PIQUA — The ninth annual YWCA Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration brought back Piqua native Colleen Clemens McMurray, who captivated the attendees with her speech “To Be Black: One Woman’s Journey in Ohio.”
“I am so pleased to be home,” McMurray said. “It’s quite a humbling experience … It’s kind of bittersweet to talk about growing up in Piqua.”
McMurray spoke about her experience growing up in Piqua in the 1930’s and 40’s, her college years at the Ohio State University in the 1940’s and 50’s, and her professional adult life after that.
“It’s just a story. I want to give you some facts and some memories. Please listen on them because they represent one black woman’s journey in the state of Ohio toward the promises and the dreams of this country,” McMurray said. “And you will realize how many changes have taken place since I left Piqua in 1947.”
McMurray also welcomed the diverse group of attendees who filled up the YWCA’s event space for this celebration.
“I think the younger people might learn something and the older people may be reminded, and we all might be very pleased at the progress we have made,” McMurray said.
Growing up in a small town
McMurray started off with the beginning: her birth in 1930.
“I was born on Camp Street in house in the middle of the night,” McMurray said. “My parents had no car, and I was coming.”
McMurray’s parents were longtime residents of Piqua, Viola and Emerson Clemens, who were also well-respected members of the community.
“Piqua was a small town,” McMurray said, adding that there were about 20-25 black families living in Piqua. “We lived in an integrated neighborhood, and I didn’t think I was any different.”
McMurray also commended her experience at Piqua schools, saying that the teachers and staff always encouraged her.
“They always said, ‘You can. You can,’” McMurray said. McMurray participated in numerous school clubs activities, including choir, ensembles, cheerleading, the National Honor Society, dances, and much more.
“I didn’t feel different at school, but I felt different in the community,” McMurray said. Starting off, she noted black workers typically worked domestic jobs and were not allowed in other roles.
“We had separate churches. We still have separate churches,” McMurray said. “We were separated in Girl Scouts. We had separate restrooms … I could not go to Gallagher’s to get an ice cream cone.” McMurray said that, in order to get an ice cream cone, they had to go the back door where one of her mother’s friends would bring them ice cream.
The movie theater was also segregated, and African Americans could only sit in the last three rows on the right side.
“Well, the policy of the theater was that if you sat anywhere else, they would come and move all the white people from around you and put them somewhere else,” McMurray said. “Well one day, there were a group of us who decided, this doesn’t work. It’s not fair. So we went into the theater and immediately we scattered everywhere.
“There was nowhere to put the white people. So one of the men stood up and said, ‘I know a friend of this family that has been serving in World War II. Let these people see the movie anywhere they want to be,’” McMurray said. “I never knew that man’s name, but I can see him today.”
The roles of racism and segregation did not stop there. McMurray remembered when Langston Hughes, a famous writer and social activist, visited Piqua and could not stay in the hotel.
“We had separate types of lodging. I remember in high school I was asked to introduce Langston Hughes, who was a prominent poet. He was not allowed to stay in the hotel here. He stayed across the street from my parents’ house in the Jefferson house, and I interviewed him sitting on the floor, thinking, ‘This man cannot even stay in the hotel,’” McMurray said.
Activities in the community continued to be limited for African Americans as black people were not allowed to go swimming, play tennis, go to the rollerskating rink, play golf, and more.
McMurray’s family, though, imparted the experiences of segregation onto Congressman William McCulloch, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Piqua who helped draft the Civil Rights Act of 1964. McMurray babysat his daughters, and McCulloch would visit with her family and ask them what it was like living as black people in the U.S.
“He learned a lot from us. We’ve always honored him,” McMurray said, adding that they have also always honored Martin Luther King, Jr. “That man was courageous.”
Facing a harsher reality
After McMurray graduated from Piqua High School at 16 years old, it was time for her to go to college.
“I hesitated to leave,” McMurray said. She mentioned that World War II had just ended and that her mother told her not to date any veterans. McMurray said her mother told her, “You must not date veterans. They’re too worldly.” Then McMurray added, “Well, I ended up marrying one.”
McMurray attended the Ohio State University in Columbus, where she said she faced harsh discrimination as a black woman while she studied social work.
“No blacks could live in the dormitories at the Ohio State University,” McMurray said. She said that she applied every semester to live on campus, and she was accepted for her last semester. This was due to the university picking McMurray to be the roommate of Gloria Owens, who was the daughter of Jesse Owens, a famous track and field athlete and four-time Olympic gold medalist.
“No restaurants were allowed to serve us on High Street,” McMurray said. “We couldn’t go the hotels. If we went to the theater in Columbus at the Ohio Theater, which is such a grand, beautiful place, we had to sit upstairs in the second balcony. We could only go to the Palace Hotel on Wednesdays.”
The segregation continued as black people were forced to sit in the back of the street cars. Black students were also excluded socially and forced to go off-campus to socialize.
“On the campus, there were no social groups that allowed us to be there,” McMurray said.
Racism persisted throughout almost every aspect of the university, including an absence of black athletes on the basketball team or the football team, black faculty, or black staff members.
“Some of the students in my class were very racist, but my father told me, ‘You’re going there to pick their brains, to get your degree. You live through it all and you will be more successful. Don’t let that bother you.’ And I didn’t,” McMurray said. “The social work college was very sensitive, and I enjoyed my years there.”
Enduring racism in the workplace
After graduating with a degree in social work, she went to work at the Boys Industrial School, where her husband also had a job. The superintendent at the time, though, would not allow her to work in administration at first as he said that they had never had a black person work in an administrative role.
“It wasn’t until the Civil Rights Commission in Columbus ordered him to allow me to work there that I got the job,” McMurray said. “The staff there at the Boys Industrial School didn’t like me, so they would arrange for me to have a work assignment by myself. They would go to the restroom and lock the door so I couldn’t come in. They would not sit with me in cafeteria, and I was away from home by myself.” McMurray spent her first Thanksgiving there eating alone.
“Well I decided I’ll do this. I’ll take my break three minutes ahead, and I went to the restroom, and I locked the door,” McMurray said. “And they couldn’t come in.” McMurray told the women waiting on her to come out that was how it felt when they did it to her.
At the child welfare office in Columbus, McMurray had a separate case load and was only allowed to work with black families.
“I left there because I got angry,” McMurray said.
McMurray ended up going to work at the Welfare Department in Franklin County, which was integrated, and she was able to work with all kinds of families, no matter their race or ethnicity.
Later in her career, McMurray became the Director of Medicaid Services to all children in the state of Ohio under the age of 21. She visited 87 of Ohio’s 88 counties as the head of the county welfare department in Van Wert refused to meet with McMurray because she was black.
“To this day, I’ve never put my feet in Van Wert. Maybe I could go today,” McMurray said. “I was lucky, and I endured.”
McMurray has since been retired for 30 years.
Raising a family amidst setbacks
Racism continued to invade McMurray’s family life as the banks red-lined them for a home loan, forcing them to borrow loans from a bank in Sandusky where they were related to one of the employees. Insurance coverage on their home was restricted. They were also once denied a mortgage on a house because the house came with a pool.
“They didn’t think we deserved to have a swimming pool,” McMurray said. They were also restricted socially as her husband was not allowed to belong to the Rotary Club or to Kiwanis in the Columbus area.
“Rearing children in Columbus was different,” McMurray said. She recounted one incident where she took her daughter to a nickel and dime store to get her daughter ice cream. McMurray sat her seven-year-old daughter on a stool while she waited to be served when a white woman came along and shoved McMurray’s daughter off of the stool, saying that McMurray’s daughter didn’t belong there.
“I almost went to jail,” McMurray said.
When McMurray’s son was 11 years old, a police officer brought him home one morning. Her son was a newspaper carrier and the police officer thought the boy looked suspicious going from house to house.
McMurray’s children went on to lead successful lives, with her daughter attending Defiance College for education and teaching at Upper Arlington High School until her retirement. Her son attended both the Fire Academy and Police Academy in Columbus, working as both a firefighter and police officer. He now works in Homeland Security. McMurray also has three grandchildren.
“I’m very, very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish,” McMurray said, adding that she was pleased with her coping abilities, her achievements, and her survival. She also added that she was grateful for numerous things, from family to long-term retirement as well as for the civil rights accomplishments of Martin Luther King, Jr.
“I’m oh so grateful to Martin Luther King, Jr. for the changes in my life,” McMurray said. “For whatever I’m labeled — colored, negro, black, African American — I rise as a human being with a spirit who loves this life and loves this country.”
Reach Sam Wildow at email@example.com or (937) 451-3336