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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Willie Mae Lee Crews, June 16, 2005. Interview U-0020. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Education and interviewing participants of the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Crews describes her determination to go to college and how she accomplished her goal with the aid of a scholarship and by working as a maid during her college years. Following her graduation from Dillard University in New Orleans, Crews went to Fisk University to study sociology at the graduate level. In 1956, she was sent with some other students to Montgomery, Alabama to interview participants in the bus boycott. She describes that experience, focusing especially on her reaction to the bombing of Martin Luther King Jr.'s home.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Willie Mae Lee Crews, June 16, 2005. Interview U-0020. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

What made you decide to go to college?
WILLIE MAE CREWS:
I knew I would not pick cotton all of my life. I knew I was not going to be a maid all of my life. So my first option since we were very poor was that I join the armed forces, and use that to go to college. However, that year Dillard University gave tuition scholarships to valedictorians and salutatorians, I know from around the Southeast. I was the valedictorian of my class, so I got that scholarship. That was for tuition. That was a time before grants and loans, so I would work for a white family on the weekends and in the winter when we didn't have crop work to do. They knew a family in New Orleans, and the husband of that family was a Colonel at Marion Military Institute. I told them that I had a tuition scholarship, so they wrote to that family and asked if I could live in their home and work for room and board. They did not need anyone, but looked for a friend of theirs and that's what happened. I had my tuition scholarship and I got off the bus in New Orleans and someone picked me up and I went to a private home to work for room and board so that I could go to college. So I never lived in a dormitory and I worked for three different families during that time. That was my focus, I am not going to be a maid, or a cook, or a dishwasher or a share cropper for all the time that I had left, whether it is fifteen years or fifty years, I am not going to do that. My focus was on school, I was going to go to school. I was fortunate enough to have a job in between classes at Dillard, so I worked for a couple of professors and I think I mentioned the research assistant work with Dr. Daniel Thompson on the follow up of children of bondage, so that was a little income during the summer to help me with books. Also with the causes of delinquency in New Orleans, that was extra income to help me also. That was my focus.
KIMBERLY HILL:
Sounds like that was your family heritage, being very driven and knowing what you wanted.
WILLIE MAE CREWS:
Just working, having a sense of ethics about working. Work hard for what you want and be honest. Have integrity. When I was a maid, I was a good one. I knew what to do, so no one could say this is sloppy or this is not what we want. I did not go to college to teach, that was something that I was not going to do. I was fascinated with Dr. Thompson and Joe Taylor, who were the Sociology professors. I was fascinated with language, with Dr. Swurdlow, and we had names for them. One teacher we called "Zeus" because he just reminded us of the Greek God Zeus. We had others that had interesting names. We had someone we called "Elevated Boogie" because he wore shoes with lifts in them and it caused him to sway when he walked. They were research people and they talked about Kenneth Cole and they talked about A Phillip Randolph, who was just beginning his prime work. They talked about Gunnar Myrdal and those things were fascinating to me, so I decided I wanted to be a sociologist and I wanted to do research. So I graduated from Dillard and went to Fisk, and I was there for a year. In January, Professor Vallian was the head of the department then and sent a team of three of us to Montgomery because he felt that based on the criteria for social movements that the bus boycott was actually the beginning of a social movement. So, we went to just interview and talk with people.
KIMBERLY HILL:
About the boycott? Wow.
WILLIE MAE CREWS:
Yeah. I think we were there for three weeks. I interviewed Mrs. Parks in her home. I rode in a cab with her. I went to mass meetings and recorded the songs and what was said; I only kept three of them. The one with her, the one with the mass movement and what happened the first time the Kings' home was bombed. I don't know why Preston Vallian never wrote his book. The white girl Ann Holden, from Georgia interviewed white folks. She had the southern drawl, so she-
KIMBERLY HILL:
Did she publish her book?
WILLIE MAE CREWS:
No this was all for Fisk. We had to send our interviews back to our professors, because we were students. There were three students in the department at the time, two blacks and one white, in the graduate Sociology Department at Fisk. Those were interesting days. As we stood outside the King home after everyone arrived there from the church after the news came that his home had been bombed, the singing, the refusal to listen to the mayor or the city commissioner and then to have him come out and wave his hand in absolute silence. I talked my way into going in. I told them, "Mrs. King is from my hometown and she needs me, and they let me go in." She didn't know me because she graduated a few years before me, in fact she wasn't even at Lincoln while I was there. She was in school with my husband, but he wasn't my husband at that time and I didn't know him. I knew him and didn't know him at that time. I came in and said "I'm Willie Mae Lee and I'm from Marion, Alabama and I'm here to do whatever it is that I can do to help get through this night." So, I was there for the remainder of the night and into the next day. I took care of the baby; they had a new baby that they called Yokie. People called, some said they were sorry and others said they brought it on themselves. Others called and said 'we missed this time, but we'll get you next time.' It was ugly what some people did. That was also an experience for me -