Ronnie Walker

“One of my instructors, I remember her saying, ‘Integration is good, but it’s maybe going to ruin the black kids.’ I asked her why, and she said, ‘because I’ve never seen any more well-mannered children, than came from down here.’ 

Ronnie Walker, Retired Nurse; Harlan, Kentucky:

“I grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood, and so they say, ‘It takes a village.’ Well, truly it was like that. We had our boundaries, but we also knew that anyone in that neighborhood had the authority to tell us what we could and couldn’t do. I was raised up in that time.

What did I do as a kid? Just like typical child stuff. We played ball. We played in the street. We had a park at the end of our street, but we played ball in the street. Yeah, it was all like the hide and go seek. Fishing. My brother’s the fisherman. I was one of those that I wanted to put my hook in, get the fish out. I didn’t have the patience to really fish. We had family, church. 

I started [high school] in a predominately black school, Rosenwald High School. They integrated in ’63, and they took the first top three grades. I didn’t go into Harlan High School until the 9th grade. That was an experience because I started out at Rosenwald in the 9th grade for one week, and then they said, ‘You’ve got to go to this other school.’ So, they just dropped us down there. We didn’t know anybody. We didn’t know the school. We didn’t know anything.

Because of the way they [integrated], it was sort of scary because we didn’t get to go to the preview [and] didn’t get to tour the school. We didn’t know where our homerooms were, our teachers, or anything like that. It was a culture shock because I went from a school where discipline was one of the number one things, to a school where sometimes, anything goes. It was strange, because some of the things we saw the other kids do, we were like, ‘We would not have been allowed to do that.’ 

One of my instructors, I remember her saying, ‘Integration is good, but it’s maybe going to ruin the black kids.’ I asked her why, and she said, ‘because I’ve never seen any more well-mannered children, than came from down here.’ As years went by I saw what it did do, because they [black students] thought, ‘Well, if they can do that, I can do that.’ Some of the kids that came up after me, they sort of forgot what they were taught.

I come up in a time where you had the black waiting rooms, like at the bus station; there was a black portion where you had to sit in the back of the bus. When you caught the bus, you got in on the middle door and put your money in. When they decided to build another pool, the blacks got the pool on Elm Street, which was actually bigger than the pool that they built that replaced it. So you had kids swimming, black kids swimming over on Elm Street, and then the white kids. 

But you know, there’s things that we did here, that I can tell you in the cities, [or elsewhere] in the south that they would never have done. We had accounts at major department stores. You’d have to try clothes on, [and we would] take them home, look at them and then send them back. My Dad worked at a florist for fifty-five years on account of everybody knew him. We were allowed to go in the restaurants, order our food, but we couldn’t sit down. You had to take it out somewhere. It was so routine that you just never thought about it. 

The one time I ever really experienced true racism, believe it or not, my Dad’s boss would take my brother and me to Knoxville shopping with her. We were little, and we went. It didn’t happen here at Harlan, but we were in a little Volkswagen and we went to the Little Tunnel Inn on Cumberland Gap. She had these two little black boys with her, and there she was going to eat breakfast. We were not allowed to eat breakfast with her in the main dining room. We had to go in the kitchen and sit, and [there was] something instinctively in me [and] I wouldn’t eat. I was like, ‘Why are we here?’ My brother went on and ate, but I wouldn’t eat, because I’m like, ‘She’s there and we’re here.’ I was about six or seven. I was real small, but I still knew it was wrong. 

I went to college, I went to Eastern for two years, and then after I left Eastern, I went to nursing school, and I worked as a practical nurse. I was a practical nurse for about three or four years and the hospital, I worked in Pineville, sent me on to RN school. They had an RN school here at the hospital, The School of Professional Nursing. I was in the next to the last class they had. I worked at the Pineville Hospital for twenty-eight years. Then, I started working at a Social Service agency here in Harlan, called Pathfinders for Independent Living. It helped people with any kind of difficulty or handicap to live independently. I was there until 2014, and it sort of went to the wayside, and so I said, ‘Well, should I retire or what?’ I went to the Social Security, and I said, ‘what’s the difference between that year and the year I was supposed to [retire]? She gave me a money number, and I said, ‘Sign me up. I’m ready to go.' I’ve been busy ever since, though. 

I’ve been associated with [Higher Ground] since the beginning. I’ve been in four plays, and I was in the last one. I didn’t start out to be in Higher Ground. In the first one they had a lot of stories put together, and one of my stories was in the first Higher Ground. I went and saw it, and I thought it was nice. The second Higher Ground, I actually got into it by accident because they heard our church choir sing a song, and they wanted that song in the play. We went and sang the song, and then still I’m like, ‘No.’ [regarding acting in the production] Then, they had a trip to Dahlonega, Georgia and the bug bit me, and I’ve been in it ever since. I love it. I like the challenge of doing something that I’ve never done before. I’m not one of those who always steps outside of their comfort zone, but with Higher Ground, I’m able to do a lot of things. If I do public speaking, I get really, really nervous, but when I’m on stage I don’t. It surprised me. I don’t get nervous, because I’m someone else.

Higher Ground is an outlet to tell people what’s going on here, and offer some solutions through theatre. The first one was about coal mining, [and] also the drugs and the floods. The story that I gave them was when we had floods here, before they built the floodwall. We lived in a different area, and we had five families come to our house. Everybody became a family, and they stayed with us. We had one bathroom, and we had five different families. They got up to go to school, we got to school, we fed them, and they stayed with us for weeks; about twenty-five people in one three-bedroom house. People around here, if they tell the truth, it [the flood] was a good time, because everybody bonded. We knew it was a disaster, but we knew we would survive [and] we’d move on.

I’m a homebody, and anything I want to do, I know I can always go out there and do it and come back home. I love these mountains, and I love the people here. We are family, even with all our difficulties. Like Higher Ground, we have people in Higher Ground that believe in God, [some] don’t believe in God. They love one another, and they have different opinions about different things, but when it comes down to it, we’re family. All in. 

[Hobbies] I like Higher Ground, acting, reading, my church and cooking. I like to try all kinds of new things. I bake cakes, I like to try different pasta dishes, I like to just get recipes and I’ll make it the first time like it says. Then I’m like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to tweak this a bit.’ Just something new; take this out, put this in. My Mom taught all of us to cook. She’d say, ‘you never know. You might have to do it for yourself.’ One of the interesting things is she taught me how to fry chicken. The last years of life, she was an invalid and I had to take care of her. I would fry chicken and she wouldn’t eat my chicken. I’d get her Kentucky Fried Chicken, and she’d eat it all up. One day, I said, ‘Mom, why are you doing that?’ And she says, ‘Because your chicken tastes like mine, and I get tired of my own cooking.’ So she wouldn’t eat my chicken, because it tasted exactly hers. (Laughs)

We’re [Appalachians] so misunderstood. Sometimes you get people to come in here, and they already had that stereotype in their head, so that’s what they go looking for. They’ll find that stereotype. I tell some people, ‘Those people, that’s the way they want to live, and we don’t bother them.’ They fail to look around and see all the other stuff, any of the progress or any happy people. Growing up, I never knew I was poor. We were, but we were so rich in everything else. And I think that’s the difference. [Outsiders], they see us differently. Their eyes are already clouded over before they get here.”