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Three seniors celebrate black history

Clients of the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center are living witnesses to 1960s civil rig

Posted: February 13, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: February 13, 2012 2:00 a.m.

Billie Jean Curry, left, and Tommie Mae Ward examine posters on display for Black History Month at the entrance to the dining room of the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center in Newhall on Wednesday.

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Editor’s note: February is celebrated as Black History month.

It has been nearly 44 years since the death of Martin Luther King Jr., and next year will mark the 50th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Three African-American seniors, clients of the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center in Newhall — Nathaniel Sowards, Tommie Mae Ward and Billie Curry — are living witnesses to the history of civil rights struggles in the United States.

The trio has seen policies toward African-Americans transform over time.

Ward said she experienced the horrors and injustice of American segregation firsthand. She grew up in the heart of the South, Georgia, and experienced segregation first hand.

“My mother’s occupation was washing clothes for (the advantaged) and cooking in (their) kitchen,” Ward said.

Ward remembered going with her mother when she went to work.

“When she would take us to their kitchen, we would have to go in through the back door,” she said. “I wanted to know from her why we had to go in the back door.”

Billie Curry grew up in a segregated Memphis, Tenn. Her world and family were defined by the moments of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Curry said she left Memphis in 1960 to escape the harsh reality of that discrimination.

However, her family stayed. Curry’s sister marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 in support of sanitation workers on strike in Memphis, Tenn.

The Memphis Sanitation Strike, which began on Feb. 11, 1968, became one of the major civil rights struggles in the United States.

The event attracted the attention of the national media. Workers demanded union recognition, wage increases and an end to discrimination. In addition to King, other noted civil rights activists participated in the strike, including Roy Wilkins, James Lawson and Bayard Rustin.

King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis. The strike ended on April 12.

In 1977, Curry returned to Memphis to take her three sons to see the hotel where King was killed.

“When I went back, I saw some differences,” she said. “(After) I experienced one incident, I knew it wasn’t really over at that time. I took my three sons to the mall, and they had their own money, so I let them go shop.”

Curry said one of her sons went into a store, and the cashier cheated her son out of a dollar in change.

“He didn’t want to give him the dollar. I told the boys to forget it,” she said.

Curry feared the boys would get arrested.

“I said, ‘don’t worry about it,’ but the oldest boy felt that something had been taken from him and he knew this was wrong,” she said.

Curry said the incident reminded her that although things were improving, there was still room for progress in the way America treated and viewed African-Americans. 

Sowards, a Marine Corps veteran, said he knew his world was impacted by the color of his skin. However, growing up in New York instead of the South and moving to a “more liberal” California at a young age gave him a different perspective.

“My world wasn’t as affected as deeply as it affected others around the country,” he said.

Sowards said he did feel “great sympathy” and remembers it brought African-Americans in his community closer together “than they have ever been.”

The trio all said the treatment of African-Americans “is getting better.”

“I don’t fear. I grew up hard. I was poor. I’m a strong black woman. I don’t fear no man. I don’t fear you, I don’t fear her, and I don’t fear nobody. So that’s the way my life is,” Ward said.

Curry agreed with Ward.

“You can beat the odds. If you are determined to do it, you can do it. And with nine children, I persevered and that let me know that I had something in me,” Curry said. “Like she (Ward) said,  I was a really strong black woman.”

Sowards, Ward and Curry said they are proud of their past, their race and the history of change they have witnessed.

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