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NARRATOR: Joe Farmer
INTERVIEWER: Dr. Roger Panetta, Marymount College
Date: November 28, 2001
Location: Yonkers City School District Administration Building, Yonkers, NY

INTERVIEWER: This is Roger Panetta. It's November 28th, we're in the office of Superintendent of Schools Joe Farmer. We're very pleased that he's given us the time to talk to us today about the Black Migration Project. Joe, we have been talking about why people left the South and what went into that decision. Do you recall that experience?

NARRATOR: I recall that experience very well. I was directly involved with that. Shortly after the Second World War when they stopped making war machines they came back and started industrializing this country. And they also started making farm machines. And as a sharecropper, part of a sharecropping family, the need for all of those hands picking cotton and tobacco and all of those crops, it just dried up. Because I remember one season, we were picking cotton on this side of the road and on the other side of the road, I as a little boy, I saw this big machine picking cotton. I said, "Wow, why are we doing this if that machine can do it?" Guess what. The next year, the machine was on this side of the road and we were on our way North to try to make a living in the industrial North.

INTERVIEWER: Where was that?

NARRATOR: This was in North Carolina. Wilson County, North Carolina.

INTERVIEWER: Do you remember the road?

NARRATOR: No, just a small little road dividing the two farms, you know, just about the size for a mule and a wagon. And those were the days we lived there. There was no heat, electricity, light, or toilet facilities, we just were doing it the old-fashioned way in those days.

INTERVIEWER: When you decided, because of the industrialization of agriculture, to move to the North, did you have images of what the North would be like in your head?

NARRATOR: Well, I did have images. I thought it would be, you know, just a municipal place and I thought everybody was doing well because some of my older siblings, they had already left before. They had established themselves, and they would come back to visit. I had a brother with an automobile. In those days, that was the biggest thing happening. But something happened that wasn't so nice. I was part of this large family. I'm from a family of eleven, and I was the last of eleven. And my father and mother, we were a very nice family on this farm, but when we migrated north there was no apartment that could accommodate, at that time there was still about five of us. And the other part, my father, who was in agriculture, he was a great farmer, wasn't prepared for the industrial North. And he took a job in sanitation but there was no way he could support his family. There was no way that we could help. Like on the farm, everybody participated. But when we came North, and I remember it so clearly, one day I woke up and my father was gone. And I think, and as I look back, I think it was the pride that he had, you know, always being the head of his family and then he did not have the ability to support his family.

INTERVIEWER: Was he a casualty of this move?

NARRATOR: In a sense, I would say. Because I remember he had a job at the sanitation department and every now and then I would see him cleaning the streets or something, but meantime, we had all of these children in the house trying to go to school and all, whereas when we was on the farm, we all had chores, we participated, we did this, we raised our own food, we had our vegetable garden, pigs, cows, chickens, and we, uh, raised everything that we used to eat. So it was very, culture shock. It was a total culture shock in many ways. When I was in the South, I remember that it was totally segregated and my whole society was black. And when we came to the North, there was a strange kind of integration. The schools were still segregated in the North. I was in Newark, New Jersey. That was the first stop. First thing I noticed, all of the teachers were white. Even I noticed, then I noticed the little grocery store on the corner in my neighborhood, an all-black neighborhood, the owner was white. And I became very aware of the very, of the racial difference here. Whereas in the South, the sharecroppers who were white and black, we kind of integrated because we helped each other farm and it was collective. In the North, there was a strong, separate kind of thing and I was very aware of that. So that did have impact.

INTERVIEWER: So, you're saying that for you, the line between black and white was much more vivid in the North than it was in the South? Much clearer?

NARRATOR: Yes. Yes it was. Yes it was. Because I lived in a black society in the South. I mean my teachers, the principals, my doctor, the storekeeper, the undertaker; they all looked like me and I had no question about my future in terms of what I could be. Because I did not, there were no limitations, but when I came north, it was like the brakes put on. And I saw it in the attitudes of the people, including the young people. I couldn't understand why they misbehaved in school, when school was so important. See, I was denied school, because when it was time to do the harvesting in the South, you just didn't go to school. You just put in tobacco, shucked the corn or picked the cotton. So I found myself, in the eighth grade, the teacher had me stand up to read one day, and I couldn't read too well. And I was embarrassed. And I remember I starting counting the steps from where I was to the door because I was about to leave that room because I felt so terrible. The kids were snickering, and there was this tall, big kid, you know, not dressed very well in the class and he can't pronounce those small words. And the teacher just asked me to sit down, and I did. And they called on somebody else and they read well. That was the day that I decided that either I was going to leave school or learn how to read. But when I told my mother, she thought we should learn how to read. We learned how to read. And that's when I think education, not when, but it was always the one thing that we said was the liberating force. It was always preached in my house: if you get an education, boy, you can determine your future. And I kind of believe that.
INTERVIEWER: Was it your mother who preached that a lot?
NARRATOR: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Oh, absolutely.
INTERVIEWER: That's in spite of the fact that you had white teachers and you sensed that this was a very different place from the South, she still pressed for it.
NARRATOR: She still pressed. Still pressed. That was the whole thing. She was a hard worker, wouldn't let anything interfere with school. I was one of these kids, I got to school, I had a hundred percent attendance because there was no reason, in my mother's eyes, not to be in school. And so that was my work ethic. My being from the South, I had no problems about getting up; everybody had contributions. So that's why we say hard work compensates for intelligence, as we measure it, and all of that stuff. Perseverance and your diligence. I was just saying that to a group of high school students this morning, because that really is what determines [UI phrase]. But yes, it, my mother was a strong force. As a matter of fact, in the little town we were from in the South, I remember there was no school in one county that we moved to. And she forced the authorities to create a school for the black folks. They gave us this little log cabin that was a hunting cabin out in the woods, and my mother had a friend of hers; a retired teacher from a local town come and stay in our house. She was our teacher and she would go back to the town on the weekends. I tell you that story because I always use the parable that my mother was the first black superintendent out of the group. So being in this position is kind of unique for me to know what she went through to make sure there was a school there and that black kids were educated. I'm doing a very similar thing and I feel good about that.

INTERVIEWER: Do you put that on your resume?
[Laughter]

NARRATOR: (laughs) Not exactly.

INTERVIEWER: That's a wonderful story. I was interested in your saying that you took the sort of skills and the disciplines of working in an agricultural community and you translated them to a northern industrial community. Could you say something about that?

NARRATOR: Yes. I remember as a kid growing up, I never knew anybody being sick. I don't remember anybody not working for any reason, and it was just automatic. It was part of a culture to participate, and I felt good about that. I couldn't wait until I was able to handle the plow, or that I could stoke the coal in the tobacco barn and watch that happen. So when I came North, getting up early and going to school was an easy chore, but it was all part of that. And when somebody was absent from school, I couldn't understand that. There was no reason to be. If you have a sniffle or a cold, well, you still had to go to school, because you had to go to work. And that was the culture of my home and it is still that today. I've never been the principal of a building where attendance didn't improve drastically for both staff and students. And the same year as superintendent, because you have to be exposed and have the continuity of learning to make it happen. And I think that is such an important piece that if we could just teach young people that might not be as strong academically that how important these other factors are that we don't measure, you know, in terms of that.

INTERVIEWER: Do you think some of that discipline was lost in the next generation?

NARRATOR: I think a lot of it was lost. You know, as a kid, I remember in the South, your whole environment was family, your neighbor, and relatives. And I remember these family occasions where we would get together to celebrate and cooking; eating, and music and all. I came north; there was none of that. And the families were dispersed. I remember I had to live with sisters and brothers where because my mother was working in a hospital over here, living on, so we kids kind of had to move all around. And that, that secure family tie and the family reunions which happened often in the South, was absent in the North. So you were like on your own. You were an island. No one seemed to have any expectations for the young people in our community and they didn't seem to have any expectations for themselves. I remember once, what saved me, I was going to, in the ninth grade I was in Manhattan staying with a brother and I quit school. And my mother was working in this hospital in Long Island, rented a house and brought us out there; that's kind of what put me on track educationally because now I'm out in the suburbs where my skills and my ambition really kicked in. You could play sports, you could, you know, do all these things and I participated.

INTERVIEWER: When did you, just to back track, you left the South when you were how old?

NARRATOR: Ah, it was about the seventh grade, so I must have been about twelve years old.

INTERVIEWER: Okay. So the eighth grade was a very early story in your northern experience?

NARRATOR: That's right.

INTERVIEWER: And you said you first went to Newark?

NARRATOR: Yes.

INTERVIEWER: And then from Newark…?

NARRATOR: Manhattan, back to Newark again. I had a strange record until I was in the tenth grade. I never started school in one school and finished in the same school, because we were kind of transient in the South. We moved a lot. We'd be on this farm this year, another farm the next year, back in the city, and that happened to me once we came north. Living with different relatives. But when we moved to Bay Shore when I was in the tenth grade, they put me in the tenth, I did not attend school in the ninth; then I spent my last three years in one high school. And that's basically when I got an education and helped to educate myself. [inaudible] experience, I wasn't going to be embarrassed and I find, and I look at hard work on the farm translated to hard work with the books. Since I knew I was not fearful of hard work, that ethic is still with me today, and so I feel there's nothing I can't do because I'll work harder than anybody else to get it done.

INTERVIEWER: We probably could find a lot of examples of people who had similar experiences who disappear. Why did you hold on? What was the source of your drive?

NARRATOR: I think, I think it was a lot my mother. I spent more time with my mother than any other of my siblings, being the baby, so to speak. And when everyone else was out of the house it was she and I for a number of years. Moving around, watching it all. And she was just so solid and consistent with her message, it was in there, in her absence it was like there and I couldn't shake it. And her quest for success and how she convinced me that I had all that I needed to be whatever I wanted to be. And I always felt like if I slowed down and didn't take that step when I was at that crossroad, I would go back to that time and say, hey, I gotta do this. And I'd work harder to make it happen. And it was a struggle. It wasn't easy.

INTERVIEWER: Do you recall a favorite story she would tell you? Or a set of ideas she was always communicating to you?

NARRATOR: Well, one thing specific about this that she was just absolutely so strong with was education. You must gain all the knowledge that you can because she always talked about the future and how it would be my responsibility to let my children know what she's letting me know. And so the family, in her philosophy, she was very, very religious woman, and our faith is kind of, what I remember, what I remember most about her.

INTERVIEWER: Your religious faith was important?

NARRATOR: Oh, yes. Oh, yes.

INTERVIEWER: When you migrated here, and she migrated here, was she connected with the church?

NARRATOR: Yes. Yes.

INTERVIEWER: And in Yonkers?

NARRATOR: We lived in Bay Shore.

INTERVIEWER: Bay Shore.

NARRATOR: We all came together in Bay Shore.

INTERVIEWER: Was that a black church?

NARRATOR: Yes.

INTERVIEWER: When did you move to Yonkers?

NARRATOR: Came to Yonkers in 1973, uh, to work, but I didn't move here until '84. I bought a house here in '84. I was principal here for a long time. Left education for a year and came back. And in '95, I retired as the Assistant Superintendent from the Yonkers Public Schools. And from that time I've been elected to the city council here in Yonkers, which was quite an, quite an experience and so I've had a lot of experience, you understand.

INTERVIEWER: Joe, you said something interesting, and I think you described Bay Shore as a suburb…?

NARRATOR: Yes.

INTERVIEWER: And you said that was a different experience, and you talked about sports. Could you describe it a little bit more?

NARRATOR: Well, you know what it is? That's why I believe so strong in expectation. Here I ended up in Bay Shore. I went from Harlem to Bay Shore, out on the South Shore, which is an upper middle class community. The blacks that lived in that town were servants, because it was a very, very wealthy community with a lot of mansions, and so it was really the class difference was there. But that, Bay Shore was the first stop where I remember that from

INTERVIEWER: Because it was a suburban community, the experience was different [inaudible phrase]?

NARRATOR: Like I said,right, with the expectation; here I was out there, now I, for the first time, I'm in an all-white situation and there were only a handful of blacks in the schools there. And so I found that I had to work harder in school, I would be up late trying to do my work, because I didn't want to be embarrassed anymore and to try and compete. So that was like a whole different society for me. And the expectation of everybody would go on to college, and that was kind of my expectation for myself, also. And I knew, you know, like I went and told my teachers, "Look, I want to do well. I know I'm not the best student, but you tell me what I have to do and I'll do it and we'll get it together." You know? And that was kind of an attitude that as I found that when you work with people, they will work with you. I learned that at an early age and that's still helps me today in this position and all other positions that I've had.

INTERVIEWER: From the time you say in the eighth grade, seventh or eighth grade, when you first migrated, what happened to sort of your Southern ways, Southern speech? Did those things go away, do they still stay with you…?

NARRATOR: Oh, it hampered me tremendously in school. Sure. When I, you know, in school, we spoke with almost a dialect in a part of North Carolina, some folks call it kind of [inaudible], like if I'm asked where you're going, "Hey, boy, where you go there?" I had to; it was almost a second language. We used different emphasis on words and I would spell words very differently because phonetically this is the way I heard it, but the real pronunciation was another way and so it was really a language. A major language transformation that I remember having to make, because in my house, everybody still spoke the same way and I spoke the same way. And so, and that's why I identify with bilingualism, you know, folks with a different language, you have to learn the language and the culture. The migration aspect of it was very similar. It was like two different countries, being the North and the South. And then being, you know, like most blacks from the South, we ended up in these industrial, metropolitan areas, and then for me to go from there to the suburbs was another big transformation.
[inaudible simultaneous conversation]

NARRATOR: And then I had a very good fortune after I graduated high school and went to college, uh, came back, and I was the first black teacher in Bay Shore. And the first black teacher in the secondary schools at Bay Shore High School on Long Island.

INTERVIEWER: Was the school system and the community accepting of that?

NARRATOR: Yes. I had quite a reputation in school, as an athlete, as a, you know, nice guy, kind of person, uh, so I was the ideal kind of person to come back to a community where I was a hero-type and graduated from. So it was easy, I think, for them to hire me as their first black, a known quantity from that community.

INTERVIEWER: Was it hard work to achieve all of that in high school and then to become a college graduate and the first African-American schoolteacher? Was that hard work?

NARRATOR: It was hard work. It was very hard work. College was very hard. I didn't graduate college on time. It took me another semester because I just didn't have it all together. I went to State University at Oswego, then I got a scholarship to Syracuse, but they wouldn't give me the course I wanted so I went over to Oswego. But it was difficult work because it took so much personal discipline and commitment. But I noticed I was so much more mature than the average college freshman. We're all eighteen years old, but I'd had a world of experience by the time I was eighteen years old and I recognized, I learned the system. I know what you had to do to be successful. And I always felt, you know, these kids that were so bright, they were inferior in the real ways in terms of their own deportment, how to handle themselves, the way they treat people. And I always knew this, had this feeling that I knew, just because my reading and my academics were not what it should have been, it never discouraged me, my concept of myself. Because I was convinced as a very young man I was the greatest thing that ever happened. And in my house, I was. And so I still am. It doesn't change once you believe it, you know? So it was difficult but there was nothing that could stop me, because I always felt this mission. It wasn't just me; I'm representing my family, I'm representing my race, I'm representing a major part of this country, and I always just thought if I can't do it, it can't be done. So I always had this absolute drive that nothing could get in my way. From the time I got my bachelors, my two masters, and just kept on going.

INTERVIEWER: In those first years when you were teaching, do you recall any incidents or events where you felt like oh, here's the barrier, I have to push through this, here's this racism that, you know, something I have to fight through. Did that ever happen?

NARRATOR: Yes. Yes. That happened in so many ways all along the way. And it happens now. It will always happen in this society. I think one of the things that always helped me was that my family was able to give me a philosophy in dealing with myself as a black man in this society, and it was simply to understand, as my father put it once when I was a young, a very young kid. He said, "Boy, you gotta pay the colored tax. You're colored. You're not going to be treated like everybody else. Don't think it's you. You're gonna have to work harder. You're gonna have to get up earlier. If you're going to have the same job as a white man, you're going to have to be better than he is." And he was right, and I understood that. And then you have these incidents where all kinds of stuff that you have to deal with, you know that it is happening to this black man, but it's not happening to me, the person, because, you know, I'm bigger than the skin that I'm wrapped in. And I learned that early. In this society, you deal with incidents. I was a principal here in this city when I moved here; I had to go into a federal court to be able to move into that house. And I was the principal of the area where the house was located in. So that's an example of these things happening. I could have just gone to another house, but I always fight these kinds of things, you know; it's just a matter of principle. It always happens, a continuous process. And that's what I say to young people. You have to kind of accept that. Don't let it become part of your psyche; it's not you, it's a whole concept and you are part of that. And so I feel very strongly about those issues and that's what I instilled in my children, I think as they grew up and had measures of success, it was that philosophy.

INTERVIEWER: Was it more difficult to prepare your children, compared to your parents' parenting of you?

NARRATOR: No, but like I said, I was fortunate. You know? I just have a son and a daughter, and I was just blessed with youngsters that, you know, after a lot of hammering, they kind of understood what it was about and the philosophy that I gained, and I think I passed it on to them and very proud of them and my grandchildren now.

INTERVIEWER: Do you tell them stories about your life in the South?

NARRATOR: Oh, yes. Oh, yes.
[inaudible conversation]

INTERVIEWER: What's your favorite story?
NARRATOR: Oh, God. There's so many. There's so many. There was always, uh, well, different characters, uh, like an uncle who, you know, who could tell stories about incidents that they had in the war. You know? Different kinds of stories. I don't remember one specifically, but it was always those parables that we remember in talking about the way they pronounced words, like my uncle that calls cupboard kibber. And once I said to him, "Uncle Zeke, why do you call cupboard kibber?" And he became very incensed and said, "Joe, I do not call kibber kibber," and the whole family laughed at that. At Thanksgiving, my sister reminded me of that story just this last Thanksgiving, and I was a toddler, you know, when that occurred. But it's usually those kinds of parables that you remember growing up.

INTERVIEWER: I note that you use the word parables for the stories.

NARRATOR: Yes.

INTERVIEWER: What has been the role of the church in your family sustaining itself?

NARRATOR: Oh, that's a major part. Because we really believe that religion is the seat of all of it, so much of it is the answer, that's the part of you that you're in touch with when you're not in touch with anything else. It's a retreat; it's your solace. So it's been very, very important to us. We've always, as a matter of fact, my mother, in her later years, was the minister for a short time of a Pentecostal church, but we're all basically Baptists now. And that was just automatic that you believe strongly, your faith, you share, and you just pass on your knowledge.

INTERVIEWER: Is the black church in Yonkers or in the North different from the black church experiences you had or recall in the South?

NARRATOR: I find them very similar. I find that is the one thread that's consistent. It's like if I went to the New Bethel Church in North Carolina or Mount Carmel Baptist Church where I'm a member of now. It's that culture. It's the same rhythm, it's the warmth, it's the feeling, it's the caring, and it's the, you know, that's the one part, that's why church is so important, I think, in the North. It's about the only institution that we have a linkage with that's been consistent. And that is truly yours. The one thing that's, you know, consistent, and I can feel that. And I think a lot of that is what you get from the church, you know? It's that remembrance. My kids always tease me that there's not a hymn that could be sang in church that I don't know. I've been to church all my life; I know all of the songs. You know? That sort of thing, which I didn't realize until they pointed it out to me. So they'd take the hymnal and read this…I don't have to take it out; I've read…I've sung that song a thousand times. That sort of thing. So yeah, it's very consistent, the church.

INTERVIEWER: Some writers are always critiquing the black church as holding the community back because it looks toward the South. Do you feel that way?

NARRATOR: Not at all. Not at all. Not at all. Nothing can hold a community back but the community itself. I think the church is the one institution that kind of keeps it together, you know, and working with the young people, like we had a tremendous weekend in our church working with the young people. And a lot of, the broken families and the weaknesses of families and this competitiveness; it's tough for poor, black families to really make it and give to the young people all that they need. Church plays a major role in that now. Most churches have a strong youth kind of program, and that's very true in the churches in Yonkers. They go around to a lot of them speaking and so forth.

INTERVIEWER: There's always an interesting argument about migrants struggling between the safe place of the home and the street and that those are two tugs on the life of young migrant people. What was your relationship with the street?

NARRATOR: It was, I remember Newark. I remember living in the neighborhood I lived in, and I had to be a part of a gang. I remember having to fight and wrestle with guys to establish dominance kind of thing. I remember, you know, doing things. I remember being so separate from them, in a sense. I remember walking down the street once and this kid picked up this rock and threw it in the car window; broke this car window. It was one night and it was just parked and he just broke this car window. And all the friends laughed. I went crazy on this kid. Why did you do that? That stu.., you know? That's somebody's car. Why did you do that? And I was like an island. I was, it was what they were doing, and it wasn't anything that I could relate to. So I had a bit of a problem on the street. I remember once when I was living with my brother and my mother got off the bus; she was coming to visit. And I saw her, and she had these bags and I ran and grabbed her bags and gave her a big hug and a kiss and walked her into the house. And then I came back out and played with these guys; all the guys looked at me differently. You hugged your mother? That's like, I never associated that as being something anybody would ever question, so I remember little things like that because, you know, I'd hide that. In the North, people didn't show emotion, it seemed, as much. And young guys on the street, that was their family. That was the family thing, you know? And I had a family. So I wasn't going to buy into that behavior. You know? I remember as a kid I was always felt that I was more mature because of my strong family background.

INTERVIEWER: Do you go back to the South? Do you go back to [inaudible phrase]?

NARRATOR: No. My whole family is here. By the time my mother and I migrated, all of the older siblings had already arrived. They were here. We were the last to come so we're, the family's still in Bay Shore and I mentioned Thanksgiving; I was out in Bay Shore at my sister's home.
[inaudible conversation]

INTERVIEWER: Joe, do you think when you migrated something was lost?

NARRATOR: Oh, yes. The culture. The only culture I remember I had in the South. I remember the day when I cut the lawn of my junior high school principal. That was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. And then in the North, there were no role models. When I say I became the first principal at South Side High School in Newark, there were no black teachers, administrators, or guidance counselors and a hundred percent of the student body was black. So that, that I remember that being a very, very different kind of thing. I remember the warmth and the expectations in the South; there was involvement, a great community, and then we didn't have a community. We all lived in these tall, high-rise buildings, all in one place and it was a free-for-all. Everything would go. The only thing you had was your family and your personal {inaudible]. And a good thing I had that, because I always felt if I was born in Newark, I would have been a very different individual than born in the hills by a midwife in the South. My mother was a midwife, also, by the way.

INTERVIEWER: You felt like you had an advantage because of that Southern lineage?

NARRATOR: Yes. Yeah, yeah.

INTERVIEWER: Given this experience you've described, do you feel that this has been, that the North has been the Promised Land, or is that a myth?

NARRATOR: I believe the North is, not just the North, but I think the Promised Land is wherever you have the strength to kind of create it. The North is not the Promised Land; the North, I believe, stopped the social progress. I believe that's where legacy, traditions were, were lost. And we just, we're out here without a culture and without, and I found the church wasn't that strong in the North, and the families were gone. The families, just like what happened to my family. But fortunately, I was already who I was by that time. So I think that's what happened in the North, and we have not recovered from it. Even now. That's why we talk about educating poor minority youngsters. There's a lot more to it than what we have now. I'm happy to be a young man, but all four of my grandparents were born into slavery and, you know, denied education and all of that. So now, we're struggling to try to educate kids who do not have the legacy and generation of the importance, uh, because it was, uh, you know, taken away. And so that makes a big difference.

INTERVIEWER: And you're not embarrassed but proud of the fact that the four grandparents were born into slavery.

NARRATOR: Oh, absolutely. I'm glad I know that much because I don't know my history past my grandparents. And uh, but I say that just to point out how close it is. Yes, I was one of the fortunate persons that, you know, came through and had a measure of success in many different things and on many different levels. But it's inhuman to expect that without supports. Now I had a lot of support, and that's what my family always gave me.

INTERVIEWER: Do you think you're…

UM: [inaudible phrase] thirty minutes late, so we'll have to revisit him for interview number two.

NARRATOR: To be continued.
[laughter]
UM: Thank you very much.

INTERVIEWER: Thank you. I enjoyed this. Hope we came across okay.

NARRATOR: Oh, yes, I have to run over to another school…


Joe Farmer

Hudson River Museum, Yonkers, NY, Museum Purchase Fund.
Photograph 2001 Hudson River Museum
, Yonkers, NY




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© 2001 Hudson River Museum

 

 

 

Joe Farmer in U.S. Army basic training at Fort Dix, NJ, 1961