Interview with Clarence Alford

Dublin Core

Title

Interview with Clarence Alford

Subject

Pasco (Wash.)
Kennewick (Wash.)
African American universities and colleges
Migration
Civil rights
Teaching
School integration
Civil rights movements

Description

Clarence Alford moved to Pasco, Washington in 1968 and taught for the Pasco School District for many years.

A National Park Service funded project to document the history of African American contributions to Hanford and the surrounding communities. This project was conducted through the Pacific Northwest Cooperative Ecosystems Unit, Task Agreement P17AC01288

Publisher

Hanford Oral History Project at Washington State University Tri-Cities

Date

05/17/2018

Rights

Those interested in reproducing part or all of this oral history should contact the Hanford History Project at ourhanfordhistory@tricity.wsu.edu, who can provide specific rights information for this item.

Format

video/mp4

Provenance

The Hanford Oral History Project operates under a sub-contract from Mission Support Alliance (MSA), who are the primary contractors for the US Department of Energy's curatorial services relating to the Hanford site. This oral history project became a part of the Hanford History Project in 2015, and continues to add to the US Department of Energy collection. This oral history collection was done in partnership with the National Park Service under Task Agreement P17AC01288.

Oral History Item Type Metadata

Interviewer

Robert Franklin

Interviewee

Clarance Alford

Location

Washington State University - Tri Cities

Transcription

Robert Franklin: My name is Robert Franklin. I’m conducting an oral history interview on Clarence Alford on May 17th 2018. The interview is being conducted on the Campus of Washington State University Tri-Cities. We’ll be talking with Clarence about his experiences living in the Tri-Cities. And for the record can you state and spell your full name for us?

Clarence Alford: Okay, Clarence Alford, Junior. That’s Clarence, it’s C-L-A-R-E-N-C-E. The last name is Alford, A-L-F-O-R-D, that’s a junior.

Franklin: Okay. So, Clarence, tell me how and why you came to the area?

Alford: Well, I came to the area to see a brother. I had a brother who lived here that worked up at Battelle and I came to see him. After being here I met a young lady, came back to see the young lady and thought I would take a job and a few months later she was gone and I was stuck. I wasn’t able to find my way out.

Franklin: When was this?

Alford: This was 1968.

Franklin: 1968. And where did you grow up? Where are you from originally?

Alford: I’m from the State of Louisiana, a little small place called Ringgold.

Franklin: Can you spell that?

Alford: R-I-N-G-G-O-L-D. It’s 35 miles east of Shreveport, 100 miles north of Alexandria, 203 miles from Baton Rouge.

Franklin: Were you born in Ringgold?

Alford: I was born in Ringgold, yes.

Franklin: What year were you born?

Alford: 1944.

Franklin: 1944. You moved here from there? You were in your mid 20s when you moved out?

Alford: Yes.

Franklin: I wonder if you can tell me about life growing up in the South during the Jim Crow era.

Alford: In what sense?

Franklin: I guess, let’s talk about opportunities. What were your educational opportunities and experiences?

Alford: I was out of six of us: three girls and three boys in my family. Parents, one parent finished first grade and the other one finished eighth grade. Their push for us was to get an education. Out of the six of us, five of us ended up with degrees. Two finished high school and there was one that did not finish high school, probably the smartest of the group, he later got a GED and ended up in a unique position in the State of California. The schools that I attended was segregated schools, because at that particular time, integration has not taken place in the State of Louisiana. The pluses for me was the support of my parents. I didn’t want to go into the armed services. I had heard about the Teacher Corps and they had another corps, it wasn’t the Teacher Corps where young people could actually go and participate in an activity. And I found out very soon that that wasn’t an option. My parents very soon decided what we did. It wasn’t a decision that I decided. So when I got in college, I really had some difficulties trying to figure out what field I should go into. But I met a young lady who was a chemistry major and I thought, I like her, chemistry probably would be the subject. So I got my degree in mathematics with a minor in chemistry. I think sometime if she would have been a recess major I probably would’ve been in recess as a career.

Franklin: What college did you attend?

Alford: Undergraduate was Southern University in Baton Rouge Louisiana. It’s the largest black land grant college in the United States.

Franklin: But did you go on to get an advanced degree?

Alford: Yup. I was one of those individuals that was very fortunate, I had a chance to go to Pratt Institute in New York. Pratt, if you know it, has two things that people go there for; one is if you are in art and the second if you’re in chemistry. I had a chance to go there. I met a professor that told me I should go and get a degree and get a master’s degree, and so I did. When I got my master’s degree there was probably one of those individuals who took a little bit of interest in me and that was a plus. But that was—I took part of my degree here at Washington State University on campus and here. The fun part about it is that—something that I never anticipated—was I ended up teaching a class about three doors from here. That’s a whole different story but that’s a little bit from my background.

Franklin: That’s really interesting. What about work opportunities? What did your parents do in Louisiana?

Alford: My father and mother was farmers. My father ended up marrying my mother who was somewhat ambitious and they bought 40 acres of land in Louisiana and started a farm, and so they were farmers. It was a small farm with some mules and plows, but that was the lifestyle until the kids all grew up, they didn’t have enough people to continue the farm and so my father got a job working in the logging industry. He did that until he got a job driving a school bus on the last portion of his life, and the rest of it is history.

Franklin: Tell me about the house you grew up in.

Alford: The first house that we lived in I don’t really remember, because I was there for like two years. My parents built a house. The house that they built, we didn’t have an indoor plumbing but we had a five bedrooms. Because we didn’t have a living room; the living room was one big bedroom. That was the room that my parents lived in. it was on top of a hill, and in Louisiana you don’t have a lot of hills, but in that case we were on a hill surrounded by pine trees and oak trees. A good place to go fishing and hunting. It was a major highway. But prior to that time, for my brothers and sisters, it was different because at that particular time he had not built the house and so the distance between where they lived and the main highway was about eight miles, it was down a dirt road. When it rained, you didn’t go anywhere because the car couldn’t make it up the hill. But for me, the house we had was a neat house. My dad talked about the one—my brothers and sisters talked about going to bed at night and waking up thinking that someone urinated on you. But if you looked up you could see sometimes the moon and the stars and when it rained, from what I understand, the water came down wherever the holes happened to be and if you didn’t move your bed you had a pond in it for the rest of the night and it was cold.

Franklin: During your childhood, the South was under segregation, right? I wonder if you can talk about your experiences with segregation and with Jim Crow, in the town, commercial activities, things like that.

Alford: Well, because my parents did farm, I learned to work in the field very, very early. There was no such thing as a time frame that you start in the morning at 8:00 or 7:00. You started when my parents said time to go and we stopped when they said we’re going home. Because my father was one of these individuals who was able to communicate with people, we had a number of people that would visit us, who happened to have been quite unusual but common. My father’s relationship with those particular fellas, they would come up sometimes at night, knock on the door, they would bring something to drink and sit around or on our porch and drink. I don’t know how he developed that relationship. I don’t know why they felt comfortable to come to our house, but it happened.
In terms of me getting in trouble, didn’t happen until I was in high school. One night, we were going to the carnival, and of course there we called it a fair. I was driving home and I got stopped by a police officer. The police officer had us to get out of the car, he patted us down, he wanted to know where we had been, and we told him. So he decided that we should go to jail, so he took us to the little city in Ringgold. There, he put us in jail and I asked him how long we would be there, and that wasn’t the question that I should’ve asked. He said some things that are not very nice to hear. But later on he came--

Franklin: Like racial slurs?

Alford: Yes. A little bit later on I asked him if I could call my dad. And he asked who is my dad. I had given him my license from the State of Louisiana. He looked at it, but I guess he had not connected the last names. So, he asked me who’s my father and I told him and he said, oh, okay, you can come out. I was able to come out and call my father. My dad drove down and came into jail, and he wanted to know why. The fella said, well, he was driving the car and they was in the car and I stopped them. My father said, why? And I can’t remember what answer he gave, but my father said I’m taking my son, I’m taking these boys with me. He said, no, you’re not taking them. And my father said, no, I’m taking them. And he gave them one of the fellas that lived in the city, he said, either I’m taking them or he’s going to come down here and get my boys out of here. That was my connection with law enforcement. He did let us go, and they didn’t write up any charges, they just dropped two boys out at their house and told their parents and they were very thankful that we was at home. But other than that, just maybe a couple occasions where you were stopped by somebody and say some things that are inappropriate but life has been pretty good.

Franklin: Segregation pervaded pretty much every aspect of life in the South.

Alford: Right.

Franklin: What about—I understand you grew up on the farm, pretty rural. But when you went to town, did you have to use separate facilities, or when you traveled did you have to use separate facilities from whites. And I’m wondering if you can you describe those facilities?

Alford: Yup, it was—looking back at that particular time, it’s very difficult to determine what’s right and wrong because that’s just a set of rules. When I was growing up it was just a set of rules. If you were walking down the street and there was a white female coming in that direction, the appropriate thing was to step off the side walk. If you went into the store and you was buying something and someone else came in and who happened to be white, you took your items while they took care of theirs. In terms of so many things—when you only know one things when you only know x, it’s very difficult to see why. The reason behind that is that growing up in the South and where I grew up, that was just a code of ethics, if you will. I hate to use the word “ethics” in this case, but it was just a sequence of events that had been there for I don’t know how many years. So being born there, it’s just the way it was. That’s just the way they city operated. So when you saw a police officer, you wanted to make sure that you didn’t get very close to him, and the reason was because police was not considered to be your friends. Where, if they went to the left, you went to the right; if you could avoid seeing them, you did. That was taught to me by parents, is that I don’t want to see you in one of those cars being taken to jail.

Franklin: Right.

Alford: If you do these types of things, you can avoid it. That was the process of growing up in the South for me and my family.

Franklin: Were whites and blacks addressed differently?

Alford: It’d depend on the location. What I mean by that is that when you walked into a store, whites was always mister, okay, mister and missus, miss. That’s the way you addressed them. But there was cases where that part didn’t work. I’ll give you a case and it’s a case I think about quite often and I’m not so sure why it occurred. I remember my oldest brother, he had a friend and they used to play together, about the same age. When they got to be older, I don’t remember the age somewhere around sixteen, seventeen, eighteen years old, I can remember my brother, older brother, being in the store with us and Ray. Ray was a white kid who was about the same age as my brother, and we played together, we talked to each other, and we called him Ray all the time. On this particular day my older brother says, hey, Ray, let’s go hunting, or something. And these other individuals who happened to be white said, hey, he told his dad, did you hear what that boy said to your son? His name was Otis. And Otis said, what? What happened? He said, he called your son by his first name, he should be calling him mister now. I think I will probably remember this forever, Mr. Otis turned around and said to this fella and he says, the first time my son asks Max—that was my brother’s name—he called him mister I’m going to kick his bump-bump-bump all the way home.

It was the first time that I had ever heard a case where a white person said to another white person that this will not happen with my son. But why’d it occur, I don’t know; I just remember it happening. And we have talked—the family we have talked about that I don’t know, numerous times. The sad part about it is that when we got old enough to consciously get to think about it, the father was deceased and so was the son. I never had an opportunity—it was one of those cases where I wished I had an opportunity to go and talk to the father and ask him why, why we call you mister, but you didn’t want my brother to call your son mister? It’s a rare case and I don’t know the answer; it’s just something that occurred.

Franklin: How did the civil rights movement begin to affect your life in the South before you left Louisiana?

Alford: How did segregation impact my life in Louisiana? I think for me, it did three things: one, it gave me an idea of what power was able to do—what a person with power was able to do. The second part, I think, was, because of the conditions, and because my mother was so fixated, if I could use that word, with us going to college, that it made a big difference. There was six of us, and five of the six ended up with degrees, college graduates. Three of us with masters—two of us with masters; one should have gotten his, but he didn’t go back. But two masters and just the one that didn’t do as well. But I think because of the conditions and because of my mother always wanted to go to school. She said she always wanted to go to school and she never had a chance to go, and by and by, whatever, my kids are going to go. And that was what she wanted. I think that because of her, having a vision that we should go to school, has impacted my life. I think about it quite often with my own kids, that it has an impact on them as well.

Franklin: One of your brothers was working at Battelle, you mentioned. How did he come out to Richland, to Battelle?

Alford: He got his degree from Southern University in Baton Rouge. He was an agriculture major with a minor in biology. What happened is that after he finished school, he ended up getting a job in Idaho. He used to write to us when he got to Idaho, he lived in a little small place. I think this is true—less than 5% of the population was black. And so he worked there in the Department of Agriculture. And then he ended up going to some conference, and a fella was talking about the farm that he had in the State of Washington. Somewhere in that process of them communicating their jobs, he ended up coming to the State of Washington. The fella had a friend who worked for Battelle, and they were doing some type of research on some type of plants and he ended up going to take a job with Battelle. So that’s the way he got here.

Franklin: When you came to visit, what were your first impressions when you arrived?

Alford: Why would anybody live here? [LAUGHTER] That was—I could not understand why anyone in their right mind would come here; there was no grass, just lots of dirt. When I came to visit my brother, we had a wind storm. We was outside and you stopped and everybody would bow until the sand passed over. I thought it was a stupid place to live, no trees and all you got is dirt and sand, and very few of us, people of color. So I had not anticipated ever living here.

Franklin: What made you stay? What made you decide to put down roots in Tri-Cities?

Alford: At that time I was teaching school in California and I met a young lady while I was here. The Superintendent of the Pasco School District—there was someone else on the phone, but I remember him getting on the phone and saying, we would like for you to consider a job here in Pasco. We are looking for people with backgrounds in math and science, and I think you would enjoy it. Would you like to come? Yes, I’ve been there. Would you like to come back? We would like to talk to you. So, I came back to see the girl and it was a free trip because they were going to pay for it. I thought, I’ll go back and go through this little interview and see her and I’ll be back. I came and I made the mistake of listening to what the superintendent was talking about. What he was talking about, what he said, I can still remember it. He said we have a place here where we got—at that time he said—lots of Negro kids, that’s living and we don’t have that many teachers. We really would love for you to come here and work here. Then he said—he started talking about the benefits of coming and the area and all.

And I thought, you know, maybe if I would take this job and stay for three or four years, learn as much as I can, I’m going to go back to Louisiana, and I’ll take what I got out of California, working out at a Catholic school, what I get out of this school here, when I go back I’m going to be very powerful. I took the job with the understanding that the whole intent wasn’t so much Pasco, but me developing some skills, some knowledge, that I could go back to Louisiana and work with a group of kids that look like me and make a difference. At the end of the second year I began to think, okay, yeah, I think I could pull this off. The third year, they integrated the schools in the city that I lived in that I wanted to go back. And that was a very sad moment. You put a lot of effort in something, and then you find out the possibility doesn’t exist anymore. It was a sad day to think that I’ve acquired some skills, some knowledge, and I’m going to make some difference in the lives of a group of kids. And that opportunity no longer exists.

Franklin: I thought integration was a major goal of the civil rights movement. How would things have changed for you so much when they integrated the schools back in Louisiana?

Alford: I grew up with a group of black kids, black family, and there are some things that are somewhat unique with us as a group. And so with my understanding, if I could take the knowledge that I have acquired from California and the knowledge that I have acquired form the State of Washington, and if I can bring those kids in, I could talk about possibilities. Not read about them, but talk about them. I think there’s a difference between walking and hoping to walk. There’s a difference between believing and thinking. There’s a difference between doing and talk about doing. And for me, I knew, under the right condition, I could make a significant difference in the lives of kids that look like me. And that to me was exciting.
The school that I worked in California was a Catholic school, and there was a sister, Sister Marion. Probably one of the best teachers that I had ever seen in my life, and she allowed me to come into her classroom and sit and observe during my planning period. Then one day I made a mistake. Made a big mistake. Sister Marion used to come in and she would have her books underneath her arm, and it seemed like she had just gotten a big dip of snuff, and she would put her books down and she would walk over and she would start her lesson. And I emulated that. She came in one day to do my observation. And I came in with my books the same way as Sister Marion, and then I did the same thing. She called me in after I taught that class and she told me, what’s this? I said, Sister Marion, I saw you walking in with your books that way, I saw you introducing. She said when you get 30 years of teaching, when you’ve taught 30 years of teaching, then you do that. Until that, you go back to the things that work for you. She says, you have a connection with kids, she says, you love kids, she said, they love you, and she said, you teach. She said, forget about the things that I do in my classroom. Because what Sister Marion did in her math class—she came in and comes to find her way in which the strategies of teaching. But I was so impressed with her that I didn’t understand that to get to that stage you have to have made all these minor steps. So I was blessed to have had a person who was able to tell me that. And as a result of that, I went back to teaching the traditional way, until I got to be a little bit better, and then I took some of those things that she did. Because it was a great skill; those were great strategies. Because she would walk in and she would call the kid in the back of the classroom. But I didn’t have those years. But by the time I finished my teaching career, I, too, could call the kid in the back of the classroom and emulate her.

Franklin: So, what led to your decision to stay? Because you mentioned that you had a plan of building skills and going back to Louisiana.

Alford: Right.

Franklin: But obviously you stayed. What led your decision to stay and to want to, you know, work on things here?

Alford: Well, one was that the school was integrated. It was no longer the black school that I had anticipated making a difference in. They were going through a series of problems. They were not—the schools were still having difficulties of integration and the problems that integration can bring. They don’t have to, but they can bring with them. Different races of kids, different backgrounds, different beliefs and if not done correctly, you spend more time on those nitpicking pieces than you do on instruction.

That was one piece; the second piece is that in Pasco, I had been there for a number of years, there was a number of families that kids had gone through my class and I was a half-decent teacher. I would say that on a given day, I could probably do fairly well. I had a relationship with kids and with staff and parents that made teaching not a job. Not a job. Because I don’t think teaching is a job. But I think teaching is about relationships, and out of that relationship, somebody turns out to be a little bit smarter when they leave than they were when they came into the classroom. Now that doesn’t just mean that the kids learn; I’ll tell you what, I’ve learned a lot from kids. I have kids that come and tell me about things that are happening in their lives and how they dealt with it that has allowed me to help someone else.

Going back to Louisiana and schools being desegregated not having what I thought was going to be there, I stayed. And there were some opportunities where, I wasn’t looking for them, but I was fortunate enough to get into special programs where we was trying to help kids who was coming—even in Pasco, there was a desegregated plan. It was a grant from the state. And I keep in mind that this area is integrated but where people lived was segregated. And they came to school, when they came to school, they brought with them not only their bodies but their knowledge and their skills and their makeups, and in many cases there was conflicts, misunderstanding, between kids who was white and kids who was black. As simple as someone calling another person a name, a person not understanding that this person may not have had breakfast and is hungry. There was lots of small things that occurred and I was given the opportunity to put together and implement a project, and this project was to deal with desegregation that was in the Pasco school system. At that point, we began to take a serious look at changing the model that we had. Prior to that time, black kids that lived in a certain area went to the school in that certain area.

Franklin: Right, earlier you had mentioned that for elementary, most of the—like, Whittier was the school for—because it was in east Pasco, right, and so it was predominantly black.

Alford: Black, yes. So when we began to desegregate the schools in Pasco, then Whittier was eliminated as a school. And those kids—because there was a bus throughout Pasco—they was bussed to schools where the schools were located in an area where almost no blacks lived. And with that, they kids took with them their knowledge that background, their likes, their dislikes, their misunderstandings and there was some problems, some racial problems that occurred in those schools. I was given the opportunity to be able to try to resolve that. The strategy that we attempted to use wasn’t so much of the kids as it was to do things so that the parents would understand the differences that was happening. Which is a total different idea than just working with kids.

Franklin: Was there a resistance to busing here?

Alford: There was a resistance.

Franklin: Could you talk—how did that take shape and how did you deal with it?

Alford: Well, what happened is that kids who lived in the same area—you know, you buy a house in the area because the school is supposed to be a very productive school, and someone come to you and says I want your kid to move to a school that’s not performing—it’s a very hard sale. It’s a very difficult concept that parent who moved in that area is saying, wait, I moved here because of the school and now you’re telling me that you want to send my kid over here with Snuffy who is having difficulties. That’s not right.

So the process was to sell a different concept. It wasn’t about where the school was located; it was what was in that school when you got there. If my kid is supposed to be attending this school, but he would get a better education on these particular subjects in this school, maybe we can talk. Maybe there’s—and that was what we attempted to do. We attempted to take the schools that had a particular population that had not been as successful and add to that school some things that made the school a magnet. Then you could ask parents, would you like for your kids to go here, versus tell the kids. And there’s a big difference between asking and telling.

Franklin: Yes. How long did the busing continue?

Alford: Until about ’66, if I remember correctly. There was a law in the State of Washington that came out, that allowed the school district to provide services without. What happened then the school district began to add different types of programs to different schools and began to consciously take a second look at boundaries. In other words if you have a gifted program here, any kid that wants to go to a gifted program can attend. It’s just located here. It’s not that you have to go there, but we have a gifted program here, we have a select program here, and we have another program here. Now you select a program for your kids. It’s about doing what’s best for kids.

Franklin: Right, so you’re having schools focused on different areas and be magnets and stopping any kind of changing the model from schools reflecting the neighborhood which resulted in—because of housing policy, resulted in all white schools—mostly white schools and mostly black schools and the property tax differentials--

Alford: Haves and have-nots.

Franklin: Okay, that was an attempt to kind of split that apart.

Alford: Right.

Franklin: Great. When you moved, you taught in Pasco, so you lived in Pasco, right?

Alford: Right.

Franklin: How would you describe life in the community when you got here in your early years here?

Alford: When I first came? I guess when I first came, it was so different in the sense that each school was considered a separate entity in itself. The idea of kids having teachers who happen to be non-white was almost not existent. But the school district made some decisions of purposely looking for individuals who happen to be a minority or blacks that matched the population that we had here. What happened then is that those teachers were spread throughout the schools. Families and kids began to see, in their building, teachers who happen to be black. Not only—so you have black teachers, white teachers, and some Korean teachers—not very many, but you have some of other ethnic groups.

One fella that, before we got married we lived together, we had like three of us, we needed an apartment. So it was easy to get an apartment on the teacher salary if you can divide the cost by three versus paying for it individually. All of a sudden we ended up, just by chance, one of the fellas was white, one was black—that was me—and the other one was Chinese, and we lived together. We lived in the same apartment. That made a difference. Because we were together, we went places together, we saw kids together, we talked about kids. That in itself at a high school level makes a difference. When you talk to a kid and the kid says, but he said or she said. But we were allowed to do some things that I think they would agree—the fellas—and I think that there were some teachers that were a part of the group at that time—I look back and we would invite—like there would be a fight this week between some white and black kids somewhere, it seemed like it occurred just—of differences. We would allow those kids to come where we stayed, we had a little barbeque. At that time, you could go down to the store you could get chicken for 15 cents a pound and you could get some SevenUps. So we invited the kids and many times we invited the kids who was involved in fights. And what would happen is just by talking to those kids and having those kids together, they became friends. In some cases we encouraged them to participate in athletics.
But it was just a different time. Jeff Dong—I don’t know if I should call names but for the purpose of people wanting to know who they were, who was Chinese. Very good history teacher. If you love history, you would love Jeff; if you hate history you would’ve hated him, because he loved the subject. He was about 5’6’’, 5’7’’. Then there was Sam Hunt, who was very light complexion and blonde hair. Comes from a politician, born in Yakima, brought with him a whole different set of skills. And then me, little black-looking fella from the south. And Keith Boyd, you know that group? Maybe I shouldn’t have called names. But anyway, there were some kids that came through the system, that knew us, and we could go to games. We were supervising games, because our salary was very low as classroom teachers. Someone says, we need someone to chaperon a bus. Well, guess what? The three of us was always there, it was a way to make an extra dollar to take care of the rent. Then of course, we started getting married and that part dropped off and the wives took over.

Franklin: So initially you rented the apartment with these—with your two other coworkers. Where did you rent?

Alford: It’s Cartmill, oh, it’s in Pasco. I don’t know if I should’ve called the name, but it’s in Pasco.

Franklin: East Pasco or west?

Alford: No, it was in west Pasco. Probably, from Pasco High and that’s where we taught at, we were—one, two, three—about six blocks away from Pasco High.

Franklin: Okay. Did you have any—because East Pasco had been prominently—was overwhelmingly African-American--

Alford: Right.

Franklin: There had been some resistance, as you’ve mentioned earlier, in Kennewick and some parts in Pasco. Did you have any resistance or trouble finding a home or living west of east Pasco?

Alford: Yeah, well, I’m not so sure how to answer that other than to say, I can remember looking for a place to live, and when we showed up—this is after I got married—showed up at the location where this apartment or house was, and the individual would come out and they would have kind of a look on their faces. I don’t know if it was just that I hadn’t combed my hair that day and I looked different, but I’ve had some walkthroughs in apartments where they say, okay, this is the bathroom and this—and you never stop. You just start, you go through and you end up back right outside the door there.

But I think—I don’t think they were bad people; I just think there was word about what could happen to their property. There were cases where we would go to places and you got there and it had been rented. You call and make an appointment—but I just think there was just a degree of luck that sometime you just end up at places where they get rented earlier, sometimes the person is in a hurry because they have to go to a meeting or something. I don’t think they are bad people; I think that they just want things to be the way they’ve always been. And sometimes when we want to keep things the way they are, it creates a misunderstanding. So I don’t think they were bad people; I just think they were just concerned.

Franklin: Was it a legitimate concern?

Alford: From their standpoint, yes. In cases where you have misunderstanding, in cases where the only thing you know is bad about someone or bad about a situation, that’s all you know, you form a conclusion. In mathematics we tend to say that when you’re doing a proof in geometry, you take all the information and from that information, you come up with a conclusion. I think in the school system, anywhere you go, people collect information and from that information they come up with a conclusion. Sometimes the data doesn’t support it, but it’s the best decision that they can make. I think it’s unfortunate sometimes when you take the data and you put it together and you draw your conclusion and your conclusion doesn’t support—is not supported by your data. In geometry we say, we collect the data and based upon the data, we look for conclusion. But I think in a racial situations sometimes we forget that piece.

Franklin: Did you attend church?

Alford: Yes.

Franklin: What church did you attend?

Alford: Well, before I got married, I attended a Baptist church in Pasco. It was a short period of time.

Franklin: Which one?

Alford: It was called Mount Zion.

Franklin: Okay.

Alford: It was short-lived. I got married, and my wife was Catholic. My father told my wife and I, after we got married, he said, now, if you’re going to make the marriage work, you need to go to church together, you need to live together and you need to be honest together. When we came back, I talked to my wife, she was Catholic and she didn’t want to change her faith. I was Methodist and I didn’t know a lot about religion. I wasn’t headed in one direction. And so, for me, going to church with her was not a bad thing. As a result we went to the Catholic church, and even today in the Catholic church in Pasco the number of all blacks—I can’t tell you what it is—I would like to tell you that number—but it’s a very small number of us. So we go to church together. Family that attend church together, live together and do things together—sometimes I think it turns out to be okay.

Franklin: Right, because most—the Baptist Church and Methodist Church were much more predominantly African-American in the Tri-Cities, right?

Alford: Right.

Franklin: Morning Star and New Hope. You had been brought up in the Methodist tradition?

Alford: Yes.

Franklin: What role—did the church play a special role in the black community?

Alford: Yes, a very special role. It taught the importance of men—appreciating men. And what I mean by that is that there is a Supreme Being, and because of a Supreme Being, what we do and who we honor is that Supreme Being and all the other things are not that important. But relationships--if you go to a black church, when the service is over, if you want to see people hugging each other and showing affection for each other, it happens there. It’s not about I love this person, but it’s a religious belief that we are children of someone greater than men. So yes, it plays a significant role.

Franklin: Do you recall any family or community activities, events or traditions that people brought from places they came from?

Alford: Yep, one of the things that—I’ll take my family as an example. After church services, when I was growing up, families would get together. You would go to someone’s house, not so much to eat but the fellowship. It is something that connects individuals. You always have enough time to—you make time to form those relationships. I think those that came from southern states that were black, I think most of us came with the understanding that Sunday is a day you don’t work. It’s a day where—it’s a God day, just some things you don’t do, you don’t do them on a Sunday. It’s changing now, but when I was growing up, Sunday was a Sabbath day; it was a day devoted to our maker. You form relationships and you laugh and you cook. That part is slowly being dissolved. And as a result of that, I think that we are losing something that is very important.

Franklin: Were there opportunities available here that were not available where you came from?

Alford: Yes. Now in order for me to answer that question—it’s a two-part question. I came from a little small town. It was about so big. And I came to one that was bigger. In this little small city there is only five jobs, so the opportunity is for five people. In a larger city you had fifteen jobs, so fifteen different opportunities. Numbers make a difference. Conditions make a difference. I think opportunities in the State of Washington also, because of economics, because of education, because of businesses there are so many pieces that fit into a puzzle that it’s kind of hard to come up with a simple answer to it.

Franklin: In what way were opportunities limited because of segregation or racism?

Alford: To what extent?

Franklin: Here, in Tri-Cities. For you or that you observed for others.

Alford: I think, when I think of opportunities, if the playing field was equal, it doesn’t mean that the result will be equal. The reason that I mention that is that the experiences that individuals have—and I think that in many cases, economics plays a role. It plays a role in some cases where, because this person has not been able to do these types of things, they have not had this type of experiences. It can be as simple as never having the chance to drive because their family didn’t have a car. And there’s a job for a milk man. Now, this person may have an education that fulfilled the requirement, but because they do not have a car at home or because of the conditions, the scale is somewhat unequal, even though the two individuals have very similar skills, the one skill that the one doesn’t have is that one person doesn’t have the skills to drive. His education level may be higher, but because the lack of one skill, the job opportunity is zero. When I think of this whole educational piece and the whole thing that has happened in the Tri-Cities is the playing field is very difficult to make sure that it’s equivalent.

Franklin: You mentioned when you moved here that Kennewick—you knew one black family there, but that was it. Did you have any interactions or any business in Kennewick? Any notable interactions with people from either Richland or Kennewick?

Alford: When I first came?

Franklin: Yeah.

Alford: No, when I first came, no, there was only—I started to give a name, but it was just one black family that I could think of at that particular time that was here. And there probably was more, but I didn’t know them if they were. I think that makes a difference. I think it makes a difference.

Franklin: What does?

Alford: If you know people—for example, if you can consciously go back and think of relationships, opportunities, people getting along together—if you know someone, you can come to form a relationship. If you don’t have any contacts, you don’t know that person, the idea of forming a relationship doesn’t exist, regardless of how hard you try, it’s just not going to happen. When I first came here, for example, most of the individuals that I knew that happened to be black or African American at the time lived in Pasco, and most of them lived within a mile of each other and you probably had 90 percent of them, all right there together. If there was an activity in the black community, you saw the same population. But most of their activities was in the community that they lived. The idea of going outside of the community to talk to somebody, to see somebody, is almost zero.

Franklin: Was the sign still on the bridge to Kennewick when you came here?

Alford: Yeah, it was there.

Franklin: Do you know what I’m talking about?

Alford: Yeah, it was sign that said Out Before Dusk. That was on the old bridge. It was a green bridge at that particular time, now the cable bridge. Yep.

Franklin: Do you remember seeing that sign?

Alford: Yep.

Franklin: How did that, you’d grown up in Jim Crow, you’d grown up in the situation where segregation was strict and it was legal. I think a lot of people’s perceptions of the North and the West is that it wasn’t the same system. How did seeing that sign make you feel?

Alford: I don’t—to be honest with you, it didn’t bother me, because I didn’t really—maybe I wasn’t smart enough. I think sometimes, as they say, ignorance is bliss. You see the sign, it’s there, and after a period of time you don’t even see it again. You become immune to things around you. I think that’s what happens in communities sometimes is that things have existed for such a long period of time that no one can see that there’s anything wrong with it; it’s just the way things are.

Franklin: Did you feel less welcomed in Kennewick because of that sign?

Alford: Well, I didn’t—no, I didn’t. Because I had a brother who lived in Kennewick and I would go across the bridge to his house, and then, for the most part if we left and went somewhere and crossed that same bridge take a right and went to east Pasco. I don’t think I was smart enough at that particular time, and when I say smart enough, I don’t mean of a particular knowledge, but I think sometimes you become—you see things, and if you’re not very careful you say, it applies to others but not to me. There’s the other part of it is that sometimes the best way to deal with something is to tell yourself, guess what? It doesn’t pertain to me. Because if you allow those types of things to affect you, it also changes your behavior. And what happens in many cases is that one of the big racial problems that we have—when there’s a problem in race—for the most part, it’s a misunderstanding. One person misunderstood the other person. Whether it be words, whether it be actions, whether it be just one disposition. It causes problem.

Franklin: Yeah. Did you spend much time in east Pasco? Was it a—did you have a social life there?

Alford: Yeah, when I first came to Pasco, there was a tutorial program over there. And, oh, God, I’m trying to think of her name that ran this—I can see her face right now. Maybe I’ll come to the name a little bit later, but she ran a tutorial program for kids.

Franklin: Is it Virgie?

Alford: No, it wasn’t Virgie, it wasn’t Virgie. God, I can see her face right now. But she ran a tutoring program and I used to go over and teach. I loved going over there because all the kids from the community would come in and you’d work with them and some of those kids now are adults. I’m trying to think who was on the bus who would’ve been one of those kids.

Franklin: You mean out to the—when we took the tour? Keith Barton?

Alford: Yeah, Keith Barton’s sister, because Keith would’ve been real young at that time. But, yeah, we used to go over and have a tutoring program at night with and work with kids and we’d plan activities with them. It was just kind of a fun time, really, but it was a way of helping kids. I look back at it and I think that the sad part about it is that those tutoring programs did more than just tutor; it actually gave kids an opportunity to see what can be.

Franklin: What do you mean?

Alford: In a tutoring program, and I’m talking about math and science because that’s my background, if you’re really working with the kid on a tutoring program and let’s say doing fractions—it doesn’t have to be fractions; it can be percentages—it doesn’t matter. You can talk about how to apply this concept—for example, if you are working on percentages, and the kid is trying to figure out how to do percentages, teach the kid and say, you know what, take a candy ball and say, you know what, I’m going to divide this up with three people. If I divide this up into three pieces how many parts will I have? Okay, if I just take this one piece, what part is this? This is one out how many? Out of three. Oh, got it, you meant—how do you do that? You just got—that’s a fraction. Well, I wonder if we can make it into a decimal. I wonder what would happen if we divided three into the one, we’d got 0.3333. Let’s add all this threes together, oh my god. So, there’s a relationship between fractions and decimals. And now you can teach the concept that the teacher’s trying to get the kid to understand.

So, I guess what I’m saying is that tutoring allows for relationships and also knowledge. It also gives the person the chance to think. And I think the tutoring program that we used to have over there was great, because you had the kids there, their parents came to pick up the kids so you got a chance to meet their parents. And the parents were so thankful. I can remember parent saying, oh, thank you very, very much, guess what, he did pass the test. Those little pieces—it’s not about money, it’s not about somebody like me, but it’s about the kid. The kid that wakes up one morning and says, you know what, this person made a difference in my life. That’s what education is all about.

Franklin: Yeah. Hanford was such a pull factor for African Americans from World War II and beyond, into the Cold War. What did you know or learn about the prior history of African American workers at Hanford?

Alford: Well, I guess the only thing I knew—I took a class. In this class, that was one of the things that they talked about, was blacks working at Hanford. That was one of the pieces. But prior to that time, I didn’t—it was there.

Franklin: What class was this?

Alford: It was an educational class through Central Washington State University. It was called—let me think about it a minute and I’ll try to remember the class, because it’s been a long time.

Franklin: From your perspective, what were African Americans’ most important contributions in the areas of work, community life and civil rights at Hanford?

Alford: Okay, now repeat that once more for me.

Franklin: From your perspective, what were African Americans’ most important contributions in the areas of work, community life and civil rights?

Alford: Okay, let’s take the civil rights piece and Hanford. There was a—I’m trying to think of his name. There was one person, and hopefully the name will come to me, that lived in Richland who was a real advocate for blacks.

Franklin: Are you talking about CJ Mitchell?

Alford: Uh-unh, no, it wasn’t CJ. It wasn’t CJ. He was very active; he was really—I can’t think of his name. But he was involved. He would come to the East Pasco Neighborhood Council meeting, which was a group over in east Pasco, and participate in activities where they was trying to integrate something, or there’s a worker somewhere, somebody being mistreated, a police problem or whatever. He was always one of those individuals that wanted to make sure that people realized that their rights were being violated. Sorry, I can’t think of his name. I can see his face, but I can’t put a name with him.

Franklin: Did he work at Hanford?

Alford: Yeah, he worked out of Hanford, yeah. I may have to call you back and give you that name.

Franklin: Sure, sure, sure. What were the major civil rights issues for African Americans at Hanford in the Tri-Cities during your time here?

Alford: I don’t know lots about Hanford.

Franklin: Okay, what about Tri-Cities?

Alford: Okay, repeat the question then.

Franklin: What were the major civil rights issues for African Americans in the Tri-Cities during your time here?

Alford: Okay. One was employment. Okay, and I can’t speak for Hanford, but employment was a big one. Schools in Pasco—that was a big one. So I would say employment, schools, police relationships. And school parent—school kids and relationship was another problem. For example, a kid would do something on the bus—he lived in east Pasco, and do something on the bus and the bus driver would put the kid off the bus because of his or her behavior. And I’m not saying the behavior they did was—it existed. But to put the kid off the bus was an answer—okay, it probably stopped the interaction between those two kids, but that meant somebody’s kid was on that bus that lived miles away.

Franklin: Kid’s possibly in danger.

Alford: Yes, if you did it today you could probably have a lawsuit.

Franklin: Yeah.

Alford: But at that particular time, it was he or she did whatever and they put him off. Parents at work, parents—I don’t know where the parent is, you know.

Franklin: What actions were being taken to address the issues you just mentioned? The employment, schools and police relationships?

Alford: They had an NAACP group that was here, and they attempted to deal with some of it. I would say the East Pasco Neighborhood Council probably they did a better job than those. They had numerous people who was the head of it, but a lady by the name of Kita Barton probably—and I hate to say this because it may not be totally correct—but I think she had a greater impact than anyone that I can think of.

Franklin: That’s Keith Barton’s mother, right?

Alford: That’s Keith Barton mother.

Franklin: Yeah, he talked quite a bit about her in his oral history.

Alford: Yeah, the lady, she had a way with words. She was the nicest person in the world, but she was very intelligent lady. Then there was another lady by the name of Mrs. Upton. I can remember the meeting we had was—there was an incident that had occurred where an African American was involved and we had asked the police officer and the Mayor to come and talk to us. They were talking, and so Sister Upton raised her hand. She stood up and she made a comment—one that I think about quite often. She said, I brought a tablet and I brought a pencil to write down all the important things that you’ve said tonight. And she said, I don’t have anything on my paper. What I learned through that comment that she made is that sometimes we talk, but there’s nothing to write down.

Franklin: It’s just empty words.

Alford: Yes, yeah. And I think about that—when I am trying to talk to somebody, I think of Sister Upton and whether she would have said, Mr. Alford, I have my paper and my pencil, but I don’t have anything written down.
[LAUGHTER]

Franklin: What were some noticeable successes, of the issues you mentioned?

Alford: I think that there’s probably five or six. I think one of the successes is that the individual was able to convince members of the school board that we had to make changes in the school system. And part of those changes happened to be taking a look at where kids are being bused to, and what types of opportunities are available to them. That was one piece.

I think the second piece was a part where individuals within the community began to participate. And so people began to be a part of the city council or be a part of a group. And then police department did something about bringing on an African American on the police force, which I’m sure he probably caught lots of problem. But it made a difference in the sense that it was somebody that you could go and at least talk to. Not that he could give you answers, but just to say, did you know.

Franklin: Well, and just that there was someone that looked like you on the police force.

Alford: Right.

Franklin: What were some of the biggest challenges in getting movement on the civil rights issues here?

Alford: I think they’re still there. Maybe not to the same extent. I think one is education, because what was happening there is that kids were being bused to a school outside of the area that they live in. Teachers who was teaching in the schools lived outside of the area where the kids are coming from. And sometimes in order to understand someone, you have to understand a little bit about the person. If you can’t visualize, for example, and I’ll give you an example—I was in middle school and I remember one day, this kid did something at school and I decided to take this kid home and talk to the parents. At that particular time I didn’t realize that men should not—I don’t know—there probably was a rule, but I didn’t know it, that a man shouldn’t be with a girl without another woman. Anyway, I got this kid I put in the back seat there in the car and took her home to talk to her mother. I get there, knock on the door, the parents come out, and I say, I brought your daughter here. She was in a fight today. I said, this is—I forgot how many fights this kid had been in—I said, you’ve got to stop it. Come on in, Mr. Alford. I went in. She said want some coffee? I said, no, I’ll have some water. So she brought me water. We sit down and we spent that time just talking. And for the first time I recognized why the girl was having some difficulties. Part of the reason for the difficulties that was occurring was because mom was giving one impression of the school and that was impacted in the way the girl was reacting in school. There were times when parents came and negatively impact their kids. So, it’s not always negative, but there are some cases.

Franklin: Yeah. Were you directly involved in any civil rights efforts?

Alford: Directly? Well, I don’t know how to answer this, but I’ll just tell you what I’ve done.

Franklin: Okay.

Alford: I’ve done little marches, for example, where—like in east Pasco where we used to have concerns about what was going on with African Americans or whatever—when we had little marches, I participated in those. Cases where somebody was in jail, was mistreated, I’d help them go down and talk to people in the city about those types of behavior. In the school system—because I was in the school system, I could actually go to the superintendent, and not have to—or go directly to the board and talk to them about seeing things that happened.
But I have not been one of those individuals who have ever planned an event for others to participate in. I always felt that—my father told me this, so forgive me—this is one of those pieces where he said, if you want something done, do it yourself. If you give it to someone else, they may or may not do it. My belief is that anytime something occurs that you think is inappropriate, first try to do it yourself and if you can’t do it yourself, then you talk to others as your last resort.

Franklin: Those are all important things that you mentioned. You know, civil rights encompasses so many different activities. How did the larger national civil rights movement influence civil rights efforts in the Tri-Cities?

Alford: I think that when you think of people being elected to office or people in certain positions and you see things happening on TV where you see somebody has done somebody incorrectly and so now you’re have a community meeting to deal with the same type of issue in Pasco. I remember having to go to a meeting where the city manager was meeting with a group of blacks about some things that was going on the city. And there was a lady who was so much smarter than me, I wish I had never thought of it. She stood up and she said, I have this piece of paper and I have this pencil—and I hope I haven’t told you this already, but if I have, forgive me.

Franklin: I think—no one said anything important, so I haven’t written anything down yet?

Alford: Right. Okay. From that piece to the next piece that happened after he gave his—he started up again. The second piece that happened is the lady that came up to him and said to him, I think we know what you want to do. And he says, okay, let’s do it. She said, what we are going to do—we’re going to send you home and you’re going to talk to the police about this and you’re going to come back. And then everybody got up and we left. I think it was the most effective thing I’ve ever seen in a community meeting. Very simple, straightforward, and it made a difference.

Franklin: From your perspective and experience what was different about civil rights efforts here compared to the national movement?

Alford: What was the difference between here and the national? I really don’t know what the biggest difference was between those two, other than the size of the national group. But I think it was just at a smaller scale—duplication. The people were different of course. Yeah, the people are different so you’re going to have different remarks, but very similar, very similar.

Franklin: Okay. Is there anything else you would like to mention related to migration, work experiences, segregation and how they have impacted your life in the Tri-Cities?

Alford: I think they made me a better person. I think I’m the most blessed person, probably in the Tri-Cities. Yeah. I came here for a teaching job, and I was blessed enough to have been able to work with students from a classroom teacher, to a coordinator, to the administrator, including being the principal. I was blessed because I had those opportunities. And I think I learned more from the kids than they would ever learn from me. I learned more from the parents than the parents would ever learn from me.
At the end of the day, if we would just sit down together, I think we would agree that the major accomplishment that was made is that we put in the time to make a difference. Time is important. Sometimes I think people merely go to meetings just to garble and then they go home, but they never take the time to sit a little bit and understand what’s really going on. These kids are now adults and grandparents and it’s a little scary that they all came along. But I was blessed. I have been extremely blessed. I got my undergraduate degree and I’ll just back up just a little bit, why somebody, somewhere up there had blessed me.
There was a fella named Dr. Gabriel—well, let me start from the beginning and see if it makes a little bit of sense to you. I decided one day that I was going to leave, that I was going to go elsewhere. And I had a chance to talk to the superintendent. And a few days later he came back and said he’d had an idea, and he offered me a different job. That job gave me a chance to work with a fellow who was at Central Washington State at the time, and a little bit later on there was a fellow who worked out at WSU; I got sent to work for him for a period of time. At the end of my school career, the fellow that was at Central, Dr. Gabriel, my boss—I was his boss. The fella at WSU, at the end of my career, he retired and came back to work a program with me.

I look at those experiences and I think back through it—for example, when I was working on my masters—I did my master’s degree I turned it in, they go through and they check all this little things and tell you that you need to make this changes in it. One of the fellows that was on my committee, as I was leaving he came out and he said to me, hey, I know what you’re going to do.

Now, it’s probably not going to make lots of sense—it’s not going to make lots of sense to you. It’s Dr. Gabriel, the fellow that I was working for was the dean of the school at Central at the time. He said, you’re going to go home and you’re not going to turn this in. I know, he said. Because he asked me, he said,—no, no, no, no. Let me back up—let me back up just a little bit. I had gone in—and this is for my masters, you go in and you present all your information and you show them your little package that you have, and he wanted a copy of it. And he said—because what had happened is that, when I turned in my thesis—I didn’t realize that this is the way it goes—you go in—he wanted to go step by step—so, he gave me the—he said, this is what you’re going to have to have this, this, this, and this. And I didn’t know at the time that you’re supposed to finish this, you take it into—he’s supposed to take a look at it and see if it’s okay, and then you go to the second chapter and you do it and when you get through, you put it all together. I thought, since we had agreed on the topic, that I could just go ahead and do it all and then bring it in. I didn’t—seriously. I did not know that you’re going to compile it all your research data to support your idea, you submit that, they look at it—I didn’t know that. I just thought you go and do what you’re supposed to do and bring it in complete.

So, he said to me I know you’re angry, you are going to take it home, you’re going to throw it away, you’re not going to come back. He was right, that was exactly what I planned to do. And he said, it’s not a good time right now, you need to do this. So I went back, got another topic, did my review of my literature, went in to talk to him. The next step, and went in and talked to him. And I turned it in, but at the end he looked at it, and I can still remember, he said, I really like this. Take it down and get it bound and bring us back a copy because I want to use it with my students, and we’ll use it as a model. I was walking out the door, and Dr. Gabriel came up and he said, no. I said, what? He said, I know what you’re going to do, you’re going home because you hate the bum-bum-bum and won’t make a copy. He said, but you’ll be sorry someday if you don’t, because you’ll move to Central one of these days you’ll want to show it to your kids and your grandkids and you won’t have a copy of it. He said, but the decision is yours. And I thought about that the many times—he was right. That’s exactly what I did, and as a result of that, I never got my little master’s degree in my little folder in Ellensburg.

I guess what I’ve learned through all of this is that sometimes the winner loses. But then sometimes you can smile and say that’s one he didn’t get. But I’ve been blessed though; I’ve had some real neat opportunities. In fact, I even had a chance to teach here one summer. And that’s so funny because Dr. Gabriel, who was on my committee, was no longer working here. I got a job working one summer here and I don’t know why they thought—I think they got me mixed up with someone else and they didn’t want to hurt my feelings. But then I hired Dr. Gabriel to work with me. So, I guess what I’m saying is that, if we take a serious look of all of the things that had happened to people, many, many times, I think those experiences don’t have to be negative. Those hardships don’t have to be negative. Sometime, you can come out as a winner.

Franklin: Great. Well, Clarence, thank you so much for that and thank you so much for the interview.

Alford: Well, you’re more than welcome, you know. I appreciate the opportunity and if you find one or two little ideas that you want to put on a piece of paper, good luck. But it’s going to be hard; you’re going to have to look real hard.

Franklin: No, I’m not going to have to look hard at all. But thank you; that was a great interview.

Years in Tri-Cities Area

1968-

Files

Alford, Clarence.JPG

Citation

“Interview with Clarence Alford,” Hanford History Project, accessed April 9, 2020, http://hanfordhistory.com/items/show/2028.

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