From The Voices of Oklahoma: Jeanne Eason Phillips Remembers…
In this memorable interview, John Erling chats with Jeanne Eason Phillips and her daughter Judy–two Oklahoma natives who lived through segregation and the civil rights movement.
“You know what? Every era has its own goodness. I can’t think that there’s any worse in any part of it. Life gets better all the time, the more you look at it.”
For the next piece in our series “From the Voices of Oklahoma,” documenting stand-out interviews from John Erling’s extensive oral history project, we’re looking at his talk with Jeanne Eason Phillips and her daughter Judy Eason McIntyre. From the “Voices” bio, “Even though they endured the pain of racism, Jeanne and Judy tell a very upbeat story of making Oklahoma a better place to live.” Upbeat is putting it lightly, as the banter between Judy and Jeanne is often electric and hilarious. At times it seems that Judy is the one conducting the interview, as she is clearly fascinated with her mother’s story, and wants to explore every little piece that she hasn’t yet heard about. Her interjections are almost the best part of the proceedings, whether it’s her handful of follow-up questions about her mother’s love life: (“Well, when did you meet Dad?” “When did Daddy come? Was he there when you got there?” “Did you date somebody before Daddy?”), or her amused incredulity that her mother could ever dance the “jitter-bug” (through laughter: “I can’t imagine Mother doing that.”)
Though not initially the major subject of the interview, Judy herself has an amazing story, and she takes John through her upbringing, experiencing horrific racism in college, joining the Black Panther movement and then cutting ties with it, and going on to serve ten years in Oklahoma’s legislature.
Jeanne and Judy’s account weaves through the story of the African-American experience across generations, ideologies, and perspectives, from Martin Luther King to Malcolm X, revolutionary action from outside to political change from within.
Jeanne attended Langston University, married her husband Garland Eason, and together they supported all four of their children through college. Garland worked multiple jobs, and Phillips was at her children’s school so much that everyone thought she was the teacher; Judy amusingly notes that “I was always having to look over my shoulder.” Jeanne has a remarkably positive outlook on every nook and cranny of life, from the process of aging to her disturbing experiences of discrimination. On whether she is happy about her fast approaching ninetieth birthday: “Oh, yes, oh, yes, yes. Every one of them I look forward to. I’ve never been one of those that say, ‘Well, I’m in the forties and gonna stay.’ No, no, no, no, I welcome every one of mine.”
Even through this positivity, Eason’s narrative brings to light several painful and unjust realities of what it means to be black in America. Choices have to be made: do you educate your children about the horrors of discrimination, or do you shield them from racism until they are adults themselves? Jeanne and Garland chose to protect their children from the hatred, from the darkness, and throughout the interview you can hear both Phillips and McIntyre wonder about whether or not it was the right call.
“I think that’s there good and bad in both ways.” Phillips says. “But we did not want them to start hating or having your mind made up.” Because of this parenting decision, Judy never experienced direct personal racism until she attended OU. “…it made a real rebel out of her” says Phillips. In McIntyre’s words across the interview, “I think they just didn’t talk about it because both of them didn’t want us being that angry black person. So I went to OU when I was called the N word at class. I didn’t know what was going on…And then you walked on campus and from my dorm to the library or wherever I went it was, “Black bitch,” “Nigger,” just the whole bit… I cried, I cried… Begging Daddy to let me come home and leave that place.”
Both Jeanne and Judy were there for Martin Luther King’s march on Washington. They attended with their church, and their pastor Ben Hill introduced King. Phillips perspective is quite funny in retrospect: “I didn’t know anything about Martin Luther King…I said to the person standing next to me, I said, ‘If this man can’t speak Reverand Hill will just kill him.’” Then she experienced one of the most climactic events in all of American history. “I didn’t know what he was dreaming about until I got to OU” says Judy. “OU was the life-changing.”
Judy then tells her story about joining the Black Panthers; it is best to hear it from her. She left the panthers after a particularly terrifying experience with the police, but the anger remained for years. She worked in child welfare and wouldn’t work with white clients. “I wouldn’t even go to lunch with the white workers. I wouldn’t talk with them except to have to answer questions and stuff.”
Judy’s story should help audiences to reconsider the false equivalencies wrapped up in terms like “reverse racism” or phrases like “racist against white people,” and the rampant cliché of “both sides-ism.” Responding to hatred is always more accurately described as self-defense. Even so, when Erling labels Mcintyre’s understandable response to injustice “reverse discrimination” McIntyre doesn’t miss a beat” “oh yeah, they used to say I was a racist. And I proudly said, “I am.” She credits her parents with her eventual de-radicalization: “thank God for my parents that I was able to move back to some sanity…And some stability”
When Jeanne reflects on racism today she notices shame as the one notable difference: “People who are racist don’t mind you knowing that they’re racist. That’s the feeling I got, ’cause when I see things like with the President when they do all of these little ugly things and say all these little things, they want you to know exactly how they feel about it. So it’s open, it’s in the open, so you don’t get away with anything anymore without being called on it.” But for herself? “I don’t even let it touch me. It can’t even hurt me.”
Judy traces all of her success to parents that valued education and church. Erling asks Jeanne Eason Phillips to close with what she is most proud of: her legacy in life: “Oh, dear. I just want to be remembered as Jeanne. I just want to be remembered as a good person. A person who loved life and people. Nothing spectacular. I’m proud of a lot of things, the accomplishments with four children. My biggest pride is in the accomplishments that they’ve made and we desired for them.”
Check out the full interview on the Voices of Oklahoma.