|OUR KIND OF PEOPLE|
March 4, 1999
David Gergen engages Lawrence Otis Graham, an attorney and contributing
editor at US News and World Report. He is the author of Our
Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class.
DAVID GERGEN: Lawrence, in the way you describe it in your new book, the black upper class in America has created a social world that is very unfamiliar to me, and I imagine to a great many others. For example, you've been a member of the black upper class all your life and you went to Princeton, you went to the Harvard Law school. You went to Wall Street to practice law. You married a woman with three degrees from Harvard. But you also were a member of Jack and Jill as a young boy. Your mother was a member of the Links and now as a man, you're a member of Boule. What are those social organizations? They seem to have defined your life as much as Princeton and Harvard Law did.
LAWRENCE OTIS GRAHAM, Author, Our Kind of People: That's a good point, David, because it's very interesting how almost schizophrenic the existence of members of the black upper class really live, where a part of their life, for instance, myself, growing up in an all-white neighborhood in an affluent community in Westchester County outside of New York, where my weeks, Monday to Friday, were spent with the white children in my neighborhood, but on the weekends, my activities were with Jack and Jill, which is an old -- a very, very old organization founded in the 1930's, for black upper class children, to really network with each other and meet each other through different chapters around the country, and was founded by seven black women. Six were married to physicians, one was married to a banker. And their goal was really to create a black children's play group because they were dealing with the segregation that existed. But these were well-to-do blacks that knew that they needed to bring together kids that might have felt like outsiders when they were with other black children who might have been less privileged.
DAVID GERGEN: And there are chapters of Jack and Jill all over the country.
LAWRENCE OTIS GRAHAM: Right. There's 220 chapters of Jack and Jill around the country. And many of the most prominent blacks in America have their children enrolled in this group because it teaches them about their black identity. They perform a lot of public service on the weekends.
DAVID GERGEN: Now, that social networking includes fraternities and sororities, a very powerful part.
LAWRENCE OTIS GRAHAM: It includes sororities like AKA's and the Deltas that were founded at Harvard -- at Howard University, as well as the fraternities, Alphas, the Kappas and the Omegas. But even more than that, there are things like the debutante cotillions and the men's and women's social groups. Many people don't realize that the black experience, even though there's a public image, this sense that people are activists, but many people within the black upper class are very quiet about where they come from, what their background is. It's a group that really is obsessed with family background, as well as wealth, and to some extent, what we call the "Brown Paper Bag and Ruler Test."
DAVID GERGEN: Yes. Tell us about that test.
LAWRENCE OTIS GRAHAM: Well, that's something that goes back to slavery -- when blacks were divided into the dark skinned slaves that worked in the fields and then the light skinned slaves that worked in the house at the "prestige" jobs -- the butlers, the cooks, the family servants. And the rule was the Brown Paper Bag and Ruler Test was nothing more than you had to be lighter than a brown paper bag and your hair had to be as straight as a ruler. So it's an ugly and unfortunate way of looking at skin color and hair texture, but that was what the attitude of the black upper class has been and certainly had been.
DAVID GERGEN: And it is a dividing point there between the black upper class and other blacks. You said that the black upper class lives on the boundaries of two worlds: One, the black community and another the white community. It must be a complex relationship for the black community.
LAWRENCE OTIS GRAHAM: It's an awkward situation because the black upper class is not accepted by either group. Whites look at them and they say, "Well, you don't look like us. You don't have the same heritage as we do, so you're not a part of the group, even if you are well educated and have the money," because this is a group -- the questions they ask in the black upper classes, "Where did your grandfather go to medical school" or "What debutante cotillion presented your great grandmother?" It's a group that presumes that you have wealth, but they care about so many other things. But it's also outside of the black mainstream in that it's a group that sends their kids to special camps like Camp Atwater, an exclusive black camp that was founded in 1923. They make sure that their daughters are presented to society through specific cotillions like the Links or the AKA's or the Delta Cotillions. It's a group that embraced certain black boarding schools that were founded at the turn of the century, schools like Palmer Boarding School, Mather Academy in South Carolina. So even though they've also embraced other boarding schools like Exeter and Andover to an extent, for the most part, the group is very separate from the black mainstream.
DAVID GERGEN: And talking about black colleges, you said there were three that seemed to be in an upper tier, which were Howard and Spellman and Morehouse and there were others like the Meharry and Fisk -
LAWRENCE OTIS GRAHAM: Fisk, right.
DAVID GERGEN: -- that were regarded as first- rate. But there was a difficult choice to be made by members of the black upper class about whether to go to a predominantly black -- historically black college or whether to go to a white university. You chose to go to a mostly white university like Princeton.
LAWRENCE OTIS GRAHAM: Exactly.
DAVID GERGEN: Tell me about that choice.
LAWRENCE OTIS GRAHAM: Well, and that choice was difficult for me because most of family friends and family members had all gone to black colleges. And certainly during my parents' generation, they grew up in the segregated South in Memphis, there really wasn't even a choice, even an issue. But when I was doing my research, and I spent six years on this book, I found that there were many, many blacks that were attending schools like Mount Holyoke and Wellesley and Harvard, going back to the turn of the century that were part of this black upper class. But there were only specific white schools they would go to, except when you get to the issue of passing, which I also address in the book, because the issue of racial passing was also performed and taken advantage of by some members of the black upper class because there were even people that graduated from Howard Medical School. I had interviewed the family of Hugh Price, who's the president of the National Urban League. And one of his uncles had graduated from Howard Medical School. But he decided on the day he graduated that he would rather live as a white man than live as a graduate of Howard Medical School.
DAVID GERGEN: When I was growing up in North Carolina in the 1960's in the Civil Rights period, there were many blacks who were active in that time on behalf of Civil Rights who felt that the black upper class wasn't there for them, didn't give them the kind of financial support, didn't give their energies. Was that an accurate portrayal? You said that there's been a complicated question about that.
LAWRENCE OTIS GRAHAM: It's been an awkward experience that I think when people look back at the Civil Rights Movement, because many people do say that the black upper class was very late to supporting it, the Civil Rights Movement. And I had this conversation with Julian Bond's mother when I was in Atlanta.
DAVID GERGEN: He was a member of the black community -- he has been a member.
LAWRENCE OTIS GRAHAM: A very, very prominent family, because the families I'm talking about are people that were millionaires at the turn of the century or who traced their lineage to the very first black US Senators from the 1870's or US members of the US House of Representatives, 1880's. And we were talking about the fact that blacks -- the black upper class financed a lot of the Civil Rights Movement. They were willing to write the checks to the NAACP -- people like Madam C. J. Walker, who was the very first woman millionaire in this country.
DAVID GERGEN: Very first.
LAWRENCE OTIS GRAHAM: Very first woman millionaire who happened to be black, though. And she built a magnificent mansion near the Rockefellers in Westchester County in New York, 20,000-square-foot mansion. But she gave thousands of dollars to the NAACP in 1910 to help them with their anti-lynching campaign. So very quietly the black upper class has always supported Civil Rights issues. But unfortunately they were not the ones that were out front getting their hands "dirty" or being chased by dogs or blown away by fire hoses. But at the same time, they served as the strategizers and people that helped motivate and mobilize the various groups. But once again, as today, many of them told me in my research, they do not want to socialize with working-class blacks. Interestingly enough, they don't even belong to the Baptist faith. Most blacks in this country are members of the Baptist Church, but this group historically has been members of the Episcopal or Congregational Church, and that's true certainly in all the 12 cities that I profile.
DAVID GERGEN: Fascinating story. Lawrence Otis Graham. Thank you.
LAWRENCE OTIS GRAHAM: Great to be here, David.