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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 >>

Segregated housing and the "projects mentality"

Crews explains how housing was set up during the 1960s, just prior to school desegregation in Birmingham, in order to draw boundaries and keep African Americans out of white schools. Crews explains how this eventually created what she calls a "projects mentality" regarding children's intellectual abilities. She explains, however, how there was never such a mentality during her years teaching at Hayes and she offers anecdotes regarding some of her former students who were able to rise out of this situation and achieve great success.

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

KIMBERLY HILL:
Was there a lot of neighborhood transition in the area of Hayes in the 1970's?
WILLIE MAE CREWS:
No, the transition happened prior to the 1970's. The majority of the people in the Hayes zone either rented private homes or owned their own homes. There were numerous modest home owners in the area. The city built the two housing projects. They built homes a block from the main thoroughfare at the airport. If you go into the airport there is a building with a dome around, that's Hayes, and then there is a housing project. They built private homes and said other homes would be built in that entire area. Once the homes were built and purchased, the other area from here [explaining/drawing layout of housing project] let's say this is a street, a home is here facing this way. The housing project is from here to the main thoroughfare, and then the housing project goes all the way down, cross one street and comes back this way. These homes are encircled by the housing project and O'Neil Steel at the back; that was deliberate. Projects have also taken on and that's what we call a set of government housing, they call it the projects. [Authentic] was that. Morality is not meted out to the wealthy or the well educated and denied to the poor. So, there are people in housing projects who are just as moral and have values just as high, if sometimes not higher than someone who may live in a mansion. So, it doesn't matter that you live across the street in a housing project and somebody else lives in a home. What matters is what you do with what God has given you. So, those people were there and the Kingston project, they also took modest private homes and built another one. We just learned a month ago that the man in charge of the state interstate [highway system] deliberately [phone rings] with his crew plotted and planned Interstate 59 and Interstate 60 to break up the Eleventh Quarter community because part of that group was involved in the Civil Rights Movement. So, let's run a freeway through some on this side and some on the other side, and all those houses that are on Eleventh Quarter and those areas, let's just get rid of those. Then it's easier to control, because we can bomb Shuttlesworth's house and we can bomb Shore's house, because Shore's house is now here and somebody else's house is across there. So that was done, deliberately, so these things were set up.
KIMBERLY HILL:
The projects were also -
WILLIE MAE CREWS:
Set up to do that, if we can get the poor ones and the limited incomes here, they won't go to Woodlawn. Yet there is this downtown project where whites live that were students at Woodlawn, that was your city center, but the projects were segregated. There was Elyton over here, and those kids would have gone to Parker. There was not what we perceive now to be a project mentality. You were students and we expected you to learn, and we will do everything we can to see that you learn. We'd even scare you into learning. [laughs]
KIMBERLY HILL:
The project mentality is that they can't learn?
WILLIE MAE CREWS:
Right, and that you are not as good as somebody else, whatever "good" means. You don't have the abilities, you are less than. Almost as old George Fitzhugh said. Was he from South Carolina? He said, "Show me one of them who can speak a word in Greek or utter a phrase in Latin"-I'm paraphrasing now - "and I will be forced to believe that he at least has human potentialities." I should use that and ask them to write a paper and refute it. See, those are the kinds of things that get kids going, it gets their juices flowing. What can you say to this man? Are we going to call him a [whisper and laugh]? He is not saying that he would believe you are even human, what he is saying is that he believes that you at least have the potential to become human. You see, there are people who look on kids, where they live or who their parents are in that same way. We have to say there are examples that refute that all along the way, and you need to know that. That is why we became involved, [as African Americans who were the first to do] A, B, C and D. Because if that person could do it under those circumstances, then you can do it.
KIMBERLY HILL:
And there is more pressure to follow in what they have done.
WILLIE MAE CREWS:
Yes, indeed. So, that is a mentality that I don't like, and did not like. One of my students who lived with a grandmother in a housing project, who was very poor, turned around a Coca Cola bottling plant. They were going to close it and Harrison sent me the booklet from the Communications something, something, not magazines that you find on the regular news stands, but specific trade magazines that detail what people are doing in that particular market place. There was a wonderful write up that he said 'give me a chance' and he turned it around. David Jackson did not graduate from Hayes, in fact he is from Marion, but he turned around one Wal-Mart. They then gave him three, then five, then ten and then the entire West Coast. He was in the February Black Enterprise as one of the top seventy five African Americans in corporate America.