Interview with Mrs. Beccye Fawcett
Is Part Of
Broome County Oral History Project
Interview with: Mrs. Beccye Fawcett
Interviewed by: Dan O’Neil
Date of interview: 5 January 1978
Dan: OK, now, Mrs. Fawcett, why don't you relate your life experiences from the time that you were born up until the present date?
Mrs. Fawcett: Ah, I was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, the daughter of the late Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Boyd Sr. I received my education in the public, early public education in the public schools of New Orleans. I graduated with a major in Education from New Orleans University. I married the late Reverend A. Luther Lightford, and he was assigned to the ministry of a church in Key West, Florida. We went there, he served as the spiritual leader of the church—I taught school for two and a half years. He was then transferred to the parish here in Binghamton, NY. His ministry here was rather short-lived in that he died after a year and a half of service. I was then ordained a local preacher to carry on the work which he had begun. I served the church from October 1933 to June 1934. In June of 1935, I took the Civil Service Examination for a worker in the Binghamton Public Library. I was the first Black person to take the examination and to be appointed by the City as a worker in one of the City departments. It wasn't easy even though, ah, I was here in Binghamton in the North. I ran into quite a bit of prejudice, quite a bit of discrimination, sometimes very disheartening. Ah, I remember so vividly, ah, the first check that I received after two weeks of work. I knew it wasn’t in keeping with the salary set by the Civil Service Commission, and when I received it I went into the secretary’s office and said to her rather meekly, because back in ’35, you had to speak meekly, believe it or not, even though you were in the North, and ah, I said, "I think something is wrong with my check," and she said, "Well I have nothing to do with it, you will have to speak with the librarian.”
So, believe it or not, I stood around trying to get to the librarian. When she came in—she was out to lunch, probably, but before I could get to her, the secretary had already gotten in to her, and she said to the secretary, “Well tell her she can take it or leave it—she doesn't have to stay." It was quite a blow to me, it was quite a shock. I went down to the Ladies’ Room—I shed bitter tears over such cruelty, over such a reaction, and I said, “Lord, should I stay, should I leave?" He answered me and said, "Stay, because if you leave, the feeling that exists will be there will never be another Black person employed in the Binghamton Public Library.” So, with all the courage that I had, I went to her, the secretary, and I said, "I am staying now," and I did, and in July of 1974, I finished 36 years of working as a servant of the public and community. I, ah, would like to make a quote because I think it is so apropos of the struggle that I had, and this quote is from a letter that I received from Mr. M. Charles Miller on July 2, 1974 when I was, ah, retiring, and he said, and I quote, "You overcame handicaps and finished your career with a significant position on the staff. In so doing, you not only served the library but you served the Black community as proof its members could and would take their places as leaders and doers in the fabric of our Social, Educational and Economic society," unquote.
I have seen many, many changes in our community. I recall when the first Black girl tried to get into the school system. She went into the Superintendent’s office—spoke to his receptionist, who said to her, “The Superintendent is in a conference and you’d have to wait," and so she did. She waited all morning—she went out to lunch—she came back—she waited all afternoon—she left when the office closed. She went back the second day, same thing happened. She went back the third day and they decided this girl is determined, and so the Superintendent saw her. She was then employed and became the first Black woman to become a member of the Board of Education. She is still a member. That was back around in the early forties and she has served the school system well. But times have changed—today, I don't know the exact number of black teachers but it is quite a considerable number of teachers in the system. In 1954, when the New York State Commission came into being, of which I am a charter member, the pattern of thinking, ah, the community thinking was a bit changed, because up until that time, there was only one Black person employed at IBM, one at E.J. Shoe Factory, and this one was there because his great grandfather had worked for the Johnson family as a butler, so they kept him on as a token of appreciation of what his grandfather had done for the family. But all of that has changed now, ah, all of the industries and out of Broome County are employing large numbers of Black people. If you are capable, if you have the qualifications, if you have the training, I am very happy to say that today, 1978, Black people can find the job, the position wherever there is an opening that they meet the qualifications, and ah, I think of the housing situation—I remember very well that before the Urban League and the NAACP came into being into our community, I was one of the lone voices crying in the wilderness for people to open their hearts and, as Christians, to make way for Black people to live and to have decent places to live. Today, if a Black person has the money, he can buy and live anyplace in Broome County. And so, ah, through the 47 years I have seen so many changes, not only economic, educational, social, that you can barely think in terms that 40 years ago a Black person was as much discriminated against here in Binghamton as he was in the deep South. As a child growing up I frankly didn't, ah, encounter any discrimination. We lived in a mixed neighborhood. We were probably considered a middle-class family—my mother never worked outside of the home—she stayed in near her family. My father was the breadwinner of the family—he was an accomplished blacksmith and at that time horses and wagons and all were in style. So as a child, I grew up in a very well rounded Christian family. And so through my life, I have, after coming to Binghamton, experienced more discrimination and more segregation than I did as a child in New Orleans.
Dan: Is that right? Now you speak of more segregation—in what respect? Down south were you not restricted to where you could ride on the bus, and etc.?
Mrs. Fawcett: Ah yes.
Dan: You know, in the public restrooms.
Mrs. Fawcett: Ah yes.
Dan: Which you didn’t find up here.
Mrs. Fawcett: Well no, we didn't find it here to a degree—it was more subtle. For instance, ah, you could get on the bus here in Binghamton and get your seat and you could ride all over the city, and no one, not a white person, would come and take the seat next to you, so you rode there alone, and, ah, Black people have a certain sense that they know when someone is deliberately discriminating against them. And, ah, so in the South there were signs saying “White People,” “Negroes Only,” “White People Only.” You saw those signs so you knew this is where you go, but here there were no signs, but you knew that they didn't want you.
Dan: The inference was there.
Mrs. Fawcett: That’s right, that’s right, and ah, even in restaurants, you probably could go in but if you didn't check, ah, make a very close check on the bill when it was handed to you, ah, you .would find that it had been upped—increased so that, ah, you realized, “I'm not going there, because on their bill of fare it was so much, but when I get my check, it’s a different price.” Those subtle ways of saying.
Dan: At the time that you first got your paycheck, you said there was discrimination as far as the amount?
Mrs. Fawcett: That’s right.
Dan: Now wasn’t there a Labor Board or anybody that you could go to to complain rather than to your immediate supervisor?
Mrs. Fawcett: Ah no, there was no Labor Board, and ah, I might clarify that, ah, in those years, the City fathers would make out a large check covering all of the expenses for the year of the Libraries—the book sales, the equipment and the supplies, the salaries, and then the librarian and the Board could sit down and say who’s going to get what and how much, and that is what happened in my case. And it wasn't ’til a year later, when I felt that I was on a little more solid ground, that I went in and spoke to the librarian and I told her that I had worked a whole year without receiving the salary that the Civil Service job called for, and she said "I don't think that was right," and I said, “Well, you have your canceled checks, though,” and I said, “I am going to go to the Civil Service Commission and find out why I am not receiving what I am supposed to get,” and she became very much upset and she said, ''Oh please don't do that, don't do that, ah, we will see that this is corrected.” Well then the following year, ’36 or ’37, I was then, my salary was then put on the basis for which the job called for according to the Civil Service.
Dan: Were you ever paid retroactive to this?
Mrs. Fawcett: I never was.
Dan: Never paid retroactively?
Mrs. Fawcett: There was a time when I thought, well, maybe I should, and then I said, No, ah, it would just merely create a feeling and a lot of unfavorable publicity, ah, for the library, for the librarian and probably for me.
Dan: Now you, ah, when you retired, what position did you hold as far as the library?
Mrs. Fawcett: I, ah, was principal clerk and head of the overdue department with a full-time assistant and two part-time assistants.
Dan: This is the Binghamton Public Library?
Mrs. Fawcett: This is in the Binghamton Public Library.
Dan: Now going back to when you first came here, Mrs. Fawcett, you said your husband was—took a parish here in the city?
Mrs. Fawcett: Yes.
Dan: But he only lived for a year and a half.
Mrs. Fawcett: A year and a half.
Dan: What church was he—
Mrs. Fawcett: That was the Trinity M.E. Zion Church. At that time it was located on Sherman Place over in the 7th Ward, it has since moved in to the 1st Ward at Oak and Lydia.
Dan: And he only lived a year and a half.
Mrs. Fawcett: A year and a half, and ah, he had begun such a fine work in the community until he must have felt I was capable of carrying on his work until the end of his conference year, which was in June and, ah, which I did. Of course I had studied for the ministry.
Dan: You were ordained to the ministry yourself?
Mrs. Fawcett: I was ordained as a minister to carry on, and when we went to conference, the Bishop of the conference decided that there were other things that I could do and that he would send a man here. In the meantime I had taken the examination, ah, for the, this job in the Library, and so in leaving the church I went into this program. But my experience has been, and it probably still exists today, a Black person going into any new job or being the first one in that job, still has butterflies—still seems to be concerned as to whether he will be received appreciatively.
Dan: Well do you think it is because of the color of their skin or their education?
Mrs. Fawcett: It is definitely because he is a Black person.
Dan: You have had, ah, a very sound background, educational background—you’re going to school and everything—more so than the average, I think today you will agree, no matter where you go, you could go right in and get a job.
Mrs. Fawcett: Oh yeah.
Dan: With your educational background.
Mrs. Fawcett: Yes.
Dan: Whereas, ah, today of course things have changed. I mean that, ah, you are not required to have as much educational background. At the same time whereas the more you have the more opportunities prevail—the chances of getting a position, but ah, you certainly had a very—you were well educated before you came north. Now did you ever have any children, Mrs. Fawcett?
Mrs. Fawcett: No, no children.
Dan: No children—that’s too bad. Of course you were only married—how long were you married?
Mrs. Fawcett: Well I remarried, now.
Dan: You're remarried?
Mrs. Fawcett: Yes, we were married, ah, a year and a half, and we were in Key West, Florida, two years and a half. We were married around 4-5 years when he passed, and then I remained a widow until 1941, when I married my beloved husband Claude, and he was in the Service at that time, and ah, speaking of that, it reminds me of the attitude of people right here in Binghamton in 1941, when it was, ah, publicized in the, ah, newspapers that a troop of Black soldiers would be stationed at the Armory here, ah, on Washington Street, and the reverberations, the newspapers and the statements of the people and, ah, they just did not want a Black troop here, that it was going to destroy the community. Now these men were serving their country—they were in the Army to serve their country but there was quite, ah, quite, ah, disgusting to say the least of feelings among the white community, but they came, they proved themselves.
Dan: Well I know when I was inducted—ah, not when I was inducted, but when I took my basic training—I think Dr. Dorsay was in at the same time, although I am not personally acquainted with the Doctor, but I knew that he was at the same base as I was—it was at Camp Lee, Virginia. Mrs. Fawcett, are you acquainted at all with, ah, Underground Railroad stations?
Mrs. Fawcett: Ah, to a degree I am.
Dan: I mean, to your knowledge or hearsay.
Mrs. Fawcett: Ah yes, because you see there is nothing in the history. Now when I did this documentary on Deep Are the Roots, I tried to trace many of the Underground stations in this area and, ah, I know that, ah, out in the town of Maine there was one and at the Gonzales home, and after doing much research through the library, I found this home. I contacted the Gonzales, and when WBNG did the shooting of this documentary, ah, most of it was done at her home, and ah, you see so many of, and, and this is going to be interesting because, ah, in the school system, so many of those of the young people do not realize that the Underground Railroad was not a railroad such as we know it.
Dan: Not per se. (chuckle).
Mrs. Fawcett: That’s right, but it was a sort of follow the drinking holes, ah, when these slaves would escape and, ah, through some way, they travel mostly by night and most of them by streams, and they would always be able to make some contact with some white family who would be on the lookout.
Dan: They were more or less places of refuge.
Mrs. Fawcett: Places of refuge. Now, ah, Montrose has a large home that was one of the Underground sites and, ah—
Dan: Do you know of any in Binghamton?
Mrs. Fawcett: Ah, I understand that where the old Federal building is, there used to be a building there, a home there on that site that was one time, but this I have never been able to, ah, really make something that would be a fact.
Dan: Of course that was quite a few years ago.
Mrs. Fawcett: But, ah, I do know that this home in Maine, and from Maine into Lisle, there was one, and Owego there was another, and then into Ithaca, Elmira, and then we went on north into Canada, and you know, it is rather interesting, ah, how the terminology “Underground Railroad” came about. Ah, according to history, ah, in Virginia there was this large slave owner, and this particular day one of these men, a slave, jumped into the river to lead to the other side, and ah, he immediately called the other slaves and some of his help and they got into a boat, and by the time they got to the other side of the river, they searched the ground all around and they couldn’t find this slave, and when he went back, ah, to his plantation, when they said "Did you get him?" and he said, “No, he must have gone underground.”
Dan: That’s how the term originated, huh?
Mrs. Fawcett: That’s how the term originated.
Dan: Now is Mr. Fawcett still living?
Mrs. Fawcett: Oh yeah, ah, it’s funny you don't know him, because he was in the catering business here in Binghamton for over 25 years, matter of fact he still does some catering.
Dan: Is that right?
Mrs. Fawcett: Ah, but he is retired from this, ah, to a large degree, but he did catering for some of the finest families, weddings and what have you in this community, Montrose, Ithaca and all around. He is now working for the State at the new State Building. He is the night supervisor of the housekeeping department. He's been there since the building opened.
Dan: So most of your time here in Binghamton was spent with the Library. Are you acquainted with Mr. Newcomb, who is a retired librarian from the University?
Mrs. Fawcett: Yes.
Dan: You do know him?
Mrs. Fawcett: Yes.
Dan: Well that’s fine, he's on vacation right now.
Mrs. Fawcett: Oh he is.
Dan: And I imagine he will be interested in this interview when he returns.
Mrs. Fawcett: Yes.
Dan: He is helping us out with this program.
Mrs. Fawcett: Oh, marvelous.
Dan: Yeah, so is there anything else you would like to add, Mrs Fawcett? You're affiliated with what church now?
Mrs. Fawcett: Trinity M.E. Zion Church.
Dan: The same church.
Mrs. Fawcett: And, ah, I am a member of the Urban League and NAACP. I am the founder, which I am very proud of, of the Semper Fidelis Women’s Club. And it is the affiliate of the Empire State Federation of Colored and we do a very fine job, communitywise, on all levels of community life. I have received all types of plaques. Last year I was the first Black woman to be honored by the Broome County Statehood of Women, which I am quite proud to receive for my work in the community.
Dan: Would you care to tell me how old you are, Mrs. Fawcett?
Mrs. Fawcett: I am 74.
Dan: 74—that’s wonderful. You've been retired just about two or three years?
Mrs. Fawcett: Yes, three years.
Dan: Three years.
Mrs. Fawcett: I retired in 1974.
Dan: I see—well that’s fine.
Mrs. Fawcett: I thank the Lord I am still active and capable of carrying on.
Dan: Well I certainly appreciate your calling us and consenting to this interview, and I've enjoyed it very much.
Mrs. Fawcett: Well I've enjoyed doing it. I like to talk of—it’s rather encouraging to see the change that has taken place in our community.
Dan: As long as it is a change for the better.
Mrs. Fawcett: It is, it definitely is a change for the better.
Dan: That’s good.
Mrs. Fawcett: Because now people can go about living their lives. Black people can, ah, with a feeling of security with the, what shall I say, with a feeling you are definitely a part of the community structure, and that you're not just something standing on the sidelines waiting to be given a handout, and that is very reassuring to the Black people of the community.
Dan: Well that’s wonderful.
Mrs. Fawcett: And I might add this, that unlike, ah, most people think, white people in the community think that there is a dense concentration of Black people in the community—there isn't. Ah, the, ah, like to refer to the Susquehanna area and all, but you find as many white people in that area—
Dan: Oh yes, definitely.
Mrs. Fawcett: —as Black people. Even before they began to move them out, and now Black people are scattered all throughout Broome County, Binghamton, Endicott, Endwell, Vestal.
Dan: I remember my grandparents—their first home was down on Tudor Street.
Mrs. Fawcett: Yes, yes.
Dan: In fact years ago, it was Irish and just as many Jews down there.
Mrs. Fawcett: Yes, because the Rosefakys were there.
Dan: Sure, a lot of them originated down there.
Mrs. Fawcett: And, ah, the Koffmans moved now, with the Loan Company I believe.
Dan: Well I thank you very much, Mrs. Fawcett. Anything you'd like to add before I turn this off?
Mrs. Fawcett: No, I think that is about it.