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Date of interview:September 28, 2000
[Tape 1, Side 1]
Kennelly: You came to Virginia Tech from Roanoke. Were you born in Roanoke?
Higgins: No, I was born in North Carolina.
Kennelly: Where in North Carolina?
Higgins: Actually in Rockingham County so not really in a town
Kennelly: Did you grow up in Rockingham?
Higgins: No, I grew up in Roanoke. I think I was two when I moved to Roanoke. We lived in Roanoke until I came here.
Kennelly: Where you were growing up was your family on a farm?
Higgins: No. My grandfather lived on a farm. I don't think my parents lived on a farm because at that point my father came back from World War II on the GI bill and went to trade school. I don't think they were farming. They came to Virginia to follow that. I'm not very rural. If you saw my list of allergies, you would know I'm not very rural. [Laughter] In fact, everything that grows.
Kennelly: Could you give us your father's and mother's names?
Higgins: My father is Fred D. Hairston, Jr., and my mother is May Hampton Hairston.
Kennelly: Why did your father come to Roanoke?
Higgins: I have no idea. I think it was basically that's where the jobs were at that time.
Kennelly: What does your father do?
Higgins: Well, at that time he was a plasterer. He is retired now, and actually when I graduated from high school in 1966, he graduated a few months later and went to Roanoke College. Then he worked for the Park Services in Roanoke managing parks for awhile after that as a second career.
Kennelly: Did he do a GED program?
Higgins: I think he actually graduated from high school. When he was young, there was no high school where they were in North Carolina that would accept blacks.
Kennelly: So he actually went to classes?
Kennelly: That would seem like a difficult thing to do, kind of courageous. What about your mother's education?
Higgins: I think she went to junior high school, and then she worked in Roanoke Hospital. She worked in Intensive Care for awhile. She also worked for a dry cleaners for a long time.
Kennelly: What did she do when she was working at the hospital?
Higgins: It was in Intensive Care mostly.
Kennelly: Do you know what her position was?
Kennelly: Are there other children in your family?
Higgins: My brother.
Kennelly: Is he older or younger?
Higgins: A lot older. Before my father went to war and after he came back. That's us!
LaVerne and her Brother
Kennelly: Another life sort of...
Higgins: In some ways, but we get along really well together. We like to kid each other a lot. But basically he was gone when I got to high school. He graduated six years before me from high school. We are different in terms of what we went through.
Kennelly: Did he go to college?
Higgins: Yes, part-time but not really. He took some classes.
Kennelly: Did you have a job as a young person growing up?
Kennelly: When you were in high school, did you work at all?
Kennelly: I wondered about the community you were living in Roanoke. Was it an integrated community?
Higgins: No. Well, yes and no. We lived on Gilmore Avenue when I was really little. When I was six, we moved to a house on Mercer Avenue, and I know that was an integrated neighborhood, very much so. I still remember one of the things was that one of my friends down the street being taunted and people asking her why she was playing with that nigger. I remember that very well.
Kennelly: When she was playing with you?
Higgins: Yes, I remember that when I was about six.
Kennelly: That must have been painful!
Higgins: Yes, actually I didn't understand it because I didn't know what was going on, but I remember her being very angry with the other kids in the neighborhood.
Kennelly: Did she stop playing with you?
Kennelly: So, she was one of your good friends when you were little, and she was white, and you were friends for a while?
Higgins: For a while, and then her family moved away. Her mother was ill, and then they moved away. I think out of the area.
Kennelly: Was your elementary school integrated?
Kennelly: What elementary school did you go to?
Higgins: Harrison. I think it was called Harrison, and then to Booker T. Washington Junior High School. And Lucy Addison High School for two years, and then I went to Fleming, William Fleming for the last two years of high school, and that was integrated.
Kennelly: Up until that point the other schools
Higgins: Were all segregated.
Kennelly: Up until that point before the last two years of high school, did you have much contact with white people in your neighborhood or friends socially?
Higgins: I had particularly my mother's friends more so than anyone else, and I had some friends who were white. I also use to go visit my aunt in New York all the time when I was a kid. My cousins had friends in New Rochelle, New York. But I remember the Colored Only and White Only signs over fountains and over stores when I was a kid.
Kennelly: In Roanoke?
Higgins: Yes, in Roanoke, but at the same time I don't remember being totally isolated.
Kennelly: Were those memories of painful things that happened to you?
Higgins: I told you about the one incident that was really painful for me. Other than that I don't think so because my family has a really strong sense of who they are. So I never really felt it. I felt that was other people's problem, not my problem.
Kennelly: Somehow your family was able to give you the sense of who you are.
Higgins: So if other people define you that way, that's their loss,
Kennelly: What happened when you went to an integrated high school? Did that seem like a big change?
Higgins: Actually it was a big change for me for the better. I never really fit in anywhere. I was like this little weird kid [laughter] all my life. I wasn't expected to fit in so, it made it easier for me. Actually, I did have some good friends in high school at Fleming, and some of the teachers were really great. So I had a great two years. I got to experiment a lot more than previously, and that was good.
Kennelly: In what way?
Higgins: Academically. I took a Greek drama class and a Shakespeare class and lots of math. In my senior year, there were nine people in my math class, the advanced math.
Kennelly: The advanced?
Higgins: Yeah that was a good group. I hated Phys Ed. I wasn't really in the social clubs or anything like that, so that didn't bother me.
Kennelly: Did you go to the school dances?
Kennelly: When you say you didn't fit in, what way do you mean?
Higgins: I always felt like I was an oddball.
Kennelly: Was it because your interests were different?
Higgins: Yeah. Not just the interests. It was how I defined myself which at some point I'm not sure I ever really defined myself. I'm into reinventing myself [laughter]. I've been through a lot of careers. When I think about it, I think, God, I've been around a long time.
Like when I was little--I'll give you an example--when I was little, we'd come back from New York. I have no linguistic integrity, so I would go to New York, and I would sound like I was from Western Virginia, and I had never lived anyplace else in my life. I'd come back after two weeks, and I'd sound like I'd never lived anywhere else but Westchester County, New York!
In fact, my husband used to laugh because he'd say, "You sound like Midwestern--flat, and I'd get on the phone with my mother, and then I'd back in the hills of Virginia. [laughter]
So I still remember people thinking I put on airs when I came back from New York. I don't remember doing that because my voice would be different. I can do that. I move in and out. I just came back from Japan. I realized when I came back, I was speaking English very weird. But that was just because I was in another mode and it was just a transition period.
Kennelly: Were you going to Japan to do research?
Higgins: To do research. I was doing research.
Kennelly: On what topic?
Higgins: Labor markets, the tightening labor market in developing countries.
Kennelly: Did you date much in high school?
Kennelly: Did you have male and female friends both black and white?
Higgins: Yes, as a matter of fact, when it came to Tech there were kids, guys I had gone to school with at Addison who were here, and there were also three people from Fleming that were here including my math teacher. He came to graduate school. We all came together. So I knew people when I came.
Kennelly: Why did you decide to come to Virginia Tech?
Higgins: I think my parents were reluctant for me to head off half way across the country, which was my inclination. I really wanted to go to Mount Holyoke. I wanted to go to a girls' school, but it was too far away. It had a good math department, and I was a math major. At ten I decided I wanted to be a mathematician. That was mainly it.
Kennelly: Were you encouraged to pursue mathematics as a child by your teachers?
Higgins: Yes, beginning in seventh grade I think more so by my family than by teachers. At home I grew up in a household where my brother and I really were told that anything we wanted to do, we could do it, all you have to do is work for it.
I used to watch Sputnik, the early Mercury and Apollo stuff, and I thought that was neat stuff, and we would talk about it. That was interesting to me, maybe the background trajectory stuff. I always knew I would at least get a master's degree. That was never out of my mind.
Kennelly: Did you feel prepared for when you came here from your high school?
Higgins: Yes, psychologically I thought I was prepared. I had a lot of confidence in me. It wasn't arrogance, but I guess it could be perceived as arrogant. The belief in yourself that you could do it. I don t think it was bordering on I'm capable of anything in the world, but sort of within certain limits I could do it.
Kennelly: Was your family politically active?
Kennelly: In what way?
Higgins: In state politics, my father in the union, NAACP, church, all that.
Kennelly: In what way in state politics?
Higgins: My father was very active in the Democratic Party when I was a kid. I remember that a lot. I had relatives who were involved in earlier stages of CORE down in North Carolina. Very active.
Kennelly: What about NAACP?
Higgins: My father and my mother but mostly I remember my father because he was much more outgoing than my mother was
Kennelly: Did they attend any demonstrations? In what way were they active?
Higgins: Yes, they attended demonstrations. Actually I did too.
Kennelly: You did? Like for example
Higgins: God, I can't even remember. It was--I must have been thirteen, somewhere around there. There were some demonstrations in Roanoke, and I remember doing stuff with that. Also working, I remember a group of women from Hollins too. That's another reason why I was isolated racially because I was very young, and they were in their early twenties, and I was thirteen or fourteen.
Kennelly: What was the situation?
Higgins: I can't even remember now. But I know it had to do with the movement and CORE. A long time ago, in 1961 or 1962.
Kennelly: Was your family involved?
Kennelly: Was that something you grew up with where things were discussed at home?
Higgins: Oh yes, a lot.
Kennelly: There was a lot of discussion about current issues?
Higgins: A lot of current issues particularly Sundays around the dinner table and I'd say I remember having some of the discussions even in the 1950s. I remember all sorts of discussions about racial inequality because of the civil rights movement.
Kennelly: Did you think that you felt you had to make a special commitment in that area?
Higgins: Yes. I remember a letter to the editor that was published in the Roanoke Times when I was fourteen or fifteen.
Kennelly: I'd love to see that. Do you think anyone has it?
Higgins: I don't know. I was very young.
Kennelly: What was the topic?
Higgins: It had to do with integration and why people were pressuring for changes. You know I started school the fall after Brown vs. Topeka, and I remember Virginia had at the time what was called a student placement test which was a test that black students had to take if they wanted to go to an integrated school, and you had to pass the test. I remember discussions in my house that that was degrading, and I never had to take such a test. That was one of the reasons I was in a segregated school even though Roanoke had integrated schools.
Kennelly: But you had to take this test to get into the school?
Higgins: Yes and my family viewed that as unacceptable.
Kennelly: Why should you have to do that?
Higgins: It's something that one needed to stand up against. That's right. A stand, which I understand, and I don't devalue at all.
Kennelly: You were aware of that from quite a young age?
Kennelly: Were there some of your friends taking that test?
Higgins: There were people I knew who were going to integrated schools from my neighborhood and church, but I never did.
Kennelly: Did you have a sense that you wanted to, or was it fine what you were doing?
Higgins: It was just fine.
Kennelly: What church was your family involved in?
Higgins: Sweet Union Baptist Church in Roanoke.
Kennelly: Was that important? Church involvement? Was that a strong force in your family?
Kennelly: When you say of the Sunday dinner your family would have and the discussions, would that be extended family too?
Kennelly: You might have a lot of people talking about it?
Higgins: Oh yeah, you might have a lot of people talking about all sorts of things. My father is the twelfth, and my mother is the seventh. Almost everyone lived in North Carolina, but a lot of times people would come up for the day. It was only 75 miles just across the border. We'd be down there, or especially when my aunt came from New York, there'd be lots of people gathered together. Lots of people talking all at the time, a lot of different conversations. So even as a child if you weren't involved in the conversations, you heard them. I don't think there were very many shy people on either side of my family. Very strong people particularly my mother and her sisters, and her mother was very strong, and my maternal grandmother lived with us until she died in 1960.
Kennelly: What was her name?
LaVerne and her maternal grandmother, Cora Lee Jumper Hampton
Higgins: Cora Hampton. She was a strong figure. Quiet in some ways but very strong. You knew where the borders were in terms of personal integrity. There are lines where you did not proceed. A very strong code of ethics and conduct.
Kennelly: So you grew up with a strong sense of all those things? Were you actively recruited to come to Virginia Tech?
Higgins: I don't think so. A little bit, but not so strenuously. Not like now. But it's a different time too in terms of college recruitment. It might have been big then, but I don't remember.
Kennelly: Did you get a scholarship?
Kennelly: Had you been over to Virginia Tech before?
Kennelly: Did you apply to other schools too?
Higgins: I'm sorry. Yes. I know Mount Holyoke. I know there were others too, but I can't remember.
Kennelly: That's okay. It's a lot of questions. Did you feel that when you were coming here that you would be a pioneer?
Kennelly: Did you know that you were the first group of...?
Higgins: No, didn't know 'til I got here.
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