Meet Your Neighbor: Clara Kennedy
Reed City grad remembers Depression, life in Idlewild
This story is part of Meet Your Neighbor, a series designed to tell you something new about the people in your community. Participants are chosen at random for the interviews, in which we strive to share a portion of their lives with you, the reader. Look for this series the first Wednesday of each month.IDLEWILD — When Clara Kennedy travelled back to Reed City for her 68th high school reunion in early August, the 85-year old took a trip down memory lane. Now living 18 miles outside of Washington D.C. in Maryland, Kennedy grew up in Idlewild, and went to elementary school in the predominately black community. After a tax dispute led her and her siblings to attend Reed City High School, she became one of only four blacks in her graduating class and faced attitudes of discrimination among her white peers. Kennedy was the fourth of eight children, and her family - like many other families in the United States - was hit hard during the Great Depression in the 1930s. She recalls travelling to Baldwin with her mother and siblings to sign up for a welfare program to get shoes and food. “In those days, there was no abuse (of welfare), it was necessity,” Kennedy said. “It worked for our family to get shoes and get food and water.” After the Depression, her father, John Pellum, worked odd jobs to provide for his family. Later, a stroke of God’s favor blessed the family with financial stability. “My father was appointed as the first black man to work for the (Lake County) Road Commission in the 1930s,” Kennedy said. “That helped the family a lot.” Her father and mother, Elizabeth, who were married for 70 years, founded the Mount Olive Church of God in Christ, which is often referred to as the “Pellum church” today. The church still exists in Idlewild, though John died in 1991 at age 94 and Elizabeth died in 2003 at age 103. Before Kennedy and her husband, James, caught a plane back to Maryland, the Herald Review sat down with her at her brother’s Idlewild vacation home to discuss her family’s history, the challenges she faced as an African American in the 30s and 40s, and her life after living in Northern Michigan. HERALD REVIEW: Tell me about your time in this area. CLARA KENNEDY: I went to Reed City High school, and graduated in 1944. I went to Reed City for four years and I’ve lived out here (in Idlewild) all my life. Our elementary school went to eighth grade here - we didn’t have junior high, it was all called elementary - and I should have been going to Baldwin High School which was only three miles from here, but at the time my mother was on the school board and there was a disagreement as to how to pay the millage each township has to pay to the high school. They were in disagreement as to how much millage they should pay and they couldn’t settle on that for four years, as I remember. So my parents said, ‘Well, we’ll send the kids to Reed City.’ Apparently they were able to work it out better with Reed CIty. I was the first (of my siblings) to go to Reed City. We went to Reed City for four years and I graduated (from there). Two of my sisters went there but they didn’t graduate because they were in lower grades. After I graduated, they were able to come to some agreement and they sent the kids back to Baldwin. HERALD REVIEW: How many people were in your graduating class? KENNEDY: I don’t have the list, but I think the last time I counted there were 55. HERALD REVIEW: Were you one of the only African Americans? KENNEDY: No, there were four African Americans, three from Idlewild and one who lived in Reed City. There were various other (African American) kids who had gone, but did not graduate for one reason or another. One went into the service, because this was during WWII. The war ended a year after I graduated, in 1945. HERALD REVIEW: What was it like then for African Americans? Was there much segregation? KENNEDY: Well, in Michigan, schools were not segregated. I don’t know of any schools in the north that were segregated. As far as Idlewild was concerned, there were a few whites in this area when I grew up. For the most part, it was a black community and when you got to high school, you went to Baldwin (High School). My (younger) sisters and brothers went to Baldwin and my older sisters went to Baldwin. Was there segregation, no, but attitudes? (shrugs) You know how kids are. It doesn’t have to happen, but you know, some people want to test the situation. HERALD REVIEW: What did you do after you graduated from high school? KENNEDY: I graduated in 1944 and one of my sisters was married, and I went to Indiana and stayed with her, and worked for General Electric. Then I went to Wayne State (University) in Detroit and lived with a sister who lived there. I stayed there for about a year and a half and there was a tragedy in our family. My sister, who was a little older than I was - and we were very close - she had neumatic fever and she died. I was emotionally (distraught). I didn’t feel like going to school anymore and I didn’t know what to do with my life. I was depressed. I started looking for employment, this was in 1945. I stayed in Detroit, but there were things about Detroit that were very depressing to me. There was competition for jobs and I felt there was some discrimination too. I was qualified for jobs I applied for, but I didn’t get employed. So I was listening to the radio one day and the navy department was advertising for stenographers, and I thought, ‘oh, I can do that.’ I did have typing and shorthand (classes in high school) and I was very good at that. So I went to wherever it was to take a test and I passed it, and I was on my way to Washington D.C. A girlfriend of mine and I were both going to go, but would you believe, she got talked out of it. So I thought, ‘well I’m still going.’ So I went all by myself, and that’s where I stayed until I got married in 53 and six years later I had my first child. Then I stayed home for 15 years after that. But I eventually went back to work and I also did go back to college (at the University of Maryland) and graduated as an accountant. HERALD REVIEW: Were many women going to college at that time? KENNEDY: Oh yes. I carpooled with another lady in the evenings. Classes were always percentage wise, I’d say about half (male, half female.) HERALD REVIEW: Do you still live in that area? KENNEDY: Yes. We moved to Silver Springs, Maryland which is about 18 miles outside of Washington D.C. Ever since I went to Washingon D.C., which was in 47, I’ve been in that area ever since.