Dr. Reatha Clark King — Yearn To “Be Somebody”
“A mighty woman with a torch; her mild eyes command — give me your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
“A mighty woman with a torch; her mild eyes command — Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me!”
— Emma Lazarus, 1891 (Engraved on the Statue of Liberty)
Tired and Poor
In the summer of 1950, a young African American girl woke at 4 a.m. in Moultrie, Georgia. On nights when it rained, twelve-year-old Reatha Belle Clark would smile because she made $6 for picking 200 pounds of cotton, “The more it rained, the heavier the cotton and the more money I made.”
As Reatha Belle climbed into the back of a pickup, other girls fell asleep on their neighbor’s shoulder, who shoved them back up. Reatha looked at the horizon, waiting for the sun. Something told her there was a higher purpose to all of this.
Hotter days were the worst, Reatha recalled. “It would get hottest around 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon, and my body would get so sore.” She picked cotton until the sun was overhead and then take a lunch break under a large shade tree before heading back until evening. Dark sweat stains streaked the back of her jumpsuit. The weather could be your friend one day and an enemy without warning.
International Harvester came out with the mechanical combine in 1948, but it was too expensive for small farms. Hand-picked cotton was the method used by Reatha’s people in Georgia, and it had to be picked three or four times a season because the rounded seed capsules called bolls matured at different times. A cotton picker could pick 20 plants in a quarter of an hour. A mechanical picker would do 1,200 plants in 30 seconds. It was hard, tedious work.
The way cotton is picked, it is first removed by hand from a boll so prickly you had to wear gloves. If the gloves were left home, it slowed you down. The cotton is twisted by turning the boll clockwise until it breaks. Then it is bagged in a 10’ sack as you go along. At the end of the day, you sort through the bag and make sure there are no small branches, place it onto a sheet and hoist it up to the scale. Then you get paid.
When we think about $6 per day in the 40s and 50s, the average wage for a family in the United States was $3500 per year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Reatha made $30 per week, a sum that exceeded 6 million families across the United States.
As the poem by Emma Lazarus suggests (imprinted on the plaque of the Statue of Liberty), “give me your tired, your poor, you huddled masses.” The words do not fully convey the comfort people give to one another in desperate times — and the importance of what I call “genial habitats.”
Reatha’s earliest memories are of a close-knit family inspiring everyone to achieve, although at first, it was to make money. What makes the story of King’s childhood so fascinating is the irony. Rather than refuse manual labor that was not so different from slavery, her grandmother would say, “ if anything is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” Reatha says, “I sure could pick that cotton.” Willie Clark was a sharecropper, and her mother, Ola Mae, had a third-grade education. Yet, Reatha would earn a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Chicago, the first of many broad jumps.
What she recalls most vividly was the importance of family support. “The love part was vital because that helped keep us going. My mother came from a large family. She had four sisters and seven brothers. Myu father, too— 11 sisters and 1 brother. They were always visiting. We heard about Aunt Dora, Aunt Danna, Uncle Chap, and Uncle Buster all of the time. When they came to visit, it was hugs and hugs and hugs. That was the love part. It kept us going. It came from a family.
Clark grew up during the post-WWII years and talked about her life without victimhood or anger. She worked because the Clark’s needed money, and picking cotton was a chore like making your bed. Status wasn’t the goal of the black families of rural Georgia. Steak was. But her parents were still watchful. Reatha says, “my mother was working as a maid during this time. She only let us work on farms for families that she trusted.” When she thinks back, she says, “it was a harsh life,” then laughs, “I don’t want to go back, but my gosh, I learned how to work.”
Reatha’s family didn’t mention slavery days. There were no family records because slaves were kept illiterate, and parents and children, husbands and wives, separated. She believes her great grandmother, Lucy Benson, “must have been either born into a slave home or the first generation outside of slavery.”
Perhaps in some way, the slavery experience influenced the African Americans of rural Georgia to support the concept of a loving family. I could feel the bond as she spoke about growing up with close relatives and siblings. Reatha says, “Slavery put people on their own, which was not a good thing, but at the same time, it made them dependent on one another. It created a greater need for a family than ever before. You couldn’t make it without family.”
Even as her family moved north as Reatha did, “We never lost that bond. Going north, that was the ambition to go north and send money home. That expression, “‘Send money home’ was what drove you to move and leave your homeland. It was a signal that you were going to go away and do better, and then send money back to help your family members.”
Her family had a close-knit feel. I asked her if they had occasions at holiday time for the family to gather together. “That was where we would have a fried chicken.” She laughs at this thought. “It was exceptional for the children. Because the preacher would come to our home to join us and have dinner with us. We children got to eat the seconds on those occasions.” Then the first Sunday of the month, we would serve a big meal on the church's grounds. The first Sunday was special. All the women wore white. All the women wore big fancy hats. I still wear a hat to church. I inherited that habit from my grandmother. Yes, that was a special day.”
There was no lack of love or affection in the Clark family. She says, “love was vital because it kept us going. My mother came from a large family. There were always visitors of aunts and uncles: her four sisters and seven brothers. Then my father came from another large family — 11 sisters and 1 brother. They were always visiting. We heard about Aunt Dora, Aunt Danna, Uncle Buster, Uncle Chap all of the time. When they came to visit, it was hugs and hugs and hugs. They adored my mom and dad. That was the love part. Then there was my grandmother. There was some love in there, but it was to keep us going, and it came from family.
Yearning To Breathe
She is Dr. Reatha Clark King because she graduated from Clark College in Atlanta, where she was a home economics major until her chemistry department head encouraged her to earn a B.S. in chemistry. She received a Woodrow Wilson fellowship which helped pay her way to the University of Chicago, from which she obtained her Ph.D. degree in thermochemistry in 1963. She later went on to get her Master’s in business administration from Columbia University.
But those aren’t the main reasons for her educational success. That goes back much further.
Religion played a major part in her life. What did it mean to you, and what kind of a difference did it make in your life, I asked? “It carried that symbol of hope. You felt safe in the church. It represented safety, a safe place to assemble, to go to. It was a nurturing place where the older people came together to encourage the younger people. It was a nurturing environment.
Reatha said, yes, it was a one-room schoolhouse but also a place the community came together. “it was the center of the structure along with the family for our community. Early on, as you know, Negro spirituals grew out of that faith in God that God would deliver us from the hardships we suffered. Even slaves had their favorite songs. They would send messages to each other. My grandmother insisted that everybody goes to church. You became a churchgoer, whether you desired to one or not. I still go to church to reflect on the week and express gratitude, an extraordinary emotion.
Reatha Clark started elementary school in that one-room schoolhouse and was taught by Florence Frazier, a teacher who mentioned to her parents that she was very bright. By the time she graduated from Moultrie High School for Negro Youth, the Supreme Court had passed Brown v. Board of Education, and segregation was not legal anymore.
I wondered when she realized she had intellectual gifts? Was there a single moment, or did it occur over time? Reatha remembered, “Keep in mind the grades were not organized like they are today. By the time I got to high school, which would be seventh grade today, I started believing myself. Here Reatha laughs. “That was a transition moment for me because I became introduced to a wider range of teachers.”
The teachers began sending messages home to Reatha’s mother. Her girls were good, maybe even special. She said it encouraged her mother because she had no education. Reatha recalls her mother was shy because she felt her clothes were not good enough to be around educated people. To learn her daughter might become educated sounded like a miracle.
Reatha’s teacher was Florence Frasier, a black teacher who moved about the neighborhood, teaching different children of all ages. “Mrs. Frasier roomed in the community during the week. She was a big talker. She would tell everyone how smart those Clark girls are. When people heard her, they encouraged us to do even more. She taught all subjects and all ages. Reath began getting high scores, even perfect scores on her tests. It made her want to excel even more.
Ironically, while Reatha grew up in a segregated South, her schooling inspired her to achieve the success levels she managed to find. When I asked her what made her pay attention to her studies, she said, “During black history month, which at the time was called Negro history week, we would take one week to celebrate the lives of blacks who had succeeded and become famous. We mainly emphasized those who had succeeded. I learned about George Washington Carver, a chemist, who did many different things with a peanut, a simple peanut. I could relate to peanuts, as we found them in the fields. But it taught me. It taught us young blacks the notion that we were capable of anything. If we applied ourselves, we could do great things. We could make discoveries. We could be singers, like Leontyne Price. Marianne Anderson. We saw blacks who had succeeded, and that motivated us to strive to be somebody. Those were special words for us. Be somebody.
Two Word Mantras
The question has to be asked, how did people whose culture (in America) didn’t equate to being educated? They understood hard work, surely. But a Ph.D. in Chemistry as Reatha Clark King went on to achieve? Where did that drive to be educated come from, I asked her? “Most of the older people were illiterate, but they would say to us, “Develop yourself. Develop your mind. Be somebody. Have a character that people will respect. Be somebody.”
“Be somebody…Have character…Develop yourself”
Those words meant a lot to me.
For Reatha, the concept of going out on your own to help your family sounds reminiscent of the millions of immigrants: “ Send money home is a special language to me. When World War II started, that was the reason so many young black men joined the Army. They wanted to go to the Army, so they could get that monthly stipend to help mom and dad. If they were not married, it went to mom and dad. They could put it down. Send money home was the theme and the goal.”
Did you have other work experiences that left an impression on you? Reatha recalls, “ One that completely wonderfully changed my life. “When I was a freshman in college — I went to college in 1954. I learned from the dean of women about these maid opportunities in Greater New York, in New York, and asked some of us, young students, to take advantage of these opportunities. Go away and, during the summertime, live in a home, work as a maid. Then save our money, and then we can return to college for our next year of college. My mother permitted me to come north during the summertime and work as a maid. We call it the Thursday maid. I worked — lived with a family in Pauling, New York, near Poughkeepsie. The Dan family.
My first assignment my first summer, the summer after my freshman year, I was about 17 years old. I was to babysit their little son, Harvey. Then after my sophomore year — well, I would go back during the summertime on the train. My mother — I would travel from Atlanta, Georgia. Travel up to Penn Station, New York City. Would be picked up, taken to Pauling. Then eventually, I advanced to be — to help as a cook. I gave up on babysitting little Harvey, and I became — help with him as standing in the kitchen. I had that maid job for each of my four summers in college. Even after I graduated and in ’58, the summer between going to the University of Chicago and graduating from Clark College in Atlanta, I worked as a maid in Pauling, New York, and saved my money.
The educational part of the experience, there were many educational parts. The main one was my Thursday off when Mrs. Dan would write out a site seeing list for me, a list of places to go to site see. I would then — she would put me on the train, and I would come into, I think, Grand Central Station then. Then I would get off the train and follow the list that she had given me exactly, and go back to the train station at the appointed time. I would — I saw the New York Opera place. I saw the Empire State Building. I just saw all of the beautiful sites of New York, the landmark sites.
Then she would tell me — and this was a touching part and caused me to really believe in her. She said, “If you see anything you wanna buy” — she gave me her charge cards. I can go to Saks Fifth Avenue. The beautiful stores along Fifth Avenue and I would buy something if I wanted to. She trusted me. You cannot imagine what that meant to me. I didn’t buy anything because she would always send me a nice gift back to college. At Christmastime, she would remember me.
I became introduced to the big city — a big city beyond Georgia, New York City. I became more aware of the world back in — through that maid experience. My maid experience was very different from my mom’s maid experience. You know what? When I went back home for my break between — in September, between New York and going to Clark, know what my mom wanted me to do? Make meatloaf! I learned how to make meatloaf with Mrs. Dan. That was fancy food. She wanted — she loved that. She said, “I want you to make me some meatloaf,” every time I go home.
Did the experience with Mrs. Dan change you or how you felt about things? “Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. We had heard that whites were helping blacks through the emancipation movement—the abolitionists helping to fight discrimination — that changed the laws so blacks would be treated better. We had not seen them openly. You see, in the South, you didn’t see those people openly because they would have been called ugly names. I saw that. I experienced that first hand with Mrs. Dan. She provided opportunities for us that we didn’t have elsewhere. She and her friends around the Quaker Hill community— provided opportunities for us young black college women. I wondered if that was their motive. They could have hired maids elsewhere, but why did they reach out to us in the South?
It was a time of personal, not institutional charity, when people did things for each other, not take tables at social galas: My mother often brought things home from — that was given to her by the people she worked for. She was a maid often, while my father was working in the field. To Reatha, these were gifts: “Hand me down clothes and good tasting food. Extra food. She would bring to us, so our family would have some food in addition to what we had gotten out of the field.”
During our interview, I asked Reatha, “if Hollywood made a movie about your life, would it be a drama, a comedy, or a romance?” She answered, “it would certainly be a drama.” She describes her days as filled with a blend of emotions, including fear, love, close family connections, and warmth. Like everyone she knew, her thinking was also about her race and hoping for a better life for “colored people,” as she says African Americans called themselves then.
I would say a drama. When I think about my neighborhood — my church, my country church from my ages two forward, it remains in my memory. I would say lots of work. Work was our theme. Sharecropping, living on the farm, and doing the fieldwork. That dominated my father’s life, for sure, and my mom’s life because they needed to make ends meet. They also needed to please the boss, the people we worked for because we could be thrown off the farm. That probably wouldn’t happen because the owners were dependent on us for the work that we did. Reatha says, “it was a better drama than the movies that do not really depict the kind of drama we experienced growing up. There were so many dimensions of it. I said so many stories had been told, yet many more stories are yet to be told.
Some aspects are painful, Reatha recalls, particularly the fear of getting in trouble. “What was so sad, Jeff, was the fear. The fear that we blacks would do something wrong, and then the police would descend on our neighborhood. Then we were bolted up in our houses, particularly on the weekend at night, fearing that the police would knock.
But there was hope, too. “There was hope that we children, as we went to grade school and showed our abilities in this one-room schoolhouse, which was also our church — were told that if we studied hard, we could go away. We had to go away and educate ourselves to get better jobs than maid work or work in the field. Those were our options at the time. We were told that there are other options for us. Get out of this hot sun and get an education, and we listened.
I asked whether it occurred to her that she had come a long way on this journey? Reatha replied, “Much longer than just the distance between Minneapolis and Malaysia, the location of my first Exxon board meeting. My grandmother used to say, “You’ve come a mighty long way.”
We conclude by talking about how to inspire your black children to achieve as much as she did. Her answer was, “Never give up. Never give up. Never give up. Now that’s easier said than done. Believe in themselves. Keep on developing skills and abilities. I wouldn’t tell them to be patient. I would say it will take time. For you — even you to realize your potential to do good, to solve that problem. I had picked up chemistry books when I was a kid, for example, not knowing exactly how to solve that tough problem. I keep lookin’ at it and lookin’ at it and tinkering with a pencil. The solution won’t come overnight-overnight. Believe in yourself. Believe you deserve that opportunity. That doubt is not written in law for you. It was for us — what we couldn’t do, what we shouldn’t do. We defied the barriers. We didn’t believe in discouragement.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr