building sound booth. My name is Tamara Kennelly, and I am interviewing Lindsay Cherry.
CHERRY: I'm originally from Norfolk, Virginia. I was born there on September 9, 1936, on a stormy night.
KENNELLY: Can you tell me about your family?
CHERRY: Yes, my family was basically run by my mother. There were five of us, four girls and one boy. She raised us alone. She was a domestic. There were many days when we went hungry, no food, but in spite of that, we were still required to go to school.
KENNELLY: So it was rough growing up.
CHERRY: That's why nothing that happens now really bothers me. [sound engineer interruption].
KENNELLY: I'm sorry. So, because of having things hard as a child, things afterwards you would say, never bothered you.
CHERRY: Life was always a challenge.
KENNELLY: Where are you in the family?
CHERRY: I was the middle child. Remember, there were four girls and one boy. I'm the only boy, and I was the middle child.
KENNELLY: Were there special responsibilities that fell to you as the boy in the family?
CHERRY: Yes, but by the time I was eight years old, I had a job.
KENNELLY: You did?
CHERRY: I was almost required to work in order to help make ends meet.
KENNELLY: What did you do?
CHERRY: Well, one thing I used to do was I used to scrub and wax this lady's house. I'd start at 7:00 in the morning and work until 6:00 at night. She would give me one dollar a day. I worked at the Armed Forces Staff College as a shoeshine boy. I also used to set pins during the school years.
KENNELLY: After school?
CHERRY: After school [at the Enlisted Mens Club, Norfolk Naval Base], yes, but I always had a job.
KENNELLY: You always did since you were eight.
CHERRY: Since the time I was eight years old.
KENNELLY: And in the summertime, you'd always get a job?
CHERRY: I worked around the year. I worked all year.
KENNELLY: And the money that you were earning—was that given to the family, or could you use that to buy—
CHERRY: Part of it I would give to my mother, and I'd keep a few pennies for myself.
KENNELLY: So was that common with the other young people that you knew at the time? Were they working as hard as you were?
CHERRY: Well, I can't say. I did what I had to do.
CHERRY: There were five of us, and only my mother to provide for us, and she was a domestic. In those times, they made $18 a week. That was a lot of money.
KENNELLY: And your sisters were working, too?
CHERRY: When they came of age, yes, they usually found a job, especially my older sister.
KENNELLY: Did they start as young as you did?
KENNELLY: But you were a boy, so you were expected to—
CHERRY: I was the man of the house.
KENNELLY: You were the man of the house.
CHERRY: That's right.
KENNELLY: So you were functioning in that role.
CHERRY: Well to me, I was the man of the house. They didn't think of me that way, but I thought of myself that way.
KENNELLY: Did you grow up in an integrated community?
CHERRY: Oh no, we grew up in a community of only blacks. We went to black schools, and we had very little contact with white people.
KENNELLY: And this was always in a very urban setting?
CHERRY: Yes, and in my later years, I lived in what you call a development, Roberts Park, so that's where I grew up.
KENNELLY: And a development—could you explain what it is? Is that like a housing project kind of thing?
CHERRY: It's a housing project, right.
KENNELLY: So was it a rough situation as far as safety?
KENNELLY: No? Were there—
CHERRY: You would leave the house and doors open at night. There were never any problems. Crime was not an issue as people think of it today.
KENNELLY: Were there gangs?
KENNELLY: Nothing like that?
KENNELLY: So you could live in a big housing project, and people could leave their doors open as well?
KENNELLY: So it was kind of the times that maybe were different.
CHERRY: Everyone looked out for everyone else.
KENNELLY: Was there really that kind of feeling like, if your mother was working, then you had to come home? Was there other family around, other relatives, that could look after you all when she was out working when you were small and things like that?
CHERRY: No, my sister, who is immediately older than I am, was primarily responsible for the family. She's four years older than I am, so when I was eight, she was twelve. It was her responsibility to handle all the requirements to take care of the family.
KENNELLY: Would she be the one to get the meals?
CHERRY: Oh yes, that was her responsibility and to handle the money.
KENNELLY: To handle the money.
CHERRY: Oh, yes.
KENNELLY: So work got portioned out of people's roles in the family. I mean everybody was expected to help?
CHERRY: We really didn't think of it that way, but things were done. What had to be done was done.
KENNELLY: Did you find it difficult to go to school and work at the same time when you were so young and to get your homework done?
CHERRY: Well, that can be a long story. First of all when I was eight, my father died, and at that time I was going to what was called Lott Carey School. Although I lived about five miles up in Robert's Park, I continued to go there, because I had to go by to look after my grandmother every afternoon, who lived in the area by Lott Carey School, but we didn't think of it as hard times.
KENNELLY: What did you have to do for your grandmother?
CHERRY: Well, I would go out and get food for her sometimes. If she didn't have food, I would take my little 10 cents and buy her food to eat.
KENNELLY: The money that you had earned.
CHERRY: Not earned, but money I was given for my food and everything.
KENNELLY: Oh, for your food.
CHERRY: Yes, for lunch.
KENNELLY: What did your father do before he died?
CHERRY: He worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad and also Fleischman East, and he delivered papers in the morning. You know the drop-off for the papers. But during this time, my mother and father were not together.
KENNELLY: I see.
CHERRY: There was a period of time when I and one of my sisters lived with my father and my grandmother, and my mother took care of the other three.
KENNELLY: Were there other family cousins, aunts and uncles?
CHERRY: It was a very small family. I had one aunt in Norfolk [Maryetta White]. Other than that, no relatives.
KENNELLY: What was your social life like when you were growing up? What did you do for fun?
CHERRY: We played baseball and football. We had a community center, and people during those days looked after you as if you were their kids. If you did something wrong, they corrected you.
KENNELLY: They did?
CHERRY: Oh yes.
KENNELLY: Because everybody would know.
CHERRY: Oh yes, you had tough love. Tough love, and when somebody would hit a home run, the project manager would give you five cents. That was a big deal.
KENNELLY: When you got a home run?
CHERRY: Oh yes, those were the types of rewards. It may not appear to be much to many people, but to us it was a lot, so everything is relative.
KENNELLY: Right, and money has changed, too. Five cents now would be different than now.
CHERRY: Oh yes, you could do quite a bit with five cents then in those years.
KENNELLY: When you were in high school, I assume you cut down this heavy work load that you were doing. Did you have much time for your own social life then? I mean you were pretty much working at --
CHERRY: Well, I worked pretty much through high school. I worked through high school. Every night, I would get off about 11:00, but in spite of that, I was still president of the student council, one of the first members of the Norfolk Student Government Association and treasurer of the Norfolk National Conference of Christians and Jews (Junior Chapter), so I did participate in other activities. Plus, I was a member of the choir and still found time to do quite a few things.
KENNELLY: It sounds like you were—to be president of the student council, you must have been very active in participating in the life of the school, too.
KENNELLY: What would you do for socializing in the school? What would be the—?
CHERRY: What did I do?
CHERRY: Not much [laughter].
KENNELLY: Not much?
CHERRY: I went to work.
KENNELLY: You went to work in your time off.
CHERRY: But you know playing football and other sports were things that we did. Basically after that, there was not much that we looked forward to doing. I worked, and of course with the advent of TV, I used to go around to people's houses and look at their television, so that was one of my main activities—Milton Berle and shows like that, Perry Como.
KENNELLY: Was church important in your family?
CHERRY: Church was very important, very important in our family. As a matter of fact, faith is what got you by. When I lived with my grandmother—just to get back to her—she's the one who primarily taught me everything I knew. We had to get on our knees and pray in the morning, pray in the afternoon and pray at night. That was everyday, so faith was heavily instilled in us, you know, and you always felt that, no matter how challenging things were, they were always going to get better. I still feel that way.
KENNELLY: Wow. She sort of had her own little preschool for you to, in a way—
CHERRY: Yes, to help her get over, and I used to pay her rent and pay her other bills, because she was really crippled by arthritis and couldn't leave the house.
KENNELLY: Did you earn the money to help her pay her bills?
CHERRY: No, her daughter would send her the money.
KENNELLY: But you'd be the responsible person to help her?
CHERRY: Right. Her letters would always start out, "Dear Nancy, just a few lines to let you hear from me. I am fine and hope you are the same," [chuckle]. That was always the starting sentence.
KENNELLY: And what had her life been like? Did she have a pretty hard life, your grandmother?
CHERRY: Well, she was born a little after the end of the Civil War. I guess she was born around 1870. In those days, they used to—I know I'm not going to let you release this, but they used to wash clothes in kettles, boiling it and things like that, so they were from the old school.
KENNELLY: Was she a person who had lived in the city all her life?
CHERRY: No, originally she was from Little Washington, North Carolina, she and my father. I do know that she had a lot of Cherokee blood in her.
KENNELLY: Oh, really?
KENNELLY: And then they moved up to—
KENNELLY: Norfolk. Now, was your high school—was that an integrated school?
CHERRY: Are you kidding [chuckle]?
KENNELLY: Not at that time, no [laughter].
CHERRY: No, the first we knew of integration was when they decided to send us here to Virginia Tech. As a matter of fact and as far as I know, Virginia Tech was the very first school in the whole South to accept black students.
KENNELLY: When you say they decided to send you, what—
CHERRY: Don't ask me about how it worked. All I know is they told me I was going to Virginia Tech. Dr. Newman came down and interviewed us, and we were accepted.
KENNELLY: So that wasn't your deciding, "I'm choosing this school. I think I'll go there." It was somebody said to you—
CHERRY: The only thing I was deciding was that, when I finished high school afterward, I was going out to work and help my mother.
CHERRY: I never had an idea that I would have an opportunity to go to college.
CHERRY: So it just shows you how God does work in your life, you know.
KENNELLY: And then what happened? One day, did the principal call you in and say—
CHERRY: No, we went around and took tests to Morehouse College [Atlanta, Georgia], Michigan State [East Lansing], you know trying to get scholarships, and finally—I don't know the details, but they did get us accepted to Virginia Tech.
KENNELLY: Do you know if—was it the Rockefeller Foundation? Was that behind it in any way, getting you a scholarship?
CHERRY: It was some foundation, but I don't know if it was Rockefeller.
KENNELLY: Okay. I asked that, because we've had a researcher trying to find what the Rockefeller Foundation did, and that's why I asked.
CHERRY: Oh. Did anyone ever tell you what foundation it was?
KENNELLY: Well, I know Rockefeller was active at some point, but I don't know. We haven't really found the details exactly. Do you know what foundation it was?
CHERRY: Yes, but I don't think I'm at liberty to tell. At that time, we weren't supposed to tell. We were committed to silence on that.
CHERRY: Yes, because you had a group supporting blacks, and it probably was not good for their business.
KENNELLY: Do you think you can mention the name now?
CHERRY: No, I'm not going to mention it [chuckle].
KENNELLY: Maybe off the record?
KENNELLY: That's interesting.
KENNELLY: Now from Norfolk, you, Dr. Yates, Floyd Wilson—
CHERRY: Floyd Wilson, right.
KENNELLY: Floyd Wilson. You were all three in school together.
CHERRY: We came here together, right.
KENNELLY: Right, and were they also class leaders like you were? I mean obviously you were a leader in your class.
CHERRY: Well, you know this is a really unknown fact. Charlie Yates was salutatorian. He was second in the class. Floyd Wilson also was an honor student. I was not an honor student, but I was still accepted here. I did have a lot of potential, but the fact that I was working and did a lot of things, studying was not one of my main things.
KENNELLY: Yes. Well, how would your family manage when you were leaving them? You were a source of—it seems like, an important economic resource for your family.
CHERRY: Well, look at this. I had two sisters older than I am, right? So if I'm going to college, what does that mean? They're already off doing their thing. So my life—
KENNELLY: So things had changed.
CHERRY: When I went to college, I had a job working at the naval base as—what exactly was that title? Anyway, I gave my mother my job, so rather than going out working, I wound up giving her my job at the base.
KENNELLY: So she was able to have a step up in her job then.
CHERRY: Well, yes, it was financially.
KENNELLY: What kind of job was it?
CHERRY: She worked at the Enlisted Men's Club at the base in the dining area.
KENNELLY: And doing what kind of thing?
CHERRY: What you do in dining areas [chuckle].
KENNELLY: Serving food?
CHERRY: Well, it was like a waitress or whatever she was, you know. I guess you'd call it that.
KENNELLY: Pardon me?
CHERRY: Similar to a waitress.
KENNELLY: Oh, waitress. Okay.
CHERRY: But she didn't serve them. What happened was they'd go and get their food, but you'd have to clean the tables after they left and things.
KENNELLY: Right, so she just generally—
KENNELLY: So that gave her more sort of steady income maybe than she'd had before.
Last Updated on: Tuesday, 17-Aug-2004 16:31:29 EDT by Mark B. Gerus