From the Urban Health Matters Blog by Sheree Crute
June Jackson Christmas, MD, is a psychiatrist and pioneer of urban health who was one of the first to address the impact of economic and social factors on mental health. As founder of Harlem Hospital’s Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center, New York City’s Commissioner of Mental Health and Retardation under Mayors Lindsay, Beame and Koch, a member of President Jimmy Carter’s transition team, vice-president of the American Psychiatric Association, the president of the Public Health Association of NYC and a three-time trustee of Vassar College (she was one of the first black graduates), Christmas maintained an unwavering commitment to equitable care for all. At 92, she is still active in her community.
In this Storycorp, Inc., interview for the Academy’s Age-friendly NYC Changemaker’s project, Christmas, shares her path to civil rights activism. She is interviewed by her son, Vincent.
Vincent: Mom, how were you and dad able to raise three children who seem to have the same sense of commitment social justice?
June: I have been thinking about that lately as I remember my own parents and my grandparents. They were more active in community affairs and in making things change than I realized. So it was sort of ingrained in me.
My mother, a middle class housewife, was involved in a group in Boston in Cambridge, along with Harvard white folks, in the 40s and 50s, that was trying to open doors closed by segregation. My father was involved in the National Alliance of Postal Employees who worked to fight to get black postal workers into the union. I remember seeing him at his typewriter, writing letters and complaints, he was an activist.
Then of course I married your dad, who was a progressive activist on the in the left, so it came from both our parents.
Vincent: Did you ask your father, what are you typing on the typewriter and why?
June: Daddy was doing things about postal workers being treated unfairly, and that was confidential, yet I knew something very important was going on because he and his buddies would talk.
For example, he took the postal exam to be promoted from a clerk to a supervisor over and over again. In the Civil service then, the top three people in the exam were the people to whom a job was given. Daddy would always get the highest score, often perfect, and never be offered the position. It took maybe 20 years of him taking exams and coming out high, until maybe the beginning of the WWII, when he got the promotions.
Vincent: How did that make you feel?
June: Oh I was excited about it — proud. I also knew that there was a lot that needed to be changed in Cambridge. One of my earliest memories … the minister’s wife headed our girl scout troop. And that year, the girl scouts who won the prize for selling the most cookies were Clarice Roberts, who was black, and me. The prize was two weeks away at a Girl Scout camp in another town.
But when it came time to claim our prize, she said, ‘well you know I’m very sorry girls, you’re not going to be able to claim your prize. Those camps they’ve really never taken any negroes. She used the expression, “I’m sorry June, that’s just the lay of the land.” I didn’t know what it meant, but I got the idea that was it.
That’s when I figured out we needed to do something, because when we told people discrimination was a problem, they was nothing they could do.
So, in my mid-teens, in Cambridge, we planned to go to the roller skating rink. Now we knew the rink didn’t accept blacks, but we planned to go because we wanted to go roller skating. About 13 of us went to this rink and stood in line to buy our tickets and they closed the window — they wouldn’t sell us tickets. Now, we had heard about the auto workers who had strikes — sit down strikes — so we decided we were going to sit down in this little anteroom and we sat down. We said we were going to wait until the window opened and they were going to sell us tickets.
Other people would come, so they would open the window [for whites] and then close it. They would not sell us any tickets at all, so we stayed. But it was back in the late 30s and we were about 14 and 15 years old, so we could only stay until it got dark, so we had to get home. So that brought a prompt finish to our first protest, but it taught us that still those people were very flustered.
Vincent: Did you try it again?
June: I didn’t try it again until I was in college.
Vincent: So you saw your parents fight, so you just took up the fight?
June: Well, I had some other examples. In high school, I was second in my class, the salutatorian, but I was not allowed to be a member of the national honor society. There were examples everyday of discrimination and segregation.
In grammar school, I hated the idea that there was a day called “I am an American Day.”
The teachers would ask each white kid, where are you from and they would say, “My name is Parker Whipple, and we come from England and I am an American.” They just passed over us. The class could have 30 students and about five black kids, but we never got asked.
Vincent: And you didn’t say, what about me?
June: Absolutely not, first, you were afraid of the teacher. Second, of all I think it was the reality of how we just accepted racism.
Vincent: That was my next question. Some of the people in your family said to you, “June, you cannot change things,” so was there a conflict within your family?
June: My nanna was hesitant, she would say, “June be careful.” She knew there were bad things in the South, she knew about lynchings. My dad said, “be twice as good as everybody else and you will get it,” even though he was not getting promoted. My mother would work on the interpersonal way — be nice, get your information together and see if you can’t negotiate.
Vincent: Well, that must how we — me, Rachel and Gordon — adopted our activism, we did see you and dad always being involved with The Student Nonviolent Coordinating committee (SNCC). The people coming to the house from Africa and the United Nations … all those students — weren’t they freedom riders? They left all those great 45s and taught us how to dance.
June: Yes, they were freedom riders. When the civil rights struggle began in the 60s, I was a supporter and so was your dad. Among the things that we did is help raise money because we had a big house. We had a big house only because we could not rent a big apartment because we were black. We tried for years, up and down the west side [of Manhattan], but they told us they did not rent to negroes or Puerto Ricans.
We pushed a case that we eventually won that actually changed the law in New York City, but first we bought an old, run down house and converted it. So we had events.
What led to working for civil rights organizations was that when the freedom riders were heading down south, I wanted to go, but I was working at Harlem Hospital. I was a little hesitant too because I knew people were being killed. So what I did do in 64 was go to Atlanta to work with Lou Levine — a good friend of mine — a white, Jewish American, liberal psychologist.
We set up meetings for SNCC workers who had come back with battle fatigue and after that people would come to see me when they came to New York.
A lot of them would get weary from worry about being shot at and hurt and away from home and some of them — if your remember Mathew Jones and Avon Long, the Freedom Singers — they wanted to be away from the battlefield because the civil rights struggle was a battle.
By then, I had left practice and went to Boston University (BU) medical school. There was a lot to fight for there too. There was a national organization, the Association of Interns and Medical Students, we fought for such basic things as national health insurance and the rights of black doctors to have hospital privileges — things black doctors then did not have at all.
So we were pushing for change at BU and there the students thought that we were a bunch of wild-eyed activists. It seems to me that I’ve often been in places where if you wanted to make life better for yourself, you had to work to make life better for everybody.
Vincent: Well, I’m not completely sure how you and dad did it, but the values you instilled have really informed my life and that’s really why I enjoy being a social worker so much.
The memories, for me — the early 60s, when the civil rights movement was going on, the freedom riders really hit home. Chaney and Goodman, I went to school with their younger brothers and we all knew they were going down South and we were all very scared for them, then, as we now know, they did not come back and then there was the assassination of Martin Luther King and Malcom X. I certainly thought back then that those battles were over.
June: No. They are not done…the struggle does continue. And there was a whole period of my life when I tried to be an activist as the commissioner of the NYC Health Department. Having to decide ‘do I support the mayor, who I work for, or do I fight for the rights for the patients and the communities?’ … but that’s another interview.
Read more on the Urban Health Matters blog
Excerpted from a piece produced by Eddie Gonzalez from interviews recorded by StoryCorps, a national nonprofit whose mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives. www.storycorps.org.