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Annie and Willie Mims Oral History Interview, February 17, 1993

Oregon State University
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STUDENT 1: -Wednesday, February 17, and we're here interviewing Mrs. Mims. Alright, Mrs. Mims how are you today?

STUDENT 2: How are you today?

ANNIE MIMS: Just fine.

S1: Alright, the first question I'd like to ask you is where did you live before you came to Eugene?

AM: Vancouver, Washington.

S2: What kind of jobs were there for African Americans in this town?

AM: [Pauses].

S2: What kind of jobs were there for African Americans in this town?

[recording cuts out]

WILLIE SIMS:-for you. I was born in Texas and my mom was born in Texas in 1904. That's a long time to be on this earth. During the war, and that's the big war, 00:01:00that's World War II, when black people was leaving the south for better jobs in the north, we was one of those families that moved from the south to the north. Where we came to was to Vancouver, Washington, because in Vancouver, Washington that's where they was building the ships for the war. Black people who was working mostly in the fields in the south, they went north and all parts of the north across the United States of America. My father went to work for Kaiser shipyards up in Vancouver, Washington. Now, when the war was over, history would tell you that Americans, African Americans, they had a lot of problems about jobs because America didn't need-

[recording cuts out]

S2:-about the law's end, how Eugene was in those days?

AM: Eugene was pretty bad for black people when I first came here.


S2: Where did you live when you first moved here?

AM: Across the river. We had some tent houses over there by ourselves.

S1: Can you tell us about some of the laws that there were then that there might not be right now?

AM: About what?

S1: The laws?

AM: I can't tell you too much about that.

S2: How many black people were here when you moved here?

AM: Oh, I think about four families when we came.

S2: How was it to raise kids here?

AM: What?

S2: How was it to raise kids here?


AM: It was pretty, my kids, my son, he's pretty, wasn't a small kid. That is Willie. That's the kid I had when I came here.

S1: How was it different in Vancouver than it was here?

AM: Lots. So [unclear] when we first came here.

S1: Was there more racism in Vancouver?

AM: No.

S1: No?

S2: How many grandchildren do you have?

AM: Let's see. I have about six grandchildren. Well, I have more because I have great grandkids. I have six grandkids.


S1: When you moved here, what did you do for fun?

AM: Not anything. I didn't have any fun. I worked when I first came here picking beans. My husband, he worked at the hospital over there.

S1: Was there any special music that you liked?

AM: No.

S2: How about the clothes in those days?

AM: What?

S1: How about the clothes? Where there any special clothes that you liked to wear?

AM: Same thing as I wear now, if I could.

S1: Did you have family gatherings?

AM: Not when I first came here, wasn't enough of my family here.


S1: Was there an African American community when you came here?

AM: No.

S1: When was there an African American community?

AM: I really don't know.

S2: Can you tell us about the church St. Marks?

AM: Yeah, the church I found on West 11th. There wasn't a church when I first came here.

S2: It's the oldest church, isn't it?

AM: Yes, it is.

S2: Did you go through the Depression years here?

AM: No.

S1: Were there any special foods that you and your family ate?

AM: I don't think so.


S2: What books did you read?

AM: What?

S2: What books did you read?

AM: I didn't read any.

S1: There wasn't any good entertainment?

AM: No. Not when we first came.

S2: Can you tell us about the Harlem Renaissance?

AM: What?

S1: Can you tell us about when there was good entertainment?

AM: Well, I'll tell you I wasn't into too much entertainment. I couldn't tell you anything about that to tell you the truth.

S2: Have you seen a change in Eugene from those days?

AM: Yeah. See some.

S2: How would you describe those changes?


AM: It isn't discriminating like it was when I first came here. People's more friendly.

S1: What do you think about the younger generation?

AM: That's something I can't tell you too much about because I can't talk about that too much because I don't know too much about it.

S1: Do you have any special heroes nowadays?

AM: Special what?

S1: Heroes?

AM: Hm-mm [no].

S1: Did you have any heroes when you can here, like Martin Luther King?

AM: No.


S2: if you have a message for young people, what would it be?

AM: Hm. Oh, it'd be so much I couldn't start to tell you.

S2: is there anything special that you'd like to tell us?

AM: Hm-mm. One thing I'll tell now is this-being so often getting this stroke most liable to tell them, try to tell them.

S1: Is there a story that you'd like to tell us?

AM: I couldn't think of one right now.


S1: That was Mrs. Mims, and right now we're going to hear her son, Willie Mims, is going to say a little bit of something.

WS: Yeah, I want to talk to you, but why don't you ask me the questions? Ask me a question. Let's crank it up here.

AM: Because he sure can tell. That's it. [Laughs]

WS: There's a lot to talk about. A lot to talk about.

S1: You came here-did you came here the same time your mother did?

WS: Oh, you bet. You bet. My mom and I traveled together. My father journeyed, went before us, like a trailblazer, but we as a family, we generally followed him. That's the way we ended up in Vancouver and that's the way we came down here to Eugene.


S1: Before Vancouver, where did you live?

WS: We lived in Texas. Let me do this thing for you. I was born in Texas. My mom was born in Texas in 1904. That's a long time to be on this earth. During the war, and that's the big war, that's World War II, when black people was leaving the south for better jobs in the north, we was one of those families that moved from the south to the north. Where we came to was to Vancouver, Washington, because in Vancouver, Washington that's where they was building the ships for the war. Black people who was working mostly in the fields in the south, they went north and all parts of the north across the United States of America. My father went to work for Kaiser shipyards up in Vancouver, Washington.

Now, when the war was over, history would tell you that Americans, African 00:11:00Americans, they had a lot of problems about jobs because America didn't need that black slave labor no more, you see? All these black men was out of jobs so they had to find jobs. My father was one of those black men who was out of a job and he came here like most of the black families came to Eugene because with the GIs returning home from overseas, you see, and coming back to the United States and getting married and starting families, they needed houses to live in. Oregon is one of the biggest lumber producing areas in the whole entire world. My father, like some of the other black families that moved into town, they had worked in the early years in the south in the lumber industry. So, naturally they thought by coming to the boom of lumber that they might be able to get 00:12:00jobs. They were wrong because white folks brought their white folks' attitudes and understanding about black peoples with them, which we call racism. The first men of the families came to town they generally ended up with jobs like bus boy and janitor and shining shoes.

AM: Picking beans.

WM: And picking beans. I hated picking beans, man. I had to the fields with my mother to pick beans, see? We all lived across the Ferry Street Bridge. The houses we lived in was shacks. When you look at South Africa and see the ghettos in South Africa, those are the kind of shacks we lived in when we first moved to Eugene. For a while, the house I lived in, and I was a little younger than you 00:13:00guys, I was about 9 years old, but the first house I lived in had dirt on the floor, had a tent for the roof. Those are the kind of conditions that we lived in. There was nothing for black people to do because what the white community did was try to separate itself from anything that had to do with black people.

S2: What did you do for fun?

WM: What did we do or what do I do?

S2: What did you do?

WM: Well, there was no fun. The fun was that we found fun within ourselves, you see? You begin to come together on the same, because everybody's got the same problems. Folks with the same problems generally get together to try to answer 00:14:00those same problems or protect themselves from the problems that exist. People find entertainment in themselves. What they did at the time, if I can remember, is that they would have little parties in each other's little shacks. They would visit each other. They would talk to each other. Church was fun for some folks. For a little boy, what we did was we played cowboy and Indian. We lived in the county wood lot and we'd go jumping and shooting each other and hiding and doing things like little boys do.

S1: What do you remember about school?

WM: About school. When I began school, I began in the 6th grade at Whitaker 00:15:00Elementary School. At the time I was the only black student and during my whole tenure of going through school from Willagillespie to Cole [?] and Kelly to Eugene High there was never more than about 5 black kids in the whole school system in Eugene, Oregon. We faced some problems during these days when I was in school, but the problems were kind of different than the way you see problems now. They were kind of like in the reverse, like I came all the way through the school system and never was called nigger once.

But there was another thing going on that all the black students felt the same 00:16:00way, that we didn't have any teachers who were interested in us enough to say if you want to get a good education these are the kinds of things that you have to do. More or less, it was that we found that the school system was just easy on us. We could get away with anything, you see? Then if we did something, like we was kind of invisible. They just shoved us in the corner, which meant that we wasn't able to learn anything because we didn't have anybody to give us that kind of discipline that we needed in order to be educated so we could go on to higher education. There are some nice things that happened, because we all grew up and found out that none of us was stupid. After we grew up, there's been a 00:17:00couple of us that went on to college and got college degrees. There was one of my best friends who's so good in math that he just simply self-taught himself and now he's one of the top-notch engineers at Bonneville Power in mathematics.

S2: What were your favorite kinds of food when you moved here?

WM: Well, my favorite kind of food was always some beans. I had a lot of beans and you get to liking what you like. It's also dependent on who's doing the cooking, you see, whether the stuff tastes good or not. Now, I'm not a great-I don't go out to a lot of restaurants when I'm in Eugene because I know too many people who can put a good pot together and I can tap by toes on the table. I particularly like them red beans and rice. I like them kind of foods that go way 00:18:00back before any of us got here, those kind of foods that folks call as survival foods, where them women put together one pot to feed a lot of people and the pots taste good. I should also say to you my favorite dessert was banana pudding. Get on down with some banana pudding.

S2: When you said you went to Eugene High School, did you go to North Eugene or South Eugene?

WM: There was no North Eugene or South Eugene at that time. There was only Eugene High School, but I was in the first class which graduated from the Eugene High School building which is called South Eugene High.

S2: What were your favorite kinds of music?


WM: Black music.

S2: What books did you-

WM: Wait a minute, let's, hold on with this music. Black music. I like all kinds of black music.

S1: Did you like jazz and blues?

WM: Well, I like jazz. Well, let's start it this way-I like church music because that's where the blues come from. I like blues because that's where rhythm and blues comes from. I like jazz because it covers all that and all white folks' music, too.

S2: What kind of books did you read?

WM: Well, I had a fancy, and this is another one of those things after I grew up I kind of figured it out, I liked them stories about the Indians. I was really 00:20:00interested in the Roman Empire and the Greek Empire and I didn't know why at the time but I kind of liked all those kinds of things that those folks was doing. I have figured it out is because by studying those kinds of books it tells me a lot about white people in general and why white people act the way that they do and why a lot of us black people act the way we do growing up in the white people's system.

S1: Do you have a special message for the youth?

WM: Yeah, one, learn all you can. Take everything in life serious and don't take nothing for granted. Stay away from the greedy kind of things in life, in 00:21:00particular. You have to just remember the consumption of something is one thing but being greedy about anything is even worse. I would tell you, hey, don't drink, you know? But you know as well as I do there are some people who drink but there's other people who drink, drink, drink, drink until they lose themselves. The whole idea is that you remember the most important thing about yourself is you yourself. If you don't take care of that you can't expect anything else to be right in life. You got to learn to love each other. You got to work at it. You got to work at that. You got to work out, if you have a problem, work them out. You owe that to yourself. Don't get too mad about anything.


S1: What do you think about the younger generation?

WM: The younger generation? Shoot, I think y'all beautiful. That's what I think. I just think that if you study your history you're going to be beautiful until you get as old and older than I am, but you got to study your history. It's not always in school. You have to go dig for it sometimes.

S2: What were your heroes when you were younger?

WM: Let me see, Fats Domino was one of them. Who else? George Washington Carver, John Wayne, Roy Rodgers, Hopalong Cassidy-I had a whole bunch of heroes that didn't mean nothing, you see? The reason I had a bunch of heroes that didn't mean anything because I didn't know anything about who I was. Because the 00:23:00heroes, to me, but that's all that anybody showed me was those heroes. I didn't get a chance to see heroes of anything else until the 1960s when we started talking about the black experience and then I began to see and have the kind of heroes that we speak of today.

S1: What kind of clothes did you wear?

WM: I wore some second-hand clothes. I wore some first-hand clothes. Got me a job quick and got clean. Got me a bunch of shoes. Got me a bunch of suits. Got me a bunch of shirts. I was the cleanest dude on the block, but what was happening is that was also a false prophecy for myself, simply because those 00:24:00wasn't the values that I really needed. I needed clothes, I needed to be clean, but see my mom has always taught me that you might not can help if you are raggedy but you can always help whether you're clean. That's the only philosophy I need. I didn't need all the other stuff I had, but it was nice. I had fun.

S2: Have you seen a change in Eugene?

WM: Sure.

S2: How would you explain that change?

WM: When I first came, when I was you guys' age, I could walk down Willamette Street and see signs on buildings that said, "no colored allowed." You guys can't see that today. I went all the way through school in Eugene in Oregon and 00:25:00not one fellow white student ever invited me to their party. That the friends that I had was the black youth who I grew up with, was the only friends that I had. Today, that's changed drastically. A lot of that is due because there's been a lot of black people who's laid it out on the line in Eugene in order to make those changes happen.

S1: When did you finally start to see a big change?

WM: In the 1960s when most black people all over the world started to seeing a big change. That was our revolution. That was the first awakening of most of us.

S2: Do you remember some of the names of your friends?

WM: Sure.


S2: Could you tell us?

WM: Sam Reynolds, Jr., I grew up with. [unclear] I grew up with. Cleo Hoskins [?] I grew up with and four of his boys. That was it. There were some younger boys, but those was my partners.

[recording break]

WM: Oh, we're ready. You had one more question. What was your last question, then?

S2: I was wanting to know what were your favorite movies when you were younger?

WM: When I was real young the movies that was in vogue, they were making a lot of-I already said that I like western movies, so shoot-them-ups was my favorite 00:27:00movies, but I also liked the musicals. particularly the people who were dancing because dancing was something that is culturally adept. We keep the body in shape by dancing. That's the reason why we have all those natural rhythms and things. I was really into dancing and seeing what folks did in the movies and stuff and putting them into my little step here and there. Just in conclusion, what I think that you guys should know is that mother's house here, the house she's staying in is the house I grew up in. When I was your age, this is the 00:28:00house I grew up in after we moved from West 11th. Things was not too, still not very well because these houses was what was part of the, well, still the ghetto. These are the worst houses in Eugene. This house that you're in today is one of the most prized houses in Eugene and it's a credit for all the black community because as being part of the black community we share the property with everybody in the black community. The house you're sitting in is the second oldest house in Eugene. When this house was built, this house was built before the Civil War in this country and the house next door, which is also part of this property, was kind of a pass-through station for a lot of black people when they first came to Eugene for a long time because black people couldn't find 00:29:00any, they couldn't stay in the hotels and motels and that sort of thing. That was used for a lot of people. You guys should be proud when you see this property up here because you know that this is very important to the community as a whole and it's the hands of black people.

S1: Do you know anything about the cross on Skinner's Butte?

WM: Yeah. The cross has been there ever since I can remember, and it was there when we came in. I understand that they are saying that it represents several things: a memorial to different people who have died in wars. But I'm beginning to believe a little bit different about it. Some of us believe that Jesus Christ 00:30:00was black. Some of us began to believe that it was black people that was first put to the cross and that might inter-relate to why the cross is used today that should be scary in all black people's lives. I'm believing that-[recording cuts off].

[Film footage changes to in front Mims House]