An Interview with Ronel Cook
Interviewer: John J. Beck, 2/1/99
Ronel Cook was born in West Virginia in the early 1950s. Like many African Americans in the 1950s and 1960s, he and his family moved North, to the New York area. Mr. Cook grew up in New York. In the late 1990s, Mr. Cook, his young child, and his parents moved to Henderson, NC (in Vance County). This interview focuses on why Mr. Cook and his family moved north, and why, thirty years later, they moved back to the South.
[ ] denotes portion of tape recorded interview that was undecipherable.
Q. Where did your grandparents live?
A. Bessemer, Alabama.
Q. Both sides?
A. Both sides.
Q. Then your mother's family moved to Ashe County, North Carolina?
Q. What did they do in Ashe County?
A. Well, my grandfather was a farmer.
Q. He farmed in Ashe County. Did he own land there?
A. As far as I know, he owned a little.
Q. Ashe County is way out in the western part of the state. That's up in the mountains.
A. Yeh. He did some farming in West Virginia [later] in the mountains.
Q. Do you know anything about how they decided to go there?
A. No. My mother never explained it. I don't think she knows. The only thing she knows is she was born there in a house.
Q. So they lived in Ashe County, and your other parents stayed in Bessemer?
A. Right. That's my father's side.
Q. Did they work in the mines?
A. No my grandfather [father's side], actually owned slaves and did farming.
Q. The one living in Bessemer. And after the Civil War did he still farm?
A. A little, very little. He was more of a businessman. He had a lot of property. [ ].
Q. But there is a family tradition in your family that he owned slaves before the Civil War?
A. Yes. My great, great, great grandfather was a slave. He was brought here from Africa back in the 1800's. He was in Virginia.
Q. You have that in your family tradition?
Q. So your mother and your father were both from Bessemer, but your Mother and her family moved to Ashe County, North Carolina. Where did they meet?
A. Tennessee. [they met in a town along the border of Alabama and North Carolina]. [ ]
Q. They married and moved to …………?
A. West Virginia.
Q. And your father worked in …….
A. Coal mines.
Q. And he did that all along?
A. That was his career until 1961.
Q. He was in the mines that long?
A. Yes, thirty years. He was eighteen when he signed up in the coal mines.
Q. Was he a member of a union?
A. Yes. Still a member now.
Q. United Mine Workers?
A. Yes. They took very good care of him and my mother. Best benefits you can have.
Q. You were born in West Virginia?
A. Yes, I was born in West Virginia in 1951.
Q. When did you move to New York?
A. Well, my Mother went to New York in 1960 because the coal mines, they were laying off and weren't hiring. So she decided to go up and look for work and get settled and send for us. So in 1961 my father and I went to New York.
Q. You lived in Mount Vernon. Where is Mount Vernon?
A. That's West Chester County, just out of Manhattan, the five boroughs.
Q. Do you know what kind of job your Mother got?
A. She was a domestic; she did house work, babysitting.
Q. What kind of job did your father find?
A. She found a job for him as a dishwasher, so he moved up. He worked as a dishwasher, then at a factory that made artificial plants. From there he got a job with the hospital as a housekeeper, then he got a second job working for the county at night so he had two jobs.
Q. Did he ever regret leaving mining?
A. I don't think he ever thought about it. Today, I think he might regret it because he's diagnosed with black lung from being in the coal mines.
A. Oh, he's still alive.
A. Yes. He's 84 years old. He's getting treatment for it [black lung] now. Doesn't seem to be suffering too much [ ]. He's doing very well.
Q. So your mother went first to New York and then your father. They they brought up the rest of the family.
A. I'm the only child, so I can along with my father. We took the Greyhound.
Q. You were 10, 11, 12?
A. I was 10. I was in the fifth grade.
Q. You attended school in New York?
A. I went to elementary, junior high and high school and three semesters of college.
Q. What college?
A. Leland College in the Bronx, Bronx Community.
Q. What did you notice when you were a kid and first arrived in New York in terms of the differences between New York and West Virginia?
A. The difference was the language. They [in West Virginia] talked more of a Southern language. They're [in New York] more of a fast language. The pace in the South was much slower and faster paced [in New York]; more overcrowded very overcrowded. And they didn't seem to be as respectful of each other like we were in the South. In the South we were very humble to each other. And you couldn't trust people [in New York]. Everybody seemed to be out to get you and what you had. The value of the work and the education they didn't have like they did in the South. They [in the South] grew up learning to go to school, get a good job, have a family, be good parents. In the North you abandon your family if it don't work out, you go your own way, you don't stick it out.
Q. What kind of town did you live in in West Virginia?
A. I was born in Welch, that was the city. Then we moved to Philbert back in the mountains.
Q. When your father worked for the mines, did you also have a piece of land to farm too?
A. We had property that the government [the mining company?] gave each worker according to the size of the family, so we had three in the house, and we had a little bit of property. We did our farming, a few pigs and chickens. Pretty nice farm. We were on a mountainside, so I don't know how much, but it was enough.
Q. In New York you didn't have that?
A. No. We didn't own a house, we rented, and we only had a little bit of front yard and a very little bit of back yard, and we didn't have use of that [ ].
Q. In the area you lived, did you live near other people form West Virginia or did you have other kin folk near where you lived?
A. Well, when my mother went to New York, our next door neighbor in West Virginia, they went together. They were like sisters. I think about eight years later my aunt moved from Davie, West Virginia, which was my mother's sister, she moved to New York. That was the only family we had. But there was other people from our area in Harlem, and some of them in upstate New York. So we weren't alone, we knew some people.
Q. Were most of the people you knew from New York?
A. No. Most of the people we knew were from West Virginia. We didn't know anybody from New York.
Q. As time went on, did you spend a lot of time with people from West Virginia, even later?
A. No. We just, when we got into school, we more or less departed and made new friends, you know. We still kept in touch, but we went our own separate ways.
Q. Did you go back to West Virginia much?
A. We used to go every few years, but basically we went to Alabama every year for family reunions.
Q. That's where everyone was originally from. So did you still have a lot of kin folk in and around Bessemer?
A. Yes. Bessemer, Birmingham, Tuskegee.
Q. Did you notice anything different in New York as compared to West Virginia in terms of race relations between blacks and whites?
A. Well, they seemed to have gotten better in the North than the South. I had a few incidents that seemed to be more racial, but I guess you run into that everywhere you go in life, but there wasn't as much racial in the North. Black, white, Puerto Ricans, they all seemed to blend together. The attitude was you got to live together, work, together, and go to school together so there was more acceptances between the races.
Q. West Virginia, where you came from is a Southern state with a low percentage of African Americans and the coal mines had primarily white miners. There weren't many black miners when you were there?
Q. Where you lived in West Virginia, was it mostly white?
A. Well, the section we lived in Philbert was mostly black, but overall it was mostly white. But we got along well; it was like we're all family. I didn't encounter any racial problems in school in Philbert and even down in Welch, the big city. Very friendly.
Q. Were the schools segregated when you were there?
Q. Some schools had desegregated by then.
Q. Well in Philbert, when I was in the fourth grade, I had an all black class.
A. So your school was all black, it wasn't black and white?
Q. Was the school in New York integrated?
A. They were integrated. But I didn't know at the time that the high schools weren't.
Q. Oh really. A black school and white school?
A. Yeh. And that changed around 1964, and they built a new high school and some other schools. [ ]
Q. Was the area you lived in in New York integrated?
A. It was integrated, very integrated. A lot of Puerto Ricans at that time. [ ]
Q. So you had in your neighborhood African American, Puerto Ricans.----
A. Italians, Jewish, a lot of Jews.
Q. Was there a lot of ethnic consciousness with thee different groups?
A. They all stuck to their cultures, especially the Italians. Jewish were more relaxed, more laid back then the Italians [who were] tight, very tight.
Q. How about Irish?
A. Irish were a little accepting, just like the Jewish. I would say they were more laid back and accepting of other cultures. Italians were Italians only. They had their own side of town, own stores, businesses. [ ] We lived on the south side of town, and the Italians lived on the north side. They lived in the Italian section [ ], all Italian.
Q. So where you lived had a mixture of people.
A. Yes we had a mixture, yes.
Q. When you finished school and you went to get a job, what kinds of jobs did you get?
A. When I was in high school my first job was in a furniture store as a delivery boy after school. And when I finished high school, I worked at the county with my father. We cleaned office buildings, offices and office buildings. And from there [ ] I worked for Perry Soda. It was a Jewish company [ ]. It was a family business. And there I worked about seven years. And most of the time they sent me to my own areas when I went to make deliveries. I'd go to the Bronx, Harlem [ ]. I'd be more protected and more or less do better business there.
Q. As a driver did you do sales too?
A. It was sales, more or less. We had a salesperson, but while you were out there, you were encouraged to stop at all stores. Being that I was black, I would make sales more or less the way it was set up, the salesperson would go to five or six stores and the rest [ ]. They would overload the truck, and while I was out there and try to encourage sales. Very profitable business.
Q. Is the company still in business?
A. No. They finally went out of business ten years ago. They were very wealthy. Like I said, it was a family business and no one really wanted to buy it, and Pepsi and Coke became very popular. So I guess they felt they made enough over the years to close it. [ ].
Q. Did you work at other jobs?
A. Besides truck driver, I worked in a hospital for ten years. I was in a hospital as an orderly. I was interested in, I always wanted to help people. My grandfather died in 1972 at that particular hospital, and I blamed them for his death. He died of cancer, lung cancer. So two years later I got a job there, very knowledgeable job. I didn't want to be a doctor. It was good job. It was a town hospital. Everyone who came to the hospital was from the local town. So it was more or less family. People black and white, just like family. And after that I ……
Q. Was this still West Chester?
A. Yes, West Chester, Mount Vernon. From there I became a chauffeur. I worked for a company called Tarren Limousines, black owned. I was amazed at the cars and wanted to drive a big limo. So I started out washing and waxing the cars and then one day it was a tight situation, and they needed someone to go to the airport and they asked if I had a black suit, and I said "sure," and the assignment was to go to the airport. And that's when I stated as a chauffeur. And I worked for him for three years. I learned the trade, how to be courteous, how to drive the different routes, shortcuts, and from there I went into business for myself.
Q. What kind of business was that?
A. I was a chauffeur.
Q. Did you have your own car?
A. I started out driving for a private family. I saw an ad in the New York Times. they were looking for a chauffeur to drive from Scarsdale to Wall Street. It was a young man who had cancer working for a company on Wall Street [ ], and he couldn't drive anymore. I started driving for him and he helped me. After two years he passed, but he helped me get my own car. [ ]. So once he passed, I found another ad in the paper for a young man who wanted a chauffeur. He worked at Salmon Brothers, so I worked for him. And I had my own car and from there, he helped me get a second car. So I had two clients for that company, and I worked there for two years.
Q. When did you decide to move to the South?
A. Well, after that I got married. I had a young baby. I didn't want to raise him in New York. I have two sons. My oldest is just finishing college. He's pretty much on his own and doing well. Living in upstate New York, more of a Southern environment, so I was pleased with that. And I decided I didn't want to raise my new baby in New York, and I thought it was time for my parents to leave. They didn't own their own home. The cost of living was going up. The people they were living with were giving them some problems because their daughter had just returned home, and they wanted the apartment for her. So I decided I'd invest in a house for my parents. So my baby and I started venturing out. We started in Florida and Disney World for a vacation. From that point started from Florida, Mississippi, Alabama. My father said he didn't want to go back there [ ]. I didn't want to go back to West Virginia because it was too cold, and I wanted to find a nice warm climate area and plus a Southern state area. I had a few friends that's from Henderson that I used to work with.
Q. In New York?
A. Up in New York. We worked together at the hospital. And they had just recently moved down here to Henderson. He said anytime you're in town, stop by, and I stopped by, and I told him my plans, and he took me out to look at houses. And I signed up with a realty, 'cause I liked the area. It was a very warm atmosphere, and I felt it was good for my parents. I wanted to move in the country, but I had to consider them. And my father drives and my mother drives, so I felt if we move in town, it would make it much more interesting. So I found a house, my mother agreed, my father, he didn't want to come. But my mother said she would come anyway and decided Henderson would be home. And I haven't regretted it. I have a house now, acre of land, and a nice corner house. A nice area, very nice. I love working with children and there's a lot of children in the area, in the neighborhood. I have them over to the house in the summer. So its worked out fine. My mother is a minister, so she ministers at the nursing home up the street from us, Thompson Nursing Home. My father drives to the supermarket, anywhere he wants to around town even on 85 [I-85].
Q. What kind of minister is your mother?
A. Pentecostal minister
Q. Was she a minister in New York?
A. Yes. She's been a minister for about twenty years.
Q. Did she have her own church in New York?
A. Back in 1963 [?] she had her own church. It was a storefront church. It was called Faith Tabernacle. And she was doing well, but it was too much. [ ]. It was just too much for her. She had a massive heart attack, and she had to give it up. So she recovered from the heart attack very well. So now she does counseling, she ministers to the nursing home, and every now and then she preaches at the church. She a member of Young's Memorial Hold Church. They have a lot of members and so every now and then she gets a chance to speak.
Q. Do you belong to that church?
A. No. I belong to Holy Temple in Henderson. My father does also. That was a move that was great because he's from religious family but once he left home at eighteen, he stayed away from the church. And once he moved here to Henderson, since 1997 he joined the church on his eighty-third birthday. So that was a big blessing.
Q. Why doesn't he go to the same church as your mother?
A. Well, we all were going to the same church, we all belonged to Holy Temple, but she didn't want to be in that particular church because of this one minister who's been there for forty-eight years, and he has his own way of doing things. She's more outspoken, and he doesn't like that. She decided she wanted to go elsewhere. My father still goes to Holy Temple because he likes the minister because he's in his eighties, and he respects that. As long as he's in the church, I'll be there with him.
Q. Do you still have your chauffeur business?
A. No. The chauffeuring business in this state is a lot different. Everyone has their own car.
Q. There seems to be an increase in chauffeured cars in places like Raleigh recent years.
A. It was good [chauffeuring], but I prefer to teach. I love children. I want to work with them. I had an opportunity with Head Start with my son last year to go volunteer. I felt that that was one of my callings to work with young children.
Q. Your plan is to work with Head Start or public schools?
A. I prefer to work with Head Start. I feel that they are more needy. A lot children there are from low income families, single parent families. They don't get the attention at home. Basically because their parents didn't get it. [ ].
Q. A sort of passed-on thing. What else do you do to keep busy?
A. I love to drive, and sometimes I drive cross-country. I take the family out west. Other times I drive my son, I chauffeur my parents around -- anywhere they want to go--- a long distance like to Raleigh or Durham or up to Virginia. I take care of them. I devote my time to my parents.
Q. Where does you wife live?
A. We're separated. She lives in New York. She is going to school to be a nurse. [ ].
Q. Do you notice major differences between living in Henderson and New York? Henderson for example might be more easy-going than New York.
A. No, I accepted that. I was ready to get away form New York and the rat race. The only thing I don't like about Henderson is the younger children are coming back form the North here and bringing that type of attitude and style, and I don't appreciate it because I was in New York for thirty-three years, and I didn't want to go [to New York] as a child but was forced to. And when I had the opportunity to get out, I promised myself that I would and bring my parents with me. I just don't appreciate the young people bringing that style from the North.
Q. By style you mean….
A. Oh, the gangster styles, the attitude that they don't have to respect anybody. Everybody has to respect them. Rules, they don't like to go by rules, regulations and that's New York. They have rules and regulations but money makes a difference. If you have money, you can break rules.
Q. There's less of that here?
A. Much less, much less. I read the papers. Whenever there's a drug bust, there's $50,000 bond and when they do go to court, you get 5-10 years in jail [in the South]. In New York if you have the money, you might not go to jail. Money [ ] buys your way out of those situations.
Q. In New York where you lived, did you have a gang problem?
A. Yes. I had a gang problem from a little kid up. I used to belong to a gang when I was in junior high school. Of course every area had their own little gang. It was the only way to survive in that area was to be in a gang. When you grew up in that area, you were supported by a gang.
Q. Were most young people in gangs the area where you lived?
A. Yes. I mean, we had basketball teams, football, teams that played in that area, [in] different areas, but you were still part of that gang----Parkside gang, Southside, Northside, Eastside.
Q. When you were in the gang, did the young people who were in the gang with you go on to have big problems in life?
A. In the senior gang, most of them went to jail normally for stealing; stealing cars, from stores, some robbed liquor stores. Now in our gang, they were younger, the answer was no. But I had a close friend, very intelligent, high I. Q. He became a doctor [ ]. And another young friend, very high I Q. also. He went to California, got connected in a gang, and got shot.
Q. So they could go either way?
A. Yes. He could have been a doctor.
Q. Do you see significant differences between the North and the South in terms of crime, particularly this gang business.
A. Yeh, much different because law enforcement more or less [ ], they really work on it in the South as well. In the North, it's more about money. Gangs do drugs, they bring in money, and then pay off people. So that money just goes in the legal system. When they go to court, more money goes in. You're talking about five - ten million dollars.
Q. When you came to this area, did you find that the racial situation was much different than what you saw in the North ---- similar, better, worse?
A. Well, I'd say it's better. Because, like I said, my family, my father was born in Alabama, and I grew up in the sixties, and we'd go to Alabama on vacation, and there would be white water fountains in Sears and Roebuck and black water fountains, white bathrooms, black bathrooms. I had one encounter there. I ran into this nice, pretty water fountain to get water and my mother was having a heart attack because it said white. And I was about 6, and so I didn't know the difference. And this white man got out of line --- he just made a purchase or something --- and picked me up, gave me some water and patted me on the butt and said "now you go on." And my mother was having a heart attack. The rest of the family left us in the store. They were afraid. Even though they knew what could have happened. They didn't want to be bothered with it and just left us. And that was something I would look back on today and appreciate because it shows that maybe there are some good people regardless of what color. [ ]
Over the years coming back and forth between Alabama and New York, I've seen big changes in blacks and whites. They're dating, hanging around together in car washes, soda joints, and soda shops. When I moved to Henderson, that was something else to see. How it was accepted. It seemed to be pretty much black and whites accepting each other, respecting each other. I don't know if it’s a thing---how far it will go, but a lot of blacks and whites dated and [are] living together even on our block. [ ]. How much does it [old attitudes] still exist? I felt it was safe for my family to move here because it was more acceptable to accept you if you seemed to be a decent person, God-loving person, you are accepted. My neighbors, they go to South Henderson Holy Church. They picked up my son in the summer--it was an all white church--to go to their day camp along with a few others. I went down to visit, just to see the church and how they function. Even the pastor greeted me, took me into the church and invited me to come in and bring the family. It was something I was very happy with [ ]. He was a decent person.
Q. I've noticed Pentecostal revivals often are mixed, black and white.
A. Yes, because we're all serving the same God, we feel that we should praise God and give Him thanks. [ ]. That's the way everybody accepts him that reads the Bible. [ ]. To get together as two different cultures and nationalities, that's more of God's gift, and we should accept each other that way illustrating He's God of love. God doesn't love color, he loves everybody.[ ] Even in the churches, I didn't know until I took Southern Culture [a college course] some of them [whites] are staying in church three or four hours like we do.
Q. Yeh, some of them do.
A. Very surprising.
Q. I think I told you Presbyterians, though, stay in church an hour and they're out of there.
A. Well the Holy Temple [in Henderson] is a Pentecostal church but we start church at 11, and at l o'clock we're out. I don't particularly like it. It's not that you have to stay in church a long time to get a message, but I believe in having praises and testimony, and then you can praise God with your testimony and become someone else. This particular pastor doesn't like that. [ ] He wants to do his job and get it over with. Like I said, I stay in this place [ ] with my father. I go to other churches afterwards [ ]. I feel like I've gotten something from church I can carry with me through the week.
Q. Do you notice anything different between the churches you went to in New York and the churches here?
A. No. because the churches in New York were basically the same type of church, and the church I attended [in New York] was more or less a family church. My cousins---they were from West Virginia also---and their father was a preacher, and he had his own church in New York, in the Bronx. It's just like churches [here]. You go to church, you praise God. [ ]. Let the spirit take its course.
Q. Have you ever thought about becoming a preacher?
A. No. But I say if that is my calling from God, I will go there. [ ] By my teaching and working with young children, that's my way of preaching. I won't deny it if He calls me.
Q. Thank you.