A step through history with Billye Kee

“Back then, we — called the ‘colored children’ — couldn’t try on the shoes at shoe stores,” said Billye Scott Kee. “Because if we didn’t purchase those shoes, they would have to be destroyed or thrown out.”

One year after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Kee was born — 85 miles away and in the same state of Alabama. Both of her parents were college students at the Tuskegee Institute when the Civil Rights Movement kicked off. She grew up knowing Martin Luther King Jr. just as “the preacher” whom the older folks called a “troublemaker.” In college, she would drive through Selma — where the KKK met at four on Sundays — to visit her aunt. She also remembers understanding at an early age that she was different from other white girls.

Like many other African Americans, Kee lived with racial tensions as the wallpaper to her life. The South in the mid-1900s was an entirely different world — she never sat at a restaurant counter until she was in her 40s.  

Today, Billye Kee works at Wheaton College’s Center for Career and Vocation as one of the college’s oldest African American woman. When we met up for the interview, she wore a bright pink blazer, red nails and gold earrings, and greeted me with a warm hug. She then told me she hoped I’m ready to listen to this “old woman” tell a lot of stories about a very different America.

 

Early Memories

Growing up in rural Alabama, Kee quickly realized there were some things adults didn’t have answers for. One of her earliest memories of being “different” was with her grandpa. There was a pharmacy called Whitman’s Drug in her little town with nice counters and stools, but best of all, Whitman’s Drug had an ice cream fountain. Lots of other little girls with their parents ate at the counter, so Kee asked her grandpa for some ice cream, too.

“My grandpa was never the one to say no to me for anything,” Kee laughed. “But that day, he said, ‘I’ll take you around the corner to McCullah’s grocery store to buy you a whole gallon of ice cream instead.’”

She described this with a little sadness: “I knew he was trying to make up for something.”

By the time Kee was in middle school there was no confusion that color was a determining factor in her daily life. Jim Crow laws were enforced and everything was divided into black and white. The fountains all had “colored” signs over them and there were designated side-doors in stores and separate restaurants.

“I was in a school that was totally segregated,” she said. All the students, bus drivers, cooks and teachers were black. There wasn’t a kindergarten for black students, but back then, Kee didn’t think too much about it.

“It was the way it was … I just didn’t know kindergarten existed,” Kee explained.

 

The World Outside Alabama

Photo Courtesy Billye Kee

Kee’s mother graduated with a degree in tailoring, specifically for men’s clothing and clergy vestments. At the time, the only work in Alabama for black women was for maids and schoolteachers.

“If you’ve seen the movie The Help,” Kee said, “it’s just like that.” She could be at church and name all the white women each black woman worked for.

And so Kee and her mother moved to California in 1962 to find something better.

In California, she was exposed to a world of different people. Kee started first grade at Whittier Elementary in Oakland. Her teacher was a Japanese woman named Ms. Toizumi, and there were people of all colors in her class, including white students.

“You cannot imagine how exciting it was,” Kee said. “It was my first time seeing so many different kinds of people!”

But what was even more fascinating for her was that across the street was a school where kids wore uniforms. She had never seen that before.

“I didn’t understand that it was a Catholic school,” Kee said, “because in my hometown there were no Catholics … I was not aware there were Jews.”

Her hometown back in Alabama was “chocolate and vanilla” straight down the line, with nothing in between. Kee said moving to California exposed her to an entirely new reality.

 

Back of the Bus

Photo Courtesy McKenzie Gallagher

When Kee and her mother moved back to Alabama due to the death of a family member, they took the bus. There were no issues with seating until two days into the bus trip, when they reached Jackson, MS.

“The bus driver told us to use the other door to re-board,” Kee said, “He pointed to the ‘colored’ sign, and said ‘Things are different here.’” Billye returned to her hometown on the back of the bus.

Coming back was “not traumatic,” said Kee, but it was shocking. “It was a whole different world.”

She was again in an all black community with an all black school and all black teachers. There were many things she could do in California that she couldn’t do back here. She couldn’t order fast food from the front window, couldn’t go to the doctor’s office because of the shared waiting room and couldn’t be a girl scout.

“It was difficult for me to understand how I could be in another state and be a girl scout, but come back and can’t be that,” she said.

After the “freedom of choice” act was passed in Alabama, Kee’s mother sent her, as the only black child, into an all-white school. It was here she experienced her first explicit act of bigotry. The student in front of her spat in the water fountain right before she could use it, and Kee had to find another place to drink water.

Integration was difficult. The black kids who saw Kee in the white school with white classmates called her an “oreo,” and white kids simply did not see her as an equal. Kee remembers joining the marching band and not being able to stay in the same hotels and eat at the same diners with the rest of her band.

But it was also here Kee realized she “could be a bridge,” and it’s a hope she holds onto even to this day.

 

Tradition and History

Photo Credit McKenzie Gallagher

When asked about how she now views Wheaton College, Kee answered that this was a place with history. Her husband was raised here, her eldest brother attended Wheaton College, and her aunt owned a boarding house behind the Billy Graham Center years ago.

Living in the north has been a different experience for Kee, where racism is more subtle and many people have the “privilege” of not being aware of the hatred and bigotry that still continues in half the country. Still Wheaton is not without its own sordid past and Kee continues to be a bridge between acknowledging this past while reconciling for the future.

Regarding this town, Kee said, “Things change slowly.” Nevertheless, she is grateful that Wheaton College was once a stop for the Underground Railroad. In our little corner at Lower Beamer, she points to the slave receipt pictures behind us.

A few years ago, Kee met Professor Jay Julius Scott at Wheaton. He had a thick southern accent which Kee overheard and the same last name.

“I just went up to him,” Kee said, “It was so out of character, but I asked, ‘Did you know your people may have owned my people?’”

He answered, “If that were the case would you be able to take it?”

The next day Dr. Scott brought back a whole briefcase full of his family’s previous slave receipts and they went through each paper together. Although there’s no conclusive proof that there was a link, Kee and Scott eventually became good acquaintances. They bonded over the South — moonpies, grits and collard greens. Scott and Kee ended up speaking together about reconciliation in one of Wheaton’s chapels.

“Someone asked me once about forgiveness, and I asked, ‘What is there to forgive when people in this country were simply obeying the laws?’” said Kee, “By the time segregation became illegal and civil rights were passed that’s the point you became entitled to be angry.”

Kee said that she is more grateful than angry now. We no longer live in a time where the slogan “white is always right” is thrown around — or at least that’s what she hopes. Growing up as a black woman is like “looking through a looking glass,” Kee said. “You will be able to recount it but not relive it.”

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