Tuesday, July 12th, 2011
“I was born in a little town called Benoit, Mississippi. As everyone always asks me, ‘Well, where is that near?,’ I just tell people that I am from Greenville, Mississipi because most people have heard of that. As a kid, my father died of TB. Back in those days, there was no cure and they just shipped you away. My mother remarried and my step-father, who was a railroad man, moved us up to Minnesota, with a brief stop in Detroit. As you can imagine, the transition was pretty stark. Mississippi was full of African-Americans, and Minnesota did not have so many. Still, I loved it up there.
“I left Minnesota to come to Howard University. I had never been to Washington or heard of the school, but I applied because the girl across the street applied. In the end, I got in and she didn’t. I came here all by myself, scared to death, at 16. Only good part of the trip was that I could travel for free because my Daddy worked for the railroad.
“When I got here in the late 50′s, I immediately wanted to go back to Minnesota. This place was just so different than what I was used to. My first perception of Howard was that all of the young men were impoverished because they wore short pants. In Minnesota, we didn’t do such things. I thought something was wrong with them. In Minnesota, our tennis shoes were always white and we wore crinolines, you know that Debbie Reynolds kind of look. Here, things were just the opposite. Everyone kept dirty shoes and my ex-husband and his buddies used to sit and rub their feet on my shoes to make them look dirty. I used to go to church, and here, that stuff just wasn’t cool.
“I called my Mom and begged her to come home. She told me to wait until Christmas, and if I still wanted to go home, I could. Thing is, come Christmas time, I was having a ball and didn’t want to go home. Here, we had so much freedom. Can you believe that we were allowed to stay out until 7 o’clock at night? In Minnesota, we had to be home before it got dark. If the lights came on the street and you were not at home, you were in trouble. It was a real freedom ride for me to be here. And, I grew to be okay with having my shoes dirty. In fact, I took pride in sitting on the campus lawn and rubbing my shoes in the dirt.
“But, the freedom also took its toll on academics and I suffered my first semester. I was off learning how to do the french inhale and how to drink, and my schooling suffered. I had never gotten bad grades before. I was one of two black students in the state of Minnesota to graduate with honors. I was appalled at myself and the next year, I went up-and-up and I eventually graduated with honors. So, college taught me to be a wild child, staying out until 7pm and all, but it also taught me discipline.
“I have only one regret in life, that comes from those days. My professor was Dr. H. Naylor Fitzhugh who was known as the Dean of Black Business. He went up to Harvard from Howard and offered me and another girl, Lillian Lincoln, a scholarship to go to Harvard Business School. She went and I didn’t. We were both married at the time, and her husband thought it was a good idea and mine didn’t. In those days, we were not quite as flexible and womanly as we are today. Well, Lillian was the first African-American woman to graduate from Harvard Business School and went on to have a very successful business career. That is the only regret that I can think of in terms of my education and career. I didn’t go because of my ex-husband. Today, that would not have been an issue. I would have gone to Harvard and given him my address! But life is really challenging and you have to make choices. Some are good and some are bad and hindsight is always 20/20.
“Today, I am pleased with where I am. I just passed my 20th year as president of the Greater Washington Urban League. People always ask me whether I have made a difference. I keep running into people who say that I have, so I base my answer on them. I have always wanted to change the world. In law school, I wanted to do it through bringing more socialism into the tax code. When I worked for the city, I wanted to do it through bringing more diversity to the District. Now, I do it through the Urban League. While I have my regrets about Harvard, I could not have written a better job description than the one I have now. I feel blessed every day to be where I am.”
Maudine Cooper is the President and CEO of the Greater Washington Urban League.
People’s District will be taking a short break until July 18th. Until then, we share with you some of our favorite stories from the past year.