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This is an interview with Imogene Smith Washington for the Teaneck Oral History Project of the library on February 19, 1985 and this is June Kapell.
(I) Imogene, what first brought you to Teaneck? Well, first of all, how long have you been here?
(N) Since 1963 so what would that be, twenty two years.
(I) And what brought you to Teaneck specifically?
(N) Well, we had been looking in Westchester and I didn't really see anything that appealed to me and a friend of ours who was a broker said, let me take you to another area. Let's go over to Teaneck, NJ. My husband's aunt lived in Englewood so we were a little bit familiar with the area and we were aware of the fact that Teaneck was sort of like the ideal town and people were integrating and my husband's aunt used to take us sometimes on a Sunday afternoon through different areas and say a black person lives there and a white person lives there and they seem to have been scattered pretty much throughout Teaneck and the houses were new, modern and as I say, we were influenced by our friend the broker because the prices were more reasonable than the homes in Westchester too.
(I) And you had how many children?
(N) I had two. I had a daughter ten and a very active son who was three at that time. And my daughter was in private school in New York. We lived down on the lower east side of Manhattan and we felt that we wanted to get into a school situation where we could take her out of private school because we realized we'd soon have to face having another one in school and also, as I say, my son was active and we felt that the suburbs had more to offer as far as freedom of action and so forth. I guess that's how we came to Teaneck.
(I) And you stayed. Your daughter went right in to . .
(N) To junior high school. She went into Benjamin Franklin. She went right into junior high school.
(I) And your son, which school. .
(N) Well he was three at the time so he didn't start school but when he did start school, he went to Eugene Field.
(I) And there were buses at the time. Was it the open enrollment or . .
(N) I have to think back now. Golly. We were involved with the open enrollment, I don't remember if my son was already in school or not.
(I) Well it was only one year when they had the open enrollment and I think the parents had to provide their own transportation.
(N) I can't really remember.
(I) Did you become active in the school at that time, right away?
(N) Yeah. I became very active at Eugene Field. I served as vice president of P.T.A. the first, second or third and in some capacity as vice president. I never wanted the job as president but I did serve as vice president the entire time that my son was there and we had a lot of I guess you'd call them pilot projects. We were working with integration and. .
(I) Are you referring specifically to Eugene Field now?
(N) Eugene Field, right. The parents in working with the P.T.A. one time we started a program where the black children would go home for lunch with the white children and then the white children would come home for lunch with the black children and so on. It was the idea that the black children were always eating in school, you see, and the white kids went home for lunch. It was just different ideas of people in the P.T.A. trying to come up with some ways
(I) Was this lunchroom project a successful one?
(N) Yes, but it didn't last very long. As I say, I think most of them were pilot programs. There was one thing that, in fact I initiated it as one of our little projects of having international dinners and I think that is still going on in several schools to this day. As a way of people mixing. Everyone was to bring an ethnic dish or their favorite dish, whatever, and it was family style and we all tasted it, the Greek food and the Spanish food and what have you, and the idea caught on and as far as I know, it still continues to this day. It even spread to other schools. My youngest son by my second marriage, my stepson I should say, goes to St. Cecelia's and we got a call just last night that they are having an international dinner. That seems to be a good mixer.
(I) Then you still have one child in school now.
(N) Yes. Jay Washington is my stepson and he's at St. Cecilia's. He's a senior there.
(I) Are you still active in the parents group?
(N) Yeah, over there. Right.
(I) Some colleges and universities have parents groups now too. But you had other activities in addition to P.T.A. You didn't mention Ben Franklin, did you do things there too?
(N) I wasn't quite as active as Ben Franklin as I was at Eugene Field. I guess because of the personalities of my children, you know, my daughter was a good student. She was quiet, a bookworm and so on and whereas with my son, I felt I'd better be more involved.
(I) Well, you had a number of other activities. Do you want to start with B.E.A.T. or N.E.C.O.? Which one do you want?
(N) Well, which came first? N.E.C.O. was first. N.E.C.O. was a group of us got together and we were down Archie Lacey's basement and we started talking about just problems in general. At that time, you know, the northeast section was becoming predominantly black. White families were moving out and so we started having complaints like, you know, the Public Service guy or the garbage men walk all over the lawn or they don't go to the back door. They ring the front doorbell. And some of the things were perhaps not as important as others but out of these discussions and problems, N.E.C.O. was formed and it dealt with education, educational problems. It dealt with the home improvements and maintenance of our homes. I just can't remember all, but it was very diversified in that it tried to cover, we tried to cover the problems that we were either experiencing or anticipating because of the fact that the area was becoming almost completely black.
(I) Besides Archie and Theodora, who were some of the other people who. .
(N) Mr. and Mrs. Smith. I think her husband's name was George Smith and her name was Mary Louise Smith. I'm not sure; it has been a long time. And there was Leon Gilchrist and Nelson.
(I) You were all neighbors. Is that how this, how these groups started?
(N) Yeah, we were all neighbors. Right. We were all in the same northeast section. Well I guess everyone will remember the old N.E.C.O. dances. We used to even swing Matty Feldman around at them. But they were integrated. We always had a theme. And we used to have them out at that place in Paramus, the Bergen Mall or something. It was downstairs and we always had the dances there because it was very reasonable, everybody at those times, they just brought their own bottles or we brought snacks and we had Wally Richardson, you know. He used to play for us.
(I) Yes, he was the entertainer.
(N) And it was really integrated.
(I) Did N.E.C.O. ever achieve a political force? Or was it, wasn't it designed to be a political force?
(N) There was a political portion but I don't think that was utmost. I mean it didn't have priority. But yes, we were involved in the politics, particularly local politics as far as Teaneck was concerned.
(I) School Board elections or council elections?
(N) Yeah, I'd say. Local type politics we were involved in. Council, school board. I can't really pinpoint our involvement but there was discussions, there was work and most of us worked on the polls and we used to meet over at Gladys and Ike McNatt's house on Saturdays when there was an election going on and we just flooded the town with pamphlets and rang doorbells and that kind of local comradeship, you know.
(I) So N.E.C.O. was community-oriented including education but B.E.A.T. was entirely different.
(N) B.E.A.T. was an entirely different organization but it was a community organization. The only difference I'd say was that B.E.A.T.'s only interest was education. Whereas N.E.C.O. had its fingers in many pies and we were concerned with the general livelihood of the people in the northeast section whereas B.E.A.T. which was started in my home was concerned with the fact that there were very few black teachers in proportion to the number of black students in the Teaneck system. We were concerned with the fact, with the textbooks. We had a textbook review committee and made up a list of textbooks that we felt either had stereotyped the black person or had derogatory remarks and so on and we were successful in getting a Teaneck Textbook Committee.
(I) Let me just go back to the beginning for just a moment. Was this primarily the same group that organized B.E.A.T. as was active in N.E.C.O.?
(N) No, it was not the same group at all. Some of us overlapped in that my husband, my late husband and myself and Archie and Theodora Lacey and well there was Byron Whitter and so on. They were people who had been involved in both N.E.C.O. and B.E.A.T. but then with B.E.A.T. we got into Rev. Dixon who was new to all of us. We sort of just met. And then there was Tommy Scarborough who was new. Not as a friend but new as involved in an organization of this type.
(I) Then B.E.A.T. expanded its membership to other parts of town too.
(N) That's right. We went out and we sent letters out and we talked to groups and we beat the bushes more or less because we said, hey, this thing is effecting all of us and then we started having our meetings at the Town House and they were opened to the public and then we attended Board meetings and if you were at any of those board meetings, you'd know that we were quite verbal, quite outspoken and we met with the superintendent of schools, Dr. Killory. We met with him and outlined some of our grievances and asked that we work together to primarily to get more black teachers into the school system and I think that it was due to our efforts that some teachers who are there now got in because of the fact that B.E.A.T. actually went out and looked for candidates and made recommendations and screamed and so on. B.E.A.T. I think too was more, N.E.C.O. was quieter. N.E.C.O. was more on a social level, we had a lot of whites who belonged to N.E.C.O. too who lived in the area and as I say, we had the annual N.E.C.O. dance which was about 50/50. N.E.C.O. there was not the atmosphere I think was friendlier. There was more of a mixing and of oneness. By the time B.E.A.T. came along, we were beginning to feel I'd say more militant. More black. More aware of our blackness and it seems as if the problems were, especially where education was concerned, so many of us felt that our children were being shortchanged. So many of us felt that there was an attitude of not expecting our kids to succeed or do well, lack of interest and there was just a whole new atmosphere when B.E.A.T. came along.
(I) Yes,I have talked to some of the other young people as well and they too felt this militancy that came along. And I don't know whether B.E.A.T. stirred it up or just reacted to the stirring. Just the times, do you think?
(N) I don't know whether you'd say stir it up because you have to realize that there was a time span there where N.E.C.O. was during the time of coalescing, of getting together, everybody was thinking of Teaneck was just being the ideal town where blacks and whites lived together and it was just a different time. Now when you get into B.E.A.T., you are getting into the time when we are talking about black power, we are talking about, well there was already a change in attitudes and we were beginning to think more in terms of blacks have to do for themselves, we've got to stop leaning on other people or expecting other people to support us. We've got to make our own demands, stand up for ourselves and blah, blah, blah. This was going on throughout the country in the colleges and everywhere and we were, you know all of a sudden the schools were opening up and they were beckoning to our black students and then we were finding that our black students weren't prepared and they were having problems and they were having to have special tutoring from someone. So then we started to turn our view to why aren't they prepared. The doors are opening but they are not going out on the same level and so then you start looking back at your elementary school, your preparation, and. .
(I) I'd just like to ask now, when you are talking about this preparation of the students, are you talking about nationally or specifically here in Teaneck?
(N) B.E.A.T. addressed itself to Teaneck. What I am talking about now, in retrospect, is that it was a national problem but B.E.A.T. did not deal with it on a national level.
(I) In Teaneck itself, did your find a double standard?
(N) We felt that there was, yes. Right. We did. And we felt that certain, there were certain parents in Teaneck who were well known, who were aggressive, who had the educational background, professional backgrounds, that they got, they demanded and they got attention from the system. But there were a lot of people, blacks who were moving to Teaneck, who were blue collar workers and they did not feel that comfortable with expressing themselves so we set about to set up workshops to teach them the questions to ask, how to mind out what's going on. I would say that based on the turnout to the B.E.A.T. meetings and so on, most people were beginning to feel that there was a double standard. And certainly the proportion of teachers compared to the students was way out of balance so our youngsters had no role models, they had no one that they felt was taking a particular interest in them. The only way you were going to get it was to get out here and make this known and demand that some of these situations be alleviated. And they were to a certain extent. What can I tell you? At that time, I guess every time you managed to get another black teacher in, you'd felt you'd accomplished something, you know.
(I) Or stimulated some of the kids to go on to do extraordinary things. There were other things. In your spare time, there was also fair housing.
(N) Yes, well I had been involved in New York and so I guess it was just natural that when I came to Teaneck, I would get involved with Fair Housing and McNatt, who was a very close friend of ours, was I believe president of Fair Housing Council at that time and so we started going to meetings and we went to discussion groups and of course then too everything was social. You know, Fair Housing used to have its annual dance and everybody who was anybody was there.
(I) And you brought your own bottle to those too.
(N) Right. You brought your own bottle. There was a feeling of comradeship, of getting it together and it was very nice. They were good days. They were enjoyable.
(I) Well you say they were good days. Is all of that finished?
(N) Well Fair Housing is still going strong and I think that the problems are probably just as great today as they were then. I know Lee Porter, the director, is a very close friend of mine. I've known her through the years. And they still have problems with the rental of apartments and those kinds of things but I guess it was in its infancy when I was involved.
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