Interview with Raymond Willis, Sr., 2017 October 23

Material Information

Interview with Raymond Willis, Sr., 2017 October 23
Willis, Raymond, Sr. ( Interviewee )
Alqasem, Lara ( Interviewer )
Daglaris, Patrick ( Interviewer )
Samuel Proctor Oral History Program
Publication Date:
Physical Description:
Oral history interview


Subjects / Keywords:
Tidewater Main Street Development Project
Rural life
Family history
Spatial Coverage:
United States of America -- Virginia -- Mathews


In this interview, Raymond Willis, Sr. shares his experience growing up in the North area of Mathews County, Virginia. He shares his memories of his parents and grandparents, going to school, and what he would do for fun as a child. He also talks about working at the Yorktown Power Station, which he retired from after thirty-six years. He discusses his role in local organizations including being the president of the NAACP in Mathews for over thirty years, director of Hands Across Mathews, as well as being involved in the Rotary Club and various Masonic groups. Finally, he talks about some of the changes he's seen in the county over the years and what he hopes for the future.

Record Information

Source Institution:
UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program
Holding Location:
UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program
Rights Management:
All rights reserved by the submitter.
Resource Identifier:
TMP 158 Raymond Willis Sr 10-23-2017 ( SPOHP )


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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 Office Manager : Tamarra Jenkins 241 Pugh Hall Technology Coordinator : Deborah Hendrix PO Box 115215 Gainesville, FL 32611 352 392 7168 352 846 19 83 Fax The Samuel Proctor Oral 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, religious and intellectual life in Florida and the South. In the 50 + years since its inception, SPOHP has collected over 7 ,500 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 rec ommends that researchers refer to 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 Digital 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 writte n with careful attention to reflect 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 or call the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program office at 352 392 7168. February 201 8


TMP 158 Interviewee: Raymond Willis, Sr. Interviewer: Patrick Daglaris and Lara Alqasem Date of Interview: October 23 2017 A : Okay Hello, this is Lara Alqasem with the Samuel Proctor Oral Histo ry Program. Today is October twenty third and we are going to be interviewing Mr. Raymond Willis. Do you want to say your name Patrick? D: Patrick Daglaris A: So first, Mr. Willis could you tell us when and where you were born ? W: I was born in February 1 1948 and I was born in Mathews County right in North Virginia. A: And are your parents from Mathews County as well? T: My mother was fr om Mathews, my father was from Gloucester A: Okay. D: And what were their names and occupations? W: My mother was Eden Smith Willis a nd she did domestic work, housecleaning. My father was Freeman John Fre e man Willis and he did all kind of work He painted, he did a little carpenter work, you name it he did it all. D: Okay A nd can you talk a little bit about what it was like growing up in Mathews? W: Well, Mathews was . it was nice growing up because it was a small town and like I was telling Lara, I graduated from Thomas Hunter High Sch ool, which is right up the street her e now. And, during that time, it was an all B lack school and that school was grades from one to twelve in one school.


TMP 158; Willis ; Page 2 D: And so where did you live in the county again? W: I lived in North. D : Oh okay, North So wha t did you do for fun around that area? W: Oh well, a lot of k ids in that area, we played ball, we went to the dance hall and danced. Shoot pool. W e had a lot of fun. D: Who owned the dance hall? W: Well, the dance hall was up the street from where I lived Well, up the road, w e called it the cou ntry. But Mary Ware, she had a dance hall, we would go up there sometime s on Sunday, Saturda y, Sunday evenings you could dance or you could shoot pool in there. D: Okay A nd I heard of someone Musco Lane, do you kn ow who Musco Lane is? W: Unh uh. D: Okay, I heard that he was someone who owned a dance hall in the area too, but he might be I think he was from the Antioch area So he might be from a different area. W: Oh, you're talking about the J olly Spot ? D: Yeah, that might be from a different area. W: Yeah, that's a different area. D: Okay. So, what do you remember about your grandparents? W: My grandparents had very little. I knew my grandmother on my father's side and my mother's side. But I never knew my grandfather s they were dead when I was born.


TMP 158; Willis ; Page 3 D: And can you talk a little bit about what were your parents like? W: My parents were easygoing people and they were church people. My mother especially, she was very church oriented. In her house she was sa ying on Sunday morning, "You're going to church. I don't care if you went out late last night, you 're going to church". It wasn't bad because she was a strong supporter. D: So, you went to school and what did you do, I guess . when did you get your fir st car? W: I got my first car when I was in high school. I guess I was sixteen, seventeen. D: What was it? W: It was a Mercury, I'll never forget. It was green and I think a [19] 52 Mercury. D: What would you do for fun with it? Where would you drive around ? W: Well, we would drive around b ut I always liked to work on cars. And that's how I learned a little m echanic work because me and a buddy of mine, we used to work on them. We would go out on Saturday, Friday nights, whatever, go to ball games, whatever B ut if it 'd break down, we know how to fix it. D: And so, what was dating like around here? Would you drive around would you go on dates? I heard different things like . W: [Laughter] Well, you dated . by going to school, you knew everybody. Th e neighborhood where I live d there was some young ladies around


TMP 158; Willis ; Page 4 there. One thing I always remembe r, my mother would always say, "B e careful with young ladies ," because people are so . intermingling, you might be related to the person So, be careful. [ Laughter] D: And so did you go around the county a lot or did you mainly stay in North? W: Oh no, I went around the county because I had a lot of buddies down in Port Haywood area down in Beaverlett. All a round the county because I knew a lot of people. D: And do you remember anything about the country stores back then? Were there some you would go to? W: Oh yeah Well, every neighborhood had a country store because you didn't have a lot of transportation. So, in N orth where I lived, which is the Nort h Star now, used to be old man Jones owned that store. A nd you could buy food, groceries, you could buy anything you want ed Didn't sell alcohol much in stores then. D: And who did you say owned the country store there? W: Well it was the Jones family. D: The Jones family O kay. W: And so, where was it exactly in North ? W: Right there, if you're coming on 14 w here you came from Gloucester and you're com in g on 14. J ust before you get to the church that looks like it's


TMP 158; Willis ; Page 5 sitting right in the fork in the road, t here's a community store right there and that's North Wel l, now, it's North S tar b ut that's the same store. D: And so, did they ever have any events there, activities or was it mainly just a store? W: Oh, no, you'd just go there and buy food. And th en, the post office was right in the same store. So, you 'd get your mail on one side and then you 'd buy your food on another side. D: Okay A nd so for these country stores, the area you lived in was it owned by an African American family or this was a W hite owned store ? W: White owned store. D: So were there any B lack businesses in North that you remember? W: Not at that time, except for where we used to go shoot pool down in the dance hall, Mary Ware had like a little dance hall there. And you c ould bu y sandwiches and stuff like that. In later years, Club 14, it used to be named, Lance Ware o pened that up, but I was out of high school when he opened that up. D: Are there any other B lack businesses you remember? W: Well every neighbo rhood had a little small store. Like, around the corner I think old man Diggs had a store. D own in Susan area, I think there was a Black owned store down there. And up in Blakes Cobbs Creek area, I think there was one in that area. D: And when did the Jones store close do wn? W: Well it didn't close it just changed ownership.


TMP 158; Willis ; Page 6 D: Oh, okay So, now, it's North S tar. Okay So, it's still there. So, you talked about what you did for fun a little bit, but what did you do I guess after school? W: After high school, some of my f amily lived in H ampton and I went in that area. I went to Thomas Nelson for one year. My main goal was to study to be an auto mechanic, and I studied that. And then, that didn't work out too good. My parents didn't have money at the time to support me. W e lived in Mathews and having to be in Hampton all week you know, it cost, so that didn't pan out. I did it for one year. D: And a question I guess I wanted to ask before was so how did your parents meet if your mom was from Gloucester ? W: Well, my father was from Ware Neck a nd my mother lived right in the North community. Well, back in the day because of m otor travel him and another guy named Franklin Willis, he met a lady from the neighborhood too. They used get the boat and come across the North Rive r. See, from Ware Neck, you come out and cross, you're right there in the North area. So, then the y would walk up to where they live d D: Ok ay. So, W: Yeah. communicated. D: Ok ay. A l l right. So what do you remember at school, are there any teachers that stood out to you? W: Well, let me think.


TMP 158; Willis ; Page 7 D: maker? W: No, no, no. In high school Ms. Georgina she was very informational. Ms. Martha Thomas, Ms. Sally Fos ter, Ms. M a c Millan Mr McKe nney W ho else ? Coach Lewis. A nd Mr. Brooks, John Ray Brooks was the principal for a long time I remember him. D: Ok ay what did you do after you graduated? You said you went to school for a little bit and t hen what did you do after that? W: Well, I was going somewhere, I was looking for a job and I went to then it was VEPCO in Gloucester A nd I worked their line department, I got a job then I worked there for about three years. And that kind of work was it was rough And I was the only B lack in the crew at that time So, then, I would get to thinking, this work is good and good pay but I need to do something different, quick. So I went to Yorktown, to Yo rktown Power Station, and I started there in the operations department A nd I started out as a high pressure auxiliary operator. Then, I moved up to be assistant control moderator and then I went to be a control moderator. I started at Gloucester, I work e d three and a half years there. Then, I went to Yorktown and I worked there until I retired. And I put in right at thirty six years with the power company. D: When did you retire? W: In [20]06, [20]07 around that time. D: Al l right C ongratulations.


TMP 158; Willis ; Page 8 [Laug hter] D: One thing I wanted to ask about : so, in the Mathews Courthouse were there areas you were able to go to when you were a child? W: Well, you could go to stores and buy stuff B ut like restaur ants, as far as I can remember . I know there used to be one of these called Joe Davis, do that. You could buy it sit in there and drink it. D: Ok ay. A nd are there any other memories of growing up i n Mathews that play pranks during Halloween? W: Well, we always did pranks during Halloween. D: Are there any you can remember? W: Not really, cause . Your parent s would be a little strict. A nd by being in the neighborhood and you knew everybody do too much Y y ou know, knock over some paper boxes or se t off some firecrackers. But, other than that, you too much. D: heard about or anything like that? W: No, th at much of my thing. So, no, D: Okay. And did you go to any church when you were gro wing up? What church was it?


TMP 158; Willis ; Page 9 W: Yeah, I grew up at the church right up in North called Emmaus Baptist Church A nd I started there as a kid and I was baptized down in the North River T hey use d to take you down to the river and baptize you then, we that no more. It was a bunch of us that were baptized that way, D: Wow. Were there any community activities you did, o r organiza tions you were part of as a kid, or different things you would do? Whet her they were like church events or . ? W: Well, we did a lot of church events Y ou know, they had different events and different play s and different stuff like that. B ut that was it. D: And how did you meet your wife? W: I met her, I think, at a party in Gloucester A guy that live d in the neighborhood, we call ed him Jimmy Causeway And I had a car, he d me to take him to this party. but I said okay, he wanted to go. So, we went to this party up in Gloucest D: W: Arma. A R M A. D: Okay. W: We got married in December the 20 1969. D: And what does she do? W: She was in the nursing. She was in what sh do.


TMP 158; Willis ; Page 10 D: part of, and I n . can you talk about some of those things you do? W: part of the Hands Across Mathews, they give out food and clothes member of the Rotary Club up the street, and I belong to a lot of orders in the m asonic group. I go to a lodge up the street here, Silver Leaf Lodge I go to a lodge in Hampton, Zem Temple. I go to anot her lodge in [ i naudible 13:08], and I go to one on Chesapeake Avenue in Newport News. D: So you said you were p resident of the NAACP? W: Yes. D: So what are some of your primary responsibilities? W: Our idea is to help people and we 're fighting against t he schooling issue. people not being treated fairly on the job, or any form of anything like that. Like, i t was a big issue downt own here, that confederate statue, and people got a f ew confederate flags running. 'Cause one lady, she was on the schoolboard, and she was a W hite lady and she wrote an article of what she didn't like about that and I know it stirred up a lot of issues with a lot of different people. D: When did you star t to get involved with that? W: [Laughter] 'Cause a lady, Mrs. Beatrice Bobo, who is related to me and live d close to where I live A nd I


TMP 158; Willis ; Page 11 used to take her to the meetings, older A nd after she's talking she said, "Y ou know what? And all the people go t their hands together and said, "W e w ant you to take over." And I said, "W hy do you want that? "Yeah, you're younger and you can do it. the p resident, I think, for t hirty years or better D: Thirty years? Wow! W: Thirty years. D: So, what are some of the . 'c ause you mentioned the one story with the statue I guess over thirty years, are there some things that have stood out illing to share. W: Yeah Well, a lo t of things you have to work on, especially we re looking at the school issues, make sure that kids are treated fairly and the testing is done fairly, and trying to keep a lot of minority teachers in the school system a s well. 'Cause a t own like Mathews is where you have roughly eig ht thousand and some odd people, and I would say your B lack population is very small W e might have a thousand B lack people in Mathews, I kind of doubt it. And you go to visit schools with the NAACP, we go to visit schools every year and we tour the school talk with teachers, the classes you go to you'll see one Black kid in there, maybe two. And at the graduation, for them to have fifte en B lack kids that graduate in one year, your average class is not over eighty, seventy five to eighty kids. But still, your B lack population is not there


TMP 158; Willis ; Page 12 because there's no work in Mathews County. So, when people go out of the county to find work then they move, cause it makes sense. I mean my two kids, they graduate d from Mathews High School, to D: And so, g rowing up in Mathews, and then you worked over in Gloucester for a while, were you involved at all or were there any experience with c ivil r ights activities in the counties? Or, you know, like integration, was that something that was happening while you we re here? W: Well, yes, because right up to my graduati ng year we had separate schools. But then, they came to a thing called f reedom of c hoice, that if you wanted to go to a W hite school you had a choice to sign up for it. But still, they still have that s chool. So, a group of us, we said, "Well, we're this close to graduatio n, we're gonna stay at Thomas Hunter." But then, maybe a couple years later, they went to total integration. S o yeah, and then they changed everything around. D: Was there ever any di scrimination in terms of like were an issues sometimes and different things like that D id you ever experience anything like that? W: Well, the only thing I noticed a lot is . well, during my time in school the newer buses woul d go to the W hite school and then they would pass down the old ones to the B lack school And I mean, I saw that a lot. It was a yearly occurrence. T hey would fix up the old buses but they still was old.


TMP 158; Willis ; Page 13 D: And I guess leading into the [19]60s, were you s t ill in Gloucester at that time? W: No, I lived in Mathews. D: Oh, you were in Mathews, ok ay W: Until after high school then I moved there. D: And so, were there any movements, like c ivil r ights activities that you were involved in in the county? Was the re a big movement here? W: Not really big 'cause it's a small county. And, believe it or not, everybody knew each other. In most neighborhoods you knew this family, that family, and they knew your family. So, things were never pretty wild. O ne thing happen ed, I think it was in . it might have been in the [19]70s or [19]80s. B ut it was a young B lack man was killed down the street behind the liquor store, cause one of the deputy sheriff s was following him and they got into an altercation and the sheriff shot him and killed him the d eputy sheriff. And we made a big thing over that. But finally we got through that too, got over it. D: And what was the name of the woman that you replaced as p resident? W: Mrs. Beatrice Bobo. D: Ok ay. S he was a big presence in the county right? W: Yeah, she taught school at Thomas Hunter until she retired. D: Cause I feel like the story you mentioned, I feel like I remember reading an article, th and she was a big voice right?


TMP 158; Willis ; Page 14 W: She was a big voice because that day, when that guy got shot and killed it was almost a riot in Mathews. And the only you could calm the B lack people down, the sheriff sent somebody to pick up Mrs. Bobo and bring her down to the town. And, once she got down there she calmed everybody down. And then, that next day, they had a march from the downtown up to First Baptist Church up the street, 'cause I was involved in that, I remember that. D: So what was she like? W: She was a person that . she like d things her way S he was very well respected. S he lived to be one hundred and one years old. D: Wow. So, you got to spend a lot of time with her? W: Well, yeah because we were family and, like I say, she lived not far from me. And my wife used to drive her around wh en she got to the point where D: So when did you replace her? So if she lived so long was she active in the community all the way up to her death? W: Yeah, she was very active in the community 'C ause she was a clerk of the church and she went on to different groups, you know, the Eastern Stars. I think she wa s a delta and all that. So, she was involved up to then. D: And when did you get involved with Hands Over Mathews? W: I was involved when it first started in the [19]80s B ut by working . 'cause I worked rotating shifts. So, I would be off during the week sometime s, and people would ask me to come down and volunteer and


TMP 158; Willis ; Page 15 help a little bit, and I started doing that. And then, after I retired I just kept on being involved more. D: Wow. Y W: Yeah, cause I was just stepped down as the p resident of Hands Across Mathews. A: Oh, wow. W: en the p resident back and forth couldn't find nobody, back and forth again. It was a two year thing. A v ice p resident I figure that Once you've be en a part of it D: And then you said the Rotary Club too right ? W: Yeah, I joined the Rotary Club I think maybe ten years ago. D: And then you said you were part of some of the mason groups. W: mason. S ee my ring there? D: Oh, wow. W: See I got that in [20]06. D: So, how long have you been a part of that? W: part of m asons since in the [19] 70s, I think I jo ined in [19]72. B ut I belong to different parts of masonry. I like that so you know. D: So , right? So staying busy? W: Yeah, as a matter of fact I went to Hampt on yesterday to a large me eting. Yesterday afternoon, right after church, I gotta rush hom e, get ready, go on to Hampton, go to the meeting, then I come back.


TMP 158; Willis ; Page 16 D: One question I wanted to ask is . this is our fourth year coming on this som interviews. L ast year was about the Merchant Marines because th ere was that book that came out. And then, s interviewing different people. A nd I was wondering if you thought there was a we alth of African American history here. W ales Center that do a lot of recording that history. So I was wondering if there was a lot of history in North or the community you r e from that you would like to see collected? W: maybe not a lot. Because back in the day, if you lived in Mathews, either you worked in the water or you had your own business and you did carpenter or worked cutting tree s, lumber and doing like that. A: I was curious about your children Did you raise them in Gloucester o r here? W: Well, here, because both graduated from Mathews High School. My son, who is Raymond Jr and he graduated from Christopher Newport and A business, Harris Capital Group and he works doing that doing it for quite awhile. And my daughter graduated from Mathews High, she graduated from ODU, she got t wo masters and she works for the g overnment, she works for the s tate d epartment. And right now


TMP 158; Willis ; Page 17 assigned in Africa When she was in Thailand, my wife and I went there one year for Christmas she worked there. And then, she went to Nigeria, which she spent a lot of time the re because her son was with her, her and her husband has separated, and he was with the dad in New York for a while and then he decided to move to Africa with his mother and he went to an i rica twice to visit them A nd when he graduated from high school the year before last, I t ook the trip for his graduation. And now, enrolled been exciting and my kids have done well. I just d grand children, eight and my daughter will be forty three in December. D: grandchildren soon ? W: No hurry for that. I want them to get their educat ion first. No hurry for that. T is fourteen. A: They still have a while. D: They got a few years, yeah. I guess one question is : what are some of the seen in Mathews from being here all your life? W: Well, I would say one thing : Mathews is the one town you could leave for thirty years and come back and you won't get lost, because nothing s changed. The highway 's the same. T he only thing you may find on the


TMP 158; Willis ; Page 18 nothing changed about Mathews I mean, you got the two banks One thing people talk about so much is they love this town with no stoplights I f you see that mess downtown N ow I ain't see why they spent all their money beautifying there. You got a couple churches you got a library, a few little small restaurants around. But, to me, that money could 've be en spent on the school system and it would've been a whole lot better. A: That was the alarm just because we were only suppose d to take D: Oh, ok ay So, you said you had t o leave in about thirty minutes. So, I about before we let you go? W: No, I mean Mathews County, I like it. It's a nice place to live, for older people, I don do. A 'll find that young kids they just get caught because they have nothing to do so they stand around the corner and smoke drugs or whatever. I mean, I think if you had more entertainment maybe it'd keep D: I know there used to be the theater, ri ? W: Yeah See, it used to be a movie theate r D: Back in the day right?


TMP 158; Willis ; Page 19 W: Back in the day and that was only mostly all White people. B ut later years I went ther e a couple ti mes with some guys. A nd then later years it turned into a country western place. D: And there was a building next to it, like a place to eat W: Well, there was a post office next to it on one side and then it was just a little store I think it was a bait and tackle shop. A: Not too entertaining. W: No. D: Al l right So, for being so actively involved in the community all these different ways Mathews? I think you already menti oned a couple things. W: Oh, yeah, the future of Mathews, oh L ord Y ou nee d more business and more stores. Because I mean, if I lived in North and if I need to go to the food store to get something and I can go to Gloucester or I can chances are going to Gloucester, you 've got a better variety over there and probably cheaper prices. A now cause people are going that way. So, you need more stores th competitive with them. C lothes store s Mathews unless you went to the dollar store, and you don't want them. you gotta go to Gloucester. You say, I gotta get a suit for this ," and you gotta go there,


TMP 158; Willis ; Page 20 And then, think about years ago you had a lot of stuff downtown, them old stores, there used to be a Foster's d epartment S tore. You cou ld buy clothes T here was another store on the other side of the street, right o f f C hurch S treet on the other side, where you could buy clothes. Then you go do the Sibley place clothes, you 'd go in there Mathews Y ou might find one in the dollar store but nobody want tha t. So, nd you come downtown after you're gonna be the only one down there cause everything is c losed up. D: Yeah. All right. Well, we kept you long enough, was there anything else W: know what it was all about and I forgot about it. D: l right. I appr eciate you coming down and just talking with us and I wish you good luck i n all your community activities. there for many decades more. [End of i nterview] Transc ribed by: Francesca and Henry Alvarez, December 20, 2017 Audit edited by: Patri ck Daglaris, May 18, 2018 Final edited by: Patrick Daglaris, May 18, 2018