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tv   History Bookshelf Kent Garrett Jeanne Ellsworth The Last Negroes at...  CSPAN  February 19, 2021 9:03pm-9:51pm EST

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coauthors ken garrett jeanne
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ellsworth talk about their book the last negros at harvard. this event was part of a 2020 savannah book festival held before the coronavirus pandemic. >> what ken garrett and jeanne ellsworth are with us today. jean ellesworth has a ph.d. in education, from the university of buffalo. she has devoted her life to teaching. from elementary school to prisons, two universities. the authors live in rocks very new york. please give a warm savannah
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welcome to them both. royal. >> well thank you for inviting us, i'll let you know the book is called the last negros at harvard. 61 years ago harvard admitted 18 negros, that's what we are called then, and it was the largest number at that time never admitted and we came from north south east and west and different economic and social economic backgrounds. and before that they had been admitting blacks to harvard, but only two or three of the time. most guys would just go and do
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their four years, then get out of town. they would leave cambridge. but for us it was different in the sense that we had numbers, and we could form and individual racial identity as well as a group identity. we were able to become a force for change at harvard, and we changed harvard, and harvard changed us. and essentially that is what the book is about. it's about our four years there, and what happened and what happened there and after harvard. so once ignorant thing we did, we formed the first black student group organization out of harvard and again we were 18, and the whole class was 1100, so we are like the 1.9 5% of the class and the it wasn't that significant anyway. but i will tell you about my
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life a little bit and my parents were born in south carolina, that was in the twenties and they went to school and got high school degrees from south carolina. and they were part of a great migration coming up to the north they came up about 1940 or 1941 and i was born in 1942 and we lived in brooklyn new york in the federal housing product projects. my dad is always had three or four jobs, and ultimately he became a subway motor man in new york. i have a sister who is four years younger, and we both did pretty well in school. and i went to boys high school in brooklyn new york, and from there i went to harvard. after harvard, the not really realizing what i wanted to do i want to medical school for a year. that i hated, and so that was
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part of my mother's and you know my son the doctor syndrome, so we did not do that and from there i went into what did i do i went you know actually i was just looking for a calling and i went to advertising. and ultimately i ended up making tv commercials which was fun. it was interesting. i learned about film and television and writing commercials and all that. but ultimately, it was not that great for the mind, so i found something else to do. and that was black journalism. and that was my calling. it was the first it was the first black nationwide network in the country, and it was about blacks, and i worked there for three or four years. there it was a groundbreaking shell, and after that i went to
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in my life became sort of a series of tenure things and i worked at cbs with dan rather for ten years and then with tom broke off for ten years. then this is about 1997, i got tired of news and in many ways the news was changing, in that it became more focused on reading and marketing and that sort of stuff. so i left that, and decided i had my sort of back to the land moment, and i went to upstate new york, and i milked dairy cows for about ten years. we had these scottish cows, and they were really great and i did that for about ten years. i malcolm twice a day. what happens there is that as you get older, the cows realize you get older to, and they take advantage of you, so i got out of that. and what happened one day
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harvard sends out to all its domestic alumni this thing called harvard magazine and they said that every couple months, and most people get it and they look at a few of the articles, and go to the arbitrary's to see who is surviving from your class. so i did that one day, and i saw a guy who i guess he had been about two years ahead of us and he had died and i start thinking about what happened to the 18 guys, you know in my class and what they had done who had been happy, who had been's added citrus extra so i knew, you know i've been in touch with two or three of them, but i did not know what happened to the others. so we decided, to do you know basically to do a documentary and we thought it would be a good idea to do a documentary as to what happened with these guys. >> that is where i came in i didn't know can't when he sold the cows, i did not get to do
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any milking. but the eye was newly retired from the state university of new york. and i was wondering what i was going to do. so, we were both single, we lived about 40 minutes away from each other, and chances are we would not have met, except for online dating so we both put our little profiles up there, and i'm not lying harvard the word harvard, in kansas profile, he said would you like to have dinner and i said yes. and on a first day we talk about this project. he told me he wanted to know what happened to his classmates, and i know we have a lovely dinner, and i had about an hour to drive home and i was thinking you know, i did not know if we would have a second date but i knew he had a great story, and my background is
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history of education, so i was thinking in a little mental calculations that i knew these guys were born in the early forties, and they came from all over the country, therefore they had lived under the shadow of jim crow, maybe some of them went to segregated schools and they just started high school and i figured they had some interesting stories to tell so we did have a second date and more dates after that and before i knew it, he was teaching me how to use a boom mike. then we got into his car, and went around the country and we lived in upstate new york so we started with his best friend and roommate in harvard, who lived about two hours away, and we started widening the circle and looking for the guys and little by little we did it and you know it took a long time. maybe eight or ten of them being harvard graduates, they
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had little letters after their names in, they had high-profile jobs, and we google them and they came right up. others were more difficult. and then sadly we did learn that four of the men had died before we even started the project. then we went and looked you know for their children and friends and started to amass enough of the data for a 2000-page book. and the years went by, but we did gather some great life stories. and of course everybody asks us, i bet you're in other surprises along the way. and yes can will talk about a couple. >> the challenge actually in doing the video, the challenge in writing the book, has been not to have some of the characters, and having to deal with well having to deal already with 18 entities, and four of them that were surprises to me. so in terms of figuring out who
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we would be interviewing, they had taking these little black and white photos of us, years ago in the class book in the freshman class book and i use that to figure out who i would be interviewing because i didn't know some of the guys and we assumed that there was 17 and we actually had a title for the video and we are calling it the harvard black 17. and the harvard class of 63, you know that i guess they put out every quarter a newsletter to all of the people in the class. and we put a note in they're saying that we are working on this video project that we would like it if you had any funny stories or anecdotes about the black guys in our class to let us know the so we got a note back from the guy saying he wait, there might be 18 or maybe 19 or 20
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guys in your class that were negro as we recall back then. so actually panicked about that -- so the question was, how do i find out if somebody is black or not? so being an intrepid reporter, i decided to just make the call so i would call one name i was named cherry, so i called cherry and we had a little small talk and at the end i said, by the way are you black? and he said, yeah, i am so that was one down so i had two more to go, but i talk to jerry and when i talk to him when we were doing the movie, he said that he looks very light skin and he's very difficult to tell that he's really black it turns out that his mom was from trinidad and his dad was jewish and they were out of washington, and we had all forgotten about him after that first day. but anyway, he told me that he
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went around back then saying, hi i'm jerry and i'm a negro and he would say that right up until he met them, because he didn't want to have to deal with derogatory negro jokes or derogatory jewish jokes so he wanted to kill two birds with one stone, i guess you could say. and the interesting thing about him is that he lives in california now and he has two sons and he has -- and it's sort of a study in the complexities of race, in the sense that he has two sons and one son looks white and identifies as black, and the other son he has looks black, but identifies as white and they're all very happy. i mean, it's a happy family. but that's how it worked. out another surprise, little davidson was a gardener closs who wasn't pianist and he
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became a protegee of coleman, the jazz musician and they did an album, loaded one album cold lowell davidson trio and when we got looked at the album, the drummer on the album was a guy called melfort grace who i went to a boys high school with and had written the subways of new york -- so it was very surprised to see him and it was nice so we did an interview with him, he was at bennington college and that was a surprise and the third surprise was that one of our classmates was gay and he had to suppress that his whole time at harvard, and he was from atlanta and he tells -- in the book, he tells some sort of harrowing stories about being in the closet at that time at harvard and how we wanted to sort of keep that away from us.
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that sort of thing and the third -- to fourth a guest surprise, which is not in the book but is that one of our classmates was, while we were there, worked for the cia, and his job was to keep an eye on us. and we vowed not to -- it's not in the book, and we vowed have to tell his name so those were some of the surprises. of course, along the way there are discoveries. being an academic myself, i couldn't wait to get to the harvard archives and so we started looking for everything we could find in the archives to the point of we page through the harvard crimson for every day and there's just a daily newspaper for the year before they arrived, right through when the last guy graduated. but also, i found in the archives, to student papers that had been done about the
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18. so, i know that the guys at the time, they said, well what are we doing here? it's this experiment are we anomalies? are we curiosities? well, to at least these two students, they were anthropological specimens, so one of the studies was done by a senior at the time, they were freshman he amassed an unbelievable amount of data from an undergraduate paper, especially he submitted them to a 29 page questionnaire and interviews and he titled his paper rising sons of darkness so yes, cringing was our main activity during reading these things and, probably more interesting was a paper done by a white classmate the first guy
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was white, this guy was not a white classmate of there's, so can's best friend at harvard, his freshman roommate was a guy named ron blau and he was a white guy from new jersey, and it actually was actually jackson roommate that ron do this paper and he interviewed all 18 of the guys at some length and asked of course, the questionnaire so, it was fascinating to me for a couple of reasons first of all, it was -- there was enough detail and enough quotes in ronny's paper for us to find out some things that the guys said about raise at the time hot after 50 years of, you know, change and fogging up of memory, as it holds on the. about what they said about themselves and the race at the time, equally important to me was i got to see what a typical
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student in 1959 would've read in sociology classes about quote, the negro. and the negro problem. and, that was pretty hell raising, actually i think for both of us it was quite disturbing, i mean for one thing, just to think that can't for example was a social relations major, so knowing what ideas were in the backs of the mind, to what assumptions their professors had of them was creepy and i'm going to just give you a couple quotes to raise your hair about it. so, for instance in one of the books that ron blau quotes, it was called the mark of oppression by tension oversee, obviously well respected
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sociologist they said that their mothers were often loveless tyrants, their fathers frequently either sick loose of taciturn violent or punitive or submissive to the mother of the marriages were multiple and this court and, their families unsettled and their communities devoid of john when -- and he sums up in the end of the book by seeing the negro has no possible basis for a healthy self esteem and every incentive for self hatred >> luckily, ron, because possibly he actually knew the guys and lived with him, he said several times in the paper, these guys don't seem to fit the stereotype. unfortunately, ron's professor who was really symone, i forget his first name, david reese, author of the lonely crowd, he tried to argue back with we
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also had the comments that recent had made on the paper and he tried to argue ron out of his position. it was upsetting to read but, you know, cans going to tell you a little bit more about the paper now >> yeah, first off, ronny was a nice guy, we all liked him and as you know, when college kids have to do a paper, you just have to do a paper. so we were helping him out to do is paper and i was sort of kind of amused by it but it does his first suggestion was that he do a paper on the social life of the freshman negros at harvard in our class and, it was suggested that he would -- the nerve it was during the week, then go out with on the weekends to parties and take notes and observe. i mean, but the problem with that was that if he had chose to do that, he would've perhaps
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gotten a couple paragraphs, given the dearth and the lack of social life that we had. so good thing he did not do that. the thing he did to, and again it is different when you read something now in on 2020 or 2019, versus in 1959. he had one question that we did not think you know i read about it now, i get ticked off at it, but you know the question was then, if you have a question if you had a chance to be worn again, would you want to be born a negro or white, and he asked everybody that. and when i'm reading this a few years ago, i was happy to see that everybody had said, yes we wanted to be reborn as negros and one guy freddy said, if i were born white it would be less trouble, but being negro is nice. then one guy, a football player he said he thought about it and
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said he would like to try it for a year and see what happens so you know,. you know the other thing we set up there and i guess it's ubiquitous or inevitable black table, and since there was 18 of us, and the way that harvard was set up we all lived in the yard and everybody eats together. and we would have a table where we pretty much in a would sit any together and for me it was kind of a refuge in a sense, because i could sit with other blacks and we could talk about girls i guess or we could talk about culture, we could talk about you know a place where you could talk and you didn't have to sort of speak the kings english. you could let your hair down as such. and as a matter of fact there is a guy there's a contemporary
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comedian, named dion cole. where he talks about how blacks kind of maneuver in the white world and how they have to manage their black-ness, because they don't want people to get a freighter scared of that sort of thing. so in many ways the block table was a place where you could go during the day and not have to manage your negro nestor worry about what you said are that sort of thing and as far as dating goes you know there was not much dating at all up there and the attitude from harvard was that we this or want to keep the sexes apart. and they had these mixers which everybody would go to. and everybody hated them. the girls in the guys and that sort of thing, that so you know. >> you didn't mean that kind of mixing. >> yeah. >> sometimes you would try to
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find one girl from the community, there was one black woman at ratcliffe at that time. and she could not have 18 dates. >> yes and what we would do in terms of the dating thing, is that you don't nearby colleges would put out catalogues, of of the women in the college, and every catalog be names of people. and we want to find out if this girl was black or she is negro and we'd have friends at college and let's see if a guy you know knew a woman was from st. louis, we'd go to one of our friends from st. louis and say look at this name, and look at this address and, is there any chance that this woman might be black? and they would say no not living in that neighborhood. so that was part of our system to have it that. and what happened as we got
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into our junior years, throughout the nation the whole civil rights movement you know that was exploding and kids here in the south, they were getting beat up and punished and thrown in jail so we felt that we had to try to do something up there. and we were in kind of and idealistic bubble, you know it was a very liberal place, and if there is any kind of sort of racism, and it was really benign in many ways in the sense that what we did get was, a lot of questions about what's it like to be a negro, and then what is it like you know and what do people want? kind of questioning, and those got tiring after a while, but after while some of the guys to stop asking us that as well so what we did do is that we invited malcolm x to come up and he did talk to us at
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elliott house. and that was mind-blowing for all of us, and we are starting to think that point that maybe you know the migration was not going to work and we should be more separatists and get into the black power thing but that changed a lot of minds, and then we decided that we wanted to set up a black student organization and again we don't have any particular radical ideas, we want to place where we could you know go and meet together and talk and maybe the chairman dizziness something, but it would be called the socially shun of african and afro american students. and membership would be limited to people who were of african or african american heritage. and we assumed that it would be fine at the university and they
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would agree but when we proposed it to them they said no because they felt it was reverse discrimination and we claimed and we were upset about that because harvard has these things called final clubs which are sort of social eating clubs where aristocratic families go like john f. kennedy over the roosevelts or the presidents and they don't light in women, they don't let in jewish folks, they don't let in people who have money, but if it's new money, whatever that means, but if it wears new money, you could get in. so, we claimed that, what about those? and they said well, they don't put that in their charter so they just based it on who they pick to join and they wanted us to say, well okay you guys take that out of your charter and
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you can do whatever you'd want to do. we refused to do that and it was a whole long, drawn out fight which is in the book and, you know, we ended up sort of winning indian. >> that organization still exists, it's gone through a couple of name changes but about five years after can graduated, they were the group that kind of storm the administration building and demanded more black faculty, more black students, recruitment and the african american studies. and as i say, it still exists today. >> i guess we don't have much more time but -- ok, one thing is that, i mean again it was a very innocent time in many ways and for example, i'll tell you a story. one of the guys, fred easter,
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one of our classmates was in the dining hall at the time and the white guy came up from minnesota and said, listen, can i sit with you? and the rule at that time was that when anyone asks the sit at your table, you say yes. and this guy sat down, he said i've never talked to a negro before, can i talk to you? he proceeded to ask freddie really reasonable questions and it was a pleasant, you know, pleasant interchange and the became good friends and he invited fred to a lot of hockey games and that sort of thing. it was that kind of innocence that was also going on at the time and finally, people, part of the book was to find out where we fit into the historical arc of the civil rights movement, what our place was. and i think when we get down to it, when you finally look at, it you know we sort of did our
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part trying to move the movement forward. freddy has a good quote where he says that he thinks that we all, because all the pressure was that if we messed up, maybe harvard wouldn't let any more blacks in. maybe they would say, this was an experiment that didn't work and this black community has no -- nothing to contribute to the harvard community but, we feel that -- i cannot football analogy, that we carried the ball, we didn't fumble and i like to think that we got closer to the goal post but unfortunately, those goalposts seem to kind of changing got further and further away so that's part of the problem. >> so if you have half questions, we've been asked to remind you to come to the microphone in the middle.
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>> high, and can't, you touched on this but you know the question if you could have dinner with anyone who would it be? mine is malcolm x and so could you elaborate on your dinner with him, what it was like? >> oh yeah, it was a great dinner. he was charismatic, i mean he was actually charming and he was very different in many ways from the rhetoric that you had heard, that he would give and that he would -- and i think at that time he was very religious too. he was really a great man, and at the dinner what happened was, there was a time when there was controversy about martin luther king and martin luther king's would womanizing. has had been exposed by gets the fbi, that sort of thing. and a big argument came up at the dinner about that between malcolm x and the faculty sponsor the guy who is
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sponsoring the data and he got so heated that we were going to call down to martin luther king and atlanta and it was resolve it but malcolm showed he real punch of grace that just moved to get down and, yeah i mean, i left there on fire at the dinner. >> do you know how the team was chosen and what was the process that you went through? did you apply there? were you chosen by school? >> okay, she asks whether we know how these teams were chosen in particular can was chosen. i'll tell you a little bit about the 18 because we wanted to answer the question for ourselves, was this some kind of early form of affirmative action?
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affirmative action in the freeze waiting cameron for a couple more years, but yes it was harvard had a couple of key men who you will read about in the book in the admissions. decided that it was the right thing to do. and they said about to make this happen, they -- one of the gentlemen was on the board of an organization called the national scholarship service and fun for negro students, which was founded in the early 19 fifties so, working with that organizations, they sent out feelers and -- some of the ones intense class were located in their high schools and they were sent in a year or even to have a fine new england prep school to get them ready. but we don't know exactly what happened with kent, because he doesn't remember but i suspect that miss fins for somebody at
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harvard had a connection with boys high because it wasn't just can't, there were two blacks from his class that were admitted. do you want talk about that? >> yeah, i don't remember folks recruited i know it was recruited by -- but i'm not sure that harvard, but i know we did applying all that and the big thing at harvard animus say that they are really the good cause of this trauma, and they were really ahead of the time and they were really trying to do the right thing, and they really believed in diversity. i mean, so for example, in my three years, i lived with -- i was in his suite with david rockefeller and awarded, i guess is the middle company folks. and their theory was that i would make rockefeller a better banker and i'm not quite sure what they felt when he would make me better at but, you know,
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maybe it would understand lights more or the system or whatever, but they were really the good people in this journey >> i was wondering if harvard as an institution wanted you to succeed as you got out in 1963, did they try to get jobs for the 18 and get you in good spots to continue thelskykyk su? >> you go to harvard, you don't need any help. >> that's the thing, it does give you an edge up. i mean, what happened is when i wanted to advertised and even now, if you look at some of the people on tv, news, they're all from -- a lot of from ivy league schools and it does give you a leg up. but even if it's sort of subconscious sometimes but, you know -- >> did you feel it was the 18, did you find they had a nice start in a career? >> yeah they all had nice starts, one went to law school, some were pretty successful on
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wall street, one give up wall street and became an anglican priest at st. thomas. >> more than half of them continue to in some vein, work for civil rights and you know, most were very successful in whatever field they chose. >> right. >> not all. there were some sad stories to. >> thank you so much. i'm wondering after you spent four years in this sort of idealistic bubble, as you call it what was it like to go out in the real world? i mean, it had to have been very different from your experience at harvard? >> yeah. i mean, going out in the real world yeah i think it was very different but i mean they did prepare you. among the thing about harvard is that you, they really emphasize critical thinking and
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you sort of challenge everything so that was the best preparation for me in terms of going out into the world. >> he still walked out into a world where there was often discrimination. >> that's true but i mean i think you feel like you can deal with it, i mean you feel better approaching it yeah, and you feel like you were able to compete and with the big guys, and the big guys like the rockefellers and the leaders of the industry, so it gives you some that confidence that you may have not have had if you had gone to not gone to harvard, put it that way. >> you told stories of sort of being studied by students when you were there, there were two studies to write their senior papers or whatever, research papers. and you are doing yet another study of this group.
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did you get any resistance they, people not want to be studied or was everyone really willing to participate in your? project >> in terms of the book project, oh no, they were really happy. i mean, we started the -- would happen with the video project we got a grand form of foundation to do a short documentary that we used to raise money to do longer feature length documentary, so we weren't sure whether these guys, are there everybody still had their marbles and everybody, you know, who was failing and -- but they were all articulate, they all had a lot to say and they had a lot to say, they've been living black in american for seven decades so they had a lot to say. >> there was one of cats -- cans classmates who preferred not to be videotaped and i think he eventually responded
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to a number of questions we had about his life, but he preferred not to be in the documentary >> this is an easy question. as freshman, were you all in the same house? and they still not read you full houses until you're sophomore year? harvard nowadays, there's freshman living into a house -- >> the way was set up then, the freshman, there were eight or nine freshman dormitories kind of surrounded about the around the yard on each of us lived in -- some of us lived, there were five in my freshman doors with five new growth and were spread around but where we would all move in the freshman dining hall, where we ate, and then after your freshman year, you move to the houses and they're about ten of those and actually, they're like little colleges
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and that's where we would -- >> harvard still does interesting things. my daughter had a muslim remained from pakistan and unorthodox jewish roommate from boston and there was a cuban girl who was jewish and my daughter is a blond hair and blue eyes. and the four of them, it was interesting because -- that's what i wondered. when they blocked, they want different directions. they didn't achieve any sort of balance by living that way, but i wondered if you -- >> so you had five maybe an adorn. because the lunch table you talk about, that happens in every high school in america. >> well, we were curious about how harvard, you know they had he's 18 negros, why were they going to do about pairing them off with guys for their freshman roommate experience and, what we eventually found out was that ronny blau, the author of the paper, he
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remembered that he filled out paper that said, would you be willing to room with a member of another race? and he checks the box. so he ended up with tense friend, now can't and his roommate were friends in high school, there was another pair of black man who were friends before they got to or they had made each other beforehand. and some of the other guys were matched up with white guys, but then there were two sets of both black as roommates so my own mind is saying, maybe they got that few people who checked the box, you know so they find the freshman who check that box and they say, okay, we can put him with him and then they ran out. we don't know sadly, i would love to know. >> did harvard continue this classes after yours?
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>> to continue recruiting? yeah, they did. i think the numbers went down a little bit but they really exploded in the 1968, 69. i mean, when there were hundreds admitted. if >> you were starting harvard in this day and age, would your mission be the same, would you still be pushing for civil rights or would you be more career oriented? >> no, i think i'd be more into civil rights. i mean, the thing, you know i'm like 77 now, my dad's like 97 and we are still out there struggling infighting i thought that by this time in my life, things would we -- might have been closer to post racial society and, you know, everybody happy and all that but that really has not happened so many of us we've
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taken our reporting tools down from the shed and into it again, like i do a -- from upstate new york, i do a daily news show from eight to nine, but it's on the internet to its. probably why ex radio .org on the internet, and i'm joined by two of my classmates come on as well. so we are still out there trying to, you know do the civil rights and essentially, i should say civil rights, but it's just a change of the consciousness of people and the sort of try and get them to change some of their attitude. i mean, we live in delaware county upstate new york and it's a very red, it's one of the reddest counties in the state, i mean very -- and what i do is, honda news show a play a lot of country
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music so my hope is that somebody who is driving through the area would hook onto the country music san and stay to here in new story. i don't know if that happens >> when did the documentary morph into a book? >> when we couldn't raise the money for the documentary. can't is often asked that question and he'll say, well we thought it would make a better book, there were so many, and we wanted to go into history but, you know we are both retired and i was, like i'm not spending these years trying to raise money, i did that. i mean, i think in many ways, i think it does make for a better book in the sense that, you know, we were all in our seventies and it's not like we're running around doing interesting things, i mean
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we're sort of, -- -- >> not very cinematic things. >> thank you very much.
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