Hillhouse seniors served the pizza slices for Inauguration Day. Willie Mae Jaynes served up a slice of living history.
The two groups of seniors—high-school seniors and elderly-center seniors—together watched Barack Obama make history again on a big screen Monday.
Some of the most compelling history was told off-screen, by people who have lived by Obama was speaking about.
The big screen was set up at James Hillhouse High School. Even though it was an official school holiday, dozens of students trekked to the cafeteria to watch the second inauguration for President Obama, the first African-American to serve a second term in the White House. Students served pizza, coffee and donuts to senior citizens from the Dixwell-Newhallville Senior Center, who had been recruited through flyers to attend the public screening. The school provided 30 boxes of pizza, paid for in part by personal contributions from staff.
The televised inauguration proceedings brought applause and some tears of joy from the mostly African-American crowd. Students and retirees watched together, at times waving flags and giving standing ovations, as their president gave a speech that stressed equality and opportunity. The event, which coincided with Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, served as a double lesson in civil rights and black history. Declaring Monday a “precious moment” in history, Principal Kermit Carolina reminded the crowd that before King and Obama, “there were so many sacrifices.” He urged the crowd to “give a hug to those who sacrificed for us today.” Obama spoke about the barriers broken thanks to the civil rights movement.
Willie Mae Jaynes (pictured) knows about those sacrifices and about the barriers.
Jaynes, who is 76, hitched a ride with a friend from Bella Vista senior housing complex to Hillhouse for Monday’s event. From a cozy armchair, Jaynes accepted a plate of pizza from Hillhouse senior Tanaya Brown with a smile. Then she recounted a remarkable journey that got her to that seat.
Jaynes said kids these days have no idea how different life was for a black woman growing up 70 years ago in the segregated rural south.
The granddaughter of slaves, Jaynes grew up on a farm in Greenville, South Carolina. Her home had no lights, no toilet, no running water. She said her family didn’t always have money for shoes. Before school, she and her eight siblings would wake up early to head to the field.
“We would pick cotton at 4 a.m. by lantern light,” Jaynes said. “You know what lantern light is?”
After plucking cotton balls by hand for a several hours, she said, she would walk five miles to school. At the end of the school day, she would return to the cotton field. Her parents made a living preparing food and doing people’s laundry. They didn’t have much space: At the end of the long day, kids would head to sleep—three or four sharing the same bed.
Jaynes said she dropped out of school after the 6th grade to work. When she was a bit older, she got a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant. Among the many indignities of segregation, black customers had to go around to the back door to get served. She recalled seeing a 9-year-old black boy beaten by a white woman for misbehaving. Their home, she said, was “surrounded by [Klu Klux] Klan members.”
“We watched them burn crosses” at night, not far from the bedroom window, she recalled.
“Those are the kind of things I lived through,” Jaynes said.
In 1959, she moved to New Haven, where she spent seven years as a live-in maid.
Determined to make a career for herself, Jaynes didn’t let her 6th-grade education get in the way. She fibbed on her resume that she had finished high school. She was able to land a job with the federal government as an inspector at local factories, keeping tabs on products like Schick safety razors. She worked in that field for decades.
Jaynes said she got engaged earlier in her adult life, only to find out her partner was abusive. She eventually married a “nice man” and adopted a daughter. Now she has a grandson who came up through New Haven schools and a great-granddaughter who recently entered this world.
She said her story serves to show that even as a child with little opportunity, “you can educate yourself and be anything you want to be.”
Jaynes said she has faith in Obama despite the criticism about his first term. “People are looking for too much at one time,” she said.
She said she was heartened to see students like Tanaya show up Monday on their day off from school to mark Obama’s and King’s special days.
“I think more young people should get involved and know their history,” she said.