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First Person > Dorothy Pryor

Dorothy Pryor - 1923-1945: Growing up during the Depression and World War II



The support of a mother who "never, never limited my dreams" and the opportunity to attend good schools in Springfield, Massachusetts, made Dorothy Pryor an avid reader and an enthusiastic student who thrived in a rigorous academic environment...

Learn more about Dorothy Pryor: View a timeline of her life and listen to her full interview.



file:/activities/oralhistory/cappics/pryor1923_poster, alt: Poster that reads: The vacation reading club, join now at your public library.

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While visiting her public library as a child during the Great Depression, Dorothy might have seen Federal Art Project posters such as this one encouraging children to join the “Vacation Reading Club.”

Dorothy’s parents placed a high value on education, and their daughter became passionate about reading and learning. She remembers, "I used to run , not walk, down High Street hill to get to Classical Junior and Classical Senior, where I went to school, and I, I loved to enter the library. I went down to the main library, and I was always so glad when I got out of the children's division and could go upstairs and could get to the big folk's books." Dorothy remained in school for most of her life, first as an avid student, and then as a devoted teacher. She believes that, as a teacher, “...you don't teach anybody what you know. You teach people who you are and where you've been.”

“The vacation reading club - join now at your public library” WPA Federal Art Project poster, created between 1936-1939, Collection of the Library of Congress, REPRODUCTION NUMBER LC-USZC2-869 DLC.

file:/activities/oralhistory/cappics/pryor1923_sarah, alt: B/W photo of Sarah Graves in front of porch

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Former Kentucky slave Sarah Graves was photographed at the time she was interviewed for the WPA Federal Writers’ Project, a New Deal program which supported the work of writers during the Depression.

Dorothy’s mother was intensely supportive of her daughter’s educational pursuits because, as Dorothy believes, “I was the…the recipient of my mother's dreams that, that had been dashed.” Dorothy’s mother had been prevented from entering high school by her Aunt Jane. Great Aunt Jane, Dorothy explains, was a former a slave who had been given her freedom as a wedding present. Aunt Jane “was so grateful to be free, she didn't think that education – higher education – had anything to do with what you did as a black person.” Instead, she arranged for her niece to work in a laundry. Faced with the pressures of survival, it is perhaps understandable that many former slaves found little room for education. Sarah Allen, who was interviewed in Texas for the WPA Federal Writers’ project, recalls:

I was birthed in time of bondage. You know, some people are ashamed to tell it, but I thank God I was ‘llowed to see them times as well as now….I think I was about twelve when dey freed us and we stayed with marster ‘bout a year, then went to John Ecole’ place and rented some lan’. We made two bales of cotton and it was the first money we ever saw….De worst thing, we didn’ never have no schoolin’ till after I married. Den I went to school two weeks. My husban’ was a teacher. He never was a slave.

Another former slave, Sarah Graves, told her interviewer, “When we was freed all the money my mama had was 50 cents. I never went to school till after I was freed. I went two winters and a little more to school near Burlington Junction. I never went a full term cause I had to work….I have lived in this place ever since I was married…We first bought 40 acres for $10.00, then two years later we bought the back 80 acres for $15.00. Things is changed. We workin’ for ourselves now an’ what we get is our’n, an’ no more whippin’s. I worked in the fields and helped pay for this land”.

Sarah Frances Shaw Graves, collection of the Library of Congress Manuscript Division, Digital ID mesnp 100126.

file:/activities/oralhistory/cappics/pryor1923_fisk, alt: Jubilee Hall on the Nashville, Tennessee, campus of Fisk University

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Jubilee Hall was one of the first buildings erected on the Nashville, Tennessee, campus of Fisk University.

Dorothy’s hard work in high school paid off. “I got a chance…when I graduated from high school, Dr. DeBerry saw to it that I got a small scholarship to go to Fisk. And…I didn't have any money. I was top of my class, but there wasn't any money. But I had…encouragement from my parents, particularly from my mama, and help from Dr. DeBerry, ...the senior minister.” Dorothy studied diligently at Fisk University, and was at the top of her class by the end of her first semester. Fisk University has an important place in the history of American higher education. Founded just a few months following the Civil War, it played a role in the larger post-war initiative to ensure that former slaves (freedmen) had access to education. Fisk became a normal school dedicated to training teachers. W.E.B. Du Bois, who was himself a Fisk University graduate, believes that the most important work done during post-Civil-War reconstruction was in the arena of education:

The greatest success of the Freedmen's Bureau lay in the planting of the free school among Negroes, and the idea of free elementary education among all classes in the South…. The opposition to Negro education in the South was at first bitter, and showed itself in ashes, insult, and blood; for the South believed an educated Negro to be a dangerous Negro. And the South was not wholly wrong; for education among all kinds of men always has had, and always will have, an element of danger and revolution, of dissatisfaction and discontent. Nevertheless, men strive to know…. Fisk, Atlanta, Howard, and Hampton were founded in these days, and six million dollars were expended for educational work, seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars of which the freedmen themselves gave of their poverty.

Fisk University, Jubilee Hall, Seventeenth Avenue, North, Nashville, Davidson County, TN Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Historic American Buildings Survey or Historic American Engineering Record, Reproduction Number:HABS TENN,19-NASH,7A-19

Story Clip #1:

Dorothy Jordan Pryor is born in Philadelphia and moves to Springfield, Massachusetts, at age five months

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Audio also available in MP3 format

Well, I'm Dorothy Jordan Pryor. I am eighty-five years old, I was born eighty-five years ago in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and my parents brought me here to Springfield when I was just five months old. So Springfield, really, is my lifelong home.

Story Clip #2:

The story of Dorothy's birth

Audio also available in MP3 format

Q: Now, you said you were born prematurely...

Yeah. I was...

Q: Say again the year?

That was 1923. I was...

Q: 1923...

I wasn't supposed to be born until February of 1924, but I was born, and my mother...my mother and father were living with a friend, um, in a, ...in the...you know, in a tenement, with a friend. And her friend Mrs. Fisher, um, was...I guess my daddy was working, and ...she tried to help mother, and she... they wrapped me up in a blanket and put me over on a table somewhere, and when the doctor got there, Doctor Chauncy Harley, whom I think may have become rather famous in the field. Well he...doctors made house calls then. He came to see what was going on. He, you know, they got a message to him and he asked how my mother was. "Oh, Mrs. Pryor, Mrs. Jordan is poorly, doctor." "Well how's the baby?" "Oh the baby's dead." At which point, I yelped - over there on the table. And they...my mother teased me. She said, you know, you've been running your mouth ever since. [NM laughs] I think about it 'cause eventually... when I got to teach in college, I was teaching speech. And I... [laughing] So I think, you know, things happen! But I've had so many blessings in my life. Folks say, "You were lucky." Uh-uh! I was blessed.

Story Clip #3:

Dorothy's young life revolves around her love of learning

Audio also available in MP3 format

Q: Now, where did you grow up in Springfield?

I grew up mostly on Walnut Street, which was in the, just outside the Hill - in the Hill area, two blocks, ironically, from the Springfield Armory. But ...when I grew up on Walnut Street, there was a fire station across the street and I used to run, not walk, down High Street hill to get to Classical Junior and Classical Senior, where I went to school, and I, I loved to enter the library. I went down to the main library, and I was always so glad when I got out of the children's division and could go upstairs and could get to the big folk's books. [Nathalie laughs.]

Q: Well..., I guess you've started on my next question which is to talk a little bit about growing up in Springfield, and...if you would talk about your education, and um...you graduated from high school in 1941...

Yes...

Q: Summa cum laude...

Yeah.

Story Clip #4:

"My mother never, never limited my dreams": Her mother's opportunities as a teenager, and her own

Audio also available in MP3 format

Well, school was wonderful because, for one thing, my mama and my father had had difficulty getting an education. I don't know how far, how far along my dad went, but my mother was just about to be able to go to secondary school when her aunt, my great aunt Jane, who ...interestingly enough still had kind of a slave mentality - she and her husband, uncle Richard, had been given their freedom as a wedding present. ...

Q: What year was that?

I don't really know what year that was, but uh, she's...so this would have been when my mother ...was what, twelve or thirteen years old? Mother was forty years older than I was. My mother...I wasn't supposed to come along. But I did. Anyway, she snatched my mother out of school and my mother never got over that, because she loved school. She was going to a very good parochial school in Baltimore, and but, Aunt Jane decided that she had had enough education, so she snatched my mother out of school and put her to work in a laundry. ...

Q: Why do you think she thought she'd had enough education?

Because of her own... experiences, I suppose. I don't know whether...I think I may have met... my Great Aunt once. I'm not sure. But I would have been too young, really to remember it, but you know, she had the slave mentality. She was so grateful to be free, she didn't think that education - higher education - had anything to do with what you did as a black person. You know, sometimes, we do more to ourselves, by assuming some...by making wrong assumptions. My mother never, never limited my dreams. She didn't have her dreams, so she let me do what I wanted to do, and when people would say, well, why are you letting her do all this reading and running around? Because I didn't raise her to wash - bust suds - in somebody's kitchen. So I was the, the product of, among other things, the recipient of my mother's dreams that, that had been dashed. So I was able to fulfill hers. I was blessed, really blessed.

Story Clip #5:

"My mother used to tell me,...you aren't defined by anything but that...door"

Audio also available in MP3 format

Q: What other memories do you have of that time? Of...specifically, how the, how the Depression affected you and your family, and...

Well, we were living in a...a not very attractive neighborhood. We were on...we were right on... we were right on Walnut Street, right on the...we were right on the street car line ...we lived up over a couple of stores that were...One was a shoe store owned by the guy ...who owned the building. And the other was a...well it was started out to be a confectionary store, but the, the guy who owned it turned it into a, into a...a tavern, a bar after a while. And our door was right in the middle. And my mother used to tell me, you know, you don't...you aren't defined by anything but that...that door. So I had to go through...and I saw a lot of stuff, but hey, you know. I...my mother and father, particularly my mother, kept me focused on what was gonna keep me going. And except for the kids from Longmeadow, everybody was poor, you know.

Story Clip #6:

Dorothy earns a scholarship to Fisk University

Audio also available in MP3 format

And then a lot of other influences in my life...my...I went to St. John's Congregational Church, which still exists here in Springfield, and ...The minister there, the senior minister there, was the Reverend [Dr. William Nelson] DeBerry, the Doctor DeBerry, who ...you know, for whom the school is named there now on...on Union Street, and who had been a trustee at Fisk University down in Nashville, Tennessee. So, when...I got a chance...when I graduated from high school, Dr. DeBerry saw to it that I got a small scholarship to go to Fisk. And...I didn't have any money. I was top of my class, but there wasn't any money. But I had...I was blessed in a lot of ways. Encouragement from my parents, particularly from my mama, and help from Dr. DeBerry, and from the - he was the senior minister - but from, also from the Reverend Roland [T.] Heacock, who eventually, who, whom I knew as my pastor, really, there, and who eventually left the church to, to go back into the service so he could raise his own kids...give them an education. He visited me at Fisk once, oh, when I was a junior and did something that was so - it's funny how you remember things - that was so beautiful. Fisk women were famous as, as...traditionally for being ...upper middle class black, and dressing, and having all kinds...and 'course, I was...I was a poor child.

Q: It was a coeducational school...

It was coeducational... sort of. I'll tell you about that in a minute. But ...you know, I didn't...I was used to wearing hand-me-downs and going to second-hand stores and whatnot. I didn't have many fancy clothes, but I wasn't that...I was interested in trying to get my education. My mother, because she was denied one, had drilled it into me that getting your...getting an education was number one. And, I liked school. I liked to read, and I did well, and so, it was, it made me, made me who I was, really. In fact when I went to Fisk, I arrived with a couple of suitcases. All the other folk were arriving with trunks and chauffeurs and whatnot, and they looked at me kind of funny. And I just smiled, as Mama said, I didn't...And then when I came...at the end of the first semester I was at the top of the class, and they said, "Oh!" [laughs] It was funny! And that's how I got to be a member of a sor...I didn't even know what sororities were. But, actually, when I got to Fisk, I had...I had received from a chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, in Boston, two hundred and fifty dollars. Now, two hundred and fifty dollars in 1941 was like five thousand now. And, I didn't know anything about sororities or anything. But I, when I made good grades, the sorority...well, all the sororities wanted me to join them, because your grade made...made a difference in what the sorority was able to do on campus. But, you know, I had only known this one, so I, at the moment I'm what they call a golden sor..I've been in that sorority over sixty years. But yeah, it, it was fun. But hey, that wasn't what I was interested in, and I just said, "I have to get the grades." And I got'em.

Q: Now, I would...

I had good teachers.

Story Clip #7:

"They all had the, the sixty-four dollar question and I had the sixty-four fifty answer, No!": Dorothy maintains focus on her education

Audio also available in MP3 format

It was funny though, you know. I also...I wasn't pretty, but apparently I had a nice body and pretty legs. [ laughing ] And the fellas...(Well that's what my husband told me, too!)...but anyway, [laughing ] the fellas over at ...Meharry Medical College there...those were the only fellows around when I was in school at Fisk, because the rest of them were all in the service. If fact, the fellows at Meharry were in the service, too. What was it? The ASTP ...? I don't know what that meant, but the, the medical...medical students, they were all...were, you know, they all had the...the sixty-four dollar question, and I had the sixty-four-fifty answer, "No!" [both laugh] You smiled, but you know...hey! I knew what I was there for...a purpose. And it was a temptation, 'cause some of those guys were handsome. But they had...they had a girlfriend in the city. They had one in the nursing school, there near the med school, and they were looking for somebody? No! But you didn't argue, you didn't get ugly, you didn't complain, you just smiled and said, "No. No thank you!" I had...I knew I was there for a purpose. I couldn't, in...you know...there wasn't anyway for me to screw up and go home. Uh-uh. This was my only chance. And so, I was blessed. The good Lord gave me the common sense. It was difficult sometimes. You liked being popular, ?cause I was a good dancer, too. But hey. Nooo, no thank you! [NM laughs] I have to do what I have to do.



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