The Foundation for The Gator Nation An Equal Opportunity Institution Samuel Proctor Oral History Program College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Program Director : Dr. Paul Ortiz 241 Pugh Hall Technology Coordinator : Deborah Hendrix PO Box 115215 Gainesville, FL 32611 352 392 7168 352 846 1983 Fax The Samuel Proctor O ral History Program (SPOHP) was founded by Dr. Samuel Proctor at the University of Florida in 1967. Its original projects were collections centered around Florida history with the purpose of preserving eyewitness accounts of economic, social, political, re ligious and intellectual life in Florida and the South. In the 45 years since its inception, SPOHP has collected over 5,000 interviews in its archives. Transcribed interviews are available through SPOHP for use by research scholars, students, journalists and other interested groups. Material is frequently used for theses, dissertations, articles, books, documentaries, museum displays, and a variety of other public uses. As standard oral history practice dictates, SPOHP recommends that researchers refer t o both the transcript and audio of an interview when conducting their work. A selection of interviews are available online here through the UF Digital Collections and the UF Smathers Library system. Oral history interview t ranscripts available on the UF D igital Collections may be in draft or final format. SPOHP transcribers create interview transcripts by listen ing to the ori ginal oral history interview recording and typing a verbatim d ocument of it. The transcript is written with careful attention to refl ect original grammar and word choice of each interviewee; s ubjective or editorial changes are not made to their speech. The draft trans cript can also later undergo a later final edit to ensure accuracy in spelling and format I nterviewees can also provide their own spelli ng corrections SPOHP transcribers refer to the Merriam program specific transcribing style guide, accessible For more information about SPOHP, visit http://oral.histor y.ufl.edu or call the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program office at 352 392 7168. October 2013
MFP 082 Interviewee: Steve Rosenthal Interviewer: Marna Weston Date: September 23, 2011 W: This is Marna Weston from the Sam Proctor Oral History Program in Indianola, Mississippi on September 23, 2011. I'm speaking with the honorable Mayor Steven Rosenthal here in the Indianola Library at the same table where I interviewed Mr. Jim Abbott, where he was given forgiveness by . wow, I just blanked. Ole Miss, the arch James Meredith. They sat in this room and received a rapprochement with each other. I was honored to learn that story. R : That was a great story. W: But back to you. Thank you, Mayor Rosenthal, for the interview. R: Thank you, and look forward to going forward with this interview. W: Terrific. Could you please state and spell clearly your full name? R: Okay. Full name is Steve Rosenthal. That's R o s e n t h al. W: Do you have a middle name? R: Joe. J o e. W: Okay, wow. Is Joe a family name? R: Yes, yes. Typically, in the Jewish way of doing things, I was named after my grandfather, who was a Joseph. I named my son after his grandfather, and my father was named after his grandfather. Typically, we name after people who are deceased. W: It was interesting. The reason I stopped with a name like Marna, you put a lot meaning in names. Joe, I was going, wow, what a noble simplicity. Joe to go with Steven Rosenthal, so I was curious as to the derivation. Thank you for sharing that. What is your date of birth?
MFP 082; Rosenthal ; Page 2 ! R: April 28, 1952. W: Where were you born? R: I was born right here in the city of Indianola. W: Okay. Now, wer e you born in a hospital or were you born at home? R: I was born in the local little hospital. At that time, it was the county hospital. Now, there's actually two county hospitals, but I was born in our local hospital. W: What is the name of the hospital ? R: South Sunflower County Hospital. W: Okay. If you could give a little information about your mom and dad, who are they? If you can recall their dates of birth, that's great, but otherwise, just their names. R: Okay. My mother was Rae. Her maiden name was Fried, F r i e d. Her dad was a stowaway on a ship from Lithuania back in 1908, 1909. Came to the United States as a n apprentice tailor and came into the Port of New Orleans. The rest of his family had already left Lithuania, and they came in in N ew York. So, the citizens of that little community which no longer exist, after the Holocaust sent him over here because he had no family in that community. Came in, set up a little shop in Port Gibson for a year or two, and decided to come on a little fur ther inland and end up in Indianola in 1913, where he opened up a small tailor shop, which later grew into the local family department store that was continuously run by our family up until 2002. Then, my father was David Rosenthal, and his family I don't know exactly what European area his father came from, but his father and mother came to this United States and his mother passed away from
MFP 082; Rosenthal ; Page 3 ! pneumonia when she was twenty one. But my father was raised in Memphis and my mother and father met in Memphis, marri ed, and my grandfather's business had a fire. My mother and father moved back to help my grandfather re open the business and opened up staying. That was in 1947, I believe. Then I took over the store in the late 70s and ran it till 2002, so, we were t hree generations in that business, downtown Indianola, serving the citizens of Indianola. W: Is the business still running? R: No, it is not. We had a fire in early 2001. I re opened, but during the time we were closed, we lost one of our major employers Modern Line, which was a manufac turing facility. Lewis Grocery had cut their manpower in half. So, economically, it probably was not a good decision to re open, but I reinvested about half a million dollars to re open. The community was really struggling from the loss of all that employment, and we're still recovering from those losses from 2002. W: But you felt the strong community ties justified that reinvestment at the time? R: I did. I did. You know, my grandfather, through those struggles all those years, started that business. My father grew it and I continued to grow it. It was a need that Indianola had, because Wal Mart can't service everybody. You know? As much as it benefits our community with sales tax and stuff, it really hurts that personal, local service that you get from independent local retailers. It is really hard to compete with someone like Wal Mart. So, I really felt like I really needed to try to offer those things that Wal Mart could not.
MFP 082; Rosenthal ; Page 4 ! W: You have such a strong sense, if you don't mind my saying, of family. You began with this story of your grandfather being a stowaway, and then you talked about your commitment with three generations. If we can go back and just dot some of the i's and cross some of the t's, what was your grand father's name on your mother's side? R: On my mother's side, his name was Ben Fried, and the store was called Ben Fried's Department Store. As I mentioned earlier in the interview, my son was named after my grandfather. He is a Benjamin. But . it was commitment that my grandfather had with this community, starting in 1913. My father was strongly committed, and especially with the minority citizens of our community. We were a middle of the road department store. We were not high end. We dealt with just the general population. Of course, everybody was our customer, but the common man was the meat and potatoes of our business. So, our association with both the black and white community was very strong, and . our family have been involved, from day one, with building up our community which, as I profess now, in my leadership of mayor, is that the only way you can improve your community is to bring up the lower part of our citizenry. Because that's the only way the community is going to improve, is when e verybody comes up and the lowest end is the ones that need the most help, and that's where I feel like my calling is, is to try to bring those who need it the most. W: If the river rises, all boats float. R: Exactly, exactly. Got to bring in all of them.
MFP 082; Rosenthal ; Page 5 ! W: Mm hm. You also mentioned, concerning your father, that his mother passed away. What was her name? R: Her name was Sara, and I have a couple cousins named Sara. She died at an early age. He had a step mother. Then, soon after his father remarried al most two years after his father remarried, his father passed away. W: What was his name? R: His name was Joseph. W: Oh, that's right. R: So, my father kind of had a roving family life in the sense that he got moved with aunts and uncles, because he rea lly had no blood relative mother, blood relative father although he had mothers and fathers, but his blood relative father and mother had passed. And his relationship to his step brothers and step sisters was so strong, and my father was family was the cen ter of everything. Again, that's part of what I try to profess as mayor, is, if we have good families, then we're going to have good citizens. Unfortunately, at this time, I don't see it to be as strong as it should be. I think it's one of our biggest prob lems, when it comes to education, when it comes to social life, when it comes to just anything that goes on in our community, is from the lack of family. But I feel like I learned it from my father, and also from my grandfather, but probably more strongly from my father, that family really is the center of everything. W: Do you have any knowledge of your family beyond your grandparents? Their parents?
MFP 082; Rosenthal ; Page 6 ! R: No, I do not. Unfortunately, prior and after the Holocaust, pretty much all of those records are lost. I just know the little bit about my grandfather coming over as a stowaway in Lithuania. One of his proudest documents that he had was that, his naturalization papers, where he travelled and studied and went to St. Louis and passed the paperwork, getting h im to become a naturalized citizen of the United States. When our store burned in 2001, more than anything, I was afraid of our loss was that document. It was in the safe. Luckily, there were some documents we just had an old, you know, the business had be en there since 1913, so everything in the building was old. The safe we were using was a safe that we bought, that was used. It was not one of these newer, fire proof safes, but luckily, most of the items in that safe survived. Not everything, but that was one document that did survive, was his naturalization papers. You know, in reading the document, it was amazing. You had to denounce your allegiance to the tsar of Russia Prussia, I think, it actually says on the document. He was proud of that document, t hat he was an equal citizen to everybody else in this country because of what he had done to become a citizen. W: Do you think that some of that hast been lost? Because, I think people today, we listen to Lee Greenwood and we're proud to be Americans, how deep does it run past the surface? Do you think that something is missing? R: Definitely, definitely. It's like you say, when you hear that song, you stand up proud and you get a little teary eyed and your heart speeds up, but the minute the song ends, t hen we tend to forget what this country does and can do for us all. Of course, when I say, for us all, it takes us all to make this country what it is.
MFP 082; Rosenthal ; Page 7 ! But, you know, I think absolutely a lot of that pride in America and, you know, generations prior to you and I really took it to heart. I do think that, when we look at immigration, I know when my grandfather came to this country on both my parents' side they didn't speak English, but there was no question, when you came over, you became part of. The country didn't adjust to you; you adjusted to America. You became American. Nobody expected this country to change to you. Unfortunately, I see a lot of demands and I do think we need to welcome with open arms. I think an open immigration policy is a good policy. But then, for us to change our ways to cater . I mean, I think the groups that are coming in should see that the reason they came is because we're a wonderful country and we are a land of opportunity. But, if we keep changing it to fit all those diffe rent ways, then we won't be what we were. I think what we were, and should stay, is a land of opportunity. W: Freedom isn't free, and the minimal cost for you is at least, learn English and the way America works as it does. R: Exactly, exactly. W: Commonality. R: Exactly. It brings us all together. When we start adjusting too much, then we lose that commonality, and we lose that central focus that we are unified. You know? Whether you're a naturalized citizen or whether you were born here. But I th ink we've kind of relaxed the requirements of becoming an American. I mean, they and meaning immigrants of whatever country need to say, this is a wonderful place, I need to be part of it, rather than they being part of me. You know.
MFP 082; Rosenthal ; Page 8 ! Because it does get bl ended, eventually, but you got to get involved with it beforehand. W: Do you have brothers and sisters? R: I do. I have an older sister who lives in Chattanooga. She runs a medical facility there. W: What is her name? R: Gail. Gail. Which is named afte r my father's mother. Her name was Gitel, and the English translation, you know, the nearest name to be similar with Gail, and that's what my sister was named after, her grandmother on my father's side. My brother's name is Chuck Charles and his middle nam e is Edward, which was my grandfather on my father's side's middle name. So, again, as tradition has it, we named in honor of people who are past. My brother is an optometrist in Chattanooga, Tennessee, also. I am really the last family member here in Indi anola. When I ran for office, I won't say I was doing it for personal reasons, but I was doing it for my community, not thinking I had any family left here. Since I've run and been elected, my son has moved back to Indianola, and he's the IT Director at So uth Sunflower County Hospital. My daughter, who is finishing at Mississippi State this year, planning to go into medicine as her plans are today of course, that's a long way in the future is that she's going to be a pediatrician and come back to Indianola to serve the citizens of Indianola. W: What are their names, your children? R: My son is Benjamin, named after my grandfather. My daughter's name is Rachel, which is named after my mother, which was Rae. So, again, keeping that
MFP 082; Rosenthal ; Page 9 ! tradition going. My son, a lso, his first name is John. He was named after his grandfather on his mother's side. W: And are you married? R: I am divorced. I am single at this time. W: Okay. How long were you married previously? R: I was married twenty two years. Twenty two years. Still have a good relationship, hope to have grandchildren with my former wife. We still have a good relationship. W: Marvelous. Can you tell me about your education? What is your earliest memory of going t o school or being educated? R: Well, I can remember two strong things, you know, back in my era of education. The kindergarten that I attended was just a local lady who ran this little kindergarten, which was cutting through somebody's back yard from my h ouse. So, after I got going to kindergarten, I basically walked out my front door and walked through somebody's backyard and I was at kindergarten. I can remember kindergarten being A, B, C's and 1, 2, 3's and that was about the extent of education part of kindergarten. It was mainly fun and playing and coloring and stuff. Then, the next year, the hard work started at elementary school, which was three houses down. So, again, I continued to walk to school. Up until the fifth grade, I walked to school. W: W hat was the name of your elementary school? R: Lockard Elementary, which is still there. Of course, we think in the . theme of progress and improvement, the structure was torn down. It was a beautiful, old
MFP 082; Rosenthal ; Page 10 ! two story building; hardwood floors, which no w, looking back, should have been saved and redone, rather than demolished, because now we've got a little, single story block building with a flat roof that has no architectural significance whatsoever. Again, it still does good work on educating our chil dren, but the fact of seeing that massive structure that was there, to me, showed in itself the importance of education. When you look at the structure now, you think, well, they didn't think a whole lot about education if they built that building. In my m ind, you know, that's looking at it with that old structure. I can remember it was an old, two story building, and off the one side of it, it had a fire escape, which was probably a four foot round tube that came off from the second floor. It was at the en d of the hall and we all did fire drills. Part of the training was that we all lined up and, rather than trying to go down the stairs because, odds are, if there was a fire, the fire was downstairs you ran to the end of the hall, and everybody got to slide So, we were all excited when we got to do fire drills, because that was the only time that the door to that little chute, slide, was open. We'd all go slide down the fire escape. So, we all looked forward to the fire drills 'cause we got to slide down th e slide. W: Mm hm. Do you recall your principal's name? R: I know the superintendent was Mr. Reno, and I believe the principal's name was Floyd, but I'm not sure of that. W: Did you have a favorite teacher or a favorite subject in elementary school? R: Oh, favorite subject. Probably math. In elementary, we had one teacher. You know, you didn't change classes until you
MFP 082; Rosenthal ; Page 11 ! W: Homeroom. R: Homeroom, exactly. But one of my favorite teachers was Mrs. Allen. She was an English teacher, and I still visit and t alk with her. She has since moved, and her husband was an attorney who has since passed away. She moved to Jackson. But, still, run in to visit with her when I'm in that area. But I had some good teachers, a lot of committed educators. When I look back, wh o really showed the importance of education, I was fortunate that both my mother and father realized the importance of education and stressed how doing well in school would make your life easier. You know? It was never, oh, you'll get rich and famous if yo u finish school. It will make your life easier, being educated, and it will get you to the next level, was their whole theme on education. It wasn't . but it wasn't that it was going to make you rich. W: Although, comparatively, it does. R: It does, it does. But that was not their thing. Their thing was, you have to have it, and that the world's changing. You know, even then, they saw that, if you're standing still, the world's going to pass you by, and you have to do something to stay ahead to get a head. So, they really pushed. My father, a story about my father growing up in Memphis: he grew up on Beale Street, downtown Memphis, which is now one of the big tourist areas of Memphis. But he grew up as an apprentice, a tailor. His father was a cobbler; ran a shoe shop. But he worked as a tailor and later as a salesperson, with Julius Lewis and Lowenstein's and some of the big department stores there in Memphis, and lived down on Beale. But, when he was in the sixth grade, swimming in a local, public swi mming facility,
MFP 082; Rosenthal ; Page 12 ! someone dove in on top of him and it burst one of his eardrums and damaged the other. So, he was deaf for two years. Well, he dropped out of school in the sixth grade. Finally, two years later, he was able to get hearing back in one year. Y ou know? The science then was, they lanced the ear to let it drain. Of course, it burst his eardrum by them lancing his ear, so that one never recovered. Growing up, my father always had gotten in his ear because it always drained. But, with that said, he didn't get past the sixth grade. But, so, he was pretty much self taught, and, through the help of cousins and aunts and uncles, he became somewhat educated. He loved to read. I mean, he constantly read. I can remember my father unfortunately, he was a hea vy smoker, and that was part of his demise but I can remember growing up at night and hearing him cough because he was sitting up, reading. You know? I'm sure, two or three o'clock in the morning, he was always reading. Even in his later life. He passed at 73; always read. But, if he said that formal education is the key, but don't think that's the only way you learn. You know? You can learn in that and I think he would be excited now, with iPads and internet and I think my father would have really because, at his passing, a lot of that stuff was not as big as it is now he would have loved to be able to sit with the Amazon reader or something like that and be able to go through a whole library of books right there in front of him. I mean, he would have just loved to have been able to have that ability. W: Did you have chores when you were growing up? R: Absolutely. It was a requirement. Matter of fact, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, one of my jobs was to walk down the store, which, we were two blocks
MFP 082; Rosenthal ; Page 13 ! we lived two blocks from the store. After school, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I went and washed the windows, swept the floor. One of the things we would do in those times is that, when we got ready to close the store and, again, you have to visualize, th is is an old, family department store W: Could you hold this? I'm going to close the door. You keep telling your story. R: Yeah. Rows and rows of counters with the merchandise just stacked. Like, if you had slacks, you'd have thirty or forty stacks of p ants on top of one another. The merchandise wasn't marketed like it is what the younger generation visualizes now, with all the fancy mannequins and displays and stuff. It was counter after counter of merchandise, stacked one on top of another. So, at five o'clock, when we got ready to close, we would take this canvas cloth and lay it across all the merchandise. Then, we would take this oiled sawdust and throw it out on the floor. That would keep the dust down in the evening and stuff. Then, first thing whe n we'd open up in the morning, we would roll that canvas off the merchandise after we had swept the floor. Because that old sawdust kept the dust from rising as you swept it, you know. So, you didn't just sweep the floor. Of course, we didn't use a vacuum cleaner because, again, that would stir up dust. Every day, when we would open up, certain types of merchandise we'd put out in front of the store, so when people would walk by, they'd see you had a certain brand of shoe. Again, we had showcase windows, bu t we would put some stuff out in the front so people would see it, touch it, would . you know. Again, that was just the way business was done. We were not the only store, and we were probably one of
MFP 082; Rosenthal ; Page 14 ! the last stores to quit. [Laughter] We still kept tho se, oh, my grandfather was convinced that was the only way to do business. W: The personal touch. R: The personal touch. W: What did doing those chores teach you? What kind of lessons did you learn from those responsibilities? R: Well, one, that they' re all responsibilities. That we all are responsible to everybody else. You know? It wasn't that I was doing it for myself. It was because my family needed it done to assist them. We didn't just hire somebody out to do that; that was one of my responsibili ties, to assist the family. Then, it also kind of taught you respect. That you got out there and did that, one, to help everybody, but to do a good job and to show that you respected the need of the family. I think those little things, like the chores agai n, we never thought about allowance or getting paid. It was later in life, all of our friends talked about allowances and stuff. That was kind of foreign to us, my brothers and sisters. We were like, what did you do to earn that allowance? What do you mean allowance? [Laughter] Oh, a lot of my friends, well, we get ten dollars a week. Well, what'd you do for the ten dollars a week? You know? We didn't expect anything to be given. We all and when I say all, both my brother and sister we learned that you ear ned it. A funny little story on my grandfather, Mr. Fried, he also didn't believe in just giving. I can remember in the back of the store, which is where his office was, and it was really just the stockroom. There was no office. [Laughter] But it was an ol d, roughly built desk that I'm sure came out of some
MFP 082; Rosenthal ; Page 15 ! warehouse in our community, because it was old when I was a child. So, I know and I know my grandfather, he bought it used from somebody somewhere. But it did stand up real tall, and he didn't sit in a c hair, he sat on a stool. You know? That was up high. It had a slanted front, but it was up off the ground real high. I can remember, every time when we'd go back there, my grandfather'd be sitting there, doing something at the thing, and he'd go, you know, I think I dropped some money. Why don't you see if you could find it? You know. And it never fell. We'd crawl up under there and there'd be a nickel, dime, quarter. As we got older, there might be a dollar. W: You had to work for it. [Laughter] R: And, a s we got older, we knew he wasn't that clumsy. He'd put it . but he didn't want to hand it to us. He didn't want to give it to us. He wanted to do a little something to find it under there and work for it. W: What a valuable gift, yeah. R: You know, when I look at it, it was such a simple gesture. But it meant a lot. You look back on those things, and it taught you something. Who would ever . ? But that was the way he was. W: Mm hm. So, you left elementary school. What was the next stage of your education? Was it a middle school? Was it high school? R: No. At that time, unfortunately, I was in school as a high school student during the mid 60s. So, during the time of the civil rights movement and stuff. I graduated high school in 1970, so my junior high and high school time was when Meredith was working to get at Ole Miss and some of the Freedom Riders and
MFP 082; Rosenthal ; Page 16 ! the things going on. So, I was young in that era, but old enough to understand and see what was going on. Matter of fact, my brother was be ing bar mitzvahed the weekend that Martin Luther K ing was murdered. The synagogue that we attended was in Greenwood, Mississippi. I can remember going to his bar mitzvah on that Friday night. We had to go from Indianola to Greenwood, which meant we drove p ast Mississippi Valley. Everybody concerned that there was going to be unrest riding past Mississippi Valley, because this was within a day of Martin Luther King being murdered. Of course, fortunately, there was no problems at that thing, but there was unr est all around the Delta, and rightfully so. But I can remember, that was part of my era But, to answer your question, I went from elementary to the high school, which, junior high and the high school were together. W: What was the name of that school? R: Indianola High School. You know, at that time, we did have separate schools. W: So, six through twelve was high school. R: Exactly, exactly. But then, in the black community, there was Gentry, which was their matching system. But I can remember going and, of course, that was the big change, from homeroom to going to separate classes and having separate teachers for each class. Of course, by that time, my sister was driving, so she drove. She and I drove. My younger brother was still in elementary, but she and I drove to high school. By the time she graduated, I was driving, and my brother and I drove. But high school was a big change for me. Again, I'm growing up in a
MFP 082; Rosenthal ; Page 17 ! community that I'm also part of a minority because I'm Jewish. So, I was not . I won't say I was not accepted. That's not true. You know, I was accepted. W: But you weren't popular. You were noted because you were different. R: Exactly, exactly. So, I wasn't in with the in crowd and, to be honest, I could have cared less. But there w as always new there was a little differentiation, you know. There were social clubs and stuff that I was not invited to. I won't say I was excluded from, because I had a young lady, Jewish friend, who was involved with all those things. She and her parents pushed to be involved with those things. W: If you had sought it out and been acceptable to the, even the minor ridicule, you probably would have been okay, but you weren't interested. R: I wasn't interested, right. So, I won't say that, because I was Jewish, I was excluded, but it would have had to have taken a strong effort. I wasn't invited, and I don't think the other few Jewish people in town were overly invited. Now, again, if you pushed and wanted to be, you probably could get invited. But, again that was not in my interest. It didn't matter to me. W: Would you say that that characterized being Jewish in the Delta, or and I don't want to put words in your mouth, but the way you describe it so apropos: we could have pushed for it, but we really w eren't interested. R: Right. W: What was it like being Jewish here? R: Yeah. And you're not putting words in my mouth. I do agree with that, that . and there were a few Jewish young people who had that need to be part of, who pushed to do. Of course there was anti Semitism, you know. My grandfather and
MFP 082; Rosenthal ; Page 18 ! father both, their comments were that, if they have something against blacks, then odds are, they have something against you. So, just be aware. You know? They didn't say, always look for it. But they said, you need to be aware that . if there is . trying to think of the correct word. Not if they're a racist, but if they're against one group, they're probably against you as a group, as well. You know? To look at it that way. I was proud to be J ewish, and my father and my grandfather as well. But, coming from my grandfather on my mother's side because I didn't really know my grandfather on my father's side; he had passed when I was born but my grandfather used to get a Yiddish newspaper out of Ne w York. Came once a week. It was basically written in Hebrew/Yiddish. Yiddish is more of a slang language. But it came once a week; brown wrapper, came through the mail. I can remember, once a month, my grandfather would get it and read it and then he'd st ick it in the corner. Once a month, we'd go in the backyard and burn it, because my grandfather, knowing what was going on in Europe at that time luckily, when he left, a lot of that was not big. You know, it was going on when he left, but not until Hitler came into power was it overtly anti Semitic. But, he knowing what was going on at the time, he didn't want he was afraid that, if somebody saw that document, and it's in another language W: A stigma. R: A stigma. So he, out of fear, would burn it. W: Now, I've heard Yiddish, because I'm from South Florida. So, I went to school with many Jewish people in Palm Beach. But I don't know, is Yiddish is it in German alphabet or is it Hebrew alphabet?
MFP 082; Rosenthal ; Page 19 ! R: It's my understanding and, again, it's one of those thi ngs that's lost, being in an area where there's so few Jews but it's more of a spoken language. But it's a slang language. It is a strong derivative from German, so it's more German oriented, but it's got Hebrew slang words mixed it. It's got a lot of Euro pean dialects tied together. It is a . W: It's added a lot to our language, I mean . R: Oh, yeah, yeah. W: We know what a putz is. [Laughter] R: Yeah, and other ones that we can't but, you know, when you look at some of the early comedy sketch es, back from vaudeville and from the Catskills, and then later on, onto Broadway, and then into the movies, a lot of the early arts and music W: And comedy, yeah. R: were all done by European Jews coming over. So, you're right, all of those slang word s and a lot of people don't realize that that is the derivative of it, is from Yiddish. But the newspaper was called The Forward and it came out of New York. I'm not sure, but I think it's actually still in print. So, but I'm not sure of that. Of course, I 'm sure, if it is still in print, it's probably a good it's a mixed, it's probably not, look at our prayer books now. Growing up in an Orthodox synagogue, which unfortunately is no longer active, our prayer books were all Hebrew. Now, I belong to a Reform temple, and it's Hebrew translation and transliteration, to where, if you don't read Hebrew, you can say the Hebrew prayers in Hebrew, but it's converted to an Engl ish transliteration. So,
MFP 082; Rosenthal ; Page 20 ! unfortunately, certain traditions and stuff get lost because the young . especially as you come to the South, and there's no . as my mother always said, if you're going to be Jewish, you're going to have to work at it if you'r e going to live in the South. Go ahead. W: What were the names of the friends in your group? R: One was John Rushing, who has since become a well known horticulturalist; has probably fifteen, sixteen books, syndicated radio and newspaper columnist. He go es by the name of Felder Rushing now. W: I met him, last time I was in Indianola. Dr. Davis introduced me to him over at the King Center. R: Okay. He and I were, like I say he and I, and a young man named David Key, who became an architect, also in Jackso n. Felder is in Jackson, as well. W: Felder's a cut up, by the way. [Laughter] R: That he is, that he is. He is a character, and he comes by it naturally. His father was straight laced, a strong Marine background, military background, but his mama was a cut up, too. [Laughter] I mean she, by far, was my second mother. So, but John and I and David Key, if you saw one of us, you saw the other two. I mean, we did things together. John was in the band when he graduated high school. He went on to be in the Nav y band and travelled there. David and I left and went on to college, and I got an engineering degree and he got an architectural degree. W: When you left Indianola, did you go immediately to school? Where did you go?
MFP 082; Rosenthal ; Page 21 ! R: I did, immediately to school. Went to, at that time, was Memphis State, now the University of Memphis. My father grew up in Memphis, so he had half brothers or step brothers and sisters there in Memphis. Being in the retail business, growing up, the regional markets were always held in Mem phis. So, I grew up going to Memphis, because we would go to the Peabody. That's where all the regional markets were held, in the mezzanine area of the Peabody. In those days, the salesmen would all come and get a hotel room, and you went into their hotel room, and that was their mobile showroom. So, there'd be fifty, seventy five salespeople there at the Peabody. So, I grew up going to the Peabody, and it was in the 70s, when the Peabody was closed, and I would go down there, and it was just in . i t's in such disrepair and boarded up. It was really saddened to see such a magnificent architectural structure in downtown Memphis to be allowed to fall apart. I was so excited, as I graduated college, that the Bells family in Memphis bought it and redid i t and brought it back to its old grandeur. It is a wonderful, wonderful attraction for downtown Memphis now. W: Mm hm. What are your thoughts on Memphis? You having gone to school there, been through there with your family, business wise. King was killed there in 68, of course. There's a very large Southern and African American population there. It has a lot of tradition with the blues and things like that. What do you think about the town and its past, its future? What are your reflections? R: Well, I'm excited to know what's going on in Memphis. You're right, it's had a lot of struggles. You know, I do remember the times that Martin Luther King was there, prior to his murder, and then, when he was murdered, and what was going
MFP 082; Rosenthal ; Page 22 ! on in downtown Memphis, because the times I went to Memphis was always to downtown Memphis. So, I was familiar with where his murder happened, and the relationship of the community down there. But I'm excited to see that it is changing and, as a majority, changing for the positiv e. Indianola, through its connections with B.B. King and the blues, has a tie to Memphis. B.B. King, that was where he got his name and, working with WDIE there in Memphis. I'm glad to see that B.B. has such a fond memory of growing up here in Indianola, b ecause he is probably our best ambassador to what Indianola was and what it can be and what it is today. I mean, because I think B.B. and I've had a strong relationship with B.B. and what's gone on through the years. Matter of fact, Carver Randle, Senior, who's a local attorney, myself, and two other local citizens, were the instigator in starting the annual homecoming event. Now, B.B. was coming back prior to our doing it, but this was a almost thirty years ago when we really started what we were calling t he Annual B.B. King Homecoming. Like I say, he'd come and perform prior to that, but that was the first big, heavily marketed promotion for B.B. to come back to Indianola. But, back to your original question, you know, my ties to Memphis went with, on my f ather's side of the family. And, you know, in the Jewish population there. When I went to school, I was amazed because I'd never been around so many Jews. Because W: More than the one or two here. [Laughter] R: Exactly, exactly. You know, my Sunday scho ol class from when we would go to Sunday school, from kindergarten to high school students, might have been twelve people. I mean, from that whole age bracket. That was the extent of the
MFP 082; Rosenthal ; Page 23 ! youth, young youth, of Jewish Orthodox. Now, there was a Reform templ e in Greenville; that was a larger congregation. But I grew up in an Orthodox congregation which, as I tell people especially Jewish people I say, I was Southern Orthodox. [Laughter] There's a difference, there's a difference. Once course, you know, in the Orthodox part of the Jewish religion, the women sit on one side of the synagogue and the men on the other side. You know? As time progressed and, growing up, there was a left side of the congregation, the right side of the congregation, there was a center We still had the men on one side, ladies on the other, but, as I grew up, tended to be family in the middle. So, again, that's Southern Orthodox. [Laughter] But I remember going to Memphis and Memphis had the largest Orthodox synagogue in the country. Yo u know, in New York and some of the other heavily populated Jewish centers centers, not sinners, centers it was a whole neighborhood of Orthodox synagogues, because, on the Sabbath, you walked. You did not drive. You did not do manual labor of some type. S o, you walked to the synagogue. Well, in Memphis, being still the rural South, they had a congregation that had three or four hundred families, which was unheard of in New York. It might have fifty families, twenty five families. But I can remember going a nd just amazed, when I went and sat in that synagogue, which was a beautiful, beautiful structure, that the downstairs were for the men and all the women sat upstairs. On High Holy Days, there were probably three or four hundred gentlemen downstairs, and w ith an equal amount of women and the children upstairs. So, I mean, it was an awakening for me that I was not in such a small minority that we may have still been a minority, but
MFP 082; Rosenthal ; Page 24 ! there more of us than I really comprehended. It was a strong awakening when I got there. W: It must have filled you with a sense of pride in the tradition, the learnings. This is where it paid off. It was like, oh, my gosh, my family is right. R: Exactly, exactly that. And I was amazed that the teachings that I got in my Sunday school, that was done by lay people, and we had, growing up, only a short while did we have a full time rabbi. After that, we had a rabbi that came in every weekend from Memphis. We didn't have a full time rabbi to see that my teachings, and the teachings that these young Jewish people got in this massive, well organized, well structured synagogue, was the same. Hey, I knew what they knew and we believed the same way. Their learnings may have been a little bit more in depth, they may have been a little bit more diverse, but it was the same. So, yes, you're right. It was a strong sense of belonging when I got there, that hey, I do belong to a real and, as I went to school, I started to realize how heavily involved the Jewish community I knew what my teachings were, that we were always taught teach which is to give, which is doing for others and stuff. That's charity. Tzedakah means charity. But, when I got to Memphis, I saw how involved and charitable the Jewish community was. It was always to the most needed groups of people, whether it be African American, other groups of immigrants coming into this country. You know, they were always there. And it's still there in Memphis. W: Everywhere you look, there's a mensch. R: Exactly.
MFP 082; Rosenthal ; Page 25 ! W: Everywhere you look, ther e's a mitzvah. [Laughter] R: You're always doing a good deed. You know, for those who listen to this who don't know what some of those things are, a mensch being a great person, being a great person; a mitzvah, a good deed to help somebody out, benefit ot hers more than just for yourself. W: Yes. I feel selfish, I haven't given you an opportunity to talk about Indianola and what's made it exciting to you and why you're the mayor. So, perhaps we could slip in that direction a little. R: Oh, yes. That's a g reat idea. You know, growing up in Indianola, and with my father's involvement, I can remember in the 60s when the Freedom Riders were here in town and there were bombings at the Jackson temple there, because the rabbi there was very vocal in support o f the African American community and stuff. You know, being in retail . you couldn't be as vocal as you felt. You had to be somewhat non committal, and I know that kind of irritated my father, but it was our livelihood. Had to hold back. Not that we we re not involved with helping the black community and being involved with the black community, but we couldn't be vocal on what our true thoughts were at the time. But, I know my father was very instrumental in the 60s. There was a boycott of the white owned businesses in the 60s and early 70s, and really, it was based on respect. The black community was really just asking for some minor items of respect. You know? Inequality. My father was very instrumental in working to come with an agreeable r esolution to do it to their demands. Then, in
MFP 082; Rosenthal ; Page 26 ! the early 80s, there was another boycott. It dealt with a school appointment here in Indianola, and I don't know if anybody's discussed W: Jim Abbott talked about it, the first black school superintendent R: Correct, correct. At that time, I was president of the merchant's committee of the Chamber of Commerce. I was not president of the Chamber at that time. It's funny that there was a lady named Maureen Lip nick who was president of the Chamber, one of t he other few Jews here in our community. She was president of the Chamber; I was president of the merchant's committee. But, when I heard the rumblings of what was going on and the possibility of a boycott, I started getting involved. And, you know, I don' t hold it against the black community for doing what they did. I think they tried all other options prior to a boycott. Again, you know, a lot of the merchants felt that it was misdirected; we weren't involved and we didn't agree with some of the things th at went on in that selection process, but we were the brunt of the W: You're the recipients. [Laughter] R: Exactly. But again, like I say, I don't hold it against them. I mean, I do see that other avenues were tried first, with no results. It was kind o f push to shove; if we can't get it done, then this is our only option. I do know that they saw me as a leader and a sympathetic leader to the cause, but I was sympathetic because I felt like that appointment process was done incorrectly. Had it been done correctly, I would not have been sympathetic in the method that their battle was fought. But they were correct. It was done incorrectly; it was done improperly. That wrong needed to be righted. So, I was for doing what they wanted done.
MFP 082; Rosenthal ; Page 27 ! Now, again, Doctor Merritt who was their candidate for that position, you know. I'm a firm believer that everybody should have had the opportunity to be appointed after reviewing the qualifications. And, as I told the group when we were trying to come with a resolution, I'm not a school board member, I'm not privy to all the documentation and qualifications. I'm not here to say that he should have been selected. I'm here to say that I don't think he was given the opportunity to be selected. W: The process. R: The process. I feel like that we need to open that door back up. If he is the one selected, so be it. If he is not the one selected if it's done properly, so be it. W: Would you like to take that? I know it's been ringing for a long time. R: No, no, no. Let me do this No, no. I allotted this time. But let me get to where I can shut it off completely. W: Okay. R: But I do feel that it should have been corrected, and it was corrected. Doctor Merritt proved to be a good superintendent; did well for our school system. I do think it was a turning point for race relations in our community. I was heavily involved with our biracial committee for a number of years. It brought a lot of people to the table who normally would have not, and it brought to the forefront unfortunat ely, it seems like every ten to fifteen years we have to get slapped in the face to realize that we're not attending to race relations. I'm working hard to prevent it from being a slap in the face and being an ongoing process, because I don't want anything to happen like those boycotts in the 60s, in the 80s.
MFP 082; Rosenthal ; Page 28 ! Luckily, we didn't have it in the early 2000s, and I don't want it to be on my watch or anybody's watch, for that matter. But, I think we've gotten where we don't let it turn into a cancer and fester up in Indianola. Now, I won't say we're not fixing it nationwide, but, back to our original conversation, in Indianola, my father was involved with race relations. I've been involved with race relations. That's what brought me to running for mayor. As a retailer, I had to bite my tongue a lot of times when I disagreed with what was going on. And there were many of times I disagreed with what was going on in our community. It wasn't always on race; it was just the activities of our community. So, when I did close the store in 2002, I had already been into real estate and some other income related businesses. So, my income, my livelihood for my family, wasn't directly related to me being vocal or non vocal. So I said, this is my opportunity to help my c ommunity. W: You had an opportunity for an intellectual distancing and honesty that you didn't have otherwise. I was going to ask you, there's so many vehicles that you could take; if doesn't have to politics, it could have been through religion or education, or, you mentioned real estate. So, what was it that you feel was uniquely served, besides being able to by not having your livelihood threatened why politics as a vehicle for change? R: Well, I saw, one, that our politics, locally, was splinter ed, disheveled, just disconnected from the community as a whole. And, I mean, as a group. I felt like . we had had an African American mayor for two terms. I don't think there was a connection to bring unity to our community through his leadership. I'm not saying he did anything good, bad, or indifferent, but we were not getting any
MFP 082; Rosenthal ; Page 29 ! unity. I felt like someone that had an association with the black community for a number of years, and someone that's not African American, probably would be the only opport unity to bring it together; to unify. Because it was going to take some pull to bring the white community to the table, some pull to bring the black community together to the table, and I think I proved that I could have that involvement back in the early 80s and throughout some other things that I've been involved with. W: Did you have to run against the incumbent, or was he termed out and there was an opportunity R: No I ran against the incumbent. A gain, he was running for a third term. I ran as a Democrat, which, I am a Democrat, and I ran against him in the first, in the primary. It was he and I and two other candidates. I won the primary by a strong margin. W: Plurality or 50% over? R: 50% over. W: Okay. So the people spoke in the primary. R: In the primary. Then I ran against a young African American independent in the general election. W: Now, let me ask I don't mean to interrupt your story, but did your opponent come together with you as a Democrat, or did he . support your opponent, again, who was not a Democrat? R: I think, as far as support, he stayed neutral. Now, whether he was underlying support, I don't know.
MFP 082; Rosenthal ; Page 30 ! W: But openly, he did not support your opponent. R: He did not. He di d not, he did not. Which, as a good Democrat, I think he did the right thing. [Laughter] W: Yeah, yeah. In hopes he can run again someday. [Laughter] R: Exactly. So, but then I ran by almost an 80% margin against the young African American. W: Wow. R: So, again, the public spoke; they wanted something different, and I believe they saw in me and I hope I'm proving them correct as we continue to go forward. Again, I won't say it's been a smooth ride so far. There's been some bumps. But, any time there is change, everybody wants everything fixed until you come into their territory, and then heaven forbid you change what they're doing or how they're doing their thing. So, you know, but everybody wants everything fixed. But you can't fix anything if you don't change something. W: What do you do that uniquely brings communities together? Before answering that because I'm sure you have an answer for it how are you reaching out to the black community, first of all? R: Again, and I do get a little negative comme nts from the white community that I'm doing everything for the black community. Again, as earlier in our conversation, I work toward where the need is needed the most. I do see that, at this point, that's where the need is the most. But, part of what I do is staying involved with the black community; trying to have an open mind and an open ear to the black community.
MFP 082; Rosenthal ; Page 31 ! W: So they don't just see you on Sundays four weeks before election time. R: Exactly, exactly. I'm involved with their youth programs. I've been heavily involved with our Indianola Promise Community, which is a program that President Obama spoke so highly of, which is based on the Harlem Children Zone of Geoffrey Canada, which, briefly about that is Geoffrey Canada, in the early 90s, start ed with ten blocks of Harlem. Through those ten blocks, he now covers one hundred blocks of Harlem, and it is shown to be the best programs in New York State. It has the best school system in New York State, and it's all based on the programs that Geoffrey Canada started. Indianola was selected, one of ten Promise Communities in the nation, and we are getting some federal funding. We got a five million dollar commitment over a three year period from the Kellogg Foundation to push this program. The concept i s from childbirth to career, so, it's an all comprehensive program. It's not just a mishmash of programs; it has continuity. So, I've been heavily involved with that, heavily involved with our school systems. Unfortunately, Sunflower County and the Indiano la separate school districts are in receivership. So, they're both state run, and I'm embarrassed to say that they have not improved under state guidance. But, again, it's like anything else. It takes a while. When you're sliding down a hill, the first thi ng you got to do is put the brakes on and dig in deep to stop that slide. So, I'm hoping that what we've done now is, we've stopped that slide, and now we can start going forward. So, I'm not just tremendously upset that we haven't seen just great strides going forward yet. But I'm going to be real disappointed if, in the next two years, we don't see that move forward. But I do
MFP 082; Rosenthal ; Page 32 ! feel like we possibly have dug into the dirt, dug into the snow, whatever, to stop the slide down the hill, so now, we can start pu shing forward. So, involvement is where it comes. I don't believe we've had a white or a black mayor in the past who has been involved with improving our community as a whole. I work hard in the white community as well, through Indianola Academy, through o ur social and civic groups, to get involvement. But my goal is to me, the only way that we can bring our community together is in interaction. If we don't interact with each other on a not, necessarily on just a business level, because we need that, too, b ut more on a community/social level, will we ever go ahead. You know, when you look into the big cities that do have a good race relation, and I see our problem more than just race. A lot of our problem is economic. We have a large population of poverty an d below poverty citizens which are majority African American, but there are a lot of whites who are also in that same economic situation. Well, that problem is not racial. That problem is economics. So, we have to work to improve that economic problem ther e, to bring everybody up to a certain level. W: Do you think that, in a lot of ways, that your candidacy, your history, your family background, your faith, in being not exclusively black, not exclusively white, represents a third wa y that people can buy i nto? You know, sort of an honest broken and a member of our community? Or how would you describe your role? R: Well, absolutely. That is how I see myself. That is my being. It's funny that you put it that way. I didn't view myself this way but, as I was running for office, had real strong support in the African American community from the religious side of
MFP 082; Rosenthal ; Page 33 ! the African American community. Had an older, black minister visiting with me and talking and discussing my views and his views and what I saw for the future and what he saw for the future. He says, well, look, you know, I know you have strong support in the black community. How is your support in the white community? He says, because, you're not really black, you're not really white, you're Jewish. Cour se, I never saw myself as in the middle, so to speak. But it did open my eyes to that. You know, I do think that that's a way people, a lot of people, probably do view me. I think that can be an asset, that I can be a mediator between. This is a learning p rocess for me. I mean, I have to say, I'm not the best at it, but I'm getting there. And I have it in my heart. I think, because it's in my heart, I can make it work. If people, you know but, again, it all comes down to trust. You know? We got to learn to trust each other, and I know there's been a lot of distrust in the past, and rightfully so. You know? There's reasons to not trust. W: Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you. [Laughter] R: Exactly, exactly. So, I do see the but you have to look at who you're dealing with. I'm a skeptic; I always worry and I'm always concerned. But you have to . just because my predecessor or someone two generations past that happens to be white was dishonest or didn't live up to what they said, don't automatically think that I won't be honest with you. So, go into it with a little bit of an open mind. Again, nobody needs to trust blindly. You know? I'm not saying that. But don't distrust automatically. I'm afraid, both in the white and the black community, there is a lot of automatic distrust. Let's try to go into it. You know? Until somebody
MFP 082; Rosenthal ; Page 34 ! proves that they are untrustworthy, let's give them the opportunity to be trusted, on both sides of the table. W: Do you think you'll run for another term? R: You know, it's hard to say. I love what I'm doing. I do think, unfortunately, not as fast as I'd like it to have been, I've made some strides forward. I do think I've involved some people who never had the opportunity to be involved, who never h ad the opportunity to have their viewpoint heard, haven't been able to come to the table and speak. You know, I was in a meeting yesterday with the Kellogg's Foundation, and I'm on a subcommittee that we kind of throw some strong things on the table. There 's a young lady that is one of the representatives from the South G ate community, which is one of our most poverty stricken areas of town. She was talking that she, growing up and growing up in that area, how people, when they were asked where you live, oh you live in South G ate, it was kind of a jump back. You live in South G ate? You know. Do you carry a gun? Or, she said, automatically, people had this vision of what was going on. Well, now, through this Indianola Promise Community and the helpful fundin g from the federal government and from the Kellogg's Foundation, those people's voices being heard. We had a project last year where we got funding for a playground in South Gate Three hundred citizens throughout the community, and I'm talking bankers, bu siness owners . I mean, it was the community, black and white, showed up on a Saturday morning at seven o'clock. Now, the city had done some prep work to get it ready, but we had a two acre, bare ground. And, by five o'clock, we had kids playing in a p layground. It was built by three hundred people who showed up
MFP 082; Rosenthal ; Page 35 ! at seven o'clock on a Saturday morning. It is a while you're here, you ought to go to the Bethune Center and see this playground. It's cosmetically correct. It's got shade areas. It's got playgr ound equipment, it's got swings. It's got areas for adults to sit and watch the kids and play checkers, cards, whatever they want to do. But it brings family together at this playground, and that was done by our community. There were people in South Gate w ho never had a voice because everybody discounted them as to be sub class, and they are not. You know? They are people who are in poor economic conditions, but they're no different from you and I, only by the separate of economics. It doesn't matter whethe r they're African American. That shouldn't be the . you know. The majority of them are, but the key is that they're economically held back. You know? But I do think that I can get voices heard and get more people to the table. I know I can be wordy. I hope you're not running out of tape. W: No, no. We're fine. I'm just sitting here, it's obvious that you're imbued with a spirited vision and that you're leading people. I was just thinking, I wonder what his definition of leadership is? So, I want to ask what is your definition of leadership? R: To be a good leader, first of all, you got to earn respect. You know? But a good leader creates a concept of following. They have to be committed to follow you. You know? If you're walking into gunfire, they hav e to be committed that you are leading them, where you can survive through it and be a better community, be a better place. I don't think leadership is demanded, demanding of people. If you try to tell somebody, you gotta follow me, that's not a leader. A leader is to let
MFP 082; Rosenthal ; Page 36 ! them see your vision and let them buy into that vision. You know? And there's nothing wrong with a good leader shifting that vision, because a good leader also is smart enough and bright enough and a visionary enough to see that goals chan ge. There's things that I've thought we needed to do that, after working with people, it all got shifted. Again, the goal may still be at that same point, but it may not be a straight line to that goal. You may have to go off to the right a little bit befo re you can turn back left to get to that goal. That's part of being a good leader, is that pathway to that goal is ever changing. W: Your honor, I want to thank you for this interview. The honorable Steve Rosenthal of Indianola, Mississippi. And, on behal f of the Sam Proctor Oral History Program, we are so appreciative of this time that you would spend with us. It's sort of my tradition, after thanking the person that sat with me, to give them the opportunity for final privilege. So, these will be my closi ng comments, but I'll leave it to you to touch on something from the interview, something we didn't touch on, or just any closing comments that you would have. At the end of those comments, with our thanks, once again, that will conclude the interview. R: Well, thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to kind of wrap it all up. One, I'd like to thank you and your group for putting this all together. You know, when I look back on my family history, I'm saddened that I didn't do this same thing, sitting in fr ont of my grandfather to get the facts and background. Because, now with his passing, a lot of that history is gone. All that I can know are the bits and pieces that my grandfather said to me, which are strong and I hold them dearly. But, with this oral hi story program that y'all are doing, I'm hoping that generations who
MFP 082; Rosenthal ; Page 37 ! can sit down and listen to bits and pieces I'm sure they won't listen to my ramblings in their entirety, but, you know, getting a little bit of background between what I'm doing, what Jame s Meredith did at Ole Miss, what Jim Abbott did here in Indianola, through his strong community involvement, through his newspaper, through some of these other people throughout the Delta and throughout the civil rights movement did to better the communiti es. Because it all comes with uplifting an entire community, which means, if you've got a section of your community that is falling and dying, then your whole community is falling and dying. The civil rights movement brought it all together and moved us up one notch. We probably have ten more notches to go, but they took us to one level. It's up to us and our generations under us, and I'm hoping that these oral histories will help that generation, to strengthen their purpose to carry us all forward to makin g better communities throughout the South. Thank you. [End of interview] Transcribed by: Diana Dombrowski, February 26 2014 Audit e dited by: Sarah Blanc, March 4, 2014 Final e dited by: Sarah Blanc, April 2014