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Hear's My Story: Senior Voices in Greensboro

HEAR'S MY STORY, Senior Voices in Greensboro

Headline History

How did ordinary people experience the extraordinary events of the twentieth century? To find out, we showed seniors at the Greensboro Senior Center famous photographs of big events like the Great Depression, World War II, and the Vietnam War. The seniors shared with us their thoughts, feelings, and experiences of growing up and living through these events that continue to affect us today.

The Depression

Following victory in World War I, the United States enjoyed an economic boom in the 1920s. Prosperity came to an abrupt halt by the 1930s. Banks closed their doors, people lost their homes and jobs, and the horizon looked bleak for the foreseeable future. Americans attempted to make ends meet by any means possible-whether this meant searching endlessly for jobs, looking to the government for assistance, or turning to Mother Nature for sustenance. People who lived during this period have varying memories of just how they made it through.

Migrant Mother, 1936

"Migrant Mother" by Dorothea Lange, 1936
Courtesy Library of Congress

Luther Manning grew up on a farm in Dillon, South Carolina during the Depression and remembered:

“It would have been better to grow up in the city because the farm work was harder. I did saw-mill work and, as I forestated, it was harder.”

Raised in central North Carolina, Maxine Hayes relates how her family made it through the Depression:

“That was during the Hoover days, and it was kind of hard on people. We lived on a farm and we raised our food; chickens, hogs, and cow[s] and so that was one thing that helped us through the Depression.”

"Back then they didn't have recipes. They just used a little teaspoon of that, a little teaspoon or tablespoon of that. They made their own recipe. They didn't write out; they figured out in their head and mind."
-Maggie Townsend

World War II

Flag raising at Iwo Jima

Flag raising at Iwo Jima, Courtesy National Archives

World War II started in 1939, when German forces invaded Poland, and ended in 1945. The United States got involved after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. We think of war as happening on the front lines, but, as the seniors' memories show, World War II affected every aspect of ordinary people's lives, both at home and abroad.

"It was very hard for me and my husband because my husband had witnessed people being killed in World War II. There was an incident where 3,500 people were slaughtered on a bridge, and they were just thrown into this river called Drina. It was horrible for him that the beginning of the war [in Bosnia] brought those other memories back."
- Safija Kukic, translated by Aida Mahic

“ They taught [us] in school we should have things on us that identified our name, address and our home. And if there were any bombs that you knew how to roll under the seats of the school.”
-Florence Clark

The U.S. Military was segregated, remaining so until 1948, when President Truman issued an Executive Order desegregating the forces.

“At that time the black soldiers and the white soldiers didn’t even bunk together. They wouldn’t mingle because the camp where I used to work, Camp Button, they had one side where the whites live and the other side for the black. [There weren’t] many black soldiers at that time on the battlefield; there was a few, but they was mostly doing the work.”
-Maxine Hayes

Civil Rights Era

March on Washington, 1963

March on Washington, 1963. Courtesy National Archives

In the twentieth century, African Americans, Native Americans, and women pushed for equal rights, equal jobs, and equal treatment. In the South, where segregation had a firm hold, some civil rights demonstrations turned violent, even resulting in death; others, such as the March on Washington in August of 1963, remained peaceful.

"Being a black person at that time was when they could kill you if you had a march. They put dogs on you [and] water on you."
-Florence Clark

Ola Hughes faced discrimination while growing up in the North:

"There were no protests there. But if you were in line shopping they going to wait on you [a white person] before they wait on me [an African American]. Like I could be standing there for ten minutes and you just walk up and, well, that's the way they handled it. But they couldn't stop me from going into the places."

Luther Manning recalls his experience with segregation:

“I recall going home at one time and I stopped to get some food and the lady came with the food and just handed it to me out the window, not inviting me in the place where the food was being prepared. But I didn’t accept it because I didn’t think it was supposed to [have] been done that way. That’s how I thought about that...I'm hoping that you teach [your children] that it's wrong to hate each other, black or white. We should treat one another as we should be treated, which is good."

The Rock 'N' Roll Era

In the 1950s and '60s, a new kind of music shook, rattled, and rolled America. Elvis and the Beatles had a sound that seemed to speak directly to young people. Youngsters today might call these the Oldies, but they had a profound cultural effect on people in the '60s. As the seniors' recollections show, there is still debate about whether it was a good effect or bad.

The Beatles, Courtesy Time Inc.

The Beatles, Courtesy Time Inc.

"I never did care for rock 'n' roll. I'm a Protestant Christian [of] Baptist denomination, so we don't do any rock 'n' roll."
-Luther Manning

"The Beatles were big and ugly when I saw them and heard them. Long hair, hippie style, dance music."
-Mary Powers

Maxine Hayes, Rockaway Beach New York

Maxine Hayes, Rockaway Beach New York

"I remember the Beatles. I used to listen to them: [singing], 'Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.'"
-Maxine Hayes

"Ooo, Beatles! My children loved the Beatles. I thought [the Beatles] were young people who loved life and made good music. I don't listen to music much anymore. My sister got killed, my brother-in-law got killed, my son got killed, so I am very sad. I listened to music when my son was listening to music, but I am not in the spirits to return home to music. I can't listen to music right now."
-Safija Kukic, translated by Aida Muhic

Space Exploration

In 1961 President John F. Kennedy vowed to send an astronaut to the moon by the end of the decade. The Soviet Union had taken an early lead in the "space race" by launching Sputnik, the first man-made object to orbit the earth, in 1957. On July 20, 1969, astronaut Neil Armstrong was the first person to walk on the surface of the moon. People had varying reactions to these events, from sheer amazement to total disbelief.

"I was home, I guess, when I first heard about it. I heard about they was going to send a man, somebody to the moon, I wasn't so sure! Then when I saw it, walking on there, well, they did it."
-Maxine Hayes

“They were talking about it everywhere; you’d pick up a newspaper and it’d be on the front page of the newspaper.”
-Mary Powers

“I never thought that people can get that far, to walk on the moon, so I don’t know whether they do or not. They say they do, but I don’t know whether they do or not.” -Luther Manning

"One thing I remember is that every time they sent something up in space we had terrible storms, rain, afterwards. Everybody was saying, 'Well they're going up there messing with God's territory and we're paying for it.' And it rained and rained- had terrible storms." -Ola Hughes

Vietnam War

U.S. Soldier in Vietnam, Courtesy National Archives

U.S. Soldier in Vietnam, Courtesy National Archives

The Vietnam War was one of the longest military engagements for the United States and one of the most protested. When soldiers came home, they came home different. Many were diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and others were dramatically changed by the war. As the seniors attest, the war took a toll both on the soldiers and on the loved ones to whom they returned.

"They came back not like they went. A lot of them had to go to mental hospitals. It was always depressing."
-Malinda Whitesides

“My two first cousins, they was never the same. One was an alcoholic and he would shoot holes in the wall; he said green men was coming out of the sockets. He had flashbacks from being over there. Messed ’em up, both cousins.”
-Mary Powers

The war likewise was traumatic for the Vietnamese and Montagnards, many of whom were U.S. allies.

“I was in charge of the secret services. I cannot tell you about my job; I wouldn’t feel safe sharing...In 1975, when South Vietnam was losing the war, I was put in jail for 12 years. Once a month we’d have a bowl of rice, the rest of our daily meal was dry corn and water with salt. A lot of people died of hunger.”
-Bhung Hmok, translated by Snow Rahlan

The 1990s

West Germans look into East Germany through a hole in the Berlin Wall.

West Germans look into East Germany through a hole
in the Berlin Wall. Courtesy remote.org.

In 1989 the world watched as the Berlin Wall fell, making possible the reunification of East and West Germany. This momentous event heralded the closure of the Cold War, which ended in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many seniors expressed feelings of surprise and great joy that the Berlin Wall finally fell. Soon after, however, tragedy struck in the former Yugoslavia when Serbians invaded the Republic of Bosnia and Herzogovina in 1992. Americans heard about the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims, while Safjia Kukic suffered through the war in person. The United States negotiated peace agreements between the Serbians and Bosnians in 1995. Safia and her family immigrated to the United States afterwards.

"I remember how happy I was for the people over there."
- Mary Powers

"When the war started in 1992 [my town] was surrounded by Chetniks [Serbians]. [My family and I were] taken to [the] Drina River to be executed. One of my students, a Chetnik, recognized me and said, 'Oh, professor why should I kill you? I'm not going to kill you.' And that's how I was saved."
- Safija Kukic, translated by Aida Mahic

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