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This is a complete and accurate transcript of the tape of the oral history interview of Tom Skinner (Collection 430, T1) in the Archives of the Billy Graham Center. No spoken words which were recorded were omitted. In a very few cases, the transcribers could not understand what was said, in which case "[unclear]' was inserted. Also, grunts and verbal hesitations such as "ah" or "um" were usually omitted. Readers of this transcript should remember that this is a transcript of spoken English, which follows a different rhythm and even rule than written English.
. . . Three dots indicate an interruption or break in the train of thought within the sentence of the speaker.
. . . . Four dots indicate what the transcriber believes to be the end of an incomplete sentence.
( ) Word in parentheses are asides made by the speaker.
[ ] Words in brackets are comments made by the transcriber.
This transcript was completed by Wayne D. Weber in February 1999.
Collection 430, T1. Interview of Tom Skinner by Robert Shuster, June 13, 1990.
SHUSTER: . . . make sure the microphone's picking up.
SKINNER: This is a test. I normally speak at this level. [Shuster laughs] If I should get excited and go up another twelve dbs [decibels][object falls, recorder turned off and restarted]
SHUSTER: This is an interview with Reverend Tom Skinner by Robert Shuster for the Archives of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. This interview took place at 4:00 pm in Dayton, Tennessee, on June 13th, 1990. Reverend Skinner, why don't we start with some of your family background. Where were you born? What were the names of your parents?
SKINNER: [clears throat] My parents were born in Greenville, South Carolina, and Taylor, South Carolina. And I was born to Alester Jerry Skinner who was born on the 13th of August 1913. And my mother's maiden name was Georgia Robinson, later Georgia Skinner, and who born in Greenville, South Carolina, August the 28th, 1927. They met in South Carolina and were part of the migration of Southern African Americans out of the southern region of the country that started around World War I. World War I was kind of a turning point in the relocation of African Americans. Males who got stationed in the military begin to let the people know about the northern cities and . . . .
SHUSTER: Jobs opening up in the north and . . . .
SKINNER: That's right and so [clears throat] between 1914 and World War II there was this mass migration of African American people out of the rural South into both southern and northern urban centers. They moved to New York during World War II, and so I was born in Harlem on June 6, 1942. Born in the air raid drill. That was during those nights when they use to black the city out and practice turning all the electricity off and stuff in case of air raids. So I was born in darkness and my mother said I've been in darkness ever since. Born in Harlem Hospital in Harlem and [pauses] that's where I got started.
SHUSTER: Did you have any brothers and sisters?
SKINNER: Yup. I have four brothers. There are four boys . . . three brothers and one sister of mine. Brother next to me is Donald Eugene Skinner who is two years younger, Jerry Bruce Skinner who is four years younger and John William Skinner who is eight years younger and Dierdra Ann Skinner who is eighteen years younger. And I was a freshman in college when my sister was born. [laughs, clears throat]
SHUSTER: What's the earliest clear memory that you have?
SKINNER: The earliest clearest memory that I have, I guess, is [pauses] sitting on a fire escape at age three [pauses] watching a man on the corner of 153rd Street and McCombs Place in [pauses] . . . 153rd Street and 8th Avenue in Harlem being stabbed to death. It was the first clear recollection that I can remember, three years old watching a man being put to death.
SHUSTER: And how did you feel?
SKINNER: Well, I became consciously aware at a very early age that I lived in a violent society. Harlem was a two-and-a-half square mile area with a population of one million people and the block I lived on there were five thousand people on my block. That's a hundred-and-twenty-five yards north to south, fifty-five yards east to west. There were five thousand people. There were more than forty thousand drug addicts in Harlem supporting an average habit in today's dollars about a hundred dollars a person per day. The . . . it's not uncommon for a mother to send a piercing scream through the community as she discovered the . . . a two-week old baby bitten all to death by a vicious rat. You could, (it's like clock work) . . . you could set the clock as to when the police would drive into the neighborhood to collect their bribes to . . . for racketeering and all. Harlem was more than fifty percent slums, thousands of people who lived in rat-infested, run-down dilapidated apartments that landlords did not provide services for. [clears throat] Those are all the childhood sights and smells that I became acclimated to.
SHUSTER: How would you describe your parents?
SKINNER: My . . . my mother was a very [pauses] gentle, hard-working woman who [pauses] . . . who took seriously her responsibility as a mother, as a wife. [pauses] My father [pauses] was a . . . my father placed a strong emphasis on the mind. He believed that you . . . you . . . you win in the world with your mind. Yeah [?] You know, I can hear him very early in our lives telling us about the barriers that would be erected in from of us because we were black. And . . . and that you have to be twice as good in order to compete. You can't . . . you can't be equal. "There are no equal black people," he would say. So my father urged us ("urged us" to put it lightly) . . . he urged us to read very early. All of us were reading before we started school, before we went to kindergarten. We were all reading.
SHUSTER: Taught by your mother or your father?
SKINNER: Both. Yeah. And [pauses] . . . and [pauses] by the . . . by the time . . . by the time I was twelve, thirteen years old I had read five or six of Shakespear's plays. I had . . . I had read Othello and Macbeth and Hamlet, Julius Ceaser. He required us to memorize long passages of great statements, you know. When there was a speech by Frederick Douglass or Abraham Lincoln or . . . you know. So he was a strong emphasiz . . . he placed strong strong emphasis on education. He believed that the way black people overcome is that you just have to be educated. You have to know how the world functions. You have to be ahead of everybody. And so he drilled that and drilled that and drilled that. He was the philosopher type: lot of homespun . . . homespun philosophy, that stuff.
SHUSTER: Such as?
SKINNER: "Stitch in time makes nine." [clears throat] The [pauses] . . . you know, things like I just said, "There are no equal black people." "A 'B' is a 'D' if you're black. A 'C' is failing if you're black." You know, "The early bird catches the worm. You got to be there first." You know, just old fashioned stuff that he took . . . he took very seriously.
SHUSTER: You said he described to you the barriers that you'd face as a black man. What were some of the barriers?
SKINNER: Well, [pauses] you know he talked about the fact that, you know, in tho . . . in tho . . . in New York City, city jobs were based on what was called civil service. You took civil service exams and how you placed on the exams determined your placement in job opportunities. And if you wanted to be an assistant foreman there was a civil service test for that. And if you wanted to be a foreman there was civil service test for that. And he would score very high and they would tell him that he was in the top five percentile. But the job was never forthcoming, the promotion never happened, you know. He . . . he talked about the fact that in this society white people do not believe that you are their equal, that you must accept . . . . You don't accept that you're not their equal, but you must accept that that is how they feel. You must . . . you must . . . you must understand that it is ingrained in the culture to believe there are certain things that you are not capable of doing. They do not have visions of you being president of the United States or running a Fortune 500 company. They don't have visions of you doing great things. And, of course, [pauses] the [pauses] . . . I was . . . I . . . I was born [pauses] in . . . in a segragated society and so I was [pauses] . . . I was five years old when Jackie Robinson played his first game at . . . at Ebbits Field, the Brooklyn Dodgers. There were no black basketball players, believe it or not [laughs] when I was a kid in . . . in professional basketball. There were . . . there were maybe one or two stars in football. The [pauses] . . . that in terms of black folks' ability to penetrate the white society, where they . . . although we knew in a segregated sense that we had great players and . . . and stuff like this. All of us, whenever the old southern Negro league baseball teams got within two hundred miles, we went, you know. And so as a kid I saw Satchal Page pitch, and I saw, you know, Josh Gibson, and I saw Larry Doby before he . . . he even became a Cleveland Indian and etcetera. Because we knew we had stars in our own segregated institutions, but we never saw them penetrate white society. And those are things that he . . . you know, he made very clear and he . . . he said that you have to beat that system by being twice as good.
SHUSTER: Did your father . . . there was this great debate between DuBois [W.E.B.] and Washington [Booker T.]. Did your father ever [pauses] talk with you about it . . .
SHUSTER: . . . or about the . . . .
SKINNER: My father was a combination of the two and he advocated that. He . . . he believed that you had to develop your intellectual capacity and always work with your hands. And for him it was not an either or situation, that he believed that all work was dignity and all work should be done with honor and that there's no such thing as a category of work and etcetera, that all work is honorable. As long as it's legal and moral, it's honorable. And [pauses] . . . and he cat . . . and he epitomized that in his own life. He . . . you know, he . . . he was a civil servant but a . . . a scholar, a theologian, a . . . a . . . read profusely. But you did what you had to do economically and . . . and as far as he was concerned nothing was beneath you to do. And . . . whereas the arguments that had developed at that time between those who were advocates of Booker T. Washington and those who were advocates of DuBois was either or. It was like either you do vocational stuff and you . . . you reject the intellectual and the other kinds of human skills or you become talented and intellectual and artistic and you do not do blue collar stuff, you know. And with my father believed that you had to be . . . if you were black had to be a combination of both of those.
SHUSTER: You said your mother took seriously her responsibility as wife and mother. What do you mean by that?
SKINNER: Well, my mother was one of these very loyal people. She worked hard but in the first six years of my school life my [pauses] . . . my mother was home whenever I . . . we got home from school. You know, she worked but she . . . she somehow arranged her hours that she was home when we got home to help us process the day. And she [pauses] . . . my father was a minister and so she took responsibility . . . she took the responsibly her role to support him. And [pauses] . . . and [pauses] first as an assistant pastor and then as pastor of a church. The [pauses] . . . my mother was a [pauses] . . . she believed that things, you know, just simple things like order in the house and order in the way you did things, and the care with which she, whatever service she rendered to the family, was like she did it with great care. I never saw her do anything that had to do with us or my father in haste, you know. It was just . . . it was like carefully contrived, carefully done, carefully thought out, but [pauses] it's a [?] amazing thing.
SHUSTER: Do you see qualities in yourself that came from your parents?
SKINNER: I have [pauses] . . . I have my mother's compassion for people, for the suffering and for the . . . for any person who is receiving injustice. She had a great sensitivity to that. [pauses] I . . . I'm extremely conservative in certain areas like . . . like my father. I don't . . . by conservative I don't mean politically or theologically but I mean that [pauses] I wait until trends are clearly established before I jump on them. Just because they widen ties I don't widen mine, or because they narrow them I don't narrow mine. [laughs] You know, my father was like that. I wear classy clothes. I don't wear, you know, etcetera. That means [?] . . . and so I have . . . I have a lot of these traits in . . . in that respect.
SHUSTER: You mentioned your mother's compassion for the suffering. Can you think of an example?
SKINNER: Our house was a stop off point for stray everything. Whatever was straying, [laughs] you know. And so my mother would . . . my mother would meet somebody on the street who said they were hungry and she'd bring them to dinner, you know. You come home, you never know who she was . . . you know, what child she picked up who said they [laughs] were lost or whatever. I mean, she was like that. In fact, she believed that nobody should have to suffer unduly and so we always had extra people at the dinner table and even if there wasn't enough food to go around [laughs] we . . . we said we'd always squeeze in some more. That's the way she was. She was [taps on the table] just always looking out for . . . . And she'd always say that one day one of my children may be in that kind of situation and I hope that you would run into somebody who would have the same compassion.
SHUSTER: You mentioned how long before school you were reading. What were some of your favorite books?
SKINNER: Oh, I [pauses] . . . I read very early Uncle Tom's Cabin, Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Red Badge of Courage, Tale of Two Cities. The . . . my father outlined a hundred books that he wanted us to read by the time we were sixteen, starting when we were children of five or six [unclear] and just kept reading, you know, from . . . like I said, from Red Badge of Courage to Homer's Odyssey, Plato, Socrates, Aris . . . Aristotle, [pauses] the book of Ezra, the Gospel of John, the book of Proverbs. [pauses] Father said, "If you want to understand Jesus, you have to read the Gospel of John. If you want to understand the mind of God, you have to read Proverbs." So he had . . . he had them well listed out [taps on desk] for us to read.
SHUSTER: Did you make it before you were sixteen?
SKINNER: I did. [taps desk] Oh, I passed it. I was . . . I was . . . I was just a prolific reader. I just . . . so I grew up being in love with books, you know, living . . . going to libraries. And even now the . . . one of the biggest vices I have is I spend undo money on books. [laughs] You know, it's just . . . .
SKINNER: Always looking for a book. Can't pass a bookstore. I found it in . . . to a certain extent [pauses] disadvantageous. It was advantageous in the sense that it gave . . . it gave me a much broader perspective of our . . . the world and so and . . . and put me in the discipline of reading and researching and stuff. The advantage was that when I was in school I never studied for a test, you know, because I was just reading anyway. So it was like reading was not something I had to do to meet some deadline or, you know . . . or to pass a grade. It was just that I loved reading so I never studied for an exam. And [pauses] . . . but [pauses] . . . and, of course, carried on in my adulthood so I'm a prolific reader, researcher. I love to find facts on things and . . . and read. The disadvantage I'm finding is that . . . that I found then and I find now as an adult is that . . . that less and less people in our society read. More and more people depend on the quick and dirty analysis of a two-minute news commentary to tell them about what the issues are and as a result Americans make decisions and formulate consensus based on surface things. And I find it very difficult in trying to provide Christian solutions to enormous problems to do this in relationship with people who have not done their homework about the facts and . . . and such as . . .
SHUSTER: Like on USA Today.
SKINNER: Yeah, that's right. So it's very frustrating for people who . . . who read a paragraph about a problem and have developed some very simplistic solutions and they don't want to, you know . . . they don't want to really delve and deal with it. Of course, that's the dark side of it. And the [pauses] . . . but those are some of the things that my father instilled that I think stayed with me all my life.
SHUSTER: How would you describe the faith of your parents?
SKINNER: The faith of my parents? My father believed at the time that Jesus was a good man. He fed the five thousand, gave sight to the blind, and healed the sick.
SHUSTER: At the time you were a child?
SKINNER: Child, right, up until I was, you know, a teenager. He believed that Jesus was a good philosopher. You should study the life of Jesus if you really wanted to know what a good man is like. But the stuff that Jesus was the Son of God and that Christ died on the cross for our sins and stuff like that, he wasn't . . . he wasn't there then. And my mother was a . . . my mother had a very simple unwavering faith that God was who He said He was and you could depend on Him, [laughs] you know, and it was simple as that. And it was very interesting because my father . . . my mother never got into any kind of debate, you know, because my father you know had an earned doctorate degree in theology, etcetera, and my mother had a fourth grade education. And so my father with all this theology didn't believe and my mother with no education had [laughs] a very undying faith in God so it's a . . . kind of an interesting . . . it's an interesting combination.
SHUSTER: What . . . what was it like to [loud pounding sounds] be a pastor's son . . . a preachers kid?
SKINNER: I thought that it was necessary for me to disavow [pauses] religion, Christianity. I could not reconcile the things that I was hearing in church with what was going on in the street. The violence, the . . . the hunger, the poverty, [tapping sound] the . . . the oppression. I think that all preacher's kids to a certain de . . . degree always have to fight an identity crisis. It doesn't matter a difference whether they are rich, poor, or middle class. All preacher's kids have a certain tide that they feel they have to try to escape at some point in their life. Some of them get over it fast; others stretch it out longer. The desire to be one of the guys and to prove that simply because I'm a preachers kid doesn't mean that, you know, I can't relate, I can't be tough, I can't whatever. And I think that's one of the major reasons that led me to join a gang, because I . . . I really didn't want the label of a preacher's kid, which I felt boxed me in and raised people's expectations for me. You know . . . you know, it was like in church the deacon's kid could swing from the chandeliers, you know, after church on Sunday and we could make . . . we . . . we could all run around and jump over benches and stuff but . . . but if I did it, I was viewed as, you know, "You're the preacher's kid and the preacher's kid doesn't do this." Every other kid could do it but I couldn't do it. Adults even had a different standard for me from other kids, you know, etcetera, so there . . . there were these disadvantages of being a preacher's kid.
SHUSTER: And did you feel . . . so you felt them from a very young age?
SKINNER: Yeah, I started to be very much aware that the world had a . . . had a different standard for me. When I was six, seven years old, I mean, it was just clear as day. They had different expectations of me than they had for other kids, that for some reason my parents were not normal and I wasn't normal. [laughs]
SHUSTER: What did you think about God as a child?
SKINNER: Always had a problem with God. [pauses] I guess that I began associating God with church because in our culture there was almost no other way you could relate to God except you had to tie into a religious institution. And religious institutions didn't seem to be very relevant to . . . you know, to me with the . . . with the things of everyday life, you know, living in a . . . in a . . . in a slum community with . . . with all the attendant problems and difficulties that a . . . . Since I did not see the church responding to those problems I figured God wasn't responding and since God . . . being God could not be who they say He is because He's not responding, therefore He's probably not even there and therefore people just simply need a god in order to be able get by in life. They need a God because they have nothing else to lean on. But I always had a problem at . . . at an early because I . . . I could never picture God as being independent from a religious order. So everything that I knew and understood about Him was related to these religious orders that I was connected to and I didn't have a lot of faith in them. I kind of saw churches as social clubs. People that . . . you know, some people get together on Friday and some fraternities meet on Wednesday and this group . . . social group called the church meets on Sunday.
SHUSTER: What kind a preacher was your father?
SKINNER: My father [pauses] wrote all of his sermons and [pauses] . . . and was very meticulous about it and my father was an instructional preacher. He was one of those preachers who preached to teach. And he was more what I call about ninety percent teaching and ten percent inspirational, whereas most of the definition of preaching in those days was that it was inspirational. My father was a teacher. He [pauses] did that and . . . . [pauses] He . . . he was kind of what you might call expository in his homiletical style except that his exposition of Scripture [loud background sound] was that he [pauses] . . . he . . . he could explain away the miracles or in another way explain away these supernatural things so that they made sense to the human mind, [pauses] that kind of thing.
SHUSTER: As a child be . . . before your were at a teenager's . . . teenage years, do you recall who your heroes were?
SKINNER: My heroes were Jackie Robinson, [someone speaking in the background] Roy Campenella. I was [taps sound on table, pauses] . . . there was a vacant lot on the cor . . . on the corner of 153rd Street and McCombs Place. (I lived up on 153rd between 8th and McCombs Place.) But on the corner of McCombs Place was a vacant lot. And instead of having to walk all the way to the corner and then come down the street you could come across this vacant lot and get into the block faster. And people in the buildings threw garbage down into it and it was quite . . . it was the place where those of us who wanted to play ball played. And I always had this imaginary . . . well actually home plate I drew . . . I drew the home plate in the ground because it was dirt and . . . and there was an imaginary second base out there and right behind second base was the street. It was the avenue. And I would take stones and I would get in the squat position as a catcher and I would throw the stone down to second base. So one day I'm out there squatting down throwing these stones down to second base and a car had, you know, had come to the block. It was normal traffic and except this guy put on his brakes about half way down the street and backed up.
SKINNER: And out of the corner of my eye I could see this guy sitting in his car watching me, so, you know, I really got real good then throwing the ball out to second. [taps on desk] And [pauses] . . . and he sat there for about, oh, half an hour and watched. The next day I'm out there throwing stones, the same car comes down the street. This time he stops and he gets out and he calls me over. He says, "What are you doing?" He says . . . I said, "I'm throwing runners out trying to steal second base." He says . . . he says, "That's good." He says, "Well, what you have to do though if you know that a runner is on second base you have to be in a position to throw the ball down to second base. You have to sta . . . start with." He said, "You're standing in the normal squat position as though nobody's on base." And . . . so he showed me how you do that. And then he said, "True now." He says, "When you're getting ready to throw the ball," he says, "I can tell that you are catching the ball and rearing back." He says, "You want to turn your shoulder while the pitch is coming to you. You want to turn your shoulder and have your left shoulder pointing in the direction of second base and you catch the ball off of your right shoulder, so you don't have to wind up. You just release the ball." He said, "Remember. It's not how hard you throw the ball down to second base. It's where you throw it." And he says, "Where you want to throw it is you want to throw it two feet to the right of second base and about between the knee and the ankles, so that all the second baseman or the shortstop has to do is to catch the ball and leave their glove right there and the guy who's trying to steal second will run into the tag or slide into the tag." And he says, "You know, you just practice throwing it like that." And then he says, "Come over [unclear]." So he goes in his truck and he pulls out his catcher's mitt and goes out there and shows me how to . . . how to do this. And . . . and he's out there with me for about an hour. Well, while he's out there I started noticing people coming. Nobody ever stood around and watched anybody in this vacant lot but people are watching. And I'm saying, "Wow." I said, "People are watching me take this lesson. [Shuster laughs] So . . . so the guy . . . so finally he leaves [thumping noise], gets in his car and drives away. And all of a sudden people start coming to me and talking to me, etcetera, and I'm just a little kid and I'm trying to figure this. They said, "What . . . what was he telling you?" [Shuster laughs] and "How come you know him?" [Shuster laughs] and etcetera. "So what do you mean 'How come I know him?'" They said, "You know that was Roy Campenella," you know. Roy Campenella, number thirty-nine with the Dodgers [New York Dodgers baseball team], you know, teaching me how to catch. And about every few weeks when . . .when the Dodgers were in town found out he had a cousin that lived in Harlem just a few blocks away and he just made it a habit to look for me and he taught me how to hit [?]. So Roy Campenella was my hero. [Shuster laughs] And . . . but . . . but Jackie Robinson, Roy Campenella, Malcom X. [pauses] There was a [pauses] . . . there was a guy called by the name of Wastinian [unclear], we used to call him. Wastinian [unclear]. He was the biggest the racketeer in the thing. He . . . he worked for . . . he . . . he . . . he came up in the days of Shultz and . . .
SHUSTER: Dutch Shultz.
SKINNER: Dutch Shultz and all those guys. He worked for them and he worked . . . and he was the Harlem representative from the mob. You know, he was always dressed nice, etcetera, etcetera. But . . . but he understood how the system functioned. He would always gather kids around and tell us, "This is the way things operate. This is how [unclear]." And so I had a . . . I had a . . . I had a funny bunch of heroes in those days. I had hoodlums and black nationalists and baseball stars [laughs] who were my heroes.
SHUSTER: What did sports mean to you? What did sports mean to you?
SKINNER: Sports [pauses] . . . of . . . of all the kinds of social things that go on in life, my athletic exposure was perhaps the greatest single influence on my life. Athletics taught me discipline. It taught me teamwork. It taught me you have to race against deadlines; you're always racing against the clock. But the idea of excellence, you know, came through it. And I was very fortunate from the very inception of my involvement with sports at about age six until I graduated from college was to . . . was . . . was that I had good coaches, you know. I mean for the most part I had coaches that saw . . . I wouldn't say all the way through; I would say mostly through. When I got to high school and college that changed. But up to that point I had people who saw sports like life. They saw it was a way of teaching life skills to kids. And so my athletic exposure was very positive on my life.
SHUSTER: Was your father a sports fan?
SKINNER: No. I . . . I was all [pauses] city [pauses] in fencing in high school. I was all city in baseball and all city in football. And my father never once saw me play. He was just not into it, he's just not into it.
SHUSTER: Did you mother come see you?
SKINNER: Uh-hmm. My mother would come to the baseball games and football games, so . . . . But my father was just not into it. Although my father had an older brother who played Southern Negro League. I had an uncle, (Bubba [?] was his name) who was a great pitcher and he was one of the greatest pitcher during his day and everybody in the family was proud of him. He was a great pitcher and stuff. But my father was never . . . never into it.
SHUSTER: What . . . what was school like for you? You mentioned a little bit that you never had to study, but [pause] how did you feel about school?
SKINNER: Well, elementary school I went to P.S. 90 on 148th Street between 7th and 8th Avenue. I can even remember the school song: P.S. 90. [sings school song] "P.S. 90, best and brightest, Thoughts about thee cling. Hail to thee, O P.S. 90, hail forevermore." My first grade teacher's name was Mrs. Sally. And Mrs. Sally was the . . . had the typical demeanor of the old image of the schoolmarm, looked just . . . . What . . . whatever your image of a schoolmarm was she was it. You know what I mean?
SHUSTER: Hair in a bun?
SKINNER: Yes, right and stuff like that. Right. [taps the table] And . . . but the most powerful teacher in my life, her name was Mickins. She was my third grade teacher. We used to call her Mean Mickins. Now Miss Mickins was interesting. Dorothy Mickins. She required that your parents showed up for school within the first week of school. Now that was easy for my mother because since I was in kindergarten my mother came to school every thirty days or so, once a month. It got to be embarrassing.
SHUSTER: To talk with the teachers?
SKINNER: No, no, no. My mother would just show up and she'd come in the door and she'd stand there until the teacher saw her and then she would say, "Well, Miss Sally, this . . . I'm just glad to be . . . ." She says, "You know, I . . . I really appreciate that . . . your willingness to assist me in the education of my child. And I'm just coming to find out how we are doing." [laughs] And that was her attitude. Her attitude was that the education of her children was her responsibility and that she was using the facilities of the school to assist her. But this idea that the school was educating me, she never bought that. It was her responsibility to educate me and that the school was assisting her in doing so. [taps on table] And she wanted . . . she wanted . . . she wanted the school's report card not . . . not on me but on them, on how well they were doing. Well . . . but Miss Mickins required that every parent show up the first week of school and if a kid's parent did not show up in the first five days of the school year she wouldn't let them in the class until the parent came. And Miss Mickins would take the parent through this spiel [slang of German origin meaning a routine speech]. She says, "In my class your kid will learn. Your kid will be reading above grade level when they finish. I have no discipline problems in my class. I am the disciplinarian. [pauses] You do not get notes from me telling me that you your child acted up because I will have dealt with it." And on her desk [slaps desk] Miss Mickins had two pieces of wood. One was those old eighteen inch rulers with the little met . . . metal slither through the . . . through the edges and the center and another one was a bulky splinter plank that she picked up in the woods somewhere. And depending on the nature of the infraction depended [laughs] on which one of those got used on your body. And she would tell the parent that "This is what I'm going to do. If you have a problem with this," she said, "then on your way out you stop at the principal's office and have your child transferred out of my class. But if your child is here tomorrow morning that means you have approved of my methods." And she took every parent through the same spiel. She required that all of the girls wore dresses to school and the boys had to wear a white shirt and a necktie every day. Now you would get some kid who would say, "I don't have a white shirt and . . . and my folk's can't afford to buy me no white shirt." But every kid in the class was required to bring a dime to school when that happened. And in those days three dollars bought a good shirt, so thirty kids chipping in a dime, see what Miss Mickins went and bought the shirt for the kid and then wrote a note of instructions to the parent on how that shirt should be taken care of, but that the kid would not be given an excuse for not having the shirt on every day clean. You know what I mean? And so she . . . she . . . she had a dress code. She had a standard. And everybody knew who was in Miss Mickins' class because you could tell. You know what I mean? You could tell by not only by what they wore but you could tell them by the way they behaved and . . . and their academic standard in the school. But she . . . she was the . . . one of the strongest influences. My fourth grade teacher was a man by the name of Mr. Levine. In fact, we use to make jokes as kids those days: "Mr. Levine and four-fourteen had a head like a submarine." 'Cause we were always creating crime, you know, [unclear] around people. But Mr. Levine was the . . . was a Jewish . . . was a Jewish teacher who [pauses] came into the neighborhood and followed up on every kid in his class. And if a kid in the class was playing hooky he'd go to the house, you know, which was unheard of for a white teacher in a black neighborhood. I had good [taps table] . . . I had good elementary school teachers. And I was a good student. I was top student. Junior high school I got better. Frederick Douglas Junior High School in Harlem. I became the president of the student body. I was secretary of the Harrison Society which was made up of the cream of the academic crop students with ninety percent averages and above. I had second highest academic averages in the entire school. So I was a good student.
SHUSTER: You mentioned that Miss . . . Miss Marvins . . .?
SHUSTER: . . . Miss Mickins, who had the strongest influence on you. What was that influence?
SKINNER: Miss Mickins told us outright in the class every day that the . . . that the deck was stacked against us. She said, "The world . . . the world out there is not ready for you. You have to make the world ready for you, and therefore you have to be the best in whatever you do." [someone talking in the background] She would everyday would explain the dress code. She says, "The dress code is really not about that I just woke up one morning and decided to be evil and say boys will wear white shirts." She said, "The world . . . everybody in the world has a uniform on. If you see a baseball player with a baseball uniform on, you figure he's going to play baseball, and if he has a basketball uniform on you figure he's going to play basketball. If he has a tennis outfit on you figure he's going to play tennis. The world judges you when they don't know you by your uniform. I'm going to teach you how to wear a uniform that will change the way people look at you and how they judge you." It was those kinds of lessons that . . . yeah, and to be teaching that to a seven, eight year old kid is amazing. And most kids don't, even when they're . . . you know, don't normally hear that but she would . . . she believed her job was to prepare us for the world.
SHUSTER: You mentioned that your father had the idea that Jesus was a good person, a good teacher until you were about a teenager. What changed that?
SKINNER: Well, I became the leader of one of the largest gangs in Harlem called the Harlem Lords. I was [pauses] . . . I joined the gang, passed the initiation, couple of months later I challenged the leader, became the leader and began to lead a very violent life. And it was . . . it was one night mapping out strategy for a gang fight that became the turning point. Now, I had come under the influence of a group of people in Harlem known as the black nationalists. My social science teacher at school was a nationalist, and very candidly from one day to another they would say things to me like, "Well, [pauses] Skinner your problem is that you've been brainwashed, you've been educated, trained, and brought up under the Christian religion, which is really a white man's religion given to black people in order to keep them in their place. Any aggressive, black kid wanting to get ahead in . . . in life should reject any idea about Christianity as about being neo-colonialistic or archaic, impractical and out of date." And their strong argument was that the leading exponents of hate, segregation, and bigotry in American society were Christians. They'd point out to me that the most segregated institution in America society was the church. The most segregated hour in American society was eleven o'clock on Sunday morning. And that the same people who would say that Christ is the answer are the first people to . . .
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