Interview with Doris Phillips

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“Well, I pretty well did the things I wanted to do. I have a beautiful family and a wonderful childhood. I enjoyed life and I had great friends. It was just lovely and peaceful.” – Doris Phillips


Her Story. Our Legacy. On January 19, 2016, Jarrel Phillips (grandson) interviewed Doris Phillips about her life, while she sat comfy in her armchair at home on 2240 Silver Ave. The following interview has been condensed and edited. To our wise elder and a true matriarch. Happy 90th Birthday! 01.19.20

Jarrel Phillips: It’s your birthday today.

Doris Phillips: Yes, and I enjoyed my birthday. We went up to Lake Tahoe this time and we ate and we went sightseeing. I enjoyed the snow. Now I’m back home just relaxing. It was a wonderful, blessed birthday.

Jarrel: Is there anything special you like to do on your birthday? If you had a wish for your birthday, what would it be?
Doris: A wish for my birthday? I don’t know… I would like another great dinner.

Jarrel: Can you start by introducing yourself?
Doris: I’m Doris Phillips and I’m being interviewed by my grandson, Jarrel Phillips. I was born on January 19, 1930 into the family of James and Lucy Williams in Dallas, Texas. It was a family of three boys and four girls.

Jarrel: Why did you move out here to California?
Doris: Doris:My family moved out here when I was 17 years old. Lots of black families during and after the war were coming out here for war jobs. My oldest brother went to World War I. When he came back the police and many others were hard on the black soldiers who were returning, so my father decided to move to Arizona.

My father’s brother had purchased a lot of land and property in Arizona and told my father he would give him a couple of little lots if he came to Arizona. That’s why we were going there, but first, we went through San Francisco to visit my sister and we stayed with her. She was working in the defense department so she got my dad a job while we were staying with her. He was working to get some money so he could build two houses when he got to Arizona but he passed away before we got a chance to go and so the family just stayed here in California.

Family, Home and Environment

Jarrel: What were your parents like?
Doris: Doris:Oh, I had a great father and mother. Life was wonderful and we always had a great time. Holidays were big in our family. We celebrated all the holidays, especially Christmas. That was a big celebration, so it was especially nice.

My parents could not have been any better. I had a great mother and father and very peaceful upbringing. There was 7 of us and we never fought. We knew better. Me and my siblings were not allowed to be fighting among ourselves or anything like that. My dad was pretty strict on things like that. He would say, “That’s your brother, that’s your sister, that’s your blood.” So we were never just hitting and fighting like I see other kids. My dad was told everything when he came home from work and then he would handle it. He always said, “If you’re having problems, you just leave them alone. Don’t play with them for a while.”

Jarrel: You said you have a great father, which is often overlooked. Do you think fatherhood is very important?
Doris: Doris:I really do. I think it plays a great big part in your family and in the children’s life. The mother and father have to work together to raise and teach their kids. You let them know what they could do and couldn’t do and when they did something wrong.

Jarrel: Let’s talk about home training because it seems to be lacking. What are some of the things parents are supposed to make sure their kids learn inside their home in order to carry it out into the world?
Doris: Doris:Your home life is what we often follow and stick to. Whatever type of family you have, that’s the way you usually grow up to be.

First, when you come into the world your parents should take you and really, really love you. Then when a child reaches the age where they feel like they can control somebody and do whatever they want that is when you teach them otherwise. It starts really young. Even a two year old will try to hit you to get what they want. No, they can’t do that…not at all. Even if you are two, you can go sit down because you have to learn to listen and mind yourself. There is no room for no free hitting.

That’s how life works. You just grow with and into your family life and environment. If you got a family life that’s drinking all the time, tearing up and fighting that wears on the kids and influences their life because they don’t know any better. But when you know better, you do better.

The projects in Hunters Point were pretty good when me and my husband first moved in because the black was just moving in and coming together trying to build. You know, it. But, oh, it got worse and worse. People was just getting free and loose, the adults too. We didn’t want our kids getting to that lifestyle. So we had to make up our mind: don’t make change or get away from all of that and do better. You have to.
It’s important what a child sees because if they see or are around something enough they will surely take on some of that behavior. Sometimes you hear people say things like, “Don’t be cursing in front of my kid. I don’t want him to curse and I don’t like that.”

So keep your family away from environments that don’t work for you. If God bless you with a job, you make a home where you can raise in peace without the mess and confusion. Sometimes you have in your heart and desire, and you’re looking around for a better life and doing better things but you gotta go and do them.


Jarrel: What’s something you feel you carry with you until today?
Doris: Doris:The teaching. The raising that I got… I still have it. My parents made sure we knew to respect ourselves first, and if you respect yourself you will respect others. That makes a big difference. Nowadays kids don’t respect nobody.

Jarrel: Would you say the community was different, moving from Texas to California?
Doris: Doris: Oh, there was a lot of difference, and I didn’t care for California. The kids was more free and loose in a wild way. It’s like they all practically came from the salt somewhere. They went crazy getting into everything. It was a great difference in Texas because people wouldn’t let you associate with other kids if they weren’t taught or trained.

Certain behaviors just weren’t ok or respected. Back in my days, your neighbors could settle you down, talk to you. And then you get a little shook up because if they go and tell your parents then you’re in real trouble. That’s how the community worked. So you respected and minded adults.

Jarrel: What would you say to this generation if you could?
Doris: Doris: Oh, I don’t know. I just wonder and worry about them. They’re just too loose and free. I don’t know if they even know it. In fact, they don’t because they haven’t been trained. I’m not speaking about everybody, but there are enough that it’s noticeable.
Young men don’t respect the elderly at all and don’t even know to give up their seat on the bus.

Jarrel: What is the significance of elders?
Doris: Doris: Elders are meant to be respected. They can speak to the youth and help them to know to respect people. If you are born into this life and want to grow and live well you should respect yourself, first of all, and then others. Life is a thing that you learn from, and you grow with and into it. Elders can show you how.


Jarrel: Can you tell me a little about you and grandpa?
Doris: I met my husband when I was about 14 or so. Earl was from Texas, and I was too.
The first time he saw my dad I said, “I got to go!” I ran home because that’s my dad. But Earl went to talk to him. My dad spoke with him and liked him because he was a very respectful young man. After they talked my dad told him, “Yeah, young man, you can come and sit on the porch and talk with my daughter sometime.” But my dad was strict so that was it.

Since we were young I always said we were going to get married and we did. We weren’t always together. He served and went to school. Sometimes we’d split up. He’d get him a girlfriend, but he’d come right back. But, we were always happy together from the time we met.

Jarrel: So he came out to California for you specifically?
Doris: Mm-hmm. We got married in 1950 after he got out of the service and school. He went to Grambling University down in Louisiana.

Jarrel: Do you think that he would be happy with the family, and how it’s grown and how it looks?
Doris: Mm-hmm. Oh, he’d be very happy. And he would still be the boss. He would still let you know how he feel, what you’re going to do in his house, and what you’re not going to do. He was a wonderful, great guy. And we always had enough. We had plenty of food at all times, and then after we had more kids we bought/borrowed a station wagon and we went everywhere. He told me he wanted to take the kids and I all over America and he did that. We saved up and went to every state, even Canada.

Yes, we had us a beautiful life together. We really did. I don’t think the kids can ever say they saw us arguing much. Nope. Never. We got upset with each other and everything, but we would say why we’re upset and just move on. Wasn’t no long time grudges and no cursing in the home.


Jarrel: How did you all get into owning property?
Doris: When we got married, we always said we were going to buy a house and invest in property. We were in the projects in Hunters Point, but we had to move to because it started getting rough for the kids and they were fighting and all that. So we moved and bought the house next door to this house just to get them out of Hunters Point because the kids were fighting and all that. So, that’s how we wound up here on Silver Avenue with property. We built this house later. It was just a empty lot and lawn.

Jarrel: Why did you decide to build on the lawn?
Doris: Your grandfather worked for the city at Hamilton Recreation, and a lot of those guys were much older than he was and they had property. Someone had two and three pieces of property because property was dirt cheap. You could get a home for under $20,000, even three flats.

We actually planned on selling the house next door because we wanted to keep moving, I guess. But now we still own that one, too. This house here was just a vacant lot attached to our property that the kids played in. One of the older guys that was working with Earl said, “No, don’t sell your house. You got a lot there. Just build on that.” We were going to sell the one next door that we were living in order to get more of an up-to-date house, but we listened and decided to build this on our lawn. Most of the work we did. Earl and the kids, mostly the teenagers, had to help, too. Anyway, we just got into all of this because Earl was working with a lot of guys that was much older than he was and they had talked him into investing property. They taught your grandfather about property and how to invest in it, and that’s basically how we got into buying property. It was a good, helpful idea.

Work Ethic

Jarrel: What did you do as a kid?
Doris: I did normal kid things. I played outside. Played with jacks and balls and dolls. I had 5 very good girlfriends in Texas and we did everything together and were very close. I had a lot of fun. But in Texas kids were brought up differently.

I always worked in Texas from the age I was 12 until we left Texas. You could work in the summertime when school was out, so me and my girlfriends would all get a job together. We would say to each other, “Okay, let’s go over here. This place might hire us,” and we’d go in there, and sure enough they would hire us. I worked unpacking and folding clothes for a long time. Then I worked with a florist fixing and cutting flowers whatever way the woman would tell me to do. Back then I was making maybe $3, $4 a week. But that was money and it was helpful. I’d save it under my pillow and it would be there when I needed it. But when I came to California you really just couldn’t get no work. Seriously. What store do you go in and you see the young ones working? They weren’t hiring you to learn in all those stores downtown.

Jarrel: What do you learn from working?
Doris: You learn how to mind others and not be acting all loose and free. There’s a time for that. Working helped you learn how to behave and how to listen. Whatever the man or woman in charge told you to do, you did. You knew to respect other people, and in that way you gave them a little inch to respect you. You act right, and they would go on and pay you and keep you on the job. You knew you couldn’t act foolish. But kids in California didn’t seem to mind nobody. They never learned to or had to, in the home or out of it.

Jarrel: Why do you think it was like this?
Doris: I think there’s a difference in California because there was an evil streak where they didn’t hire blacks too much… Macy’s and all. I lived and experienced it in Oakland and it made a big difference. I went downtown…the white kids were getting the jobs. Department stores and lots of other types of places didn’t hire us and they don’t do too much hiring now, but they do a little bit better.

Jarrel: Do you think it’s just the younger generation, or do you think it’s a lack of communication within generations?
Doris: You can say it’s the generation. You can also say that they’re just not being taught. Work is not talked about enough. Our black kids were pretty smart in the South. In Texas, many blacks did all the types of work that only the whites could do out here in California. Thomas Avenue, the street my family lived on, had doctors, lawyers, and people working with the trains, buses or airlines. You saw the blacks working. It was demonstrated.

Nowadays, kids and adults don’t really want to work because they was raised that way. We gotta push them more so that they can know what work is. You enjoy working if you’ve been exposed to it and you know about it. At 12 years old you are old enough to start wanting to do something besides playing in the yard with jacks and balls. And when you get that little bit of money in your hand you can begin to appreciate the benefits of working. And then you take half of that money to share at home. In my family we always had to give half of it, but you’re happy because you shared and you still had some money of your own. For me, that’s how it worked and it’s still that way. That’s what I believe.

Jarrel: So you believe in cultivating a strong work ethic? You get in what you put in?
Doris: Yes. We are suffering because we don’t want to work. I don’t care what you got and who you are, you can make an effort. And that’s where sacrifice would come in and people don’t sacrifice no more either. Now it’s time for us to want to work and have a little something. And take that money and save it. Don’t go spend it on just anything.

Many of us have been blessed. We’ve used and took what we had, and did what we’ve done and are doing. We are doing better but we are still not moving like we could and should. And we are not really counting our blessings.

Family Economics

Jarrel: You say when you were younger that part of the money you made had to be shared with the household?
Doris: Oh, yeah, definitely.

Jarrel: Why was that?
Doris: Because you share. You learn to share in the home, and you have to because the bills is going on. The food has to be bought, you know. You grow up and you learn to share what you have.

Jarrel: Do you think that gives you a sense of understanding economically?
Doris: Mm-hmm. That’s why you work, because you’re trying to help and your family couldn’t just hand you no $2 unless it was something important because there wasn’t extra money lying around. Expenses were reasonable back then, like electricity, gas, rent and all that, but you helped out and with your portion you could still get you some things that you want.

So, in my family you worked and you shared and it wasn’t no big thing. I don’t know if everybody else was doing that, but we were taught that way and so we enjoyed being able to share with each other. But now people don’t share. They say, “I worked for this.” I notice most kids if they work, they work for their money. That’s where the problem starts. No, no, you share and you grow together. You get grown then married only to realize that you still have to share. That’s life. Life shares with us and families share with each other, you know.

Jarrel: All right. Do you have any last thing you want to say those who will hear this?
Doris: The reason this generation is like they are now is because they don’t get enough love and appreciation. Let them know that you want to be with them, you want to help them, but also that you want to see them doing right. That’s the love part. Even the little ones, they’re lose and free now. Parents can hardly handle a five year old now. So it’s time to appreciate them and love them right. You have to expect better things from them. No more of that, “I’m just a baby. I’m a kid. I don’t know.” No, no, no. You’re a kid and it’s time for you to learn. Love them right and they will appreciate you when they’re old enough to understand.

Jarrel: Anything that you would say to me? What would you tell us to do and to focus on?
Doris: You focus on yourself and on doing what’s right. Help yourself and help others when you can. Do your best to speak to people and treat people in the way that you want to be treated. Now, that’s a beginning.

Jarrel: Any final words?
Doris: I did what I could.

Jarrel: Thank you, Grandma.

We love and appreciate you and all your love.