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Helen McDowell

Born on September 28, 1903, in Abingdon, Virginia, Helen Newberry McDowell was the fourth of fourteen children. Her mother, Caroline, was orphaned in Cleveland, Ohio, and raised by her uncle Frank Donahue in Abingdon, where her mother met her father, Samuel.

McDowell attended Morristown Industrial School, where her mother taught, and went on to Bennett College. Graduating in 1924, she attended Teacher's College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. McDowell then attended Howard University from 1928 to 1931, earning her M.A. in education.

McDowell began teaching in 1925, and after earning her M.A. went on to teach at Morgan State University in Baltimore. In the 1940s, McDowell bought six houses in Washington, D.C., and converted them into rooming houses for students. These buildings became known as the Newberry House and from 1949 to 1973, was the home to hundreds of students from Howard University's School of Religion. McDowell also ran a wedding salon out of Newberry House. McDowell began teaching at Phelps Vocational High School in Washington, D.C., in 1950, and taught English there until her retirement in 1973. She then moved to California with her husband but relocated to Washington D.C. in 1993. McDowell continues to teach

Accession Number

A2003.179

Sex

Female

Interview Date

7/30/2003

Last Name

McDowell

Middle Name

Newberry

Schools

Kings Mountain School

Morristown College

Bennett College for Women

Howard University

First Name

Helen

Birth City, State, Country

Abingdon

HM ID

MCD01

Favorite Season

Birthday

State

Virginia

Favorite Vacation Destination

California

Favorite Quote

If a task is once begun, never leave it till it's done. Be the labor great or small, do it well or not at all.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

District of Columbia

Birth Date

9/28/1903

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Washington

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Bread

Death Date

7/17/2010

Short Description

Lodging entrepreneur and high school english teacher Helen McDowell (1903 - 2010 ) has owned and operated Newberry House, a boarding house for Howard University students, as well as a wedding boutique. McDowell was also a teacher in the Washington D.C. area for over 47 years.

Employment

Morgan State University

Phelps Vocational High School

Newberry House

Board of Education

Favorite Color

Blue

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Helen McDowell's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Helen McDowell lists her favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Helen McDowell talks about her mother's family, childhood, education, and early career

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Helen McDowell describes her mother's thwarted career plans and methods of teaching her children

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Helen McDowell talks about her father and his family's heritage

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Helen McDowell recalls her cousins moving away in 1912 and a happy visit to see them in Los Angeles, California in 1934

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Helen McDowell recounts her father's work as a cook for the Southern Railroad and later for a family in Abingdon, Virginia

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Helen McDowell describes the sights, sounds and smells of her childhood

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Helen McDowell recalls childhood memories, including a word game that she later used when teaching

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Helen McDowell remembers her early education at King's Mountain School in Abingdon, Virginia

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Helen McDowell explains how she was able to attend school despite financial hardships

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Helen McDowell recalls her college education and her first years teaching at a Rosenwald school in Wilkesboro, North Carolina in 1924

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Helen McDowell details her time completing her teacher training at Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Helen McDowell recalls meeting her husband Newberry at Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, pt. 1

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Helen McDowell recalls meeting her husband Newberry at Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, pt. 2

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Helen McDowell recounts her marriage to her husband and their work at an elementary school in Liberty, North Carolina

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Helen McDowell talks about her husband's family in North Carolina

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Helen McDowell recalls happy memories of attending Bennett College and living with her in-laws in North Carolina during 1927

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Helen McDowell explains how she was able to continue at Howard University while raising her siblings after her mother's death in 1931

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Helen McDowell remembers her mentors at Howard University, Washington, D.C.

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Helen McDowell reflects on her religious beliefs and raising her siblings

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Helen McDowell explains how she began operating rooming houses, including the Newberry House

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Helen McDowell recalls Dr. Thomas Wright, a Civil Rights leader who stayed at Newberry House

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Helen McDowell remembers Howard Thurman and his story about Haley's Comet

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Helen McDowell describes how Dr. Benjamin Mays inspired her

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Helen McDowell recalls how Dr. William Leo Hansberry conducted a slide-show lecture at Newberry House

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Helen McDowell mentions Dr. Ernest Everett Just and Dr. E. Franklin Frazier and explains why she does not join organizations

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Helen McDowell talks about the influence of Mary McLeod Bethune and George Washington Carver

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Helen McDowell recalls the highlight of her educational career at Phelps Trade School in Washington, D.C.

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Helen McDowell talks about providing guidance and support for her students

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Helen McDowell describes helping a former student and his family succeed

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Helen McDowell explains her teaching philosophy

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Helen McDowell attributes her longevity to a disciplined and religious life

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Helen McDowell describes her hopes and concerns for the African American community

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Helen McDowell reflects upon her legacy

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Helen McDowell talks about how she would like to be remembered

DASession

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DATitle
Helen McDowell describes the sights, sounds and smells of her childhood
Helen McDowell talks about providing guidance and support for her students
Transcript
Now, what was it like to grow up? What did the place look like? And what were some of the sights and sounds and smells of growing up? What do you remember from your childhood?$$I know we lived in a four-room--in Bell's place, we called it. It was a four-room house. There was a hydrant, the water--there was a hydrant out there on the, I think that hydrant was on the front porch, right by the step. There was one step up to the front porch. And one night the house caught on fire (laughter). Somebody put--there was lamp sitting on the sewing machine. And there was a cover out on the sewing machine. And we were going to bed. We always had family prayer before going to bed. It was Monday night. My father was at a lodge meeting. When mama [Lucy Ellison Newberry] got through with the prayer, we always had a little verse we'd say. I had one brother who never could get enough to eat. And mama always said he had a tapeworm. And, but we got ready to go to bed, mama had a little verse she used to say, "To bed, to bed said sleepyhead". And she'd point out the one, whoever said, "I'm sleepy, let's go to bed." Mama said, "To bed, to bed, said sleepyhead". That'd be that one. "No, no, said, slow. Put on the pot said, greedy gut"--that's Carl. "Let's eat before we go." Every night, we'd go off to bed saying that. And on our way to bed that night, somebody pulled--that cover on the machine had tassels on it. And somebody pulled one of the tassels and pulled the lamp off of the sewing machine. That's the only reason I have that lamp today. There's a lamp on that commode, over there by the window. That's what we used to see, but I keep that for old time's sake (laughter). They pulled the lamp off of the machine, and the oil exploded and set the lamp on fire--I mean set the cover on that machine on fire. And it went up and burnt the curtains. And one of the boys pulled the curtain down, and he pulled it down. Instead of throwing it out the door, he threw it on the floor, and that caught the rug on fire. And (unclear) then the older brothers got the, went out there to this faucet (laughter), and got water and put the fire out. And they wet the floor all over. My father [Samuel Newberry] was at a lodge meeting. And when he came home, he smelled something burning and said, "What's burning?" Mama never did tell him. She never did tell him what happened--$Tell us about the jail story again?$$Oh, I went down to jail as a character witness for one of my students. And while there, they had a group of prisoners waiting to come into court. And I went by there, and I saw a lot of 'em put their hands up over their faces when they saw me. And I said, you needn't hide your faces. I know you by the shoes 'cause they had ole dirty tennis shoes all the time (laughter). And they laughed. They said, Ms. Newberry [Helen McDowell], I knew you would know who I was (laughter). I didn't know them. I didn't even know that--if they hadn't done that, I wouldn't have known if they (unclear), you know. But I told 'em I knew 'em from--but that school, I never--every time I'd see anybody with some shoes untied, I'd make him stop and tie his shoes up. And then those were days they were wearing plaits [braids]. I told 'em men didn't wear plaits on their heads. And I'd make 'em go get those plaits off there. I wouldn't let 'em in my classroom with plaits on their head. And then when they started to wearing "bush" (laughter), I had a time fighting all that during the '60s [1960s] stuff that was coming in. But, and then when my students were beginning to use dope, you know, dope was coming in at that time. And I had one little boy--I can't think of that child's name. At any rate, he had a name that could be pronounced two different ways. If I call it one thing, then all the students would tell me to pronounce it another way, and--but at any rate, one morning I called his name. I had my students seated in alphabetical order, and I didn't have to call the roll. I'd just look at the seat, I'd know who would be absent. And Montague, but, oh, yeah, I called him Montigue [ph.]. And they'd say Montague, Ms. Newberry. If I'd say Montague, they'd say "Montigue". Anyway, when I called his name one morning, they said, he won't be coming anymore, Ms. Newberry. I said, why? Said, he got killed last night. He robbed a filling station down there at Fourth and Front Avenue [Washington, D.C.]. And he put his gun on the man, got $30.00, and he kept the gun on the man until he got back to his car. And when he turned around to get in the car, the man shot him in the back. And he died with the $30.00 in one hand and his gun in the other. When they told me about that, I'm telling you all, I felt so badly. I broke, I started crying. I couldn't stop crying to save my soul. That hurt my heart. And all the rest of that day, I could not teach. I couldn't do a thing. And I think after that, the students, their attitude, their conduct and everything about them changed completely. They were the most wonderful students, and when you hear about all this stuff going on, there's never one of my students involved. And when they had the riot, I told all of 'em to go home. I said, don't follow the crowds. You follow the crowd, somebody's gon' get hurt. And they--I said, go home. One of my boys got burned up in the Five and Ten Cents store up on 14th Street [Washington, D.C.], one of the best boys in my class, in any of my classes, nice boy. They said he went home and changed clothes and then followed a group of boys back into the streets. I went to his funeral. They just had his picture on the casket 'cause he was burnt up. You know, those students have never forgotten me (laughter). Those boys just, they just seemed like my children, and so I love every one of 'em. And they loved me. They call me. They always want to do something for me. They call every day. I got some of 'em, I haven't turned loose since they were in the tenth grade.

Erma L. Clanton

Playwright, lyricist and teacher Erma Clanton was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on February 5, 1923, the fourth of eight children. After graduating from Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Clanton went to Alabama State University in Montgomery, where she earned a B.S. in 1945. She would later go on to earn a master's of theater and communication from the University of Memphis in 1969 and a doctor of humane letters from the Tennessee School of Religion in 2001.

After completing her bachelor's degree, Clanton went to work teaching English and speech at Melrose High School in Memphis, where she remained until 1969. During that time, she was actively involved in several productions performed by her students. In 1970, Clanton became an associate professor at the University of Memphis, where she taught theater and communications. Also during this time, Clanton began creating her own work, with her first piece, Roots, Rhymes & Righteous Times (An Evening of Soul) performed at the University of Memphis in 1971 and continuing under her direction until 1991. She went on to create and direct many more shows over the years, including Listen Children, God's Trombones, Black Pearls of the World, and Gifted & Black - On the Right Track. Along with her creation and direction of the shows, Clanton also writes original music. Clanton retired from the University of Memphis in 1991, yet continued to direct her new shows both in Memphis and elsewhere. In 1997 and 1998, she worked with gifted at-risk students at Hamilton High School, and then in 1999 Clanton taught one semester at Le Moyne Owen College.

In addition to her creative exploits, Clanton is active in a number of organizations, including serving as the chairperson of the Evening of Soul Foundation, a board member of Stax/Soulsville USA at the Museum of American Soul Music, and is a twenty-five-year member of the NAACP. She has received the Dr. Martin Luther King Distinguished Service Award from the University of Memphis and the Bronze Jubilee Award from PBS Radio & TV.

Accession Number

A2003.145

Sex

Female

Interview Date

6/26/2003

Last Name

Clanton

Maker Category
Middle Name

L.

Organizations
Schools

Booker T. Washington High School

LaRose Elementary School

Alabama State University

Columbia University

University of Memphis

Search Occupation Category
Speakers Bureau

Yes

Speakers Bureau Availability

Days

First Name

Erma

Birth City, State, Country

Memphis

HM ID

CLA06

Speakers Bureau Preferred Audience

Youth, Singers

Speakers Bureau Honorarium

Yes

Favorite Season

Spring

Speaker Bureau Notes

Preferred Audience: Youth, Singers

State

Tennessee

Favorite Vacation Destination

New York, New York

Favorite Quote

To Thine Own Self Be True.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

Tennessee

Birth Date

2/5/1923

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Memphis

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Chicken, Peach Cobbler

Short Description

Playwright, high school english teacher, and theater professor Erma L. Clanton (1923 - ) wrote plays that showed in Memphis for over thirty years.

Employment

Melrose High School

University of Memphis

Hamilton High School

LeMoyne-Owen College

Favorite Color

Blue, Teal, Purple

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Erma L. Clanton's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Erma L. Clanton lists her favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Erma L. Clanton talks about her paternal family roots and her father

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Erma L. Clanton talks about her mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Erma L. Clanton describes her father

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Erma L. Clanton describes her mother

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Erma L. Clanton talks about her siblings

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Erma L. Clanton recalls lessons her parents taught her as a child

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Erma L. Clanton describes the sights, sounds and smells of her childhood in Memphis, Tennessee

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Erma L. Clanton talks about her experience attending LaRose Elementary School in Memphis, Tennessee

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Erma L. Clanton talks about her mentors at Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Tennessee

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Erma L. Clanton recalls winning a scholarship to Alabama State University at an oratorical contest

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Erma L. Clanton remembers attending Alabama State University in Montgomery, Alabama during World War II

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Erma L. Clanton explains how a college event influenced her musical tastes

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Erma L. Clanton talks about her interest in theater

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Erma L. Clanton talks about the history of oratory in African American communities

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Erma L. Clanton talks about theater and her extracurricular activities at Alabama State University in Montgomery, Alabama

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Erma L. Clanton talks about teaching at Melrose High School in the Orange Mound neighborhood of Memphis, Tennessee

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Erma L. Clanton talks about studying theater at Columbia University in New York City

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Erma L. Clanton talks about attending a Broadway performance of 'Tea and Sympathy' in New York City

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Erma L. Clanton recalls meeting George Washington Carver and attending a performance by Paul Robeson at Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Erma L. Clanton talks about teaching English and speech at Melrose High School in Memphis, Tennessee

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Erma L. Clanton talks about African American vernacular English and the oratorical traditions in black churches

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Erma L. Clanton talks about completing her master's degree and being hired by University of Memphis in Memphis, Tennessee

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Erma L. Clanton talks about her motivations for 'An Evening of Soul'

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Erma L. Clanton talks about the development of her production 'An Evening of Soul'

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Erma L. Clanton talks about the musical influences for 'An Evening of Soul'

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Erma L. Clanton describes the songs in 'An Evening of Soul,' pt. 1

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Erma L. Clanton describes the songs in 'An Evening of Soul,' pt. 2

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Erma L. Clanton talks about the thirtieth-anniversary performance of 'An Evening of Soul'

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Erma L. Clanton describes an Easter pageant she produces for her church

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Erma L. Clanton talks about theater productions at her church [New Sardis Baptist Church, Memphis, Tennessee]

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Erma L. Clanton talks about HistoryMaker Isaac Hayes

Tape: 4 Story: 9 - Erma L. Clanton describes her hopes and concerns for the African American community

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Erma L. Clanton considers those she influenced

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Erma L. Clanton reflects upon what she would have done differently

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Erma L. Clanton reflects upon her legacy

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Erma L. Clanton describes how she would like to be remembered

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Erma L. Clanton narrates her photographs

DASession

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DATitle
Erma L. Clanton talks about her motivations for 'An Evening of Soul'
Erma L. Clanton talks about the development of her production 'An Evening of Soul'
Transcript
But still it was just getting there. Now, you know [Reverend Dr. Martin Luther] King [Jr.] was killed in '68 [1968] so it was- wasn't too far away from all that bad stuff, you know, and so naturally when I went into theater and started doing the shows, it was a reflection of how it was, you know, this--there was a feeling you know that the soul was born out of, the kind of frustration and feeling that we had gone through. I think that's why it was so popular.$$Okay, now this, you're talking about the play 'An Evening of Soul' ['Roots, Rhymes & Righteous Times (An Evening of Soul)']? Now what was the premise of the play and what was--what happened? I mean what was the--$$Okay, so once I was at Memphis State [University, Memphis, Tennessee], now known as the University of Memphis [Memphis, Tennessee], one of the--one of the--one of my duties was to teach a course called "Speech for the Classroom Teachers," and along with public speaking, a course in Reader's Theater and I didn't really have a theater class that I taught 'cause I was really in communication, but I found out that when I was teaching "Speech for the Classroom Teachers" that most of my students were white young girls and young men who were going to be teaching in--to our city kids and they knew nothing which is natural. They knew nothing about the cultural background of teaching black children and the more I taught them, the more I understood that they didn't know, and so I was trying to teach and yet entertain and yet, and I think I did do both you know. That was one of the things and then so along with this particular class there was a thing called a lab course that went with it. And in this lab course I had them to--we had just done 'Hair' at our school at the university and that was the beginning--$$The play, the play 'Hair'--(simultaneous)--$$The play 'Hair.' And that was really the beginning of black and white people getting together on a stage in Memphis [Tennessee] that I can remember, and so it made a lot of media--got a lot of media attention, and so what I decided to do about a year or two later was to organize some kind of production that would kinda talk about the experience through music and song and readings, and in this lab course they had, I had the students to--as I said now, excuse me let me go back. When 'Hair' was done, there was some music in 'Hair' that the words were kinda you know, they were saying a lot of things in 'Hair' and one girl was telling--one of the students was saying that her grandmother was patting her feet--she liked this particular song and the song was really saying a lot of things--were kind of vulgar, you know--$Tell us about 'An Evening of Soul' ['Roots, Rhymes & Righteous Times (An Evening of Soul)']. You know, they tried 'Hair' and I, I, I think from what I read none of the black students got, got, got in 'Hair' or they were kinda or they wanted something to do.$$They wanted something to do but they didn't--they had a few blacks you know and a good--they were talented kids and it was nice.$$And 'Hair" wasn't really an expression of what you know what black folks felt.$$No, 'Hair' was a whole different ball game.$$Everybody took their clothes off at the end (laughter)?$$Yeah, they did, but I don't think they did it at the University [of Memphis, Memphis, Tennessee].$$Okay.$$No, I don't think that they allowed it--$$This is the Bible Belt so--$$That's right, they didn't do that but, but it was a beginning of integration of acting--theater I would say, but 'Evening of Soul' as I was saying I had to let this class do a lab on the music that 'Hair' was doing. That's how it came up this girl was saying, "My mama was--my grandmother was just clapping her--you know stomping her feet to this music. If she had known what they were saying she would have had a fit." I said, "Well you know that's true." I said, "A lot of the songs that we sing we don't--people don't pay attention to the words." I said, "So what I would like for you to do," and this is just the whole class, black and white though, I said, "I want you to find me the lyrics of the blues, find me the lyrics of popular music that they are singing today and just, let's just see what's out there," and that was just an assignment. And so they did, and they came back and they were--it was just really funny because they said, "I didn't know this was saying this or whatever." And so I got the idea, well why don't I just do a production on just lyrics, you know just words, use them as a Readers Theater, and instead of just using all kind of music just use black music and let that be--and divide it into certain categories, and so that's what I did. I divided it into slavery, which is the beginning--in the beginning and 'cause that was not words, we actually used the music for that and then I had the blues and I had passion, songs of passion, songs on the blues, and songs of celebration and [Reverend Dr.] Martin Luther King [Jr.] had just you know, and I took all of this and I put it together as a Readers Theater, but then I met some young--a young lady by the name of Deborah at that time Deborah Manning, Deborah Manning-Thomas now, and she tried out and she had this voice, this unusual voice, very beautiful, big voice, you know, it's good, just--wonderful singer, and that changed my mind about keeping it just on a Readers Theater level. I said oh, well then I can include some music in it, and so it just went on and went on until finally it just became just a production all about the black experience, and so then the categories of course were what was so interesting because you're talking about--you're teaching but you're entertaining and then and you got good--I mean the best talent 'cause these kids hadn't had a platform at all to do anything. So I put an article in the school paper and I said "Students interested in music, especially black music, gospel music to see Ms. Clanton," and I told them the time and everything, and I figured you'd get about five or six, ten at the most. Just all the students, all the black students who were there just about came and tried out and of course I couldn't use all of them, but I did use twenty-two of them. I used twenty-two and they were all good. Some of them weren't that--were weak, but and from that came 'Evening of Soul,' and it grew from one night, one night--it was supposed to have been one night because see I wasn't a theater teacher and I didn't--I had not planned a night, so therefore I only asked them to let me use one night in the little theater and so what I did I contacted the critic, the main critic, media critic, entertainment critic and told him and he came and we did it that one night and it--that was that article I was telling you about that was on the wall, and it just--it was just--I don't know what happened, it just blew--just blew--blew everybody out of the room. It was just wonderful, and so then after the article came--the article was saying that--the critic was saying that it has to be done over. We cannot have it one night. Everybody must see this so by this time the university now is taking note and so they called me in, and they said, "Well Erma you've got to do it again." So I said, "Okay," so we decided to do it in the spring. This was November of '71 [1971].