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Interview with Elizabeth Randolph

Randolph, Elizabeth Schmoke
Crawford, Vickie
Date of Interview: 
African American Churches; African Americans; Race relations; Religious life; Religious education; Religion in the public schools
Elizabeth Schmoke Randolph, a North Carolina native, talks about growing up in the black church in the south and what that has meant to her personally and communally. Ms. Randolph speaks about the gender roles in the church, prison ministries, educating children in the church, and church involvement in desegregation.
Raleigh, Charlotte, 1940s-1990s
Interview Setting: 
The home of Elizabeth Randolph in Charlotte, North Carolina
Levine Museum of the New South, Amazing Grace Series
Collection Description: 
Vickie Crawford interviewed a number of African Americans about their experience in the black church in the South for the Amazing Grace exhibit at the Levine Museum of the New South.
Interview Audio: 
ER (Elizabeth Randolph): He was working. He was a plasterer and contractor and he traveled all over everywhere. Wherever the buildings were going on, you know, and they needed plasterers and contractors. So he worked at a couple of the large buildings here. Well, anyway--.
VC (Vickie Crawford): Here in Charlotte? Your, your, your father?
ER: Um-hum.
VC: Uh-huh.
ER: Um-hum. Of course, you see, I didn't know anything about Char--, Charlotte then. I was just a young child. But he, he was a plasterer and contractor and he worked with a group of such people, and they, they went wherever there was a lot of building going on, you know. That's, that's where those people went. He came--. let's see what was I starting to tell you about?
VC: Well I was going to ask you about the role of church when you were growing up. Could you just talk about what life was like when you were growing up in Raleigh and--. You grew up in Raleigh, right?
ER: Yes, uh-huh. Well, we were--. There was six of us, and so six--. Three boys and three girls, and my father and mother. My fath--. My mother was a teacher and my father was a plasterer. He traveled because he went where the building was going on. In fact, if they were building a school, a bank, or any, any kind of building in Charlotte or any, you know, where else, he would--. He belonged to a union. And he would, the union saw that the, that its members, you know, got employment of the kind that they wanted. So he, he came to Charlotte, and he worked on several of the large buildings that are, are here. [Pause] And what else were you asking me now?
VC: About the church. What, what--.
ER: Oh, oh. About the church.
VC: Did you all go to church?
ER: Oh yeah, we went to church. We belonged to First Baptist Church in, in Raleigh. We grew up in the First Baptist Church in Raleigh. We went to kindergarten--. They, all of us went we to kindergarten at fist six--. At that time, the school system did not have kindergarten, and we started school in first grade. But our church had kindergarten, and so we went to kindergarten at First Baptist Church in Raleigh. And we grew up in that church, all of us. And not only did we grow up in First Baptist Church but our marriages and our deaths were, you know, taken--. When my parents died, each one of them, the funeral was at First Baptist. When I got married, I was married at First Baptist Church. So that was--. We, we grew up in that church. And when I, when I graduated from college and when I came to Charlotte to work, I joined First Baptist Church. And I have been member of First Baptist Church ever [Laughter] since.
VC: OK. What it like growing up, in terms of the ritual of going to church. And we talked about, earlier, you were saying that you--. About what a typical Sunday was like. When you--.
ER: Yeah, a typical Sunday was like, was go--. You getting up and you have breakfast and you get your clothes on and you, you were taken to church, to kindergarten. And you stayed there. You stayed kindergarten, and after that Sunday school, after kindergarten, and then church. And then you go home and you eat dinner, and you come back to church at six o'clock to BYPU, which is the Baptist Young People's Union. And after BYPU, you stayed for night church, and then you came, you came back. Of course, members of the family and Mama and Papa were with you all the way. And we grew up going to church. From the time that we were little children from going to kindergarten to the time that we were grown people getting [laughter] married, we went to church.
VC: And what did you like best about church? Was it the music, the preaching?
ER: Well, I'm glad you said music, because I, I don't think I ever told you that I--. My mother had me taking music. I used to play the piano and organ. And there was a time when I played the piano for Sunday school. And then there was time when I played the pipe organ for church. They were two activities in church that I was involved in because of the skills that my mother had seen to it that I acquire. Of course I couldn't play anything now. [Laughter] But, for many years, I played. In fact until I came to Charlotte to teach, I, I played for the Sunday school, and I played--. I played piano for Sunday school in Raleigh. And I played the[Pause] what you call it? The--?
VC: An organ.
ER: Organ. Um-hum.
VC: Did, did your religious teachings in any way have any impact on your teaching, on your professional life as a young adult when you were starting out? How might that strong religious background have impacted that?
ER: Well, it's, a part of the strong religious background was the way you were reared by your family, by your parents. And of course that, the way I was reared by my parents affected the way I was a teacher, because I didn't try to be Mother to my students, but in a way I did, because I saw to it that--. Because I was an English teacher and so, of course, my students read what I told them to read. But I grew up reading. We, we were--. Momma used to read to us, and she taught us to, taught all of us to read before we went to school. We went to school knowing how to read because she had taught us. See she was a teacher. And she was an elementary teacher. She taught first and second and third grade. But she taught us, you know, to read when we were growing up. And so we grew up knowing how to read.
VC: And what kind of--? In what way might the religious principles that you were given from--? What were the lessons that your mother stressed, the Biblical lessons, the Biblical teachings?
ER: Well, you--. One thing about it, I never will forget. You, you didn't, you didn't--. As she put it, you don't say bad words. If she would hear us say something that we had heard, some of our, the kids in the school say, you know, so and so and something. That was, you know, that was--. What do you call bad words, that's what she called them, "bad words."
VC: [Laughter]
ER: And, she was "Oh no, you don't say bad words. No." And if you said bad words, you might get a spanking. And if we, of course, now when we grew up in the school, the parents and teachers had a good relationship. In fact, the teachers would come to the home to visit the parents if there was any problem that they thought that they needed to talk to the parents about. And the parents went to school if they thought there was something that they ought to see the teacher about. And that's the way it was. And we grew up like that.
VC: What's your favorite Bible verse?
ER: Um-hum.
VC: Or book of the Bible.
ER: The 23rd Psalm is my favorite. Of course, I just like the Bible anyway, but the 23rd Psalm, "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lay down in green pastures, He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever." That's the 23rd Psalm. That's my favorite.
VC: And what does that mean to you? What does that say?
ER: Um-hum. Um-hum.
VC: What is being said there, expressed in, by those verses?
ER: Well, it says to me particularly that if I shall, "surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life." If I'm a good person, goodness and mercy shall follow me. And I take from that that I am supposed to, when goodness and mercy shall follow me, that means that goodness and mercy is something that I should take into my life. I should be as good as I can be and I should be as merciful. And merciful to me being, is being good to people. And I thought that when I was teaching I always thought about that. In fact, when I first started to teaching, we used to have, have to have a Bible study. We started off the class with Bible study. Of course, they don't do that now, but when I first started teaching in the early 40s you could have--. If you had a homeroom, you started off the day with a Biblical verse, and I always had my kids to, I had my kids to learn, because I made my kids learn poetry, the kinds of poetry that I liked. But had all of them to learn the 23rd Psalm. [Pause] Because to me, the Bible is literature.
VC: That's wonderful. What is the significance of the black church to you? What is special about it?
ER: Well, is special about it that I grew up in it. I grew up in the black church and all my brothers and sisters and I grew up in the black church. And we grew up going to kindergarten, to church, to Sunday school, to church, and BYPU. And so that was a part, the black church was a part of my rearing. It wasn't just my Mama and Dad. It was also the Sunday school teachers and the minister. All of the people in the church, they just felt responsible for the children. All the adults in the church knew that they were parents to all the children in church. Not only your Sunday school teacher, but the minister and any other adult in the church. Parents made it very, very clear to the adults in the church that after all the church is helping us rear our children so that means if you see a child of mine or hear a child doing something that is not as it should be, I expect you tell me. And, honey, I tell you, that's one thing we did. If we were doing something, saying something around Sister Jones, and Sister Jones would to us, "And now wait a minute. Now your mother wouldn't want you to say that."
VC: Um-hum.
ER: And of course, we knew that mama would know it before we got home. And that's the way we grew up. The people in the church felt as if they were the parents of the young people in the church. And we were expected to respect them just like we respected our parents. And we did. [Pause] So I feel, have always felt good about the fact that I grew up in church, because the things that I learned just by being in touch with adults like that who were sort of surrogate parents, just--. I learned as much from them as I learned from my mom and dad.
VC: What was the role of the preacher in the black church when you grew up?
ER: Well, the preacher, of course, he was the minister who was hired by the church, and he was expected to preach but he was also expected visit the sick. He was also expected to give comfort to anyone who needed it. If anybody was in trouble, he was expected to help them. For instance, if somebody got in trouble and was sent to prison, he was expected to go visit them in prison and to see what he could do to get them to, get them, give them the kind of information and help them be, to learn the kind of things they ought to learn and be the kind of person. And he--. I remember our minister in Raleigh, one of the things he did every week was to go to jail and talk to the prisoners, and not just our church members who were in jail, but he talked to the people who were in jail. He was known for this. I remember one of the deacons said in Sunday school one--, that he was talking to young peoples. He said, "Now, you all had better be good and don't get yourself in trouble, because if you go to jail, the first person you're going to see is going to be Reverend (Brook)." [Laughter] Because he's going to come there and see you.
VC: So there was a prison ministry even back then.
ER: Oh yeah.
VC: They talk about a prison ministry.
ER: Uh-huh. Oh yes.
VC: What was the role that women had in the church when you were growing up? You said your mother was very involved in the church. Can you talk more about--.
ER: Sunday school teachers mainly. My mother was a, she had a beautiful contralto voice and so she was a member of the choir. But other women in the choir, women were the sopranos and altos and men were the tenors and basses. She was also a Sunday school teacher.
VC: And what were some of the other roles that women had in the church? Like mothers of the church and, did they have mothers of the church?
ER: Well.
VC: In your church, in your congregation?
ER: No. Not that, no, not anything that was called that. Of course, all of the women in the church, as I said a few minutes ago, were expected to be sort of surrogate mothers because they were expected to act like a mother. If they thought, if they saw something going on with children or young people that their mothers need to know about, they would see to it. They would call us "come here, Elizabeth Randolph," Elizabeth Schmoke I was then, "now you know good and well that your mother wouldn't want you to be doing this or saying this," anything you know, and so "don't think I'm not going to tell her, because I am." By the time I got home, my mama knew what I had said or done. Whatever it was, she knew it before I got home. And the people in the church, particularly the women because the men didn't bother you, but the women saw their duty to check on the children, boys and girls, and to tell them what they thought that they needed to know. And if the children would, said anything to them they didn't, weren't respectful to them, they'd tell the parents about it. And they felt they were just as responsible for your upbringing as your parents were. That's the way it was in my church. [Laughs] We'd go to Sunday school and my brother would say, "There's Mr. Jones, let's go the other way because if he sees us, he's going to be asking us something." And sure enough, Mr. Jones would ask, sometimes, "oh yeah, have you got your, have you got your grades yet, or you got your, what you call it, your card that has your grades on it. Or, how were your grades this year, were they good? Of course, I was expected to have good grades. I was always on the honor roll. So, I'd go to church and my Sunday school teacher would ask me, is the honor roll out yet. I don't know Miss Jones. Well, you find out, because I'm going to find out, I want to know if you're on the honors, you know we expect you to be on the honor roll. If I wasn't on the honor roll, I'd get on the honor roll real quick.
VC: And you mentioned to me earlier that your mother would have prayer meetings with her children in the home--.
ER: Uh-huh. That's right
VC: Before going to prayer meeting at church. Could you talk about that?
ER: Before going to Sunday school on Sunday morning, we had a prayer meeting, when we got up and we had breakfast. Before breakfast, you know, we had the prayer meeting before breakfast. That was, that was before we ate, we prayed, thanked God for the food that he had given us. And then we would have our breakfast. And then we'd get ready to put our clothes on and go to Sunday school. And then of course we stayed to church. And then when we came back from church, we had dinner and then at six o'clock, we'd go back to church, to Baptist Young People's Union. And of course, my mama sang in the choir and we stayed until after church was over, because the choir was singing. And then on Wednesday, which was prayer meeting, we went to prayer meeting with mama and they always had a special something for the children, you know.
VC: How has that strong religious background influenced you as a person, as an adult, how has it influenced the person who you are?
ER: Uh-huh. Well, one thing about it's, it influenced the way I always felt about my, before I became a Principal, before the students that I taught, I felt that I should treat them like I was treated as a student. And I always did. And I would have some of the mothers and fathers of my students would tell me how much they appreciated the way I treated their children. I never did preach to any of them or anything like that, but I just treated them like children, like I was treated by my parents as a child. And that's the way I taught the children who were my students. And their parents always appreciated that they read, that they always, you know, they would read, one mother told me, "Oh, Ms. Randolph, I'm so glad, that so and so came home to today and told me she had to have, take me to the library to get so and so book, and I certainly am glad, I will surely do that," you know. That's the kind of experience I had with parents, you know. They, when I was going to school, my parents felt that they needed to know the teachers and the teachers were always told that they would visit the parents. That was a requirement of teachers in those days. You had to visit the parents of your students. I know when I was a student, I had to know that my teachers were coming to see my parents. And of course, when I was a teacher and principal, I knew I was expected to go visit the parents of the children in my homeroom and I always did. And that was, doing that was a part of the child's rearing and the mother's would let you know that they appreciated what you were doing for their children because they saw it as the teachers were being parents. They were helping their children be what they wanted their children to be, what they were tying to make their children.
VC: Well, it certainly sounds like church and education were two strong forces back then in your life.
ER: Uh-huh. That's right. Yep, that's right, the church and the school. My Sunday school teachers and the preacher and my teachers at school were the people who reared me in the way that my parents wanted me to rear, wanted me reared.
VC: Do you recall an Easter Sunday celebration, what was Easter Sunday like?
ER: Yeah, Easter Sunday was always, there was always a program, a Sunday school program and we always, my brothers and sisters and I were always in the Easter Sunday school. We, mama taught us, she got a poem and we learned a poem. And it was always a program and part of the program was saying, saying your speech. And so, she would always teach us a speech. She always saw to it that we were part of the program. [Pause] The saying and the, mama called it the recitation.
VC: Do you remember any recitations? I mean that would be stretching. [Laughter]
ER: Oh, yes indeed. No, after all, I am seventy eight years old. I know that we had to learn the Bible verses, one of the, "The Lord is my Shepherd." We learned that. And, I guess I ought to, but I don't. We learned poems at home too, but I can't remember one right now. Well some come to me.
VC: Do you recall a favorite Sunday school lesson? And you might even think of a Sunday school lesson now because you still go to Sunday school, right? You go the men's Sunday school.
ER: Yeah, I go to the men's Bible class. Well, I have, there's a Bible, there's a Bible, it's not a book but it's a magazine. You study your lesson out of the Sunday school book, that's what we call it, the Sunday school book. And you study your lesson and when you go to Sunday school, you're expected to have studied your lesson. And you were expected answer whatever question the teacher asks you about who, whatever character there was. Who were the main characters, and such and such? Who was Isaac and tell us something about Isaac and who was Jacob? And then, tell us about Jacob? And tell us about the parents of Jesus and how Jesus was reared, you know and all of that? You learn that and you learned it at home because your parents saw to it that you read the Bible. Because Mama was a Sunday school herself so she saw to it that we studied the Sunday school lesson during the week. And when we went to Sunday school on Sunday, we'd already studied the Sunday school lesson so we went to our Sunday school classes, we knew the Sunday school lesson because we'd studied it at home. [Pause] My mama was a, she taught elementary school, in the school system, she taught Sunday school and she sang in the choir. She was quite a gal. Bless her heart. Would you like to see her picture?
VC: I've seen them.
ER: Oh, you've seen, oh you've seen it.
VC: Let me ask you about the black church during segregation, during the Jim Crow years, when you would have been, what, like a young adult, I mean a teenager growing up. How did the church buffer--.
ER: Well, I was in, during that time, I was a teacher, I had finished college and was teaching during that time, uh huh. Well, you were saying, how did the church--.
VC: In what ways did the church serve as a buffer during times of segregation, I mean in what ways did people have to rely on church teachings and, what role did the church play during that period, which was a difficult, difficult time?
ER: Well, it all depends on, I would say, it all depends on who the members and officers of the church were. Because one thing about, certainly in the Baptist churches that I grew up and the one I belong to when I came to Charlotte, they were, the ministers and the officers were involved in the desegregation movement, most of them are. The ministers would mention to their congregation how they felt that the citizens should take what was going on with desegregation. And they would tell you that you weren't supposed to, just because white's didn't like you, that didn't mean that you can say that you can't stand white people. He had heard some people say that and he said, "Now, I don't want to hear anybody else say that, after all, all of us are God's children." [Pause] And he would, if he heard anybody make any kind of comment that was a, you know, racially not what he thought it ought to be, you saying things about whites, that you didn't think white's were people, he would see to it and sometimes he would say in the, in his, sometimes at Sunday school because he would always review the Sunday school lesson and explain, you know, what he thought the Sunday school lesson was about. And he would certainly say, "I don't, I would not like to feel that any of my people did not like a person or did think a person was a person because he or she was white." And say, "All of us are God's children, all of us."
VC: So your minister was also preaching the same message that Martin Luther King was, the message of love, and non-violence--.
ER: Right, uh-huh.
VC: And redemptive suffering, perhaps?
ER: Yes, he certainly was. And he, the Sunday school teachers always on Wednesday, and Reverend Ricky has the same thing on Wednesday night here. He is the teacher of the Sunday school lessons, you know. And that's the way our minister used to be. He taught the Sunday, and he would, on Sunday he would review the lesson, we opened Sunday school with a song, of course, first and then a review of the lesson. And, most of the times, he reviewed the lesson. And of course, the teachers were expected to have studied the lesson and know the lesson. And then on Wednesday night they would have a study together. And all of teachers were expected to know what they were supposed to teach, and they did. They surely did.
VC: One thing that really struck me about Charlotte, having move here three years ago, was that there are a lot of churches. [Laughs]
ER: Yes.
VC: Is this, you know, is this unusual for a community, a Southern community?
ER: No. No, indeed. In Raleigh where I grew up, my goodness, there were churches, you name the denomination, and there were at least two or three churches in that denomination. Yeah, and I think that's the way it is in, in most large Southern cities. I think there are a lot of black churches, of various denomination. Because, here we've got Baptists, and we have several Baptist churches. We have Methodists, and Methodists of various, different kinds of Methodist churches. And then there's the, your church, we've got, well how many Episcopal churches are there in Charlotte?
VC: Only one.
ER: Only one, yeah. And then there are Catholic churches. There are a lot of blacks who are Catholics now.
VC: Well, what does that say? What does that seem to suggest, all of the, the large number of churches here in Charlotte?
ER: Well, most black people have grown up in the church. In fact, I don't I have any friends, I don't think I know anybody who did not go to church and Sunday school when they were growing up. Most, most black children go to church. You come to our church, our Sunday school, and you go around and you see the children not only do they, are they in their classes but there's a children's choir. And they sometimes, and I just like it so much, I just think the Reverend Ricky's just, he always, at least some Sunday in the month he has students giving the message. They're giving, they're doing the preaching. They aren't preaching, they are talking about, you could see that he's given, he's worked with them and he's given them the piece in the Bible that they're talking about. They talk about, they give you first where the message is coming from, it's coming from Psalms, whatever, or whatever, whatever, and then they talk about what it is.
VC: And when do they do that? The young people, the children--.
ER: Sometimes it's the children, it's the elementary school children.
VC: Is this like once a month, did you say?
ER: Just about once a month. And then sometimes the high school students, they come up on the platform and one of them is in charge of the lesson for that day, you know. Some of those kids are so smart. And I'll never forget one little boy who, he was no older than ten years old and he reviewed the Sunday school lesson in church. His name was on the program. And he reviewed the lesson and he was so good that when he finished, the people in the audience applauded.
VC: Right.
ER: He had been so good. You could tell that somebody had worked with him on that lesson, and he knew what it was. He told us what it was. But, Reverend Ricky is a teacher as well as a preacher. And he, you can tell that. Because, I don't go to Sunday school every Sunday but I do sometimes, because the first time I went and when I heard him, I said I'm going to start going to Sunday school more. And I do. I don't go every Sunday, but I go most Sundays because I just like to hear him. He reviews the lesson, sometime most of the time in the adult class. Particularly the one that I go to is the men's, I go to the men's class. He is most of the time, he's the teacher or he's helping the teacher. You can see that the teacher wants him to do the teaching, you know.
VC: Why do you go to the men's Bible, Sunday school class?
ER: Well, I always--.
VC: Or is it, if they're not, are they separate?
ER: Yes. They're separate.
VC: Is that historical, that the Sunday school, that the men go to one Sunday school and the women go to another Sunday school class?
ER: Yeah, class, yes the classes are different. There are the young people, the children, the kindergarten children and then there are the high school, the classes for the high school students, that age group. And then when a person is an adult, he or she goes to either go the men's class or the women's class. But I went to the men's class because I knew the teacher, Dr. Durant is the teacher of the men's class and I've known Dr. Durant for a long time. He's a scholar and I knew I would enjoy the lesson. And I did, I still do. I go to his class every Sunday.
VC: What do they teach differently in the men's class?
ER: Everybody has the same, the same, let me see if I have, can put my hand on--. [Tape stops]
VC: We're talking about Women's Day.
ER: Women's Day.
VC: Which is something that they have in black, in Baptist churches, right--.
ER: Well--.
VC: or is it all denominations?
ER: Well, I don't know. I know that Baptist churches have Men's Day and Women's Day. All that I know of. I've known about Men's and Women's Day ever since I was growing up in First Baptist in Raleigh. On Women's Day, you start in Sunday school. And the women and girls are in charge. [pause] Women teach all the classes on Women's Day. They teach the men too. And the men's classes too. And the, on Women's Day, on Men's, on Women's Day, the women teach all the classes, women and men and children. And on Men's Day, the men teach all the classes, the men, women and children.
VC: So Women's Day and Men's Day, that goes back historically--.
ER: I think so.
VC: The church has always had those two special occasions. And are there speakers?
ER: Well, yes, uh-huh. On, well now, of course it starts at the kindergarten classes in the morning and goes up through the Sunday school. But, for the church service, the eleven o'clock service, on Men's Day, there is a special men, they usually get an outstanding man. We've had Adam Clayton Powell and people like that on Men's Day. And on women's day, they have an outstanding woman, you know, a woman who's well known. Sometimes it's somebody who is well known in Charlotte. But, that's what, they emphasize women on Women's Day and men on Men's Day. The women have the offices, they take the--.
VC: Communion.
ER: Communion and all of that. And on men's day, the young people, the young women and the young men do things like taking the offering. On Women's Day, the young women are the one's who pass the plate, and the same thing with the young men on Men's Day. And the, in the regular Sunday school, whichever day it is, whether it's women's or men's, a young person, and sometimes two young persons, will give the scriptures, somebody, young person always sings, sings a solo and the children's choir sing and the, we have a choir with people of various ages, you have a choir with people, in it teenagers to twenties maybe, and then after, you know, and then you have the young people's choir. [Tape stopped, then restarted]
VC: What do you think about when you hear the hymn Amazing Grace?
ER: Oh it takes me back to my childhood. I've known Amazing Grace since I was in kindergarten. You learned it then and you sang it at Sunday school every Sunday and most of the time, the choir sang it at church every Sunday. Amazing Grace is really a song that everybody who has grown up in church knows Amazing Grace. [Pause]
VC: Can you sing some of it, can you sing a verse?
ER: I'll try. [Singing] Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost but I am found, was blind but now I see. [Pause]
VC: And what do those words mean to you?
ER: Amazing grace, how sweet the sound to save a wretch like me, well, Amazing grace means to me, being a Christian, and being a Christian, saved a wretch like me, makes me be the kind of person I need to be. I was once lost but now I'm found means that there was a time when I wasn't the kind of person that I wanted to be but amazing grace, going to Sunday school and church has made me the kind of person I want to be. [Pause]
VC: OK. Thank you very much. This has been an interview with Mrs. Elizabeth Schmoke Randolph in her home. Today is August the twenty-first, 1996 and the interviewer is Vickie Crawford.