In 1952, Rubin Salter Jr. left his native Mississippi and traveled to Tucson, Arizona, to attend the University of Arizona. He chose the University because he wanted to attend a school that wasn't segregated. Years later, a 40-year desegregation suit against the Tucson Unified School District became the defining case in his distinguished legal career.
Last May, Salter sat down with Aengus Anderson, digital media producer in the UA Libraries, to talk about the case in detail. The resulting interview is part of Archive Tucson, an oral history project from UA Libraries' Special Collections.
Oral histories capture aspects of life that often are invisible in written history or archival documents. They also preserve the experiences of people who may not leave a written record, which can help keep entire groups of people from vanishing from the historical record. And, of course, they do all of this in the person's actual voice.
"Sometimes, an oral history captures the raw emotion of an experience, such as being turned away from a restaurant," Anderson explained. "Other times, it records details that seem too mundane to write down, but actually illuminate an important historical change."
Anderson recorded the interviews in Salter's Tucson office, where the two men were surrounded by boxes of records from the TUSD desegregation case.
"How much has changed in the Tucson Unified School District since the lawsuit started?" Anderson asked.
"Very little," answered Salter, who earned a bachelor's degree in political science in 1956 and was one of the first black graduates of the UA law school in 1964. "Obviously, the blacks are still at the low end of the achievement gaps, we're still at the high end of suspensions. Dropouts have improved a little bit and graduation rates a little bit. But the major thing is we're significantly still behind."
"As Rubin's story unfolded, it became clear that two hours weren't going to be enough time to cover all of the subjects I knew I wanted to discuss, let alone the subjects Rubin mentioned that I didn't know I wanted to discuss," Anderson said.
One of those topics was the Beau Brummel Club, a social club founded in Tucson in 1936 as a place for African-Americans to hang out during the era of "whites only" establishments.
"It was a time when rich Midwesterners and (some) from the East were coming to Tucson to winter," Salter said of the mid-1930s. "Well, they brought with them their house employees. They worked as butlers and maids. They were black, that class, but they were the ones within the black community that had a little more education than the others. They had been exposed to the lifestyle of the rich.
"Wednesday night was a traditional night off for the butlers and the other employees, but they had no place to go. So they decided to form this club, the Beau Brummel Club. It was their way of establishing royalty and society. They were emulating the people they worked for. They knew fine jewelry, they knew fur coats, but they had no place to go to show it off. So they decided to have an annual ball. It spread like wildfire between St. Louis and San Francisco. The people clamored, in the late '30s and early '40s, to go to the Beau Brummel Ball in Tucson. It was a big deal."
Salter's interview, which you can listen to on Soundcloud, is the second in a three-part series Anderson recorded last year. Another notable black oral history is that of Charles Kendrick, whose family moved to Tucson in the mid-1930s. Kendrick's oral history covers topics such as racial politics and law, World War II and its impact on civil rights, the role of the military and federal contractors such as Hughes Aircraft in breaking up Tucson's informal systems of employment discrimination, and Kendrick's experiences applying to the UA College of Pharmacy and the discrimination he experienced along the way.
Archive Tucson currently contains 41 oral histories including UA past president John Schaefer, retired UA anthropologist Bernard "Bunny" Fontana, and former New Jersey Nets and UA basketball player Bob Elliott. The entire set can be found at https://soundcloud.com/uazlibraries/sets/ual-oral-history-project.