Production Team: X
Interview Date: October 12, 1988
Camera Rolls: 3001-3003
Sound Rolls: 301-302
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Robin Gregory, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on October 12, 1988, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
Start by describing how it was like when you first got there. What did you find?
When I first went to Howard it was in 1962. Um, I didn't really know what to expect when I got there, but, but when I did get there, I found that there was a lot of stuff I had a lot of resistance to. Um, it was a very social kind of scene. Ah, there was the, the freshman sort of atmosphere. You know, they wanted to include you in these activities that I wasn't really interested in being in. Um, there was a party atmosphere, I remember that. Ah, I felt like an outsider, essentially, when I first went there. Ah, let me think about that a little bit. Um--
Were there things that began happening after you arrived at Howard?
The first year, the first year at Howard was pretty uneventful. Um, I was just studying. Well, one thing I do remember was that the sort of, um, provincial, ah, mind set that was there. Like, one of the things that first happened when we went there was that all the women had a special assembly. And we were brought in, Patricia Harris was the Dean of Women at that time, and, ah, we had this lecture on etiquette, you know, and how we were supposed to dress, and how we were supposed to behave. And, you know, we were supposed to be ladies, and, um, you know, I didn't quite, you know, accept that for myself, and I didn't feel like I had to conform to that sort of thing either, because I didn't live on the campus. I lived in, in, ah, Washington D.C.,so--
most of the students that you were meeting, though?
Um, they were middle class students and they wanted to be good. You know, and they wanted to succeed, and they wanted to have a good time. And a lot of them were looking for husbands, I remember that. And, ah, I didn't find that there was a lot of thinking. I felt that there wasn't a lot of deep thinking going on among the students that were there, um, when I first went there.
What kind of impact did you begin to experience from the movement on campus?
There, there was a gradual sort of falling into it, in a sense. Um, the first year I was there, well, I had a lot of history from my family. But the first that I was there I had a--
Can you start maybe with "the first year I was there?"
Yes, mm hm, OK. The first year that I was at Howard, I had a work-study job, uh--
The first year at Howard, ah, was in '62, ah, I had obtained a work-study position. It was in a part of the library that, that a lot of the students didn't know existed. In fact, the students that came there were the African students and graduate students from other universities like American University. It was called the Moorland Foundation, and it had everything that had ever been written essentially by Black people in the world. It had publications, um, periodicals, and so I got introduced to a lot of the literature, and it was there in that particular role that I first met Stokely, as a matter of fact. Only I didn't know who he was at the time. He came in there a lot, and, um, worked on papers.
What kind of events were going on, and how were you beginning to interact with--?
There was nothing going on in terms of, ah, well, I didn't like the social thing. I wasn't interested in the sorority-fraternity scene at all. I was, I was just there to study, you know? I had a few friends that came there with me, who, who went to high school with me and, well, essentially I'm sort of a loner anyway, so, um, nothing really happened for me politically until the next year, as a matter of fact. Ah, that summer, the summer between '62 and '63 I was working in a government office, you know, for the summer, and I heard about the March on Washington that next summer. And, that was really my first introduction. I worked on the March on Washington Committee, is what, is what it was. And, ah, I met a lot of people through that. I was in the strategic offices setting the whole thing up, before, during, and after. So that was my first introduction.
When did you first make a personal decision to start wearing an afro? How did that come about?
That was in 1964.
What was going on?
I was working in the SNCC office. I was the liaison in the Washington, D.C. SNCC office. Between the voter registration project in the south, Missi--Mississippi specifically, and the liaison part was that people would call me from Mississippi in the office to, ah, chronicle some of the incidents that would happen, so that I could contact Nicho--Nicholas Katzenbach's office, ah, the Attorney General's office, and report. And so they would send people down to the polls or where ever these incidents were happening. Ah, marshals, they would send down to either prevent them from happening, or to protect people while they were trying to register to vote. Ah, and that summer was the 1964 Democratic convention. And, I went there and some women from Mississippi came up and they were wearing their hair natural. And, so, I was real turned on by that statement, you know, and as a matter of fact, in the 50s I had an aunt who was wearing her hair in a natural. It was a real radical thing to do, and everybody in the family always talked about her, you know, so, um, so it wasn't, you know, it wasn't something that was completely foreign, the image itself, but it was exciting for me to see that somebody was doing it, and so I decided to do it, too.
And what happened? What was the response?
Pretty negative. You know, well, I came back home, and I was wearing my hair like that, and my family was pretty horrified. And, um, I got a lot of comments from people on the street. You know, they, people got angry about it. You know, it was like I was exposing a secret. Um, that was the first reaction. That, that reaction went on a long time because I didn't have a lot of company. You know, there weren't, there weren't other people doing it. Maybe one or two other people were doing it. Well, there was one person in particular who had worn her hair like that for a year prior to that, or maybe even two, and that was Mary Lovelace, who was, who was Stokely Carmichael's girlfriend at the time. So, you know, there was, there was a precedent, you know, before that, so. But the response was pretty negative.
Now how did it come about that your campaign for homecoming queen was put together? Where did the idea come from, and what kind of things were you trying to do with the campaign?
A lot of things were happening, um, in 1966, in terms of the movement, um, where the movement was going. Um, it was just beginning to be the, the dawn of the whole Black Power movement. Um, getting away from the more conservative approach to, to change through the way the Civil Rights Movement had been going, into a Black Power consciousness. And it was like right on the edge of that. And there were a few students at Howard who were very politically involved in things and I was one of them. But someone came up with an idea that we should make a statement around the homecoming, because it was such a superficial kind of thing that kept affirming, um, old values that we were trying to resist or trying to overthrow. So, I was approached by some men from the law school, actually, and, um, they asked me if I would do it, because they wanted to, to make a statement about, about the Black aesthetic. And they wanted to resist the whole image. This whole homecoming queen thing was, it's kind of hard to describe the atmosphere of, of the way that it went, but it was a lot of fraternities, you know, who, the fraternities would nominate a candidate who would run for the, for the position. And it was a popular election, by the way. But you had to be nominated by some on-campus organization. And usually they picked someone who was as close to White as they could possibly get. I mean, it didn't have to be skin color. It was just the, the whole, um, image of the person. And so they said, "Well, will you do this? We want to run somebody that has a natural hair style. We know that you're politically active. Let's take this particular context and, and use it to make a statement." And so I was willing to do that. Um, that's how it happened.
Who got together and organized your campaign? What kinds of things did you do?
I got support from, well, first of all, the, the school didn't want to let us do it at first, because, you know, they said, "Well, you can't just put an independent person in there, you know." So, but we found out we could. So I had the gentlemen from the law school. I had the few radical active students on the campus. I was a student in the college of fine arts, so I had a lot of support from them. They were real, um, sort of non-conformist types. So they gave me a lot of support. And, um, we did it on a shoestring. I mean, everybody was sort of shocked, you know, I think, that it, that it was happening, and, resentful. Yeah.
Do you remember your coronation? Can you describe what happened at the moment that your victory was announced? How did that unfold? How did the students learn that you had won?
Well, there were a series of events, that you had to do this series of things in order to campaign. And our, ah, approach to it was to put as many Black images out as possible. You know, um, Black men and women who were wearing natural hair styles, who were accepting that image for themselves. And, I think that most of the, my, my co-candidates didn't believe, you know, they couldn't take, they didn't take me seriously. They were real irritated by the fact that I was making it a political campaign. So, the night of the coronation, actually, we were all standing back stage, and no-one really had any idea who was going to win. I mean, sometimes, I think, in these things somebody knows. But when they announced my name, all the other women were really shocked. They just were flabbergasted. They couldn't acc-- they couldn't accept, you know, that someone looking like I was looking, right? I mean, the way you're looking at me now, I mean, you can't perceive it. But, you know, the, the style then was, it was a short, natural hair style that was, you know, it was Afri-
Your coronation ceremony: what happened as you were actually crowned?
The actual moment of crowning was, um, well, the pandemonium actually began before that, because when they made the announcement and I came out--
Can you start --
OK. We were back stage waiting for the announcement, as to who had won the--to me it was important because it was a popular election. It wasn't, you know, it wasn't a committee election or anything like that. It was the, the general body of the student population. And, um, you know, my thing was that I, I wanted people to start looking at themselves and accepting themselves. I mean, that was the aim of the campaign in the larger political context. So when it was announced that I won, all the other candidates were shocked because, I mean, this was, you know, they, they couldn't--it was a concept they couldn't grasp. And, and they were just stunned. So, when I went out there was pandemonium in the auditorium. I mean, it was, people were screaming and jumping up and down, and just sort of going nuts, you know. And there is a photograph, you know, I think I had my mouth wide open, you know? Sort of a high moment, you know? Um, it was very important, you know, in terms of, of self-acceptance. Because, I mean, it seems superficial in a sense because it's, it's an appearance thing. But, for anybody who lived through that, there were, there were years of self, um, denial and abnegation, you know, and non-acceptance of the way that Black people looked, you know? To themselves because of media images, and, um, there was a lot of shame. You know, the, the reason why people were so angry with me was because I was coming out in public in a way that I shouldn't have been revealing myself, you know? It was like this secret, you know? You're not supposed to show that you have nappy hair, or something. So, um, it was a really dramatic moment, yeah.
OK, yeah, there was a truck. What did, what did we say there?
What was the secret?
Nappy hair. Um, what, should I start at?
Start with what you were bringing other people, the kind of self-acceptance that you were bringing other people.
I felt it was real important at that time, you know, because the Black Power movement was new, that, that we as a people begin to accept ourselves. You know, just as who, who we were. Because the, over the years, I mean, there was a tremendous amount of shame, you know. We were, we were made to feel ugly, essentially, by media images, and things that people told us. And we did everything that we could so that we wouldn't look like who we are, which was, you know, descendants of African people**. Um, so that, that moment I think was real important for a lot of people.
What was the response to your victory? How were you officially accepted by students and by faculty, and even by the nation? What kind of reception did that get?
The reception was, ah, very interesting. Officially I wasn't accepted at all. I mean, the university administration did not like it. And the general population, you know, the people who had been doing this stuff for years, didn't like it. I mean, I'd like to sort of bring up that film, the Spike Lee film, "School Days", is a really good illustration of the atmosphere that was going on in terms of, of how people felt about themselves. So, the administration, a lot of things that they did for homecoming queens they didn't do for me. I mean, essentially, I was unaware of a lot of it, because I had never been involved in it anyway. But, you know, they would give a reception to the homecoming queen, and I didn't get one. You know, the Dean of Students would do something, he didn't do that. Um, there was supposed to be a float that the, that the, that the students put together for the homecoming queen, and they didn't want to do it. I had to get some other people to do it for me. Ah, so there was a lot of snubbing going on. Um, in the media, though, when, when the media began to report this stuff, people were really turned on by it. A lot of men wrote to me from prison. They, you know, they were really excited about what I was doing. You know, they were saying things like, you know, like, "This is--I've been waiting for something like this, you know, for a sister to come out, and just be her natural self, and to say, you know, that we are beautiful as a people." So, I got a lot of positive, ah, feed-back from prisoners. Male prisoners. I got some marriage proposals! You know, but, um, it was interesting, you know, because, because then people began to focus on other things. You know, the things we really wanted them to focus on. And you sort of have to do, ah, a thing like this to get people to look at other issues on the campus.
Did you have a sense that people were really energized?
People were very energized by it, you know.
Well, because they, they began to focus on the other things that I was doing politically on the campus. And what the people around me were doing. And it was a very small percentage of the population that was politically conscious, you know, even then. And so they began to, we began to be very visible. And they started noticing, and there was a lot of dialogue going on, you know, just, ah, out on the, the campus itself, in the newspaper, back and forth.
I was wondering how your coronation and the reaction, the energy grew out of it connects to other political things that started going on at Howard, the anti-war movement especially. How were you aware of the ?
Well, I was aware that, I was aware that my coronation and the whole, you know, thing that I was the queen was, became a pivotal point for other activities that were to follow. Um, people that had been wanting to get involved, and wanting to get information about a lot of the political stuff that was happening around there were beginning to come out of the wood-work, so to speak. Um, one of the things that followed that was, was a demonstration against General Hershey, who was the head of the draft board at the time. And in order to see the larger perspective, I think it has to be realized that Howard University was run like a plantation. Ah, Washington, D.C. could not vote. The people of, of Washington D.C. could not vote. It was run by a southern committee of, of southern senators called the District Committee. And as well, the university was controlled by those funds. And so, there were these White, southern senators who were essentially very racist, who were telling us what we could and could not do on the campus. And, General Hershey, you know, was a, kind of a part and parcel of that whole thing. And I can't remember who invited him to the campus to speak, but it was a very touchy time. People were just beginning to wake up to the fact that a war was going on in Vietnam. And that people were getting drafted and sent over there, and we were trying to focus on that, too. So, when General Hershey came to the campus, we decided to mount a protest. Ah, you know, we were outraged that he was coming. It was a sensitive subject for, you know, a lot of young men who didn't want to be drafted. And then there was the racial issue, too. You know, a lot of Black people were being drafted and being sent over to Vietnam. So--
So, what did you do?
Um, I with a number of other students put together a demonstration. He was supposed to speak in the auditorium, and we weren't going to let him speak. I mean, that was the plan. So there were some people that had placards, and, and a whole bunch of us were spread out in the audience so that as soon as he would try to speak we would just jump up and start shouting things. And, ah, you know, one of them was "beast", and people sort of loved that word, and so they were shouting that. And, every time he would try to speak, someone would say that. And then at one point, some people rushed the stage, and, ah, that had a big aftermath, because I don't think that he was able to speak at all, which was what we were trying to do. Um, on the heels of that, he was hung in effigy on the campus. So we were trying to focus on things that we thought were important issues, that, that the sleeping middle class students of Howard University should wake up to.
So how did the coronation lead to other political activities?
Well, the coronation itself was, um, was a pivotal point, and, and it energized a lot of people, causing them to begin to question a lot of the issues that we were bringing forward. And one of the things that happened, that was a big incident on the campus, was the spring after the coronation, the spring of, ah, 1967. Someone had invited General Hershey to the campus. And General Hershey was, um, the head of the draft board. And people were just becoming aware of the Vietnamese War. And the fact that people were being drafted and sent to Vietnam, and that a large number of those people were Black people. So, when we found out that he was being invited to speak, we decided that we didn't want that to happen, and we staged a demonstration. And, you know, in essence, we didn't allow him to speak. There was a lot of shouting from the audience. There was a number of people--there were a number of people that had placards that stormed the stage, and, um, just booed him, essentially, out of the auditorium. And after that there were some incidents where he was hung in effigy on the campus and there were some statements being made to the university newspaper about Hershey being there. Um, that, that was also used by the administration seized on this, and tried to expel me. There were, there were trials, there were hearings on the campus of the people on the campus who had been identified as being a part of the demonstration. And, um, there was a lot of reporting in the media about it. So, it was, that was an energizing event as well.
I just want to go back to something we talked about earlier, because now you're warmed up. I'd love to hear you talk about how you decided to wear your hair natural. What was it that made you feel that you could do that? How did that come about?
Well, essentially I just saw, I saw it as an affirmation of who I was. Um--
Um, the decision to wear my hair natural happened in, ah, the summer of 1964. I was at the Democratic National Convention. It was the summer that the three civil rights workers had been killed in Mississippi, and their bodies had been found when we were at the convention. Um, there was the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party who came up to be in the convention--
So, how did you make the decision to change your hairstyle, and your way of thinking about it?
Um, when I was at the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City. Um, that was the year that, well, it was the end of the Freedom Summer. It was when they found the bodies of, ah, the three Civil Rights workers that were slain. And, we were at the convention at that time, and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party had come, ah, to speak at the convention, and try to run a delegate, Fanny Lou Hamer. And some of the women that came from the South were wearing their hair in a natural. And I was really, um, turned on by that image. You know, that, I felt it was an affirmation of being who we were. Ah, there was, the energy was very high, um, emotion was very high. Getting a sense of who we were and what we were doing in the context of history was really acute at the time. And I just decided that I was going to, to wear my hair that way, and make a statement that way.
I just want to ask you one more question, which is, is there any other recollections of, of Howard being transformed that, that just speaking about these years has brought to your mind and if, there's anything else you want to share about how people were awakening to a, to a new identity, to a new cultural and political struggle?
Well, there was a lot, there were so many things going on in that period of time, um, like I said, the Black Power movement was just coming into being, there was a lot happening internationally, in terms of how it was going to impact on Black people's lives, and I think that being at Howard, you know, the students were the ones that were, that were getting a lot of the, the energy moving there, but they had to begin to be aware of things, you know, you can't sleep for so long, you know, when, when a lot is happening around you. I just think that those of us who were on the campus, um, wo--we did wake up a lot of people, you know, it like forced them to look at things, whether they wanted to or not, you know, and it's hard to focus on anything specific, because when I think about it, so, so many events were happening, both there and in the larger community, you know.
Great. Cut. Are you comfortable.