Interviewee: Otoria L. O’Rear
IWY TX 365
Interviewer: June Hahner
Date: November 18-21, 1977
Otoria L. O’Rear was from Lexington, Kentucky and she was the only black national delegate from the National Association of the Commission on the Status of Women. She was also a former school teacher from Cleveland, Ohio before joining her husband as a secretary and treasurer at O’Rear Enterprises. O’Rear was involved in a number of organizations supporting civil and women’s rights including the NAACP and the AAUW. O’Rear discussed her life as a married woman, a teacher in Ohio, and her work to eliminate discrimination. Issues important to O’Rear included: assisting battered women and women with substance abuse struggles, minority women, housing, and supporting the Equal Rights Amendment.
Otoria O’Rear: (Laughter) So you what, are you? Okay.
June Hahner: Just could you could repeat Otoria O’Rear? Just repeat your affiliation to me.
OO: Okay, I’m Otoria L. O’Rear from Lexington, Kentucky. I am the only black national delegate from the National Association of the Commission on the Status of Women. I am state program chairman for AAUW Committee on Women. I am the local president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. I am past president of the Lexington Urban League. I am past vice-president of Big Sisters International. I am now a member of the board of Big Brother-Big Sister of Lexington. Let’s see. I’m on so many (unintelligible at 1:17). I’m a member of Women in Communities, ASHA past vice-president. I am secretary of Kentucky Federation of Press Women, which is an affiliate of the National Federation of Press Women.
Hm, what else? Oh, I’m a member of the Lexington Philharmonic Board. Yeah, I’m on the board of Children’s Theater of Lexington. I’m a member of the National Council of Negro Women. Past president of Lexington Chapter.
JH: And I’m impressed. (Laughter)
OO: I’m trying to think. If I had known this was coming up, you know, I would have…
JH: Well, I’m just trying to get a general idea. I’m not trying to pin you down.
OO: Okay. Oh, I’m a former teacher in Cleveland, Ohio. I have ten years in teaching in elementary school. I’m married to George W. O’Rear. We have O’Rear Enterprises, of which I am secretary, treasurer. We have one daughter who is a dentist in the United States Army. Dr. (unintelligible at 2:39) O’Rear Levitt. I have a grandbaby who is four months old. They live at DeFleur. What else? (unintelligible at 2:57)
JH: I think it all is. (Laughter) Just tell me whatever you want to tell me. I wouldn’t know where to begin.
OO: Okay. I was a delegate to the 1972 Democratic Convention and the mini convention in Kansas City. I could not go to the National Convention this year because I was being honored for international community service. I am listed in: Who’s Who in Black America; Who’s Who Among Women; International Who’s Who in Community Service; International Biographical Association; Who’s Who Among Southern Women. Let me think this over.
I have been honored by the Langston Cooperative, the Contract for Civil America. I received a Marcus Holding Jennings ten thousand dollars cash award for innovative and creative teaching in 1969.
JH: You must have been teaching a long time.
OO: Ten years.
OO: I was teaching. I got married, had my child, stayed home to rear her. Her senior year in high school I went back and retrained. Started working on my Master’s so that I would be up on all the new innovative teaching techniques and started back teaching in 1965. I taught from 1965-1970, that was my last year. Then I moved to Lexington, Kentucky from Cleveland. Oh, I forgot. I’m a member of the League of Women Voters. That was the first organization I transferred into after I moved from Cleveland to Lexington. Um, what else? I’ve forgotten.
Oh, I was first appointed to the Kentucky Commission on Women by Governor Ford who is now a US Senator. That was a four-year term and three months ago, I was appointed by Governor Carroll for another four-year term. I have been very active in the women’s movement and for the ERA. I testified at the legislature. I have been on ERA at University of Kentucky with Liz Carpenter. (unintelligible at 6:07) missing anything.
I belong to so many organizations. This is hard. (Laughter)
JH: How do you keep track of them?
OO: To remember…
JH: How do you keep track of them?
OO: …to remember them all. I’m a Protestant. A Sunday school teacher. I belong to Main Street Baptist Church in Lexington. I have traveled all across the country and to the islands.
JH: I’d really like your opinion on some of the things that are going on here.
OO: Here? Well, I think that this is a great conference and I’m just happy, I would say I’m very happy that women have been given a chance to talk together. I think that you would understand that I believe in communication. Oh, I forgot that I have also worked as a newspaper editor for five years. I started out as writing a column and ended up being managing editor of the newspaper. That was in Dayton-Springfield, Ohio. But I think women talking together is a great means of communicate how we feel about ourselves and how we feel about each other. I think that we will gain quite a bit of insight into what’s happening all across the country because if we hear women talking to each other and about each other and about the things that are happening, we find that the same issues are prevalent in every state regardless if it’s south, if it’s north, if it’s east, if it’s west.
I’m president of (unintelligible at 8:07) Corporation, which is the delegate agency of community action and each month, or each two months, I attend the consumer regulatory meeting at Heard in Washington. And just two weeks ago, our meeting was there and there were women from, I mean there were citizens, from all across the country at the meeting from California to all the way to Connecticut. In fact, we had to move out of the Heard Auditorium into the GSA building across the street because of the number of people that were there.
OO: And the most interesting thing in that particular meeting, there are some new guidelines. One of the most interesting things is that now, if the women would push the issue and I’m going to be one of those people who get it to the presidents of different agencies, that heard now we can go to the community block grant and get money for shelters for battered women and for childcare. This is very new, but if the women don’t pick up the issue I’m afraid that it might get lost in shuffle in this big community block thing.
JH: It can happen.
OO: Yeah. So, I’m going to, just in…I have a network or organizations all across the country and I’m going to relay this information and I think if enough women make an impact on the need of this particular issue, because it is one of the most prevalent and spoken issues across the nation, is that of women. In fact, it is the one we were just discussing on the floor. And I’m hoping that these centers would just go up all across the nation because we just have so many battered women and so many chronic alcoholic women that they need help. And I think those of us who have been fortunate enough to escape this kind of thing should help our sisters who get caught up and are not able to move out.
JH: You have a lot of concerns.
OO: Yes, an awful lot of concerns. I am trying to think of…when you’re involved in so many things, you know. Okay. The Women’s Political Caucuses. I’ve belong to the caucus ever since it was started. In fact, I was a national member before I moved to Kentucky and then I have been an active member of the caucus ever since I have been in Kentucky. And this is the way that we try to help other women to reach the heights of their ambition, if their ambition is to run for, you know, political or public office. The past election in our town, we helped with a little campaign money with copies for the women that were running and luckily, we did win. A woman did win a seat on the at-large council board that we were supporting. So, that is one of our concerns that we are very sure that we support those women who are running for national office. I served on the legislative committee of the state Democratic women’s club. I have participated with the National Democratic Women’s Club a few years ago. They had a workshop and I participated on the workshop and I’m very active in the democratic club also, the Democratic Women’s Club.
JH: You’re an active person.
OO: Yeah, I stay fairly busy now. When we moved to Lexington, I didn’t go back. I didn’t go into the school system. I didn’t apply. I had been accustomed to a unionized teacher’s union and in Kentucky they had defeated it two years before and they were working very hard trying to get a union and everybody was against collective bargaining and (recording cuts off at 13:04).
(Speaking in the second part of the recording) Yeah, we were talking about O’Rear Enterprises and I said that contains apartment houses and a grocery store. My husband was a contractor when we were in Ohio. In fact, he built many of the buildings…you’ve probably heard of the tornado that hit Central State University in (unintelligible at 0:24), that area about three years ago? Well, many of the buildings that were destroyed, he built. But after we returned to Lexington, well Lexington is his home. After we returned to Lexington, he decided he would go into – we fought quite a bit – because I think it’s just as hard as any other type of business. And I am secretary-treasurer which means that I can do my work any time of the day that I want to.
OO: So I usually tell everybody, “I’m home for the 11 o’clock news and them I’m working until 2.”
JH: When do you get up?
OO: Oh, around 9.
JH: You must have a very well organized schedule.
OO: Yeah, I have a very well organized schedule and a very understanding husband. In fact, he made the headlines the day I spoke with Liz Carpenter because we had, each person, had been asked to take our congressmen, I mean, our senators out and representatives out for lunch. And one of mine, the representative of my district is a woman, so when I got to the Capitol, I couldn’t find her and that day she testified that she was a woman and that wasn’t ever anything that she wanted to do, that she wasn’t able to do. So, my husband heard the debate. He always listened to the radio and knows more about what’s going on than I do because I don’t listen to the radio too much. But anyway, when I walked in he said, “Well, you here on account of a losing round, did ya?” And I said, “Yes, I couldn’t even find mine.” I said, “But she’s still on the floor and said that there was nothing that she ever wanted to do as a woman that she couldn’t do.” So he said, “Well, maybe she hasn’t ever wanted to do much.” (Laughter) So, I told it to somebody and there was a newspaper person in the room and they picked it up and a few days after that it came out on the little newspaper, you know, his quote. I said, “Jeez, now you’re gonna scoot me. We gonna have to see about this.”
But he is very interested, you know, in the movement and I’m happy that he is because I don’t know what I would do if he wasn’t because I am so terribly interested in the movement and if he were chauvinist I just don’t know what I would do. And, of course, I think that that is perhaps one reason that my daughter decided that she was going to do something out of the usual woman thing. You know, ordinarily you’d think of a nurse but first she was going to be a medical doctor. Then the last year at Howard – she graduated from Howard University in Washington – and the last year the dental person came and showed her some of the advantages of being a dentist instead of a MD as a woman and as a married woman. So, she did change that little pursuit but she’s very happy in doing it and, of course, will run into some difficulties but having come from very strong parents and a very strong mother who was interested in the movement, she knew how to cope with it better, I think, than maybe somebody who had not been involved and knew what the movement was all about.
JH: Well, I can see that you’re very much involved with the movement. How did you get into the women’s movement?
OO: Well, actually, I had been into the movement long before this part of it came along.
OO: Because I remember in 1942, which was my first year in college. When I returned to Cleveland, we were trying to break through the Bell Telephone Company for blacks.
JH: Yes, yes. They weren’t hiring black people in those years at all.
OO: No, right. Okay. Now I’m one of the people who marched with the mounted policemen around that building all that summer and sitting in a meeting one sunny afternoon we said, “We’ve got to think of something positive to do.” You know, John Holly was the president then. He said, “We’ve got to think of something positive to do.” So what we did, somebody said, “Well, let’s just call the telephone company.” And from that suggestion, we decided that everybody regardless of where they were Monday morning between 9 o’clock and 12 o’clock, we were going to continually call the telephone company and we had a committee outside waiting to go in and see the president whenever he decided that he was going to see our delegation. So, at 10 o’clock he said, “Send the committee in. I’ll talk to them,” and that was the beginning of blacks working for Ohio Bell Telephone Company. So, you know, that’s been a long time ago.
JH: And you were just a freshman?
OO: I was just a freshman in college.
JH: In Cleveland?
OO: No, I was in college at La Moyne. I was at La Moyne College but I was living in Cleveland.
JH: I see.
OO: I was living in Cleveland. But I was a freshman. I went back and I wanted a summer job.
JH: Oh, this was during the summer.
OO: Yes, it was during the summer and I wanted a summer job. So, I belonged to the Outreach Association. The Outreach Association, which John Holly at that time was president and he spent lots of time…he had a very strong organization and he spent lots of time going to the different, even stores, getting jobs. Not only summer jobs but jobs for people. But that summer there were quite a few of us who had gone out to college and came back and we wanted a summer job. So, we met and we planned strategy and our strategy worked so that was really my first march and we had the mounted policemen were there. I have that picture somewhere among my many pictures.
But, so anytime that there has been discrimination, I have somehow cropped up, you know, and I have been a part of it. I have marched with many different organizations for our rights and its just been a part of me. And when the women’s issue popped up, when it just came out to be, well I just fell right into it because it was something I had always believed in human rights for everybody. And for some reason my people were in real estate which meant that I grew up in a business world and I knew people and my mother was a lover of people and she was a very warm people person. I can remember when, you know, people didn’t have, they would say, “I can pay your rent but my child don’t have shoes,” and she would say “Buy the child shoes.” So, I grew up in this type of a business situation and in a situation where my parents believed in human beings and human rights so that it was just a part of me.
JH: No, I can see where. Well, people always say the early years are so important.
OO: Right, this is true. That was the reason that when I moved from Cleveland to Yellow Springs, Ohio. Yellow Springs is a very small village but it’s very educational. Very cultural. Antioch College is there. And, of course, I lived around the corner and there just wasn’t black/white thing there. It was just, you know, you were just a person and it was really hard for me to stay there for nineteen years then to come to Kentucky and kind of to have to let people know well I’m a human being and I’m not going to be pushed around, you know. (Laughter)
So, I have done very well with the people. I belong to, ah, well, I belong to more white organizations than black organizations but it’s because I have lived in a community where there just wasn’t that separation. Then, in the big city of Cleveland, you just automatically do things. There’s a separation but it’s a different kind. You know, a separation. It’s not a separation that you “can do” or “can’t do,” it’s a separation of whether you “want to do.” So, I really didn’t have too much of a problem when I moved to Kentucky because most of the organizations that I belonged to believe in human rights anyways so it didn’t create any problems other than everybody sometimes looked at me and said, “Where did you come from? How did you do this? How did you get into this?” You know, that type of thing. And some things I was involved with before I went and some I was invited to after I got there so that all the time people would walk up and say, “You don’t know me but I know you because I’ve seen you on television, I’ve seen you on radio,” because I’ve been on an awful lot of radio and television shows.
I don’t whether you know Wilma Scott Heide or not. Do you know Wilma Scott? She is a great woman, feminist, who is president. What is she? She’s assistant president in residence at one of the eastern colleges. She’s here at the meeting, I saw her. So, a group called Women in Cooperate, which is a group from a woman in health services from the University of Kentucky, called me one day and asked me, they said “You don’t know me but we know you. We heard you speaking on the ERA at the University of Kentucky and we are having a meeting and we’re inviting Wilma Scott Heide and we would like for you to introduce her.”
So I get all kind of (unintelligible at 11:53), you know, from being active in the community on many issues. You know, and with being on many boards of different ages.
JH: You’ve done a lot. I most admire it.
OO: Well, whenever I came out of the classroom I decided that I just wasn’t going to sit around and play bridge. I had played a lot of bridge. I don’t have anything against bridge because I love bridge. But I decided that I was going to use my time usefully and helping too, in the development of my country. Because I feel that there is a legacy that I can leave and I hope to leave something. One thing that somebody will remember me by.
JH: I’m most impressed.
OO: Well, thank you very much. When my friend came to get me, I said “Oh, yes. I would be delighted.”
JH: Well, I’ve very much…I really would like to hear also how you feel about the meeting? How it going?
OO: The meeting? I think the meeting is going very well. I think that the issues that have been admitted are not covered as fully as they should have been were brought up at the pro-plan meeting last evening. And I think that, that the women have agreed that very little was said about minority women. About, let’s see, the minority women. Ah, about the women, let’s see what is the…the minority women. There was a group of women in the wheelchairs?
OO: Handicapped, yeah.
OO: There was a great article last night, (unintelligible at 12:54) the lady now brought up that they had not made the right provisions for the handicapped. There were a group of women who were interested in the welfare program and the childcare program, so I think that the women are going to listen to all of these issues. They have a program. We said that we would vote for their plan if they would recognize these things. So they have agreed to recognize these things and I feel that all of these things and all of these issues will be discussed.
I’m sure they will put housing on because housing is one of the most important issues in any town almost today. I think we have to remember that without decent housing, we cannot really have the family life and family style that we should have today because when we think of housing we have to think of the family and we have to think of the children and we would like decent housing for every American. We would like for every child to be able to go home after school and look at a beautiful picture on the wall, or turn on the television, and stay home instead of going in the street and getting into violence. The thing that was very…when I was teaching I had students from Ohio State and Kent State in my room, these were student teachers who came to learn how to deal with children in the inner city. I had a young lady from Kent State on my room at the time of the shootout.
OO: And of course, and when she went back to campus, she was roughed up because she didn’t know she was going off limits. So, I wrote the president a letter about his upside-down priorities.
OO: Of course, a few weeks later I can hear the bell on my telephone but I said, “Well…” I would tell my friends, “That’s alright, I guess they have tapped my phone,” but I said all that I have to say and I’m not going to say anymore. After that, well three years ago, two years ago, Mrs. Ford invited the Commission on Women, the Board, to the White House. Of course, I was then afraid that I wouldn’t get the opportunity to go because I didn’t know whether that was in my file or not, you know?
JH: You never know.
OO: I’m sure it was because of the (unintelligible at 16:47). But I got to go so I guess I was cleared for going and I was happy to go. It was a delightful visit. But I was also happy a few months ago, when it was stated that the police should never had been called to the campus because that was my position to the president so I was happy to know that I had that forethought then. I was talking but I thought of something else I belonged to.
JH: Tape’s a wonderful thing, couldn’t keep track of your activities otherwise. Without tape no one could keep track of your activities.
OO: Yes, well, I didn’t name them all for you because I can’t think…oh! I’m treasurer of the Metro Environmental Improvement Commission. That’s an appointment by the mayor and it’s our duty to do the same thing like similar to what Lady Bird Johnson did in Washington. We keep an eye on the city and the sore spots of things that should be done. Last year we had a tree planting Arbor Day, where we carried trees to each school for first graders in each school in the city, received trees from Metro Environmental Commission to be planted on Arbor Day. So, as I said, it’s just hard for me to remember just off the top of my head all the things that I belong to and all the things that I do.
JH: Well, you think that we want any results from this meeting? How will this affect your life or the lives of other people around you?
OO: Well, I think that even, you know, even the women in Kentucky don’t all understand each other. We don’t all have that common ground, but to me, women are women. For some reason, I wish I could be, but for some reason, I just can’t have any prejudices. I don’t have time for that. So, I’m hoping that even those women that are here from Kentucky will have some, some of them are very open, the majority of them are very open but you’re not going to get any kind of delegation where everybody is going to have the same openness about something. But I can say that our delegation is varied. We have a variety of all kinds of thoughts and consciousness-raising so that I’m very happy with it.
I think that all the other delegations with the exception of the Mississippi one, which is all white in which the Ku Klux Klan is there and tried several times today to get the mic. But even, I think, we can learn to deal with that as long as they don’t have the hoods on. (Light laughter) Because I can see them and I can see them if they’re coming towards me. (Laughter) But I think it’s unfortunate that some way it wasn’t take care of before we got to this meeting, because what was mandated for the meeting was not really carried out in the Mississippi delegation and I think that the National Commission for the IWY should have taken care of that so we would not have to use this time trying to deal with it.
I think that women, I’m sure that women will learn a lot from each other in expressing different ideas, concepts, issues, and what have you. Now, I’m on my way to the black women’s conference because there are some issues that affect us that did not appear in the program that we will be bringing.
JH: Like what?
OO: Well, in the program there was not enough of a statement about minority of women, where everything else took up a page or a page in a half, there is something like a quarter of a page. So that we’re wondering if they ran out of something to say, if they ran out of ink.
OO: They didn’t run out of paper because there’s the rest of the page there. So, there’s several things that we are planning to do and we’re going now to plan our strategy on how we are going to carry this out. The Spanish-speaking women are very disappointed. There’s a group from New York who will be talking something about vocational education, where they have written some type of be aware that they could get jobs but that it won’t pay for them to get a four-year college education. But if they can pay for some other job, why not pay for them to get a college education if that’s what they want? So there will be all kinds of issues being discussed at our strategy meeting across the street. I’m sure that many lifestyles will be changed, that history is being made, and that history will include women. We have been mostly excluded, you know. We have to go and dig up our own history.
JH: Don’t I know it. (Laughter) Don’t I know it.
OO: Yeah. So, say for instance like what you’re doing right here, we will know if somewhere we can write and find out about black women, white women, any kind of woman we might want to find out about. We’ll know that there is a place that we can do that. So, I think this is great. I think one of the greatest things we have at the conference. Now, there’s a woman at, I think, Boston University who sent out a questionnaire about their pick, asking everything in the world about you including the color of your fingernails, who was going to do a study. So that will be something great also from this conference.
I think that the congressmen are going to have to stand up and look and take another thought about the women of this country and about the problem of employment and equality on the job, of equal pay and all of those things. And I think that since now women are 51.3% of the population, we’re 40% of the workforce, things are just going to have to change for us. That they are going to have to see that if we had a good child welfare program, and if we had good child care centers, that we wouldn’t have as much violence in the street. I think they’re going to learn that.
Since it’s the poor people and the black women who are at the bottom of all this, they’re going to have to recognize that problem and they’re going to have to do something about having absent fathers. Things are just as simple as that. That’s what the black women are going to be all about, but I’m in accord with it all because I believe in the equality of all. I believe in the human rights of every human being in America, regardless of race, color, creed, sexual preference, or whatever. When they bring up the last thing, ah, issue, I say “That’s their business, long as they don’t bother me,” you know. That’s their business because they have…I want to see everybody have the full freedom of choice. Give them the choice to do it. You don’t have a choice, then you don’t have a chance. So, that’s where I would like to see women, to have a choice to do what they want to do. If they have the choice, I think they can accomplish whatever they’re after.
JH: Is there anything I haven’t asked you, that we haven’t talked about, that you think we should?
OO: Well, I guess we have talked about, especially here at this conference, really the main issue, you know: the eradication of sexism, racism. I guess if we can eliminate those things and if we can get the Equal Rights Amendment passed, I think, you know, America will take another direction. But we’re going to have to have those things. We’re going to have to have sexism and racism eliminated and we’re going to have to have the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. And I hope that much of the time will be spent in the strategy caucuses, strategizing how we’re going to work with those states that have not been ratified.
I hear now that New Orleans, which was once a jumping city, is in very bad financial trouble because a number of the large conventions have moved away. I hope that one of the resolutions will be that we will have, I know that in our Commission on Women that our national commission and only in June, we voted that we would not hold any meeting neither board nor national at any state that had not ratified. So, we’re going to have to come up with some sort of good boycott in order to be heard in these other states and I’m hoping that the people who are working on that strategy committee will be able to do that.
JH: A lot to be done.
JH: A lot to be done.
OO: A lot to be done, an awful lot to be done and I can’t imagine, you know, anybody coming here with any other thing but work in mind. Like over in the Hyde yesterday, we were eating and we asked, well, there were three of us and we all gave our orders and somehow the woman who was there, anyway, brought two orders and she didn’t get the other girl. She must of said it mighty low. She said, “No, I gave you my order and you wrote it down.” So she said, “Well, you only here on fifty dollars a day having fun anyway.” Well, that was a grand insult.
JH: It sure was.
OO: So, we did not stop until we went, we tried to get to the manager, we couldn’t get to the manager, the assistant manager because we couldn’t see the manager gave us our money back. But we did let the assistant manager that we did not appreciate the fact that they had, she had misstated the amount of money that our delegation was probated. Maybe some was but ours was not and if it was $1000, she had no business making that remark. So, I’m sure that the next people who go in to talk, she said she made the remark because she was merely kidding because she with that she could have been one of the delegates getting $50/day. It was all wrong, you know?
OO: And when she tried to clear it up, she still couldn’t clear it up. So that was out first hassle, like, when we got here. And I will never believe that the men…you didn’t see the Hyde Regency yesterday?
OO: With two-or-three thousand women in line with about 40,000 bags sitting all over the lobby…
JH: Oh no, well, we’re in the Holiday Inn downtown.
OO: Well, that’s where we stayed the first night but then we had our reservations for over there. And the businessmen were there ahead of us, and they decided to stay a night over. I can’t believe that. I can’t buy that. These hotels don’t operate like that. Not a whole…
JH: Yeah, I had a feeling. I heard a little something too that makes me wonder.
OO: See, not a whole delegation of businessmen would do that. You know, that’s too many. So something, I think…there was an undercurrent there somewhere.
JH: So what happened?
OO: People worked ‘til 7:30 getting in their rooms last night. And our Lieutenant Governor was here. With her, they wouldn’t make any distinction for her. Everybody was in line. See? That was all wrong. That was all wrong. So, everything went wrong because we couldn’t get, we couldn’t get in our rooms in time so that we missed many things.
JH: Of course.
OO: We missed many things. But you should’ve seen the Hyde yesterday. It is unbelievable what the Hyde looked like from about 12 o’clock until about 7:30 last night. People were lined up all the way around, all the way around. It was unbelievable. You would have to see it to really believe it. But we finally got in to our room about 5:30 and we rushed and got ready for, you know, Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Carter co-chaired the cocktail party, the ERA party last night.
JH: Oh, I didn’t know that.
OO: Yeah, so we got there in time for that and afterward we went to the pro-plan meeting. But everything was running late because of our lateness in getting into…
JH: Of course.
End of interview