The Ragsdales

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Description

In the early 1960s, the American struggle for civil rights hit full stride in the deep south. A thousand miles west in Phoenix , two enterprising black leaders, Lincoln and Eleanor Ragsdale, dedicated their lives to the struggle for desegregation of schools, neighborhoods and areas of public accommodation in Arizona. Their efforts for racial equality in the southwest played an integral and enduring role in the larger American civil rights story.

Transcript

Narrator:
In the early 1960s, the American struggle for Civil Rights hit full stride in the Deep South , a place and time familiar to almost every American. Over 1,000 miles to the West, Phoenix , Arizona , gave rise to an obscure, but formative, movement in the fight for African-American Civil Rights.

Matthew C. Whitaker, Ph.D.:
Phoenix was considered the “ Mississippi of the West” by many people who migrated here because once they migrated here, once they arrived, they found a very segregated city.

Herbert Ely:
The Ku Klux Klan was strong here many years in the '20s and '30s.

Narrator:
Two prominent figures led the Civil Rights struggle in the Southwest, Lincoln and Eleanor Ragsdale.

Matthew C. Whitaker, Ph.D.:
Lincoln and Eleanor Ragsdale were certainly the most visible and perhaps the most prominent Civil Rights activists in the Greater Southwest. They knew African dignitaries, they knew Martin Luther King, they knew Jesse Jackson, Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater. They knew just about everyone.

Herbert Ely:
Lincoln had tremendous guts. Lincoln would call me up from time to time and say, "herb, let's go have lunch." oh, my. Well, I knew it was -- I knew from Lincoln it'd be a restaurant that no black man had ever been to before.

Matthew C. Whitaker, Ph.D.:
Eleanor Ragsdale: very erudite, very sophisticated, extremely cultured. But when the time came, she was right out on the streets marching.

Herbert Ely:
She was the rose of this whole movement. There's not enough things you can say about Eleanor Ragsdale. She was a marvelous woman.

Matthew C. Whitaker, Ph.D.:
The Ragsdale kids in general were very active.

Lincoln Ragsdale Jr.:
Sometimes, my parents would pull us out of class so we would go on marches with them, because they felt it was significant, it was a historical moment in time.

Narrator:
During the Civil Rights Movement, the Ragsdales and other leaders in Phoenix focused on a number of key fronts. The first effort focused on the desegregation of hotels, restaurants, and other areas of public access.

Lincoln Ragsdale Jr.:
You were not able to go into restaurants and eat, you were not able to use the facilities.

Matthew C. Whitaker, Ph.D.:
The places of public accommodation were segregated, the cemeteries were segregated.

Herbert Ely:
What people can't comprehend today, you see a black man in a restaurant or a hotel or anyplace in Phoenix , what else is new? Nobody raises anything, and properly so. That was not the case years ago.

Narrator:
In 1963, Herb Ely, the Ragsdales, and other leaders helped support a civil rights bill being considered by the Arizona State Senate.

Herbert Ely:
The debate in Arizona was this is an invasion of the sacredness of property rights. And to many of us, we said, "the hell it is." There are certain property rights that have to be overridden by human rights.

Matthew C. Whitaker, Ph.D.:
And there were marches at the Capitol calling for a public accommodations bill. They were very intense. It was hot. This is Phoenix , Arizona , the temperatures went up in the hundred degrees. He had them singing protest songs like "Don't Let Nobody Turn Me Around", "Lift Every Voice and Sing", "We Shall Overcome." you had folks on the west side and the south side of the Capitol actually involved in more tense conflicts with the Police. This was a site of very intense protests. People began in the lower level of the Rotunda area, they moved up the stairs to this particular level, standing, sitting up against the wall, moving up to the higher levels of the rotunda area.

Lincoln Ragsdale Jr.:
I was about 9 years old. I was on the second floor, and the Police were coming and removing everybody, and the Police Officer picked me up. He asked me why was I marching, and I said we were marching for our freedom.

Matthew C. Whitaker, Ph.D.:
In 1964, the Public Accommodations Bill was passed in Arizona in advance of the Civil Rights Act that was passed at the national level.

Herbert Ely:
Certainly, in terms of public accommodation, Phoenix was ahead of the rest of the country.

Matthew C. Whitaker, Ph.D.:
It was a major accomplishment.

Narrator:
Another key accomplishment in the Southwestern Civil Rights Movement was the desegregation of schools. Carver High was a segregated school for African Americans until 1953, when the State of Arizona set precedent by passing the first school desegregation law in the country. The school is now a museum, where former student Tommie Williams volunteers as a tour guide.

Matthew C. Whitaker, Ph.D.:
Phoenix was, literally, the first city in the United States to desegregate its schools in 1953, one year before the Brown Decision.

Tommie Williams:
It brought a little attention, hopefully a little pride to our State.

Matthew C. Whitaker, Ph.D.:
So the Phoenix Decision -- and it was activists in Phoenix -- played a key role in the Desegregation Movement at the national level. Lincoln and Eleanor Ragsdale played a key role in raising necessary and vital funds to help support and bankroll this movement.

Lincoln Ragsdale Jr.:
So we're coming up here to the main part of Encanto Park .

Narrator:
In addition to school desegregation, the Ragsdales also worked tirelessly to initiate the desegregation of residential areas around Phoenix , starting with the Palmcroft-Encanto District.

Lincoln Ragsdale Jr.:
The only people had access to live here were White people; no Blacks, no Hispanics.

Herbert Ely:
The Ragsdales really integrated, were the pioneers of integrating housing.

Matthew C. Whitaker, Ph.D.:
Eleanor was so clever. You know, one of the first things that she did after she stopped teaching to help Lincoln in the businesses was get a real estate's agent license.

Narrator:
In 1953, Eleanor Ragsdale used her real estate license to purchase a house for the family in an All-White neighborhood, and in doing so, initiated a residential desegregation movement which resonated throughout the State.

Lincoln Ragsdale Jr.:
This is where I grew up, 1606 West Thomas. There was no public accommodations in the neighborhood, you couldn't use the bathroom at the gas station down the street in the neighborhood.

Matthew C. Whitaker, Ph.D.:
And they were, to a certain degree, terrorized when they moved into the home. They were then greeted with the "N" word in big black letters on their white block wall on the side of their house. The purchase of that first house in a White neighborhood was a declaration of dignity and possibility. It was a statement. You know, "we can do this, too, and you're going to have to deal with it."

Narrator:
Lincoln and Eleanor Ragsdale spent their lives fighting for the dignity and possibility of Civil Rights. Their efforts in the Southwest played an integral and enduring role in the larger American Civil Rights story.

Herbert Ely:
I think the legacy of the Ragsdales is that they accomplished so much in the Civil Rights Movement with dignity and a kindred spirit and not one full of animus and hate, and I think that's their biggest legacy.