About Our Guest
Phyllis Leffler received a B.A. from Queens College of the City University of New York in 1966, an ?M.A .from The University of Sussex, England in 1967, and a ?Ph.D. from Ohio State University in1971.
Her fields of specialization include Public History, the History of University of Virginia,. and Oral history.
An abbreviated list of her diverse Publications include:
“Black Families and Fostering of Leadership,” Ethnicities, (2011)
“American Memory on the Abolition of the Slave Trade: Is There Common Ground in American Museums?” in Museum History Journal,( 2010).
“Mr. Jefferson’s University: Women in the Village!,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, (2007). *(for which she Received the William M. E. Rachel award for best essay of 2007)
“Women and Southern Tradition at the University of Virginia,” Iris, (2000)
“To Seek the Peace of the City: Jewish Life in Charlottesville(co-created with Jeffrey Hantman and Carol Ely) ” An Exhibit (1994): Albemarle County Historical Society.
A short list of her Professional honors and Activities include:
Reader, Ron Brown Scholars Program, (1998 to present)
Southern Jewish Historical Society, Chair, Grants Committee
Editor: Museum Review section of Southern Jewish History(‘09-present)
Grants Committee, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, (1992, 1996)
1998 Distinguished Faculty Service Award, Hillel Foundation
N.E.H./N.C.P.H. Institute on Teaching Public History, (1984)
Professor Leffler has just completed a book related to the Explorations in Black Leadership project, co-directed with Julian Bond. This book creates an analytical framework for the stories of close to 50 Black leaders interviewed as part of an oral history project.
She is also continuing to explore the history of The University of Virginia during the 20th century, with a particular interest in understanding how the university evolved during the course of this century to become the leading public institution in America.
Jan Paynter: Hello. I’m Jan Paynter and I want to welcome you again to our program Politics Matters. We are very pleased to have as our guest today Phyllis Leffler, Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Welcome, Professor.
Phyllis Leffler: It’s a pleasure to be here.
Jan Paynter: Phyllis Leffler received a BA from Queens College of the City University of New York in 1966, an MA from the University of Sussex, England, in 1967 and a PhD from Ohio State University in 1971.
Her fields of specialization include public history, the history of the University of Virginia and oral history. An abbreviated list of her diverse publications include “Black Families and Fostering of Leadership”, Ethnicities 2011; “American Memory on the Abolition of the Slave Trade: Is There Common Ground in American Museums?” in Museum History Journal 2010; “Mr. Jefferson’s University: Women in the Village!”, Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 2007, for which she received the William M.E. Rachel award for best essay of 2007; “Women and Southern Tradition at the University of Virginia”, Iris 2000; and together with Jeffrey Hantman and Carol Ely she created “To Seek the Peace of the City: Jewish Life in Charlottesville”, an exhibit, 1994, Albemarle County Historical Society. A short list of her professional honors and activities include Reader, Ron Brown Scholars Program, 1998 to the present; Southern Jewish Historical Society Secretary and Chair, Grants Committee; Editor, Museum Review section of Southern Jewish History, 2009 to the present; Grants Committee, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 1992, 1996 and 1998; Distinguished Faculty Service Award, the Hillel Foundation; and the N.E.H./N.C.P.H. Institute on Teaching Public History, 1984. Professor Leffler has just completed a book related to the Explorations in Black Leadership project, which she co-directed with Julian Bond. This book creates an analytical framework for the stories of close to 50 Black leaders interviewed as part of this oral history project. She’s also continuing to explore the history of the University of Virginia during the 20th century, with a particular interest in understanding how the University evolved during the course of this century to become a leading public institution in America. In the last two programs on Politics Matters we explored with Professor Paul Gaston the issue of what brings an individual to a committed life of social activism and public service and he discussed his career and unique early life growing up in the utopian community of Fair Hope, Alabama, and how that upbringing forged his dedication to southern history and his participation in the Civil Rights movement. Today we are beginning a series of two companion programs also on this topic of the origins of social activism and Civil Rights engagement as seen through the lens of the remarkable oral history project Explorations of Black Leadership, again as I mentioned, which was co-directed by Professors Leffler and Julian Bond. Welcome, Professor Leffler.
Phyllis Leffler: Thank you. I’m thrilled to be here.
Jan Paynter: Before we begin, tell us if you would what brought you to your focus on history and social justice.
Phyllis Leffler: Well, that goes back a long time. I would say most specifically, if I really think about this seriously, that it probably has a lot to do with family heritage for me. I have grandparents who were immigrants to this country who came from Eastern Europe. I was always fascinated by some of the untold stories, and many of them were untold, but just a sense of difference somehow that they exhibited, whether that was through accents or ways of life. And secondly, an uncle who was an émigré from Nazi Germany who was a professional historian, an American historian in fact and I always admired him greatly and I think as a child those things influenced me deeply.
Jan Paynter: What was the genesis, Phyllis, for the idea of this ambitious project? How and when did it come about?
Phyllis Leffler: It came about in the year 2000. Julian Bond was a colleague at the University of Virginia, just very recently retired. I had developed a deep interest in public history and as part of that in oral history and I felt as did he that many of these histories of Black leaders had been undocumented and that it was an opportunity for us to begin to collect these histories. We were four years away at that point from the 50th anniversary of the Brown Decision so we started with a few questions about the Brown Decision but then went on to talk more generally about people’s personal biographies and what aspects of those biographies created the catalyst for leadership.
Jan Paynter: There were so many in looking at this amazing project, so many compelling stories and it was a challenge to single out a few for purposes of our discussion. So I’m just going to refer to four in each segment of our program and please feel free to bring in, as we discuss the larger questions that we deal with, anyone that you would like to. I was quite interested in social activist and reformer Dorothy Height, poet Nikki Giovanni who everyone knows, playwright and essayist Amiri Baraka and choreographer and dancer Bill T. Jones. In your project, Professor, you and Julian Bond spent some considerable time looking at the influence of family in larger Black communities as they merged. And one of the things that came through again and again in this series was the importance of a sense of mission and I wondered if you’d speak to some of the ways in which family, extended family, the larger Black community, mentors and teachers contributed to the sense of mission which then propelled these unique individuals to become the leaders that they are.
Phyllis Leffler: Yeah, I mean I think you’re absolutely right. You’ve put your finger on a number of the larger catalysts that link many of these interviews together. And when I think about the mission that so many African-Americans felt, I want to say that I think it goes back to the enormous need to create the strategies for one’s own success, to develop the strategies from within for success and for overcoming the odds that so many of them faced in the society that was for many of them segregated, deeply discriminatory, but, at the same time, one of the ways for achieving success and the mission that so many of them felt was to deliver the messages that they could be strong and they could be anything they wanted to be. They could be anything they wanted to be, not necessarily within the larger society but within their own communities. So there was always this remarkably almost dual message that yes, they needed to understand the larger society but they needed to within themselves develop the strengths to overcome some of what they would experience, not even necessarily to be able to break out always but at least to be able to be as good as they could be within their own—within their own groups, within their own structures. And of course there were always models of people who had broken out so they always turned to those models. People like Mary McLeod Bethune for example who had—was the child of slaves herself and developed a college and then became an incredible activist within the larger society for education and became part of Roosevelt’s Black cabinet. So people like that were always held up as models and there were always within the Black community people who had been remarkably successful—remarkably successful as perhaps teachers within the community or perhaps as—by the 1950s as lawyers within their own community. So there were always models of that sort but the mission, if we go back to the sense of mission, I think the mission that was always being promoted by so many families in so many different ways was that it was fundamental to be true to yourself and to, in a sense, rise above your circumstances. And they did it in a number of different ways. I mean, Dorothy Height you mentioned. So Dorothy Height’s mother told her daughter in a school situation that she couldn’t just strut around and be proud, that she had to help those others within her midst who weren’t achieving as well as she might be achieving. And Dorothy Height’s mother modeled for her daughter what it meant to be part of community, what it meant to be part of organizations, women’s organizations, church organizations. So that mission of a way to lift up those who were in need, which is a metaphor that’s used over and over again by African-American leaders, the need for lifting others up. Dorothy Height’s mother modeled that for her through all these different organizations that she was a part of, the early women’s clubs within the African-American community. Dorothy Height herself then goes on to find these kinds of organizations once she moves out of the small town of Rankin, Philadelphia and goes to New York and of course she becomes the national chair of the National Council for Negro Women which she heads up for 40 years and is an incredible activist herself on behalf of women and children.
Jan Paynter: Another issue that comes up that really struck me was the role of ancestors. We all, wherever we come from, we have a strong connection with that, right?
Phyllis Leffler: For sure.
Jan Paynter: But there’s—what is there—what is unique would you say about the way in which ancestors are focused on in Black leaders?
Phyllis Leffler: Well, one unique aspect I would say is the way in which ancestors tell stories. Ancestors—there is such a strong oral tradition in the Black community and that’s actually part of the reason that I think these oral interviews are as powerful as they are. I think they call upon, even if people are not talking about their ancestors, I think they call upon a tradition of orality that a lot of these leaders are familiar with. So ancestors tell stories. They tell stories about their own youth, they tell stories that perhaps go beyond their youth. Amiri Baraka talks about his grandmother telling stories about Ali Baba but also another grandmother telling stories about growing up in the rural south. Nikki Giovanni talks about how her ancestors speak to her, how they’re telling her stories that motivate her own poetry and she’s actually going beyond her immediate ancestors. She actually feels and thinks she hears the voices of people that go all the way back to the slave trade and those voices are speaking to her. So ancestors—ancestors are important of course because of the sense of continuity but they’re also so fundamentally important because their stories—I would almost way perhaps in some ways like my own grandparent’s stories—recall an era that is, in some ways, distant but in other ways is ongoing and it creates a kind of continuity for people that I think then creates a passionate need to make a difference in their own societies. And actually for me, one of the lessons of these interviews, if I may just reach beyond these interviews, is how important organizational connections are. Beyond politics, beyond the formality of schooling, how important it is to feel embraced by community as a way of developing a sense of self worth and self dignity and determination to be part of community and to see what the common needs are and to fight for those common needs so one of the things that I found quite remarkable about these interviews, and have written about in the book, is the ways that community and organizations mattered profoundly. Mattered in terms of again helping people to feel a sense of place, a sense…
Jan Paynter: That’s going to be my next question.
Phyllis Leffler: …a sense of self worth, a sense of dignity and in actually teaching people how to lead either by modeling others or by giving them roles and responsibilities.
Jan Paynter: The redirection of anger is something that I find very interesting and threaded throughout and how you take that energy of anger, since you’re living with such extraordinary prejudice, and turn it in a positive way and obviously for some people that was the non-violence movement and I wondered if you would talk about the significance of SNCC, of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Phyllis Leffler: Well, you know, SNCC was this remarkable organization of young, Black college students who felt—I think they felt they had no choice. I think society had gotten to a point where—this is where I started this conversation today in which I said they needed to develop the strategies for their own success. No one was going to come along and change the society unless they did so, right? And they saw, as a result perhaps of the Brown Decision, that there was a legal possibility for change but that people’s hearts and minds did not change, right? And so after a certain point, as frustration rises and anger over that rises, you need to figure out a way in which you’re going to cope with all of that. And there was power in numbers. I mean, that was another thing. Enough people felt that need that they came together. They created their own community, a community of young people. But incorporated in that was a way of doing it in a way that would set up a model for the rest of society. So the model was to apply the concept of beloved community, to apply civil disobedience but without violence, non-violent civil disobedience and I think through SNCC the country saw that it was possible to confront injustice in an incredibly dignified and determined way. So I think that was ultimately what the power of SNCC was for the country.
Jan Paynter: You mentioned, Phyllis, the power of community and I was moved in hearing Julian Bond talk about the fact that really the relationships and the bonds that he forged in SNCC were really, for him, the most powerful ones in his life…
Phyllis Leffler: Absolutely.
Jan Paynter: …which was quite interesting.
Phyllis Leffler: Absolutely and I mean, just—you just think about it. Here were young people, they were in their 20s. Julian Bond talked about dropping out of college to do this. A lot of other people dropped out of college to do this. The—it was so important to take a stand and of course they had a lot of mentors around them who were showing them how to do that. One was Martin Luther King who was really not the most powerful person for SNCC but there were people like Ella Baker who had long been a civil activist in New York and knew the strategies for civic activism and there were the unsung heroes who opened up their homes to these Civil Rights workers and baked the cookies and put them up over night when they ventured away from home. So it was—it was a huge community of fighters for civil justice that came together.
Jan Paynter: One of the things I—alas our time is running along but I couldn’t resist, there are two more questions I really want to get to and one is the role and often unsung role of women in the movement and I wonder if you’d talk a little bit about that and about Dorothy Height and in particular Wednesdays in Mississippi and what that meant for a sense of mission.
Phyllis Leffler: Right. So I think women all along in African-American society and in the larger society often played the behind-the-scenes roles and so—so in Dorothy Height’s case, as I said earlier, her mother set the tone but she, Dorothy Height herself, became involved as a college student and beyond and at a certain point she recognized as the chair of the National Council for Negro Women the need to demonstrate that women would not be afraid to form groupings across racial lines and go down to Mississippi, which was one of the worst offenders in terms of violence, and go into the Freedom Schools and demonstrate one, that they would travel together and two, that they would witness what needed to be done in terms of providing for educational opportunities. So Dorothy Height and Polly Cowan, a northern Jewish woman, formed this bond together and created these teams of women who would go together once a week on Wednesdays into Mississippi schools. And that story is really still very poorly known, very—it’s a very, very powerful statement and movement but how many people know about Wednesdays in Mississippi? It’s again one of the examples I think of the way in which women—women’s work often goes unacknowledged.
Jan Paynter: Well, it was a remarkable way, as we talked about earlier, to disturb the universe as Liz talks about because it was obviously a very brave thing to do and that is an issue in any kind of resistance that is something that people really have to contend with, which is, you said at the beginning of our discussion, putting yourself out there. I wanted to ask you finally, we talk in Politics Matters about people being their principles, all of these people live into their principles it seems to me. W.E.B. Dubois states that “all art is political” and I wondered if there were some particular interviews that you thought really demonstrated the power of this idea.
Phyllis Leffler: Well, two immediately come to mind. One—well, three really. Nikki Giovanni of course whose poetry is always about—about resistance to the status quo and sometimes infused with anger about the society in which she and others inhabit. Amiri Baraka of course, the Founder of the Black Arts Movement, which was a movement to take charge of Black art and literature and music and dance. And it was a—that in and of itself was a remarkable development. You know, the Black Arts Movement was tied to the Black Power Movement and it was the statement in the 60s that Black artists would no longer try to model themselves against mainstream artists in the society but they would use their art as a means to express anger and indignation and determination to change the society. I think Amiri Baraka said once something like, “our poems are our guns”, or something of that sort. You know, that is to say, we need to use the arts as a way to express our righteous indignation, our righteous anger.
Jan Paynter: It’s a wonderful way again of transmuting the anger into something very positive and also important to point out to the larger society. One of the things I found so fascinating about all the artists with Baraka, with Jones and his dance, with Giovanni, is the way in which these Black artists synthesize disparate elements in the larger world and are the cultural outliers, they’re the ones we all look to when we think about our society, they’re tremendously powerful.
Phyllis Leffler: Right.
Jan Paynter: Phyllis, this has been wonderful and I have to bring our first segment to a close. Thank you again, Phyllis, so much for doing this series today. I’m deeply grateful.
Phyllis Leffler: Well, I’m thrilled to be here. I really admire your program.
Jan Paynter: Please join us next time for part two of our program discussing Professor Phyllis Leffler and Julian Bond’s groundbreaking oral history project Explorations in Black Leadership on the origins and significant influences of leadership in the pursuit of civil rights and social justice. Our thanks to everyone at home for joining our conversation. If you would like more information concerning the topic under discussion today, we invite you to take a look at our website at politicsmatters.org. We will be posting a number of books, articles and relevant links on the history of Civil Rights there for you. You will also find there a comprehensive archive of all prior Politics Matters programs which you may watch in their entirety at any time. We’ll also be posting extended versions of interviews online on our site as well and will shortly be adding more content. I want to encourage everyone watching today to go to the website for this remarkable interview series Explorations in Black Leadership. As you can see, the website is located at the bottom of your screen. We will also be posting this web address on our Politics Matters site as well. We’re in the process of revamping our website which will be completed within the month and we will be including extended versions of recent interviews in the archive as well. As always, we are particularly interested in hearing from you with any questions, concerns and ideas for future programs. We encourage you to email us at email@example.com. We air on PBS WVPT on the last Sunday of every month at 11:30 am. Thank you again and until next we meet, I’m Jan Paynter and this is Politics Matters.