You know, I'm 95 and I know what I'm talking about. | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

You know, I'm 95 and I know what I'm talking about. 

A Conversation With Marjorie Stewart Joyner, Who Has Been Almost Everywhere and Met Almost Everyone

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Marjorie Stewart Joyner is seated at her desk in the Chicago Defender offices, sipping on a glass of RC. A young man keeps coming over to ask if she needs anything, if he can be of any help. Each time she smiles and refuses. But the third time he comes over, she turns to me and says, "I think they worry too much about me. I've been around long enough so that I can take care of myself."

Joyner, a Chicago fixture since the beginning of this century, is chairwoman of the Chicago Defender Charities and a noted figure in accounts of the civil-rights movement of the 50s and 60s. She chaired the women's division of the Democratic National Campaign Committee for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and gained fame in the early part of this century as a pioneer in the business of beauty culture.

She's been practically everywhere and met practically everyone. In her desk she keeps pictures of herself standing next to Richard J. and Richard M. Daley, another with John F. Kennedy, another with Eleanor Roosevelt. She pauses to show me a picture of the late mayor Richard J. Daley and says "I knew this young man very well."

Born in 1896 in Virginia, Joyner moved to Chicago in 1912 and met Madame C.J. Walker, the cosmetician widely acknowledged as the first black woman millionaire; she made her money off a formula she designed to straighten hair. Joyner, who opened her own beauty salon in 1916 on South State Street, became vice president of the Madame C.J. Walker beauty school chain after Walker's death and traveled around the world training salespeople in cosmetic products and teaching classes in beauty culture.

In her travels she encountered Mary McLeod Bethune, who with Joyner's help, and Eleanor Roosevelt's, founded Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Florida. Joyner is still a trustee. Locally she has also worked for the Bud Billiken Parade, Provident Hospital, and the Cosmopolitan Community Church.

Now 95 years old and the subject of an exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, Joyner still comes to work every day raising funds for the Chicago Defender Charities. Though she is not as active as she used to be and sometimes needs people to assist her, her mind is still sharp and fresh and, as she says, she can take care of herself.

Famous names fly off the tip of her tongue. She fondly recalls the times she coiffed the likes of Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, and Billie Holiday. She speaks glowingly of Robert Abbott, the founder of the Chicago Defender, and his nephew John Sengstacke, who later took over the paper. She still travels around the country to speak at beauty conventions and at colleges about the need for black-history education in America. And she recently donated 95 years' worth of collected items to the Carter Woodson branch of the Chicago Public Library. Of course, she knew Carter Woodson too.

Adam Langer: I was talking to the people at the Woodson Library, and they say you've given them so much material from your house that they're having trouble going through all of it.

Marjorie Stewart Joyner: Oh yes. It was too valuable to throw it away. And, I know that if something happened to me, my kids would throw that stuff in the alley. I had plaques on all four walls of my house and just as many stacked up as put up. You can just imagine how much I've accumulated by traveling all over this country and foreign countries. I don't know why I kept all the stuff I did, but now I'm glad I did. I told the people at the library that since I had brought Carter Woodson to Chicago when he first came here, I figured I should give what I had to the Woodson Library. . . . When the Smithsonian Institution heard about my travels with the Madame Walker Company and with Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt, they asked me about what I had and I realized that it was good that I kept everything so there would be a record for young people to study. There is such a need for the history to be kept in some kind of way by somebody, not necessarily me. I just happened to be the one.

AL: You've collected a great many materials regarding the history of Chicago.

MSJ: Sure. Everything that has gone on in this town in the past 73 years I've taken a part in by being a businesswoman. In business there are people you work with and people you want to contact. You have to get in touch with a lot of people. You have something you want them to hear or something you want them to see or something you want them to buy. You have a reason why you want to get in touch with a lot of people. And Madame Walker of the Walker Company was the first woman to invent products to take the usual kink out of black people's hair because sometimes the kink is so tight you can't even get a comb through it. There had to be something to take the snarls out of combing hair and this product she had softened that hair and she invented a comb that could be heated and could help to straighten the hair. She showed me how. I was the first one she ever employed and then, when I'd been working for her for a while, traveling around the country for Madame C.J. Walker, that's how I got to meet so many people and learn about so many different kinds of things--all from this business of straightening hair.

AL: You yourself invented devices for hair care as well.

MSJ: Right. A permanent-wave machine. The method Madame C.J. Walker taught me was slow. It was piece by piece by piece and I naturally saw a need for something that could hasten the procedure or make it easier than one step at a time. If you could wrap the hair in six or eight different sections and apply heat at one time and inside of ten minutes you had what you would have had if you had stood there for over an hour using her method. That's how I came to invent the permanent-wave machine. I still hold all the patents and everything.

AL: Did your machine ever get placed on the market?

MSJ: No, it did not. It did not. I used it, but I didn't put it on the market because I didn't have the money. And nobody in the business at that time wanted anything that would take away their method and push mine because maybe their method was slower, but at the same time it was their method. Mine was faster, but since it belonged to me, they didn't want it.

AL: So you only made one of these machines?

MSJ: Well, my nephew and my cousin and myself, we made up two or three of them as best we could and I used them until I got more involved in the schooling aspect of this business, teaching rather than staying in the shop. I could only do one or the other.

AL: You opened your beauty salon in the 20s on State Street.

MSJ: In 1929. I went into the beauty business in 1916 because that's when Madame Walker employed me. Everybody was starting out back then and everybody was experimenting, trying out new things. Madame Walker's methods were just as new as my methods were with the permanent-wave machine. I remember talking to Mr. Abbott about how he started the Defender because his paper was pretty new back then. He used to go out in the streets and collect the news. He had to come back in and use part of a lady's kitchen to get together the first issue of the Chicago Defender. He'd come back in and write up the news that he had gathered. Then he'd type it up. Then he'd print it up. Then he'd go back out in the street and sell it.

AL: You were influential in helping Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune set up Bethune-Cookman College. How did this association develop?

MSJ: I'm a trustee of the college now. I remember that Dr. Bethune told me that she had been educated by some white missionaries who had given her a chance, so they told her to take what she had learned back to the cotton fields and help black children to read and write. So she got the idea of a school. Isn't it strange how things start? Just from a dotting of an "i." And, Dr. Bethune had people like myself, Eleanor Roosevelt, Procter & Gamble, Lord & Taylor. Madame Walker was a friend of Dr. Bethune and she knew that I could help in reaching people. Everything is a matter of reaching people. By reaching people, other things were created that are now commonplace, the teaching of black history for example. It's not only necessary for the black man to learn his history, but for the white child and the white man and woman to learn the history of the black man. In all public schools the black child learns white history. Why shouldn't the white child learn black history? I think this would make race relations better for all races to know about each other's history. Isn't it strange that race relations affect every aspect of society whether we want it to or not? Understanding different races is either a national necessity or it will become a national war. Just by giving another fellow a chance or food or medicine, you can help the country as a whole whether you think it's right or not. And Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune did a great deal in her own way for people of all races. Had it not been for her who wanted to see the black child get an education like the white child, who wanted to see the black child permitted to school, we would not get as far as we have. I remember when Wallace stood in the door and didn't want to let a black person get in the door of the school. Think of how far we've come since then. I remember Eleanor Roosevelt. She was a white woman, the wife of one of our great presidents, yet she went all over the country and all over the world to try and do away with segregation and things that separated race both financially, physically, and educationally.

AL: You worked alongside Eleanor Roosevelt in an effort to promote the teaching of black history?

MSJ: To me, it's not really black history and white history. Or it shouldn't be. It should just be history, in general, dealing with people to bring an understanding. Understanding can bring about procedures that can help a group of people and not hurt anybody.

AL: You've lived through two world wars, the civil-rights movement, and so on. Have you been able to note truly significant progress in race relations?

MSJ: Oh my yes. My yes. My yes. I've traveled over this country and foreign countries--Paris, Switzerland, London, Rome. Those countries didn't have the segregation we had in America. If I were taking a train to New York, I had to ride in the jim crow part of the train. But one time I'll never forget was when I had to take a train down to Texas for a speaking engagement. I was trying to get down there to be their guest speaker. They told me, "I don't know how you're going to get there because we don't have no jim crow coach on this train." I said, "Well, I've got to be there." They said, "Well, there's no place for you to ride." A nine-car train, no place to ride. No coach for black people to ride. And one of the attendants, we called them Pullman porters in those days, he said, "I know that lady. I know she travels a lot to give speeches and she must be on the train going down there to speak. She wouldn't be going down there just to go down there." He said, "Could she ride in the baggage car? She's got to get down there." They said, "Yes, we'll let her ride in the baggage car." I rode overnight in this baggage car and every time I tried to stretch my feet out, I'd hit a box. It was crowded with baggage in there and boxes. That morning when I got into Texas, I looked back in the car to see if I'd left anything and my attention fell on this box I'd been kicking all night. It was a coffin with a body in it. I said Rosa Parks had her trouble giving up her seat, said she wasn't gonna give up no more seats. I said she should have had to ride all night with a corpse. I sued the railroad company and I won what was at that time a whole lot of money, but by the time I paid the lawyers and everyone else, I only came up with $400.

AL: Did this case lead to changes in railroad policy?

MSJ: Not so much that, but to tell you the truth, I can never tell how one thing will lead to another. Years ago blacks and whites couldn't drink out of the same fountain. You wanted to go to the toilet in the railroad station, there was one toilet for whites and one for blacks. It was unlawful to Mrs. Roosevelt and to Mrs. Bethune. They said, "We're not gonna have this going on anymore. We're just going to take the bull by the horns and stop this segregation." People used to come down to Mrs. Bethune's school to hear the black choir sing. White people wanted to come over and they had to sit on one side. Mrs. Roosevelt and Mrs. Bethune broke that up. And the Ku Klux Klan heard about it. I was there at the time. The Klan said, "If you let black people and white people sit together on this campus, we're going to get together and we're going to burn your school down." I was there. The black men got together on the campus and they said, "Let the Ku Klux Klan come. They'll never remember getting out." They said, "We're not going to stand for this." Mrs. Roosevelt, Mrs. Bethune, and Nelson Rockefeller were helping to stop the segregation, trying to find ways for blacks and whites to live together. You'll never know the long, hard road it's been. It's not all cured yet, but it's practically been done away with. Race relations now are so much better than they used to be. There's been a lot of progress and I'm a living witness to it. You know, I'm 95 years old and I know what I'm talking about. I lived it from the very beginning. Blacks and whites have a lot in common and they envy each other--even on the level of beauty culture, I've seen it. I saw it working with Madame C.J. Walker. Every black person born with this kinky hair could come to see Madame Walker. The whites had straight hair and they wanted waves in it; ours was kinky and we wanted the wave taken out of it. And maybe since we see something in each other that we like, this could lead us to more education about each other. Here I am, 95 years old. I come to work every day. Free. No one pays me to be here. This is a good place for me to hang out to try to continue what Dr. Bethune had started--black education. There's no better way of getting the word around than through a newspaper. Newspapers reach people and people are who I want to reach for job opportunities for the black girl and boy whether it's through beauty culture or education or cooking, washing, or ironing. Just as long as it's a job. I set up black beauty schools to give girls a chance. I'm a living witness of what can be done. We accomplished so much just by Dr. Bethune, Eleanor Roosevelt, and myself working together for the same things. I've seen so many great people in my day and so many great people doing so many great things.

AL: Who springs to mind besides Mrs. Roosevelt and Dr. Bethune?

MSJ: Oh, there are so many. I remember meeting Jack Kennedy, William Dawson, the greatest Democrat. Gus Savage, they call him a fighter. You talk about a fighter, William Dawson was a fighter. I remember Mr. Abbott, who ran the Defender, and John Sengstacke, who came to run the paper after. Mr. Sengstacke was Mr. Abbott's nephew and I remember him coming here right out of high school. I've been here working ever since there's been a Defender. Most of all, I think, I admire Dr. Bethune and I've tried to remain true to her vision. I remember there was an article in the Daytona Times and they said, "Dr. Bethune will never die so long as Marjorie Joyner lives."

AL: And you've outlived them all.

MSJ: It's funny, I go to our beauty conventions as much as I can. The people grow old, but none of them are as old as I am. They say, "Dr. Joyner, I got arthritis, I got this, I got that." I say, "I don't have time for any of that." The Lord has blessed me. My mind is super. I don't forget anything.

AL: Do your children appreciate all that you've done? Are there any who hope to carry on the struggles you've fought?

MSJ: I have one daughter yet living. My husband and my older daughter have both passed on. I have spent 73 years in the beauty business, but I suppose my family has been like most families. You'd think they would be interested, but none of my people are interested in my type of work. My oldest daughter was a public-school teacher and she helped to dress the girls in our family's hair, but she didn't want to make a living out of it. The only things I've done in my life have been with education and with beauty, one way or the other.

AL: I understand you knew Jesse Binga, the man who founded the Binga State Bank, and Anthony Overton, the publisher of the Chicago Bee newspaper and the founder of the Overton Hygienic Manufacturing Company and the Douglas National Bank. These were some of the city's first black businessmen.

MSJ: Oh my, yes. I knew Jesse Binga and I knew all of his beginnings. He worked with people like Mr. Abbott of the Defender. Jesse Binga made 35th Street. He built the Binga building on 35th and State. On that block, there was the Vendome Theatre, the Grand Theatre, the Monogram Theatre. There were places where Louis Armstrong started, places where Duke Ellington would play when he came from New York. Earl Hines used to play around there. Thirty-fifth Street was the mecca, the big place, the big place where black history was made in Chicago. On 33rd Street, there was a business district with the theaters and restaurants. Anthony Overton came here from Kansas City, and he wasn't only a newspaperman, but he was big in cosmetics. He made the first brown powder that black people wore and he made this and many other products. I knew him and his daughters and his wife and I knew all of the musicians. My eldest daughter married a musician. And through her I got to meet Earl Hines and Duke Ellington and everyone else who played there. I remember there was a religious leader named Elijah Thurston who opened up a church on 33rd and State Street. I tell his grandson about him now. I tell him, "You ought to write a book about your grandfather. He dared to go into the Mecca, the center of Chicago's red-light district, and he went and built a church in there." In some way, that's how a lot of churches started. If you see a tavern in Chicago, you're almost certain to see a church next door. They call them storefront churches. The black people who built this city, regardless of what they had, they tried to make it better. There were black banks, black businesses, black and white schools. White people would move away so they wouldn't have to attend school with the black children.

AL: I've heard that there was a lot of rivalry among the black businesspeople, between Jesse Binga and Anthony Overton especially. Was this a very hard-fought rivalry or was it more friendly than accounts suggest?

MSJ: The black people who built businesses in Chicago were all friendly to each other and they even to this day are friendly to each other. I think it's because they all know where they came from and they all had to start with nothing and build from the beginning from nothing. They built great empires and opened up avenues. And the more avenues that are opened, the greater the progress that can be made. The blacks wanted to have businesses just as whites did and they were willing to help each other. You're a young man and you may live to see the day when there's a scarcity of these issues of black and white. I know all about it because I've lived through it. I was born in Virginia, in Monterey, Virginia, and my father and Booker T. Washington worked alongside each other as itinerant teachers. Education has been one of the great needs for the black child and it still is. People take such pride when they see that their son or daughter has graduated from Harvard or Princeton. And now at our school, Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, we have a number of white students. Black and white students want to learn about each other. The younger generation didn't have all that segregation when they were growing up, and they're more open to each other. There's a long way to go, but we've come a long way too.

AL: In Chicago, we've seen a lot of school closings and a lot of people are saying that the closings are either economically or racially motivated. The poorly funded inner-city schools are a lot more likely to be closed than the ones in other more affluent areas. Could this help to reverse some of the progress that you've spoken of?

MSJ: The school closings aren't racially motivated. The schools close because of politics. This is a political town and it always has been. People rob from Paul to help Peter. It's always political and it's getting more political. It will get even more so by this next election.

AL: What do you anticipate will happen in the election?

MSJ: The Democrats will get back in. They're out right now, but they'll be back in. I'm a Democrat. All of the gains that have been made by blacks in this country have been made under the Democratic regime. I've helped all the Democratic presidents from Franklin Delano Roosevelt on down. I helped him in the drive for war bonds and, incidentally, that's how I met his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt. I was in charge of servicemen's center #3 in the war-bonds campaign. That was when Ed Kelly was the mayor. He was a great Democrat. He and Mrs. Kelly and Mrs. Roosevelt and myself all worked together to sell bonds to help our men who were in the service. I never knew anyone to refuse to buy a bond and help our men.

AL: You had the opportunity to work alongside all of our mayors who have been in office during your lifetime. What's been your impression of them?

MSJ: I had the opportunity to work alongside Mayor Washington and he was just as fine a man as they say he was. He was so fair to all races. That's what made him great. He didn't see as much segregation as I had because of the young man he was. He came at a time when a lot of the segregation had been done away with, and had he lived he would have been able to accomplish a lot of things that we all wanted to see accomplished.

AL: Does that suggest that a lot hasn't been accomplished, that a lot of the strides made under the Washington regime have been reversed under Mayor Daley?

MSJ: Oh no. He couldn't erase any of the progress on account of his father. Even if he wanted to, his conscience wouldn't let him do it. I've seen since he's been in office him trying to do the right thing and to do the things that made his father so prominent. Nobody disliked his father. He was on the ball. He was democratic, just, for people, fair to white people and black people. I worked 22 years with Mayor Richard J. Daley. He used to come to my church. He was a great mayor, a great man. I've worked with these people. I know them inside out. They want the same things for everybody. They want the same things for everybody as they want for their own family. That's the kind of people the Daleys are. I told the young man, the mayor, what a great man his father was. He fought as hard for the gentile as he did for the Jew, for the black, for the white, for everybody. I never knew a time when he would stand up for wrong. He put me in mind of Jesse Binga who made 35th Street. He tried to help the black man build things that he knew they needed--restaurants, drugstores, department stores. This goes way back. People back then didn't have the same kinds of prejudices that some of the young punks are showing off now. But, those are just smart-aleck kids, and most civic-minded people, black and white, know that fighting each other doesn't pay. We know that right is right and right don't wrong anybody. We have to help each other. When I want bad luck for you and good luck for myself, uh-uh. No. You reap what you sow in this world. You sow bad seeds for people, don't worry. It'll come back to find you.

AL: What would you say is the greatest thing you've accomplished in your 95 years? What are you most proud of?

MSJ: Me? I haven't accomplished anything yet, but I will. People say, "Dr. Joyner, you've accomplished a lot of things." I say, "No, I haven't. But I know I will." I know one thing. There will never be another Mary McLeod Bethune in this world, but I'm going to try my best to be like her. There will never be another Eleanor Roosevelt in this world, but I'll try my best to be like her. My mother was a housewife. My father married her right out of the classroom and there will never be another woman like her, but I try my best to be like her.

AL: What do you have left to accomplish?

MSJ: I want to be like Dr. Bethune. I want to be known to everybody and I want to know everybody. I've been everyplace except Russia and China. I'd like to go there to see what it's like. I want to be somebody. I don't want to just be a noted name. I want to have what it takes. I started the first black beauty school and now the beauty industry makes millions. I never had that money. I've never had change for a quarter. I've never wanted it. Some people like clothes. I could wear the same thing all the time if it didn't have to go to the cleaners. I don't care anything about worldly things. I don't care anything about furniture, dishes, or anything like that. I don't even have a television. I had one once, but somebody broke into the house and took it. I have a little radio that you probably wouldn't even let into your house because it's so small and old-time. But I don't care about things. Isn't that odd? I don't really know what it is I want to be, but I want to be somebody that's done good things. I wonder what's wrong with me that I'm not like some people who want diamonds and things and dishes and cars.

AL: With the perspective of 95 years, having lived through what you call great progress, how quickly do you see things happening? Does it bother you that things don't happen quickly enough, that progress has taken so much time?

MSJ: I think that things act as quickly as they can under the given circumstances. If people talk about things not happening quickly enough, they've got their nerve when they haven't done one thing to help push it along. If you have a baby and you want it to walk, you have to take some time to get it to stand up and to let it take its first step and then let go and let it try to walk. If you haven't done any of those things to help your child to walk, then you can't complain when it can't take a step. Knowing people as I do and knowing the big people of America, black and white, I think that the progress has moved as quickly as it could have. There hasn't been any particular pressure to move it any quicker. If you want something to move, you have to do something about it. If it isn't moving fast enough, then you should do something about it. Even I who have been pushing, pushing, pushing, I don't even feel that I've done enough.

AL: You feel there's more you could have done?

MSJ: That's right. There's so much I want to do now, but I'm old. My age is against me. At 95 there's very little that I can do without assistance. I say, "Why didn't I think about that in my 50s?" I was so busy with myself. I think if you want something bad enough, then you have to do whatever you can to get it. But, it's harder now. We spoke of Mayor Washington. He saw things that he wanted done, so he set about trying to do them. But life didn't last that long for him. People say why didn't he start earlier? Maybe he didn't have the inclination to start earlier. You have to have a desire and something has to happen to you to make you want to fight to better the condition. Why wait until you're an old man to start something? Look at me. I'm an old woman. I wish I could have seen things long ago as I see them now. I see both sides of the coin now. I know there are always two sides. I used to only see one side, but now I see both. Everything I used to do had to do with this business of straightening out hair, putting wider waves in, bending things to make a quicker wave, streaking hair. Then I started speaking about education, creating schools. Now I can't do enough, but I'm old. I don't think there was any way I could have known all I know now when I was younger. When I was young, I was like most young people I see now. They don't give a care what happens. They don't care about good or bad for black or white. They don't want to be bothered one way or the other. But, that isn't progress. Somebody has to take a stand and somebody has to push the ball along and move it. It ain't going to move itself. Now I see a lot of things I could have done, but I didn't even know about them then. Maybe that's what progress is. I carried the ball so far. Now you have to pick it up and run with it.

AL: You've said that you wanted to be the oldest woman on earth. Is that still one of your goals?

MSJ: It is. Somebody has to be that person and I want to be that somebody. But I still want to be helpful to people. I don't want to be sitting around just as a figure of speech, sitting around having people pity me and pitying myself. I don't want to be sitting in a rocking chair looking out the window. I'm a great believer in God. I don't wake up in the morning and take a drink of water without thanking God for that water. I say God must really be wonderful to invent something like this water. They tell me I have to take six pills a day, two after every meal. I don't eat but two meals a day so I only take four. I say, "I don't care what they say. I've got a mind of my own."

AL: If you had another 95 years with which to work, what other things do you think could be accomplished? If you could, what would you try to achieve?

MSJ: I would like to try some of the opportunities that have been offered to me, but I haven't been able to try because I didn't have the time. I have used every opportunity I have had to be somebody in the 95 years that I have been alive. I could have done better, but I have tried. I still won't let anyone walk on me. And I still don't mind saying exactly what I think. I think the most important thing for everyone is to be truthful to yourself. Every morning I give myself a good going-over to make sure that I'm not lying to myself. It's like that old adage--to thine own self be true so you won't be false to anybody. I don't want you to think I'm anybody other than who I am. I want to be everything I know I am and then some. And, if everyone else will think that way, then things can progress. If I had it to do over again, I guess I'd just live the same life over. I've done as much as I've known how for 95 years. What happens in the next 95 is up to somebody else.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.

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