Willie Ophelia Mitchell

Willie Ophelia Mitchell died at 98 in l983. Her father was a part-Indian slave in the South. She lived on a farm east of town and later moved into Lawrence. She was a member of Ninth Street Baptist Church and taught at Lincoln School and in the rural black Bloomington community near Clinton Lake.

Willie Ophelia Watson Hopkins Mitchell
July 5, 1977

Interview by Curtis Nether

MR. NETHER: Could you give us your full name?

MRS. MITCHELL: Willie Ophelia Watson Hopkins.

MR. NETHER: Are you married, Mrs. Mitchell?


MR. NETHER: How many children do you have?


MR. NETHER: How old is your son?

MRS. MITCHELL: Thirty or so.

MR. NETHER: What were your parents' names?

MRS. MITCHELL: John Hopkins.

MR. NETHER: And your mother?

MRS. MITCHELL: Melinda Jane Hopkins. John Henry Hopkins.


MRS. MITCHELL: My father.

MR. NETHER: Where was your father born?

MRS. MITCHELL: Now, I can't tell you.

MR. NETHER: Do you know what section of the country he was born in? Was he from the South?

MRS. MITCHELL: He's from the South. He was part Indian and John Henry Hopkins was his name, and he was slaved down that way, and let me get it right now. I have got some nerves I don't do so good. He was there and he was turned loose there, you know what I mean, and my mother went down there,  took my grandmother and mother down there and then they were freed. They were married there. That's how come my mother down there.

MR. NETHER: Where was your mother born?

MRS. MITCHELL: Kentucky.

MR. NETHER: When did your father and your mother first come to Douglas County?

MRS. MITCHELL: Douglas County. I remember them coming here, but I can't tell you the time.



MR. NETHER: Were you born here in Douglas County?

MRS. MITCHELL: No. Across the river in, what's that other county?

MR. NETHER: Wyandotte.

MRS. MITCHELL: No, right next to Lawrence.

MR. NETHER: Leavenworth?

MRS. MITCHELL: Leavenworth. I think it's Leavenworth.

MR. NETHER: Do you remember when you came to Douglas County?

MRS. MITCHELL: Douglas County. I was a little child.

MR. NETHER: Mrs. Mitchell, don't worry about ages, but you were a little girl when you came?


MR. NETHER: That's close enough for me. Mrs. Mitchell, do you know why your family moved to Douglas County?

MRS. MITCHELL: The place that they were on was sold, then that's how they come to Douglas County.

MR. NETHER: Were your parents farmers?


MR. NETHER: Where did you first live when you came to Douglas County?

MRS. MITCHELL: We had been here a long time. Ask me again the question.

MR. NETHER: Why did you come to Douglas County?

MRS. MITCHELL: I don't know. I was a child and I couldn't hardly tell you that, they were on. When you are out on farms, see, went from one what you call it to the other.

MR. NETHER: Where did you first live at when you came here?

MRS. MITCHELL: You mean in this—

MR. NETHER: Yes, ma'am.

MRS. MITCHELL: Now, here in Lawence?

MR. NETHER: In Douglas County.

MRS. MITCHELL: Out right east of us here.


MRS. MITCHELL: I can't remember. It's just, oh, goodness, if I could remember the school we went to, that would tell you where we were. Now, before we come in to Lawrence, we were right east of Lawrence.

MR. NETHER: When did you move into the town of Lawrence?

MRS. MITCHELL: That's what I mean. I was in the third grade, something like that, because I remember going into the school, would hold so many different places for us to go, and I remember that because when we was out in the country, we just had one big place, all the same place.

MR. NETHER: Why did you move into town?

MRS. MITCHELL: They sold the place where we were on. We didn't own it, you see, then they sold it. Then we moved into Lawrence and we have been in there since.

MR. NETHER: What kind of job did your father have once he got into Lawrence?

MRS. MITCHELL: He still went backwards and forth to the country, hiring things and do things for himself and all like that. He works for himself and then helped us that way.

MR. NETHER: Mrs. Mitchell. What did Lawrence look like when you first moved here? What were the houses like? What were the streets like?

MRS. MITCHELL: Well, I can remember that. The streets were not paved, and we would often see the horses slide and try to pull through the mud and all of that kind of stuff. We were little bitty children, you see. And then they would have the sidewalks all in wood, all wood.

MR. NETHER: Wooden sidewalks?

MRS. MITCHELL: Yes, all of that. And our schools was different from the schools out in the country, and we had different places to sit. Different rooms. We were in different rooms, and then we would come into Lawrence. And now what else do you think about the school?

MR. NETHER: You say now in Lawrence once you got here you had different rooms to sit in?


MR. NETHER: You mean the black children—

MRS. MITCHELL: No. The different grades.

MR. NETHER: Where would the children in the first grade sit up front?

MRS. MITCHELL: Here in Lawrence?


MRS. MITCHELL: Oh, they had different rooms. The first and all the first three years, then on up until they go on higher school.

MR. NETHER: Mrs. Mitchell, how old are you?

MRS. MITCHELL: I am ninety-two years old.

MR. NETHER: What was north Lawrence like when you first came to Douglas County? When you first came to Lawrence?

MRS. MITCHELL: It was kind of pretty. It had great big places. It was pretty.

MR. NETHER: Real pretty?

MRS. MITCHELL: Yes. There wasn't so many houses. Kind of brushed out, and they had nice places to go and all like that.


MRS. MITCHELL: And it was a little church here and a little church. The people would come into different denominations. They would have that, and they had for children.

MR. NETHER: Did many black families live in north Lawrence at that time?

MRS. MITCHELL: Yes, according to the number.

MR. NETHER: Would you say that most of the people in north Lawrence were black?

MRS. MITCHELL: No. I was just a child, when I came in there, and then my folks moved over on this side of the street. I know they had schools there with black and whites different. I don't know whether they did that—I think I know because some of the black people wanted a schoolhouse for children for somebody to teach, but they wouldn't let the blacks teach, so therefore they had to have a schoolhouse for black people. That was the reason they were. And I have taught in that school.

MR. NETHER: Have you?


MR. NETHER: You have taught in Lincoln School?

MRS. MITCHELL: After I was hardly born, was over there a long time, but I grew up and went up far enough to teach and the first—second teacher.

MR. NETHER: You taught at Lincoln School?


MR. NETHER: What was it like when you taught there? Could you get supplies, school supplies, when you needed them?

MRS. MITCHELL: How's that?

MR. NETHER: Could you get all the school supplies you needed when you were a teacher?


MR. NETHER: Were the kids pretty good? Did they listen? Did they pay attention?

MRS. MITCHELL: They were all kinds of children there. Some of them would want to fight you and all, and some will be so timid they would cry at the least.

MR. NETHER: Did you ever take the kids outside for recreation?


MR. NETHER: What kind of games did they play?

MRS. MITCHELL: Ring around the Rosie, all that, you know, and leaping, you know, back and forth.

MR. NETHER: Did they have a playground to play on?

MRS. MITCHELL: Oh, yes. Nice big playground, but we had bathrooms.

MR. NETHER: Mrs. Mitchell, how did one of your students let you know if they had to go out and use the outhouse?

MRS. MITCHELL: Raise their hand.

MR. NETHER: Two and what about one?

MRS. MITCHELL: One, to get some water or one do like that and say what is it you want and the child would tell you what he wanted to do, but when they want to go out, they put up two fingers.

MR. NETHER: Mrs. Mitchell, did your kids ever play tricks on you, little childhood pranks?

MRS. MITCHELL: Oh, yes, and so cute. They would get something false and hold it back behind them like that, make you think you are jumping on a snake when you are not, say, "Oh, Mrs. Mitchell, there's a snake." And of course, I would jump up or we would jump up and then they would like it so much.

MR. NETHER: It wouldn't really be a snake, would it?

MRS. MITCHELL: No. Just see you jump.

MR. NETHER: How did you discipline them when they were bad?

MRS. MITCHELL: Some of them would come right after you. You would have to go after them.

MR. NETHER: How did you discipline them? What did you do to them if they were bad?

MRS. MITCHELL: Sometimes whipped them. They would whip the children in school.

MR. NETHER: With a switch?

MRS. MITCHELL: Switches, yes.

MR. NETHER: Were there any other methods of discipline?

MRS. MITCHELL: Make them stand in the corner with their back. Some of them would want to go to the outhouse, and sometimes they would get out there playing ball. I can remember I was a little bad girl sometimes too, and one place the boys it was just like we are here and you can look right out there and the boys couldn't see right, what do you call that? She couldn't see good. She could see, but she was cross-eyed, and we would sit close, just about like we are here now and we can look out and when she was looking you, why you could do anything, but when she's looking at something else, you better take care because she was cross-eyed, and the boys would go out, put up their finger, have to go out, and when they would want to come back in, run back in the school, why they would look up at the window and we would say come on in when she was looking out. See, she was cross-eyed and she was looking out there, we would tell them to come in and have to get—

MR. NETHER: That was one of your teachers?

MRS. MITCHELL: One of my teachers. The name of this school up here? That's her name. What's the name of that school? Cordley School. That's her name.

MR. NETHER: Was it named after her?


MR. NETHER: Was she a black teacher?

MRS. MITCHELL: No, she's a white teacher. I had only one black teacher.

MR. NETHER: Where was that at?

MRS. MITCHELL: Down at the New York School here in Lawrence.

MR. NETHER: Who was it?

MRS. MITCHELL: You said it. His brother is still—it was at New York School and the man that—

MR. NETHER: Harvey.

MRS. MITCHELL: Harvey. One of the Harveys.

MR. NETHER: Was it Ed Harvey?

MRS. MITCHELL: Ed Harvey's brother.

MR. NETHER: Maude Harvey?

MRS. MITCHELL: No, it was the fellow that taught in the school, brother to what Harvey did you say?

MR. NETHER: Ed. Mrs. Mitchell, did you ever teach in any other school besides Lincoln?


MR. NETHER: Where else did you teach?

MRS. MITCHELL: Out here in Bloomington.

MR. NETHER: How did you happen to start teaching in Bloomington?

MRS. MITCHELL: They asked me to teach out there, and so I went out there for one year, and then I taught in Lawrence until I married.

MR. NETHER: Was the pay better in Bloomington that it was here in Lawrence?

MRS. MITCHELL: Just about two dollars and a half higher.

MR. NETHER: Higher?  Did you like Bloomington?

MRS. MITCHELL: It was fine, but the people in Bloomington, all they had to do for the year was to see what the teacher was doing, and oh, my goodness, it was kind of bad out there.

MR. NETHER: How large was the school that you taught at in Bloomington?

MRS. MITCHELL: About as big as these two rooms here, wider.

MR. NETHER: Pretty small. Not a real big school?

MRS. MITCHELL: No. And all of the kids from first to last was in that one room.

MR. NETHER: How was the school financed out there?

MRS. MITCHELL: I think I got $42 a month.

MR. NETHER: Who paid you your salary?

MRS. MITCHELL: I don't know. I come in town. I would get it out here. This was Douglas County, and the Douglas County man would get it out, and then they would give us the money.

MR. NETHER: Where would you pick up your money at, your pay? Did they bring it to you on the job?

MRS. MITCHELL: No, I would have to come in, if I remember; we would have to go to the courthouse and get it.

MR. NETHER: How many students did you have in your one class?

MRS. MITCHELL: All the classes were in one room.


MRS. MITCHELL: And I would have from the first to the eighth.

MR. NETHER: Did many of the students, did they all have textbooks? Was it enough money to finance the schools so that each child could have the supplies that he needed?

MRS. MITCHELL: Yes. I think the students had to buy their own books.


MRS. MITCHELL: And I think we had some there, some books there, that we could let the children use.

MR. NETHER: Was this an all-black school?

MRS. MITCHELL: All black.

MR. NETHER: What about the town of Bloomington? Was it all black?

MRS. MITCHELL: No. there was a lot of them there.

MR. NETHER: What were some of the families that lived in Bloomington?

MRS. MITCHELL: Now, I know them, but you see how I am—I don't—

MR. NETHER: Was it the Kisers?

MRS. MITCHELL: Lot of Kisers.

MR. NETHER: Simpsons?


MR. NETHER: The Nelsons?

MRS. MITCHELL: Don't remember any Nelsons.

MR. NETHER: What about the Mitchells?

MRS. MITCHELL: The Mitchells.

MR. NETHER: The Mitchells were there too. Were there a family of Mitchells that were born in Bloomington?


MR. NETHER: Are you related to those Mitchells?


MR. NETHER: By marriage?


MR. NETHER: Were most of the people in Bloomington related in some way or another?

MRS. MITCHELL: Yes, they were, lot of them were.

MR. NETHER: How long did you teach in Bloomington?

MRS. MITCHELL: Just one time and then I come to Lawrence.

MR. NETHER: Why did you stop teaching in Bloomington? Did you get married then?

MRS. MITCHELL: No, I didn't get married there. I got mad there. They didn't have anything to do but to watch after what the people was doing in the school, and then they had one church.

MR. NETHER: Were the school pretty strict?

MRS. MITCHELL: Supposed to be, but the children were so bad. Some things I hate to tell you they would do. See, they would go from what they call first reader up until they were in their teenager, you call them up there. And they were mean and dirty and everything nasty you would have to go through with them. Girls and boys were pretty bad, and it was awful, and I was glad when it was out.

MR. NETHER: Did the parents take interest in the children's education?

MRS. MITCHELL: That's the trouble. If they was to want them to look after their education it would be all right, but there was always trying to do something that the teacher didn't do or something like that.

MR. NETHER: Did you go back to Lincoln School to teach?

MRS. MITCHELL: Lincoln was first. You mean after I married—

MR. NETHER: After you came from Bloomington, what school did you teach at?

MRS. MITCHELL: Here in Lawrence, that's what I did, yes, here in Lawrence, and then I taught married.

MR. NETHER: After you married, did you continue to teach?

MRS. MITCHELL: No. They didn't but that was the thing, if I had waited just about another year before I married, I could have gone right on teaching, but if you married, you had to stop teaching.


MRS. MITCHELL: Before that.

MR. NETHER: Did Lincoln School have a PTA organization?

MRS. MITCHELL: I don't think so.

MR. NETHER: Mrs. Mitchell, how did white people and black people relate to each other here in Douglas County? Could you go to any restaurant and eat that you wanted?

MRS. MITCHELL: When? About the same era that you are talking about the schools?

MR. NETHER: Yes. When you were a teacher.



MRS. MITCHELL: For a while or after a while there was one where they both go eat, usually was all men.

MR. NETHER: Were there any black businesses here in Lawrence?


MR. NETHER: Do you know the names of any?

MRS. MITCHELL: There was, where you send your clothes?

MR. NETHER: Cleaners.

MRS. MITCHELL:  Cleaners. He was fine and he came here, I think, from the South. And he did well here until he died. They had an awful fire in one of the places and he tried to get out and burned him all over his face and everything like that, but he kept on going there, and but he finally died suddenly, I think.

MR. NETHER: Were there any other businesses?

MRS. MITCHELL: Yes. Lot of ones who would go in and eat.

MR. NETHER: Restaurants?

MRS. MITCHELL: Yes, restaurants and things like that.

MR. NETHER: What kind of restaurants? What kinds of foods did they serve?

MRS. MITCHELL: Oh, good food, I don't see just what they wouldn't be just about like they are now.

MR. NETHER: Okay. A variety of foods?

MRS. MITCHELL: Yes. Variety. It was good.


MRS. MITCHELL: And sometimes you could find three. Now, there's one down on Nineteenth Street. You go right straight down, down there. Then had one right straight up on the street was right west of Massachusetts Street and that was on—

MR. NETHER: Vermont?


MR. NETHER: Mrs. Mitchell, do you see any major changes that has taken place here in Douglas County?

MRS. MITCHELL: What kind?

MR. NETHER: In any way, in the way that people relate to one another, in the school systems?

MRS. MITCHELL: Oh so much.

MR. NETHER: What kind of changes have taken place here?

MRS. MITCHELL: They were tight and they didn't seem to come out at all like they do now, look after the child. Instead of doing—

MR. NETHER: Trying to watch the teacher?

MRS. MITCHELL: Yes, something like that. And the black women and men are teachers here in the school, aren't they? Don't they have the black teachers here?

MR. NETHER: Yes, they have four.

MRS. MITCHELL: Four. Now, if enough black children to make a place, why, they would have black children there. There was one in north Lawrence, and the black people wanted to have one instead of letting it go on like they had a black school, so this woman could teach, and I had taught there a little bit at first. Now you don't have to do that. I haven't been out among them very much lately.

MR. NETHER: Are you saying there used to be a lot of pressure put on teachers here?

MRS. MITCHELL: Pressure?

MR. NETHER: Yes. To be morally straight?

MRS. MITCHELL: OH, yes. They couldn't find one now, maybe. I have been here lots longer than you people have. There's such a change in people.

MR. NETHER: How have people changed? What's the difference in their attitudes now?

MRS. MITCHELL: Oh, their attitudes now do anything you want so long as you don't hurt me nowadays. They will do anything you want to do and things I see them doing, I wish I would have some of the old folks come back right now and sit around and let them watch. Why, the way we wear out clothes and all, why they would have you arrested.

MR. NETHER: They would?

MRS. MITCHELL: Yes, they would have you arrested and I know one little woman, she wasn't just quite there, little white woman, and she put on dresses up to her knees just think of it, and when she would go down the street, we would all look, and she would switch and smile, and look at us, like that. And times getting a little looser and my sister that's gone and I had to get out of the car on the right-hand side and my knee come out, and she said, "Ophelia! Look. You are showing your legs." And I didn't think very much about it, but I didn't say anything to my oldest sister. And I see so many times I sit on the place I would like to have some of my relatives come and see the women go by. Just two pieces and barefooted.


MR. NETHER: Mrs. Mitchell, I want to ask you another question about Bloomington. Was it a proud community?


MR. NETHER: Was it a proud community, Bloomington?

MRS. MITCHELL: Somebody may call it. I didn't think it was.

MR. NETHER: Yes. Were they proud of their town?

MRS. MITCHELL: I don't know. There's one place out there and the children grew up proud children, and they did pretty good, but now, too, I know more than that, there's two, but they were then like they are now, they don't care about anything.

MR. NETHER: Do you attend church, Mrs. Mitchell?

MRS. MITCHELL: Yes, but not as much as I used to. I help them in there, work in there and all, but since I don't get around and my son, he's always doing something, and kind of cuts off me, so I don't get there as often as I like.

MR. NETHER: What church do you attend when you go?

MRS. MITCHELL: The Ninth Street Baptist.

MR. NETHER: How long have you been attending Ninth Street?

MRS. MITCHELL: Ever since I was seven years old. I was baptized there, at 7:00 o'clock in the morning we got baptized, whole lot of us. I have been in there ever since I was seven years old.

MR. NETHER: How were you baptized? What did they do to you?

MRS. MITCHELL: They had a big trough full of water, and we all got on our little jackets and we put rocks down here so they wouldn't float up on top of the water, and we took them in there, there was a string as long as these two places, and so we would walk in the water, walk in there and walk in the water, and the preacher would say what it was all about, and dip us.

MR. NETHER: Would he dip you whole body?

MRS. MITCHELL: The whole body. He would tell us to hold, and then he would take the whole body.

MR. NETHER: Do you see any major changes in the church now?


MR. NETHER: What kind of differences are there? What kind of changes are there?

MRS. MITCHELL: They are more like a nice little jiggy. We have gone to jigging and more—we used to sing songs and preaching and I went not so long ago I went there and they was hitting, all of that, and the songs were funny.

MR. NETHER: What do you mean by funny?

MRS. MITCHELL: Like you want to dance.

MR. NETHER: It was jazzed up a little bit?

MRS. MITCHELL: Yeah. All jazzed up, and other times we used to do that but we would have everything just right, and they had to sing right, and we would have times between one Sunday to the other to go to whole lot of training for our singing and we would sing just like it was made and now they look like they—just anything they want to say. I don't know. I can't understand it.

MR. NETHER: The ministers are preaching different too?



MRS. MITCHELL: And put on their bibs, they change. So it's just changing. I don't know.

MR. NETHER: Mrs. Mitchell would you want you children to live here in Douglas County or your grandchildren?

MRS. MITCHELL: I don't get away and there's a lot of things go on here, but I can't see that this place is just as good as any other. Seems every place.

MR. NETHER: Have you ever owned a business?

MRS. MITCHELL: Not unless it's chickens. I have got a great big place here and that big barn I had out there.  I rented chicken business and all like that just fine, and then there came along a time when the people wasn't able to buy anything, what you call that.

MR. NETHER: Inflation, surplus?

MRS. MITCHELL: Something like that. So then I went out of that because they just didn't have any money to buy their eggs or chickens or anything, and so I went out of that. I was having chickens and all the other kind of things because I have got about seven—plenty of place for all my things, and that's the reason I had chickens and all that kind of stuff.


MRS. MITCHELL: And then this thing broke down on me, then I stopped.

MR. NETHER: How did you get started in your chicken business?

MRS. MITCHELL: Let's see. I guess I got them in and started out, and I got them ready and asked and told the people that I had chickens and eggs and ducks and other things and Lawrence was buying a whole lot of things at that time, and that's the way I got it there. I don't think I put anything in the what-you-call-it.


MRS. MITCHELL: Just somehow because I told them about my stuff and the people would come.

MR. NETHER: Do you remember Nash and Walker, Williams and Walker?


MR. NETHER: Were they from Lawrence?

MRS. MITCHELL: Yes. One of them, Walker, was.

MR. NETHER: Did you ever catch one of his shows?


MR. NETHER: What kind of show was it?

MRS. MITCHELL: It's something like if they were here now, they would be just right, Williams and Walker.

MR. NETHER: Were they funny? Did they tell jokes?

MRS. MITCHELL: Oh, my, yes.

MR. NETHER: You say if they were here now, it would be perfect?

MRS. MITCHELL: Yes, just a little bit better.

MR. NETHER: Because some people have taken some of their jokes?

MRS. MITCHELL: Not enough.

MR. NETHER: Not enough huh?

MRS. MITCHELL: Not enough of them. Let me see if I can get that together.

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