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First Person > Robert Romer

Robert Romer: Full Interview

portrait of Robert Romer

Interview Clip #1:
At the March on Washington, August 28, 1963

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That was August 1963 and, of course King was very much present that day. It was really near the beginning of the civil rights movement. It was already, what?, six, seven years after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, and about three years after the lunch counter sit–ins began in, what?, North Carolina and that area and a lot of civil rights activity, and a march on Washington was planned. I think John Kennedy was president at the time; it was a few months before he was killed. The administration really didn't encourage this large march and nobody knew quite what was going to happen, and it was very definitely a racially mixed march, and the idea, of course, was a peaceful march but demanding civil rights basically for people of color. And I got involved—well I was busy that summer, I was a young faculty member with two–and–a–half children and I was actually doing research on Long Island that summer at National Laboratory there. I and two of my friends decided at the last minute to go down to the march. And, we didnt know what kind of march it was going to be; we thought of course there might be some violent opposition to us. We had no idea what Washington was going to be like. We actually ran an experiment at the lab all day until about six p.m. and then got in the car and drove to Washington. And, it wasn't really a hardship march. We got to the city, Washington, maybe two. We had a room at the Sheraton. We got up the next morning; we took a taxi to the march [laughs], and for several hours there were lots and lots of people there of course, and we just milled around in the general area of the Washington Monument and eventually we all started moving in the general direction of the Lincoln Memorial. Eventually you couldn't get any closer to the Lincoln Memorial so we sat down on the side of the wading pool and speeches began. One thing that was remarkable about the day was—it was very much, of course, a mixed white and black crowd and everybody was—friendly. There was really a good feeling in the air, and then when the speeches began—it was hot; people were getting hungry; we were getting hungry, and the speeches tended to be kind of repetitious, and then all of a sudden, we weren't even paying much attention—I wasn't—as to exactly who was speaking when, and somebody started talking and I realized—this guy's different, a real speaker, and of course it was Martin Luther King. And, that was a, a very emotional moment; it was, what?, ten minutes perhaps, and I've watched the video of that occasion several times since then and it's still a powerful thing to see. He's quite a speaker and the "I Have a Dream," everybody ought to see that video. Now, there was, there was really such a feeling of optimism in the air. I mean, things were happening. Kennedy was sort of resisting, but there was there was going to be a Voting Rights Act, though it didn't come until Johnson was president and pressured Congress into doing it, but you knew that things were moving and, it was really this wonderful feeling that after all this time, 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, that the race problem was gonna get settled. Well it hasn't been settled yet but there was a great feeling in the air.

One of the memories I have of that afternoon—we had driven down in one of our own cars, but driving back on the Baltimore–Washington expressway looking out the back window and looking out the front window and just seeing, just wall–to–wall buses, hundreds of buses, going back toward Baltimore, going back toward Philadelphia, New York City, and of course people had come from all over the South, too, and what they were going back to was a little bit different from what we were going back to. It was quite a moment in the, well in American history. Nobody, including the Washington police, knew what might happen, but as far as I know there was absolutely no violence that day at all. Not only were there sort of more or less equal numbers of blacks and whites, probably more blacks than whites, but there was no blacks crowding together, no whites crowding together. What's happened when we've had more black students at the college where I teach—which is typical I think—Amherst College, that the black students tend to eat together and live together, and 'tis all understandable, but, it's sort of too bad, and that day there wasn't any feeling like this is a white part of the crowd and this is a black part of the crowd.

Interview Clip #2:
Robert Romer reflects on the legacy of the quest for civil rights


There was just a feeling among people of my generation at that time that—not all of them for sure—but, you did what you could. Sometimes I think...it's sort of sad that, not only then but for some time later, there was such a feeling of optimism that we—not that we were going to solve the race problem sometime, but that we were gonna solve it soon. And that all—you know, "I have a dream," Martin Luther King said. Well, the dream hasn't...we've made some progress I think in the past forty–three years, but, we're not there yet, and it's not clear we're moving in the right direction, and so in the sense of optimism about the future, that really, that hasn't lasted. together, and 'tis all understandable, but, it's sort of too bad, and that day there wasn't any feeling like this is a white part of the crowd and this is a black part of the crowd.

Interview Clip #3:
The decision to teach in the South


I think it was partly in reaction to King's assassination, and also a reaction, frankly, to listening to some of my liberal colleagues at Amherst College pontificate about the race problem I decided that—I wasn't really sure I wanted to go on spending the rest of my life teaching, basically, all male, mostly quite upper class, almost exclusively white, as it turned out, at that time, students, and I wanted to do something else. Actually I was negotiating going to Uganda to teach for a while, and then the possibility came up of a black college that a friend of mine knew about in South Carolina that was looking for a physics professor to come and start a physics program and, I thought, you know, anybody can go hold a candle and walk from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, but what I've been educated to do and what I've practiced doing is, I teach physics and if there's something to do where physics teaching will help, I should do that. So I went with the idea originally of maybe making a permanent career change from Amherst College to a black college in the South. We packed up and we went to teach physics, to start the teaching of physics, at a very small, church–related black college in rural South Carolina, within the swamps about half way between Columbia and Charleston, and to teach physics. And, the spring before we went, after we'd already decided to go – that would have been the spring of '69 – it was [a] quite violent racial protest in the country. There was a famous picture that appeared in the New York Times that spring with a Cornell black student holding a rifle on the steps of the administration building. That's in Ithaca, New York. At the same time in Denmark, South Carolina, this little town, a significant number of black students had their own protest. They occupied the administration building and the library and they had guns, and the South Carolina Highway Patrol arrived and/or the National Guard—I forget which—it wasn't federal, it was state troops and there was real opportunity there for somebody to die. This isn't Ithaca, New York; this is South Carolina. In fact the year before that, several black kids had been killed by the South Carolina Highway Patrol on the campus of South Carolina State College about twenty miles away. What was going to be my college that spring; nobody got killed. A rather heroic black science teacher persuaded the kids to come out and get on the bus and go to jail and put down their guns 'cause otherwise someone was going to get killed, and they followed him out and on to the bus. It was kind of miraculous that nobody got killed, so we read about this from afar. So we went and we didn't know what the year was going to be like, and I started teaching physics. And, of course, that was an experience in itself, because in the time I had taught at Amherst, I'm quite sure I had never had more than one black student in a class at a time. So obviously I never had any trouble remembering who that person was. All of a sudden I've got an introductory physics class of sixty, seventy students and they're all black, and all of a sudden I've got to start learning ways to tell black people apart. And it works the other way, too, by the way. There was – I'm not very tall, I'm five–seven, kind of chunky and I have, I had at the time a rather full beard there was another visiting white Northern professor teaching history there that year who was about six–feet–six, no beard, very skinny, and the students confused us—all white folks look alike. It was quite a change in the teaching experience from Amherst; not only were the students a hundred percent black instead of ninety–nine–point–nine percent white, they're also half women and half men. Whereas at Amherst at the time it was before we had coeducation at all at Amherst—all the Amherst students were and always had been male—but the level of their basic ability in arithmetic, and reading and writing was not good. Almost all of them were graduates of segregated rural South Carolina high schools, and in the late sixties, that was not a really high quality education. I think I was pretty good by that time at teaching physics to Amherst students with their background, but I was starting all over again with students at a really different entering level. I'm not sure I really did any good teaching physics but then [gap in tape]

Interview Clip #4:
The Voorhees campus is closed after a student protest—soldiers search the Romer home


The year sort of erupted when, all of a sudden, really in the middle of the year the administration summarily fired five teachers, including the guy who the previous spring had heroically prevented the bloodshed, 'cause the administration was somehow, they were convinced that he must have started the whole uprising and they wanted to get rid of him, and he was a black guy. He was by no means an Uncle Tom; he was very much of a pacifist. He was also standing up for black rights, and the administration, who—the administration was all black, [but] they were subordinated to a white board of trustees. Students protested the firing of this one teacher in particular. They called for a boycott of classes. The school administration were a panic; they thought there might be a repeat of the previous year's thing where students had guns. They declared the campus closed; they called for help from the governor. We had a little warning that this was likely to happen, but that the campus was going to be occupied by the troops; but one morning, in fact the, the night before the troops came, I called the American Civil Liberties Union branch in South Carolina for advice on what to do if people came to our house. 'Cause our house was right on the edge of campus. We rented it from the college, we considered it our house; as it turned out, the college and the troops considered it as part of the campus. So I asked for advice on what to do if the troops came. Well, the troops did come about three o'clock in the morning. It was cold, about the first of February, I think. There's a pounding on the door and I go down in my pajamas and there's a bunch of soldiers, with guns, with bayonets. And here's a guy with a bayonet pointed at my stomach. I still sort of have nightmares occasionally. It's the middle of the night, it's cold, I'm holding up my pajamas with the one hand, there's a bayonet at my stomach and [laughs] and the it wasn't funny and the sergeant says, "We're going to search your house." So I did what I was told to do by the ACLU, American Civil Liberties Union, I said "I...," "I deny you permission to search the house." And then he says to his troops, "Search the house, men." And so I said again, "I refuse to give you permission to search my house." And then I stood aside, I mean, what am I gonna do? So they searched the house. What are they looking for? Actually, they were looking for students. Students were supposed to have gone home; they were looking for students who might be lurking on campus. But... they didn't find any students; they found me and my wife and the cat and three kids. They found one student in a faculty apartment and arrested him for being on campus, in violation of I guess the governor's order that the campus was closed. And I think that kid was the only one arrested. And nobody was, in fact, hurt; the students didn't have guns that year. But the campus then was closed for a month. And academically nothing happened, of course. I mean we, people were very much involved, radical faculty members, administration members who were in a panic that this campus was going to disappear, I mean, to close down forever. Eventually, after about a month, the school reopened, and we finished up the year but it was just, everybody practically agreed not to talk about anything; it just, cross your fingers and pray and hope we get to the end of May without anybody getting hurt.

Interview Clip #5:
The challenges of teaching at Voorhees College


The ethos, say, of the school, did not emphasize studying. And this is something that, no matter how much money or books or equipment or anything a college might have, we're at the mercy of our students. If the students, as a group, decide that studying is not cool, what can we do? We can't flunk everybody. But there was tremendous social pressure, I would say, on the students not to take academics seriously, not to go to the library in the evening, not to study in the evening, go to the student center. Peer pressure—it's very difficult for kids to resist, and it gets started and you can't do anything about it. And, it was really quite, it was very sad because some of the students, their parents were not affluent, and they were really making—the tuition was not high—but their parents were really making financial sacrifice to send their kids to college, and we, the college, we were not doing much of a job at educating them. We weren't preparing most of them for decent jobs when they got out. It was—seriously, it was disappointing, I, you know, I, I [hesitating] just dream, you know, "Bob Romer's gonna go down South and solve the race problem." I mean, of course not, but it certainly reinforced my feelings about how little I could actually do in certain situations, and how little—well, it's not simply my inadequacies—but how little most any one person could do. I mean, I really didn't go down there naively thinking that, "OK, I'm gonna go teach physics, and maybe I'll teach physics down there forever and everything is gonna be lovey–dovey," but it was sort of a sobering experience. And it was scary, and sometimes it was boring [tape cut off]

Interview Clip #6:
Life in the communities of Voorhees College and Denmark, South Carolina


But it was scary when the college started up again. There were some disgruntled students who had been expelled who were going around trying to burn down some campus buildings, and we felt very vulnerable. I mean everybody hated us—that's an exaggeration but—my name had been in Columbia, South Carolina papers. One of the people who had been questioning why the college had fired these people and how it was wrong and so....the white people in town knew who I was and that I was sympathetic with the students who had been protesting and some of the black kids who were, let's say, out to—in a simple minded way—do something to get back at white people. Well, there we were, a white family living on the edge of campus in a frame house, three little kids, and students trying to burn buildings down, and it was scary. It was such a relief, I'm embarrassed to say, when we got back to Amherst where, that spring, students were protesting like mad, but it was safe.

Everything was very welcoming at the campus at first. I had some other nave ideas that here's this little town and its main claim to fame really is that there's a black college there. And so I was, as a white person, going to help make contacts between the white community in the town and the black college and help make the town proud of the college, maybe by getting the hardware store owner to donate equipment—pulleys and batteries and God–knows–what—that we could use in physics class and ....I knew I wasn't gonna solve the United States' racist race problem, but I might solve Denmark, South Carolina's race problem by getting these groups together. That didn't last long. The first Sunday I was there...I'm not a churchgoer, but I went to the Episcopal church downtown, the white Episcopal church. There was also a black Episcopal church on the campus. And everybody was very friendly, even though I had a Yankee accent, and I'm at the white Episcopal church, and oh, you know, "we must see more of you and meet your family," and then I had to sign the book, the guest book—where do you live? Well, what's my address? My address is Denmark, South Carolina, but the street address is Voorhees College Campus. Oh. Well. By the way, there's a chill in the air, they really lost interest in socializing with me. And my kids, two of 'em were in school, and they went to what was nominally a desegregated school, but it was very hard to make friends. We were the visiting Northerners who were teaching at the black college, and probably "black" wasn't, probably not the word they used. And it was one time in my children's experience in school when, not once during the entire year, did they ever get invited over to play at Johnny's house after school, or get invited to somebody's birthday party—it didn't happen. In terms of my also nave notion of getting the white and the black communities together a little bit in this town, it, it didn't happen.

They didn't want me at this school anymore. I had testified before the Board of Trustees on behalf of the particular black science teacher who had been summarily dismissed in the middle of the year, whose dismissal was based on reasons [for] which I actually had documents—letters between me and the dean—about what kind of staffing they needed, which contradicted their reasons. They had to have somebody, only people with PhDs in science. Well, this guy who was fired did not have a PhD in science, but the dean and the president and I had had exchanges of letters agreeing that having a PhD in science was a nice thing to have, but that it was not really very important in the context of this school. So some of the letters that I was able to show the Board of Trustees contradicted the reasons for the firing, and this didn't win me any friends in the administration. They were happy to see me go. And then some years later, I testified before the American Association of University Professors, which ended up with that college being on the, what–they–call–the–list of censured administrations—administrations that have basically broken their own rules and should stay on a list of bad administrations until they're off. So, they didn't want me, and I didn't want to stay there, and, I might have been able to go somewhere else, but the schools were not... I didn't want to do that to my kids either. So now I went back to Amherst, and I've been there ever since.

Interview Clip #7:
The meaning of "Uncle Tom"


Uncle Tom is a common term for a black person who acts in a very subservient way to white people; who would step into the gutter when a white person comes along the sidewalk; who would say "Yes sir," and "No sir," and doesn't mind being called, "Boy." That was another linguistic problem at Amherst; I mean, dealing with 18–year–olds I referred to students as boys—I was very careful with my black students not to use terms like that.

Interview Clip #8:
Getting arrested at Westover Air Force Base


I never got arrested on the Amherst Common. We had a vigil. I spent a lot of time Sunday mornings, silent vigils protesting the Vietnam War on the Amherst Common. The only time that I've ever got arrested were for sitting down on the road in front of Westover Air Force Base, which is—what?—ten, twenty miles from Amherst. In the spring of '72 at the time of the bombing of the Hanoi Harbor and a group of us, motivated by a Quakers—I'm not religious, I'm not even a Quaker—but I decided to go and join the protest at Westover Air Force Base, and commit civil disobedience. We were protesting the escalation of the war in Vietnam by blocking the entrance to Westover Air Force Base and, I actually did it twice. I wasn't with the very first group who did it. The first time I went and deliberately joined the civil disobedience, there was about six or ten of us I think. It was a cold, rainy day, early May, I think, and as I say, there were not very many of us, and we walked out into the road in front of the main gate at Westover and sat down. And that was a little scary because there weren't that many of us, as I said, and one side was the gate with MPs with unpleasant–looking guard dogs; on the other side there were workers in their cars waiting to get into their shifts, and we were blocking the road. There was always possible that one of them would say, "The hell with these peaceniks" and step on the gas and run over some of us. And it was also cold. I got arrested and charged with Disorderly Conduct, which wasn't true, and Disturbing the Peace, which was kind of ridiculous 'cause I wasn't—I mean, that was the whole idea—I wasn't disturbing the peace; I was trying to help bring it. And Obstructing a Public Highway—well, I could hardly deny the latter, so...Anyhow, they stuck us on a bus, they took us down to the police station, they finger printed us, they put us in a jail cell for a few hours, and then some nice man who volunteered to be our lawyer came and got us out. I didn't even spend the night in jail, but, it was pretty peaceful. I've never been arrested before, or since. I was arrested again the next week, but, except for those two occasions, that's the extent of my criminal record. And, you know, they were only misdemeanors.

And the second time was much more of a circus, as there was—this had been building up during the intervening week, and then the president of Amherst College decided to join the protest and there were quite a few hundred Amherst College faculty and students, and we all went down and sat together and that was not scary at all cause there was so many people. But it was the same thing, put on a bus, we caused a lot of trouble for the Chicopee police. Some of us actually wrote some checks to the Town of Chicopee to help defray their extra police costs afterwards and then, when it came up in court, both times I was charged with Disorderly Conduct, Disturbing the Peace, and Obstructing a Public Highway, and since two of the three things I was charged with I didn't do, and one I did, I deci[ded to]—compromise, I pleaded guilty once, and I pleaded "no lo" once and I think I was fined $10 or something and, it sounds kind of light–hearted now, I guess. I didn't think of it that way at the time—even if there's no risk involved and even if it's something like sitting down on a highway with no risk at all, there's something symbolic about deliberately breaking the law and being willing to pay the penalty, which might have been a month in jail, or it might have been a serious fine, or it might be nothing, and, don't really know, but there's something symbolically important. It's not something you do lightly, even if it's a misdemeanor, which it, without a serious penalty, something important about doing it.

Interview Clip #9:
Robert Romer's current interests and activities


I might say a word about what I've been active in this area since my official retirement a few years ago. A somewhat complicated chain of events: I seem to have ended up spending a lot of time learning about the surprising extent of slavery in the Connecticut Valley here in colonial times and working to get publicly recognized in this town of historical Deerfield, where it has been very little talked about. And there?s a group of us now who are working on, really beginning to recognize the importance and the existence of the African American presence here in Deerfield, which you could say this is a continuum from concern about civil rights and, rights for African Americans that's been a part of my life. I am a physicist, that's what I've really done by profession, but this has been an important part of my life most of my life in one way or another, and it's quite central to it at the moment.


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