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In this oral history, Frances M. Beal describes her unique childhood as the daughter of parents of refugee Jewish, African American, and Native American descent. The interview focuses on her activism in the United States and in France, including founding the Women's Committee of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). Beal's story captures the challenges of anti-racist, anti-fascist, and anti-imperialist organizing with a gender perspective.
A Note on the Project:
The Voices of Feminism Oral History Project, based at the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, documents the persistence and diversity of organizing for women in the United States. (1) Narrators include labor, peace, and anti-racism activists, artists and writers, lesbian rights advocates, grassroots anti-violence and anti-poverty organizers, and women of color reproductive justice leaders. Interviews average five to six hours and cover childhood, personal life, and political work. Most oral histories consist of videotapes, audiotapes, or audio CDs, unedited and edited transcripts, correspondence between interviewer and narrator, a biographical sketch, the interviewer's interview guide, and occasional research material and photos. This interview, one of 59 oral histories in the project to date, was conducted on March 18, 2005 in Oakland, CA. (2)
About Frances M. Beal
Frances M. Beal was born in Binghamton, NY, on January 13, 1940, the daughter of Ernest Yates, who was of African American and Native American ancestry, and Charlotte Berman Yates, of radical Russian Jewish immigrant roots. When Fran's father died, her mother moved the family to St. Albans, an integrated neighborhood in Queens. In addition to observing her mother's participation in left politics, Fran was profoundly affected by the murder of Emmett Till. After graduating from Andrew Jackson High School in 1958, she became involved in civil rights activities and socialist politics while attending the University of Wisconsin.
She married James Beal, and from 1959 to 1966, they lived in France, where they had two children and Fran became attuned to the internationalist/ anti-imperialist politics of post-colonial African liberation struggles. During summers in the U.S. in those years, she maintained connections with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). When her marriage ended and she returned to the United States in 1966, Beal took a job with the National Council of Negro Women, where she worked for a decade.
In 1968 Beal co-founded the Black Women's Liberation Committee of SNCC and wrote one of the defining documents of black feminism, "Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female" (in Sisterhood is Powerful, ed. Robin Morgan, 1970). The Committee quickly evolved into the Black Women's Alliance and soon, in order to include Puerto Rican women, into the Third World Women's Alliance (TWWA). TWWA rejected a feminism that posits sexism as the primary source of women's subordination and developed an analysis predicated on the interaction of race, class, and sex oppression and on an international perspective. As a member of the New York chapter of TWWA, Beal's organizing in the 1970s centered on abortion rights and sterilization abuse.
In the 1980s Beal moved to California where she served as associate editor of The Black Scholar and wrote a weekly column in the San Francisco Bay View. In recent years she has worked with the National Anti-Racist Organizing Committee (NAROC) and with the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU of Northern California. She is the National Secretary of the Black Radical Congress. Beal lives in Oakland, where she continues to write. 128 meridians 8:2
ROSS: It is an honor that you agreed to do this interview, Fran. First I want to start with your early years.
BEAL: OK. I was born in Binghamton, New York. In school they used to tell us, Bing bought a ham and it weighed a ton: that's how to spell Binghamton. ... In any case, my father was African American ... [with] quite a mixed background. There was some white background, some Native American background.
My mother was the daughter of immigrants--Jewish family, although they were not religious, ... nor [was] my mother. In any case, my father and my mother met because my father had been a wonderful baseball player and had gotten an offer to go to Cuba and come back and say he was a Cuban, so that he could play baseball. He was also offered a four-year scholarship to Syracuse University. Well, the story that always went around our family was, he said, "No, if you can't take me as an American Negro, then forget it." And of course we were very proud of that.
My mother died just about a year ago, and shortly before she did die, I was relating this story to my own grandchild. And she [my mother] said, "You know that's not the real story." (laughs). I said, "Well, what's the real story?" She said, "Well, you didn't know your grandmother, but she was a very rigid woman. She ran that family like no one else ever could. Her children had to listen to her. And she said to your father, 'Go play baseball when you can get a college education? No. Never, never, never.' And so he went off to get it."
Now unfortunately, in the town of Binghamton, blacks, or Negroes as they were called at the time, had very limited access to the types of jobs that could support a family. My father, even though he had a college education, was not able to get a job commensurate with that education. I understand he was a civil engineer.... So when he got out of college, his brother, who had never even finished high school, got him a job driving a truck, ... which he did for the rest of his life....
My father's name was Ernest Archer Yates. That side of the family [was] part Negro, part Native American.... When my father was going to Syracuse University, a lot of things were segregated up there, and there were very few places where my father could go on the weekends, so he used hang out with his cousins on the Mohawk reservation and play lacrosse to quote "keep in shape." ... But in any case, I had told you the story about how his mother had interfered and made him go to college and not go off and play baseball.
What was interesting about that story ... was that even though we believed this kind of great picture of our father standing up to racism and doing that--in my heart, after my mother told me this story, I really believed that that's exactly what happened, and that it was his mother [who prevented him from playing baseball], because my father was a 17-year-old guy, a very good baseball player. He used to change his religion every week or every season to play on the different baseball teams around Binghamton. So, like I said, he ended up as a truck driver, and that's how he came to meet my mother.
My mother's family had emigrated from Russia.... [M]y grandfather was a radical. Oh, I don't know if he was a Bolshevik or a Menshevik, but he was in some kind of radical, we-need-to-get-rid-of-the-Czar movement.... He used to work in a print shop, and he got arrested because he was stealing paper from the print shop for this underground newspaper. So in my later years when I sort of really began to be a journalist, I thought, Oh, well, there is that seed in my background....
So he and my grandmother went to Denmark, because at that time--1904, something like that--Denmark sort of had its arms open for Jewish immigrants to come there.... My mother had an older brother and a sister who were born in Denmark. Then my grandmother had a brother or a sister who lived in Binghamton. So they were able to come over because of that relationship. My grandmother--her name was Sarah Berman, and my grandfather's name was Isaac Berman--was pregnant with my mother on the boat. My mother was born in New Haven, so she was the first child born in the United States, the first one who had automatic citizenship.
ROSS: And your mother's name was?
BEAL: Charlotte Berman. She had eight brothers and sisters, and she was the third oldest.... Then they went to Binghamton and ... my grandfather was working then for Sarah's brother.... At a certain point, ... , Isaac just said to him, "I'm not working for you any more, because I've worked enough to more than pay for the passage, and you're exploiting me." Therefore he rounded up his wife and children, and moved out and went to get a job where he [wasn't being exploited]-- ... this happened to a lot of immigrant families: they would come and work for the family for nothing, for room and board, essentially. [For] some of them, this went on for years and years and years. But my grandfather was wise enough to figure out he was being exploited and he wasn't going to stand for it anymore.
So my grandfather became an egg man. He bought a little cart and he would sell eggs and all the kids would help with the chickens and things like that. From the eggs he went into buying another truck, and another truck. He ended up going into a trucking business. Another interesting aspect of the immigrant life is that my mother's older sister and she herself worked in the office of this trucking company, for nothing. If my mother wanted a coat, she would have to go to her father and ask for money. She didn't even get a small allowance. Everything she had to kind of beg for. The boys who also went into the business, the older boys in the family, they on the other hand were given money for their labor. So right from that story itself, it just didn't seem right to me; I began to see the different treatment of men and women in that immigrant type of situation.
So that's how my parents met, because my mother was working in the office of Berman's Motor Express. My father was working for Canny's. ... One day Ernie came into the office and started making a pass at Charlotte. It was just about time for her to go home, so she was on her way to the bus, and here comes this guy whistling out the window, "Hey, babe." ...
ROSS: Was there resistance from either family, their getting together and getting married?
BEAL: Well, they got married and then presented the family with the facts. I think that happened basically because they knew. Now my father was 12 years older than my mom, so when my older brother was born, she was 24 and I think he was 36.... My brother was one of those seven-month babies. I found the birth certificate and the marriage certificate when I was a teenager. And I stood there [and said] "Mommy, what were you doing?" My mother was so embarrassed. The next time I saw the marriage [certificate], she had tried to wipe it out and make herself a moral woman again. We were giggling and laughing about that. I thought that was kind of funny. But it wasn't a funny thing, because they had to go all the way to Maryland to get married.
ROSS: What year was this that they got married?
BEAL: I think it was in 1936, because my brother was born in 1937. So it was early in 1937. That's when they got married. My brother was born in November 1937. I came along on January 13, 1940.
ROSS: How was your father accepted by his Jewish in-laws?
BEAL: My grandfather was a more visionary person than most--he wasn't just a white person; he was someone who had a political background and came here to get away from pogroms and anti-Semitism in Russia, and he espoused a revolutionary outlook while he was there. When he came here he ... became a businessman. But some of the progressive ideas that pertain to being a revolutionary still stuck with him. So there was some embarrassment; some of the family then moved to Boston--the homestead had moved from Binghamton to Boston, but my grandfather didn't say we're going to sit Shiva and that she was dead or anything like that. They were already assimilating American traditions and values, so there was a little feeling of discomfort about it.
So it's not like other Jewish families where they're so religious. My grandfather and grandmother didn't like it all that much. "Think about the kids, what's going to happen with the kids." But it wasn't that kind of virulent anti-black type of thing, and I think that's basically because my grandparents had a revolutionary background. Many of my mother's generation--including my mother--were Communists; my mother got married in 1937, so this was in a time when there was a lot of ferment in this country around the emergence of fascism abroad. And many of my mother's brothers and sisters were very left-leaning....
But as my brother said, you always felt--my brother said this, that he felt [it], I didn't feel it so much, but I want to give some legitimacy to his feelings about it--that while everyone seemed to be open and friendly, there was this feeling you were different. . . . Part of that difference was also economic, because my father was a truck driver. Whereas my mother's family, the older ones were ... officers of the company. They brought home a substantial amount of money, and had a better standard of living than we had. On my father's side, they were extremely poor. On my dad's side of the family there was Gertrude Yates [Williams], she was the oldest. Then came Edward Yates, my Uncle Ed. Then came my father, Ernest Yates, and then Deena Yates, my father's younger sister.
My grandmother's mother was part Indian, and when the white people came to the Susquehanna Valley ... [they] essentially pushed the native population up into the hills. And they gave a plot of land to the Indians. Now what's interesting culturally here is that the Mohawk, or Iroquois Indian Confederacy, was matrilineal, so that meant that property and family was passed through the woman. That was a very, very powerful cultural tradition. Even though the whites, when they gave out the property, gave it to my grandmother's brother, because he was the male, he turned around and gave it to Lillian, my grandmother, because that's how you do things, in terms of being an Indian.
That was so powerful, that's exactly what happened all down through when we sold the property.... So I just thought that it's a very powerful holding on to certain customs. I've always …