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Willie Mims Oral History Interview, January 6, 1994

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STUDENT: Today is January 6, 1994. We're here with Willie Mims, son of Mrs. Mims. Mr. Mims, did you come to Eugene with your mother?


ST: How was it when you came?

WM: I was small. So, there's a lot of things that I don't remember very well, but there are some things I remember. I remember that when we came that there was no place for us to really stay. There wasn't any accommodations that most people would have when they moved to a new city. But as a child who liked to play a lot, those things didn't really bother me that much at the time because my family sheltered me from those sort of things.

ST: You liked to play around? Was there any black kids in the community around 00:01:00that you could play with when you came here?

WM: Yeah. There became three of us about the same time. There was the Reynolds family. There was Sam Reynolds, Jr., who's now deceased. There was the Nettle family and Nolan's-the son's name was Olenzo Nettles [?], and we all was about the same age. There were some younger brothers in one of the families anyway.

ST: Did you go through high school with them, too?

WM: Yeah. We grew up as best friends until Sam died and Olenzo Nettles, he and I, we'd get together and go fishing. We kind of keep the whole buddy, old-time buddy system going.


ST: What was school like when you, how was school?

WM: School was alright. From a young man's perspective, the problem was might be the reverse of what it was today. When I was going to school, particularly when I was going to high school, no one seemed to have really cared whether we got educated or not. I'm talking about faculty. No one really seemed to really put any real effort into motivating us to go to college or interested in what we were going to do for the rest of our lives. As far as the students was concerned, we had friends, but they were friends at school. We didn't really 00:03:00have a lot of white friends after school, so to speak. We weren't invited to parties and that sort of thing or run around with white guys.

ST: What did you do for fun growing up here?

WM: When I was a young man movies was the big deal. TV wasn't quite here yet. A long time ago. So, movie was probably the center of entertainment for everybody. Going to the movies was the big deal, so we went to movies a lot. We played boys' games. Otherwise, we invented our games, played common games that 00:04:00generally boys will play based on what age bracket we were at the time.

ST: Do you remember what movie you went to a lot? Like, your favorite movie?

WM: Yeah. The kind of movies was cowboy movies. Loved cowboy movies. I don't like to say cowboy and Indian movies, just cowboy movies. Where the Hilton Hotel on Willamette Street is now, part of that area there was the old Heilig Theater. The Heilig Theater was one of the better theaters in town. There was the Heilig, the McDonald Theater, which his still here, and across the street was the Rex Theater. Heilig Theater seems to have more the kind of movies that we would be 00:05:00interested in, like the cowboy movies, you know. They would have the cowboy matinees and the McDonald had the more serious movies. Those lover-you know, where folks are loving all the time and war movies. Those were not really the kind of movies we liked as kids.

ST: Did you have any kind of role model or hero as a kid? Like a movie star or anything?

WM: No. You know not really, because no one presented choices for role models. 00:06:00You have to also remember that our families was poor families who came up from the south. They were not educated people. They came up to work. They didn't have any real tight ties to African history or even black American history. Most of that history was learned by people who was east of the Mississippi in those days. West was like the west was for white people. West was the new frontier, so to speak. Folks who wasn't satisfied with whatever was going on in their life at the time, they move west. My family was part of that migration. But, back to 00:07:00your-I'm just saying from home, from home it was more do-good, get an education, and stay out of trouble. It was good guidance, but to tell us historical events so we could really have some idea of what was going on with black people in this country, we didn't have that and naturally the school system didn't teach that.

We didn't really have role models. But I met Paul Robeson. Paul Robeson came through Eugene once and I guess I was about 8 or 9 years old. My mom had a picture somewhere we hope that we will find one day. I didn't even know who he was. I'm not sure that anybody really knew who he was. Everybody knew that he was a very important person. Everybody knew that he was a very talented person, 00:08:00but no one really knew exactly what he was fighting for, you know? The substance of it, because I'm sure that that would've been communicated to us down the line if that was true. But I did know that I liked the Indians in the cowboy movies to win. Didn't know why, but I liked the idea that they'd win once in a while. I also knew that I didn't like the black characters who, I was kind of ashamed is the emotional effect that I produced. I had a shame feeling from some of the black characters of those days in some of the funnier movies. They were always 00:09:00shuffling. They were scared of anything that moved, you know? They always had to have some white person to save them or to protect them or whatever. I knew I had some resistance to that, but I only found out what that resistance was later on in life.

ST: You talked about how you had a lot of guidance down when you were born in the south and everything. Did your parents give you this guidance or just people in the community give you this guidance in getting a good education?

WM: I think that when I was a child in the south, and it was true when we first moved to the north, like when we first moved to Vancouver and lived in the 00:10:00Portland area, and it was also true when we first moved to Eugene, when there was a pocket of black people, a community of black people who lived together. You learn a lot more. We lost a lot by desegregation. We're not as family-oriented as we once were. When I was growing up, everybody in the community, you had to respect all elders in the community. There was no exceptions. You couldn't take a grown man, if you were a young man, and disrespect him with your mouth. It just wasn't an acceptable kind of thing. Unfortunately, sometimes there was violent cures for that sort of stuff. But part of the whole tradition was that you had to listen to your elders, you had 00:11:00to respect your elders, so in turn your elder had to respect you. It was a double responsibility. They're not your mom, but you kind of have a lot of moms, you know? I mean, a lot of moms but it might not be your mom that said, boy you better not do that! And you don't do that. You just say, yes ma'am and you get on, you know? Because it probably would lead to no good end if you didn't do that. Sooner or later you had to return home and if the word beat you back home, there was nothing but big time trouble when you walked through the door. It was just something that you-now, a lot of that had to do-I've thought about it, a 00:12:00lot of had to do with growing up to respect white people. By being obedient to those who live immediately around you prepared you to be obedient and stay in your place when you were around white people because there could be a death or life danger if you was disrespectful to that. Later on, I've seen some rhythms to this trend that I didn't see when I was a young man. But I had no problem with that. Never. I was able to be inventive enough to stay out of trouble.

ST: Did you have any racial problems growing up here in Eugene?


WM: Only through my family, not as a student, not as a young man walking up and down the street of Eugene. I went all the way through the three levels of my school years, no one ever called me a nigger. No one ever just said we don't want you around because. But there was other ways: isolation. Folks just automatically do things with their actions and activities that you feel like you didn't fit. My mom used to always say that people can make you feel like they 00:14:00don't want you to come to their house without telling you they don't want you in their house.

ST: You have your own screen business now, and I was wondering what was the first job you had?

WM: What's the first job?

ST: Yeah, the first job you ever had.

WM: The first job I ever had was, I was seven years old in Texas. My father took me to work with him and it was driving a horse and a mule pulling lumber from the sawmill. It really wasn't a job but I got paid. I remember the mule's name was Sam. There was a horse, and the horse's name was Queen. The second job I 00:15:00had, I guess I probably was about eight or nine years old during World War II, that I remember. I'm going to miss something here, but skipping along. In Vancouver, Washington, during the war, World War II, we were allowed in these days to do things like help people with their groceries and carry ice with them at home because during World War II, people didn't have cars and metal was for 00:16:00the war. Folks didn't have cars. Folks would drive buses and people had to live in all these close-knitted communities. When people went to buy their groceries, there was few cars, so young men would have these bicycles with baskets and we would take folks' groceries home and that sort of thing.

After World War II when my family came to Oregon and we moved to Eugene, that was always summer jobs because everything, mostly everything across the Ferry-on the north side of the river-was farm land. Lane County was one of the largest farming counties there was in the country. So, we picked beans, picked strawberries and that sort of thing during the summer. Then when I got to be 00:17:00about 14, I started work-oh I did shine shoes with my uncle down on Willamette Street and I made good money there. Also, worked at the University of Oregon when they had, in the bowling alley, when they had automatic setters-excuse me, when they had manual, when you manually set the pins, which is the hardest work I've ever done in my life. That was hard, hard work. It was better than picking beans because the Universe of Oregon had a lot of activities that was more entertaining than the bean field. Then, when I went into-oh, I did work construction. I worked construction when I turned 16 years old because I wanted 00:18:00a car. Working construction, you make the most-I could make the most money as a young man for a short period of time. That helped me initiate the money to buy my first car.

Then I went into the service. I worked for Uncle Sam a long time. Then when I came out of the service, I was going to cash in on some of the skills that I learned in the service, so I went to Seattle and started working for Boeing and started a family there. Since then, well, I was going to work for Boeing and go to Washington University. That was the plan. Since then, I have worked for the government in the poverty program. I worked there for nine years. Then I decided 00:19:00in 1971 I wanted to do some things on my own. I started this company called The All American Company and been struggling as a black man in business since. But I'm still open for business.

ST: Thank you for your time. It's been a nice interview and thank you.

WM: You bet. Any time.