This year Birmingham is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement. Much will be said and written about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth and other “brand-name” civil rights leaders. But let me tell you about Marian Jones Daniels, a woman whose quiet actions helped pave the way for others.
Mrs. Daniels plays piano at my church. Her stark white cropped hair is a striking contrast to her chestnut brown skin. She is a thin woman, whom I believe is now in her mid-sixties. (I’ve asked her to tell me her age, but she has politely let me know it’s none of my business.) Sister Daniels, as we call her, is always sharp in dress. On a recent Sunday, she had on a suit that reminded me of shark’s skin. She wore a chunky silver necklace and dangly earrings to match.
I like how Sister Daniels’ fingers deftly strike the piano keys. Her fingers are slender and bare, save for a gold wedding band. They glide over the ivory and black keys with what looks like little effort. Her skill is a testimony to the many years of taking piano lessons from the sternest of instructors – her mother, Bessie R. Jones, who, before her death, played piano for the church and directed the choir. (The choir in which I sing tenor is named for her.) I heard Bessie R. Jones and her husband were strict parents who didn’t let their three daughters take the easy way out of any task, be it piano lessons, school work or chores. “Our parents instilled a strong work ethic in us, and the fear of God,” said Sister Daniels.
There was a lot to fear growing up black in Birmingham in the ‘50s and ‘60s. But Sister Daniels said she wasn’t really scared of white folks and didn’t know of anyone from her close-knit community of Collegeville, a black neighborhood located just northeast of downtown, who was afraid either. Sure, the church, including the parsonage, was bombed three times, but, thankfully, no one was killed or seriously injured. Sister Daniels, the whole church and community, looked at these survivals as miracles. And these miracles were more real to them than the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, the three Hebrew boys enduring the fiery furnace or Daniel relaxing in the lion’s den. “After those bombings, we knew that the hand of God was on us, and we would be victorious,” said Sister Daniels. The church’s pastor at the time, Fred L. Shuttlesworth, felt the same way. “When the first bomb went off, it took all fear from my mind,” he said in a later interview.
With this fearless attitude in mind, Sister Daniels decided to apply to predominantly white colleges in the north and was accepted to a small liberal arts school on the eastern seaboard. She does not pretend that this school was nirvana. Even with their open admissions policy, many northern institutions of higher learning were not well equipped in handling the cultural differences and needs of the black student. In Frederick Harper’s 1969 essay, “Being Black in a Predominantly White University,” he captured the despair a number of black college students may have been feeling about matriculating at all-white schools.
If you can listen with an accepting ear and try to get into my frame of reference, I will attempt to articulate what it means to be black in a white university.
Being Black means to walk across campus on your first day of class and not see one black student.
Being Black means to have all white teachers and be surrounded in class by all white or nearly all white students.
Being Black means to open my textbooks and see pictures of white folks and to read white-washed theory, philosophy and history which are not relevant to me.
Being Black means to go to a white counselor whom I don’t trust, and who doesn’t know how to handle my presence or problem.
Being Black is trying to get administrators to understand my needs and do something about them, or trying to convince a campus policeman that he should not arrest me out of prejudice.
Being Black is tolerating “Nigra” or “Negro” and favoring neither.
Being Black is seeing a soul sister or brother slaving overtime on a dirty menial job and being underpaid.
Being Black is to go into a class disadvantaged and find that I have a teacher who believes it is impossible for a black student to make an “A” or “B” grade.
Being Black is not having a penny in my pocket and seeing white students visit Europe and Mexico, driving fancy sports cars, and at the same time knowing that their parents and ancestors got rich off the sweat and pain of my parents and ancestors.
Being Black is to be a resource person for curious white folks who after being answered, are not willing to accept my expertise…
Being Black means to be in an ocean of white stimuli, to be angry consciously or unconsciously, to continuously struggle with oneself to deny hostile feelings, angry feelings. I might add that there is no difference between a black rioter and that of a black Ph.D. but rather a difference in the way this feeling comes out.
Finally, being black means to be lonely, hyperalienated, depressed, displayed, ignored, and harassed. Just the fact of being black is to be on the brink of revolt.
But unlike Harper, Sister Daniels stated her upbringing would not allow her to lament over what she did not have. She was raised to be thankful and to make the most of every opportunity. “From the time we were small, we were told we had to be twice as good, twice as smart. We were not sad or mad about it. It was a fact and we just went about doing what we had to do to succeed.” Sister Daniels does not equate her collegiate experience to one of near revolt, but rather as an awakening. For the first time in her life, she shared a classroom with white students and discovered that she was just as academically sharp, or sharper than they were.
After graduating, Sister Daniels moved back to Birmingham. Similar to the black World War II GIs who were determined not be hindered by the rules of Jim Crow, Sister Daniels wanted to lead a life outside the box mainstream Birmingham may have wanted to stick her in. She didn’t want to teach like her oldest sister or become a nurse like the middle one. Sister Daniels wanted to enter the corporate world, which was a new frontier for blacks at the time. She had read about a clerical position at a utilities company headquartered downtown.
In 1940, U.S. census data showed more than 58 percent of black women worked as domestics and less than 2 percent were hired for clerical positions. A federal Women’s Bureau study showed that almost half the northern and southern employers surveyed had an unwritten rule against hiring blacks to work in their offices. But by the late 1960s, times were changing.
Sister Daniels applied and on the day of her interview she dressed in her best suit, replete with a double string of pearls and sensible pumps. She interviewed with the supervisor, the supervisor’s boss and that boss’s boss. She got the job. Sister Daniels became the first black to be hired for a non-custodial position at that company. Her hiring could be attributed to a change in attitude and belief systems among white decision makers at that time. Economist Mary C. King named this phenomenon as “occupational tipping.” Others point to the civil rights movement and subsequent federal anti-discrimination laws as the catalysts for change. And, still, others say the shift was caused by both. Nevertheless, by 1966, 13 percent of black women worked in clerical or sales positions, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Sister Daniels recalled her first day at work. “I remember the elevator man looking me up and down when I got on the elevator. I don’t think he had ever seen a black person come to work dressed in a suit. He asked me what was I doing there and I told him I was new and would be working in the accounting department. He told me that all the blacks ate lunch on the top floor at noon and he would see me there.”
When Sister Daniels reached the top floor at noon, she couldn’t believe her eyes. “All the black workers met in this dark little musty-smelling room that was filled with broken furniture. I found a seat in this raggedy chair and ate my sandwich. I was miserable and decided right then I will never eat in that place again.” The next morning she encountered the elevator man again. When he told her he would see her at lunchtime, she told him that she would not be joining them as she would be eating her lunch in the cafeteria from now on. “He was shocked and told me that the blacks weren’t allowed to eat in there. I told him that this black person would be eating there because there was no way I would be eating in that junk pile anymore,” she said. “My parents didn’t send me to college to eat like that,” Sister Daniels added.
All morning, Sister Daniels worked with butterflies in her stomach. When the designated time came, she retrieved her lunch and made her way to the cafeteria. “I found a seat at an empty table. I could feel people staring at me, but I didn’t look at anyone. I thought at any moment someone was going to tap me on my shoulder and escort me out the door,” she said. But no one ever did. Not that day or the next day or the day after that. But at the end of the week, Sister Daniels’ supervisor told her she wanted to speak with her. “If she was going to tell me that I could not eat in the cafeteria, I was prepared to leave that day because I wasn’t going to eat anywhere else.” But that was not what the supervisor wanted to say. “She actually told me she was proud that I decided to eat in the cafeteria. She said there was no rule barring blacks from the cafeteria and she always wondered why the other black employees did not eat there. This taught me that sometimes the worst monsters are the ones we create.” Eventually, other black workers joined her in the cafeteria.
Before retiring from the utilities company, Sister Daniels became the executive secretary of one of the top officers there, the first black to ever reach such a position.
Sister Daniels plays the piano at my church, and blazes trails, with what looks like little effort.
Schudel, Matt, “Fred Shuttlesworth, courageous civil rights fighter, dies at 89,” Washington Post on the Web October 5, 2011. December 26, 2011 www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries
Harper, Frederick D., “Black Student Revolt on the White Campus,” Journal of College Student Personnel (Sept. 1969): 29.
Sundstrom, William A, “From Servants to Secretaries: The Occupations of African-American Women, 1940-1980,”working paper (May 2000).
King, Mary C., “Black Women’s Breakthrough into Clerical Work: An Occupational Tipping Model,” Journal of Economic Issues 27.4 (Dec. 1993), 1097-1125:
United States. Department of Labor. Wage and Labor Standards Administration. “Negro Women…in the Population and in the Labor Force,” (Dec. 1967).