"I'm just learning what it means to be old. 94 years is a long damn time.”
I met Ollie at CCSU on a beautiful fall day. She parked her car, opened the door and sat quietly for several minutes. Concerned, I approached to check on her and she waved me off saying "I need to finish listening to this." It was the live radio broadcast of the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett. Ollie, is a "flaming liberal" and Navy veteran who graduated with a law degree from Howard University in 1948 -- one of four women in her class. In those days, teaching was a more usual profession for women. Ollie explained that she graduated high school and was able to go to Hunter College in New York City. Today she feels that the country is going backwards. Hunter, one of four colleges in the city, was totally free. All you had to do was get good enough grades to get in. She thinks it is terrible that now we are just beginning to consider free higher education in community college now.
Ollie wasn’t considered a pioneer in her family; that title had been earned earlier by her older sister, Lillian Wheeler, also an alumnus of Howard University, who became a physician.
Early Life - Family Struggles with Poverty and Illness
I was born in New York City in 1925. My mother left the farm in Manassas, VA at eighteen to come to New York to go to nursing school. This was an impossible ambition for a black girl with the limited education she received in Virginia. Even if she had been better prepared, it would be extremely difficult for her. Harlem Hospital was the only facility she could hope to attend, since other hospitals and other nursing training schools did not accept Blacks in those days.
A young innocent girl in the big city, she became pregnant and had my sister Lillian in 1917. Her choice at that point was to go back to the country with her baby or try and support her as a single mom with no job prospects. She sent Lillian back home and cleaned other people’s houses for a living.
In a few years, she married Oliver a bricklayer, a member of the bricklayer’s union. When the Depression hit, he couldn’t get work. Nobody could get work. The Depression lasted until World War II.
My mother worked hard, really hard, during the Depression. White men couldn’t get work. So obviously Black men couldn’t get work so she supported the whole family, by taking care of other people’s homes, cooking, she could really cook, and doing their laundry. She sewed everything I wore. Even in law school I still wore a skirt she made while I was in high school. She eventually got a job taking care of little babies through the Sheltering Arms Organization.” *
Studies in the field show that babies needed to be held and often would die even when nothing was physically wrong with them if they weren't physically held. She was good at nursing abandoned and/or neglected babies back to health.
I didn’t meet my sister until I was 8 years old when my grandmother died and she was too much for my grandfather. My mother brought her home then. Roberta knew and preached to us that we had to get a good education.
I was twelve when my father left us in 1937. I thought he was the greatest. He taught me how to ride a bike, how to ice skate, we walked all over New York together. A subway cost five cents and we didn’t have that. When he left I felt it deeply. My sister lived in Washington with my aunt by this time. She attended Howard University while I attended high school, I helped out with the babies my mother nursed back to health. I remember cleaning all the diapers in bleach and hot, hot water. To this day I call refrigerators “ice boxes.” We were the last to get a washing machine in the neighborhood. After spending my adolescent years taking care of all of those babies, I didn’t plan to ever have any of my own. I was going to have a career. Any career.
College, Military, Family
At one point in her childhood, Lillian was diagnosed with TB [tuberculosis} caused by a virus in unpasteurized milk on my grandfather’s farm. She was quarantined with many others on an island fortwo-to-three years. It was there she decided she wanted to be a doctor. She saw how the doctors there were the “top dogs” and she wanted this. She was strong willed, like my mother and unlike me, she knew what she wanted to do at an early age. So during her time at Howard, she was premed, and she went on to become a doctor.
I had no idea what I wanted to do when I graduated. I attended Hunter College in New York City. Hunter College was free. There were free colleges in each borough. You needed good marks in high school to get in. This is an issue we should be fighting for today.
I and all my friends all thought we would be doctors, but after I matriculated, I knew I couldn’t do math or science well enough for this. My best friend was a straight A student, who wanted to do scientific research, and couldn’t get into a single program because of her race and gender.
In my day there was a fairly well known reason for many white girls to go to college. They wanted a husband to take care of them and a “marriage degree.” I don’t know of any Black woman who felt that way. They expected to work while married. After Hunter College, I went to law school at Howard University. Studying political science had given me an interest in law. Thurgood Marshall and Anna Pauline Murray had graduated from Howard and I studied with great professors who had taught them, such as Charles Houston.
Afterward, having a degree was not enough to get a job. No one was interested in hiring a Black woman lawyer. Even to successfully open your own office, you needed a relative or mentor to assist you or get advice from. It is hard to get established and I never found a way into practicing the law. I opened my own law office in Washington DC, but I didn’t like practicing and I could not make a living. I took a job with the Labor Department and moved my mother down to Washington and bought a little house where we lived together. I adored her, but I had to establish myself independently and move out on my own. So I joined the Navy. As a lawyer, I was commissioned as an Ensign.
My heart wasn’t in the Navy and I didn’t do well there. It wasn’t the career for me. When we listed our choices of where we wished to be stationed, posts in California and overseas were first on my list. I ended up assigned as an investigating officer in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the last place I wanted to be. I had hoped to travel. But that is where I met my husband. He was my yeoman (that’s a secretary!) and he was brilliant but had only a high school diploma, so when he enlisted he was only a seaman. This was a BIG secret affair. Officers were NOT supposed to fraternize with non-officers. It was quite a love story. When my hitch ended, I got an honorable discharge, and so did he despite all this.
Back in New York, where we had both grown up, we moved in together but I resisted marriage. It was the fifties, and we were non-conformists. Melvin won my mother’s approval, but his Orthodox Jewish family didn’t accept me. Between the difference in education, race and religion, many people thought we would not last. I worked for the city for the first few years at HUD [Housing and Urban Development], and Melvin worked for the family-owned Daitch’s Grocery Stores, working his way up to management in a couple of years.
I wasn’t sure I ever wanted a family, and had never wanted children, but at the age of thirty my biological clock decided I did want to have a child. We married. Mel was a hard worker but he realized he would never break through to the top rank of the company because he wasn’t a member of the Daitch family.
He started various business ventures, first a landscaping business, then a diner, and finally a trucking company. That trucking business was the one that enabled us to raise and educate our children. I raised the children and was a sort of happy housewife. I never thought of the work I did, primarily as the dispatcher and accountant in the home office of our trucking company as a job. It had to be done. We were able to pay the private school where I insisted my children had to go. I did not trust the public schools. We had purchased a house in Hempstead Long Island, not an area where neighbors paid high taxes for their schools.
Social Work & Contribution to AIDs epidemic
When my youngest started school, I decided to get a job. The AIDS pandemic had just begun. AIDS was similar to Covid in the beginning in that they didn’t know where it came from or how to treat it. Eventually they found out: drugs primarily and homosexual activity, so many died--so many. Again that crisis was similar to the current crisis in that the city had a vast amount of AIDS sufferers and needed to do something about it. In time it was determined that the medicines that they were experimenting with would not be effective if you were living on the street. The patients needed significant care. This created a need for housing and I became a director for several housing programs for people with AIDS. The tenants already living in the apartment buildings didn't want people with AIDS living near them. They had bad reputations. To rent and furnish the apartments and encourage the drug addicts to change their life style was the job. In the beginning, an AIDS diagnosis was a death sentence but eventually the doctors succeeded in conquering that virus as they will with Covid 19.
One woman still calls me, her AIDs is undetectable. She and her children are all doing well. When I first met her she was a drug addict and my co-workers did not feel that she would cooperate. Maybe I was naïve but I felt she would be okay. She really loved her children. Her youngest boy is in college now.
Politics & Voting across the Years
I was listening to a congressman or senator talking about the Supreme Court nomination hearings. It is so painful to me that the Republicans have descended so far, and are so bogged down. Everyone knows they should have waited for the election to confirm the new Justice.
I remember all my work as a poll worker for many years. During the years I was a housewife I was an active member of the Democratic Party. I attended meetings, knocked on doors, licked envelopes etc. When I knocked at doors I would try to explain to those reluctant to vote that if you don’t vote, you are essentially voting. You are not making your voice heard.
As bad as it is now, as obvious as it is now, that one party is not doing what it should do, "selling itself down the river" it is important to vote. I have been expecting the start of a new political party, and am surprised it hasn’t happened yet. Maybe after this election, it will start. The Green Party has possibilities. The Working Families Party is getting stronger in New York.
When I began voting, at age 21, politics seemed just as horrible as they are today. There were minimal differences between the two political parties for people of color. Both candidates were clearly racist and usually money grabbing. I voted Democrat in every election, but I didn’t love every candidate, and the ones I did love, Adlai Stevenson and Ralph Nader, were defeated. I often suffered -- especially in the early years -- trying to decide which candidate was the lesser of two evils. That is who I would vote for. I didn’t care for Taft or Truman. I didn’t like Ike. Kennedy was interesting, but Johnson was a southerner. Carter was a Southern Democrat which was not a selling point for me. In the end he proved to be a good man, and a good President, but when he first ran, I didn’t trust him. I chose him because Gerald Ford was worse. This election is not like that. I have no difficulties: it’s an easy choice.
My mother never understood how her sister could live in Washington DC, where they didn’t get the right to vote in the presidential election until 1960. To encourage people to vote I have been involved with the UUA--Unitarian Universalist Association-- letter writing campaign asking people to vote. I have sent 200 letters, in my own handwriting, explaining the reasons I feel people should vote. It is my mother that made sure I knew how important it was. She worked at the polls every election. The opening line on all the letters that I wrote was: “I would hope you would vote because it is only since 1965 that law enabling blacks to vote was passed.”
In person interview conducted by Allison Rose, recorded with permission from Ida “Ollie” Cohen, October 20, 2020. Story edited for length and flow by Allison Rose and Bobby Cohen.
*Sheltering Arms founded in 1831. www.shelteringarmsnyc.org