Barbara J. Stevenson- Spurgon
Autobiography of Barbara J. Stevenson-Spurgon
Barbara J. Stevenson-Spurgon has lived in Marion, Indiana all of her life. She is married to James A. Spurgon and between them they have six children and fourteen grandchildren. She attended school in the Marion Community School system from Kindergarten to 6th grade at Clayton Brownlee, to Martin Boots Junior High School grades seven through nine and then to Marion High School, tenth through 12th graduating in 1966.
After High School Barbara pursued her dream to be a secretary. She attended Indiana Business College and graduated with a private secretarial degree. She was a secretary at Essex Wire and Cable Company for two years. As a doting mother she attended and participated with her children’s activities in elementary school. She found that teaching was fun and very rewarding. She then started college at Indiana University, the Kokomo campus to work on her undergraduate degree in teaching. She was a first year second grade teacher for Marion Community Schools in 1978. When Martin Boots closed as an elementary she chose to teach at McCulloch Middle School.
As a teacher Barbara was very active with her students. She had an after school group called the Multicultural Club for students who were interested in learning more about other cultures. Barbara also served as the academic coach for Social Studies.
Going back to school part time, Barbara attended Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana where she soon graduated with a Masters degree in education. Barbara became active with the Marion Teachers Association and served as the secretary for many years, as well as serving on the state Minority Affairs Committee. Barbara has served on the board of the Grant County Black History Council, the Marion Urban League and the Marion Branch of the NAACP. All of which she served as their secretary. During two summer sessions at Indiana University, Kokomo Campus Barbara took classes on African American Literature with Nikki Giovanni as the professor. In fact she penned a poem that was accepted by Nikki Giovanni and it appears in her book called ‘Grandfathers’. The poem is called “Old Silent One”.
To hone her writing skills Barbara took a correspondence writing class called ‘Breaking Into Print’ through Long Ridge Writing Group. Barbara has authored three books, ‘An Oral History of African Americans in Grant County’, a children’s book ‘Have You Ever Made Mud Pies On A Hot Summer Day’, and a two story children’s book called ‘Old Silent One’ and ‘Fresh Water Fishing’. Barbara has retired from formal teaching but still keeps herself busy writing, sewing, and serving as the secretary of Grace Missionary Baptist Church, Marion, IN. Her favorite scripture is Psalms 23. May 25, 2011
Oral History of Barbara J. Stevenson-Spurgon
Devin Spurgon interview of Barbara J. Stevenson-Spurgon
DS Okay, now before we start do we have permission to put this on the Wiki Marion web site at the Marion Public Library?
BS Yes, you have my permission.
DS Uh, well first will you tell me a little bit about your book?
BS “A little bit about the book.” I uh, at the time that this idea came about I was working with a group called the Grant County Black History Council, a not for profit group. And uh, I was also involved with (on the board of ) the Marion Historical Society. Uh, I think most of my life I’ve kind of felt like I was not treated as well as some of the other African Americans in Marion especially those more fair skinned African Americans. So the book was not necessarily a retaliation but I designed it to show a comparison between those who came first and settled in Marion and those who came later. The African Americans that came and settled first in Grant County were the Weavers, the Pettifords and names like that. They were brought to Marion under the protection of the Quakers and a lot of them or most of them were very fair skinned African Americans. Some that could easily pass for white if they so choose to and so really the book was written as a comparison because I wanted the world to know that it doesn’t matter what color your skin is or whether you, uh, settled under the protection of the Quakers. One group whether they are dark skinned or light skinned are just as intelligent as the other.
So that whole feeling that I had, growing up in Marion is what motivated me to start the project. And once I convinced the other members of the Grant County Black History Council to go for the project then we applied for a grant through the Indiana Historical Society. It wasn’t a large grant but it was enough for us to get equipment that we needed and supplies to do the interviews and then get it transcribed. As I got more into it I was interviewing a lot of the people that some of the relatives of those who settled in Weaver, Indiana. They were very different to me grown up than they were when I was a little girl going church at Bethel AME. Which is where most of them attended church. Growing up and interviewing them I find that now they are much more open and maybe even a little proud that I was doing this project on them. One of the key people, let me back up a minute. When the Historical Society found out that we were going to move forward with the project, there was a man by the name of Leslie Neher from Gas City who called me and he had started a project on African Americans and he had several tapes that he had not transcribed.
DS He was also African American?
BS No, he was white and the tapes were old and I was able to use some of it but not all of it, but I was glad that he stepped forward and had me come to Gas City to pick up the tapes. So, uh, that’s what I did. It was written as a comparison between those who settled here first and those who came later. Because according to my parents, when they moved to Marion there was a group of people that wanted to move them back out. They were from the South. They were from Birmingham and Montgomery Alabama. And uh, I feel like I kind of struggled a little bit or put myself through something, uh , it was just a motivator , it was a motivator for me. I took you know what they say about lemons? ‘When life hands you lemons, make lemonade’.
DS Uh huh.
BS And you know when you buy a used car that is okay for a little while and then you start having trouble with it. Someone might say somebody sold you a lemon. (laughing)
DS & BS laughing
BS So this feeling that I had is what motivated me to do the book. A lot of the people in the Grant County Black History Council, when they started to go out to interview people found that they were not comfortable with the interview process. So, a lot of the interviewing then fell back on me. And like I said, I was willing to do it because I was motivated by the project. So I don’t know exactly how many people I interviewed. There were two professors that came over from Taylor University, and I’m sorry I just can’t pull up their names right now. (Professor Tom Jones and Dr. Stephen Messer.) They were white and they got us going on it and they gave me a lot of questions to be used for the interviews and they also suggested and attended the initial public meeting which was held at the Marion Public Library. We got quite a few people, old timers who were willing to be interviewed. There were a few white people that came for the meeting. There was a lady, Charlotte Fenstermaker, that grew up with the Weavers, grew up in the same area but did not necessarily go to the same school. So there was still that segregation going on. But that’s just the way it was at that period of time.
BS And then, uh, I did talk a lot about the lynching with Sarah Weaver Pate. She was an original descendent of the Weaver family. I talked to her a lot about it. She opened up pretty much but she said it was the most horrible thing that she had ever experienced. She was a nurse for Dr. Bailey and Dr. Bailey’s wife, Flossie Bailey was the head (president of the Marion branch) of the NAACP . She tried to get the Militia, she tried to get the judge (the Mayor) to get the Militia to come in. But I understand that he left town so he wouldn’t have to deal with it.
BS It seems that somebody walked away or left the jail door open and some of the rioters were able to get in the jail and pull the boys out. They say according to another old timer, Don McFarland, he was walking through town and wasn’t very noticed. What was explained to me is that it was like a circus atmosphere, that they were pulling these boys out of the jail, beating them and then tied them to the back of a car and drug them through town to down on the courthouse square where they were going to hang them. There was a boy, the third boy James Cameron and somebody said he didn’t have anything to do with it. You know, maybe he did, maybe he didn’t but the two, uh do you remember their names?
DS Yes, Thomas Shipp and Abe Smith.
BS Yes, thank you, they were lynched and from what I understand they left them hanging for a while and I’ve been told that there’s pictures of that lynching. There’s pictures of it in magazines, history magazines, encyclopedias because it was the last public lynching of African Americans and it’s unfortunate that it had to happen in Marion because it has left a scar on Marion.
BS A scar that will still be with us for a long time. Sarah Weaver Pate said that she saw the men in their white robes and their hats and she knows that it was the Klan (KKK) that was behind it. They were cuttin’ off parts of their bodies as souvenirs taking their shirts and hanging them on posts by the police station and she actually, she cried when she told me about it. She said it was the most awful thing she had ever seen. And it just kind of gives me cold chills that there would be a group of people who probably have relatives in Marion who I associate with every day that were laughing and pointing up at those boys who were hanging from that tree on the courthouse square. So I don’t mean to be sinical but I still believe there is racism here. We’ve come a long way but we still have a long way to go here even in 2011. My parents were not, I think they arrived in Marion shortly after the lynching maybe a couple of years or so. But they told us about it, I’ve heard about it most of my life. I think they kind of shielded us, I mean just telling us don’t say too much, keep our mouth shut. I mean, I was real young but I know there were theaters downtown that made us go to the lobby, I mean the balcony. Instead of sittin’ down stairs we had to go upstairs. It really didn’t bother me at the time because I thought those were the best seats anyway.
DS & BS Chuckling
BS Pretty soon things started to open up and the NAACP started fighting. I mean not fighting but talking to people to try to get things turned around. Because for a long time African Americans couldn’t even swim in the public swimming pool. So, uh, there was a lot going on.
BS See mom and dad, he was born in 1908 and she was born in 1918 and so they experienced a lot of racism that I can’t even imagine. But it’s just that they came North for a better life and found that there is prejudice here too. Not just white against black but also black against black. A lot of people say that when we were in slavery the fair skinned worked in the house and the darker skinned had to work in the fields. We all know that the fair skinned were actually kids of the slave owners. How else can we get all of these various skin tones. So I’ve spent a lot of life just trying to be proud of who I am. To show respect to my parents and how they worked to get us where we are. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished and I’m glad to see that my children and my grandchildren are becoming accomplished. They are people that I can be very proud of. A lot of folks think we’re stupid and we’re not. I know there’s people in Marion that think we’re not as worthy or that we’re not intelligent enough to do something. So for me, that’s a motivator for me. It makes me work harder it makes me work harder to try to speak proper English. It’s a burden, not a burden but something that I put on myself. It motivated me to get my degree from Indiana Business College. I always wanted to be a secretary so when I graduated in 1966 I told my father that I was going to put in some applications to be a secretary. My father said, “Well you know that they aren’t hiring Black secretaries but you can try if you want to. I couldn’t understand that so when I went to one of the banks downtown I was given a test and the interviewer pointed out that uh, my uh vocabulary, it was okay but I was probably confused with some of the words. That became a motivator for me. Every time I was reading something and I got to a word that I didn’t know I would stop and look it up in the dictionary just to see how it was used and what it meant. That’s just something in me and I hope that my grandchildren will follow suit.
BS & DS Chuckling.
BS But I didn’t get the secretary job so I worked in a factory for a while then I went to Indiana Business College, got my secretarial degree and got a job at Essex Wire as a secretary for about two years. The pay wasn’t real great and I had two kids by then to take care of so I got a grant to go to school at Indiana University 3. (Kokomo campus). Then I started teaching, had another child then started at Ball State University to get my Masters Degree in education. At the time I couldn’t do better, well I shouldn’t say couldn’t do better. At the time that’s the best I could do. But I want to see my kids and my grandkids to do even better than I did, which I think is very remarkable.
DS That is remarkable. That is very remarkable. That is very remarkable.
BS & DS Chuckling
DS Now I know your dad’s name is Douglas?
BS His actual name is Fred Douglas Stevenson, and my mother has an unusual name. I remember her saying when are one of you guys going to name one of your kids after me?
BS & DS Chuckling
BS But her name was Buris B – U – R – I – S. Buris Vester Stev, Buris Vester Jones Stevenson. She was a Jones.
DS When you wrote your book about the Oral History of African Americans in Grant County, what was the process you went through? I know that you said you got a grant but what was the whole process of doing that book?
BS Just like you are doing now with the interviews we had our public meeting to get a list of people who were willing to be interviewed. And uh, we just started making appointments and following through on the project. I would take a tripod and a video camera with me.
DS Umm Hmm
BS I would take a tape recorder and a microphone and we would just start talking like we are now. I had my list of questions and uh, I really ended up having some good conversations because like I said I was into it.
DS Like I am now.
DS & BS Both chuckling.
BS And then we got the family albums out. They allowed me to choose pictures from their family albums so I could get copies of them. So all of those pictures are from all the people that I interviewed.
DS I’ve seen those book, pictures that traced back a lot of history in that. It was nice. I got to see my great step-grandparents in there, I got read their whole biographies and everything that they went through to come to the North.
DS Some of the trials and tribulations that they went through too. I got more into it as I kept reading. It was amazing.
BS Yes. And there were people that……..when James Cameron came back to Marion the Black History Council had a, Lord where’s my words. We had a dinner,
DS MM Hmm
BS a banquet.
BS When people in Marion found out that he was going to be coming, that he was going to be the speaker they didn’t want him. I mean the Black people in Marion that went through all the lynching and knew all about it, they resented him coming to Marion to speak. But we followed through with it anyhow. There were people that said he didn’t have anything to do with it. There was Rev. Bill Perkins who said he (Cameron) didn’t have anything to do with it because he was already in jail for stealing chickens. So that’s one story I’ve heard. The other story that I’ve heard about that is that the woman was actually going with one of the boys.
DS Mary Ball?
BS Yea! Mary Ball. Thank you. She was going with one of the boys and they had made plans. She would lure men out in the country and then they would stop them and rob them and uh that particular night this man had a gun also.
BS But he ended up getting the worst of it and I’m still not remembering his name.
DS I’m not pretty sure about it either.
BS And I should because James Cameron came back to Marion to meet him and they both hugged and the guy Deeter.
DS Floyd Deeter
BS Yes. They just kind of reconciled everything so they could move on. But I don’t think this is going to be something that’s easily forgotten. Especially since I’ve heard there are some white people that still have that picture hanging on their living room wall. That’s what I’ve heard, and uh the grand master of the KKK is living somewhere around here. Another author by the name of Cynthia Carr, she came to Marion (to research) because she found out that her grandfather, I think, was part of the Klan. I guess she just could not grasp the idea that her family or members of her family would be involved in something like that.
BS But we talked a lot and I let her listen to some of the tapes that I had, especially the one about Sarah Weaver Pate. I talked a lot about Sarah Weaver Pate. She (Sarah) was a nurse so she knew a lot of people. She said it was the most awful thing that she had ever seen.
DS It could be for anyone. Now when you told me this James Cameron and Floyd Deeter. I’ve read that Floyd Deeter died that night when Miss Ball did whatever. Do you think that it could have been his nephew?
BS Oh yeh! Somebody from his family, excuse me for not remembering this but somebody in that family came to Marion, it was a man, came to Marion and they talked, hugged and reconciled. But yeh, he (Floyd Deeter) died, and that’s why the bloody shirt was hanging outside the police station (jail) to let them (the rioters) know there was going to be lynching.
How She Found Out
DS So when you first found out about the lynching it was from your mother and father...
DS that had moved here after the lynching?
BS yes, and things were…..I remember my mother talking because she uh, she cleaned house for a living. You know they would clean house all day for a dime and uh she knows about the restrooms downtown and how things were. The marks on the water fountains for Colored or White. Umm, just to imagine them having to go through that is a motivator for me to do better.
DS Whem you think about……Um….when you said it gives you chills. When you thought about stuff like that. Is there anything more that you would like to add.
BS I know that those two boys still have relatives in Marion, the shipps and uh
DS The Smith’s? Abram Smith.
BS I know they still have relatives in Marion. Some are more open and will talk about it but I think it’s something they would like to forget. There’s still relatives around town that I see from time to time. You know when you go to the store like Wal Mart or Lances Market, our social network.
DS & BS Chuckling
DS You said that the boys, when the mob they brought them out of the jail and they tied them to the back of a car and drug them to the town square?
BS Don McFarland said he was walking through town and he said he thought it was something like a high school rally. He said that’s what he thought it was. Because whenever they had a football game or even a basketball game they would tie a dummy to the back of a car, a dummy with emblems of the team they were playing against, and drag it through town. So when he saw it he said he thought it was a basketball rally or a football rally. Then as he got further into town there were people warning him that he better get out of there. And uh, because they were getting ready to lynch the two boys.
BS They (Colored) were warning each other about what was going on. They huddled together in each others houses. Some people went back to the country where Weaver was and stayed with family members still out there. The Bailey lady tried to get the Militia to come in and stop it but the crowd had already formed. So they were warning everybody (Colored) to get out of there.
DS So anyone in harms way, that was African American could have been lynched or hurt if they tried to stop it?
BS So they (colored) were warning colored folks to stay away from town.
DS Do you think the Shipps or Camerons would tell different stories about what happened? Do you think they blame one another for what happened?
BS No. No I don’t think they blame one another. It was just that era of what was upon us, that we were in with slavery. With African Americans finally being able to live freely but not really freely. Unfortunately there was prejudice. White people that didn’t believe we were worthy of it. When they started bringing slaves to the country they took them from their land, their native land where they had their own family, their own language and their own way of doing things. They were snatched and brought to the United States simply because they needed someone to work and farm their land. It’s historical. I’m not trying to be vicious or anything but when you think about what our people had to go through, it was awful. They weren’t allowed to go to school, they weren’t even allowed to read. If they were caught with a book, you know, they were punished for it. And you have characters like Phyllis Wheatley who was snatched from her homeland. Fortunately she was adopted (actually bought as a slave) by the Wheatley family. They found out how intelligent she was. When her owner wanted to have her published in the paper, her poetry, they actually had to take her somewhere to actually prove that she wrote what they were reading. So, it was just a bad time for African Americans. At that particular time I think they were African but uh my theory is that we are very mixed now. Because my great grandfather was white. My fathers father was white (fair skinned) and he knew of his own father who lived on the other side of the fence but they never saw him. But that’s how it was with a lot of African Americans. Some of the white slave owners eyes drifted in the wrong direction so we ended up with a mixed race of people.
BS I hope that’s not too harsh but its reality. It’s something that people need to think about. Now days there’s so much technology and so many tests that can be done to trace your blood line. When people finally take the time to check their bloodline they will probably find that they have African Americans in their family and vice versa.
DS Kind of makes me want to do that now.
BS Yea. In fact I uh I taught next to a teacher that had his blood line traced and he found out that there are African Americans in his family. That there’s African American in their blood line. I think there’s some people that you just don’t know whether they are black or white. Sometimes you don’t know, I mean you really don’t.
DS Now as we sum this up how do you think Marion fits into the big picture of lynching in the United States, globally.
BS It was just a terrible time and it’s a shame that it’s already in the history books and it needs to be there, its history. The Marion lynching was the last known public lynching in the United States. I mean, there may have been some after that out in the country, but that was the last known public lynching in the United States.
What She Thought
DS Do you think it would benefit people to know about the lynching in Marion?
BS I think people need to know about their history and if they’re living in Marion. I don’t think it hurts to know their history. In fact, I was invited out to Lakeview and I spoke and had some slides of African Americans In Grant County. I spoke a little about the lynching and there were a couple of teachers waiting to talk to me. One of them asked, “Why haven’t I heard about this?” Well, I don’t know. Why haven’t you heard about it? Do we have people still trying to cover up true facts? I don know. Maybe they are not interested. Maybe they don’t make it their business to learn history about where they live. I don’t know. But in the big picture I think people will look at Marion, they’ll read their history and they’ll make a choice to stay here or move on and uh all of Marion is not bad. There’s a lot of nice, nice people in Marion, white and black . So in the end I think life is what you make it. You can either accept things as they are and move on and like those who like you and stay away from those who don’t.
DS UMM HMM This has been good. I like this a lot. That’s all I have for you today. Thank you for your time Grandma. I really appreciate it.
BS You’re very welcome.
This interview was collected by Devin Jamal Spurgon for Mr. Munn's ACP US History Class during Spring 2011. It was transcribed by Devin Spurgon & Barbara J. Stevenson-Spurgon.