Journey Home

By Elizabeth Jackson Phillips ’45 / January/February 2011
January 14th, 2011

(from the April 1964 Pembroke Alumna)

Civil rights, freedom marches, de facto segregation, fair housing, FEPC, voters’ registration, and second-class citizenship!!! These terms appear in our daily newspapers, and in our popular magazines. Our news commentators report frequently on civil rights incidents and issues. Minority problems are the theme of books, plays, and television programs. Civil rights is a major political issue and a national problem. Some say the gains are too few and progress is too slow; others feel that the civil righters are pushing too hard and are too militant.

As a Negro I feel committed to fight for first –class citizenship and for the equality of opportunity that our country guarantees all its citizens.

Was there always such a clarity of purpose and a sharply delineated commitment to act now in the present? I think not. As a native of Providence I look back with nostalgia at my safe world prior to the end of World War II. My close friends were the children of my parents’ friends and their parents before them had been friends. What an ingrown, tightly knit group we were! Now I am amazed that we were not more dissatisfied, more angry, and more militant about changing our status. As if it were only yesterday I can remember when there were no Negro teachers in the Providence public school system, no Negro policemen, no Negro clerks in downtown stores, and no Negroes employed in positions other than porters or janitors in banks and business concerns.

Just a small handful of us went to college then. It is hard to believe that I was the only Negro student at Pembroke for two-and-a-half years. There were many rich and rewarding experiences at Pembroke that afforded intellectual growth and contributed to growth into maturity. Yet at times I felt so isolated, so visible, and so burdened with the responsibility of representing my race with honor and credit.

After graduation I lived in Philadelphia, attended graduate school in Pittsburgh, and lived in Chicago for the past fifteen years. My life in Providence, my courses in sociology, my “genteel” participation in race relations did not prepare me for the impact of de facto segregation as it exists in a northern urban city like Chicago. If you have never visited Chicago, and even if you have, it is difficult to visualize 875,000 Negroes compressed for the most part into three residential areas. With pride one can point to major businesses such as banks, insurance companies, manufacturer of cosmetics and of meat products, and a publishing company with international circulation that Negroes own and operate. There are many Negroes there who can be considered wealthy be any standards. They send their children to exclusive private schools, live in beautiful homes, belong to select social clubs, dress beautifully, travel extensively, and pursue cultural interests. In contrast there are thousands of others who live in abject poverty and who have limited potential for raising their material standards.

Chicago’s highly segregated residential patterns create de facto segregation. When thousands of Negroes live in a relatively few blocks, they form a political power bloc that can elect Negro councilmen, state representatives, and congressional representatives. This same dense population concentration contributes to the creation of a “Negro market” for which many companies have or are developing a specialized sales promotion.

There are many children whose only contact with a white person may be a neighborhood storeowner or manager. Years ago when I worked in a southside community center, a group of white children from the northwest section of the city came to visit. As our children exclaimed that “white children” were in the building and stared at them as if they had just landed from Mars, I was appalled at their isolation. The visitors stared back. It was soon apparent that this was the first contact that these two groups of children had ever had with other children whose skin color was different from their own.


I often wondered how different it really was for so many of the newcomers from the deep rural South. They came north to Chicago to get a decent job, to find a decent place to live, and to educate their children. Many had no urban job skills and were unable to find jobs. They were usually forced to live in a ghetto in substandard overpriced housing. Then their children attended schools as segregated as those they left behind in Mississippi or Arkansas. At first we lived in Hyde Park in an integrated neighborhood, a community that has worked very hard to remain integrated. Later we moved a larger home in a nice middle-class all-Negro neighborhood. I watched my older daughter, who had not seemed too conscious of racial differences when she played with and went to school with white and oriental children, develop new attitudes about people who were not Negroes. She learned chants that depicted an “us against them because they’re against us” attitude. My younger daughter had never attended school with white children until we returned to live in Providence.
    Personally and professionally I have experienced the impact of racial discrimination. I have worked with angry hostile teenagers who resorted to drugs and open violence to strike back at the world, with a frightened frail former resident of a Nazi concentration camp who trembled at the sight of a Negro, and with a Negro army sergeant who fled from civilian life because he had no security, no status, and no importance as a civilian. These individual lives had been distorted and twisted. Personally and professionally in my journey home, I am committed to continue to work for the realization of first-class citizenship for my children, my grandchildren, and every person no matter the color of his kin, the shape of his nose, and the texture of his hair.

At the time she wrote this, Elizabeth Jackson Phillips was staff consultant to the Rhode Island Council of Community Service’s Information-Consultation Service for the Retarded. A member of Phi Beta Kappa, she earned an MSW from the University of Pittsburgh and later became a professor of social work at Wayne State University and a Brown trustee. She died on September 17, 2001.

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January/February 2011