Annie Sykes

When You Are Black and a Woman, You Walk Two Sides of the Street.

The VFA would like to thank Sheila Tobias, Convenor of the Tucson-Based group of activists, Dean J.P. Jones, Univ, of Arizona, College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Jennifer Croissant, Chair, Gender and Women’s Studies, David Sanchez, Videographer and Editor, and Graduate Student Ruben Ernesto Zecena. Interview conducted March 2019.

Hello, my name is Annie Sykes. I was born in 1950 in Kansas City, Kansas. My parents, Jack and Benny Sykes. My mother was from Arkansas. My dad was from Louisiana. I was the second oldest of nine children. My parents weren’t highly educated. However, they were self-educated.

I went to an all African-American elementary school and high school. I didn’t encounter going to school mixed until I went to college. Kansas City had been deemed a very progressive city because a lot of the African-Americans there, they owned their own businesses. So, you could go to the movies. You could go to the stores and you actually never had to encounter any other people other than your own kind.

When I was in high school and in the 9th grade, I was wanting a summer job and so one of the things that came up was that they were allowing girls to pump gas. For those of you who have no knowledge of ever having somebody else that pumps your gas and checks your hood that was the way it was during that time in the 1960s. So, we went and worked for Standard Oil and we had Standard Oil shirts and caps. They taught us how to check the air in the tires, how to check transmission, and oil and the windshield wipers, and all of that and pump gas. So that was our summer job and it was a novelty, because not many young women were doing any of that kind of work. That was considered man’s work back in those days.

That was my first foray into being an individualist where I didn’t see the lines that said I couldn’t do this, or I couldn’t do that especially in the way of work. As I went on into high school,  I was in the seventh grade I believe when President Kennedy was killed. I remember the day very vividly because in those days the whole family would sit in front of the television. That’s when the whole civil rights struggle was captured on television. And we were very sad at our school. Our principal came over the P.A. system, we said a prayer and he talked to us about our president having been assassinated. I’m a senior in high school and it’s April 1968. We’re due to graduate in May.

Martin Luther King gets assassinated and the principal came over the P.A. system again and spoke to the students about how to act, about being civil and going on with our day. Half way through the day I heard a rumbling in the hall, a bunch of kids running. They went to the integrated school and they came to our school. In those days they didn’t lock their doors or anything like that you know people could just come into school which is something else somebody might not understand. They came running through the halls. They were coming to get us to get us out of school so we could go into the streets and protest.

I happened to be in what we call the big room. The big room would have about four English classes in there. You went into the big room once a week. It was like a movie, somebody said if we all go we won’t be penalized. An older teacher and Mrs. Bloodsworth threw herself in front of the door and said – Don’t go – don’t go, remember your degrees. Because we were all seniors and slated to graduate. She was afraid that if we made this move to go out into the streets to protest we would be endangering our diplomas.

Needless to say, we still poured out into the street. We only had integrated staff at that time. We had been a school that was hard to integrate. The motto was, “two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate.” Our staff was integrated. They took the integrated staff, our Anglo staff and they locked them into the teachers’ lounge to protect them. I don’t think anybody was thinking anything about those teachers. But as a precautionary measure. We all poured out into the streets and we headed to City Hall.  

Boston Daniels actually became the chief of police, who was a black man and the then Mayor met us on the on the steps of City Hall. We had some people who were our spokespersons and they told us about getting our grievances together and having a meeting at the school. That evening our city went into curfew because there were protests and riots. We were in lockdown for a couple of days. That was another realization, is that walk when you are black and a woman. You walk two sides of the street. You are always black and then you are also a secondary person if you are a black woman.

Take it all the way back, even when the suffrage movement was on and the women were trying to get the right to vote, yes we had Sojourner Truth and some others that were spokespeople for the feminist movement. But when it came time for them to finally get what they wanted, they could not drag us over the finish line. There was that political thing that it was better for them to leave us behind and get their right to vote, which was the I believe the 15th Amendment. Black women did not get the right to vote until the 19th amendment. I wanted to plug that in there to say that we’re really not the same as our Anglo sisters. We’ve always had to straddle the fence per sé.

I left there and I was the first person in my family to go to college and I went to Emporia State Teacher’s College. I was roommates with, it was a big room –  it was four of us and we had two Anglo girls. They came from towns in Kansas that had no black people, so we started to have some problems. They were having more having problems I think than we were. Ultimately, their families had them move from our dorm room.

So even as you go into higher education and because we hadn’t encountered that many Anglo people in our daily lives it was a difference and I’m sure it was a difference for those young ladies from the small towns that didn’t have any African-Americans in the town. And then we ended up having that big room all to ourselves. They never put anybody else in there. It was not a school that was well integrated, but it was integrated. I had a child and I came home, and I still went to college. I went to St. Francis Donnelley which was a two-year college and worked and raised my child.

I then moved to Arizona. I was engaged to a man here and started my life in Arizona. After being here two months I actually had two job offers. One was with the YWCA and the other one was with the detention center. The reason why the YWCA had offered me the Y Teen position, was that I had worked in a YWCA in Kansas City. And it was an African-American YWCA so I had that experience. I didn’t take the YWCA job. I thought that the detention center job actually had the better benefits at that time.

But in 1975, I actually went to work for The Tucson Urban League and at the Urban League I met some ladies and we heard about the Women’s Commission. Somebody had put out an invitation – they needed African-American women to come over to this meeting. That is when I met Alison Hughes. She formed a group called the Black Women’s Awareness Task Force Committee. We were a committee of her Women’s Commission. One of the several diverse groups. I started to work with Alison on some things and we had our own person that was the chair of our committee.

But soon after that, the Black Women’s Task Force left the auspices of the Women’s Commission and became the Black Women’s Awareness Task Force, a separate entity. While I was doing all of that I took a part time job with an organization called the Young Women’s Company. The Young Women’s Company’s mandate was to train young ladies in non-traditional areas. We gathered young ladies who were interested in working in the areas of painting, electrical wiring, landscaping, all those kinds of things like that. We even looked for ways in which they could get internships.

I remember them trying to set up an internship for young [lady] to learn how to be a lock and key specialist. There were people in the community who had homes that they needed work to be done on, one of which they put in an actual alarm system in one of those homes. We hired people who were experts in their areas and then they trained the young ladies to do these non-traditional jobs. So that was one of my forays as you might say into the quote – unquote movement. I loved it but I was still working two jobs and I had my child. I actually had to come away from the Young Women’s Company and just work the one job for a little bit.

I became the secretary to the board of the YWCA while I was still working at the Urban League. At that time, we had transitional housing for ladies that were just coming out of prison. We did the work of helping these ladies transition back into the world from prison. And at that time, they actually had spaces at the Y where they would live.  

I did that from 1975 to 1982 and I decided I was going to go back to college. I enrolled in the University of Arizona and I started the trek of finishing my degree so I could have a bachelor’s degree. Now one of the civil rights, and I have to talk about civil rights because all of these things are kind of in the same bag.

While I was at the University of Arizona, we started the University of Arizona Black Alumni. The Black Alumni negotiated with the university. The numbers at the university at that time weren’t good in terms of minorities.  They said OK here’s what we’ll do – if you guys come up with the matching funds for an endowment then we will match your funds dollar for dollar. We had a fund raiser. One of the big things we had was a fund raiser which was an alumni basketball game that was put on by the University of Arizona Black Alumni. We raised the money to endow and to have an endowment at the university that still exists. I myself graduated in 1984 at that time –  then I had a degree.  

I was back at the Women’s Commission during those days when I could be. They had some information on discrimination. I was sort of a subject – as I was hired for a job in 1989, a reverse discrimination. I was selected over an Anglo woman to get a job and that Anglo woman sued the city of Tucson. It went on for about four years. One of the things I do have to say, during that time I was with The Clarion newspaper. I was on the board of The Clarion and I had support from my Anglo sisters on The Clarion newspaper for what I was going through. I respect that and I remember those days and that is where I saw a true sisterhood.  

It was the Women’s Commission during that time when I said that I was in a hostile work environment. Marcia Moye was the head of the Women’s Commission and she came to me, talked to me and set up an appointment with the lady who was then running the department for the city of Tucson. With her help I was able to be transferred out of that department because of the existing situation. So there again the Women’s Commission has sort of been in my life on and off for years. I sit here now; I am currently a commissioner with the Women’s Commission.

Alison Hughes, once I retired from the City of Tucson, brought me back in to help with women’s issues and we are still doing our best to help with women’s issues. I also am with the NAACP. As I say, it’s a careful balance for me being a woman and being black. NAACP has gone through a lot of different changes. I am a former vice president of the NAACP. I am currently on their executive board as an at large member.  

Women’s issues are still big issues with our community because we still aren’t getting paid that kind of money that – if a woman is getting 79%, black women are only getting 60%. So, we have that disparity that’s haunted us for years and years. Hopefully it will be something that can one day be done away with. But working together is one of the things I hope that we can do and not have differences. I don’t know that I’ll be around for that, but I hope I will.