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INSTITUTE FOR DETROIT STUDIES
Detroit Association of Black Storytellers
Storytellers Concert May 7, 2006
Recorded by Dena Scher, Ph.D., Marygrove College
Interviewee: MILDRED MATLOCK
Interviewer: DABS: Detroit Association of Black Storytellers
Recorded by: Dena Scher, Ph.D.
Interview Date: May 7, 2006
Location: Marygrove College
Tape No.: 05.07.06-DABS:MM (audio digital file, approximate total length minutes: 11:42)
Topic: Leaving Dixie, Opportunities in Detroit
Subject Headings: Migration to Detroit, Alabama
Comments: Only italicized text in is verbatim; all other text is paraphrased, including the interviewer’s questions. Counter index corresponds to track times when loaded into iTunes.
Counter Index Topic
[Audio File Track 1: 11:42 minutes -- No. 05.07.06-DABS:MM]
GOOD BYE DIXIE, WITH LOVE FROM MYRTLE
[sing to the tune of Dixie]
"I left my home in the land of cotton
Jim Crow times there are well forgotten
Look away, walk away, get away from Dixie land!"
Good bye Dixie!
Only six months after WW II ended, the woman who one day would be my mother was one of the two and a half million Negroes who walked away, rode away, got away from Dixie land. They called her Myrt, though Myrtle Lois Gilford was the name her parents gave her. This is her story. It’s a story of how she was pushed away from Dixie by lack of opportunity; driven away from Dixie by Jim Crow’s iron fist; and lured away from Dixie by a handsome GI with a promise of a better life.
This is a story that was told by millions of Negro women who - without prelude, fanfare or much ado – said, Goodbye Dixie!” Many like Myrtle left with a suitcase in one hand, a young veteran husband on one arm and a dream of a $5-a-day-life in their heads. But they weren’t fugitives this time. They had seats in the backs of buses and on segregated train cars. Some drove away in their own Studebakers.
Myrtle wasn’t the first Gilford to say, "Good bye Dixie" and head north. After all, she was the baby girl, #14 out of the 15 Gilford kids. Some of her older brothers and sisters had left during the 20’s and 30’s. Myrt’s Daddy and Mama needed all their hands to plant and plow and pick the 50 they owned. But they didn’t stop any of them from leaving, because they new there was no opportunity in Beloit, or Selma, or Alabama, not for young people with colored skin. "Lord," they prayed, "please bless our children in Detroit and Pittsburgh and Harlem and help them to get one of those $5/day jobs."
I was sure I knew why Myrtle said, "good-bye Dixie." Beloit was 10 dusty miles out of Selma. Beloit was a speck of pepper, a rural Negro haven from the Jim Crow cities. Even now it’s so dark at night that lightening can’t brighten it. In the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s the life would have been hard in a friendly place. They worked from sun-up to sun-down. The basic conveniences were non existent. The meat was fresh because you had to chase it and kill it yourself. There was no indoor plumbing so you had to go to the well for water and to the outhouse for . . . . you know. But Myrtle didn’t leave because of the hard work and inconvenience; she was used to that.
Myrtle was pushed away by lack of opportunity and the human spirit can’t get used to that. She wasn’t going to stay on the farm and pick cotton and she wasn’t going to be a domestic in Selma. Her big sisters Wilma and Florence were nurses and they told her that she would be one too. But the colored nursing school in Montgomery had closed by the time she graduated from high school. So she lived with Wilma for a year and attended Alabama State College.
Myrtle was lured away by romance which bloomed while she was a student. It was part coincidence and part mistaken identity. Myrt and a classmate were sitting on a porch swing waiting for some GI’s – a blind date. They were probably doing what girlfriends did: giggling and speculating about the date. Meanwhile Sgt. Ralph Pender and another soldier from Camp Rucker were on a furlough in Montgomery. They were doing what was available for colored soldiers in 1943, there were walking around in the neighborhood. My mother is pretty dignified now but I bet she said, "Ooo! Look at that fine brown solider! Is that who we’re waiting for? Wave at them girl! Ooo, they’re turning around!" No one recalls what happened to the soldiers who were supposed to show up. Myrtle and Ralph exchanged addresses and began corresponding and began seeing each other on his furloughs.
Myrtle was driven away from Alabama by Jim Crow hostility. The only colored nursing school was in Atlanta. She hated it. The colored nursing students were practically captives in a separate but equal colored dormitory worn out by their white counterparts. The white nursing students had new dorms with colored maids. The white instructors taught both the Negro and white students. Maybe they taught the same things but not in the same way. They were so hostile and demeaning that Myrt couldn’t stand it. But if she left nursing school what would she do? Ralph had a proposal – marriage – and a dream. They were married in 1944 before he shipped off to the Philippines.
There’s no telling how many colored couples arrived in Detroit on Mothers’ Day in 1946, but Myrtle and Ralph were among them. It was two weeks before her 23rd birthday. If I had had anything to do with it, they would have gotten off the train in New York City where five of the Gilford brothers and sisters had migrated. Instead Ralph’s cousin Vance lured them to Detroit with the promise of money and a place to live. "Ralph, ya’ll got to see this. They got good jobs even for the colored folks. It’s better in Detroit!" Good-bye Dixie! Their first "home" was a room in a crowded house on 18th street. In the first few years they moved around gaining a room here, a bathtub there, and finally an icebox in a little indentation called a kitchen. Things were better in Detroit. But it was still America in the ‘40’s. The neighbors had one thing in common - their color. It was like Beloit without the cotton and the chickens. Was it better in Detroit? The welcoming committee in these jam-packed multi-family dwellings included something new to the country couple: roaches. Was it better in Detroit? Those roaches were the incentive behind their current address. The single family house with a backyard was on Goddard, south of Seven Mile, east of Woodward. Many of the European immigrants remained part of the changing neighborhood only as long as it took them to find another Negro family to move in. Was it better in Detroit?
Who were those people doing the jitterbug all night long in those clubs in Paradise Valley? Not Myrtle and Ralph. She spent the day as a full time mother and housewife. He worked every chance he could get. She had been nervous about coming to Detroit. She had heard about the 1943 race riot. Was it better in Detroit? She couldn’t stay in Beloit. She was ready for the freedom of Detroit. As soon as they arrived, they registered to vote! It was better in Detroit! The stores took the next person in line regardless of their color. They called her ma’am not girl. It was better in Detroit! They went to the movies and sat where they pleased. There was no colored section on the streetcars. In fact her husband had become a conductor – a conductor taking white people’s money – with the DSR. Myrt wrote her parents and told them that she was living the dream! But Ralph had dreamed of being a teacher with his brand new college degree but they said there no teaching jobs. When they said that in Dixie it meant no colored teaching jobs. Was it better in Detroit? They bought the house on Goddard in a neighborhood where the white neighbors greeted them with a nod not a noose. Those that didn’t want to live with them moved away instead of chasing them away. I guess that was progress.
The neighbors to one side were Polish and down the street they were Italian. But they had so much in common. All of them had been pushed, driven or lured to Detroit. Some spoke Polish, some Italian and some spoke Southern. They had all come to Detroit for the same thing: freedom, opportunity, and the five dollar dream. They were all here, part of the great migration melting pot. Yes it was better. Goodbye Dixie. I love you, but you didn’t love me.
"Look away, walk away, get away from Dixieland."
Mildred C. Matlock, Ph.D.