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March1999
Passing for Black
by Wade Hall
Bill Goodman: Today we're going on a remarkable journey -- through decades of the life of Mae Street Kidd, and the book by Wade Hall of Bellarmine University and world historian: Passing for Black, The Life and Careers of Mae Street Kidd. We'll talk about her life and childhood in Millersburg, Kentucky; her business life, which was remarkable in itself; her service during World War II and the American Red Cross and after that; and then, when most people are thinking about retirement in their 60s, here she goes and spends 17 years in the Kentucky State Legislature. A remarkable life and time. What were your impressions of Mae Street Kidd?
Rochelle: I want to be like Mae. This is a great, great. I tell you, even though this was written by Wade Hall, who is one of the best writers I've ever read, I was so honored that he let her speak. She starts by talking about her childhood and how her mother raised her. She talked about the struggles of becoming a young person who goes to work at 17. At 17, she starts working for an insurance company. And you hear all of this history of Louisville and of America through the eyes of this girl -- woman, older woman -- who was always her own woman. No matter what, she was just uncompromising and I loved that about her.
Bill Goodman: And she gave us such a sense of history, too, of the small town of Millersburg, in central Kentucky. The way she grew up; and the people she knew; and I think that she did such a good job describing what life was really like.

It was like growing up in any small town.

Jonathan: One or two complications about her particular life, of course. Her mother and father were apart. She never met her father. There was that one poignant anecdote where she talked about walking into a post office and she sees her father -- and she doesn't want to speak to him, and he doesn't want to speak to her -- and then he pauses, and looks at her like maybe he will speak to her. But it's something she doesn't really care very much about.

But she seems to have had a very happy childhood, doesn't she? And she obviously had great respect and admiration for her mother. But I like the way she talked about her mother. She didn't just say, "My mother was brilliant, my mother was great, I admire her and love her for everything she did." She didn't idealize her in some respects. She said, "My mother was a very stern woman, and someone who is very cold, and a distant person; and I inherited some of that." She's not going to, like, just whitewash the things, so to speak. She's not just going to idealize the mother and not point out the faults. And I think that was an important part of the book -- that she really did try to tell it like it was. All the details, including many of the uncomfortable and unpleasant details about Jim Crow in Louisville, about the racism and sexism she encountered in the workplace, as well as the difficulties that she faced as a person with her friends.

Bill Goodman: Don't you think it was extraordinary some of the things that she lived through as a child, in growing up? First, going to work at 17 and then moving into the Mammoth Life Insurance Co. at 21. Cait, you were about to say?
Cait: Yeah, I was really impressed with her and the things she was able to accomplish. You never think that a woman, let alone a 17-year-old woman, is going to go off by herself and sell insurance. I thought that was really impressive.
Dava: I was just going to say, the way she tells the story of her childhood gives you such a clear picture of how her personality developed and she talks about when she was a child she really didn't like to hang out with children her age. She likes to be with older people. One of her best friends was this elderly lady named Mrs. Nellie Henderson and she said she learned a lot from Mrs. Henderson because she spoke to her about valuable things, about manners and how to behave correctly. And you just understand, you can see so clearly how she developed into such an independent person and from the stories of her mother you can see how her work ethic evolved. Because that's one of the things I think this book really stresses. Her words really stress how much she valued work. It was like that's what she stressed in her life, and that's what I admire her most for.
Rochelle: There was something else about her childhood that stuck with me, because you talked about her mother. They start with talking about Millersburg and how life is there and how her mother ... these days you couldn't do what her mother did. You know, if you needed a child's attention, she had her father's razor strap in the room, but she said that everybody in Millersburg liked and respected my mother. She was called the mayor of Millersburg. People liked her plainspoken manner. They liked the way she raised us children. In those days, people owned their children and I got that sense that she was really raised, she didn't just grow up, she didn't just sort of hang out and things just sort of happened to her. Everything in her life was planned, and what her mother taught her was planning and doing the next thing and there was a sense of mission and purpose about everything she did, even if she went off, like when she was working. And again, I can't get over starting as a 17-year-old and going around to different towns and selling insurance and making a lot of money. But deciding that the insurance company isn't treating me the way I want, so I'm going to go off to Detroit for a year and sell cosmetics and become sort of like an early Avon lady. And to do all of those things back then, there are people who are afraid to branch out and do things now. She was way before her time.
Jonathan: I think that's one of the very interesting things about the book. The history book, because it really is, in a sense, a story about a woman who perhaps was on the very front rank of woman in the professional role in America. Her first job was in 1921 and then she moved on to Louisville three or four years later. She is very honest about the troubles and obstacles she faced. She's very honest, is she not, about how people were jealous of her if she did well, and particularly the men who would like to get credit for the work she did? If she'd come up with a good idea, she'd be allowed to carry through with it, but sometimes the man would actually take that idea and they'd use it and she wouldn't get credit for it. And I think she's really happy at 89 or 90 years old to look back and praise her own past and in a sense to point out some of the problems there.
Bill Goodman: We do need to point out, I think, she was 88 or 89 when she sat down with Wade Hall and gave him this oral history. And one of the other, I think, shocking things about her life and business there with Mammoth was that time when she left -- for a short leave of absence -- and came back, and they had changed her job title and taken that away from her; and how surprised she was at that, and indignant about it. But she went on and certainly went on to a lot of other accomplishments. But there is this sense of history that goes all the way through.
Rochelle: Well, it's almost like her life is the history of civil rights in Kentucky because she talked very frankly about all of these times she went some place, you couldn't just go and live somewhere. She had to live with somebody, she stayed in a room in someone's home, or shared a room. At one point they lived in an apartment above the insurance part of Mammoth Life and it grew so big that they wound up running out of space.

But one of the things I really liked about how she handled herself is how undaunted she was by whatever happened. When she left to take that leave of absence and came back to Mammoth, and she had started one of the first public relations departments, I mean for any company. And then she did that throughout their different businesses and that whole thing that she created was given to someone else and they told her to do something else. And she decided, "I won't do that, I'll go back and sell insurance." And she sold more insurance than anybody had ever sold and they said, "Well, OK, you can come back and have your job back."

It was, like, just constantly proving; and that's so like the history of black people in this country. But I like that she didn't deal with that whole issue of whether she was black or white and what percentage it was. That was somebody else's dilemma, not hers. And the title that is so great, Passing for Black, came from the time she was at Mammoth and these women were sitting there and she knew them, they were black women, and she spoke and they wouldn't acknowledge her. And I thought, oh man, isn't that horrible. But you never know if it's because somebody doesn't like you, so she went back and asked. And they said, "We thought you were just passing." And she said, "Passing? Passing? What do you mean passing?" And they said, "We thought you were passing for white." And she said, "No, if anything I'm passing for black." And I thought, "You go, girl!" You know, that's just such a spirit. That's from her mom. And even though I wish I'd known more about her mom, by the time I got to the end of the book, I said, you know, I met her mom. She is her mother and all those of things, a few things she could tell us about her, it was who she was.

Bill Goodman: I think another way that was described, too, it was written ... Sometimes accused of trying to pass for white in a segregated society, Mae felt like she was doing the opposite -- she was trying to assert her black identity. So, in that, she didn't really see it as an obstacle. She used it, certainly, to her advantage; and it was a real strength for her. And I think that's another admirable thing that we found out about her.
Jonathan: You know, I was into what you said about her, Rochelle. When you first read the book, you are struck by how often she boasts and brags about her own past. In a sense she is like one of those old people who praised over their own past. She boasts and she brags, says "I was beautiful, I was tall and I was elegant, and everybody respected me" and so on, and so forth. And sometimes you feel that she's being very boastful, and then the more you read on the more you realize she's really standing up for black people in a sense. She's standing up for what black people are capable of. Don't you think that's right?
Rochelle: Absolutely.
Bill Goodman: But going back to the people that you like to listen to and that we learn so much from -- our forefathers, our grandmothers and grandfathers -- I think somebody also described it as like sitting in a room and listening to your great-grandmother speak and reminisce for you. And I think, Cait, you said that you could even see her, maybe, at times shaking her finger at you.
Cait: Sure. I could really hear her voice. Her very genteel voice.
Bill Goodman: What about her career, moving from business and then going to the American Red Cross? Quite frankly, I'd forgotten that. Was that more or less something that she felt like she needed to do? It was a volunteerism on her part, was it not?
Cait: Yeah, that's right. She described her husband's death was very ... by the way, she was married twice.
Rochelle: It was sort of incidental.
Bill Goodman: Let's talk about that because that's interesting. But this service in the American Red Cross ...
Cait: Well, it was one of the few glimpses you got into her as an emotional person, when she describes -- her husband had died, and she was really sad about it -- it was kind of an ordeal for her, and she was still young at that point. And she just decided, she says, "At that point I could really fly, once he was gone." And that's what she decided to do. But it really tore her up to be leaving. Leaving her job and all the security she felt, worked really hard for a while, but she knew she was going to do it.
Dava: Even then it was on her own terms. I love that part: "Can you come in two weeks?" "No, I cannot." She did not care if they wouldn't give her the job because of it; she would come when she wanted.
Jonathan: It was something of an adventure for her -- it was a great adventure to go to Europe during World War II, and she certainly made the most of it.
Cait: But not that sweaty jungle.
Rochelle: I love how she ... If it wasn't on her path, or the way she had decided she was going, she didn't do it. And she sort of went to find out what kind of uniforms they had picked out for them to know where they were going. And when she saw seersucker, she said "Oh no, it's hot, I'd hate to go ahead." And you know, that subterfuge ... the brain it took to just think about doing that! And then to tell them "I'm not going to go anyplace hot" in time to get out of that assignment, and not go to ...
Cait: Yeah, she ended up going to England, of all places. Actually, I thought that was kind of strange, that she didn't really venture out of the office much. She really is working and that's what she's there for and she doesn't see much of England. I thought that was kind of interesting.
Bill Goodman: I thought one of the nice things, though, about her time there was that she was with her brother; and, apparently, they had been close and had gotten a lot closer while they were there. They saw each other quite often. So that was interesting in itself.
Rochelle: And she helped arrange that as well. So she was a doer. She looked out for her brother; she looked out for the women who were in the service with her and the training that they needed to get when it was time for them to go. And they had arranged for the white volunteers to get their training first. So she found out about it and made sure all the black volunteers got up and got there earlier so that when they were there first they couldn't turn them away so they all got trained at the same time. She was making history in little ways throughout her life. And I love that.
Jonathan: I'm glad you mentioned the brother, because I think one of the scenes that really stand out in the book is when she's on a train with her brother -- and her brother had darker skin than she had -- and he was on what was called the colored car. And the conductor came and said, you know, "Madam, would you please leave, this is the colored car, there's a car for white people up there." And she refused to leave. And it appeared to her that the conductor did not realize that she was an African-American woman. And she insisted on staying there and she said, "I've always protested against racism, but always in a quiet, dignified manner."

I think that the whole theme of this "passing" is very important to an understanding of what she was, isn't it? In some ways she had advantages, she thinks, as somebody who's light-skinned. She feels that in a way it was a disadvantage, as well. In fact, at one point she says, "Those of us who are light-skinned African-American have to carry a special burden through life. Blacks can be resentful of each other -- darker ones often feel there's a caste system, and we lighter ones have advantages." And then she goes on to say, "In fact, my light skin has often been a source of derision and discrimination." So I think that there's a story about, on one hand, the advantages she's had as light-skinned, but also, the disadvantages that she's had. I see her as somebody who's always been a loner -- has always been kind of solitary. In fact, near the beginning of the book, she said that "Even as a child I've always been a loner." Did you feel like she was somebody who really didn't have a sense of community? I mean she did, but by the same token she felt estranged at times.

Rochelle: I think she adapted to a larger community because that was what she needed. She was so alone that she had an imaginary friend and I can't imagine feeling a loneliness so strong that you made up somebody to be with as a child. But I can understand her doing it because she's so strong and so determined in the way that she does things and living life on her own terms. I couldn't imagine someone being strong enough to be with her all the time, or to be her equal. She just seemed without equal in so many instances; and she still handled every situation her way, even that situation on the train where the conductor came back twice and tried to get her to leave her brother and she never said "This is my brother" or "I'm black," because she didn't owe him an explanation. I thought, that's exactly right - she did not have to tell him why she didn't want to do it - "I'm an American." So I like that.
Bill Goodman: In just a sentence or two here, in fact, one sentence: "It should be apparent if you've listened to me thus far, that I'm not one to be shoved around, I stand up for what is right." She didn't owe that explanation.

In turning just a little bit to a lighter moment, you almost said it a few minutes ago: When she talked about her husbands -- and we certainly don't mean to be that light about it -- but I think that is another unusual aspect of her life, when both her husbands passed away. But there are references in the latter part of the book when she says -- I'm certain she loves them and she enjoyed being with them, but ... -- if they hadn't been there, she would have gone on with her life.

Rochelle: She would have done just fine without them. And I thought, even though it was light-hearted in the way she said it, it was exactly right. She didn't need anybody because she had learned so early to depend on no one but herself. So I don't know how her husbands would have felt reading that (or their spirits hearing this), but I thought, you know, what a great sense of being and a sense of yourself to know that you can survive anything on your own. And she lived a lot of her life doing just that.
Bill Goodman: Well, we can't leave today without discussing her 17 years in the Kentucky Legislature and her accomplishments there, and as we talked before, too, some people get into their 60s and they're thinking about retirement and here she was in her 60s and decided to serve another 17 years of public service in the Kentucky State Legislature and what she accomplished there was remarkable, too.
Cait: It really was. She must have been quite a presence on the floor. All six feet of her.
Bill Goodman: The statements that she made and the passage of so many important bills that were for open housing and low-income housing and all those things. She made her mark throughout her entire life, and certainly ended up her public career doing such a good job there. What are some of the things you remember from Wade's oral history about her working in the Kentucky Legislature?
Dava: I remember her talking about her getting the Open Housing bill passed; and then also she had the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution officially ratified by Kentucky. I think her service in the Legislature was just an extension of what she'd done all her life. Because service to others was her outlet to the rest of the world. She was so focused on her work that that's the way she really reached other people. And she talks about even while she's at Mammoth lots of times she would help people through their insurance policies and adjusting their payments, things like that to help others. I think it's just natural that she should go on and serve in the Legislature.
Rochelle: That's such a good point.
Cait: I thought she really cared about the poor and she had fairly open-minded viewpoints on lots of things. She talked about being opposed to the death penalty, and she had really liberal ideas about sex education and that kind of thing. She really cared about people, genuinely. You really felt like that.
Bill Goodman: But she was really a very unique person, wasn't she?
Rochelle: She was unique in being this independent and strong as a woman. There are men who try to be like this and don't succeed. So, no, there aren't many people who have done as much as she has and who have just devoted their life to that. That that's an extension of who they are, and from the time she was 17 helping people and doing things. Just as a part of her daily living -- was just routine.
Jonathan: She identifies very much with black civil rights leaders in the Louisville area. She talks about during the 1960s and after, meeting a lot of them.
Rochelle: They stayed at her house.
Jonathan: They stayed at her house. Exactly. And she talked about meeting Lyman C. Johnson, who was the first African-American graduate of the University of Kentucky who has had a scholarship named after him for minorities/Africans at the University of Kentucky. She talked about Jesse Jackson a lot, and she admires him greatly. So I think she saw herself doing similar things to what they were doing, although in her own style. And, of course, there were special problems for her as a woman in largely a man's world to do that.
Bill Goodman: Even in that, she didn't mince words when describing some as not doing what she thought they should do, or not going as far as they should in the Civil Rights Movement. Even so, she didn't really have those kinds of barriers that kept her from forming an opinion about all people.
Rochelle: She was not limited in any way. She even made a comment about Muhammad Ali who was just loved by the world, and everybody knows who he is and what he's done, and she didn't think he had done enough for his community. And considering how his community treated him, you know, that's a good debate that they could have, but she was very specific about what people's duties and responsibilities were and she was doing hers and they should do theirs. And I liked when Jack Benny's sidekick, Harry Rochester, came and stayed at her house with his entourage and was not nice and she reminded him that this was her home, and I can see her standing there towering over him, because he's not six feet, saying you need to know how to behave in somebody's house. And I thought, man, you know, you can't touch her.
Cait: I thought that was interesting, speaking of him, that he was able to run a horse in the Kentucky Derby and yet he couldn't stay in a hotel anywhere in Louisville. His horse's name was Burnt Cork,
Rochelle: Which I loved.
Bill Goodman: Was that date 1947 or so? Was it that early? I've forgotten exactly, I think it was sometime in the '40s.
Rochelle: I think it was the late '40s.
Bill Goodman: Maybe even at that time, of course. Let me ask you, as you think about this some more -- how do you think her life has ended? And, of course, we need to say that she is still doing well in a nursing home in Louisville, I think still has visitors and that sort of thing, but not as well as certainly she would want to be, and she stresses that in the book. How do you think she would want to be remembered? Maybe that's a good way to ask that question.
Dava: I think she has a very poignant passage in here about how she says she wanted to be remembered. Here we go. This is when she's saying how she would like people to remember her, she would like them to say: "Mae Street Kidd did the best she could with opportunities she had, and she's not ashamed of it, she's not bitter about what life has dealt her, she played the cards that life gave her, she's very proud of her life." She didn't do badly, did she? And, we look back on her life and we certainly see all that she had done, and we're awestruck of all this lady accomplished throughout her 80-some years of service until she had her debilitating health problems. But, you also realize how devastating it is for her to be older and to not be able to do all the things she used to be able to, to not be able to work like she used to. And that's the one tragic part about this book and at the end it almost made me cry because she said something like, "I have beautiful flowers outside my house. When you leave, pick some and think about a woman who lived a beautiful life, but can only remember it in her memory."
Rochelle: And we should mention she's legally blind and has been for some years, so she was so meticulous and so loving of her home on West Chestnut Street -- which was the old Walnut Street where Mammoth was -- and where all these beautiful black homes, homes owned by prominent black people, were. And she still lived in that house up until a few years ago and knew every corner of it -- had a spotless kitchen, had all these things just her way. And to have to lose that, and she said, "Imagine how it feels to wake up and see a blank piece of paper." And to not see those things that she loved -- the grand piano that she had; and her rug; and her flowers, lots of beautiful flowers.
Cait: She had such great pride in her appearance. And she loved to drive.
Jonathan: She strung along as long as she could because remember when she had a stroke they took her to a nursing home and they put her in a wheel chair in a nursing home and she takes one look around and says, "I'm not going to stay here -- take me home." She insists on being taken home and all the nurses and doctors are surprised and she goes home and then stays at home for another five or ten years.
Bill Goodman: Jonathan, let me ask you about the mechanics of an oral history. How does one go about editing or taking that down?
Jonathan: That's interesting. Wade Hall says he recorded 40 hours of conversation ...
Bill Goodman: Is it unusual to find in an oral history that there's some repetition of either facts or statements?
Jonathan: Very common
Rochelle: I don't think there was much in here, but there was some.
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