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One of the First Six Black Women Students at Virginia Tech : Marguerite Laurette Harper Scott Picture of Marguerite Harper from 1968 Bugle Picture of Marguerite Harper from 1970 Bugle
Marguerite Harper in the 1968 Bugle. Marguerite Harper in the 1970 Bugle.

Date of Interview:
2 March 1996
Location of Interview:
Donaldson Brown Hotel, Blacksburg, Virginia
Tamara Kennelly
Cindy McLaughlin

Part 1

Begin tape 1, side a

Kennelly: Are you from Virginia Beach, originally?

Scott: That's correct.

Kennelly: Did you grow up there?

Scott: Yes. Well I was born in Norfolk, and I lived in Norfolk until I was about seven, and then we moved to Virginia Beach which is just over the line. Yeah, no big move.

Kennelly: Where are your parents from?

Scott: My mother is from Clarksville, Virginia, and my father was originally from Essex, North Carolina, and as a young child, he moved to Norfolk. So for all practical purposes he considered themselves from Norfolk--a native.

Kennelly: What did your father do?

Scott: My father was (at his retirement) a postal manager. Prior to that, my father was a first also. He was the first black postal window clerk in Norfolk, and he was the first supervisor of a station (black person) in Norfolk, Virginia.

Kennelly: Can you give me some dates about when those things happened?

Scott: Let's see. I guess the clerk had to be early sixties, late fifties maybe. Maybe early fifties. I don't know. It's just he was always a clerk as far as I could remember; so I would imagine that that had occurred in the early fifties. And he had become a supervisor, I guess, by the time I was at least in high school and maybe prior to that. I really don't have the dates in my mind.

Kennelly: Well did it seem, for you as a person growing up, were you really conscious of it?

Scott: I was not that conscious of it. In fact, my father belonged to a black self-help type organization. That's the oldest organization of its type, I think, left in the United States, as a social slash beneficial kind of organization that was formed after the Civil War in which blacks couldn't get loans, blacks couldn't get insurance, and those kinds of things. So this was one of those kinds of organizations, and he was a member of that organization, and they wrote their history, and I read this in his history--their little history book. That's when I really became cognizant of what my father had done. I mean it was not like something he came home and said, "I am the first black person to get this." I was not that cognizant of it.

Kennelly: And it wasn't like something that was a tense...?

Scott: It was tense for him. Oh yes, it was tense for him. But again, I was a child, and so one assumed that adult kinds of things were tense anyway. So I really didn't know that he was doing anything particularly special.

Kennelly: What was the name of that self-help group?

Scott: The Hiawatha, and they still exist--social and beneficial.

Kennelly: Is that kind of a printed history that you're talking about?

Scott: Yes, that they did themselves.

Kennelly: I wonder if we could get a copy of that. Is that possible to order a copy of that?

Scott: I'm sure that's something that the membership have for themselves, but there's a possibility. William Robinson, who's in the General Assembly, is a member, and Gerald Jones. Both are members of the General Assembly, and they're both members of the organization. They're easy kinds of people I figure you can contact for that kind of information.

Kennelly: So just to clarify, when your father was a postal clerk, was that in the station--it had white clerks and black clerks--was that one he was working?

Scott: Initially? As far as I can remember, he was at first at the Fleet Post Office on the naval base, and so that was mostly white commanders, captains, you know, white naval people coming in. So, there would have been a mixed group there. And his immediate supervisor was a white man when he was a clerk.

Kennelly: It wasn't like he was the only person in the station?

Scott: All by himself, oh no.

Kennelly: And then the same thing when he was supervisor, he was supervising black people and white people?

Scott: That is correct.

Kennelly: Did your mother work?

Scott: Not until I was in high school, and she was a substitute teacher.

Kennelly: When you went to high school she started doing that?

Scott: Yes.

Kennelly: So had she gone to college?

Scott: She had gone to college for two years, and at that time she went to Virginia State College. And after two years you could come out and teach, which she did initially. Then she got married, and that was the end of that. So she became a homemaker. And my father attended Virginia State College too, but he never finished either. He went three years and up to the last month, and he tried to do something I believe to get out of having to go to war, World War II, and it ended up what he did just made it just grand for him to go. It didn't work. He dropped out of school to get a job in the post office thinking that that would keep him out of the Armed Forces, but it didn't. It didn't work. So he and friend--that was their grand scheme. The scheme didn't work, and they both ended up in World War II. My father in the Pacific theater of the war.

Kennelly: He served for several years over there?

Scott: That's correct.

Kennelly: Do you have brothers and sisters?

Scott: I have a sister.

Kennelly: Is she older or younger?

Scott: She's younger. She's eleven years younger.

Kennelly: So you were the oldest of just two girls?

Scott: That's right.

Kennelly: Where did you go to elementary school?

Scott: For the first grade and part of the second grade, I went to John T. West Elementary School in Norfolk, Virginia. When we moved to Virginia Beach, I went to a school whose name was Princess Anne County Training School. And that was the black school in Virginia Beach for all the black children. I believe there were two other elementary schools, but this was the one that was kind of centrally located, and it was a grade one through twelve school. So I went to that school for the rest of my career until college. But it changed its name. At a certain point, they finally got rid of the elementary school part, and it was just a high school, and it was called Union Kempsville High School.

Kennelly: So you mean at a certain point it just changed to all high school?

Scott: Scott: I have a sister. school, yes.

Kennelly: Now that first school you went to, was that an integrated school?

No, that was segregated as well.

Kennelly: How big was your school?

Scott: Well, my graduation--I can tell you about high school. I have no recollection of elementary school. My high school class, I believe, was 270 strong.

Kennelly: That must have been a huge school.

Scott: It was pretty big. Well it was for all black kids.

Kennelly: First through twelve--that's amazing. Was that convenient for you? Was it close to your home?

Scott: Well, after schools were desegregated, that was the closest high school for me. There was one other closer that had just opened, but it didn't have a senior class. It didn't open until my senior year in high school. So I was not going to repeat the junior year just to go there. So that was the closest one for me.

Kennelly: So was race much of an issue for you when you were growing up? Did you feel very conscious of it?

Scott: Yes, most definitely.

Kennelly: Could you talk a little bit about some of your feelings you might have had or ways it was affecting your life?

Scott: Well, it affected my life in terms of always not being able to do certain things. There were places that were off limits. Things that again you reflect upon in old age and realize what was happening. When my parents would take me to my grandmother's in Clarksville, Virginia, why we had to stop on the side of the road for me to go to the bathroom. Things of that nature. Because there were no places for us to go. Depending on filling stations, they didn't have bathrooms for black people. There was one in Emporium that was run by a black man, and I believe his son came to Virginia Tech. He finished Virginia Tech, I think, in 1958. But that was the only user friendly filling station that you could stop and go to the bathroom.

So in terms of that, and I remember things like going into downtown Norfolk and not being able to go to the movie theaters and things of that nature because in a big city there were separate kinds of facilities for black people. So in some places where there might have been a side entrance or something like that, I was never cognizant of those in those movie theaters in Norfolk. There were always movie theaters for black people to go to. You knew you couldn't go to those places, and there were times when maybe a Walt Disney movie was showing or something like that, and I wanted to go, and my mother would tell me I couldn't go there. And there were lunch room counters, like in Woolworth's, you couldn't sit down at those places. So yes, I was always rather cognizant of race.

Kennelly: Was the place where you were living--were you living right in the city?

Scott: When I lived in Norfolk, we lived in the city, and a major thoroughfare came through my neighborhood and wiped out half the houses, and that was very soon after that that we moved. Tidewater Drive came right through my neighborhood. And so we moved to Virginia Beach. Then we lived in the suburbs. Initially, there were two houses in the middle of the woods, and then a whole development was created. But it was a black development. It was built by a black developer at the time for people who were upwardly mobile to move into the suburbs.

Kennelly: So did you have much contact with white people?

Scott: I had none. I can't think of any contact with white people, except for a Y teen camp that was held outside of Richmond. Even the Y's were segregated, and for whatever reason--I was in high school then, either a junior or senior--there was this camp that was going to be held, and it was going to be integrated. That was my first contact really, sitting down and actually talking to anybody white.

Kennelly: You were in high school? You said a junior in high school by then?

Scott: Yes.

Kennelly: So did it seem odd? Could you remember what went on?

Scott: No, it was an exciting kind of thing because we knew it was going to be something different. The odd thing was they acted just like we did. They were interested in the same kinds of things: boys and looking at American Bandstand. There wasn't any great difference between any of us it seemed. It was an enjoyable experience, but then we packed up after that weekend and went back to our little segregated lives.

Kennelly: So there weren't any negative experiences at the camp?

Scott: That I can recall. I can't think of any.

Kennelly: What do you think of the...?

Scott: I think everybody had been schooled before they came that this was the experiment. They were going to do this. It wasn't like anybody was surprised. So I'm sure that everybody was prepared for this particular weekend because the whole thing was to talk about coming together as black people and white people.

Kennelly: Do think they might have selected the kids to come to that?

Scott: Yes, they possibly could have. In fact, I'm sure they probably sent permission slips home to parents, and this is what it's going to be. If you don't want your child to participate in this, don't send them because they're going to be there, and they are going to be in the same rooms.

Kennelly: What do you feel about the quality of education that you had in your elementary and high school years at that school? Was it a good school? Were you well prepared for college?

Scott: Well, after coming here, I found out that I thought I was well prepared. I was made to feel by one counselor at my high school, believe it or not, that I would not be. I don't think he thought that we were ready. There was a fellow who went to high school with me who came here too.

Kennelly: Same year as you?

Scott: The same year. Yes, we were in the same graduating class in high school, and I wasn't coming unless he came. He wasn't coming unless I was coming.

Kennelly: What's his name?

Scott: Jimmy Woods. And he didn't finish here, but he came. We came together, and this particular counselor came right out and told me--I guess he told Jimmy the same thing--that it would probably be a mistake if we went to this white school because we would find out that we had not an equal education and that we would probably do poorly. So that, of course, just gave me resolve to come here and prove him wrong. And when I finished, I went back and let him know that I graduated, and I graduated in four years. It didn't take me five, six, seven years, or anything like that. I wanted him to know that because probably he gave me the impetus to do it. You know, to make sure that I would succeed because he doubted that I would.

Kennelly: What did he say?

Scott: Congratulations. And by that time, by the way, my high school was closed. By the time I finished college, they had closed my high school and made it into something else. So desegregation of the high schools had really taken place by then.

Kennelly: And that was why your high school closed--essentially because of the desegregation?

Scott: Yes, they generally closed the black schools. People were rankled to send their white children to what had been the predominantly black school, I believe. That's my gut feeling as to why they closed it, but they made it into something else. It became a school for exceptional children, and as far as I know, it still exists that way.

Kennelly: Was your family politically active?

Scott: Well, not politically if you mean by that being members of a political party and participating in political kinds of events that way. Did my parents vote? Yes, religiously, and I don't know if they voted prior to, you know, I'm assuming they voted even when there was a poll tax. But I'm not sure of that because I never talked to them about it, so I don't know. As far as being people who would go out with protest signs and demonstrating and all that sort of stuff, no.

Kennelly: Let's say the NAACP or something like that--did they belong to anything like that?

Scott: No.

Kennelly: So was their attitude sort of, with the things that you knew, they would just sort of avoid those, like don't go to this lunch counter, and you don't go to that gas station?

Scott: Now my mother and I did protest together once over a department store that had refused to desegregate its lunch counter, and it happened to have been a store in which the majority of the people, I think, who shopped there were black. It was like one of those department stores that was on the border of black downtown and white downtown, and so they had quite a few black people that shopped there. And so my mother was actively boycotting, and we did demonstrate that time with a little placket or something against Schwartz, I think, was the name of that department store.

But as a regular kind of thing, no. But let me say this. My father's fight always was in that postal service. He was an outspoken critic, and it usually got him in a little high water here and there in terms of trying to make that work environment right for black people. As far as endorsing political candidates or any of those kinds of things, not really. Although my mother did take me to see John F. Kennedy when he came to town and he was running for president. I will always remember him. I fell in love with him. I was going to marry John F. Kennedy if I could just get rid of Jackie. I just loved him to no end.

Kennelly: What happened with the lunch counter? How old were you with that?

Scott: They closed the store. The store closed; the boycott killed them. They just would not desegregate that lunch counter, and I guess it never hit them who's paying for the goods here. So they just wouldn't move off of that. And by that time, places like Woolworth's and the little Tea Room on the Mezzanine and Rice's department store downtown--all those places had changed, but that store would not, and so there I was.

Kennelly: About when was that when you?

Scott: I was in high school.

Kennelly: Were there buses? Did you ride the bus?

Scott: No, I hardly ever caught the bus, but let me tell you about the bus. When we lived in Norfolk, as a child, I caught the bus because my parents didn't own a car. But the bus that we caught, where we were going was always to like another black neighborhood, and so there were never white people on it. So I never went to the back of the bus. When we went to Clarksville, I don't recall whether I went to the back of a bus. Maybe I did and didn't realize it when I was child. I really don't have that kind of recollection. When I was a young teenager (twelve, thirteen years old, maybe eleven) when we had moved to Virginia Beach, the only way you could get into town (if your parents didn't take you in the car) was to catch a Trailways bus, and we would catch that on the corner to go into downtown Norfolk. We wanted to sit in the back, so I don't know if we had to or not. But we would take up that long back seat because there would be several of us girls, and I just remember us being silly on the bus, and so I don't recall having to do anything special. I don't recall a little line being drawn.

I do remember this. When my grandfather died in 1969 in Clarksville, Virginia, my grandmother still behaved as if segregation existed. And I remember, as a child, the bus station being segregated. There was a side door that had "colored" and the front door was for whites. The local pharmacy had a little counter; of course, you didn't go anywhere near that counter. I recall that. So that when my grandfather died--I'm prefacing this for that-- telegrams had come in, and you had to pick the telegrams up at the bus station. And I remember my grandmother asked me to go get these telegrams and reminded me to go in the "colored" door entrance, and I was telling her that now this is 1969. We don't go in a "colored" entrance anymore, and her fussing at me because I was in Clarksville where she had to live. In Clarksville you still went in that door. And so because it was my grandfather's sad time, I said okay to her, but I went in that front door. There was no way, and then I was upset, and I went down to the pharmacy and sat at that counter and ordered a milk shake or something like that and sat there and drank it before I went back. Then I felt so much better. And of course no one didn't serve me, and no one said anything when I went in the front door. I mean, times had changed, but she hadn't.

I thought that was so quaint that she was still having that attitude: "Don't mess up in Clarksville. Now what you want to do up there at that Virginia Tech and anywhere else is your business, but don't come to Clarksville, Virginia and upsetting things." "Yes, mama, okay."

Kennelly: Was it a big deal when the Tea Room was integrated? You said there were several little places...Did that seem like a big deal when you were in high school?

Scott: Yes, sure.

Kennelly: Would you go there and have a coke there?

Scott: Sure, just to have one.

Kennelly: It seemed kind of exciting?

Scott: Yes, it was still danger.

Kennelly: Was there ever any a problem with that as far as actually going?

Scott: No, but I do remember this. When we were teenagers, a girlfriend and I went to apply for a job at one of those department stores. My girlfriend's last name was Tolentino, and she was one of my best friends, and she's my son's godmother. We had grown up together, and we went to do this. Her father was half Filipino, and so she had kind of slanted eyes, and she looked a little bit Asian. We applied for these jobs, and she swore out that on my application they had written an "N" on mine and a "W" on hers. She was white, and I was a Negro, and so neither one of us got the job. But we always felt that it was because of that racism. They would have all these stacks of applications, and they would weed those with the "N" on them and put them on in the trash. 'Cause this was after the '64 Civil Rights Act, and they weren't supposed to do that sort of stuff anymore. Sure it was still going on. Just put a little code on it. They couldn't ask you anymore what you were, and they had to visually look at you and try to figure it out, so they put something on it.

Kennelly: So was she white and Filipino or African-American and Filipino?

Scott: African-American and Filipino.

Kennelly: Was church an important thing for your family, or was that a social center?

Scott: No, not really. My parents went to a local Methodist church, St. Charles A.M.E. Church, and I had gone to that church until I was about 12. And I had gone to the local Episcopal church and really liked it. Primarily because they were in and out. From beginning to ending, it might have taken an hour, maybe. And if you went to eight o'clock's, 30 minutes. I said, "This is the church for me." So I was confirmed into the Episcopal church all by myself, no parents. I just made that switch on my own without their help. And which, I guess, indicates what kind of household I lived in. My parents, I guess, respected my intelligence at that point. If that's what you want to do, all that was fine. I was allowed to do some independent things like that.

Kennelly: Was that a racially mixed church?

Scott: No, it was a black Episcopal church. All of the institutions in my life, until I came to Virginia Tech, were completely black. My school was all black; church was all black.

Kennelly: Were there any like social things that you did, say as a high school student, where it was mixed, like going to a pool?

Scott: The only thing that I remember doing was that Y teen conference.

Kennelly: That was the only thing?

Scott: That was the only thing that I ever did that involved white people that I can recall.

Kennelly: Were you involved in 4-H at all?

Scott: No.

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